My family arrived in Australia, by ship, at the end of a five-week journey. After escaping from the Soviet Union, my father had written to the Previous Rebbe about the possibility of moving to Australia, suggesting that my brother and I stay on in Europe, studying in yeshivah. It was 1949, and I was seventeen years old.
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The Previous Rebbe replied that the move was an extremely good idea, but wrote that my father should take along his family — including my brother, sister and me. He also instructed him to bring along any chasidic publications he could get. Our job, he wrote, was to be “day workers” — to bring light, the light of Chasidus, wherever we went.
We settled in Shepparton, a fruit-growing town about 120 miles from Melbourne. My father and older brother immediately went to work on the orchards, while I continued my studies. Shepparton was home to the Feiglin family, who were pioneers of Jewish life in Australia.
By Rosh Hashanah, less than two weeks after our arrival, my father had written to the Previous Rebbe with the idea of establishing a yeshivah in Australia. In his reply, the Previous Rebbe was extremely taken by the suggestion. He said we should start straight away, “without paying any attention, for now, to the number of students” who were available to join. So, at first, I was the yeshivah’s only student, learning all day long by myself, until two more boys joined seven weeks later.
Eventually we moved to Melbourne, which was the center of the Australian Jewish community, and very slowly, the yeshivah grew. In 1950, when the Previous Rebbe passed away, our Rebbe picked up right where his father-in-law left off and encouraged the continued growth of the yeshivah in every possible way. My father and I must have received hundreds of letters from the Rebbe full of support and detailed instructions.
One letter was from 1951, after I had written to him that I would like to join my friends who were studying in the yeshivah in 770. But the Rebbe replied that since “Divine Providence had brought you to Australia,” I had to do a little more work teaching Chasidus there, before I could go on to the more “enjoyable work” — the geshmake avodos, as he called it — of learning in 770.
In the same letter, I had asked whether I was spending too much time teaching. Although I only officially became a teacher a few years later, I was already able to teach others, so I did. I spent a lot of time assisting the boys with their studies, helping newcomers adjust to the yeshivah and even unofficially adopting a few of them as my students. This kept me extremely busy, from early morning until late at night, and it meant that I hardly had any time to learn for myself. I started to wonder why I was doing all of this: Maybe I should just be learning with my own study partner? Were those other students’ studies really so important to me?
Addressing this final point, the Rebbe answered that “charity, even when it is given for ulterior motives – or even unintentionally – still gives life to the poor person.” In other words, my concern should not be with the purity of my motives, but whether the other person is benefitting from my assistance. After this answer, I became even more involved and would sometimes spend eleven or twelve hours a day teaching.
Years went by, and in the summer of 1955, I volunteered as a counselor for a summer learning program in the yeshivah, which was a great success. There were three boys from state schools who came and found that they could learn Torah and enjoy it, and their parents were very happy too. I described all this to the Rebbe and then asked — maybe now, can I go to 770?
Immediately, the Rebbe replied: The fact that learning with those boys had been such a success, and that there was nobody else to do it besides for me, meant that I had found “my mission in this world.” Why would I leave that and travel elsewhere?
The Rebbe went on to say that I shouldn’t let my work be disturbed by these “foreign thoughts,” which would only disturb my work. He concluded that coming to New York wasn’t out of the question for one day in the future, but there were many important things in Melbourne that were still in early stages of development, so I could not think of leaving just yet.
After receiving that letter, I knew that Australia was my place and I accepted a job teaching at the local school. I was still single so when I started receiving a salary, I began to save up for my trip to the Rebbe with the hope that he would let me come just for the holidays of the month of Tishrei. Finally, the Rebbe approved, and in 1955 I made the journey with a couple other students from the yeshivah, and we spent that entire month with the Rebbe.
The first audience I ever had with the Rebbe was on the night after I arrived, just before Rosh Hashanah. The Rebbe asked about my father and about the yeshivah. I was going to answer that there was a lot of work for us to do and then ask for the Rebbe’s blessing that it become easier, but I didn’t manage to. Just as I said that there was a lot of work, the Rebbe interjected, “— that’s very good!” and I didn’t press the subject further.
At the next audience, before leaving, I asked the Rebbe how to handle my own studies, when there was so much other work to do. I was so busy teaching that I had no time to open a Gemara and learn anything for myself. He first affirmed that I should make time to learn for myself, but then smiled. “With somebody else, you can’t postpone it until the next day,” he remarked, “but with your own learning you can.”
Before I traveled back home, I hid my machzor in 770, assuming I would return to New York for the next Rosh Hashanah. But as it turned out, I wasn’t able to leave Melbourne the next year, since I couldn’t find a substitute teacher for my students.
The circumstances were the same for the next couple of years, and the day before Rosh Hashanah of 1958, I wrote to the Rebbe to complain that I felt stuck in Australia. Three years earlier I had been in 770, and staying in Australia for the High Holidays just couldn’t compare.
Just two days after Rosh Hashanah, the Rebbe wrote back. Citing several relevant Chasidic discourses, he explained that I was right about the difference between here and there, but it was a matter of perspective: Being in 770 would have been a pleasure for me. But being in Australia brought pleasure to G-d. How could I complain?
Rabbi Aharon Serebryanski served as a leading Chabad emissary and educator for seventy years, most of them in Australia. He was interviewed in July of 2001 and July of 2016.