My father, Chaim Boruch Halberstam (may he live until 120), was born in 1947 and raised on the banks of the Kinneret in the city of Tiberias. He fondly recalls jumping off the balcony of their second-floor apartment (which today is home to the Caesar hotel) directly into the water. Like many Jewish families in the early years of the Jewish state, my father’s family suffered from terrible poverty. Their daily meal consisted of bread and margarine. Chicken was a commodity which they enjoyed only on Shabbat, one piece shared between the entire family.

My father always said that these simple years growing up on the shores of the Kinneret were, yes, poor years, but also the most beautiful and peaceful years of his life. His grandfather, Rabbi Aron Yosef Luria, also known as the Avodas Penim, was a saintly man, who spent his days praying and learning at the resting place of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness. My father’s most wonderful memories were at his grandmother’s home. Chaya Yocheved Chava Luria was a small, talented woman, who was busy from dawn until dusk, using her energy to support her family and feed those around her. My father described to us how she would lay out a giant sheet under an olive tree and whack the tree to shake the olives loose. She would then gather up the sheet and bring home the prized goods. After rinsing the olives, she would crack each one with a hammer and place them in jars for pickling. Within a few weeks, there were plenty of olives for all of them to enjoy. Preserved lemons, cracked olives, and pickled hot peppers, are the delicacies my father remembers enjoying at the home of Bubbe Chava. The holy atmosphere of his grandparents’ home, where simplicity met true faith and righteousness, made a deep impression on my father, as did their stories, which he passed on to us, his children.

Resting place of Rabbi Aron Yosef Luria.
Resting place of Rabbi Aron Yosef Luria.

When my father was 10 years old, his parents moved to Netanya to help found the new neighborhood of Kiryat Sanz.

My father’s father, Saba Meir Halberstam, was a chassid and direct descendant of the first Rebbe of Sanz, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, known as the Divrei Chaim. To him, the opportunity to build a community for Sanz Chassidim was a call of duty and pride.

This move changed a lot for my father, as his family’s financial situation improved. They had a nice apartment and his mother got a job cooking at the local yeshiva. They no longer went hungry. Yet the years he spent as a child in Tiberias remain near and dear to my father’s heart.

My father was a very energetic boy who was sometimes unruly and hard to contain. Things were not always easy for him, and he was more likely to be found on the streets, skipping school, than sitting in class at the local cheder.

At 14, his father registered him at the Sanz Yeshiva, a school run by his relatives. Coming from the freedom he was used to, my father suffered in the rigid halls of the yeshiva. All he could think of was how to get home to his family and former life.

A few weeks into the school year, my father was caught smoking a cigarette, an offense that caused quite a stir. He was warned that if he was ever caught again, he would be asked to leave. A few weeks later, some of his classmates went for a smoke after the teacher left the room. When they were done, they went on with their day. My father, who was still in the room finishing his learning, was confronted by a teacher. Smelling the remnants of a cigarette, he instantly accused my father of smoking. Strike two, and my father was asked to leave the yeshiva. Until this very day, my father insists that he was falsely accused.

So, at the age of 15, in the middle of the school year, my father was home with nothing to do. No yeshiva would accept him mid-term. This put a lot of pressure on his parents, and strained his relationship with his father. After some weeks of searching, my grandfather found one yeshiva that was willing to take him. It was the Chabad school in Lod. Chabad was not anywhere near the top of the list of yeshivas that my grandfather would have chosen, as Chabad Chassidism was quite different from the Chassidic groups he was used to. But with no choice, he put my father on the train to Lod, in the hopes that he would transfer to a more suited yeshiva the following year.

My father always describes his first days in Lod with tears in his eyes. Wherever he went, older students and teachers tried to engage him. They surreptitiously looked at his tefillin bag to find out his name, and welcomed him into their midst. The warmth made him feel instantly embraced and cherished.

It is said that the rebbes of Chabad handpicked the souls of those who would become their students. There was a reason why, up until this moment in my father’s life, he hadn’t found his path as a Jew. His soul was looking for the rebbe who had chosen him.

As my father acclimated to the yeshiva in Lod, his spiritual journey had finally begun. Over the next few weeks, he began to learn about the avodah (work) of a chassid, and what it means to truly pray in the Chabad tradition. This was something that he had never experienced before.

As the weeks flew by, the time came for my father to head home to Netanya for Pesach.

My grandmother, of blessed memory, told me that when my father came home that Pesach, she was shocked at his transformation. The unruly boy, who had skipped school and been so troublesome, had transformed into a true oved (a Chassidic term for someone who works on his character and service to G‑d). When he finished eating his lunch, he took out a Grace After Meals booklet and said each word with focus and concentration. She recognized right away that my father had found his path.

When the school year ended, my father came home and declared to his father that the yeshiva in Lod, the yeshiva of Chabad Chassidim, would be the only yeshiva he would return to in the upcoming year. My grandfather was not especially pleased. He was a Sanzer Chassid, direct descendant of the holy Rabbi Chaim of Sanz; a different path seemed so daunting and foreign.

As the school year approached, my father was torn between his father’s will and his deep desire to return to the yeshiva that spoke to his heart and mind. On the morning when the new school year was to begin, my grandmother woke my father early, gave him a bag of food and clothes and a few lirot for travel, and sent him on his way. She knew that her son needed to follow the path that had turned him into a serious and dedicated chassid.

