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What You Need and What You are Needed For

No Small Matter

A Shepherd of Souls

Reaching Outward

Digging For Roots

Jewels in the Streets

Opening the Iron Fist

Shepherding His Flock

Unveiling Hidden Treasures

Precious Souls

"The Language of the Wise is Healing"

"Rejoice O Barren One"

Beyond Nature's Limits

Sparks of Greatness

More Than During His Lifetime


Glossary and Biographical Index

To Know and To Care - Volume 2
An Anthology of Chassidic Stories
about the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Chapter 7
Opening the Iron Fist

by Eliyahu and Malka Touger

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  Jewels in the StreetsShepherding His Flock  

Rav Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, had been laboring to understand a certain Talmudic passage long into the night. Back and forth he went, checking the conceptual flow of the phrases, the insights of the commentaries, and the ramifications in Torah law. As the light of dawn crept through the windows of his study, he developed an interpretation that satisfied the difficulties he had perceived.

Weary after the night's exertion, he made his way through the winding, hilly streets of Tsfat (Safed). He saw a number of Jews already entering a house of study and decided to join them. There an ordinary Torah scholar was expounding the passage on which he had labored all night - and offering the very same interpretation which he had toiled so long to develop.

Rav Yosef Caro was shaken. Why had he needed to exert himself so to grasp a concept which an ordinary scholar appeared to have mastered without difficulty?

Now Rav Yosef Caro had a medium, an angel who would instruct him in his spiritual development and answer questions for him. At the first opportunity, he asked his angel to explain this phenomenon.

The angel told him that considerable energy was necessary to introduce a spiritual concept into the framework prevailing within our material world. Rav Caro had achieved that through his night of intense effort. Once this was accomplished, the concept became accessible to others, the lesser scholar had thus been able to grasp it.

This pattern can be applied beyond the sphere of intellectual development. Breaking through any new idea, practice or pattern requires unique effort, commitment and sacrifice. Once the breakthrough is accomplished, however, it can - and will - be emulated by others, and will eventually be considered a matter of course.

Today, there are yeshivos and Torah schools flourishing throughout the former Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews have emigrated to Israel and the US, and many both in and outside that country have demonstrated interest in increasing their Jewish observance.

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, even in the early 80s, this would have been considered a hopeless dream, nothing more than fantasy.

When the Rebbe assumed leadership of the chassidic movement, there was a small hard core of Lubavitcher chassidim left in Russia. The Rebbe labored unceasingly - through directing underground activities in Russia, and by applying influence in both the spheres of international diplomacy and in the spiritual spheres above - for Jewish observance to be maintained and amplified in the Soviet Union, and for all the Jews of Russia to be given permission to emigrate.

In the mid 80s, before Gorbachov's policies had taken form, the Rebbe told his chassidim that these dreams were about to become reality.[1] The full story of the Rebbe's involvement with the Jews in Russia and with those who emigrated to Israel and the US requires a treatment of its own. This chapter merely sheds light on certain personal dimensions of this heroic saga

Once in the late 50s, in the middle of yechidus, Mrs. Bassie Garelik, wife of the shliach in Milan, Italy, mentioned the name of their local supporters, Reb Avraham Tzippel.

The Rebbe interrupted: "He is a very straightforward man."

When Mrs. Garelik returned home, she recounted her yechidus in detail to her husband, Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik. He felt there was something out of the ordinary in the Rebbe's mention of Reb Avraham Tzippel, and decided to investigate.

He called on the man and asked him about his health and that of his family. How was his business proceeding?

Reb Avraham was puzzled by Rabbi Garelik's queries, and asked the reason for them. Rabbi Garelik told him of his wife's yechidus.

"When did the yechidus take place?" Reb Avraham wanted to know.

When Rabbi Garelik told him the date, Reb Avraham hesitantly explained the significance of the Rebbe's words.

