| Magazine Feature |

A Yeshivah Bochur Like No Other  

How a factory worker from the Bronx became a beloved patron of the Torah world

Photos: Personal archives, Yeshiva of Telshe Alumni Riverdale photo library

You may have met him on occasion — maybe it was in shul, or Minchah at work, or in the dining room of the yeshivah where you had gone to visit your son. A hunched man with a bushy gray beard, wearing an old and very faded black suit. In recent years, he walked slowly, leaning on a cane and clearly in a great deal of pain. If you did in fact have the privilege of making his acquaintance, he probably asked you for a donation — “a dollar or two was just fine” — to support a certain kollel in Israel or a yeshivah he’d been donating to for years.

If you had not learned in an east coast yeshivah, there was no way to know it, but you had just crossed paths with simple greatness seen only among our people. I don’t profess to know these things, but one might even say it was a missed opportunity to ask for a brachah.

His name was Reb Avraham Moskowitz. He was a dear and cherished friend to the bnei Torah and the roshei yeshivah of Am Yisrael. They knew him as Al and considered him one of their own.

For reasons known only to our Father in Heaven, Al wasn’t blessed with the gift of building generations, not in the conventional sense. Yet he found a unique way to leave an everlasting legacy. Al was a chiddush, a wholly original concept, and generations of yeshivah bochurim bear testimony to the depth of its truth and its beauty.

He discovered the world of the beis medrash at an age where for most it would have been too late to earn the title he valued above all others. But with singular focus, devotion, and love, he earned that title and was crowned by its glory for over 40 years: Al Moskowitz. Ben yeshivah.

Al Moskowitz was a child of the late 1940’s Bronx, a place teeming with Jews starting over and shuls on every corner. Max and Minnie Moskowitz lived on Hull Avenue in the Mosholu Parkway/Gun Hill Road neighborhood, and one of the places they davened was the Mosholu Jewish Center. The leader of the synagogue was Rabbi Hershel Shachter, the famed Jewish chaplain present at the liberation of Buchenwald who remained there for months helping the freed prisoners (and was the one to rescue a little boy named Lulek, later to become known the world over as Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Israel).

Al would listen intently to every word of Rabbi Shachter’s dynamic speeches. Blessed with a phenomenal memory, he would repeat those talks years later, verbatim. Legend has it that one busy week, the rabbi had no time to prepare, and before ascending the pulpit, whispered to Al that this derashah would be a recycled one. He knew Al would remember and wanted to make sure his secret was safe.

The other shul they frequented was Rabbi Zevulun Charlop’s Young Israel. The rav held an annual appeal for a kollel in Israel, and when Al got a bit older and became financially independent, he was invariably the most generous donor. His love for the study of Torah and talmidei chachamim, later to blossom into a full-blown obsession, was evident long before he entered the portals of the yeshivah world.

Even back then, Al stood out for his soft soul. His mother always referred to him as the one with the heart of gold, and his sister Vicky Feldman still remembers the day that, at age eight, she lost her brand new pretty red pocketbook. She had gone for an outing with a friend and her grandmother and had left it behind. Eleven-year-old Al couldn’t bear his little sister’s pain, and without a word, he slipped out, trekked more than three miles by foot, and returned with the pocketbook.

Al attended Heichal HaTorah, Rabbi Yechiel London’s catch-all yeshivah high school in upper Manhattan (what’s now known as Spanish Harlem) geared for boys of all backgrounds. His formal schooling ended after high school, when he took a job at the Manischewitz Company. He never left. The roles varied from schlepping 50-pound bags of flour to managing employee break schedules, but he remained on the factory floor all his life. Some might have scoffed at a seemingly stagnant career, but Al was ascending a different ladder.

It was on a summer trip in the late ‘70s that the life of the simple factory worker from Mosholu Parkway took a sharp upward turn. Al, around 30 at the time, had recently bought his first car, and the open road beckoned. He was headed for Los Angeles, but this version of the American story of Manifest Destiny culminated in a life-changing meeting with a kind Jew in Cleveland, Ohio.

