I grew-up out-of-town in Bayonne, N.J. The Jewish community was diverse, yet I was fortunate in that access to Rabbonim was a normal part of my life. I formed close connections – familial ones, in fact.
And so, in my innocence and naiveté, when I became engaged and had a pressing issue, I took the subway and knocked on the door of my chattan’s rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, ob”m (the Suvalker Rov as well as a rosh yeshiva at YU) in order to discuss what was troubling me. Decades later, after penning my own recollections of Rav Dovid, I read a two-page retrospective in a Jewish newspaper from which my husband and I first learned of Rav Dovid’s gadlus. He was always available and was so humble that we had no idea how great he truly was.
When my second son was born and the bris was scheduled to take place on the yahrzeit of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, ob”m, on the fifth day of Av, I decided that I wanted Rav Dovid to be sandek. I knew that Rav Dovid had had a kesher with Rav Chaim Ozer, although at that point in time both my husband and I did not know the extent of it. (We learned only recently that it was Rav Chaim Ozer who had appointed Rav Dovid as the rav of Suvalk.) My husband, Shai, was too shy to make the call. He suggested that I call Rav Dovid myself. So I did. Rav Dovid agreed.
Shai had decided to name our son Chaim Ozer, but as is the custom, one is not supposed to discuss the name before the bris. It was 5:30 a.m. on the day of the bris. As the sun was coming up, Rav Dovid asked my husband if he knew the significance of the fifth day of Av.
Shai responded: “Rebbe, do you want to know the name that we have chosen?”
“Chalilah v’Chaas,” Rav Dovid responded, yet Shai related that his rebbe asked the same question a second time to make certain that he understood the significance of the day.
As our rebbe held our Chaim Ozer during the bris and the name was announced, Rav Dovid turned to Shai and asked: “Was your wife maskim to the name?” Indeed, I was.
Every year, until illness took Rav Dovid from us, we called to wish him a Gut Yur and he would always ask after his sandekel. Rav Dovid was niftar on the ninth day of Tammuz, 25 years ago. In addition, the 24th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zy”a, was recently commemorated on the third day of Tammuz.
Understanding my connection with Rabbonim as outlined above, I was in no way prepared for the differences that are entailed when forming a kesher with the Rebbe. Indeed, as a student at Stern College, one of my teachers, Rabbi Alter B. Metzger, shlita, a Lubavitcher Chossid, often regaled us with stories about the Rebbe that held me spell-bound. Yet I initially refused a rav’s request to ask the Rebbe for a bracha for children. (By the way, Rabbi Metzger was shocked when he learned that I had had the “chutzpah” to ask Rav Dovid to be my son’s sandek.)
As a couple married for a few years, we had lived in Hartford, Ct., where my husband had served as a rebbe himself before serving as an Air Force chaplain. During that period of time, I finally acquiesced, and we wrote to the Rebbe asking for a bracha for children.
Oftentimes, the Rebbe suggested that a couple waiting for children check their mezuzos and the husband’s tefillin, in addition to reviewing the halachot of Taharat HaMishpacha. However, in our case, the Rebbe only requested the names of our mothers, wishing us “b’sorot tovot,” which indeed was mekuyam with the miracle birth of my first child exactly nine months from the date of the Rebbe’s response.
During this period of time, Shai often drove to Lubavitch Headquarters in London to hear the Rebbe’s sichot. He was hooked.
When his tour of duty was up and by this time our second miracle was born, the writing was on the wall. We now had two children to educate with no surety that Shai would be assigned to bases where a frum Jewish life was possible. He gave up his active commission. The question was, therefore, where to move?
Given Shai’s newly formed connection with the Rebbe (with whom he had the zechut to have yechides during his Air Force tour), I suggested that we move to Crown Heights. As a child, I had visited my friends who lived there. However, I was in no way prepared for the Crown Heights that I found in 1977. This was several years after the influx of “outsiders” drove out scores of Yidden, leaving only the Chabad community and one Litvish minyan in existence.
After growing up in a safe environment, I had to learn to be street-smart.
I also struggled to learn the new minhagim that a chassidister of the Rebbe lives with. First and foremost, there could be no walking into the Rebbe’s house for a chat. And yet, the Rebbe was always there for each and every one of us.
Among many beliefs that the Rebbe taught us was the idea that on one’s birthday, one has the same koach that Hashem Yisborach imbued within each and every one of us at our birth. The Rebbe encouraged us to give over blessings, brachot, to others on our special day.
I would like to share two responses to my overtures, that I recently was privileged to experience. In the first incidence, I reconnected after about 40 years with my dear childhood friend, Rochel, through Facebook. Although we had known each other since we attended kindergarten together, life took us in different directions. She remembered my English birth date and I was reminded of hers, so I called her up and I asked her for a bracha on her birthday. She attended Hebrew school as a child but I do not know how observant she is.
Initially she demurred, but toward the end of the conversation, she announced that she indeed had a bracha for me. Taking my request literally, she gave over the “Shehechiaynu” blessing, which had me nearly in tears. I explained to her that customarily one could say this blessing after being apart for 30 days, yet in our case it was closer to 40 years! I therefore repeated the blessing to her and we made plans to get together for my English birthday later this month.
Since Rosh Chodesh Alef Tammuz is my Hebrew birthday, I called Rochel to give her a bracha. She confided that when I remembered to call her on her recent birthday, I lifted her spirits. Her husband is unwell and could not celebrate with her as he formerly did. She thanked me, but I told her that it is indeed the Rebbe who was truly uplifting her. After all, I learned this minhag from the Rebbe!
Second, I called my childhood friend, Emmy. When I called to give a blessing to her and to her dear husband for good health, she replied that my bracha was working, because her husband had just returned from the hospital. Again, I responded that it was not me, but the Rebbe who was truly blessing this couple.
The Rebbe lives within each and every one of us who takes the Rebbe’s teachings to heart. As the Rebbe taught us, the Geulah Shleimah is imminent if one only takes the time to reach out with even a simple kindness. Please, let’s step up to the plate and bring the Final Redemption now. In the words of my beloved “Uncle Rebbe,” Rabbi Aaron R. Charney, oy”m (former Chief Rabbi of Bayonne, N.J.): Amayn, Keyn Yehi Ratzon, Amayn!