With a loving heart and an embracing kehillah, Dayan Rav Moshe Shtesel is rekindling chassidish souls that have gone cold
Photos: Flash 90, PR Production
hea M., a chassidic young man who lives in Boro Park, remembers the first time he met Rav Moshe Shtesel, the man who would change his life. At the time, he was part of a quiet yet growing group who still looked chassidish on the outside, but whose sense of detachment from Yiddishkeit was growing daily.
One local askan, a man with a noble heart and a passion to help these estranged bochurim and young marrieds, tried to form a type of chaburah where they would learn with idealistic avreichim while enjoying good food and occasional inspirational speeches. But the young men didn’t really connect to their learning, and many of the avreichim, inspired as they were, didn’t really want to get into deep discussions about a world that was foreign to them. The askan eventually decided to dissolve the group, but wanted to make sure their final meeting together would give some type of spiritual food for thought.
“I wasn’t really into the group by then, but they said it would be the last meeting, like a farewell get-together, so I figured I could manage that and show my face in a goodwill gesture,” Shea remembers. But then Rav Moshe Shtesel arrived.
“The truth is that we weren’t even interested in listening to speeches,” Shea recalls. “We had come from work, and we were tired. We didn’t know anything about him, and we didn’t really care. But when Reb Moshe began to speak, it took exactly two minutes for me to find myself drawn in. He didn’t talk about spiritual avodah. He didn’t make us feel that our lives were rotten, or that we were nebachs and drowning and needed spiritual chizuk. He gave us the tools to make quality choices, the kind of direction you’d pay a fortune for from a top coach.”
Shea’s friend Yoeli, a young married man with a few kids who he sent to the “right” mosdos, was also there for the farewell party — actually, he showed up at the very end, conveniently missing the program. “I got there just before Reb Moshe finished speaking,” he recalls. “Just before his usual concluding sentence, ‘May Hashem help… that we will see the arrival of the righteous redeemer.’ I said ‘Amen.’ I was pleased with my timing — I’d shown my face at the event, and I had also escaped listening to a speech. I went inside to talk to the chevreh, have something to eat, and ask my friend for a ride home, since I’d come straight from the city, without my car. But then, just as I was leaving, Reb Moshe came over to me and asked if I had a car. I told him I was getting a ride with a friend, and Reb Moshe asked if he could come along.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea — the last thing I wanted was for some ‘mashpia’ to ruin my night, but I didn’t have the nerve to say anything, especially since it wasn’t my car,” Yoeli continues. “I knew it was a bad idea, because before we even got underway, Reb Moshe said from the passenger seat, ‘What do you think about having a daily chavrusa?’ He was addressing the driver and me together. I was about to ask him to get out of the car, but my good manners told me to give him a chance.
“Look,” I said, “the two of us come from good homes, but today Yiddishkeit doesn’t really speak to us. What makes you think you’ll succeed where others have failed?”
Rav Shtesel, however, wasn’t fazed by the question. Instead, he asked them equally directly, “Why don’t you have a connection to Judaism? You know what, give me 15 minutes a day for one week, and we’ll work out the things that are disturbing you.”
The two bochurim answered, “Okay, you have one week.”
“Reb Moshe wasn’t bothered by our antagonistic attitude,” Yoeli says. “He called us every morning and waited patiently for us. And we kept up our end of the deal — we came every day for exactly fifteen minutes. That Thursday, as soon as I sat down, I told him, ‘This is the last day of our agreement. You still haven’t managed to prove anything.’
“Reb Moshe closed his book, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Are you happy in life?’ I replied that I thought I was. But as I thought about it, I realized that I actually wasn’t satisfied with my job, that my finances could be better, and there were a few other frustrating gaps in my ordinary life that prevented me from feeling satisfaction. I decided to modify what I had said. ‘If I could go on vacation with my wife, without the kids, then I would be happy,’ I said.
“Reb Moshe smiled. ‘Will you do a small exercise with me? Let’s think about how much time it takes to organize a vacation, and how much money you spend on it. If you subtract the time spent traveling, and the time it takes to make all the other logistical arrangements, how much quality time do you have left to experience happiness?’ I made some earnest calculations, and I concluded that I had a total of ten vacation days during the year — and I would truly be happy for only one tenth of that time.
“At that point, I went on the offensive. ‘Do you have a recipe for happiness?’ I demanded. Reb Moshe smiled serenely and said that he did. He told me that he doesn’t look for happiness at the end of the road; instead, he tries to enjoy every moment of the journey. He takes pleasure in every mitzvah, and tries to find some satisfaction even in the hardships. His words held a certain promise I’d never experienced before. So I put my head down, suppressed my ego, and decided to listen. We literally started with the basics — why I should be a Jew, how to do it right, and how to enjoy life in the best possible way. We discussed all the major questions — questions about G-d and other fundamental concepts, as well as the question of why, for Heaven’s sake, I should wear knee-high socks on Shabbos. What would be wrong with ordinary pants?”
