20 Years since the Rebbe’s Passing; A talk with Chabad Shliach Rabbi Zalman Wolowik


Naftali Halpern

NH: It’s been 20 years since the Rebbe’s passing, can you believe that it’s been that long?
RZW: I feel it every day.

rebbe--Rabbi Zalman Wolowik with the Rebbe z''l

Rabbi Zalman Wolowik with the Rebbe

What do you mean?

You see, as Chabad chassidim, the Rebbe is everything. It’s not that we have our own life and then there’s also a Rebbe that we go to his tish, let’s say. To us, the Rebbe is everything. My oldest son—who is named after the Rebbe—and his friends not only know all of the Rebbe’s Torah, but they also know every detail about the Rebbe’s life; it is dear to them. You would think they were there in the 1950s.

rebbe--At a farbrengen with the Rebbe in 1968

At a Farbrengen with the Rebbe in 1968

Do you think they know the Rebbe the same way you knew the Rebbe?

They crave to know. When they meet anybody my age, they ask of them, “Tell us what it was like.”

What do you think of the three new biographies that just came out?

Each one covers another angle and they are very good.

I like Rabbi Steinsaltz’s biography because he looks at it from the Torah prospective. I also like Chaim Miller’s biography because he took the Gutnick Chumash and he made the Rebbe’s Torah available to others. But, you learn the most about the Rebbe through his Torah.


From what I understand, when reading Rav Nachman of Breslov’s Torah, one really gets a very intimate picture of what Rav Nachman’s life and personality was like. Is the Rebbe’s Torah like that?

I haven’t learned Rav Nachman’s Torah enough to have an opinion. But I could tell you a little bit about the Rebbe’s Torah.

The Rebbe took Torah very seriously, every detail of it. Therefore, every neshama was taken seriously because that’s what the Torah says. From a human prospective, the Rebbe created a world of Torah through shlichus. There’s a misconception—that you come to a Chabad home on some island and the guy is there to serve you coffee and some chicken soup. They don’t realize that 99.9% of the shluchim could have been the greatest roshei yeshivos and in every spare moment they are learning Torah. But the Rebbe influenced us in a way that there was no other way but to go out and help another Yid. The illustration the Rebbe used was, “When my child is drowning, everything stops to save that child.” And to the Rebbe, every Yid was that child.


The Rebbe leaving his house on President St

Was there an aspect of the Torah that the Rebbe gave particular focus?

The Rebbe’s Torah was all encompassing. There wasn’t an aspect that the Rebbe didn’t know or didn’t take seriously. The terminology “limud haTorah” was the most used terminology by the Rebbe, because that was the Rebbe’s life. The Rebbe talked about conquering the Jewish world “through Torah.” And that’s the only way—if you want to conquer a neshama, you do it through Torah. No matter what it is, the alef beis, daf yomi, or the deepest aspects of Torah.

A shliach once took a flight with a politician to the Rebbe. When they got there, the Rebbe asked the Shliach what Torah he taught the politician on the plane.

There were years when the Rebbe said, “If you want to come into me for a private audience as a chassid, if I don’t have your daily shiurim schedule as part of that note, don’t bother coming in.”

What was the Rebbe’s relationship with shluchim like?

There was a unique love that the Rebbe gave the shluchim because they could have been living in their own comfort zone yet they gave it away for a greater cause.

In 1992, the Rebbe suffered his first stroke on the 27th of Adar Rishon. (Interestingly, his second stroke in 1994 was also on the 27th of Adar.) That whole winter, the Rebbe cleared out his office, constantly clearing out seforim from his study to the library. The day that he had the stroke there was one thing on his desk: the four volume album of pictures of shluchim and their families around the world.

When the Rebbe’s wife passed away. The Rebbe turned to his secretary and said, “Tell the children, I mean the shluchim.”

It must be so hard not to have the Rebbe here.

At times you wish that b’gashmius the Rebbe was here. I can’t imagine all the shluchim today at a farbrengen with the Rebbe. Today’s shluchim never saw or heard the Rebbe but they hear his calling every day.

