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High Holidays

Rebbes and gedolim heading to vacation resorts is an age-old tradition, but what happens when these leaders – usually surrounded by crowds of followers, admirers and non-stop petitioners – seclude themselves for a much-deserved rest and a period of recouping their kochos? A spontaneous visit to some of these vacation spots proved two things: that no matter the surroundings, holy values and principles remain unchanged; and even when they’re on vacation, the leaders of Am Yisrael are never really off duty

No room for shame

In Llandudno with the Vizhnitzer Rebbe

Two and a half hours and nineteen stops after Manchester, as our train crossed the dividing line between Great Britain and Wales, the digital sign up front informed us that we were approaching the Welsh town of Llandudno (“Chlandidneh” in modern Vizhnitz pronunciation, close to the way the Welsh pronounce it), a seaside resort that holds the interest of thousands of Vizhnitzer chassidim every year during the summer.

I’d been told that many chassidim would be prepared to pay a hefty sum to experience the sort of Shabbos that lay in store for me — a Shabbos in the company of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe during his annual period of seclusion in this faraway Welsh hamlet.

Considering Llandudno’s location, with its beautiful scenery, clear air, and slow pace (no one here walks around with cell phones in their hands), free from distractions and interruptions that are daily fare in the hustle and bustle of Bnei Brak, it’s no wonder Rebbe Yisrael of Vizhnitz has chosen it for a summer getaway in order to recharge his batteries in advance of the intensity of Tishrei and the coming year.

Years ago, there was a small Jewish community here, and when it began to dwindle, Chabad bochurim from the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Manchester would boost the minyan for the Yamim Noraim. Eventually the minyan sponsor bought a building that he called the Chabad Retreat Center, which families from Manchester and London began to use for their own vacations. Other families rented houses or motel rooms nearby during the summer. The Horodenker Rebbe of Manchester then bought a house by the ocean, built his own mikveh, and brought a minyan along for his own summer breaks. He also sponsored a mother–baby convalescent home in the area. Llandudno found itself on the Vizhnitz map, when a young Vizhnitzer chassid from Manchester named Reb Yanky Adler purchased a large seaside mansion for the Rebbe’s vacations. Since then, Llandudno (Welsh for “Queen of the Welsh Resorts”) became the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s vacation site of choice.

“Yankel Adler bought the Rebbe’s home at the seashore,” one of the chassidim remarked to me, “when he was there on his personal vacation. He noticed a beautiful villa for sale and peeked  into the courtyard, and when he saw the balcony overlooking the sea, he said to himself, ‘This would be fitting for the Rebbe.’ That balcony is where the Rebbe sits for several weeks every summer, spending hours immersing in uninterrupted Torah study.

Before my visit to Llandudno for Shabbos Mevarchim Elul, there was some uncertainty as to whether the Rebbe would even be present. Early on Thursday morning, the Rebbe began experiencing chest pains and was rushed to a medical center in Manchester. The hotline of the chassidus was soon flooded with contradictory updates: The Rebbe was going to be kept in the hospital. The Rebbe was about to be discharged. The Rebbe would be discharged but would stay in Manchester. The Rebbe would indeed return to Llandudno, but would remain at home instead of joining the chassidim at the Shabbos guesthouse. A few hours before Shabbos, it was reported that the Rebbe would be coming to the guesthouse in Llandudno after all. As the chassidim rejoiced over the news, so did I. Spending Shabbos with the Rebbe would surely be an unforgettable experience.

The Shabbos guesthouse in Llandudno is an aged building on the opposite side of the town from the Rebbe’s home, which Reb Yanky Adler purchased as well. When the Rebbe first began vacationing in Llandudno, chassidim would rent apartments in the vicinity — until the Rebbe noticed some bochurim congregating at the seashore and felt it inappropriate. When Reb Yanky heard that, he purchased another building on the other side of the town — suitable, but nothing compared to the majesty of the Rebbe’s house. Since then, the Rebbe leaves his opulent villa to spend every Shabbos with the chassidim in the less-fancy guest house.

On this particular Shabbos, I was one of about 30 guests who enjoyed our uniquely personal experience in the company of the Rebbe. It didn’t start off so smoothly, though. When I arrived, it didn’t take long to discover that there wasn’t a large supply of available rooms in the town. After a grueling search, I found myself in dank, uninviting quarters — but the one perk was that it was close to the Shabbos guesthouse.

I met the Rebbe as I left my room — he and his entourage were making their way to the guesthouse, all dressed for Shabbos. I donned the customary gartel and joined the group. The Rebbe appeared frail, and although he carried himself nobly, there was obvious pain in his gait. His forehead was wrinkled with exertion, but his face radiated the piety and devotion of a man whose life is ruled by his fear of Heaven.

As Shabbos starts late in Llandudno, when we got to the guesthouse, the Rebbe had plenty of time to learn shnayim mikra v’echad targum without interruption. There are several chassanim here, sporting elegant shtreimels that were surprisingly not excessively large, as is today’s fashion — as the Rebbe recently adjured his chassidim to resist the new trend of wearing shtreimels that are twice the height of a spodek. Earlier, in his private room, the Rebbe had placed the chassanim’s shtreimels on their heads, but he had informed them that he was too weak to dance with them at Kabbalas Shabbos that evening, as is the custom. “I hope I’ll be strong enough tomorrow to dance with you,” the Rebbe told them. He managed to fulfill his promise 26 hours later, after Havdalah in the beis medrash.

