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Tuesday
Jun132017

ESCORTING THE REBBE

For decades, the Rebbe walked every Shabbos from 770 to his home and back. A few yards away were the T’mimim who followed him until he entered his house. * Why the need for security? What unusual things did the Rebbe’s escorts see over the years? How did the Rebbe react to people who spoke to him on the street? * Fascinating anecdotes from those who accompanied the Rebbe from 770 Eastern Parkway to 1304 President Street.

R’ Yosef Yitzchok Gopin: “For a period of time, I was in charge of the list of bachurim who would escort the Rebbe on Shabbos when he walked home from 770 and back, whether on Friday night or Shabbos day. I myself was one of the bachurim who escorted the Rebbe. We always walked several paces behind the Rebbe, not getting too close, but we kept him within sight.

“There usually wasn’t anything extraordinary that happened, but there was always something to see and to learn. I remember escorting the Rebbe one Shabbos afternoon. There was no farbrengen that Shabbos. The Rebbe would go home late, at 3:30 or even 4:00. That Shabbos it was pouring. People usually walk more quickly in the rain, but I noticed that the Rebbe walked calmly as though it was the nicest weather, with his hands in his coat pockets.

“I remember a wintry Shabbos when it had snowed, and because of the frigid temperatures the snow had frozen and it became ice. It was so dangerous that you couldn’t walk without stumbling. But the Rebbe walked quickly, so quickly that we bachurim couldn’t keep up.

“I understood that there is always something to learn. By the Rebbe there is no ‘it just happened that way.’”

GREETING PEOPLE

It’s about a five to seven-minute walk from Beis Chayeinu to the Rebbe’s home at 1304 President Street. There were times the Rebbe made the trip on foot, but usually, during the week, the Rebbe’s secretary would be waiting at the house in the morning with the car. The same would be for the return trip.

On Shabbos, the Rebbe made his way on foot (until the years when the Rebbe and Rebbetzin would lodge in the library building next door to 770). On Shabbos eve, the Rebbe would usually walk home at about 9-9:30, summer or winter, and on Shabbos day, when there was no farbrengen, the Rebbe would return home at about 3:30. When there would be a farbrengen, the Rebbe would go home after the farbrengen, close to sunset. At those times, the Rebbe would walk speedily, as opposed to his normal Shabbos pace, which was more relaxed.

It is fascinating to read the diary account of R’ Sholom Dovber Volpo, written in Cheshvan 1965 when he was a bachur in 770, describing the Rebbe walking the city streets:

“Every time one sees the Rebbe shlita, it provides an infusion of new energy to keep learning more and more. The Rebbe can be seen six times a day, at Mincha and Maariv, when he arrives in the morning and leaves in the evening, and he then returns and goes home again at night. The Rebbe walks alone on the street without any escorts, and whenever he sees young or old he says shalom with a pleasant countenance. Only when the Rebbe goes home very late at night, at 4 or 5 (in the morning), namely on Sundays and Thursdays when there is yechidus, is he followed by two bachurim who walk at some distance from him, since at night there are safety concerns.

“On Shabbos eve after the prayers, the Rebbe remains in his room for about two hours and only then leaves for home. On Shabbos day, when there is a farbrengen, he only leaves after Mincha. On such occasions, immediately after Mincha the Rebbe enters his room, and all the hundreds of men and bachurim go out to the entrance of 770 and the sidewalk of Eastern Parkway, and all the children line up in a long row. The Rebbe exits and they all begin to sing ‘Hoshia es amecha,’ and the Rebbe walks past the children and signals with his hand for them to sing. Afterward, they all walk behind the Rebbe until he makes the turn at the corner, and all of them follow him with their eyes until he passes from sight. It is an amazing display to behold, especially the singing of the children.”

THE REBBE WAS ACCOSTED ON THE STREET

In the early years of his leadership, the Rebbe walked on the street alone, without any secretaries or aides. However, in the later 50’s, it was felt that it would be appropriate to provide the Rebbe with an escort of young men from the yeshiva in 770.  The bachurim saw this as a great merit, and obviously everybody wanted to take part.  Therefore, a rotation schedule was implemented, with two T’mimim assigned per week with first priority given to bridegrooms in the week leading up to the Shabbos of their being called up to the Torah, and then the rest of the T’mimim.  The first one appointed to oversee the operation was the Tamim, Berel (Shalom Dovber) Futerfas.

