He was a close confidant of the Chazon Ish and a faithful shaliach of gedolei Yisrael, but Reb Nochum Yoel Halpern’s children remember something else: a man who ran from honor even as it pursued him
It was Succos of 1942, and a frum Jew from Tel Aviv named Benzion Shulevitz decided to take his family on a Chol Hamoed outing to the moshavah of Magdiel (today Hod Hasharon, on the outskirts of Petach Tikvah). As they passed through one of the adjoining secular kibbutzim, Reb Benzion noticed part of a sefer Torah, splattered with mud and chicken blood, lying on a crate by the kibbutz’s chicken coop. Reb Benzion picked up the scroll — it went from parshas Vayakhel to parshas Korach — and, cutting short his family’s tiyul, ran to the home of Magdiel’s rav, Rav Dov Maayani ztz”l to report his find. Rav Maayani — a venerated talmid chacham who was close to the litvish and chassidish gedolim of the generation — was horrified. With Reb Benzion at his side, the Rav hurried to the nearby kibbutz and asked the people in charge for the scroll. They were happy to give the partial Torah to the Rav, but said they had no idea where the rest of the scroll was, or even how this section wound up in the chicken coop. They assumed the parchments were left by the members of Kibbutz Beit Oren, who had originally settled this tract of land and had recently relocated to the Carmel region.
Rav Maayani, who had the unenviable task of upholding Torah and maintaining the peace between the traditional residents of his kehillah and the surrounding secular kibbutzim, brought the yerios back to the shul in Magdiel until he could research it further. But word of the discovery got out, and an investigation by some Agudah activists showed how the real story was a sad reflection of the times: It turned out that the son of a certain rabbi in Russia was one of the founders of Kibbutz Beit Oren, and when the young pioneer departed for Eretz Yisrael, his saintly father naively thought he’d need a sefer Torah there. Due to weight and transportation restrictions, the rabbi divided the scroll into several sections and lovingly wrapped each separately, to be reattached once they reached their destination. But the kibbutzniks had no need for those archaic folios: One package wound up in the chicken coop, and the others were never found.
When the Chazon Ish heard about the disgraced parchments, he set his mind to restoring their glory — and he immediately knew whom to summon: Reb Nochum Yoel Halpern.
Reb Nochum Yoel was a young askan the Chazon Ish relied on implicitly to navigate the complexities facing the Torah community of those years. (Reb Nochum Yoel had come to Eretz Yisrael from Europe with his parents a decade before, and he and his father were the founders of the Zichron Meir neighborhood of fledgling Bnei Brak.)
In his quest to fulfill the Chazon Ish’s mission to restore the Torah, Reb Nochum Yoel initially tried to take the parchments from the shul, but an indignant delegation from Magdiel went to the Chazon Ish to protest their removal. The Chazon Ish agreed that if they’d promise to keep the holy parchments in Rav Maayani’s house, Reb Nochum Yoel should return them. The Chazon Ish didn’t give up on the sefer Torah’s honor, though, and instructed Reb Nochum Yoel to negotiate the purchase of the yerios and bring them to a sofer who would complete the sefer Torah’s missing sections.
Rabbi Avraham Halpern of Manhattan a”h, Reb Nochum Yoel’s oldest son — a noted baal tzedakah and chairman of Keren Hashviis who passed away two years ago — was just six years old at the time, but would always talk about how he remembered the open joy with which the Chazon Ish danced as that sefer Torah was escorted from his grandparents’ house to the Halpern shul in Zichron Meir.
Two years later, Nochum Yoel would return to Europe and find his kallah, Hadassah Rosenfeld of Nové Zámky, Czechoslovakia. Hadassah had yearned to live in Eretz Yisrael from an early age and was excited about the prospect of beginning her new life in Eretz Yisrael. Theirs was the first wedding held in Zichron Meir — with the Chazon Ish seated next to the chassan.
