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My Moment with the Rebbe

My Moment with the Rebbe

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I am standing in line together with tens of thousands of other Jews from all religious backgrounds and affiliations. In the sweltering New York City heat, we wait for over four hours for our moment to stand in front of the Rebbe’s gravesite. To reflect, to say a prayer, to ask for a personal blessing.

As I wait in the long line, I take a few moments to observe the expressions of those waiting along with me. Solemn, serious, intense. Most people utilize their time to read words of Psalms or study from other sacred literature. Some wear long beards and black fedora hats identifying them as Chabadniks; others wear the wide felt hats and long sidecurls of other chassidic groups. There are still others who have clearly donned kippot just for this occasion. He is getting restlessTwo African-American women stand in line, clutching pictures of the Rebbe in their hands as they patiently wait for their moment. There is one thing that unites us all. We are all admirers of the Rebbe. We have all been influenced by his leadership, some directly, some indirectly.

My 11-year-old son is standing next to me. He is getting restless. We have already been waiting in line for over two hours. It takes me back to a time when I was 11 years old. I was also standing in a long line for hours. I too was restless. I was impatiently waiting for my moment with the Rebbe. I would walk by the Rebbe and receive a crisp dollar bill from the Rebbe’s hand. The Rebbe would stare at me with his penetrating eyes. His stare was so intense, it felt as if he was peering right into my soul. He would wish me a blessing for success.

In fact, the Rebbe would spend every Sunday greeting thousands of men, women and children. Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations would come to receive a blessing and a dollar bill, relishing the opportunity to see the Rebbe face-to-face. Chief rabbis, world leaders, senior politicians, the Hollywood elite and Jewish activists, would all come seeking inspiration and direction. The impoverished, the heartbroken, widows and orphans would all come for their moment with the Rebbe. All would leave feeling motivated and more empowered to effectively realize their personal potential. To positively influence the lives of others. To selflessly contribute toward a better society.

The dollar was meant to be given to charity. It represented the Rebbe’s philosophy of life, that when two people get together for whatever reason, it should always directly benefit a third individual.

I was lucky to have waited in those long lines many times. I received dollars, coins, honey cake, and various different sacred books of Torah. Every time, I left with the same overwhelming emotion. I was a little boy, but when I passed by the Rebbe, I didn’t feel like a little boy. I felt like I was important, like I had distinct and consequential value. The Rebbe didn’t treat me like a child. His serious eyes begged me to make a difference. His expression was loving yet demanding. I did not want to let him down. I vowed that I would make him proud.

I will never forget the first time I experienced the festival of Simchat Torah with the Rebbe. Hours before the hakafot service, the traditional dancing with the Torah, my father brought me to the Rebbe’s synagogue. My father warned me that the crowd would be enormous and the pushing intense. The Rebbe didn’t treat me like a childTens of thousands of guests would travel from across the globe to spend Simchat Torah in the Rebbe’s court. Despite my father’s warnings, I was completely unprepared for the chaotic scene that I witnessed. It was literally a sea of humanity. Every inch of space was filled with people clamoring to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe dancing with the Torah scroll in his arms. Benches-turned-bleachers were constructed around the walls of the synagogue, like in a stadium, five or six rows high.

The climax of the evening was when the Rebbe would walk from the front of the synagogue, clutching the Torah in his hand, to the middle of the room, where he would dance on a raised platform. The Rebbe would walk down a narrow path that was separated by two long tables.

My father and I had come early enough to secure a place at one of those tables. As the evening progressed and the numbers of congregants continued to grow, my father tightly wrapped both his arms around me to make sure I wouldn’t slip out of his grip. The anticipation was mounting. In mere moments the Rebbe would walk toward the middle of the room. The excitement was so real, so genuine. You could feel it. You could almost touch it.

