Six decades later, recalling a time of hazard and hope
(Continued from last week)
His Personal Representatives
Even as the Rebbe wrote letters of consolation and encouragement, he at first refrained from discussing it publicly. The first time he addressed the events, about a month later on the holiday of Shavuot, he explained (in Yiddish) that while “we should not allow ourselves to be negatively affected by trials,” there were some who had attempted to explain the murders by quoting Moses’ words of comfort to his brother, Aaron the High Priest, in Leviticus, following the death of Aaron’s two sons: “Bikrovai ehkadesh—‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me.’ ” The Rebbe rejected this reasoning, alluding to the passage’s ending, Vayidom Aharon—“And Aaron was silent,” stating there could be no logical explanation for the horrific events in Kfar Chabad.
At that Shavuot gathering, the Rebbe went on to announce that he would be sending a group of yeshivah students as his personal representatives to the land of Israel, their mission to lift the spirits of the people there and imbue them with a new energy. Additionally, since the entire Jewish people had an obligation to assist their brethren in Israel, they would also travel on behalf of everyone who could not go themselves.
The next day, a sign was posted in the hallway of 770 Eastern Parkway—Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, where the central Lubavitch yeshivah is located—allowing students to volunteer their names for this special mission. In order to be considered for the journey, they would need to have their passports in order and the permission of their parents.
Yosef Rosenfeld was a student at the time and had not planned on putting his name on the list. Summer was approaching, and he wished to remain in the yeshivah, studying Torah throughout. Rosenfeld’s birthday took place a few days after the Rebbe’s announcement, and as was the custom, he sought a private audience with the Rebbe to mark the day.
“The Rebbe asked me if I had submitted my name to his secretariat, to which I replied that I hadn’t,” Rosenfeld said in an interview with A Chassidisher Derher, a story he also recounted at the reunion. “To my surprise, the Rebbe then instructed me to join the list of bochurim who registered for the shlichus. Naturally, I made sure to do so immediately following the audience.”
The final group numbered 12. There were nine representatives from the United States: Rabbi Avraham Korf, today regional director of Chabad in the state of Florida; Rabbi Dovid Schochet, since a prominent rabbinic authority and rabbi of the Lubavitch community in Toronto; Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who became a longtime member of the Rebbe’s secretariat, and chairman of both Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch (the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement) and Machne Israel (its social-services arm); Rabbi Yosef Rosenfeld, now executive director of Educational Institute Oholei Torah; Rabbi Faivel Rimler, today a board member of the National Council for the Furtherance of Jewish Education; Rabbi Sholom Dovber Shemtov, now regional director of Chabad in the state of Michigan; Rabbi Sholom Dovber Butman; Rabbi Shlomo Kirsh; and Rabbi Shmuel Fogelman, later the principal of United Lubavitcher Yeshiva.
Additionally, one representative came from Canada, Rabbi Zushe Posner; another from Europe, Rabbi Sholom Eidelman, the educator in Casablanca; and one from Australia, Rabbi Shraga Herzog.
After being chosen, the nine students in Brooklyn were called in to the Rebbe’s office, where he outlined the nature of the trip they would be undertaking. They would visit Jewish communities in England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy on their way to Israel. The Rebbe gave them detailed instructions, including, for example, that from that day forward until their return, the group must organize a daily study schedule in which all of the shluchimwould participate. In Israel, they would visit leaders and Jewish communities throughout the country, holding pre-arranged meetings throughout. Their base would be Kfar Chabad, and any extra time was to be spent studying Torah in the main synagogue, where locals would know they could always reach them. When encountering a speaking opportunity in any of the places they were visiting, they should not turn it down, and make sure to be prepared to share thoughts on both revealed Torah and chassidus.
The group took off on June 27, 1956, landing in London, where they were welcomed by the general Jewish community and held a press conference. In the U.K. they visited Jewish communities in Manchester, Sunderland and Gateshead, before continuing on to mainland Europe.
“My sincerest apologies on the lack of updates, because writing is very time-consuming and the time is very limited,” Krinsky, the group’s secretary, wrote to Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, chief of the Rebbe’s secretariat, in a letter dated July 10 from Zurich. “Especially because of the many journeys in the last two weeks; almost each day we travel to a new city . . . ”
Days later they arrived in Israel, where throngs of men, women and children awaited them at the airport in Lod (now Ben Gurion International Airport). It was 7 a.m., a Friday morning, yet they had come by bus from Kfar Chabad, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Lod, Haifa, Petach Tikva, Bnei Brak, Rishon Letzion . . . The feeling in the crowd was electric. They strained to see the emissaries disembark. When the young men finally stepped off the tarmac, they were spontaneously lifted on shoulders, whisked into the air atop a whirl of dancing feet.
