Rebbe Elimelech Lowy of Tosh radiates his father’s light to a new generation, fighting a battle against self-importance, pettiness and arrogance.
In the hamlet he created, the previous Tosher Rebbe, Rav Meshulam Feish Lowy ztz”l, was an angel who fought a lifelong battle against impurity and despair. His son, the current Rebbe, is fighting a battle against self-importance, pettiness, and arrogance, so that the light his holy father ignited will continue to shine in this Canadian shtetl and far beyond
ight in the middle of Kiryas Tosh, in the empty lot adjoining the park across from the small shopping center, there’s a large, colorful sign. It’s partly concealed by a huge pile of gray snow, but you can still read the words “Meshenichnas Adar Marbin b’Simchah.” Against the image of wine glasses and dancing chassidim, the banner wishes visitors and locals alike Simchas Purim and simchos tamid.
The sign was put there by the yeshivah bochurim of Kiryas Tosh as a happy message to the residents. But in its confidence and pride, it’s also a statement: Despite Kiryas Tosh’s stores, new developments, and businesses, this is a town built primarily for the yeshivah bochurim and the tzaddik at their center.
They are the cause, everything around them the effect.
It’s an interesting little hamlet, Tosh, not quite like any other place in the Jewish world. It has neither the bustling cosmopolitan feel of Kiryas Joel, nor the focused intensity of New Square. Tosh is a different dimension.
To get to this little shtetl in southwestern Quebec, you cross through the land of the snowblowers and depanneurs — small convenience stores selling beer and tissues and shoelaces and detergent — and upscale suburban homes with their piles of firewood. Twenty miles north of Montreal up the 15, you take the exit for Boisbriand, Quebec, drive a bit, and then Kiryas Tosh stretches out before you, the large beis medrash at its tip and the yeshivah next door and then the first circle of homes built by the heileger rebbe, Rav Meshulam Feish Lowy, when he first selected this spot in 1963.
It’s a long way from the original court of Tosh in Nyirtass, Hungary, which was snuffed out by the Nazis. But Rav Meshulam Feish, who was not yet married when the war broke out, carried burning memories of what had been and dreams of what would be.
One of the sole survivors of his family, he married Rebbetzin Chava, and after two years in an Austrian refugee camp, they traveled to Canada, arriving in Montreal in 1951. In a relatively short time, his shtibel on Jeanne Mance Street became a stronghold of warmhearted chassidim drawn to the light of the sort of tzaddik they’d known back in Hungary: a pillar of holy fire; a kind, wise friend and counselor; and a fount of generosity. When his new chassidim had no more money, this young rebbe was helping people make Shabbos and pay for simchahs and to simply live.
The early chassidim of Tosh were new immigrants who found work in factories and in the back of the stores dotting Park Avenue and St Lawrence Boulevard. They walked the cracked streets on freezing Canadian mornings, coming home when it was already dark outside.
But Shabbos! On Shabbos, the young rebbe would lift them up, his wide-eyed wonder allowing them to see the Divine goodness too, his purity allowing them to feel cleansed, his vision allowing them to dream that their children, too, might be the sort who would bring pride to the holy neshamos that had been taken in the night.
There were the miracles, too. This rebbe who waged war on his own nature seemed capable of fighting nature itself. He was connected to Heaven in a way that allowed them to believe anything was possible: a mortal who would draw down Divine blessings on the ill, leaving them cured; a frail survivor who could lift up the struggling. In time, the Rebbe’s mofsim would stop being a story and become just a regular feature of life in Tosh.
And then, when it all came together — a well-known shtibel, a loyal community, a growing name — the Rebbe announced that he was moving.
Even those closest to the Rebbe, the most devoted chassidim, tried to discourage him. They were finally settled. There was no money for ambitious real estate projects, for the Tosher Rebbe was incapable of holding onto a single coin. Chassidim streamed in with requests for brachos and the pile of kvittlach and money grew, so the Rebbe gave out even more — to everyone. To visitors from abroad and families down the block. To rabbanim and new immigrants and struggling business owners. Tosh was about giving.
Who had money to build yet again?
But the Rebbe wanted to go. He wanted a shtetl like Tosh of old: a serene, peaceful place in which to serve his Creator. And he really wanted a yeshivah, like the great Hungarian yeshivos in which he’d learned — Kleiwardein, Kaalov, and Hod-haz — and he wouldn’t consider opening a yeshivah in Montreal which already had several of its own.
