Chabad to Williamsburg—how far does the love for a fellow Jew go? Especially one who strayed?
The Avner Institute presents a moving encounter told by Rabbi Nachman Twersky, whose grandfather the Rachmastrivka Rebbe, together with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, helped bring a former student of his who was living in Williamsburg Brooklyn at the time back to Torah observance, showing how through Divine Providence a lost Jewish spark can be rekindled.
The Real Reason Behind a Visa
In 1920, after the establishment of the brutal Soviet regime, the Rachmastrivka Rebbe Dovid Twersky and his family were forced to flee their native town and live in Nikolayev, which was known for its large Lubavitcher community. The current Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose grandfather was the local rav, had opportunities to meet and work with the Rachmastrivka Rebbe and establish a network of underground yeshivas throughout Soviet Russia. The Rachmastrivka Rebbe lived in Nikolayev for six years until 1926, when he had his family finally left for Israel and he rebuilt his Chassidic court in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Twersky relates:
About thirty years passed since those difficult days in Russia. In 1950, after the passing of his father, R’ Dovid, R’ Yochanan became the new Admur of Rachmastrivka. Founder of Yeshivat Meor Einayim, he continued to lead the Chassidim and rebuild the Chassidus almost from scratch after years of suffering and exile; his leadership was noted for its warmth and simplicity.
In 1954 R’ Yochanan went to Williamsburg, New York for the wedding of his son, R’ Chaim Yitzchok Twersky (the present Admur). Taking advantage of his stay in Brooklyn to renew his connection with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’ Yochanan Twersky arrived on night at 770 for a private audience which lasted quite some time.
During the yechidus the Rebbe asked the Admur whether he remembered a particular student in the underground Talmud Torah in Nikolayev. When the Admur said yes, the Rebbe explained how this student had emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States, where, ironically, in a free country, he was could observe the religion freely but had chosen instead to leave the path of Torah. The Rebbe said that Lubavitcher Chassidim had met with him and tried to get him back on track but to no avail.
“Perhaps you will have an influence on him,” the Rebbe suggested, and he asked the Admur about possibly devoting some time in New York to visit with this man and inspire him to return to the fold.
It is remarkable that the conversation between these two tzaddikim focused on a Jew from decades ago and how to get him back to Jewish ways and traditions. The Rachmastrivka Rebbe, saddened to hear about the poor spiritual state of the former student, promised the Rebbe to try to reach this person.
The Rebbe did not delay. Immediately he picked up the phone and dialed the man’s number. “I have Rabbi Yochanan Twersky sitting here. Do you remember him?”
Apparently the man said yes, for the Rebbe continued, “Rabbi Twersky is interested in meeting with you. When can you meet?”
When the man said that Friday afternoon would be convenient, the Rebbe asked R’ Twersky to receive him then and gave the man the address where the Admur was staying.
Friday afternoon, the former student from Nikolayev went to Williamsburg to see the Rachmastrivka Rebbe. After nearly thirty years’ separation, the meeting was highly emotional and time was spent reminiscing about unforgettable people.
When the man asked the Admur why he had come to New York, the Admur simply replied that he had come for his son’s wedding. The former student, guessing the reason for their meeting and feeling gratitude for what the Rebbe had done for him years ago, took out a checkbook, wrote a generous check, and presented it to the Admur.
To his surprise, the Admur would not accept it. “I won’t take a check until I finish our conversation,” he declared. “I want to discuss your religious observance.”
The man, by then entrenched in the American way of life and thinking, explained that he was a respected member of his Jewish community and even went to shul occasionally. He seemed pleased with himself.
“What about Shabbos observance?” asked the Admur.
The man began to justify his lack of observance, saying that although Shabbos was very important, he couldn’t be closed while all his competitors were open on this busiest day of the week.
“What about kashrus?” persisted the Admur.
Again the man mumbled that in spite of his desire to keep kosher, he lived in an area where kosher products were almost impossible to obtain, which left him no choice but to eat non-kosher.
The Admur listened quietly. “What about tefillin?”
The man agreed that tefillin was an important mitzvah but that he did not always have time for it.
The Admur’s eyes filled with tears. At last he cried bitterly.
“Was it for a ‘Judaism’ like this that we invested so much effort into you in the underground schools in Nikolayev? Each of your teachers put his life in danger, and for what? So you would grow up to be a G-d-fearing and observant Jew. See how far you’ve strayed . . . .”
The man was touched, and he too began to cry. “You are absolutely right! I promise that from now on I will do teshuva and keep the mitzvoth as I learned them.”
The Admur was pleased. He blessed the former student with success in returning to his roots.
Before they parted, the man again tried to hand him the check, but this time again, the Admur refused. “I will take the check only after I find out that you kept your word and did teshuva. How will I know when I don’t live here?”
He then answered his own question, “When the Lubavitcher Rebbe will tell me that you did teshuva, only then will I accept your donation.”
With a heavy handshake the Rachmastrivka Rebbe and his guest said goodbye.
The Admur’s visit in New York lasted a few more weeks, during which he received many people who came to him for blessings and advice.
One day, the phone rang at his host’s house. The Rachmastrivka Rebbetzin answered.
The voice on the line asked to speak with Rabbi Twersky.
“Who is speaking?” she asked.
“Duh redt men fun Lubavitch (I’m calling from Lubavitch).”
Realizing it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, she excitedly gave the phone to her husband.
The Rebbe gave the Rachmastrivka Rebbe the update: their former student had done teshuva and begun keeping mitzvoth.
“R’ Yochanan,” said the Rebbe, “you think you came here in order to marry off your son? You came here so that a Jew would do teshuva. Now this man is frum!”
Rabbi Twersky adds:
“When I spoke with my uncle about his wedding, I thought about what the Rebbe had said to my grandfather and I put the following information together:
“When my grandfather went for his visa to the U.S. for the first time, he was refused. The people at the American embassy saw he was a former Russian citizen, and in light of the tension between the United States and Russia at the time, that was reason enough to be refused a visa to the U.S. The Americans were afraid to allow possible Russian spies into the country.
“My grandfather was turned down again and again, and he despaired of being able to attend his son’s wedding. The chassan went to America by himself and the family made peace with the fact that the father of the chassan would not be attending. A few days before the wedding, the American embassy contacted him and said he could submit another request. He did so and this time the visa was granted.
“When the family reviewed what the Rebbe had said to my grandfather, they realized that Divine Providence had orchestrated matters so he could travel to the United States in order to save that Jew and not necessarily because of the wedding of his son.”