“He who was not at the airport in Lod on that bright morning has never see a great sight in his life,” reads one contemporary report.
“Even the airport personnel and other passengers were swept into the joy,” remembers Butman.
Israel of the 1950s was a very different place. Frequent travel between the country and the United States was unheard of at the time; few Chabad Chassidim there had ever seen the Rebbe (who had succeeded his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, the founder of Kfar Chabad—just six years earlier); most had never even heard his voice. Many of the Chassidim had come from the Soviet Union, where the sixth Rebbe had escaped from in 1927, meaning that many had not seen their Rebbe, whether previous or current, in close to three decades, if at all.
The 12 representatives were thus a direct link to the Rebbe’s court, a sign of the Rebbe’s closeness to them and vice versa. At the airport that morning, an unexpected telegram arrived from the Rebbe:
To the shluchim of Chabad-Lubavitch: Welcome upon your safe arrival in the Holy Land. May your visit be with great success in fulfilling its mission, specifically in its main objective of spreading the wellsprings to the outside, and thus hasten the redemption. With many regards to Anash [a Hebrew acronym for anshei shlomenu, a term used to denote the wider family of Chassidim].
Inspiring a Country
The group spent that first Shabbat in Kfar Chabad, a weekend that set the tone for the 28 days they would spend in the country.
“When they came, we traveled to the airport to greet them. I’m not able to describe for you the joy at the airport, and then afterwards on Shabbat,” said Yosef Uminer, a young Israeli yeshivah student at the time, speaking at the Brooklyn reunion. “After they arrived, the atmosphere changed over completely, ‘the city of Shushan shouted and rejoiced . . . ’ I’ll never forget the farbrengen that took place in Kfar Chabad that week. The whole village was there . . . The newspapers, the whole country was speaking about it—this wasn’t just a Chabad thing, this was a country-wide tragedy . . . I just remember the joy. I was young, but it was ingrained in my mind, and I remember it until today… ”
The young emissaries, a quarter of the age of some of those who had come to see and hear them, brought with them the excitement and energy of the Rebbe’s environs in New York. They taught the assembled new Chassidic songs, reviewed recently-heard discourses, and spoke about the mission they had been given by the Rebbe. The farbrengen in Kfar Chabad lasted until the early hours of Sunday morning.
That week the group met with children at a summer camp in the village, the students and staff of Beit Sefer Lemelacha, the farmers working the fields surrounding Kfar Chabad, and the leaderships of each and every school and communal organization there. This schedule was replicated in dozens of other Israeli cities and settlements through the length and breadth of the country, from ancient Tiberias to dusty Beersheva, as they met with new immigrants in absorption centers, Torah scholars in yeshivot, and political figures and statesmen.
Even in Jerusalem, where the normally strait-laced Jerusalemites are punctilious about what time they begin and end prayers, and particularly about starting their Shabbat meals on time, a crush of people filled the Chabad synagogue in Mea Shearim, spending hours listening with rapt attention to the American yeshivahstudents. The gathering lasted until the long summer Shabbat was over.
That evening’s melaveh malkah, the meal that traditionally takes place after the conclusion of Shabbat, was broadcast live over Kol Yisrael radio, an evening hosted by Yediot Achronot’s Shmuel Avidor. (A few weeks later, the group appeared on Kol Zion LaGolah, the country’s national radio-station broadcast outside of Israel—which had a particular impact on Jews living in the Communist bloc—addressing listeners in Yiddish, French and English).
Over the duration of the trip, the Rebbe’s representatives met with more than 20 major rabbinical figures, including the country’s chief rabbis, with whom they discussed Judaism’s views on Israeli-owned shipping lines operating on Shabbat, a contentious subject at the time.
They met with the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, a blind, famously ethereal man, who shook hands with each of them (bypassing the hand towel he usually used), and listening closely to the purpose of the shluchim’s mission. The Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Alter—called the Beis Yisroel—was known as a particularly sharp man, yet stood for the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s young messengers during the entirety of their meeting. As the group left, the Gerrer Rebbe turned to his own followers, demanding “You are Chassidim?” before waving his hand towards the departing emissaries and exclaiming “ . . . these are Chassidim!”
By: Dovid Margolin