| Magazine Feature |

Bridge to Heaven

Rav Avrohom Chaim Feuer shares his privileged view of Rav Mordechai Gifter

Photos: Reuven Photography, AEGedolim

While Rav Mordechai Gifter ztz”l has been gone for over two decades, for his son-in-law Rav Avrohom Chaim Feuer, the Rosh Yeshivah is still very much present, continuing to inspire with his trademark confidence and encouragement in the face of distractions — a prescient message in these complex times. Rav Feuer and his Rebbetzin open a door to the man the world knew as a leader, but for them, the father they could always count on


I vividly recall the frequent ten-hour drives from hometown Toronto to yeshivah in New York and vice versa. There was a giddy excitement as the group of five or six of us would clamber into a newly rented car, armed with basic necessities: MBD, Avraham Fried, Yaakov Shwekey (Ishay Ribo wasn’t around then). But one of the fellows didn’t care much for music — when he was in the driver’s seat, his choice of entertainment was something else entirely.

The audio was muffled and warbly, but that didn’t stop the magnetic energy from transcending the tape deck. The voice was deep and guttural, punctuated by an antiquated American dialect and accentuated by a blazing passion. The vocabulary was exquisite, yielding words that hovered well outside of our limited yeshivish lexicon but then, seamlessly, would switch to a rich, soulful Yiddish.

Is the neshamah there, or is it only lip service? And when we ask of Hashem, “chaneinu mei’iticha dei’ah,” do we feel that we are really speaking to One who can give us wisdom? And then we stand and beg of Him, “Ribbono shel Olam, I need it so badly — give it to me!” Do we really feel that? And we follow up with “s’lach lanu avinu ki chatanu — forgive us for we have sinned!” It’s something we say three times a day, not just on Yom Kippur, but are we even conscious of what we are saying?

With the word “chatanu!” the entire car could begin to shake. The concepts may be well-known, but the words took on a life of their own.

This was Rav Mordechai Gifter ztz”l, late rosh yeshivah of Telshe Cleveland and his delivery presented something no music could offer. With his trademark eloquence, he bridged between past and present, America and Europe, exalted spheres and firm earthly ground.

And while his passing on 23 Teves 5761 (January 2001) left so many bereft of a much beloved rebbi, Rav Gifter’s legacy indeed continues, through his Torah, through his impact, and, most of all, through his children.

Rav Avrohom Chaim Feuer is the son-in-law of Rav Gifter and an outstanding talmid chacham in his own right. Having served as a rav for many decades and compiled and translated dozens of works, including such classics as ArtScroll’s Interlinear Tehillim, Kinnos, Selichos, Iggeres HaRamban, Shemoneh Esreh, Tashlich, Tzedakah Treasury, and so many others, Rav Feuer’s imprint on the American Torah world has become indelible. Yet, much as he is a teacher, he remains a student. Rav Gifter continues to be not only Rav Feuer’s dear father-in-law, but his mentor and inspiration. Together with his wife, Rebbetzin Luba Feuer, they open the door to the man the world knew as a leader, but they knew as a father.

Pictures of many gedolim line the walls in the Feuer home, situated in an idyllic Lakewood retirement development called “The Enclave.”

But one picture stands out — and not necessarily because of its size. Whereas the prototypical “gadol picture” will feature a rav bent over his Gemara or standing before a podium with an expression of deep concentration, this picture of Rav Mordechai Gifter is different. He is sitting at his desk, looking up toward the camera, with the broadest, warmest smile on his face. As my conversation with the Feuers begins to evolve, it becomes clear that this choice of picture is no coincidence.

“Rav Gifter was so normal,” says Rav Feuer. “He had no airs. He acted as a typical American — the children called him ‘Daddy.’ ” For those who only viewed Rav Gifter from a distance, this might come as somewhat of a surprise. Rav Gifter was extremely serious, a scion to the Telsher mussar tradition, and one who would stand up in ardent and vocal defense of Torah values in face of opposition.

“I’ve been asked if I was afraid of my father,” says Rebbetzin Feuer. “And I answer, ‘Afraid? Why would I be afraid? He was my Daddy!’”

Rebbetzin Feuer quotes a line her father used to say. “A mensch,” said Rav Gifter, “must have both feet on the ground while always looking upward.”

“My father would tell us that we must always feel that everything — even regular everyday activities — are for a hecherkeit(higher purpose).

The warmth emanating from the portrait hanging in the dining room is the salient emotion that comes to Rebbetzin Feuer’s mind when reminiscing about her father.

