For the Tosher Rebbe ztz”l, the needs of every Yid, no matter how geographically or spiritually distant, rested on his heart, mind, and the margins of his siddur
Four years ago, at the end of Chodesh Av, the Tosher Rebbe, Rav Meshulam Feish Lowy, was niftar, and I did my job, writing a tribute to the deceased tzaddik. But that’s not what formed the backdrop to my newest book, The Tosher Rebbe: The Life, Leadership and Legacy of Rabbi Meshulam Feish Halevi Lowy.
That article spawned something else — a miracle that came about through this very magazine.
The story I’m about to tell doesn’t really make sense, even in retrospect, but it comes from a world in which things don’t have to add up, where logic and strategy are at most a means of hishtadlus, nothing more. Results comes from another realm.
The Rebbe was niftar, and his radiant face graced our cover.
People read it, they mourned the loss, perhaps they related a story or two.
Life went on. The sun set, and somewhere, another sun rose.
But there’s a woman with whom we were in contact at the time, a tireless and determined activist for the cause that had galvanized the wider Orthodox world — freedom for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. There had been a conveyor belt of breakthroughs, new findings, evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, petitions, Latin words that we’d never heard but sounded like the portent of good tidings. This time, it was for real. A thousand more signatures and Obama will have to react.
Again and again, we got our hopes up, only to taste failure and rejection. Again and again, we were left looking to the inmate himself for strength.
This woman had another approach. She was all in on the effort to fight for freedom, but she would say, with a certain confidence and conviction, that she didn’t believe the answer lay in a strong defense: Sholom Mordechai would get out, she assured us, but it would come through the Justice Department, through a pardon rather than a successful legal argument.
After the Tosher Rebbe was niftar, she told me how she knew. She and her husband were close as family with the tzaddik, and they’d been mazkir Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivkah before him. He told them that the happy ending would come through chaninah, through pardon.
To her, the only question was who and when — but never if.
It was strange, because the Tosher Rebbe hadn’t spoken much in the years before his passing, and it seemed unlikely that he had articulated this message.
But not long after the Rebbe’s passing, she called me with an idea. There was a particular senior legal figure whom she thought would be part of the final chapter, based on some cryptic words she’d heard from the Rebbe. She wanted me to send this person the magazine with the picture of the Rebbe, because she believed that the tzaddik’s countenance would serve as a “reminder” to him of his mission.
Inwardly, I was skeptical. The official in question — former attorney general Michael Mukasey — was no longer in the position of influence as he’d once been, and I didn’t see how he could help. But she pushed, and, since I grew up in a home filled with sippurei tzaddikim, I did as she asked. In my heart, though, I thought I was humoring her.
Mukasey had actually appeared in this very magazine, so we took the opportunity to send him some extra copies, as a routine courtesy. And into the yellow envelope went one more magazine, the one from September 2015 with the Tosher Rebbe on the cover.
About two years later, it was Mukasey who played a major role — perhaps the most major role of all — in mounting the call for justice to be served, initiating the letter signed by a cross section of respected legal figures upon which the president based his eventual commutation.
There are many heroes — tzaddikim and rabbanim and askanim who are remembered for the good in this story; in Heaven, they keep the ledger, and that which is reported here isn’t significant. From my vantage point, though, I saw one more moifes wrought through the departed tzaddik, his words vindicated just as they’d been when he was alive.
When the opportunity to do the book arose, I was intrigued. At one point, several months after I started the project, I met with the current Tosher Rebbe shlita. In his gracious manner, he asked me several personal questions, including what chassidus I am affiliated with.
I told him the truth: that after a long period of being immersed in the Torah, stories, and impressions of his father, I felt myself to be a Tosher chassid. “What does it mean to be a Tosher chassid?” he asked.
I remembered the story with the magazine and the Justice Department and so many others like it and I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Because as much as we know about the revered Rebbe of Tosh, there is so much more that we don’t know. The current Rebbe seemed to appreciate the answer.
“If you know that you don’t know, then you are indeed connected to Tosh,” he said.
The book is complete, and although I know more than when I started the project, it’s still very little. Most of the Rebbe’s story will never be told.
As the book goes to print, b’ezras Hashem, I share one more story, heard just recently from a very special medical askan in Montreal named Reb Aron Friedlander, whose organization, Refuah V’chesed, helps so many people.
One Thursday night, he had a dream. (I know, it starts like a million other stories you don’t believe, but keep reading.)
In his dream, he saw the Tosher Rebbe, gone for several years, who made a request: He asked Reb Aron to help arrange a PET scan for someone.