As successful as the family had been in Europe, parnassah was difficult in those early years. Eretz Yisrael was still under the British Mandate and Arab riots were a constant threat. The new couple rented a small apartment in Tel Aviv, and as their family grew, so did the need for a profitable business. Reb Nochum Yoel opened a factory, but transporting his goods soon proved so difficult and dangerous that he was forced to close. Then he went into the egg business, traveling weekly to Beirut to buy eggs and sell them in Tel Aviv at a handsome profit. This was a successful venture and soon he was supplying eggs to Egyptian buyers too.
Because of those Beirut connections, the Ponevezher Rav came to Zichron Meir to see if Reb Nochum Yoel could help him obtain visas for his wife and children who were still in Europe. During the visit, Reb Chaim Yaakov Halpern asked the Rav what his plans were in Eretz Yisrael. The Rav said he wanted to open a yeshivah in Teveria. Then Reb Chaim Yaakov made an offer the Ponevezher Rav couldn’t refuse: If he’d agree to establish the yeshivah in Zichron Meir, Reb Chaim Yaakov would donate the entire hillside to the yeshivah.
But the outbreak of World War II closed down the roads and interrupted the supply chain.
During the war, Nochum Yoel and his brother owned a hall in Tel Aviv. The British authorities soon insisted that he open a restaurant along with it, and the young businessman ran to the Chazon Ish for advice. “I am afraid of taking responsibility for the kashrus of a restaurant — how can I open one?” he asked. To which the gadol responded, “And who should own a restaurant? Someone who isn’t afraid of the responsibility?” But despite his immense efforts to ensure perfect kashrus standards, Reb Nochum Yoel once entered the kitchen and discovered the noodles were infested. Distressed, he went straight to the Chazon Ish, who then allowed him to sell the restaurant. (He only wanted to sell it to someone Torah-observant, and wound up selling it to the women who worked in the kitchen.)
Next, he was offered the opportunity to buy a factory that produced letters for printing presses. This item was much in demand in those days, but the Chazon Ish advised Nochum Yoel not to enter the field, as those letters would likely be used for harmful secular books and newspapers.
After several other false starts and many business trips abroad, Reb Nochum Yoel finally tasted success importing food items from America. Later, he turned to real estate and established himself as one of Israel’s premier chareidi businessmen.
During those years, the Rebbes of Belz and Gur had instructed Reb Nochum Yoel not to leave Tel Aviv but to stay and maintain Yiddishkeit there as long as possible. Reb Nochum Yoel was his father’s right hand and went to Zichron Meir every day, but he stayed put in Tel Aviv, davening in the Chortkover shtibel on Achad Ha’am Street.
From there, he played an active role in laying foundations for the development of a chareidi infrastructure of Eretz Yisrael. When a certain Tel Aviv cinema sold tickets for a film on Friday night, “Abba stood in his shtreimel and beketshe, a lone, dignified protestor blocking the ticket office,” remembers his son Rabbi Meir Halpern of Bnei Brak.
The Rebbe of Vasloi, who arrived in Tel Aviv after World War II, once commented that Reb Nochum Yoel had a hand in every worthy chareidi initiative in those days. “If I don’t see his name mentioned in connection with something,” he said, “I have to check it out carefully myself.”
Reb Nochum Yoel Halpern became the address for everything related to protecting the religious atmosphere of the country. His home was always open for meetings and conferences, and at the Chazon Ish’s behest, he became a Bnei Brak city councilman and headed the committee for the Protection of Shabbos in Tel Aviv. He also ran Keren Hasheviis for many years, was one of the founders of Chinuch Atzmai, and later headed the Asra Kadisha for protecting graves in both Eretz Yisrael and in Europe. While several institutions today bear his name — Yeshivas Chazon Nochum in Bnei Brak, the Chazon Nochum shul in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, and Kollel Chazon Nochum in Boro Park, to name a few — when it came to askanus, he considered himself nothing more than the Chazon Ish’s water carrier.
