The Elegance of the Spirit

27 March 2019

Although my mother came from a Chabad family, my father did not. He had come from a Polish background and his Polish passport meant that, after the war, my parents were able to get into the American section of Berlin, and that is where I was born – in the Eschwege displaced persons camp – becoming a bit famous as the first baby to be circumcised there.

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After we immigrated to the United States, ultimately settling in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, I was enrolled in the elementary school of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. During this time, like many of my classmates, I did not have an affinity for the rabbis in my life who all spoke English with a heavy accent, for I found it hard to identify with them.

So it was a surprise when I met the Rebbe in 1955, and he spoke English fluently. My mother arranged that audience for her and me, and I recall that his English was very proper.

I was nine years old at the time, and he tried to engage me, asking me if I wore tzitzit, the ritual fringes. (In my yeshivah, we weren’t taught to wear our tzitzit out so they could be seen.) When I said yes, he asked me how many strings there were in my tzitzit. I said that I didn’t know because I had never counted them.

So then the Rebbe asked me, “Do you ever get money from people?”

I said, “Yes, sometimes.”

“And when you get it, do you count that money?”

“Yes, I do,” I answered.

“Well, if you count money which is only temporary in this life, certainly you should count mitzvot which are eternal.” (more…)

Blockade-Breaking Belief

20 March 2019

When I was a young man, I was dispatched by the Rebbe to Israel, along with a group of other yeshivah students from New York. We were to study during the day at the Tzemach Tzedek Chabad synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem and, during the evenings, at Yeshivas Toras Emes in Shikun Chabad in central Jerusalem. And we were also to do outreach work in various locations in Israel.

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Before we left for Israel in the spring of 1976, the Rebbe repeatedly spoke about our mission and even said that he was taking personal responsibility for our welfare.

So we set off with great excitement, particularly because we would be in Israel for Purim, and we would get to distribute holiday food packages, mishloach manot, to the soldiers on army bases. We had heard the Rebbe speak many times about the merit of the soldiers who defend the Holy Land with their lives, and therefore we waited impatiently for this opportunity to bring them joy. The packages to the soldiers were from the Rebbe himself – that is, they were funded by him personally – so it was a special honor to deliver them.

When Purim came, I was dispatched with three other chasidim from Israel in the back of a military vehicle to an IDF base near the Arab city of Nablus, known to Jews as Shechem. We were about two kilometers from our destination when suddenly the car stopped. We didn’t understand what was going on because we couldn’t see from the back of the vehicle; we just heard yelling. After a few minutes, the driver came around to tell us that we couldn’t go forward because about twenty meters up ahead was a blockade of stones and burning tires. Also, up on the hill, over a hundred Arab youths were gathering armed with stones, which they started to hurl at us though they were too far away to cause any harm.

The driver would not take responsibility for bringing us across the blockade and putting us in danger. But I tried to convince him that we had no choice; we had to move forward because we were on a mission from the Rebbe.

“It’s too big a risk,” the driver insisted, “anything could happen if the Arabs riot.” (more…)

The Little Moroccan Jewel

14 March 2019

I was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where my father, Rabbi David Bouskila, ran a network of Jewish schools.

Although we were of Sephardic background, my father had very strong ties with the Chabad emissaries in Morocco. He always said how much he admired their work, and even envied “their spirit of self-sacrifice” – that’s how he put it.

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At one point he was asked to translate the Tanya – the seminal work of Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi – into Judeo-Arabic. But this was a very difficult task, especially since he was very busy running all the schools. So, at first, he declined. But then the Rebbe wrote him a personal letter telling him it was his mission to do this. This caused my father to give the matter grave import, and, after studying the Tanya in depth with Rabbi Yehuda Leib Raskin, he got started.

As he was working on the translation, he would share with us words of Torah from the Tanya every Shabbat. And once he told us – all of us, his ten children – that anyone who does not learn the Tanya will never know how to serve G-d the right way. This was a very strong statement for my father to make, and it made a great impression on me.

By January 1980, my father had finished a major section of the translation, and the Rebbe invited him to come to New York for a farbrengen that January. He very much enjoyed the visit, especially his private audience with the Rebbe. He later said that, the entire time he was talking with the Rebbe, his eyes were flowing with tears, because he was so awed by the Rebbe’s holy presence which he compared to “an angel of G-d.” But he would not tell me what he and the Rebbe spoke about.

A couple months later, I myself came to the U.S. to study at the Lakewood yeshivah in New Jersey, and that is when I was introduced to my future wife and we decided to get married. But when I informed my father, he objected: “You didn’t go to America to get married, you went there to learn, and we don’t know anybody there, so how can we merge our families? Why are you doing this to us?”

