I hoped the kehillah would welcome Luzzy, see past his shabby appearance, and understand that here was a lost soul who desperately needed our kindness
Sruli: Can’t you accommodate an old man who’s had a hard life?
Michoel: Chesed is wonderful, but not at the expense of everyone around you.
I know Luzzy from way back, so far back that I can’t really remember him not being part of our lives. I always thought of him as old, but technically speaking, he must’ve been only around middle-age when I was a child.
Luzzy ate with us almost every Shabbos. He walked funny, like he should’ve had a cane but couldn’t afford one. His clothing smelled bad, and I used to wonder if he ever changed shirts. He also had these weird habits, like checking the peephole before leaving our house. He was suspicious and strange and sometimes aggressive, but my parents treated him like a prince, and we kids grew up with Luzzy at the table as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
When my parents decided to fulfill their lifelong dream of aliyah, my father didn’t forget about Luzzy. He made me promise I’d continue the Gluckstein tradition — host Luzzy for Shabbos meals and make sure he was okay.
“He lives alone, no family, he’s had a geferliche time in life,” Tatty said, shaking his head. “Without Shabbos invitations, who knows if he’d ever get a decent meal?”
Without you and Mommy, you mean. I didn’t say it, but I knew it was the truth. There weren’t many people willing to host our longstanding Shabbos guest.
I checked in with Breindy, of course. She knew Luzzy from his frequent visits to my parents, and she agreed to extend him an open invitation. After a few months, Luzzy seemed as comfortable at our table as he’d ever been at my parents’ house. I was happy to be able to relay that to Tatty, grateful to Breindy for being willing to accommodate our eccentric guest, and relieved that it was working out well.
It was Shimmy, my six-year-old, who took things to a new level.
“Ta, where does Luzzy go to shul?” he asked me innocently, as we cleared the table from Shabbos lunch.
I paused, my hand resting on the glasses I was collecting. “I don’t actually know,” I confessed. Funny, for all these years I’d taken for granted that he had a shul, a place somewhere, but come to think of it, we often knocked on the door of his basement apartment to offer him a meal, and I’d never seen him walking around town on Shabbos morning.
“He could come with us,” Shimmy offered enthusiastically. I patted his cheek. “That’s a great idea, tzaddikel,” I told him. “Let’s invite him to join us next Shabbos.”
I daven in a beautiful shul, a warm and welcoming kehillah, very united and friendly. It has a large membership, but the rav still takes the time to get to know everyone personally. I hoped the kehillah would welcome Luzzy, see past his shabby appearance, and understand that here was a lost soul who desperately needed our kindness.
Apparently, it wasn’t to be.
The very first week, things went wrong. Luzzy was clearly out of his comfort zone, and that made him more difficult to handle than usual. When I offered him the seat next to mine, he refused, and staked a claim to a coveted front-row seat that belonged to one of the shul’s upper echelon.
“Luzzy, that’s someone else’s seat. Here, you can have mine if you want…” I cajoled him. People were gawking, I was embarrassed, and I wished he would’ve made his debut appearance a little less dramatic. Finally, Luzzy agreed to be led back to my seat, and my sons and I squeezed onto the rest of the row. He was quiet through most of davening, turning the pages of his siddur and following the tefillos with his eyes. He didn’t join in the singing, barely answered Amen to Kaddish, and kept looking over his shoulder. This was probably a bad idea, I realized.
But to my surprise, Luzzy was in a great mood when we walked home for the meal.
“Nice singing,” he said gruffly. “I’ll come with you next week.”
And that was that.
Now that Luzzy started coming regularly, he was more relaxed and comfortable. He liked my seat (whew!) and got to know some of the other guys. But as he became more heimish, he started to make his voice heard, too.
One Friday afternoon, Luzzy decided he wanted to daven from the amud. He made his way up front and put on a tallis. I stayed put, not sure whether to stop him or not. Did Luzzy even know the tefillos? He usually mumbled too quietly for me to hear.
