Three interviewers from the organization charged with preserving teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, took their operation south this week.

On the hunt for 100 people who had first-hand recollections of the Jewish leader, Rabbis Yechiel Cagen, Yankee Teitelbaum and Mendy Alevsky focused on Miami as part of their effort to commit 1,000 personal testimonials from people across the globe to film.

Cagen, who directs the “My Encounter with the Rebbe” project for Jewish Educational Media, explained that it runs alongside JEM’s mainstay Living Archives program, a daunting endeavor to preserve 70 years of still and moving footage and audio recordings – including thousands of hours of the Rebbe’s public addresses and appearances. My Encounters instead takes a more intimate look, shining a light on how the Rebbe personally affected people in the post-Holocaust world.

“He fueled a movement and spawned more than 3,000 institutions worldwide,” said Cagen, “and yet he had such a dramatic personal impact on so many people.”

For Cagen and his crew, documenting the oral history and the teachings the Rebbe imparted to specific individuals fills a vital need. As the years pass, the generation that was fortunate enough to have this special connection with the Rebbe gets older. JEM is literally fighting the clock.

According to Cagen, My Encounters had its genesis in a similar initiative spearheaded by the Shoah Foundation, which filmed 50,000 eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Since its inception in 2004, the My Encounters project – with offices in New York and Israel – has so far produced more than 450 video testimonials from people living as far away as Paris, Antwerp, Geneva, Milan, London and Budapest.

The crew from JEM’s My Encounters project documented the personal testimonies of more than 500 people.
The crew from JEM’s My Encounters project documented the personal testimonies of more than 500 people.

Interviewees come from all walks of life: politicians, academics, religious leaders and authors, including such notable names as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.

JEM, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, has been hailed by academics for its work in preserving a crucial part of contemporary Jewish history.

“There is absolutely nothing to compare with the video and audio documentation of a Jewish religious community that [JEM has] collected,” said New York University professor Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, who also cited its “exemplary approach to preserving this archive and making it accessible both to the community … and to a wider academic and general public.”

Some of the My Encounters interviews can be found as segments in JEM’s popular Living Torah series of DVDs, which reach an estimated 220,000 people each week.

“The hope,” said Cagen, “is that viewers will be inspired by these teachings of the Rebbe to make a positive change in their own lives.”