I was born in Hungary, but I came to America as a youngster, before my bar mitzvah. My father was already here—he was a rabbi in upstate New York—and he enrolled me in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Williamsburg. From there I went to Yeshiva University (known today as RIETS), and to Brooklyn Law School.

In 1942 I received my rabbinic ordination, and shortly thereafter became the rabbi of Mount Eden Jewish Center, which was considered one of the largest congregations in America. It was located in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. I was the rabbi there for 36 years, during which time I was also elected as the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and subsequently of the Hebrew Alliance of America.

David Hollander during the 1950's
David Hollander during the 1950's

By the late 1970s the Mount Eden neighborhood had begun to change, and my congregation dwindled away. I no longer even had a minyan, and I felt that the time had come for me to retire. Why I didn’t do it has everything to do with the Rebbe.

I had known the Rebbe since 1950, when he recommended that I travel to the Soviet Union, where Jews were being persecuted. I began to visit the Soviet Union, and I did this many times. On many occasions I spoke with the Rebbe in preparation for these trips, and I’d also brief him upon my return.

Every year, on the day before Yom Kippur, I’d visit the Rebbe to get a piece of lekach, the honey cake which he handed out on that day, and also to get his blessing for the new year. But one year—it was 1985—instead of going to Brooklyn to see the Rebbe, I had to take my wife to a doctor’s appointment in Manhattan, and as a result I almost missed him. By the time I got to Crown Heights, the Rebbe had finished receiving people, and everyone had gone . . . This was an inauspicious start to my year, and I was upset.

David Hollander (third from left) on a trip to Russia in the late 1950's
David Hollander (third from left) on a trip to Russia in the late 1950's

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe’s secretary, was still there, so I told him how I felt, and he said to me, “You know, the Rebbe is due back in half an hour. Wait here. I’m sure that when he sees you, he will invite you in.” And that’s what happened.

The Rebbe came, and he asked me, “What are you doing here at this hour on Erev Yom Kippur?” I told him what happened, and he said to me, “If you are worried about the blessing, don’t be—that you have already. If you’re worried about the lekach, come inside and I’ll give you a piece.”

Once inside his room, the Rebbe said to me, “I give you a blessing that you should be successful as a rabbi and as a private citizen.” When I heard that, I latched onto the words “private citizen,” and I said to the Rebbe, “Your blessing for me as a private citizen interests me, because I’m just on the verge of doing that very thing . . . of becoming a private citizen.”

The Rebbe responded, “What?! What right do you have to have such ideas? I am older than you are, and I’m taking on additional burdens!”

He didn’t leave it at that.

Later that month, I was standing in line after havdalah when the Rebbe was handing out wine from his cup. As I reached him, he reached across the table and poured some wine into my cup, and in a loud and clear voice he called out, in real Brooklynese English, “Remember—rabbonus (the rabbinate) for life!”

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