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Rabbi Naftali Roth

30 June 2022

As a yeshivah student, I used to go on walks together with a friend every Shabbat afternoon, while discussing our studies. One week, we heard some people singing. We didn’t recognize the song, but I felt drawn in by its soulful melody.

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“Let’s go see where it’s coming from,” I told my friend.

That’s how we ended up at the “Baal HaTanya Synagogue,” a small Chabad shtiebel in Meah Shearim, Jerusalem. There we met ten or so men, singing chasidic melodies, as is the Chabad custom towards the end of Shabbat. The song, I learned, was an old Chabad tune, with lyrics from Psalms (62:6-7): Only to G-d should you hope, my soul, for my hope is from Him.

They sang this song a few times more, before moving on to others, and I felt something tugging at my heart. We started going to that shtiebel at the same time each week, and whenever I walked in, the locals would start singing that song for me. This was my first exposure to Chabad. After a few weeks, the rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Yakobovitch, offered to study Tanya with me, and before long I began to feel like a Chabadnik.

At a certain stage, Rabbi Shimon suggested I write to the Rebbe.

“About what?” I asked.

“Tell him about the song that drew you to Chabad and ask for a blessing.”

In 1954, I was just fifteen years old and I didn’t dream of actually getting a response. To my astonishment, two weeks later, a letter arrived from the Rebbe, addressed to me. He wrote how pleased he was to hear that I had started learning chasidut, and added that I would “certainly” help others to do the same.

This letter brought me even closer, and gave me the sense that I had been handed a special mission to accomplish. I proposed to a friend that we start a Tanya class in a shul near Yeshivat Chevron, were we both studied, to be taught by Rabbis Moshe Weber and Yehuda Reichman. From two participants, the class quickly ballooned to forty.

Alongside this new class, I also launched a night-yeshivah for younger students of local, non-Chabad schools. Every evening, for an hour and a half, these boys would come to review their studies in Halacha, Mishnah, or Gemara, while I ran competitions, administered tests, and distributed prizes to the participants. We also had farbrengens, informal gatherings with chasidic stories and songs, and studied basic chasidic discourses with the boys. This program was tremendously successful, and became popular among the students, their parents, as well as many prominent local rabbis. When I wrote about this to the Rebbe, he urged me to expand, and would later encourage bringing the program to some of the nearby, non-Charedi neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, some of my fellow students began to resent the way I had been promoting the study of chasidut to others, and tried torpedoing my efforts by reporting on me to the faculty. I was going to write to the Rebbe about it, but I happened to receive a letter from the Rebbe just then, with a little postscript attached. It read: “I’ve heard that some people have been impeding you from promoting chasidut. Certainly you will not be fazed by this. Keep on spreading the wellsprings, in a way that will be agreeable to all…”

A back-and-forth ensued. First, the dean overseeing the students’ spiritual development, the mashgiach, tried to stop my Shabbat afternoon visits to the Chabad shtiebel, insisting that I had to attend a class on Mussar – Jewish ethics – held in the yeshivah at that same time. I again wrote to the Rebbe, who replied with a long letter with detailed footnotes explaining why the faculty should let me continue studying chasidut, and suggesting that I try speaking with them again as “there must have been a misunderstanding.” Indeed, I eventually realized that they wouldn’t mind what I was doing if I would go about it a little more discreetly.

As for me, I was ready to leave for a Chabad yeshivah, but whenever I brought up the idea with the Rebbe, he would insist that I remain. He wanted me to set a good example for the other students there by continuing to “learn diligently, in accord with the study schedule of the yeshivah,,” which would in turn help to bring the teachings of chasidut to new circles.

In 1959, when I was nineteen, I finally was ready to travel to the Rebbe for the High Holiday period. During that period, my father informed the Rebbe that I had received rabbinical ordination, and the Rebbe said that I should try to be ordained by several additional rabbis ahead of my trip.

The day after my arrival in New York, I was informed that I had an appointment with the Rebbe that very evening.

The Rebbe was interested in hearing about my trip; about the specifics of my activities back home and who would be taking over while I was away; about the public farewell the night-yeshivah had put on for me and the more modest party my yeshivah friends made to send me off; about my relationship with the faculty – which had improved – and the ordinations I received.

In my six-page letter I handed to the Rebbe, I asked about using illustrations for teaching the Talmud; while today this is par for the course in religious schools, then it was less common. The Rebbe said that I had to use whatever would help the students understand.

Then he asked, “And what about illustrations for teaching yirat Shamayim – the awe of Heaven?”

The question puzzled me, so I didn’t answer, but the Rebbe did: “The best way to illustrate yirat Shamayim is by embodying it!”

Then he had a few surprising requests for me, asking that I deliver a pilpul – a Talmudic lecture – at the Torah conference due to be held in 770 after the holidays, and that I go to visit various rabbis and Jewish leaders during my stay in America.

Before leaving, I asked about staying on in 770 as a regular student, the only item from my letter the Rebbe hadn’t addressed. “Why speak about that now?” he replied, letting me know that we would discuss it after the holidays. In the end, I stayed for a few more months, until after Chanukah, when the Rebbe reminded me that I had “significant and holy work waiting for you in Jerusalem.” I think he put off telling me that I shouldn’t remain in 770 so that I would fully appreciate the time that I was there.

My return journey was by ship, via England. On arriving in London, I saw the Chabad emissary Rabbi Nachman Sudak waiting for me with a letter from the Rebbe.

“I hope that you have safely arrived in London,” it began, before asking whether I had used the opportunity to speak to Jewish passengers on the ship about chasidic teachings (which I had done). The Rebbe then requested that I go speak at the local yeshivah “without humility” about my activities in Jerusalem since that would encourage the students in London to be more active. Even while traveling, I could not take a break from my mission.

For almost his entire life, Rabbi Naftali Roth, the founder and head of the Center for Chasidic Education, has been active in Jewish education in Jerusalem, Israel. He was interviewed in his home in the summer of 2014.