My husband and I stood waiting for a bus on the Ramot hilltop, wondering if buses even operated at that late hour in the newly built Jerusalem area. All around us skeletons of buildings under construction stood gaunt in the moonlight.
“The buses aren’t always dependable at this hour,” our son said apologizing.
We’d come to see his brand new baby and he felt responsible to get us back home. The last bus to Bnei Brak was at 11 p.m.
Suddenly he started running in the direction of a small car that had stopped further up the road, and was soon motioning for us to come over.
“A friend of mine,” he told us, adding more quietly, “a nice boy. Maybe you have a shidduch for him.”
As the car started down the Ramot hills, the driver turned to us and asked where we were going.
“The Central Bus Station,” I answered, “but if that’s out of your way, just drop us off at any bus that will get us there.”
“Central Bus Station it is!” he said with a smile.
He wore a peaked cap and a red beard and payos framed a full round face.
Hoe told us that he was from Montreal and living in Israel for about a year. When I asked why he came, he said, “Well, you see, I’m a chozer b’teshuva, and my rabbis in Montreal thought that I should try Israel out.”
“What group do you belong to?”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” I said, “my husband went to Chabad in Montreal after his bar mitzvah. He grew up in Toronto, but there was no yeshiva there. In Montreal he had an uncle who agreed to keep an eye on him.”
He and my husband started discussing who they both knew and my husband shared memories of his years in Chabad, and how, whenever his father would come to Brooklyn for Yom Tov he’d be invited to daven with the Rebbe’s minyan.
“That’s one thing about Chabad,” my husband commented. “They have hakaras hatov. When the Rebbe came to America, it was a spiritual wilderness. The Rebbe never forgot those people who helped him make a breakthrough by giving him their children.”
My husband then told the young man about our six cousins who had been the first of the Rebbe’s chassidim in America.
Shloimele was the oldest of the six. He was learning in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, the first yeshiva in Brooklyn and founded by Zeida Sheale. There was never enough money to pay the teachers, and often the checks would bounce. As a result, the yeshiva had a hard time finding good teachers, and would often accept a candidate, though he didn’t look too promising.
Thus, when Rabbi Israel Jacobson answered the ad in the Morgan Journal for a Gemara teacher for the oldest high school class, he was accepted, despite the board’s reservations.
Rabbi Jacobson had just arrived in America with his wife and three grown daughters – and he didn’t know a word of English. Although it was obvious to all that he was a great talmid chacham, the yeshiva directors doubted if that would be enough to impress the ten baseball-loving students, who at the end of the semester would be the high school’s first graduates.
They need not have worried. From the first day, they were under his spell. Instead of playing baseball during recess, the ten would gather around their teacher’s desk begging him for stories about his rebbe. As the year progressed, the ten decided that after graduation, they would go to Europe and prepare for the rabbinate in the Rebbe’s courtyard.
Our Uncle Sam was emphatically opposed to the idea. Aside from the fact that he had his heart set on opening a business with Shloimele, his graduating son, on principle he opposed the idea of his son becoming a rabbi.
“But, you yourself left home to study Torah in Jerusalem,” Shloimele reminded his father.
“That was different,” his father argued. “In those days there were no yeshivos in America. If a Jew wanted his son to remain an ehrlich yid he had no choice but to ship him off to either Europe or Eretz Yisrael. But today America does have yeshivos. Zeida Sheale sacrificed everything he had to build a yeshiva right here in Brooklyn so that Jewish children wouldn’t have to cross oceans to learn Hashem’s word.”
Uncle Sam believed that a Jew’s responsibility, especially in galus, was to make a kiddush Hashem. And, that, he felt, was easier to accomplish by remaining on the same level as everyone in the street, wearing the same clothing as they do, speaking the same language, and being a decent human being who behaved honestly and ethically. He believed in living G-d’s word rather then preaching it.
Uncle Sam sort of got his way. Shloimele stayed here for a bit. He married Rabbi Jacobson’s daughter, Chaike. Then, he and some others in his class left to learn Torah in Lubavitch. For four years, until the outbreak of World War II, the group immersed themselves in the living wells of Torah and chassidus, returning safely home on the last freighter to miraculously cross the mine-infested Atlantic Ocean.
Here they immediately undertook the mission the Rebbe had placed on them: to start building a stronghold of Torah in America that would replace the one systematically being destroyed in Europe.
Two years later, the Lubavitcher Rebbe arrived in America and the mission to awaken the soul of Jews in America accelerated. The Rebbe sent chassidim, Shloimele among the first, to investigate the Jewish situation outside New York City. With his kaftan and beard, which at that time no one wore, Shloimele and his friends crisscrossed America.
What they discovered was that Jews were slowly disappearing from the American scene, being absorbed into the mainstream of American society. Some still remembered that they were Jews, but their entire Jewish identity often revolved around the nostalgia of gefilte fish, kreplach and the flickering candlelight.
The battle to awaken Jewish consciences began. The Rebbe began sending his chassidim off to far away places where, slowly and with much self-sacrifice new Jewish communities began to take root and blossom.
Meanwhile, Uncle Sam opened a dry-goods store on Allen Street on the Lower East Side. He hoped that as each of his sons finished high school, he would join him in his business. The war years had brought a boom to business and he needed someone to run the store while he went from manufacturer to manufacturer begging for merchandise, Although the boys did come in to help out on Sunday afternoons, they had their own plans for after graduation.
Shloimele had filled their heads with stories of his years in Europe, and impressed on them that time was too precious to waste on the transient things. He convinced them that their strengths should be geared towards saving Jewish souls.
Behind their father’s back, they were pulling Jewish kids off the streets on Shabbos, bringing them to shul, feeding them with ice-crème and candy and cake and stories of what it meant to be a Jew.
