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Friday
Mar282008

‘DEEP WITHIN ME BURNS A LUBAVITCHER NESHAMA’ 

If you would meet Shem (Shemi) Rokeach in the Belzer shtibel in Boro Park or in his spacious office in Manhattan, you would think he was a Belzer Chassid with absolutely no connection to Chabad. In a fascinating discussion that I had with him, I discovered a Lubavitcher neshama that burns with a fierce love for Beis Rebbi. * Shemi Rokeach is a Belzer Chassid on his father’s side but is from the glorious Schneerson family on his mother’s side. Thanks to this, he had an unusual relationship with Beis Rebbi. * In honor of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s birthday on 25 Adar II, we present special memories of the Rebbetzin whom Shemi visited dozens of times and with whom he spoke by phone every Friday!

How did you develop a connection with the family of Beis Rebbi?

My maternal grandmother, Devora Leah Klingberg, was the daughter of R’ Yosef Moshe Schneerson, who was the son of R’ Nachum Zalman Schneerson, the Admur of Tcherkass, who was the grandson of the Admur Yosef Yitzchok of Avrutch, the son of the Tzemach Tzedek. Since the Rebbe Rashab married the daughter of R’ Yosef Yitzchok of Avrutch, both the Rebbe Maharash and the Rebbe Rashab were uncles in our family.

I once looked into our family tree and saw that since the Schneerson family frequently married within the family, it turns out we are descendents of the Alter Rebbe in at least eight different ways!

My grandmother, who was from an illustrious family, related to several Poilishe Admurim like Sanz, Chernobyl and others, always felt a special connection with the Schneerson family. All her life she prided herself in that she was part of the Schneerson family. I remember that in her final years, when she had to undergo an operation, she went to the Rebbe for a bracha. When the Rebbe asked her why she was worried, she said she was afraid her mind wouldn’t be the same after the operation. The Rebbe told her, “A Schneerson mind can never be ruined!

My grandmother came to New York in 5710/1950 and settled in Crown Heights on Montgomery Street. She immediately established a relationship with Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. Their bond was like that of sisters though my grandmother respected the Rebbetzin as was appropriate for the latter’s position.

My grandmother lived in Crown Heights until the seventies and then she moved in with my parents in Flatbush, but she kept up her relationship with the Rebbetzin and they spoke a lot on the phone. The Rebbetzin regularly called my parents’ home to speak to my grandmother and my grandmother would call her too. They often spoke several times a day.

I remember a special gesture of the Rebbetzin to my grandmother. I was in my parents’ house when one of the men who worked in Beis Rebbi came to our house with a large package wrapped in gift wrap. He asked whether my grandmother was available because he had a present for her from the Rebbetzin. I took the package and brought it to my grandmother. She opened the wrapping paper and to her surprise, saw a picture of the Rebbe with a big smile in a gilded frame.

My grandmother, who had no idea why she had been given this gift out of the blue, immediately called the Rebbetzin and asked, “Musha (which is what she always called her), what is this about?”

The Rebbetzin told her that she wanted to surprise her with a gift and she examined 200 photos of the Rebbe until she found the picture that she was sure my grandmother would really enjoy. My grandmother put the picture in a place of honor and from then on, every night, before going to sleep, she would stand next to the picture and say, “A gutte nacht, Rebbe (good night Rebbe) .”

The friendship between my grandmother and the Rebbetzin was so close that my mother was like the Rebbetzin’s daughter. My mother received many presents from the Rebbetzin. When my mother was ready to go on shidduchim, the Rebbetzin gave my mother her own gold chain so she would look nice. As a wedding gift my parents received a set of beautiful dishes and when I was born, they received a lovely baby blanket.

As a little boy I visited the Rebbetzin many times. My grandmother would go visit her and she would take me along. My parents also went to the Rebbetzin often. Despite the close friendship, we were always highly respectful of the Rebbetzin. We dressed up for the occasion and were particular to appear neat and clean. We felt we were visiting royalty.

The Rebbetzin was short of stature but she radiated royal refinement. She was warm, with a perpetual smile, along with her royal appearance. Her house on President Street was also a combination of simplicity and warmth but was also very elegant.

When we visited the Rebbetzin, my parents or my grandmother would speak with the Rebbetzin in the living room while we children walked around the first floor. On the second floor were the bedrooms and the Rebbe’s office and we were aware that we couldn’t go there. I remember how we would go up one step after another, in a kind of competition as to who dared to climb the most steps to the second floor, but we always came back down. We didn’t dare go upstairs.

