Rabbi Simcha Zirkind, OBM, was a beloved Shliach of the Rebbe to Tunisia and later to Montreal, Canada. In honor of his second Yahrtzeit on Tuesday, 24 Tammuz, we present the story of his early life and the beginning of his career as a Shliach of the Rebbe in Tunisia, an Arab country in North Africa, and how he had to flee after being suspected of spying for Israel.
This story was culled and adapted from interviews with Rabbi Dovid Zaklikowski from January 2001 in the Kfar Chabad office, and from February 2014 and March 2015 in the office of Chabad Lubavitch Archives.
by Rabbi Simcha Zirkind
I am a Yankee, the son of Russian immigrants, who arrived to the United States many years ago, before the start of WWII.
My personal connection with Chabad began when I started to attend the United Lubavitcher Yeshivah on Bedford and Dean in Brooklyn, New York. Later I went to the Pittsburgh Lubavitch Yeshivah. I recall that once we wanted to go to the Rebbe’s Chassidic gatherings, “farbrengens.” The Yeshivah administration balked at the idea. They wrote to the Rebbe and the Rebbe responded (not the exact words), “You are dealing with American boys, so be careful with placing on them too many restraints. You should let them go.” They of course let us go.
The Yeshivah in Pittsburgh had a tremendous influence on me and I wanted to continue on with Yeshivah. In the year 1956, I began to study at the Lubavitch Yeshivah in Montreal. My father who owned a Butcher shop, wanted me to assist him there. I did not know what to do. The financial situation was not good, and my father could not afford to hire anyone to work in the store and I was sort of his only hope.
It seems that my worries could be seen on my face. During the summer, when we were in New York for the Rebbe’s farbrengen, Rabbi Berel Baumgarten asked me, “You seem to be bothered by something, perhaps I could assist you?”
I told him the story, and he said that I should write to the Rebbe. I wrote to the Rebbe and the Rebbe suggested that I should schedule an audience of my father with the Rebbe. My father agreed and went to meet the Rebbe. I do not recall any of the details of the conversation, besides what pertained to my going to the Yeshivah.
After the audience, my father seemed to be very pleased and told me that I should gladly go to the Yeshivah in Montreal. When I asked him what made him chance his mind? He told me of his exchange with the Rebbe.
“Would you let your son study in the Yeshivah in Montreal?” the Rebbe asked.
My father asked the Rebbe, “And what will be with honoring one’s parent? How will my son be able to fulfill the Mitzvah in Montreal?”
The Rebbe answered: “If you command your son to travel to Montreal to learn, he will be fulfilling your wishes, and thus be fulfilling the Mitzvah of honoring his parent.”
“If the Rebbe opines,” my father told the Rebbe, “that he should travel, then I agree too!”
I studied there for seven years. During that period of time, I would spill out my heart to the Rebbe in private correspondence and audiences. These are several anecdotes:
During the summer months we did not go to camp. Every day we had to go from the Yeshivah to the dormitory to eat. However, do to the lack of modesty on the streets, I did not feel comfortable walking outside during the summer months. In 1957, I went into a private audience with the Rebbe where I asked for advice as what to do about me seeing immodest scenes.
The Rebbe told me, that I should keep a photo of my father-in-law, the Rebbe Rayatz, in my pocket. “Before you go out onto the street,” the Rebbe said, “you should take a look at the photo.”
I put in my pocket a picture of the Rebbe and the Rebbe Rayatz and I would look at it before I left the buildings. It was good advice, it averted my attention. I would thus concentrate on their holy faces and not at what I saw in the streets.
In the winter of 1956 I wrote to the Rebbe about several of my issues. One was pretaining to foreign thoughts that I felt was inappropriate for me to have. The Rebbe responded: “It is known the advice to this is, ‘that a little bit of light, pushes away a lot of darkness. Therefore you need to be immersed into thoughts of Torah and prayer. You should be fluent by heart, several chapters of Mishnah, Tanya and at least several lighter, easier to understand, chassidic discourses. This all helps liberate one from not good thoughts.”
My second question was about me doing good things for a personal gain. “You have to be very careful, for many times the evil inclination wants to refrain a person from doing good, telling the person that he is doing it for his personal gain [and not for altruistic reasons]. Therefore, the evil inclination says, ‘you should not do it at all.’
“However, this is in total contrast to what our sages, of blessed memory, state, ‘a person should do, even not for the sake of G-d, for through those actions, one will come to it for the sake of G-d.’ Therefore, it is understood that one should strive to work on himself that he should do his actions altruistically, in the meantime, if it is something good, one should not G-d forbid refrain from doing it because he lacks the proper intention.”
At one point I was struggling with questions in faith in G-d. I told the Rebbe about it in a private audience. The Rebbe told me, that when I leave the office, “You should go down stairs and speak to the elderly Chassidim there about what they have been through. Even they, who have been through so much suffering and trials, they have not wavered in their faith in G-d.”
After I got engaged to Frieda, the daughter of Rabbi Sadya and Miriem Lieberow, Chabad representatives to Morocco. The Rebbe told me after my engagement, even before I get married, to go to Tunisia to assist with Jewish activities there, as long as I had approval from my fiancé. She approved and we later got married in Paris, France.
My father-in-law, in a private audience, showed our wedding album to the Rebbe. The Rebbe looked through the entire album. When he saw a picture of confetti being thrown at my wife when she entered the hall, the Rebbe said with a smile, “Nu, this is a new custom?!”
After our wedding, I continued with my wife, under very difficult circumstances the Shlichus in Tunisia. Since we did not have Torah volumes in the country for the students to learn from, I would go to the synagogues collecting Talmuds for everyone to learn. In the synagogues, there were piles of unattended books, that no one had opened in years. I immediately realized that many of them were precious. I began asking the synagogues if they are okay if I take the books and give them to the Rebbe in New York.
They all granted their permission, and I began sending them in various shipments. The Rebbe greatly appreciated my efforts. In 1964, I sent the Rebbe a list of books. The Rebbe’s response once: “Surely you will make it clear to them that it is a wholehearted gift and not on condition to return (you should not leave any doubt in their mind). There is no difference if they give the books to you as a present, or if they give it to here as a present.”
After the Six-Day-War, we got wind that I was being suspected of being a spy for Israel. I asked the Rebbe what I should do. The Rebbe told me to ask Rabbi Binyomin Gorodetzky, who was in charge of Chabad activities in Tunisia, Morocco and France.
Rabbi Gorodetzky guided us to leave the country as soon as possible. We packed up our few bags and returned to New York. A year later we moved to Montreal, where I began to build Chabad in Quebec, which, thank G-d, we were very successful at doing.
I feel blessed that the Rebbe guided me through my difficult times, taking the time to respond to my letters and queries. They may have been simple ones in his eyes, yet the Rebbe took time from his busy schedule to make me feel important.
It was always my dream to take the Rebbe’s guidance to the myriads of people who corresponded with him and publish them in books. Over the past four years, it has been my great privilege to publish the Advice for Life series, which have touched the lives of many.