Book sold out its first printing this summer and is now available once again
Every week, people arriving for Shabbat at synagogues and Chabad centers around the world are met by a free copy of the latest installment of Here’s My Story. Published by Jewish Educational Media (JEM) since the beginning of 2013, each two-sided sheet features one of the thousands of stories and personal encounters with the Rebbe that JEM has painstakingly recorded as part of its long-running “My Encounter with the Rebbe” oral history project. The stories are also viewed by thousands online on Chabad.org.
After publishing more than 200 such installments, this summer JEM released a book titled My Story, showcasing 41 of these stories—10 of which were published for the first time. The book tells both new stories and elaborates upon previously published stories, accompanied by glossy color photographs and archival material. It quickly sold out its first print and is now in its second, expanded run.
Told in the first-person by Jews across the gamut—Israeli generals and statesmen, rabbis, housewives, a Nazi hunter, teachers, engineers and businesspeople—Here’s My Story offers a simple and straightforward format that appeals to readers. The stories also appear in a Hebrew-language version, Hasipur Sheli.
The weekly Here’s My Story installments are archived on TheRebbe.org, a joint project of JEM and Chabad.org.
There is, for example, the account of a letter Bernard Cytryn received on the frontlines of the Korean War back in 1951. Cytryn—a young survivor of Nazi concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen and Dachau, whose family had perished in the Holocaust—was preparing to ship out to Korea when he had a private audience with the Rebbe.
“He said that I must be sure to put on tefillin and pray every day, and that I should talk to other Jewish soldiers and encourage them to do the same,” said Cytryn in his interview. “When we parted, he shook my hand and blessed me that I should return home safely.”
That wasn’t the end, however. At the front, where Cytryn was doing the dangerous work of an advance engineer in a combat battalion, he received a letter from the Rebbe asking him about his health, Jewish activities, and details about the Passover seder in Korea. Cytryn wrote back and soon received a follow-up letter, the Rebbe concluding his reply by saying, “I am looking forward to your next letter.”
“Can you imagine that?!” remarked Cytryn, who carried the letter with him through more than one battle. Creased and yellowed with age, the remarkable letter is reproduced in full color in My Story.
“The Rebbe had promised that G d would help me make it through and come home safely, which I did. And here I am, 60 years later, telling this story.”
He is not alone.
Relationships, Interactions and Correspondence
JEM first launched its “My Encounter with the Rebbe” project in 2004 in an effort to document and preserve the firsthand accounts of some of the thousands of individuals who visited and interacted with the Rebbe throughout his lifetime. The Here’s My Storyweekly pamphlet and subsequent My Story book are both outgrowths of this project.
A team of interviewers and cinematographers based in the United States and Israel have so far collected nearly 1,500 videotaped testimonies in which ordinary individuals, as well as public personalities, detail the relationships, interactions and correspondence they maintained with the Rebbe.
The men and women presented in My Story—all of whom were interviewed for “My Encounter”—represent the widest array of Jews. Philanthropist Efraim Illin, a pioneering titan of Israeli industry, was born in 1912 in czarist Kharkov, Ukraine, arriving with his family in British Mandate Palestine 13 years later. Starting with nothing, he built a successful textile business and during the War of Independence used his shipping routes to smuggle Czechoslovakian arms into the country.
“All that is background to the story I really want to tell,” Illin told the JEM team, “how I helped jump-start the economy of Israel with the help of the Rebbe.”
It was 1948, and the Ford Motor Company announced it would be building a manufacturing plant in the newly-established state. The heavy industry would offer a huge boost to Israel’s infant economy, but Arab pressure kicked in and Ford backed out. As the government searched for alternatives, Illin received a call from a British Jewish friend, telling him that Kaiser-Frazer might be a company that could help build an automobile plant. A meeting was set, and while Kaiser-Frazer agreed to invest $500,000 into the project, Illin would have to find investors for the other $2 million needed (equating to about $20 million today). They proved difficult to find; if the deal was to go through, it would be up to Illin.
It was 1950 by the time he had a contract in hand, but Illin found himself too nervous to sign: “I was in New York, and I couldn’t sleep. I knew I had to sign, but I didn’t have the courage to do it.”
Through a friend, he managed to received a private audience with the Rebbe, where he presented his dilemma.
“I seem to recall that he said, ‘A car is made up of 30,000 parts. That doesn’t mean you’ll need 30,000 industries, but you’ll need 3,000 industries! And that means this plant could be the foundation of Israel’s economy!’
“He saw the larger picture, on a national scale. He understood that an assembly plant is a trade school for many vocations: metalwork, painting, carpentry, upholstery, etc.”
Illin signed the contract. In its first 10 years, the new Kaiser-Illin plant would produce 28 percent of Israel’s exports.
Other notable interviewees include Professor MosheMandelbaum, who served as governor of the Bank of Israel in the 1980s, and Brig.-Gen. Ran Ronen-Pekker, commander of the Tel Nof airbase. He spent two-and-a-half hours discussing morale in the Israeli Defense Forces post-Yom Kippur War and problems of education in military families, and later wrote a full report on the meeting that he forwarded to his superiors in Israel (also included in My Story.)