A Haven of Love
For Dayan Rav Moshe Shtesel, an Israeli-born Belzer chassid, being an authentic chassidic role model and mashpia runs in the family. He’s a son-in-law of Rav Pinchas Friedman, American-born gifted orator and rosh kollel of Belz in Jerusalem who has a worldwide following for his lectures and tapes, and is author of the Shvilei Pinchas sefarim series on halachah and chassidus. After his marriage, Rav Shtesel served as a maggid shiur in the Belz yeshiva gedolah, and then opened a Shas kollel under the instruction of the Belzer Rebbe. He later moved to America, where he was appointed a member of the beis horaah of Rav Yechezkel Roth of Karlsburg.
News travels fast in American chassidish circles, and word soon spread about the popular darshan who had a special knack for reaching the hearts of his listeners, products of a generation faced with formidable responsibilities and endless distractions. Every speech led to another invitation, and everywhere he went, he accumulated new “cases.”
On one of Reb Moshe’s trips back to Eretz Yisrael, the Belzer Rebbe asked him to open his own shtibel on the outskirts of Boro Park. People moved there because of availability and affordability, but also because it was a bit of an escape from the heart of the chassidic enclave. For Rav Shtesel, the Rebbe envisioned an integrated kehillah of baalebatim and avreichim, with a communal Seudah Shlishis and other means of cultivating close bonds between all the kehillah members and creating more an extended family than a mere shtibel.
“We built this shtibel to be a place of friendship and love — love for Klal Yisrael and love for Hashem. There’s no reason why a person who spends a day at work shouldn’t also be able to delight in the sweetness of a daf of Gemara or an invigorating chassidish shtikel, which illuminate the nature of our struggles in this world.”
Rav Shtesel’s Torah knowledge is virtually encyclopedic — his command of Shas, poskim, and the works of chassidus is both vast and profound; and his ability to break down complicated issues into clear, meticulously organized points, is one of his keys to success in reaching Jews who’ve lost their emunah along the way, or who’ve found themselves enmeshed in complicated shalom bayis and chinuch issues.
In Rav Shtesel’s Thursday night chaburah in his beis medrash, the bitter cold outside stands in stark contrast to the enveloping warmth indoors — a sense of camaraderie that’s practically tangible, topped off with a lavish spread of kugels and cold cuts with a huge pot of cholent, that great catalyst for ahavas Yisrael.
Rav Shtesel says getting to a person’s heart with a warm pot of cholent is a family tradition. “The Shtesels are a well-known family from Bnei Brak who’ve become synonymous with Jewish cuisine,” he says. “My grandfather, Reb Menachem Tzvi Shtesel, used to prepare a massive pot of cholent every week. On Shabbos, a long line of needy and lonely people would form outside his door, each of them holding a small pot — the line reached all the way to the street. My grandfather would stand there and devotedly ladle out steaming portions of cholent to all of them.”
The evening begins easily, without any sort of formal ceremony; but when the atmosphere warms up, the singing begins — hours of heartwarming melodies seeming to erupt of their own accord. And then, as the world outside prepares to make its transition from the previous day to the new one about to dawn, the questions begin.
Candor is the name of the game. The members of this group — working men, businessmen, and professionals — speak frankly about their thoughts, knowing that here, they won’t be judged or scrutinized.
“I first came to Reb Moshe on the recommendation of a business associate in order to consult with him about a specific issue,” says Dovid L. “In addition to being a huge talmid chacham, he’s a very pragmatic person who really understands the world. He has an excellent sense of humor and an amazing ability to mediate conflicts. At the end of our conversation, he asked me, ‘What about you? How are you?’ I answered him simply, ‘Baruch Hashem, good.’ But that wasn’t what he was looking for. He wanted to know about me in the fullest sense.
“So I began talking. It was midnight, and I thought I would tell him a few sentences about myself and then move on. Instead, I found myself pouring out my heart, telling him about everything that had happened to me since my time in yeshivah. I explained how a single run-in with a faculty member is enough to destroy a bochur’s life. That’s what happened to me. The putdowns — at least how I perceived it at the time, and the relationships that deteriorated further and further… No one understood me. Everyone was too busy with their own regular lives.
“I finished my monologue at 3 a.m. I couldn’t believe what time it was, and quickly called my wife to tell her I was fine, that I would explain later. When I looked up, I saw that Reb Moshe looked like he was saying Tachanun. But when he finally raised his head, I saw that his eyes were red, and a small puddle of tears had formed on the table.
