I grew up in South Africa in a vibrant Jewish community. As a child I was encouraged to join Jewish youth groups. I loved the activities and discussions. However, about Judaism I had many unanswered questions. Then it all unraveled.
There was a youth Shabbaton in Johannesburg. It was during this Shabbaton that I met two rabbis who were emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to South Africa, Rabbi Mendel Lipskar and Rabbi Shalom Ber Gromer. I had never met real live Chasidim and was a little nervous and intimidated. This soon disappeared as their humor, warmth and wisdom was so inspiring. I could not stop asking questions and stayed up the entire Friday night talking with Rabbi Gromer.
The following year I went to Israel in order to study in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. It was here I met a teacher and Chasid who had a tremendous impact on my life. His name was Rebbe Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel, as we all affectionately called him, had been sentenced to a Siberian prison camp in the former Communist Russia. His only crime was teaching the Torah. I could not help but admire his strength, determination and wisdom. He agreed to teach a small group of us the Tanya (an extraordinary book of moral and Chasidic teachings based on the Kabbalah). We had to be disciplined, vigilant, and ready to learn no later than 4:45 a.m. every day. He would end each lesson with a story. They were stories of the bravery, devotion and inspiration of Chasidim. Reb Mendel himself was like the characters in the stories he told. One could not help but admire his inner strength as he suffered so much hardship from all those cold, harsh years in Siberia. Nevertheless he always displayed such faith, compassion, sincerity and heart.
I remember Reb Mendel telling me to take the stories and place them in some sort of a freezer chest in my mind. When the time comes, he said, take them out, defrost them with warm words and let them enter the hearts of children. After spending two years at the Yeshiva Kfar Chabad I began to realize how much there is still to learn. I went to New York to be near the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z’tl. This was the moment that changed my life. Being near the Rebbe and witnessing everything that was going on around him was overwhelming; it is hard to put it into a few words. What I saw and heard impacted me so tremendously that I knew that this was where I needed to be. The Rebbe talking for hours at Chasidic gatherings called farbrengens. The people coming from all over the world to hear his teachings. I saw miracles, wonder, love of humanity and a spirit of goodness that could not be replicated anywhere else. The Rebbe spoke with such clarity and enthusiasm about teaching Torah and spreading the warmth of Yiddishkeit. The message of the importance of Torah education for children is what inspired me the most.
I will never forget the day I received a phone call from my mother asking me to come back to South Africa as my father was ill. She told me that the doctors had given my father three months to live and I needed to come home and help in his business. Before leaving New York I received a private audience with the Rebbe. I asked for a blessing for my father. The Rebbe replied that my father should have a speedy recovery and that I should “teach Torah to children with a true love and a true kindness and touch their lives.” When I asked the Rebbe once again he repeated the words “true love and a true kindness.” My father went on to live another nine and a half years. Nine years more than the doctors told him. I went on to do what the Rebbe told me, “Teach children with a true love and a true kindness.” It is the best blessing I could ever receive. I hope to live up to it.
Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz is the spiritual leader of the Foothills Shul at Beis Yael. He is also the director of Judaic studies at Tucson Hebrew Academy.