Tacoma Shliach, Rabbi Zalmy Heber, shares his memories as a young Bochur in 770 on Gimmel Tammuz 24 years ago.
by Zalmy Heber – Shliach in Tacoma, WA
As the day of ג’ תמוז is approaching, yet again for the 24th time ל״ע, I would like to share my memories as a בחור in Yeshiva, of that fateful day, 24 years ago. (I have not shared this until now).
[A note to the reader: During the last 24 years, I בשיטה did not read any articles or diaries written by others that are מתאר that day, as I did not want to dilute or taint my own memories of what transpired. What I’m about to write now are personal memories that are etched and pressed into my mind for the past 24 years, and are now coming out to see the light of day.
Oh, and one more note. I’m not a writer by nature, so you will find this account to be more in the style of a conversation that I would be having with someone at a Chassidishe farbrengen, rather than an article written for publication].
During the years of – תשנ”ב תשנ”ד I was a learning in מתיבתא אהלי תורה. As you can imagine, that time period was total chaos for us בחורים. From כ”ז אדר and on, we found ourselves constantly running back and forth to 770, sometimes a couple of times a day, in order to see the Rebbe when he came out on the porch. First we would get a message on our beeper, ‘Mincha now’, and we would run back and forth from Yeshiva to 770. Later, another beep would come in, “Maariv now”, and we would get just a couple of minutes notice to run back to 770 again for מעריב, all the way from Yeshivah on Troy Ave. (Usually this was about a 20 minute walk – don’t ask how we made it in five minutes….).
Many of us בחורים would also go to Manhattan every שבת to be near the Rebbe, first while the Rebbe was in Mount Sinai hospital for a short period of time, and then in Beth Israel Hospital. (or as we liked calling it בית ישראל)
This all takes an emotional toll on a young בחור that grew up being accustomed to going to 770 to hear a שיחה, or for a חלוקה, תפילה or dollars. Suddenly, we were running to 770 just to get a glimpse of the Rebbe with the hope that maybe a miracle would actually happen, and we would hear a שיחה מפי קדשו.
On top of all that, this was the same year that our class experienced the tragic loss of our dear חבר Ari Halberstam הי”ד, and all the drama that came together with it. Even though we knew Ari’s life was taken away as בקרובי אקדש, it didn’t make it any easier to bear. (Ari’s passing was just a couple of months beforeג’ תמוז .)
Fast forward to the second half of תשנ”ד. For a few months leading up to the שבת before ג’ תמוז, every שבת (and most weekdays) I stayed nearby the Rebbe’s hospital, just as many other חסידים did. The שבת before ג’ תמוז was no different.
I arrived Friday afternoon, davened, learned, said תהילים, ate סעודת שבת and פארבראכטalong with everyone else. All the meals took place in a public school cafeteria directly across the street from the hospital.
We all knew the Rebbe’s מצב (as it was called then), and we understood that it was not good. The מזכירים and doctors kept on coming to update us all, leaving us with confusing and encrypted messages of what exactly was going on.
That evening, I felt a strong urge to be as close to the Rebbe as physically possible. I told my friend Yossi that I would like to go up in the hospital and spend the night as close to the Rebbe as I possibly can. I asked him if he would like to join me, and he agreed.
We started climbing the stairs of the hospital, unsure of how far we would be able to go, as the building had extra security at each entrance and on each floor. The Rebbe’s room was on the seventh floor, and that floor was locked and had additional security.
Against all odds, we made it up to the sixth-floor lounge area without being caught by a security guard. Once there, we began saying תהילים and learning together. I dozed on and off throughout the night, all while being one floor directly under the Rebbe’s room. At some point in the early morning, a security guard did ask us to leave and go back downstairs. Of course we complied.
We walked to a Mikvah that was many blocks away in an old shul, and then returned to Daven, recite more תהילים, learn, and eat סעודת שבת together with everyone. All the חסידים that came for שבת spent most of the day פארבריינגינג, learning, or saying תהילים.
Throughout the duration of the day, they kept on updating us on the מצב. The messages that were coming our way were not clear and it was hard to understand what was really going on. But it was clear enough for us to comprehend that the situation was not good.
Even though the Rebbe’s מצב wasn’t good, it never once crossed my mind to even think about the worst. . . So after שבת was over, I went home to get some rest and planned to come back the next day.
Shortly after I got home I fell asleep, but a short while later, my mother woke me up. She was standing over my bed and sobbing. When I asked her what happened, she kept on repeating over and over again, “The Rebbe… the Rebbe… the Rebbe….” I said to her, “What about the Rebbe?”, not even allowing ‘the’ thought to cross my mind. And she just kept on saying over and over again, “The Rebbe. . .the Rebbe. . .” I understood from her demeanor that something unthinkable had just happened.