The route was fairly consistent. Upon exiting 770, the Rebbe would walk along the sidewalk of Eastern Parkway until the corner of Brooklyn Avenue, where he would turn left. At some point, the Rebbe would cross to the other side of the avenue until reaching President Street, where he would turn right until the entrance of his house.

When the Rebbe would arrive home, the bachurim would wait outside, since immediately upon entering the house he would go to the front windows and extend his hand from behind the curtains. This happened every time, and only then would the escorts return to 770.

The bachurim would walk a few yards behind the Rebbe, to maintain a constant sight line and see to it that everything was fine. However, there were some anomalous events, such as when a large black man approached the Rebbe and began to talk to him. Those accompanying from a distance could not hear what he said, but it appeared like he was asking for money. Before they had a chance to react, the Rebbe exclaimed in a loud voice, “Eh,” and the man panicked and ran.

R’ Saadia Maatuf, whose diaries from his k’vutza year have been published here, describes in detail another time, during the month of Sivan 1973, when there was a heightened concern over the Rebbe’s security in which the police got involved (see issue #1069).

THE REBBE AND THE REBBETZIN MEET ON THE STREET CORNER

Avi Baitelman, a grandson of R’ Lipa Brennan, recounts a story that occurred with his grandfather when he was a bachur in 770:

It was on the eve of Shabbos Shuva 1974, when he was a guest at the home of a friend who lived on President Street, right across from the Rebbe’s house. When he left the house after the meal, it was about 11 o’clock at night. Suddenly, he noticed the Rebbetzin standing on the porch at the front of the house.

The Rebbetzin saw my grandfather and motioned for him to come over. He crossed the street and went up the steps. The Rebbetzin said that it was very late, and the Rebbe is usually home by this time to make kiddush. “Did the Rebbe daven Maariv already?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Maybe there was a farbrengen or a maamer tonight?”

“No.”

The Rebbetzin asked him to go to 770 and see what was going on, and to come back and report to her.

My grandfather began to run towards 770. When he got to the corner of Brooklyn and Eastern Parkway, he saw that the Rebbe had just left 770 and was walking home. He began to run back to the Rebbetzin who had been standing at her house, but when he got to the corner of Brooklyn and President, he saw the Rebbetzin standing on the corner. My grandfather told the Rebbetzin that the Rebbe was on his way, and turned to head back to the dormitory.

The Rebbetzin called him back and said that it was now late at night, and would he please wait with her until the Rebbe arrived. My grandfather felt uncomfortable. Understandably, he did not want the Rebbe to see him when he encountered the Rebbetzin. She realized his hesitation and pointed out, “It is not proper to leave a woman standing alone on a street corner in New York City.”

Having no choice, he stood there behind the Rebbetzin, close to the bushes of the corner house. When the Rebbe appeared, my grandfather pushed himself into the bushes. When the Rebbe got even closer, he saw the Rebbetzin standing there on the corner. The Rebbe made a hand motion, as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” The Rebbetzin answered whatever she answered, but my grandfather did not hear what she said. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin proceeded to walk together with the escort of the T’mimim behind them, and my grandfather joined the escort.

The Rebbe walked quickly, and the Rebbetzin walked slower. After a moment, the Rebbe glanced to his left and did not see the Rebbetzin. He turned around and saw the Rebbetzin walking slowly. When she caught up, they continued to walk together, and once again the Rebbe walked more quickly and had to stop for her. This happened three times until they reached the house.

When they got to the steps of the house, the Rebbe turned around towards my grandfather and said, “Ah dank (thanks)” and “Gut Shabbos.” They went up the steps, the Rebbe opened the door for the Rebbetzin and they both went inside.

***

R’ Shalom Yaakov Chazan recalls a Friday night when a tremendous downpour began exactly at the time that the Rebbe left 770. The Rebbe was wearing a coat, but in a deluge like that a coat is rather useless.