The Rebbe turned around. He began to walk. The crowd surged, pushing forward, trying to get just a little closer to the Rebbe. I could feel my father losing his grip on me. His embrace weakened. I did my best to push myself backward into my father. It was useless, impossible, a futile exercise. I slipped off the table. Fear overcame me. I could see the Rebbe coming toward me. I had nowhere to go. Time stopped. It felt like an eternity. I started to cry.

Thankfully, someone very strong came to my rescue. He reached over, lifted me in the air, and quickly moved me out of the way. I ended up in the arms of a nice man, who comforted me and positioned me so that I could watch the incredible scene unfold.

The Rebbe danced alone. He walked around to every side of the platform and danced, ensuring that everyone in the room had a chance to capture the experience. It was truly Simchat Torah. The Rebbe exuded simchah, happiness, joy. You were able to sense the Rebbe’s desire to share his simchah with everyone in the room. To lift up everyone in the room.

It is what happened next that had the most impact on me, an 11-year-old boy.

The Rebbe was walking back toward the front of the synagogue. Anyone who was within arm’s length of the Rebbe stretched out their arm to be able to touch and kiss the Torah. The Rebbe walked slowly. I wished I could have the chance to kiss the Torah. It was impossible. I was just too far. I clumsily stretched out my arm. Suddenly, the Rebbe stopped. I clumsily stretched out my armHe noticed my outstretched arm. He looked me straight in the eye, with the same penetrating, loving stare I would receive when he handed me a dollar bill. He extended the Torah as far as he could; I stretched out my arm as far as I could. We met. I managed to kiss the Rebbe’s Sefer Torah.

The Rebbe could have just ignored my outstretched arm and longing face. After all, I was only a little kid. I would get over it. But in the Rebbe’s eyes, I was not a young child; I played an integral, crucial part in G‑d’s master plan. I had an important mission. I was no longer an 11-year-boy who was filled with fear and anxiety over being separated from my father. I was now a confident young man, ready to carry my weight.

This was my moment with the Rebbe. A moment that lasts forever.

I often think of my moment. It has carried me forward for the past 20 years. It was the inspiring factor that convinced me to join the Rebbe’s army of shluchim—a group of over 4,000 activists in over 81 countries determined to realize the Rebbe’s dream of bringing goodness, kindness, warmth and light to every corner of the globe. I have encountered many challenges in my years of shlichus, and it has been my moment with the Rebbe that has helped me persevere.

I am finally standing in front of the Rebbe’s gravesite. Through eyes brimming with tears, I read the Rebbe’s name etched in the tombstone. I feel the deep void. I long for the Rebbe’s physical presence, guidance and leadership. I close my eyes. I relive my moment. I reaffirm my pledge to dedicate my life to the ideas and ideals of the Rebbe.

I look down at my son. His face is shining. He is saying his chapter of Psalms. There are no tears in his eyes. This is his moment with the Rebbe.

I know that he is as determined as I am to fulfill his mission. He no longer feels like he is an 11-year-old kid. He feels proud, empowered, confident. He recognizes that he is a valuable component of the Rebbe’s vision.

Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn is the spiritual leader at Chabad of Centrepointe, a vibrant synagogue and community centre in Ottawa. He also serves as the director of public affairs for the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch. The CFCL represents over one hundred not-for-profit schools, camps, synagogues, community centres and social centres across Canada. He served for three years as a reserve chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces. He was the first Jewish chaplain to serve since the Second World War, and was instrumental in helping coordinate the military’s first Jewish regular force chaplain. He hosts a weekly radio show on Ottawa’s CKCU FM. He is married to Bassy Mendelsohn, and is the proud father of six children, four girls and two boys.
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Geoffrey Jacks Lakewood, CA April 8, 2015

Re: My Moment with the Rebbe Truly a touching story that should motivate all to pursue goodness on earth.

"L'Chaim 5775!" Reply

Sophiee Saguy April 2, 2015

Every single soul is precious. That is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. Reply

Bella Green March 31, 2015

Beautiful! Reply

Miriam March 30, 2015

A most beautiful story. It brings tears to my eyes. Reply

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