The following was printed in the Jewish Press, a letter written to the Dear Dr. Yael column:
Dear Dr. Yael,
As an avid reader of your column I wanted to share my very special story!
One day in December/Kislev 1977, the Lubavitcher Rebbe came through the mail slot in my parents’ front door.
Well, it wasn’t exactly the Rebbe, but a brochure sent to our address from the Rebbe’s emissaries at the Lubavitch Youth Organization.
It was actually an invitation to come to “Pegisha,” a Shabbaton for college-aged youth. The brochure was addressed to my sister, a college student in Michigan, who had attended a previous Pegisha or Encounter with Chabad weekend.
My interest was immediately piqued, as I was working at the time as a free-lance writer, and had been actively exploring my Jewish roots by reading, attending classes and visiting Israel.
I immediately called the editor at a Jewish publication I was writing for, and inquired if he would pay me to do a piece on the Pegisha. My plan was to attend incognito, and then write the article about my experience there. He answered in the affirmative, so I immediately called to register.
“Where are you from?” asked the friendly voice on the other end, after I had given my name.
“Maplewood, New Jersey,” was my reply.
“MAPLEWOOD? Wow, do you know Rabbi Gordon?”
“Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon, the Lubavitch rabbi in Maplewood,” was the excited reply.
“No, I’m sorry, never heard of him,” I replied.
“Can’t believe it! How big is the town, anyway?”
As my family’s affiliation was Reform, it was obvious why my path and Rabbi Gordon’s had never crossed.
A few weeks later, on a blustery Erev Shabbos, I made my way by train and subway to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, arriving at the LYO office just as the first warning siren was sounding to herald the imminent arrival of Shabbos.
“You’re just in time, we were about to close up,” said some girls in the office. “We’ve run out of host families, so don’t know where we can send you. But, wait a moment!” A quick call was placed, and: “You’ll have to stay at the Groners,” I was told. They directed me to hurry up and find my way to 1649 President Street, home of none other than Rabbi Leibel and Mrs, Yehudis Groner. Rabbi Groner was the Rebbe’s personal secretary.
I expected to be greeted at the door by a fat matronly woman, in a dirty housecoat and oversized tichel – this was my preconceived vision of what a Chassidic balabuste would look like. Instead, I was ushered into the Groner home by a most regal-looking woman who reminded me of Princess Grace Kelly.
“Welcome to our home!” smiled Mrs. Groner. “We must hurry, as it’s almost Shabbos!”
I was ushered into a small bedroom with several beds. I stowed my things, surreptitiously hiding my little notepad and pen under my mattress, thinking I’d jot down my observations during Shabbos. I chatted briefly with Chaya, the Groners’ lovely teenaged daughter.
“Are you a college student?” I asked Chaya.
“I go to seminary,’ she replied simply.
“Seminary – what’s that?” I was mystified. It sounded like a place where priests would go to study.
“Come now, its time to light!” called another daughter from the hallway.
Thankfully, I knew about lighting Shabbos candles from my own home, as my mother had never missed lighting candles on Friday night.
Mrs. Groner, her daughters, and I lit candles and softly murmured the bracha. The light of many candles illuminated the cozy living room where the lights were reflected in the wall mirrors.
Another Pegisha attendee came to escort me to 770 Eastern Parkway, the main Lubavitch synagogue, which was absolutely packed. “There’s the Rebbe! Can you see him?” Someone pointed to a bearded elderly man sitting on a red velvet chair, but I could barely get a look, due to all the pushing and shoving in the women’s section of the shul.
Back at the Groners, the table was beautifully set. We women sat in comfy chairs and sofas and chatted away by candlelight, getting to know one another, as we awaited the arrival of Rabbi Groner and his sons. It got later and later, and my stomach was grumbling. Boy, was I hungry! Mrs. Groner apologized for the late hour, explaining that, as the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Groner had to escort the Rebbe home after shul. Also, since the Rebbe had recently recovered from a heart attack, Rabbi Groner had to carry a walkie-talkie in case of, G-d forbid, an emergency.
Finally, we heard singing, and Rabbi Groner, his twin teenaged sons, Yossi and Mendy, and little 8-year-old Aaron, burst into the house. We could hear the crackling of the walkie-talkie in the rabbi’s coat pocket.
“Good Shabbos!” Rabbi Groner greeted us, and I was introduced to him, as we all took our places at the Shabbos table.
Rabbi Groner, Yossi and Mendy on either side, sang “Sholom Aleichem,” and I believe that malachim themselves were there with us. I felt embraced by such a warm glow of peace and sweetness, of shalom bayis and happiness, it was something I had never, ever experienced in my life, though I had been at other Shabbos tables, and traveled throughout Europe and Israel.
Divine providence had led me to a place I needed to be, the place I belonged. I realized that this was IT, this joy and light was what I wanted, what I needed in my life.
Shabbos and the weekend passed in a blur of activity, including a rousing farbrengen with Rabbi Manis Friedman which lasted far, far into the night on motzei Shabbos. Dozens and dozens of young women from all over the world danced and sang until we couldn’t anymore. And none of us, I daresay, wished we could be partying “on the outside” (I think it was New Year’s Eve). We were having such a blast!!
Needless to say, I didn’t end up as an observer and reporter that weekend. A few weeks later I went to study in Minnesota at Bais Chana, the Women’s Institute for the Study of Judaism. For about 10 days I attended classes and had round-the-clock discussions with other participants–mostly about the woman’s role in Judaism. One day, I woke up, and decided to accept mitzvos upon myself.
The next day, I saw some girls upstairs in the library, poring over a huge volume. “What’s that?” I queried. “It’s the 300-year Jewish calendar and we’re trying to find out our Jewish birthdays,” came the answer.
Curious, I had them figure out my Jewish birthday, as well.
Can you guess?
The day before, when I had accepted mitzvos, was my 25th Jewish birthday!!
— By Elana Bergovoy, co-founder of the Chicago Shidduch Group and President of the International Shidduch Group Network