My name is Mordechai Shraga Schonfeld—in English I am known as Fabian Schonfeld. For over fifty years, until he passed away, I was a talmid of the Rav, that is, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik. There were only a few of his students who could call themselves his talmidim, who had a relationship with him that in many ways resembled that of a chassid to a rebbe, and I had the privilege to be one of them.

In many ways the Rav fostered my later attachment to Chabad-Lubavitch, because in every major lecture that he gave, he always quoted the writings of the Baal HaTanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th-century founder of Chabad. He urged his students to study the Baal HaTanya, especially before the High Holidays, and he voiced his great admiration for Lubavitch philosophy and wisdom, as well as his great respect for the Rebbe.The Rebbe and the Rav first met when they were both young and studying at the University of Berlin

The Rebbe and the Rav first met when they were both young and studying at the University of Berlin—before the rise of the Nazis. I do not know much about their interaction in Berlin, but I do recall the Rav telling me that at this time he was a follower of the Torah giant Rabbi Chaim Heller, and that the Rebbe was part of that circle.

The Rav also told me that the Rebbe never once failed to begin his day by immersing in the mikvah, the ritual bath. The Rav was very impressed by this—that the Rebbe was able to stay committed to chassidic ways even in the midst of that secular environment.

The Rav completed his university studies in 1932 and came to America, while the Rebbe went to Paris. When the Nazis invaded, the Rebbe moved on to Nice, and I have a wonderful story to share from his time there, told to me by my stepmother, about what happened to her father, Wolf Reichman, a Belzer chassid.

Wolf Reichman fled to Nice with his family and, as Passover was approaching, he was worried where he was going to get matzah. After much trouble, Wolf found a farmer who was willing to sell him wheat, which he planned to grind himself.After much trouble, he found a farmer somewhere who was willing to sell him wheat, which he planned to grind himself. He would have to make the oven kosher and oversee the baking, and all this was causing him a great deal of worry.

As he was sitting there worrying, he heard a knock at the door, and was surprised to find standing on his doorstep a bearded young man sporting a French beret. The young man said, “I hear that you are thinking of baking matzah for Passover. If you succeed, please let me know because I also need matzah.” Wolf Reichman agreed and promised to contact him.

Before he could, however, the young man returned with a parcel in his hands. He said, “I came to you a few weeks ago about the matzah. In the meantime, I was able to find wheat, grind it and bake it. And since you were willing to share your matzah with me, I want to offer you some of mine.”

The Rav surrounded by his students
The Rav surrounded by his students

This young man’s name was Menachem Mendel Schneerson—this was the future Rebbe. What impresses me about this story is that he didn’t forgot about Wolf Reichman and, even though he no longer needed the matzah, he took the trouble to return and share what he had baked.

Of course, the Rebbe never forgot anything. His memory was legendary. I want to tell a story about it that I heard from the Rav.

Although once they were both in America the Rebbe and the Rav had little face-to-face contact, the Rav went to visit the Rebbe on a number of occasions. After the Rav went to the farbrengen held in celebration of thirty years of the Rebbe’s leadership, he said to me, “I am considered to be a good public speaker, but if I have to speak for even five minutes in public, I have to prepare for an hour or two.”“You know that I am considered to be a good public speaker, but if I have to speak for even five minutes in public, I have to prepare for an hour or two. I never say anything by heart; I always have notes to be sure I am saying what I want to say.

“The Rebbe was speaking for hours and hours without a shred of paper in front of him! He quoted Midrash, he quoted the Zohar, he quoted Talmud. And he quoted everything correctly, exactly as printed, without hesitation, without looking at any kind of notes. This I would never be able to do.”

The Rav was deeply impressed by the Rebbe’s marvelous memory and his ability to transmit deep teachings to thousands of people without consulting even a single piece of paper.

Speaking of deep teachings, I would like to tell another story about a time when I visited the Rebbe along with a delegation of rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America. This was in the 1970s, and legislation had been proposed in the U.S. Senate to outlaw kosher slaughter. We sought the advice of the Rebbe as to what to do about this crisis. In response he gave us names of sympathetic senators we could cultivate, and he strongly suggested we avoid making provocative statements, but work to convince people of the righteousness of our cause.

And then he turned to us and said, “I want to ask you rabbis a question. If you will recall, when the prophet Elijah challenged the errant ways of the Jews of his day, he gave them a choice. He said to them, ‘How long will you be sitting on the fence? If you believe in the idol Baal, go with Baal. If you believe in G‑dHashem Elokim—go with Hashem. You can’t follow both at the same time.’ All this is related in the book of Kings. So, my question to you is this: How did Elijah even dare to present them with such options? Wasn’t he taking a great chance? Wouldn’t his challenge to the Jews legitimize idol worship?”

Then the Rebbe continued, answering his own question, “No, Elijah wasn’t taking a chance. Elijah knew that if you push a Jew against the wall, he will always choose G‑d. He will always say, ‘I follow G‑d.’ Elijah was not taking any chances in presenting such a choice, because he knew what was inevitable. If you push a Jew against the wall and demand that he stand up for what he believes in, he will always say, ‘Hashem hu ha-Elokim.’