Reb Avraham was a furrier who had extensive business dealings in the then Soviet Union. He would utilize his trips there to bring Jews Siddurim, tefillin and other religious articles, and bring out manuscripts of chassidic thought for the Rebbe. These activities were carried out in absolute secrecy.

Generally, Reb Avraham's trips had proceeded without interference from the authorities. During his most recent visit, however, the authorities had placed him under house arrest for several hours. And then they had freed him, without any explanation for either his arrest or his release.

His release had come shortly after Mrs. Garelik's yechidus.

During the 60s, the Rebbe sent several chassidim to Russia as tourists. In some cities, they would have clandestine meetings with members of the chassidic underground. In other places, however, such meetings were too dangerous. Nevertheless, the Rebbe instructed his shluchim to pass through these cities and stop at the synagogues and places of Jewish interest.

Years later, after being able to leave Russia, one of the members of the Lubavitch community explained how important those visits were.

"In our city," he explained, "none of us had a chance to speak to the shliach. It was not until months later that we knew for sure that it was the Rebbe who had sent him. Nevertheless, his visit had a tremendous effect on us.

"The Russian government had begun a campaign to try to demoralize us. From time to time, it would call in members of the chassidic community and show them headlines from American Jewish newspapers and magazines which spoke of assimilation and intermarriage. 'Your faith is doomed to extinction,' they told us. 'In Europe, your brethren have been wiped out and in America, they have forgotten their heritage. Why must you be so stubborn in your observance?'

"And their words had an effect, not that we believed them totally. But still, when you read an American Yiddish newspaper that speaks of 'the vanishing American Jew,' you become disheartened.

"And suddenly we saw evidence that it was not all that dark in America. There was a young American wearing a yarmulka and tzitzis and sporting a full beard! It reinforced our faith in the future."

At their first yechidus with the Rebbe, in Tishrei 5729 (1968), Rabbi Zalman Leib and Mrs. Raizel Estulin were overcome with emotion. After many years of struggle in the chassidic underground in Russia, they had been able to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, and were finally speaking to the Rebbe face to face!

True to chassidic tradition, Mrs. Estulin's thoughts were not self-centered. Instead, she was worried about her sister and brother-in-law, Rabbi and Mrs. Yaakov Lepkivker. They had applied to the Soviet authorities for emigration visas. Knowing of his involvement with the chassidic underground, the Russian authorities had told Rabbi Lepkivker: "You will rot here. Never will you leave Russia."

On the Estulins' note to the Rebbe, the first item was a request for the Lepkivkers' emigration.

When the Rebbe read their note, he gave a blessing for the Lepkivkers, but Mrs. Estulin felt there was something lacking; she had hoped to hear more powerful words of assurance. Breaking into tears, she told the Rebbe of the Lepkivkers' bitter situation.

The Rebbe listened patiently and answered: "Where would you be today if you had listened to the KGB? G-d performed a miracle and took your family out of Russia. Now a greater miracle is needed. But tell me: Does it make any difference to G-d whether He has to make a great miracle or a small miracle?"

A few months later, Rabbi Yaakov Lipskier went to yechidus. Rabbi Lipskier was Rabbi Lepkivker's brother-in-law, so he too would always mention the Lepkivkers before making any requests for his own needs. Each year, the Rebbe would give the Lepkivkers a blessing, but from the way in which he spoke, Rabbi Lipskier understood that the time for their deliverance had not yet come.

That year, before the Rebbe even looked at his note, he told him: "In several months, you will see your brother-in-law."

And indeed, several months afterwards, the Lepkivkers were in Eretz Yisrael, thanking G-d for His miraculous providence.

This was not the first time, the Rebbe had been asked to intercede for Reb Yaakov. In 5724 (1954), Reb Yaakov had taken ill. At that time, the health care offered by the government was not very reliable, and private care was prohibitively expensive. Reb Yaakov therefore decided to ignore his ailment. Unfortunately, the ailment did not ignore him, and after several weeks he found himself confined to bed.