The chassidim davened Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv before shkiyah, which was around 9:30, and after davening, the Rebbe reminded the tzibbur to repeat Krias Shema after nightfall. As the davening drew to a close, I noticed a slight commotion not far from where I stood. The Rebbe’s attendants, including Reb Benzion Stenger and Reb Hershel Katz, were hurriedly arranging challahs and a bottle of wine. Evidently, the Rebbe planned to recite Kiddush for the benefit of all the guests. I made sure to stand near the Rebbe’s table, which was erected on a raised platform. The Rebbe approached the platform and supported himself on my shoulder as he clambered onto it.

As the Rebbe recited Shalom Aleichem, it was easy to imagine malachim standing over him, nodding as if in response to his greeting and complying with his instructions to bless the people and then to go on their way. Finally, the time arrived for Kiddush. The Rebbe’s kos is a replica of the Kiddush cup used by Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin — it’s in the shape of an apple, with a thin stem and a leaf in the center, and with a triangular base. Every aspect of the cup’s original design was based on mystical factors.

After Kiddush, the Rebbe poured some wine into a crystal cup and made sure that it was sent to his rebbetzin. (After hamotzi, the scene would be repeated when he made sure that she received a slice of challah.) A silver bowl was brought for netilas yadayim, but before washing, the Rebbe led his chassidim in a rousing rendition of the song “Ko amar Hashem, zacharti lach chesed neurayich.” When the Rebbe recited the brachah of al netilas yadayim, the chassidim fell silent; after he recited hamotzi, they picked up from the exact word where they had left off. Fish was served after the challah, and then the chassidim left to return to their lodgings and finish their seudah.

Rabbi Shmiel Berger, a warm, charming chassid from London, invited me to join him for the Shabbos meal. He and his family had made the seven-hour drive from London to Llandudno equipped with hot plates, pots of food, challah, salads, and dips.

The seudah continued late into the night as we sang niggunim of Vizhnitz and Chabad — until Stephen, the homeowner, appeared and reminded us of the late hour. The neighbors, he told us, were about to call the police due to the loud singing coming from the apartment.

We hurried to finish the meal and bentsh, but I didn’t lose out. When I returned to the Rebbe’s apartment, he was sitting with his family members and a handful of close confidants, whom he was regaling with stories of tzaddikim, especially those rebbes whose yahrtzeits would fall during the following week: the Rebbes of Satmar, Skulen, and Tosh.

“Rav Shlomo Zalman Horowitz, the Potiker Rav, related that when they were still in Romania, the Skulener Rebbe once approached him before davening and said, ‘I would like you to have me in mind during your davening, since I am not able to daven. I have to go somewhere.’ The Potiker Rav asked the Skulener Rebbe where he was going, and the Skulener replied that he was trying to free a family of Jews who had been imprisoned for being in the country illegally. ‘Daven for me that I should not be harmed,’ he said. ‘I tried to intercede on the same family’s behalf several days ago, and the officer warned me that if I came again, they would kill me.’

“The Potiker Rav was horrified,” the Rebbe continued his account. “He shouted at the Rebbe, ‘What heter does the Rebbe have to go to such a place if he has been threatened with death?’ The Rebbe replied, ‘It is true that it is a safek pikuach nefesh, but for the family of Jews who have been detained, it is a certain death sentence, and the certainty overrides the mere possibility.’ The Skulener Rebbe set out on his mission. When he finally returned, he was limping heavily but with a broad smile on his face. ‘The officer threw me down the stairs,’ he related, ‘but I accomplished my goal. The family has been saved.’ ”

When the Vizhnitzer Rebbe retold that story, the same light that had radiated from the Skulener Rebbe’s face now illuminated his own countenance. “That,” he said, “is what it means to be moser nefesh for other Jews.”

When I awoke in the morning, there was no sunlight, but the skies in Llandudno are generally cloudy and morning looks dark. I looked at my watch, which I’d put on the table beside my bed, and I was shaken to the core when I saw that the watch showed that it was 12:15!

Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. Had the rigors of traveling somehow caused me to succumb to intense fatigue? Missing the zeman for Krias Shema, as well as neglecting to hear Krias HaTorah or to daven with a minyan, was a terrible lapse that I could hardly bear. Shacharis with the Rebbe was scheduled to begin at 10:30, which gave me the lope that I might manage to catch at least the tail end of davening. I leapt out of bed, and less than a minute later I had donned my tallis and was racing down the streets of Llandudno.

By the time I arrived at the guesthouse, I was gasping for breath. I entered the beis medrash, bracing myself for the well-deserved shame — when I discovered that the beis medrash was completely empty. There wasn’t a soul in the room.

I walked outside. The door to the Rebbe’s suite was open, and I peeked inside. The Rebbe was clad in a gold-colored caftan with a floral print, his shtreimel resting atop his head, lutching a large Gemara in his hands, and learning in solitude. There wasn’t another human being anywhere in sight. What happened? Where was everyone?

I returned to the beis medrash and looked at the wall clock. It said five minutes to six. Evidently, I had been holding my watch upside down when I woke up — and it had been 5:45 and not 12:15. The relief that washed over me at that moment was indescribable. I felt as if I had been blessed with an unexpected gift of an additional six hours of life, but even more than that, I had caught a glimpse of the Rebbe as he sat alone in his room, basking in the radiance of the Shechinah.

After (the real) davening and Kiddush, the Rebbe made sure that every person received a piece of fish from the tray that was served to him before beginning his divrei Torah. The chassidim later informed me that the intimate atmosphere in Llandudno makes it possible for him to devote personal attention to everyone present, in contrast to the tishen in Kiryat Vizhnitz where there are thousands of chassidim in attendance. At the same time, the chassid explained that it doesn’t matter if there are five people at a tish or five thousand — his Torah is delivered with the same burning passion.

