A collection of memories from those in the service of gedolim — away from the public eye, the small interactions of great men
At Home with Everyone
Rabbi Yitzchak Zemmel
In service of Rav Yaakov Edelstein, rav of Ramat Hasharon
For 15 years I learned a weekly chavrusa with Rav Yaakov Edelstein, the longtime beloved rav of the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, and in that capacity, I was also with him on nights that he would receive the public.
As a brilliant disciple of the Chazon Ish, Rav Edelstein could have spent his life secluded in the beis medrash surrounded by disciples and avreichim. Instead, he threw in his lot with a different crowd, of religious and secular alike, who basked in his warmth and blessings for 67 years until his petirah in 2017. Most people would expect a place like Ramat Hasharon to have a more “modern” chief rabbi, someone who could be a better fit for the locals — yet Rav Edelstein chose to open his home to everyone, even to those who had differing worldviews. People came from all over to get a brachah from him or to hear his sage advice — and it didn’t matter if they were secular, religious, or traditional. He could relate to everyone, and helped so many because he often understood them better than they understood themselves. And for so many years, I was there watching it all happen.
In later years the Rav couldn’t hear so well, so he wanted me to repeat people’s questions to him. During the last year of the Rav’s life, when he was ill, I was responsible for his medical file. That year was a story of its own. The Rav had asked that all questions about treatments should be brought to his brother, Ponevezh Rosh Yeshivah Rav Gershon Edelstein, since he didn’t want to pasken about himself. The Rav was treated in Laniado Hospital, and because I live in Netanya, I was with him daily up until the time of his petirah, when he wrote to me his final instruction, to make a siyum on Maseches Makkos. I finished learning the Gemara aloud, made a siyum, and the Rav soon lost consciousness.
In the early years, Rav Edelstein used to receive the public in his apartment, but because the crowd was sometimes a disturbance to the neighbors, the Rav moved the Thursday night kabbalat kahal to the shul. There was another reason as well: If there was one thing this gadol who knew all of Shas could not understand, it was the possibility that a Yid would park in someone else’s parking spot. How could it be? He couldn’t allow running the risk, so he moved over to the shul, where there was a parking lot — and I was present with him on those Thursday nights when he would receive people for hours on end.
When I brought the Rav home after hours of hearing people’s troubles, he would close the door ever so gently so as not to disturb his neighbors, then open a Gemara to recuperate from the tension and the tzaros he had just absorbed. When I’d leave, I’d sometimes notice that he shut his door so soundlessly that it wasn’t even properly closed, so after saying goodbye, I would quietly close it myself.
Rav Yaakov was an extremely sensitive soul. One theme he spoke about often was the power of the tongue. It’s brought down in seforim that even a random, thoughtless comment can become a curse, and people sometimes accidentally curse themselves or their children by making negative or pessimistic comments, and therefore creating negative realities. Even a joke, like a bochur saying, “It will for sure to take me a long time to get married,” can recreate his reality.
I was once with the Rav at an event, when a distraught Yid came over to him, explaining that his son was very ill in the hospital. When he showed Rav Edelstein the child’s full name, the Rav became extremely upset. “You did this! You cursed him! How could you have done this?!”
The Yid started to cry, and admitted that his son had been extremely difficult and caused him endless trouble. In his anger, he had cursed him.
“Run and do hataras klalos, and never curse anyone again!” the Rav told him.
Although he was a rosh yeshivah and respected as one of the gedolim of the Litvish world, for many years he was a close disciple of the hidden tzaddik Rav Moshe Yaakov Rabikof, known as “the Sandlar” (shoemaker) of Tel Aviv and head of a secret group of kabbalists. At some point the secret got out, and the Rav became known as a baal mofeis.
When I was buying an apartment and asked Rav Yaakov’s advice, his response was, “What does your wife say? She is the mainstay of the house, do what is important to her.”
Another time, when we were deciding what to name our son, my wife and I decided together to bring the question to the Rav. My wife wanted the name Yedidyah, while I wanted another name, so we wrote four names on a paper, which I brought to the Rav. I didn’t say a word, but the Rav pointed to Yedidyah and said, “Your wife wants Yedidyah, so why are you asking me?”
av Edelstein would sometimes speak about his childhood. He was born in the Russian town of Szumiacz near Smolensk where his father, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Edelstein, served as av beis din. But the town came under Communist rule, the schools and shuls were closed down, and their mother Rebbetzin Miriam passed away. Rav Tzvi Yehudah and his young family — Gershon, Yaakov, a sister, and his grandmother — managed to obtain passage on a ship from Odessa to Eretz Yisrael.