“He was always available for us,” she shares. “If I had a question on Chumash, I would knock on the door to his study. He would look up and say Vuhs vilst du, mein kind? (What do you want, my child?)’ I would ask my question and he would answer, clearly and patiently. Then he would say, “Yetzt farshteist? (Now do you understand?)’ I would nod and he’d say, ‘Okay, mein kind.’”

The Shabbos table reflected this same relaxed and welcoming attitude. “On Friday night we would sing,” Rebbetzin Feuer recalls. “We would sing so many beautiful songs together. And then my father would tell stories. I’m sure he said a devar Torah but that wasn’t his main focus. He wanted us to enjoy a warm and uplifting Shabbos table.”

And he was as good a husband as he was a father. “He used to wash the dishes,” says Rav Feuer. “Someone once asked him why he would wash the dishes when he has teenage children who were more than capable of doing so. His answer was, ‘Because I want to! I want to help my wife.’”

If Rav Gifter was able to intertwine the uplift of Shabbos with the down-to-earth role as a loving and relatable father, it was far from the only balance he struck. Straddling worlds, as it turns out, is the very characterization of Rav Gifter’s journey to greatness.

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Mordechai attended public school and then a Talmud Torah in the afternoon. Upon graduation, Rav Gifter enrolled in Yeshiva University/RIETS where he studied under Rav Moshe Aharon Poleyeff and Rav Moshe Soloveichik. His uncle, Rabbi Shmuel Zar, was the yeshivah’s registrar, and it was he who suggested to his nephew that he consider traveling to Lithuania to study in the great yeshivah of Telshe. In 1933, a young Mordechai Gifter set sail for Europe.

Rav Gifter excelled in Telshe and developed an especially close relationship with both the rosh hayeshivah, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, and the mashgiach, Rav Zalman Bloch, and he would eventually become engaged to Rav Zalman Bloch’s daughter, Shoshana.

Rav Gifter returned to Baltimore to visit his parents prior to getting married. The year was 1938 and, while in America, it became evident that returning to Europe could prove to be a fatal decision. In 1940, members of the Telshe community were able to arrange for Shoshana to emigrate to America, and it was there that she and Mordechai were married.

Rav Gifter’s first rabbinic position was in the Nusach Ari shul in Baltimore. There, he served as the rav, an ironic dynamic given the contrast between the shul’s chassidic affiliation and Rav Gifter’s strong litvish background.

In 1941, the Gifters moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, where Rav Gifter served as the rav of a very small kehillah; at the time, there wasn’t even a minyan of shomrei Shabbos. Rav Gifter would closet himself in a room and learn for hours, writing up hundreds of pages of chiddushei Torah. But every now and then, he would board a train and take a “business trip” to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where a great talmid chacham named Rav Yehuda Leib Forer lived. Rav Forer had learned in the Volozhiner yeshivah and was a student of Rav Chaim Brisker, and Rav Gifter cherished every opportunity to speak with him in learning.

Meanwhile, back in Lithuania, things weren’t going very well. In June of 1940, the Russians succeeded in taking control of Lithuania, shutting down all Jewish schools as part of their effort to transform the country into a “Soviet socialist republic.” In the summer of 1941, the doors to the Telshe yeshivah, founded in 1875 and, by the year 1900, recognized as one of the three greatest yeshivos in Imperial Russia, were forcefully closed.

But even as a cloak of darkness draped itself over Telshe, Lithuania, a spark of light began to glimmer in faraway America. Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Mottel Katz (both maggidei shiur in Telshe) had been sent to the United States specifically for the purpose of founding a branch of the yeshivah in the United States and set their sights on a location in Wickliffe, Ohio. In October of 1940, Rav Chaim Stein, another maggid shiur in the yeshivah, managed to escape war-torn Europe along with a group of talmidim. Their arrival in Telshe Cleveland was the genesis of what would evolve into one of the most prestigious yeshivos in America.

Rav Gifter joined the yeshivah a few years later. His being an alumnus of the original Telshe in Lithuania, while still being perfectly American, made his role in Telshe Cleveland both singular and critical. The symmetry of identities made him the perfect man to usher in an era of American boys who had limited exposure to Torah greatness and train them on the nuances of sacred yeshivah tradition.

