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Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Cohen

27 April 2023

Three months ago, we published Rabbi Cohen’s description of his first encounter with the Rebbe in 1972. Here is his account of two subsequent audiences.

As an administrator and fundraiser for various institutions associated with the Sadigura community, I joined the recently appointed Sadigura Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman, and a group of his chasidim on a trip to the United States. The year was 1980, and we were going to attend the wedding of the son of Reb Avraham Yosef “Monye” Shapiro, a leading Sadigura chasid as well as a relative of the Rebbe’s family. Reb Monye was a successful industrialist, as well as being politically active; later he would become a member of the Knesset for the Agudat Yisrael party.

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Upon arrival, I made contact with Rabbi Hodakov, secretary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I myself had met with the Rebbe before, but this time, I set up an appointment for the Sadigura Rebbe with the Rebbe. The two already knew each other, from the time that Rabbi Friedman lived in Crown Heights, while heading up the Sadigura study hall there, years before succeeding his father as Rebbe.

I invited Reb Monye to join us on the visit to the Rebbe’s court. As a wealthy businessman and a leading figure within Agudat Yisrael, he was close with the leaders of the Labor party (then Mapai) and was generally influential within Israel’s upper political echelon. The last time I had met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I told Reb Monye, I promised to return with someone who could assist the Rebbe’s “Mihu Yehudi campaign” to legislate Halachic standards on questions of Jewish identity. He agreed and came along.

The meeting was a lovely, dignified affair, and it lasted for an hour and a half. For the most part, the Rebbe conversed with the Sadigura Rebbe and Reb Monye, although at the end, as we were heading for the door, he turned to me and expressed his appreciation for organizing the meeting.

Throughout their discussion, which was recorded and eventually released in print, they exchanged words of Torah and also touched on many matters of public interest.

One subject was that of natalist policies in Israel. The Rebbe observed that, on one hand, the Israeli government offered new immigrants an “absorption basket” valued at some thirty thousand dollars so as to encourage population growth from abroad. On the other hand, they were spending money on “family planning” initiatives in order to reduce the domestic birth rate, rather than increasing incentives for having more babies.

Another central issue that came up was the territorial integrity of the Land of Israel. They spoke about the risks of giving up parts of Israel in dubious deals with the Arab leadership, when it was doubtful whether their successors would be willing – or able – to honor them. In the years that followed, the Sadigura Rebbe was one of the chief proponents for maintaining the integrity of Israel’s borders and against giving up any land. In my estimation, the passion he felt on this subject was a result of that audience with the Rebbe.

Four years later, in 1984, I was fortunate enough to come along for the Sadigura Rebbe’s second audience with the Rebbe, which was also recorded and published. At the end of that meeting, I told the Rebbe about a kollel, a Torah institution for married men, that we had recently founded in Jerusalem. Among other things, I mentioned that we also published a Torah journal featuring essays written by the kollel’s scholars.

“How often is the journal published?” inquired the Rebbe.

When I replied that it was an annual publication, the Rebbe reacted with surprise. “Why only once a year? Yom Kippur comes only one day a year – you should be publishing every few months!”

He went on to explain the doubled benefits that would come as a result: “Firstly, it’s good for the members of the kollel; when they know that they need to produce Torah writings for publication, they will be motivated to study with greater diligence and devotion. Learning for those ulterior motives will lead to learning for its own sake.

“In addition,” the Rebbe went on, “you are seeking to raise funds for the kollel. When donors see that its members are regularly producing Torah writings – that their investments are bearing fruit – it will help with the fundraising.”

Just before leaving, I brought up Rabbi Shomo Yosef Zevin, a prominent Chabad scholar and rabbi with whom I’d worked closely in his charitable work since I was a teenager. I had mentioned my connection with Rabbi Zevin the first time I had ever met the Rebbe, and brought him up again now in light of his recent passing.

“He carried himself with great modesty, but I know that he was a towering figure,” noted the Rebbe, before referring to the many books Rabbi Zevin had published to popular acclaim, and to his life before coming to Israel. “You knew him once his situation was more comfortable, but I knew him when things were difficult, when he was serving as an emissary of my father-in-law, the [Previous] Rebbe, in Communist Russia. Although his work was fraught with real danger,” the Rebbe concluded, “he was never deterred, and he carried out his mission with self-sacrifice.”

To my mind, that same self-sacrifice can be found today among all of the Chabad emissaries who work to promote Judaism in every corner of the world. Today, we are sorely missing the Rebbe’s leadership, which he devoted to the cause of the Jewish people and their Torah, voicing his views confidently, clearly, and without fear. At the same time, I saw how he paid attention to everyone, from the greatest person to a tiny child. That’s what it means to be a leader for all Jewry.

A native of Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Cohen is a veteran communal activist, with close ties to many chasidic Rebbes and prominent Torah sages in Israel. He was interviewed in his home in 2012.