“I thought that the Rebbe would return to his room and wait for a lull in the rain, but the Rebbe only raised the collar of his coat to protect a bit against the rain, and began to walk calmly towards President Street as if there was no rain.

“At a certain point, the coat became so drenched that it appeared that the weight of the coat was making the walk difficult for the Rebbe.

“When he reached the junction of Brooklyn Avenue and Eastern Parkway, the roadway was completely flooded with water. The Rebbe walked into the stream and his shoes filled with water.

“We thought then that the reason that the Rebbe went despite the heavy rain was in order not to worry the Rebbetzin with an unexpected delay.”

LATE NIGHT TEA
FROM THE REBBETZIN

At a certain point, it was decided that the Rebbe should be accompanied by the bachurim on his way from his home to 770 on Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings too. The T’mimim would stand not far from the door to the Rebbe’s house and wait for the Rebbe to exit, which was usually at a set time. The Rebbetzin would look out the window to make sure they were standing at the ready, and after about ten minutes the Rebbe would leave his house and turn towards 770.

The Rebbe would pass the corner of Brooklyn and Eastern Parkway, where on the other side of the parkway was the “Kerestirer mikva,” which had been built by one of the Admurim who had lived in Crown Heights. Most of the bachurim would use this mikva. At the time that the Rebbe would pass, there would be bachurim on their way to the mikva. Some of them would run away when they saw the Rebbe approaching, but most of them would just press up against a wall waiting for the Rebbe to pass.

During the period of heightened tensions and hostility of a certain community against Chabad, there was a need to keep watch around the Rebbe’s house day and night. One night, the Rebbetzin exited the house at one in the morning, and brought the T’mimim keeping watch a thermos with hot tea.

In 1980, R’ Zalman Gourary bought the house next door to the Rebbe, and from that point the bachurim keeping watch on Shabbos would be based in that house. Once, the assigned bachurim were late, and the lone bachur who was in the house saw the Rebbe suddenly leave his house. Having no choice, he went outside and began to accompany the Rebbe. When the Rebbe saw him, he turned towards his house and gave a nod with his head, apparently to reassure the Rebbetzin that there was someone to walk with him.

R’ Ezra Arad tells of one Shabbos when he and R’ Binyamin Zilberstrom were standing guard at the Rebbe’s house. On Shabbos morning, exactly when the Rebbe left his house, the mailman arrived and wanted to leave the mail at the door. The Rebbe walked a bit, and when he crossed the street he turned to look back sideways towards the mailman. The bachurim picked up on the subtle hint, that the Rebbe was concerned that the mailman might ring the bell, and one of them ran across the street to ask him not to ring the bell, and the man answered in the affirmative. Only then did the Rebbe turn his head back and continue on his way to 770.

In preparing this article, the writer spoke with a number of those who had been involved back in the day, including R’ Yosef Yitzchok Gopin, who not only escorted the Rebbe on many occasions but was in charge of the rotation in the early summer of 1974. “Although I was in charge, I did not take too many spots in the rotation for myself. I was happy to give the opportunity to as many bachurim as possible.”

Did the Rebbe ever turn around to the bachurim that accompanied him?

As far as I know, no.

There are those who say that the Rebbe was careful to always cross Brooklyn Avenue before he reached the church, in order not to walk near there. Is this true?

I also heard that, but I personally saw a number of times the Rebbe walking down Brooklyn Avenue towards his house, and I did not see the Rebbe being particular about not passing near that place.

R’ Hershel Krinsky told about how when he was a bachur escorting the Rebbe from 770 to his house, the Rebbe walked on the sidewalk in front of the church. A Lubavitch couple appeared, coming the other way, and they did not notice the Rebbe walking towards them. At the last moment, they noticed the Rebbe and quickly moved aside, going up on the grass between the sidewalk and the fence of the church property. The Rebbe turned to them and pointed out that it was not proper to stand on grass that belonged to a church.

