Here’s My Story: Can’t Refuse A Refusenik
Rabbi Shmuel Notik
Back in the Soviet Union, in the city of Samarkand, my parents had run an underground yeshivah. My father taught a group of young men, while my mother cooked for them and hosted them in our home. Those boys were like her own children. There was an underground cellar where they would hide if the secret police showed up, we had a minyan for Shabbat, a mikveh, and my father also secretly served as a kosher slaughterer. It was like an underground Chabad House.
Before we finally left in 1971, my parents had never seen the Previous Rebbe or the Rebbe – and of course neither had I. In communist Russia, even a picture of the Rebbe was something that had to be kept hidden – I had only ever seen one – but we were raised in the underground with the knowledge that the Rebbe was with us. In that country, we felt anti-Semitism all the time – I was constantly having to escape, fight, or be assaulted by non-Jewish kids – and often, I would feel a sense of despair about our predicament. But in those moments, the thought that the Rebbe was with me made me feel strong and determined to continue the struggle and continue being the Lubavitcher boy I was raised to be.
After spending seven years as refuseniks, waiting for permission to leave Russia, we emigrated to Israel, and soon began making plans to visit the Rebbe. Just a few months later, in the summer of 1971, Israeli chasidim chartered a plane in order to spend the festive month of Tishrei with the Rebbe. People borrowed and collected money to buy a ticket, although afterwards the Rebbe actually reimbursed us Russian emigres for all our travel expenses.
We were due to arrive on the Thursday before Rosh Hashanah when I was fifteen years old. Our flight landed in New York at around 4:30 AM, and we were able to drive into Crown Heights, run to immerse in the mikveh, and get ready for the Rebbe to walk into the synagogue for selichot, pre-Rosh Hashanah supplications, at seven o’clock.
When the Rebbe arrived and we saw him for the first time, we recited Shehechiyanu, the blessing for a momentous occasion in one’s life. I heard him answer “Amen,” in affirmation, and then the prayers began.
Throughout the month of Tishrei, from Rosh Hashanah until after Simchat Torah, the Rebbe repeatedly showed his affection and esteem for the newly-arrived Russian chasidim. At public farbrengens, he spoke about the sacrifices we had made in the USSR; he described how we had learned in hiding, prayed with old sets of tefillin, and studied from tattered volumes of the Talmud.
The Rebbe credited Chabad’s ability to continue raising and educating Jewish families in Russia to the sacrifices and imprisonment that the Previous Rebbe had undergone years earlier. At one gathering, he asked for anybody who had been imprisoned in Russia to say “l’chaim” – inviting whoever had been in prison longer to make their toast first. And, during breaks in the farbrengens – between the Rebbe’s talks – he wanted all of us to come up to where he was sitting and to say l’chaim to him in person.
“What is your name?” he asked each of us in turn, in Yiddish. Then, when we answered, he said: “L’chaim v’livracha – to life and to blessing!”
These kinds of gestures were rarely offered in public, although we were all so green at the time that we didn’t even know how special they were.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Rebbe requested that all the chasidim from Russia stand beside him as he blew the shofar. Packed onto the bimah, we could hear the Rebbe cry under his talit as he prepared himself for the moment, and I also noticed that he used multiple differently colored shofars.
By that year, the Rebbe had stopped holding farbrengens during Sukkot. The throngs had outgrown the communal sukkah that stood outside and two years earlier there had been an accident due to the crowding. We newcomers were oblivious to this change, but a few people encouraged us to ask the Rebbe to resume the farbrengens, thinking that he might acquiesce if the request came from us.
After services on the first day of Sukkot, the Rebbe’s secretaries invited us to wait outside his office. As he came up from the synagogue, he did not hide his surprise at seeing us waiting at his door.
“Gut Yom Tov,” he greeted us expectantly.
But, when someone explained why we had come, the Rebbe told us that it was too dangerous to have a farbrengen in the sukkah. And to move the event indoors with no food or drink – one can’t eat outside the sukkah on Sukkot – would make it a dry affair which would not have the desired effect.
Then my father spoke up and asked the Rebbe whether he could at least deliver a chasidic discourse before the morning prayers.
The Rebbe looked at all of us and said: “I won’t remain indebted to you.”
That Friday night, it was announced that the Rebbe would recite a discourse on Shabbat morning before the service. And sure enough, at 9:00 AM, the Rebbe came in and said a discourse for about forty minutes. This was all very rare for the Rebbe to do – people were shocked that he had granted my father’s request, but of course they were glad that he did. Since then, my family regularly studies the discourse that the Rebbe delivered on that day; it was delivered by the Rebbe on my father’s special request.
Rabbi Shmuel Notik has been serving as a Chabad emissary to the Russian Jews of Chicago and its suburbs since 1980. He is the director of the four branches of F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) serving the city. He was interviewed in the My Encounter studio in October 2021.