In selecting the stories for this book, we had to define what is a story about the Rebbe and what is a story about one of his chassidim. Often the Rebbe gives a single directive or a blessing, and everything else in the narrative was accomplished by a chassid.
Why then do we consider this a story about the Rebbe? - Because the chassid will tell you that he would not have been able to achieve what he accomplished on his own power; he relied the Rebbe's influence.
The nature of this dynamic of empowerment requires explanation. Often we see one or two Lubavitch shluchim begin activities in a city and, despite limited human and financial resources, within a short time, they bring about a heightening of Jewish consciousness. If you ask the young emissary how he was able to accomplish what he did, he will tell you in homely Yiddish, "Mit der Rebbe's kochos" ("With the Rebbe's power").
What does he mean? When we look up to someone with well-earned respect and feel that he genuinely knows us and believes in us, it is natural to want to live up to his expectations. With a pride that goes much deeper than self, we apply ourselves to the tasks before us with the intent of giving shape and form to the ideal we share. And we achieve far more than we ever might have dreamed of.
There is a Yiddish adage which says, "When G-d wants, even a broom can shoot." When a person thinks of himself as no more than a broom, and while not shirking responsibility, does not rely on his own unaided power, he opens himself up to a greater force. He becomes aware that something much larger than himself is working through him. And this is what the shluchim mean when they attribute their success to the Rebbe.
This dynamic of empowerment is not restricted to any exclusive group. On several occasions the Rebbe Shlita has explained that everyone is a shaliach - in his home, in his workplace, and in his environment - to use whatever potentials he has to spread the awareness and the observance of Jewish values.
Rabbi Dov Ber Levy, founder of O.K. Kashrus Laboratories, traveled throughout the world to help the international food industries maintain the laws of kashrus. During the course of these travels, he was charged by the Rebbe with various missions.
Rabbi Levy was invited to Russia during the pre-perestroika era to arrange kosher supervision for certain products the Russians desired to export. While involved in these activities, he also devoted himself to providing "soul food" for Russian Jewry.
The underground Lubavitch activity in Russia had produced a large number of Russian chassidim who felt close to the Rebbe, despite the fact that they were 6,000 miles away and had never met him in person. Rabbi Levy took a video camera with him and filmed these Russian Jews in what could be described as a private yechidus with the Rebbe. The Russian Jews would each face the camera and address the Rebbe as if they were speaking to him in person. On his return to New York, Rabbi Levy would play back the video recording for the Rebbe.
On other travels, Rabbi Levy carried out various missions for the Rebbe. While some of the goals were explicit, Rabbi Levy sometimes felt that he was serving as a catalyst to fulfill an unspecified purpose.
Once, he had scheduled a trip to the Philippines to inspect a factory which produced food products for the international market. After planning his itinerary, he told the Rebbe about his upcoming trip and asked for a blessing.
The Rebbe replied with blessings for success, supplementing his good wishes with several dollars for shaliach mitzvah gelt.
[It is customary to give a traveler some money to give to charity in the course of his journey. This designates him as a shaliach ("emissary") charged with a mitzvah. Our Sages declare: "A person who is on a mission to perform a mitzvah will not be harmed." Thus, even if he encounters a dangerous situation on the journey, the person will merit protection.]
This time, the Rebbe added an instruction to the money which he included with his blessing - to visit and address the Philippine Jewish community, and to give them a donation of one hundred and eighty dollars on his behalf.
As it turned out, the owner of the plant which Rabbi Levy had to inspect was Jewish, and his uncle was the president of the local Jewish community. When he told them of the Rebbe's instructions, they were happy to arrange for him to speak at the shul. His delight at the convenient outcome of events turned to dismay, however, as he entered the shul. The shul's balcony was not used, and the men and the women sat together downstairs without a mechitzah to separate between the men's and women's sections of the shul.
Rabbi Levy would not join them in their service. After the prayers were concluded, he addressed the congregants and explained to them that a synagogue is G-d's house of prayer and should be designed in the manner which He Himself desires. "My fellow Jews," he concluded, "The Lubavitcher Rebbe has sent a contribution to your shul. Why not use it to erect a mechitzah."
The community leaders told Rabbi Levy that they were considering constructing a new shul in a different neighborhood. Rabbi Levy convinced them to erect a mechitzah and also to build a mikveh in the shul. He had the plans for the mikveh prepared and sent a Rabbi to supervise the construction.
Some time later, Rabbi Levy received a letter from the Jewish community in the Philippines. "Enclosed," it read, "is a picture of our new shul." The women's section was attractive and the mikveh was both halachically acceptable and architecturally pleasing. "We thought you'd like to know," the letter continued, "that we wrote to the Rebbe before beginning the construction of the new shul and the mikveh, and his words of encouragement were an inspiration."
