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A Jew in Brooklyn

A Jew in Brooklyn


Chaim Tzvi Schwartz was not a Lubavitcher chassid—before the war, his family had been followers of the rebbe of Munkatch—but a certain day in 1946 found him seeking the counsel of the then Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. Rabbi Schwartz was a young refugee who had lost his entire family, and the only world he knew, in the Holocaust, and was at a loss as to what to do with his life.

“Speak to my son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” said the Rebbe, and gave Chaim his blessing.

The Rebbe’s son-in-law suggested that the young rabbi take up residence in a certain city in Brazil.


“There are a great number of Jewish refugees settling in Brazil. Due to the tribulations that our people have undergone in the last few years, most of them lack even the most basic rudiments of a Jewish education. Already, many have fallen prey to assimilation and intermarriage. It is the responsibility of every Torah-educated Jew to prevent the spiritual dissolution of our people. Go to Brazil, and help build a community of knowledgeable and observant Jews.”

Chaim accepted the mission, moved to Brazil, and founded a Jewish day school there. Much effort and toil were necessary to find the funding, train the teachers, and convince the parents of the importance of granting their children a Jewish education. Over the years, Rabbi Schwartz saw his school flourish and grow, and its graduates form the nucleus of a community of proud, committed Jews.

Rabbi Schwartz maintained an infrequent but warm contact with the man who had sent him to Brazil, who had meanwhile assumed the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement following the passing of his father-in-law in 1950. From time to time, Rabbi Schwartz would seek the Rebbe’s advice on various challenges and decisions he faced in the course of his work.

It was on one such occasion, several years after his arrival in Brazil, that Rabbi Schwartz truly realized the scope of the Rebbe’s concern for his people. Rabbi Schwartz related this incident to a Lubavitcher chassid he met on a flight from Brazil to New York:

One day—he began his tale—I received a call from the parents of one of the children in my school, requesting a meeting. While this was a fairly common request, the anxiety in the voices on the phone told me that this was no simple matter. I invited them to meet with me in my home that evening.

“This does not concern our son,” began the father, after they had settled in my study, “who is doing wonderfully in your school, but our eldest daughter, who grew up here before you came. As you know, we are not very observant, but it is important to us that our children should retain their identity as Jews. This is why we send our son to you, despite the fact that your school is considerably more ‘religious’ than ourselves.

“To get to the point, our daughter has informed us that she has fallen in love with a non-Jew, and that they intend to marry. We have tried everything to dissuade her, but our arguments, appeals, threats and tears have all been to no avail. She now refuses to discuss the matter with us at all, and has moved out of our home. Rabbi! You are our only hope! Perhaps you can reach her; perhaps you can impress upon her the gravity of the betrayal against her people, her parents and her own identity in what she intends to do!”

“Would she agree to meet with me?” I asked.

“If she knew that we had spoken to you, she’d refuse.”

“Then I’ll go speak to her on my own.”

I took her address from her parents, and rang her bell that very evening. She was visibly annoyed to learn of my mission, but too well-mannered not to invite me in. We ended up speaking for several hours. She listened politely, and promised to consider everything I said, but I came away with the feeling that I had had little effect on her decision.

For several days I pondered the matter, trying to think of what might possibly be done to prevent the loss of a Jewish soul. Then I thought of my last resort—the Rebbe. I called the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Hodakov, related to him the entire affair, and asked for the Rebbe’s advice as to what might be done. A few minutes later the phone rang. “The Rebbe says to tell the young woman,” said Rabbi Hodakov, “that there is a Jew in Brooklyn who cannot sleep at night because she intends to marry a non-Jew.”

The unexpected reply confused me, and I failed to understand what Rabbi Hodakov was saying. “Who is this Jew?” I blurted out.

Then I heard the Rebbe’s voice on the other extension: “His name is Mendel Schneerson.”

I slowly returned the receiver to its cradle, more confused than ever. Could I possibly do what the Rebbe suggested? Why, she’ll slam the door in my face! After agonizing all night, I decided to carry out the Rebbe’s instructions to the letter. After all, the fate of a Jewish soul was at stake, and what did I have to lose, except for my pride?

Early the next morning, I was at her door. “Listen,” she said before I could utter a word, “whom I marry is my own affair, and no else’s. I respect rabbis and men of faith, so I heard you out when I should have shown you the door. Please go away and stop bothering me.”

“There is one more thing I need to say to you,” said I.

“Then say it, and go.”

