It was the Rebbe's birthday, Sunday, the 11th of Nissan, 5746. As the chassidim were finishing their morning prayers, word spread through the shul: "The Rebbe is giving out dollars for tzedakah at the door of his study!" And within moments a line of hundreds formed. One by one, they filed past the Rebbe and each received a brief blessing and a dollar to be given to charity.
Two weeks later, after the Pesach holiday, the scene replayed itself, and on the following Sunday weeks later, the chassidim were no longer surprised.
This marked the beginning of an institution that was to give tens of thousands of people from all over the world an opportunity to establish a connection with the Rebbe. From that first Sunday until Sunday, the 26th of Adar, 5752 (the day before the Rebbe suffered the stroke), week after week, the Rebbe would stand in the entrance hall of "770" for hours on end, receiving people from all walks of life and giving them dollars to distribute for charity.
Every week thousands would come. Some came asking for blessings at a turning-point in their lives, others came because of a problem, and still others in search of spiritual inspiration. There were probably as many reasons as there were people on the line.
The people represented a true cross-section of the international Jewish community: venerable sages, young children, communal leaders, visitors from every country in the world, the observant and the not-yet-observant, political figures from the U.S. and Israel, and amcha Yidden, the Jewish man-in-the-street, in his thousands.
A friend from Israel once visited "770" for Shavuos. That year, the holiday was celebrated on Sunday and Monday, and so the Rebbe did not distribute dollars that Sunday morning. "One of the most striking experiences of my trip," my friend recalls, "was to see Jews who came to "770" with the intent of receiving dollars that Sunday. These people who obviously were not aware of the holiday celebrating the Giving of the Torah were eager to receive the Rebbe's blessing."
"Pardon me," said the visitor to the man standing in front of him. They were both waiting on line to receive a dollar from the Rebbe on a spring Sunday.
The man in front of him turned around. "How can I help you?" he asked pleasantly.
"This is the first time I've come and I'm not quite sure how to approach the Rebbe," the newcomer continued. "You see, I'm having severe difficulty with my youngest son. He is going through an extremely rebellious period. I would like to request the Rebbe's blessing on this matter.
"Would you be able to assist me in the proper wording. I understand one must be short and precise and I would not like to take too much precious time from the Rebbe."
The man thought for a moment and then said to the visitor. "You seem to understand the need to keep the line moving. Imagine how many more hours the Rebbe would have to stand here if every person would speak to him, even briefly. So, the Rebbe's blessing of Brochah v'hatzlachah ('blessing and success') to each person as he hands him the dollar includes all his needs."
The newcomer understood and decided not to mention anything to the Rebbe. As the Rebbe handed him the dollar, he listened wholeheartedly to the anticipated Brochah v'hatzlachah. He felt the blessing empower him with faith and strength. As he moved on, he suddenly realized that the Rebbe had not turned to the person behind him, but instead was beckoning him to wait.
The Rebbe handed him an additional dollar, saying: "For your son."
"I didn't know the Lubavitcher Rebbe knew you!" exclaimed Mrs. Berkowitz to her husband. She was waving two dollars in her hand. Rabbi Berkowitz, a prominent lecturer (maggid shiur) in a Brooklyn yeshivah looked at his wife quizzically.
"I went to receive a blessing from the Rebbe. The Rebbe handed me an additional dollar. 'This is for your husband,' he said. 'Tell him that I asked about him and that I send him my regards.' "
Mrs. Berkowitz handed her husband the dollar bill, but he wasn't paying attention. With a distant look in his eyes, he mumbled, "The Rebbe remembered... thirty years ago... that's amazing...."
Rabbi Berkowitz seemed very intent as he related an incident which had taken place three decades earlier. "It was during the summer month of Tammuz," he recalled. "I was walking down President Street towards Brooklyn Ave. A bearded man who just turned the corner caught my attention. He had very dignified features, his appearance was most impressive, and he was walking briskly. I stopped to have a chat with him. We exchanged some Torah thoughts and opinions about current events.
"As our conversation ended, the gentleman invited me to attend a chassidic farbrengen which was to be held by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a couple of days. Although I knew very little about the Rebbe in those days, I decided to attend.
"You can imagine how I felt when I entered the shul at "770" Eastern Parkway. The man with whom I had conversed was none other than the Rebbe himself.
"I regretted having wasted the Rebbe's precious time. Afterwards, I asked him to forgive me. The Rebbe assured me that I needn't worry. He welcomed me to come back more often. 'I will yet ask about you,' were the Rebbe's parting words."
"I never returned," said Rabbi Berkowitz softly. "Today was the first time in thirty years that anyone in our family has gone to see the Rebbe."
"I was sure the Rebbe had not heard correctly," related Y. Shifrin, a visitor to New York from Bnei Brak, Israel. "It was Sunday; I had joined the line at "770" to request a blessing from the Rebbe for a book I was about to publish. In response, the Rebbe gave me an additional dollar and said: 'Give tzedakah for her merit, and may she have a quick recovery.'