This was not the only result of Rabbi Levy's trip. A Jewish student was attending medical school in the Philippines. Although he came from a religious home, he had strayed from Jewish practice and had entered into a relationship with a Philippine woman. He had not attended the synagogue in the Philippines for years, but he was attracted by the news of a lecture from a visiting Rabbi from New York.
The Jewish student waited for Rabbi Levy after the lecture, and they spent an hour talking as they walked back to his hotel. Rabbi Levy could not convince him to give up the Philippine woman immediately, but he maintained contact, and several months later the youth terminated his relationship with the woman.
On another occasion, before Rabbi Levy journeyed to Copenhagen, the Rebbe added a specific directive to his blessings: to check whether the local mikveh was halachically acceptable.
As it turned out, Rabbi Levy was able to stay in Copenhagen for only one day, and did not have the opportunity to check the mikveh. A year later, before a second trip to Copenhagen, he again sought the Rebbe's blessing for this journey and received exactly the same reply. This time he altered his schedule to make sure that he would be able to check the mikveh. With much difficulty, he gained access to the mikveh and indeed discovered a halachic flaw.
He asked which Rabbinic authority had certified the mikveh, and was directed to a leading specialist on mikvaos, Rabbi Posen of London.
Rabbi Posen told Rabbi Levy, "I remember the problem with the mikveh in Copenhagen. I noticed that flaw and gave them precise instructions how to correct it."
Rabbi Posen promised to deal with the matter promptly. Before concluding their conversation, Rabbi Levy had, however, one more question, "Pardon me for asking, Rabbi Posen. I just wanted to know if you had ever mentioned this matter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe?"
"No," he answered, surprised why Rabbi Levy had thought that he might have done so.
"I could never have undertaken such a responsibility myself," related Rabbi J. J. Hecht. "As soon as I received the information I notified the Rebbe."
What did Rabbi Hecht mean? A few days before Pesach 1987, his son, Rabbi Sholom Ber Hecht of Forest Hills, New York, consulted him about a message that a congregant had received from his nephew.
The nephew and three hundred other Jews had fled from Iran and were temporarily staying in Karachi, Pakistan, where there was no Jewish community. Caught between Iran and Afghanistan, and involved with their own religious disputes with India, the Pakistanis showed no tolerance of other faiths. The man had asked his uncle to send Passover provisions to the refugees, or at least matzos for the Seder night.
Rabbi Hecht had deep ties with the Iranian community. Thousands of Iranian teenagers had left the country on student visas under his guidance shortly after the Khomeini Revolution. He had made many previous commitments in time, money, and soul. But in this instance, something more was involved; any person spreading Jewish observance in Pakistan was risking his life.
The Rebbe instructed Rabbi Hecht to find somebody who was familiar with Iranian customs and who would agree to travel to Pakistan. The Rebbe added that he would sponsor the trip, purchase the entire amount of matzos needed, and offer a blessing to the shaliach.
The last particular was more important to Rabbi Hecht than the financial help. It meant that the shaliach would be safe.
Soon Rabbi Hecht found a yeshivah student, Zalman Gerber, who was willing to undertake the journey. Senator Al D'amato of New York helped him bring the matter to the immediate attention of high-ranking officials in the Pakistani Consulate. However, those officials refused to issue a student visa, clarifying that only those with clear business reasons for journeying to Pakistan could obtain a visa.
This requirement did not dissuade Rabbi Hecht. His associates in the Persian community helped him find a rug dealer, who supplied a letter explaining that Mr. Gerber was journeying to Karachi for two weeks in order to purchase Oriental carpets. The letter worked, and the Pakistanis issued the visa, emphasizing, however, that they could take no responsibility for the traveler's safety.
Arriving in Karachi, Zalman encountered a series of hazards and providential means of overcoming them. The packages of matzah which he brought were checked carefully by a customs official, who could not understand what a rug dealer was doing with so many of these strange crackers.
Checking in at the hotel where he had made reservations, he discovered to his dismay that his room was on the eighth floor. Fearful that the hotel staff might grow suspicious after possibly seeing him walk up and down eight flights of stairs on the holiday, he asked to be given a room on a lower floor. Fortunately, this request was allowed, and he moved to an unoccupied second-floor room.
In order to avoid the watchful eyes of Moslem extremists while contacting refugees, the Jews had taken shelter in a deteriorating neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. After they had been located, it was no small feat to transport the boxes of matzah without attracting additional attention. Nevertheless, just before commemorating our people's exodus from Egypt, Zalman was able to bring Pesach supplies to this community in the midst of their own journey to freedom.
