Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

20 April 2022

I’ve written several books over the years, but in 2014, I wrote one about the Rebbe. In my research, I spent almost five years with the Rebbe by immersing myself in his writings, and in the stories that hundreds of people who had interacted and lived with the Rebbe told about him.

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Over that time, the Rebbe started to have a great impact on my own life as well, in that I have become a profoundly different person as a result of studying the Rebbe’s teachings.

But my connection with the Rebbe goes back before then.

I grew up in what’s now known as the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush; my father and grandfather were both ardent Zionists, and they wanted my sister and I to go to a Hebrew-speaking school. They also both had strong ties to the Previous Rebbe, as well as the Rebbe: My grandfather, Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, was already a Chabadnik back in the Soviet Union, before he got out with his family in 1923. Later, my father Shlomo Telushkin had the honor of being the accountant of both the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe.

My father’s career as Chabad’s accountant started from the very beginning, right after the Previous Rebbe arrived in the United States in 1940. He derived a lot of pleasure from his career as an accountant, not because he made a tremendous amount of money, but because he worked for organizations he felt passionately attached to. As he got older, however, he started to cut back and give up his other accounts. The only accounts he always kept were those of the Rebbe and Chabad organizations. (more…)

Mr. Yosef Maoz

13 April 2022

I was born in 1937, in the city of Herat, Afghanistan, to the Mullah Ezra family. The Jewish community in Afghanistan is one of the world’s most ancient, and living there gave us a keen sense of our Judaism. The Jews of Herat all resided in the same neighborhood, in enclosed courtyards, each containing several homes. Although there were business ties between the Jews and our Muslim neighbors, especially ahead of the Jewish holidays – vendors would come on their donkeys to our area bearing fruit, vegetables, fish and chickens before every Shabbat and festival – we lived apart from our non-Jewish surroundings.

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In the larger courtyards, people raised livestock, providing milk and kosher meat. There were several kosher slaughterers, shochtim, in the community, and once the meat was brought home, the women – who were all experts when it came to removing any forbidden fats or nerves – would complete the koshering process.

The synagogues, four in all, were also in enclosed courtyards. Two such courtyards contained two adjoining synagogues, one of which would serve the younger people, along with a few in-ground mikvaot.

Behind each synagogue there was a study hall, which also served as a school of sorts. As a child, I studied Torah in the study hall of Rabbi Asher Garji. We would end up spending the entire day there: In the morning, we came to pray in the synagogue, we’d have breakfast at home, and then return to the study hall. At lunchtime, we returned to our homes, which were nearby, and then went back again to learn until the evening.

For the most part, the Jews made their living as merchants and shopkeepers. Our family also owned a store in Obe, but this town had been almost completely emptied of its Jewish inhabitants. A not insignificant portion of Afghan Jewry emigrated to the Land of Israel at the turn of the century, and then, after the founding of the State, the majority of those who still remained left as well. Although relations with our Muslim neighbors were mostly calm, I do remember how, after Israel’s Sinai Campaign in 1956, things became more tense. (more…)

Rabbi Elchanan Jacobovez

7 April 2022

The first time I traveled to the Rebbe was at the end of 1963, as part of a group of yeshivah students from Israel. The journey was more than a week long; part by ship; then by train from Italy to England, by way of France; and from there by plane to the United States. After arriving, I had my turn to go to the Rebbe for a private audience. That audience was thirteen minutes long, which was considered extraordinary.

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Among other things, the Rebbe took an interest in my family relation to Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the famous “Tzaddik of Jerusalem.” He was also known as the “Rabbi of the Prisoners,” a moniker that stuck ever since he took to visiting the incarcerated members of the Jewish underground in the days of British Mandatory Palestine.

“How are you related to Reb Aryeh Levine?” the Rebbe had inquired at the beginning of our meeting. “Is he your mother’s father?”

When I confirmed that that was the case, the Rebbe had a request for me: “I have already written to your grandfather, but if you would, please go to his home as well, and send him my regards.”

My grandfather was educated in the Lithuanian yeshivah world and was not a member of the chasidic community, but he and the Rebbe shared a bond of friendship and of deep mutual respect. In one of his letters to Reb Aryeh, the Rebbe wrote of his fine reputation — “his name goes before him,” was how he put it. My grandfather would also send all kinds of manuscripts to the Rebbe, and on his part the Rebbe would send him various publications released by Kehot, the Chabad publishing house. Indeed, after returning to Israel, I fulfilled my mission and passed the Rebbe’s regards on to my grandfather, who was most happy to receive them. (more…)

Rabbi Hershel Slansky

1 April 2022

When I was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, there were no yeshivot there, just a local Talmud Torah where most of the religious boys went, four days a week. We learned how to read and write Hebrew, we learned Jewish history, but no more than that. My parents were not satisfied with this and also arranged for me to study Torah with a tutor on Friday and Shabbat afternoons.