Since I had fallen asleep with my שבת clothes still on, I was able to jump up and immediately run to 770, only to confirm what happened. We all showed each other the now famous beep message that we got on our beepers from WLCC stating the wordsשמע ישראל ה’ אלוקינו ה’ אחד. I quickly ran to the Mikvah to be ready for what would come our way.
I took a תהילים in hand, and we all just kept looking at each other trying to find the right words what to say, but no real words were coming out of our mouths. I waited around until we were told that the Rebbe would be coming back to 770 very shortly. In all honesty, I truly thought that we would see the Rebbe returning to 770, מלך ביפיו alive and well.
It was already 4:00 am, and I remember standing next to Reb Nachum Kaplan when we were told that the ambulance with the Rebbe was down Eastern Parkway. We stood near the steps of 770 waiting for it to arrive.
As the Rebbe was taken out of the ambulance, all those who were standing around burst out into uncontrollable crying and sobbing. I remember Reb Nachum Kaplan crying out the words Oy Rebbe. . .Oy Rebbe. . .! Before we could even blink, they closed the doors of 770, leaving us all outside crying and wondering what would be next. . . A harsh reality descended upon me. I hung around 770 for the remaining wee hours of the morning, in somewhat of a daze, or more like a zombie.
At some point we were informed of the time of a Livaya, which was scheduled for late that afternoon, on Sunday, ג תמוז. It was scheduled for later in the day in order to give a chance to the many חסידים from all over the world to fly in.
All different kinds of thoughts were racing through my mind as I stood there watching some חסידים dancing, some crying, and others dancing and crying at the same time (or as some called it then: רוקדים ובוכים). No one could judge what each person was feeling or how they were reacting, as this was most definitely an outburst of raw emotions on the highest level.
Who did not think the Rebbe was going to be נתגלה and משיח was coming that day?! Yet at the same time, we were still preparing to be at the Levaya.
During those long hours, I remember seeing the חברה קדישא remove the Rebbe’s table from the upstairs Zal. This was the table the Rebbe would use during the Lemed and Mem years for Mincha and Maariv. (The table was built by Reb Yankel Lipskier). They were removing the table in order to take it apart to make theארון for the Rebbe. (See picture below.)
What was very surreal was when I saw them remove the downstairs שטענדער, the one the Rebbe used for saying .שיחות This was a relatively new שטענדער (the one that had a front panel). Now it was being dismantled to be used for the Rebbe’s ארון קודש.
I recall that there was talk between some חסידים as to where the מקום הקבורה would be. Some background first:
After רביצין חנה ע״ה passed away, in תשכ״ה, the חברה קדישא were מקבר the רביצין where she is now, and not in חלקת בית הרב. At that time, the Rebbe purchased five plots right across from his mother, in the men’s section. Therefore, now on ג׳ תמוז, some wondered if maybe that’s where the Rebbe wanted to be. Most חסידים felt that the Rebbe would want to be near the פריערדיקע רבי in the אוהל.
The הדברים מסכנת was that the Rebbe would definitely want to be in the אוהל, as the Rebbe and the פריעדיקער רבי are תרין דלא מתפרשין. וכך הוה .
Starting from early in the morning and for part of the day, many had a chance to stand in line and stream past the Rebbe’s room, while getting a quick glimpse into the open door as the Rebbe was on אדמת קודש. The scene gave me such a jolt, as normally the Rebbe would be standing at that very same door, greeting us with a smile on his face. Oy and now. . . . !?!? We all asked מחילה.
The line to the Rebbe’s room was moving from the direction of the driveway, and up the staircase intoגן עדן התחתון. It felt like you were coming for פני”ם. It felt like you were about to give your פ״נ to the Rebbe, or to receive a piece of Lekech from the Rebbe. (see picture below) Standing there brought back such vivid flashbacks of פני”ם of that past year, only this time, we had a תהילים in hand and tears streaming down our faces. We all asked each other for help to do the proper קריעה on our clothing.
When I exited the main door of 770, I stood on the west side of the pathway, and stayed in that spot until the Levaya started. All that time, while saying תהילים, I watched the stream of politicians and גוטע אידן from all backgrounds coming in and out of the main door of 770 to pay their respects to the Rebbe. I saw the many hundreds of חסידים and שלוחים that had just arrived from overseas. I can just imagine the intense pressure they must have had to find a flight to arrive on time from overseas, while at the same time be constantly thinking about the Rebbe and what just happened.
Throughout the day, thousands of men, women, and children from all the different New York neighborhoods, began pouring onto Eastern Parkway to participate in the Livaya. (Since many of the streets around the neighborhood were closed, it prevented thousands of more people from participating.)
