In connection with the first Yartzeit of the Rebbe’s devoted secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, OB”M, we are republishing Rabbi Groner’s last interview with the Beis Moshiach Magazine, only months before his passing in which he related many never-before heard stories and anecdotes from those special long Yechidus nights where he served as the “doorkeeper” in maintaining order.
Interview by Avrohom Reinitz, Beis Moshiach
At the end of the parking space between 770 and the adjacent 788 Eastern Parkway, next to the double doors leading into the rear of the large shul, there is another wooden door. Upon reaching the top of the stairs that lead to his office, I could not help but sense the historic air, the unforgettable sweet scent of Beis Chayeinu.
On my left was Rabbi Groner’s office. On my right, was a closed door that leads into what Chassidim call gan eden ha’tachton, the room before the Rebbe’s office which Chassidim call, gan eden ha’elyon.
This is where Chassidim would wait their turn for yechidus. Here is where they stood for hours, reciting chapters of Tehillim or Tanya, waiting in trepidation for the moment the secretary would call them in.
MY FIRST YECHIDUS
The main purpose for Chassidim traveling to the Rebbe was to hear Chassidus, to review the maamar and to be in yechidus – to discuss what is doing with him, to give an accounting about his spiritual state in the past, to ask about a program of avoda and to ask for a blessing for the future. (Likkutei Dibburim vol 2, p 424)
After the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz, the Rebbe refused to accept the nesius and say maamarei Chassidus. 11 Shevat 5711 is when he formally accepted the nesius with the recitation of the maamar “Basi L’Gani.” But even before his official acceptance of the nesius, some Chassidim had yechidus with him.
Rabbi Groner, when did the Rebbe began accepting people for yechidus and when did the orderly system of nights for yechidus begin?
As soon as the shiva ended after the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz on 10 Shevat 5710, Anash began knocking on the Rebbe’s door to ask his advice and for his blessing. The Rebbe did not formally call this yechidus but, in fact, he received Chassidim and answered their questions.
I remember that the mashpia, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, called over some of the young men who went in for yechidus and asked whether the Rebbe responded to matters of material concern too and when they said yes, he said, in that case, he’s the one. He is the Rebbe. Because if he wasn’t the Rebbe, he could not answer questions about material matters. Even a mashpia can answer questions about spiritual concerns, but only a Rebbe can answer about material matters. Therefore, it makes no difference whether the Rebbe is now refusing to officially accept the nesius; it’s a fait accompli.
Before Pesach, the Rebbe told his secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Isaac Chodakov: We cannot go on like this with someone else showing up every minute and taking my time. It has to be organized! From now on, people can come in three times a week starting from eight in the evening if they make an appointment. They should stop knocking at the door.
R’ Chodakov conveyed this to the Chassidim and starting after Pesach 5710, the yechidus routine began on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. This continued for fifteen years until the passing of Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother. The Rebbe then announced that there would be yechidus only twice a week, on Sunday and Thursday.
As mentioned, the Rebbe insisted that people sign up first and asked to see the list of who made appointments before yechidus began. The appointments were made under the authority of R’ Chodakov and he asked me to supervise the actual order. I stood near the door to the Rebbe’s room for three decades and escorted tens of thousands of people of all backgrounds into the Rebbe’s room.
R’ Groner had yechidus a number of times with the Rebbe Rayatz which he recounted later on. When I asked him:
When was your first yechidus with the Rebbe? he emotionally recalled the first words he heard from the Rebbe:
My first yechidus with the Rebbe was on 8 Iyar 5710, on my birthday. It was after the Rebbe announced that you needed to make an appointment. I asked the Rebbe when I could come in and he said, after maariv.
When I went in for yechidus, the Rebbe sat at his desk, wearing his hat and jacket, and he accepted the note I handed him. The first thing I heard him say in the first yechidus was: for the purpose of hiskashrus, learn the maamarim of my father-in-law [the Rebbe Rayatz] and in order to understand Chassidus, learn the maamarim of the Rebbe [Rashab]. Then the Rebbe referred to what I had written in the note.
OTHERWORLDLY MOMENTS BEFORE YECHIDUS
It is hard to reveal but it is not possible to conceal. Especially out of love of Israel, love of Hashem, and as Chassidim are wont to say “an accurately transmitted vort has an effect.” Therefore, I want to reveal:
My father, the Rebbe [Rashab], regularly looked into three sefarim: Kesser Shem Tov, Ohr Torah, Tanya.