"I was mystified. Before I could collect my thoughts, the line had proceeded further. I was convinced that the Rebbe had not heard my request properly. I traveled back to my hosts' home in Boro Park, only to be greeted with an urgent message. 'Your wife called from Israel. She wants you to contact home immediately.'
"Anxiously, I placed the call. One of my daughters answered the phone, explaining that my wife was not home. 'She is at the hospital,' she said. My heart skipped a beat as the events unfolded. My youngest daughter who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy had lost consciousness and collapsed. The doctors described her condition as critical.
"With a jolt, the Rebbe's words flashed through my mind. A deep sense of calm settled within me. I told my daughter of the encounter which had occurred only a short while earlier and tried to reassure her. 'I'm sure everything will be fine.'
"I immediately gave tzedakah in my daughter's merit. That evening, my wife called again. 'The doctors have no explanation, but, thank G-d, the crisis has passed.' "
Two of the taxi passengers en route from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem struck up a casual conversation. Following the friendly "Jewish geography" exchange in which one of the travelers introduced himself as a Jew from Antwerp, his new acquaintance, a Jerusalemite, continued with the common question, "What brings you here?"
The man from Antwerp hesitated for a moment. His European nature was not as open and uninhibited as the Israeli's. But somehow, his fellow passenger put him at ease.
"I'll tell you the truth," began the visitor. "This past summer on a trip to New York, I traveled to Brooklyn to ask the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing for my handicapped son. We have had great difficulty finding a suitable match for him. As I passed by the Rebbe, he handed me a dollar saying b'suros tovos - good tidings. Then he gave me an additional dollar and said: 'For tzedakah in the Holy Land.'
"I was sure that the Rebbe had mistakenly thought I was a visitor from Israel. I didn't understand how this response applied to me, and I returned to Antwerp. Weeks passed and the holidays arrived. One day, during Chol Hamoed Sukkos, my wife and I were discussing our family affairs. We were both very concerned about the future of our son, who was not getting any younger. During the course of our conversation, my encounter with the Rebbe came up.
"My wife became thoughtful. 'Perhaps we should have taken the Rebbe's words more seriously,' she suggested. 'Let's follow his directive. Take a few days off after the holiday and travel to Israel to give tzedakah in the Holy Land, just as the Rebbe had said.'
"This is the reason for my journey," he concluded.
The visitor from Antwerp had been casting his eyes on the scenery as he told his story. It was only now that he noticed a strange mixture of awe and nervousness on the Jerusalemite's face.
"I wonder," the man was mumbling, unable to hide his excitement. Responding to the visitor's puzzled look, the man from Jerusalem struggled to regain his composure and related: "I am returning from a trip to New York, where I spent the holidays. I took the opportunity to ask the Rebbe for a blessing for my daughter. We would very much like to see her happily married. The Rebbe gave me a slice of lekach (honey cake) for my daughter saying: 'May she find a good shiduch (match) in the near future.'
The man from Jerusalem took a deep breath. "Perhaps we should both pursue the issue. You see, my daughter also has a handicap."
The engagement party was held shortly thereafter.
"It was a pleasant Sunday morning in July, 1988. I should have felt as content and relaxed as any other mother of a six-week-old beautiful baby girl. The baby still had the precious delicacy of a newborn, and yet had begun to develop a schedule which allowed the new mother more rest and renewed strength.
"Yet, I was tense and worried. The results of my post-partum examination had shattered my hopes and plans for my family of four lovely children. "A cancerous illness," the doctors said. As I sat there with numbing fear, I could hear them say something about an urgent operation because of the critical stage of the illness. I couldn't believe they were talking about me.
"That sunny Sunday morning appeared to me as a ray of hope. Before consulting the doctor again, I decided to pay a visit to "770" and speak to the Rebbe as he distributes dollars to be given to charity.
"I asked a neighbor to accompany me. 'I'm nervous, I feel weak, and I don't even speak Yiddish,' I told her. She readily agreed to come.
"As we approached the Rebbe, my neighbor related my desperate condition: 'The doctors say they have found cancer.'
" 'So they will lose it!' the Rebbe responded, his face breaking into a broad smile.
"We were stunned. The Rebbe's matter-of-fact answer had caught us both off guard and in our confusion, we thought we had not heard correctly.
" 'What?' we both burst out.
"The Rebbe was still smiling. 'You told me what they found. Nu, so whatever they found, they will lose.'
"By this time, I had grasped the Rebbe's words and I was overcome with emotion. "I have a six-week-old baby," I blurted tearfully in English.
"The Rebbe looked at me warmly and said: "You will merit to raise her to Torah, chuppah (marriage), and good deeds."
Shortly afterwards, the doctors indeed told the woman about a loss - one about which she and her family were very relieved to hear.
One hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1991, an elderly lady was patiently waiting her turn in the long line of Jewish women and girls from all walks of life, each one anticipating the moment of receiving the Rebbe's blessing and the dollar bill to be given to tzedakah.
When her turn finally arrived, this lady blurted out in her simple Yiddish, "Rebbe! I've been standing here for only an hour and I'm already exhausted. You have been standing here for hours and hours, and just look....!"
The Rebbe smiled gently and said, "When you are counting diamonds, you don't get tired."