Rolling Out the Persian Carpet

19 March 2020

I am a Persian Jew, born in Tehran, Iran. As a young man, I immigrated to the United States where I was educated at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Then, just about the time when I finished graduate school, the Islamic Revolution happened, and I became involved with the Rebbe’s efforts to rescue the Jewish children of Iran. And this is the story I would like to share in brief.

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By way of background, I need to point out that there were some 100,000 Jews happily living in Iran under the rule of the Shah. In those days they had a great deal of freedom, both personal and religious (even if there were some restrictions). This was true until the overthrow of the monarchy in January 1979, and the establishment of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Persian Jews did not want to get rid of the Shah; they loved him. He was a peaceful man, a behind-the-scenes friend of the State of Israel, and when the demonstrations against him started in October of 1977 and grew more intense throughout the following year, they got very nervous. If the Shah lost his throne, the Muslim hardliners would attack them, they feared, and so they appealed to people in the United States to at least get their children to safety.

Rabbi Sholom Ber Hecht – the son of Rabbi J.J. Hecht who headed the Rebbe’s educational programs – led a Sephardic synagogue in Queens, and many Persians came to him asking for help. He went to his father, who in turn went to the Rebbe. And the Rebbe gave Rabbi J.J. Hecht the green light to do whatever it took to bring the kids out of Iran.

At that point I became involved and I sat down with Rabbi J.J. Hecht to begin planning. First, we needed to organize proper documentation – the I-20s required by the US government – showing that we accepted all the responsibility for these children and that they would not become a burden on the United States of America. Rabbi Hecht – through the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education of which he was the executive director – guaranteed the financial support of every child, which was about $6,000 per kid (equivalent to about $22,000 today). As well, we got Chabad schools for boys and girls, and also Touro College, to agree to formally accept them as students, which was another requirement of the documentation process. (more…)

Do Not Abandon Ship

16 March 2020

The first time that I had the privilege of meeting the Rebbe, he told me that he stayed for some time in the home of my grandfather, Rabbi Chanoch Etkin, in Luga, Russia.

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This must have been in 1926, when he was engaged to be married to Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the Rebbe Rayatz. The Rebbe was then heavily involved in his future father-in-law’s educational programs and was working underground.

Just to illustrate how dangerous this work was – the following year, the Soviets arrested the Rebbe Rayatz and sentenced him to death for the crime of “counter-revolutionary activity” – namely, promoting Judaism. It was only due to international pressure that he was released but was exiled from Russia.

The Soviets were after the Rebbe too. They were searching for him, seeking to arrest him, so he had to flee.

This is how it happened that he was brought to my grandparent’s house, and he stayed there for several months until it was safe for him to leave. He slept and ate there, with my grandmother taking care of his needs, and he studied Torah with my grandfather. They developed a deep friendship although my grandfather was not a chasid but a follower of Mussar, the Jewish ethical movement.

I believe that, because my grandfather took him in during a time when his life was in danger, I had the merit to develop an especially close connection to the Rebbe.

I once asked him about what happened back in Russia, and he related to me a chasidic story – which I don’t recall precisely – about a man who rows a boat across a lake to take people to the Garden of Eden. But he himself cannot enter until he finds somebody to take his place. The Rebbe said that he ended up putting his life in danger because he couldn’t leave Soviet Russia until he found somebody else to continue the holy work of the Jewish underground. Finally, someone was found to take his place, and that is when he went into hiding at my grandfather’s house. (more…)

Preaching with Conviction

4 March 2020

Since 1954, I have served as the Rebbe’s emissary in Boston, and this is where I met Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik from whose lips I heard the story I am about to relate.

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Rabbi Soloveitchik – who for many years headed RIETS, the rabbinic school of Yeshiva University – had studied at the University of Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s together with the Rebbe. But in 1932, he immigrated to America and settled in Boston. Even after he became the rosh yeshivah of RIETS, he continued to be involved in the Boston Jewish community, and because of that, I invited him to participate in a local Chabad celebration in 1983.

That year, the Rebbe was campaigning for communal Torah scrolls to be written on behalf of the Jewish people, and the yeshivah which I managed – Yeshivas Achei Temimim – signed on to participate. I launched a publicity campaign to make the community aware of the project and to get as many Jews as possible to sponsor letters in the Torah scroll. When the scroll was finished, we planned a big celebration, booking a hall at the Statler Hotel, one of the largest hotels in Boston, in anticipation of a huge crowd, and we even got The Boston Globe to cover the event.

