“I was born in 1940 in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. As a young child, I was considered “out of the box,” meaning I was not able to fit myself into any framework. Naturally, I had friction within the framework of my studies as well as with my teachers and Rabbis. The situation made me dislike Yiddishkeit, my observance of Mitzvos faded, and my warm feeling for Judaism cooled down.
My parents, as well as my grandparents who were Torah observant, were very worried. They sensed I was heading in the wrong direction and they were looking for a solution from which everyone would benefit – that I should stay frum and at the same time I should feel more connected.
My parents had close friends in Crown Heights, Lubavitcher Chassidim – Rabbi Moshe Aharon and Riva Geisinsky. They were of the most prominent members in the Chabad community, and they suggested that my parents meet with the Rebbe for advice.
It was shortly after the Histalkus of the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Chabad community was shaken by their loss – one of the greatest Rabbis of modern times.
When I entered the Rebbe’s office, he sat behind the desk, and I stood in front of the desk, to his right. My mother and little sister stood at the door, closing it behind them. My mother told the Rebbe in Yiddish that she lived in East New York, and that I, her son, had been thrown out of the local Torat Chayim Yeshiva. She cried bitterly that she was at a loss and didn’t know what to do.
Despite my mother’s tears, I remember this encounter boring me. Again I was listening to the story of the rabbis’ negative opinions about me and the dark future they predict. The Rebbe listened patiently to her and after she finished crying the Rebbe turned to me and motioned with his finger for me to draw closer to him.
I stood next to him, and the Rebbe smiled at me. I was ready to hear the same speech again: “You are not worth anything, you are not complying, you have no interest in your studies,” etc.
The Rebbe smiled again and said he would ask me three questions.
“Are you a good boy?” He asked.
I was prepared.
I answered in a determined voice: “No!”
“Do you like school?”
“No!” I shouted.
“Do you listen to your mother?”
And I answered again, “No!”
Then the Rebbe turned to my mother and said: “Oh, Emes! It will be good.”
[I feel the Rebbe was impressed with my honesty, and felt that with time I’ll mature and get back in line.]
That is how my relationship with the Rebbe began. The Rebbe did not give me morals, did not scold me, and did not give me proper rules of conduct in the classroom. I was glad he had not scolded me. That’s something, too.
My Promise on the Way to Korea
Fast forward to 1959 when I received a draft order from the US Army with an appointment date of March 16th. As always, since my first meeting with the Rebbe, I notified the Rebbe about every significant event in my life.
I went into his office and told the Rebbe that I had received a draft order and that I would prepare for basic training and training for my military service on November 17th, on the15th of Cheshvan.
The Rebbe blessed me, without giving me any instructions.
I reported to Fort Dix, where I underwent basic training. Then I was sent to Advanced Communications School, and from there I was transferred to several bases in the US. After seven months in various positions in the military bases up in Denver, then back in New York, I was given orders to transfer overseas to Korea.
After the Second World War, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones of occupation divided by the 38th parallel line. The Soviet Union controlled the northern part, and the United States ruled in the southern part. In 1948 two parallel governments were established: a government supported by the Soviet Union north of the line, and a government supported by the United States on the south side.
In 1950, the Korean War broke out between the two neighbors – the US obviously supported South Korea while the Communists supported North Korea. The Armistice Agreement was finally signed in 1953, in which the peninsula was divided across the 38th parallel north with a demilitarized zone (the DMZ) in between them. Since 1957, there is an active presence of the US military in South Korea.
Standard procedure was that before a US soldier leaves the country and is sent overseas, he is given leave to visit his family and friends and prepare for the future that awaits him abroad.
I went back to my parents in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they lived then. My mother was obviously not too happy with these orders that I got, but it was what it was, and I used the time to catch up with friends.
When I came home one night after a meeting with friends just a few days before my deployment, my mother tells me, “Sholom, a call came in from 770 and the Rebbe’s secretary left a message that the Rebbe wants to see you.”
“Me? What did I do?” I wondered in surprise.
I went to 770, entered the Rebbe’s office, and the Rebbe greeted me in the usual way: “Shalom Aleichem, how are you?” and so on.
The Rebbe said he understood that I was traveling overseas. It looks like the Rebbe knew already, and I apologized that I had not yet informed him.
“To Korea, right?” asked the Rebbe.
After I confirmed, the Rebbe picked up the phone and spoke to one of the secretaries, I think it was Rabbi Klein and said, “Sholom is in the office, and I have something waiting for him.”
