Mendy Dickstein, Beis Moshiach
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Telsner is one of the leading Chabad rabbanim today. Thirteen years ago, he was called to Australia by his father-in-law, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, for his assistance in the rabbinic leadership of the local Chabad community, after many years of rabbanus in London.
R’ Telsner was born on the West Side of Manhattan to a rabbinic family that identified with the Mizrachi movement. His father, Rabbi Dovid Shraga a’h, was born in a small town near Riga, Latvia. In his youth, he learned in yeshiva in Riga where he studied under the tutelage of some of the Torah greats of the generation and also attended farbrengens of the Rebbe Rayatz.
After his marriage, R’ Dovid Shraga moved to New York where he served as rav of a community for decades. Upon the arrival of the Rebbe Rayatz in America, in 5700/1940, R’ Telsner renewed his connection with him and was even asked to help with secretarial duties when the Rebbe Rayatz lived in the Greystone Hotel when he first arrived in America.
Despite these connections, R’ Zvi Telsner does not recall any connection to Lubavitch in his childhood. Near where his parents lived in Manhattan, the Bobover Rebbe (who had recently arrived in America) opened a cheder and that is where young Zvi went to school. He then went to Yeshiva Rabeinu Yaakov Yosef (RJJ) on the East Side of Manhattan.
THE REBBE SAW THE BUSES OFF
The summer of 5720/1960 is when the connection between R’ Zvi Telsner and the Rebbe was forged. Every year, his mother made sure that her children, two daughters and a son, had summers with Jewish content. That year, a friend told her about a summer camp a few hours from New York on a high level of gashmiyus and ruchniyus. His mother found out the name of the camp (Gan Israel) and called the director to register her son.
When Zvi found out where he was going to spend the next nine weeks, his outreach skills with which he was gifted came to the fore. No fewer than twenty children from his class also registered that year for camp! Among them are those who became rabbanim, roshei yeshiva, and distinguished talmidei chachamim in the frum world.
The day the children went up to camp, Rabbi Dovid Telsner took his son to 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. There, among the buses and the crowds of children, Zvi heard the whispers: The Rebbe is coming!
The Rebbe stood in the doorway of 770 for a few minutes and watched the buses. Young Zvi did not appreciate the significance of the event but a few weeks later, when he was part of the Rebbe’s final visit to Gan Israel, he already understood a lot more. A description of this visit has already been printed in many places so we won’t get into the details. We will just mention that when the Rebbe visited all the dormitory rooms as each child stood like a soldier near his bed, Zvi got a special smile from the Rebbe.
“That is when the first spark was ignited,” says R’ Telsner.
But a spark is not enough. Throughout the year, the counselors kept in touch with their campers. Even many years later, R’ Telsner recalls the names of two of them, R’ Meir Roness a’h and R’ Avrohom Yitzchok Shemtov. They convinced him to come more often to 770 but it wasn’t easy. Throughout the year, Zvi could not get to 770 for the simple reason that on a regular day there was yeshiva. The nights when farbrengens took place, his parents did not allow him to travel. On Shabbos, he had to be in shul where his father was the rav.
Nevertheless, on Chol Ha’Moed, Zvi was able to go to 770 (the late davening didn’t hurt) and his counselors and bunk-mates welcomed him warmly.
For the summer of 5721, the trip to camp had already become a tradition.
THE REBBE FOLLOWS UP
During the following year, his counselors sent him maamarim and sichos of the Rebbe which he avidly learned. When he went to camp in 5722, he already felt closer to the kids from Anash (in those days, there were two groups in camp, children of Anash and children from Litvishe, Chassidish, modern Orthodox and Mizrachi homes).
The essential next stage in his connection to Chabad was during the 5723 camp season. That year, 20 Av fell out on Shabbos and the Rebbe was expected to farbreng. Some of the people in charge of the camp decided to go to the Rebbe for Shabbos. Zvi was in the highest bunk in camp and he asked to join them. They all knew him by then and agreed on condition that he get his parents’ permission.
His father did not want to hear of it. “You went there on vacation; why should you return to New York? And for what? The Rebbe is a tzaddik but we are not his Chassidim.”
There were many phone calls and in the end, Zvi went to Beis Chayeinu. He later discovered a postcard in the camp office in his father’s beautiful handwriting which said that since he was afraid that his son would transgress the mitzva of kibud av, he gave his son permission to go but not because he really consented.
After that fateful Shabbos, R’ Shemtov wrote a report to the Rebbe in which he enumerated the names of staff members who came from camp and he wrote, “and also the bachur Zvi Hirsch Telsner.” The Rebbe circled this line and wrote, “and the follow-up?”
WHY ARE YOU IN LUBAVITCH?
From that Shabbos with the Rebbe, Zvi returned a different person. He continued learning in Yeshivas Rabeinu Yitzchok Elchanan (Yeshiva University) as his parents wanted, but the Chabad spark had caught fire. His parents tried to dissuade him from his involvement in Chabad. They even sent people to him who tried to tell him that in Chabad they only learned Chassidus and did not really know how to learn Nigleh. Tzvi, who was already a longtime camper, knew his counselors and how well they knew how to learn Gemara. Among those counselors were R’ Yehuda Kalman Marlow (later the rav of Crown Heights), Rabbi Yisrael Labkovsky and R’ Yisrael Friedman. He saw their knowledge of Nigleh in general and especially the sugyos learned in yeshiva and this is why he dismissed what they had to say.
A while later, his parents sent him to learn in Eretz Yisrael. At this point, he saw his place as being in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Kfar Chabad. His parents though, wanted him to attend a more Zionist yeshiva but after spending just one month there, Elul 5726 (in the course of which he established a Tanya shiur in the yeshiva) everyone realized that his real place is Lubavitch.
R’ Telsner related an interesting anecdote from the period that he learned in Kfar Chabad. The yeshiva had an honored guest, Rabbi Efraim Yolles, who was visiting Eretz Yisrael and who had been asked by the Rebbe to go to Kfar Chabad and speak to the bachurim in learning.
It was Zvi Telsner who welcomed him. R’ Yolles, who knew his father well, asked his name. When he answered, R’ Yolles asked, “You are from a Mizrachi background; what are you doing in Lubavitch?”
Zvi answered, “The Rebbe is the leader of Jews everywhere, not just his Chassidim.”
R’ Yolles enjoyed this answer so much that when he returned to America and had yechidus in order to tell the Rebbe his impressions from his trip, he mentioned the question he asked and the answer he heard from Rabbi Telsner’s son.
I WANT TO LEARN IN 770
For two years, Zvi learned in Chabad yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, in Kfar Chabad and then in Toras Emes in Yerushalayim. At the end of that year, his parents were happy to tell him that they would be joining him by making aliya. How disappointed they were when he told them, “I want to learn in 770.”
After learning in 770, he married and learned in kollel in Crown Heights. After three years, he was made an offer of shlichus in London which he accepted, as the Rebbe told him to, and where he served for thirty-three years until he moved to Melbourne.
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