It wasn’t just nostalgia prompting the Rebbe’s desire for a yeshivah; it was his eye to the future. He understood that for the first generation of survivors, his mission was about helping them to smile again, to find work and homes and a bit of peace. For their children, the chassidim of tomorrow, he needed to provide a yeshivah.
He went out with a close confidante, eager to show him the land he’d selected after an exhaustive search. It was expensive piece of land, large enough for the town he envisioned, close enough to Montreal to be practical — but as they approached the first toll booth on the highway, the Rebbe looked apologetically at his chassid. He didn’t have the necessary nickel, and he asked if he could borrow some money so that they might continue.
The land was purchased on the 15th of Tammuz, yahrzeit of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, and the Rebbe named his new institution Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim-Tosh, feeling the zechus of the great tzaddik accompanying him.
The Rebbe moved in and opened the yeshivah, followed by the pioneering residents of Kiryas Tosh: the rebbeim and yeshivah staff.
It was 1963. Within a few short years, there were invisible ropes connecting Tosh to the wider Jewish world. Tzaddikim knew about it. Broken people knew about it. Those desperate for a yeshuah were told, again and again, “fuhr kein Tosh,” travel to Tosh.
The town itself grew, attracting more families eager for the air of purity and light and proximity to the tzaddik. But it would never become huge; Tosh remained a community in which the Rebbe knew everyone. In Tosh, they wouldn’t only consult their beloved Rebbe about shidduchim or business deals. If someone was traveling to New York for a simchah or taking a child to the dentist for a root canal, they told the Rebbe.
Like a father.
The yeshivah grew, somehow managing the impossible feat of attracting good bochurim and producing elite talmidim even as it ran according to the Rebbe’s ironclad rule that no bochur could be expelled, his view that there is no bad bochur, no bad Jew. Everyone was accepted, everyone was welcomed, and everyone grew.
Like tzaddikim of old, the Rebbe exuded love. The waves of ahavas Yisrael brought the people close, and the waves of love for his Creator elevated them. His life was an uninterrupted song of devotion to them and their needs; sleep, food, honor, and money meant nothing to him. But their needs? Those were the most important things in the world. They would tell him their ailments, and he would suggest a course of treatment — carrot juice, special herbal drops, root vegetables. One night, the chassid charged with preparing the drops came to the Rebbe in a panic — his supply had run out, and people were coming, on the Rebbe’s advice, desperate for bottles. “So stick out your hands over the water,” said the Rebbe, “and they will be those drops,” because of course it wasn’t the drops at all.
The people around him soaked it in — the devotion, the selflessness, to desire to make things good — and they too worked to elevate and help others.
There were no worries in Tosh, because there was the Rebbe; he took care of it, whatever it was — illness, financial crisis, spiritual struggles. And if, for some reason, things didn’t immediately improve, then that was also fine, because the only reality is Hashem and His Will, and so there’s no reason to fear. Ever. Be b’simchah, the Rebbe said, with his eyes and smile and soft voice and constant, relentless cry of faith.
As the years went on, little Tosh established satellite communities across the world, with alumni of the yeshivah in Quebec establishing shuls in Boro Park and Williamsburg, Monroe, London, and Yerushalayim. The Rebbe’s name was familiar to tzaddikim wherever they were; the Baba Sali would refer to the Tosher Rebbe as “a good friend,” though they’d never met. “I know him from Shamayim,” he would say.
There were always financial crises in Tosh, because the Rebbe who raised tens of millions of dollars gave away more, and each day brought families or individuals facing real challenge. The Rebbe never broke, encouraging, reassuring, and of course, helping them one by one.
Every problem that crossed the Rebbe’s table was personal. In time, the challenges would become even more personal.
Rebbetzin Chava passed away in 1996. Then, two years later the Rebbe’s beloved eldest son, Rav Mordechai, was suddenly niftar from a heart attack on a Friday morning.
The Rebbe mourned for a few hours. Then Shabbos came in, and the Rebbe — who would go into his private room every week just after Maariv on Leil Shabbos and say “Gut Shabbos Ribbono shel Olam” — shone a special light into Tosh over that Shabbos, the radiance of his face and light of his smile undiminished.
