The Pivotal Kodak Moment

24 July 2019

Growing up, I was a rambunctious child. I was impatient and had a penchant for sparring with authority, regularly testing my teachers in the Chabad yeshivah I attended. In their perceived wisdom, they treated me with “applied psychology,” which was sometimes applied to my personality and sometimes to parts of my anatomy. In another words, they did what they thought they needed to do to keep me out of trouble.

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But get in trouble I still did as when I decided, at age eleven, to take a picture of the Rebbe.

In those days – I am speaking about 1958 here – there were few candid photos of the Rebbe because he would frown at picture-taking of him; the only ones available were shots taken by Trainer Studios of the Rebbe officiating at weddings. But I was determined to get my own with my Kodak Instamatic camera.

After one wedding, I waited for him as he came up the staircase to his office. When he emerged, I snapped my photo, setting off the flash which seemed to startle him, and hastily entered the adjacent study hall, pleased with my success.

But the Rebbe cared too much to let this go. Instead of going to his office, he turned in the other direction, following me into the study hall. Suddenly I found the Rebbe looking straight at me with the evidence – my camera – dangling around my neck.

“Who is your teacher?” the Rebbe asked me in Yiddish. When I gave the name, he continued, “Is your teacher pleased with you?” I thought he was, but I didn’t how to say it without sounding pompous, so I just shrugged and said nothing.

Dein gantzeh Chasidus bashteit in photographia? – Does being a chasid consist just of photography for you?” the Rebbe challenged me.

I didn’t know how to respond to that either, so again I said nothing. At that point, my principal, Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum, must have spotted that I was in trouble since he appeared out of the blue. “Test him,” the Rebbe instructed Rabbi Tenenbaum, “if he passes, fine, but if not, take away the apparatus.” (more…)

Make Judaism Your Business

17 July 2019

I was born in Melbourne to Holocaust survivors from Poland who arrived in Australia in 1949. My father had been brought up in a chasidic home – his family being followers of the Rebbe of Radomsk – but that chasidic group was decimated during the war, and the survivors did not come to Australia.

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Because of his chasidic roots, my father gravitated to Chabad and became very friendly, among others, with Rabbi Zalman Serebryanski, the founder of Yeshivah Gedolah, the Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand, as well as with Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, director of Chabad institutions in Australia. Rabbi Groner – whose brother, Rabbi Leibel Groner, was one of the Rebbe’s secretaries – arranged for my parents to have a private audience with the Rebbe in 1970.

My mother did not have a chasidic background so, before the audience, my father explained to her how one should behave in front of the Rebbe, telling her that they shouldn’t sit down and that they shouldn’t speak until spoken to.

When they walked into the Rebbe’s study, the Rebbe invited my mother to take a seat. Having taken my father’s instructions to heart, she remained standing. The Rebbe asked her a second time, but still she wouldn’t sit. Finally, the Rebbe said, “Either you will sit or I will need to stand.” At that point, of course, my mother gave in.

One of the topics my father mentioned to the Rebbe was his recent purchase of a property in Israel, near the Radomsk yeshivah outside of Tel Aviv.  My father was surprised when the Rebbe took great interest in this yeshivah, proceeding to elicit every single detail about it. He wanted to know exactly who learned there, who taught there, what was being studied there, etc.

Another topic that came up was my future. My older brother Laibl had gone to university and received a law degree, but then went to work as a director of a Hillel House on campus. (He is presently a well-known teacher of Kabbalah.) My parents were very interested in my attending university also, but the Rebbe told them, “Just as your son Laibl didn’t end up doing what he had studied in university, a very large percentage of people who attend and graduate don’t end up doing what they had initially planned.” (more…)

Don’t Stop Now

10 July 2019

When I was seventeen, the Nazis invaded Poland. After several years, they herded all the Jews of my hometown, Radom, into a ghetto. From there, little by little, most were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered in the gas chambers. My family was among them. I myself was sent to a labor camp from which I managed to escape in 1944, and ever since then, it has been my goal in life to bring the Nazis to justice.

