Rabbi Shabsi Katz, the Rabbi of Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, and the Jewish Chaplain for the Department of Prisons in that country, maintained a relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe for many years.
In December of 1978, he came to visit the Rebbe for the third time. At a private audience with the Rebbe a few days before Chanukah, the Rebbe asked Rabbi Katz what was being done for Jewish prisoners in South Africa. Rabbi Katz explained that conditions in South African prisons were much harsher than in New York, but that Jewish prisoners were not obligated to work on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Passover, and on Passover, they were given food certified kosher for the holiday by Pretoria's rabbinate.
The Rebbe asked: "And what about Chanukah? Can the inmates light
Chanukah candles?" One must appreciate, the Rebbe said, how important it is for a person sitting alone in a cell to light a Chanukah menorah. One cannot fathom the warmth and hope this brings, and how this will uplift his spirits in such a dark environment.
Rabbi Katz promised that when he returned to South Africa he would begin working on the project, so that next year the inmates could light Chanukah candles. The Rebbe, however, was not satisfied, and inquired: What about this Chanukah?
Rabbi Katz pointed out that Chanukah was only a few days off. Since he was in New York, he doubted it would be possible to do anything. The Rebbe replied that as soon as their meeting ended, Rabbi Katz should use the telephones in the outside office to make any calls that were necessary.
Rabbi Katz then reminded the Rebbe that in South Africa it was four o'clock in the morning; at that hour, he dared not wake the general in charge of correctional facilities.
Watch an interview with Rebbetzin Jill Katz recounting the events described in this article
The Rebbe did not accept Rabbi Katz's reply, saying that, on the contrary, when the general saw that the matter was so important that he was called from overseas in the middle of the night, he would be impressed, and would appreciate the need for Jewish prisoners to light candles this year.
As soon as Rabbi Katz left the Rebbe's office, one of the secretaries led him to the small side office across the hall from the Rebbe's. He showed him the phones and told him to make himself at home.
Rabbi Katz first called his secretary in Pretoria to find the home number of General Sephton, who was a Dominee of the Dutch Reformed Church and Religious Director of Prisons. At the same time, he asked his secretary to call the general and tell him he would soon be receiving a call from overseas. And so, when he called General Sephton a few minutes later, the general was not upset, but instead, inquired how he could help.
Rabbi Katz explained that he had just completed a private meeting with one of the leaders of world Jewry, who had expressed concern about the Jewish inmates in South African prisons. The leader had explained how important it was for the prisoners to light Chanukah menorahs, and how this would bring them warmth, light and hope.
General Sephton was moved. In spite of the fact that his office was due to close that day -- it was December 24 -- he said that if Rabbi Katz was calling at that time of night from overseas, he could understand how urgent the matter was, and that as soon as he got to his office in the morning he would send a telex to all the prison facilities in South Africa telling them to make it possible for all Jewish prisoners in South Africa to light candles this Chanukah.
Next morning, when the Rebbe came to Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Easterm Parkway, Rabbi Katz was in the foyer. "Nu?" motioned the Rebbe. When he heard that the mission had been accomplished, the Rebbe gave him a broad smile and told Rabbi Katz that he wanted to see him after the morning prayers.
When Rabbi Katz entered the Rebbe's room, the Rebbe told him that there are 50 states in the US, and all but one allowed Jewish inmates to light Chanukah candles. "Would you believe it," said the Rebbe, "it is only here -- in New York State -- that prisoners cannot light menorahs for Chanukah!"
The Rebbe asked that Rabbi Katz see to it that the inmates of New York State prisons lit Chanukah candles that year. "Tell them what you did, that they should learn from South Africa, and do the same here," he advised.
Rabbi Katz did not know where to start; he told the Rebbe that he did not know whom to contact first.
"Rabbi J. J. Hecht has been working hard on this project, and will know
whom to turn to," the Rebbe answered him.
When Rabbi Katz sought out Rabbi Hecht, it was Rabbi Hecht's turn to be
astonished. He pointed out that it was December 24, and already past noon;
nobody would be at their desks at that time. Could officials be reached at their office parties?
But after Rabbi Katz told him about his audience with the Rebbe, and his personal call to General Sephton in South Africa, Rabbi Hecht relaxed. Past experience had told him, he said, that if the Rebbe asked someone to do something right away, things worked out well even if the timing seemed bad.
After a few calls, Rabbi Hecht was able to locate the director of the New York State Correctional System, and found him in a jovial mood. Rabbi Hecht then introduced Rabbi Katz, who informed the director that Jewish prisoners in South Africa would be lighting Chanukah candles that year, and suggested that if this could happen in South Africa, surely it should happen in New York. The director agreed, remarking that if in South Africa, where Jews are such a minority, the prisons gave them permission to light candles, there was no reason why it shouldn't happen in New York. He promised to attend to the matter in time for Chanukah.
Rabbi Katz looked at his watch. It was several minutes before three, and the Rebbe would come out for the afternoon minchah prayers at 3:15. He hurried back to 770 and positioned himself outside the Rebbe's room. When the Rebbe came out for the afternoon prayers, he saw Rabbi Katz and motioned "Nu?" Rabbi Katz indicated that the mission had been accomplished. "I want to see you after minchah!" the Rebbe smiled.
Rabbi Katz was surprised. What mission would be waiting for him after minchah? When he entered the Rebbe's room, however, the Rebbe did not have another project for him. Instead, the Rebbe said that as he had done him a personal favor, he would like to do something in return.
Rabbi Katz was bewildered. He told the Rebbe that it had been a privilege and an honor to do what he had done. He had received so much in blessings and guidance from the Rebbe throughout the years that he certainly did not expect anything more.
The Rebbe did not accept this answer. So Rabbi Katz thought quickly, and asked the Rebbe for a Tanya (the book authored by the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and regarded as the "bible of
Chassidism") for his son, who would certainly appreciate it. The Rebbe told him that one would be in the outer office shortly. When Rabbi Katz returned to pick it up, he found a Hebrew Tanya waiting for Rabbi Katz himself, a leather-bound, deluxe Hebrew/English Tanya for his son, "Challenge" (a book on Chabad) for General Sephton in South Africa,
and "Woman of Valor" (an anthology of Chassidic teachings on women)
for the general's wife.
When Rabbi Katz returned to South Africa, he called General Sephton. Before he could say anything, the general reassured him that he had sent the telexes the day he had received the call from America, and that the Jewish prisoners had indeed kindled Chanukah candles that year. When Rabbi Katz told the general that the Rebbe had sent gifts for him, the general said he would be right over to pick them up.
Indeed, within an hour, the general was sitting in Rabbi Katz's living room. Asked why he had hurried so, he replied that when a person sitting in New York thinks about somebody living on the other side of the globe -- especially somebody imprisoned for wrongdoing -- and seeks out someone to bring him light and warmth, he is a genuine leader.
"And if such a leader sends something for me, I want it as soon as
possible," said the general.