The Chazon Ish, for his part, trusted Nochum Yoel implicity, saying of him the Biblical reference, “Bechol beisi ne’eman hu — he is the most trusted person in my household.”
For Reb Nochum Yoel, if it was the Chazon Ish’s will, no task was too big or too small, and he could often be seen driving the tzaddik in his car. During World War II, when the famous sh’eilah about which day Yom Kippur should be observed in Shanghai reached the Chazon Ish, Nochum Yoel was the person he sent to the post office with his urgent telegrammed reply.
Reb Nochum Yoel was also instrumental in procuring what are today known as “Chazon Ish esrogim.” There were years when it was virtually impossible to find esrogim that didn’t have a question about non-grafted pedigree, and the Chazon Ish, appalled by this situation, set about to discover a strain of kosher esrogim. He traveled to Shechem to search for esrog trees that had once been authenticated by Reb Zorach Braverman, but no one had kept track of those trees after Reb Zorach’s death in 1938. The Chazon Ish studied the trees in Shechem carefully, selected some esrogim, and gave the seeds to his talmid, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz — a future rosh yeshivah in Ponevezh — to plant. A few years later, the Chazon Ish decided to return to Shechem together with Reb Nochum Yoel to choose another esrog. Passing through the Arab village of Umm al-Fahm, the Chazon Ish noticed a particular tree and told Reb Nochum Yoel, “This is a real esrog.” The Chazon Ish instructed Reb Nochum Yoel to take seeds from that tree and plant them in his yard. Today the Lefkowitz and Halpern varieties are the sources for modern-day Chazon Ish esrogim.
No Greater Honor
Reb Nochum Yoel’s daughter, Mrs. Ada Reichman, wife of Reb Eizik (Ralph) Reichmann of Toronto, says that Reb Nochum Yoel would do nothing without asking the Chazon Ish. “For instance, I wanted to learn to play the piano. Abba asked the Chazon Ish, and the Chazon Ish said no. Music is a beautiful thing, but at that time, he was worried about it leading me to concerts or questionable company. I accepted it, like I accepted everything else.”
Mrs. Reichmann also remembers great excitement when the Chazon Ish attended the family simchahs. For some of the Halpern boys (Reb Nochum Yoel and Hadassah had seven boys and seven girls), he was the sandek, but at other times he asked Reb Nochum Yoel to give this honor to his older brother, Rav Meir Karelitz. At those times, he didn’t appear at the bris, since if he were present, Rav Meir would not accept the honor, but he did arrive at the seudah. “The Chazon Ish didn’t eat any prepared foods,” Mrs. Reichmann says. “So we’d serve him almonds.”
In those days, the community was small and intimate, and Hadassah Halpern would often go to speak to the Chazon Ish herself when questions arose, and so would the children. “He was always very kind to us. I remember once going into the Chazon Ish’s room with my grandfather and my younger sister, and he told us to sit down on a metal bed. My mother had recently given birth, and he asked us how she was.”
Rabbi Meir Halpern once heard from Rabbi Menachem Porush how the Brisker Rav described his father: “Reb Nochum iz a yoshor. Es kumt nisht fun temimus, es kumt fun ehrlichkeit — Reb Nochum is absolutely upright and honest. But that comes not from naivete, but from sincerity.”
Menachem Porush would eventually become Reb Nochum Yoel’s mechutan, with the marriage of his daughter to Agudah MK Rabbi Meir Porush.
“I had heard of my shver long before our shidduch was proposed. Who hadn’t? He was one of the biggest askanim in Eretz Yisrael and the premier shaliach of gedolei Yisrael,” says Rabbi Meir Porush. “When I got engaged and people asked my father who the mechutan was, the name ‘Nochum Yoel Halpern’ never took more than a moment to garner a response. It was always ‘Ooh, ah!’ ”
Rabbi Porush says that when he joined the Halpern family, he was immediately struck by the “Torah ugedulah bemakom echad,” the combination of Torah and aristocracy in his in-laws’ home, which was regal yet warm and open. “Whatever was going on in my father-in-law’s life — and he was a well-known international businessman and askan — he always made time for learning. The day started with a chavrusa, then came Shacharis with a fixed, full-length minyan, and he attended a shiur after davening too.