That was it. The Rebbe didn’t even name the person.
That Sunday night, an unfamiliar woman phoned Rabbi Friedlander and asked him if he would join her at a meeting with the doctor the next morning, a regular service provided by Refuah V’chesed. Reb Aron came to the meeting, expecting to hear the options and help the woman and her family decide on a proper course of treatment.
The doctor recommended surgery, but there was a problem. He was leaving on vacation for several weeks, and it wasn’t wise to wait.
“I would love to fit you in before I go,” he told the woman, “but I can’t do the surgery without a PET scan and there are no slots available for the test before my scheduled trip.”
The doctor called in and asked his secretary to try to arrange for an earlier scan, but she came back into the room and reiterated that there were no available slots. The test wouldn’t happen before the doctor went on vacation and the surgery would have to wait for a month.
Reb Aron excused himself and went to the test center in the hospital. While circulating, he saw an old acquaintance, a woman he’d worked with over the years. Knowing that he was dedicated to helping others, she’d always done what she could to help him out.
“Since when do you work in this department?” he asked.
“Today is my first day,” she informed him.
He asked her about finding time for a PET scan and she promised to check. It wasn’t easy, she came back and told him, but she’d managed to book the first slot the very next morning, which was reserved for emergencies. Rabbi Friedlander hurried to share the good news with the woman and her family.
The test took place, the surgery a few days later. By the time the doctor headed off to vacation, the woman was recuperating, baruch Hashem.
As he contemplated what had occurred, Reb Aron suddenly remembered the Tosher Rebbe and the dream: The Rebbe had asked him to arrange a PET scan. Was this what the Rebbe had been referring to?
Reb Aron called the woman and asked her if she or her family had any affiliation with Tosh.
“We never went to Tosh before, or met the Rebbe,” she told him, “but last Thursday night, my husband and I went to daven at his kever for the first time.”
This year on the 27th of Av, at the end of the long dirt road leading through Kiryas Tosh outside Montreal, a crowd will surround the Rebbe’s tziyun, asking the tzaddik to intercede for them — now, as then.
In his memory, in his honor, we share an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Tosher Rebbe (ArtScroll/Mesorah), one that highlights the Rebbe’s essential middah — ahavas Yisrael — that of “giving oneself away” for another Jew.
May his merit stand by us all.
ONLY THROUGH AHAVAS YISRAEL
(From The Tosher Rebbe, Chapter 13)
A visitor to Tosh once asked the Tosher Rebbe to share the central avodah of his life: Which middah, the visitor asked, was it that encompassed all others?
The Rebbe didn’t want to answer the question, but the guest persisted. Out of respect, the Tosher Rebbe answered, “Nohr durch ahavas Yisrael — only through love for one’s fellow Jews.”
The Rebbe didn’t just love Klal Yisrael — his devotion was to each individual Yid, and he felt responsible to serve each one.
The Rebbe generally received people at night, and if there was a long line, it meant the Rebbe would forfeit the few minutes that he actually slept. The gabbaim asked that he make the individual conversations shorter, not allowing each petitioner to remain inside the room for so long.
“My job is to bentsh them, to give them the blessing they need — but I can’t give a brachah if I don’t know what they need and you can’t just find out a person’s real needs in a few minutes,” the Rebbe told them. And then the Rebbe added something else: “If HaKadosh Baruch Hu sent this person to me, then it’s certainly for my benefit as well, so that I might learn something — every person who comes in has something to teach me.”
The Rebbe’s family members would watch the Rebbe speaking on the telephone. He had a vast network of contacts across the world, many of them known only to him, and he remembered each pertinent detail about their lives.
The individuals who rested on his heart, mind, and the margins of his siddur — where people would take the liberty of writing their own names — were often unknown to his closest family members or gabbaim. Many of them were geographically far or spiritually distant, but in the Rebbe’s world — in that holy cloud of tefillos, candles, Tehillim, and tzedakah — they existed, and their needs and concerns were reality.
Even once the Rebbe would finally prepare for his brief rest, he would immediately rise if a Jew needed him. Reb Meilech Klein received a phone call about a choleh, a sick person, in dire danger, where every moment was crucial, and the gabbai understood that he had to inform the Rebbe right away.
The Rebbe, completely worn out after 23 hours without sleep, jumped off his chair and started to recite the entire Sefer Tehillim. By the time he’d finished the sefer, the new day had already dawned and the Rebbe refused to go back to sleep.
