In the summer of 5689 (1929) the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, traveled from Riga, Latvia, to the Land of Israel to pray at the gravesites of tzaddikim (righteous people). He visited the four holy cities of Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed, and other locations as well.

According to the itinerary, the rebbe and his entourage were to arrive in Safed in the daytime of 5 Av, the yahrtzeit of the Holy Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, leader of the Safed Kabbalists in the last few years of his life (1570–1572). This would be a most auspicious day to pray at the Ari’s burial site.

However, car problems temporarily derailed the plan, and they were forced to stop in Rosh Pina, a town in the Galilee a ten-minute drive from Safed.

Enter Aviv Keller, the primary source for the events that followed, which were never recorded in the rebbe’s diary, nor did any of the other passengers write anything about them.

In 1878, Aviv’s grandfather, Aharon Yirmiyahu Keller, built the first Jewish home in the area that today is the town of Rosh Pina. Aviv himself was born in that home on December 27, 1918. At the time of the writing of this article he is 96 years old and still going strong. His mind is sharp, his speech is clear, and he relates events from his long life, including his childhood, as if they occurred yesterday. Although he was but 10 years old at the time, he insists that he recalls every detail of the remarkable event, 86 years later.

The door upon which the rebbe knocked was to the home of Aviv’s uncle, Shimon Keller, fifty feet or so from Aviv’s home. The custom of the Keller clan in those days was to gather every late afternoon at Shimon’s house between 4 and 5 PM to drink tea together.

“As everyone was relaxing and conversing,” recalls Keller, “a large automobile pulled over to the side of the road near the house. None of us had ever seen such a car before. It was huge. In addition to the driver, it must have had space for nine riders, including a specially elevated, padded seat in the front for the most important passenger.

The Keller home in Rosh Pina - Photo by Shulamit Tilles
The Keller home in Rosh Pina
Photo by Shulamit Tilles

“There was a problem with one of the wheels; it was wobbling because the tire rim had loosened, and the steering wheel had become unstable. The driver insisted they must stop. He and a few of the passengers jumped out to consider the problem. At the same time a distinguished, rabbinic-looking gentleman descended from the car, followed by several others who were relating to him deferentially. My aunts and uncles had no idea who he was.

“However, my grandfather, who had studied in a yeshivah in his youth, recognized him right away. ‘This is the Lubavitcher Rebbe!’ he proclaimed excitedly. Although he had never seen him, he had read about his visit to Israel in one of the newspapers. We all noticed that the long coat he was wearing was made of some special sort of material.

“When my uncle opened the door, the rebbe introduced himself and asked if we were a Jewish family. My grandfather jumped up and hurried over to the doorway. He pointed to the mezuzah and said, ‘Look! Of course we are Jewish.’ He invited the rebbe to come inside. He also sent someone right away to summon the village blacksmith to help fix the tire rim.

“The rebbe seemed quite tall. My grandfather came up only to his shoulder. He requested a quiet place to pray Minchah (the afternoon service). My uncle escorted him to a private spot, and the men in our family that were present joined him in prayer. When they finished, my uncle offered the rebbe a glass of tea, which he accepted. Uncle Shimon added in freshly picked lemon leaves from one of our trees, which produced an enticing aroma.

“I was just a child. I decided I would go close and touch the interesting-looking visitor. When I did, he looked at me and smiled.”

The driver, a hired non-Jewish German, came in to announce that the car, which turned out to be a Mercedes-Benz, was repaired and they could travel on. Before the rebbe left the house, he gazed at each member of the family and blessed them all with long life.

“I remember his exact words: ‘Lange leben und gezunte yahren’—‘[You should] live long and healthy years.’” Aviv smiled and continued, “The blessing materialized, and is still materializing. My uncle—the host—lived till 96. My grandfather lived until 89, and my grandmother, Sarah Lipsha, until 92. She, by the way, knew the entire Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer service by heart, and from the women’s section would correct the cantor if ever he made a mistake.

“As for me, I’ll turn 97 on 24 Tevet, G‑d willing, and I hope to merit even longer life if the Almighty so decides.”

And so the unplanned visit to the Keller family in Rosh Pina came to an end, and the rebbe and his entourage resumed their journey up the steep hill to Safed. “We escorted them until the first curve. We actually ran in front of the car, as it was moving very slowly.”

The old road from Rosh Pina to Safed. - Photo by Shulamit Tilles
The old road from Rosh Pina to Safed.
Photo by Shulamit Tilles

Aviv Keller served 20 years as the head of the town’s religious council, and another 15 as the manager of the famous old synagogue in the Rothschild Quarter, the oldest and largest shul in Rosh Pina, and as its cantor on the High Holidays.

Today he lives alone in the (remodeled) house he was born and grew up in. He has 3 children, 7 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. Nearly all call him and visit him on a regular basis. His eldest son, a “youngster” of 72, also still lives in Rosh Pina; he provides hands-on help and daily meals. Aviv enjoys visitors (call a day in advance!), whom he enchants with detailed recollections of the history of Rosh Pina. May he continue to do so, in good health and with clear mind, until at least 120.

Source: Interview with Aviv Keller on June 30 and July 14, 2015, inspired by an interview with him in the Hebrew weekly Sichat HaShavua three years earlier. Aviv’s relative, Chaim Tzvi HaKohen Schechter of Safed, set up the first appointment.

Editor’s note: It was thrilling to see in Aviv Keller the living fulfillment of the rebbe’s blessing. Aviv said that before then no one in his family had ever lived nearly so long. His own father and mother, who were not in the house at the time of the blessing, lived to “only” 68 and 72 respectively, even though they were both always healthy.