As they had not registered with any of the political movements at the time, they had to fend for themselves for a place to live. His sister and grandmother found places with relatives, but Rav Tzvi Yehudah refused to separate from his two sons. Eventually they found a home: an empty chicken coop in the village of Ramat Hasharon. A few orange crates courtesy of the owner of a nearby orchard served as beds, chairs, and a table, and as soon as they were settled, the first thing Rav Tzvi Yehudah did was to go to a shul and ask the gabbai if he could borrow a Gemara, I think Maseches Bava Kamma, which he brought home and sat down to learn with his boys. That was how they were raised and that’s how they continued to learn until they were teenagers.
The family became close with the Chazon Ish, who encouraged Rav Tzvi Yehudah to continue learning with his sons privately until they were 17 and 16 respectively, when they first ventured out into an established yeshivah. Their first stop was Yeshivas Lomza in Petach Tikvah, and then they moved on to the fledgling Ponevezh, which was being established by Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman on a barren hill in Bnei Brak. With only six boys to start with, the Edelstein brothers comprised a third of the yeshivah.
With the sudden passing of Rav Tzvi Yehuda in 1950, the Ponevezher Rav encouraged Rav Yaakov to take over the rabbanus in Hod Hasharon, and he remained there for the rest of his life.
he Rav had indescribable ahavas Yisrael, which the people reciprocated. He was like a father to the community in Ramat Hasharon, and in fact, while in most places children duck under their fathers’ talleisim during Bircas Kohanim, in the Rav’s shul, many of the adult baalei teshuvah would run under the Rav’s tallis. While he had a warm, personal connection with the Toldos Aharon Rebbe and many of the “zebra-clad” chassidim would visit, totally secular people would also come to him, as did the traditional people from his community.
When people came to him with problems, he’d often encourage them to strengthen themselves at whatever level they were at. For newcomers, he might have advised them to add something to their Shabbos observance or take on certain mitzvos related to taharah, whereas kollel yungeleit would be encouraged to have high aspirations in learning and try to finish Shas. The Rav also advised people to honor their wives properly.
One young fellow came to the Rav for advice about some legal issues, and Rav Edelstein told him he should make sure to be at davening five minutes early. This yungerman was in shock. He told me, “How did he know I’m always late?!” But it wasn’t really a question for us. We saw these things all the time. For example, a girl once came in for a brachah for a shidduch. She gave her friend’s name, too. The Rav stopped her, saying, “She’s engaged already.”
“What?!” The girl didn’t believe it.
I told her to go and check, then come back to the Rav without waiting in line again.
She went out to make a call, and found out that yes, her friend had just gotten engaged.
My own favorite time with Rav Edelstein was on Purim. I was responsible for security and had to hire a company with eight to ten security staff for crowd control in the shul. Inside, it was an otherworldly experience — the Rav was transformed.
All night, vans from around the country would pull up, with people eager to get Rav Edelstein’s brachah. He would see streams of people and go on until around three a.m., when anyone who had not yet gone in would receive one general brachah. I had a friend who came in on Purim — he was 27 and single. The Rav said, “B’ezras Hashem this year he will get married.”
“He’s 27,” I reminded the Rav.
“He will get married this year.”
I immediately called my friend’s father and told him he could book a hall.
We had many special times together, like when the Rav took a break for a few days in Netanya, and we would walk together and learn together every day. I walked with the Rav near the sea, and on the health advice of the Chazon Ish from decades back, he would swim in the water for ten minutes and then come out. The Rebbetzin called this time “Yericho,” because the walls were closed and her husband was free to sit and learn and write chiddushim.
Once a year, the Rav showed his appreciation to my wife and family, and two other families, by coming away with us for a Shabbos. The children would prepare for it, and he would farher them and give them presents. He gave a special shiur to them and sat down to answer their questions. Once, my son told him that he felt scared after recent terror attacks, so the Rav reassured him and advised him to say “Liyeshuascha kivisi Hashem” three times before leaving the house.
After his rebbetzin passed away, the Rav was alone for four years before his remarriage at the young-at-heart age of 88. (His first wife passed away when she was just 24, bearing him one son, Rav Mordechai; he then married her sister, with whom he had another 11 children.) During that time, my wife would prepare supper once a week, and I would bring it to the Rav and sit down with him. At the time, the Rav was low on iron, and his children had mentioned that avocado would be good for him to get his iron reserves up, so I brought the Rav an avocado. The Rav asked me why I wasn’t eating any. I told him I didn’t like it, but the Rav could not understand this. “It’s healthy, so eat it.”
“When you want something arranged in city hall,” the Rav used to tell me, “and you ask them a few times, the clerk will shout at you that ‘If you bother me even one more time, I’ll make sure it doesn’t get done!’ But HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the opposite. He wants us to be nudniks, because he wants the connection with us. Tefillah is everything.”
