Stories about the Rebbe


By Tzvi Jacobs

This true story happened during the Jewish month of Elul (September 1989). I was driving home from a bris in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On the way I stopped at a branch of the bank that I use to make a deposit. I parked in the lot behind the bank. I got out, locked the door and then remembered that the check was in the car. I opened the door, found the check, turned to close the door, and gasped.

Three men surrounded me. They wore tattered jeans and filthy t-shirts. Though it was before noon, they reeked of alcohol. The guy on the left was clutching a whiskey bottle like a hammer. He had a desperate, mean look in his eyes. The guy on my right almost looked friendly, but a little scared and hungry. He was about my size. But the one in the middle--he was big, bad and ugly. He loomed above. He had tattoos up the entire length of his bare arms.

"Got some change?" he said, extending his huge hand towards my neck. Three teeth were missing from his grin. A deep scar ran from his chin to his cheek.

Thoughts raced through my head. Think fast, stay calm. Everything happens for a reason. All is for the good. Only fear G-d. All the Chasidic dictums about life were running through my mind. They made sense in yeshiva.

But now? Now it was Elul, when G-d is supposed to be very accessible, like the King who leaves his palace and is in the fields and streets listening to the requests of the ordinary folks.

"Yes, I have some change for you," I said, while dropping the check back in the car, locking and closing the car door behind me.

Everything happens for a reason.

"Any of you Jewish?" I asked. I knew it was next to impossible.

"Yeh, I'm Jewish," the big guy said.

"You're Jewish?" I said in disbelief. It must be a ploy. "You have a Jewish name?"

"Shmuel Yankel ben Moshe," he said with pride, like a boot soldier responding to his officer. In his eyes I probably looked like a rabbi.

"Did you have a Bar Mitzva?" I asked.

"Yuh. Baruch ata..." The big guy, nee Shmuel Yankel, began singing the Haftorah blessings.

"Why are you asking for a few cents? You should be asking for millions. It's right before Rosh Hashana and you can ask G-d for anything. He's here in the streets with you and me and we can ask Him for anything now. On Rosh Hashana, G-d goes back into His palace and it's not so easy for us to get in, but now He's taking requests. I might have some change, but G-d has millions.

"You know what tefilin are? Put them on, Shmuel Yankel. I'm sure G-d will hear you."

As I spoke I slipped the car key out of my pocket and got my tefilin out. "Put out your arm."

The sleeve was torn off his shirt. That made it easy to slide the tefilin over his arm, past the chorus line of tattoos and rows of little holes.

Those must be needle tracks, I thought.

"Here," I said, as I took off my yarmulka from beneath my hat. "Let me put this on you so you can say the blessing with me." He lowered his head so I could reach it. "Baruch ata..." We said the blessing and then I reached up and put the tefilin on his head. Shmuel Yankel said the Shema and his eyes became wet.

"G-d's right here with you, Shmuel Yankel. Ask Him Illustration onlywhatever your heart desires." He was quiet. A tear rolled into the scar groove.

One of his partners was pacing back and forth on the asphalt, like a shark swimming in front of his prey. "Let's go already," the Shark snapped.

"You just wait. I'm praying," Shmuel Yankel said. The Shark backed off like a guppy. The third guy looked with amazement at the whole ceremony. Why was he so interested?

I asked him his name. "Michel," he said with a slurred French accent.

"Are you Jewish, Michel?"

"No, I'm Catholic. My mother was Jewish but she became Catholic. The Nazis killed her parents and a Catholic monastery raised her."

"You're Jewish," I told him. "If your mother was born Jewish, then nothing can take that away. Once a Jew, always a Jew," I said. "Today is like your Bar Mitzva. Put on these tefilin and we'll make a Bar Mitzva celebration."

Michel repeated the blessings for tefilin as best he could. The tefilin sat on his greasy, long, black hair. His eyes sparkled with life, and Michel began to look like a scraggly Jewish boy, like the lost prince who had been dragged through the mucky alleys of medieval Europe, beaten and abused, and now has finally stumbled across his royal home. The King met him in the streets, and Michel recognized his Father.

"We can take them off now," I said. Michel held out his arm and let me unwrap them as if he were a gentle baby.

I had some cake with me from the bris. The four of us split the two slices of cake. "L'Chaim. To life," I said, raising my cake.

My two Jewish friends thanked me. We shook hands and hugged.

"Wait," I said, running after them, "here's some change."

"No, that's all right," Shumel Yankel said as he waved good-bye.

