by Steve Meltz (Clifton, NJ)
It was a 98° Tuesday night in the summer of 1974 when my mother parked her green Ford Pinto along Eastern Parkway at the corner of Kingston Ave in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
My mother, brother, sister and I were headed to 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) with whom we were about to have a one-on-one meeting called a Yachidus (Yiddish for “At one with”).
This was arranged by a friend of my brother Dan’s named Yossie who he had befriended at a religious summer Camp we had both attended in the Catskills called Gan Israel. The camp was run by the Lubavitch (also known as Chabad) who are a Brooklyn-based Chassidic group whose leader we were about to meet.
Dan had casually mentioned to Yossie, that I was unable to have my bar mitzvah in our own synagogue. I was 12 at the time and had also met Yossie at Gan Israel and was taken by how kind, gentle and genuine a person he was and at summer’s end we said our goodbyes.
What I did not know at the time was that he was from one of the most prominent families within the Lubavitch community and had arranged for this meeting, a great honor. Normally one would have to wait over three years to have an audience with the Rebbe and Yossie had arranged it in less than three months.
I later learned that among the Lubavitch community, having a one-on-one meeting with the Rebbe was like having an audience with the Pope and was among the highest honors one could be given within that community. I suppose because it was arranged so quickly and easily, I did not realize at the time just how big of a deal it was.
770 Eastern Parkway (referred to as just “770”), was originally a three-story Gothic revival mansion built in the 1920s. Over the years, as the Lubavitch community had grown, this building and a large apartment house next to it on the corner were joined. Thankfully this original structure had remained intact and had been added to rather than torn down and replaced.
The evening sky had turned dark, and the only available light came from a few evenly spaced streetlights. As we approached 770, the light grew stronger as it came into view in all its splendor. It was dramatically lit from below and looked like a structure from a medieval university.
As we entered the upper level, we walked through a small vestibule with a 15’ ceiling and a single naked bulb high above our heads. To our right were two adjoining rooms each with long wooden tables and benches that had clearly seen better days. The tables we piled high with books of all kinds scattered everywhere. At those tables were 35-40 men engaged in the study of Torah, Talmud, and other sacred texts. Typically made up of small groups of 2 to 6 men who ranged in age from 20 to 70, these study sessions often turned into debates about interpretations of passages and texts and were often loud and lively and at the same time very passionate and exciting.
I had only been active within the community for about two years and in that time had visited Crown Heights many times for Shabbat weekends and had prayed in 770 many times before, but being here now felt very different.
As we walked through that entrance usually reserved for men, I could feel the eyes of those around us. Looking in our direction and no doubt thinking, they must be important if they’re getting to meet Rebbe, and I was thinking the same thing.
The Rebbe’s private office was on the floor just above ground level and he usually met people on Tuesday evenings throughout the year.
As the leader of a worldwide religious movement who was also a brilliant rabbinical scholar and fluent in 17 languages, he was consulted regularly by his followers on virtually all matters affecting their future.
Questions like: “who should I marry?” or “should I start a business?” or “what profession should I pursue?” or “what course should I take in life?” were just some of the questions the Rebbe was requested to answer six days a week.
Because this was (and still is) a society in which arranged marriage is practiced, anyone within the community who was contemplating marriage (both male and female) would write to the Rebbe for both his guidance and his blessing.
We were led to a dimly lit corridor with some 20-30 other people and were left standing in a 5’ x 25′ hallway meant to accommodate no more than 15 at most. There we waited with Yossie who had met us on our way in. For close to an hour and a half we stood in relative silence and only whispered so as not to disturb the meeting currently under way as a steady flow of men and women were ushered in and escorted out of the Rebbe’s office in 15-to-25-minute intervals. As I stood there, my mind turned to… What if?
I had noticed on several prior occasions when praying in the great sanctuary hall on the floor below that every time the Rebbe entered or left the sanctuary, men of all ages would scatter and hide from his gaze. When I asked a friend why, he said it was believed that the Rebbe had the ability to see into a person’s soul just by looking into thier eyes.
It had suddenly occurred to me that in a few minutes I would be looking directly into those eyes. What if it is true? What if he could see into my soul? What would he see? Even at the tender age of 12, I knew I was no angel and was certain I had broken at least two of the ten Commandments. Seeing the righteous flock scurry like cockroaches as he entered and exited a room only magnified those fears. After a quick and reassuring look from Yossie, the Rebbe’s office door opened, a couple exited, and we were waved in.
My mother and I sat in the two chairs directly in front of the Rebbe’s desk and my brother and sister sat in two chairs placed against the back wall of his office. The Rebbe was standing as we entered the rather small room with a 1950s style florescent desk lamp as its only source of light which gave the room an eerie, film noir quality. With him were two assistants who stood in the shadows.
