Bringing Light to Our World: A Conversation with Mrs. Nechama Laber
by Shaindy Perl
(Reprinted with permission from Links, an organization founded in 2006 to service Orthodox Jewish children and teens who’ve lost a parent. They can be reached at 718-305-6080 or firstname.lastname@example.org )
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
Mrs. Laber: I grew up in Crown Heights. I am the oldest in my family and the only girl. My father,
Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman, a”h, passed away just before my 11th birthday, while I was in camp. He had gone to California for treatments, and when I kissed him goodbye at the airport, I was sure I’d see him again soon. It was quite a shock when he passed away and I was very sad that I didn’t get to spend time with him in his final months or tell him a real goodbye.
What are some things that were hard for you afterward and how did you stay strong?
Mrs. Laber: I remember feeling very alone. My brothers were seven and five when my father passed away, and a third brother was born three months later. I have no sisters and no one close to me in age. I felt that there was no one who really understood me. I wish I would have had LINKS back then!
What helped me stayed strong was the brachos we received when visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rebbe’s teachings about emunah. I believed that everything is from Hashem, and everything He does is for the best, even if I cannot understand it. Having a new baby brother who was named after my father was also a great comfort and brought a lot of joy into our home.
What advice would you give to a young girl in the same situation today?
Mrs. Laber: I had many painful emotions after my father was niftar. We had a very special relationship, and he used to tell me stories and go on walks with me, and I missed him terribly. But I wanted to be strong and I thought that being strong meant that I had to figure out everything on my own.
Many years later, when I was already a mother of children, I heard a beautiful song titled “Don’t Ever Leave Me” by Chanale Fellig-Harrel. It’s about a father who is suddenly taken and a plea to Hashem to fill the void. The lyrics described exactly how I felt, about never getting to tell my own father goodbye and how I miss him so much. I started crying and crying and kept playing the song over and over again, allowing all my emotions to finally come pouring out.
Only after I started letting myself feel the sadness in my heart was I able to let go of those feelings. Afterward, that sadness was replaced with feelings of love for my father. I was more at peace and I was able to feel him watching over me more than ever before.
So, today, I would tell other young girls: Being strong means reaching out for help when you need it. Being strong means knowing it’s okay to feel sad or be in pain or cry sometimes. Don’t push away your emotions but find someone you can talk to about them.
What memories do you have of the first Chanukah without your father?
Mrs. Laber: My father was a teacher and he knew how to make mitzvos exciting, both for his students and his children. Every Shabbos and Yom Tov without him was really hard. On Chanukah, I missed seeing him light the
menorah in his warm and happy way. I missed hearing him play on his guitar for us by the flickering flames. Everything was so different and not as joyous without him.
Can you share an inspiring story with us?
Mrs. Laber: After I got married, I wanted to continue my father’s legacy of spreading Torah and Yiddishkeit to others. I started an organization called the Jewish Girls’ Retreat that arranges Shabbatons and retreats for girls from all different Jewish backgrounds. For many years, we rented out facilities in the summer and winter. My husband, Rabbi Avraham Laber, and I soon realized that to do our work well, we needed our own property to host groups of girls in our own home. For about 12 years, we kept searching for the perfect property. It was very hard
because the house had to have many specific details to fit our needs.
About three months ago, we finally found the perfect house. We wanted to buy it, but at the last minute, there were some obstacles and our initial closing date was cancelled. After some delays, we again waited for final approval to close on the house, and I was very nervous that everything should go through smoothly. That week, one of my father’s former students sent me a link to an old video he had found called “Tishrei with the Rebbe.” In one part of the video, you can see a crowd of people dancing in 770, the shul in Crown Heights, on Chol Hamoed Sukkos
and singing “V’samachta b’chagecha.” My father can be seen clearly, dancing with everyone while holding both me and my brother. I am laughing in the video and my father also looks so happy.
When I watched the video, it seemed like a clear message from my father that he was already rejoicing with me. I was trying to continue his work of teaching Torah to Jews from different backgrounds, and I felt that he was looking out for me and reassuring me, with the video of us laughing together, that everything would be okay. I started laughing with tears in my eyes and felt certain that we would receive the final approval that same day.
Sure enough, our lawyer soon called to tell us that everything was okay and the closing was scheduled for 8 Cheshvan. We’ve already moved into this dream house and we look forward to regularly hosting groups of girls.
Wow! What an incredible story! Any parting message you want to give the readers?
Mrs. Laber: We are now preparing for our first Chanukah in our new home, which is also a Chabad House for Southern Rensselaer County to spread the light of Torah to local Jews. I can’t wait to light the menorah
for the first time in the home that we have been dreaming about for so long. I know that that there is nothing in the world that can dim the lights of my father’s menorah, as well as the menorah within me.
Yes, sometimes we find ourselves in difficult situations, and we feel as though we are surrounded by darkness. However, just like the Yidden searched for oil to bring light to the Beis Hamikdash, we must search for inner strength to bring light into our world. The Chanukah menorah is lit after nightfall when it’s already dark, and we too can learn to bring light to our own places of darkness. We must remember that all the Yidden had to do was put in the effort and search for the oil and then Hashem made miracles for them and the oil burned for eight days. In the same way, when we try our best to find our own inner strength and bring light to our world, Hashem makes miracles for us too!
Rabbi and Mrs. Avraham and Nechama Laber direct Chabad-Lubavitch of Southern Rensselaer County and the Jewish Girls’ Retreat. They are the proud parents of eleven children, and recently became grandparents.
As the global director of Jewish Girls Unite (JewishGirlsUnite.com), a global community empowering women and girls through online classes and retreats, Nechama is proud to carry on the legacy of her father, Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman, a”h, through her work as an educator, speaker, and author. Nechama’s upcoming book, A New Day, A New Song, is a memoir about transforming tragic loss into a legacy of love and light.