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Discovering the Rebbe

A gathering of family, friends and acquaintances of “America’s Tenor” joined a Jewish archivist to mark the anniversary of legendary performer Jan Peerce’s passing with prayers, Torah study and the sharing of stories. A product of the Lower East Side, Peerce, whose parents were Belorussian immigrants, rose to prominence with performances at the Metropolitan Opera and in 1971, made his Broadway debut as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

At services marking his passing, Rabbi Hershel Okonov, director of F.R.E.E. – a Chabad-Lubavitch organization catering to the needs of immigrants from Eastern Europe that Peerce and his wife Alice served as lay leaders for close to two decades – delivered the traditional Kaddish memorial prayer and spoke about Peerce’s life and love of Judaism.

“My father loved Rabbi Okonov,” Peerce’s daughter revealed in an interview with Rabbi Dovid Zaklikowski, an editor for the Judaism website Chabad.org. “Whenever I saw them together, I saw a strong bond between them.”

Peerce also maintained correspondence with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who told the tenor that “through the medium of song and melody, one can touch directly upon the heartstrings of the listener and inspire his inner soul.”

“I never formally joined the Lubavitch movement,” Peerce would later say. “I just am a Lubavitcher.”

Zaklikowski, who uncovered letters between Peerce and the Rebbe as part of his research into the Rebbe’s correspondence with different public figures, travelled to the singer’s resting place in Westchester, N.Y., to recite Psalms and pray for the wellbeing of his family. He later went to the Ohr Hameir theological seminary, where Rabbi Mendel Kanerik shared memories of his students visiting Peerce’s home on the Sabbath and his recollections of Peerce’s wit.

The Rebbe's Letter to Peerce

Below is an excerpt from the letter to Peerce, courtesy of the book project: Dear Rebbe: The Famous and Unknown Correspond with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson a project of Lubavitch Archives.

Your joining this ever growing Chasidic family who have found a new meaning in life and, with it, peace and happiness, has a special significance in that you are a Kohen, and also in that Divine Providence has given you a gift of song and melody. For this is a medium that directly communicates with the heart and the inner aspects of the soul, unlike prose which speaks to the intellect and only then can probe deeper. Through the medium of song and melody one can touch directly upon the heartstrings of the listener and inspire his inner soul, which is the reason why song and melody have such a prominent part in Chasidus [Hassidism] in general, and in Chabad in particular.

In the light of the above, I extend to you both my prayerful wishes to utilize to the full the capacities and opportunities which G‑d has given you in the above mentioned direction, and to do this in the Chabad way – with complete trust in G‑d and with inspiration, and may G‑d bless you with Hatzlocho [success] to go from strength to strength in all above, in good health and with gladness of heart.

A Brief History

When a beloved individual in the Crown Heights Jewish community had a heart attack during a Jewish holiday in 1976, the ambulance arrived too late to save his life. The tragedy gave birth to a Crown Heights volunteer ambulance group, Chevrah Hatzalah, which in Hebrew literally means rescue team.

The first ambulance was purchased by the founder of the Brooklyn rescue team, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Bistritzky. The van was parked outside of Lubavitch World Headquarters. Although, at the time that was a central location in the community, it also got them in trouble.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, sent a message to Rabbi Bistritzky instructing him to remove the caduceus from the Hatzalah logo. The Rebbe explained that the Greek symbol is sourced in idolatry should not be used. It was immediately removed and later replaced with a heart that has been adopted by many of the Jewish volunteer groups.1

Where to Keep the Ambulance?

One would think the best place to keep an ambulance would be in an indoor parking garage. Keeping it in a warm place, protected from the elements, would prevent the vehicle from needing to be warmed up and save time in an emergency.2

Nevertheless, when exiting the Kingston Avenue train station the ambulance is parked outside on the cold street. A contraption of wires hangs out from the synagogue building to keep the ambulance warm.3

But why? Who would want to see an ambulance every day? Why would we want to be reminded of sick people? Anyone who has been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance will never forget the misery of the ride.

But the Rebbe, with his passion for finding the positive in everything, saw it very differently. The Rebbe emphasized the importance of preventive medicine. The Rebbe encouraged doctors to dedicate themselves to preventing illness, rather than waiting until people are sick and then treating them.4

The Rebbe explained that when a person knows there are competent doctors available, it gives the person a certain serenity and peace that prevents illness.

Similarly, the Rebbe explained that seeing the ambulance regularly will remind people to be preemptive with their health and take steps to staying healthy.

“Hopefully, like this, they will never have to see a doctor in the case of emergency!”5

Footnotes
1.

From an interview with Rabbi Bistritzky.

2.

From an interview with Avi of Chevra Hatzalah Ambulance Corp.

3.

Today there is also another ambulance that is kept in a garage.

5.

From a talk on March 3, 1984, printed in Likutei Sichot, vol. 26, p. 392.

Many have struggled to describe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. A task so daunting due to the multifariousness of the Rebbe’s personality and achievements.

Rather than attempting to describe the Rebbe, this forum will share hitherto unknown tidbits of information about his life and teachings — information that was recorded in writing, audio and video.

Join us as we explore the Rebbe’s life and teachings. Manuscripts, letters, firsthand experiences and more.
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