In the summer of 5689, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef-Yitzchak Shneersohn, traveled from Riga, Latvia, to the Land of Israel. The stated purpose of his trip was to pray at the gravesites of tzadikim (the perfectly righteous). He visited the four “holy cities” – Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed-and other locations as well.
His itinerary was to arrive in Tsfat (Safed) in the daytime of Hei Av, the yahrzeit of “the Holy Ari,” Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, leader of the Tsfat Kabbalists in the last few years of his life, 1570-1572. This would be a most auspicious day to pray at the Ari’s burial site.
However, car problems temporarily derailed the plan, and they were forced to stop in Rosh Pina, a town in the Galilee a ten minute drive from Tsfat. The Rebbe exited the auto, accompanied by two of the chasidim who were in the car with him, and knocked on the door of a nearby house fronting the road.
Aviv Keller, the primary source for the events that followed, which were never recorded in the Rebbe’s diary, nor did any of the other passengers write anything about it.
The grandfather of Aviv, Aharon-Yermiyahu Keller, was the first Jew to build a house in the area that today is the town of Rosh Pina. That was in 1878. Aviv himself was born in it on Dec. 27, 1918. That makes him 96 years old at the time of this writing (July 2015), and he is still going strong. His mind is sharp, his speech is clear, and he relates events from his long life, including his childhood, as if they occurred yesterday. Although he was but ten years old at the time, he insists he recalls every detail of the remarkable event, 86 years later.
The door upon which the Rebbe knocked was to the home of Aviv’s uncle, Shimon Keller, fifty meters or so from Aviv’s home. The custom of the Keller clan in those days was to gather every late afternoon at Shimon’s house between 4-5pm and drink tea together.
“One time, as everyone was relaxing and conversing,” recalls Keller, “a large automobile pulled over to the side of the road near the house. None of us had ever seen such a car before. It was huge. In addition to the driver it had place for nine riders, including a specially elevated, padded seat in the front for the most important passenger.
“There was a problem with one of the wheels; it was wobbling because the tire rim had loosened, and the steering wheel had become unstable. The driver insisted they must stop. He and a few of the passengers jumped out to consider the problem. At the same time, a distinguished, rabbinic-looking gentleman descended from the auto, followed by several others who were relating to him deferentially. My aunts and uncles had no idea who he was.
“However, my grandfather, who had studied in yeshiva in his youth, recognized him right away. ‘This is the Lubavitcher Rebbe!’ he proclaimed excitedly. Although he had never seen him, he had read about his visit to Israel in one of the newspapers. We all noticed that the long coat he was wearing was made of some special sort of material.”
“When my uncle opened the door, the Rebbe introduced himself and asked if we were a Jewish family. My grandfather jumped up and hurried over to the doorway. He pointed to the mezuzah and said, ‘Look! Of course we are Jewish.’ He invited the Rebbe to come inside. He also sent someone right away to summon the village blacksmith to help fix the tire rim.
“The Rebbe seemed quite tall. My grandfather came up only to his shoulder. He requested a quiet place to pray Mincha (the Afternoon Prayer). My uncle escorted him to a private spot, and the men in our family that were present joined him in prayer. When they finished, my uncle offered the Rebbe a glass of tea, which he accepted. Uncle Shimon added in freshly picked lemon leaves from one of our trees, which produced an enticing aroma.
“I was just a child. I decided I would go close and touch the interesting-looking visitor. When I did, he looked at me and smiled.”
The driver, a hired non-Jew, a German, came in to announce that the car, which turned out to be a Mercedes-Benz, was repaired and they could travel on. Before the Rebbe left the house he gazed at each member of the family and blessed them all with long life.
I remember his exact words: “Langlieben und gezunten yahren” – ‘[you should] Live long and healthy years.'” Aviv smiled and continued. “The blessing materialized and is still materializing. My uncle – the host – lived till 96. My grandfather lived until 89 and my grandmother until 92. She, Sarah-Lipsha, by the way, knew the entire Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer service by heart, and from the Women’s Section would correct the cantor if ever he made a mistake.
“As for me, I am already 96½ years old. I’ll turn 97 on Tevet 24, G-d willing, and I hope to merit even longer life if the Al-mighty so decides.”
And so, the unplanned visit to the Keller family in Rosh Pina came to an end, and the Rebbe and his entourage resumed their journey up the steep hill to Tsfat. “We escorted them until the first curve. We actually ran in front of the car, as it was moving very slowly.”
Aviv Keller served twenty years as the head of the town’s Religious Council and another fifteen as the manager of the famous old synagogue in the Rothschild Quarter, the oldest and largest shul in Rosh Pina, and as its cantor on the High Holidays.
Today he lives alone in the [remodeled] house he was born and grew up in. He has 3 children, 7 grand-children, 11 great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews. Nearly all call him and visit him on a regular basis. His eldest son, a “youngster” of 72, also still lives in Rosh Pina; he provides more hands-on help and daily meals. He enjoys visitors – call a day in advance! – whom he enchants with detailed recollections of the history of Rosh Pina, of which he is a living repository. May he continue so, in good health and clear mind, until at least 120.