The Shul is Taking Flight

5 February 2021

During my enlistment in the Israeli Air Force, I served as a forward air controller, a highly-specialized job which involves guiding aircraft and providing aerial defense in the event of attack by enemy planes. During my six years of service, I participated in a number of important missions, including the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

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Four years prior to that event, the Israeli Air Force decided to improve Israel’s aerial defense abilities by acquiring four E-2 Hawkeyes – the all-weather, early-warning planes equipped with sophisticated radars – manufactured by Northrop Grumman. And in order to prepare for the new squadron, eleven airmen were sent for a year of training in the US. I was selected to be part of this group.

While training, we lived on Long Island, where the Northrop Grumman factory is located. Long Island borders the Brooklyn borough of New York City, and for Chanukah of 1977, we were invited to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights, to participate in a farbrengen in honor of the holiday.

None of us was religious, but I come from a traditional home so I was definitely happy about this opportunity. The names Lubavitcher Rebbe and Chabad weren’t foreign to the rest of my colleagues either. Chabad’s Mitzvah Tanks would come onto our base from time to time, and everyone was familiar with the outreach work of Chabad, which constantly strives to bring Israelis closer to Torah.

When we arrived at Chabad Headquarters, before we even entered the big hall where the farbrengen was to take place, we were led to the Rebbe’s office. He greeted us from behind his desk and, from the first moment, we felt that we were in the presence of a great and special man, an important leader of the Jewish nation. There was a kind of electricity in the air, although I can’t define exactly what caused the experience to feel so utterly unique. (more…)

Don’t Just Sit There – Think Something!

21 January 2021

This story concerns the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who led the Chabad Movement from 1920 to 1950, passing away on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, 5710. His yahrzeit is commemorated this Shabbat.

I was born in Moscow, Russia, during the Soviet era, when to be a Torah observant Jew was a big challenge. Nevertheless, my parents – Mordechai Dov and Chaya Sarah Teleshevsky – persevered.

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When the time was nearing for me to attend kindergarten, my father wouldn’t even entertain the notion that I should be enrolled in a non-Jewish school. Of course, there were no Jewish school of any kind; they had been outlawed. But attending a Communist government school meant violating Shabbat, and G-d forbid I should do such a thing. Yet, how many times, week after week, could I be absent on Shabbat pretending to be sick? How many times before the school authorities caught on, and my parents were penalized for practicing Judaism?

Not knowing what to do, my father wanted to contact the Rebbe, but all mail was censored, and any suspicion of dissent from government policies could land him in Siberia. So, instead, my father found someone who was fleeing the country and asked him to contact the Rebbe in Latvia. (During that time, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Rebbe was living in Riga after being released from Soviet prison for the crime of promoting Torah observance, and it was possible to reach him there.)

“I want you to give me your word,” my father told the man, “that if you see the Rebbe, you will tell him that I don’t want my children to go to a non-Jewish school. I want them to remain Jews.”

The man promised, and they shook hands on it. And, indeed, he did what my father asked because a short while later my father received a message from the Rebbe. How he managed to send it I don’t know, but the message said that my father was to go to the authorities and tell them that he wants to leave Russia. (more…)

A Father’s Final Words

15 January 2021

I was born into a Chabad-Lubavitch family in what was then called Leningrad (and now is called St. Petersburg). During my childhood, chasidim suffered greatly in Soviet Russia, as these were the years when the KGB mercilessly persecuted those who were intent on keeping the embers of Judaism burning.

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A few months before her wedding, my mother watched her father, Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin, as he was aggressively dragged from his home by KGB agents for the crime of teaching Torah underground. Before he left, he managed to say to his children, “Keep the ways of your forefathers” – which earned him a blow from his captors. Unfortunately, these were the last words they heard from him – they later learned that he was murdered just a few weeks after his arrest.

When World War Two ended, a treaty was signed between Poland and the Soviet Union allowing Polish citizens, who fled to Soviet territory during the war, to return to their homeland. Lubavitchers used this opportunity to organize an extensive network of document forging, which enabled many to leave under the assumed identities of Polish citizens.

My parents also wanted to leave and, for that reason, we moved to the border town of Lvov where the network functioned. But before the arrangements could be made, the KGB found out and my parents, among many others, were arrested on the charge of treason. Thus, at the age of eleven, I was left without parents and had to bounce around from one relative’s home to another.