“That was the moment of an electric shock to the heart,” Dovid continues. “It was the moment when my Jewish heart began to beat again. I saw that there was someone who cared about me — not because he knew me or because he thought he could gain anything from me or because it was worthwhile for him for some other reason. Reb Moshe wiped his eyes and whispered to me, ‘You are a true tzaddik for continuing to observe the mitzvos. I don’t know if another person would have been able to stay strong after experiencing the same challenges.’ ”
Beyond the Laktes
Rav Shtesel just shrugs when asked about his secret recipe for mending broken hearts. “I don’t have any secrets,” he says. “I don’t have any special ‘techniques,’ and I’m not out to brainwash anyone. Every Jew has a holy neshamah, and we can’t judge another person’s challenges or feel superior to the spiritual level where he’s holding. Our job is to be there for them.”
Still, Rav Moshe Shtesel is not one to relax his standards for anyone. If he finds out that one of his chevreh is engaging in improper behavior, he doesn’t let the matter pass in silence. He pours his heart and soul into his people, but he also demands that they grow.
“Our situations aren’t so simple,” Yoeli admits. “Many of us have burned our bridges. Rifts have developed in many families because of the changes some of us have made in our lives, because we haven’t exactly towed the line of our mesorah.”
Rav Shtesel, for his part, has set down his own boundaries. “The Belzer Rebbe gave me certain basic rules for kiruv: If a person deliberately severs his ties to Judaism and connects to things that are forbidden, the first thing is to make sure he doesn’t ruin other people. But if a person finds himself slipping yet still understands at some level that he’s gotten on the wrong train, even if he doesn’t know how to get off, we have to do what we can to mekarev him, to save him and his family. So many young people today don’t really know what it means to create shalom bayis, give proper chinuch, do basic work on their middos, and live a more G-d-conscious life. No one has ever managed to teach them, and all of their experiences come from the wrong places.
“And so,” he says, “we gather and sing a little bit together. We talk about any holidays that are approaching. We don’t simply fall into those days anymore. We prepare ourselves for Lag B’Omer, Shivah Asar b’Tammuz, Tzom Gedaliah, and Shovevim — and, of course, for all the Yamim Tovim.”
Because for so many chassidish Yidden who walk the walk and talk the talk, Yamim Tovim might hold a level of sentimentality and tradition, but these auspicious times are missing the pnimius. What is Shavuos beyond cheesecake, Chanukah beyond latkes? Many people who look the part can’t tell you, and don’t even know themselves.
“Long before the days actually arrive, we study the fundamental points and understand the significance of the time, not only in its historic context but especially as it relates to our own lives,” Rav Shtesel explains, “because there’s no person in the world who doesn’t want to find joy and satisfaction in his life. That’s part of how Hashem created the world. So we make sure to find the joy in mitzvah observance, at the most basic level.
“There is a certain tendency in chinuch within chareidi society,” he continues. “Sometimes educators tend to ignore the basics of Judaism, assuming that anyone who had a religious upbringing will not have questions about his faith. They often write off such doubts as pretexts for bad behavior. But that’s not true. Some people who become emotionally disconnected at a very young age are lacking those crucial foundations. If we give that back to them, without mocking or denigrating them, we can literally give them back their Yiddishkeit.
“I’ll give you an example: I once received a call from one of the chevreh, someone who would only come around occasionally. He attended the preparatory shiur before Chanukah, probably because he had nothing else to do that night. On the last day of Chanukah, he called me to tell me that he had sat next to the candles the night before and had wept for two hours. Something finally opened in him. He’d never understood about Chanukah before. Now, a person can bury his head in the sand and insist that everyone should simply have pure faith and no questions or doubts. But I want to emphasize that the vast majority of these inwardly disconnected people would have been very happy if they’d found satisfaction in Judaism and chassidus way back, but something went wrong on the way and they need to learn everything from scratch. You can’t tell him, ‘You already know how to walk, don’t you? Then stop playing games and start running!’ ”
Reb Moshe’s chevreh has become a phenomenon that has grown far beyond his Boro Park shtibel, and he’s often invited to speak in others shuls that have patterned themselves after his own kehillah.
“When Jewish people get together and bless each other wholeheartedly,” he says, “when each of them wishes his friend the best in every area in which he knows he’s lacking — whether in ruchniyus or gashmiyus, finding a home or parnassah, success with children or shidduchim, or health and satisfaction in life — it has a tremendous impact in Heaven. And the most precious thing one Jew can do for another is to inspire him to make strides in his spiritual growth, enveloped in love.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 702)
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