“Naturally, his name has opened many doors for me and gained me entry to some circles that would otherwise have been closed. Something else I’d observed over the years is that somehow, everyone thought Reb Nochum Yoel was one of theirs. The Neturei Karta thought he was their ally, the Vizhnitz community, the Gur community — all of them felt the same. One of my sisters-in-law still remembers the Gerrer Rebbe calling the Halpern house and introducing himself with his first name.”
While many tried to honor him, Reb Nochum Yoel always remained exceedingly modest. He thought nothing, his children say, of helping a small child cross the street; and when he arrived at a tish, be it in Vizhnitz, Skulen, or one of the Ruzhiner courts, he was always invited to sit up front, yet unfailingly declined. (In his tzava’ah, he requested of all his children and grandchildren to read the Iggeres HaRamban — a life lesson in humility — every week.)
The one person who got away with honoring him was his wife. “In the early years, my mother had only two dresses. Each day, she ran to put on her Shabbos dress when Abba came home,” daughter Mrs. Ayala Weinberger says.
The honor was bilateral — Reb Nochum Yoel insisted on total respect for his wife by all family members, in all circumstances. Mrs. Weinberger says she’s never forgotten the lesson her father delivered when she was a teenager: “My mother was very protective of us, always careful where we went so that we wouldn’t fall into bad company. One time she didn’t let me do something that she had allowed one of my sisters to do. As I was crying in my room, devastated, Abba came in. He said, ‘Listen, Ayala. Ima zot lo malach, aval Ima zot Ima. A mother is not an angel, but a mother is a mother.’ I was able to feel Abba’s empathy and concurred that my mother might be wrong, but I understood that she was my mother and I had to accept her words and close my mouth.”
Another daughter, Chana Klein of London, also marvels at her father’s insistence on total kibbud av v’eim. She remembers a conversation around the dining table that took place after she was already a mother herself and back in Israel visiting her family. “My mother made some comment, and I remarked, ‘Oh, Ima, it wasn’t like that.’ The next time I went into the kitchen, Abba was there. He let me know that we never contradict a parent, and that I should apologize to Ima.”
All for the Guests
Tishen and meetings were often held in the Halpern home, and it was a place where rebbes and tzaddikim of different streams felt comfortable.
One gadol who made an indelible impression on the family was the previous Skulener Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal (father of Rav Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, who passed away last year). The Rebbe was the spiritual father of the Jews who remained in Communist Romania after World War II. He was jailed and tortured by the Communists, but in 1960, after an immense international effort, he was freed from Romania and arrived in Eretz Yisrael.
“The Rebbe stayed in our home in Tel Aviv for a few weeks,” says Mrs. Rivka Neuman, née Halpern, who today lives in Manchester. “He was like a malach. There was no day and no night for him. The Rebbe sat in a room in our house, and crowds of Jews who knew him from Romania flocked to him like children to a father, sometimes sitting with him for hours. We set up a waiting room with a big urn for hot drinks, and we had a shawl to cover the women who needed to cover up before entering his room. The Rebbe would sometimes compose a new niggun in the middle of the night, and his gabbai would quickly tape it. And I still remember how he counted Sefiras Ha’omer.”
Her mother carefully salted and kashered meat for the Rebbe’s visit and the Rebbe even sent one of his gabbaim to watch the process, yet the Rebbe himself barely ate at all. “We had ‘shirayim’ from the Rebbe’s visit for weeks,” Mrs. Neuman remembers. Hadassah Halpern wasn’t offended, though — especially after the Rebbe commented that he could smell ruach hakodesh in the Halpern home.