"Once," relates Rabbi Yitzchak Mishan, the Rabbi of the large Mount Sinai Sephardi community in S. Paulo, Brazil, "a young member of my community asked me to convert his non-Jewish fiancee. I explained that even if the woman would undergo conversion - and I would assist only if she sincerely desired to adopt Judaism, not merely so that she could marry a Jew - he would still be forbidden from marrying her, because he is a kohen. The young man was adamant. They had been engaged for five years, and he had no intention of leaving her now.
"I could not convince the man to change his mind. As with other challenges which arise during the course of my activities, I asked for the Rebbe's blessing for success in guiding the young man properly. In matters like this, I don't expect more than a short blessing. I am satisfied with the knowledge that I have brought the issue to the Rebbe's attention.
"To my surprise, shortly after sending this letter, I received a phone call from the office at "770". The Rebbe had given me instructions to continue speaking to the young man. 'You are to explain,' the Rebbe directed, 'that a kohen is empowered to bless others - even great people. A person who is not a kohen - although he may be a great sage - is not equally empowered. But if, heaven forbid, a kohen desecrates his status, he forfeits this great potential.'
"I immediately contacted the young man and invited him for a discussion. I patiently explained the Rebbe's message, but to no avail. The young man had made up his mind and would not budge from his position.
"I could not accept the idea that the Rebbe's answer would be fruitless. Pondering the matter, I read and re-read the Rebbe's words: 'You are to explain...' Perhaps, I thought, this explanation could be addressed to the non-Jewish woman. Maybe this message would have an impact on her...
"I lost no time and invited her to my office. She expressed her deep love for him, stating that she would be willing to undergo whatever is required of her. "I will do anything for this man," she repeated time and again.
"I read aloud from a translated version of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law), the prohibition against the marriage of a kohen to a convert. I then told her the Rebbe's words, explaining the tremendous loss the man would suffer.
"The woman was moved. 'If he will lose so much because of me, I will not marry him. I love him too much." She was very sincere. Her resolve remained steadfast, and in the next few days, she broke off their relationship.
"Incidentally," Rabbi Mishan concluded, "the young man has since married a fine Jewish woman."
The shaliach in Vancouver, Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg, was considering the most appropriate location to build the Chabad House. He asked the Rebbe whether to choose a location near the university, or in the residential area of the city. With his question, he included a map of the city, showing the main areas of population, the shuls, the university, and the main Jewish residential area. The Rebbe underlined the words "residential area" and circled a point on the map in its center, at Oak St. and 41st Ave.
Over the next five years, Rabbi Wineberg looked into purchasing several buildings. Nevertheless, the Rebbe always had reason to reject the acquisitions.
One day, Rabbi Wineberg was informed of a large parking lot that was up for sale. The location seemed attractive, but unfortunately the price was not. The owners were asking half a million dollars for the land. Rabbi Wineberg knew that the subsequent construction would cost even more.
Rabbi Wineberg favored seeking further alternatives. At that time, most other Chabad Houses in North America had taken over existing structures, rather than undertake the burden of building their own. And the Rebbe himself had advised Rabbi Wineberg to be conservative when it came to the cost of a building. Once when Rabbi Wineberg had proposed purchasing an existing building that would require a mortgage of $2000 a month, the Rebbe had told him that the people in Vancouver might consider this too great an expense. Nevertheless, he consulted the Rebbe about pursuing the parking lot option and the Rebbe answered in the affirmative.
Together with one of his supporters, a Vancouver businessman named Jack Diamond, Rabbi Wineberg made a trip of several hours to the city of Calgary to visit the company which owned the parking lot. Devout Christians, the owners were impressed by Rabbi Wineberg's cause and reconsidered their offer, lowering the price to $375,000. Rabbi Wineberg told them he would consider the matter and returned to Vancouver.
For Rabbi Wineberg, $375,000 was also a steep price and moreover, the owners wanted the entire sum to be paid immediately. Unsure of how to proceed, he again consulted the Rebbe who gave an encouraging answer. "Continue in this direction. We are now in the month of Adar when we intensify our joy. Plant with joy; sow with joy, build with joy. Success and blessing."
After writing to Calgary to express his interest, but explaining his desire to negotiate regarding the terms, Rabbi Wineberg received a modified proposal from the parking lot owners which certainly must have made him joyous.
The owners agreed to deduct seven thousand dollars from the price. In addition, they asked for a down payment of only $75,000, of which they promised to return $50,000 to the Chabad House as a donation, and they agreed to receive the remainder over an extended period of time at a low rate of interest. Moreover, they promised to return the interest as a donation to the Chabad House, on the condition that it continue to function as a charitable organization.