As he began to speak to my mother, he looked directly at me. I found myself focused not so much on his words, but on his face which looked like the face of Moses. He had piercing blue eyes and a very full, almost entirely gray beard that fell to the middle of his chest.
Even all these years later, it’s hard to explain what I was experiencing. I knew instantly that I was in the presence of a truly great man. He gave off an aura that was nothing short of holy and angelic and wore a traditional long black coat (1860s style), a white shirt, and the signature Fedora worn by nearly all his male followers.
While still looking at me, the Rebbe, in a fairly deep and slightly Yiddish-accented voice, said, “So, Mother… You look like you have a heavy heart.” It was at that moment that I began to believe that he really could see inside a person’s soul.
I should explain that the reason I could not have my bar mitzvah at my hometown synagogue was that my mother, a divorcé and mother of three, had been engaged in a long-term affair with the rabbi of our congregation in a small town in northern New Jersey. We had been active members of the synagogue and been welcome at all religious and community events until the affair was made public. Once it was discovered, we found ourselves virtually excommunicated from the synagogue and the Jewish community. As a result, I was without a place to have my bar mitzvah.
In my mother’s defense, the rabbi (who was also a practicing psychologist) had been “counseling and comforting” a fairly large number of divorcees within the community and many years later it came to light that he was by legal definition a serial sexual abuser and had taken advantage of both of his positions as a rabbi and therapist by having had many such affairs with similarly vulnerable women. Many years later, I found out that he had been defrocked and his titles (both rabbinical and doctoral) were stripped away from him. Sadly, there were no apologies to any of those he had wronged or to the families whose trust he had for decades betrayed.
In trying to respond to the Rebbe, my mother spoke in a restrained and strictly measured, barely audible voice, no doubt trying to figure out how she would explain the salacious and sordid details of the situation to the Rebbe…
“Well, you see there is a problem…,” she began, pausing to take a deep breath as though she were taking a looooong drag of the cigarette. She was entirely on her own. I sat about two feet to her left facing the Rebbe’s desk and dared not look at her. I had held my breathe for so long that I was forced to take in a breath so deeply that I sounded like I was genuinely stunned.
The room was so still and quit, it suddenly seemed even smaller to me. What could she reveal in front of her children and what, if anything, did we know?
What could she admit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the affair she had had with our Rabbi at home? She was an adulterer and had to own up to it.
Would she have the courage to confess to the sins she had committed, even if it was by coercion? This was an absolute defining moment for my mother and might have signaled a turning point in her existence. I glanced to my left ever so quickly and saw only the silhouette of her chest rising and falling rapidly.
After what seemed like an eternity, she slowly began… “You see,” again a long pause… “My son cannot have his bar mitzvah at the shul in the town where we live, because… because… “
I shot a quick look over my shoulder and saw my brother and sister out of the corner of my eye, but there was not enough time or light to make eye contact.
It was obvious that she was struggling to carefully choose what to say next when the Rebbe who had sat down behind his desk, leaned forward, placed the palms of his hands on his green desk blotter, slowly pushed his chair backward, and once again stood up. His measured and deliberate movements seemed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. Slightly slumped, he walked slowly to the front of the table and leaned against it in a decidedly reassuring and connected way. Standing only a few feet from us both, I could barely see his face but there was a glow that reminded me of Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments standing at the burning bush as God spoke to and through him.
He slowly crossed his right arm over his left and wrapped his right hand around his voluminous gray beard and began stroking it in a downward motion. His hand was slow and soothing as if he were petting a cat or caressing a loved one.
Though he was not particularly tall, looking up at him from my seated position he seemed larger than life with his shoulders slightly slumped forward, but despite his less than perfect posture he had a very real presence about him and it was clear to me that this was indeed an honor.
It was obvious that my mother was struggling for the “right” words and the Rebbe picked up on it.
“So,” the Rebbe said in a low empathetic tone deeply connected to the obvious difficulty my mother was having. “So,” he again repeated, “he’ll have it here,” he said in a tone of voice so matter of fact that it seemed to answer a great ancient riddle.
“Excuse me?” my mother said in a voice that immediately betrayed her surprise and relief at the same time. Her voice, which was usually very deep and akin to Lauren Bacall’s, jumped a full two octaves higher.
“When you say here, where exactly do you mean?” she asked slowly and deliberately in an effort to clarify what she was sure she could not possibly have heard.
“He will have his bar mitzvah here at 770,” the Rebbe repeated. And in those nine words it was as if all of her problems were resolved and in some odd way she was absolved of the sin which which led to our being here, at least for the moment.
With those nine words, she was effectively let off the hook, and with that realization she began to cry uncontrollably.
In my mind I was thinking, did this just happen? Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the head of a worldwide Chassidic movement with thousands of followers, just offer to let me have my bar mitzvah at 770?
The enormity of this kind of honor is difficult for one who is not Orthodox or Chassidic to grasp and would be equivalent to the Pope offering to perform my confirmation himself.