As the Rebbe grew older, he began to withdraw somewhat. He had always lived above time and space, sleeping just a few minutes in a 24-hour period, eating a single meal each day near midnight, but while in earlier years he could effortlessly glide between worlds, now he appeared more in Heaven than Earth. He spoke little, and with his face aglow, he spent most of his time murmuring words of prayer, learning, bestowing brachos with his saintly eyes.
They knew what lay ahead, his people, but really, they didn’t know it all. They were sure their Rebbe would lead them to greet Mashiach, and when he was niftar on the 27th of Av, 2015, at the age of 94, they found themselves grasping for a lifeline.
It came, but not in the way they imagined.
The first Rebbe of Tosh, Rav Meshulam Feish Lowy, was known as “the Saraf.” His son, Rav Elimelech, was referred to as the Saba Kadisha, and his son as Rav Mordechai Demetcher. His hometown of Demetch was close enough to Tosh that the family spent much time there and his son, little Feish’l, was very close to his revered grandfather, the Saba Kadisha.
Rav Meshulam Feish the second would rebuild Tosh in the new world. But his firstborn son, Rav Mordechai — assumed to be his successor — passed away during his lifetime. There remained one son, Rav Elimelech, who’d been appointed to serve as rav of the kehillah during his father’s lifetime.
I knew of the Tosher Rebbe’s son during those pre-Rebbe years: I would occasionally see him around Montreal, slipping into local shuls for Mincha–Maariv and standing in the middle, clearly averse to niceties like “won’t you please sit here,” and “what a kavod to have you,” with an instant recoil from lights, sirens, pageantry.
At the levayah of his father, Rav Eliemech was named Rebbe — the second Rav Elimelech, son of the second Rav Meshulam Feish.
The chassidim didn’t need this public appointment, because they’d already seen it in the way that the old Rebbe’s face would light up when Rav Elimelech came into the room, the way the Rebbe wouldn’t start his Shabbos morning pre-Shacharis recital of sefer Tehillim until his son was next to him.
But the new Rebbe was reluctant.
It was what his father wanted, everyone knew that. His father had said it, again and again. He’d spoken often about the koach, the power, that a tzaddik can instill in his successor. He’d publically told his son, “Alleh bruches gib ich tzu eich, all the blessings, I give over to you.”
In the tzaddikim books, it’s often written that a new Rebbe was hesitant to accept the mantle and had to be forced into his new position. At times, I’ve been skeptical about the claim.
But this happened in real time, just a few years ago.
Rav Elimelech Lowy didn’t want it, but he had no choice because his father did want it.
As Tosh adapted to a new reality, to life without the tzaddik who had led them for 60 years, Rav Elimelech of Tosh adapted to his own new reality. A man who until then had operated in the shadows, working quietly and quickly to arrange loans, surgeries, and passports, was suddenly thrust into the limelight, expected to give brachos, say Torah, inspire the kehillah.
The fund he’d established after his mother passed away, Keren Chava, had long been the “bank” that allowed people to make a chasunah with dignity. As Rav, he’d been charged with overseeing the local shechitah, matzah bakery, and mosdos, including the Talmud Torah, girls’ school, and yeshivah.
He’d been involved at every level, but on his own terms, in his own space. Now there would be no more private space.
He would belong to the people.
From the outset, Rav Elimelech made it clear that it was really all about his father.
At the end of shivah, the new Rebbe stood at the fresh gravesite and cried out, “Yidden gave kvittlach, heileger Tatte, heileger Rebbe… asisi k’chol asher tzivisani… I did as you’ve commanded me….but I give it all to you, all these tzaros and needs, take them with you to the Kisei Hakavod… You had such holy eyes, you could see, in an instant, what a person needed, even those far away from you, and you would turn to Hashem and beg for His rachamim to help others. Let your eyes remain on us still, let your mouth be opened in prayer for us still…”
The new Rebbe struggled to let his father’s light shine through him, to take up as little space as possible. He didn’t change his mode of dress or use the silver cane, and certainly had no regard for the trappings of honor.
I was there during his first year of leadership, accompanying a visiting rosh kollel from Eretz Yisrael who wanted the Rebbe to speak to a wealthy Tosher chassid about supporting the kollel. We were shown in to the Rebbe’s room, and the rosh kollel explained how important his institution was, considering the political climate in Eretz Yisrael.
