Tammy Holzman, Beis Moshiach
By merely entering R’ Gedalia Goodman’s modest apartment in Crown Heights, you feel that this house is home to a person whose life is dedicated to Geula and Moshiach. Beautiful Geula tambourines hang on the living room wall, as well as pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, some of them with Gedalia.
As Reb Gedalia Goodman prepares to share his life story, he pours some wine in a silver kiddush cup, and says with a gleam in his eyes: “When dealing with the affairs of the Rebbe, one must first say l’chaim!”
Gedalia’s hair is long, well past his shoulders. His peyos are also very long and his beard is thick. “I’m different than everyone else,” he states earnestly, frankly. “My appearance, my personality, and especially – my unique occupation.”
Gedalia was born in the state of Indiana, 90 miles from Chicago. As remote as his hometown was, it sported three Orthodox shuls at the time, and Mr. Simcha Goodman, his father, performed as the president of one. Their home was kosher, run with a frum lifestyle, and Gedalia studied at the local cheder.
On one very regular day, five-year-old Gedalia returned home, not feeling well, short of breath and displaying high fever. The local doctor felt that something was very wrong and beyond his scope of expertise, so he urgently referred them to a children’s hospital in Chicago. The matter was so urgent that the local police even volunteered to drive in front of their vehicle and clear the road for them so they could get there as soon as possible.
In Chicago, doctors gathered around the x-rays to view the unbelievable outcome: the x-ray results showed no internal organs. The only visible organ was one humongous, unordinary heart, pushing and concealing all the other organs. More and more doctors gathered in the room to look at the images, proclaiming that they had never seen such a rare phenomenon before.
Gloomily, Gedalia’s parents were informed that the child had no chance of surviving for more than a year or two. “And so – to improve the quality of my remaining short years,” laughs 80-year-old Gedalia, “my distraught parents made the decision to move to Miami, Florida, which offered a warmer climate. There, in Miami, was also the National Pediatric Medical Center for Heart Disease, which is why my parents chose that location as most suitable.
“When I first arrived at that hospital, I was five-years-old. There was an avoda zara symbol hanging on the wall. I screamed, protested, refusing to be in that room. No soothing or pleas from the nurse helped calm me down. Only after the nurse angrily removed the tzeilem (cross) off the wall did I calm down and begin cooperating.
“My parents, grandparents, my sister and I lived in Miami. Most of my upbringing was actually done by my grandparents, rather than my parents. My grandmother was a Chassid of Munkatch, who always recited the Tzena Urena. Our kitchen was kosher l’mehadrin, which is the only place my grandfather would eat; due to kashrus reasons – he refused to eat outside of the home.”
“I was sent to public school. Hebrew schools there were not much different than the public ones. Every afternoon, after school, the students would remove their kipas and engage in the same activities as the non-Jewish children.”
Gedalia initially refused to go to school but was forced to by the local authorities, who brought him to the local school, ignoring his cries.
Slowly, he grew accustomed to it. And then his frumkeit began to suffer. Peer pressure influenced him. He stopped davening, and next came the compromising of Shabbat and keeping kosher.
Choosing a Career
At the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg. His dream was to be a ranger, specifically a paratrooper. But because of his health issues, he was assigned a desk job. He studied coding and decoding at which he excelled, which led to a high security clearance.
“I was probably very good at what I did,” he says, “because while being in the military, I received job offers from reputable companies: General Electric, Westinghouse and even the Pentagon was hunting for young talents. They sought my services, but I didn’t want to spend my days at a desk, so I made the decision to go back to college.
“At college, through Divine Providence, I hooked up with a ‘bookie’ – that is someone who collects bets from people on horse races. I was introduced to the concept of raising, training, and nurturing horses for racing purposes. I was hooked!
“I discovered that I had a natural talent for connecting with these magnificent creatures and decided to study every detail related to the field. I started by cooling the horses down after a heated race, went on to bathing them and grooming them. I wanted to be good at this profession and proceeded to thoroughly study all aspects of it. It was not until 1964 that I was finally able to acquire my first license as an official horse trainer. I then started offering my services to horse owners and that same year was able to proclaim my first winner.
“In this profession, locations change according to the weather. Every season requires a different location. In Florida, for example, the racing season is from October to April. When it gets hot, the entire operation moves to a cooler location. This occupation allowed me to enjoy the open air and provided me with excitement, adventure, as well as a nice income. I developed a ‘magic touch’ in horse therapy. Life was good!
“In those days, this field was considered highly prestigious. Horses were carefully bred and raised. Mixed-race horses were taken for slaughter to maintain the ‘purity of the breed.’ A racehorse was not sold to just anyone, even if that someone had the money. The honor was given to an exclusive club.