During the summer months, the days are long, as if the sun refuses to set. The davening on Shabbos morning ended late, the seudah continued for hours, and I even enjoyed a lengthy Shabbos nap — yet there was still a long time before Shabbos was over. I took advantage of the remaining time before Minchah to explore the streets of the town, and when I returned to the beis medrash, I found the Rebbe sitting in his private room and delivering a shiur on Pirkei Avos to his grandsons. The Rebbe was speaking at length about the first Mishnah in the fourth perek, which states, “Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his lot.”

When the Rebbe concluded his shiur, he moved on to another shiur given by his son-in-law, Rav Menachem Mendel Hager. The Rebbe listened, taking the occasional pinch of snuff from his personal golden snuffbox, as Rav Menachem Mendel discussed the Mishnah that states, “One moment of satisfaction in the World to Come is better than all of life in this world.” He explained that after the ultimate geulah, human beings will be able to perceive Divinity with their own senses, and it will be impossible to lack faith in Hashem. At that time, ironically, we will yearn for the days of galus, when it was possible to achieve emunah peshutah — simple faith in Hashem — without G-dliness shining in front of our eyes.

“We will yearn for another taste of that faith, for another minute of pure bitachon,” Rav Menachem Mendel explained.

Finally, it was time for Seudah Shlishis.

“Today is Shabbos Mevarchim of Elul,” the Rebbe announced. “The tziruf of Elul is the words ‘u’tzedakah tihyeh lanu ki.’ This is an allusion to the fact that our preparation for the holy Yamim Noraim should be through engaging in tzedakah and chesed for other Jews. Before we beseech Hashem to have mercy on us, we ourselves must use the attribute of mercy by having compassion for Hashem’s creations. That’s the only way we can stand before Hashem and plead for rachamim.”

The Rebbe fell silent for a moment. He picked up his Kiddush cup, closed his eyes for a moment, and then said, “It is not a simple matter at all. It is not a simple matter at all,” the Rebbe repeated, encouraging his listeners to raise funds for the sake of their needy brethren. “It is a very special thing to travel to the homes of affluent people in order to solicit funds. Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz once said that when a person goes out to collect tzedakah for another Jew, even if kareis has been decreed upon him, he can sweeten the judgment through the degradation involved in traveling to solicit tzedakah.”

The Rebbe related that Rebbe Yoel of Satmar once asked one of his faithful chassidim, Reb Getzel Berger a”h, for a sum of money for tzedakah. “Reb Getzel was a wonderful baalebos, but he did not wish to travel from door to door to collect money,” the Rebbe related. “He wanted to make a donation out of his own pocket, but the Satmar Rebbe said, ‘That isn’t what I had in mind. I want you to personally go around and collect funds.’ Why don’t people go around collecting tzedakah for others? It is solely because a person’s pride stands in his way. He would truly like to perform such a kindness for someone else, but the yetzer hara convinces him that it’s beneath his dignity to travel from home to home. A Jew is naturally drawn to doing good, but his false conceptions of honor and dignity make him believe that it’s not befitting him. Es past ya, es past nisht — whether something is befitting his dignity or not should not be a consideration. A Jew must use his sense of shame only to prevent him from committing a sin, and even then, it must be shame before Hashem. But when it comes to a mitzvah, there is no room for such thoughts.

The tish drew to a close at 11 that evening, and so did my uplifting Shabbos with the Rebbe. Shabbos had departed from Llandudno, and the town’s gray skies returned to their ordinary, dreary appearance. The neshamah yeseirah made its departure, and I left the quaint, sleepy town behind.


I’m Not Interested in Telling  Stories

In Davos, switzerland, with Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik

“Vos vilst du — What do you want?” Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik asked me, with the intimidating directness that I expected of a scion of the Brisker dynasty.

His gaze was suspicious; his snow-white beard and regal appearance filled me with awe. Rav Avraham Yehoshua of Brisk has no patience for things that he considers to have no purpose, and he often expresses that impatience with comments that can be incredibly sharp.

Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik — one of the most respected, reclusive, and enigmatic roshei yeshivah of our generation — considers Switzerland to be an appropriate site for his annual vacation, even though he’s no fan of leaving Eretz Yisrael. In fact, in one of his Motzaei Shabbos shiurim on Chumash-Rashi, Rav Avraham Yehoshua explained that traveling to chutz l’Aretz diminishes a person’s reputation, as we find that Avraham Avinu had to be blessed with the brachah of “I will make your name great,” since his travels had diminished his reputation.

When I met with him after Shacharis, Rav Avraham Yehoshua was far from his home and his usual surroundings. And while his own reputation may be diminished as a result, the Rosh Yeshivah recoils from any form of honor or publicity. He secludes himself in his rented apartment, and aside from his brief excursions to daven in shul, he is barely ever seen in the streets of Davos.

Rav Avraham Yehoshua often shares a comment made by the Tchebiner Rav: “Everyone wants kavod, but the problem is that no one knows what it is.”