One such American boy was Avrohom Chaim Feuer, who grew up in Crown Heights. A young Avrohom Chaim, one of two children, attended Yeshivah of Crown Heights through eighth grade where he was influenced by several of his great rebbeim, including Rav Chaim Segal (who later went on to become the rosh mesivta of Chaim Berlin). Upon graduating, Avrohom Chaim attended Brooklyn Talmudical Academy. One rebbi who stands out as having had a significant personal impact is Rav Yissoschor Frankel, who made learning so enjoyable for the teenage boys.

Rav Feuer shares a story that he heard at the shivah following Rav Frankel’s passing. “Rav Frankel grew up in Yerushalayim when poverty was rampant. Every day his mother would give him a grush to buy a drink. But, while learning in yeshivah, he developed a great cheshek for the sefer Pnei Yehoshua. He entered a seforim store and asked the owner how much it would cost to buy a Pnei Yehoshua. The price was well beyond his affordability, so he went to his friends who also received a daily coin for a drink and said, ‘We don’t need such big drinks. Let’s get smaller drinks and use the extra money toward a Pnei Yehoshua.’ Each day they would bring the remainder of their money to the seforim store and the owner would tear out one page of Pnei Yehoshua and sell it to them. Eventually, they succeeded in buying all the pages and bound them together into a complete sefer.”

Another impactful figure in Rav Feuer’s life was Rabbi Yaakov Greenwald, who led Camp Kol Ree-Nah. Rav Feuer’s acquaintance with Rabbi Greenwald was, in retrospect, highly providential. “I was hired to be a lifeguard in Kol Ree-Nah,” Rav Feuer recalls, “but when I arrived there, we realized that the camp’s lake had dried up.” The hired lifeguard would have to stand watch over a waterless lake but that didn’t render his summer useless. “Unbeknownst to me, Rabbi Greenwald was working on a plan to convince me to go to either Philly or to Telshe. Many of the counselors approached me to convince me.” Avrohom Chaim was duly persuaded and applied to Philly — which had no openings. And so it was that he applied — and was accepted — to Telshe Cleveland.

In Telshe, Avrohom Chaim was introduced to several prominent rebbeim. “Rav Pesach Stein was my maggid shiur,” he recounts, “and I joined a chaburah on Chovos Halevavos given by Rav Mottel Katz.” Other maggidei shiur included Rav Chaim Stein and Rav Boruch Sorotzkin. Upon graduating the shiurim of these legendary gedolei Yisrael, Rav Feuer joined the shiur of Rav Mordechai Gifter. One of Rav Gifter’s immediately apparent qualities was his beautifully articulate English, something the American born and bred Avrohom Chaim Feuer took to gratefully. “Rav Gifter was American. We felt that he really understood us.”

Over time, Rav Feuer grew exceptionally close with Rav Gifter. “I was in Telshe for five years as a bochur,” Rav Feuer relates. “I learned with him b’chavrusa as he prepared the shiur.” Ultimately, Rav Gifter suggested Avrohom Chaim as a suitable match for his daughter. “I remained in Telshe for 12 years after our marriage. In Telshe I had everything. I had my rebbeim, my chavrusas. We lived on the Telshe property, which was its own private compound. There was no reason to leave.”

The Feuers would join their in-laws for the Pesach Seder and there, once again, Rav Gifter would strike an exacting, if not surprising, balance. “My father-in-law would not let me lean b’heseibah during the Seder,” Rav Feuer recalls. This direction is in line with the halachah that a student may not lean before his rebbi unless the rebbi explicitly forgoes on his honor. “But my father-in-law would not be mochel. He said that, in order for me to learn from him, I must maintain a certain reverence of him. I could not lean at his seder.” Years later, Rav Feuer would assume a position as rav in Miami Beach and once, Rav and Rebbetzin Gifter spent Pesach with them. “Once I became a rav, my father-in-law ruled that I should lean. Since I’m the rav of a shul, he reasoned, I must be allowed to conduct myself with honor — even in the presence of my rebbi.”

The irony is that, even while Rav Gifter demanded the respect owed by a student to his rebbi, he still treated Rav Feuer like a much beloved son. “When he would write an approbation for my seforim,” says Rav Feuer, “he would refer to me as ‘chasani k’bni — my son-in-law who is like my son.’ ”

IT was yet another balance of fear with love, and Rebbetzin Feuer shares how this was commonly expressed in her home. “Elul was a very intense time in Telshe,” she says, “but for my father, it was ‘v’gilui bir’adah’ — joy mixed with fear. He wouldn’t allow the intensity to overtake him or his simchas hachayim.” Rebbetzin Feuer shares another memory. “It was on the night of bedikas chometz, and my father got a phone call. The caller informed him that a rebbi, with whom my father was very close, had been killed in a car accident. My father locked himself in a room and wept bitterly. Then he opened the door and announced, ‘bedikas chometz has to be b’simchah!’ and we went on to perform the mitzvah with full happiness and energy.”