Then that painful moment arrived. . . the main door of 770 opened and I saw the Rebbe’s ארון קודש being carried outside on the shoulders of חסידים…. As it started to move closer to where I was standing, I noticed the Rebbe’s silk Kapote on top of the ארון. It gave me such a shudder. I felt such a void and pit in my stomach, that I just leapt out of my place and ran towards the ארון. I continued following right behind it until it made its way to the service lane and reached the hearse – a black SUV of the חברה קדישא. (It was really a Boro Park Hatzalah member’s SUV with sirens and flashing lights, which was borrowed for the Levaya).
Inside the back of the SUV there was a group of כולל יונגרלייט who were part of the חברה קדישא (It was their month’s לדג). They were sitting in the back of the SUV with their backs to the windows on both sides. They sat with their feet in a stretched out position and the Rebbe’s ארון קודש was placed on top of their feet, so that the ארון would never be put down on any surface until it reached the אוהל for the actual קבורה.
I found myself standing right in front of the open back of the SUV, and for whatever reason, I kind of started leaning towards the back of SUV. I felt such a strong need to be very close to the Rebbe. I began running behind the SUV down Eastern Parkway. I knew I had to go to the אוהל behind the Rebbe. How I would manage that, I didn’t know. But I just knew I had to do it.
There was a station wagon packed with Chassidim driving a couple of cars behind the Rebbe’s, which had its back window open. I remember that all I was able to see was that the back window was open, there were many people packed inside of it, and it was driving further and further away from me.
I ran as fast as humanly possible to catch up to it. About a block later, I got close enough to that car, and that’s when I dove headfirst into the open back window of the moving station wagon, landing right on . . . Reb Meir Harlig‘s lap. He started yelling at me with his high pitch voice “What do you think you are doing? Are you משוגה??? Are you a צודרייטע״?? But when he took one good look at my facial expressions, he allowed me to stay in the back of the station wagon for the entire ride.
I don’t remember too much of the ride, as I was still trying to catch my breath from that short but very fast run. All I could hear was the sound of crying from inside the car, and the sound of screeching sirens from outside the car.
We got to the cemetery fairly quickly as the procession of cars of the Levaya had a police escort.
As soon as we got there, I immediately raced towards the אוהל, only to find that the parameters of the actual אוהל were fully secured to prevent people from entering theמקום הקבורה.
I knew I had to be inside somehow, some way. My eye caught the sight of a ladder leaning on the western wall of the אוהל, and without thinking or asking anyone, I climbed the ladder, and jumped over the wall into the אוהל which was full of people. Some of the ועד המסדרים wanted me to go out, but there was no chance I was going to leave. I landed on the right side of the אוהל, on the right of פריעדיקער רבי’ס מצבה, but closer to the western side, close to where the Rebbe’s room used to be (before it burned down).
Soon thereafter, amidst the chaos, the ארון קודש was brought in. It was a very difficult task for the חברה קדישא to maneuver the ארון through the tight doorways. It took some extra time, and there were lots of nerve-racking moments to say the least.
I remember that when they were lowering down the Rebbe’s ארון קודש, I felt such a chill going through my entire body and broke out in a cold sweat. What was I witnessing at this very moment?? Can it actually be happening?? Your eyes see what is happening, but your mind refuses to accept. . . I think I’m probably one of maybe 100 people in the world, that actually witnessed this moment with their own eyes.
There was a temporary wall in the קבר which the חברה קדישא had built that morning to hold back the earth from over the קבר פריערדיקער רבי’ס. The wall was constructed out of several thick metal stakes and planks of wood, which were placed in between them.
One of the members of חברה קדישא went down to do that which was necessary to be done, as well as to remove the temporary wood wall. As he removed the lower planks of wood, part of the ארון פריעדיקער רבי’ס and a white cloth sticking out from underneath it became revealed. All of us standing around were able to see it. This was a chilling sight on its own account.
A challenge arose when the person that went down was having a difficult time removing the stakes. As hard as he tried, he was unsuccessful. The מזכירים and ראשי חברה קדישא started talking together, trying to come up with a plan. It was determined that one of the Shmira members standing nearby would attempt to give it a try. YH did go down and after several long and difficult attempts, he was successful in removing the stake.
Before סתימת הגולל, Reb Shloime Cunin spoke to the Rebbe in simple but הארציקע words filled with much צעקת הלב. He was begging the Rebbe to be נתגלה וכו, and said: “Rebbe you still have time to be נתגלה “…. He then when on assuring the Rebbe, that we, his שלוחים and his חסידים , וועלען אויספירען די כוונה פון רבי’ן און אראפ בריינגען משיח. It was a very frank and direct talk, yet bursting with emotion. (I wonder if there is a recording of it, as it would be interesting to hear it again).