There were many phone calls after that between me and my father and my mother. When they understood that I was not giving up on my plan to get married, my father said, “If that is your decision, then before you proceed, please meet with the Rebbe and ask his opinion. If he says that you should get married, then I will say Mazal Tov, but if disapproves, then you must give it up.” (more…)

Caring Correspondence

7 March 2019

I was born in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Torah observant family. Despite the hardships involved, I never went to school on Shabbat, and even when our lives were in danger during World War Two, my parents refused to procure false papers declaring that we were Christians. My mother said it would be better that we go to a concentration camp than abandon Torah. Indeed, that is what happened – we were taken to a concentration camp in Holland and then to one in Czechoslovakia, but we were ultimately liberated by the Red Army.

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After the war ended, I was enrolled in a Jewish high school in Amsterdam, and that’s where my connection with Chabad began. At a Jewish youth hostel in the city, I met a Lubavitcher chasid who had studied at the Chabad yeshivah in Israel. I was impressed with him and, because of his influence, I decided that I also wanted to study there after graduating high school. And that’s what I did.

At a certain point during my stay in yeshivah, I began to have doubts about certain aspects of the Jewish faith and to slack off in my studies. I misbehaved so badly that at one point the director of the yeshivah told me, “This is not a hotel or a restaurant. If that’s all it is to you, you should leave.” But I didn’t leave. Instead, in August of 1959, I decided to write to the Rebbe about it all – and I mean all: my letter was very long, consisting of something like eighteen pages. The Rebbe immediately responded with a long letter himself in which he addressed each of my questions, although he reprimanded me for coming up with so many challenges to Judaism without first putting aside my preconceived notions. I actually didn’t mind the reprimand and received it well because I felt the Rebbe was not sugar-coating anything, which would have sat less well with me.


Where is Daddy?

27 February 2019

During my early childhood, growing up in London, my father was largely absent. He was very ill and hospitalized most of the time, and so my mother had to go to work, while I was looked after by my grandparents. I remember repeatedly asking my mother, “Where is Daddy?” and her answer, “He will be home soon,” and me pressing, “When?” and she responding “I don’t know.”

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But around the time I turned five, something changed. In the beginning of 1958, my father was released from the hospital, and we went to live in Gateshead. That is where life returned to normal, I went to school and all was well.

Years went by and, eventually, when my father was in his late sixties, he developed cancer and started fading away; he entered a hospice and died. During the week of shivah – the seven-day mourning period for the dead – my late younger brother Simcha told me and my other brothers a story. He said, “I can’t hold myself back any longer. I have to share with you what happened while Daddy was in hospice. I couldn’t tell you before because the person who told me this wanted to keep it a secret.”

Simcha then went on to relate that during his last days, my father had a visitor, Reb Yisrael Rudzinski, who had gone with him through the camps during World War Two. Reb Yisrael was a Bobover chasid, a tailor by profession, and he was among my father’s closest friends, the survivors who shared every family celebration with us. When he came to visit my father for what turned out to be their final meeting, my brother left the two of them to speak together in private. (more…)

Strolling the Streets of Paris

20 February 2019

I was born in Paris, France, to a family that was distant from Torah observance. When World War Two broke out and the Nazis invaded France in 1940, my brother and I had to go into hiding – first in a Christian orphanage, then in a monastery, then in other Christian houses. After the war, our family reunited in Paris, though we were no more religious than before.

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But then, when I was about to turn thirteen, my grandmother – who was still keeping some Jewish customs – asked me to make a Bar Mitzvah. I wasn’t too enamored with the idea, but I cooperated for my beloved grandmother’s sake. She took me to the synagogue known as the Rashi Shul in a nearby neighborhood, and that is where I prepared for and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah.

It later became clear that this was a crucial turning point in my life. In the months and years that followed, I continued to frequent the synagogue on Shabbat; I started attending Torah lessons here and there; I joined the religious youth group, Bnei Akiva; and at a certain point, I decided to keep kosher. Eventually, I enrolled in yeshivah – choosing the Chabad yeshivah in Lod, Israel, where I was later ordained as a rabbi. After getting married, I settled in Kfar Chabad, working as a teacher.

Now, what do the events of my life have to do with the Lubavitcher Rebbe?

I only discovered that many years later. (more…)

People of the Book

13 February 2019

During the years when I was studying at the Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak, Israel, I was put in charge of the book collection. Initially, this was a rotating assignment, with each student given this responsibility for four months, but I took it more seriously than most. I walked into the dusty old room filled with thousands of books and got to work. After my four months were up, the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, noticed that a revolution had taken place in the library; everything was organized and every book was easily accessible. He called me in and said, “I want to establish a paid position of librarian here, and I would like you to take the post.”

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This is how my work as librarian began. For eight years I managed the Ponevezh Yeshivah’s library, which is considered a huge library in the yeshivah world, housing some twenty-five-thousand books. Through my work I learned to recognize the issues and challenges involved in organizing such a large collection, and on the Rosh Yeshivah’s advice, I enrolled in professional courses in library science.

During my studies, I discovered that there were simple and effective solutions to the issues that I was struggling with, and I thought that it would be good for other Torah librarians to know about these solutions. This is how the idea to open a Center for Torah Libraries came up. We reached out to people in charge of Torah libraries of all types – in yeshivahs, in religious councils, in religious kibbutzim – and we began to offer professional training courses for their librarians, as well as developing a method of classification and cataloging especially adapted to Torah texts.

