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Dr. Robert Richter

16 November 2022

I was a child of the Depression, born in 1933, to a non-Orthodox household in New York. I attended medical school and went on to work at several hospitals throughout the city, becoming chief resident in general surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, as well as in academic surgery and private practice.

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My connection with the Rebbe began in 1954 after my engagement to my wife Gladys – her grandfather was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cunin, a prominent chasid, and her parents were close with the Rebbe’s family. Being exposed to the world of Chabad, and the Rebbe in particular, was quite a revelation.

Gladys and I would join her parents to visit the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, and eventually I met the Rebbe independently. There were several occasions where I met him on the sidewalk and we stopped to talk. Later on, there were many times when the Rebbe, through his secretary or an invitation to his office, would question me on various medical matters that people had presented to him.

When my office was in downtown Brooklyn, the Rebbetzin would call to invite me over for cake and tea in the afternoon, if I wasn’t busy. The Rebbetzin’s cakes, I have to say, were a treasure; I know they were store-bought, but I have yet to find the store that made them. One afternoon, time flew by, and I was probably there for close to two hours. As I was getting ready to leave, she said, “My husband is coming home,” which I took as a cue to make my exit.

I walked down the front steps of 1304 President Street as the Rebbe was coming up to the house, and we met on the walkway. As anyone who has ever spoken to him has noted, when you speak to the Rebbe, he looks right at you and doesn’t seem to be thinking of anything else. It’s a totally focused attention, and it elicits the same response from the person he’s talking to. I’m sure he wanted to go home, but he started talking to me. He was asking me questions, and then giving the answers before I had a chance to verbalize them. Whatever it was that he asked me – some of it was personal, some of it technical, some of it I don’t remember – he was reading my mind. I could see his amusement. The whole thing went on for a total of ten or fifteen minutes from the time I met him until we said our goodbyes. I then got in my car and drove away.

Now I am, if nothing else, a scientist. I don’t believe in hocus pocus, magic, witchcraft, or any of these things. I came home that evening and my wife looked at me, as if to say, “Is something wrong?”

“I just had my brain picked,” I said. I’m still amazed by it. It was supernatural.

Maybe a year later, I saw someone publish an article outlining exactly the same experience with the Rebbe, and I knew that I hadn’t been dreaming. It was uncanny, superhuman, beyond any experience I had ever had; I don’t have any other words for it.

In 1969, I experienced another, more personal miracle. I had an occupational exposure to hepatitis virus and came down with a very serious case. By my reading as a doctor, it was fatal: I saw no point in being hospitalized. I got my affairs together, and since I happened to be in my upstate summer home, I stayed there, while a doctor neighbor would stop in and see me. I was only in my thirties but I was dying.

Now, you have to understand something about this virus: Hepatitis does not improve radically from day to day. In the old days before there were antibiotics, when people got pneumonia, and particularly the more virulent pneumococcus pneumonia, one of two things would happen: they either died or they had a “crisis,” in medical jargon, where suddenly, for no reason at all, the body takes over and gets better. But this never, ever happens in hepatitis. Viral hepatitis is an illness that normally progresses slowly, over several months, but occasionally it is a rapid decline. I was in a rapid decline.

One Tuesday afternoon at about 2:30 PM, I suddenly felt a weight lifted from me. I couldn’t pin it down, but from that point on I began to recover. There was a “crisis,” in the sense that I just defined it.

My wife was in the city that day and she came home at seven in the evening.

“Gee, I feel much better,” I told her.

“Oh, isn’t that nice,” she replied.

“Where were you?”

“In Brooklyn.”


“I went to see the Rebbe.”

I asked, “What time did you go to see the Rebbe?”

“2:30 PM,” she said. End of story. Again, I’m a scientist; an absolute, confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. Of all the skeptics, I’m the chief skeptic – but there you are.

A few years later, on the holiday of Shmini Atzeres, 1977, the phone rang. I’m a doctor, so even though it was Yom Tov, I picked it up. All I heard was, “Get here!”

There was no introduction, but I knew it was Gladys’s cousin, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin.

“Is it the Rebbe?” I asked.


It turned out that the Rebbe had suffered a heart attack. I got in my car, and sped over to 770 in probably 22 minutes, where I found a crowd of people in the Sukkah with the Rebbe.

“Who’s in charge here? I asked.

Everybody pointed at everybody else; nobody was in charge. There was another doctor there whom I knew – Bob Feldman. I looked over to him, he nodded, and I announced, “Okay, everybody out!”

Bob and I took it from there and we stayed with the Rebbe. We called specialists for any information we needed, and handled everything medically until a cardiologist, Dr. Ira Weiss, came in from Chicago. We were practicing out of our specialty, but thank G-d, we made no mistakes.

For the first twenty-four hours, we tried to convince the Rebbe that he needed to be in the hospital. For monitoring and for administering medications, I explained that an intensive care unit was the best place.

“That’s not convincing,” he countered. “Cannot this all be done here?”

I must have turned pale but I had to give an honest answer. “With great difficulty,” I said. The Rebbe took that as a yes.

At 2:30 in the morning I called the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and explained what we needed for the Rebbe. Within an hour all the equipment began to arrive at 770. There was never a need to move the Rebbe to an intensive care unit because we basically established one in 770.

His knowledge of medicine just amazed me. As a patient, he knew the right questions to ask and often I’m sure he also knew the answers before I gave them. Overall, he was the smartest man I ever met, – in every sense of the term. I was continually impressed during our conversations with what he knew. I learned to never assume that he didn’t know something; when I did, he would prove me wrong – but always with a smile.

Dr. Robert Richter has held various positions in New York hospitals, including nearly twenty years as an academic surgeon in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, before going into private practice. After retiring in 2000, he began teaching a course called “surgical judgment” to medical students. He was interviewed in February of 2012.