After the death of Stalin, many of the prisoners who had been sent to labor camps were released, including my parents, who were freed after six years of imprisonment. A little while later, we moved to Tashkent, where there was a large community of Lubavitchers. (more…)

Surprising the Spy

7 January 2021

For close to twenty years, during the 1960s and 1970s, I was stationed in New York, serving in a senior position with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

During one of these years – I believe that it was in the end of 1967 – a few of my colleagues at the Israeli consulate in New York invited me to join them on an excursion to Brooklyn. They explained that they were going to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s synagogue to participate in the celebration of Simchat Torah there.

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“Who? What? What is this about?” I asked, but they assured me that it would be a very nice, festive event. “Can I bring my wife?” I asked, and to my delight they said that she could join. I was so totally unprepared for where we were going and what was going to happen.

When we got to Chabad Headquarters, we saw a big commotion. It turned out that the hakafot – the dances with the Torah – had not yet begun, but a farbrengen with the Rebbe was taking place, and it seemed that the place was too small to accommodate the thousands of chasidim who had shown up. However, our visit had been arranged in advance, and seats had been saved for us inside.

We were led into the big hall where the excitement was palpable – the crowd was singing with great joy, and the Rebbe was beating out the rhythm on his table. (more…)

Blind Faith

30 December 2020

During the fast of Tisha B’Av in 1958 my mother – Chaya Sarah – became very ill. She was a very pious woman who felt deeply the pain of this day when we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and she would recite the lengthy prayers called Kinot with tears in her eyes. As she was praying, she experienced a terrible headache and suddenly lost her sight.

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She was home alone in New York at the time because my father, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Charlop, was in California, and I was visiting my in-laws in Buffalo. But she had the presence of mind to grope for the phone and call a friend whose son was a neurosurgeon.

The son, Dr. Sheldon Katz, rushed right over, and so did I as soon as I was notified of what happened. Meanwhile various specialists were consulted; they were not sure what was happening to her – maybe it was a stroke or a ruptured aneurysm – but, whatever it was, she was likely hemorrhaging and her condition was grave. An operation to stem the blood leakage was required, but she might not survive it.

In the end, they managed to engage the services of Dr. Morris Bender, a world-renowned expert and chairman of the neurology department at Mount Sinai Hospital, who reached my parents’ house before midnight. His prognosis was less bleak than that of the other doctors and he was against immediate surgery, but he insisted that she be hospitalized so that various tests could be administered. (more…)

The End of One Chapter and the Beginning of Chapter 41

23 December 2020

When I graduated high school, the members of the Jewish community in Indianapolis, my hometown, offered me a free trip to Israel. They thought that a kid like me – who received only a minimal Jewish education and whose parents were minimally observant – needed a boost to stay Jewish. And it so happened that I came to Israel, along with another two hundred kids like me, right after the end of the Six Day War of 1967. We spent two months touring, and wherever we went, we saw happy people. This made an impression on me because, back home, I rarely saw people who looked so happy.

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Why were these Israelis so happy? They told us that for six months they had lived in fear of their Arab neighbors who loudly declared that they planned to push every Jew into the sea. And then, in six short days, Israel overcame all of them and recaptured vast amounts of territory, all with minimal casualties.

As a result of this experience, I decided to remain in Israel and study at Hebrew University. During this time, I was also very strongly influenced by a foray into yoga as a religious practice. I liked the idea that one should lead a simple life, be a vegetarian, and not harm other living beings. This was an idea that ran counter to the American capitalist ideal – which seemed selfish in comparison – that one should make a lot of money and buy a lot of beautiful things.

I began to practice yoga meditation – to think about the soul, about the Creator, and about helping others. After a few months, I began feeling a new sensation, which I came to identify as happiness. I was happy because every day I was doing good things. Every day, I didn’t feel the lacks and frustrations that come from craving possessions like money and fancy cars.

I also spent a lot of time wandering around the Judean desert near Jerusalem, where I would see the beauty of nature that G-d created. So my belief in G-d became very strong. Crediting all this to yoga, I considered going to India for more in-depth study. (more…)

The Paratrooper’s Birthday

17 December 2020

I was raised in Kfar Chabad, Israel, in a family of dedicated Lubavitchers. After completing my yeshivah studies, I served as a paratrooper in the IDF. This was in 1989, and I was stationed deep in Lebanon, in a place that was swarming with terrorists.

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Imagine my astonishment when – just before going out on a dangerous military mission – I called home and heard my father tell me that he had received a telephone call about me from the Rebbe’s office in New York. Apparently the Rebbe had wanted to ensure that I would properly celebrate my birthday (which falls on Chanukah) and fulfill all the customary birthday observances.