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At the outset, I had no idea that I would spend my whole life doing this. I only wanted to devote one year to capturing the SS officers responsible for the Radom ghetto. And I succeeded in this quest. One of the officers, Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Blum, was arrested, tried, and hanged. Additionally, we caught two dozen of his accomplices; they were all tried and they served lengthy sentences.

After one year of this work in Poland, I immigrated to Israel – this was in 1946, two years before the State of Israel was founded. There, I worked covertly with the Haganah. In an operation that lasted seven years, we succeeded in orchestrating the arrests of some 250 Nazi criminals, several of whom were sent to Siberia. We were also instrumental in helping the Israeli government capture Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the “Final Solution.”

So what started as a one-year commitment ended up being a twenty-year endeavor, all without a salary. No one was interested in paying me for this work. In fact, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wanted me to stop chasing Nazi criminals altogether. He feared that if we kept at it, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower would curtail foreign aid to Israel. But I protested that the work was not finished and we needed to hunt them down. So I kept at it.

But there came a time in the 1970s when even my wife felt I had to stop. She was an ophthalmologist, the chief breadwinner and the chief financial supporter of my work, but even she thought that I had done enough. At first I was reluctant, but finally I told her, “I will go to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York. I will describe the situation to him and hear what he has to say. If he can’t suggest another way for me to fund my work, I’ll stop and go into business.” (more…)

Getting Judaism Through Airport Security

4 July 2019

In 1972, I began to serve as El Al’s chief security officer at JFK airport in New York. Later that year, I was approached by Chabad representatives who asked for permission to set up a counter in the corner of our terminal. Their leader, Rabbi Kuty Rapp, explained that they wanted to be of service to Jewish travelers on their way to Israel.

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I consulted with the manager of El Al’s New York operations, Danny Kasten, who agreed, and permission was granted. Thereafter, Rabbi Kuty and his contingent would arrive every day to help travelers don tefillin, distribute Shabbat candles, and give out reading material. They did all this with such kindness and warmth that most non-religious travelers reacted positively to them and enjoyed the experience.

As Passover of 1973 approached, Rabbi Kuty asked me if there was a way to send matzot from the Rebbe to Chabad chasidim in Israel. I again consulted with Danny Kasten, and we decided to send the matzot in a first class container, because first class luggage gets unloaded first at the airport. When the matzot landed in Israel, the chasidim came to pick them up from the ground personnel. And, from that time on, it became a regular event, with a shipment of the Rebbe’s matzot flown before every Passover to Israel.

Rabbi Kuty reported to the Rebbe what we had done, and the Rebbe requested to meet with us to thank us for our assistance. We eagerly accepted the offer of an audience with the Rebbe which took place in the Hebrew month of Tammuz, 1974.

Danny and I were admitted into the Rebbe’s office at around 2 a.m. and were greeted warmly. The Rebbe shook our hands and invited us to sit down; the conversation then proceeded in Hebrew.

After thanking us for our assistance with Chabad activities at the airport, the Rebbe began to ask us about our jobs. I spoke about the serious challenges those of us working in security face, dealing with the constant threat of hijackers and bombs, and I explained our security protocols and inspections procedures. The Rebbe listened with great curiosity and asked me pointed questions which showed that he was familiar with the details of our work. (more…)

Drawing Strength

26 June 2019

In my youth I had shown a strong talent for drawing, but, as a yeshivah student, I never had the opportunity to be exposed to the world of art. In fact, art was anathema in my eyes. This seemed to be the prevailing view in the schools where I studied – the Ponevezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak and the Chevron yeshivah in Jerusalem, where I also received rabbinic ordination.

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But then I happened to be in Canada during a big art exhibition, and I saw amazing artwork there that fascinated me. And I asked myself: “Why don’t we utilize the incredible power of art for good? Why don’t those whom G-d has blessed with this talent use it for holiness?”

I spoke about this with several rabbis and learned that, according to the great sages of our generation, there is nothing wrong with art, as long as it stays within the boundaries of Jewish law, halachah. (That is, as long as it is not lewd or crude, does not attempt to represent G-d in physical form, or violate the commandment against making graven images.)