During that last year, the Rav lost the ability to speak due to a medical complication and would communicate with notes. One day, the head of the department came in with ten other staff members and some state-of-the-art equipment, and said to him, “Press here and try to speak.”
What would the Rav say? I thought maybe he would ask about his condition or his medical prognosis. Suddenly the words came out: “Modeh ani lefanecha, melech chai vekayam….”
The Rav once told me that he was orphaned when the Chazon Ish was niftar, just as for his own father. My family, too, was orphaned when the Rav left This World. It’s been six years, yet we still feel his influence and know he’ll always be there for us.
Rabbi Yehuda Neuhaus
In service of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim
IT all started the first Pesach I after I arrived in the Mir. Since I wasn’t going home for bein hazmanim, I was there on Shabbos Hagadol, when many rebbeim ate with the remaining bochurim in the dining room. My job was to manage the kitchen, but I went over and asked the Rosh Yeshivah if I could assist him or bring him anything. It was the year 2000, and the Rosh Yeshivah was already unwell, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and couldn’t walk alone. From that point onward, Rav Nosson Tzvi — who pushed himself with superhuman kochos until his passing in 2011 — would sometimes ask me to do things. When the bochur who usually assisted him over Shabbos went away, I would take over.
I also asked Rav Nosson Tzvi’s regular driver if I could help out. Since the driver was with the Rosh Yeshivah until late at night, it later worked out that I would be there to help the Rosh Yeshivah get to the early Shacharis. I was one of those who helped the Rosh Yeshivah walk. Heading to his home in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood first thing in the morning, I would hold both Rav Nosson Tzvi’s hands to help him into the car, which Dr. Yitzchak Yehuda Adler would then drive to Shacharis in yeshivah, starting at seven-fifteen a.m. Rav Nosson Tzvi never let his illness stop him from marathon hours of Torah learning, delivering regular shiurim, and fundraising around the world, having raised an estimated $500 million for the Mir during his tenure as rosh yeshivah. When he travelled to the US or the UK, I sometimes went along to walk with him.
After I had been learning in the Mir for some years, Rebbetzin Finkel arranged my shidduch. My future wife came by to ask the Rebbetzin for a brachah, and, as they say, the rest is history.
When I traveled with the Rosh Yeshivah, he let me know that we were not only representing the Mir, we were representing Torah. We had to make sure we gave a good impression and made a kiddush Hashem. Kavod haTorah was paramount for him. Before we went into someone’s house to collect for the yeshivah, Rav Nosson Tzvi would ask me to make sure he looked neat and respectable (and before the sefer Torah was taken out of the aron kodesh, he’d ask me to straighten his peyos out of kavod ). He was an amazing ambassador for Torah. We once went into an office where the business owner had very negative things to say about yeshivos, but the Rosh Yeshivah sat politely, hearing him out, then tried to leave on a nice cordial note.
I’m from Chicago, which I think is why the Rosh Yeshivah — a native son — took me along when he went to fundraise there. The Rosh Yeshivah didn’t speak much about his past, but when we drove by the house he grew up in, he pointed out, “I remember, there was the basketball hoop.” We went to Skokie, where he told the boys that he had once learned in Skokie and then gone on to the Mir, and he invited them to follow, telling them that they were all welcome to come and learn in the Mir.
The Rosh Yeshivah looked at the good side of people and people responded to that by loving him back. I remember that once, early on in my time, people brought pictures to the Rosh Yeshivah of bochurim hanging out on Rechov Yaffo. “These are not Mir bochurim,” he said in defense of “his” bochurim. “Mir bochurim are not on the streets.”
Soon afterward, the Rosh Yeshivah decided to forbid cell phones, and a phone system was installed in the dorms. (They had asked Rav Mattisyahu Salomon if security guards should be placed at the entrances, and Rav Mattisyahu responded that if you don’t have cell phones, you don’t need security guards. Not long afterward the ban was rescinded; the cell phones were forbidden only in the beis medrash.)
Rav Nosson Tzvi first announced the ban on a Friday at an English vaad, and right after the schmooze, he had 113 phones given into him. People took them out of their pockets or down from the dorm rooms, and gave them to the Rosh Yeshivah.
The Rosh Yeshivah just wanted to spread Torah, to teach anyone who wanted to learn. If you wanted to learn, you could come to the Mir. Even when he was fundraising, spreading Torah was paramount. I remember that one time in England there was a choice between speaking in a kollel and more fundraising appointments. The Rosh Yeshivah chose to speak in the kollel rather than collect more for his yeshivah, because he felt this was maximizing kavod haTorah. It worked. He spread Torah and ever-larger circles of people saw the importance of Torah learning, coming closer to the yeshivah world because of him. Every time we traveled, the numbers of people coming to greet Rav Nosson Tzvi and support the Mir swelled.
