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Rabbi Menachem Gerlitzky

2 August 2023

After finishing my studies in kollel – an institution for young married men to study Torah – I wanted to become an emissary of the Rebbe. I had been presented with several such shlichut opportunities, and so in 1983 I wrote a letter to the Rebbe, describing the various positions that had been offered to me.

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Regarding one position in a foreign country whose language I didn’t speak, the Rebbe wrote in direct reply, “If so, then it is not for you.” Of another, more vague idea: “Practically, what does it entail?”

The Rebbe also gave me some general guidance in my shlichut search. He explained that when a person is trying to settle on a vocation, he ought to first consider what he is most suited to, what he is capable of, and what is practical. Since I had just written down every proposal that came my way, they were quite different from each other. “How is it possible,” wrote the Rebbe, “for one person to be suited to all of the above positions which vary completely?”

In conclusion, he instructed me to think more about the remaining offers that I had, as well as others that would come up, and then I could ask him again. So I spent the next few weeks contemplating my options.

A few years earlier, in the summer of 1980, the Rebbe had launched a new campaign, aimed at retired seniors. Now in the Rebbe’s view, a person is never allowed to retire – or, put differently, there is no such thing as retirement. A person might stop going to work every day, but as long as he is alive, and as long as G-d continues to grant him health, he has to continue doing what G-d wants.

So the Rebbe called for people who had reached this stage in life to register in a kollel, so that they could spend their golden years studying as much Torah as possible. In a public address, he suggested that this new kollel for seniors should work as regular kollels do: Members would be paid a stipend, local rabbis would teach regular classes there, and so on.

The Rebbe named these new institutions Tiferes Zekainim – the “Beauty of the Elderly,” and encouraged people to also include the name “Levi Yitzchok.” This talk was delivered on the 20th of Av, the yahrzeit of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, and he dedicated the entire initiative to his father’s memory. He pledged to donate $18 to all the kollels, but institutions bearing the full name “Kollel Tiferes Zekainim Levi Yitzchok” would receive $100.

He also mentioned that since there are so many old-age homes and senior centers looking for ways to fill up their residents’ time, it would be a good idea to offer Torah classes there.

The Rebbe continued to speak about this frequently and several Tiferes Zekainim programs were established in various communities. At one point, however, the Rebbe remarked, “It’s already been a few months, but there isn’t anybody working on this full time!” After that, a committee was formed in New York, and they hired someone to work full time on organizing Torah classes in local nursing homes and senior centers.

These Torah classes continued growing for the next couple of years until – while I was looking for a shlichut position – the committee had to look for someone new to take over this job. I wrote to the Rebbe about this opportunity, and right away, I had an answer: Bracha v’hatzlacha – blessing and success. And so, I went to work for Kollel Tiferes Zekainim Levi Yitzchok.

A year later, we had an idea. By then, there were about fifty weekly Torah classes taking place at different senior centers and nursing homes, and we decided to invite all of those participants to get together for a rally.

We scheduled the gathering in 770 at the time of the afternoon prayers, giving the participants that opportunity to see the Rebbe. We were hoping that the Rebbe might address the group, but we weren’t sure if he would. As the Rebbe entered, he waved to them, and then after the service, he turned around and – to our delight – delivered an address to the seniors.

From then on, we made these gatherings twice a year – once around the Rebbe’s father’s yahrzeit on the 20th of Av and another on Chanukah. The Rebbe would always speak at our Chanukah event, and twice he also spoke at our summer gathering. Whether or not he joined in person, he always gave me dollar bills to hand out to each attendee as his participation.

In 1985, in his response to the invitation for our Chanukah gathering, the Rebbe suggested coordinating the event so that “all the groups gather together” and that, “if necessary, this should be done with the mediation of Chabad rabbis.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what this meant; were there other organizations that I wasn’t aware of planning on bringing groups of seniors to 770?

As Chanukah drew closer, we realized that the Rebbe wasn’t referring to another seniors’ group, but to a rally being arranged for children. During that month, the Rebbe was spending most of his afternoons at the Ohel, the Previous Rebbe’s resting place, and so he was asking us to combine the two gatherings.

We set a date for the combined gathering and the night before, Rabbi J. J. Hecht, who would always emcee the children’s events, came to 770 to discuss seating. Hundreds of children would be present, and when Rabbi Hecht pointed out where they would be sitting, I realized that there was no room left for the older people.

The Rebbe had already indicated that there might be a need for negotiations, so I brought the issue to a few Chabad rabbis, who came up with a compromise. But, when this was presented to the Rebbe, he was unhappy: He wanted all of the children and all of the seniors to be in the synagogue, at the same time. And that’s what happened.

We squeezed benches into every empty space in 770, and when their buses arrived, we sat the seniors among the little children. They were thrilled! When the Rebbe addressed the gathering, he spoke about the children and the elderly all getting together, and the unity it represented.

The year after that, on the morning of our summertime rally, I was summoned by the Rebbe’s secretary Rabbi Groner, who told me that the Rebbe wanted to see me. This came as a total surprise, but in no time I got ready and presented myself at the Rebbe’s office.

The Rebbe told me that he was planning on going to the Ohel that day and that he would pray there for the seniors. After giving a long series of blessings for me to relay to the participants in that day’s rally, he then went to get 600 one-dollar bills for me to distribute to the seniors, for each of them to give a donation to charity.

I was too stunned to be able to repeat the Rebbe’s entire message from memory, but thankfully Rabbi Groner had left the door to his own nearby office ajar. Together, we wrote it all down, and the Rebbe edited our transcript then and there. At the event, I read out all of those blessings for the seniors, their children, and their grandchildren.

Rabbi Menachem Gerlitzky is the head of the New York branch of Kollel Tiferes Zekainim Levi Yitzchok, which has three study centers for seniors in Crown Heights and holds activities in nursing homes throughout the city. He also oversees a daily Rambam class in 770, and holds a public celebration on the completion of each its eighty-three sections of laws. He was interviewed in October 2020.