One time we visited the Rebbetzin on Chol HaMoed Sukkos and the Rebbetzin gave us ice cream. We went to the sukka behind the house and I sat on one chair and my brother sat on another. When R’ Sholom Gansburg, who helped out the Rebbetzin, came and saw where my brother was sitting, he said, “Get up! That’s the Rebbe’s chair!” and my brother jumped up.

After my bar mitzva I wore a long coat, as Chassidim do, but I also wore a pinched hat like they do in Chabad. My brother wore a round, Chassidic hat. Before one of our visits to the Rebbetzin, my grandmother told my brother not to wear his round hat but my brother insisted and said that since we are Belzer Chassidim, he wanted to dress as is customary in Belz. When we got to the Rebbetzin, she looked at me and said, “Shemi, why don’t you wear a round hat like your brother?”

When my sister, Shterna Bracha, was born, my parents went to the Rebbe when he gave out dollars for tz’daka, for a bracha. The Rebbe, who was pleased that they had named her after one of the Rebbetzins, greeted them with a smile and said, “We get a mazal tov, she’s called Shterna.”

When my sister turned three, the Rebbe told my parents she should light Shabbos candles and should do so with a bracha. I don’t remember whether the Rebbe also said she should give tz’daka before lighting, just that he emphasized that she should say a bracha.

On one of our visits to the Rebbe’s house, my little brother, who was three at the time, was playing and as he ran around he knocked into a large silver menora. My father, who was sitting in a nearby room, leaped up and managed to grab the menora before it fell.

Every Purim we brought the Rebbe and Rebbetzin mishloach manos. Each time, the Rebbe left coins from Eretz Yisroel for us. I have many coins from the Rebbe, in liras and then sh’kalim. That was our Purim gelt.

Did the Rebbe ever come home while you were visiting with the Rebbetzin?

Never. The Rebbetzin was very protective of the time she had with the Rebbe. She was particular not to have visitors at that time. Being close to the Rebbetzin, we knew that when the Rebbe came home, that was their private time.

Our main connection with Beis Rebbi was with the house on President Street and not so much with the house on Eastern Parkway. The basis of our relationship was our family connection since we were not Chabad Chassidim. Our relationship to the Rebbe was like an uncle-king; the most distinguished uncle, really a king, but this was family after all.

My father is a descendent of the great dynasties of Belz, Ropshitz, and Lizensk Chassidus. The Rokeach family is Belz and we are very close with the Belzer Rebbe. Just a month ago I visited the Belzer Rebbe with my son who became bar mitzva. The Belzer Rebbe knows about our special relationship with Beis Rebbi and he often asked us about what was going on in Lubavitch. I once told the Belzer Rebbe that although I am a Belzer Chassid, deep within me burns a Lubavitcher neshama.

When my brother and I were 9-10 years old, the Rebbetzin asked my grandmother, “Why don’t your grandsons attend my husband’s farbrengens?”

My grandmother passed the question along to my mother and my mother told my father to take us to the Rebbe’s farbrengen. My father agreed and that’s how I went to the Rebbe’s farbrengen the first time. We were seated on the dais behind the Rebbe. During the farbrengen, the Rebbe nodded his head in response to the l’chaims of the many Chassidim and when it was my turn, the Rebbe looked at me so warmly and said, “L’chaim!” I turned to my father and said excitedly, “The Rebbe saw me!”

My father cooled off my enthusiasm and said: There are thousands of people here. You think the Rebbe noticed you? The Rebbe sees everyone and says l’chaim to the crowd in general and not to every Chassid.

The next morning, before we went to yeshiva, the Rebbetzin called my grandmother and said that when the Rebbe came home after the farbrengen, he told her with a big smile: Today, two new Chassidim came from our family!

I attended many other of the Rebbe’s farbrengens, mainly on special dates in the Chassidic calendar.

Did you ever have yechidus with the Rebbe?

I never had yechidus, but I’ll tell you a story about the biggest mistake of my life, which cost me an entire Yom Tov spent privately with the Rebbe. When I was 13, my little sister was born. The birth was very difficult and my mother nearly died. She had to go for checkups once a month to a top doctor in New York.

This was Adar 5742. After her monthly checkup, the doctor told my mother: Mrs. Rokeach, I discovered something very problematic that requires an operation. Since it is a very dangerous operation, I recommend that you wait until after Pesach so you can celebrate Pesach with your family.

