It had become a custom of mine to spend the High Holidays with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. I was grateful to be hosted by the same family year after year, allowing me to relax and focus on my spiritual needs. One year in the late 1960s, I arrived at their home and discovered I’d been given a roommate for the holidays.

It didn’t take long to discover his story. He had been dispatched by the Jewish Federation of London as part of a summer leadership program to visit Jewish communities across North America and share his experiences with the Federation upon returning home.

It so happened that the final stop of his tour was London, Ontario. There, he spent Shabbat with Irving Block, Professor of Greek Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, and a dedicated student of the Rebbe. Professor Block wanted to know what the young man planned to do now that the trip was over.

“Well,” the young man explained, “I have two weeks before university begins, so I’m planning to spend that time touring.”

To which the professor suggested that he might consider spending that time studying in a yeshivah in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, instead. After some thought, the young man agreed.

“I informed him that I would be returning to England after Shabbat. Surprisingly, the Rebbe asked me to stay in Crown Heights for Rosh Hashanah . . .” When I met him, he had just completed those two weeks of study and was scheduled to leave right after Shabbat. After all, he had a four-year full scholarship in the department of philosophy at Cambridge awaiting him. But, before he left, he told me he wanted to attend the Rebbe’s Shabbat farbrengen (chassidic gathering), where the Rebbe delivered scholarly talks with interludes of Chassidic melodies. He wanted to find a moment when he could approach the Rebbe and, like the proper Englishman that he was, thank the Rebbe for his hospitality during the preceding two weeks.

I watched him approach the Rebbe between talks, while everyone else was singing. Although I could not hear a thing, I could see that an animated conversation ensued.

When my young friend returned to his place, curious onlookers asked him what had transpired.

He recounted, “I told the Rebbe I had spent the past two weeks studying in Crown Heights and enjoyed it immensely. I thanked the Rebbe and informed him that I would be returning to England after Shabbat. Surprisingly, the Rebbe asked me to stay in Crown Heights for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“I explained that university was to begin that week. The Rebbe said, nevertheless, that he would like me to stay.

“I told the Rebbe I really didn’t want to begin school late. The Rebbe repeated that he wanted me to stay for the holiday.

“I insisted I didn’t want to miss any school. Again the Rebbe asked me to stay.”

Now, this exchange was highly uncharacteristic of the Rebbe. Rarely would he try to impose his will on someone who was reluctant to follow his advice. In this case, however, the Rebbe was clearly insisting that the young man stay for Rosh Hashanah, regardless of his reasons to return.

The onlookers, young students themselves, explained how out of character this was of the Rebbe, and insisted that there must be a very important reason to stay.

After some thought, he agreed to stick around.

Rosh Hashanah with the Rebbe

The Rebbe. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
The Rebbe. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

It was during this time that he and I conversed about Judaism and Chabad teachings and activities. We regularly walked together to Lubavitch World Headquarters, known as “770,” and shared meals at our hosts’ home, while the young man absorbed this very new experience.

It’s not easy to describe what a Rosh Hashanah with the Rebbe was like. To truly understand the experience, you simply had to have been there.

The Rebbe rarely showed outward emotion. Rosh Hashanah was an exception, particularly during the blowing of the shofar. The Rebbe would stand on a raised platform in the center of the synagogue. In front of him lay large paper bags filled with letters from Jews across the world, asking for blessings and prayers for the New Year. The Rebbe would cover the bags with the top of his tallit (prayer shawl) and remain bent over the letters, sobbing, for some time.

Then, lifting his tallit, his face deep red and his voice choked, he would lead the assembled in reciting the preparatory verses before blowing the shofar and, later, the actual blessings. The Rebbe’s voice seemed to emanate from another world, and pierced through the layers of apathy and to the very depths of those congregated souls.

As we walked home for the festive holiday meal, the young man exclaimed, “This Rosh Hashanah has changed my life!” We stood, packed together, and watched the Rebbe blow the shofar. Despite the utter lack of physical space, spirituality and unity permeated everything and everyone.

And my newfound British friend stood with us, jostled and squeezed, taking it all in. Professor Block, also there, remarked that he could not imagine how an experience like this could possibly make a positive impression on anyone unfamiliar with the scene.

Yet, as we walked home for the festive holiday meal, the young man exclaimed, “This Rosh Hashanah has changed my life!”

After the holiday he returned to university in England.

In a February 1981 article in the London Jewish Chronicle, he described visiting the Rebbe’s court:

It is important to understand about Lubavitch that it is a movement supremely dedicated to allowing each Jew to play his special role, to being, in the [founder of Chassidism] Baal Shem Tov’s image, his own particular letter in the Torah scroll. The Rebbe is the person who guides him towards that role; who, by standing above the distortions of the ego, taking a global view of the problems of the Jewish world, being in the language of Chasidut [Chabad philosophy] a “collective soul,” sees where the individual belongs. It is, after all, difficult to think of many other leaders who can assume this role, for they are for the most part leaders of a sectional group, without a brief and perhaps without the information to be authoritative beyond their borders. The Rebbe’s advice carries with it no more and no less than the authority which his worldwide concern has given him.

Those who visit the Rebbe — and the vast majority of those who do so are not born Lubavitchers - do so because of his reputation as a man of encompassing vision. They tend to emerge somewhat unnerved, taken by surprise. They expect, perhaps, the conventional type of charismatic leader, imposing his presence by the force of his personality.

What they find is the reverse: a man who, whatever the complexity of his current concerns, is totally engaged with the person he is speaking to. It is almost like coming face to face with oneself for the first time. Not in the simple sense of, as it were, seeing oneself in a mirror, but rather seeing oneself revealed as a person of unique significance in the scheme of things, discovering one’s purpose. So much so that it is difficult to talk of the Rebbe’s personality at all, so identified is he with the individuals he guides.

This is, ultimately, what is so misconceived by those who have never met him. His leadership—rare almost to the point of uniqueness in the present day—consists in self-effacement. Its power is precisely what it effaces itself towards—the sense of the irreplaceability of each and every Jew.

Complete Circle in Canada

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

In 1991, following years of study and accomplishment, this brilliant young man accepted the appointment as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, UK, after seeking the Rebbe’s advice and receiving his blessing. You may have heard of him:

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

I did not see Rabbi Sacks again until recently, when he lectured in Toronto. He spoke, he sang, he answered questions, he counseled, and he basked in the warm admiration of many hundreds who marveled at his eloquence, personality, wisdom, sense of humor and depth of knowledge.

I found a brief moment to approach him. I reminded him of the Rosh Hashanah we shared in the Rebbe’s presence in 1969. He corrected me, “It was 1968. You bring back special memories of a very special time.”

And then he repeated those words he told me on the avenue four decades ago, “That Rosh Hashanah changed my life!”

I could only suggest that it did not merely change his life, but the lives of hundreds and thousands who have been influenced by him over the years.

He thanked me and, with a twinkle, said he will be speaking at the upcoming convention of over 4,000 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, and their guests, from around the world—and plans to repeat those very same words there.

Read Articles by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
The Chabad Approach to Life
A Mystical Covenant
On Humility
The Man Who Turned Judaism Outward