“There is a Jew in Brooklyn who cannot sleep at night because you intend to marry a non-Jew.”

That’s what you came to tell me?!” she said, incredulous, and proceeded to close the door.

Midway, she stopped. “Who is this Jew?”

“A great Jewish leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” I replied. “The Rebbe is greatly concerned about the material and spiritual wellbeing of every Jew, and agonizes over every soul that is lost to its people.”

“What does he look like? Do you have a picture of him?”

“I should have a picture somewhere. I’ll go and get it for you.”

To my surprise, she didn’t object, and indicated assent with a mute nod. I rushed home and nearly turned the house upside down in search of a photograph of the Rebbe. I finally found a photo in a desk drawer, and hurried back to the young woman’s apartment.

One look at the Rebbe’s likeness, and her face turned pale. “Yes, it’s him,” she whispered.

“All week long,” she explained, “this man has been appearing in my dreams and imploring me not to abandon my people. I told myself that I was conjuring up an image of a Jewish sage, and putting those words in his mouth, as a reaction to what you and my parents have been saying to me. But no, it was no conjecture. I have never met this man in my life, seen a picture of him or even heard of him. But this is he—this is the man I have been seeing in my dreams . . .”

Originaly published in Kfar Chabad Magazine; translated from the Hebrew by Yanki Tauber.
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein January 27, 2013

Re: Anonymous's comment Perhaps Anonymous was a bit harsh in speaking of Reform and its conversions. It sounds like he/she is speaking from personal experience with this movement, so I will not discount that experience. I know many Reform Jews personally, including converts, and agree that many are sincere and committed to their Judaism, and that they study hard for conversion. However, these conversions are not compatible with Torah and Jewish law. Despite the converts' sincerity, one cannot become Jewish when the overseeing body does not accept the entire Torah as of divine origin or sanction. Even later decrees of rabbis, when enacted for the preservation and enhancement of Torah and out of a love for G-d, are also G-dly. While Tikkun Olam is a wonderful pursuit, Torah is about Tikkun Olam in the service of G-d, and in the way He prescribes, including through the precise performance of the irrational mitzvot. It is not an end in itself. Reply

Anonymous Massachusetts January 22, 2013

Reform and conversion To Anonymous, whose posting is dated yesterday, January 21, 2013.

You wrote, "A conversion from reform or any other body is simply a joke,, there is no quick way to being a Jew."

I belong to a Reform synagogue and among my many friends there are a number of converts. These fine people spent years studying Judaism and taking part in Jewish communal life before formally becoming "one of us".

You imply that Reform conversion is "quick". It is not, at least not here. You are ignorant.

And your statement, that Reform conversion is "a joke", is insulting. My friends are observant Jews, working towards tikkun olam, and are exemplars of the best Judaism has to offer.

Don't speak of what you don't know. Yes, I read that you "used to be Reform" until you were shown "the only correct way". You've been brainwashed. Many of the traditions you adhere to were developed 700 or 500 years ago, by some rabbi's decree over some other rabbi's decree. They are not set in stone. Reply

Anonymous January 21, 2013

Who is a jew How I wish those who marry Gentiles understand how awfully confusing it is for your children. The definition of a Jew is one from a Jewish mother, or from a woman properly converted through the proper channels. This formula works and I have had the pleasure of being with many people who become hidden, live a Jewish kosher life and keep the commandments. A person who wants to be a Jew will do so for the sake of Hashem, and not for a big party and flash lifestyle. A child whose mother is a a gentile. A conversion from reform or any other body is simply a joke,, there is no quick way to being a Jew. The holocaust does not define our way of life, the Torah does and will always do. I belonged to reform years ago. I even wanted to e a rabbi with them, but thankfully, I was shown the correct way, the only way to be a Jew and dropped the reform. Please don't fall for the phony way in which the reform or conservatives will fool you by telling you your conversion is valid.identit y Reply

Anonymous Beverly Hills, California December 24, 2012

Beautiful!! This story is so beautiful, and touching! The power of a holy and righteous man! Reply

Stephen Sacks Los Angeles , CA via June 22, 2012

Struggled to find a pitcure of the Rebbe 'I rushed home and nearly turned the house upside down in search of a photograph of the Rebbe.'

Seriously??? Reply

Hany Mtl, CA June 21, 2012

Maybe a Jew Maybe he is in fact Jewish ! Who knows maybe if he looks back his great great mother was Jewish making him a Jew according to Halakhah !

