Engineering Yiddishkeit

19 September 2017

I was born in 1929 in Chicago, where I have lived for most of my life. After high school, I enrolled at Northwestern University to study architectural engineering, and later got a job in the construction industry.

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Most of my friends at that time were survivors of the Soviet labor camps or had been taken further east as children, to former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, before immigrating to Chicago. Among them was a Belzer chasid who introduced me to the Rebbe’s published talks. I was impressed at how clear the Rebbe made everything sound, and that led me to attend a Chabad class conducted by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Hecht, a local Chabad rabbi. I found this class most uplifting – in fact, I became totally enamored with it. So much so, that I would go home afterwards and stay up until two or three in the morning reviewing what I had learned.

Naturally, I wanted to meet the Rebbe and, in 1967, I managed to arrange an audience, the first of what turned out to be many over the years.

I didn’t know what to expect, and I was hesitant when I opened the door to the Rebbe’s office, but he said, “Welcome. Sit down.” I didn’t. “I think I’d better stand,” I said, and I stood.

I would just like to say that it is difficult for me to describe what it was like talking with the Rebbe. I had the sense that I was in the presence of a loving parent, a great teacher and my best friend all rolled into one. I felt he meant business, but also that he loved me. And I felt very comfortable talking with him.

At first, he spoke to me in Yiddish, but we began discussing technical engineering terms, which I only understand in English. When he saw that I didn’t understand well enough, he switched to English – his English was grammatically perfect even though he had a strong accent. He asked me various questions about architectural engineering. For example, he wanted to know how a cantilever works. He asked, “A balcony that sticks out of a building without any visible support – why doesn’t it fall down?” (more…)

From the Kitchen to the Mishnah

13 September 2017

I first met the Rebbe shortly after Passover of 1953, after my engagement to my husband, Dov Zlotnick. Dov was a student at JTS–the Jewish Theological Seminary–and he told me that before he met me, he had gone to the Rebbe for a blessing to find the right girl to marry. Now that the Rebbe’s blessing had been fulfilled, he wanted us both to get another blessing for our married life together.

I was twenty years old at the time–quite young. I had come from a long line of Lithuanian Jews, so I was not quite comfortable with this. But I went along with Dov anyway.

Thinking back on that visit now, I remember what an unusual experience it was for me, something of a culture shock. The Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights looked to me like a yeshivah out of 19th century Europe. I remember seeing a large room filled with tables around which young men sat learning out loud. I looked at this sight, and I wondered how anyone could concentrate with so much noise.

Then we were ushered down a hallway and asked to wait. We waited for quite a while. I assume that the Rebbe never rushed anybody because it was a long time before the people inside left and our turn came.

When we finally went in, the Rebbe proved quite impressive, and meeting him was an experience I will never forget.

The walls in the Rebbe’s room were lined with books. I recall the corner where he sat behind his desk was well-lit. There were a couple of chairs in front of the desk, where we were invited to sit. Although the rest of the room was dim, there was enough light for me to see the Rebbe’s eyes as he spoke. He was tremendously animated. I remember he focused on us, and I do not recall anybody else ever paying me this much attention–an unusual amount of attention.

I don’t remember what we discussed; I only remember the Rebbe and my strong impression of him. That was the first meeting.

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Then came the time when the Rebbe had a major impact on the trajectory of my life.

In 1964, while Dov was teaching at JTS, he decided to start a Shabbat afternoon Talmud class in Riverdale for the men in the neighborhood. The class was small at first, attended by just a couple of men, but it quickly grew to about fifteen participants. They followed a study group format–everyone had to prepare the material in advance, and then Dov would expound on it. They would also study various Talmudic commentators, so the class was conducted on a high level. Dov was very proud of this, and the next time he went to see the Rebbe, he told him about it.

The Rebbe listened very carefully, and then asked, “What do the women do during this time?”

Dov answered that the women were in the kitchen preparing the third meal of Shabbat.

“Dov, that’s not good enough,” the Rebbe replied. When Dov came home from his audience with the Rebbe, he informed me: “Alice, the Rebbe said that the women must study too, so you must teach a class
to the women.”