The Rebbe reached for the phone deep in the night and called a particular askan, waking him. After instructing him to wash negel vasser, the Rebbe instructed the askan to start working on a pidyon shevuyim case, using his contacts to get a certain person out of prison.
“Rebbe, can’t it wait until morning?” asked the sleepy askan.
“You’re a young man,” the Rebbe responded, “so let me teach you something important: If a Jew sits in tefisah (prison) for one minute, it’s already too long!”
The Rebbe became involved with a particular pidyon shevuyim case, but the gabbaim discouraged him, feeling that the inmate deserved to spend some time in prison. “When the great tzaddik, Reb Moshe Leib of Sassov, traveled all over to raise money to release Yidden from captivity,” the Rebbe asked them, “do you really think those people were the most upright members of society? For whom do you think the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim was given?”
This cause of pidyon shevuyim was a constant thread that ran through the Rebbe’s life: It was a special mitzvah to him, because the Jew who ends up in legal trouble often loses his friends in the process. Along with his dignity and reputation, he might well be forgotten — but not in Tosh.
Over the years, millions of dollars streamed out of the Rebbe’s room and, instead of going to help his own mosdos, they went to assist anonymous, forgotten Jews, giving them a second chance.
The Rebbe heard about a particular Jew, a very prominent and respected businessman, who’d ended up in prison just before Shavuos. Over the years, this individual had donated generously to many mosdos, but Tosh had never been a beneficiary.
But this Jew’s suffering was the Tosher Rebbe’s problem. The Rebbe got involved, and learned that it would take two million dollars to get the inmate released on bail and home for Yom Tov. The Rebbe started to raise the money, calling the different mosdos who’d benefited from the donor. One agreed to lend the Rebbe money, but only if he would offer collateral.
The Rebbe didn’t hesitate, offering… Tosh itself. The main shul, the yeshivah buildings, the homes, and even the sifrei Torah. It was an especially joyous Yom Tov for the Rebbe, who was thrilled that the person had been released for Yom Tov — and also, that for these few days, he’d merited to give away all that he had for the mitzvah.
If there was a word that caused the Rebbe to react with distaste, it was the term anash, an acronym for anshei shelomeinu: “our” people, sometimes used by chassidim to denote people “within the group,” those connected with the mosdos. To the Rebbe, there was no inner circle or priority list when it came to helping others.
A visitor to Tosh insisted on gaining entrance to the Rebbe on Taanis Esther, one of the Rebbe’s busiest days of the year. The gabbaim asked him to come back after Purim, but he maintained that he couldn’t leave his family again, and this was the only time that worked for him.
Eventually he was granted his audience with the Rebbe, who sat with him for a long while. After he left, a frustrated gabbai complained to the Rebbe.
“We don’t know who he is, we never saw him before, he’s not connected to us at all, yet the Rebbe treats him as if he lives in Tosh and is a personal friend. It’s unfair to the others, so many locals and steady chassidim who have been waiting their turn,” the gabbai said.
The Rebbe spoke gently and calmly. “There is only one place in the world. The Ribbono shel Olam is Mekomo shel olam, He contains every other space within Him. That’s all there is. If He brought this man into my presence, then He wants him here, and then it’s takeh very personal and heimish to me.”
Never did the Rebbe’s elevated levels lift him into a sphere in which he couldn’t see the most trivial needs of the people around him.
One Leil Shabbos, after a long tish, the chassidim filed by to receive shirayim from the Rebbe’s hands: The gabbaim had placed a huge tray of nuts there, which the Rebbe distributed to the passing chassidim. Eventually, all the nuts were given out, but a few children hadn’t yet received any.
One boy stood there for a moment, disappointed, and headed home after the tish without the shirayim. As he walked, he heard footsteps approaching from behind him, the hoiz-bochur running with a handful of nuts. “This is from Rebbe, he sent it especially for you,” the bochur said.
One Leil Shabbos, the Rebbe came into the tish and he noticed that a visiting dignitary, a respected rav, was seated in the chair usually reserved for the Rebbe’s eldest son-in-law, Rav Daniel Avigdor Fish. The Rebbe realized that his son-in-law would soon arrive at the tish, and there was a good chance the guest Rebbe would be uncomfortable as he realized that he was sitting in the wrong place; someone might even embarrass him, and this was unthinkable to the Rebbe.
Immediately he turned to the gabbai and asked him a favor. “Please go to my son-in-law’s home and ask him if he can lein the parshah tomorrow. I am too tired to prepare this week, and if he stays home now, instead of coming to the tish, he’ll have enough time. Thank you.”