Mr. Jerry Joseph was walking to Minchah when he met the young man traveling through his town. After some pleasantries, Mr. Joseph inquired as to where he was planning to stay.

“The Brown Derby Hotel,” Al replied.

Mr. Joseph wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re staying with me, for as long as you need.”

And so it was. Al stayed a week and left with a standing invitation to the home on Blanche Road. Every summer he returned, and his annual trip to Cleveland became a Joseph family tradition.

On one of those visits in the early 1980s, he overheard Jerry’s eighth grade son, Nosson, talking excitedly with a friend about a new yeshivah they were slated to attend together in Elul.

“Riverdale!” Al exclaimed. “That’s minutes from my place! I’m picking you up from the airport.”

And just like that, his journey to becoming a yeshivah bochur-for-life got its start.

Ever the loyal son, Wednesday evenings were reserved for taking his mom on her weekly shopping trip to Waldbaum’s, along with his grandmother, Mrs. Bessie Gorzizky. He would drop them off, and then swing by the nearby Yeshiva of Telshe Alumni in the building on Independence Avenue, to visit Nosson and get to know all of his new friends.

And Al always came bearing gifts. Manischewitz couldn’t sell products that were imperfectly baked, and any such Tam Tams were left in a corner to be thrown away. Al knew just where they should go. Huge boxes of the seconds came up the yeshivah hill, as the boys spilled out to the driveway, greeting the man who understood their need for a treat. Sometimes, there were jars of gefilte fish too. In those simple times, it hit the perfect spot (no sushi platter today will ever rival the flavor of those long winter night snacks). His overarching desire to give everything to boys learning Torah started with those crackers and planted the seeds for the millions of dollars that were coming.

As the connection he was building with the boys grew stronger and friendships solidified, Al spent more and more time in yeshivah. He even started to ask the boys to learn with him a bit — it had been close to two decades since he left yeshivah high school. He was grabbing pesukim in Chumash and a Mishnah here and there with any student who was willing, but eventually it wasn’t enough for Al. He came to the rosh yeshivah, Rav Avrohom Ausband, and asked for a proper chavrusa, something concrete. He was ready to make a commitment.

Rav Ausband asked Rabbi Avrohom Katz, at the time on a sabbatical from Israel and running the general studies department, if he would take it on. A friendship was established that lasted for close to 40 years.

“We felt so close,” Rabbi Katz shared with me, speaking of the impact Al made on him and his family. “He treated each of my children like family, and it continued on to the next generation. Later, when he’d come to visit us in Israel, he used to test my little grandson on Mishnayos and gave him a dollar for each perek he successfully recited. He really loved Mishanyos!

“Back then, we learned Motzaei Shabbos, among other times. He was at my door, changed and ready for the week ahead, before I even had a chance to make Havdalah.”

Rabbi Katz returned to Israel, but Al never forgot the man who was willing to give him of his time. He visited often and stayed with the Katzes for Pesach. It was there that he was introduced to Kollel Degel Reuven, headed by Rabbi Katz’s son and for which he famously collected until the very end — rain or shine, in good health and in the times he could barely walk. Days off at Manischewitz were used to go from town to town, shul to shul, and everywhere in between. Nobody ever asked him to do what he did, but he considered it an obligation and his way of giving back. For Torah and for the family that had a hand in showing him its beauty. He also raised funds for his old high school alma mater, Rabbi London’s Heichal HaTorah, before it closed. Al never failed to repay anyone or any place that had a positive influence on his spiritual growth.

Eventually, while continuing his job at the factory during the week, Al joined the Telshe Alumni yeshivah in Riverdale for Shabbos and Yamin Tovim. After all, where else does a yeshivah bochur belong?

