Inside The Rebbe’s House



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    הצלה 1290

    Inside The Rebbe’s House

    Beis Moshiach takes a look at the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s home from the inside, with the help of several of the “Meshamshim bakodesh” — those who had the zechus to aid the Rebbe and Rebbetzin with home errands • Presented in honor of Chof-Beis Shevat • Full Article

    Menachem Ziegelbaum, Beis Moshiach

    1304 President Street, Brooklyn, New York.  How appropriate for the Nasi to live on a street called “President.”

    The three-story home looks like other houses on the street.  The block consists of two and three-family attractive houses where many Chassidic families reside.  Those who live on President Street between Brooklyn and New York Avenues, not only live in the king’s neighborhood but on the Nasi’s block.

    The Rebbe and Rebbetzin bought this house in 5716/1956 after living in an apartment building on the corner of New York and President.  Their house was their fortress which only few were privileged to enter and this, by special invitation.  Most of the guests went to visit the Rebbetzin by appointment.  If you wanted the Rebbe, the address was 770 Eastern Parkway.

    An aura of mystery shrouded the house, an aura of holiness and awe for the private home of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin who zealously guarded their privacy.

    Not only didn’t Anash and Chassidim enter the house; for years they avoided standing near the house, like royal palaces where people are discouraged from loitering.  When Anash or the neighbors needed to walk by, they would do so quickly.  The guests among them would steal glances at the house, and that would be all.

    THE HOUSE WAS SUDDENLY OPENED TO THE PUBLIC

    The first time the doors were opened and the public was allowed to enter was after the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka a”h on the night of Chof-Beis Shevat 5748/1988.  Towards morning they brought the Rebbetzin’s holy body back from the hospital and the women from the Chevra Kadisha laid her on the floor of the living room.  Shifts were arranged for bachurim to recite Tehillim.  This was the first time they were entering the inner sanctum, which had been closed to them until now.  At first, these shifts were organized, but as more people wanted to participate the shifts shortened and a long line wound its way near the house.

    When the news of the Rebbetzin’s passing began to spread, Anash and the bachurim flocked to the house.  This was the first time that Chassidim gathered outside the house, as they waited for developments and news.  It was very cold outside, typical of February in New York, but people remained there eager to hear reports about what was going on inside the Rebbe’s house.

    Those who went inside, into the inner sanctum, left in a state of shock.  They were teary-eyed and pale.  Each one found a private spot to try and absorb the goings-on.  Those who were able to muster the strength, said Tehillim.  Every so often you could hear a Chassid sighing.

    One of the bachurim who went inside the house, wrote up his impressions the next day:

    “It’s hard.  Very hard to digest the reality.  People are entering the Rebbe’s private abode.  Until today, nobody had access to the house.  Except for the few who worked there, everybody knew the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s house was off-limits and people’s awe kept them away to the extent that they were even afraid to walk on the pavement near the house when the Rebbe was in 770.  And now… the situation arouses deep emotions in all of us.”

    “MY FATHER ALWAYS SAID TO LOOK FOR A MODEST-LOOKING HOUSE”

    Other than invited guests, those who worked in the Rebbe’s house were so few as to be counted on one hand.  They were on the premises throughout the day and some of them were even there at night.

    The mashbakim (mashbak=meshamesh b’kodesh, lit. one who serves in the holy, i.e. personal aides to the Rebbe and/or the Rebbe’s family) worked in the house, as opposed to the secretaries who worked in the offices of 770.  After the passing of the Rebbetzin, most of the mashbakim agreed to talk about things on the “inside,” sharing stories that revealed a little bit about the royal lives lived in the royal house, lives that were private for decades.

    With the mashbakim’s input and with the help of diaries that were written over the years, we will try to familiarize you with the Rebbe’s house that, since 22 Shevat, was a place of tefilla and farbrengens – whether during the first year following the histalkus (passing) or occasionally in later years.

    ***

    Shortly after the Rebbe and Rebbetzin moved to this house, the Rebbetzin told one of the trusted aides, R’ Yaakov Holtzman, “My father [the Rebbe Rayatz] always said to find a house that looks modest on the outside, even if you decorate it inside.”