Rav Avraham Yehoshua, who together with his uncle, Rav Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, is the primary bearer of the legacy of Brisk in our generation, often repeats a story told by the famed maggid of Yerushalayim, Rav Sholom Schwadron, who once related that in his days, when a garbage truck came around, most of the sanitation workers would sweep the street and load the garbage into the truck, while a single worker would stand in the truck, with the garbage piling up to his knees. The job of that worker was to crush the garbage with his feet so that it would be possible to load additional refuse into the truck. From time to time, he would have to lift his feet higher in order to prevent the garbage from reaching his thighs. When the truck drove away, the other workers had to run to keep up with it, but the worker in the truck, who was surrounded by piles of offensive garbage, did not have to. Rav Sholom once overheard one of the workers comment to another, “Do you think that I couldn’t stand up there and do the same job the worker in the truck is doing? Of course I could. I’m just not looking for kavod.”

The depth of Rav Avraham Yehoshua’s resistance to honor became apparent when I approached him with a request that was doomed to failure from the start: I asked him to grant an interview for this magazine. The truth is that I did not actually want an interview at all; I simply wanted to be able to write about the way that he rejected my request.

And in that sense, I got exactly what I was hoping for.

Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveichik doesn’t make public appearances outside of his yeshivah, nor does he make statements about matters of communal concern, except during his weekly shiur on Motzaei Shabbos, closed to the public, in which he often includes hashkafic comments that express his outlook on the state of our generation — which often appear dismal through the lens of Brisker stringency.

In its own eyes, through the lens of his uncompromising quest for absolute truth, the world of Brisk, with all of its stringencies and meticulous practices, is a carefully preserved oasis of true Torah philosophy, while the rest of the world — or most of it — has gone astray, including today’s chareidi society. Rav Avraham Yehoshua has plenty of harsh condemnations for the more moderate elements in today’s society, while he is equally opposed to the ersatz zeal of contemporary kannaim.

During Shacharis in the makeshift shul in Davos, the rosh yeshivah of Brisk sat anonymously in a corner of the room, whispering his own prayers. His movements are meticulously measured and invariably subdued — he doesn’t move even a finger without having a carefully thought-out reason for it. Every one of his actions is dictated by the traditions passed down by his father, Rav Yoshe Ber ztz”l, who absorbed them from his own father, the Brisker Rav. Nevertheless, some astute observers will tell you that Rav Avraham Yehoshua has indeed made a few minor innovations of his own, while still cleaving to the shared legacy of his father and grandfather. Just as his forebears were able to introduce innovations of their own, he is also permitted to innovate — provided that it is done as a function of their tradition of creating the occasional innovation.

For instance, a student in Brisk told me that one of Rav Avraham Yehoshua’s sons recently began wearing a wristwatch. Anyone who is familiar with the world of Brisk is aware that Briskers never wear wristwatches. These are innovations that do not belong in a Brisker beis medrash, and the sudden appearance of this wristwatch puzzled many Briskers — and even evoked silent outrage in a few of them.

Surprisingly, after this occurred, Rav Avraham Yehoshua began regularly asking his son for the time in the middle of his shiur. The subtle message was received: The Rosh Yeshivah was giving his backing to his son. But when do the Briskers encourage minor innovations and when do they recoil from them as if anything new is prohibited by the Torah? In order to determine the answer to that question, one would have to be an expert in the traditions of Brisk.

Even here, in Davos, Switzerland, Rav Avraham Yehoshua studiously avoids mingling with others. When he goes to the beis medrash, he walks quickly and purposefully, with his sons walking deferentially alongside him.

A perceptive observer would notice that Rav Avraham Yehoshua adheres to many of the stringencies of Brisk even when he is on foreign soil. For instance, when the Torah is read, one of Rav Avraham Yehoshua’s sons quietly secures him a place to stand near the bimah, so that the Rosh Yeshivah will not be forced to rely on the reading of a baal korei who is not precise enough in his pronunciation, or one who utilizes the chassidic pronunciation of Lashon Hakodesh. That’s if his son is not leining; Briskers are hesitant to rely on the leining of anyone who was not trained in Brisk itself.

The town of Davos, Switzerland, is a destination of choice for thousands of European Jews every year, and is also the preferred vacation spot for several of the gedolim of our generation. Jews from Europe and other parts of the world as well, including Eretz Yisrael, travel to Davos with their families during the summer, and the rabbanim and rebbes who spend their summers in Davos tend to blend in among the others, not attracting too much notice. Everyone in Davos is busy with his own relaxation and none of the rabbinic personalities are on call. They’re on vacation, and that means no tishen and no shiurim.

Still, I was hoping for an insightful conversation with Rav Avraham Yeshoshua. It’s well-known that when a bochur is denied acceptance to Rav Avraham Yehoshua’s yeshivah or daily shiur, the Rosh Yeshivah will often relent if the bochur expresses himself very cleverly. Maybe I could too.

I’d once heard a story about a bochur who showed up in Rav Avraham Yehoshua’s shiur in spite of the rule that only talmidim who have learned in the yeshivah for a minimum of six years are permitted to join. The rule is due to the extreme overcrowding in the shiur; there are many more attendees standing than sitting, and even more who are forced to crowd into the area outside the shiur room. When the Rosh Yeshivah entered the shiur room and saw the bochur, he ordered him to leave. “I will give half the value of the feast,” the bochur answered, quoting the Gemara’s account of Bar Kamtza’s response when he was asked to leave a wedding in Jerusalem. Rav Avraham Yehoshua smiled broadly, and that bochur is still in his shiur.

Perhaps, in asking for an interview, I, too, could think of a way to sway the Rosh Yeshivah with a pithy argument of my own.

At 7:50 a.m., Rav Avraham Yehoshua arrived for davening. His appearance was neat and organized as always, and he radiated the grandeur of Brisk. He held a velvet bag containing his tallis and Rashi tefillin. There was no name embroidered on the bag; as the Briskers would say, “Why should anyone have his name on his tefillin? The owner of the tefillin knows his own name, and as for other people, why should they need to know the name of the person wearing the tefillin? Besides, the Brisker Rav didn’t have his name on his tefillin bag.”

