A Street in historic S. Petersburg

The “Progressives” Meet the Rebbe (2)

“One day, while I was visiting your grandfather, he suddenly turned to me and asked, “How long has it been since you stopped putting on tefillin?”” • Jottings from the diaries of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch • The second installment of the riveting tale of one young chassid’s trip away from and back to Yiddishkeit, Translated by Shimon Neubort

Until now: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson is on a trip back from France to Russia; on the train he encounters an irreligious Jew who upon identifying him as a scion of the Lubavitcher Rebbeim, breaks down in tears and requests to borrow his teffilin and Siddur:

I opened my suitcase, took out my Rashi tefillin, and gave them to him, saying that he could daven in my compartment. I left the compartment, allowing him to pour out his heart before G-d undisturbed. He continued davening for quite a long time. When he finished, I entered the compartment and he returned the tefillin to me with profuse thanks, asking to borrow my Siddur. I assumed that he wished to say some Tehillim, and to use the Siddur when he davened Minchah.

He then returned to his own car, without telling me who he was. It was evident that the man had undergone some inner turnover, but I still had no idea who this person was or what had happened to him.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, the porter came to me again, relating that the same passenger who had visited me that morning now wished to see me again. I gave my consent, and he entered my compartment. His face was white, and had a very sad expression. In a weak voice, as though he were ill, he began to speak.

“My name is Mr. Y.M., and I am the son Reb Leib M., who was born in the city of S., and was one of your grandfather’s Chassidim. During my childhood and adolescence, I studied in cheder, and was taught by the finest melamdim, who were Chassidim and men of good deeds. The Chassidim would assemble in my father’s home on every Chassidic festive occasion, and I was, of course, one of the first to attend.

“Eventually, however, my father moved from S. to Petersburg. It is true that even there his lifestyle was based on the principles of Torah and Chassidus, and even there Chassidim regularly gathered in his home. However, I was influenced by the children of our various neighbors, and began to follow in their ways.

“Seeing the face of your grandfather the Rebbe made an indescribable impression on me. He cautioned me to remember that I was a Jew, for the company I was presently keeping was quite hazardous.

“One day toward the end of summer, while we were living at our vacation home in a suburb of Petersburg, Father told me that when he traveled to Lubavitch for the coming Rosh HaShanah, he planned to take me with him. I was then about fifteen years old, and I had already sampled the lifestyle of the neighboring youths, who accepted no restrictions to indulging their appetites. Obviously, I had no relish for Father’s plans to take me to Lubavitch.

“When the time came, my father set off for Lubavitch along with two other Chassidim, taking me along too. About ten other people, members of the well-known Chassidic A., A., and T. families, joined our party. Five or six others, whose expenses were paid by the wealthy K. Brothers, also traveled to Lubavitch.

“Seeing the face of your grandfather the Rebbe made an indescribable impression on me. When I entered his chamber together with my father for yechidus, he gave me an explicit blessing for success in everything I did. But he cautioned me to remember that I was a Jew, for the company I was presently keeping was quite hazardous.

“The impressions of my trip to Lubavitch affected me for a long time after our return to Petersburg, and stopped me from associating with the sons of our gentile neighbors. To their great surprise, I even refrained from joining their festivities and games during their holiday season, which I had done in previous years. This situation continued until the next summer, when we again moved to our vacation home.

“When we were in our summer home, I was already a high school student, and little-by-little I began to associate with my young contemporaries. Some of them were scholarly and possessed refined qualities, while others sought a life of pleasure. But all of them influenced me to estrange myself from the lifestyle followed in our home.

“On one occasion I came home late, and failed to daven Minchah and Ma’ariv. Another time, being in a hurry to join my friends in swimming, I skipped Shacharis. On a third occasion, I ate with them. Thus, over the summer months, I abandoned the religious way of life to which I had been accustomed in my father’s home.

“When we returned to the city from our country home, Father began to prepare for his annual Rosh HaShanah trip to Lubavitch, but I remained at home. I remember it as if it were today: when I went to shul during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the whole scene seemed foreign to me.

“During the gentile holiday season, I spent all my time with my non-Jewish friends, rarely coming home. Once, when I did come home, it was to see my mother and ask her to give me a few hundred rubles. Twice, I visited my father’s office to ask his cashier for some money that I needed.

“When the holiday season ended and I returned home, Father admonished me and said that he was ready to give me as much money as I needed. But he demanded that I sever all my ties with my young friends, the delinquent schoolboys. I replied that I was already grown up, and would live as I myself chose, for my parents had no right to interfere with my private life.

At that time, a society was founded, called the “Young Progressives.” The goal of this society was to champion the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden

“To demonstrate my independence, I left my parents’ home, and found myself an apartment of my own. Thus, the next six years passed. I finished high school, got married, and led the totally secular life I had chosen for myself, almost completely forgetting my former lifestyle in my father’s home.

“At that time, a society was founded, called the “Young Progressives.” The goal of this society was to champion the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden, to look into their well-being, and to afford them moral and material support. A major part of the society’s efforts was devoted to the economic situation of our fellow Jews.

“One day, in December 1881, I met an acquaintance who told me that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was visiting Petersburg, and had gone to see several high government officials with whom he had discussed the economic situation of the Jewish people.

“Being a member of the Young Progressives (as I have mentioned), I was curious to find out what your grandfather had accomplished in the community’s behalf. For this purpose, I went to Hotel Serapinsky in Zablakonsky Street, where your grandfather was staying.