    Mashbak R’ Sholom Dovber Gansbourg said that one time, when he was talking to the Rebbetzin, she said, “My father told me that when a house is purchased, it should be simple and not one that ‘puts out people’s eyes.’  So when we needed to buy a house, I tried to look for a simple one and we bought the house on President Street.  However, when I sat on the porch, two bachurim passed by and I heard one comment to the other (about the house), ‘What a nice house.’  Nu, what do you say to that?”

    Said R’ Gansbourg, “The Rebbetzin did not change anything in the structure of the house but with her talents made this simple house into a house that radiated royalty.”

    The main entrance to the house is on President Street.  The entrance opened into a narrow foyer through which you went directly into the large living room, which took up a large part of the first floor.  It was this room which was turned into the place where the Rebbe davened and delivered his sichos in 5748.

    Throughout the years there were two semi-circular couches in the center of the room where the Rebbetzin would receive her guests.  Aside from these couches, there was hardly any other furniture.

    Various visitors to the house say the house was very simply furnished and yet it was in good taste.  There was barely an unnecessary item; just what was needed.

    On the right was a breakfront with various commemorative items that the Rebbe received.

    Only on rare occasions were guests invited further into the house, into the dining room where there was a large table with eight chairs.  Here too, most of the space was devoid of furniture.  Mrs. Malka Wilschansky described the room:

    “On my first visit to the Rebbetzin, I went with my maternal grandmother, Rebbetzin Leah Karasik.  She would visit the Rebbetzin every year when she came from Eretz Yisrael for Tishrei.

    “The Rebbetzin opened the door.  My grandmother extended her hand to the Rebbetzin and then I did too.  The Rebbetzin then led us through the living room to the dining room.

    “Before our visit, they told me to pay attention to all the details of the Rebbe’s house, including the breakfront in the living room which contains silver items from earlier Rebbeim, but I was so overwhelmed by emotion that I did not remember to look at anything.  The visit took place in the dining room.  We sat down at the table, which had an urn with hot water, cups, and refreshments.  Before we went, they told me that the Rebbetzin would offer something to eat, but it wasn’t customary to eat in the Rebbe’s house.  During the visit I thought to myself that I wasn’t sure I knew which gave more honor to the Rebbetzin, to eat or not to eat from what she prepared.”

    Near the dining room was a small room with cabinets for the chametz and Pesach dishes and another corner cabinet (where spices were kept year round and where the Rebbe locked up the actual chametz that he had sold for Pesach), a bathroom and a sink as well as the elevator.

    THE INSIDE OF THE HOUSE

    There were two flights of stairs inside the house.  The first was off the living room and led to the second floor, and the back stairs were off the large dining room with a door between it and the dining room.  One of the Chassidim who frequented the Rebbe’s house, would occasionally come to discuss matters with the Rebbetzin.  When they spoke about personal matters, the Rebbetzin would stop and say, “There are people in the house so it’s not a good time to talk now.”

    One time, as he talked with the Rebbetzin, R’ Gansbourg came down the back stairs.  Since he didn’t want to disturb their conversation, he closed the door between the stairs and the dining room.

    Afterwards, the Chassid told him, “When I heard the door close, I told the Rebbetzin there was someone in the house.  She said, ‘It’s Sholom.  You can talk.  Sholom is not in the house…’”

    Further into the house was the dinette with another table where the Rebbe and Rebbetzin ate on weekdays, mainly in the evenings when the Rebbe returned home, sometimes for a short time before returning to 770 to continue his work, generally yechidus that started early in the evening and lasted until late at night, sometimes until dawn.

    In a corner of the dinette, between it and the dining room, was a telephone stand that had a pushka on it.  When the Rebbe came home to eat supper, he first took the pushka and put it on the table and then put a nickel in.  He also gave a nickel to the Rebbetzin for her to put in the pushka.  Mashbak R’ Chesed (acronym for Chananya Sinai Dovid) Halberstam related that “In later years, when my son Aharon, Hy”d, was there, the Rebbe would also give him a coin to put in the pushka.”

