It seems only as yesterday that I was speaking with the Rebbetzin. Her voice still echoes in my ears.
The first time I was asked to speak in public about the Rebbetzin was here in New York 22 years ago. I asked for time to think it over. I discussed it at length with my husband, as I felt that I could not agree without first asking the Rebbe’s permission. You see, I know that one of the reasons for the success our friendship, was that the Rebbetzin had complete confidence that I would never seek to make headlines out of the things we discussed in private. This had led to the development of a very close and intimate friendship, rather than a guarded and formal relationship.
The Rebbetzin had complete confidence that I would never seek to make headlines out of the things we discussed.
Much has been said about the Rebbetzin’s great dignity, intelligence, and regal bearing. Undoubtedly, she possessed all these characteristics in abundance – not surprising when one looks at her ancestors and upbringing.
However, I felt that all this “greatness” had the effect of making her appear remote and somewhat too intimidating for us to relate to.
So, I wrote to the Rebbe explaining that I wanted to try and remove some of the “shadows” that surrounded her and demonstrate what she really was to me – a very human and loving person.
Within hours I received an answer to go ahead. And when I passed by the Rebbe at “Dollars” just before I spoke, I asked for a blessing that I should do justice to the Rebbetzin. The Rebbe replied that I should have much success and added, “And every time you speak, the bond between you should grow stronger.” So, tonight I thank each and every one of you for being an active participant in enabling the Rebbe’s blessing to be fulfilled.
So how did this friendship begin? My family’s connection with the Rebbetzin goes back 50 years, when my father, of blessed memory, became seriously ill. All that the doctors could offer him was a new and controversial operation in Paris. Through their connection with Lubavitch in London, my parents turned to the Rebbe and came to New York for a Yechidut (private audience). To this day, no one knows exactly what the Rebbe said to my father, but on the strength of the blessings and encouragement given on that occasion, and without any surgical intervention, my father made a truly miraculous recovery.
Filled with feelings of gratitude, my father returned six months later to thank the Rebbe in person. This came to the notice of the Rebbetzin, who sent a message that “if they could spare the time,” she would very much like to meet my parents when they were next in New York.
Not knowing what an intensely private person she was, they had no idea how very unusual it was to receive such an invitation.
When, a year later, they visited her, the Rebbetzin explained that she had been “intrigued” to meet them, having been so very touched that someone had actually cared enough to make a second visit – purely for the purpose of expressing their thanks to the Rebbe.
Often, when we pass through troubled times and receive help, once the crisis is over, all we want to do is to forget the whole unpleasant episode, and this often includes the very people who helped us. Memories can be most painful and so the ideal of hakorat hatov (gratitude) of expressing thanks often goes by the wayside.
My father’s one simple action therefore set in motion a deep and loving friendship between the Rebbetzin and our family, one that continues to permeate and enrich our lives.I was 14 years old when my parents brought me to New York for Purim. Naturally I had heard so much about the Rebbetzin, and I was so excited to meet her. I shall never forget my first impression of a truly regal, albeit tiny, figure, immaculately groomed, wearing a black Chanel-type suit and exquisite coral and gold jewelry.
She graciously led us to a beautifully set table, in the center of which stood the most magnificent cake in the shape of the walls of Jerusalem. Very proudly, she informed us that N’shei Chabad had presented this cake as shalach manot, a Purim gift. The Rebbetzin never missed an opportunity to speak with fondness and great admiration of “our ladies.”
At that stage of my life, my main preoccupation was with obtaining and consuming all the sweet things I could lay my hands on! Becoming more and more overweight in the process and weighing almost 200 lbs. I was driving my mother to distraction!
So, you can just imagine my delight when, as soon as I had devoured my first piece of cake, the Rebbetzin promptly put an even bigger piece on my plate, and my poor mother could only sit by and look on helplessly!
However, the Rebbetzin knew exactly what she was doing, because as soon as I was satisfied, she slowly and skillfully asked me about my life. Which were my favorite subjects in school? What were my hobbies? And so on. She seemed so genuinely interested in all the facets of my life that I immediately felt at ease. Indeed, one of her most outstanding characteristics, something she had very much in common with the Rebbe, was the ability to relate to whomever she was with whatever their age or their circumstances.
Not having previously been a very keen student, I found myself for the first time motivated to impress someone. I came away from that meeting having gained a new aim in life – to try to give the Rebbetzin nachat.
I started writing to her regularly, keeping her in touch with everything that I was doing. And even though I did not see her again for another six years when I came back to New York with my husband, the Rebbetzin became a major figure in my life.