His condition was diagnosed as Hepatitis B, a disease which could be life-threatening. At this point, the chassidic brotherhood resolved to locate - and pay for - one of the most capable specialists in the field. But after examining the patient and trying several remedies without success, the specialist refused to continue treatment. "The illness has reached too advanced a stage," he told the chassidim. "Why should I continue to treat the patient? It's only a waste of your money. Nothing any doctor can do will save him now."

By this time, Reb Yaakov was confined to a hospital and had lapsed into a coma. The chassidim met to consider the situation and decided that a telegram must be sent to the Rebbe. Usually, when the chassidim in Russia wanted to get a message to the Rebbe, they would encode it and send it through a chain of people to avoid detection. They realized, however, that in this situation time was of the essence, and so a telegram was drafted to Zeide (that's the way the chassidim in Russia addressed their correspondence to the Rebbe) at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, telling of Reb Yaakov's condition.

But to what address should the reply be sent? A telegram coming from the Rebbe could certainly arouse the interest of the Soviet authorities. Mrs. Lepkivker volunteered her address and the telegram was sent.

Shortly afterwards Mrs. Lepkivker received a reply from Zeide assuring her that the patient would recover. The woman rushed to the hospital, entered her husband's room, and began speaking in his ear. "The Rebbe said you will recover," she told the unconscious man, repeating the message over and over again. At first, there was no response, but soon she began to see signs of life in her husband's face. He woke up, looked at her, and fell asleep with a smile.

The doctors were amazed that Reb Yaakov had regained consciousness. They were even more amazed when, two weeks later, he was well enough to be discharged!

After Reb Yaakov recovered, he felt he should call the specialist who had been consulted originally. When his receptionist told him that Yaakov Lepkivker was calling, the busy physician answered with irate suspicion: "How dare you use a dead man's name to try to get an appointment with me! Don't you have any respect?"

After Reb Yaakov managed to convince the doctor that he was indeed alive, the doctor told him to hire a cab and come to his office at once.

"I'll pay the taxi fare," the specialist assured him. "I just want to see with my own eyes a man who has come back from the dead!"

When Rabbi Nota Barkahan was granted permission to leave the former Soviet Union, he settled in Eretz Yisrael. But before setting up house he went to New York for yechidus with the Rebbe.

During the meeting the Rebbe told him to encourage all the chassidic immigrants to write descriptions of the mesirus nefesh with which they had struggled to observe Yiddishkeit throughout the years of Communist oppression.

"There may be some who will hesitate, claiming that their recollections are not exact, and there may even be contradictions between one account and another," the Rebbe told Rabbi Barkahan. "But that is not significant. All the discrepancies can be ironed out for the second printing. What's important is that these messages of self-sacrifice be heard by the world at large."

In the 1980s, during the last years of the Brezhnev regime, the chassidic underground in Russia had yielded a crop of young returnees to Jewish practice. These were Russian youth from secular Jewish homes who had been exposed to the chassidic lifestyle and had adopted it.

To spark their enthusiasm and increase their knowledge, the Rebbe began sending pairs of rabbis to Russia, each one for a stint of several weeks. Through the work of these emissaries, the Chabad activities expanded even further. Moscow, the city which boasted Russia's largest Jewish population, was one of the centers of Lubavitch activity.

At that time there was only one mikveh in the Russian capital, in the main shul known as the Choral Synagogue on Archipova St.

For this and other reasons, in 5746 (1986) the chassidim decided to build a mikveh in Moscow's chassidic shul, Marina Roscha. One of the chassidim, Sasha Lukatsky, took charge of the project, hiring black-market builders who secretly borrowed building supplies from the nearby regional headquarters of the KGB. This enabled them to complete the mikveh in an attractive fashion.

But a mikveh requires more than just builders and materials. Rabbinical supervision is necessary. Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum of S. Paul, Minnesota, had built many mikvaos in outlying cities, and was contacted with regard to the mikveh in Moscow. Upon the Rebbe's direction, Rabbi Meir Posen, a London-based Rabbinical expert who had built many mikvaos, was also contacted. Because of a freak accident, Rabbi Posen was prevented from going to Moscow. He drew up the plans for the mikveh and gave directions for Rabbi Grossbaum, who went to Moscow to complete the project.