    There was also a Chumash on this stand with a Siddur at the back (Rostover Siddur), which the Rebbe used for bentching.  Friday night, after the meal, the Rebbe would say the Shnayim Mikra V’Echad Targum in this Chumash.

    The Rebbe would light the menorah in the opposite corner, in the doorway between the dining room and the dinette.

    On the side of the dinette was a tiny kitchen, which was astonishingly old-fashioned.  It didn’t look as though anything had been changed in decades.  There were marble counter tops and cabinets on both sides of the kitchen.  There was an old, plain refrigerator in the corner.  In the center there was an oven and nearby a dairy table.  Opposite the refrigerator was the sink where the Rebbe washed his hands for the Shabbos meals.

    On the kitchen porch was an ancient icebox, which served as a storage closet.  During the year of mourning, chassanim (grooms) and their families would receive the Rebbe’s Siddur to daven mincha over here.

    From the kitchen there was another exit to the back yard.  The porch, which led to the outside, also served as a sukka for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin from 5738 and on (in earlier years they would put up a sukka on the third floor).  Starting in 5742 the Rebbe and Rebbetzin spent Shabbos and Yom Tov in the library building adjacent to 770.  Nevertheless, the Rebbe told R’ Gansbourg to continue building the sukka at home.

    DACHA IN THE REBBE’S YARD

    The back door led from the kitchen to a small porch that had a few steps that led into the back yard that was green and well tended.

    R’ Halberstam related:

    “One summer the Rebbetzin said we would go buy porch chairs for the porch overlooking the backyard.  We went to Long Island and bought the chairs and when we returned, the Rebbetzin asked me to open the chairs and put them on the porch.  We sat and waited for the Rebbe to come home for supper.

    “As we spoke, I suddenly saw the Rebbe standing in the doorway of the porch.  I immediately stood up and moved to the side.  The Rebbe came out on the porch and I quickly headed for the kitchen.  From the kitchen window I could see the Rebbe sitting down, opening his sirtuk and speaking with the Rebbetzin about the dacha (summer home) that the Rebbe Rashab bought from the squire of a town in Russia, which was very nice.  After two or three minutes, the Rebbe got up and said to the Rebbetzin, ‘Nu, for this year we have fulfilled our obligation of dacha.  Let’s go eat supper.’”

    Shem (Shemi) Rokeach related that he visited the Rebbetzin many times when he was a boy, thanks to his grandmother:

    “We once visited the Rebbetzin on Chol HaMoed Sukkos and the Rebbetzin gave us ice cream.  We went to the sukka behind the house and I sat on a chair and my brother sat on a chair.  Then R’ Gansbourg appeared and when he saw where my brother was sitting he exclaimed, ‘Get up! That’s the Rebbe’s chair,’ and my brother jumped up.”

    ***

    The house is similar in size to others in that row of houses on this street and nearby streets but to little Yosef Yitzchok Holtzman (today a rabbi at SUNY Downstate hospital) who visited the house many times thanks to his father, R’ Yaakov Tzvi Holtzman, the house seemed huge.  With a child’s innocence he asked the Rebbetzin, “Why do the Rebbe and Rebbetzin need such a big house? There are no children here.” And without waiting for an answer he said, “Aha, there probably used to be children here and they grew up and got married and now the house is for you alone.”

    The Rebbetzin smilingly replied, “Right, right, all the Chassidim are the Rebbe’s children.”

    “THE SIMPLICITY AND LACK OF SPLENDOR AND MODERNITY STAND OUT”

    The night the Rebbetzin passed away, all the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s personal possessions that were on the first floor were removed as R’ Gansbourg relates:

    “When I returned from the hospital and was with my brother Mendel and Dr. Moshe Feldman near the Rebbe’s house, Dr. Feldman called the Rebbe and told him the terrible news since I couldn’t do it.  The Rebbe asked to speak to me.  I took the phone as I held the Rebbetzin’s clothes, her coat, and her handbag.  The Rebbe said nobody should enter the house before they brought the Rebbetzin.  Since I naively thought the Rebbe meant to include me too, I asked, ‘Where should I put the Rebbetzin’s things?’ referring to the items I was holding.  After some silence on the other end of the line the Rebbe said, ‘What do you mean? You can go in.’

