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Remembering the Rebbe Who Changed My Life

Remembering the Rebbe Who Changed My Life

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Having travelled around the world in my work as a China scholar, I have had many encounters that were deeply transformative. None, however, match the subtle, enduring change enacted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom I met only briefly three times in my life.

“Met” is not the right word to describe the impact of those encounters. Looking into the Rebbe’s very blue and very kind eyes, I learned to see my own existence in an utterly fresh light.

I did not know that I was seeking a newI learned to see my own existence in an utterly fresh light perspective when I first encountered one of the Rebbe’s emissaries. She was a high school girl waiting for a bus in Jerusalem in the summer of 1978. I was standing at the same stop, excited to be on my first visit to Israel. We started to chat. Somehow this young woman ended up telling me about her school (and I must have told her about my teaching at Wesleyan University). She invited me to sit in on one of her classes. I had never been to a yeshiva before, never sat and looked at Jewish texts slowly. It turned out to be great intellectual joy.

A couple of days later, the girl called to invite me to a Shabbat meal in the home of a poet who lived in Mea She’arim. Though not observant, I was fascinated by the “secret” world of the religious, and a poet who graduated from the University of Chicago and resided in this ultra-Orthodox enclave sparked my interest. That was how I came to meet a seasoned, soulful follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Over the next 35 years our friendship grew deeper and deeper. At first I simply glanced at the booklets she sent to me about the Rebbe’s teachings. During my first prolonged sojourn in China (1979-1980), I wrote to her simply because it was fun to receive letters from Jerusalem in Beijing.

When I came back from China, my Jerusalem friend urged me to reach out to some of the Rebbe’s followers in New Haven. That was how I met Rebbetzin Feige Levitin, with whom I continue to study Torah to this day. It was Feige who suggested that I go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the winter of 1992. By that time, I had learned more about Shabbat, had tenure at Wesleyan, and was the mother of a seven-year-old son. I was also very eager to have another child. Being no longer young (a predicament common to many career-oriented women), conceiving again was not easy. I decided to ask the Rebbe for a blessing to have another child.

Feige accompanied me on my first trip to see the Rebbe, on January 5, 1992. It was a Sunday like many others, when the Rebbe stood for hours distributing dollars, blessings, and advice to hundreds of people from all over the world. Feige had urged me to write out what I wanted to say to the Rebbe. I didn’t understand why, since it was a simple request to be blessed with another child. But she kept urging, so I did. When my turn came, I was introduced to the Rebbe as “Professor Schwarcz,” though I saw no reason for an academic title when I had such a simple, womanly request.

When the Rebbe looked at me, I started to cry. No words came at all. Suddenly I understood why Feige had urged me to write out my request. I mumbled something through my tears and felt the Rebbe’s infinite kindness and concern wash over me. As I moved on, he called me back, and handing me another dollar, said, “This is for your husband.”

I had not mentioned anything about our complex situation at home, yet somehow the Rebbe sensed it and responded with laser-sharp accuracy. I cried some more and walked around the block to pick up a video of my two minutes with the Rebbe. On the video I could hear the Rebbe give a blessing for a child, but not in the terms I had asked for.

On February 22, 1992, I was back in lineThe Rebbe sensed it and responded with laser-sharp accuracy for dollars, this time alone. In the short six weeks since my first encounter with the Rebbe, I had become pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. Now, I came ready to cry, with my pitiful plea for another child more ardent still.

Again, the Rebbe saw into the depths of my soul, again he blessed me, again I picked up the video, and again I listened to his blessing. There was something in there about another child, but it was very muffled by my tears.

In the spring of 1993, I decided to take our now eight-year-old son, Elie, to see the Rebbe. We were getting ready for a sabbatical year on Kibbutz Maaleh Gilboa in Israel, and I wanted my child to know that there was a holy man who had helped launch our whole family on a journey of Jewish growth.

By this time the Rebbe was infirm and there were no dollar lines. Occasionally, though, he would allow children to pass by him as he sat outside his study in 770 Eastern Parkway. We travelled to Crown Heights and waited to see if this was to be such a day. By late afternoon, we were told that there was no point in waiting. Then, just as we were leaving, word spread that the Rebbe was going to see people. Hundreds lined up in seconds in the narrow hallway.

When it was our turn to walk by the Rebbe, I placed my son in front of me. Elie took one look at the Rebbe (who was sitting, and hence at a child’s eye level) and stopped. For a long, long minute he stood immobile, while the crowd behind me pushed forward. Something in the Rebbe’s face had struck him. On that day, I believe, the Rebbe saw and activated the deepest layers of my son’s soul. Any time I worry about him or celebrate his accomplishments, I recall that moment when he stood before the Rebbe. I pray and hope that the encounter will carry him in the right direction for many years to come.

The Rebbe’s blessing for another child came to fruition in the spring of 1995, when we adopted our daughter, Esther. By that time, I could clearly hear the Rebbe’s blessings to me in the videos. They were not for birthing a child, but for raising a very special neshama that was meant to be part of our family. On our way to pick up Esther in Hungary, my husband and I stopped at the Rebbe’s Ohel to pray. A tough journey became infinitely smoother with the strength we gained there.

Looking back, I see that there wereThere were decades during which the Rebbe's care and concern guided my life decades during which the Rebbe's care and concern guided my life. In the 1990s, I used to phone the Rebbe’s secretary to ask if I should still be travelling to China for my work. I had become observant and wanted to focus more on Jewish studies. The answer from the Rebbe, again and again, was to keep going—to keep building bridges of understanding that I now see have borne fruit in my own scholarship and teaching, and in the strengthening of ties between Israel and China.

From the moment I first met him in 1992, the Rebbe has been an inspiring presence at my side. When I am in doubt about what path to pursue, I ask myself: ”What would the Rebbe say?” And a still, small voice answers from within and guides me.

As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a century ago, the greatest events of our lives are not to be found in “our loudest, but our stillest hours.” Encountering the Rebbe was such an event for me. He was and remains a unique force for mobilizing the best in each of us, simply by modeling a vision of goodness and integrity that is sorely lacking in the contemporary world.

A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Ledger.

Vera Schwarcz is the Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
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