The new Rebbe’s smile was patient, bashful, kind. “Ich bin a nei’eh rebbe,” he apologized, “I’m new at this. I don’t really understand the situation there.” Then he wrote a note to call the chassid in question, and instructed his gabbai to write out a check for three hundred and sixty dollars, his own donation.
About a year after that, I accompanied some friends from Montreal’s Sephardic community — longtime devotees of Tosh — into that same room. They had a request. The previous Rebbe, they said, used to bentsh a Noam Elimelech and give them the sefer as a gift as a coveted prize to raffle off at their annual fund-raising dinner. But the previous Rebbe was gone, and the dinner was that night. Would the new Rebbe bless a Noam Elimelech for them as his father used to do?
The smile. Slow, sweet, and shy. “Ich veis nisht vi tzu machen… I don’t know how to do what my father did,” he said, and apologized. It was quiet in the room. They didn’t believe him. The Rebbe removed a set of Noam Elimelech from the nearby shelf and handed it to his visitors. “Take this to the tziyun, to my father’s gravesite,” he said. “Put it there for a few minutes. It will be blessed.”
Now it’s three and a half years later, and the Rebbe is still claiming to be “a nei’e rebbe.” The way he sees it, he’s new to the role.
“Rebbe,” an older chassid recently argued, “it’s already four years, how long can a Rebbe be called new?”
“Kerem revai’i,” quipped the Rebbe, referencing the halachah that new fruits cannot be eaten for three years because of the orlah prohibition, and in the fourth year, until they are taken to Yerushalayim or redeemed. “You see, the fourth year is still called new.”
The Rebbe still can’t bring himself to walk with a cane or holding on to a gabbai. People who’ve seen him in the airport stop to take in the scene of the Rebbe reflecting his father’s energy as he moves quickly to keep ahead of his hovering gabbaim.
The gabbaim learned the hard way that resisting comes at a price. While traveling to Florida, the Rebbe hoisted his small suitcase on to the conveyer belt at the security check. In a coordinated effort, the gabbaim waited for it to come off and snatched it, so that they could carry it instead of him. They headed to gate with all the Rebbe’s luggage, congratulating themselves on their success.
It was only after boarding that they realized, in horror, that they didn’t have the most precious piece of luggage — a sefer Torah. They had been so busy at security that they’d left it behind.
After the initial anguish, they sprang into action and managed to claim the sefer Torah. The entire time, the Rebbe didn’t said a word, but they learned a lesson.
The Rebbe is married to the daughter of the Ziditchoiver Rebbe of Williamsburg, Rav Naftali Tzvi Labin (who was also the father-in-law of the current Toldos Aharon Rebbe, making the latter both a brother-in-law and mechutan of the Tosher Rebbe). As a bochur, the Rebbe spent several years learning in Toldos Aharon in Yerushalayim, becoming close with the previous Rebbe. Those who know him well say that the Yerushalmi charm rubbed off on him, and the Rebbe’s easygoing nature and gentle humor were honed during those years.
The chassidim and children have learned to accept that the Rebbe doesn’t take brachos or kibbudim at the simchos within his own family. There was, however, one chasunah at which he asked to serve as mesader kiddushin. The baal simchah had feuded with Tosh, and the new Rebbe realized that by publically taking part in the simchah, the machlokes would be over, just like that.
The “new rebbe” shows assertiveness only when it comes to making shalom. During the shivah for his father, a public antagonist of the heileger Rebbe showed up. Gabbaim wanted to lead him out, but the new Rebbe stood up from his low chair and asked to go into a private room with the man.
A new Rebbe, using the oldest chochmah in the world.
Back in Av of 2015, the man who utilized his global network of associates to help others was suddenly saddled with responsibilities of a new role — attending to the spiritual needs of his flock. He would adapt to much of it, but in some ways, he would remain his own man.
His father didn’t daven until late in the day, after hours of Tehillim, lighting candles, helping Yidden, and intense learning. The new Rebbe davens every day at the very first minyan, k’vasikin, at Tosh’s central Avreichim shul. It’s not a “rebbishe minyan,” but the same minyan he’s been davening with for the last 30 years.
After davening, he retires to a private room where he learns with his chavrusa until noon. Then he will enter the room where his father effected salvation and start receiving people.
“There are many admorim, all great men,” says a family member, “but the new Tosher Rebbe is a manhig uniquely suited to this generation: He understands business, understands people, understands the world, and is able to help people that way.”