“What are you talking about? I’m a professional artist–I’m not prepared to teach a class!” I said.

But after Dov told me how emphatic the Rebbe was that the women must do this, I agreed: “Alright, but you prepare me. Go over the material with me, and I’ll try to teach it.”

That was forty years ago. Since then, as a result of that class, I’ve learned a lot of Mishnah, which is the core of the Talmud. In addition, preparing for the class meant that I got to spend some very special time with my husband, a professor of Talmud, who is well known for his comprehensive knowledge of the Mishnah. One of the books he wrote, The Iron Pillar, is an in-depth study of the Mishnah, which received high praise from scholars in the field. (more…)

The Rebbe Asked for a Favor

6 September 2017

I was born in Crown Heights and I grew up there. Even after I left my parents’ home and got married, I lived for a time in Crown Heights. So, I have a good memory of what Crown Heights was like in the 1940s, and I do recall vividly how it changed when the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch came there.

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When I say “the Rebbe” I mean the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak, who came to Crown Heights in 1940 when I was a teenager, and established the Chabad Headquarters in the former medical office at 770 Eastern Parkway.

Back then, Crown Heights was an upscale Jewish neighborhood, mostly not religious, and there was a great deal of consternation among the locals about how the neighborhood would change when the Chasidim moved in. Because of all the talk, my father decided to walk over to 770 and see for himself what the Lubavitchers were all about. When he came back, he announced to the family, “This is the kind of Judaism I’ve been looking for all of my life. From this day forward, I am a Lubavitcher.” And our lives were never the same.

My father came to religious observance late in life, and that’s when he began to learn Torah and Chasidic teachings in earnest. He studied with Rabbi Meir Greenberg, and also studied together with Ramash – that is, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was the son-in-law of Rebbe Rayatz, and who would later become the Rebbe.

Because of my father’s involvement, we had the privilege to be a part of various campaigns that Previous Rebbe launched, notably the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE), an umbrella organization for a number of educational initiatives. These included summer camps, “Released Time” programs which provide Jewish education for public school students, and anti-missionary efforts to counter Christian activity aimed at the Jews. Having received my degree from NYU in English and Journalism, I volunteered as a writer working for Rabbi J.J. Hecht, who was the head of NCFJE.

Rabbi J. J. Hecht was one of the Previous Rebbe’s right hand men, and at one point he arranged an audience for my husband and me. We were greatly distressed at the time because we had been told that we could not have children, and we were debating whether or not we should adopt. Rabbi Hecht felt that we should consult the Rebbe before moving forward. (more…)

It’s Their Right

31 August 2017

In 1969, when I was serving in the Israeli Air Force – during the hard times in the aftermath of the Six Day War, when soldiers did not have much good to eat – I remember a jeep pulling up and someone handing me a package. A note on the package said, “Purim Samayach mehaRebbe miLubavitch – Happy Purim from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

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I remember wondering, as did every soldier who got the same package, “Who is this Rebbe of Lubavitch? Why does he care so much about us to deliver sweets to us in the middle of the desert?” I must say I was touched and impressed.

In 1971, I was sent to the Suez Canal to bring back wounded soldiers to the hospital in the north. I did this day after day, and it was really very difficult to see so many gravely wounded. One day, my convoy came across two Chabad people who asked us to put teffilin on. I did, and when I recited the Shema prayer – “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one” – I became very emotional and started crying. From that moment began my journey of return to Judaism and coming back to G-d.

When I finished my military service, I came to New York, where I met a very nice guy from Chabad named Shraga Zalmanov, who introduced me to the Rebbe. This was in 1977. I visited with the Rebbe a few times, and on one occasion I gave him a book of mystical teachings authored by a grandfather of my cousin, HaRav Yehudah Fatiya, who wrote a famous commentary on the 16th century Kabbalistic masterpiece, the Sefer Etz Chayim. The Rebbe responded with a beautiful letter thanking me for this book and also for another book by HaRav Eliezer Papa, better known as the Pele Yoetz, which I had published in the memory of my father. (more…)

“Better Than the Original”

23 August 2017

I was born in 1940 in Tabriz, Iran, where I was educated as an artist in the classical style by Reza Samimi, the royal portraitist of Persia in 1954. At a time when modern art was dominating Europe and America, you could still find artists in Iran from the old school, teaching in the classical manner.