My father, the Rebbe, did not want people to know this and so, these three sefarim were in a drawer of his desk. The drawer contained various tzedaka monies as well as these three sefarim and he would look into them before yechidus and before the bedtime Shema. How much he learned in them, whether a page or a few lines or a topic, I don’t know; just that he opened the three books and learned something in them. (From the sicha of Chag Ha’Geula 13 Tammuz 5709)
R’ Groner revealed the following fact in the course of our conversation, not before considering whether to publicize it or if it would be better to keep it under wraps. But after recalling what the Rebbe Rayatz said, quoted above, that in the end he decided to publicize it so that it would have an effect, R’ Groner decided to tell me about an otherworldly scene that repeated itself every time, before the start of yechidus:
Every night of yechidus, before it began, I would go to the Rebbe’s room to ascertain that it would be possible for yechidus to begin. Always, every time, I would witness an otherworldly scene that is hard to describe. The Rebbe stood near the desk facing the windows and mumbled something for a while. From where I stood in the entrance to the room, I could not hear what he said, but he said and said for quite some time. And then, in an instant, he stopped, turned in my direction and in that moment his face changed entirely. It was a very noticeable change. The Rebbe sat down forcefully on his chair, as though flinging himself on to the chair and said: Nu, now we can begin …
This scene repeated itself every night of yechidus!
I have no supernal knowledge and have no idea what the Rebbe said before yechidus, but when I saw this sicha of the Rebbe Rayatz in which he says that the Rebbe Rashab would say a few lines of Kesser Shem Tov, Ohr Torah, Tanya, I thought that perhaps this is what the Rebbe was saying.
PREPARATIONS FOR YECHIDUS
At night, on the eve before entering for yechidus, the Chassid would read the bedtime Shema and make a spiritual accounting, wake up to conduct Tikkun Chatzos … with inner bitterness from the deepest depths of the heart. Then he would learn Torah, purify himself in a mikva, learn a set session of Chassidus before davening, daven with mind and heart and plead before Hashem that He help him do teshuva. He would fast that day and engage in Torah study. A day of such conduct is a fitting day to have yechidus with the Rebbe and then there is hope that the yechidus will be effective. (Igros Kodesh Admor Rayatz, vol. 3, p. 165)
The final stage in preparing for yechidus was in gan eden ha’tachton where the Chassidim stood and waited their turn for yechidus. The remaining time was used to prepare, of course. R’ Groner, who always stood there, saw from up close the preparations being made by the great Chassidim before they entered for yechidus and he shared a memory of the preparations of the mashpia, Rabbi Nissan Nemenov:
On one of his visits to Beis Chayeinu, R’ Nissan wanted to have yechidus. Since I thought he would spend a long time in yechidus, I told him to come at midnight. He arrived at nine, stood near the room with a Tehillim and began reciting chapters of Tehillim with an outpouring of the heart and sobbing. He cried nonstop and you could have filled buckets with his tears.
It was an inspiring, moving scene. To him, yechidus wasn’t an encounter with the Rebbe. It was precisely as it’s explained in Chassidus that yechidus is a joining of the yechida of the Chassid with the yechida of the Rebbe. He really felt this and his preparations were commensurate.
At 11:45, I went over to him and said it would be his turn in fifteen minutes. He looked at me in astonishment and said: What?! I still haven’t readied myself for yechidus … Please, push off my yechidus so I can get ready …
I couldn’t completely mess up the order and I told him that I would ask the Chassid who was supposed to go in after him to go in ahead of him, so he would have some more time. When it was his turn, I said to him: R’ Nissan, it’s time to go in for yechidus.
He gave me a look of resignation, sort of helpless, and said: There is no choice, I will go in, without preparing.
One who does not understand how lofty and elevated is the moment of entering into yechidus, can’t understand R’ Nissan’s reaction, but when you read the sichos of the Rebbe Rayatz about Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe, who prepared for years to have yechidus, like R’ Isaac of Homil, who prepared for two years, or R’ Moshe Vilenker and R’ Mordechai of Horodok who prepared for three years, you can understand R’ Nissan.
R’ Groner recalls a yechidus of another Chassid who came from Brunoy, R’ Aharon Yosef Blinitzky:
He was in yechidus for twenty minutes and when he left, the Rebbe said, “It was worth all the years of yechidus just for Aharon Yosef …”
He was a Jew of Torah, his entire being was Chassidus, and naturally, his yechidus dealt only with spiritual matters which is the main idea of yechidus.
As we spoke, R’ Groner recalled something from back in the time of the Rebbe Rayatz when he nearly decided to stop receiving Chassidim for yechidus. This is what happened:
When I was learning in yeshiva in 770, R’ Shmuel Levitin called me over, along with some other bachurim, and looking very serious he said that the situation was very dire and the Rebbe Rayatz wanted to stop yechidus. R’ Levitin told us that lately, the Rebbe had told his secretary Rabbi Eliyahu Yochil Simpson, that the Alter Rebbe established yechidus in order to help the Chassidim with spiritual matters and Chassidim were asking only about material things and were not even mentioning spiritual things and this is not what yechidus was established for!
R’ Simpson told this to R’ Levitin in confidence and this is why he called for us and said: I will give you a program of how to prepare for yechidus and then R’ Simpson will tell the Rebbe that there are bachurim who are interested in having yechidus about spiritual matters, and with that we will remove the Rebbe’s distress.
Accordingly, R’ Levitin and R’ Simpson went over to people who went in for yechidus and made them aware of the issue, and said that even if they had come for material matters, to also think about a spiritual matter that needed correcting and to discuss this with the Rebbe Rayatz. Boruch Hashem, their words had the desired effect and the Rebbe continued to receive people for yechidus until his passing.