The down payment was made with the help of local Lubavitch supporters, plans were quickly prepared for the building, and construction began shortly afterwards. It was completed in the month of Adar, the month of joy, and the first public function in the Chabad House was a Purim celebration.
Once, while going through his papers, Rabbi Wineberg happened to notice the original map of the city which he had sent the Rebbe. Until this time, he had assumed that by making a mark, the Rebbe Shlita was indicating the general area where the Chabad House should be located. Now, standing in the building of the Chabad House, he saw that it had been constructed on the precise point of the map which the Rebbe had marked.
"As our activities expanded," Rabbi Wineberg concluded, "we realized that we could not have hoped for a more central and convenient location."
Rabbi Yonah Fradkin of San Diego, California, had not deliberately set out to challenge the calendar. But the final decision to establish a local day school was made three weeks before the opening of the school year. As he worked around the clock to raise funds and enroll students, he was told about a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: "It will take at least three months before you can obtain a building permit."
At that point, he consulted with the Rebbe. "May your efforts be crowned with abundant success," replied the Rebbe in blessing. Encouraged, Rabbi Fradkin labored strenuously to reach his goal. As he continued, he indeed found success in every dimension of the undertaking. Funds were raised, a site was located, and students were enrolled, but that one hurdle seemed to be indeed insurmountable.
"It's simply unrealistic to expect the permit to materialize so quickly," he was told. "There are hundreds of buildings waiting for inspection before their permits are issued. Your application has no chance of receiving priority over all the others."
One evening, there was a knock on the Fradkin door. "Hello. I am the city hall representative in charge of granting building permits. May I have a chat with you?" asked the gentleman at the door.
The man told Rabbi Fradkin that he was experiencing a very trying family problem. "I am in need of Divine assistance and I am eager to do a good deed so that I may merit it. Yesterday, someone told me that the Lubavitcher Rebbe's shaliach in the city is trying to build a school and has applied for a building permit. I would like to help."
"At the very beginning of our shlichus in Vienna, Austria," relates Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Biederman, "we reported to the Rebbe about our first activities in the city. The Rebbe responded favorably and wished us success in our efforts. At the end of his letter he added, 'specifically in the sacred work of education, in kindergartens.'
"We were greatly encouraged by the Rebbe's blessings and the regard he showed for our work by adding a handwritten message. However, we had no kindergarten.
"Several days later, we were approached by some parents. 'We know you are new in our city,' they said, 'but we've heard about the worldwide Lubavitch educational network. Here in Vienna, many Jewish children are not receiving any Jewish education at all. Perhaps you would consider opening a kindergarten?' "
When Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Glick from London, the future initiator of a Lubavitch presence in many countries in Europe, entered the Rebbe's study for yechidus in the early 'seventies, the Rebbe asked what business he was in.
Rabbi Glick replied that he manufactured light bulbs and traveled throughout Europe to sell his products and to purchase raw materials. He had recently traveled to Malaga in Southern Spain for supplies.
"A person in the lighting business," the Rebbe replied, "knows that a bulb must be lit. Every Jew is like a light bulb, and we should help him glow. When you return to Malaga, please add to your agenda an inquiry about the spiritual needs of the Jews living there."
During a later yechidus, the Rebbe asked Rabbi Glick if there was a mikveh in Malaga. Despite his doubts about how much use this mikveh would receive, Rabbi Glick resolved to have a kosher mikveh constructed there.
On his next trip to Spain, Rabbi Glick heard about a Jewish businessman who was interested in building a strictly kosher hotel in Malaga and who was seeking a Rabbinic authority to guide him through the project. Rabbi Glick realized the opportunity and asked the Rebbe whether to pursue the matter. "Go immediately, even today," replied the Rebbe.
The businessman was happy to meet Rabbi Glick, who explained that the hotel would have to employ a resident mashgiach who would supervise the kashrus of the food prepared at the hotel. "Obviously," continued Rabbi Glick, "the relocation of a mashgiach and his family to Malaga means that you would have to construct a kosher mikveh."
The businessman readily agreed to Rabbi Glick's condition, and Rabbi Glick agreed to find a Lubavitch family who would couple the supervision of the hotel's kitchen with shlichus. This initiated Lubavitch activity in Spain, and represented a significant step in the Jewish return to that country, half a millennium after the Expulsion of 1492.
- (Back to text) At times the eve of December 25th was chosen for the showing, for this is a night when it is customary not to study Torah. See Sefer Minhagim (English translation, Kehot, N.Y., 1991), p. 162.
- (Back to text) Pesachim 8a.