“Hey, you can’t daven, Dovid Berger has yahrtzeit,” someone called out. I saw Dovid, a wealthy kehillah member, hurrying up to the amud, indignant. Oh, boy.
One of the gabbaim went to intervene.
“Reb Luzzy, we’d love to hear you daven, but today Reb Dovid has a chiyuv. Maybe another time, okay?”
Luzzy looked mutinous. People were getting impatient, this was delaying everything, Minchah should have started five minutes ago. This wasn’t going to be pretty.
I decided to make a move.
“Luzzy, how about you do Kabbalas Shabbos instead?” I asked, putting an arm on his. Someone behind me made an impatient noise, but I ignored it. The gabbai looked a little alarmed.
“Sruli, I’m not so sure that…”
I waved him off; I knew Luzzy, this wasn’t going to be so simple. “Come, Luzzy, Shimmy has a siddur for you, let’s go sit down and you’ll be the chazzan later.”
Now the muttering was getting stronger. And Luzzy had that obstinate look on his face. “But Sruli, I was here first. He can’t come and steal my turn.”
“Nu, people, can you hurry up over there!” called a man from the back row. There was a loud chorus of agreement. I started to sweat.
Finally, I turned to Dovid himself, waiting silently at the side with his tallis already on. “Look, Reb Dovid, I know it’s your chiyuv, your right… but this would be a huge zechus for your father also, maybe even a bigger one than davening from the amud. He’s not all there, we need to be understanding of that….”
Dovid’s face was shuttered, so I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. But a moment later, he nodded curtly and walked off.
The crisis was averted — this time. But Luzzy began insisting on things more and more often. He wanted an aliyah, he wanted to daven at the amud, he wanted them to sing Lecha Dodi in a different tune. I felt the resentment building up every time I encouraged my fellow congregants to give in, go the extra mile, show some compassion for a broken man.
“The rest of us have rights, too, you know,” Chatzkel Baum finally snapped.
Of course you have rights, I wanted to tell him. But you also have a family, a home, friends, money… and a healthy body and mind. What does this poor guy have? Let’s stretch ourselves a little.
I didn’t say anything, though. I didn’t think it was going to be heard.
And then Shabbos Shuvah rolled around.
Luzzy hadn’t come to shul on Rosh Hashanah. I knocked on his door both mornings, but he hadn’t answered. I didn’t know where he’d disappeared to, but I was determined to make sure that he felt welcomed for Yom Kippur, and then Succos. What sort of kehillah could heartlessly reject a poor, elderly man who has nowhere else to go?
I was happy when Luzzy came to the meal Friday night after Rosh Hashanah, and I persuaded him to join us for davening the next day. “And it’s Shabbos Shuvah, the Rav will be giving a special derashah…” I said, and then realized my mistake one moment too late.
Luzzy. Did. Not. Like. Rav Hartman. He had something against rabbanim in general, I think, but he seemed to have developed a special dislike for our gentle-mannered, caring rav. Rav Hartman had even gone over to him a few times to welcome him, ask how he was feeling, but Luzzy had pointedly ignored him. He’d also taken to muttering disparaging remarks during the Rav’s derashah, which I tried desperately to silence. Sometimes, I just ended up leaving the beis medrash with him before the derashah began and coming back in afterward. Hearing that there would be a special presentation by the Rav was not going to be a pull factor.
Sure enough, Luzzy made a face. “Ugh, not another speech, he never stops talking,” he grumbled.
My boys looked at me, horrified.
“Luzzy, Rav Hartman is a great tzaddik, he’s the rav of the whole shul, that’s why we want to hear him speak,” I said, more for the children’s sake than for my guest. He rolled his eyes. I made a mental note to explain things to my sons later. They knew he wasn’t a stable person and I was sure they would be mature enough to understand this as well.
Still, I hoped that the derashah wouldn’t set Luzzy off again. Rav Hartman’s Shabbos Shuvah derashos were renowned for their depth, clarity, and inspiration. I didn’t want to spend my time trying to keep Luzzy from making his snide remarks.
Chesed, I reminded myself as we set off to shul. He’s not at fault, he’s been through so much. This is a zechus for Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Who knows if it’s the very zechus that will tip the scales?