Today’s Tosh, numbering over 600 families, includes melamdim, shochtim, sofrim, and kollel yungeleit — but also a growing cadre of businessmen, importers, and real estate developers. They’re not all looking for precisely the same thing, and the new Rebbe must be able to carry each one.
The Rebbe will consult with trusted businesspeople or professionals for information about legal or political matters or updates on a medical breakthrough. Then he’ll take that information, and it will sit there in the pile of kvittlach, near the Tehillim and Noam Elimelech and pushke, where it will be used to help people.
His father reached into heaven to find yeshuos; this Rebbe keenly understands the realities of this world and often accesses its resources to help his people.
Several years ago, a friend of mine sold an expensive appliance to a Tosher chassid, and he was having trouble collecting payment. After several attempts at getting the money, my friend was told to call the Rav in Tosh and ask about a din Torah. Rav Elimelech Lowy heard the story. “I don’t know that he can pay,” the Rebbe said, “but I will try to find out. Would you accept post-dated checks?”
Sure, my friend replied, as long as he got paid.
The next morning, a courier arrived with an envelope filled with personal checks post-dated for the next year, equaling the total amount. They were drawn on the account of Elimelech Lowy.
Rav Elimelech and his rebbetzin have 13 children, and along with his family, there have always been others who saw the Rebbe’s home as their own.
It’s a feature that he’s brought into his rebbistive as well. “When other admorim or rabbanim come to visit,” one of the gabbaim tells me, “the Rebbe is polite and respectful; he welcomes them and enjoys sharing divrei Torah and stories with them. But the Rebbe becomes even more animated when a really tzubrochene person shows up in Tosh. That’s when he has a chance to give life to someone who needs it most.”
This was his father’s way too. There aren’t too many Tosher chassidim from “di heim’”; Tosh was a small chassidus, based in a small town. The heileger Rebbe built a chassidus in Canada nearly from scratch, and much of it involved advising the broken people who limped into his room — the destitute, lonely and oppressed, those too ill or too tired to work, the ones facing legal or family issues to stay local. “We will take care of you. Bleib du.” The Rebbe welcomed them in Tosh, fed them and filled their wallets and hearts and eventually, their souls.
The current Rebbe has that same appreciation for the underdog. He’s been known to ask advice from visitors. A talmid chacham might be asked his opinion as to what the Rebbe should speak about during Shalosh Seudos and a businessman solicited for his perspective on the commercial real estate market. They walk out of the room carrying not just the brachos, but also the little bit of respect they might have been seeking.
At his tish, there is a particular boy with special needs whom he’ll call over before distributing shirayim. “Here,” the Rebbe whispers to him, “before we share this tray with everyone else, you choose what you want first. Then everyone can take.”
Tosh is unusual in the way that outsiders are viewed as well: They don’t merit a second glance. Since the days of the previous Rebbe, who is referred to as the heileger Rebbe, the town has steadily attracted all sorts of people. Some, like me, wear black hats; some wear no hats at all; others remove folded-up yarmulkes from their pockets only as they enter the Rebbe’s room.
Ahavas Yisrael is in the air here: Not just because their Rebbe taught them that a neshamah is more glorious or valuable than anything human eyes can see, but because he himself saw deep enough to perceive real greatness in everyone he encountered.
There was a way he looked you, with eyes that radiated such love, such appreciation, such happiness. Ironically, this Jew who would have been a wonder five generations ago made you feel bigger in his presence.
In Tosh today, you can still sense it.
I circulate throughout the small town while writing this piece. I shop at the supermarket, (which incidentally, is at least as well stocked as most of the Montreal stores) and daven in Avreichim. There are shalom aleichems and claps on the shoulder, invitations to come “make a brachah,” and ordinary shul-hallway conversations. On Taanis Esther morning, within a span of six feet, I come across a young man crying, a row of tears making its way into his beard as he says Selichos, and a conversation between two men — about his age — who are discussing their shared profession as Amazon vendors.
A Yid from Meah Shearim whom I’d met in Montreal earlier in the week tells me he will be spending Purim in Tosh, hoping that the generosity of the locals will make it worthwhile. “There’s less traffic here,” he tells me, using the English word for traffic, “and even if I don’t make a lot of money, I’ll for sure be treated nicely.”
