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Dr. Irving Wolinsky

4 July 2024
This story is an excerpt from the book My Story 1. Get your copy today at www.jemstore.com.
I was born in Brooklyn in 1923. I was raised by immigrant parents and I was a traditional Jewish kid until I went to college. That’s when I got too smart for Judaism and dropped it all.
During World War II, I attended City College, majoring in chemistry, and together with the other chemistry, science, engineering, and medical students, I was classified 2A. This meant that we were considered essential for civilian defense at home and were not eligible for service abroad. When I moved over to the New York University School of Medicine and started studying dentistry, I was placed in the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program). I went to school in uniform, like a soldier, but for all intents and purposes, I was in the inactive reserve. Unlike millions of other American boys who were shipped out to war, I served my country by staying home.

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The war ended and, in 1947, after completing my education, I opened a dental office in Brooklyn. After struggling for three years, my practice was facing disaster. One of my patients was a Lubavitcher chasid, and I mentioned to him that I was facing overwhelming challenges. My mother was suffering from a heart condition. My wife had just given birth and was suffering from postpartum depression. And now, suddenly, although I was desperately needed at home, the US Army began sending me letters about being re-activated for service in the Korean War! And this was all in addition to my practice not generating enough income to support us.
I was considering relocating my office to Bayside, Queens, but I wasn’t sure if things would improve over there.
Hearing my troubles, the chasid suggested that the Rebbe might be able to help me sort things out. I was reluctant, but my wife and my father-in-law, himself a Stoliner chasid, were both sure that the solution to our problems lay in the spiritual approach, and they urged me to go. Eventually, I relented and made an appointment to see the Rebbe.
This was toward the end of 1950. I don’t remember exactly when, but I know that the Rebbe was not yet officially the Rebbe, although everyone already seemed to accept him as such.
After a long wait, I went into the Rebbe’s office and poured out all my troubles. First, I described my mother’s illness and my concern that she didn’t have much longer to live. He asked me some questions about her medical care, and I explained it was the best available – she had top doctors from New York University School of Medicine. He voiced optimism that they would be able to help her.
Next I told him about my wife’s postpartum depression. He understood exactly what I was talking about, and he said that when the time comes and she is ready, he would refer me to a top psychiatrist or psychologist.
And finally, I talked to him about myself – that I was struggling financially although I’d already been in practice for three years. I was afraid that I’d be poor for my entire life, like my parents had been, and this thought made me very despondent. No matter what I did, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. On top of that, I was receiving threatening letters from the War Department. They had sent me a string of advisories reminding me that they had partly financed my medical education, and now my expertise was needed in the war zone. Initially I had ignored these letters, but they kept coming and were getting more demanding. It was clear that, shortly, I would have to go into the armed services.
After hearing me out, the Rebbe asked me about my religious background. So I told him that, as a child, I was influenced by my maternal grandfather, who was a chasid of the Stoliner Rebbe. He used to visit us often, staying a couple of weeks at a time, and when he was with us, we kept Shabbat – my parents closed their shop which was otherwise open on Saturdays. I loved my grandfather; I thought he was the greatest thing on earth, and he left a very strong impression on me. In particular, I remember going to synagogue with him, and reciting the shema at bedtime with him – “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.”
The Rebbe asked, “When you did that, how did you feel?”
“I remember my grandfather telling me that it’s good to say the shema before going to sleep so that you rest well,” I answered.
The Rebbe advised, “You should do this every night, so that you have a peaceful night. And recite it again in the morning so that you will have a peaceful day.” He added that putting on tefillin might help me as well.
Then he asked me if I worked on Shabbat, and I had to admit that I did. So he said, “When you move to Bayside, perhaps you should conduct your business in such a way so that you don’t work on Shabbat.” He was very subtle about it all. He didn’t say so outright, but he seemed to be implying that my business would improve if I kept Shabbat.
After that, he discussed my fears of being sent to Korea. He basically dismissed them outright. “It seems to me that you will not go into the Army,” he told me. I didn’t know how he could know that, but I wasn’t there to argue with him. So I said nothing, and that pretty much ended the meeting and I left.
I admit that I felt really disappointed as I walked out. I don’t know what I had expected, but I thought it would be more than this. I felt like he gave me the standard advice you’d get from any rabbi – keep Shabbat, say the shema, put on tefillin, and everything will be fine.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS PASSED AND, SUDDENLY, I RECEIVED A LETTER from the War Department saying that my records had been transferred to the US Navy. I was no longer in the US Army and I was being sent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to work on base for the next two years. And they sent me together with my family, mind you. That’s when I began to pay more attention to my meeting with the Rebbe. “I guess this is what the Rebbe meant,” I thought. “But how did he know?” I remember saying jokingly to my wife, “Eleanor, this Rebbe must have connections in Washington, because he just got my records transferred from the Army to the Navy just so I would put on tefillin…”
After my discharge and subsequent return to New York, I opened a practice in Bayside, which was a commuters’ town; people came home late from work, so they usually went to the doctor on Saturday. It was unheard of for a doctor to be closed on Shabbat. But I said to myself, “You know, it might not hurt to follow the Rebbe’s advice.” So I decided to make a change and not work on Shabbat anymore.
I joined an Orthodox synagogue, Young Israel of Windsor Park. And everybody knew that Dr. Wolinsky doesn’t work on Saturday; Dr. Wolinsky goes to shul.
Surprisingly, even though I was closed on a doctor’s busiest day, my practice grew. My list of patients increased every week. And I watched my receipts growing week by week and month by month. Being a mathematical sort of guy, I tried to understand how it made any sense, but I couldn’t.
I had also started putting on tefillin every morning and saying the shema as the Rebbe advised. And even if I was not completely Jewishly observant, I felt more satisfied with my life, more peaceful and more at ease, in general.
My mother – who had suffered for years and who had seemed at the end of her life – lived another ten years. My wife recovered. And I went from being despondent and feeling like a failure to being happy and satisfied. Financially, I have done very well since then, and I credit all my success – the whole picture – completely to the Rebbe.
It was my meeting with him that provided the most important impetus for change in my life. I was twenty-seven years old at the time, and now I am ninety-one. Looking back, I feel that he had knowledge of things before they unfolded. I really can’t put it any other way.
Dr. Irving Wolinsky  practiced dentistry for over fifty years in Bayside, Queens. He was interviewed in his home in January 2014.