A close chassid who saw the entire exchange understood what had really happened: The Rebbe — who leined every single Shabbos and had never once asked someone else to substitute for him — had seen a potential problem, devised a solution, and executed his plan, all in just a few seconds.
One year on Leil HaSeder, the first night of Pesach, the Rebbe was about to make Kiddush. The gabbaim were relieved, for it was already quite late, a long night following a long day. The Rebbe had been busy all day, not just with baking the Erev Pesach matzos, but also with ensuring that families had what they needed to celebrate Yom Tov happily.
The Rebbe was about to recite Kiddush when the door opened and a particular Jew entered. He was a familiar figure, an emotionally disturbed individual who often came by to eat, but the Rebbe greeted him like a visiting dignitary, hurrying to find him a seat.
The exhausted gabbaim were frustrated at this interruption, and they quickly added a chair to the table, bringing a place setting and Haggadah for the new arrival.
The Rebbe wasn’t yet content. “What about matzos for Reb Yankel?” he asked.
The gabbai said that there were no more matzos. This was true. The boxes prepared for guests were all empty, having been divided among the others, and in general, all the locally baked matzos had been distributed to the people in the shtetl, with no leftovers. The Rebbe nodded, then quickly approached his own seat, removed the matzos and handed them to the guest, and then, before the gabbai could react, he lifted his becher high and started Kiddush.
The gabbai looked on in astonishment. The Rebbe’s matzos… the Rebbe had begun his preparations 11 months earlier, davening profusely as they had cut the wheat for the matzos. The Rebbe had been involved in guarding the flour, keeping it dry, and then, once the baking season had begun, the Rebbe had invested heart, soul, and energy in each matzah.
And in a single instant, the Rebbe had given them away to another Jew — a simple Jew, who could never appreciate them — and begun reciting Kiddush.
The Rebbe didn’t often speak about himself or his wartime experiences, but if sharing personal feelings and struggles could help another Yid, then it became a mitzvah.
A chassid lost his wife, and was overcome by pain and loneliness. He came to unburden himself to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe understood that his visitor wasn’t seeking brachos or advice.
This was in the late 1990s — after the passing of the Rebbetzin, of the Rebbe’s oldest son Reb Mordechai, and of the Rebbe’s devoted gabbai, Reb Elimelech Klein — and the Rebbe opened up to the chassid. “You know what a rough few years this has been for me,” the Rebbe said. “The Rebbetzin was sick, but even though she wasn’t well, she was alive — I had a wife. Then she was gone. It was a stinging blow, but I accepted the decree of Heaven. The baal davar wasn’t content however, and he struck me again, taking my beloved son, my bechor, so suddenly. Again, I was mekabel it b’ahavah. But the baal davar came a third time, and this time he took my beloved gabbai, yet still I stayed strong, holding tight to my emunah and not to give in.”
The Rebbe and his chassid looked at each other for a long moment, sharing the pain of loss and the comfort of faith.
The Rebbe would often visit Montreal to perform bikur cholim.
On one such visit, the Rebbe told the driver that he wanted to go visit a certain older couple. As he walked up the steep staircase outside their home, the Rebbe asked the gabbaim when it had last snowed in Montreal. They answered that it had snowed three days previously, bewildered by the question.
An elderly woman opened the door slowly, then reacted with surprise when she recognized her visitor.
Overwhelmed by the honor, she asked the Rebbe and his entourage to come into the living room, where her husband was sitting in a large chair. The gentleman was clearly out of sorts, unkempt and filthy. The Rebbe accepted the hostess’s offer of a drink, and watched as she made her way through the kitchen, barely able to walk. In order to open the refrigerator, the Rebbe noticed, she needed to pull on a scarf attached to the handle, and after a few tries, she got it open.
The Rebbe sat with them for a few minutes, then asked the woman if her husband was bathed regularly. Yes, she assured the Rebbe, the nurse had come earlier that day.
The Rebbe nodded, thanked them, and left the house.
In the car, he turned to the gabbaim. “She said a nurse came today. It snowed three days ago and the stairs have no footprints at all, so clearly, no one came today or even yesterday, and she doesn’t realize it. They need immediate help. Please call their son in New York and arrange for an airline ticket. I want to see him tomorrow. Tell him it’s urgent and he has no choice.”
Others saw snowy steps on a steep staircase. The Tosher Rebbe saw clues, hints to guide him in his quest to assist others.
And it’s there that true chassidus begins.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 774)
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