After we were married, and as the children were born, she would play an active and pivotal role in our everyday existence In addition to writing, I was telephoning her at least once a week. Over the years, the Rebbetzin came to take the place of the grandmothers I did not have the privilege to know. I came to regard her as such – something of which she was very much aware and which, I believe, gave her great pleasure.
Although she was a woman in her seventies and eighties when I knew her, I would value her practical advice on just about everything. From the children’s education, to household matters, to fashion, as she was truly a woman of our times and very much of this world, sharing with the Rebbe the rare attribute of being a “ladder standing on the earth, whose head reached the heavens.” Whilst her ideals and spirit were on an altogether higher plane, her feet were nevertheless planted firmly on the ground.
And just like so many of us bubbies, she would show her love with food! Sending me home on a Thursday night with two Boston cream pies for Shabbat because she remembered that one of the children had liked it. And giving me six boxes of chocolates for my father’s 70th birthday because, as she said, “we so want to be part of the celebration.” And I was forever struck that for the Rebbetzin, a relationship was not for what she could get out of it – but rather, what she could put into it.My husband traveled regularly to New York on business and he would visit the Rebbetzin often, but I was occupied with the children and so could only visit occasionally. Yet, each moment that I was able to spend with her was so precious. It was an opportunity to gain so much hearing her talk of the years growing up in Russia and later on her life with the Rebbe in Europe. And looking together at pictures taken at those times.
It was also a chance for me to voice my concerns. In particular when our children were small, the Rebbe was encouraging women to go out and share about candle lighting, keeping a kosher home, and family purity. At the time I just couldn’t bring myself to do this. I felt terribly inadequate. And I could not even blame it on the famous English reserve as many of my friends were indeed participating with great success. All I seemed capable of was the apparently mundane and unexciting daily routine of being a wife and mother.
When I discussed this with the Rebbetzin she would say, “But Louise, I don’t understand the problem. I know you love having people in your home. When they come and share a Shabbat or Jewish holiday with you and see a Jewish family is proud and natural with their tradition, who knows how their lives will be touched? And you never know, perhaps one day you will be able to do other things as well?”
In this way, she led me to re-assess the value of what I had come to take for granted as ordinary, making me realize that everything is built upon the home and its strong foundation while at the same time leaving the way open for me to aspire to wider achievements. I learned from the Rebbetzin that the important thing is to be at peace with whatever one’s stage of life is at giving it one’s all while being receptive to the opportunities that arise. It was comforting to know that the Rebbetzin placed great importance on being a devoted wife and a good mother.
To say that I was a slow developer is something of an understatement, but opportunities do arise and people do change, and the fact that I have been able to come out of my comfort zone is very much due to the Rebbetzin’s words of wisdom and foresight and the incredible and unwavering support of my beloved husband, of blessed memory.
It became more and more obvious as I got to know her better what a vital role the Rebbetzin played in the Rebbe’s life. The downstairs study of their home was full of newspapers and periodicals in several languages – Hebrew, English, Yiddish, German, French, and Russian. It was the Rebbetzin who scoured these papers to bring to the Rebbe’s attention the latest news and world developments. In today’s terms she was his “Google.”
The Rebbetzin would always refer to the Rebbe simply as “my husband.” She would always speak about “…how WE do such and such…or WE like to do…” And every time she spoke about the Rebbe and, in particular, in connection with his many innovative achievements, her eyes would light up and her face would glow with pride. This somehow seemed so natural and brought home to me the fact that theirs was a bond in the truest and most profound sense.
Indeed, when she passed away and someone mentioned to the Rebbe that he had heard that the Rebbetzin had been an outstanding wife, the Rebbe unhesitatingly replied, “That is an understatement!” He continued, “in my opinion, no estimation does her justice – G‑d, alone, knows her true qualities.”
In January, 1984, my relationship with the Rebbetzin was cemented and intensified further. Following injuries sustained in a fall, the Rebbetzin was in great pain and hardly seeing anyone. Over the years she had shown such constant concern for all of us that I wanted to do something, anything, to show my love for her. But what could I realistically do from such a distance?
Then I had an idea. I phoned and told her that I had no other reason to come to New York at that time, but I would come on my own if she would see me. There was an audible gasp on the other end of the line. She said, “You would come just for me?” And I repeated, “Only for you.” I could hear her smiling!
I had imagined that I would stay for only hour or so as she was weak, but to my surprise, lunch was served for us both, and before I looked round almost five hours had gone by. The next day followed much the same pattern.