I hoped that Rabbi Soloveitchik would join the event, so I went – together with our rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Chaim Wolosow – to invite him, and I took that opportunity to ask him about his years in Berlin with the Rebbe.

“I tell you something,” he said, “Chabad chasidim think they know their Rebbe, because they hear his Torah lectures and they see his greatness. But as much as they think they know him, they don’t. He was a nistar in Berlin, and he is still a nistar. His righteousness was hidden in Berlin, and it is still hidden. Chasidim think they know him, but there is so much more to his greatness.” (more…)

The Jewish Soul Lobby

26 February 2020

Early on in my career as a political reporter – first for Herut, the daily newspaper of the Israeli Herut party, and then for Yediot Achronot – I heard the Rebbe’s name many times. This was because the Chabad Movement was unique in its involvement in the lives of Israelis, in keeping with its slogan of Ufaratzta, which can loosely be translated as “spreading the faith.” It was Chabad’s mission to influence matters of Jewish life wherever Jews dwelled.

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I would spend a lot of time in the hallways of the Knesset as a political reporter, and I met a number of Chabad chasidim who were promoting Jewish education and the Jewish identity of the state. Today there is almost no concern, social or business, that doesn’t have a lobby which works to promote it, but back then, these chasidim were pioneers. Because of their pleasant approach and personal warmth, everyone in the Knesset – even those who were cynical towards matters of religion – treated them with affection and their cause with sympathy.

In 1962, as part of my journalistic work I was sent to the United States and decided that I wanted to meet the Rebbe. An audience was arranged, and we had an extremely fascinating conversation. At the outset, I told the Rebbe that I wished to interview him on the record, but he responded that he doesn’t give interviews to reporters. But after I explained that I would like to discuss matters of personal interest to me and, with his permission, would publicize his answers, the Rebbe agreed to continue the conversation.

I then brought up various questions that I prepared ahead of time. One of the things I asked was why the Rebbe wasn’t making aliyah to Israel, or at least coming to visit.

In response, the Rebbe did not rule out the matter in principle, but he explained that there are a few important matters which are preventing him from leaving his present location. Traveling to Israel shouldn’t be just for pleasure, he said, but to achieve something. “When the reasons that are obligating me to stay in the United States no longer apply, what I can accomplish there can be considered.”

I asked the Rebbe when he thinks this will happen, but his answer was only a smile. (more…)

The 12-Year-Old Editor

18 February 2020

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From the age of ten until I was fifteen, I attended the Chabad yeshivah in Newark, New Jersey. This was a very small, unaccredited school – housed in a one-family, colonial-style home on Grumman Avenue – run by Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon. Although small, the school offered a warm educational environment and I learned a great deal there.

While at the school, I became the editor of the student newspaper, though to call it a “newspaper” is being very generous. This was basically a one-page sheet that reported on school happenings like, “Mr. Posner, the Latin teacher, was out for three days because of a cold,” and other events and activities of equal importance. I would write it up with the help of Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, who edited my writing which was not great since I got only a minimal English education. I would then run off copies on a mimeograph machine, an early version of the modern photocopier. I would turn a handle and churn one page at a time through a large inked roll that would produce copies of the original. I do not recall how many copies I made, but it was never more than twenty. I guess the students and teachers read it, and perhaps the school also sent copies home to the parents.

Now the reason I am describing this extracurricular activity that kept me busy as a kid is because of what happened subsequently with the Rebbe.

Rabbi Gordon would frequently take a small group of us into New York to participate in the Rebbe’s farbrengens and hear him deliver his Torah talks. I recall these as very impressive events. There would be a couple thousand people crammed into a large room, which looked to me like Yankee Stadium with bleachers reaching up to the ceiling. I vividly remember the Rebbe distributing schnapps and everyone saying l’chaim, but us kids got grape juice, of course. We always looked forward to these occasions. (more…)

Cake and Juice with Royalty

10 February 2020

My story begins with the story of my father – Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Holtzman – and his relationship with the Rebbe and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka.

