20 Years After his death the lubavitch legacy lives on
I am one of many thousands of people from all walks of life who were privileged to have had a personal encounter with the Rebbe.
My First personal audience was a few months before my third birthday, during which the Rebbe gifted me with a siddur that I still use. At 13, I was called to the Torah for my bar mitzvah in the Rebbe’s personal minyan, the aliyah prior to his.
And since age 11 in 1987 unti 1993, I spent four weeks a year with the Rebbe, from before Rosh Hashanah until after Simchas Torah.
Those moments with the Rebbe are unforgettable and have left a lifelong mark on me – and on the thousands of people from all walks of life who were privileged to have had a personal encounter with the Rebbe.
My first personal audience was a few month before my third birthday, during which the Rebbe gifted me with a siddur that I still use. At 13, I was called to the Torah for my bar mitzvah in the Rebbe’s personal minyan, the aliyah prior to his.
And since age 11 in 1987 until 1993, I spent four weeks a year with Rebbe from before Rosh Hashanah until after Simchas Torah.
Those moments with the Rebbe are unforgettable and have left a lifelong mark on me – and on the thousands who aso experienced them.
As we approach the Rebbe’s 20th Yahrzeit on 3 Tammuz (July 1), we look back to those moments for inspiration to continue the Rebbe’s legacy of love to every Jew.
A few of these stories from local residents are shared here; more will be shared at chabad of Michigan’s Vision,Song and Inspiration event on June 23; and even more are found in the pages of two new books.
The Rebbe was a greater-than-life figure, yet he connected personally with every single person e met. Though his shluchim (emissaries) here and around the world, the Rebbe continues to reach out with love to every single Jew. I’m honored and privileged to be part of the Rebbe’s army here in Michigan.
Today, Rabbi Berel Shemtov is director of Chabad Luvbavitch of Michigan, but in 1956, he was a young man studying at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, soon to become an instrumental part of the Rebbe’s response to a tragedy overseas.
On April 11, 1956, terrorists opened fire at a vocational school in the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad, killing four students, and one youth worker and injuring several others. The village was plunged into grief and shock. Parents came to remove their children from the school; others suggested disbanding the entire village.
The Rebbe’s immediate response was to continue building the village and especially the school. A month later, on Shavuot, the Rebbe presented a new paradigm to his followers in Crown Heights — financial support for Kfar Chabad was not enough; what the village needed most was a group of people to go and bring encouragement. Within a day, young men were signing up to be part of a delegation to Israel. Berel Shemtov was one of the 12 chosen by the Rebbe to take the trip, and one of three chosen to lead the group.
Before they embarked, the Rebbe presented Shemtov and the others with a pocket siddur and Tanya [a book on the fundamentals of Chabad]. On the way, the group visited Jewish communities in England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy, eventually arriving in Israel.
“Our mission was to meet with the people,” Shemtov says. “Of course, it was sad, we were grieving. But it was also exciting for everybody. Hundreds of people came to the airport to meet us.”
The delegation spent nearly a month in Israel, where they met children, adults and community leaders. In Petach Tikvah, the Chief Rabbinate arranged a greeting at the city’s largest synagogue. It filled to capacity and Shemtov brought regards to the crowd from American Jewry.
The trip was a great success, helping to expand the Lubavitch movement in Israel.
— Jessica Naiman
As key supporters of the Chabad Lubavitch campus in West Bloomfield, Jack and Miriam Shenkman had the privilege of meeting with the Rebbe on several occasions.
Jack Shenkman recalls one of the earlier meetings, where he provided the Rebbe with an update on the progress of the new center.
“You know Rabbi Berel Shemtov has a big appetite,” Shenkman recalls the Rebbe telling them with a big smile, “but that is upon my instruction.”
Shenkman assured the Rebbe he would do everything he could to fulfill his wishes, a promise he kept over the years through his continued generosity and support of the Lubavitch movement. The Shenkmans provided funding for the The Shul in West Bloomfield that bears their name.
After traveling extensively and visiting Chabad centers in Israel and other countries, Jack Shenkman joined an international group of benefactors devoted to raising funds for new Chabad facilities throughout the world. As a part of this group, they would travel often to Brooklyn for a special audience with the Rebbe before the holidays.
“We experienced all the wonderful things they did at the direction of the Rebbe,” said Shenkman, who described the Rebbe as “the most impressive and awe-inspiring man I ever met.”
Miriam Shenkman said spending time with the Rebbe was a privilege and an honor.
“He had beautiful blue eyes and the most beautiful smile anyone could have,” she said. “It was a pleasure to be in his company, and I hope we can continue with the wonderful things he wanted us to do.”
— Ronelle Grier
Rabbi Mendel Scharf of Oak Park was barely 8 years old when his father passed away just days before Yom Kippur in 1989. The eldest of three boys, Mendel lived in Brooklyn with his family who were followers of the Rebbe and regular attendees at his synagogue.
By then, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was already the revered leader of a worldwide movement and a man of tremendous influence. He was all those things to young Mendel as well, but after his father’s passing, the Rebbe became something more — a watchful eye, a guardian, an encourager. He remembers well the first Sukkot after his father’s passing. As was common on holidays, the synagogue was packed with thousands of people. Just before his much-anticipated talk, the Rebbe called Mendel over to sit near him.
“I sat near the Rebbe and he looked down at me, and it just uplifted me,” Scharf says. “I had just lost my father, but from that time I never felt alone.”
That included making sure Scharf and his brothers were always in attendance to recite Kaddish for their father and participate in the davening (praying), or personally handing them a piece of challah or cake during a farbrengen (Chasidic gathering). Mendel would write Rabbi Schneerson letters and would always get replies.
“I was a little kid of 8, 9, 10, and the Rebbe was extremely busy at that point, but [he] would sit down to answer my questions,” Scharf says. “I would write him if I got a good report card or some other reward at school; he would always acknowledge it and thank me for the good report.”
Today Rabbi Scharf is a teacher at the Harry & Wanda Zekelman Campus of the Lubavitch Yeshiva-International School for Chabad Leadership in Oak Park, where he teaches 13- and 14-year-old boys a variety of Jewish subjects, but also takes the time to encourage and inspire them.
“The Rebbe is such an integral part of who I am and what I do,” he says, “it’s hard to do it justice with words.”
— Jessica Naiman