I had grown up in a quiet neighborhood of Tel Aviv, but in 1976 my family moved to New York. Back in Tel Aviv, I had attended Moriah, a religious, non-chasidic school with a strong emphasis on learning. As a fifteen-year-old, I loved it there and it was hard to find another school like it in New York.
Click here for full-color print version
My older sister Michla Breindel, of blessed memory, who had just married a Lubavitcher named Yehuda Blesofsky, was living in Crown Heights. Although it was not long after their wedding, they generously invited me to come and board with them so I could attend the local Chabad girls’ high school, Bais Rivka.
I went to try it out just before Rosh Hashanah, and it was quite an adjustment. The religious environment I had come from was intellectual but reserved, while the education that the girls in Bais Rivka were receiving was so warm and exciting. I loved it and decided to stay.
I also had to adjust to the neighborhood. The streets of Crown Heights, with their festive hustle and bustle and the guests who had come from abroad for the holidays, were so different from where I had come from. The real shock, however, came from what was going on inside my sister’s home.
In those days, Crown Heights had no prominent hospitality organizations for hosting or providing meals for visitors. Families simply opened their homes and had guests over for every holiday meal – and my sister did the same. I was a little spoiled growing up as the youngest of four children, but I wasn’t going to let my sister deal with this alone. Oblivious to the activity surrounding the Rebbe in 770, I focused on helping my sister make sure that everyone was fed, and keeping her from collapsing.
That Rosh Hashanah, I threw myself into the tasks at hand – cooking, serving, cleaning. On the day before Yom Kippur, there were more guests, and before Sukkot, yet more. In Israel, most of the holidays are only observed for one day, and so the two days in the beginning of Sukkot felt endless, especially since we had to make constant trips up and down the steps of her home to the Sukkah outside.
In the meantime, my grandfather, Reb Avraham Parshan, arrived. A chasidic businessman living in Canada, he had been one of the founders of the religious Poalei Agudat Yisrael party in the early days of the State of Israel, and had served as a community leader and then a politician there. In the fifties he became a chasid of the Rebbe, and had a tradition of spending Simchat Torah with the Rebbe every year.
I soon learned that when my grandfather would come to New York a lot of people wanted to meet him in person, so of course the most natural thing for him to do was to invite them to join him for a meal at my sister’s home.
Until today, I find the last day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Rabbah, to be something of a confusing day: It’s a highly spiritual day, akin to Yom Kippur, but at the same time you spend the day cooking and preparing for the festive meal served on that day as well as for Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah which follow. My grandfather’s unexpected guests then threw a wrench into our plans because we had to serve them all of the food we made for the next two days and start all over – and this happened twice.
As the day wore on, I noticed that the people coming and going into the house had a certain glow in their eyes. It turned out, as they shared with me elatedly, that on Hoshana Rabbah the Rebbe would stand in his Sukkah at 770 and give anybody who came by a blessing for a sweet new year and a piece of lekach, honey cake. This was all very new to me – it was many years before the Rebbe began distributing dollars – but I picked up how special that experience must be, and I suddenly knew that I had to be there.
But the work wasn’t letting up. There were batches of cooking, cleaning, and serving to be done. Finally, my older brother gave us the push we needed. He walked in the door as my sister and I were wiping down the ‘70s style avocado and peach colored Formica counters. “It’s late,” he said, “you have to go now!” I had planned on changing my clothes, but there was no time – I was out the door.
Stepping out, I saw that the line that had been wrapping around the block, from 770 almost all the way to our house, wasn’t there anymore. I quickened my pace. The line was no longer visible on Brooklyn Avenue or, when I turned the corner, on Eastern Parkway. No, I thought, missing out after all that hard work just wouldn’t be fair! I couldn’t stomach the disappointment.
I began running towards 770, not wanting to give up, hoping that I would still see someone waiting in line. There was no one.
Instead, as I arrived, I saw something else: The Rebbe’s back, framed by the doorway of 770, as he made his way back inside. I felt tears well up and silently flow down my face. I’ve missed out on lekach.
I hadn’t made a sound, but in an instant, the Rebbe turned around. His movements were always very precise; it was a sharp, 180-degree pivot, and he looked right at me. I could have been embarrassed by the state I was in, but I felt comfortable, as though the Rebbe understood. He whispered something to his secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, and then went into his office.
Rabbi Groner did not look impressed when he came over to me – the Rebbe had been on his feet all day, and needed to take a break before the holiday. But all he told me was, “Come and stand by the Sukkah. The Rebbe is going to give you lekach.”
A moment later, the Rebbe came back outside to the Sukkah, reached for a piece of lekach, and handed it to me. A handful of other women who had also missed out appeared behind me, and he gave a piece of sweet honey cake to each of them.
I was overwhelmed. Maybe I should have felt guilty, but around the Rebbe things felt right. I felt that he understood me well, a fifteen-year-old girl who was trying her best.
Years later, being interviewed by the Jewish Covenant Foundation, a philanthropic organization, I was asked, “What motivated you to come to Myrtle Beach and start a school?”
To my surprise, this moment was the first thing that came to mind:
When the Rebbe gave me lekach, I felt seen, appreciated. In those few seconds, I also felt such kindness and safety. I’m staying with the Rebbe, I decided right then.
Choosing to come to Myrtle Beach was how my husband and I felt we could be as close as possible to the Rebbe – by participating in his vision.
Another thing I learned that day was that being stretched to what seems like your breaking point can be good for you; when you go beyond yourself, you become open to experiences you wouldn’t normally be able to reach. That was what happened on that day, and every day in our shlichus.
Since 1986, Mrs. Leah Aizenman has been serving as a Chabad emissary in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where she directs Chabad Academy. She was interviewed in February 2014.