I moved to Toronto as a Chabad emissary in 1975. Beginning years before that, the Chabad community there had been bringing groups of people on annual trips to New York to visit the Rebbe. So about a week before I took up my position there, Rabbi Zalman Aaron Grossbaum – who had been running Chabad activities in Toronto for about a year – brought a large group to Crown Heights. The visitors enjoyed an entire program, and the highlight was a farbrengen – a chasidic gathering led by the Rebbe – which put the group on a real high.
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After Rabbi Grossbaum came back to Toronto and sent the Rebbe a report about this inspirational trip, he got a call from the Rebbe’s secretary. In response to the report, the Rebbe had written a note: “What were the practical results?” He wanted to know what kind of lasting impact the trip would leave on its participants. So Rabbi Grossbaum called each and every one of them for feedback, and found that many of them had been motivated to take on various aspects of Jewish life, which he was then able to report back to the Rebbe.
Over time we succeeded in establishing a beautiful community in Toronto, with many individuals who became close to Judaism and to Chabad in particular. By the early 1980s, the Rebbe no longer gave private audiences, and had not yet started receiving individuals in person for the weekly “Sunday dollars.” So, for the people who came on these trips, the one opportunity they did have to connect with the Rebbe was at the farbrengens. They were able to see the Rebbe and say l’chaim with him, but since it was in a public setting, they did not always feel that the Rebbe was paying any special attention to them.
One year, I brought a group to attend a farbrengen held on Shabbat. On the following Sunday morning, as we prepared to depart, I brought the participants to the foyer at the front of 770, in the hopes of receiving a blessing from the Rebbe before leaving. As we waited, the Rebbe’s car pulled up and he entered the front hallway. He nodded at us, gave us a brief blessing, and then went into his office.
A moment later, the Rebbe’s secretary came back out, holding a stack of stickers with Tefilat Haderech, the Traveler’s Prayer, printed on them. By the Rebbe’s instruction, we were each handed one.
As the years went on, the Rebbe continued to show his appreciation for the people who visited in various ways. Before Shabbat, our group would always submit the program to the Rebbe, with a list of all the participants. We also sent in a bottle of spirits to the Rebbe. This is something people would do when they had a special occasion or event coming up. At the farbrengen, the Rebbe would hand a bottle to whoever had sent it in, for him to use at the event. The Rebbe would also ask him to announce what the bottle was for; it was a way for him to be a part of his chasidim’s special occasions, and for them to share their celebration with others as well.
One year, when I went up to the Rebbe at the farbrengen, the Rebbe asked me to make an announcement about our group. I did so, speaking in Yiddish, since that was the spoken language in Crown Heights. However, our group mostly consisted of Sephardic Jews that year, and they didn’t understand the language.
“They don’t speak Yiddish,” the Rebbe reminded me. “Announce it in Hebrew.”
I translated, but the Rebbe again pointed out, “Maybe some of them don’t speak Hebrew either.” Only after I made the announcement for the third time in English was the Rebbe satisfied.
In 1985, we brought in a bus full of people for the Shabbat preceding the month of Av. We chose that date since it is in the summer, when many Crown Heights residents and yeshivah students leave the city, leaving plenty of space for us visitors. As I had done on previous occasions, towards the end of the farbrengen, I went up to the Rebbe’s table along with my colleague from Toronto, Rabbi Moshe Spalter. The Rebbe opened up our bottle of spirits, poured a little into our cups as well as his own, said “L’chaim,” and instructed us to make an announcement about our group.
Then, referring to the commandment of bikurim – donating one’s first fruits to the Holy Temple – he told us: “It’s written that when a person would see that a fig had starting growing in the new crop, he would tie a ribbon on it, signifying that this fig was sanctified and would be brought to Jerusalem. As he did this, a voice from Heaven would proclaim: ‘So may you have the merit to do this again next year.’”
This was an allusion to our group of visitors, those budding souls, that we had brought to be with the Rebbe. Clearly, the Rebbe was pleased that we had brought them and was blessing us that we return next year on a similar visit.
From then on, we made it a tradition to visit the Rebbe annually on that exact Shabbat – right before the month of Av. In 1986, to our great honor, the Rebbe dedicated a whole talk to us. Mentioning “the group from Toronto” by name, he connected the journey we had made to that week’s Torah reading, Masei, which describes the “journeys” of the Jewish people in the desert.
“Why did these guests come here?” he asked. “Normally people try to be home for Shabbat, but these Jews left the comforts of home behind, in order to be at this farbrengen and hear words of Torah that they would not hear elsewhere.”
“The individuals who are going through all this trouble did not receive a chasidic education from their parents,” the Rebbe continued. “Yet here they are, serving as a living example for the local residents, for how one must always progress in Judaism by striving to make the ‘journey’ towards a higher level.”
The Rebbe also noted that our group would visit the resting place of the Previous Rebbe, so after Shabbat we quickly rearranged our schedule to be able to do that, and we added that to our regular program for the future.
The next summer, the Rebbe spoke about us once again. He returned to the topic of making continuous spiritual progress, this time explaining that traveling out of town can help foster such growth. Temporarily being removed from one’s fixed routine creates space for new and better conduct in the long-term.
He also explained that such a trip strengthens Jewish unity since everyone on it would “pray together, study Torah together, participate in the farbrengen together, eat together, and even go for a stroll together.” In conclusion, he invited our group to lead the crowd in singing the chasidic song Ufaratzta.
Needless to say, after receiving so much encouragement, we’ve continued bringing groups of forty or fifty people from Toronto every year since. Today, we visit the Ohel and 770, and we always come for the Shabbat before the month of Av – that’s our Shabbat. And, as the Rebbe taught us, we always try to make sure that the visit has a lasting impact on each of us.
Rabbi Yossi Gansburg has been serving as a Chabad emissary in Toronto since 1975. He was interviewed in November 2018.