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“When you become Bar Mitzvah,” they said, “we’ll send you to a yeshivah in New York.”

Back then, you would have to take a bus from Newark to the Hudson Tubes, and then take the subway from there, which was really a bother for a small boy to do, especially when traveling alone. When the time came, however, I was going to go to Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn.

One day in 1942, Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Katz, a Lubavitcher who was living in Newark at the time, came over to my father. “Mr. Slansky,” he said in Yiddish, “We want your son.”

My father was a kibbitzer, he had a sense of humor, and so without hesitation, he replied, “Take him!”

Rabbi Katz then explained what he wanted me for: “We want to open a yeshivah in Newark.” My parents were thrilled by the idea, because their one and only little boy wouldn’t have to travel far from home.

When I got older, I joined a new high school that Lubavitch opened up in New York, and thank G-d, it was a good school. Rabbi Lasker, who taught English, was a top educator and every morning, we would go to 770 where Rabbi Shmuel Levitin would teach us Chasidic philosophy. Sometimes, if we got up very early, one boy who had a car would take us out to Brighton Beach to dip into the ocean, for mikveh. (more…)

Rabbi Yedidia Ezrahian

24 March 2022

I was born in the city of Sanandaj, Iran, to a line of rabbis that originally come from Safed, Israel, nine generations ago.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution broke out, I was appointed as the head of the local rabbinic court, as well as the head of the community council, making me the point man between Iranian Jewry and the new regime. Not long after that, a group of students seized the American embassy in Tehran, along with fifty-two hostages. At one point during this crisis, the UN negotiated a clerical visit and, after some pressure

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from Jewish organizations, agreed to also send a rabbi for the three Jewish hostages. The Iranians didn’t want any Americans or Israelis, and so the rabbi of Mexico was chosen for the task – Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Hershberg.

Some tried to dissuade him from traveling to Iran at such a sensitive moment, so he decided to consult with the Rebbe. About a week before leaving, he apprised the Rebbe of his travel plans and his concerns. The Rebbe urged him to make the trip and reminded him to also bring some candles so as to light the menorah with the Jewish hostages for the upcoming holiday of Chanukah. Rabbi Hershberg did just that.

The day after their visit, the clergymen were invited to the mass Friday prayers in the main mosque of Tehran with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in attendance. At one point, the congregation all knelt and then bowed down in prayer – except for Rabbi Hershberg and myself. Afterwards, an overbearing cleric came over to us. “Why didn’t you show us respect?” he demanded angrily. “Why didn’t you bow down like the priests did?”

“Those priests come from Syria and Lebanon and know Arabic,” Rabbi Hershberg explained. “But I don’t understand what is being said. Our Torah commands us, ‘do not prostrate yourselves,’ so how can I bow if I don’t know what I’m bowing for?” (more…)

Leave the Hoarse in America

16 March 2022

The first time I came to the Rebbe’s court was before Rosh Hashanah of 1965. I had come together with several of my peers from the yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, Israel, to spend the year studying Torah near the Rebbe. The journey was long and expensive, and people rarely traveled from Israel to America back then. So although we had read about what went on there and heard recordings of the Rebbe speaking, we had never seen him in person.

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In those days, guests who came to spend the holidays in the Rebbe’s court were able to have two private audiences – yechidut – with him; one upon arrival, and a second time before their return. We, however – the yeshivah students who had come for the year – were told that we wouldn’t be able to go into the Rebbe’s room just yet. The thinking was that we ought to first spend a little time around the Rebbe. After participating in his farbrengens and listening to his chasidic discourses, we would be prepared for a private audience, and more equipped to properly absorb the experience. So our first audience was set for four months after our arrival.

On the day of my audience, I was terribly excited. I finally went into the Rebbe’s room at midnight, and although I hadn’t eaten the whole day – the custom is not to eat, only to drink before meeting the Rebbe – I didn’t feel the least bit hungry. (more…)

Rabbi Avraham Kliers

9 March 2022

This story concerns Shmitah, the agricultural sabbatical mandated by the Torah once every seven years in the Land of Israel. It is now the middle of a Shmitah year, when thousands of farmers are refraining from working or profiting off the land.

I began working for the “Keren Hashvi’is,” (the Sabbatical Fund) in 1970. The fund was established by a couple of Jewish communal groups, the Agudas Yisrael and Jerusalem’s Edah Hachareidis, in order to

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support farmers in the Holy Land who were observing Shmitah. Rather than relying on any Halachic loopholes that allowed them to continue working, these farmers were letting their land lie completely fallow.