As soon as she got home from the doctor, my mother called the Rebbetzin to ask for the Rebbe’s bracha. The Rebbe was home and the Rebbetzin conveyed my mother’s message to him. The Rebbe told the Rebbetzin to tell my mother to have the operation immediately and not to wait until after Pesach. The Rebbe explained that since it was close to Purim, which we celebrate in the merit of Queen Esther and Mordechai HaYehudi, it is a good time to be treated, especially when my father’s name is Mordechai. In addition, the time between Purim and Pesach is connected with Geula, so what better time to do an operation?

My mother told the Rebbetzin that the doctor said the operation was very risky and he was afraid she wouldn’t make it, which is why he recommended postponing it for after Pesach. The Rebbetzin conveyed this to the Rebbe and she said: My husband says not to wait.

My mother asked: What should I tell the doctor when he asks me why I’m rushing to do it?

The Rebbe said: Tell him that I said she should not delay.

My mother did as the Rebbe said and asked the doctor to operate immediately. To the doctor’s astonishment, she explained that the Rebbe told her not to wait. The doctor was furious that the Rebbe mixed in to medical matters and said, “One asks a Rebbe about religious matters but when it comes to medical matters, you ask a doctor! Why did you ask the Rebbe?”

My mother explained that the Rebbe is our uncle and we greatly respected him and so she asked him to forgo his medical honor and do as the Rebbe said. The doctor was not pleased, but since my mother was his private patient he couldn’t refuse and he said he would do another test before he would operate.

When the doctor returned with the results of the test, he looked white as a ghost. “Who is this Rebbe who told you not to wait? I must meet him. He saved your life!”

The doctor could not explain how it had happened but the second test showed that she needed an immediate operation. “If we would have waited until Pesach, you may no longer have been alive,” he said with a shudder.

The operation was successful, baruch Hashem, and my mother had to remain in the hospital a few weeks to recover, which included Pesach. My father said he would be with my mother in the hospital on Pesach. When my grandmother told the Rebbetzin that my parents would not be home for Pesach, she said she wanted me to be her guest.

My grandmother asked me whether I wanted to be the Rebbe’s guest, but I refused. I knew that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin ate the Yom Tov meals themselves and I was afraid that if I spent an entire meal with the Rebbe, he would test me on the Gemara that I was learning…

My grandmother tried to convince me to go. “Are you afraid of being with the Rebbe?” she asked in surprise, but I was afraid and I refused. Today, in hindsight, I cannot forgive myself for this mistake, the biggest mistake of my life. Just imagine, I could have spent all of Pesach with the Rebbe and eaten all the meals with the Rebbe and Rebbetzin!

TORAH AND CHASSIDUS

My father registered me in the Litvishe yeshiva in Philadelphia, which was under R’ Elya Shwei, the rosh yeshiva at the time. On Hoshana Raba we went to the Rebbe for lekach. When we arrived, the line stopped and they gave us the honor of going directly to the Rebbe. The Rebbe gave lekach to my grandfather and said a few words to him. Then he gave lekach to my grandmother, to my father and mother. When it was my turn, the Rebbe made a gesture of great surprise and said, “Why Philadelphia?”

My father felt uncomfortable and he justified his decision by saying he wanted me to grow up to be a talmid Chacham, a ben Torah.

The Rebbe replied, “No, no. I don’t mean the yeshiva, Heaven forbid. But what will be with Chassidus?”

My father answered, “I ask the Rebbe to bless him ‘al ha’Torah v’al ha’Chassidus.’” The Rebbe gave me this bracha and despite learning in a Litvishe yeshiva, I did not neglect the Chassidic teachings and customs.

A MISSION FROM
THE REBBETZIN

In the 80’s I traveled with my family to Eretz Yisroel for my brother’s bar mitzva. Before we went, we visited the Rebbetzin. I don’t know why, but of all my brothers and sisters she favored me. During our visit she said to me: Shemi, you know that my husband has many shluchim but I want to make you my shliach. When you go to Eretz Yisroel, do me a favor. Go to Kfar Chabad and take pictures of what is going on there, the houses, the mosdos, the streets, and when you come back bring me the pictures. I want to see what is happening there.

Of course I was happy to fulfill this shlichus and during our visit I asked my cousin, R’ Nachum Schneerson (who is the nasi of Yeshivas Tchebin now) to send me to Kfar Chabad with his driver.

On our way to Kfar Chabad the driver pointed at a picture of the Rebbe that was hanging in his car and he asked me whether I knew who it was. I said: Of course, it’s our uncle, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The driver was so excited to hear that we were related to the Rebbe that he nearly got us into an accident!