Everywhere there are children, splashing in the fresh puddles, climbing mounds of snow, scooting around on riding toys near the feet of their chatting mothers.
The schools are all located within the shtetl, but a growing number of men drive to the city to work each day, and there is steady car traffic on the main street, Rue Beth Halevi.
I make several visits to the tziyun of the previous Rebbe. Up a bumpy dirt road, empty fields stretching alongside it, surrounded by a stone wall, it’s housed in a makeshift structure, though there are plans for a more permanent building.
The matzeivah stands tall in the middle, a towering pillar, and there are benches, candles, walls lined with Tehillims. It’s a place of prayer: men leaning on the matzeivah, others holding on to the wooden barrier as if for strength, muffled sobs coming from the women’s side. A man in a ski cap and bulky coat is sleeping peacefully on the bench, his bags next to him. At midnight every night, there is a minyan during which the whole Tehillim is recited. The current Rebbe has been known to send people there, and recently, a visitor from New York who came seeking a brachah for children made waves when he related what the Rebbe told him: “Go to my father’s tziyun, but before you start davening, please tell him that I sent you.”
Because this is still everyone-knows-everyone Tosh. A black-bearded man wearing the kutchme, the triangle-shaped fur hat they will be wearing here until the last bit of snow was melted, walks around and pats the shoulders of the various petitioners standing before the tziyun and whispers, “poilt altz gits.”
It grows on you, this tziyun, a place where you feel like you want to daven, say just one more kapitel.
While working on this piece, I started to notice a pattern.
On Shabbos Shekalim, a visiting Rebbe spent Shabbos in Tosh for a family simchah. No one was happier than the Tosher Rebbe. When davening was over, it was announced that the visiting Rebbe was fihring tish that night. The host Rebbe took advantage of the opportunity to join the bochurim in yeshivah for the Friday night seudah.
The next day, the visiting Rebbe received maftir, and the Tosher Rebbe had no aliyah at all.
The following week, Motzaei Shabbos Pekudei, Montreal hosted a prime rebbishe event: the new Vizhnitz-Montreal Rebbe (a son of the Rebbe of Vizhnitz-Monsey who was niftar last year) would soon be traveling to London for the chasunah of his grandson. Before setting off, he hosted a festive forshpiel along with his brother, the Vizhnitz-London Rebbe. The wider community arrived en masse to rejoice with the Rebbe. The Tosher Rebbe also came into the city to join, wearing the traditional rashvulke over his beketshe. On the dais, the Rebbes started dancing, the Tosher Rebbe among them. Unlike the custom of admorim, however, he didn’t remove the rashvulke, which serves as sort of an overcoat and is generally removed once inside a room. Instead, he danced in the circle with the others wearing his heavy black rashvulke over his white beketshe.
In the car back to Tosh, the Rebbe explained. “I wanted to remove the rashvulke, but I was too embarrassed about my white beketshe underneath; there were real rebbes there, and we were in front of so many people… I couldn’t bring myself to take it off.”
The waiting room in Tosh is fairly routine, with its glass-paned bookcase, table, sink and coffee. Inside the receiving room, the Rebbe sits at the head of the table, in his father’s chair. He is saying Tehillim as I’m ushered in.
The gabbai has to remind me that I’m meant to kiss his hand, and the Rebbe hears, laughs, and looks at me as if we’re sharing a joke.
He urges me to sit, then asks if I speak Yiddish. He speaks English, he explains, but here, we are in his heileger father’s room, and he isn’t comfortable speaking English.
He asks about my family, my children, about parnassah. The questions follow one another quickly, but there is a pattern here: as the Rebbe asks, I feel like he is assembling a picture of me before offering a brachah.
(A gabbai once asked the heileger Rebbe why he gave so much time to each petitioner: Most nights, kabbalas kahal continued until dawn, leaving the Rebbe no time to sleep. Couldn’t the process be quicker? “I do it very quickly,” the heileger Rebbe replied. “Once they tell me what they need, I give a brachah. But do you know how long it takes to make a person comfortable enough so that they tell you what they really need?”)
The Rebbe has a story he wants to share, but before he does, he looks at me sincerely. “Hust tzeit?” he asks. Do I have time? As if he’s come to my home and is sitting at my table! I smile at the question, and he explains, in case I didn’t understand. “No, maybe you’re in a rush.”
