I was a junior in college when I decided to spend my year in Israel studying abroad. It was an intense time on many levels. A major disagreement with my parents had resulted in almost a year with no contact. I was financially independent and struggled to support myself. I was working 40 hours a week in a hostile environment while taking a full load of courses. And I was seriously exploring, for the first time in my life, who I was, where I came from and where I wanted to go.

During my search, I had started to learn and connect with chassidic philosophy, and had been introduced to the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. As a student of literature, I was astounded by the depth of meaning and symbolism that his teachings offered, and the way foundational and conceptual ideas in Jewish philosophy had such profound relevance to my 20-year-old self.

I was filled with questions. Pained by turbulence in my relationships. And overall in need of guidance and direction. I had hit a crossroads. I desperately wanted to stay in Israel and continue my Jewish exploration. But I had only one year left to graduate. As short as a year is, at the time it seemed like an eternity, and I didn’t necessarily trust myself in an environment that had created more confusion and questions than stability.

It was suggested that I write to the Rebbe for advice. I had never met the Rebbe, but felt a very strong connection. I knew he knew me. I knew he would understand and give me guidance that I desperately needed. And so I wrote my first letter. I don’t remember all the details, but I explained my situation and asked for advice. My main question was whether I should stay in yeshivah at that point and continue my Jewish learning, or return to college and attain my degree.

While I was visiting Crown Heights, I handed my letter to Rabbi Binyomin Klein, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries. The second I saw him, I liked him. He had these warm brown eyes, and his smile was welcoming with an “I totally get you” type feeling. I gave him my letter, and was told that he would be in contact after the Rebbe responded.

A few weeks went by. I wasn’t exactly sure how the process worked, but I was worried that maybe my letter had been forgotten. So I went to 770 to find Rabbi Klein and follow up. When he saw me, he started excitedly saying that he had been looking all over for me and couldn’t find me. Then, in his humorous way, he reminded me that when I wrote the Rebbe I never included my personal information, such as my name or phone number. He was laughing as he gently reminded me: “The Rebbe knows who you are! But you need to include your details for me. I don’t know who you are!”

Now, by the time I came for my response, my circumstances had greatly changed. There were a few months before my second quarter started at college, and my plan was to return to California and live with the family of the Chabad emissaries near my parents’ home. However, by the time I came to meet with Rabbi Klein, I had discovered that the only way I could return for my second quarter was if I agreed to live at home. As we had not been on speaking terms for so long, and I knew my parents were less than thrilled with my interest in living an observantly Jewish life, I did not think living at home was a wise move. To put it lightly.

Rabbi Klein, however, did not know that there was this update, and immediately began to tell me that the Rebbe was adamant that I return back to California and get my college degree. As he put it, I was to “finish what I started.” Now, half of my dilemma was solved with this advice, as having that guidance and support to return to college was exactly what I needed to believe it was the right move. However, being that this plan required moving back home first, that was the part that I didn’t know how to handle.

I started to explain that I couldn’t go back home. I needed Rabbi Klein to ask the Rebbe again with my new circumstances explained. There was simply no way the Rebbe would send me back to California knowing what I now knew to be the situation. But Rabbi Klein was insistent. He said he had never seen the Rebbe so clear in a response. There was no question in his mind that the Rebbe wanted me to return.

I tried again to say that it wasn’t so simple. Now, generally I can be fairly calm and eloquent when trying to make a point. But for whatever reason, before I knew it, I was on the verge of sobbing. I started to say that I really needed him to ask again, when out of nowhere the wellsprings opened and I was full-on bawling. Not crying. But completely shaking and hyperventilating, with tears pouring down my face. I was a mess. Literally.

Poor Rabbi Klein had not signed up for this. We stood in his office, and he wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this hysterical girl. At first he tried to console me with words, but it wasn’t working. I recall other rabbis entering his office, only for him to shoo them away to give me the privacy I needed. He then grabbed a box of tissues and handed me one after another while I tried to gain some sense of composure.