We crave the Rebbe; the void is tremendous. Before my bar mitzvah, I went into the Rebbe’s study and there was an awe. The Rebbe’s eyes penetrated you. Then I got a letter from the Rebbe for my bar mitzvah, which I keep in my safe deposit box. Then you had an aliyah by the Rebbe. I remember how I stood near the Rebbe when I got sheini and he got shlishi. I will cherish that memory for the rest of my life.

Do the videos help?

Absolutely. There is a group called JEM (Jewish Education Media); their whole purpose is to document anything that ever took place by the Rebbe. There’s another group whose whole mission is to gather anything that was ever said by the Rebbe.

In my house I have a full wall of seforim from the Rebbe.

My Encounter_001

A sample of Jem’s “My Encounter with the Rebbe” project

Did the Rebbe know where this was going; did he realize how big this was going to get?

Yes. The Rebbe saw right through situations. The clarity was unbelievable. A few years ago, by the shluchim convention, a senior shliach saw the massive picture of the shluchim gathered in front of 770 and started crying. He recalled how in the late 1950s there were five bochurim who went out to shuls on Simchas Torah. Before they left, the Rebbe addressed them and declared, “We have to conquer the world!” The shliach paused and then said: “It’s not a legacy, it’s a vision.”

It is mindboggling on every level that today before a person sends his kid to college they ask, “Where’s Chabad?” When someone goes on vacation they ask, “Where’s Chabad?” To some it’s about ahavas Yisroel. But for others, Chabad doesn’t allow people to sin. Its’ a very simple thing— a person is away from home and they need a place to call home. The Rebbe believed the world will be conquered. The Rebbe taught us that if there is a city with 1,000 Jews and we only touched 999, we have not accomplished our mission. The Rebbe lived this and breathed it.


The Shluchim being photographed at the annual Kinnus Hashluchim

The Rebbe was very educated. Did he value secular education?

There is a world of successful shluchim; do you know that the vast majority—including myself—never spent a minute on a formal secular education? On Simchas Torah 1955, the Rebbe requested that the outreach schools should continue having secular studies but for the Chabad yeshivas, there is no secular education.
Not even science and math?

You can’t learn math and run a Chabad house—the numbers never match!

That is interesting because the Rebbe himself attended university, didn’t he?

The Rebbe went to University of Berlin. But, Rabbi Soloveitchik was there and he recalled that “the Rebbe was there but he wasn’t there.” The Rebbe was there physically but he wasn’t there.

He appreciated Torah intellectualism. He loved to connect science to Torah. There was a science professor who had tremendous correspondence with the Rebbe about science and Torah. The Rebbe was also a tremendous mathematician. The day before the Rebbe had his stroke, a professor who was in the line for dollars showed the Rebbe a replica of the beis hamikdash. The Rebbe looked at it and instantly pointed out to the professor that the mizbeiach in his model was three millimeters off.

In Israel, in the 1950s, they had ships that transported people to Israel that would travel on Shabbos. They claimed that the engine could be idle for 25 hours without doing anything, so there was no chillul Shabbos. The Rebbe fought against it and said, “You could convince that to someone who is not an engineer by trade. But I’m an engineer. I studied it.” The Rebbe went on to describe in great detail how a ship engine works.

What was the concept of the Rebbe giving out dollars?

One of the things the Rebbe encouraged was the idea of giving tzedaka. You could say based on the Rambam that the idea of tzedaka brings the geula closer—everything about the Rebbe was the geula. When a reporter asked him what his message to the world is, he said, “We should add in goodness and kindness to bring redemption.” The whole concept that we are still in the golus didn’t sit well with the Rebbe.

rebbe--Meeting with a young Benjamin Netanyahu

A young Benjamin Netanyahu receiving a dollar form the Rebbe

What was the Rebbe’s view of the role of women in Chabad?

The Rebbe was revolutionary in expressing the importance of the role of women. The Rebbe had conventions twice a year specifically for women, and he would address them in 770. The Rebbe understood that in the world of shlichus, the women play a larger role than the men do. They cook, they teach, they take care of the children, they develop programs, etc.

Did the Rebbe ever give mussar?

There wasn’t a concept of mussar in the basic sense; the Rebbe was a father. Someone once asked the Rebbe why the chassidim have pictures of him on every wall. The Rebbe said, “I love them very much, and it seems they love me, too. Just like you have multiple family pictures on the wall, it seems like that’s the way the chassidim want to have it.” There was a love between the Rebbe and us.