You can only imagine the intense crying and uncontrollable sobbing that burst forth from everyone standing there when the סתימת הגולל took place. Oy. . . It’s too hard to explain and too painful to describe.
I remember standing next to Reb Avrumei Leiter, just holding his hand and sobbing. I said to him, “My entire life I stood on the Rebbe’s right side for פארבריינגען,תפילות, חלוקות, שיחות . . . and now I’m standing at the Rebbe’s right side again, one more last time לעת עתה .”
A הארציקע צידוק הדין was led by Reb Levitche Schapiro from theחברה קדישא. As he started saying the words הצור תמים פעלו… with his legendary tone, many standing in the אוהל broke down in bitter tears. But is was the words that he highlighted towards the end of that תפילה that really got me all צוטרייסלט . As I listened to him say the words – again his legendary tone – השם נתן והשם לקח…. . I was trying to make sense of the meaning, as these words were being said about the Rebbe!! The phraseלא יעזוב צאן מרעיתו kept of playing in my head over and over again…..
קדיש was recited by all of the four מזכירים with lots of tearful emotion. Afterwards, all those present inside the אוהל filed by in front of the Rebbe, to say some תהילים and ask מחילה. After some time, I did that as well, and then exited the אוהל. I eventually made my way back to 770 to sit shiva amongst all the חסידים.
Growing up under the Rebbe’s feet, both literally and figuratively, constantly being around the Rebbe and 770, and זוכה to being present by all the פארבריינגענס and שיחות, I was certain that this day was not going to end without the התגלות. After all, to be able to hear over and over how the Rebbe spoke to us about אט אט קומט משיח and הנה זה בא, naturally I was sure that this was the day.
That night, I was זוכה to be able to sit and learn all night in the Rebbe’s room along with a group of בחורים. I remember learning the famous שיחה about ג’ תמוז. The Rebbe was explaining that the day of ג’ תמוז is theהתחלת הגאולה די”ב תמוז. The only thing that I was able to reason in my mind was that history was repeating itself, and that it’s just a matter of time before we will all see the התגלות. I made up my mind right then and there that I would dedicate my life to finishing the job the Rebbe started – the job of bringing the שכינה למטה בתחתונים .
For the next week, I pretty much spent most of my time between going back and forth to the אוהל, and being in 770. Chassidim gathered together for a large Farbrengen to encourage and inspire one another, and to try to make sense of all that was happening. (See picture below).
For that summer, my plan was to be a counselor in Camp Gan Yisroel in Parksville, NY. All of us בחורים shared the same feeling that we are in no way felt ready to go to camp and have a summer of fun…. It was unthinkable to go on a bus leaving for camp, just one short week after ג’ תמוז.
The director of camp knew how we all felt, so together with Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, he called for a meeting with all the staff. They explained to us that as much as it does not make sense in our hearts and minds to go to camp at this time, this is still what the Rebbe would have wanted from all of us at this time. They told us that especially now, the Rebbe would want us to give the קינדערלאך an understanding of what a Rebbe is, and how to prepare for the coming of Moshiach.
That message resonated with us, and most of the בחורים that committed to be counselors for that summer still went to camp. We gave it our all, for the sake of doing what the Rebbe would want from us, and for the sake of instilling extra התקשרות to the Rebbe in the campers. We called it ‘פאדא״ק’ (פאר די קינדער). Each time we staff felt down and not in the mood of fun, we winked at each other and shouted: פאדא״ק.
Doing what the Rebbe wanted from us and going to camp also turned out to be a ברכה, as the unspoken reality was, that had all the camps not continued as planned, it would have taken a long time for us Chassidimבכלל and us בפרט בחורים, to be able to move forward and continue on.
24 years have passed since ג’ תמוז. Baruch Hashem I’m on Shlichus now for the last 15 years, still trying to fulfill my promise I made that night, to finish the job the Rebbe started – the task of completing the last בירורים, and bringing the שכינה למטה בתחתונים. I know that the only thing we can ask from Hashem now is to let the Rebbe fulfill his promise of הנה הנה משיח בא. We will then be reunited with the Rebbe once again מלך ביפיו with the coming of Moshiach ומלכינו בראשנו.
“Oy Rebbe, Oy Rebbe, we need you. . . השם השם א-ל רחום. . . We’re sick of this גלות can’t bear anymore, why don’t you open the door? You’re children are yearning to be with you, how long must this גלות continue? Bring the גאולה fulfilling your vow, to bring Moshiach right now. . .to bring Moshiach right now!!!”