The secretary came into the Rebbe’s room carrying a small tefillin bag and placed it on the table.
The Rebbe said to me: “Sholom, I got these Tefillin and I would like to send you with these Tefillin.”
I told the Rebbe that I still had the tefillin they had bought me for my Bar Mitzvah not too long ago. The Rebbe looked at me with his piercing look and said, “I know what you have, but I’m sending you with these tefillin.”
I was bewildered. So far, in all my meetings with the Rebbe, he always spoke to me gently. This time it was different. The Rebbe said firmly: “I am sending you with these tefillin,” and as he spoke he opened the bag and took them out.
“I want you to put them on.” The Rebbe was scolding me with his finger.
“I want you to promise me that you will do it!”
I didn’t know how to respond. I was stunned. The Rebbe went on say again, in a severe tone of voice: “Did you hear me?” Then, in a higher tone: “I didn’t hear your promise!”
The Rebbe detailed his request as follows: “I want you to put them on, and if there is a reason that you do not or can not, then at least say “’Shema.’”
While I tried to recover from everything that was going on, the Rebbe continued, “I want to prepare you, it will be rough, – it is going to be hard, I want you to be ready.”
The Rebbe wanted to know my schedule. I told him that I would be leaving to Los Angeles and I was planning to spend Rosh Hashana with my uncle, from where I would continue to the city of Oakland.
The Rebbe confirmed this, and the meeting ended.
I took the tefillin from the Rebbe and left his office. At home, I told my parents everything that had happened in the Rebbe’s room. My parents were also a bit confused but accepted the Rebbe’s words.
The Lieutenant General Who Didn’t Exist
Not long afterward, I boarded a military propellor plane to Los Angeles, where I had to report to Oakland on Friday, Erev Yom Kippur. Somehow I encountered a soldier who turned out to be a Jew. Soon enough it was clear that we were the only Jewish soldiers there.
“What will we do for Yom Kippur?” I asked him. “Is there a Shul in Oakland?”
“Yeah right,” he answered.
This is the 1960s.
“So what do we do?”
My new friend guessed there might be a shul in San Fransisco. So we decided to get up early in the morning, we wore our full dress uniforms, and fasting, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into the city of San Fransisco in search of a shul. But alas! We found no shul.
After Yom Kippur, we hitchhiked back to the base, where we broke the fast.
Two days after Yom Kippur, on Monday morning, I boarded a plane on our way to Korea. The aircraft was to make four stops. First stop: Hawaii. From there, we were scheduled to land on Wake Island of Atoll, then Japan and the final stop: South Korea.
After the first leg of our flight, we landed in Hawaii to refuel. Meanwhile, I sat on a bench in the military grounds at the airport and noticed a lieutenant, who appeared to be waiting for something. Suddenly I noticed another officer, a lieutenant colonel, walking toward the lieutenant, telling him that he, the lieutenant colonel, must board the plane. The lieutenant saluted and confirmed this, while the lieutenant stared at me, looked at my ID and called me “Bear, you’re getting off the plane!”
I immediately realized that there was no place on the flight, and the lieutenant preferred the lieutenant colonel to me.
I tried to argue with the order, but the lieutenant refused to explain. “I took you off the plane, and there’s nothing to talk about!” I noticed the name of the lieutenant colonel as it appeared on his ID card, and I wrote down his name to complain about it at a suitable opportunity …
It was not a comfortable feeling. Everyone flew to the destination while I was left alone at the airport, waiting for the next flight. I went to several military men in the area and explained that I wanted to get to my unit. It was only after a few hours of waiting that I boarded another plane to the island of Atoll and then drove to Japan.
In Japan, I went to the local office and introduced myself as a corporal. I explained that I had just arrived from the United States and I was in a unit that was supposed to settle in Korea which was as on its way there now.
I presented the story to him, and he did not understand how I had arrived alone in Japan. I couldn’t figure out why he did not understand it, and at one point he told me to wait, and he left.
He approached a more senior officer and he told me to appear before him for questioning.
The officer began to ask me all kinds of strange questions, and I innocently told him about the lieutenant colonel, whose name I had copied from the tag, who demanded to board the flight and because of whom I was left behind. After a thorough inspection, the officers concluded that there was no lieutenant colonel with that name!
How could that be?! I stood near him! I heard him talking!
I asked them to call Travis Airport where they would approve my version. They did as I said and a few minutes later the officer returned, looking very pale. It turned out that the air inspectors lost contact with the plane! I still do not know how and why, but that’s the fact.