Reb Rafi Musbacher, who is responsible for all Jewish matters in Davos, related to me that he decided last year, in the middle of the vacation season, to change the seating configuration in the shul so that the mizrach would be wider. “The next day, Rav Soloveitchik arrived and asked me why I had moved the seats around, and I told him that I wanted to make room in the mizrach for all the rabbanim. ‘I wanted you to be able to daven in the mizrach,’ I said. Rav Soloveitchik laughed. ‘I don’t need the mizrach,’ he told me, and he continued davening in the same corner where he always sat.”

After davening, I escorted the Rosh Yeshivah to his lodgings. I had asked for permission to speak to him, and he invited me to accompany him on his walk back to his apartment. “Can it be later?” I asked, when I noticed two of his sons accompanying him; I feared their reactions to my request.

“Why later?” Rav Avraham Yehoshua asked. “We can talk now.”

When the Rosh Yeshivah of Brisk says something, you don’t argue.

I commented that the Torah world had just marked the hundredth yahrtzeit of Rav Avraham Yehoshua’s great-grandfather, Rav Chaim of Brisk. “I am a writer by profession,” I said, “and I was hoping that the Rosh Yeshivah would share some anecdotes that we can share with our readers.”

I never expected that Rav Avraham Yehoshua would agree. In Brisk, no one takes the time to sit down and simply tell stories. At most, they will correct the details of a story that is told incorrectly, but Rav Avraham Yehoshua would not even do that. Nevertheless, I wanted to see how he would turn me down.

Rumor has it that Rabbi Chaim Karlinsky, biographer of Brisk, once tried to convince the rabbanim of Brisk to share their recollections for the biography he wrote on the Beis Halevi. As could be expected, the family members rejected his request, shooing him away as if he was a pesky fly. Rabbi Karlinsky was not deterred, though, and he proceeded to travel to the home of Rebbetzin Rivka Yaffe, the daughter of the Beis Halevi, who lived in Tel Aviv until an advanced age. When he met with her, he began telling stories in which he deliberately distorted a number of details.

Distortions and imprecisions are considered extremely heinous offenses in the world of Brisk, and Rabbi Karlinsky’s ploy worked even better than he had expected. Rebbetzin Yaffe, who could not tolerate his flagrant distortions of the past, began correcting all of his mistakes, while adding many details of her own to the narratives. Thus, Rabbi Karlinsky gained access to a goldmine of recollections — thanks to the Brisker trait of punctiliousness.

To be honest, I briefly considered attempting a similar ploy with the Rosh Yeshivah. However, the response I imagined I would receive from Rav Avraham Yehoshua — who was certainly familiar with the story of Rabbi Karlinsky and would have discerned my intentions immediately — prevented me from doing anything of the sort. I decided that I would consider even the briefest exchange with the Rosh Yeshivah, who barely utters a word outside the confines of his own yeshivah, to be a major accomplishment in its own right.

As I expected, Rav Avraham Yehoshua was not quick to comply with my request. “I’m not interested in telling stories,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked. “It will bring chizuk to the public.”

“These days,” he said, “every story is distorted. Every anecdote takes on a twisted form, sometimes the exact opposite of the actual reality. It’s better not to tell any stories at all, rather than make room for distortions.”

“Why does the Rosh Yeshivah think that people today enjoy changing the details of every story?” I asked.

“That’s what is popular today,” he replied. “Someone tells a story, someone else comes and embellishes it, and ultimately a picture emerges that has no connection to reality.”

In response, I told the Rosh Yeshivah about an account that had appeared in Mishpacha just a week earlier, in Reb Menachem Pines’s article marking Rav Chaim’s hundredth yahrtzeit: Rav Chaim was once staying in the Polish resort town of Otvosk, and Shmuel Horowitz, a Jewish journalist and publicist, tried to secure an interview with him. He ultimately published an article describing his experiences with Rav Chaim in Yiddish, under the pen name A. Litwin, but the interview ultimately consisted of no more than two sentences.

Rav Avraham Yehoshua asked me how the attempt to interview Rav Chaim had ended, and I quoted from what I remembered reading: “At the time, Rav Chaim was staying in Otvosk, near Warsaw, a place where people went for summer retreats. Shmuel Horowitz went to look for him there, and, he wrote, aside from wanting to meet Rav Chaim in person, he wanted to solicit his opinion about the widespread anti-Semitism plaguing affluent Jews in Poland.

“Rav Chaim was staying in a large cabin in the middle of a pine forest, and when Horowitz approached, he saw several elderly Jews bent over seforim. He was sure Rav Chaim was not among this rag-tag looking group of old-time vacationers. ‘Where is the rav?’ Horowitz asked, and one of the men, a broad-shouldered Jew wearing an old, faded kapote and a discolored yarmulke, looked up from his Gemara. ‘He’s the rav,’ another man said, pointing to him.

“Horowitz announced that he’d been sent by his newspaper to talk to Rav Chaim, who looked at him with even greater surprise: Why would a newspaper correspondent want to talk to me? he thought. Nevertheless, he ushered Horowitz into a side room and invited him to sit, sitting himself down opposite the journalist with a pipe in his mouth, ready to listen. Horowitz told him about his travels, about the Jews’ economic situation and about the financial anti-Semitism. Rav Chaim listened intently, but he was not particularly fazed. Horowitz wrote that he didn’t expect anything different. After all, he wrote, what benefit was there in explaining the political facts of life to a man who believes that any misfortune that comes to the world is because of a lack of fear of Heaven?