“The Rebbe saved my life!” he exclaimed and he stopped the car on the side of the road in order to tell the story and to calm down.

“I was born in Russia,” he said with a heavy Russian accent. “When I grew up I joined a group of Zionists who tried to get out of Russia. I was arrested by the KGB and I was sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in Siberia.

“In Siberia, they had us chop down trees and drag them to the camp. The day after I arrived, one of the prisoners, a huge Russian gentile, came over to me and said: From now on, you will also do my work!

“He thought I was a timid Jew who would obey his commands, but I refused. He began beating me and I gave him back as good as I got, even better. We kept at it until blood ran and we were taken to the hospital.

“In Siberia there was no lack of manpower and the doctors didn’t exert themselves to save us. Then a doctor came over to me and asked: Are you Jewish? Do you believe in Torah and G-d?

“I thought the doctor was a KGB agent who wanted to entrap me and I refused to answer him. The doctor began treating me devotedly and he saved my life. Every time he came to see me, he asked whether I believed in G-d and kept mitzvos and I denied any connection to religion.

“When I finally recovered, the commander of the camp told me that I was going to be transferred from forest work to office work in the hospital. I met the doctor nearly every day and he continued to inquire about my beliefs. After a year in the hospital, they suddenly told me that they had received an order to release me and I was free to return home.

“I joyfully walked to the train station. As I stood there at the station waiting for the train, I saw the doctor coming in his car. He hurried over to me and asked: Nu, are you going to Israel now?

“If I wasn’t sure until then that he was a KGB agent, at that point I was convinced that he was trying to incriminate me. I denied it, of course, and declared that I was a loyal communist and I wouldn’t want to leave Mother Russia.

“The doctor persisted and said: I know you are a Jew and you want to go to Yerushalayim.

“I continued to deny it and I said I was going to Moscow, where I planned on living. At a certain point he took me over to a corner and said: ‘Listen well. You are a Jew and that is why I helped you until now. You should know that I put a lot of effort into healing you and I used my connections so they would change your hard labor to office work in the hospital. It is thanks to me that you are free today and not in another eleven years.

“‘You surely want to know who I am and why I was so eager to help you.’ He took a picture of a Jewish rabbi with a white beard out of his pocket. ‘This man sent me and some other people like me to various places throughout Russia. When we see a Jew in distress, we are there to help him. I want the best for you, which is why I say, do not remain in Russia. Do all you can to get out of here and when you get to Eretz Yisroel, find out who this man in the picture is and you should know that he saved your life!’

“I went to my home in Moscow and submitted another request to emigrate. A year later I received a visa and I went to Eretz Yisroel. Of course, as soon as I got there I asked to see pictures of various rabbis and I immediately identified the man in the picture. It is the Lubavitcher Rebbe!

“Now you know why I was so excited when you said that you are related to the Rebbe, the man who saved my life.”

PHONE CALLS
WITH THE REBBETZIN

Throughout my years in yeshiva in Philadelphia, I called the Rebbetzin every Friday to wish her a good Shabbos and to find out how she was doing. The conversation was like any conversation between grandmother and grandchild. The Rebbetzin asked how I was, about my learning, my friends, what I wore, just like any grandmother who is concerned about her grandson. Before a test she would bless me with success and when I told her about a special sale of clothing she said, “Shemi, buy good quality clothes.”

The Rebbetzin wanted us to call her “Mrs. Schneerson,” and if, during the conversation, I would mistakenly say, “Good Shabbos Rebbetzin,” she would correct me immediately and say, “Shemi, my name is ‘Mrs. Schneerson.’” She was very particular about this.

The Rebbetzin’s passing was one of the darkest days of my life. I felt as though my dear grandmother had died. Memories of the Rebbetzin are still with me. My relationship with the Rebbetzin was an eternal bond that has not waned with the passing years.

Naturally, I went to New York and was menachem avel at the Rebbe’s house with my family. My grandmother asked one of the secretaries to ask the Rebbe, “Now, after the passing of the Rebbetzin, who will my grandson call every Friday?”

I don’t remember which of the secretaries passed the question on to the Rebbe. The Rebbe said I should call him! From then on, I called the Rebbe’s house every Friday, and since the Rebbe did not speak on the phone, I would speak with R’ Sholom Gansburg, and he would convey my message to the Rebbe. The following week, before I had begun talking to him, he would tell me what the Rebbe had said in reaction to what I had said the week before.