Rabbi Grossbaum arrived in Moscow in the summer of that year, just before the Hebrew month of Av. According to Jewish law, the first nine days of Av are days of mourning, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. There are certain restrictions against building during these days. For this reason, the Moscow chassidim were surprised to receive a message from the Rebbe telling them to hurry and try to complete the mikveh during this period.

Later they realized the reason. The KGB had learned of the plans to build the mikveh, and had established a lookout across from the shul to check if any suspicious activity was going on. But all those agents were given a week-long summer holiday, precisely during these nine days!

When the mikveh was completed, pictures were smuggled out and brought to the Rebbe. At the time, there were certain chassidim who wanted to publicize this evidence of observance by the Jews in Russia. The Rebbe, however, advised against doing so, maintaining that this would have negative consequences.

Directly after the mikveh was opened, the Russian government learned of its existence and threatened to demolish it. The Lubavitch women tried to prevent this by promising to lie down in front of the entrance and blocking the bulldozers with their bodies.

Their achievement, though heroic, was short-lived. The KGB was intent on destroying the mikveh. Ultimately, agents broke into the shul at night, smashed the pipes, filled the mikveh with rubble and paved its top with cement. As a finishing touch, they covered it with a decorative parquet flooring.

When Rabbi Berl Levy and other chassidim in New York heard what had happened, they asked the Rebbe whether they should now publicize the pictures of the mikveh and inform the world of its destruction. The Rebbe counseled against this course of action. "The mikveh was destroyed by underlings," he told the chassidim. "When the higher ups learn what happened, they will volunteer to rebuild the mikveh themselves. If this is made a point of international controversy, however, the mikveh will not be rebuilt."

The Rebbe did, however, agree to have the story told to several Congressmen and Senators who were involved in the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Sasha and other members of the Lubavitch community in Moscow put pressure on the local authorities to permit the mikveh to re-open.

In the spring of the following year, the Russian Minister of Religion made an international tour, trying to demonstrate that there was freedom of religion in the Soviet Union. Wherever he held a press conference, Lubavitch arranged that someone in the audience would ask about the mikveh in the Marina Roscha shul.

After a year these efforts bore fruit, and the Russian authorities agreed to reopen the mikveh. To save face, they announced that they were closing the mikveh in the Choral Synagogue. So as not to leave an entire city without a mikveh, they announced, they would allow one to be opened in the Marina Roscha Shul.

The authorities called Sasha and told him he could rebuild the mikveh. Sasha told them adamantly that he would not; the KGB would have to rebuild it! They were the ones who destroyed it, and they would be the ones to rebuild it.

Two weeks later, a group of Russian builders arrived at the shul with the necessary equipment. They dug out the cement and rubble and repaired the pipes. Within a short while, the mikveh was open. The decorative parquet floor was also preserved, and now graces the platform where the Torah is read!

Reb Moshe Katzenellenbogen had studied diligently in the underground Lubavitch yeshivos in Stalinist Russia. Arrested together with his mother, the legendary Muma Sarah, for obtaining forged Polish passports that enabled hundreds of chassidim to leave Russia, he was sentenced to many years in hard labor camps. After being freed, he rejoined the Lubavitch underground and shouldered many responsibilities in spreading observance of the Torah and its mitzvos through the Soviet Union.

When he was allowed to leave Russia he settled in England. At his first opportunity, he flew to New York to see the Rebbe.

At yechidus, the Rebbe instructed him to participate in a conference scheduled by Aggudas HaRabbonim, a prominent Rabbinical organization dedicated to clarifying halachic issues.

Reb Moshe protested. What place did he have at such a high-level conference?

"Don't display false modesty," the Rebbe told him: "I have heard that you have a thorough knowledge of the four portions of the Shulchan Aruch."