This was not a quick breakdown. I kept going for quite some time before I could even catch my breath to use my words again. Rabbi Klein did not know me. I certainly did not come across as terribly stable in this incident, and yet he stood there, giving me all the time I needed, handing me tissues and telling me things would be okay, as if nothing else was on the calendar of one of the busiest men in Crown Heights, none other than the personal secretary of the Rebbe.

When I eventually calmed down, Rabbi Klein assured me that the only reason he didn’t feel the need to ask the Rebbe again was because he was confident that the Rebbe’s advice still applied. But then he gave me his contact information. He told me that if for any reason I found myself in California and crying like this, I was to give him a call, and he would personally pay for my plane ticket back to Crown Heights. He made it clear that he would take care of me.

And take care of me he did. I returned to California. I moved back in with my parents, and while challenging, it was an important part of the much-needed reconciliation. Then I returned to college at UCSD, a few hours south of my parents’ home in Los Angeles.

It was a few weeks later when it became pretty apparent why the Rebbe was insistent that I return back to California. While an entire story in itself, the brief version is that because I was returning to school, my family decided to spend the first long weekend of my return with me in the gorgeous area of La Jolla near my campus. It was the end of January 1994, and they were staying at a hotel when the earth shook violently. We soon discovered that one of the largest earthquakes to ever hit California had just taken place in Northridge. Northridge, the town where my parents lived. Their very intersection was the epicenter of this quake.

Weeks later, when it was finally safe to return and survey the damage, it became clear that had my family been home at the time, they might not have survived the quake. Our house was totaled. The damage was unbelievable. And yet everyone was safe and sound. Because they were visiting me in college. Because I had returned back to college from New York. Because the Rebbe had guided me to. And when I hadn’t wanted to listen, Rabbi Klein insisted. Because he told me it would be okay.

He was right.

Soon after graduation I moved to Crown Heights, this time to dedicate myself full-time to my Jewish studies. Rabbi Klein’s home became a second home to me. I would spend many a Shabbat meal there, and soon became very close with one of his daughters as well. It was actually in her home, a few years later, that I met my husband. Every time Rabbi Klein would see me he would smile and ask if I was okay and if I needed a tissue. He was always joking, and yet through his humor could get to the deepest part of an issue or concern.

My Hebrew birthday is the second day of Sukkot, and he would always insist that I come by to celebrate. One year there was even a cake waiting when I entered his sukkah.

Rabbi Klein and his wife, Laya, always made me feel like I was their most important guest. They were so excited when I entered, and treated me with such love, care and focus. When I moved to Israel soon after getting married, they called me up when they were visiting and had me come see them in Jerusalem. Even when years would go by and we wouldn’t see each other, if I called they would know me by my voice, before I could even introduce myself. Sure enough, it was Rabbi Klein who then didn’t need my name to know who I was.

It has been just over 21 years from my first meeting with Rabbi Klein. Last year I was fortunate enough to spend a Shabbat with the Kleins, and stayed in their home. This past Sunday I was in Crown Heights for just a few hours before taking a train back to our home in Vermont. I didn’t have any time to visit people, and no one knew I was there. But I did make sure to stop by the Kleins. I was immediately welcomed by Mrs. Klein, who is always so calm, composed and positive. She joked about how she still quotes something I told her right after I got married 18 years ago. She asked about my kids, our move to Vermont, and as always was uplifting and supportive.

I asked how Rabbi Klein was doing. She answered, “yom, yom,” day by day. It wasn’t the answer I was hoping to hear, but I didn’t want to pry. I had heard rumors that he hadn’t been well, but did not know too many details. I asked her to please send him my warmest regards. And I left.

It is now less than a week later. I am once again on the same train, this time back to New York City. I just opened a news site when I saw the article. There was his picture. And above it the words Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet, “Blessed is the True Judge.” I had to stop myself from screaming “NOOOOO!” on the train.

So I sit here and type and cry. The world has lost such an unbelievable soul. He has left behind so many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a generation that he has impacted and uplifted. And yet, as devastated as I am, through my tears I also smile. Because when I close my eyes I see his face, with the warmest, most loving smile, and hear his voice as he asks: “Nu, do you need a tissue?”