My encounter with the Rebbe took place nearly fifty years ago when I came to the United States from Switzerland with the goal of helping Russian Jews oppressed by the Soviet regime.
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By way of background, my parents – both of whom were from Poland –miraculously made it to Geneva during World War II. This is where they met and married and where I was born in 1948.
In 1969, after being educated in yeshivahs in England and Israel, I enrolled in Geneva University’s School of Economics. And it is there that I was introduced to the plight of the Soviet Jews who were not permitted to practice Judaism or to emigrate elsewhere. It was a hot issue at the time and many organizations worldwide were staging demonstrations and working to influence their governments to pressure the Soviets into releasing the Jews.
Because of my involvement in this cause, I came to the United States in 1972. Upon arrival, I met with the famed civil liberties advocate Nat Lewin, who suggested that I use my background in economics to investigate how to influence the United States government to play a role. So I went to the Library of Congress, and there I found that legislation already existed in the US that could help the Soviet Jews by means of impacting Soviet trade, but this legislation had not been used for that purpose.
With that information in hand, I was introduced by Nat Lewin to US Senator Henry Scoop Jackson, who was well known for his involvement in the fight against anti-Semitism. After much effort on my part – canvassing members of Congress to gain their support – Senator Jackson undertook to propose an amendment to the Trade Act. This amendment sought to deny “most favored nation” status to the Soviet Union and other nations of the Soviet bloc, in an effort to cripple their trade relations and thus motivate them to grant Jews their freedom.
While this was going on, the High Holiday season arrived and, since I would not be coming home to Switzerland, my father recommended I reach out to his contacts in New York. And that is how I came to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Crown Heights with Chabad, which was a very moving experience.
At this time, I inquired if a private audience with the Rebbe was possible, and while the Rebbe normally didn’t receive people during that time of year, special consideration was given to foreign visitors like me. I was quite excited by this opportunity, which I considered a great privilege.
When I was ushered into the Rebbe’s office at around 2 or 3 a.m., I chose to discuss with him two issues – Soviet Jewry and the Jewry of Geneva – but no personal matters. (Or so I thought!)
First of all, I asked for his advice regarding my activities in Washington, DC. I must say that – contrary to what I expected – the Rebbe did not encourage me to continue working with politicians. He did not say anything negative about it; rather, he pointed out that it was more important for me to help individual Jews in Russia. I was puzzled as I could not figure out how I might do this from a distance of thousands of miles; the only path I saw was trying to apply political pressure on the Soviet government, but the Rebbe knew better and predicted that my efforts would ultimately be futile. Only later, did I understand how right he was.
It took Senator Jackson three years to get his amendment passed and he had to reduce its impact to even get that far. Ultimately, it did not do much to help Jews leave Russia, even if it was an effort in the right direction.
The Rebbe advised, “If you want to help this cause, I think it would be right for you travel to Russia.” Now, I had no idea how I could do such a thing as I was not a Swiss citizen and did not have a proper Swiss passport; I only a laissez passer travel document, which would not grant me any protection should I be arrested on some trumped-up charge of spying or engaging in counter-communist activity. Yet, the Rebbe imbued me with such confidence that I swept all my concerns aside.
The second issue that I discussed with him was the lack of Chabad emissary in Geneva. To this the Rebbe responded by explaining to me the historical background of Geneva, and I found the breadth of his knowledge to be astounding. He said that it was in Geneva that the schism between the Catholics and the Protestants began. As well, it was in Geneva that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings influenced the outbreak of the French Revolution, was born and raised.
To the Rebbe’s mind, this implied that Geneva was a city of very individualistic people who were not likely to be swayed from their way of thinking. That being so, it would be very difficult to introduce a Chabad emissary into a place with such an attitude, which undoubtedly had affected the Jews who lived there.
In this, he was absolutely correct. For example, I had participated in the efforts to open a Jewish school, and although the finances were available, at first there was a lot of opposition from the local Jews. It was not until many years later – when a Chabad emissary, Rabbi Mendel Pevzner, finally came to Geneva – that states of mind began to change. And I would say that his success has been extraordinary in light of the difficulties he encountered and managed to overcome.
Walking out of the Rebbe’s office, I felt completely changed. I sensed that a tremendous strength had suddenly emerged in me, and I felt confident that I could channel this strength into various activities I had not previously considered undertaking. This feeling continues to accompany me till today, fifty years after my encounter with the Rebbe, which had lasted only a short while!
I also now understood that I had come from Geneva to Washington because I thought I could “change the world,” but found out that I was going the wrong way about it. By traveling to Leningrad and helping Russian Jews directly, I could make a more tangible impact.
It took me another couple of months to organize the trip. I got directions from the Rebbe’s secretary, including names of people to meet, which I had to memorize, and Jewish books to take to them.
I stayed in Leningrad less than a week, but I accomplished my mission. Going to clandestine meetings with these brave Jews was at times a frightening experience but also an enriching one. I saw first-hand how they lived and struggled, and that was most inspiring.
In this way, the Rebbe opened my eyes. He did not try to make me into a disciple of his; instead, he allowed me to find my own direction. He had the ability to see the potential of people and he understood how best to help them grow. This he did for me.
Mr. Mati Goldzweig resides in Jerusalem where he trades in commodities. He was interviewed in July 2023.