At that time I was a young boy of about 19, and to be honest, I did not really internalize the meaning of things. Today, decades later, I reconstruct the whole scene and I know – the plane is lost while I am here!
Open Fire and an Open Miracle
Either way, while I was a bit confused by the strange event, I was determined to continue the journey to meet my friends at our final destination: Korea.
I landed and went to report, worried about the news of the loss of the plane that my friends were on. I did not know what to do and began to walk around, brooding. I accidentally bumped into another soldier, and after apologizing, the soldier asked me if I was Jewish. It turned out that he too was a Jew.
At the time I did not understand why he told me this, but today it is clear that everything is part of the Divine Plan. We sat down together and began talking as if we were two close brothers from time immemorial.
I learned that the Jewish soldier had served six years earlier in the Korean War in which over 36,000 Americans had lost their lives. One morning, the soldier was supposed to go with his colleagues to a particular battle, where South Korean soldiers were supposed to serve as shields between them and the soldiers of North Korea. My new friend said that they had been ordered to go to bed early in order to awaken energized, but he woke up with his body feverish at 104 degrees. He was sent to the doctor, where, oddly enough, his body temperature was regular, and it was determined that he was fit for battle.
A jeep was called to take him quickly to his friends who had already set out, but after a few meters, there was a hole in the tire. So they ordered a military truck to take him instead, but its engine suddenly overheated. The third vehicle he was traveling in also had a malfunction. Having no choice, the officers left him in the clinic until an ambulance went to the area and took him along for a “ride.” As they approached the battle zone, he saw to his surprise masses of rescue vehicles, while his fellow soldiers opened sleeping bags to collect bodies … It turned out that there was a mistake in understanding the orders; South Korean soldiers did not serve as shields, and US soldiers were exposed to direct enemy fire.
The Jewish soldier, therefore, was the only remaining soldier of his unit.
When he finished his story, I wished him success and a good trip, and he continued on his way.
The Rebbe Knows from Afar
I was placed in a particular barracks, where all the soldiers, led by the unit sergeant, were anti-Semites from the southern United States. It was a whole unit that did not hide its hatred of the Jewish nation and in this case, of me.
The reality struck me – the Rebbe told me it would be hard for me, and the Rebbe gave me tefillin! I am in a unit of anti-Semitic rednecks from the deep south. This is not about putting on tefillin at an airport or on an airplane, but putting them on daily in front of those who I’m supposed to fight shoulder to shoulder with.
Still, I lay tefillin, while the other soldiers looked at me and whispered to each other.
I said “Shema Yisrael” and did my thing…
My situation was difficult. The harassment did not stop, and it reached a point where it was already totally unbearable. It was almost impossible to lay the tefillin. I felt that the sergeant would soon lose it and do something crazy. So, at that point, I stopped putting the Rebbe’s tefillin on.
I was glad that the Rebbe gave me the option, if necessary, to make do with “Shema Yisrael,” and that is what I did.
A short while later, a letter was received from my mother: My dear son, I received a message from 770 that the Rebbe says that you are not fulfilling your promise.
I was shocked!
What should I do? I made a promise to the Rebbe, yet, on the other hand, the sergeant wants to murder me because of my Jewishness.
I looked up to the heavens and asked: “What should I do?”
I felt terrible about this situation. At one point I was afraid I had a fever and went to the medics. I met a new medic who I never saw before. He had just arrived from Japan and was very patient and willing to help the soldiers. I confided in him that I really didn’t get along with the sergeant of my unit, and I wanted to transfer.
It turned out that there was a possibility that I would move to a military outfit which no one would agree to serve, in a dangerous location – Camp Essayons.
It was an Engineering Outfit that goes in behind enemy lines and blows up bridges and mines – danger
The only problem was, it takes 30 days before one can transfer units and I felt that I had to do something for the next 30 days to spare myself of the sergeant’s wrath.
The doctor who wanted to help noticed a small, insignificant bump on my hand and suggested that I wear a cast for 30 days!
The next morning I got up, and the sergeant called my name to give me a difficult assignment. With hidden joy, I waved with my hand to show him my cast. He started to rage, kicking his feet into the dirt, but he could not do anything to me.
30 days passed before I was transferred to the Essayons camp. The living quarters were horrible and the work was dangerous, but I was so excited because now I could finally put on my tefillin in peace.
Disappointment at the Last Minute
It was time for my discharge.
We reached South Korea by air and we had to return by sea.
I arrived in the town of Incheon, where I parted from my comrades and boarded a military boat in the direction of a ship that was supposed to take us home. The transition from the small boat to the big ship was done by ladders.