In 1970, I traveled to the United States for the first time, staying two months with relatives who lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. While there, I prayed at Chabad Headquarters at 770 (more…)

Craving Good News

6 February 2019

I was born in Morocco in 1936. When I was eleven, I set out by horse-drawn cart to Casablanca, where I studied in the Chabad yeshivah for two years. But I wasn’t happy; I was looking for something more rigorous. I learned that the Rebbe’s first emissary to Morocco, Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, had come to Meknes and opened another yeshivah there. In Meknes, I found what I had been looking for – a more intensive program of studying Talmud and chasidic teachings.

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Rabbi Lipsker also taught me (and all his students) how to bring Jews closer to G-d through love.

One day representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel came to the yeshivah. Rabbi Lipsker started a conversation with them in which questions of faith came up. Rabbi Baruch Toledano, the chief rabbi of Meknes and one of the greatest rabbis in Morocco, was also present when they came. And when he heard how these Jews were speaking about Judaism, he put his hands over his ears in shock, declaring, “These are words of heresy!”

Rabbi Lipsker countered, “Rabbi Baruch, why are you so upset? These people are like children who were stolen from their own people – they weren’t educated and they don’t know.”

Rabbi Lipsker continued to speak with them for another hour, and then they agreed to put on tefillin and to recite the afternoon prayers. When Rabbi Baruch saw this, he praised Rabbi Lipsker to the skies. Rabbi Lipsker responded, “The essence of every Jew is pure – you just have to know how to find the right path to his heart.” (more…)

The Unwitting Author

30 January 2019

My family was very close with Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the famed “tzaddik of Jerusalem” whose extraordinary capacity to help his fellow Jews – whether the sick, poor or those suffering under the British regime during the Mandate of Palestine (1920-1948) – made him a legend in his time. He often visited us and, whenever he came, it fell to me to walk him back home. On those walks, he always took pains to ask me about my studies and would often invite me inside his house to carry on our conversation. And so, from the age of twelve, I forged my own connection with him, which continued for over thirty years. I came to see Rav Aryeh as the wisest person I’d ever met; he became a mentor whom I sought out whenever I needed

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advice. And, after his passing in 1969, I published an article memorializing him in the weekly journal Panim el Panim.

At the time I was working for the advancement of the study of the Hebrew language in the Diaspora, which brought me to New York in 1970, when I had the privilege of meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As soon as I walked into the Rebbe’s office and introduced myself, he exclaimed, “I read an article about Rav Aryeh Levin in Panim el Panim written by Simcha Raz. Is that you?”

After I confirmed that I was one and the same, the Rebbe asked me if Rav Aryeh had left behind any writings. In fact, Rav Aryeh did leave a number of manuscripts, including an explanation of the entire Mishnah, parts of which were eventually published. At that time, however, his only published work was a booklet about the famous Kabbalist known as the Leshem, who had been Rav Aryeh’s mentor. I told this to the Rebbe, adding that Rav Aryeh was a “walking Torah,” and I quoted a number of teachings that I had heard from him. (more…)

They’re All Our Children

24 January 2019

When I opened a podiatry practice in Crown Heights in 1983, I began to learn about my religion. I was raised in a secular home, so initially I felt a little shell-shocked as I learned that Jewish holidays didn’t consist of just Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, and as my patients began offering to help me put on tefillin. (I did it, although it took me some years to learn to recite the Shema with comprehension of what I was saying.)

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After I became a bit more known, I got a phone call asking me to make a home visit to a Mrs. Schneerson. I set an appointment, but then I got busy and forgot to go. It was around 8:30 p.m. when the phone rang and the caller asked what had happened. That’s when I remembered the appointment and I apologized profusely, offering to come immediately, which is what I did.

When I arrived at the address she gave – 1304 President Street – I was met by a German Shepherd guarding the yard, so I figured that this lady must be quite affluent. But when I went inside the house, I found it quite plainly appointed – considering the guard dog outside, I had been expecting a mansion.

I met the nice elderly lady who had called me – this Mrs. Schneerson – took down her medical history and treated her. She was about 85 years old, but she still had very regal bearing. At the same time, she was very warm and kind and approachable. I recall that she also served me cake and tea, and then I left.

The next morning in the office, I got a number of phone calls. Some of my other religious patients had somehow gotten wind of my visit – perhaps I was spotted as I was pulling up to the house – and were very excited that I had treated Mrs. Schneerson. I didn’t exactly get what the fuss was about until my secretary explained to me that I had treated Rebbetzin Schneerson, the wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

When that didn’t impress me, she explained to me who the Rebbe was, and she suggested that I go see him on a Sunday when he was handing out dollars for charity. I said, “I don’t need his dollar; I make a living.” And she laughed and said, “It has nothing to do with money.  To get a dollar from the Rebbe is an uplifting, spiritual thing. You should think about doing it.”

“Okay, I’ll think about it,” I told her, but really, I just forgot about it. (more…)

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