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In Focus

His Will was her sole focus. Remembering Rebbetzin Chaitchi Knopfler

The “problem” with speaking about Rebbetzin Chaitchi Knopfler, said her brother-in-law, Rav Ephraim Wachsman shlita, in his hesped, is that those who didn’t know her will think he is exaggerating, and those who did know her will think he isn’t saying enough.

Rebbetzin Chaitchi Knopfler of Golders Green, London, passed away on Isru Chag Shavuos at just 64 years of age. The Rebbetzin was an intensely spiritual person who lived a life of constant focus on Hashem’s Will, waking at 5:30 each morning to pack as much as possible into her day. Her magic was that she took the women around her — girls who watched her daven in shul, kallahs whom she taught, post-seminary girls and ladies who attended her shiurim — along on the journey.

Her usual greeting, even on the phone, was “Hello, darling!” creating a wide circle of people who felt close to her. “She had a warm, gentle voice,” recalls one student, “but fervent yiras Hashem.”

As the daughter of the well-known London businessman and philanthropist Reb Zalman Margulies, the Rebbetzin grew up in a wealthy home full of chesed and community feeling. The Margulies family are of distinguished descent, grandchildren of the Premishlan chassidic dynasty and other rabbanim.

She married Rabbi Berel Knopfler, today the rav of Sinai Bais Medrash and rosh yeshivah of Chayei Olam. Rebbetzin Knopfler was always at her husband’s side — and also very much a personality in her own right. Her husband’s Torah meant the world to her, yet her own role was uniquely expansive. In addition to raising a big family, she taught young students, kallahs, and women, initiated several mitzvah projects, and constantly focused on her own learning and tefillah.

While her fervent tefillos were unforgettable to the women and girls in her shul, and she had lists of people whom she davened for daily, her connection to Hashem didn’t end there.

“When we were in the car, she would daven to Hashem to find a parking spot,” says the Rebbetzin’s longtime chesed partner, Rebbetzin Rikky Dunner, who accompanied her on weekly Friday hospital visits, shivah calls, and chevra kaddisha work. When going shopping with her daughters, Rebbetzin Knopfler would say a perek of Tehillim “that you should find something tzniyusdig and find it quickly and for a reasonable price.”

She’d daven that even her eating and sleeping would be completely l’Sheim Shamayim. When she went to have chemotherapy, she was content, knowing that doing so was a mitzvah — “Now I’m fulfilling v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem and u’viarta hara mikirbecha,” she’d say.

Always a Mommy

Rebbetzin Knopfler was elevated, but she was always a mommy. The Knopflers raised a very large family kein ayin hara, born over more than 20 years. When the children were young, there were birthday cakes and parties and playdates and the chance for each child to choose a special supper — and there were also two halachos of shemiras halashon learned at supper together. When Rebbetzin Knopfler would visit mothers after birth, the sick, or the lonely, she’d take one child along with her, giving that child special time alone with her.

“I don’t remember my mother busy davening when we were little,” says Gitty, one of the younger daughters. “I asked her about it recently, and she told me that a woman’s connection to Hashem through davening is like a gas burner. She should keep it on low — but never turn it off completely — while she is busy raising children.

“She told me that when we were young, she davened very little, but spoke to Hashem as she went about taking care of us, and as we grew up, she turned the flame higher and higher, filling her time with ever more mitzvah projects.”

In later years, Rebbetzin Knopfler attended their shul, her beloved Sinai beis medrash, three times a day when possible. She rose at 5:30 a.m. to learn mussar and hashkafah before going to Shacharis at seven. She loved special opportunities for davening such as the monthly Yom Kippur Katan tefillos on Erev Rosh Chodesh. Once her children were not dependent on her, she also joined the chevra kaddisha.

Although having a large family meant life was always busy, the Knopfler children cannot remember seeing their mother angry. “Things could spill, splash, or smash, but my mother was never angry. She was very calm — even when the beautifully set Shabbos table was ruined, her approach was a calm ‘let’s sort this out,’ ” says Gitty. “The only thing that did upset her was when we fought. Then, she would go to her room, upset, and tell us that she felt we were chasing the Shechinah out of the house.”

Shabbos was “mei’ein olam haba” in the Knopfler household. Rebbetzin Knopfler wore makeup and jewelry and got ready for the holy day early. Those closest to her knew that she needed little materially, but if a gift was to beautify the Shabbos table, she loved it. Beautiful tablecloths, classy dishes, stunning tableware? They were for Shabbos. Fine chocolates? In honor of Shabbos. In classes, she devoted much time to teaching about hafrashas challah, hadlakas neiros, oneg Shabbos, encouraging women to upgrade their Shabbos and cherish it as a unique spiritual opportunity.

In later years, the Rebbetzin would arise even earlier than usual on Shabbos, around 4:30 a.m., to maximize the special time for learning, reading, and growth. She never felt that she’d finished growing, so was always checking if she could implement what she’d learned. Even during her final illness, her seforim were filled with notes to herself about kabbalos and middos-improvement plans.

Absolutely Real

Despite her position, the Rebbetzin was friendly and approachable. When talking to younger women, Rebbetzin Knopfler shared that she was naturally absentminded and messy, but had worked on her organizational skills to eventually achieve a well-run home for her large family. She advised women, especially mothers of growing families, to take cleaning help if they could afford it.

“The first thing you need, more than new clothing, is a calm household. Use your money for cleaning help and you won’t feel so stressed or overwhelmed by the children.” She herself had help, and didn’t attempt to make every bed in the house and iron every shirt herself.