Davening proceeded smoothly. Luzzy hummed along and didn’t make waves. I was on the verge of breathing a sigh of relief when the Rav stepped up to speak.
He began with a ma’amar Chazal about Elul, then a question on the Gemara. A pshat, another question. I wrinkled my forehead, concentrating on the train of thought. Beside me, Luzzy shifted.
“Such a hypocrite,” he whispered in my ear. I winced.
“And that’s exactly what the Ribbono shel Olam wants from us, during this tekufah, during the month of Elul!” the Rav exclaimed. His gaze swept the room, wall to wall. The atmosphere was electric, passionate, spellbound. No one moved. And then Luzzy did.
I felt the shift before I saw him stand up. For one microsecond I tried futilely to hold him back, but he shook my arm off and stormed up the aisle toward the Rav’s shtender.
“It’s not true! It’s all a pack of lies! You’re fooling us!”
The blood rushed to my face. I jumped up to try to salvage the situation, but there were too many people — the gabbai rushing over, some hot-headed bochurim grabbing my guest by the shoulders attempting to quiet him.
“No, don’t do that,” I called out. I’d seen Luzzy out of control before, and I knew how to handle it. He could fight back if he felt threatened. They had to leave him alone; I’d speak to him and walk him outside. I sprinted up behind Luzzy and spoke urgently to the bochurim.
“Sit back down, please, I’ll deal with this.”
Luzzy was still ranting, and the Rav had fallen silent. There were murmurings, then louder noises across the beis medrash. Michoel, the shul’s primary gabbai, turned to me with a grim look on his face.
“Sruli. He has to leave. Now.”
I put an arm on Luzzy’s back, tried to steer him toward the door. “Shh, Luzzy, we’re going to go, do you want some hot cholent, potato kugel?”
Luzzy jabbed a thumb backward, toward the Rav. “He’s lying, he’s fooling all of you, I’m telling you, he’s a hypocrite!” he continued raving.
Michoel raised his voice. “Please, we can’t have this anymore, the Rav is waiting to continue speaking. Reb Luzzy, you need to leave now.”
All eyes followed us out of the double doors.
I came back to shul for Minchah, alone. I was upset to have missed the rest of the Rav’s derashah, and I hurried over immediately to apologize.
The Rav smiled his gentle smile. “Nu, Reb Sruli, you were taking care of one of Hashem’s children.”
“I’m sorry about what happened, how he shouted in the middle of the Rav’s derashah,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t expect that — I would have done something in advance….”
“Of course you didn’t expect that. It’s one hundred percent fine.”
“The Rav understands that Luzzy doesn’t know what he’s saying,” I said. “He’s a broken person, lives alone, no family…”
Rav Hartman nodded. “I know the situation, Reb Sruli, and I hold nothing against him. On the contrary, we have to show rachmanus, not anger, in such a situation.”
I nodded eagerly. That was exactly what I thought all along, and I hoped my fellow congregants would see things the same way.
But as I turned to make my way back toward my own seat, I saw Michoel standing behind me, eyes like steel.
“Sruli, we need to talk.”
I knew what he was going to say. I knew it before we headed for a quiet spot after Minchah was over, before he put a hand on my arm and opened his mouth to speak.
“Sruli, I’m sorry, but your guest is not welcome in shul anymore. Please make sure he doesn’t come again.”
His tone put my back up immediately. Okay, he was the gabbai here, but I wasn’t exactly a naughty child bringing a pet parakeet to davening with me. I was a longstanding kehillah member, a successful businessman, and if I may say so myself, a leading supporter of the shul. I’d always been generous with my donations, and I didn’t appreciate being talked down to as if I’d done something wrong.
“Luzzy’s an old man who’s had tzaros that we can’t even imagine,” I told Michoel stiffly.
“Even so,” Michoel’s jaw was set. “Listen, we’ve put up with a lot of things, the davening for from amud, the complaints. But we can’t tolerate disrespect like that when it comes to the Rav. There are limits, Sruli, you must understand that.”