As a result, I decided to try to explain what I learned from the Torah in the symbolic language of drawing and painting, while being careful to stay within the halachic framework. And this is how I began to develop my style which gave new meaning to the notion of “Jewish art” as opposed to “Judaica.” I aimed not just to use Jewish motifs and symbols in decorative fashion but to convey emotion and a deep message in the Torah themes I drew.

The big challenge in painting Torah ideas is that the Torah is essentially spiritual, and every verse contains infinite depths of G-dly wisdom. The concern is that trying to convey this through painting might reduce the deep spirituality to something shallow or banal. Therefore, in my paintings, I attempted to express the same conceptual depth that is embedded in the verses without resorting to a purely historical scene. (more…)

Clandestine Cooperation

20 June 2019

In the late 1950s, at a time when the Iron Curtain was almost impenetrable, I served as the first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow. While officially I was playing a diplomatic role, I was actually tasked by the Israeli government with creating a link with the Jews trapped in the USSR.

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During those harsh times, I and my colleagues at the embassy tried to contact Jews throughout the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, meeting primarily in synagogues – wherever they existed – as well as in safe houses maintained by the Chabad underground. We realized, of course, that we were taking huge risks with our own safety and with the safety of those whom we met, because at that time the practice of Judaism was considered a nationalistic activity and therefore an act of rebellion against the Communist regime. Even to possess a Hebrew Bible or a Jewish prayer book was viewed as anti-Soviet. Why anti-Soviet? Because the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish prayer book both speak about the yearning for Zion. To yearn for Zion was to deny that the Communist state was a paradise on earth.

We, the Zionists of the Israeli Embassy, were indeed guilty of this crime. We did want the Jews of the USSR to identify with the Jewish nation. We did want these oppressed people to awaken to their right as Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. And we knew that our work was illegal from the Soviet perspective. Still, even though it was dangerous, we persevered. We distributed thousands of miniature Jewish prayer books and miniature Hebrew bibles – so as to make them easier to hide – as well as other religious and non-religious articles, such as Jewish newspapers and calendars. (more…)

When the Moon Shines in Mexico

12 June 2019

I was born and educated in Jerusalem, becoming ordained the fourth-generation rabbi in my family. With the encouragement of my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel, the chief rabbi of Israel, I went to serve initially as rabbi in Lima, Peru. After more than eight years there, I moved on to serve the Sephardic community of Seattle, Washington, arriving in that city at the same time as the Chabad chasid, Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, who served the Ashkenazic community. We became very friendly and studied Torah together on a daily basis.

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But I had no contact with the Rebbe himself until 1961, when a movement began in the United States to ban kosher slaughter on the grounds of animal cruelty and a law to that effect was proposed in the state of Washington. Of course, this would pose a huge problem for Jewish community, so when this law came up for a hearing in the state legislature, I joined two other rabbis in addressing the lawmakers. My colleagues spoke very diplomatically, explaining that kosher slaughter is, in fact, a great deal kinder to animals than other methods. But when my turn came, I was much more blunt. I said, “My native language is Hebrew, however I will ask you just one question in the language that I am still learning to speak: You talk about cruelty to animals, cows and sheep, but where were all of you when six million Jews were butchered, among them a million children who were burned and went up to heaven in the crematoria like sacrifices. Where were you then? Why didn’t you speak about cruelty then?”

The members of the legislature gave me a standing ovation, and the next day newspapers quoted my words. The proposed law was cancelled, and I received many letters of support from American rabbis. Among them was also a letter with blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe; subsequently, I received an invitation to visit the Rebbe next time I was in New York. (more…)

The Sight Seeing Trip

5 June 2019
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a traditional though not a Torah-observant home. But when I was a kid, my uncle, Dr. Rodney Unterslak, returned to South Africa having become religious while living in England, and he greatly influenced me. I would often spend Shabbat in his home and I quickly developed a deep love for Judaism.
At the time, I was attending a Jewish day school, but no children in the school were religious. When I started wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit to school – the only student to do so – the principal suggested to my parents that I would be better off attending a school like the Torah Academy, a Lubavitch school in Johannesburg. My parents agreed; and I started fourth grade there.