In 1972, before the Shmitah year was due to commence, Rabbi Binyomin Mendelsohn of Komemiyut, a religious village, asked that we promote the vision of the fund and expand its activities.

The subject of religious agricultural law in general, and Shmitah in particular, was very close to Rabbi Mendelsohn’s heart. In fact, it was the reason that he turned down a prestigious job offer from the community of Kiryat Ata, preferring the rabbinate of a small agricultural settlement. When we first met, he inquired about my great-grandfather Rabbi Moshe Kliers, who had served as the Ashkenazi rabbi of Tiberias while working extensively with the Jewish farmers in the surrounding Galilee, encouraging them to observe Shmitah and other agricultural laws. (more…)

Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Zaltzman

2 March 2022

I was born in 1956 in a city called Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, 1,500 miles from the Lubavitcher communities in Tashkent and Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. In order to immerse in a mikveh, my mother had to take a thirty-six-hour train ride, each way, to Samarkand.

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My parents had only come to Dushanbe for a business opportunity, so we didn’t stay for long, and I grew up between Samarkand and Moscow, where my grandparents lived. My parents had six children in Russia, which was such an achievement that the government gave my mother a medal. She was called a “Heroic Mother,” and received eleven rubles every month to buy additional milk.

Every child in the Soviet Union had to go to a government school. It was mandatory. If parents were caught not giving their child a communist education, it was three years of jail, and up to twenty-five years if they decided to take it to court. During that time, their child belonged to the government, and would be sent to grow up in government institutions.

So, when I came of age, my parents told me, “We want you to continue in yeshivah and we don’t want you to go to the Russian school.”

“Sure,” I said. “that’s fine.”

“Well,” they continued, “for that, you will have to disappear.”

What does it mean to disappear? It meant that, starting from September until mid-June, when children are in school, you cannot go outside or near the window. Nobody can know that you exist. (more…)

Rabbi Dovid Shraga Katz

23 February 2022

When my parents emigrated to the Land of Israel and settled in Haifa, I was two years old. In the 1940s, I attended the Chofetz Chaim yeshivah in Kfar Saba, which was headed by Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman and later spent eleven years studying in the Ponevezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak.

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Although educated in the premier Lithuanian yeshivot, I was young, wanted to be open, and was interested in Chasidut. A few of my friends in Ponevezh were from Chabad families, and from time to time I would attend gatherings held by a Chabad chasid who lived nearby. I especially remember a farbrengen led by Rabbi Refoel “Foleh” Kahn who had returned from a visit to the Rebbe’s court, and related his experience to us Ponovezher students.

At the age of twenty-eight, while still unmarried, I was offered a rabbinic post in the Ramat Remez neighborhood of Haifa. My teacher Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the esteemed head of the Ponevezh yeshivah, told me to accept the position on the condition that I open a yeshivah in the neighborhood and lecture there every day. Members of the local community were enthusiastic about the idea and even pledged their support. In addition, then-mayor of Haifa, Mr. Abba Chushi, agreed to designate a suitable plot of land for a building, and even gave us a grant of half a million liras. To complete the construction, however, we would need several million more.

In the late 1960s, I decided to travel to the United States to raise funds from Jewish philanthropists there. At one point in my tour, someone put me in touch with the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, who arranged an audience for me with the Rebbe. (more…)

Rabbi Yossi Chitrik

17 February 2022

I was born in Crown Heights in 1952, and met the Rebbe for the first time eight days later; my parents invited him to my brit and honored him to be sandek – the one who holds the baby during the ceremony. During that period, the Rebbe only acted as sandek for three babies, and I had the privilege of being the last of the three.

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At the ceremony, the Rebbe delivered a talk, and gave my father five dollars towards my future yeshivah tuition. This was, he explained, a custom he had learned from the Previous Rebbe, whom I was named after.

I am told that I cried a lot. Most babies cry at a brit, of course, but they tend to calm down after a few moments, but I didn’t stop. When my great-uncle told this to the Rebbe, he remarked that it was a good sign: When the Previous Rebbe had also cried as a baby at his brit, his grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, declared that he would go on to teach people Chasidut. So that is something I’m still trying to fulfill, as much as I can.

A little over twenty years later, in 1973, I was studying at the yeshivah in 770, when I was among six yeshivah students who were chosen to go to Australia. We were the fourth group of student-emissaries sent to the Yeshiva Gedolah in Melbourne, and teaching Chasidut to the other students and community members was going to be a major part of our job.

Before heading out, we had an audience with the Rebbe. The way it worked was that each group would leave around Passover time, and would return two years later. So, when we walked into the Rebbe’s room, we went in along with the group that had just come back. The six of us who were going stood on the left side of the room, and the six who were returning stood on the right side near the door. Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, was standing next to him. (more…)

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