ONthe first day of Succos, I would leave home in the predawn darkness and arrive at the Rosh Yeshivah’s home to find him sitting waiting in his chair. The arba minim were right near him on the table, and the Rosh Yeshivah was waiting to make the brachah in his succah. He would ask me to say brachos for him, which suggested that he hadn’t slept the night before, in anticipation of the coming mitzvah.
The Rosh Yeshivah kept things down to earth; I didn’t witness miracles because he didn’t do miracles. When yungeleit came in to ask for brachos for an unborn baby to turn from the breech position, for example, Rav Nosson Tzvi would instruct them to go get a brachah from the Rebbetzin, and the Rebbetzin’s brachah was, “The Rosh Yeshivah’s brachah should be mekuyam.” They passed the respect on to each other, and those brachos would always “work.”
Of course, the Rosh Yeshivah was sandek at thousands of brissim. If he was shaking a lot at that time, they would lay a board under the baby, or sometimes someone else would hold the baby along with him. Once, when he had already arrived at a bris, the mother of the baby saw how much he was shaking, and she panicked. Rav Nosson Tzvi saw the situation and called me over. “Tell her that if she is afraid, I won’t be sandek.” He gave it up very easily to calm her down.
The Rosh Yeshivah pushed himself, with chavrusas lined up the whole day, and double-booked just in case one wouldn’t show up. If both fellows were there, it was no problem — the Rosh Yeshivah would just let them all learn together. So many people were chavrusas of Rav Nosson Tzvi, up to 65 a day. If he was too weak, he lay on the couch or bed and listened to his chavrusas learning out loud for him.
I remember that there were times when the Rosh Yeshivah was giving shiur klali or a vaad and simply could not continue. “It’s very hard for me,” he said occasionally. Sometimes he had to stop speaking, and at other times the medicine would kick in and give his strength a boost. Through the severe Parkinson’s disease, through the shaking and the pain, Rav Nosson Tzvi was laser-focused on one thing: He always tried to just keep learning through it all. His Torah was simply unstoppable.
Every Day Was Like Yom Tov
Reb Chaim Mordechai Hertz
In service of Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rosh Yeshivas Ponevezh L’tzeirim, co-Nasi of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah
Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz was born in Volozhin in 1913 to parents of a second marriage who’d already raised their first families. His father was close to 80 when Michel Yehuda was born (he died a few years later), and while they lived in great poverty, his father had children from a previous marriage who lived in the US. They would send their father three rubles each month – two would go to pay for a melamed for young Michel Yehuda, and the other would be for household support. His mother, who had a son and a daughter living in Palestine at the time, had grown up living next door to Yeshivas Volozhin and even helped out in the Netziv’s house as a girl, so that Torah learning was in her bones. She sent young Michel Yehuda to yeshivah in Rakow, but then, because he suffered from eye issues, he chose to go and learn in Vilna, where he could be treated by an eye specialist. In Vilna, he learned in Yeshivas Rameilles, becoming the talmid muvhak of its rosh yeshivah, Rav Shlomo Heiman.
When Rav Shlomo left Vilna to head Yeshivas Torah Vodaath in New York, he asked his close talmid to come along, but Rav Michel Yehuda had his heart set on eventually going to learn in Eretz Yisrael.
During his three and a half years in Vilna, Rav Michel Yehuda had the opportunity to see Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky in action. He told me that he once came into the gadol’s room to find 20 scribes seated around a long table. Rav Chaim Ozer was dictating a different psak to each one, as well as writing one halachic response himself, and also paskening on the kashrus of a chicken for a widowed woman who was present. Another memory he shared with me was that “Anyone who didn’t see Rav Chaim Ozer’s sever panim yafos [smiling expression] never saw a sever panim yafos in his life.” Interestingly, the Rosh Yeshivah mentioned that during the three and a half years he learned in Vilna, he only went to the kever of the Vilna Gaon once, and that was on Tisha B’Av. Going to kevarim was not a “thing” then. Rav Chaim Ozer wrote an effusive letter of recommendation for Rav Michel Yehuda to take along to Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Shlomo Heiman did not have children, and Rav Michel Yehuda used to daven at the amud every year on his rebbe’s yahrtzeit. I once brought him a picture of Rav Shlomo, taken when he first came to New York, and Rav Michel Yehuda’s response was, “This is how I remember him in Vilna.” He then hung it in his dining room.
