The oldest of four boys, I grew up in Tel Aviv in a traditional home where we soaked up a love of the Jewish people, its Torah, and its land. We had emigrated from Baghdad, Iraq, in 1935 when I was just two.
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Raised in the atmosphere of an up-and-coming country, I had a strong desire to be a part of the action. At seventeen, I was drafted into the army and signed up for permanent service. There, I served as an officer in the Nachal brigade and later, wanting to focus on education, as a commander at the Command Military Academy and in the Youth Corps, or Gadna.
In the early ‘70s, Prime Minister Golda Meir empaneled a special commission to inquire into the matter of Israel’s youth in crisis. In particular, it would be focused on youth within migrant communities, or “marginalized youth,” who, because of the inequalities in Israeli society and the discrimination they experienced, were suffering high rates of school drop-out and delinquency. I was then a colonel, and in light of my educational experience in the IDF, I was called on to lead the commission.
When the commission turned in its findings, we included a long list of recommendations for policy changes in the fields of education, housing, employment, health, and welfare. As a result, Golda Meir requested that I be discharged from the army, to join her office as an adviser for social welfare and to coordinate her staff’s efforts in implementing the commission’s recommendations, within the relevant government departments. Even after Meir’s resignation, her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, asked me to stay in this role, which I ended up filling for a total of four years.
Throughout that time, I was regularly sent to the United States to give various speeches as well as to help fundraise with the United Israel Appeal. On these trips, I would use the opportunity to visit Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters and was able to join the Rebbe for morning prayers on several occasions. The atmosphere there was electrifying. These visits would put me in good spirits, and they made a major impression on me.
When I told Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about this, he told me that he had also visited 770 during his ambassadorship in the States, and he expressed his admiration for the Rebbe. Perhaps, I suggested to him, I could have a personal meeting with the Rebbe to seek his counsel on the various societal issues we were then grappling with. Rabin was very happy with the idea and gave his enthusiastic approval. I reached out to Rabbi Binyamin Klein, the Rebbe’s secretary, to make an appointment.
And so it was that in the middle of one night in 1976 I arrived at 770, and entered the Rebbe’s room at the precise time we had arranged: 2:20 AM. The Rebbe received me with a handshake. I noticed that, despite the late hour, he was sharp and alert, his blue eyes aflame.
I told him about my role in the government, the various social problems we were facing in Israel as a result of gathering in so many diverse and different Jewish communities from across the diaspora, and the challenges of unifying them into a single people.
In addressing this issue, the Rebbe emphasized that one of the most important keys to a cohesive Israeli society was an emphasis on a strong sense of Jewish identity and connection to the Land of Israel. This common denominator had the power to unite Jews of different communities and cultures.
The Rebbe also explained that he was putting this into action himself by sending emissaries across Israel, in order to strengthen their Jewish spirit. He mentioned two heavily-immigrant communities he had recently dispatched several chasidic couples to, in Tzfat and Kiryat Malachi, to help with the integration efforts there and the education of their youth. Among the programs we were promoting within the government, he asked that we also try to help the immigrants in these places with their absorption process. Of course, I promised to visit both of these communities, to pass on his blessings and to help where I could.
At one point, I conveyed regards from Prime Minister Rabin. The Rebbe, of course, remembered him well and told me about their meeting and subsequent correspondence. He asked me to pass on his blessings for Rabin’s success, and on my return, Rabin was overjoyed to hear this and had me write a letter of thanks back to the Rebbe.
The meeting lasted some twenty-five minutes, and the mood of the conversation, which was conducted in fluent Hebrew, was calm. Although I had come into his office feeling uneasy about being in his presence, the modest, friendly demeanor that the Rebbe radiated made me feel comfortable. I felt as though the Rebbe had heard about me and knew me well. He gave me support and told me that the position I filled was of utmost importance. When the Rebbe expounded on the importance of bolstering the connection between the Land of Israel, its people, and their Torah, his words – spoken with powerful faith and vision – inspired me. I walked out feeling that I had been charged with new energies to continue my work.
I kept my promise to visit the Chabad communities the Rebbe mentioned, to learn what they needed and how we could help them. I also arranged a visit to Kfar Chabad, and when the residents of the Chabad village heard that a government adviser who had recently met with the Rebbe was coming to visit, they put on a real reception for me. It was an exciting event. There was plenty of joy and dancing, as only chasidim know how, and they all wanted to hear exactly what the Rebbe had told me.
After these visits, I wrote to the Rebbe, reporting on my impressions, and again expressing my gratitude. The Rebbe went to the trouble of writing a reply which, as I was happy to recently learn, has since been published in a volume of his letters.
Meeting the Rebbe had been a dream come true for me. Over the course of my public service, I met many leaders, heads of state, and powerful people, but my audience with the Rebbe was far more profound; it was something that touched my soul. The experience confirmed for me just how much this man lived with the Land of Israel. He knew and felt whatever was happening there, and was happy for its triumphs. The Rebbe sat in Brooklyn and, through his emissaries, had an impact on the entire world.
Dr. Baruch Levy (1933-2023) was a former IDF colonel and Gadna commander. He was an expert in education and social policy, and held a wide variety of public offices in Israel. He was interviewed in December 2015.