“I trained for the rich and famous, world renowned singers, even mafia bosses such as Meyer Lansky. The inventor of the tea-in-a-bag idea, Mr. Hirschhorn, who was rich on a global scale, was also one of my clients. In regularly coming face-to-face with these revered individuals, I was surprised to discover that some of them were friendly and down to earth.
“I have worked with the most famous jockeys in the industry. In this work, after all, the risks are many. I carry the dreams of thousands of people who hope that my victories might bring them a handsome profit. ‘t’s all on your shoulders and it depends mostly on the health of the horse and the proper training you’ve provided – or haven’t.’
“I was entrusted with selecting horses to purchase for wealthy customers. I participated in both private sales and public auctions all over America, South America, and Europe. I knew that the wealthy customers trusted me to make the right choice, and that I had to deliver.
“Throughout that time, I did not keep Torah and mitzvot in their entirety. I shaved, I did not keep kosher, and I desecrated Shabbat. Yet, I still made sure to go daven in the synagogue on Saturdays as well as holidays. On my way to daven, I would stop at the racetrack to check on the horses, and since I was dressed for shul, the people at the site nicknamed me, ‘The Rabbi.’”
The Rebbe’s Broadcast: A Spiritual Shock
“In those days, the law prohibited work on Sundays, so on Sundays I was free to engage in whatever I wished. There was a popular radio show at the time called, ‘The Art Raymond Show.’ Art Raymond used to play Jewish songs on the show, hold interviews, and bring in all sorts of aspects of Jewish life.
“One day – it was 1970 – the show announced that they would broadcast a world-famous Rabbi. I did not know at the time who the Lubavitcher Rebbe was. The broadcast began with a farbrengen that the Rebbe was making on the 6th of Tishrei, in honor of his mother, the late Rebbetzin Chana. I listened and did not understand a word. But for some reason… I felt like an arrow had been shot straight into my heart. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I fell on the floor, sobbing like a baby.”
Gedalia was shaken to his core. When he traveled back with the horse community to Florida at the end of the season, he left the horses in the care of his buddy Kevin. He quit the whole operation while he sought his roots.
At that time, Gedalia and his (first) wife had three children. Gedalia insisted on sending them to learn in Jewish schools. Public school was not an option for him. “I kashered my kitchen,” says Gedalia. “We would walk on Shabbat to shul, my children and I, and stay there until Motzoei Shabbos because the distance was too great to make it back on foot, and travel was out of the question on Shabbos.”
Miami life was very different in those days than what it is today; much smaller, no highways, and crowded. There was no Chabad. Jewish life was led by Rabbi Glicksman, a Gerrer Chassid, who ran the synagogue and the Hebrew school. Although he was a follower of Gur, Rabbi Glicksman was a big Chabad fan once he became acquainted with the Rebbe’s holy sichos. Whenever he could, he would bring in Chabad bachurim who repeated the Rebbe’s teachings in shul. Gedalia’s hunger for knowledge grew. Rabbi Glicksman had a keen eye. He told Gedalia right away, that in his opinion, Gedalia would fit perfectly with the Chabad movement. After hearing the bachurim, he agreed to continue his return to Yiddishkeit through the unique Chabad way.
“I grew a beard, started wearing a tallis and gartel. My Jewish friends living in the area did not approve. They thought that I was too ‘fast and furious’ instead of moving my process slowly and steadily. I, on the other hand, felt that when I finally found out the truth, I had no reason to waste time. I was all in. This friction stirred the desire in me to leave that place and discover my Judasim elsewhere. At 1976 I decided to travel to the source of everything Jewish: Eretz Yisrael. Myself and my son Tzvi.”
The First Trip To The Rebbe & The Missed Yechidus
“At first, I tried out Yeshivas Aish Hatorah and Ohr Samayach. Then, I moved on to the Dvar Yerushalayim Yeshiva, where they were more open to Chassidishkeit, and even offered Tanya lessons.”
Three years after arriving in Eretz Yisrael, Gedalia was asked to travel with a fellow Jew who needed to fly to America and required an escort. While in the US, he met some Chabad Chassidim who implored him to take the opportunity to visit 770 and grow acquainted with the Rebbe.
His new friends arranged a place for him in Hadar Hatorah for a three-week visit. However, not three days passed, when he decided to head out on an earlier flight to Eretz Yisrael. As someone who grew up accustomed to a certain order in his life, he found it difficult to accept the lifestyle in 770 including the farbrengens through the night, the late davening, and more… He wrote the Rebbe a candid letter about the issues he did not like and informed the mazkirus that he was taking an earlier flight, which would have him in the airport in just a few hours.
In the meantime, he went to 770, sat downstairs and began saying Tehillim.