The Kaliver Rebbe and other tzaddikim would lead tishen in their home, while Rebbe Chaim Meir of Vizhnitz and Rebbe Baruch of Seret Vizhnitz came there together on occasion. The children weren’t allowed to climb on the chairs or dirty any of the ornate furnishings, but when it came to guests, or large entourages of chassidim who filled the rooms of the villa together with their rebbe, nothing was off limits. “My father told me, ‘That is what it’s all for, for guests to feel comfortable,’ ” says Mrs. Weinberger.
In the struggling early years and in the later, successful ones, there were always the waifs and strays who knew they could find a home, temporary or even permanent, with the Halperns. When the family moved to a large house and needed extra household help, various girls from difficult backgrounds and broken homes came to live with them, to help with housework in return for board and lodging. These girls became part of the family, says daughter Ayala Weinberger. “One evening, one of the girls who worked in our home was reading downstairs by the light of a lamp. Abba saw her and thought that the light was not bright enough. Concerned about her eyes, he went up to the third floor to bring her a stronger lamp. And of course, on Shabbos morning when he brought negel vasser and coffee to each of us girls in bed, he brought for each of these ‘helping girls’ too. Later, he married them off, and they felt like his daughters, to the extent that one of the girls complained to Abba that she had received ‘only’ a three-bedroom apartment, not four bedrooms like one of my sisters.”
A car was a rarity for a chareidi family in those days, yet the Halperns had a car parked outside their home. “Abba used to take us girls to school,” says Mrs. Weinberger. “One day, we ran downstairs and we saw a hippie, a man with long, strange hair, sleeping in the car. We ran up to tell Abba, but Abba was unfazed. He had no thought of throwing the man out. ‘We can’t wake him. Let him sleep. You’ll take the bus today,’ he instructed. Next day, the man was there again. When he woke up, Abba said to him ‘Maybe you want to come and sleep in my house? We can prepare you a bed.’ ‘No, I prefer the car,’ he replied. And he slept there for a few weeks. Abba didn’t say anything.” In fact, business partners remembered Reb Nochum Yoel arriving at a meeting in a taxi — because the man was asleep in his car.
The Halpern Shabbos table was always filled with guests. One Friday, shortly before Shabbos, the mashgiach of a hotel in Tel Aviv called. Three chassidish bochurim had checked into the hotel, but the mashgiach felt strongly that it would not be a good experience for them to spend Shabbos there. Did the Halperns perhaps have space? Of course they did. Mrs. Weinberger remembers that her father didn’t just agree to have the boys hop into a taxi and come for Shabbos — he got into the car and went to pick them up.
Mrs. Reichmann remembers another unusual Friday afternoon when she was just a little girl. “Abba was always home on Friday afternoon, but one week he hadn’t returned and my mother didn’t know where he was,” she says. “Eventually Abba came in with my brothers, close to Shabbos, tired and perspiring. They explained that a plane carrying a casket from abroad had arrived in Eretz Yisrael so close to Shabbos that there was no time to get to the intended burial spot in Yerushalayim before Shabbos. Abba and the boys rushed to the airport to transport the meis to the beis hachayim in Bnei Brak, saving the niftar the ignominy of a 25-hour delay in burial. He brought the casket in his own car — we girls were scared to enter it for a while afterward! — and did the kevurah together with my brothers. The Chazon Ish commented that it had been worth founding a cemetery in Bnei Brak just for this one incident.”
Reb Nochum Yoel passed away suddenly on Motzaei Shabbos, the fifth of Kislev 5747/1986, while on a visit to help a local family. He had driven there himself, spoken to them and then felt unwell. As they offered to call a taxi and then an ambulance, he was already niftar.
Mrs. Neuman recalls the shock of her father’s petirah. “I had spoken to him just 20 minutes before, and suddenly he wasn’t there. Abba was a rodef shalom. He had an open hand and helped so many people. The family he went to help on that Motzaei Shabbos were the final recipients of his kindness — and then he was recalled Above.” —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 788)