HOW MANY TIMES DID THE SECRETARY GO IN FOR YECHIDUS?
Anyone who ever signed up for a yechidus appointment knows that the schedule was filled up weeks and months ahead of time. Sometimes, the next available slot was in another three or four months and even more. I asked:
When did this packed schedule begin? And in the early years, did the Rebbe also sit in yechidus until the wee hours of the night?
Of course, the density grew over time, said R’ Groner, but even in the early years the Rebbe would sit until three in the morning to accommodate all who had been written down. In later years, yechidus nights extended until six-seven in the morning sometimes.
You have to understand the era: the Rebbe’s nesius occurred after a period of time in which the Rebbe Rayatz’s health was poor. It was hard to have yechidus and those who went in found it hard to understand what the Rebbe said. His secretary, R’ Simpson, who could understand the Rebbe, would go in together with people for their yechidus. People did not have a choice but they did not feel comfortable having another person there with them.
After the Rebbe accepted the nesius, Chassidim felt that they finally had the opportunity to go into yechidus and unburden themselves to the Rebbe. It was a real vacuum that had been filled.
When people signed up for yechidus, did people write ahead of time what they wanted to discuss with the Rebbe?
No. On the list I submitted to the Rebbe, there were only the names of the people who would be having yechidus.
At a certain point, when the line for yechidus was very long and there were Chassidim who wanted a timely yechidus for their birthday without waiting for the next available opening, the Rebbe told us that whoever had yechidus for his birthday would be accepted without having to wait, but we should note that he was entering for his birthday.
From then on, the list was divided into two parts. On one side were the people who had birthdays and on the other side were the others having yechidus. The reason for this division was that the Rebbe emphasized that he was enabling those with birthdays to enter without waiting a turn on condition that they did not speak about anything else other than a blessing for their birthday.
Unfortunately, there were people who decided to “be smart” and when they heard that they needed to wait months until their birthday they said they needed an appointment sooner since they had a birthday. What could I do – ask for birth certificates from every person who asked for a yechidus for his birthday? I believed them and wrote them down on the birthday list.
Someone once entered on the premise of a birthday and he spoke to the Rebbe about other things. At a certain point, the Rebbe asked him: Why don’t you mention anything about your birthday? He became confused and said: I don’t have a birthday in the near future.
The Rebbe asked him: Then why are you on the birthday list? The man excused himself by saying he had no choice and this was the only way he could get an early yechidus. Then I got it over the head from the Rebbe about why I let him in.
In the end, on Shabbos Bereishis 5735, the Rebbe announced he was canceling birthday yechidus and said, “Regarding yechidus for a birthday, in which people enter and are received face-to-face, it is something new that never existed previously and it was tried for a number of years. The calculation was that this would accomplish great things, but apparently it did not accomplish such…”
Was there any limitation about how often one could go in for yechidus?
Definitely. Every Chassid could go in once a year. For most Chassidim, who came from overseas, this limitation was not relevant because they only came to the Rebbe once a year anyway. But Chassidim in Crown Heights, who theoretically could have had yechidus more than once a year, were aware of this limitation.
The Rebbe established this limitation. There were exceptions, whether communal activists who needed to consult with the Rebbe about general matters or private people with urgent matters, but generally speaking, it was only once a year.
The following question is an especially sensitive one, and I debated whether it was proper to raise during the interview. In the end, I asked it with the requisite caution:
As members of the secretariat, did you have the privilege to enter for yechidus more than once a year? In general, you went in to the Rebbe quite frequently, surely you were able to bring up your questions to the Rebbe all the time…
It actually seemed that R’ Groner was happy to have the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions:
Throughout the years, I was careful to not exploit my position, and I only went in for yechidus once a year, for my birthday. Specifically because of the job that the Rebbe assigned me, I made every effort that the extraordinary closeness that I was privileged to have should not undermine the Rebbe-Chassid connection.
More so, whenever I had personal questions, despite my going into the Rebbe’s room with regular frequency, I did not bring them up. Like every other Chassid, I wrote my questions on a note, and when I would bring the notes with the questions of other Chassidim, I would place my note among the other notes.
Sometimes the Rebbe answered me verbally, when I entered his room as part of my job. There were also times when the Rebbe on his own initiative began to talk to me about personal matters. However, most of the time the Rebbe wrote his answer to me on the note like everybody else, and sent the note out in the same pile with all of the other notes that he had responded to.
Your question reminds me of a special Chassidishe farbrengen that took place once. It was on the night of Shemini Atzeres, after hakafos. I sat down to a Chassidishe farbrengen, when R’ Moshe Slonim began speaking from the depths of his heart about how those who are here all the time “need to travel to the Rebbe.” He repeated this over and over and he said, “Leibel, we need to travel to the Rebbe.” He was not speaking only to me, as a secretary, but in general to all of those who live in the Rebbe’s shechuna, and he said, “It is possible to be here and not travel to the Rebbe… we need to travel to the Rebbe!!!”
The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org