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A Basketball Coach's Change of Career

A Basketball Coach's Change of Career

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Abe at a Chassidic gathering in the Lubavitch World Headquaters.
Abe at a Chassidic gathering in the Lubavitch World Headquaters.

Abe Saks, a coach on the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, was glued to his television screen. It was 1973 and running on television there was a series called "Religious America," which focused on the spiritual lives of different Americans. That week the television displayed scenes of Lubavitch life in Crown Heights, Brooklyn: prayers with the Lubavitcher Rebbe… a Chassidic wedding… the circumcision of an eight-day-old boy. Abe was transfixed. Most of all he was captivated by the images of the Rebbe himself.

On an impulse, as soon as the show was over Abe caught a train and headed to the address he'd seen on the screen, "770 Eastern Parkway," the central synagogue of Lubavitch.

He was immediately greeted by Chassidim on the street with the now-familiar question: "Would you like to don tefillin?" Already inspired, on a high, he agreed to don tefillin, something he had not done for over thirty years. In response to his question when and where he could meet the Rebbe face to face, he was told the date of the next farbrengen (public Chassidic gathering).

From that day on, Abe made sure to put on tefillin daily.

The day of the farbrengen arrived, and Abe made sure to arrive a few hours early to secure a good seat. He found the singing and clapping absorbing, but once again the most precious part of the experience was simply the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe's face. The sight gave Abe an indescribable, jubilant feeling.

Abe became a frequent visitor to the red brick building on Eastern Parkway. Whenever he felt down he would travel to 770. He didn't mind the long trip; seeing that smile and those eyes made it all worth it. And of course, at every farbrengen with the Rebbe, Abe was there, clapping and singing along with the crowd.

One day, the Rebbe informed his secretaries of his intention to conduct a sudden surprise farbrengen. Word spread quickly amongst the Chassidim who quickly ran to 770.

Abe arrived at 770 next morning, found out about the farbrengen the night beforehand, and was deeply disappointed to have missed it. He consoled himself with the thought that he would soon see the Rebbe as he entered the prayer hall for morning prayers.

When the Rebbe entered the room, instead of heading directly to his place, he stopped and spoke to Abe, "I did not see you yesterday, where were you?" Abe replied that he had not been told about the surprise gathering.

"Nobody informed you?!" the Rebbe asked.

From then on, somebody made sure to inform Abe every time a farbrengen was to take place.

Abe slowly learned and acquired knowledge about his Jewish heritage. Various individuals "coached" him, and he constantly received encouragement from the Rebbe.

At first, Abe did not know how to read Hebrew. One night while reciting the Shema in English. He burst into tears, distraught. "Why can't I read the Hebrew? Why am I not able to recite the Shema and the other prayers in the original Hebrew – the holy language?" he whispered in anguish.

The next day Abe traveled to 770 to cheer himself up. He stationed himself in the foyer at the entrance of 770, outside the room where the Rebbe was listening to the reading of the Torah. On his way back to his office the Rebbe met Abe. Before Abe had a chance to utter a word, the Rebbe said with a wide smile: "G‑d Almighty understands all languages, English as well."

Another time, unable to sleep, Abe arrived in 770 in the early hours of the morning. The Rebbe was then on his way out, heading home after many hours of receiving people in private audiences. Seeing Abe, the Rebbe told him, "A Jew has to sleep in order to have strength for the next day."

Abe replied, "You also do not sleep much at night."

Said the Rebbe, "I do not sleep because I am worried and preoccupied with the many requests I receive. However, why don't you sleep?"

When retelling the story years later, Abe said, "From then on I tried to sleep at night, so the Rebbe wouldn't worry about me!"

Over the years, Abe learned Hebrew and began attending classes at Hadar HaTorah, an academy for beginners in Jewish practice, located in Crown Heights.

Abe particularly enjoyed a program known as "Encounter with Chabad," wherein people from all walks of life would come to spend a weekend with the Crown Heights community and learn more about their heritage. He would participate in the entire program of speakers and lectures.

Once, when a group of college students came to Crown Heights for an "Encounter" weekend, the Rebbe saw Abe with them and instructed him, "'Coach' the students in Judaism."

Having been coached himself, he was now able to coach others. And a basketball coach also became a Judaism coach.

Following Abe's passing on Shabbat, November 3, 1985 (the 3rd day of Kislev, 5746), the Rebbe paid for the arrangement of his burial and the reciting of the mourners' Kaddish.1

Footnotes
1.
Based on a rabbinical student's personal diary from the year 1984, with additions from a handwritten note of the Rebbe.
Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Anonymous June 15, 2016

Wow. Love this story so much. Thank you for sharing. Reply

Izzy August 17, 2015

Thanks Heartwarming! Reply

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