Rav Elya Svei and Rav Simcha Shustal were both close talmidim of Rav Shlomo Heiman from his days in Torah Vodaath, so when Rav Michel Yehuda took out the sefer Chiddushei Rav Shlomo, he was constantly in touch with them. My twin brother had been a talmid of Rav Simcha Shustal and I’d heard of Rav Michel Yehuda through him, so when I came to learn in Ponevezh close to 30 years ago, I was instantly drawn to him. My first dorm room was right opposite his house.
There was no such thing as just hanging out in the Rosh Yeshivah’s house, but eventually he allowed me to be there during the hours he received people, to interpret for English speaking petitioners. I also accompanied the Rosh Yeshivah to give his shiur in yeshivah, and did some things around the house. He got a ride from Rav Yair Ashkelon, who drove both Rav Steinman and Rav Michel Yehduda to yeshivah every day, but I had the opportunity to go with him to some public events. Rav Michel Yehuda was extremely careful not to impose. I remember one winter night when it was pouring heavily in Bnei Brak and the Rosh Yeshivah was in his mid-nineties and not feeling well. He barely agreed to us calling together a minyan for Maariv in his home, and after davening, thanked every person individually for going out of his way.
The Rosh Yeshivah’s main focus was on raising talmidim. He developed a close relationship with the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak, who suggested a shidduch with Chava Esther Gershonowitz, whose father Rav Avraham Gershonowitz (the Zhabinker Rav) was rosh yeshivah of Tiferes Tzion of Bnei Brak. As a chassan, in 1940, Rav Michel Yehuda began giving a daily shiur, including Shabbos, in his father-in-law’s yeshivah. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who was a talmid there, told me that they called him “the chassan.” In 1954, the Ponevezher Rav opened a yeshivah ketanah and invited Rav Michel Yehuda to serve as rosh yeshivah together with Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, a position he held until his final days. Rav Michel Yehuda raised thousands of students, and even taught the grandchildren of his original talmidim.
When Rav Michel Yehuda’s daughter passed away as a child, the Chazon Ish paskened that he could continue to deliver a shiur during the shivah, because “rabbim tzrichim lo — many people need him.” This showed the esteem in which the Chazon Ish held him, seeing his shiur as indispensable. In addition to sending his own teenaged nephews Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Nissim Karelitz, and Rav Chaim Greiniman to learn in Rav Michel Yehuda’s shiur, he also recommended to a group of working men that they appoint Rav Michel Yehuda as their regular evening maggid shiur. There were times that the Chazon Ish stopped by to listen to the way Rav Michel Yehuda would “teitch up” a blatt of Gemara for these hardworking balabatim.
Rav Michel Yehuda never forgot a talmid. I personally witnessed how, 50 or 60 years after a boy had been in his shiur, Rav Michel Yehuda knew where he had sat and which masechta they had learned together. One night, a Yid from America knocked on the door just as the hours for receiving people had come to an end. He told me that he’d learned in the Rosh Yeshivah’s shiur “during the year that Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was niftar ,” and was now on his way back to chutz l’Aretz. When he came in, the Rosh Yeshivah confirmed, “I remember you and where you sat. Once, on Shabbos, your tzitzis got torn and there was a sh’eilah about it…”
Another time, Rav Yaakov Galinsky came in with his grandson — today Rav Yisroel Berman — and asked Rav Michel Yehuda to accept another grandson into his shiur. The Rosh Yeshivah replied that he couldn’t, since he already had 40 bochurim in the shiur.
“One more bochur, what will happen?” said Rav Yaakov.
But Rav Michel Yehuda disagreed. He turned to Rav Yisroel Berman, whom he had taught at least 25 years earlier. “I still remember being your rebbi,” he told Rav Yisroel with a smile, and I remember every time that I told you off, and why at other times I didn’t tell you off. So it’s not just ‘one more bochur.’” Each talmid was a whole world and had a place in his heart.
av Michel Yehuda had such a touching warmth. He used to give a little pat on the shoulder or “potch” on your hand, and you could practically feel the warmth coursing through your body. He cried when people came to cry with him.
A Yid from America who was close to Rav Michel Yehuda once came to Bnei Brak for Shabbos and asked me to ask the Rosh Yeshivah if he and his wife could join the Rosh Yeshivah for a Shabbos seudah. “Avadeh!” was the Rosh Yeshivah’s warm response. You can understand that the food served in their home was very simple, and that it included the rebbetzin’s homemade challah. In the middle of the seudah, Rav Michel Yehuda, who was 95 at the time, turned to the guests and said so that the entire table heard, “Tell me the truth: In the entire America, can you find such delicious challahs as the Rebbetzin’s?”