The conversations were like those I had with the Rebbetzin, that of a grandson telling his grandfather how his week went. When I went to Yerushalayim to learn in Yeshivas Tchebin, which is run by my uncle, Rabbi Boruch Shimon Schneerson, I continued to call every Friday. I once said that it rained very strongly in Yerushalayim and the following week, R’ Gansburg told me in the Rebbe’s name that these were gishmei bracha (rains of blessing).

This phone connection continued until I got married.

TO OBEY THE GRANDDAUGHTER

After the passing of the Rebbetzin, my grandmother felt a certain responsibility that the Rebbe shouldn’t work too hard and that he should take care of his health. She complained to him several times that distributing dollars wasn’t good for his health. Often, during “dollars,” the Rebbe leaned on the lectern, but when he saw my grandmother approaching, he would immediately straighten up and greet her with a big smile.

When it was her turn to see the Rebbe, the Chassidim would crowd around in order to hear what she would tell the Rebbe and how the Rebbe would respond. It was always interesting.

When my grandfather passed away, his funeral passed by 770 and the Rebbe went out and accompanied it until Kingston. When my grandmother passed away, the Rebbe went to the funeral and even crossed Kingston. The Rebbe looked very pained. He held my grandmother in high regard and in the video of the funeral you can see how the Rebbe’s eyes expressed his immense sadness.

After my grandmother passed away, my mother went for “dollars.” Some of the Chassidim, who knew about my family connection with the Rebbe, asked her to speak to the Rebbe about taking care of his health. That’s the kind of issue that Chassidim can’t point out to the Rebbe but my mother felt that she could discuss it with him.

When my mother passed by the Rebbe, she said that the Rebbe had to think about his health. The Rebbe looked serious and he said: When Nechama [my mother] asks, I must listen to what she says since she is a granddaughter of the Alter Rebbe!

MIRACLES

After I married I lived in Yerushalayim. A short time after I moved into my new apartment, my mother went for “dollars” and to her surprise, the Rebbe said to her: Tell Shem to check his mezuzos.

My mother said: It’s a new apartment and new mezuzos!

The Rebbe said: Nevertheless, tell him to check.

My mother called me and told me what the Rebbe had said. I immediately went to a sofer in Shikun Chabad in Yerushalayim and after a brief look at the mezuza that was on the front door, he found that the words “hishamru lachem” were attached (thus, invalidating it)!

A short while later, in the summer of 5750, when my wife was expecting our first child, a certain complication arose. I called my mother and asked her to ask the Rebbe for a bracha. In the meantime, my in-laws, who live in London, sent us a ticket to London so my wife could be treated by the best doctors in London.

When we arrived in London, I got a phone call from my mother, who had been to the Rebbe and had told him about the complication in the pregnancy. The Rebbe said I should check my Rabbeinu Tam t’fillin. Once again, my mother was surprised since our custom is to start putting on Rabbeinu Tam t’fillin only after we marry and my t’fillin were new. But the Rebbe repeated: he should check his Rabbeinu Tam t’fillin.

It was late at night but I found a Lubavitcher sofer. When he heard that this was an instruction from the Rebbe, he agreed to check the t’fillin immediately. He found a p’sul in the portion of, “sanctify for Me every firstborn.” The connection was clear, for my wife was pregnant with our first child. The t’fillin were corrected that same night and the next day, my wife’s problem was gone!

* * *

Since my connection to the Rebbe and Rebbetzin was a familial one, after 3 Tamuz my connection with Lubavitch ceased. However, the Rebbe apparently wanted the relationship to continue and the following incredible event took place.

When my son, Menachem Zev was turning three, my parents had to be in Florida at the time we would be cutting his hair. The possibility of cutting his hair early was discussed, so my parents could participate in the family celebration. When I visited my in-laws, I saw a volume of the Rebbe’s Igros Kodesh there. I had heard that the Rebbe answers people through the Igros Kodesh and I decided to try writing to the Rebbe. Perhaps I would get an answer.

I asked whether to move up the date of my son’s haircut and put the note into the volume. When I opened it and read the letter, I exclaimed, “Oy, gevald!” My mother-in-law ran over and asked me what happened. I showed her the amazing answer I had opened to. It was a letter that the Rebbe wrote to someone who asked him about moving up the date of their three-year-old’s haircut and the Rebbe wrote, based on a letter of the Rebbe Rayatz, that we do not make it earlier, and this is what I should practice too.

On the same page the Rebbe wrote to someone who had been frequently in touch, who lately had been out of touch. The Rebbe asked him to renew the relationship!

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