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My father was a child survivor of the Holocaust who ended up in a Chabad orphanage in Paris, and this is where he met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Rebbe. Rabbi Schneerson had come to Paris in 1947 to meet his mother, who had escaped from the Soviet Union, and escort her to New York. During his stay, he visited the orphanage and tested the kids on their Torah knowledge, awarding prizes. My father, who was thirteen at the time, used this opportunity to ask the Rebbe if he could come to America. A year later this was arranged and he came to Crown Heights and enrolled in the central Chabad yeshivah there.

In 1954, his relationship with the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin began. That year, the Rebbetzin had gone to Europe for a few weeks and, during her absence, the Rebbe’s meals were prepared by a local cook. My father was selected to pick up the food and serve it to the Rebbe. And then, after the Rebbetzin returned, he continued to help out. For about four years, he filled the role of their handyman – helping them prepare for Passover and Sukkot – and this is how their house became his home away from home, so to speak.

Since he had lost his father during the war and his mother lived far away in Europe, the Rebbetzin looked after him. When he started dating, she told him, “It’s not appropriate that you should go on every date in the same suit,” and she gave him one of the Rebbe’s old suits to wear, so that he would have another. (The Rebbe then was no longer wearing a suit but a kapote – the black rabbinical coat – so this must have been one that he no longer needed.)

After he got married, the Rebbetzin gave my father a set of silver cutlery as a present. Even when he moved with my mother to Belgium, she stayed in touch with him and once, upon hearing that he was sick, she asked someone in London to send special medicine to him. That’s how she took care of him. (more…)

Stop Competing and Start Serving

10 February 2020

When I was fourteen years old, I got carried away with the celebration of Purim and, in that state, I decided to write to the Rebbe. I opened up about everything that was going on with me – all the things that I did which were not so good, all the temptations I faced, and all the egotistical concerns that disturbed me. Among the latter, I mentioned my worry that I was too far behind in my studies to ever amount to anything.

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To underscore my failings, I noted that the Alter Rebbe had written his own version of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, before he was twenty; Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, had written his classic, Shav Shmaytsa, at eighteen; and Rabbi Meshulam Igra – at age nine! – gave a speech which amazed the Torah scholars of Brody. Compared to them, I was getting nowhere, so why should I even continue to learn?

In his response, dated the 17th of Adar, 1958, the Rebbe wrote that the solutions to my problems could be found in the Tanya, the main work of Chabad philosophy which is a handbook for living a spiritual life.  “Certainly, you have a Tanya…” he wrote, “and presumably, you have a Tanya with an index, which will make the search easier.”

“As for your question regarding what is recounted in writing and orally about those who were geniuses in their younger years…” the Rebbe wrote, “what is the use of asking why all minds are not the same?”

“It is explained in the Tanya,” he continued, “that a person’s grasp of Torah is dependent on the ‘his ability to understand and the source of his soul on high.’” He went on citing the Tanya, adding, “The Mishnah states that ‘you should feel humble before all people,’ because each has an advantage over another [in some respect].”

He made the observation that he found my attitude strange, since it is the purpose of every person not to try to be greater than someone else but to serve G-d. “If G-d wants one person to be great in the mitzvah of charity and another to be great in Torah study,” then that’s what must be. We all need to fulfill G-d’s intention for which we were created, he stressed. But regardless of our abilities, we are obligated in all the mitzvot, and in particular, we are obligated to study Torah. (more…)

The Man Who Knew How to Ask

3 February 2020

My story begins with my grandfather – Rabbi Avraham Sender Nemtzov – in Russia.

In 1897, after spending six years as a conscript in the Czar’s army – during which he managed to keep Torah and eat only kosher – he arrived in the town of Lubavitch, where the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, was in the process of opening his new yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim.

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At first, my grandfather was rejected by the yeshivah’s administrator, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the seventeen-year-old son of the Rebbe Rashab. The reason was that my grandfather was by then a married man of twenty-seven, whereas most of the other students were teenagers.

But my grandfather insisted on making his case to the Rebbe Rashab himself. He argued that he could have gone to another, more-established and better-known yeshivah where he would have received a stipend. Instead, he was coming to a brand new yeshivah, with no reputation, and he was doing so because he had come from chasidic roots and wanted his descendants to be chasidim. He told the Rebbe Rashab: “Don’t let me in just for myself, but for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and all the generations to come.” And because of that, he was allowed in.

The Rebbe Rashab’s decision had a direct effect on all our lives – on my father, on myself, and on my children. We are all Lubavitchers and committed to spreading chasidic teachings wherever we find ourselves.