The Rosh Yeshivah was the mechutan of Rav Elyashiv, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and Rav Steinman. In the time I was zocheh to spend with him, I saw a stream of visitors to his home, some of whom included his illustrious mechutanim, the Gaavad Rav Tovia Weiss, the Skverer Rebbe, and Reb Leibish of Pshevorsk, Rav Shmuel Wosner, Rav Shmuel Birnbaum, Rav Gershon Edelstein, and Rav Berel Povarsky, just to mention a few. He was a beloved figure to all, and anyone who visited came out uplifted from his presence.
What is very well known among the general public is the story of the famous esrog tree in Rav Michel Yehuda’s yard. After one Succos, the Chazon Ish handed him a packet of seeds taken from the esrog he had used and instructed him to plant them in his yard. This was during a time when there were many qualms about halachically-questionable grafted esrogim, and the Chazon Ish had found a tree with perfect pedigree. Although Rav Michel Yehuda was no green thumb, the tree grew and bore fruit — quite unusual as esrog trees generally only grow from cuttings and not from seeds, and if a seed does grow into a tree, it generally doesn’t yield fruit. Esrog growers would take cuttings from the tree and grow entire “Chazon Ish” esrog orchards from it.
I never saw the Rosh Yeshivah annoyed. He would state his opinions, and wrote very strong letters when he felt that someone was breaching the mesorah of Yiddishkeit, but it was never with anger. All his life, he followed the “asiri kodesh” system from the Kelm school of mussar that he began as a member of a group under mussar personality Rav Chatzkel Levenstein. This meant that every ten days, he took on himself a new resolution of self-improvement. Rav Michel Yehuda had joined this group as a young man, but he lived into his nineties, and he never stopped the practice — now, how many kabbalos is that?
When I try to think of the best times spent with the Rosh Yeshivah, I’m stumped, because he radiated serenity, joy, and such an infectious enthusiasm and warmth that every day felt like Yom Tov with Rav Michel Yehuda.
More Than You Have
Reb Shmiel Stefansky
In service of the Skulener Rebbe, Rav Yisrael Avraham Portugal
I was a chassid and attendant of the previous Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal ztz”l, and when his son Rav Yisrael Avraham became the Skulener Rebbe, he tried to tell the gabbaim they could leave and go to other rebbes. He wanted no kavod and couldn’t even understand kavod. But of course, I stayed. A few months later, the Rebbe came in from the cold and I took off his coat. He said, “Shmiel, vus machstu naarish? [Why are you being silly?] Meileh, in front of other people, you have to play rebbe and gabbai, you take off my coat and put on my coat, but when no one sees?”
For 95 years, including early years of torture, oppression, and even imprisonment at the hands of the Romanian Communist regime, the Rebbe pushed himself beyond all physical limits in his own avodah and in his tireless devotion to Yidden everywhere. Together with his holy father, Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal zy”a, the Rebbe suffered torture and imprisonment by the Romanian Communist regime. During and after World War II, the previous Rebbe became the father of hundreds of war orphans, smuggling his “family” into Bucharest, Romania, and eventually sending them off to Eretz Yisrael. For over a decade, he and his son were the address for all religious needs under the Communist regime, remaining in Romania to help fellow Jews until 1960, when they arrived in the US. After his father’s passing in 1982, Rav Yisrael Avraham continued to lead the lighthouse of Torah, chassidus, and chesed they’d created in Brooklyn until his own passing in 2019.
During the 36 years of his leadership, he astounded both chassidim and onlookers with his single-focused dedication to the myriad Yidden who came for his hadrachah, brachos, and inspiration. And throughout the bitter years and the sweet ones, he, like his revered father, composed hundreds of his niggunim (“Oy Yoy Yoy Shabbos,” for example, and so many more), the songs of Skulen that reach out to the hearts of Jews everywhere.
INthe Rebbe’s service, I became the treasurer of Chasdei Eliezer, one of the Rebbe’s tzedakah organizations. I went along with him to raise money at parlor meetings, brought donors to him, and sat with the Rebbe when he gave out the checks.
Chasdei Eliezer was run according to the Rebbe’s rules. First, he wanted me to read every single letter that came to us, and before Yom Tov that could mean hundreds of letters with requests for financial assistance. It didn’t matter that I sometimes felt the situations may not have been described entirely accurately, the Rebbe’s principle was that we answer every request for help. One Erev Yom Tov, the Rebbe phoned me three hours before the zeman and told me to take $5,000 to a certain person. I explained that there was no money left — all the money had been given out and the fund was empty. He said, “Just give, with emunah the bill will be covered. We say in davening, ‘vekol mi she’oskim betzorchei tzibbur b’emunah — if you’re involved with the tzibbur, you have to have faith and give out more than you have.’ ” And so I did this, always giving out money even if the account was empty, and somehow it got covered. There were times when I had to get loans, and other times when donors came forward, but it was always covered.
