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Mr. Aryeh Pels

2 February 2023

I was studying applied mathematics in Wits University of Johannesburg with ambitions to go to Israel. In fact, I was in the middle of finishing off my fourth-year honors, which would have qualified me for Haifa’s Technion university. It was 1972, and that was when Rabbi Mendel Lipskar arrived in South Africa, which changed things dramatically for me.

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Between the ongoing Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, our society was full of questions and turmoil. I – along with my fellow students – was searching for the truth, and Rabbi Lipskar had lots of fascinating takes on what was happening in the world. After hours and hours of conversation, my friends and I realized what Judaism had to offer and, over the next two years, we became more observant. At one point, Rabbi Lipskar said, “It’s time to go to Crown Heights and see the Rebbe.” That was when the adventure began.

At that stage, I was doing a postgraduate degree at Wits, but December was vacation time at the university so I made the trip. By then, I had already met my future wife Chana in South Africa and she had also gone to the States to attend a Chabad women’s seminary in Minnesota.

I joined Hadar Hatorah, a yeshivah for men who are new to Torah observance, and spent my days in its study hall, which is how I came to see the Rebbe for the first time. It was a Thursday morning, and I was towards the end of my daily prayers, when my host, Rabbi Sholom Ber Groner came up to me. “Did you immerse in the mikveh this morning?” he asked. I had. “Come with me to the Rebbe’s minyan,” he said.

I walked into 770 and entered the room where the Rebbe would join the morning prayers. As is traditional following an overseas trip, I recited the Hagomel blessing after the reading of the Torah, with the Rebbe standing right next to me. I read the Hebrew words haltingly, and could feel the Rebbe watching me as I did. That was the first time I encountered the Rebbe’s quiet, humble strength; there was a real power I felt just by standing next to him. The next time I saw him was in a more public setting, at a farbrengen. As he sat there on the dais, with so many chasidim facing him and listening, I was struck by his spiritual grandeur.

Not long after that, Chana and I became engaged. At our vort, or engagement party, I repeated a talk from the Rebbe that had been published a couple years prior. Back then I knew very little Hebrew and no Yiddish, and very few Torah books were available in English, so a yeshivah student taught it to me in 770. This was just two days before the 10th of Shevat, which I learned was an important day in Chabad, marking the yahrzeit of the Previous Rebbe as well as the date that the Rebbe had subsequently assumed the position. So the topic of the talk was associated with the Previous Rebbe’s final discourse, which he published for the 10th of Shevat, describing how the world is essentially G-d’s beautiful garden and that our job is to reveal this. I memorized the entire talk in English, and then I recited it by heart at the event.

Translating the Rebbe’s teachings into English was something of a novelty back then, especially to some of the senior chasidim, like Rabbi Yosef Weinberg, who was present at the time. He was so fascinated that the next day he told me that he had written to the Rebbe about it. “I heard a sicha in English!” he exclaimed.

That Shabbat was the 10th of Shevat and the Rebbe led two long farbrengens, continuing well into the night. The following night, Chana and I had an audience with him as a newly-engaged couple. Although it took me many years to fully appreciate the significance of the encounter, we prepared ourselves carefully and spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to write in the note we would each hand to him.

As I was soon heading home, I asked him for a blessing for my flight back to South Africa that Tuesday. When he reached that point in the letter, he stopped reading, and asked, “Is it this Tuesday or next Tuesday?”

I was a little taken aback; it said the date right there on my note, so I just kept silent. But it felt like the Rebbe was hinting at something, so the next day, I spoke with South African Airways. My ticket was something called a forty-five-day excursion ticket, which allowed me to set my return leg anytime within that window. It turned out that the forty-fifth day was exactly the next Tuesday, so I extended my trip for another week.

Before I’d left South Africa, Rabbi Lipskar had proposed mentioning to the Rebbe that I was studying mathematics. “The Rebbe himself studied mathematics,” he explained, “so maybe he will talk about that during your audience.” So, I made mention of it in my note, and waited for this chat about mathematics.

But, when the Rebbe got to that part of the note, he turned to me and said, “You should set fixed times to learn Torah, in order that you should remember what you’ve learned so far and to prepare yourself for the future.” Then he went on to the next topic.

At the end of the audience, the Rebbe turned to me and said, “When you return to South Africa, tell the people what you heard at the farbrengen. When they hear it from someone who was actually present, the message will be far more effective.”

I immediately panicked. I’d stood at the Rebbe’s farbrengens for hours, but I had no idea what he was saying.

For a moment I wondered whether the Rebbe had overestimated my ability to understand him as a result of Rabbi Wineberg’s report – but then I realized that the Rebbe certainly knows that I don’t understand Yiddish. Again, I said nothing. The next day, a teacher at Hadar Hatorah, Rabbi Binyomin Cohen, sat down with me and told me exactly what the Rebbe had said, in detail.

I learned that the Rebbe had introduced the mezuzah campaign, calling for every Jewish home to have a kosher mezuzah installed on every doorway. He described the protective properties of the mezuzah, guarding what is inside the home and protecting it from any negative winds that are blowing outside, so that you, together with G-d, would become a master of your household.

Having extended my ticket, the difference between that Tuesday and the next turned out to be the infinity of another farbrengen with the Rebbe and another week of learning in Hadar Hatorah. It was wonderful. The Rebbe hadn’t told me to stay, but instead left the choice to my own initiative, offering me an opportunity to step in further and experience a boundless world of connection and Torah, allowing me to absorb what he told me during the audience.

When I got back to South Africa, I repeated the Rebbe’s ideas about mezuzah, and Chana and I became energetically involved in the campaign. In fact, she is still involved in the campaign today, and is ensuring that all the mezuzahs in our local Jewish school are kosher and affixed properly.

Mr. Aryeh Pels resides in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he works as a data analytics consultant. He was interviewed in August of 2014.