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I traveled to France for a time and visited the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to show them my work. They responded very positively but didn’t specialize in my area. But despite their inability to help me, they suggested that I check out the museums of Classical Art to better train myself in the works of the old masters.

I immigrated to London, where I continued to practice my art but did not practice any Judaism. I considered myself secular until 1983 when everything changed for me.

About that time, my wife and I were living in London, next to a Lubavitch family – the Rutmans. When I visited their home, I saw a photo of the Rebbe hanging on the wall, and I was inspired to paint his portrait. It was a difficult decision, because I needed to relate to him. When I paint someone, I don’t just portray their resemblance; I need to convey their character and feelings.

Although I had previously painted many well-known personalities, including the Shah of Iran, I had never painted a holy man before. I always approached my subjects by trying to get to know them, but how could I get to know a holy man?

I felt distant on a number of levels. In addition to being thousands of miles away from the Rebbe physically, as a secular person, I didn’t feel like I could relate to him on a personal level either. I had to remedy this by becoming closer, both physically as well as spiritually. (more…)

A Holistic Approach

18 August 2017

In 1976 I was appointed Director General of Kupat Holim Clalit, the leading provider of health insurance in Israel, and as part of my job, I was invited to the United States to lecture on the standards of health services in Israel.

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My wife accompanied me on the trip, and when we were in New York, we met our friend Yossi Ciechanover, who served as an Israeli Defense Ministry representative in New York. He asked us if we’d be interested in visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a proposal which we gladly accepted, so he arranged an appointment for us at eleven o’clock on Sunday night.

When we arrived, we were ushered into the Rebbe’s study. The Rebbe was sitting behind a large desk, and we sat down across from him. I remember that from the very first moment we were very struck by the Rebbe’s personality. Of course, we had already heard about his Torah knowledge and his broad general knowledge; we knew that he was a certified engineer and we’d also heard of his great personality. Nevertheless, this face-to-face meeting left a great and lasting impression on us.

Incidentally, I began our conversation in Yiddish, but the Rebbe switched languages and continued the rest of the conversation in Hebrew, which he spoke with impressive fluency. Our meeting lasted more than an hour, much longer than had been arranged. I don’t recall exactly how much time was originally allotted, but I remember the secretary coming in several times to hint that our time was up. (more…)

Focus on the Good

9 August 2017

My history with Chabad goes back to the mid-1970s, when the Rebbe’s emissaries – Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, Rabbi Shalom Ber Groner and Rabbi Yossi Goldman – first came to Yeoville, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was born and raised.

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I was part of the post-hippie generation trying to find spiritual answers. This search drew us to Chabad where we found Chasidism and rediscovered the depth and beauty of Judaism.

Although I counted myself part of the Chabad community back from that time, I did not get to meet the Rebbe until nearly ten years later – when I was already married, and my wife was having problems conceiving.

In 1983 I joined a special raffle being held to select a representative of the community to travel to the Rebbe. I won, and I travelled to New York for Passover, where we were hosted by Rabbi Goldman’s parents. I finally met the Rebbe in person during kos shel bracha, when the Rebbe would distribute wine from his cup immediately after the holiday. When I told him that I was from South Africa, he gave me a huge smile, handed me a small bottle, and said, “My views about South Africa are well known. You should go back and celebrate, and remind everyone that I said it will all be good.”

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Temporarily Permanent

2 August 2017

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and as a teenager I went to the United States in order to study in yeshivah. At first, I enrolled in Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, Ohio, but in 1964, after a number of visits to Chabad-Lubavitch in Brooklyn, I decided to switch. I was drawn to the Rebbe and to the study of chasidut. I saw that the Chabad students were very serious about their Torah learning, and their “awe of heaven” made a very strong impression on me; I wanted to learn among them.