Before he managed to complete the first chapter, he felt someone touching his shoulder. He found the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Binyomin Klein, standing by his side. Rabbi Klein invited him in the name of the Rebbe to a yechidus.
In retrospect, Gedalia finds it hard to believe he refused. But then, he did not understand the significance of the yechidus and told Rabbi Klein that his decision was final to return to Israel and that there was no point in the Rebbe trying to convince him otherwise.
Never Too Late
Gedalia gave up the yechidus, but the Rebbe didn’t give up on him. Three years later, Gedalia, who had in the meanwhile moved to Kfar Chabad, went to daven shacharit in the Beit Menachem shul. There, to his surprise, he was greeted by Rabbi Shneur Zalman Butman with a hearty ‘congratulations’ telling him that he had won a plane ticket to visit the Rebbe.
“Are you sure it’s Goodman?” asked Gedalia in disbelief. “Is it possible it’s ‘Butman?’” He knew he never purchased a raffle ticket. But right there on the wall was the name of the winner, black and white, and the name was Gedalia Goodman.
He davened and hurried home to ask his wife if perhaps she had purchased a lottery ticket without his knowledge. But she did not know about the raffle either. It was only later that it became clear; one of his friends had purchased the ticket for him.
The Chassidim, surprised at his good fortune, decided that if the Rebbe himself was inviting Gedalia to visit him, they would collect money among themselves and purchase an extra ticket for his wife, Miriam, to go with him. (Gedalia was then married a second time.)
And so, Gedalia and Miriam Goodman were heading to New York as representatives of the Eretz Yisrael Chabad community.
Experience with the Rebbe
At the Purim farbrengen, Gedalia stood in the corner of shul, when Rabbi Dovid Raskin, who knew that he was the winner of the raffle of Eretz Yisrael, asked him to take a seat on the stage, close to where the Rebbe was sitting, together with the elder Chassidim. Gedalia felt uncomfortable sitting in such a respectable place and tried to get away. However, Rabbi Raskin insisted, and told him with a smile that if he did not come himself, he would send some guys to bring him by force…
“Shortly after I took my place on the stage, the Rebbe entered the Beis Medrash. The human sea cut in half, and when the Rebbe passed, he paused by me for a moment and encouraged me with vigorous hand gestures. During the breaks in the farbrengen, the Rebbe instructed me several times to say ‘l’chaim.’
“At the end, on his way out, the Rebbe stopped by again and encouraged me with his holy hand,” Gedalia says excitedly, while showing me a picture from that same farbrengen, with him – one young man, among the elder Chassidim…
After Purim, Gedalia was called to the mazkirus where he was informed that the Rebbe requested he go learn in the yeshiva in Morristown. That yeshiva was geared for bachurim and not for married people, but Gedalia and Miriam proceeded to rent an apartment nearby and Gedalia attended the studies daily.
“In retrospect,” says Gedalia, “I can see the reason the Rebbe sent me there. There was one young guy I befriended who was in distress at the time due to some personal problems. I supported him and helped him get through that difficult time. I believe that was the mission the Rebbe had meant for me to fulfill.”
Before returning to the Holy Land, a yechidus was arranged for the couple. They entered Rabbi Groner’s office at the beginning of the night to find out when their turn would come.
“Rabbi Groner checked the list and reported that we had an appointment scheduled for about 3:00 A.M. I went downstairs to say Tehillim until our turn would come. Again, I had nearly finished saying the first kapital, when I heard Rabbi Klein’s voice asking if Gedalia Goodman is on the premises. I raised my head from the Tehillim, and Rabbi Klein told me that the Rebbe wanted me to enter immediately.
“My feeling at that moment was that the Rebbe was arranging for a ‘remedy’ for that missed yechidus, three years ago. It was deja vu if you will, only now I had an idea of the importance of the yechidus, and of course I rushed with my wife towards the Rebbe’s room. To be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable as I walked past the Chassidim waiting in line, feeling that I was ‘bypassing’ them.
“The Rebbe greeted us with a broad smile. During the yechidus, the Rebbe told me that I must bring Jews together – ‘Not only non-religious Jews, but also Jews who are already observant. That they should be as strong in the foundations of Yiddishkeit as you are strong, and as happy as you are happy.’ I remember wondering at the time about the blessing, because I was relatively new to Chassidim and Chassidus.
“The Rebbe repeated the same blessing in different ways. He first said in a congratulatory way – ‘May you be mekarev’ – and then said in the language of instruction – ‘You must be mekarev.’ I later realized that the Rebbe held both the roles of ‘Shoftecha veyoatzecha.’
“My wife had had yechidus in the past – the first time alone, the second time with her parents, and a third time with a group – and all those times the Rebbe’s face was serious. She was very surprised when at our yechidus the Rebbe’s face had a wide smile throughout.” ■
To be continued…
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