The ancient tradition of storytelling evokes images of tribal elders sitting in a circle around the fire with youngsters gathered around, mesmerized by their words.

Today, sharing stories with the next generation is equally valued, although the medium is more likely to be Facetime or WhatsApp, rather than a cozy campfire.

Girls enrolled in Chabad high schools around the world are now pairing modern technology with the drive of investigative journalism to gather stories from women about their personal experiences with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

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Their project, called Our Story, is an outgrowth of the popular series, My Encounter With the Rebbe, an oral-history project by Jewish Educational Media (JEM), in which the testimony of individuals who met the Rebbe in person or corresponded with him are professionally videotaped and shared with the public.

Our Story was inspired by a visit from Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, director of JEM, to Beth Rivkah seminary. He told the students of a shortcoming he perceived in the My Encounter project: only 17 percent of the 1,500 individuals whose stories have been recorded by JEM have been women.

After hearing this, Leah Goldman of Oklahoma City, a student in the seminary, sprang into action, joining forces with the My Encounter project to launch Our Story, a project to record and share women’s previously untold stories. Assisted by fellow students, Goldman spearheaded an effort to encourage high school girls to seek out stories from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and neighbors. Our Story organizers determined that recording audio stories on personal mobile devices would be a simple and comfortable way for high schoolers to gather more women’s stories.

The first round of the project involved three high schools: Beth Rivkah and Bnos Menachem in Crown Heights, and Lubavitch Girls’ High School of Chicago. Here Shterna Sara Vaisfische interviews her grandmother, Miriam Nemanow. (Photo: JEM)
The first round of the project involved three high schools: Beth Rivkah and Bnos Menachem in Crown Heights, and Lubavitch Girls’ High School of Chicago. Here Shterna Sara Vaisfische interviews her grandmother, Miriam Nemanow. (Photo: JEM)

In the first round, the top five stories were selected and circulated via WhatsApp. In one particularly touching recording, Chani Hecht of Sunnyvale, Calif., a student of Lubavitch Girls High School of Chicago, interviewed her grandmother, Perel Rockford of Coral Springs, Fla., who described the tremendous care and sensitive attention the Rebbe gave her and her two young sons shortly after Perel lost her husband. The Rebbe invited her to Lubavitch World Headquarters so he could personally cut her 3-year-old son’s hair in the upsherin ceremony. This young boy is now Chani’s father.

Rabbi Yechiel Cagen, director of My Encounter, was amazed by the outpouring of stories gathered by the high school girls. “We had two goals with this initiative. One, to record these undocumented beautiful stories of the Rebbe and share them. Two, to get the younger generation involved in recording them.”

Leah Goldman added: “When a girl who did not have a chance to meet the Rebbe hears first-hand from someone who did have that opportunity, it becomes much more personal and meaningful. It becomes alive for her."

Altie Spielman of the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., interviewed her mother, Chanie Spielman.

“This project gave me the opportunity to talk to my mother about something very important and dear to her: her personal story with the Rebbe. Before she was born, her family met with the Rebbe in a private audience. The Rebbe pointed to my mother's older sister, who was 3 years old at the time, and asked, ’Is she the only daughter?’ to which my grandfather replied yes. The Rebbe smiled and said, ‘For the meantime . . . ’Sure enough, a few years later, my mom was born. Even though this may be just a simple story with my family, it is so meaningful for me to hear. Hearing these stories, and the others that were shared helps me appreciate the Rebbe's deep care and concern for every person, young or old, which is something all of us can learn from on a day-to-day level.”

The stories can be heard on the Our Story WhatsApp at 718-604-4690. (Photo: JEM)
The stories can be heard on the Our Story WhatsApp at 718-604-4690. (Photo: JEM)

The first round of the project involved three high schools: Beth Rivkah and Bnos Menachem in Crown Heights, and Lubavitch Girls’ High School of Chicago. Our Story is now expanding into its second round, involving many English-speaking Chabad girls’ high schools and seminaries around the world, reaching as far away as Australia and South Africa. To date, 22 schools have signed up.

To share a story or to find out how your high school can get involved, please contact ourstory@jemedia.org.

You can listen to several stories here or as presented below. In addition to the story described above from Mrs. Rockford, you can hear about encounters with Rebbe from: Mrs. Esther Sternberg of Crown Heights regarding her concern about her husband’s livelihood during her first year of marriage; and Mrs. Chaya Rellis of Monsey talking about the Rebbe’s interest in her engagement.

To hear more stories as they are released, message the word “subscribe” to the Our Story WhatsApp at: 718-604-4690.