We knew that the Rebbe had a soft spot for Yerushalmi Yidden, often allowing them in first when people were waiting to see him, and sending huge sums of tzedakah money to help them. I asked the Rebbe why. He said to me, “In Romania, if a Yid from Yerushalayim was in town, we children used to crowd at the windows to watch him go by. We should be running after these special Yidden to give them money.”
He didn’t believe in letting another Yid struggle. Once, when the Rebbe told me that a certain person needed money in order to make a wedding, I pointed out that this Yid was arranging a very nice, balabatish chasunah. “You don’t know everything,” the Rebbe said to me. “He had to do a shidduch, and his mechutan wanted this, so please go and take care of it.”
One Shabbos morning, I remember, the Rebbe called me into a room and told me, “There’s a chasunah on Monday night, and you didn’t take care of it.” I understood that he wanted me to arrange financial help, and I had an idea about who to ask. While the kallah’s side was struggling, the mechutanim were well off. I went to the chassan’s father and told him that I was collecting for someone’s wedding expenses. He replied that he would give $1,800.
“Believe me, if you would know who this is for, you would give nicely and pay for the whole chasunah,” I pushed him.
“So, tell me who it is!”
“Okay,” I said, “but not in front of your wife. Let’s go for a walk.”
We went out together and I told him about the difficulty his mechutan was facing. The Yid was in complete sympathy and said he would give $80,000.
Later, at Shalosh Seudos time, I went back to the Rebbe and told him it was taken care of. The Rebbe began to laugh with sheer joy. Years later, people still asked me what I had told the Rebbe that made him laugh aloud at such a serious and holy time. It was the pure joy of knowing that a Yid had been helped, that he had relief from his burden.
Raising money wasn’t easy, even for the Rebbe himself. Despite the huge sums he committed to collect and distribute, he never felt lost or overwhelmed, never got upset or pressured, never stopped being attuned to an infallible inner compass. I remember being with the Rebbe in Toronto to collect for his Chessed L’Avrohom fund. Reb Moshe Reichmann was waiting for him, but a troubled 14-year-old boy was in the middle of pouring out his heart to the Rebbe. I let the Rebbe know that Moshe Reichmann was waiting. He said, “But now, I’m really doing Chesed Le’Avrohom.” Originally, right after he became Rebbe, I used to try to let in the balabatim to see him first, and then the collectors. But the Rebbe said, “No, let me have the zechus of giving tzedakah first.”
There were no limits to helping people, even at the expense of his own kavod. We saw how the Rebbe locked himself into a room to phone some roshei yeshivah and plead with them to accept certain bochurim. He locked the door because he didn’t want us to see how he was lowering himself to beg on these boys’ behalf. Even after receiving a firm no, he would phone again to plead.
People often called the Rebbe for his prayers to help a difficult childbirth. He would always say, “In the zechus of my parents, who took care of so many Yiddishe children…” He never even considered his own merits.
I remember a father who came to him worn down with debt and worry. He had two children engaged and could not afford to pay for the weddings. The Rebbe, ever calm and compassionate, gave a large sum of money, but it wasn’t just a quick handout. He also showed him respect as a person. He inquired about the mechutanim and their families and discussed when and where each wedding would be held, making sure that the man felt that it was a double simchah, not just a double financial burden, and that the Rebbe shared in it.
The gabbaim would sometimes knock on the Rebbe’s door if he was taking a long time to speak to someone and there was a crowd waiting outside. At one point, a couple came to the Rebbe to talk about their child’s illness. The Rebbe asked me to stay in the room, as they did not speak Yiddish well. The Rebbe went through the situation with them in great detail, asking questions, giving chizuk and encouragement, taking some of the burden off their shoulders by sharing it. When he finished, after about an hour and a half, he said to me, “Nu, Shmiel, could I have done that any quicker?”
The Rebbe, at 95, never became old, and he never believed that he had done enough. I often heard him say that he hadn’t done anything worthy, that he had yet to accomplish something, and this was a genuine feeling, not just a trite expression, abi gezugt. He really believed that he had not yet accomplished anything near what he was supposed to achieve, in Torah, avodah, or gemilus chassadim. And that feeling keeps the rest of us moving forward.
Silence Was Golden
Rabbi Chaim Suissa
In service of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rav Mordechai Eliyahu
I worked for the Rav — who served as a municipal dayan and a dayan on the Jerusalem Supreme Court before becoming the Rishon LeTzion and a revered national spiritual leader —for 23 years. And during that time, he offered me criticism only once. My duties included arranging Rav Eliyahu’s schedule, accompanying him to the rabbinical courts, to shiurim and on travels, and taking care of his personal business for over two decades until his petirah in 2010. But although we interacted closely on a day-to-day basis, he never, ever criticized or micro-managed me. Obviously, I made plenty of mistakes and probably messed some things up, but the Rav never said a word.