    “One of the mashbakim tried to go in but amazingly, all his attempts to open the door with the house keys failed.  The same thing happened when he tried to enter through the back door.

    “After I entered the house, the Rebbe intimated that I should clear out the first floor so that when they came to daven there, it would be empty of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s things.  I took everything that was there but with some items I wasn’t sure whether the Rebbe wanted them to be in a certain spot.  When I asked, the Rebbe told me to do as I saw fit.”

    The ambulance came with the Rebbetzin at 5:30 in the morning.  The Rebbe walked out slowly.  With his head bent a little and his eyes opened wide, he looked at the casket and the Chevra Kadisha who carried it.  The Rebbe followed them into the house.  After they lit candles the Rebbe went up to the second floor.

    At this point, Anash and the bachurim began reciting Tehillim near the Rebbetzin.  This was the first time the house was opened to the public.  At first they entered by lottery with each group having ten minutes, but when the crowd grew, a line formed with thousands of people who wanted to enter and say Tehillim.  The way it worked was, a group of several dozen went in from the front door for about five minutes and then left via the back door and a new group entered.  The following was written by one of the bachurim in his diary:

    “It was hard to take in details but the simplicity and lack of splendor and modernity stand out and the house looks very simple.  The floor, for example, had no carpet and the walls had no tapestries and the like.  You finally reach the kitchen which is at the end of the house.  Before the kitchen are wooden stairs that lead to the next floor.  You enter the kitchen and there, on the right side of the small room lies the Rebbetzin wrapped in a white sheet with plant stalks under her head.  Her head was to the south and two large candles were lit near it.  It was heartbreaking.  You stand in line and say Tehillim as you slowly move towards the exit.  The tears keep coming.  Within a few minutes you are out the back door to a small porch, which has a few steps leading to the backyard.

    “The Tehillim was said until morning when the women of the Chevra Kadisha came in to do the tahara.  Throughout all these hours the Rebbe stayed in his office on the second floor.  About ten minutes before the funeral, the Rebbe came downstairs and spent some time alone in the room with the Rebbetzin.

    “At 12:00 the Rebbetzin was taken out the front door where thousands of people waited to escort her to 770 and then to Montefiore cemetery in Queens.

    “President Street, which had always been a quiet street, was full of people who came to pay their last respects to this exceptional and modest woman.”

    THE HOUSE WAS OPEN TO THOUSANDS

    After the funeral the Rebbe returned to his house from where he continued to lead the Chassidim.  This was the first time since he became Nasi that he did so, because until this point he worked in his room, Gan Eden HaElyon in 770.  From that day and for the entire year of mourning, the house was open to thousands of Chassidim who came to daven with the Rebbe and to attend farbrengens.

    For the first mincha, only a few dozen shluchim who had come to the funeral from around the world and were returning home that same day, were allowed in.  This was because of the relatively small quarters which could not contain anywhere near the size of the crowd that usually davened with the Rebbe in 770.

    At maariv that same day, things were organized alphabetically as to who would daven in the Rebbe’s minyan at each tefilla.  After the davening the house was open to more people who wanted to enter and console the Rebbe.

    The big living room, which is where the Rebbetzin hosted her guests, turned into the central Beis Medrash of Lubavitch for a year.  The couches were moved and a chazzan’s lectern was set up for the Rebbe who davened for the amud all year, as well as an Aron Kodesh.  The Rebbe sat in a corner of the room for the shiva and received consolation.

    Over the coming months, the secretaries’ work moved to the house and was overseen by R’ Leibel Groner who sat in the dinette.

    Every Sunday the house was opened to the public who came for “dollars,” a practice which did not stop during the year of mourning.  The Rebbe opened his home to tens of thousands of people who wanted his bracha and to meet him face to face.