“ ‘Rabbi,’ Horowitz said, ‘I believe that if you and the other rabbanim would gather the wealthy factory owners and admonish them about their behavior, it might influence them.’

“ ‘They won’t listen to me,’ Rav Chaim said, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. ‘You can see what kind of people come to my home, and they are not rich.’ ”

At that point, Rav Avraham Yehoshua cut me off without waiting to hear the rest of the story. He seemed to have enjoyed the tale, but was also waiting for that moment. “You see,” he said, “the zeide Rav Chaim also did not wish to be interviewed. I have a maaseh rav.”

Rav Avraham Yehoshua had nearly reached his apartment, and that meant that it was time for our conversation to end. I turned around, and I saw the Rosh Yeshivah’s two sons — both of them prominent Torah scholars in their own right — walking at a safe distance behind us, in complete deference to their father. I felt a bit uncomfortable, and I asked them to forgive me for infringing on their private time. But they dismissed the comment. “If our father agreed to talk to you, who are we to resent it?”

Ultimately, as you can see, I didn’t come away with an interview.


Where’s the Chevra Kaddisha?

At Jakobshorn with Rav Baruch Dov Povarsky

I met Rav Baruch Dov Povarsky, along with his son-in-law, Rav Chaim Peretz Berman, and several other members of his family at the top of the Jakobshorn mountain in the Swiss Alps, a favorite take-off point for hang-gliders and snow-kiters. But even in that informal vacation setting, the behavior of one of the foremost roshei yeshivah of the generation did not change an iota from the beis medrash.

At the age of 87, Rav Berel Povarsky finds it difficult to walk, but aside from that, his daily routine is rigorous and demanding — even when he’s on vacation. He davens Shacharis at the 7:00 a.m. minyan, after which he delivers a shiur to the minyan participants. Between Minchah and Maariv, he conducts heated Talmudic debates with the other Torah scholars vacationing in Davos. He’s like the general in a Talmudic army, not laying down his weapons even after spending 70 years in the dissemination of Torah knowledge.

During the summer months, Promenade Street in Davos feels almost like Jerusalem’s Rechov Malchei Yisrael. A plethora of stores sell food, clothing, and mountain climbing equipment to religious Jewish families who’ve come here to enjoy their summer vacation. The local grocery stores offer kosher products, and a bustling shtibel and mikveh are available at the end of the street. And near the artificial lake is the hotel managed by the Levin family. The hotel’s patrons include visiting Jewish families and the families of gedolei Yisrael. Even though many vacationers stay in less expensive rented apartments, the hotel, for those who can afford it, provides full-course meals, and is strategically located in close proximity to the cable car that carries travelers up Jakobshorn.

The hotel is also a bit of a window into the differences in the vacationing patterns of chassidish rebbes and Litvish roshei yeshivah. While the chassidim rent accommodations for their rebbes that include private shuls, adjacent mikvaos, and all sorts of other amenities that enable the rebbes to avoid mingling with the crowds, the roshei yeshivah for the most part spend their vacations rubbing shoulders with ordinary vacationers. For instance, Ponevezh Rosh Yeshivah Rav Baruch Dov Povarsky takes his meals together with his family in the main dining room of the Levin hotel. Similarly, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik davens together with a diverse congregation in the shtiblach of Davos.

I joined the Povarsky family in a cable car making its way toward the Schatzalp mountaintop. In that pastoral setting of all places, Rav Berel shared memories of his childhood connection with Rav Elchanan Wasserman Hy”d. The Rosh Yeshivah was born in the town of Kletsk in Belarus, but when he was three months old, his family moved to Baranavich. It was there that he became acquainted with Rav Elchanan.

“Rav Elchanan used to deliver a shiur on Chumash and Rashi every week on Motzaei Shabbos,” he related. “Only avreichim were permitted to attend the shiur. I was four years old, and I once came to the shiur with my father. When Rav Elchanan recited Havdalah, he let me hold the candle, and after Havdalah, he took it from me in order to extinguish it. Then he asked me whether Adam Harishon was Jewish or a goy.

“I said to Rav Elchanan, ‘Adam Harishon must have been a goy. If he had been a Jew, then all of his children would have been Jewish and there wouldn’t be any goyim in the world.’ I remember that Rav Elchanan liked that answer.”

The two Belzer chassidim sharing the car were intrigued, and asked the Rosh Yeshivah to share his memories of Rav Aharon of Belz. Rav Berel replied that there were some years when the Belzer Rebbe baked his matzos in the same bakery used by the Brisker Rav. “I saw the Belzer Rebbe several times when he came to bake his matzos,” he recalled.

The cable car reached its destination, and we emerged onto the mountaintop. When the two chassidim offered to carry the Rosh Yeshivah in his chair, he quipped that they should recite “yosheiv baseser elyon,” the verse typically recited when a deceased person is carried to his grave. Rav Berel’s companions were flustered, and he explained, “That wasn’t just a joke — it was a reminder that a person must always keep in mind that he’ll eventually be carried precisely in that fashion.”

“The aron carried those who carried it,” one of the avreichim said, in an effort to dispel the discomfort of the exchange.

Rav Berel was certainly not going to go down the mountain on skis, but he did remain on the mountaintop for a few minutes to gaze into the distance and marvel at the beauty of creation. Then he decided to return to the hotel. On the way, he received a call from the philanthropist Reb Yossel Tabak, champion of kollel support, who told him he would be arriving in Switzerland for a two-hour visit and wished to have dinner with the Rosh Yeshivah. “Let him come,” Rav Berel said.

