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Lucerne’s Torah Lighthouse: A Tribute to Rav Yitzchak Dov Koppelman ztz”l

Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz

For half a century, Lucerne’s Torah lighthouse, Rav Yitzchak Dov Koppelman, served as both father and mother to his students, molding students with a singular combination of loving acceptance and unbending expectations. As Shabbos began, he finally bid goodbye to his earthly abode, after more than 100 years of dedicated service to His maker and generations of talmidim.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lucerne, Switzerland. In the early dawn hours, you can barely hear a sound, as the desolate streets slowly fill with light. Walking into the Beis Midrash at the top of the hill in the wee hours of the morning, you would find a diminutive figure. Already well past his hundredth birthday, he would be there each day, learning silently. Except Shabbos. On Shabbos morning, the beis midrash would be filled with a beautiful, haunting tune that he sang as he learned. “The masechta for Olam HaBa,” he called it. He studied Maseches Shabbos each Shabbos, year after year, preparing for the ultimate test.

Last Shabbos morning, the niggun was no longer heard in This World. A few hours earlier, on Leil Shabbos, Rav Yitzchak Dov Koppelman ztz”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Lucerne for nearly fifty years, ascended to the Heavens at the age of 106, undoubtedly ready to sing that haunting niggun on a Higher Sphere.


The Force Behind the Reform

Backdrops changed frequently behind Rav Koppelman, but that figure, bent over his shtender over his beloved seforim, would remain a constant. World War I, fought when he was just a young boy, gave way to a few years of troubled peace, but then came World War II, devastating the continent and leaving bloody tracks behind. Through it all, he managed to carve out a little bit of Gan Eden, a shelter within the wisdom of the ages. Into that shelter, he welcomed generations of talmidim. Some were accomplished scholars when they began studying under him; others turned to him after difficult experiences in other yeshivas. But there was a common denominator among Lucerne talmidim: They all emerged from under his guiding hand as better people.

My first introduction to the world of Lucerne and its indomitable guiding spirit was a phone call that was nearly as absurd as it was shocking. There had been a gang in the high school that I attended, and most of the members had been in my class. Molded after a secular gang leader, “Gershon” was “the enforcer.” He stood a foot taller than most of our class and was broader than two of us combined. Not a person you crossed. And if you did, you didn’t cross him a second time.

His call during the first Pesach break after high school came as a shock. By then, most of our class had disbanded — some had gone to Eretz Yisrael to learn, others were headed toward college, and several members of that gang were unfortunately leaning towards dropping out of frum society. Had someone forced me to guess, I would have placed Gershon among the latter group. But here he was on the phone. Apologizing.

“I’m calling to ask you mechilah,” he explained.

Mechilah? Was this the same Gershon who could threaten to rearrange your face — and maybe follow through on that threat — if you didn’t comply with the gang rules?

It was.

“Where are you these days?” was all I could muster.

“Well, now I’m home in New York, but I spent the winter zman in Lucerne. I came home and retrieved the class list we received at graduation. I feel that I have to ask each person in our class for mechilah — some for tormenting them, and others for drawing them into the gang.”

Already in his nineties at that point, Rav Koppelman was still actively involved with every bochur who enrolled in his yeshivah, and he was the catalyst for the abrupt about-face on Gershon’s part.

At the time I figured that Lucerne must be a boot camp of sorts, with Rav Koppelman as the drill sergeant, reforming the seemingly lost souls. Only later would I find out that the same man could be a rebbi not only to the Gershons of this world, but to stellar bochurim from across the spectrum of frum Jewry, through a chinuch career that lasted more than eighty years.


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