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Rabbi Shmarya Katzen

10 November 2022

This story is an excerpt from the book My Story 2: Lives Changed. Get your copy today at www.jemstore.com.

My story begins at the University of Maryland, where I was studying engineering and where I was first introduced to Chabad. Although my parents weren’t religious, I had grown up in a traditional Jewish atmosphere, and I had gravitated to other Jews at the university, occasionally participating in Hillel House programs. It was there, in 1964, that two graduate students named Larry Levine and Joel Sinsky suggested that I explore Chabad.

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I had no idea what Chabad was, what Lubavitch was, but I felt very empty inside – something within me was yearning to be satisfied – and I followed their suggestion to go to New York for Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Arriving at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, I sensed the excitement in the air, as though it was only ten minutes ago that G-d gave the Torah to the Children of Israel.

I was warmly welcomed in the home of Rabbi Yossel Goldstein, where I spent the holiday. I found it to be an amazing experience. I remember sitting at the holiday table while Rabbi Goldstein spoke words of Torah and feeling that something very mystical was going on. He said that every soul comes down into this world with a mission to fulfill, and wherever you find yourself is not an accident, but an act of Divine Providence – you are supposed to be right there.

After this experience, I returned for a summer program at Chabad to learn more about Judaism, and then went back to the university for the fall term. But something strange was happening to me – I found that I couldn’t study – try as I might to open the books, I couldn’t do it. I was drawn to return to New York.

I ended up writing to the Rebbe, telling him that I wanted to leave the university, that I had lost interest and it wasn’t for me any longer, but I wasn’t sure what to do next.

I didn’t get an answer right away, so I just packed up and arrived at 770, where I found a letter from the Rebbe waiting for me. He wrote:

The attainment of good is unfortunately not always very easy. And usually, the more the thing is desirable, the more difficult it is to obtain. Therefore, when one finds extraordinary difficulties or obstacles, this in itself is often a sign that the thing desired is very worthwhile. As for a practical solution to your problems, you should discuss them with your local friends who are yirei shamayim [G-d-fearing] to whom you could explain all the pertinent details, or who may already know them from experience.

Now, I had already made my decision to leave the university, but I did consult with a friend, nonetheless, who recommended that I tell the Rebbe more about my background and my dissatisfaction with secular learning, and that I ask for a blessing for my yeshivah studies.

I wrote again, and this time the Rebbe responded right away. Among other things, the Rebbe explained to me why I was never satisfied up to this point: “It’s impossible for a Jew to feel satisfied unless he first satisfies his soul.”

I knew that my instincts had been right – I had to sit and learn Torah in order to give my soul what it needed.

As I proceeded with my yeshivah studies, I wrote to the Rebbe many times, and it was amazing to me how the Rebbe tolerated so many letters from me, and how he always answered.

After almost a year in yeshivah, my twenty-third birthday came around, and I got an appointment to come into the Rebbe’s office for a birthday blessing, as was the custom. I took this opportunity to confide in him my worries about how I might earn a livelihood in the future. I had been considering taking night courses at a local college while studying in yeshivah during the day, because I felt I needed to begin acquiring some sort of professional credentials.

But the Rebbe didn’t want me to take my energy away from Torah studies after only one year in yeshivah. And to allay my worries about the future, he added with a smile, “Right now, G-d is managing to take care of three billion people who have no college education. So probably He can take care of you also.”

The audience ended with the Rebbe giving me a blessing to continue learning. And as I was walking out, the Rebbe looked at me sternly and said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.” I took this message to heart.

I met with the Rebbe several times after that, and I also wrote him many more letters. I once asked for his help with my stuttering. The Rebbe told me to see a doctor. But he also wrote that it would be good “for you to strengthen your trust in G-d, who looks after every single individual constantly.” And – wouldn’t you know – as my trust in G-d improved, my stuttering improved.

After I had been learning in yeshivah for a while, I felt the need to go out into the work world, but I was not sure what I should do. As was my way by now, I turned to the Rebbe, who recommended I take an aptitude test, which would identify my natural inclinations.

I did so, and the test showed that I would most like to “help people.” But I was not sure what that meant in terms of a profession: Should I become a social worker?

When I informed the Rebbe of the results, he said, “If you’d like to help others, you should consider becoming a teacher.” He didn’t say what kind of teacher I should be – neither what subjects I should teach, nor whether adults or children. He just said, “You can benefit others by teaching them love of G-d, faith, self-confidence…” – here he paused, adding, “and love for their fellow Jew.” As I recall it, those were the items he listed.

So that is how I became a teacher, which was exactly right for me.

I remember the Rebbe once saying at a farbrengen that when you teach children, it is not only important how many pages of material you cover, but that you reach the pintele Yid, the G-dly spark inside each Jewish child. This was especially important in teaching Pre-1A, which is the equivalent of kindergarten in the Lubavitch day school system, where I have taught for over four decades. I have always tried to reach the pintele Yid and to instill in each child an awe of G-d. With the Rebbe’s blessing, I believe I have succeeded.

For forty-seven years, Rabbi Shmarya Katzen taught young children at the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Brooklyn. He was interviewed in the My Encounter Studio in July of 2018.