I shook my head, but he didn’t give me a chance to explain.
“This isn’t just me, you know,” the gabbai continued. “I’ve had so many complaints, not only today, but for weeks already. I feel sorry for this Luzzy, but he’s causing too much conflict and tension, too many bad feelings. I have to put a stop to it — we can’t sacrifice the masses for one person.”
He was exaggerating about sacrificing the masses. C’mon, how much of a sacrifice was it to let a poor nebachdig elderly man have the amud a couple times? Choose the tune? How old was everyone, anyway?
And then I realized something else: Yom Kippur was this week, and then Succos. If not for me — if not for us — Luzzy would have nowhere else to go. He was finally getting comfortable at our shul, this would devastate him. And besides that, how could I allow a fellow Yid to spend Yom Tov with no family, no shul, no Kol Nidrei or Neilah or hakafos on Simchas Torah?
But Michoel was adamant. And nothing I could say, apparently, would be enough to change his mind.
If I could tell Michoel one thing, it would be: My guest is not a bad person, he’s simply not well. As a community, we should appreciate that — and bend a little to accommodate him.
Our community is very blessed.
We have a wonderful rav, warm, wise, and caring. We have a core group of avreichim who learn in the shul’s own kollel, keeping the light of Torah going strong. And supporting them — and the shul itself — is another special group, our balabatim, who quietly give whatever they can — and sometimes more — to keep everything going smoothly.
Sruli Gluckstein is one of our most generous patrons. At various times, he’s stepped in to cover the shul’s shortfall when we couldn’t cover certain costs. He’s on Hatzolah, never turns down a meshulach, he’s constantly doing favors for people… that sort of guy.
I always respected and admired Sruli, and I still do. But the story with Luzzy… that was just taking things too far.
To be fair to Sruli, I honestly think he doesn’t realize how Luzzy comes across to people. The acrimonious smell. The noisy sniffling. The off-key singing, the negative comments, the constant demands and complaints.
Sruli, the tzaddik, simply deals with it. I’ve heard he has Luzzy over at his house for meals almost every Shabbos, and his parents used to do the same before they made aliyah. Like I said, I have utmost respect for people who can do this sort of chesed.
Not everyone can.
“Michoel, what’s the story, what’s up with that guy?” Yonah Neiman asked me one Shabbos, motioning towards Sruli’s guest with an impatient jab of the thumb.
“I don’t think he ever washes his clothes,” whispered Meir Toren, who sat near Sruli in shul. “Can we even daven with that sort of smell?”
“Why did you give him an aliyah again?” someone complained, after I called Luzzy up following an imploring look and some frantic signaling from Sruli.
At first, I tried defending him. “Listen, he has it hard, let’s try and accommodate… it’s only once in a while.”
But once in a while became once too often when Luzzy insisted on davening from the amud when Dovid Berger had yahrtzeit.
I saw it coming as soon as Luzzy started toward the amud before Minchah on Friday afternoon, just as Dovid entered the beis medrash.
“Reb Luzzy,” I said, approaching him gently. “We’d love to hear you daven. But today Reb Dovid has a chiyuv, it’s his father’s yahrtzeit… you’ll daven another time, okay?”
Luzzy looked at me and his eyes glinted a little. Then he shook his head no.
Sruli joined us at the front, frowning anxiously. “Luzzy, you wanna do Kabbalas Shabbos instead?” he offered. I raised my eyebrows — what was he doing offering this man to lead the shul in singing? He could barely chant the brachos after an aliyah, and certainly couldn’t carry a tune!
But Sruli shoveled on on; I guess it was damage control at this point. People were impatient. Dovid Berger tapped his foot, watching the struggle in silence.
“Luzzy, come, let’s go sit down…”
But our guest would not budge. No, I was here first. I want to daven. No. I took one deep breath, then another. It was like a two-year-old tantrum in an adult body. Unmovable, unshakable, impossible.
“What’s going on? Just kick him out and that’s that!” someone complained from behind me.
“Can you hurry up over there, we’re waiting to daven, it’s getting late….”