On the way down from the mountaintop, Rav Berel asked, “Where is the chevra kaddisha?” Once again, his comment met with reactions of discomfort, to which Rav Berel replied, “We must get used to this; we must feel it.” Perhaps he wanted to pull his fellow vacationers back from that heady feeling of “anything goes when you’re on vacation,” and the enjoyment of the outing might have been hampered in the face of this reminder of every person’s ultimate fate, but at the same time, we had forged a connection with a gadol whose entire being is defined by the Torah and whose thoughts are shaped by its priorities.

For me, it was one of the most powerful and penetrating mussar lessons I’ve received — and in the Swiss Alps, of all places. While we were busy with the “kef” and the intoxicating scenery, it was a wake-up call that “fun” isn’t separate from real life. May Hashem grant him many more years of strength and inspiration.

Do i sound like a Zionist?

In Davos Dorf with the Sadigura Rebbe 

Davos Dorf, the rural area of Davos, is located at some distance from the area frequented by most Jewish vacationers. I made my way there together with Reb Avraham Zilbershlag, a devoted chassid of the Sadigura Rebbe. The Rebbe — Rav Yisrael Moshe Friedman — and his family were staying in a modest rental apartment with a spacious courtyard where the Rebbe would spent most of each day learning in the tranquil setting. These were his weeks of isolation, when no one except for a bochur named Bernstein hovered around the Rebbe, ready to do his bidding.

It was also a time for health and exercise. Every day, the Rebbe would pick up two metal poles, don his special shoes, and climb up the side of the mountain. Only a few select individuals accompanied him on these daily excursions, when the Rebbe would take advantage of an opportunity that could hardly present itself back home in Bnei Brak.

We arrived in time for Minchah, which was held in the Rebbe’s ground-floor living room. Boxes were scattered throughout the room, as the Rebbe would be heading home the next day, and the contents of the apartment — the sefarim, the shtenders, the chairs, and so forth — were to be placed in storage until the following year.

The Rebbe motioned to one of the participants to lead the davening, and several distinguished-looking individuals joined the Rebbe for the minyan. In Bnei Brak, the Rebbe follows the custom of the rebbes of Ruzhin to daven in a side room known as a daven shtibel, but here the Rebbe davens along with the rest of the kehillah.

The living room leads into a kitchen and a hallway with bedrooms. Someone had gone to the trouble of hanging a curtain between the living room and the bedroom area — making sure to avoid any permanent changes in the apartment, to prevent even the slightest trace of a chillul Hashem.

I expressed my amazement at the fact that a small village in the Swiss Alps had taken on the appearance of a mainstream Jewish community, with distinguished-looking Torah scholars strolling down its streets and Yiddish echoing from all directions. “Yes,” the Rebbe replied. “I heard a local non-Jew telling someone that there is a large ‘Jewish congress’ here.”

In the presence of the Sadigura Rebbe, a distinguished rav who served as av beis din in London before taking on the mantle of leadership in 2013, I was reminded of the previous rebbes of the Ruzhiner dynasty, whose regal appearances were the external trappings of noble, humble hearts that beat with profound concern for every Jew, limitless love of Klal Yisrael, powerful yearning for Eretz Yisrael, and the constant hope that the Jewish People would be redeemed.

The Rebbe began davening Maariv immediately after Minchah, reciting Kaddish in honor of the yahrtzeit of Rav Shlomo Chaim (“Shlomenyu”) of Sadigura, a son of Rebbe Yisrael, the second rebbe of Sadigura. (Two of Rebbe Shlomenyu’s brothers who were niftar before him also served as rebbes. He was an uncle of Rebbe Mordechai Sholom Yosef Friedman, the fourth Sadigura Rebbe known as the Knesses Mordechai.) He was close in age to the Knesses Mordechai, his nephew and the Rebbe’s grandfather, and within the constellation of Ruzhin, he was a unique rebbe, since most of his close confidants were members of the Mizrachi movement.

“He passed away when I was a bochur,” the Rebbe relates, “but I remember how he used to walk down the streets of Tel Aviv and draw other Jews closer to Yiddishkeit. He was once walking down Rechov Allenby, pointed to the stores and said to someone, ‘Do you see these stores? All the owners of these stores are my chassidim.’ The other man was skeptical. ‘They barely keep Shabbos,’ he said. ‘How can they be your chassidim?’

“Rav Shlomenyu — who risked his own life repeatedly to save children who had been hidden in monasteries during the Holocaust — replied, ‘They don’t know it yet, but I daven for each and every one of them to have ample parnassah. So they must certainly be my chassidim.’

“I remember visiting him,” the Rebbe continued, “and he had a special Kiddush cup that had been passed down to him from his ancestor, the Maggid of Mezritch. Rav Shlomenyu would say, ‘This cup once reflected the holy visage of the Maggid of Mezritch with his revered talmidim standing around him — Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Rav Menachel Mendel of Vitebsk, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and his other illustrious disciples. This cup was also used by the Maggid’s son, Rav Avraham HaMalach. And then it reflected the face of his son, Rav Sholom Shachna, and then it was used by the Rebbe of Ruzhin.’ And he continued listing all the holy tzaddikim who used this cup, until he reached our generation.”