My job started when I was learning in Yeshiva Kol Torah, under Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was a close friend and rabbinic colleague of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu. Rav Eliyahu’s son was with me in Kol Torah, and it was Rav Shlomo Zalman who advised me to assist the Rav. Once I was employed, everything I did was fine, good, perfect. This middah of shetikah, silence, was a very strong part of Rav Eliyahu. And it was effective, too. Believe me, people know when they’ve made mistakes — no one has to point it out. But silence enables the person to learn and grow from those mistakes without being beaten down.
If you’re wondering when the Rav did correct me, it was when my mother once entered the room, and I made a gesture to stand up, but didn’t rise to my full height. When she left, Rav Eliyahu said to me, “Chaim, Ima nichneset, melo komato.” [When a mother comes in, your full height.] That was the only reproof I ever heard in so many years of being his shamash.
I once arrived home with the Rav at 12:30 a.m. The door to his apartment was locked, and clearly, someone in the house had, by mistake, left their key inside the lock. We knocked on the door and phoned the house for half an hour, and then I contacted a locksmith. By this time, we were slightly concerned, and some neighbors had come out of their apartments into the stairwell to see what was happening. Just as the locksmith was about to break down the door, a family member opened up.
“Shalom, how are you? Is everything alright?” the Rav asked calmly.
“Yes, everything is fine. Have you been knocking for a while?”
“No, no, we just came,” he said. Nothing more.
Just as was his power of shetikah, so was his power of listening. Most people like to talk, yet find real listening difficult. We hear people, and think we’re listening to them, but Rav Eliyahu was a master of real listening. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people walked through his door. On any given day, someone would arrive with a child born after years of waiting, and he would listen and feel with them and rejoice with them. The next person might be someone who was given only days to live, and the Rav would be with him too. I sometimes had to go out of the room because of the emotional strain, but the Rav had an ability to listen with a full heart to each person, and in that time, he was truly with them.
We live in a fragmented society. If you are happy, you must be a Breslover. If you want Mashiach to come, you must be a Lubavitcher. And if you love Eretz Yisrael, you must be dati-leumi. Rav Eliyahu went beyond these superficial labels. He was not a political person. He loved any Jew whose soul was at Matan Torah, black or white, Ashkenazi or Sefardi. He cared not only for “his” community but for the entirety of Am Yisrael. I went along when the Rav visited Jonathan Pollard in prison and encouraged him. I cannot tell you names, but rabbanim of many kehillot came to consult with him, and they knew that he would advise them well, with no bias, and that what they said in his room would remain private. No leaks would boomerang to damage anyone’s reputation. On the other side of the spectrum, I saw personally how he dealt with criminals whom others would not speak to, and helped attain gittin from notorious underworld figures in order to free agunot. The Rav knew that a Jew was a Jew, and he never shunned anyone.
There was a certain person who caused the Rav a lot of trouble, damaging him and besmirching him. At one time, we had some materials printed against this individual, but the Rav would not hear of distributing them. “Take them and burn them,” he instructed us. “This is not the way to pursue justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — you can only pursue justice and righteousness through righteous means.”
I don’t speak about the moftim, the miracles I witnessed, because people will not believe them. But I can tell you that the Rav was an angel among men. One Motzaei Shabbat, the Rav was travelling from Teveria to Meron, where he would be leading the first Selichot of Elul at the kever of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. The Rabbanit and some of the family, in the car behind him, were involved in an accident. I had been at a family simchah on Shabbat and was coming from Yerushalayim to Meron. When I heard the news, I had to call the Rav and inform him that his wife was severely injured. There were ten seconds of silence on the phone, and then the Rav said, “Chaim, you go to the hospital. I cannot help in the hospital. I will go to Rabi Shimon, there I can help.”
I went to the hospital, where the Rabbanit was seriously injured and barely recognizable. The Rav, meanwhile, went on to Meron, said the Selichot, and then he came to the hospital. The prayers must have been answered, because the Rabbanit survived and made a total recovery.
One of the last public events the Rav attended was the levayot of the talmidim killed in Yeshiva Merkaz Harav in 2008. To him, it was no ceremony: He was with the families in their bitter grief. It was difficult to look at him during those levayot — he was crying like a baby, feeling it all together with them, and I am sure that the grief contributed to his final illness. The Rav took Klal Yisrael’s pain on his shoulders.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 962)
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