One Shabbos (it was a Shabbos Mevarchim in the winter of 5734, although I don’t recall exactly which Shabbos), the streets were icy and unusually slippery. People walking the streets were slipping and falling, and it was really dangerous. On that Shabbos night, the Rebbe found it difficult to go up the steps of his house without slipping, and it became necessary to extend him a hand. Whoever it was, saw to it that some gentiles came that night, removed the ice and spread salt, so that the Rebbe could walk securely the next morning. Following that Shabbos, they installed the iconic railings at the entrance to the Rebbe’s home.

I remember that on Yom Kippur night I walked the Rebbe to his house, and the Rebbe wore a flowery silk scarf that was unusually colorful. That only happened on Yom Kippur.

24 HOUR SECURITY OUTSIDE 770

In the month of Nissan 5750/1990, there were warnings of a possible attempt against the Rebbe on the part of the PLO. The warning was transmitted in secret, but the Rebbe spoke about it publicly in a sicha said on 28 Nissan 5750. He spoke of the fact that the PLO had sent out a notice to all its branches around the world to carry out attacks against the “enemies of the Jewish people” [said euphemistically], may it not come to pass. The Rebbe encouraged people to say more T’hillim and increase the study of Torah.

Because of the threat, stricter security measures were taken around the Rebbe, such as reinforcing the windows to the Rebbe’s room and security guards posted outside of 770, 24 hours a day.

In the diary called Shnas Nissim B’Beis Chayeinu, it is recorded that the Rebbe went to the Ohel at that time:

“When he went out to the car, he held a page with a Kol Korei printed on it (to add in Torah, tefilla and tz’daka, relating to what he spoke about on 28 Nissan about the PLO). A police escort drove in front of the car. That’s the way it was the last few times that he went to the Ohel, ‘an honor guard.’ For this reason, there have been shifts of T’mimim standing guard the past few nights near 770.”

The secretary, Rabbi Binyamin Klein a”h said that two hours before that surprising sicha, Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir called and said the Rebbe should be told that the PLO was planning terrorist acts outside of Eretz Yisroel, and according to information they had, their target was the Rebbe. Shamir asked R’ Klein to convey this to the Rebbe and to ask the Rebbe to pray that it be good.

Some time after that, there were knocks at the door of Rabbi Leibel Groner. There were two policemen at the door. They told R’ Groner that they had just received an anonymous call that said the Rebbe was on the PLO’s wanted list. The police officers asked R’ Leibel to change the windows in the Rebbe’s office for reinforced windows and this was done a few days later.

Apprehensions also rose after Rabbi Meir Kahane, Hy”d, was murdered in New York. The secretaries were even more worried for the Rebbe then. R’ Groner decided to have guards posted near the Rebbe’s office. The guards, bachurim from 770, had an emergency button directly to the NYC police department. A permanent police guard was also posted near 770. Two guards were hired for when dollars for tz’daka were distributed on Sunday, a man and woman who patrolled the line and looked for suspicious people.

When the Rebbe went to the Ohel he had a police escort and there was also a special escort car with bachurim.

On 10 Elul 5751, the driver of the escort car did not drive carefully and ran over a black child, Gavin Cato. The blacks in the neighborhood began huge riots, which led to demonstrations, the burning of cars, looting and violence throughout Crown Heights. That night, the hooligans murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, a bachur from Australia, Hy”d.

An anti-Semitic minister named Al Sharpton began inciting blacks after the unfortunate and tragic death of Cato. He said the one responsible for the death was none other than the Rebbe.

Security around 770 was increased, particularly around the Rebbe. Every time the Rebbe made a trip to the Ohel, he was accompanied by several police cars and motorcycles. During the dollar distribution, dozens of police stood the length of the line.

The Rebbe was grateful for the security and was warm to the policemen. At the end of the dollar distribution, the police would pass by him and they received an extra dollar, “for the security.”

In a sicha delivered that week, the Rebbe referred several times to the phrase, “fifty men running before him,” saying that in truth, every Jew ought to have fifty people running before him.

Before Tishrei 5752, the police chief asked R’ Groner to enclose the Rebbe’s bima with reinforced glass. When R’ Leibel repeated this to the Rebbe, the Rebbe firmly rejected the idea.

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