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In Conversation: Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky

Brooklyn, N.Y

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky was secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, for a period of 40 years. As a young boy of 13, he came to New York from Boston, where he met the man who, four years later was to become the 7th Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Rebbe reached out to the young yeshiva student living away from home, in ways, says Rabbi Krinsky, that moved him and sustain him to this day.  

In 1957, Rabbi Krinsky was recruited by the Rebbe to serve as a member of his secretariat and later as corporate secretary of his three central organizations. These positions would give him unique access to the Rebbe over the four decades of his leadership. On the occasion of the Rebbe’s 15th yahrzeit, Baila Olidort, the editor-in-chief of Lubavitch News Service spoke to Rabbi Krinsky. The following is part one of the interview.

 How did you come to work for the Rebbe?

It was the summer of 1957 a few weeks before my wedding. I had just come back from summer “Merkos Shlichus” with my dear colleague, the late Rabbi Leibel Raskin. We had spent some weeks visiting parts of Florida and the West Indies. Rabbi Mordechai Hodakov, the Rebbe’s chief of staff asked for me. After listening to my report of our visits, he asked me if I would like to be a part of the Rebbe’s secretariat. 

I was stunned and speechless, to say the least, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The rest is history.

What can you tell us about the Rebbe’s style of leadership? Was he hands-on-or hands off?

He was both. He insisted that everyone, especially Chasidim, become self-efficient in terms of their study, and their outreach activities. He did not want to be consulted on every detail. In fact, he often quoted the Talmudic statement that it is human nature for individuals to want to be blessed with the achievements of their own making, and for that, they need to use their own initiative and their own G-d given talents and capabilities. 

On the other hand, in his keen concern and care for everyone and for everything that was going on, he was always interested and informed of details large and small and always wanted to receive reports of developments. I couldn’t necessarily predict which issues would prompt a “hands-on” involvement, and which not, but clearly there was a blend of both. 

You’ve had the privilege of observing the Rebbe up close, over a period of many years. Did you often, if at all, discern changes in his disposition?

The Rebbe was a very private person and maintained an even comportment, so it was almost impossible to notice any changes in his disposition. 

On those few occasions when there seemed to be a change in his demeanor, I did not necessarily know why, unless he told me. 

There were times when I could discern exhaustion, but even at those times, he was quick and intense, and very purposeful in the way he moved and spoke. 

In the Rebbe’s lifetime, Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters never engaged in conventional fundraising. How was fundraising managed all those years?

People wanted to be “partners” with the Rebbe knowing that it would be a source of blessings for themselves and their families, so they gravitated to the Rebbe to support his work for Jewish life. That’s really what made up the Machne Israel Development Fund—the last fundraising project the Rebbe established. 

Since Gimmel Tammuz [the date of the Rebbe’s passing], we’ve had to engage in more conventional fundraising activities. This is understandable, if perplexing because I believe that the blessings that the Rebbe gave in his lifetime to those who supported Jewish life and Jewish education, and the life-saving work of Chabad-Lubavitch, really continues unchanged to this very day. 

That’s why we’re in the process of reviving that project, the Machne Israel/Lubavitch Development Fund. In his lifetime, this was a vehicle he hoped would generate funds for the educational and social services programs of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and I’m hoping that this will become a great source of financial sustenance once again. 

You accompanied the Rebbe to the Ohel, the resting place of his father-in-law, often several times a week, over a period of many years.

Can you tell us what the drive was like, and what transpired at the Ohel?

What transpired at the Ohel was between the Rebbe and his predecessor. 

During the drive itself, the Rebbe used the time to study, to read and answer his correspondence and reports etc. When a phone was installed in the car, in the 1970’s, the Rebbe would often instruct me to place calls to convey messages or directives etc. 

Were there times when the Rebbe’s responses to questions took you by surprise?

I couldn’t predict what and how the Rebbe would respond. Two people may have asked the same question, yet the Rebbe responded differently to each. 

He quickly unraveled questions that seemed complex. His response was often quite different from what you thought would be axiomatic. There was definitely no rule of thumb.

Many times, people would only fully understand and appreciate the wisdom of the Rebbe’s response or directive after a period of time. His insights were deep, broad, and incredibly prescient. 

There’s been occasional criticism leveled at Chabad for what some describe as a cultish worship of the Rebbe. Did the Rebbe ever respond to such criticsm?

Yes, and often. I recall that just before the Rebbe’s 70th birthday, he was interviewed by Israel Shenker, a reporter for The New York Times, who asked the Rebbe about this. The Rebbe emphatically rejected the notion, and said that he does everything he can to dissuade and discourage it. 

We know that even Biblical figures such as the Patriarchs and Moses, confronted their own mortality. Many ask how the Rebbe prepared for his own passing?