Despite his venerated lineage, he loved every Jew, and he loved Eretz Yisrael, traits that were passed down the line. “My father [the previous Rebbe, who would be consulted not only by other gedolim but by politicians as well] loved every inch of Eretz Yisrael,” he said. “Do you think I’m sounding like a big Zionist? It’s from the Torah. From the fact that Eretz Yisrael is ‘the land upon which Hashem always gazes, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.’ ”

The Rebbe was silent for a moment, then added, “But that fact is also a reason to be cautious. On the one hand, it is a tremendous zechus to live in this holy land. On the other hand, if Hashem is gazing at the land at every moment, it obligates us to make sure that we act properly. In Eretz Yisrael, we must be even more meticulous and vigilant in our observance of the Torah and mitzvos.

“Tomorrow, with Hashem’s help, we will have the zechus of returning to Eretz Yisrael,” the Rebbe said, hopefully refreshed and happy to be going home.

 

Exiled grandeur

At Wald hotel with the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe

My nighttime encounter with the Rebbe of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak was not scheduled in advance. It was 12 minutes after midnight, and I had just finished davening Maariv in the shtibel in Davos. I climbed the steep slope leading to the Waldhotel, trying to gauge the likelihood that I would have the privilege of taking a midnight stroll with the Rebbe, whose apartment is located across the street from the hotel.

As I made my way up the hill, I suddenly found the Rebbe walking toward me, along with two of his attendants. As it turned out, the Rebbe was taking his own daily walk — only during the day there was no time.

The Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe doesn’t seem to be bound by the normal limitations of time. He generally goes to sleep at around 3:00 a.m. and arises just a few hours later. At this late-night hour, the Rebbe appeared completely exhausted. His full weight was being supported by his two attendants, and he barely managed to drag his feet forward. I offered my assistance, and when the Rebbe placed a hand on my shoulder, one of the gabbaim reminded me that the last time the Rebbe had leaned on me for support was on the Shabbos of my own aufruf, when he danced with me until his strength was utterly depleted. The Rebbe asked me why I looked so familiar to him, and I replied that I had often attended his tishen on Friday nights when I was younger. The Rebbe nodded. “Yes, I remember you from the tishen,” he said.

The Rebbe’s head tilted to the side as he struggled to walk. He moved slowly, holding on to us for support — but that didn’t stop him from sharing stories of tzaddikim and spiritual insights.

I remarked to the Rebbe that I was troubled by a niggling question: We believe that Eretz Yisrael is more beautiful than any other land in the world, yet the natural beauty of Switzerland seems to surpass that of the Holy Land. How is that possible?

The Rebbe took a deep breath of fresh Swiss air and said, “The first Belzer Rebbe said that the pasuk in Eichah, ‘The daughter of Zion lost all of its beauty,’ is referring to the mountains of Switzerland. The grandeur of Eretz Yisrael was exiled to this place.”

“Will the beauty return to its natural place in Eretz Yisrael when Mashiach comes?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” the Rebbe replied.

As we walked, we passed the umbrella table that provides the Rebbe with shade during his daytime hours of learning. The parasol was open, and the Rebbe asked his companions to close it. I wondered what the reason for his request was. Perhaps the Rebbe, whose every action has a spiritual mirror, didn’t want others to sit in the shade of the canopy that he uses for davening and learning. Far be it from me to divine the Rebbe’s hidden motivations.

A small beis medrash with a temporary mezuzah was created next to the Rebbe’s lodgings. The Rebbe sits there for most of the day, learning and davening with the same burning fervor that permeates the beis medrash of his chassidus in Jerusalem. In an adjacent room, the Rebbe meets with individual chassidim seeking his help or his blessings. Based on the Rebbe’s unmistakable exhaustion, it would be difficult to describe his stay here as a vacation. He toils just as intensively in Davos as he does in Jerusalem. The only differences are the trees and mountains.

One of the Rebbe’s companions pointed out that Rav Yitzchak Friedman, the first Rebbe of Bohush, wished to pass away in the mountains of Switzerland. The Rebbe confirmed the truth of the story and went on to speak about his son, Rav Moshe Yehuda Leib Friedman of Pashkan.

“The Pashkaner was a master of hachnassas orchim,” the Rebbe related. “He brought other Jews into his home without question, and anyone was permitted to sleep in his house. In 1944, after 40 years in Pashkan, the Rebbe was expelled by the authorities. He then moved to Bucharest and reestablished the Pashkaner chassidus there.

“When he lived in Bucharest, the Rebbe would have 40 or 50 people sleeping in his home in a single night, and he provided food for all of them. Guests would sleep in his bed as if in their own home. The Rebbetzin served food and drink to them all, and sometimes there wasn’t even a mattress left for the Rebbe himself.”

A distinguished Jew from Zurich crossed paths with us at that point and approached the Rebbe for a brachah. The Rebbe asked about his family and discovered that he was acquainted with the man’s grandfather. “Your grandfather is a Jew out of an earlier era,” the Rebbe said, revealing that this grandfather has the entirety of Shas and poskim committed to memory.

The Rebbe began speaking about the roshei yeshivah of the previous generation with whom he was personally acquainted. One of those illustrious men was Rav Yitzchak Dov Koppelman, the rosh yeshivah of Lucerne, Switzerland, who passed away at 106 in 2013. Rav Koppelman and the Rebbe were close friends; they used to meet every year during the summer and shared divrei Torah with each other. “Rav Koppelman was the last rosh yeshivah of his kind,” the Rebbe asserted.

“Give the chassidim back home my regards,” the Rebbe said before disappearing into the darkened building for another long night of rigorous avodas Hashem and — just perhaps — a couple of hours of sleep.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 728)

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