What is the whole idea of putting notes in the Rebbe’s seforim to get answers to questions?

I don’t know. People do it. I never heard it from the Rebbe. But people say it works. I’ll tell you a story: A kid once walked into my office and said, “Rabbi, translate these pages.” I started translating it for him. In the middle, he said, “Stop, I got my answer.” He said, “You just read a letter that the Rebbe wrote to someone who was not in a Chabad yeshiva and the Rebbe wrote that he should switch to a Chabad yeshiva, especially since his father went to that yeshiva.”

The boy continued, “The issue that I came here to resolve is that I am contemplating whether to continue in my non-Chabad yeshiva or to go to a Chabad yeshiva. The Chabad yeshiva I want to go to is in Los Angeles, where my father went as a bochur.”

He said, “I got my answer.” So I never heard of the concept from the Rebbe, but it seems to work.

Since the Rebbe’s passing—I know that there is no replacement—but is there one person who is seen as the unified leader?

Someone once asked the author of the book, The Rebbe’s Army, whether there will ever be another leader. The author, who is secular I believe, said, “One thing I can say with certainty—as long as there is one person who is alive who saw the Rebbe, there will never be another Rebbe.” It’s like, when someone loses a parent, can you replace that parent?

Someone once came to Rav Landau of Bnei Brak and asked him, “Is the Rebbe alive?” Naturally, the Rebbe passed away. But, Rav Landau asked the man, “If your living gadol told you to pick up and move to China for life would you do it?” The man responded, “Definitely not.” Rav Landau then said to him, “There’s a family from Bnei Brak who lives today in China for life. And they volunteered to do it knowing that this is their Rebbe’s will.” That’s the sign of being truly alive.

Is there one thing in Yiddishkeit that the Rebbe focused on more than anything else? For example, in Slabodka it was mussar, in Brisk, it was meticulousness in mitzvos, and in Breslov, it was simcha?

By the Rebbe it was everything. But the overall goal was to do anything and everything to bring the geula closer. Everything was centered on how we hasten the coming of Moshiach.
To the Rebbe, a Yid was tangible, a neshama was tangible, Moshiach was tangible.


The Rebbe addressing the Chassidim on the 28th of Nissan, 5751-1991 asking them to do everything they can to bring Moshiach

Did the Rebbe ever say why he never went to Eretz Yisroel?

There were a few times that people asked him. First of all, he said there’s a halachic question if you are allowed to return, once you go to Eretz Yisroel. Then the Rebbe said that when a ship is sinking the captain is the last one to get off. And once the Rebbe told someone, “My shver [Father-in-law] is buried here, how can I abandon him?” That person later said, “That’s a true chassid, he won’t leave his Rebbe even for a day!”

But the Rebbe loved Eretz Yisroel and cried for Eretz Yisroel. He cried when land was given away. I remember at farbrengens the Rebbe cried about how many karbanos there will be for what they call “peace.” But the Rebbe’s dream was to go with Moshiach. That was his dream and he never let us go for a moment without making it a tangible reality that Moshiach is real. And, if I can say, the Rebbe reintroduced the concept of Moshiach to the world. Until then it was not even a topic of discussion. If at all, until then, people would say it’s a Christian concept.

Why did the Rebbe reintroduce it? Because it is part of Torah. It is the ultimate part of Torah, which is all “lehavi l’mos haMoshiach [to bring to the days of Moshiach].”

rebbe--With Prime Minister Begin

The Rebbe with Prime Minister Menachem Begin

There are many stories of miracles involving the Rebbe. Have you ever experienced any such events?

When we first got here we had a storefront on Willow Avenue. I was sitting near the window—I was the showcase. A girl walks in, and she is crying and crying. When she calms down, she says that she has been dating a Jordanian diplomat’s son for almost 5 years. Her parents live in North Woodmere and are devout members of Temple Hillel, and they don’t want to let her marry him. She says, “I know Chabad is liberal, and I want you to talk to my parents.” I agreed to talk to her parents.