Moments later, a cell phone buzzes. It belongs to a gabbai, not me; my phone is off, of course. But the Rebbe looks at me again and says, “Please, answer the phone, maybe someone needs to reach you.”
As I marvel at his modesty, I remember a story: When traveling, the Rebbe carries a cell phone within the pocket of his silken beketshe, so that he is available to people in need. One of the gabbaim once suggested that it doesn’t pas for a Rebbe to have a cell phone. “If my father were alive now,” the Rebbe replied, “he would have six phones, one in each pocket, so that he could help as many Yidden as possible!”
The Rebbe asks me where I daven in Montreal and on which street I live. In discussing the community, the Rebbe shares something personal: Before he became Rebbe, he was often in “the city,” he recalls, and he particularly enjoyed davening in one shul. “By Rav Moshe Werner,” he tells me.
A venerated older rav, Rabbi Werner leads a congregation of older, unassuming shul-Yidden with blue Kangol caps, workmen’s hands, and respect for tefillah. It’s the sort of place where the Rav still says an Ein Yaakov shiur between Minchah and Maariv, where the bulletin board displays the Ezras Torah calendar and an appeal for a food drive for Jews in Russia from before last Pesach.
It makes so much sense.
The Rebbe tells me about a family — not Tosher chassidim — with whom his father was close when he lived in Montreal. Years later, the Rebbe came to the city to be menachem avel this family when their father passed away. He looked at one of the sons and asked a favor. “Please would you consider growing a beard.”
The middle-aged gentleman considered the question, and said that if the Rebbe asked, he would do it — but he wanted to know the reason for the request. “Your father honored me with the sandaka’us at your bris,” the Rebbe said quietly, “and that bris was the first time I had giluy Eliyahu after arriving in Montreal, so it was very special. Please, grow a beard.”
The current Rebbe stops mid-story and again as he reaches the climax. His eyes are wet, and it’s hard for him to speak. He is crying.
The heileger Rebbe. His father.
He clears his throat, leans forward, and continues speaking.
The young son of a Tosh local is named Elimelech and his mother Chava. He once brought a kvittel to the Rebbe with his name. The new Rebbe looked at it and winked. “You’re the only other Elimelech ben Chava in Tosh,” he told the boy. “It’s just me and you.”
Since then, whenever the ten-year-old child passes the Rebbe, the Rebbe smiles at their shared joke.
When the Rebbe travels, he generally flies economy class. When he made his first official visit as Rebbe to Eretz Yisrael, a wealthy chassid from New York urged the Rebbe to accept his offer of his private plane; it would be a different experience, far more efficient and pleasant.
The Rebbe gave a flat no. The gabbaim pushed, telling the Rebbe that, even from a kedushah standpoint, the private plane would afford them the spiritual benefit of avoiding the commotion at the airport.
The Rebbe said no. “The mosdos are always struggling,” he explained. “People don’t know that someone offered us the plane for free. Even if someone tells them, they won’t really believe it. All they’ll say is, ‘The melamdim aren’t being paid and the Rebbe has money to go private.’ That’s not what we’re trying to do here.”
What is it, exactly, that the Tosher Rebbe is trying to do?
The heileger Rebbe fought a battle against noise, against impurity, against despair. His son, the current Rebbe, is fighting a battle against self-importance.
He’s fighting a battle to keep the world clear of pettiness and arrogance, so that the light his father ignited might continue to shine in the streets of the shtetl. He’s fighting a battle to shepherd his people even as he preserves his father’s leadership.
On Purim — considered the greatest day of the year by the Saraf of Tosh, by the Saba Kadisha and by the heileger Rebbe — the current Rebbe made a l’chayim, said Torah, then showered his people with brachos, just as his father used to.
Then he stepped down and stood alone in the center of the beis medrash, surrounded by a wall of chassidim, and started the “Timcheh tantz,” dancing alone to the tune and words his father would dance to at that auspicious hour. During the heileger Rebbe’s last few years, he didn’t do it alone, but with this son at his side.
The Rebbe danced, his face flaming, eyes closed. The chassidim sang with full-throated enthusiasm, eyes fixed on the new Rebbe at their center.
And from somewhere atop the bleachers, through a snowy windowpane, a whisper seemed to come down.
Lama atah bosh, it asked, why are you embarrassed?
L’kach nivcharta, for this you have been chosen!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 757)