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Rabbi Yosef Shmuel Yehoshua Gerlitzky

21 February 2024

When I was a child growing up in Montreal, the entire Chabad community would make an annual trip to New York for the 10th of Shevat – the anniversary of the Previous Rebbe’s passing, and of the Rebbe’s subsequent appointment as his successor. We would travel there by train, an eleven-hour journey, and on the way the respected chasidic mentor Rabbi Volf Greenglass would lead a communal farbrengen, which invariably ended up with everyone in our car breaking out in a dance.

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There were few major Chabad communities outside of New York and Israel in those days, and Montreal’s was the largest community to travel together to the Rebbe, so we received special attention. All of the children were invited for a special audience, and the Rebbe spoke to us. Rabbi Yoel Kahn, the Rebbe’s oral scribe, was also present for these meetings, to ensure that the talk was transcribed, to be reviewed by the Rebbe and eventually published.

The first time I entered the Rebbe’s room was during one of these trips. It was 1960, and I was six years old. I remember standing in front of the Rebbe’s desk, together with my brothers and sisters, flanked by our parents on either side. At the beginning of the audience, my father gave the Rebbe a three-page letter he had prepared earlier. As one of the founders and directors of the Chabad yeshivah in Montreal, my father would include in his note various yeshivah related matters, in addition to writing about our family.

The Rebbe looked at the letter, and then immediately turned to my father, while pointing at me. “Why didn’t you write his name?” he asked. He didn’t just remark that the note was a name short, or ask “who is missing?” – he pointed directly at me.

My father was shocked. I saw his hands shake, and he seemed flustered. He didn’t say a word, and when the Rebbe held out the letter to show that my name was missing, he didn’t reach out to take it.

“What is the name?” asked the Rebbe.

When I answered “Yosef Shmuel Yehoshua,” the Rebbe took a little pencil and jotted down my three names on the corner of the page.

At that same audience, the Rebbe asked me whether I knew how to recite the “Shema.” I covered my eyes with my hand, and began to say the words of the prayer by heart, through to the end of the first paragraph.

“Very good!” the Rebbe exclaimed with a smile.

I went to study in the yeshivah in 770 during the summer of 1970, and was there in 1973 when the Yom Kippur war took place. In the wake of the war, the Rebbe called for a major increase in Jewish outreach activities, particularly through the five “Mitzvah Campaigns”: On top of the “Tefillin Campaign” that was launched before the Six Day War, that year he went on to introduce campaigns promoting Torah study, ownership of  Jewish books, charity, and the mitzvah of mezuzah. There would be five more such campaigns over the next few years, for a total of ten.

That same year, at Chanukah time, the Rebbe called for a “Chanukah Campaign” to promote the mitzvah of menorah.  He asked to receive daily reports detailing the names of the participants in the campaign, the number of people each of them had lit the menorah with, and where. Every day, buses crammed with yeshivah boys and other chasidim were sent out across the streets of Manhattan, bringing Chanukah to more Jewish people. We would go from apartment to apartment, knocking on every door bearing a mezuzah.

Before Purim, which fell out on a Friday that year, the Lubavitch Youth Organization convened to plan how to best schedule its holiday outreach efforts, while still allowing enough time for us to return home in time for Shabbat. It was decided that we should visit the more distant locations the day before, on the Fast of Esther.

Together with some others, that Thursday I set out for Stony Brook University in Long Island, where we had contacts with some of the students, having conducted some outreach activities there in the past. We distributed food packages to the students, explaining to them that they should exchange the packages with their Jewish friends the next day, on Friday, in order to fulfill the Purim mitzvah of mishloach manot. They all listened politely to our instructions, but on our way out, we noticed that all of the trash cans were filled with the wrappers of the chocolates and other sweets we had included in our packages.

After this experience, we felt deeply disappointed. Even worse, by the time we got back to 770, the story had already grown wings, and everybody had heard about it. Some people leveled accusations at us: Not only are those college students not going to keep the Purim mitzvot, but they had also ended up eating on a fast day – on our account!

And then, shortly after Purim, at the beginning of a public farbrengen, the Rebbe told a story of a chasid of the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

In those days, the tradition was that the Tzemach Tzedek would send some of the seder essentials, matzah and maror in particular, to all of the chasidim who had come to spend Passover in his court. Sometimes, this distribution would take place several days before the holiday. One year, a chasid named Reb Yechezkel Droyer came for Passover, but as the holiday arrived, everyone was surprised to see that he didn’t have his seder needs. “How could it be that Reb Yechezkel didn’t receive the Rebbe’s package?” they wondered.

After some investigation, it turned out that the Rebbe’s attendant had in fact brought the chasid the package. At the time, Reb Yechezkel was completely absorbed in his spiritual preparations for Passover, spending the day immersed in chasidic teachings and prayer, and when he heard that a package had arrived from the Rebbe, he didn’t hesitate for a moment: He got up, washed his hands, and ate everything the Rebbe had sent. “In truth, the Rebbe’s package helped me tremendously in my spiritual service,” remarked Reb Yechezkel. Eventually, he was invited to join the Tzemach Tzedek for the seder.

When we heard this story from the Rebbe, we understood that he was making us feel better about our Purim-time trip to Stony Brook, by casting what had happened with those students in a more positive light. There was even a lesson to be learned from the story: When something arrives from the Rebbe – just like those mishloach manot packages we had brought with us on our mission to help others observe Purim – you don’t wait, and take it right away!

Rabbi Yosef Shmuel Yehoshua Gerlitzky has served as a Chabad emissary in Tel Aviv-Yaffo since 1981. Today, some sixty Chabad Houses operate through the metro area, and 1,500 children learn in its schools. He was interviewed in 2021.