The Principal Who Didn’t Want to Go to School

11 November 2020

My parents – Rabbi Meir and Sima Itkin – were part of a group of Lubavitch chasidim who escaped the Soviet Union after World War Two and came to the United States at the direction of the Previous Rebbe.

As our family awaited permission to immigrate, we stayed in Paris. I was a baby at the time, but I remember the story being told of the visit by the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Rebbe – who came to escort his mother to America. You can imagine the excitement of the refugees at his arrival, with everyone rushing to meet him.

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My father told me later that Rabbi Schneerson realized the need of the chasidim to connect with the Rebbe through him, and so he took the most personal thing that each person owns – his name – and spoke about it. To my father he said, “Your name, Meir, comes from ohr meaning light. You will light up the world.” This short conversation set the stage for my father’s lifelong attachment and devotion to the future Rebbe.

To both my father and my mother, the Rebbe was everything. He epitomized the philosophy they believed in, the values they held dear, and most importantly, the love that united all Jews. And whatever he said – or even hinted at – was of utmost importance to them; they followed his directives to the letter.

So it was no accident that they bought the house at 760 Eastern Parkway, as close as one could possibly get to the Rebbe’s headquarters at 770. My father had considered another property at first, not on the main street but a few blocks away where other religious families lived, but the Rebbe asked him, “Don’t you like me as your neighbor?” So that was that. (more…)

Mitzvah First, Party Later

4 November 2020

My father was one of the founders of the Tiferet Yisrael yeshivah in Jerusalem, which functioned under the leadership of the Rebbe of Boyan, a branch of the Ruzhin chasidic dynasty. And I was one of its first students.

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During my years in that yeshivah, I became very connected to the Boyaner Rebbe and, in 1969, I decided to visit him in New York. To get there, I joined a charter flight of Chabad chasidim who were traveling to the Lubavitcher Rebbe just before the High Holidays, and as member of their group, I was invited to meet with their Rebbe. I accepted that invitation and so did a friend of mine.

My friend went in first. Afterwards, he told me that the Rebbe asked him for his name, and after he answered “Barzel,” the Rebbe remarked, “Barzel? Twelve years ago, someone by the name of Barzel visited me. Are you related?”

Indeed, his uncle, Rabbi Ezra Barzel, had visited the Rebbe in the past. When my friend later told his uncle what the Rebbe had said, the man was shocked. “In the twelve years that have gone by since I visited the Rebbe I hadn’t written him, spoken to him, or seen him. So how did he remember me after all these years, during which he must have met thousands of other people?” (more…)

Doing Good, One Base at a Time

28 October 2020

While serving as a religious officer in the IDF in the early 1970s, I was privileged to meet Rabbi Yisroel Glitzenstein, one of the Chabad emissaries in Israel. Among his many functions, Rabbi Glitzenstein was tasked with arranging religious services for soldiers and he offered to bring Chabad chasidim to IDF bases which were under my responsibility. Of course, I happily accepted his offer.

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And so it came to pass that every two or three weeks Rabbi Glitzenstein would send over groups of students from Chabad’s Toras Emes yeshivah in Jerusalem, to conduct Shabbat services at IDF bases where I would put them up. They would teach Torah and enthusiastically sing and dance with the soldiers.

We especially enjoyed their visits in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when the army wouldn’t let the soldiers go home very often because of security concerns, and the Chabad students made Shabbat very special for everyone.

At a certain point, Rabbi Glitzenstein asked me to submit a report to the Rebbe, so shortly before Purim of 1975, I wrote a letter describing these activities and noting that they left an indelible impression on the soldiers. I also expressed, on behalf of all the officers, our gratitude to the Chabad chasidim who took the trouble to regularly visit us and our deep appreciation for their dedication.

Two weeks later I received the Rebbe’s reply: (more…)

You Are Never Helpless

21 October 2020

While doing outreach work on college campuses as a Chabad emissary in the Los Angeles area, I began running into missionaries who were trying to convert Jewish students to Christianity. Also, the Chabad House where I worked was getting phone calls from parents whose children had converted, so I had to learn how to respond.

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After dealing with a few cases like this, I wrote to the Rebbe asking for a blessing to actually begin counter-missionary activity. I received an immediate answer that the Rebbe was giving me his blessing and that he would pray for me at the resting place of the Previous Rebbe. Rabbi Leibel Groner, the secretary who communicated the Rebbe’s message, told me that this was out of the ordinary since, in the past, the Rebbe had not encouraged this kind of work. I felt very honored, and I threw myself into counter-missionary activity with all my strength. And, over the years, I have seen the fruits of my efforts as many people who had been snared by missionaries or by cults made their way back to Judaism.

One of the earliest cases that I dealt with concerned a family that needed help because one of the sons had gotten involved with a Christian group. He was totally unwilling to communicate with anyone – he was unresponsive to any overtures from them or from me. So I suggested to the parents that they write to the Rebbe for advice. (more…)

Getting Your Hands Dirty

14 October 2020

In my younger days, I worked in the field of special education for many years, mainly with teens with criminal backgrounds. Because of my work, I was invited in 1964 to participate in the first course in criminology offered by Bar Ilan University, where I studied with other criminal justice professionals, including juvenile court judges, police officers, probation officers, etc.

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As part of my criminology studies, I won a scholarship for a year of advanced training in the United States. While there, I decided to use this opportunity to meet with a few leaders of American Jewry, in order to ask them questions which were on my mind as a young Israeli Jew.

I especially wanted to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe because of my family connection. Like him, I am a descendant of the Alter Rebbe, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, although unlike him, I trace my family tree through the Alter Rebbe’s granddaughter, Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel Slonim, who came to Israel in 1845 and settled in the city of Hebron.

