Most tourists to Jerusalem know my family name – Mandelbaum – because they have visited the site where my family’s home once stood. It had been destroyed in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, and a gate was erected on its site. During the nineteen years that Jerusalem was divided, in order to proceed from one part (the Israeli part) to the other part (occupied by Jordan), everyone had to pass through what was called – after the ruin of our home – the Mandelbaum Gate. When Jerusalem was reunited after the Six-Day War, the Mandelbaum Gate was dismantled, but the site is part of Jerusalem’s history now and most tourists are taken to see it.
As a teenager, I served in the Israeli army but my service was cut short due to injury. For a time I studied in yeshivah, but ultimately I decided to enroll in university in order to study economy.
Why economy? Partly because I saw my family’s financial situation plummet – we were one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem before the State of Israel was founded, but during the War of Independence, we lost almost everything and became refugees. So I saw economic issues from a personal point of view.
I studied at Hebrew University, where I received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but after I got married and started a family, I didn’t have the financial resources to continue on to a doctorate. Then one day I read about a US State Department grant program for economics students from developing countries.
Unbelievably, from among some two hundred Israelis who applied, I was the one chosen. When I asked why I was accepted, I was told that every other applicant tried to impress the selection committee with their knowledge, but I was the only one who said I didn’t know and wanted to learn.
The program of study was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; it was a very prestigious program with candidates carefully chosen by the State Department. It was an elite group and studying with them gave me extensive connections throughout the world, as all the graduates achieved very high positions.
During my stay in Nashville, I met Rabbi Zalman Posner, the Chabad emissary there. As a religious Jew, I gravitated to his synagogue and, before long, my wife was teaching in the Chabad school, while I was serving as cantor for Shabbat and the High Holidays. Through my association with Chabad, I came to admire the movement for its outreach work with disenfranchised Jews, and especially the Rebbe’s leadership in this regard.
I had the privilege of meeting the Rebbe personally in 1968, when I sought his counsel concerning my doctoral thesis. By this time I had finished my studies at Vanderbilt and returned to Israel, where I worked for the Ministry of Economy and Industry. However, before I would be granted the Ph.D. degree, I had to return to Vanderbilt to present evidence substantiating my doctoral thesis – this is called a thesis defense – before a committee of six professors. (more…)