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Shortly after I enrolled, my mother took me for a routine eye exam during which the doctor saw something that gave him pause, and he asked my mother to bring me back for a more thorough checkup. This checkup displeased him even more and he referred me to a specialist.
To make a long story short, after a visit to not one but several specialists, I was diagnosed with an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. This disease causes degeneration of the retina, night-blindness, loss of peripheral vision and sometimes total blindness. The younger a person is when the disease first appears, the more severe the loss of eyesight is likely to be. To this day there is no cure for it.
When the diagnosis was made, the doctors said there was nothing that they could do for me – the only recommendation they had was that I start wearing sunglasses, as the sun could accelerate the progress of the retina degeneration.
Naturally, my parents were very upset to hear that their son was going to lose his eyesight. They felt quite helpless until my uncle Rodney suggested that, since the doctors were not offering any hope, we take a trip to see the Rebbe in New York.
We flew out together with a group of about a dozen other people from South Africa who wanted to spend the end of the Sukkot holiday with the Rebbe. (more…)

The War of the Plowshares

30 May 2019

After being appointed the rabbi of the religious kibbutz, Sha’alvim, I founded a yeshivah there. As part of my position as the head of Yeshivat Sha’alvim – which grew rapidly, becoming a large regional educational institution – I traveled frequently to the United States on fundraising missions.

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The first time I traveled to the United States, in the early 1960s, my father – Dr. Falk Schlesinger who ran the Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem – told me that I should visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom he knew from his years in Berlin before the war. Of course the Rebbe remembered my father and received me warmly.

I met with the Rebbe a number of times over the years. Our conversations were always very enjoyable and, when we were talking, I felt that nothing else existed in the world. In the Rebbe’s room there was a bell that his secretaries would ring when a private audience had exceeded the allotted time. When it happened repeatedly during my first visit, I grew anxious, but the Rebbe calmed me, gesturing with his hand as if to say, “The ringing is meant for me, not for you, and I can decide when to end.”

Whenever I visited him, the Rebbe would invite me to sit down and the first item that he would bring up was the current course of study in my yeshivah. He would then proceed to discuss the topic we were studying, quoting a broad range of Talmudic sources. Of course, every time I came to America, the yeshivah was studying a different tractate of Talmud, yet the Rebbe was able to expound with ease on any topic. This made a very big impression on me. (more…)

The Incredible Midnight Question

22 May 2019

While I was studying in the Chabad yeshivah in 770 Eastern Parkway, I came down with polio. This was in 1955, the same year that the Jewish doctor, Jonas Salk, introduced the polio vaccine, but it came out too late for me. I caught a bad case of the disease, which started as a cold, but it progressed from there.

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Polio, for those who are too young to remember, was a contagious disease that has since been totally eradicated in the Western World, but it used to kill a lot of people. It disabled the muscles, so the afflicted person could not walk or even breathe, and the standard form of treatment then was to put the sick into an iron lung and hope for the best.

I was taken to the Kingston Avenue Hospital, which no longer exists, but back then was the chief hospital for contagious diseases. I was put into an iron lung, which looked something like a large water boiler, with only my head sticking out. This iron lung did the compression work of my paralyzed chest muscles and thus got oxygen into my body. But I was very, very sick.

The doctor who was taking care of me had an arrogant way of speaking and he told my father and brother, “G-d knows if he’ll live out the next twelve hours.”

Hearing that, they went to the Rebbe and told him what my prognosis was. But the Rebbe just made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “He’ll outlive the doctor,” he declared. And he gave me many blessings for recovery.

I lasted longer than the doctor’s prognosis of twelve hours, but I continued my confinement in the iron lung. My yeshivah colleagues – Kehos Wiess, Mottel Zajac and Berel Baumgarten – had been instructed by the Rebbe to visit me every day to make sure I had kosher food and to put tefillin on me. When the doctor saw them, he said, “Don’t bother with him … Just let him die in peace.” They reported this to the Rebbe who told them the same thing he told my father and brother, “He will outlive the doctor.” (more…)

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