I knew that two years prior, after the passing of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe announced the “Birthday Campaign,” calling on everyone to use his or her birthday – which is like a personal Rosh Hashanah – as a day of introspection, of taking on good resolutions, and of having a farbrengen with friends.

But how did the Rebbe know that my birthday was coming up? It had been nearly two months since I started serving in Lebanon, during which time I hadn’t visited home and hadn’t written to the Rebbe.

The next day I called home again to discuss what to do regarding my birthday, only to hear my father give me even more astonishing news: The Rebbe’s office had called again to say that the Rebbe decided to give me a set of tefillin as a present.

Now I was totally shocked. Two phone calls from the Rebbe’s office in two days’ time! A present from the Rebbe! But why tefillin? I already had tefillin which my father bought for me at the time of my Bar Mitzvah. (more…)

The Ten-Minute Miracle

10 December 2020

When I visited New York in 1975, I made it a habit to pray in the synagogue at 770, the Chabad Headquarters. One day during the evening prayers, the Rebbe looked over the crowd during Kaddish and his gaze fell on me. I immediately lowered my eyes, but a few moments later when I looked up, the Rebbe was still looking at me. And, until the end of Kaddish, the Rebbe didn’t take his eyes off of me for a moment.

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This obviously got me thinking why the Rebbe was looking at me like that, and the very next day my question was answered when I was summoned to the Rebbe’s office.

Rabbi Mordechai Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, told me that the Rebbe wanted to know whether I had done the three things that he had instructed me to do the year before. I was asked to submit my reply immediately in writing.

I cannot say what these three things were as they involved private matters, but I can say that they were connected to my subsequent assignment to establish a Chabad presence in Eilat, the Israeli resort on the Red Sea.

Later, I had a private audience in which the Rebbe told me, “When you arrive in Eilat, you will find someone there who will help you.” These words were a bit mysterious, but I knew better than to ask questions. I understood that the Rebbe had his ways of arranging everything, and that my job was mainly not to get in the way. (more…)

A Mighty Mother’s Triumph

2 December 2020

Our second child, Yossi, was born a perfectly healthy baby, but all that changed when he was only eleven months old. At that time, in the second half of 1977, the Ministry of Health in Israel had received two faulty batches of the DPT vaccine which normally protects a child against diphtheria, pertussis (also known as whooping cough) and tetanus. And, unfortunately, Yossi was one of the last kids to get this vaccine from the bad batch before the authorities realized there was a problem and stopped using it.

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Sadly, he became blind, deaf and very hyperactive. Overnight, our lives had been turned upside-down.

I had been ordained as a rabbi and I thought that the rabbinate would be my future. But now it became apparent that it wouldn’t be.

Because we couldn’t get what we needed in Israel, we came to New York seeking medical intervention. My uncle, Dr. Hershel Samuels, was the co-director of the orthopedics department at Maimonides Medical Center, and he put us in touch with several top neuro-ophthalmologists. From them we learned very quickly that Yossi’s optic nerve was damaged, and he would never see again.

As doctors in the US were being very helpful and forthcoming, we decided to stay on, and I began working in the computer field. (more…)

When the IDF Almost Occupied Damascus

27 November 2020

While I worked in New York with the Jewish Agency for Israel, serving as director of the department of Torah education and culture in the United States and Canada, I often visited Chabad headquarters to participate in the Rebbe’s farbrengens. Since I and my colleagues were recognized as senior representatives of the State of Israel, we were invited each time to sit near the front where the Rebbe and other distinguished chasidim would sit.

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On the eve of Simchat Torah of 1973 – which fell two weeks after the start of the Yom Kippur War – I came with my friend Dr. Shlomo Levin, then consul in charge of religious affairs at the Israeli Consulate General in New York. Since we were from Israel, the holiday had already ended for us, but we still came to join the celebration and see the Rebbe.

In the days that had passed since the outbreak of the war, I had been busy organizing public events – such as pro-Israel rallies of Jewish students outside the UN building – but I had also been quite depressed by the bad news coming from Israel. Still, I knew that if there was any place where I could hear an uplifting message and gain some encouragement it would be at the Rebbe’s farbrengen.

When Shlomo and I entered the synagogue, it was already packed with thousands of chasidim. Despite the crush, as soon as the Rebbe noticed us, he signaled that we should approach him. Although the hakafot – the dances with the Torah – were about to start, the Rebbe began speaking with us about the situation in Israel. (more…)

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