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The Ultimate Show-and-Tell

Barbara Bensoussan

Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, the coronated “Lionzna Rebbe” of Boro Park, put his photographic memory and penchant for ancient languages to good use. He says his Living Torah Museum, which features million-dollar hands-on artifacts from ancient weaving equipment to taxidermied biblical animals, fulfills his educational philosophy: “If you touch history, it touches you.”

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch has a pithy way of summing up his approach to life. “You have to cover a lot of ground,” he maintains, “before the ground covers you.”

Lots of us have pet projects, from writing a sefer to remodeling the kitchen. But Rabbi Deutsch has many, many pet projects, and all of them are on a hugely grand scale. While most of us would have been more than pleased with ourselves had we created a Living Torah Museum, Rabbi Deutsch simultaneously juggles a family, a congregation, a business, two chesed organizations, a radio show, fundraising and tours for the museum, about a thousand daily e-mails, and his own ceaselessly burbling fount of inspired ideas for expanding the museum.

The mere mention of so many different undertakings makes my head spin, but Rabbi Deutsch only laughs. “I’ve trained myself to sleep only three hours a night;” he says — then admits, “it took twenty years to build up to it. On Shabbos I sleep a lot.” His packed daily schedule begins with the vasikin minyan at 5:00 a.m. and ends with a Torah learning session while the rest of the world sleeps, from 11:00 to 2:00 a.m.

Tall and loose-limbed, projecting a peculiar blend of relaxed self-assurance and contained intensity, it’s easy to see how this forty-four-year-old perpetual motion machine was once a challenge for his rebbeim. “I was the kid who was always getting kicked out of class,” says Rabbi Deutsch, who was raised in a Lubavitch family in Crown Heights. “I wouldn’t stop asking questions. We’d be learning a mishnah, and I’d want to know what the words really meant — which animal was being referred to, what the vessels looked like. But my rebbis used to think I was trying to be chutzpahdig, and I ended up with more than my share of slaps.”

Despite his disruptiveness, Rabbi Deutsch managed to go all the way through the Chabad yeshivah system, receiving his smichah there. After smichah, remaining true to his personal philosophy that “a rav should make his own parnassah,” he enrolled in Kingsborough and later, Brooklyn College, to study business.

While still in school, he entered a competition for all students in New York State, in which each contestant had to submit his proposal for a start-up company. “I made a plan for a company to sell odd-sized shoes,” he says. He won the competition, and in 1988 revamped the proposal and resubmitted it, representing New York, in a contest sponsored by Deca Clubs of America and the US Department of Education. Again, he won first place.

“I was the only frum person to have ever won this sort of national competition,” he says proudly. “After that, I was inundated with job offers from every major corporation. I worked for several different companies, but my longest position was with J & R, the Manhattan electronics superstore, where I was the head of finance for eleven years.” Today, he continues to work as an independent business consultant, a job to which he devotes five to eight days a month.

For almost thirty years, Rabbi Deutsch considered himself a fully engaged member of the Chabad Chassidus; at one point, he says, he was giving ten shiurim a week in Crown Heights. But after the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, developments within that community prompted him to move from Crown Heights to Boro Park, to the house on 41st Street that now houses the museum as well.

He established a new shul with a nucleus of others with Lubavitch roots, who chose him as their Rebbe. “I wasn’t really interested in becoming a Rebbe,” Rabbi Deutsch claims. “I was pushed into doing it.” He took the title of Liozna Rebbe, after the Belarussian town of Liozna in which Chabad Chassidus had its earliest origins. Rabbi Deutsch still maintains ties, however, to the old neighborhood: his brother-in-law is the head of the Community Council in Crown Heights, and his chesed organization feeds three hundred families in Crown Heights every week.

As the Anshei Liozna shul grew, its new rebbe began organizing deliveries of kosher food for needy families, calling his program Oneg Shabbos – mushrooming from  a small group of deliveries into a mini-empire. Today, he claims, “We are the largest kosher food pantry in New York.”

He says his organization feeds 18,000 people a month, with 165 drivers and a 6.5-million-dollar-yearly food budget. The packing is done by other volunteers, including school groups who come in to help. Oneg Shabbos is affiliated with social service agencies like the United Way, Food Bank for NYC, City Harvest, and Met Council, and is in partnership with local food distributors and even national manufacturers who donate goods. This year’s Pesach distribution, which served around 5,000 families, was an all-day affair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard involving 250 volunteers.

While Rabbi Deutsch spends time every morning attending to the operation’s finances, he says that his wife is the real force behind the day-to-day operations. “My wife is my partner in everything,” he maintains. “I couldn’t do it without her. There aren’t so many rebbetzins who can unload a tractor- trailer, or drive a Hi-Lo.”

 

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