We were on pins and needles. We had decided to get engaged. As is the Chassidic custom, before finalizing the shidduch (match), we wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, asking for his blessing. In the letter, we indicated that my fiancée’s parents had some issues with the shidduch.

My future in-laws had both come from religious families. They were first cousins. Their fathers, two brothers, had left Poland in the decades prior to World War II. His parents headed to Tel Aviv, hers to New York. In both of these communities, the families had continued their fully observant lifestyle.

Their children, however, had chosen a different path. Yaakov, my fiancée’s father, was drawn to the Irgun (a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in British Mandate Palestine between 1931 and 1948). He had been imprisoned in Latrun by the British for hiding weapons. Dora, my fiancée’s mother, grew up in Queens, N.Y., where her father operated a kosher bakery. At the time, there were few Jewish schools for girls, so while her brothers attended the famous Yeshivah Torah Vodaath, Dora went to public school.

Although both Yaakov and Dora drifted away from full observance, they retained a strong Jewish identity. They were among the few Jewish families in Los Angeles in the fifties to send their children to an Orthodox day school. Eventually, they joined a large Conservative temple. On Friday nights, Holocaust survivors would gather in my in-laws’ home; their daughter attended the Orthodox Zionist B’nai Akiva.

But the prospect of a future son-in-law who was a product of a Lubavitcher yeshivah was a bit too much for them. A Chassidic son-in-law who aspired to be a shliach (emissary) of the Rebbe was something they had never planned for their daughter. We mentioned the issue in our letter to the Rebbe, but I never expected the Rebbe to comment.

The Rebbe’s response arrived shortly, with a powerful message that would set the tone of our relationship with my future in-laws for decades to come. The Rebbe had made the shidduch conditional: “If the parents will agree; and if not, [we] should wait to the end of the year of learning, and in the meanwhile discuss it with them.” Although my fiancée and I were ready to go ahead with the shidduch despite my in-laws’ objections, the Rebbe had insisted we wait until they felt comfortable.

We were in Israel, and my in-laws were in L.A. Over the next few months, friends and relatives shuttled back and forth, negotiating on our behalf. Finally, a friend of my future in-laws who was involved with Chabad in L.A. came to Israel to visit. Upon her return to Los Angeles, she was able to lay my in-laws’ concerns to rest. The shidduch became official.

The Rebbe’s message was clear: Treat your in-laws with the greatest esteem. Judaism should not be a barrier; with communication and respect, you can create a positive relationship.

A year-and-a-half later, the Rebbe provided us with yet another reality check. After a year of studying in New York, my wife and I were ready to start our work as Chabad emissaries. Our mission was to open a new Chabad center at the University of Miami. Before we left, we had a yechidus (private audience) with the Rebbe to receive his blessing.

My wife told the Rebbe that her parents were making some changes. They had moved from the Conservative temple to an Orthodox shul in their neighborhood. My wife asked the Rebbe what she should do to encourage them. The Rebbe’s answer surprised me again. He told us, “It is against the nature and psychology of children to tell parents how to live. Find someone in their community to encourage them.” Once again, the message was clear. We were not to preach or push. Our job was to respect, not tell my in-laws how to live.

As the years have unfolded, I realize the power of the Rebbe’s message. Observing others who faced a similar challenge, I saw that, sadly, the decision to become observant often meant severing ties with non-observant family members. Sometimes it was the child who broke the connection, out of fear that the parents would have a negative influence on their grandchildren. Other times, the parents chose to take a step back when their child demanded they make changes they weren’t ready for. In both cases, it was clear that the restraint and respect the Rebbe advocated would have gone a long way to preserve these precious relationships.

On their own, my in-laws slowly strengthened their bond with Judaism. They moved back to Brooklyn. Whenever my children were in town, my father-in-law would bring his grandchildren to shul with pride, telling his buddies of their exploits around the world. On Sundays when I was in New York, invariably he would escort me to Crown Heights, where he would stand in line with me to receive a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe.

After my father-in-law’s passing, my mother-in-law moved back to L.A. to be close to us (we had moved to Yorba Linda, Calif., to open a Chabad center). On Shabbat morning on his way to shul, her grandson, my oldest, would stop by her apartment with her great-grandchildren in tow. They would spend some time with Bubbe, as she showered them with treats. Sitting at our community Seder, she would gently ask, “Nu, how much longer?”

Our last picture of Bubbe: Welcoming her 17th grandchild to the world.
Our last picture of Bubbe: Welcoming her 17th grandchild to the world.

Occasionally she would say to me, “Can’t you get a real job? Why do you have to be a shliach?” To which I would respond, “Bubbe, you didn’t get such a bad deal—six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and who knows how many more on the way . . .”

Last year, on Lag BaOmer, she passed away. Just a few weeks earlier, she joined us in Cedars-Sinai Hospital to welcome her 17th great-grandchild to the world. My last picture of her is this treasured moment.