When Moishe and Avrum finished school, they discovered that if they made themselves clumsy, their father was only too happy not to have them around, but Yankel was a different story. He had once shared this with us.
“I was pretty good in business, if I say so myself! The customers would wait around for hours for me to serve them. Business was booming. There was nothing that people wouldn’t buy; no price that they wouldn’t pay. The only problem was getting the merchandise. No sooner did it come into the store, then it was snatched up.
“But Shloime, we all loved him and wanted to be just like him. And so did everyone else. He was the perfect American boy – blessed with looks, with brains, with a golden voice. What was good for Shloime was good for all his friends. If Shloime had become part of Lubavitch, that’s where all his friends wanted to be.
“As far as money went, who needed money? As poor as Pappa and Mamma had always been, we kids never knew what it meant to be hungry. Mamma made sure that there were always good things to eat in the house. If Mamma couldn’t afford to buy meat, the butcher would push marrow bones into her bag to put in the soup.
“So what did we need money for? What we wanted was to follow in Shloimele’s footsteps. He had filled our heads with what was important in life. We wanted to be like him, to get out in the streets and save Jewish souls.
“And those kids that I pulled off the streets on Shabbos loved me as much as the customers in Pappa’s store. In the beginning they were sure that I was crazy, with all my antics and clowning… but when they saw that I could pitch a home-run better than any of them, they looked at me with the greatest respect and were ready to follow me when I invited them to come along with me to shul. But I was getting so involved with those kids that on Sundays I had no time to help Pappa in his store and he really needed me. Business was booming and good salesmen were hard to find and after Pappa had lost all his savings to a crooked partner, Mamma wouldn’t allow him to hire a stranger. She insisted that only family could be trusted. I realized that whether I wanted to or not, I had to join my father’s business.
“Then, one day, at his annual checkup by Dr. Schneider, Pappa’s whole world came tumbling down.
“‘Sam’, Dr. Schneider said, ‘there’s something there that I want you to check out with a friend of mine. Could be that its nothing, but this friend of mine is the man who’ll know.’
“Pappa went home and packed a little valise, like he used to when he was still selling on the road. He told Mamma that he’d be away all week to finish up some special war-contract. Instead he went straight to the hospital. Dr. Schneider was waiting there with his doctor friend. After the exam, Pappa made them both promise not to tell any one what they knew. He’d be in touch with them when the need arose.
“Pappa came home for Shabbos and unpacked his valise. But that Motzaeai Shabbos, when Shloimele, who was in from Chicago, got ready to go to the Rebbe, Pappa asked him if he’d mind if he came along.”
Let me explain that Uncle Sam had been refusing to go meet the Rebbe. You see, on principle he still opposed what the Rebbe was doing. He still believed that more could be accomplished for Judaism by devout Jews remaining on the same level as the common people and being role models of how a G-d-fearing Jew should behave,
“That night,” Yankel continued telling me, “Pappa was alone with the Rebbe for a long time. Outside, Sloimele rejoiced that at last his father was ready to make peace with the Rebbe and allow his children to become rabbis and spread Judaism.
“Little did Shloimele, or anyone else know that Pappa was making a deal with the Rebbe. Pappa would give the Rebbe his children, all six of them, if that’s what they wanted, and in exchange the Rebbe would bless him with life that the doctors had told him would be over within three months.
“But it wasn’t easy for Pappa to keep his half of the deal with the Rebbe,” Yankel went on. “He really needed me in the store. Things came to a point where Pappa, in desperation, stalked off to the Rebbe.
“‘Rebbe, what did you do to me?’ Pappa demanded, after rushing in to the Rebbe’s room.
“‘What did I do to you?” the Rebbe quietly asked, looking up from his open sefer.
“‘Rebbe, you took away my Yankel,’ Pappa sputtered with indignation.
“‘And why do you need your Yankel?’ the Rebbe asked, smiling.
“‘Rebbe, Yankel is good for my business.
“‘He’s even better for my business,’ the Rebbe said and coming over to where Pappa stood, he put one hand on Pappa’s shoulder and looked into his eyes.
“Well, that settled that,” Yankel ended, with a long, deep breath. “After that, I stopped going into Pappa’s store and officially joined the Rebbe’s ranks.
“The Rebbe’s yeshiva started filling up with the kids we pulled off the streets on Shabbos. And their parents came along as well. They were happy not to have to worry about their kids being on the street.
“When the Rebbe died, everyone grieved, but no one grieved like Pappa did. He cried for the loss of the man who had stolen his six children and become his best friend.
“After the Rebbe died, Pappa started ailing. Dr. Schneider told me to take Pappa to Dr. Rosenthal, the biggest doctor in leukemia.
“It was funny to watch how Pappa inspired fear wherever he went; the nurses and receptionists would get so flustered, just like the secretaries had whenever he’d gone up to the manufacturers.
After the examination, when Pappa took out his checkbook, the doctor refused to accept payment. We don’t take accept a fee from other professionals,” he explained to Pappa.
“Pappa laughed. ‘I am not a professional. It’s my sons who are the rabbis.’
“‘Any man who was able to bring up six rabbis in today’s world is more rabbi than all of them,’ Dr. Rosenthal insisted.
At the shiva Dr. Shneider explained that Uncle Sam should not have lived more than a few months after his initial diagnosis all those years ago. It was miraculous that lived a full and active life for twelve years – all because the Rebbe davened for him.
We had reached the Central Bus Station and made a run for the Bnei Brak bus. In the darkness and sadness that always overwhelms me when I ride busses at night, I kept thinking of my cousins. How fortunate I was to have been born and raised in a world with roots and values. What great strength our young driver would need today, I thought, in his search for our world of rich past.