My grandfather spent several years studying at Tomchei Temimim, where he became friendly with the administrator who had initially rejected him, the Rebbe Rashab’s son, who would later succeed his father as the sixth Rebbe and become known as the Rebbe Rayatz.

Even after my grandfather left the yeshivah to become a kosher butcher (shochet) and immigrated to Manchester, England, he maintained regular contact with the Rebbe Rayatz via correspondence. They saw each other only once – in 1937, when the Rebbe Rayatz visited Paris and my grandfather went there to meet him. At that meeting, the Rebbe Rayatz famously told him, “Du hust gezucht der emes, du hust gefunen der emes un du lebst mit der emes – You searched for truth, you found truth and you live with truth.” (more…)

Overt Blessings for Covert Operatives

22 January 2020

After I was appointed as the head of Shin Bet, also known as Shabak – Israel’s internal secret service agency – I was sent to the United States as part of the extensive intelligence cooperation effort between our two countries. This was in 1988 and, at that time, the identities of the heads of the security services like Shabak, Mossad and Aman were never disclosed to the public. Therefore, I was very surprised when a delegation of young Chabad chasidim showed up and told me that the Rebbe wanted to see me.

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In my eyes, the Rebbe was one of the most important people in the Jewish world, whether religious or secular, and therefore I said it would be my honor – indeed I would be happy and excited – to meet the Rebbe if my schedule permitted. Unfortunately, it proved impossible, but I promised that I would schedule a meeting with him on my next visit to the United States.

The following year the meeting did take place, and I will never forget my first impression of the Rebbe – his shining face and his intense eyes which seemed to be penetrating the innermost depth of me. I also remember that the atmosphere was very pleasant, relaxed and welcoming.

The Rebbe opened with some questions about my personal background. At that time Yitzchak Shamir was prime minister, heading a right-wing government, and the Rebbe asked gently if my more left-wing background presented problems for me. I understood that the Rebbe’s question was a very fundamental one, albeit worded very diplomatically; in effect, he was asking: “Are politics influencing your agency?” I assured the Rebbe that my agency was completely apolitical, with Jews holding different world views serving alongside each other with great professionalism and with total focus on their mission.

Another interesting question that the Rebbe asked me touched upon the great aliyah of over a million Jews from the Soviet republics. He wanted to know if we had a problem with spies who might be infiltrating Israel disguised as new immigrants. He was also interested in our collaborations with foreign intelligence agencies, especially those of the United States, and asked if we were finding a receptive ear among our colleagues and if they understood Israel’s unique security issues. (more…)

Straight to the Top

14 January 2020

I would like to share the story of the Rebbe’s blessing that resulted in my uncle – my mother’s brother – being freed from the Soviet Union.

My mother’s entire family had perished in the Holocaust, with the exception of her older brother, Hershel (Grisha). He had joined the Jewish underground, but had been caught and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Ironically, this horrible sentence actually saved his life, while his wife and daughter were killed by the Nazis.

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After Stalin’s death in 1953, Hershel was released from prison. He remarried and moved to Rostov, where he earned a meager livelihood as a carpenter. As soon as my mother learned of his whereabouts, she began sending him parcels of items that were hard to come by during the Soviet era.

My mother’s one fervent wish was to be reunited with her brother, the sole survivor of her family. She resolved to do all that she could to help obtain visas for him and his family to enter Canada. However, all her efforts were to no avail. The chief problem was that, at the time, emigration from Russia was severely restricted by the Soviet authorities. It was almost impossible for anyone to leave, let alone a Jew who had been previously imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities.” The Iron Curtain was firmly shut, and Hershel was trapped behind it.

It broke my mother’s heart that her dear brother was so far away, in a place where there was little opportunity for him to live a proper Jewish life or to educate his children to live proudly and openly as Jews.

Feeling her pain, I resolved to get a blessing from the Rebbe for my uncle’s release. During a personal audience in 1970, I mustered the courage to do something that was out of character for a chasid: I asked the Rebbe to give his assurance – in addition to a blessing – that my uncle would leave Russia. At first, the Rebbe didn’t respond to my request and spoke to me about other matters. But I persisted and asked a second time, again getting no answer.

For my mother’s sake, I posed my request for a third time. This time, the Rebbe responded. He looked at me, his eyes penetrating mine, and said: “They will leave. But you cannot disclose this to anyone.” (more…)

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