On the afternoon following Rebbetzin Chaya Moussia’s (the Rebbe’s wife) funeral, after the mincha prayers, the Rebbe asked to see the physicians who treated the Rebbetzin during her last days, and thanked them for their care and service to his wife. 

Afterward, the Rebbe asked for me. He told me that even though he and the Rebbetzin never contemplated this, he now wished to write a will. He proceeded to outline exactly what he wanted. 

He asked that I contact the attorney for this purpose. He said that I should be the executor of his will, and that Rabbis Leib Groner and Binyamin Klein be the witnesses. He asked that this be taken care of during the week of shiva.

On that same afternoon, in addition to discussing the will, the Rebbe asked that I have our attorneys review the corporate and legal papers of the three central Chabad-Lubavitch entities, namely, Agudas Chasidei Chabad, Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch and Machne Israel, to make sure that any vacancies on the boards be filled, and that any other legal issues be resolved. 

I did that, and when it was all completed, the Rebbe signed the papers and validated the changes. 

So, to answer your question, yes, the Rebbe put the house in order. 

What of his plans for how Chabad should continue to grow? How did he prepare us for the future?

Just look back over the past 15 years, since Gimmel Tammuz of 1994, and it’s evident that he prepared us well for the future. 

When the Rebbe took ill in 1992, many who followed the growth of Chabad predicted an end to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. They were, obviously, greatly mistaken. Chabad has since grown exponentially, in every way.

Yes, but you aren’t suggesting that the Rebbe’s absence in a physical sense, has not made a difference. 

The absence of his physical presence is painful to the movement as a whole, and to many of us individually. We could talk at length about the difficulties we face because of this.  They are real, they are painful, and of course, his passing leaves us feeling orphaned. But the point is that he gave us the tools not only to cope, but to thrive. 

How else to explain the incredible growth of Chabad worldwide? The magnitude of what the Rebbe created and inspired to this very day, is obvious to any observer, and it will continue in perpetuity. 

Since the passing of the Rebbe’s mother in 1964, the Rebbetzin was the only close family member in his life. How did her passing in 1988 affect the Rebbe?

I noticed, and I believe others did too, that from the time of the Rebbetzin’s passing, things began to change. 

The Rebbe’s office was usually full of books, letters and documents etc., and it actually seemed at times quite cluttered. Sometimes the Rebbe’s desk was piled up so high, that he would work at the side of the desk. 

This began to change when the Rebbe returned to his office at 770 (Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn) after spending the year of mourning at his home. He began sorting and setting aside things to be removed from his office. He often asked me to arrange filing things and to transfer items from his office to the library and archive center. 

That’s how the office was slowly cleared out.  Over time, it became emptier and emptier–

I have to admit that this was very sad for me.

There came a time when one of the only things that remained, conspicuously, on his desk, were the four volumes of Sefer Hashluchim, the large photo albums of the Shluchim, their families and activities. It remains on his desk to this day.

From after the Rebbetzin’s passing, the Rebbe lived in his office at 770. Wasn’t that very unusual?

Of course. After the 12 months of mourning the Rebbetzin, the Rebbe returned to his office, as I just mentioned, and that was where he lived from that point on–working, studying, responding to letters and requests, and leading the vast worldwide network of institutions and activities that he created. 

The room is about 12×15 feet. The room was—still is—lined with bookcases filled with books. It had a desk, a chair and a bed. That’s all there was. 

It reminded me of the story about the prophet Elisha, and the room that his hosts prepared for him. It contained a table, a chair, a bed, and a candle. 

From this similarly appointed small, modest room, the Rebbe inspired and led the Jewish people.

Do you think the Rebbe lived to see a big part of his vision realized while he was still here? 

Absolutely. Yes. 

Though he was never completely satisfied with accomplishments, he was extremely grateful, gracious and sensitive to the myriad achievements that he witnessed. He saw the beginning of the revival of Jewish life and paved the way for its continued growth, as we’ve seen in the past 15 years.

His vision was to revolutionize Jewish life all over the world, and he did that. He revived Jewish life community by community, with enormous spiritual and physical effort. The ongoing success of Lubavitch is no doubt attributable to the Rebbe’s blessings that continue to be realized by everyone who works to make his vision a reality.

What comes to your mind now, after we’ve marked the 15th yahrzeit since the Rebbe’s passing?

A week before the Rebbe suffered a stroke, on March 2, 1992, when preparations to celebrate his 90th birthday were in high gear, a reporter approached the Rebbe during his Sunday “dollars” custom. 

He told the Rebbe that he was preparing a cover story on the Rebbe as he reaches his 90th birthday, and asked him what the significance of 90 is. 

The Rebbe told him that every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numeric value. 

He then said that “In Hebrew, the letter for 90 is tzadik, which means righteous. Even at the age of 90, you are reminded that you must strive to be more righteous. What was enough for yesterday is not enough for today; and today we have to prepare for a better tomorrow.”

We are now in that tomorrow.


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