The tears Rav Gifter had shed upon hearing the tragic news of a friend’s passing was emblematic of one other trademark middah: sensitivity. Rav Gifter was known as a genius in a cognitive sense, but Rebbetzin Feuer says that “he was an illui of the emotions as well.” Rav Gifter was once flying from New York back to Cleveland together with his wife. There was a bochur on the plane — a talmid of Telshe — and he was approached by the flight attendant who was holding a packaged meal. The boy was surprised — he hadn’t ordered a meal — but the flight attendant explained. “The rabbi told me to give this to you,” she said, indicating toward Rav Gifter. The bochur approached Rav Gifter. “Rosh Yeshivah, I can’t take your food!” he protested. Rav Gifter looked at him and responded. “I am going home; my wife will prepare supper for me. But you are going to yeshivah and the kitchen will already be closed when you arrive. You’ll be hungry! Please take the meal.”

Rebbetzin Feuer shares a markedly incredible story which involves her directly. “We got engaged in 1967, and were working on wedding preparations. My father placed an order with the printer for several hundred invitations. But then, the Six Day War broke out. My father called the printer and canceled the order. He explained that we don’t know how long the war will last and, if it is ongoing at the time of the wedding, we cannot hold a large celebration.” Ultimately, the war ended after a miraculous six days and the wedding was able to resume as planned.

The depths of Rav Gifter’s emotions were perhaps most openly expressed in his love for Eretz Yisrael. In 1977, Rav Gifter actually moved to Eretz Yisrael along with some ten bochurim, in order to open a branch of the yeshivah in what is now known as Telshe Stone. Rav Boruch Sorotzkin, who was Rav Gifter’s fellow rosh yeshivah, remained at the helm of Telshe Cleveland. For two years, Rav Gifter would walk the numinous streets of Telshe Stone, encapsulated by Eretz Yisrael’s beauty. “My father would sit on a rock up on a hill in Telshe Stone,” Rebbetzin Feuer shares, “he would just sit there, completely lost in thought. The bochurim knew not to approach him then.” Rav Gifter loved nature and was enamored by the rakefet (cyclamen), Israel’s national winter flower. “Look,” he would say, “in the daytime, the rakefet stands straight. But at night, its head bends downward. It’s so humble.”

Rav Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Mattisyahu, was one of Rav Gifter’s closest talmidim. Rav Leff had served as a rav in North Miami Beach for many years when the opportunity to lead the community in Moshav Mattisyahu arose. Unsure of whether to pursue it or not, he turned to Rav Gifter. “Go,” Rav Gifter instructed, “that’s where the future lies.”

Rav Gifter would frequent the gedolim of Eretz Yisrael, maintaining particularly close relationships with the Steipler and Rav Shach. But if Rav Gifter revered the gedolim of Eretz Yisrael, the sentiment was mutual.

“I was once the korei shem at a bris in Eretz Yisrael,” Rav Feuer relates, “and Rav Elyashiv was the sandek. I introduced myself to Rav Elyashiv as the son-in-law of Rav Gifter and he responded ‘ihr hut gehat a sheinem shver — you had a beautiful father-in-law.” And then he repeated it — ihr hut gehat a sheinem shver.” In a sense, Rav Feuer reveals, this comment of Rav Elyashiv was something of a revelation. Rav Gifter would conduct himself in a way that was so ordinary that it could be difficult to notice the towering gadlus. “But when Rav Elyashiv referred to my father-in-law as a ‘sheinem shver’ and then repeated it, I had an insight into how great Rav Gifter was.”

IN 1979, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin tragically passed away, leaving Telshe Cleveland bereft of a leader. Rav Gifter wanted so badly to remain in Eretz Yisrael but both the Steipler and Rav Shach advised him to return to Cleveland.

“I’m going back to Cleveland,” Rav Gifter said, “uber ich luz ibber mein hartz duh — but I’m leaving over my heart here.”

“My father,” Rebbetzin Feuer says, “was never the same after that.”

Rav Gifter would forever miss Eretz Yisrael, but this in fact, was an anguish he was well trained in. One of Rav Feuer’s many celebrated accomplishments is his English translation of the Tishah B’Av Kinnos, published by ArtScroll.

