Here’s My Story: Take A Hike
Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz
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I have served as the general secretary of the World Agudath Israel for several decades, at its Jerusalem headquarters. In 1981, in the course of my work, I was sent to the US. My wife and my son Yisroel, who was then four years old, also came along with me.
It wasn’t my first time in the US, but since I hadn’t yet managed to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I decided to take advantage of the trip to make an appointment with him.
When we arrived at 770, I was a little dismayed to see the throngs of people waiting outside his office. If we have to wait for everybody to go in, I thought to myself, we’ll only get home tomorrow. Luckily, Rabbi Binyomin Klein, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries, spotted me from afar, and called me over: “Moshe, come quickly!”
We went over to him and he told us, “In a few minutes, when the person who is currently speaking with the Rebbe leaves his office, it will be your turn to go in.”
“But, I beg you,” he added forcefully, “please don’t speak with him about Agudath Israel right now. The Rebbe is feeling very weak, so we are trying to keep things brief.”
Of course, I promised to listen. Following his heart attack in 1978, the Rebbe had cut down on the number of nights that he held private audiences, and later I learned that he was only meeting with guests from out of town. Even this limited arrangement was discontinued later that year.
After several minutes, the door opened, someone emerged, we entered, and we saw the Rebbe.
The radiant look on the Rebbe’s face is difficult to put into words; it is something a person has to experience and see for themselves.
Introducing myself, I put out my hand in greeting. After the Rebbe shook it, he put his hand out to my little boy. “And what is your name?” he asked.
“Yisroel,” replied my son.
“Yisroel!” repeated the Rebbe. “Do you know what a special name that is?” He then had a little conversation with my Yisroel, inquiring about where he goes to school and whether he knows how to read. After that, he opened a drawer, took out a dollar bill and gave it to him.
“Take this dollar,” he instructed, “and hold onto it well, so that it doesn’t fall down. When you go out, ask your father to buy you a letter in the new Torah scroll that is being written for Jewish children.”
“But my father already bought me a letter before we came in,” Yisroel told the Rebbe.
At this point I intervened. A few weeks prior, the Rebbe had announced an initiative to write a Torah scroll on behalf of all Jewish children, and we had heard about it in Israel. When we arrived in 770 and saw that letters in the new scroll were being sold near the entrance for just a dollar, we were glad for the opportunity. I confirmed to the Rebbe that we had indeed bought a letter for Yisroel.
“Wonderful!” said the Rebbe. Then, turning back to Yisroel, he suggested, “Ask your father to buy another letter, so that you will have two letters in the holy Sefer Torah!”
The Rebbe asked Yisroel if he understood and he said that he did, although I’m not actually sure that was the case. Still, he answered very nicely.
“And how are things in Agudath Israel?” the Rebbe then inquired, looking at me. This put me in a bit of a spot, as I didn’t dare say that his secretary had forbidden me from discussing this topic. So, I briefly went over some of our recent activities. Among other things, I told him about the aid we were sending Soviet Jewry and about our efforts to preserve Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe. The Rebbe blessed us with success, and emphasized the importance of these activities.
Later, he asked, “Is Reb Chaim Weinstock, the son of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Yair Weinstock, still working with you?” I was astounded at the Rebbe’s familiarity with the workings of my office, which was in Israel, and expressed as much.
The Rebbe smiled broadly. “We might be sitting far away from the Land of Israel, but we are still in it. After all, the Torah is everywhere, and as you surely saw on your way in, the books in the study hall here are well used. We are thinking about the coming of Mashiach all the time.”
At this point, the Rebbe turned to my wife and asked her what she did. My wife was an accountant at an environmental organization, and on learning that she was its only religious employee, he was interested in hearing how she was treated there.
My wife replied that she had never had any problems at work when it came to matters of faith. On the contrary, she felt that her colleagues respected her for sticking to her religious principles. As an example, she mentioned that the organization would occasionally arrange nature excursions for its office employees, which she generally avoided. When the organizers noticed this, they made sure to let my wife know that all the food served on the trips was kosher, although she explained that she typically adhered to a more stringent standard of the laws.
The Rebbe’s response to this was interesting: He commended my wife, but suggested that once in a while she should go along on these trips so that they wouldn’t think that religious people had anything against national reserves or forests. After all, nature is a gift from G-d. She could bring along some of her own food from home, and to feel more comfortable on the trip, she could also bring along another religious friend.
After leaving, I asked my wife for her impression of the visit, but she didn’t answer. At first, I was worried something had gone wrong, but then she explained that she was simply at a loss for words. “I have never seen a person like that. He is like a G-dly angel,” was how she put it. “I was so overwhelmed that I barely even remember what he said to me.”
I agreed. In my role, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many prominent rabbis and great leaders, but never in my life have I met anyone like the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Before we parted ways, the Rebbe opened his drawer again, and gave us a few more dollar bills for us to give to charity. “Since we left Egypt,” he explained, “we have had the mitzvah of tzedakah – this is what sustains the Jewish people. Even if someone suspects that the person asking for charity doesn’t really need it, the very fact that they are asking is evidence that they have a very real need. We should give without asking questions, enthusiastically, and with the right hand.” With that, he thanked us for coming and bid us farewell.
We had been in the room for twenty minutes, and when we came out, I started to excuse myself to Rabbi Klein: “The first thing he asked me about was Agudath Israel!” Fortunately, he understood, and we left as good friends.
Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz has worked for World Agudath Israel for sixty-five years and served as the organization’s general secretary. He was interviewed in his office in Jerusalem in November of 2014.