The Rebbe helped me Kosher my kitchen

The Yom Kippur war (1973) left Israel with thousands of casualties, and one of them was Mr. Sadon.

He had been lying for weeks in critical condition in Tzrifim Hospital and the doctors weren't optimistic. But his wife, sitting by his bedside, knew better. Somehow she was sure that against all odds everything would be all right.....she was writing a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Mr. Sadon had never been an observant Jew, but his wife had. In fact her grandparents had been Chabad Chassidim, but she left it all when she was just a young girl; that’s the way things went in Israel. Nevertheless, writing to the Rebbe was not strange to her.

In the bed next to Mr. Sadon lay a Moroccan Jew called Mr. Shapir who also had been severely wounded and had a dim prognosis. When he saw that Mrs. Sadon was writing to the Rebbe his eyes lit up. He motioned her to come close and handed her a small book of Psalms (3 sq. cm.), a family heirloom given to him by his grandfather. He begged her to send it to the Rebbe and request that he sign it. So Mrs. Sadon added the T’hillim to her letter and mailed them off.

Things began to improve for Sadon to the degree that two weeks later the hospital informed him that he was well enough to leave! They needed the bed for more serious cases.

After a few months at home they had almost forgotten the entire incident, and things began to return to normal, until one day Mrs. Sadon received a small envelope in the mail from the office of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Inside was Mr. Shapir’s tiny book of Psalms inscribed and signed by the Rebbe in extremely small print, and a letter addressed to her.

The Rebbe repeated the blessings he wrote in the T’hillim, added a few more, and explained that although it was not his custom to sign holy books he had made an exception, and then signed his name once again. But at the bottom of the letter a footnote caught Mrs. Sadon’s eye:

"P.S. Apparently you already light Shabbat Candles like every Kosher Jewish woman."

The next morning Mrs. Sadon called the hospital, only to discover that Mr. Shapir had also recovered, and left weeks earlier. She got his number from the phonebook, but there was no answer at his house. So she mailed him a letter telling him about his T’hillim, and waited for a response.

Sure enough two weeks later she heard a knock at her door and it was none other than a beaming Mr. Shapir. He had been in a recuperation center for the last few weeks, and as soon as he arrived home and saw her letter he took a taxi to her house. It wasn’t long before he was joyously reporting the stages of his miraculous recovery, and marveling over the Rebbe’s inscription in his little book.

But the Rebbe’s footnote still burned in her mind.

On one hand, she left Jewish observance years ago for very good reasons; it was old-fashioned, closed minded, unpopular etc. why should she start now? Who needs it??

But something inside her kept repeating:

"Light candles like every Jewish woman".

Little by little she warmed up to the idea. After all, the Rebbe did write it to her, and it was the same Rebbe that just helped her and so many it can’t be THAT bad.

After a few weeks of this she decided that she would do it! This Friday she would light Shabbos candles!!

She even went to the store and bought candles and two small candleholders. But when she arrived home she realized that she didn’t know what to do.

She didn’t know when to light them, or where to put them. She didn’t know the blessing, and most embarrassing of all; she didn’t even know whom to ask!

She stood there confused for several minutes and she felt a tremendous urge to just put it off for another week, when suddenly the phone rang.

It was her oldest son calling from the army; his weekend leave had been cancelled, and before he could continue she said, "Oh that’s too bad, I was looking forward to seeing you. Tell me son, is the Army Rabbi there? I want to ask him something."

A few minutes later the Rabbi had gladly answered her questions, dictated to her the blessing, and even promised that he would mail her a "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" (Jewish Law book). Mrs. Sadon hung up the phone and did what he said.

She lit the candles, put her hands over her eyes, slowly said the blessing and just stood there.

When she uncovered her eyes suddenly everything was different. Suddenly everything was so pure and quiet.

She was so happy...She cried.

Of course it didn’t stop there; little by little the flames began changing their lives.

The next Friday, after lighting the candles she felt that some of the pictures and statues in the room sort-of "clashed" with the Shabbos lights. So she moved the offenders to a different room altogether.

Then they bought a few Torah books for their bookcase, and the T.V. became silent on Shabbos.

Finally she decided to contact the local Chabad House to make her Kitchen Kosher.

Then things really began to move. It wasn’t long before there were Mezuzas on all the doors. Mr. Sadon bought himself his first pair of T’fillin, and even began attending Torah classes a few times a week. And that was only the beginning.

The Rebbe and the Shabbos candles made the change.

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