On one of those Fridays early on, Al put down his things in the room he was assigned and ambled in to Kabbalas Shabbos. The yeshivah was housed in an old mansion high on a hill, just off the Hudson River. The first floor had been converted to serve as the beis medrash, with each class having its own section in the narrow rectangular layout. The ninth-graders sat off to the right, furthest from the door, and for some reason, Al’s heart pulled him there, and that’s where he decided to sit. Later, at the seudah, he joined them too.

In retrospect, it was the most fitting choice. They were both just starting out, daring to dream and determined to reach for the stars. That day, he became an honorary member of the shiur and as the years passed, he moved up along with them, until they completed fourth-year beis medrash.

When the time came for that original class to move on, he started over, moving back to sit with the incoming ninth grade. Al had originated a cycle, infused with the promise of fresh beginnings and buoyed by the deep satisfaction of unceasing growth.

His love for the beis medrash wasn’t limited to one yeshivah; he searched out the other places where Jewish youth were being trained in the untouched framework of authentic Torah study. In time, Riverdale led to Peekskill, to Long Beach, to Philly. Paterson would follow, along with Bayonne, Edison, and Torah Temimah, Roosevelt, Monroe Township, and a few more I am surely forgetting. His iconic gold Camry piled up hundreds of thousands of miles as he traversed the Tristate area. From yeshivah to yeshivah he went, finding new mentors, bringing Tam Tams to the boys, and learning Mishnayos or anything else anyone was willing to teach.

These mosdos became his home, the stabilizing force in his life. His celebrations took place on their campuses, and in moments of sorrow, he went there to gain comfort.

Like the chanukas habayis that will long be remembered in the annals of Long Beach history. Bochurim crowded at the entrance or jostled for prime space at the windows, pointing out the dignitaries as they stepped from their cars. The new ezras nashim, which would double as a second beis medrash, was being inaugurated. It was donated by Al, and it seemed like every rosh yeshivah in the country joined the festivities that day. Of course, they did. Family always joins on joyous occasions, and these were his simchahs. And these Torah scholars — they were his family.

A different yeshivah, a more somber occasion. Al had lost his mother, Minnie, and shivah was held in the Peekskill yeshivah. It was the same reverence for the visiting leaders, but the tone was quieter. The bochurim climbed up and down the stairs from the door room on the second floor where he sat, this time serving the man who so selflessly served them.

It’s where his life happened, where his life was. In every yeshivah, he found a place to call home, and in the heart of each talmid, he found a place to connect his neshamah its pure source — surrounded and embraced, in joy and in pain, by the people he lived for, the people he loved most.

His circle of Torah mentors kept expanding, his exposure to the fledgling dreams taking root in the hearts and minds of budding talmidei chachamim filling his heart. And it changed him, as is promised to those who seek out the word of the Creator. A nobility of character emerged, a sharpened sense of yashrus and erlichkeit shone through.

An old friend from the Bronx days, Reb Avraham Meir Grossman, hosted him on his yearly trip to Detroit. At the Shabbos meal, after the main course was brought out and everyone took their fill, the family noticed that Al’s plate was still empty.

“What’s up, Al? Is something the matter?” Mr. Grossman asked.

“Not everyone has had a chance to take their portion yet. My turn comes last,” he said.

“I knew him back in his younger years in the Bronx,” says Reb Avraham Meir. “He was special even then, but as he became attached to the surroundings and pace of the yeshivah, we all saw a tangible transition.”

The man from Manischewitz became synonymous with the word “yeshivah.”

Along the way, he amassed a sizeable amount of knowledge, and developed a deep love for learning. At the dusk of his life, Rabbi Nosson Joseph, now the executive director of the Riverdale yeshivah he introduced to Al all those years ago, called him daily at the Boro Park Center for Rehabilitation where he was then living. Reb Nosson would begin reciting a mishnah and Al would fire back masechta and perek. You couldn’t trip him up in Moed, Nashim, or Nezikin.

Rabbi Menachem Feifer was a rebbi in the early Telshe Riverdale years and another cherished chavrusa. They stayed in touch by phone and through Al’s visits to his Bayswater home.

