I was born in France in 1935, after my family fled there from Germany. Following the Second World War, we made our way to Israel, and soon after, my father, a graduate of the legendary Brisker yeshiva, passed away.
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As a young man, my own yeshivah career began in the town of Be’er Yaakov, in a Lithuanian-style yeshivah. During that time, I became connected to Chabad when I began participating in a secret Tanya class – something that went on for some time. My brother, Rabbi Aharon Mordechai Zilberstrom, had also become close with the movement during the war, and he helped found and run several Chabad schools afterwards. Eventually, because of these connections, I transferred to the Chabad yeshivah in Lod in 1955.
Two years later, the Rebbe asked the yeshivah faculty to send him a list of students who were capable of being teachers and strengthening Chabad’s expanding school network; of serving as “education emissaries,” as they were called. Of that list, the Rebbe chose ten names, including mine. This was how I began working in education while still a yeshivah student.
I taught in several schools – first in Ta’anach, and then in the Malcha neighborhood of Jerusalem, where I later became principal. I also taught and headed up two newly-founded schools that had been set up for new immigrants to Israel from Morocco and Romania.
Those early days were hard. The authorities were often uninterested in cooperating with us and could make things quite challenging. We worked in difficult conditions, in rented classrooms into which we would drag our desks and chairs each morning – then out again in the evening – and in sheds with roofs that leaked in the winter. Along the way, however, we received letters from the Rebbe in which he would encourage us to carry on, while offering instructions and detailed educational guidance.
The first time I had the honor of visiting the Rebbe was in 1961, when I joined a flight chartered by the chasidim in Israel who were heading to spend the festive month of Tishrei in the Rebbe’s court. It was a unique and inspiring experience.
Before our flight home, all of the guests assembled in front of 770, where some yellow school buses were idling before taking us to the airport. The previous year – the first time such a flight had been chartered – the Rebbe came out to the entrance of 770 to bid farewell to the guests, a gesture we hoped he would repeat. The Rebbe didn’t come out, so in the meantime we all took off our hats and coats and began singing and dancing, hoping that we might see the Rebbe again in the merit of our joy.
Suddenly the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Hodakov, emerged from the building and beckoned me with his finger. “Zilberstrom,” he said, “the Rebbe is calling for you.”
I was totally unprepared to have a meeting with the Rebbe. “But I’m not wearing my Shabbat clothes,” I cried. “Everything’s packed away!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rabbi Hodakov insisted. “Wear what you have and come. The Rebbe is waiting.” I quickly put my hat and coat back on, and just like that, I ran into the Rebbe’s office.
In the course of this impromptu audience, the Rebbe put several questions to me, and at one point he asked whether I still knew French, explaining that it might come in handy in Israel: “You can meet with the editors of French-language newspapers, and visit places where there are a large number of French speakers. Make the effort, and it will come to good use.”
By that time, I had just about forgotten my French: Sixteen years had passed since my family left France for Israel, and I had hardly used it since. But from then on, whenever I have to speak about Judaism, I manage to speak French fluently, and somehow I find myself using sophisticated words and phrases that would not normally come to my mind.
As a result of that directive, I met with several French newspapers in Tel Aviv and also traveled to several French communities in Israel. Speaking the language also helped me considerably in convincing North African migrant families – from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – to send their children to religious schools.
I visited the Rebbe a second time five years later, together with two other teachers. We set out after Rosh Hashanah on the 6th of Tishrei. The Rebbe’s mother had passed away on this date two years earlier, and he would hold a special gathering every year on her yahrzeit. Our flight was meant to leave from Israel at 8 AM, which we figured would allow us to make it to the farbrengen in time, but we took off four hours late. After landing in New York, we decided to race straight to 770, without waiting for our bags at the carousel, so that we would at least catch a glimpse of the Rebbe before he left the farbrengen.
To our surprise, on passing through customs, we found our three bags waiting for us. We rushed to catch a cab, sped off to 770, and we arrived to find some people standing outside. “Is the Rebbe still farbrenging?” we asked.
He was, so we threw our suitcases out of the car and ran inside. We heard the crowd singing, but we couldn’t see anything. The tall array of bleachers that were set up for such gatherings totally blocked our view. Suddenly, though, the singing stopped, and we heard the Rebbe’s voice.
“Zilberstrom is here?” he called out.
A set of hands reached out, pulled me up, and passed me along until I was standing right in front of him. I was shaking, and I felt the people whose view I was blocking tugging at me from behind. However, the Rebbe motioned that I should stay put. As I stood there, he delivered two more talks; one of them about education and the importance of sending children to religious schools.
Later I learned that the Rebbe had actually already concluded the farbrengen and was preparing to recite the after-blessing when he instead began encouraging the crowd to sing, one song after another, up until our arrival.
On Yom Kippur Eve, I went to receive some honey cake from the Rebbe, as is customary, but in addition to the one piece that he would give everyone, the Rebbe gave me two extra. When I had my private audience with him after Simchat Torah, he explained: One was for my mother, and I was to give the other to my wife. She, in turn, should crumble up this piece, put the crumbs into a batter, and bake two new pans of honey cake. These cakes, said the Rebbe, while making a cutting motion with his hand, were for me to slice up and distribute to every boy and girl in my school. “They should make a blessing over the cake,” the Rebbe instructed, “and may they and their families have a good, sweet year.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Peretz Zilberstrom, a veteran educator and community leader in Jerusalem’s Neve Yakov neighborhood, was interviewed in December 2013.