The presence of the Shechinah in the home, the spiritual bond with one’s husband, and the holiness of a Jewish marriage — she taught these crucial concepts to so many kallos. “When she spoke about the Eibeshter, it was clear that He was more real to her than her hand in front of her face,” says one student.

The Rebbetzin was always supportive of and a confidante to her husband. His time and his learning were sacrosanct. Rebbetzin Knopfler consulted with her husband about everything she planned to do, and made sure that her own endeavors were never at his expense. The Torah of her sons and sons-in-law was also paramount, and she recited the entire kapitel kuf-yud-tes daily for the success of her children and grandchildren.

Working for Him

The Rebbetzin’s mother, Mrs. Martha Margulies, had run London’s hachnassas kallah organization together with Mrs. Devora Sternbuch, mother of the Raavad of the Eidah Hachareidis. This role passed on to her daughter Rebbetzin Knopfler and to Mrs. Sternbuch’s granddaughter, Rebbetzin Rikky Dunner. When Rebbetzin Knopfler felt that London’s communities had come of age, and the time had come to split the hachnassas kallah fund into two localized organizations, no skepticism or opposition could stop her.

“She knew that people in Golders Green would give more generously to a Golders Green fund, so Rebbetzin Knopfler forged ahead,” says Rebbetzin Dunner. “Now, in retrospect, it’s clear to everyone that the two kehillahs can support their own brides.”

For over 25 years, the Rebbetzin and her partners arranged a hachnassas kallah collection at every wedding in the community, and channeled the money directly to those who needed it. The Rebbetzin thought nothing of going around the tables herself with a velvet pouch for donations.

Since Rebbetzin Knopfler was working for Hashem, she was unafraid of opposition or apathy. For example, since she felt that Hashem required her to speak about tzniyus, the Rebbetzin was unapologetic and frank. In her shiurim, she pleaded for women to take ownership of this mitzvah and claim it as theirs, and her sincerity enabled her to break through resistance and touch hearts.

“If she noticed that a lady at the shiur wore a skirt a little too short, the Rebbetzin would phone her,” recalls Mrs. Dunner. “ ‘I love you dearly,’ she’d say ‘and it is so nice to see you whenever you come to the shiur. I’m sure you don’t realize that the skirt you were wearing is a little bit short for someone like you.’ Once, when she needed to approach someone about the length of her skirt, she knocked on the woman’s door on Friday morning with a fresh challah in hand, and then brought up the subject.”

Around seven years ago, the Rebbetzin announced in her Monday morning shiur that she felt that Shabbos packages should be delivered to Jewish hospital patients, bringing them something special in addition to the regular hospital kosher meals. By that Friday, she’d set the new project in motion.

Rebbetzin Knopfler donated the grape juice in memory of her mother, and other participants sponsored challahs, fresh fruit salad, chocolate, a small tablecloth, electric candles, and three roses in a vase. Rabbi Knopfler provided halachic instructions for lighting the candles, and the Rebbetzin wrote poems that were included with the packages.

Accompanied by Rebbetzin Dunner, Mrs. Adler, or other friends, Rebbetzin Knopfler would arrive at the hospital wards every Friday with her parcels. She visited scores of patients, and always said a kapitel of Tehillim at each bedside — “otherwise you’re not yotzei the mitzvah of bikur cholim.”

Rebbetzin Dunner recalls some interesting encounters. “There was a lady we used to visit who didn’t cover her hair. Rebbetzin Knopfler came along one week with a present: two new tichels. I said ‘You can’t!’ but there was no stopping her. ‘I’ll offer them to her and let’s see what she says,’ was her reply.

“After we’d greeted the woman, the Rebbetzin said, ‘I’ve brought you a present. Wouldn’t it be nice if you wear one when you light the candles this week. Let’s see how you look!’ She took out a mirror from her bag, and the woman tried one on. We left those tichels there.”

When COVID brought illness, death, and fear, and lockdowns ended the shiurim she’d held in her home for 35 years, Rebbetzin Knopfler responded by taking her classes to the phone, soon forming nightly teleconferences of chizuk and learning.

Hundreds phoned in from ten to ten thirty at night, and she supported them through the confusion. At the behest of her husband and multiple requests from the listeners, this line is now being continued by her daughters. During the lockdown, the Rebbetzin collected money and called Jewish bookstores to arrange a supply of books to entertain the children of families who were struggling from the isolating circumstances and lack of school structure.

Still Serving Him

Just months ago, before the wedding of her youngest daughter, the Rebbetzin received a dire diagnosis. The community reeled in disbelief, but the Rebbetzin did not let it stop her spiritual mission.

Recently, at the peak of her illness, when she was being treated in New York, Rebbetzin Knopfler asked her friend to continue the Friday visits and packages, and directed her to give hachnassas kallah funds to two local families.

Her situation worsened over the past two months, and over Shavuos, she was hovering between life and death, with her family and many others davening and pleading for her to return to them.

On Isru Chag, with the family gathered around her bed, one of her sons pointed out to his father, Rabbi Knopfler, that perhaps her neshamah was waiting for permission to depart from This World. Rabbi Knopfler accepted this and said, “I’m not standing in the way,” taking his leave and asking her to daven for the family before the Kisei Hakavod. Just 60 seconds later, her soul left, in tune with her husband’s word, as always.

She hadn’t been afraid to die, she’d told a close friend — she would simply continue being an eved Hashem Up There.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 746)

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