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Mrs. Bronya Shaffer

27 April 2022

In a sense, my first encounter with the Rebbe was in my home: I came to know Lubavitch because my father, Dr. Yosef Slavin, had fallen in love with the Rebbe. He first met the Rebbe in 1940s Paris, and was there when the Rebbe was reunited with his mother after her escape from the Soviet Union. There was something about that scene that was deeply

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emotional for my father; “from that moment,” he would say, “I was the Rebbe’s.” Growing up, I knew that my parents’ every life decision was made after consultation with, and a blessing from, the Rebbe.

When it came time for me to start meeting young men for the purpose of marriage, it was no different. My parents never wanted my choice to be influenced by anything other than my own feelings but, unbeknownst to me, my father would consult the Rebbe before they agreed to a candidate.

One day, my father got a call from a close friend named Heishke Gansbourg. He had spent a Shabbat at Princeton University, and was assigned a certain student’s room to sleep in. The student was away, but after perusing the books in the room –  volumes of Talmud and chasidut, alongside works on mathematics, physics, theology and philosophy – Heishke made a point of finding and inviting him to his home. When his wife Rashke met this young man, a student named Gedaliah Shaffer, she thought he would be a good match for me. “We just met Bronya’s husband!” she exclaimed.

We soon got to know each other, and I’d never met anyone quite like him! I admired and respected Gedaliah tremendously, but when he talked of marriage, I suddenly was unsure of myself. One night, just about a week before Passover, I told my young suitor that I needed time and space to think. Then I came home to Montreal and unburdened myself to my younger brother. My brother’s advice was this: Since my birthday was coming up, I should write to the Rebbe to ask for a blessing and for some clarity in my dilemma. And that’s what I did.

“As the Rebbe knows, I have been meeting this young man,” I began. Then – and I recall this with some embarrassment – I continued, “Although I have tremendously fond feelings, as well as a great deal of respect for him, I’m not sure if it is true love; if it is forever.” I was young and wanted to be assured that it wasn’t just an infatuation.

The Rebbe responded that being sure about “matters of the heart” was very important. He also suggested that it might be a good idea to separate for a little while and to see if I felt – and here the Rebbe used a word that was new to me – gaguim, or “yearning.”

That’s exactly what happened; we’d had that intense conversation just before he left to spend Passover with his family in Boston, and sometime after the holiday, I felt it; I confessed to my parents that I really missed him. “So call him,” my father said.

Now, this was in the year 1968. In those days, boys called girls. People thought it inappropriate for a girl to call a boy, and in the religious world, it was unheard of. But my father made it seem the most natural thing in the world. So I did, and we got engaged two weeks later.

Over the months of our courtship, Gedaliah talked about how he envisioned his life. At that time, he was writing his PhD thesis in elementary particle physics, but his dream was to spend some time focused on studying Torah, having never formally learned in a yeshivah. The Lubavitcher day school he had attended in Boston didn’t really have a yeshivah atmosphere, and after that he had gone to MIT, then earned two Masters’ degrees at Princeton University, before continuing with his doctoral studies. Even then, he would come to New York every Shabbat, and spend Sundays learning Torah at the Mirrer Yeshivah with his childhood friend, Menachem Epstein.

So, we decided together that he would spend the next year after our wedding learning full time in a kollel. With his stipend from the National Science Foundation and my job, we’d be able to support ourselves. His thesis adviser agreed that he could take a year off and that any upcoming exams could be postponed.

When we had our audience with the Rebbe prior to our marriage, as was the custom then, we handed the Rebbe a note about our plans. I remember watching the Rebbe read that note, and feeling good: We were doing the right thing, and fully expected a pat on the shoulder for it, metaphorically speaking. Instead, the Rebbe looked up at Gedaliah and started asking him about his thesis.

Gedaliah’s pre-thesis studies had been in mathematics and physics, but his doctorate was on physics. Although the Rebbe was aware of this, he asked a number of questions relating solely to mathematics. After answering the questions, Gedaliah added that his adviser had agreed to a later date for his thesis submission. The Rebbe, however, suggested otherwise; Gedaliah should sit for his exams as scheduled, pass them, and do so “with flying colors.”

“Make a reputation for yourself in your field,” the Rebbe told him.

As we walked out, we looked at each other, and we were truly puzzled. The Rebbe didn’t approve of Gedalia learning Torah full time, and it was hard for him to give up his dream just like that. The questions about mathematics were also puzzling.

As it turned out, he didn’t need a full day for his thesis. After our wedding, he would spend his mornings in kollel, learning together with Rabbi Nosson Gurary, and twice a week he would go to see his adviser in Princeton.

At some point, the adviser came to him with a proposition. There were some Russian mathematicians working on a particular problem who were at an impasse. “Maybe you want to take a crack at it?” he asked Gedaliah.

So Gedalia did, enjoyed doing it, and subsequently published his results in a mathematical journal.

Not long after that, tragedy struck and my father was killed in a car accident, and my mother moved to New York with my younger siblings. By that time, we had a baby, the National Science Foundation was no longer supporting students of theoretical physics, and Gedaliah had to get a job.

Gedaliah’s friend, Menachem Epstein, worked for a computer company that was looking for a programmer. “I have an excellent programmer for you,” he told his boss. “He just has to study computers. Give him a few months, and he’ll be your best programmer.”

They gave him the job based on his friend’s assurances, but what convinced them was the paper he’d published in mathematics; they recognized his extraordinary abilities.

It was at this point that we recalled the Rebbe’s specific instruction to make a reputation in his field: We assumed that it was the publication of this paper that helped him get the job, which is what kept our livelihood for years after.

Mrs. Bronya Shaffer is a lecturer on Jewish women’s issues and a personal counselor for women, couples and adolescents. This story is excerpted from an interview that was conducted in the My Encounter studio in November 2021.