L Haym and Mazel Tov! Reply

Charles Kerr Honolulu, Hawaii June 20, 2012

So, who is this lost soul we are talking about? This story brings up important questions. If a Jewish woman marries a non-Jew does she loose her Jewish soul? She's a Jew; her children are Jews no matter what - right? So who is the lost Jewish soul the story is talking about?

Certainly the children of the woman's son and the generations that follow them would be souls lost to Judaism if her son marries a non-Jew. But I don't think this is what the story is talking about.

So who is this lost Jewish soul? It is the soul of the marriage itself - the home that embodies the unified soul of husband and wife. The Jewish soul of the home is lost because the Holy distinction between a Jew and non-Jew precludes a Holy sanctioned union between the two. Reply

Anonymous Worcester, MA June 19, 2012

intermarriage Judy said, "studies have shown that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of intermarriage usually wind up discarding Judaism completely."

We should ask ourselves why this should be?

Is there no INTRINSIC value to Judaism that would keep our children (offspring of intermarriages or INTRA-marriages alike) in the fold?

I believe there is. But the statistics show that we are not communicating that value effectively. Reply

Tanya June 19, 2012

For John Plotz Hi John,

I feel your pain and anuguish concerning your sons.

What i would like to say to you is this, as a person of Jewish ancestry and one converting Orthdox, I understand how frustrating tha Halacha on "who is or is not a Jew" may be to you, given that my bloodline too would have sent me to the camps. Even more frustrating, has been the fight to study to become accepted halichically.

I would encourage you to give your children the best gift ever, the gift of Torah, let their connection to Judaism be a Halichic one where no-one will question their identity.

Your situation is complex, but not irredeemable - these two boys could have access to a Jewish Education and make the decision themselves.

kind regards

Pauline Fromer Capestrano, Italy June 19, 2012

To Be a Convert Many years ago, when I was living and working in Rome, I met the most wonderful man of my life and I wanted to learn how to become a member of the Jewish faith. . I approached the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Toaff, and told him that I would like to learn more about the Jewish faith; he recommended a German Rabbi who had escaped ...
Rabbi B. said to me, upon learning what I wanted him to do, to teach me, he said:
Pauline, there are enough bad Jews in the world; we don't need converts". But he did teach me and my new name became Ruth when I married my Julian.

Chaya Philadelphia, PA June 18, 2012

This Story So, please, tell us what happened. Or are we to write our own endings? Reply

Michael Groetzinger New Cumberland, PA July 26, 2011

To Mr. John Plotz Sir, it is not possible for you to drive this account off the road and into the ditch of implausability simply because you yourself, John Plotz, do not believe it to be so. How can you say that no Jew in Brooklyn would lose sleep over the loss of a Jewish soul?
The heart of the matter is you yourself would not lose sleep over it and so you presume to project this trait onto us all. Also, I respectfully suggest that there is an illogical vein to your arguments. Reply

Debbie Zucker New York, New York May 28, 2010

Nazis and Judaism Mr Plotz:

Your "pragmatic" definition of Jewishness allows people who hate Jews to define us. Judaism did not begin in the early-mid 20th century. According to the Nazis, you could have been punished not only for being Jewish, but also for Rassenschande (race defilement). According to them, you are an Untermensch (sub-human), and your beautiful, righteous, kindly, loving sons are Mischling (mongrels). Under the Nuremberg laws, your truly wonderful Gentile wife is Jewish by legal validity because she married you.

However, we are a *people* not a race. Your wife could have joined the Jewish people by converting, but she did not. Your sons may be Jewish some day, but for now, by birth they are not members of the Jewish people.

John Plotz Hayward, California December 27, 2009

Jewish Moms I am aware of this matrilineal definition of Jewishness. Let me offer my own more pragmatic, less magical, definition -- a Jew is someone who calls himself or herself a Jew (at least within very wide limits). Here's another -- a Jew is someone the Nazis, or people like them, would try to exterminate on the grounds of Jewishness. By any definition, I am a Jew, albeit a non-believer. By any definition the mother of my children is not. My beautiful, righteous, kindly, loving sons -- David and Michael -- (a) call themselves Jews and (b) would be hauled off to the camps in a minute. One could say, Oh, they are not REALLY Jews. And if one said so. . . Well, I won't go there.