After Al’s passing, a former Long Beach talmid reminded Rabbi Feifer how Al once ushered a group of his Long Beach boys into his car.

“Where are we going, Al?” the boys asked.

“To Bayswater. I’m taking you to meet my rav,” he said.

And on every one of those visits and at the end of every one of those phone calls, Al asked the rabbi to learn a mishnah with him or share a devar Torah. And Al never forgot, either.

Rav Chaim Bressler, Rosh Yeshivas Bais Moshe of Scranton, met Al at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Philadelphia yeshivah in 2003.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Rabbi,” said Al. “I’ve been meaning to get to know Scranton.”

And so, another adam gadol was added to the roster of people from whom Al drew life, another makom Torah added to his map. After that, Al would spend Simchas Torah in Scranton, buying Chassan Torah and Chassan Bereishis for the roshei yeshivah. Avi Liebowitz, a talmid of Scranton and today a respected kollel yungerman, will never forget the fear and respect for talmidei chachamim apparent in Al’s voice, as he recited the mi shebeirachs after those aliyos.

For Al it was simple. Rabbis of a yeshivah were people to be revered, and their word was law, no questions asked. Telshe-Riverdale’s rosh yeshivah Rav Avrohom Ausband, who is my own rebbi, described him as a quintessential example of the dictum of our sages, “Yehi beischa beis vaad l’chachamim v’evei misavek b’afar ragleihem (You should attach yourself to the dust of their feet).”

“He understood what a yeshivah stands for, what’s right and what’s wrong, in a magnificent way,” the Rosh Yeshivah said. “He went from really having no concept of what a yeshivah means to sitting among the elite of the Torah world, rising, in his own unique way, to the status of a true ben Torah.”

He related the time that a certain rebbi mentioned to Al that now that he was a yeshivah man,  perhaps it was beneath him to be watching TV. For Al, living alone, the idea of abandoning his television would be a huge sacrifice, but the very next day, every television in his home was unceremoniously dumped in the trash. He never watched again. In his later years, racked with pain and confined to a bed in a nursing home, he refused to allow it to be turned on.

“I’m a yeshivah man and I don’t watch TV,” he stated emphatically.

Newspapers too. Al used to buy the Daily News religiously, every day. A comment from one of his rebbeim, and that custom came to a screeching halt.

No questions, no hesitations, and total acceptance.

At some point during this period of personal growth, he found tremendous success on the stock market. Al became a wealthy man, but his lifestyle didn’t change at all — the same rent-controlled apartment on Hull Avenue where his parents had lived, the same job, clothing, and car. But he began to give. In an unimaginable way.

At his funeral, it was said that more than 85 percent of his vast wealth was given to Torah. Although this may raise eyebrows and invite disbelief, it was backed up by those closest to him. They saw his portfolio, and the numbers just didn’t make sense. Millions. The list was endless. Sifrei Torah, an aron kodesh in Peekskill, the Riverdale kitchen, extensive remodeling and renovations in Long Beach, random checks dropped off in yeshivah offices, learning programs, and extras for the bochurim he loved like his own.

In Riverdale, there is a program to finish the sections of the mesechta not covered by the official sedorim of the yeshivah. The boys learn the material in their free time and take written tests on it. Once a year, a gala Melaveh Malkah siyum is held, and every mesayem is presented with a considerable seforim gift certificate. For many years, it was sponsored entirely by Al, in memory of his mother.

But the celebration didn’t just start with the actual event. The entire Shabbos preceding the festivities was known as Shabbos Al, and the seudos were like no other during the year. He was involved in every detail: “The bochurim like pastrami more than corned beef, sesame chicken more than BBQ, and every boy needs at least this and this amount. Whatever it costs, just send me the bill. “

Al was a man who refused to spend an unnecessary dollar on himself and fastidiously calculated every expense. He couldn’t tolerate waste, but when it came to his boys, the faucet handle turned until it could turn no more.

