Our Man in Texas

14 November 2018

I come from a Lubavitch family going back to my great, great-grandfather who was a disciple of the Mitteler Rebbe, the second Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. In 1930, during the persecution of Jewish leaders by the Soviets, my grandfather and namesake, who was the Rabbi of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), was arrested. He was sent to a gulag in Siberia from which he returned three years later a broken man, and he died in 1933 in Leningrad. I never knew him, and I also never knew my father who was killed during World War Two when my mother was pregnant with me.

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After the war, we made it out of Russia via France about the same time as the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana. The Rebbe (before he became the Rebbe) came to Paris to escort her to America, and I recall dancing with the Rebbe as a five-year-old kid, along with the other Russian chasidim.

My mother and I did not go to America however. First, we went to Israel and only years later, in 1958, did we come to America and I enrolled in the Chabad yeshivah in New York.

From the time I started learning in the yeshivah, my relationship with the Rebbe was that of a child to a father or grandfather. Whatever he told me to do, I did. For example, just four years after I arrived in New York, he sent me back to France to study at the Chabad yeshivah in Brunoy, France, in anticipation of a big immigration there of Moroccan youth. The Rebbe knew that they would need a lot of encouragement, so he sent me and five others to accomplish this mission. (more…)

Can You Land This Plane?

4 October 2018

The events that I am about to relate took place in 1958, when I was just twenty-four years old. I was enrolled in rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University, whose Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik strongly encouraged his students to serve in the armed forces. He felt that the United States had been very good to the Jewish people, and that we had an obligation to do our part in serving the country.

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He instituted a policy that five students in every rabbinic class of Yeshiva University were obliged to volunteer as chaplains in the US armed forces. These five were selected through a lottery system, and I happened to be one of them. I passed the physical and was informed that a chaplain was needed in the US Air Force, so this is where I prepared to go.

However, my father objected. He felt, as did many Torah observant people back then, that the armed forces – with their secular environment – were not a place for religious boys.

With Rav Soloveitchik telling me to do one thing and my father telling me to do another, I was stuck. But, as we read in the Talmud, “two verses contradict each other, until a third verse comes to resolve the dispute.”

I decided that the “third verse,” should come from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Why did I choose the Rebbe? For three reasons: First, I had heard stories about him, that he could solve difficult problems and how even non-religious people would go to him for advice. (more…)

From Rolling Stones to Wrapping Tefillin

4 October 2018

Several months after I returned from a concert tour with the Rolling Stones, I met the Rebbe and – because of him and despite of me – I experienced an unexpected spiritual awakening.

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My parents were both Holocaust survivors from Belorussia, and I had been born in a DP camp right after the war. I was raised Torah observant with Yiddish as my first language. After we came to the United States in 1950, I kept Shabbat, I went to yeshivah, and I put on tefillin.

But, after being exposed to a lot of inconsistency and some hypocrisy, I started to question it all, and by the mid-1960s, I stopped keeping Torah. After a time of experimenting with acting, I found myself at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo, studying law and dabbling in music promotion.

In my early twenties, I found myself hanging out with some very famous people in the music and entertainment business – like Carly Simon and Chip Monck. Through Chip’s efforts, I was invited to travel with the Rolling Stones on their 1972 summer tour, and I got to see more depraved human behaviour than most people will ever see in a lifetime. (more…)

Turning Rascals into Rabbis

20 September 2018

I was born in Siedlce, Poland, four years before World War Two broke out, at which time my family fled to Russia. Despite the difficulties of living on the run, my father spared no effort to educate me and my siblings in the ways of Judaism – in keeping with the education he, himself, had received at Chabad’s Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Warsaw. After the war, we came to Israel, where I learned in the Chabad yeshivas in Tel Aviv and in Lod.

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After I got married in 1961, I began working as a teacher, eventually taking a job with the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, where I was placed in charge of the Chassidic development of the students.

Over the years, hundreds of young men learned in the yeshivah. Understandably, from time to time, there were students who misbehaved. When such cases would be discussed in the teachers’ meetings, sometimes the staff would argue regarding the best way to respond. I always tended towards being lenient, and I’d try to convince the other teachers not to react harshly. Because of this, staff members nicknamed me “the Berditchever” – after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who always emphasized the good in Jews and was called “the Advocate of the Jewish People.”

At one point in the mid-1970s, I had to deal with a really problematic group of students in the yeshivah. They were considered difficult to discipline, and the widespread opinion among the senior staff was that that they should be dealt with severely.

I opposed this approach, insisting that they be dealt with more leniently. But I also had my doubts – perhaps I was being too soft, perhaps the other teachers were right and we should be more firm with them.

I decided to ask the Rebbe what to do. (more…)

A Glimpse to Upcoming Vol. of Faithful & Fortified

2 May 2010

A few months ago, JEM released a fascinating film: Faithful and Fortified, Volume I - The Inside Story of the Rebbe’s Involvement in Israel’s Security, As Told By Its Defense and Government Leaders.

We are currently working on one of the next volumes, called Faithful and Fortified: Army Chaplains and Religious Leaders. It will feature interviews from Israel’s Rabbinical and religious leaders and their relationships to the Rebbe.

Here is a short clip of the interview we did with Rabbi Mordechai Peron, the former Chief Rabbi of the IDF from 1971-1977. The interview took place at Rabbi Peron’s house and lasted close to four hours.

It was shown at a Merkos Chanukah party.

Help Us Find Israeli Security Interviewees!

26 April 2010

JoeGutnick-300x272Pursuant to an original round of interviews which were featured in Faithful and Fortified Volume One (see trailer below), we will be conducting an additional 60 interviews with Israeli security, intelligence, journalists and government officials who had meetings and correspondence with the Rebbe about protecting Israel. These interviews are being made possible through an generous grant by Rabbi Yossel Gutnick, the Rebbe’s emissary for Shleimus Ha’aretz.

45 of the interviewees have already been identified and contacted, and 15 interview slots remain. If you have any tips or advice on specific individuals who should be interviewed for the continuation of this vital project, please email: ycagen@jemedia.org.

Please include as much information as you can about the individual you are suggesting we interview and all about his interaction with the Rebbe, including sources or links wherever possible. Please explain why you feel it would be important to interview him or her. If possible, please include his or her contact information.

Want to see more Faithful and Fortified? Click here.

Welcome to the My Encounter with the Rebbe blog!

22 April 2010

The My Encounter with the Rebbe project was launched by JEM in 1998, aiming to document the unknown and untold IMG_0006story of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory’s life.

Many tens of thousands of individuals visited with the Rebbe privately, seeking counsel and direction. Many times that number communicated with him in writing. It is largely through these relationships that the Rebbe had his impact on world Jewry. While his published works fill countless volumes, the how and what of his impact on lives and communities – and in fact, an entire generation – remain as yet, untold.

It is this body of firsthand, undocumented, accounts that the My Encounter oral history project seeks to preserve.

The project has already collected over two hundred and fifty videotaped testimonies in which ordinary individuals and public personalities detail the relationship and correspondence they maintained with the Rebbe. Ranging between one and seven hours in length, each interview tells a different personal story – together, comprising a testament to the Rebbe’s far-reaching influence and impassioned leadership, and a tool to teach generations that follow. Although most of the interviews are conducted in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, some of them are done in Spanish, French and Russian as well. (more…)