    The first time the Rebbe gave out dollars from his house was at the end of shiva, after mincha.  All were tense with anticipation as they waited to see what would happen henceforth.  When word got out that dollars would be given from the Rebbe’s house, people were very excited.

    “What happened that day on quiet President Street is indescribable!” wrote one of the bachurim in his diary.  “The crowd grew from moment to moment.  The long line extended the length of President Street, turned at the corner of New York and from there to Carroll! The Rebbe stood where he had sat shiva all week and people passed by steadily for four hours!”

    The Rebbe davened the three tefillos before the amud in the corner of the living room that had turned into a Beis Medrash.  Not all who wanted to could participate since the room was too small, so people were chosen by lottery.  It was considered a great privilege to be able to enter and daven in the Rebbe’s minyan.  The scene was engraved in their hearts: a quarter of an hour before the davening began, the people entered.  They put on tefillin and waited for the Rebbe to come downstairs.  The Rebbe’s lectern was under the two-branched wall sconce.  The chair was on the side.  In the center of the room was a small table with a portable bima on top for the Torah reading.  Heightened emotion was apparent on the faces of all present as the hour of 10:00 approached.

    When the time came, a small noise could be heard from upstairs.  Everyone moved to create a wide circle around the staircase that connected the two floors.  The Rebbe appeared wrapped in his tallis and crowned with tefillin.  His face was serious and the sight was very malchusdig (royal).  When the Rebbe came down he went directly to the amud.

    When the davening and the gabbai’s announcements were over, the Rebbe went back upstairs.

    Usually, at the end of the tefillos, the crowd left the house within a few minutes so that the house could revert to its original function as the Rebbe’s private home.  It once happened on a Friday night that R’ Gansbourg waited until everybody had left so he could set the table.  One of the people tarried.

    “I didn’t feel comfortable telling him to leave.  However, I felt very uncomfortable about starting to set the table while someone was in the house.  When I told the Rebbe how I felt he said, ‘Why does it bother you? Let him be there.’”

    “THE KING BROUGHT ME INTO HIS CHAMBERS”

    At maariv at the conclusion of shiva, the Rebbe told the gabbaim to arrange a farbrengen l’ilui nishmasa as is customary, with great pomp and many people.  The Rebbe gave $100 as his participation in the farbrengen.  When, at the end of davening, the gabbai announced the farbrengen, the Rebbe motioned to him, to his surprise, that the farbrengen would take place in the house.

    Right after the announcement the Rebbe went upstairs to his room.  A few minutes later, R’ Groner relayed a message from the Rebbe that the Rebbe wanted the entire farbrengen to take place in the house. Two tables were set up with bottles of mashke and the Chassidim who were there sat down to this most unusual farbrengen.

    The news spread quickly that by the Rebbe’s instruction, a farbrengen was taking place in the Rebbe’s house.  Large numbers of Chassidim flocked to the Rebbe’s house.  Around the table sat the elder Chassidim and mashpiim led by the rabbanim of the Crown Heights Beis Din and other rabbis.  Around them, in the living room, stood hundreds of Chassidim and bachurim.  Every few minutes a group left and another group came in.  Inside, the Chassidim related stories about the Rebbetzin.

    “The tremendous emotion that everybody felt cannot be described and there is no need to describe it,” wrote one of the tmimim.  “Chassidim are sitting in the palace of the king and farbrenging.  Those were a few hours of elevation above the earth.”

    On the first Shabbos following the shiva, unlike the Shabbos of the shiva, the Rebbe remained at home.  “It is hard to express the feeling … when we don’t know how Shabbos in 770 will look without the Rebbe there.” Only married men and chassanim went for the Shabbos tefillos but many bachurim went near the house and listened to the Rebbe’s Kaddish recitals from near the window.

    One bachur sums it up like this: “Although the Rebbe has been working from his home on President Street, it seems that other than this nothing has changed, whether it’s dollars every Sunday with thousands passing by, or the Rebbe’s trips to the Ohel on Sundays and Thursdays.”

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