My story begins in 1972.
At that time, I was a gutsy but confused young student who had recently been arrested and briefly imprisoned by the South African police and was standing trial for anti-apartheid activities. I also fancied myself as something of a spiritual activist promoting a particular Indian meditation technique. As well, I had begun to investigate a more inspired form of Judaism than the mediocre Jewish education I had received which ended with my Bar Mitzvah.
And that is when Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar arrived as the Rebbe’s emissaries to South Africa. I began receiving weekly Shabbat invitations to their home and to the homes of other members of the then tiny Chabad community. The warm atmosphere and the rich and wholesome environment in which their children were being brought up inspired me and modelled the type of home that I, in due course, hoped to establish.
After a while, Rabbi Lipskar suggested that I and a friend of mine spend a year or two in yeshivah. He wrote to the Rebbe, who responded that my friend should go to yeshiva immediately. I, however, was told to complete my undergraduate degree and then study in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad under Rabbi Zalman Gafne. But for Rabbi Lipskar’s suggestion – and the Rebbe’s endorsement – it would never have entered my mind to attend a yeshiva.
Rabbi Lipskar also suggested that I ask the Rebbe whether my meditation technique was compatible with Judaism. The Rebbe wrote back, recommending that I embrace Jewish prayer instead:
“It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the benefit you will get from the observation of tefillah three times a day is a true and lasting benefit, and incomparably greater to any benefit that one can find in strange pastures, G-d forbid …
“May G-d grant that you should have good news to report in all the above, especially that you are firmly and confidently walking in the path of Torah with inspiration and joy.”
I followed his advice, and a year later I went to Kfar Chabad, where I had the privilege of attending inspiring classes and farbrengens led by some of the most remarkable Chabad personalities. And, before long, Jewish prayer became the cornerstone of my life.
In 1975, with the Rebbe’s blessing, I got engaged to Mendelle, a friend from Johannesburg. Mendelle was a social worker and she had been offered a highly sought out lecturing post at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. So, we wrote to the Rebbe for guidance, asking if she should take this post at the university, where the prevailing psychological and social theories tended to conflict with Torah values.
I, for one, felt unprepared to leave the closeted environment of the yeshiva. I was still fantasizing that I could remain in the colorful old time Russian shtetl dream-world of Kfar Chabad forever.
The Rebbe addressed all our issues with care. In a written note he advised Mendelle to take the position at the university and reassured her that, if she would remain steadfast in upholding Torah principles in a pleasant and non-confrontational way, her values would be respected. As for me, he advised that I pursue a law degree, provided that I would sustain my daily fixed times of Torah study.
So this is what we did.
It took me several years to adapt from the idyllic world of Kfar Chabad to the hard-nosed world of legal practice. Eventually, I became a mediator, pursuing a career that served as an expression of my religious values and that matched my natural talents. Being a mediator is spiritual work – for mediation is the art of reaching consensus and peacemaking.
Meanwhile, Mendelle taught at the university, and later served as an advisor to the Minister of Social Development in the first post-apartheid South African government.
Because of the Rebbe’s guidance we both have had amazing career successes. We are eternally grateful to him for having taken the time to peer into our souls and guide us into vocations from which we both had shied away; but which ultimately became the ultimate expressions of who we are and the spiritual values we hold.
During our engagement, in the summer of 1975, Mendelle and I had a private audience with the Rebbe as a couple. We approached this audience very seriously, treating it as a soul encounter on an essential level, and we prepared for it by studying Chasidic teachings and praying.
Our primary request was for a blessing to create a warm Jewish home, like the Chabad homes we had encountered, where guests are welcomed with warmth and children are brought up in the rich, life-enhancing world of Torah.
The Rebbe gave us this blessing: “May you create a home where all kinds of Jews will love to visit. At your home they will be drawn to Yiddishkeit, and, as a result, their lives will be enriched and, because their lives will be enriched, so will yours.”
That blessing certainly manifested, and just how much we didn’t realize until tragedy struck.
In 1992, when he was sixteen, our oldest son, Avremi, was killed in a car crash. During shiva, many people came to call. Some people who we did not remember said that they had been guests in our home and had left inspired. At this trying period in our lives, when grief brings with it a sense of having been abandoned by the universe, we found ourselves surrounded and supported by people recounting their recollections of being guests in our home. Precisely as the Rebbe blessed us, those whose lives we touched were now giving us the strength to carry on.
This brings me to another story.
At age ten, our second son, Levi, contracted a very rare and dangerous medical condition, which required neurosurgery, but the best surgeon in the world performing that particular surgery was in England.
The surgery was risky, so we decided to travel to New York to approach the Rebbe as he gave out dollars for charity.
When Levi reached his turn in line, we asked for the Rebbe’s blessing, and the Rebbe wished him a complete recovery. He then gave him two extra dollars saying, “You should give this dollar to charity in London. And this dollar is for charity on Tuesday (the day of the operation). You will have good news.”
Levi became the first child to have this disease who recovered without the need for radiation. Today, Levi and his family are the Rebbe’s emissaries in New Canaan, Connecticut.
We have a photograph of Levi receiving the Rebbe’s blessing. My late father, Natchie Mendelow, wisely commented, “When I look at the picture of this young boy and his expression of absolute trust and that pleading, expectant look of his, there is no doubt in my mind that the main reason for Levi’s cure was the belief that the Rebbe generated in him. What for me is truly miraculous is that the Rebbe instilled similar belief and absolute trust in G-d in thousands of people.”
Mr. Zemach Mendelow, an attorney at law, practices and teaches mediation in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was interviewed in August of 2014.