In the Beginning
Today, go to any city or town across the globe, and you’re likely to find a Chabad House. But sixty years ago, life was far different, and the Rebbe’s new dream a major challenge.
The Avner Institute presents an adapted anecdote by Rabbi Chida Levitansky in honor of his wedding and in loving memory of his father, Rabbi Avrohom Levitansky, a”h, one of the original emissaries, who arrived in California to build a spiritual oasis, who experienced the Rebbe’s clairvoyant guidance, and who resolved every Shabbos Bereishis to renew the Torah cycle at 770 in the Rebbe’s holy company.
in loving memory of Hadassah Bas Schneur Zalman
“To collect all the goodies”
Rabbi Chida Levitansky relates:
My father, Rabbi Avrohom Levitansky, a”h, moved to California in Elul 5727 (1967). His first Tishrei experience there, the High Holidays and Sukkos, was a far cry from his previous years at 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters. Consequently, he traveled to the Rebbe for Simchas Torah. This was repeated the next year, as well.
In the year 5730 (1969-70), however, things changed. The first Chabad House was opened in Westwood, California, the neighborhood abutting the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The name “Chabad House,” the Rebbe explained, was a “home,” a place providing for every Jew–those needing to daven, talk to someone, find a kosher meal, a place to sleep, and place to learn. This being the case, all the shluchim, emissaries, decided to stay at the Chabad House for Simchas Torah in order to give the Jewish students an authentic Simchas Torah experience.
But for my father, that Simchas Torah was the hardest ever. Though it was beautiful and inspiring, the pain of not spending Yom Tov with the Rebbe was clearly felt. On the night after Simchas Torah, my father decided on the spot that he would buy a ticket to go see the Rebbe for that following Shabbos, Shabbos Breishis.
Upon arrival at the airport, my father was greeted with, “Now you come here? You missed Rosh Hashanah, you missed Yom Kippur, you missed Sukkos, you missed Simchas Torah—and now you come!”
My father replied, “Shabbos Breishis is the time when we pack up all the goodies, all the merchandise that we have collected over the entire month and take it with us for the whole year. You guys did all the work over Elul, Rosh Hashanah, etc. And now I’ve come to collect all the goodies and take them back with me to California.”
He was there for Shabbos Breishis. After he “recharged his batteries” he put in his name on the list for yechidus, a private audience with the Rebbe, on Sunday evening. At the time there was a rule: yechidus after Simchas Torah required attendance at the Simchas Torah farbrengen.
My father rationalized, “I’m not really going in now for the Simchas Torah yechidus. Rather, I had missed my audience with the Rebbe for my birthday, so this will be the substitute.”
Actually, his birthday fell earlier—the month of Av. It just “happened to be” that the timing was after Simchas Torah.
My father asked the secretariat to arrange an audience, telling him that he had missed his birthday audience—without mentioning that he hadn’t been at 770 for Simchas Torah—and promised to go in for not more than a minute, receive a blessing, and leave. Realizing that the Rebbe might ask for a report of the Simchas Torah at the Chabad House, he wrote a detailed list of all the activities and presented it to the Rebbe’s office.
He then wrote a tzetil, a petition for a blessing. A line and a half long, his note asked for success in his work (i.e. Chabad House and Released Time, the program allowing children from public school to attend Jewish instruction), as well as blessings for his wife and children.
A Question of Timing
In great awe he entered the Rebbe’s room and handed his note to the leader. Normally the Rebbe rolled the letter between his fingers and scanned it hastily. This time, however, the Rebbe read it very, very slowly.
My father stood there trembling. “What did I write that was so bad?” he thought.
Finally the Rebbe raised his head. “When did you arrive?”
Now my father knew he was in trouble. “I came before Shabbos,” he stammered, figuring that “before Shabbos” could be any day of the week, and not necessarily Simchas Torah.
“But for Simchas Torah you were there, in California?” the Rebbe asked.
My father nodded, as slowly backed out of the room.
But the Rebbe wouldn’t let him go so fast. He started asking my father questions. What was it like there in California? How many people attended? Question after question my father answered as quickly as he could, explaining that he had already presented to the office a report. However, the Rebbe continued asking questions, as if he hadn’t heard.
The two-way buzzer in the Rebbe’s room, which was used to summon a secretary and have him tell the visitor that time was up, buzzed furiously. Nevertheless, the Rebbe ignored it and continued asking questions.
Time passed. Rabbi Leibel Groner, a”h, started to open and close the door, hinting at my father to “get out.” But the Rebbe persisted with the questions, with my father answering that everything the Rebbe wanted to know was in the report.
At last Rabbi Groner opened the door and gave my father a hard look. Helplessly, my father shrugged.
Ten minutes later, the questioning ceased. The Rebbe suddenly asked, “When are you planning to leave?”
Inwardly, my father wanted to answer, “I wanted to leave an hour ago.” Instead, he explained that his flight was due the following day, Monday.
“But I am willing to leave whenever the Rebbe wants me to,” he added.
The Rebbe replied, “While you are here, maybe you can write up an article for the newspapers about what happened. It can be interview style.” The Rebbe highly supported the idea of publicizing the work of Chabad, an idea very dear to him.
Return to the Source
The following morning, my father went to the only person he knew who could possibly help him write the article and arrange that it be sent to the newspapers: Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky. Being that it was right after the holidays, the Rebbe’s secretary was quite busy; nevertheless, my father cornered him and gave over the Rebbe’s directive in the audience.
“I don’t know anything about newspapers or interviews,” my father explained. “But if you want, you can call me in California and we’ll do an interview over the phone, because I need to catch a flight.”
He called a taxi. But by the time he arrived at the airport, the gates were closed, and he missed his flight. The next one would be in two and a half hours.
Then he was struck with inspiration. Instead of waiting at the airport, he thought, why not go back to 770 and spend another hour in the Rebbe’s shul?
As he arrived, he saw a tumult outside the building.
“What’s going on?” he asked another observer.
The other replied, “The Rebbe is having a special audience for those students he had sent to learn in different yeshivoth,” referring to Montreal and Brunoy, “and for any shluchim who still stayed.”
Dropping his suitcase, my father dashed straight into the Rebbe’s room. He made it, just as the door closed behind him.
During this yechidus, the Rebbe spoke about the preciousness of shlichus, and “the pity” for those who remained in New York.
This was music to my father’s ears. At this time, the concept of shlichus was just taking root; unlike today, it was looked at by many as a “shlimazel [loser] outfit.” My father was even told by some that he was a double shlimazel for working for another shlimazel. Yet here he was, hearing the Rebbe extol just how precious the work was.
Apparently, the Rebbe had wanted my father at this audience but didn’t want to divulge this to anyone there. Therefore, the Rebbe had given him something to do, knowing that “it would shlep [drag out],” and that my father would end up missing the flight. My father’s presence allowed him to hear exactly what he needed to hear.
From then on, Shabbos Breishis became a personal Yom Tov for my father. He went every year. As time passed, more shluchim who couldn’t be with the Rebbe for Yom Tov started coming specifically for Shabbos Breishis.
In fact, one year, 5750 (1989-90), the Rebbe held a special farbrengen for these shulchim, where he washed before the end of Shabbos and after the farbrengen gave out kos shel bracha, Kiddush cup full of wine, as he customarily did after Simchas Torah.
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