Just as I was about to climb the ladder, an alarm sounded through the air. The loudspeakers loudly announced an immediate return to shore. There was chaos in the area. Soldiers wanted to go home. In their hearts, they were practically home and what now?
Only upon reaching the shore did we get the details – President Kennedy froze the release of all soldiers serving outside the United States due to the Berlin crisis and the Cuban crisis. The meaning of the directive is that I was stuck in Korea!
With a heavy heart, I returned to the unit, where I learned that we were leaving for the demilitarized zone! As noted, this is a dangerous area.
But we’re an engineering corps and not an infantry division. We have a different job! Why were they sending us there?
It turns out that all the US soldiers in South Korea were ordered to move to the demilitarized zone, latitude 38. That year, 1961, this area was as familiar to us as the moon!
We reached the 38th parallel. The weather was stormy, cold and wet. Thousands of soldiers from all the army departments were sent to the scene. Despite our training as an engineering corps, we were turned into infantry equipped with rifles and submachine guns deep inside fox holes. What am I doing here? I kept asking myself.
Suddenly, a general who spoke to all the soldiers announced: You were designated to be the bumper zone between the enemy soldiers and the echelon if the evacuation takes place. The translation of his command was in simple terms: You were chosen to be the korbon.
We are standing in muddy fox holes and are up to our knees in icy water, it’s freezing and raining. Everyone is going crazy.
Suddenly shots were fired from North Korea. Bombs fly over us. The situation is pitiful; we do not have enough bullets, the supply of weapons has not arrived. You could see the real fear in the eyes of all the soldiers. It’s clear to us all that it’s a matter of minutes or hours until we meet our maker…
There’s no escape route. This is the moment of truth.
I do not know where it came from, but the last thing I’m thinking about at the time was the tefillin. But suddenly, a non-Jewish soldier from my department yells at me:
“What?” I shouted back trying to yell over the noise of the shells flying from all sides.
“We need God!”
“What does ‘we need God’ mean? What can I do?”
“Do you remember the funny boxes you wear?”
“Yes, so what?”
I’m wearing a helmet and rain is pouring.
“You must pray for us, we will die, you must pray to God”!
“To pray to God, here in the fox hole? In the rain and mud”?
The soldier went ballistic. He aimed his rifle at me and said, “If you do not pray for me and everyone here, I’ll shoot you now.”
The soldier was dead serious. I asked him to calm down. I pulled the tefillin bag out of the mud and took out the tefillin. Bombs were falling. I removed the helmet from my head and lifted up the tefillin. Before I could strap them on, they fell into the mud.
I pulled the tefillin out of the mud and donned the “shel yad” and then “shel rosh”. I raised my eyes to the heavens and called out “Shema Yisrael.”
The minute I finished, a siren pierced the air. A voice came from the loudspeakers: “There’s news that Russia is turning back its ships and the alert is over!”
I was in shock, but I did not connect all the details of the events and did not attach any importance to the fact that the unexpected miracle occurred just after I prayed to God.
I put the tefillin back in the bag. I could not fold them because of the mud, but I kept the tefillin I received from the Rebbe.
The Tefillin That Survived the Mud
It was in 5763, fifty years after that war, I was thinking about my memories from the war. I thought of everything that had happened in the 38th parallel, and I knew that the chance of winning the lottery was greater than the chance that someone would put on tefillin at the 38th, under the circumstances and conditions we were in.
I remembered that since I returned from the 38th Parallel I had not opened the bag of tefillin.
I opened the bag and found the mud still there, dry though, but there it was, a memory of a miracle.
I went over to a writer of Stam in Los Angeles, told him the story, and he was blown away! He was sure that the tefillin had been disqualified because of the humidity and most of the years since then, but he agreed to open it. Wonders of wonders, there was mud everywhere, but on the words He starts to pull out the parchment and is amazed to see that the parchments were like brand new! The boxes were warped, there was mud inside and out, but the parchment was perfect!
He would usually arrange new tefillin, but because of the story, he said he would restore them for me. Today, my tefillin, which are actually the Rebbe’s tefillin, are completely renewed. The original straps, which had rotted from everything that they had gone through, were kept in the original bag I had received from the Rebbe.
That’s my story. Every time I put on tefillin and say “Shema Yisrael,” I remember the moments when I was on that death row. Every time I look up at the sky with gratitude and thanks.
I invite anyone who wants to come and see the holy tefillin and hold them.
I live in California’s Valley Village and pray at the Chabad House.
The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org