& Hi again, Judy. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY December 27, 2009

Not Racism Opposition to intermarriage isn't racism. A Black person who is the child of a Jewish mother, or a Black person who is a sincere convert, is as much of a Jew as the pinkest-skinned child, maybe even more so if the White child is the offspring of a non-Jewish mother. Nowadays in America you can find many more Jews who are Black and Latino, some righteous converts and some Jewish from birth. We don't say that intermarriage is wrong because non-Jews are subhuman or anything racist like that. Intermarriage is forbidden because it means the end of the Jewish people. Any non-Jew who converts to Judaism has the potential for greatness, just like Onkelos and Queen Heleni and all the other righteous converts in our history. Anyone can join us and marry us - but they have to join us BEFORE they can marry us. Not racism, just a necessary precondition.

Dwight Ann Arbor, Michigan September 23, 2009

intermarriage There's nothing pretty about racism - no matter the context. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY March 30, 2009

Honored Foremothers Ruth the Moabitess (who married Boaz) and Naamah the Ammonitess (who married King Solomon) were honored foremothers of our people. Tradition says the Messiah (Moshiach) will be descended from them. Yet they were born into the nations of Moab and Ammon, hated enemies of Israel. These noble women chose to join the Jewish people despite the challenges of accepting Judaism. Even those descended from our enemies are welcome. Emperor Nero of Rome fled and converted and Rabbi Meir (an illustrious sage) was descended from him. Righteous converts reinforce the vigor of the Jewish people, even to the extent of helping to prevent genetic diseases carried on the recessive genes of the community. However, "outsiders" who become "insiders" must actually take the steps to become a member of the Jewish people. Foreigners undergo a legal process to become citizens; so do those who want to convert to Judaism. Once completed, they are 100% Jews. Happy Passover to you and your family! Reply

John Plotz Cazadero, CA March 29, 2009

Missing the Point Hi, Judy!

In one sense, the point of the story is that "intermarriage is a tragedy for the Jewish people." I agree that the truth or falsity of the particular tale does not matter to that moral. But in another sense, truth does matter (maybe always matters). If the story is taken as evidence of the rabbi's miraculous powers, then it matters very much.

As to intermarriage being a tragedy, let me say that I believe intermarriage has been the salvation of us Jews. Jews in Africa have black skins. Jews in India look like Indians. I myself am blonde-haired and blue-eyed (unlikely for those who crossed the Sinai). This diversity of skin color (surely the least important of all human characteristics) was achieved through intermarriage. I call as one (among many possible) witnesses my favorite heroine of the Bible -- Ruth, who was a Gentile, at least to start with. Where would we be if Boas had rejected her?

Best wishes and a Happy Passover to one and all! Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY March 29, 2009

Missing the Point John Plotz of California and Judy Resnick of New York could argue endlessly about whether this narrative is non-fiction or fiction: whether it is a true first-hand personal account told by a named protagonist, or whether it is merely an urban myth that went through many hands and much retelling before winding up on the Chabad website. But isn't this debate about the veracity of the story missing the point? The Lubavitcher Rebbe cared about his fellow Jews (there's plenty of proof of that). The Rebbe also cared about preventing intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews (there's also plenty of proof of that). Does debunking whether this story ever happened (indeed, even proving that it never happened) change that main point? Chabad-Lubavitch isn't on trial, Judaism isn't on trial, Rabbis Hodakov, Halprin and Schwartz aren't on trial, the Lubavitcher Rebbe isn't on trial. The main point of the story is that intermarriage is a tragedy for the Jewish people. Reply

John Plotz Cazadero, CA March 26, 2009

Fiction vs. Non-Fiction -- Part 1 The commenter writes "This narrative is a true first-hand account related by the actual person to whom it happened."

Where to start? In the first place, the article by Mr. Halprin recounts a narrative by Rabbi Schwartz. (When did the Schwartz-Halprin conversation happen? As time goes on, memory grows fuzzier.) Rabbi Schwartz in turn recounts to Mr. Halprin a conversation he had with Rabbi Hodakov. (Again, when?) And Rabbi Hodakov recounts to Rabbi Schwartz (who recounts to Mr. Halprin) a conversation he had with Rabbi Schneerson. Ms. Resnick calls this a "first-hand account." I don't think so. And in another hemisphere, Rabbi Schwartz recounts to Mr. Halprin a narrative he heard (from an unnamed young woman at an unstated time) in which she identifies a photograph as a figure she saw in a dream. First-hand? NO! It might be true -- but it is assuredly not "first-hand". The story has (like all urban myths) gone through many hands. Reply

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