He shuffled slowly down the street, surrounded by his chasidim. My nine-year-old self sat by the kitchen window watching the procession. At the time I didn’t understand the meaning of this small huddled mass making its way down the palm-tree-lined streets in our neighborhood. The Rebbe was taking a walk, protected by a portable cocoon created by his followers.
In our dominantly Jewish, albeit secular, slice of Miami, the Ribnitzer Rebbe was an anomaly that my young mind couldn’t grasp. In a world devoid of a true connection with authentic Yiddishkeit, the Rebbe was solid truth, a walking advertisement for holiness. But what my childish comprehension couldn’t understand, my heart more than compensated for. The Rebbe was an inspiration, his advanced years and fragile frame unable to hide the fire within. From my kitchen window a small seed was planted, and the Rebbe’s brachos were the rich soil needed for the flower to bloom. With my limited knowledge, I translated what my eyes had seen and conveyed the message to my soul. I had no idea why this otherworldly man moved me so, dressed in heavy black clothes in the oppressive heat when all of us were outfitted in more appropriate garb for the Florida weather.
“Does the mother not have money for clothing for the children?” the Rebbe asked my mother kindly on one of his walks when he saw us prancing on our front lawn in our usual shorts and sleeveless tops. The Rebbe did not judge, the Rebbe loved, and there was no harshness in his question. We were Jews, and my mother had been raised to revere all holy men, and the Rebbe definitely fit that description. We did not enact any immediate monumental changes and continued along the same trajectory, that of the proud but unaffiliated Jew. And yet, with every word of concern or encouragement, the Rebbe sowed and watered our neshamos, with his Rebbetzin by his side, and the seedling continued to grow until our entire family returned.
Despite my lack of connection at the time—or maybe because of it—I wrote my feelings about the Rebbe down on paper and presented them to the Rebbetzin. Years later, when I was already a baalas teshuvah, the Rebbetzin told me how she had cried when she read it. She’d turned to the Rebbe and said, “How can it be that this girl isn’t religious?” The Rebbe, with his ruach hakodesh, had replied, “Don’t worry; she will be one day.”