Rabbi Rabinowitz, a rabbi in the Bronx, would sit in a corner of his shul and learn. Strangely enough, he did not sit at the head of the table. He sat on the right side. That is where R’ Michel Vishedsky found him. R’ Michel was even more surprised when he wanted to sit in the empty seat at the front of the shul and the rav stopped him, politely but firmly. “Nobody sits there,” he said.
“When you hear what I will tell you, you will understand,” said the rav. “After the Holocaust, I met Chabad Chassidim in Russia who helped me a lot. I arrived in the United States in the summer of 1949, and in the beginning of 1950 I had a private audience with the Rebbe Rayatz.
“’Since you are a ben Torah,’ said the Rebbe, ‘you should find a rabbinic position.’ When they offered me a position as rabbi in this shul, I went to the Rebbe again to ask whether I should accept it. The Rebbe closed his eyes and after thinking a bit said, ‘The shul is a shul and it is suitable, but I do not like the shamash.’
“I was taken aback. I had asked the Rebbe about a rabbinic position. Why did I need to know about the shamash? The Rebbe could see what I was thinking, but repeated what he said, ‘A shul is a shul and it is suitable, but I do not like the shamash.’ Before I left, the Rebbe said I should come back on Sunday in two weeks. I returned home and accepted the position.
“Two weeks later I went to the Rebbe as he told me to do. When I arrived, I found a large crowd standing outside 770. I discovered that the Rebbe had passed away and realized that he had asked me to come and attend his funeral.
“Months passed and the people in my shul were satisfied with me and I was pleased with them. But one thing bothered me, and that was the shamash, who was not pleased with me. It seems that during the period of time until I was appointed as the rabbi, he had taken on the job of rabbi, a sort of unofficial rav. He felt I was imposing myself on him. He started complaining. At first he did this quietly but then he began to openly campaign against me and the situation became intolerable.
“When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went to the Rebbe Rayatz’s successor, the Rebbe shlita. When I entered his office, even before I said anything, the Rebbe said, ‘My father-in-law told you that a shul is a shul and it’s only the shamash whom he doesn’t like. You need to continue in that position in the Bronx. As for the shamash, make sure he doesn’t have his position anymore.’
“I was amazed by what the Rebbe said because when the Rebbe Rayatz had spoken to me, the Rebbe had not been in the room, and I had not told the Rebbe about this. I asked the Rebbe for guidance in how to solve the problem. The shamash had had this job for many years and how could I orchestrate his removal?
“‘I am sure,’ said the Rebbe, ‘that there are facts or actions that could lead to his being fired if you catch him in the act. May Hashem grant you success.’ The Rebbe’s words gave me hope and I went back to my job confident that everything would work out.
“One night I couldn’t sleep. I got up early and went to shul earlier than usual. On my way I met the gabbai who pointed out that the shul lights were already on. We decided to investigate what was going on. We quietly entered and what did we see? The shamash standing near the bima and emptying the pushkas into his pockets! That same day he was fired.”
Rabbi Rabinowitz then told R’ Vishedsky a story that was even more amazing than the previous one:
Behind the shul was a butcher shop with a wall separating between them. The owner of the butcher shop was successful and his store became too small for him. He offered to sell it to us and we were very happy to do the deal because the number of people in our shul had grown. The board of the shul relied on the butcher’s integrity and did not sign a contract of purchase as they should have.
Years passed and the butcher’s business grew and he needed a warehouse for his stock. He remembered that we had not signed a contract when he sold us his store. That meant that legally, he still owned it. He demanded of the gabbaim that they give him back his store! He went to court and the court sent a letter saying we had a certain amount of time to get out and if we didn’t, then the police would evict us.
I told the Rebbe what was going on. The Rebbe said, “I don’t know what you want. My father-in-law, the Rebbe Rayatz, told you explicitly that a shul is a shul, and according to halacha you can make a butcher shop into a shul but you cannot make a shul into a butcher shop. Go in peace and Hashem will help.”
The night before we were supposed to be evicted, I dreamed that I was entering the shul and in the chair at the front of the shul, the very same chair that I don’t allow people to sit in, the Rebbe Rayatz was sitting. Next to him was the Rebbe and he said to me, “Stop worrying. Hashem will see to it that everything will turn out well.”
The Rebbe pointed at his father-in-law and said, “The Rebbe told you a shul is a shul, so why worry? Stop worrying and Hashem will see to it that everything will turn out well.”
I woke up from the dream. It was late and I ran to shul. From the distance I could see a big crowd and policemen overseeing the eviction. I cried. But then something extraordinary happened. In the large meat store nearby, a large light fixture in the ceiling fell onto the head of the butcher! He collapsed. Doctors treated him and when he regained consciousness he admitted to the police sergeant that he had been paid for the store. The eviction stopped immediately.
And now you understand why I don’t let anyone sit in the chair at the front of the shul. That is because I have the image in my mind of the Rebbe Rayatz sitting there.