When I called the Rebbe’s secretariat and asked for an appointment, I specified that I didn’t want to see the Rebbe as a chasid – just to introduce myself, ask for a blessing and leave; I wanted to have a proper conversation with him, without being pressed for time. (more…)

The Army Dance

5 October 2020

The first time I became aware of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was during the Six Day War of 1967. I was six years old then, and my mother told me excitedly: “We received cake and wine from the Rebbe!”

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These gifts were accompanied by a letter, which I still have, blessing and complimenting my father, General Chaim Herzog, on his actions at that time. My father became very famous, before and during the war, as the national commentator, speaking three times a day on Israeli radio to calm the people and explain the situation facing the nation.

When the cake and letter from the Rebbe arrived, I asked my mother: “Who is the Lubavitcher Rebbe?” and she told me. Afterwards, I came to hear the Rebbe’s name frequently, as we would receive letters of good wishes from him before various Jewish holidays.

I first met him in 1977, two years after my father was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, when we were invited to join Chabad for Simchat Torah celebrations. (more…)

The Wonder Fruit

30 September 2020

My family fled the Soviet Union right after World War Two ended and wandered around Europe until 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. At that time, my parents – together with another thirty-four families – responded to the Previous Rebbe’s call to establish a Chabad village in Israel.

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In the beginning, Kfar Chabad was an agricultural settlement and like most of the residents, my father – Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Gorelik – also worked in agriculture. But, in 1956, he decided to enter a partnership with Rabbi Nachman Elbaum, a dealer in etrogim, the fruits of citron trees which are necessary for Sukkot rituals.

Rabbi Elbaum brought seedling from Calabria, Italy, and with these my father started the first etrog orchard in Israel. For generations, the preferred etrogim came from Italy, but there were concerns – because etrogim are notoriously difficult to grow, very delicate and fragile – that the farmers in Italy were grafting etrog branches onto other citrus trees. Therefore, the Rebbe had instructed that seeds from Calabrian etrogim that had not been grafted be sent to Israel and that we begin growing them here. (more…)

The Doctor’s Bedside Manners

23 September 2020

In November of 1986, my father was being treated at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, where the chaplain was Rabbi Elya Gross, a Chabad chasid. I was staying at the hospital to help care for my father, who was in a coma following a sudden cardiac arrest, and we became close friends. I greatly appreciated that Rabbi Elya came every day to make sure we had kosher food, and also to make us feel as comfortable as was possible under the circumstances.

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We saw each other a great deal, as I spent a full month sleeping in the hospital by my father’s side. Having recently graduated from medical school, I felt I had the responsibility to make sure everything possible was being done to help him live. As well, I wanted to provide support for my mother who was devastated by what had happened.

One day, Rabbi Elya said to me, “You know, you are a great example to others of how to perform the mitzvah of ‘honor your father and your mother.’” And then he added, “As soon as you can leave here, I want to take you to see the Rebbe.”

This is what happened. After my father awoke from his coma and was discharged from the hospital in early December, Rabbi Elya took me to Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.

When we arrived, I saw a lot of people hovering around the Rebbe’s office, but Rabbi Elya ignored everybody, walked right up to the Rebbe’s door and knocked. When we entered, we found the Rebbe sitting behind a desk, studying a holy book. (more…)

The 29-Year-Old Chief Rabbi

17 September 2020

In 1976, when I was a student at the central Chabad yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe made an announcement at a farbrengen that he wanted to publish more writings of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, better known as the Rebbe Rashab.

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The Rebbe Rashab was a prolific writer and there was a series of 146 discourses called Ayen Bais – written by him in the years 1872-1875 to lay out the foundational concepts of Chabad Chasidut – that were never published. But now the time had come to change that, the Rebbe said, going on to explain:

“For many years now, I have been troubled by the fact that many other chasidic discourses have been printed, while this extraordinary series never was. If I have the ability to publish it, and I haven’t yet done so, I’m taking upon myself the responsibility for withholding these teachings from the public. But, for several reasons, I was afraid to publish [these deep mystical truths] until I thought of an idea…”

The Rebbe’s idea was to publish these revolutionary teachings in partnership with his chasidim, and so he asked that each chasid demonstrate his participation by contributing one dollar towards the project.

I was among those selected to work on this project, and – together with my friend Rabbi Zusha Winner – was put in charge of making the index of the subjects covered in all of the 146 discourses. After we handed in the first batch of entries, the Rebbe congratulated us, saying that our indexing method “gives an orderly and positive impression.” He urged us to continue to work as fast as possible but not to sacrifice quality.

He also told us that each time he goes to the Ohel, the resting place of the Previous Rebbe, he takes with him the latest pages we’ve produced, which helped to spur us on and kept us on the go. (more…)

Resignation Not Accepted

9 September 2020

After I became the principal of Tomchei Temimim, the Lubavitch yeshivah in Montreal, every year I brought students to meet and be as inspired by the Rebbe as I was.

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The first time, in 1953, I brought about fifty students and handed in a list of their names to the Rebbe. In addition, I made sure that every student made a donation as is the custom, and towards that end I collected one dollar from each.

After the group audience ended and the students walked out, I remained for a private meeting with the Rebbe, who was displeased. “How could you have done this?” he asked, looking at me sternly. “You didn’t consider that the students might get the wrong impression? That they might begin to think that a blessing requires payment?”

I was properly chastised, but the Rebbe went on, “The students have to know that a Rebbe is not about money. They can’t think that a Rebbe is about money!”

The next year, when I again brought fifty students to see the Rebbe, I dipped into my own pocket and made a donation of fifty dollars on their behalf. (more…)

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