As the years progressed, my father graduated from Lod to Kfar Chabad, and worked to save every penny so that he could fly to New York and finally become a true chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His journey was long and arduous, but he knew that this was the path that his soul needed, and that the teachings of Chabad Chassidus would guide him.

18 Elul Farbrengen, Sept. 13, 1976 (© JEM/The Living Archive)
18 Elul Farbrengen, Sept. 13, 1976 (© JEM/The Living Archive)

My father went on to settle in New York, close to the Rebbe, to whom he became deeply attached. Together with my mother, who was from Milan, Italy, he raised our family in Crown Heights, the epicenter of Chabad Lubavitch. Throughout the years, my father became a fixture in the Chabad establishment. In the 1970s, he built a telephone hookup room in 770, Chabad Headquarters, that connected thousands of people from all around the world, via phone lines, to listen to the words of the Rebbe while he was giving a discourse or a Chassidic gathering. He photographed and videoed hours of encounters and occasions in the halls of Chabad. To this very day, he lovingly cares for the main building of 770, where he personally greets visitors.

From left: Rabbis Chaim Boruch Halberstam, Yosef Yitzchak (Y.Y.) Kazen and Yonasan Hackner at work in WLCC, Nov. 27, 1980 (© JEM/The Living Archive)
From left: Rabbis Chaim Boruch Halberstam, Yosef Yitzchak (Y.Y.) Kazen and Yonasan Hackner at work in WLCC, Nov. 27, 1980 (© JEM/The Living Archive)

When my father visited me in Amsterdam (where I live), this past January, we spoke a lot about his history and the stories that got him to where he is. We reminisced about the trip we took 13 years ago to Israel for a relative’s wedding. I was young, 20 years old, and excited to be traveling with my parents. I told my father that I would only go with him if he took us on a trip through his childhood.

Rabbi Chaim Baruch Halberstam stands by the house that was across from his childhood home.
Rabbi Chaim Baruch Halberstam stands by the house that was across from his childhood home.

So on a breezy Monday in January, we drove up to Tiberias, where my father took us through his old neighborhood, now the developed and bustling city center and hotel hub. We walked to the back of the Caesar hotel and examined the structure that replaced my father’s childhood home. We headed up the road to his old cheder, which was still standing, unchanged, exactly as it had been the day my father sat in its halls. Before leaving, we stopped at a small, boarded up building on the top of a hill: the house behind the cemetery about which my father had told us so many tales. We mapped out the house from the outside and my father showed me where he used to run, climb, and hide between the fields and the tombstones.

As we left the mountains of the north, we headed to Netanya to explore the next stage of my father’s childhood. We stopped outside an old shul in Kiryat Sanz and my father headed in to join the Mincha and Maariv services. When he reentered the car, he turned on the engine and said that we would be returning to Jerusalem immediately.

Right: The Ceaser Hotel, where Rabbi Chaim Halberstam's childhood home once stood.
Right: The Ceaser Hotel, where Rabbi Chaim Halberstam's childhood home once stood.

When he entered the shul, he explained, he looked around and saw many familiar faces, faces of his past. Friends he played ball with, neighbors he skipped school with … echoes from long ago. As he finished up the Maariv service, a few people approached him, asking him if they knew him. All of a sudden my father saw himself alongside the friends he had left behind.

Looking at the faces of his past overwhelmed him with a sense of immense gratitude. He felt that there was nothing left to see or recover on the streets of Netanya. Everything he had now was a testament to the journey he had traveled to find the life that nourished his spirit.

We headed down the road to Jerusalem, where the shimmering lights of the holy city beckoned, and reflected on the cigarette, the one he did not smoke so many years ago. All because of that false accusation my father was granted the opportunity to be exposed to a path his soul was chosen for. He had come full circle.

I often like to think about my father’s story and how it is reflected in the trajectory of my own life. Even with all this history under my belt, I still needed to find my own way as a chassid and student of the Rebbe.

We all have a journey to travel, and there are signals along the way. Do we pick up those signals and follow them? Do we tap into the winks that G‑d is showing us, and maneuver our lives and our choices in the direction that our soul chooses?

My father’s story continues to teach me lessons. The journey does not end. It is a constant struggle, analysis, and contemplation, to find the spark that lights me. Knowing who you are and where you should be heading is not enough. It is looking for balance and believing in the truth that really makes you a chassid.

It isn’t easy, and even as an adult, a mother, and a wife, I still feel that I haven’t gotten there yet. Even though I know that having the teachings of the Rebbe is a treasure worth pursuing, I need to own it for myself.

As I go down the road to owning and embracing my status as a chassid, I ask myself some questions: Who is really a chassid? Is it my father with his hat and long coat? Is it the teachers who taught me in school? Is it my friends who grew up in Chabad homes? How can we know? What are the signs? I speak to my friends, my siblings, my husband, and they all have different answers. I forge on, and speak to acquaintances, friends who are not religious, some who are traditional, and they all feel handpicked by the Rebbe.

So many different Jews, marching to different beats and streams, yet they all feel that they have been handpicked to be a chassid of the Rebbe. The link that connects all these people? The Rebbe’s teachings, the Rebbe’s vision, the Rebbe’s love for every Jew. The Rebbe didn’t only choose us so that we go on the same journey, we chose him back so that we can celebrate our differences, while heading in the same direction.