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In 1968, I married a Chabad teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts and on the Rebbe’s instructions, we moved to Worcester. My wife returned to her teaching job, and my role included among other things, teaching in the day school, adult education, and organizing youth activities in the community. I would also give classes in Chasidic thought at various universities in Boston.

In 1970, a position opened up in Australia – at the Chabad day school, Oholei Yosef Yitzchak – and I was invited to return home to Melbourne by Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Groner, the Chabad emissary there. I asked for and received the Rebbe’s approval and blessings.

After this was settled and we started preparations for the move to Australia, I began to feel as if I was just treading water in Worcester. I wound up my activities and, since it was not appropriate for me to start any new projects, I felt betwixt and between, neither here nor there – not yet gone but with my mind already elsewhere.

During a personal audience, I confided my state of mind to the Rebbe, who responded, “In the Torah we find that during the forty years the Jews were wandering in the wilderness, they would sometimes stay in a place for just one day, yet they would go through the tremendous trouble of setting up the Tabernacle each and every time. The Talmud derives many laws from this, including the principle that, if you find yourself in a place even for just one day, it is as though you are fixed there permanently.”

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The Rebbe’s Generals

27 July 2017

In 1975, when I was 20 years old, I had the good fortune to meet the Rebbe’s emissaries, Rabbi Benzion Friedman and his wife Esther, in Lomita, California, and that meeting changed my life.

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I had come from a very Reform background – I say “very Reform” because my great-grandparents were part of the original Reform Movement back in Germany. I received very little Jewish education from my father who got very little Jewish education from his father. In fact, when I asked my grandfather which one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel I was from, he had no idea what I was talking about. I, myself, when I saw a picture of a friend in front of the Kotel wearing a tallit and tefillin, thought: “Why is he dressed like an Arab?” I didn’t recognize what he was wearing. That’s how little I knew.

I did have a strong Jewish identity mostly because of my mother who came from a Zionist family. One branch of her family founded Zichron Yaakov, a town about 20 miles south of Haifa, in Israel, and when I was 19, I went to Israel as a volunteer during the Yom Kippur War where I learned some Hebrew.

When I came back I met Rabbi Friedman, and that’s when I began a journey back to my Jewish heritage, which I describe as a kind of awakening.

For Passover of 1976, I came to Crown Heights and had the first opportunity to see the Rebbe. At that time I was able to pray together with the Rebbe in the small synagogue at ‘770,’ and to participate in a farbrengen with him – a gathering which the Rebbe addresses, sharing his Torah thoughts and directives. These were very special experiences. But it was not until I got married and we had our first child – who was born in November 1984 – that my wife and I had a direct encounter with the Rebbe that profoundly impacted our lives. (more…)

A Special Greeting

19 July 2017

I grew up in Irvington, New Jersey, in a traditional Jewish family that was not fully Torah observant. But, in 1973, when I was twelve, thanks to my cousin Avraham, who had become religious, I began to explore Judaism in depth. It began when he dared me to keep just one Shabbat. I rose to the challenge and thus began my journey to a Torah life.

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Because of my cousin, I was invited to Shabbat lunch with the family of Rabbi Sholom Gordon, the Chabad rabbi in Maplewood, who showed me what it was all about. I remember sitting at their table for the first time – never having seen a table set like that with a white tablecloth and beautiful china – and I remember the blessings, the songs, the words of Torah. I told myself then that I wanted to have a table of my own just like this someday.

After that, Mrs. Gordon took me under her wing, teaching me basic laws and prayers, and sometimes arranging for me to spend Shabbat with her sister, Mrs. Goldman, in Crown Heights.

Crown Heights was a different planet altogether – the Chabad people there dressed much more modestly, and I purchased a set of special clothes which I would take along to wear there.

One Shabbat – it was Shabbos Mevarchim when blessings on the upcoming new month are recited – Mrs. Goldman urged me to go to Chabad Headquarters and see what a farbrengen with the Rebbe looked like. I went with my best friend Cheryl, and it was an amazing experience.

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