Tens of yungeleit received free loans for first home down payments, at $20,000 a clip. Upon cleaning Al’s apartment when he took ill, Rabbi Joseph found those old documents and IOUs, attesting to a life of quiet and constant support of Torah.

Rav Mordechai Respler, a rosh yeshivah in Long Beach and another dear mentor, told me there was a time where Al felt that he wasn’t spending enough days in his apartment to justify its upkeep. He cut off the gas and electric and found a few more dollars to give away.

On more than one occasion, Rabbi Respler begged Al to finally buy a new car. The gold Camry known across New York and beyond, had reached close to 400,000 miles. It was time to move on.

“But Rabbi, I have no money,” Al said.

“What do you mean, you have no money?!” asked Rabbi Respler.

“That money is not mine. It belongs to the yeshivos.”

Rabbi Katz recounted a similar tale. Al had arrived for Yom Tov with a coat that was torn. When asked about it, he responded, “I have outstanding obligations to the mekomos haTorah. Until those are filled, not a dollar is mine.”

The bookend to that story is the boy in Long Beach who ripped his coat. The next time Al was there, he pulled out a brand-new coat from his car. For himself there was nothing to be had, for the yeshivah bochurim there was nothing that could ever hold him back.

Because it wasn’t really about the money he gave. It was the deep place it came from, the clarity he reached about what keeps up the world, and the distinct path he carved out as he added his shoulder to the ranks of those carrying its weight.

Al discovered the secret of eternity — the yeshivos: how they have the power to move a person to a higher plane, to drive one toward achieving the mission for which he was put here on earth. Those fortunate to find a sustained place within their sacred walls become transformed, and Al Moskowitz found that home, understood its force, and never tired of the sweet sensation it brought forth in his soul.

Yossi Brull, another former Long Beach talmid, sometimes visited the rehab center where Al lay weak in bed. On one visit, Al sat up, wrapped his tefillin, and began to daven. During his tefillah, the telephone rang. During those long, lonely days, far from the friends and friendships that gave him so much meaning, calls from people checking in were one of the few things that brought a smile to his face.

But Al didn’t flinch. He continued to daven like the yeshivah bochur he had become, at the same unhurried pace, without a glance toward the phone.

Last month, the day after Yom Kippur, Al went into cardiac arrest. He was attached to life support at Maimonides Hospital and it was clear the end was near. Rabbi Joseph, the boy who had brought him to yeshivah all those years ago, sat pensively, searching for one more zechus to accompany his beloved friend on his final journey. And then he remembered the $500 suit store credit. A few years ago, Al had converted $500 to a voucher at a frum men’s clothing store in Brooklyn. In the event he would need it, he would be able to pick up a new suit or a hat. But of course, it was never actually used, and that credit lay waiting for one final merit. Rabbi Joseph called Al’s sister Vicky, and they both agreed: The voucher would be given to a yeshivah bochur, a chassan who was struggling with his wedding expenses.

This was on Friday, and on Shabbos, Al left This World to partake of his eternal reward. His final day reflected the transcendent message on which this singular life had been lived: Ease the burden of one more ben Torah, gladden his heart, and take whatever part you can in transmitting the golden chain of our mesorah.

There is a direct promise extended to the people in our holy nation who do not merit to bear children yet choose to live a life given over completely to furthering kevod Shamayim.

“…V’shem tov mibanim umibanos, shem olam Etein lo, asher lo yikares — they merit an eternal world more valuable than sons and daughters, an everlasting name I will give, that will never be destroyed…”

Avraham Ben Moshe, zichrono livrachah, earned the reward of that promise, and his contributions to the covenant of unabated Torah continuity will always endure.

Shem olam. The title he attained, with a lifetime of tireless toil and obsessive pursuit.

Lo yikares. It will never be taken away, and he will forever be crowned by its glory.

Al Moskowitz. Ben yeshivah.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 883)

Oops! We could not locate your form.