I made two more of these two-day trips to New York, one of them ten days before Rosh Hashanah. The Rebbetzin couldn’t get over the fact that a housewife could get away from home at such a busy time. I assured her that everything was under control with the freezer full. But that wasn’t enough! She wanted to know exactly what I had prepared and when did I intend to serve this or that and which meals we were having guests? No detail was too insignificant for her to be involved with.
The last time I was with the Rebbetzin was but a few days before she passed away. Although there was much happening at the time in London and it was difficult for me to get away, I felt some sort of inexplicable sense of urgency that forced me to make the journey without delay. With hindsight I now see that visit as having been rather different from all the others in many ways. What stands out uppermost in my memory is the way in which I took my leave of her.
Since she had been unwell, I had always kissed her goodbye and she would remain seated. This time was different. It had started snowing and as I was getting into the car, I looked up. To my surprise, the Rebbetzin had come to the window. I shall never forget that scene, the snow falling gently, the Rebbetzin, a regal yet frail figure, framed in the window, waving goodbye. That picture stayed in my mind all the way home, and I felt somewhat uneasy and disturbed by it.
I leave you to imagine my reaction when, a few days later, I received the terrible news of her passing. I did manage to get to New York in time to participate in the funeral. I could not believe that this was actually happening. All I could think of was that, thank G‑d, at least I was able to carry out this last mitzvah for someone I loved so very much.
The whole family felt as though we had lost a limb. No more phone calls, no more personal contact. And, of course, the inevitable questions: Why hadn’t we discussed this or that, when we’d had the opportunity? Our lives would never be the same again.
But I would like to conclude on a positive note.
In true grandmotherly fashion, the Rebbetzin was always concerned for our wellbeing. After every meeting or letter that we wrote to the Rebbe she would ask, “Did you get what you wanted from my husband?”
Just a year before she passed away, we were considering moving homes. My husband wrote a letter putting down the pros and cons and asking for the Rebbe’s advice. The Rebbe answered, “Kirtzoin zugosoi shetichyeh, shehi akeres habais” – You should do as your wife wishes as she is the mainstay in the home.
The Rebbetzin, of course, knew of the proposed move and when we next spoke, I told her that the Rebbe’s reply was not what I had expected! Such was the closeness between us that it seemed natural for me to speak so openly. I said “I cannot make this decision it is too big. Please tell the Rebbe – I need him to tell me YES or NO!I can still hear her spontaneous laughter as she responded, “Bravo! Bravo!” This was an expression she often used to show her agreement. ”Bravo Bravo – if my husband says you can do it you can do it!”
Dear friends, we often tend to think that a blessing or an answer is given for a specific question or time. But we should know that there is no expiration date and sometimes it is even more relevant years later.
So, this response, given to me by the Rebbe and endorsed by the Rebbetzin, over a quarter of a century ago, has been a source of great encouragement on many occasions over the years.
And when, almost two years ago my world was suddenly turned upside down, these words give me tremendous comfort and strength on a constant basis.
And while many of the Rebbe’s answers are given to an individual, they are often relevant to others, too. The underlying message of that blessing is the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s deep, deep belief in the potential of each and every one of us to grow and develop, in our own unique and individual way, overcoming the various challenges we face.
And to every Shlucha and everyone involved in Shlichut work.
As women at the forefront, your ability to change the world for good and hasten what we all pray for, the coming of Moshiach speedily, is limitless. I salute you all!
Slight edits from transcript of speech given at the International Conference of Chabad Shluchot 5773 – 8 years ago, as seen on Chabad.org. This weekend continues the tradition, albeit through zoom. You can watch the incredible and uplifting banquet this Sunday at 1:30 pm NY time on zoom at kinus.com/virtualgala.
*Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson 1901-1988. This year is 33 years since the passing of the Rebbetzin.
Louise Hager – The Rebbetzin gently encouraged Louise to be a leader assuring her that at the right time in her life she will indeed be one. Louise has been involved in both for profit and non- profit in England and is definitely a very respected leader in each of her fields. She helped grow the Cabouchon jewelry business and has been chairman of Chai, a non-profit internationally renowned center of excellence with branches across England and Europe, which she helped develop. In addition, Louise is a sought-after speaker and especially at this time has been in great demand on zoom inspiring women around the world.
Thank you, Louise, for all you do! Surely the Rebbe and Rebbetzin continue to shower you and your family with Hashem’s abundant blessings.