I turned to the crowd, spreading my hands a little in a gesture of helplessness. Sruli was still trying to talk to Luzzy. What could I do? It was his guest, and hopefully, he would sort things out, even if it took a few minutes more.
But then he did the last thing I expected.
Sruli looked Dovid in the eye and asked him to be moichel on his chiyuv.
Now I know there is sometimes a legitimate reason, two chiyuvim or something, we’ve had our fair share of sticky situations in the shul. But this was another level. There was no reason to give in to some difficult old man who wasn’t even a shul member. Dovid had been a member for years, davened at the shul three times a day, there was no question in my mind that he should be the one to daven.
But he didn’t. He listened to Sruli’s impassioned speech, nodded once, and stepped down. He didn’t say anything to me, but his eyes were reproachful when he passed. And I felt like I’d failed him.
Failed him, and failed the kehillah.
After that, Luzzy wanted to daven more and more often. He couldn’t sing, he mumbled some of the words, but the Rav motioned to us to accommodate where we could. The Rav, I should mention, is clearly a tzaddik, because Luzzy rejected all his overtures, wouldn’t greet him, and liked to make remarks about the derashos in low tones. Sometimes Sruli took him out during the derashah, but when he was there, there was no knowing what he would decide to do.
And then Shabbos Shuvah changed everything.
The shul was packed that morning. Everyone who was a member made sure to be there, no skipping off to the Carlebach minyan down the road with the extended singing, no davening in a different shul because their wife’s cousin sponsored the kiddush. The Rav was soft-spoken and gentle, true, but he had an unusual oratory talent — and his Shabbos Shuvah derashah was where it really shone. Everyone looks forward to that infusion of inspiration. I know I do.
Only this time, the silence was shattered, just as Rav Hartman reached a climactic moment. One moment the shul was still, the Rav was speaking, the energy in the air was palpable. And the next, Luzzy was standing up, shaking a fist and hurling insults in the direction of our esteemed Rav.
For the first minute, everyone was too shocked to do anything. Then Luzzy started making his way up to the front, ranting all the while.
I can’t repeat what he said — it’s too embarrassing, too degrading. The Rav, of course, didn’t get flustered at all, he simply stepped aside and gestured for Sruli to try and help Luzzy calm down. But even if the Rav wouldn’t stand up for his kavod, we had no right not to.
I strode forward, suddenly sure of one thing.
“Sruli. Your guest has to leave. Now.”
The rest of the derashah went well, although the atmosphere was charged with tension. The Rav continued speaking with the same passion, the same warmth, but it felt like no one could get the scene out of their minds.
This cannot happen again, I thought, as the derashah drew to a close.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. When shul ended, I was surrounded by people, and they all said the same thing.
“Michoel, do something.”
“It’s not okay, this can’t happen.”
“If he doesn’t like the Rav, why is he here in the first place?”
“Enough is enough, first the complaints, then the demands, and now this?!”
I felt bad for Sruli, and even for Luzzy himself. But I had a responsibility to the kehillah, and to the rav.
Once the decision had been made, I didn’t waste time. I approached Sruli at Minchah, took him aside, and explained the shul’s decision.
At first, he protested. “Look, what do you want? He’s an old man, he’s been through tzaros we can’t imagine.”
Then he tried negotiating. “Listen, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’ll sit at the back… he won’t daven for the amud… I’ll speak to him about it. You’ll see, he just has to get used to how we do things.”
I thought of the amount of complaints we’d received in the weeks since Luzzy had started coming to shul. Of the overwhelming response to this morning’s incident. Everyone was saying the same thing: This can’t work anymore.
I appreciated Sruli’s generosity and his desire to do chesed for this poor soul. But as the shul’s gabbai, I had to make the decision that was best for everyone. And of course, I had to stand up for the respect of our rav.
“I’m sorry,” I told Sruli. I genuinely was. “But it just isn’t an option.”
If I could tell Sruli one thing, it would be: Your chesed can’t come at the expense of our rav’s kavod and the community’s comfort.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 828)
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