“When I arrived at the hotel, I met numerous Chassidim whom I had not seen for many years since leaving my father’s house. They were overjoyed at seeing me; for the first time, I became aware of the warm love Chassidim have for their brethren, even for those who have gone astray.

“I then remembered the uproar that had ensued in Father’s home during the first few days after I moved out and went to live in my own apartment in Pushkinsky Street with a few of my young friends. Before my eyes I saw once again as though it were happening at that very moment two of my father’s friends, who had visited me and entreated me to return to my father’s home. I had been overcome by their display of love and affection toward Father and me, as they had wept passionate tears in sympathy with father’s distress.

“I had no doubt that over the years they had spoken of me from time to time, and had inquired about my lifestyle. I am certain that knowing my lifestyle caused them inner pain. Nevertheless, when they met me at the entrance to the hotel, they greeted me with open arms and warm regards, as if I was one of their number.

“The Chassidim possess a unique quality: love for their fellows, without regard to rank or standing. It makes no difference to them whether one is poor or rich, elderly or young. This quality places them on the highest ethical level. More than once, we nonobservant young folk spoke among ourselves about this quality of love for one’s fellow, and how we ought to take an example from the Chassidim in this regard.

“This meeting in Hotel Serapinsky affected me greatly, and left me with a warm feeling that words cannot describe. As I stood there daydreaming about the old days, I was startled by the sudden sound of voices crying, Baruch A-donai hamvorach leolam vaed.

“At first I had no idea what this was, but I quickly realized that they had begun todaven Ma’ariv. Your grandfather the Rebbe emerged from his room and recited the last Kaddish following Aleinu, because that day happened to be the yahrtzeit of the Alter Rebbe, author of the Tanya.

“It took three days for me to calm the emotions aroused within me by that meeting with my old acquaintances from the days of my youth. I was even more overcome by the Kaddish I heard your grandfather recite, for it reminded me of the time I had spent in Lubavitch.

“On January 4, we members of the Young Progressives discovered that the Minister of Internal Affairs had hinted to the governors of Kiev, Chernigov, and other territories, that they were to instigate pogroms against the Jews. We knew that your grandfather had come to Petersburg on communal business. The main focus of his trip was the pogroms that had begun in the southern regions, and the wave of anti-Semitism that was then sweeping the country.

“On January 4, we members of the Young Progressives discovered that the Minister of Internal Affairs had hinted to the governors of Kiev, Chernigov, and other territories, that they were to instigate pogroms against the Jews.

“We were also aware of his great influence in government circles, and that he had explicitly and forcefully demanded that the Jewish citizens of the country be defended. We therefore decided to send several of our members to share our information with your grandfather.

“However, we also knew that your grandfather was reserved, and that he was not fond of (to put it more accurately, he despised) the secular youth. Therefore, it was quite likely that he would refuse to listen to us, or he would require us to reveal the sources of our information and to present him with convincing proofs of it. Since I was a leading member of the Party, and the head of the Jewish Affairs Division, I was selected to visit your grandfather accompanied by one other member, and to reveal to him what we knew.

“When we arrived at Hotel Serapinsky we could think of no excuse for requesting an audience with your grandfather we couldn’t reveal the purpose of our visit in advance, and we were sure that we would not be admitted without stating our purpose. However, we learned that it was your grandfather’s habit to take a walk at nine thirty every morning. Therefore, we decided to wait for him in the hallway; when he passed by, we would hand him a note stating that we had an important matter to discuss with him, and wished to make an appointment.

“The next morning we arrived at the hotel at nine o’clock as we had decided. To our disappointment, we discovered that he would not be taking his walk that day, for two high officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had an appointment to see him at eleven. We were glad to learn of this meeting, for your grandfather could make good use of our information when he spoke with them. But we still had no plan for obtaining an audience.

“As we stood there bewildered, the door suddenly opened and your grandfather emerged, accompanied by the wealthy Chassid N. H. They began to pace back and forth along the hotel corridor, while my colleagues and I remained in the far corner. A few moments later your grandfather happened to raise his eyes, and he noticed me. Though he had not seen me for eight years (and I don’t have to tell you that my appearance had changed considerably during that time), he immediately recognized me. He inquired about my welfare, and asked whether I still remembered the Chassidic discourse I had heard in Lubavitch.

“I was so surprised, that I became flustered and was unable to utter a word. Seeing my confusion, my companion said, “We have an urgent matter to discuss with you, Rebbe.” Your grandfather returned to his room, and ordered the wealthy Chassid N. H. to invite us to enter.

“I will never forget the penetrating gaze that your grandfather fixed upon us; such a glance leaves an everlasting impression. From that morning on, my companion and I became your grandfather’s aides in his endeavors to quell the anti-Semitic sentiments that were then spreading among the government officials and ministers.

“There is much that I could tell of your grandfather’s activities during the month he spent in Petersburg; through his great influence, he succeeded in suppressing several evil decrees against the Jews.

“One day, while I was visiting your grandfather, he suddenly turned to me and asked, “How long has it been since you stopped putting on tefillin ? Don’t try to deny it! I don’t need anyone to inform me about it. I can tell you everything you’ve ever done, and exactly when and where you did it.”

“As I sat there in amazement trying to think of some reply, he began to recite to me, incident by incident, everything that had happened to me, and the steps by which I had gradually abandoned the Jewish religion. I was struck dumb, my head began spinning, my heart palpitated, and rivers of tears ran from my eyes.

– To be continued –