Reb Moshe shrugged as if to disclaim the Rebbe's statement.

"I was told so in this room," the Rebbe declared with a smile. "And at this table, words that are not true are not spoken."

The Rebbe then reiterated his instructions, and emphasized that Reb Moshe should participate in the conference with no false modesty.

Then the Rebbe asked Reb Moshe if he had brought his tallis and tefillin with him from Russia. Reb Moshe answered that he had taken his tefillin, but not his tallis.

"Why didn't you leave your tefillin there as well?" the Rebbe exclaimed. "Outside Russia, it is easy to get new tefillin, while in Russia, no new tefillin are being produced, and it is difficult to bring them in from outside."

Reb Moshe answered that there were many pairs of old tefillin in Russia. The problem was that there were not enough people who wanted to wear them. Talleisim, by contrast, were also used for burial, so there was always a shortage.

Things soon changed. Within a few short years, the snowballing teshuvah movement in Russia created a need to smuggle in large numbers of new tefillin.

Mrs. Shoshana Cardin, past-president of the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, has a long-standing relationship with the Rebbe and with Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, the Rebbe's shliach in Maryland. This notwithstanding, there are times when she has taken positions different from those of the Rebbe.

At one point, she wrote a letter to the Rebbe concerning the stand he had taken on a particular issue, explaining the perspective of those who shared opposing views. The Rebbe did not respond.

Several years later, Mrs. Cardin attended one of the conferences of the Machne Israel Development Fund. Each of the participants was given a chance for a brief private meeting with the Rebbe.

When Mrs. Cardin approached, but before she had a chance to speak, the Rebbe told her: "I know I owe you a letter."

Her amazement at the Rebbe's memory did not keep Mrs. Cardin from asking the question that had been on her mind. In light of the perestroika introduced by Mikhael Gorbachov, there were forces in the American Congress pushing for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment instituted to protect human rights - and largely Jewish rights - in the Soviet Union. "Should the National Conference for Soviet Jewry support this move?" she asked.

"Must the decision be made immediately?" the Rebbe replied.

"No," Mrs. Cardin conceded.

"Then wait," the Rebbe responded. "Although there has just been an election, it is not clear in whose hands the power rests. Wait until the time a decision must be made, and then get the most information you can from both inside and outside the Soviet Union. May G-d help you make the right decision."

At the time, the Rebbe's words were difficult to fathom; Gorbachov was at the height of his power. But in the subsequent years, with the abortive Red Army Coup, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachov's loss of status, Mrs. Cardin was able to appreciate the visionary nature of the Rebbe's words.

In the late 1960s, the Russian government began letting out a trickle of Jewish emigrants. Some of these found their way to the United States. Of those who settled in New York, several families chose to live in Crown Heights. Most of these Jews weren't observant at all, let alone chassidic. They were drawn to the neighborhood because of the relatively cheap housing, and the lively relief agencies which the Lubavitch community had set up to help them.

One of those who settled in Crown Heights was a doctor in his 30s. He had been very successful in Russia, but had left for the States to maximize his opportunities. Unfortunately, his dreams had not been fulfilled. On the contrary, he was having difficulty receiving a license to practice in the States, and adjusting to the new environment presented challenge after challenge.

At one point, close to despair, he took a stroll along Eastern Parkway, his thoughts on suicide.

How would he do it? Should he step in front of a car as it was speeding down the parkway? Or should he walk to Prospect Park, where he was likely to be mugged?

As he wandered with these dark ideas in mind, a car pulled up to the curb in front of him. The passenger rolled down the window and looked at him with warm, penetrating eyes. Not a word was said, but something inside the doctor changed; he felt recharged, ready to take on life's challenges again. And soon his fortunes also changed. He received his license, began to practice, and was able to build his life anew.

Without saying a word, the Rebbe had saved a life.



  1. (Back to text) See To Know and To Care, Vol. I, p. 17-18, which relates this story.

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