When she left my office, I called her mother, and said, “Look, your daughter is prepared for me to help her—I’m going to help her break up.” We tried a bunch of things, but the girl was still adamant that she wanted to marry the guy. Finally, I took her to the ohel to daven. As we were driving, she told me that when she told her parents that she is going to the Rebbe’s ohel, they informed her for the first time that her two older siblings are adopted and that she is the first biological child. They told her that after not having kids for ten years, they went to the Rebbe for a bracha and she was born nine months later. I knew right then that the Rebbe’s “bracha” will not marry a goy.

But nothing changed and one day she said she is going to Texas to be with her boyfriend and they were going to travel to Jordan to get married. I said to her, “The Rebbe’s ‘bracha’ will not marry a goy.” The next night at 2:00am, I got a call from the girl’s mother and she said to me, “Rabbi, I have bittersweet news—my daughter is stuck on the side of the highway in Texas. How can we get Chabad to pick her up?” I said, “What happened?” She said, “She got into an argument with her boyfriend about how she was driving, and he had her pull over to the side of the road; he dragged her out of the car and drove off!”

It’s pashut— the Rebbe’s “bracha” wouldn’t marry a goy.

I recall another story. When we first came here, there was a girl, Daniella, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Her father came to me and asked what they could do. So I took her to the ohel to daven. I told her that in order for a bracha to work, she should take on a mitzvah. So I suggested that she light Shabbos candles. She started lighting Shabbos candles. When she went back for X-rays, they found nothing. The cancer was gone.

Later on, this girl moved in with a goy. The first Friday night she lit Shabbos candles and the guy said, “I don’t want this” and threw her out. This happened with three goyim—it came Friday night, she lit Shabbos candles and they threw her out!


Diane and her husband Attorney General Bob Abrams bring their newborn daughter Becky to the Rebbe. Exactly a year prior, the Rebbe had given an unsolicited Bracha to the 48 year old mother that they have “an addition to the family.” Photo: Chabad.org

Is the reverence for the Rebbe universal in Chabad?

Yes. For example, in 1991, I went to Russia for Chanukah. There was an old, Russian Jew. I noticed from a few of the things that he did that he must have come from chassidim. So we started talking and he opened up about his life as a child in Lubavitch. When I was about to leave, I said to him, “Reb Yosef, I am going back to the Rebbe, and I am going to send him a report, why don’t you write a letter to the Rebbe?” He got very serious and started crying and said, “Look, chassidim never write a letter to their Rebbe without preparing their souls first and for that you need time and energy. I am too old for it.” But he said, “Do me a favor, mention my name to the Rebbe.”

I heard an amazing story from Irving Stone, who I met. He told me that in the early 1960s the shliach from Ohio brought him to New York to meet the Rebbe. He was a world renowned entrepreneur at that time. He told me that he went into the Rebbe and had an hour and a half audience with the Rebbe and he said to the Rebbe something that every fundraiser would want to hear: “Rebbe, I am all yours, what can I do for you?” He expected “a million dollar answer.” For him, a million dollars was easy.

The Rebbe said, “You’ll give me anything?” and Irving Stone said, “Yes.” The Rebbe then said, “I would appreciate if you put on tefillin every day and if you wear tzitzis.” The Rebbe gave him tzitzis as a gift. After telling me this story, Irving Stone turned to me and said, “Our Rebbe was a smart man—the check I would have forgotten about, but 30 years later, I am still wearing tzitzis.”

The work ethic that shluchim have, does that come from the Rebbe?

The Rebbe taught us to put our heart and soul into what we do. I know a businessman who said that he loves hiring children of shluchim because they put their heart and soul into what they do. If you look at it from a gashmius perspective, the Rebbe was one of the greatest employers in the world. Look at this Chabad House, I’m a little guy and there are 51 people that work here! And most of them are not even Chabad, they are just Jews who have a job. Many Chabad Houses have schools, which employ teachers, staff, etc. The Rebbe created a massive network.

Think about it like this: many shluchim have ten kids, they don’t have college educations, yet all of their kids end up having jobs—as shluchim! The Rebbe’s employees operate in 70 countries. Who else has that? Coca Cola doesn’t even have that.


US Attorney General Robert Kenedy in a discussion about a education

The Rebbe taught us that the world is an orchard that can grow fruit. He taught us that as a living example. We feel that message every day and are driven by it.