But there are simpler anecdotes: The bride who worried that the Rebbe’s farbrengen, taking place on her wedding night, would ruin her festivities, and the Rebbe instead inviting her and her groom to have their sheva brachot read out at 770, with the Rebbe looking on and answering amen.
Or there’s the story told by Avraham Kiss, who as a boy from Brownsville, Brooklyn, used to earn extra money delivering groceries, and in that capacity visit the President Street apartment of the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson. On one occasion, the door opened to the Rebbe standing there. The Rebbe brought in the groceries, compared them all to his mother’s shopping list to make sure everything was included, and then put them all away. When he was done, he gave Kiss a $10 tip, a large sum at the time. Outside, a group of Chassidim waited, one of whom bought Kiss’ $10 for $20. (The boy promptly set off to Flamm’s on Kingston Avenue and bought himself a suit that he had been saving up for.) When the boy’s father found out that his young son had sold a $10 bill he had received from the Rebbe, he was not happy.
“Two weeks later, my father took me to the Rebbe’s farbrengen[and we got in line for kos shel brachah],” recalled Kiss. “ . . . My father told him that being a young child, I didn’t realize the importance of the Rebbe’s gift of the $10, and so I sold it for $20 on the street. I was a bit embarrassed, but the Rebbe just smiled like he found the whole thing amusing.”
Over the next few months, Kiss continued delivering Rebbetzin Chana’s groceries without seeing the Rebbe. Then one day, the door opens, and the Rebbe is standing there once again.
“Just as before, I brought in the groceries, and he unpacked them. Again he gave me $10. But this time, he said: ‘Put this one in your pocket and keep it.’ And then he took another $10 bill and said:, ‘This one you can sell to the Chassidim outside.’ ”
A Sense of Urgency
When “My Encounter” launched, there was a sense of urgency to the project. Anyone who would have recalled the Rebbe’s early years—his youth and formative years in the Soviet Union—was by then getting on in years, as would those who crossed paths and were impacted by him during his pre-war years in Berlin and Paris. Tracking down these aging individuals was difficult, and even once they did, at times they were too late.
Rabbi Yechiel Cagen, who has overseen the project since its inception, recalls an elderly woman whose father was a rabbi in Paris, and who remembered the Rebbe coming to their home to borrow Torah texts from his personal library. The woman’s memories would have shed light on the lives of the Rebbe and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, there, and the JEM team desperately wished to interview her.
“We hired a cinematographer, scheduled it for 10 a.m., and that morning got a call that she wasn’t feeling well,” says Cagen. “The next day, a Thursday, she also wasn’t feeling well, and she was admitted to a hospital. After Shabbat, we got a call that she passed away.”
It is often not simple to find the interview subject in question, forcing JEM to use all available tools—including old telephone directories, Internet searches and even old-fashioned boots-on-pavement—to seek out individuals whom they hope have stories to share. Often, they are rewarded when they find people who figure prominently into stories that have become popularized but were never properly documented, or they discover a dimension of the Rebbe’s life and leadership never known to the public.
While the lion’s share of the interviewees contribute their own personal experiences, some recount what they heard from parents and grandparents, preserving cherished family history and offering it to the public.
The Process of Gathering Stories
Recognizing the historical significance of each interview, the team spends weeks preparing for each recording, researching the subject and honing their questions. The interviewers also ask people to share key facts about themselves and their background, providing color and texture to the stories they then tell about the Rebbe.
“The interviews are not just about their interactions with the Rebbe, but really a focus on them and their lives, understanding who they are,” says Cagen. “The Rebbe had interactions with so many different people from such disparate backgrounds, and he related to each person on their level.”
Ranging between one and seven hours in length, each interview tells a different personal story. Once an interview is completed, it is digitized, archived and committed to paper by a team of transcribers from around the world, fluent in 10 languages.
Short excerpts from these interviews have been released weekly in JEM’s popular video magazine, “Living Torah,” which is watched by more than 200,000 individuals on a weekly basis; Here’s My Story; and now, the My Story book, whose production was overseen by Rabbi Zalman Groner.
The interviews also constitute the bulk of the material for multiple documentaries released by JEM over the years focusing on various areas of the Rebbe’s life and impact. Plans are also in the works to produce a full-feature documentary about the Rebbe using the “My Encounter” materials.
The 20,000-plus pages of transcripts from the interviews have been used by academics as well. Still, despite all that has been filmed, recorded, written and documented, the work is far from complete. Of those interviewed, many have already passed on, reminding the crew of the imminent importance of their efforts. There are hundreds, if not thousands, more individuals on their list whom they wish to interview.
“Every person the Rebbe impacted was touched differently,” says Cagen. “Our goal is to help each and every individual tell their story as accurately and as powerfully as possible—thus sharing the Rebbe and the lives he changed for generations to come.”
By: Dovid Margolin and Menachem Posner
If you or anyone you know has had an encounter with the Rebbe, contact the “My Encounter” office at: email@example.com. To purchase “My Story,” go to: jemstore.com or your local Judaica store.