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10 August 2023

Editor’s Note

Due to the nature of this account, the woman who shared it prefers to remain anonymous. We are thankful to her for allowing us to publish this story, which we hope will provide guidance to others facing similar challenges.

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When I was growing up, my parents had a troubled marriage. My mother had grown up in Stalin’s Russia, lost her mother as a little girl, seen her grandfather repeatedly imprisoned for teaching Torah, and suffered tremendously there. Now, as a young woman, she was unhappy, and my father was unhappy that she was unhappy.

I read in an issue of Here’s My Story[1] that the Rebbe once told someone, “A child is not allowed to judge a parent.” So it’s not for me to figure out what they did right or wrong, but I think they did their best and that they did a very good job as parents, all things considered.

Back in the ‘60s, every chasid would have a private audience with the Rebbe on their birthday. So every winter, my father would drive the whole family to New York for his birthday.

It was often very late by the time we went into the Rebbe’s room. The lines could be unpredictable, and somebody who was supposed to only have five minutes with the Rebbe might take two hours. We would be sitting on a bench in the 770 lobby, feeling very tired, and my mother would comb our hair right before we went in to make sure we looked presentable to the Rebbe. When I felt that comb on my head, I knew we were going in soon.

Even as very young children, my siblings and I were very aware of how spiritual the occasion was. In the Rebbe’s room, we felt a lot of love coming from him, a lot of interest in us, caring, understanding, and acceptance. At the same time there was also a sense of expectation: Everybody there felt that the Rebbe expected something of them, and they wanted to live up to those expectations.

At one point, the Rebbe would turn to us children and beckon us to his desk. He opened his drawer, and there was a bag of lollipops, which we understood were for us. We each chose one – I always took red – and then we recited the appropriate blessing out loud, and he would say Amen.

Sometimes the Rebbe would first ask us which blessing we were going to make on our lollipops, or he’d ask about our Torah studies at school, but mostly he spoke with our parents. I didn’t speak Yiddish in those days, so I didn’t understand what the discussion was, but from the tone of their voices, I think I knew what they were discussing. We weren’t given updates on their marriage, but we didn’t need them; we knew everything.

I have one older sister, and when I turned five, I became a big sister myself. It had already begun to seem that our parents were going to end up divorced, and I was terrified by the thought of having to choose between them. I was concerned for my siblings, and concerned about my parents too; if we had to choose, I knew we would be destroying whichever parent we didn’t choose. Thank G-d, they managed to stay married until we were older. But at the time, I didn’t know what would happen so I decided to write a letter to the Rebbe.

I had seen my parents do it numerous times, and my father had previously helped us write to the Rebbe, as well. I knew that when things are really tough, you write to the Rebbe. I also knew where my father kept his paper, his pens, his envelopes, and his stamps.

After sneaking some supplies from my father’s armoire, I wrote my letter, describing the situation: I was worried about my parents’ marriage, worried about my younger sister, and worried about everything. I addressed it to “Lubavitcher Rebbe, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York” – in those days you didn’t need zip codes – found a mailbox and mailed it. I had unloaded to someone whom I knew understood and cared about me, and I felt better.

One night, while lying in bed, I heard the phone ring in the upstairs hallway of our home. My father picked it up.

“Hello?… 770?… An answer?… To whom?”

I thought I might get a reply from the Rebbe in the mail, not that the Rebbe’s secretary would call for me.

To my daughter? She got an answer from the Rebbe… She wrote? Okay! Hold on, let me get a pen.

My father took down the answer, and I heard him say thank you. There was a click as he hung up the phone, and he then slowly walked over to my room.

Oh my G-d, I thought to myself. I’m busted.

He entered my room and called my name.

“Yes, Daddy,” I said.

“Did you write a letter to the Rebbe?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, you got an answer.”

He told me what the Rebbe had said, and not long after, I also received a letter in the mail from the Rebbe’s office with the same message. I still have the letter, it is my most precious possession, and this is what it says:

“…Surely you are increasing your good conduct, as is befitting a Jewish girl, each of whom is called a ‘daughter of Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah’ … May it be G-d’s will that you succeed in everything, and may your parents have genuine nachas from you, that is, Jewish, chasidic nachas. With blessings.”

The letter was then signed, in the name of the Rebbe, by his secretary Rabbi Simpson.

A few years later, I joined a group of women who traveled to New York to take part in an annual Chabad ladies’ convention – my mother wasn’t able to make it that year. At one point, the Rebbe spoke to a large gathering of the delegates in 770, after which everybody got a chance to walk by the Rebbe for his personal blessing.

It would take too long for everybody to have a conversation with the Rebbe, but we were told that we could write a note, hand it to him, and keep going. So, once again, on a paper I addressed to the Rebbe, I wrote that I was worried about my younger siblings – at that point there were a few of them – and that the situation at home was not good.

The Rebbe read it, and then in his thick Russian accent he said, “If you will be a good girl, it will be good for them also.”

“I am a good girl!” I protested, before being pulled along to make way for the next person.

At first, I didn’t get it, but eventually, as an adult, I put the two answers together. I think the Rebbe was telling me to stop trying to fix everything: This is not your marriage; these aren’t your kids to raise. You’re a Jewish girl, and you can focus on that. Be a good example for your younger siblings, and you’ll be a good daughter that way.

Rather than trying to validate my anxieties or distancing me from “toxic” people, as contemporary therapy might, the Rebbe gave me a new – and positive – way of looking at what I could do: If you will be a good girl, it will be good for them also.

I’m not sure this message is for every kid who is struggling; I’ve read some letters where the Rebbe tells people to think more about others and not themselves. But in my case, he said, just think about yourself, instead of taking responsibility for everything going on around you. Sometimes that’s the answer.

[1] Here’s My Story # 344, an anonymous account from a woman who received advice from the Rebbe following her parents’ divorce.