“I began working on the kinnos immediately after Simchas Torah,” Rav Feuer shares. “It felt strange. Here, we had just celebrated one of the happiest days of the year and now, I was focusing on Tishah B’Av. I approached Rav Gifter and voiced this concern. Rav Gifter looked at me and said, ‘Nein, ihr macht a ta’us — no, you’re making a mistake. You should be thinking about kinnos all year long! The only thing different about Tishah B’Av is that, during the rest of the year, we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash in silence. On Tishah B’Av, we mourn it out loud.’”

For years, Rav Gifter actually experienced galus in a very literal sense. “In the early years, my father-in-law would travel all over collecting money for the yeshivah,” says Rav Feuer. “He would go door-to-door in the blazing heat of the summer, sometimes receiving no more than a five-dollar donation. He would miss Shavuos in yeshivah, and my mother-in-law would be left alone with the children. But she never complained. She would say, ‘This is my sacrifice for the yeshivah.’”

Once, soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Rav Gifter travelled to Mexico to raise funds for the yeshivah. This effort bore fruit — in more ways than one. Rav Gifter then shared a story that has since become one of the most famous anecdotes of yeshivah lore. There was a certain wealthy individual living in Mexico with whom Rav Gifter wished to arrange a meeting. “One evening I went to his home,” Rav Gifter relayed. “It was a beautiful mansion. I knocked on the door and asked to speak with the owner of the home. They said he was still at work. The next morning, I returned, and they said he was at work. So I went down to his office.” Rav Gifter described how he begged the secretary to allow him just five minutes with the boss. The man emerged and Rav Gifter, prior to requesting a donation, posed a different question.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “You live in a palatial home. But you’re never there! You’re always in the office. Why would you have such an expensive house if you don’t get to enjoy it?”

The man shook his head. “Rebbi,” he said, “the house isn’t for me. It’s for my wife and children. But me? I’m always in the office. Veil oib mir vilt hubben hatzlachah in gesheft, muzt mir liggen in gesheft — if you wish to have success in the business, you must be completely engrossed in the business.” Rav Gifter heard this and smiled broadly.

“Reb Yid,” he said, “you gave me enough.” The man presumably gave Rav Gifter a donation but that was of little import. Rav Gifter returned home and delivered a shmuess. He shared the story and then quoted the line he had heard. “Oib mir vilt hubben hatzlachah in gesheft,” he thundered, “muzt mir liggen in gesheft!” Our “gesheft” is learning Torah, he expounded, and if we wish to succeed in learning Torah, we must be entirely engrossed in it.

ONthe 23rd day of Teves, after 85 years of “liggen in gesheft,” Rav Mordechai Gifter returned his soul to the very Heavens he always looked toward, even as his feet remained firmly planted on Earth. It was in the midst of a frigid January,  and the airports had closed due to the inclement weather. Famed philanthropist Mr. Jay Schottenstein provided a private plane that would fly the coffin to New York, and, from there, it would be taken to Eretz Yisrael for burial. A core group of talmidim stood outside the plane, huddled together in a frozen circle.

“Please,” they said to Rav Feuer, “tell us. What would the Rosh Yeshivah say now? What would be his parting words?”

Rav Feuer nodded, stepped forward, and shared a one-minute speech.

“Rav Yosef Leib Bloch would pick up a newborn infant and say, ‘Yingele, yingele,’ or ‘meidele, meidele. You traveled a long, long journey to get down to this world. Gedenk, der tachlis fun a Yid iz mekadesh shem Shamayim b’rabim — remember, the purpose of a Jew is to publicly be mekadesh shem Shamayim.’” Rav Feuer paused. “Rav Gifter’s final message to us would be, ‘Gedenk — remember. Der tachlis fun a Yid iz mekadesh shem Shamayim b’rabim.”

And with that, the talmidim bade farewell to their rebbi who was now returning to the Land in which his heart had always remained.

That car filled with bochurim heading to New York may have pulsated from the recorded voice of Rav Gifter, but here, in Lakewood’s “Enclave,” that same voice continues to resound. Taking leave from the Feuer home feels like taking one step away from the mesorah that Rav Gifter so fiercely defended.

“My father would say that yichus is a bunch of zeros,” Rebbetzin Feuer shares. “If you yourself are a ‘one’ then the zeros become a million. Otherwise — mir bleibt a zero — you remain a zero.”

The warm smile sparkling from the large portrait on the wall seems to acknowledge this. Being a child of Rav Gifter is more than adequate yichus, but he was always so proud of his children and talmidim who turned that heritage into a million they can call their own.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 999)

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