I too felt the sudden urge to cry as I looked into the Rebbe’s eyes with abundant gratitude but held back my tears knowing that it would not be befitting for a boy who was soon to become a man.
My mother’s tears finally subsided and the meeting, which has lasted for only about 15 minutes and which felt like suspended time, came to an end. It was during those 15 minutes that I knew he was going to be my leader and that I was going to be one of his disciples.
For almost a solid 5 minutes of the full 15, the Rebbe stared directly into my eyes, but I didn’t feel exposed or scared. I felt connected to him in a very real and spiritual way as though he were my grandfather or King Solomon the wise. His eyes were the kindest and most compassionate I have ever seen before or since.
At the meeting’s end, my brother and I stood and shook the Rebbe’s hand as we turned to walk out the door. My mother had to use all of her power to restrain herself from throwing her arms around the Rebbe and giving him a giant kiss (which was strictly forbidden).
The irony was not lost on me that I was going to have my bar mitzvah at 770 instead of in the town where I grew up because that rabbi couldn’t keep his hands off of women who were not his wife.
As we left the office, I felt physically lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could tell that my mother was still in shock as I saw Yossie standing in the hallway with a big smile on his face.
I smiled back but couldn’t speak. “So, nu? How was it?” he asked as he escorted us out of the vestibule and through the doorway that led back out onto the street.
“He’s absolutely w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l”, my mother answered with a genuine hint of awe in her voice that I–and I’m certain no one else–had never heard before.
“Steven will have his bar mitzvah here at 770,” she said, with a voice still in a relatively high octave, which betrayed the fact that she was clearly still in shock.
I could see that Yossie had a hard time comprehending what my mother had just said and he too became silent. As he walked us back to the car through the humid night air, the look of surprise and happiness for me never left his face as we said our goodbye’s and drove off into the night.
It wasn’t until several years later that I came to fully understand why. In all his years as Rebbe, he had only done this a handful of times and it was usually an honor reserved for lifers (those born Lubavitch) so, as it turned out this was a VERY big deal.
And so it was that on Thursday, September 28, 1975, my actual 13th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar, at the regular weekly Thursday morning prayer service at 770 that I, Simcha Yosef Ben Dovid Levi Meltz, was called up to the Torah and given the aliyah just before Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson… the Lubavitcher Rebbe (may he be of sainted memory).
All in all, there was very little pomp and circumstance or fanfare as I completed this central and essential rite of passage in the Jewish religion which officially signified my becoming a man. I would from that point forward assume full responsibility for my actions as an adult according to Jewish law.
I was not dragged from a hut and banished to the bush to fend for myself against wild and ferocious animals for a week with nothing but a dagger, nor was there any body-piercing involved whatsoever. I had not crossed a physical line between childhood and adulthood, but a spiritual one and I felt somehow different, like I was closing a chapter on my my old life and was beginning another as a Lubavitcher Chassid.
Unfortunately, the service was conducted in the upstairs section of 770, which I had glanced only a few months earlier when we came to meet the Rebbe. Because it was in the Men’s Only section of 770, neither my mom nor my sister were allowed to attend.
It still saddens me that after all the struggles and crosses my mother had been forced to bear that she was denied the right to see her own son become a man according to Jewish tradition. I knew how proud she was of me, but I can only imagine how much prouder she’d have been had she been able to actually see it.
As I look back now, that was the day I officially “became” a Lubavitcher Chassid, a member of the largest Chassidic group within all of Judaism. And it was on that day that I took a leap of faith and landed squarely in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Steve Meltz was raised from the early age of 11 in the Chabad / Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn receiving a traditional Orthodox education while attending yeshivot in Brooklyn and in Baltimore, Maryland. Parting ways with the Orthodox community while in his late 20s, he began a voyage of self- discovery, and in 2007 (at the age of 45) received his smicah as a Reform rabbi and teacher. He presently serves as an affiliate rabbi in a norther New Jersey synagogue where his voyage of self-discovery continues to this day.
2 responses to “The Rebbe’s Blessing”
I enjoyed this very much. It was a good, moving story and also gave me a chuckle to read that his mother had a cross to bear. Funny, that coming from a Lubavitzer.
What a wonderful story. I grew up in Crown Heights on Empire Blvd, between Albany and Troy avenues, and we were totally separated from this community which grew as the years passed. Ultimately, we moved to Carnarsie after I graduated from High School.
I was interested to read about the Rebbe’s compassion and that you, as a young child, felt that he cared for you. He was this mystical figure. My family had a connection to his family, although we were not Lubavitcher.
I can’t help but wonder if having your Bar Mitzvah in a men’s only section was how your mother was further chastised for her actions. I found her incredibly brave to face the Rebbe and in front of her children.
Thank you for a thought provoking story.