| Magazine Feature |

Just A Humble Soldier

With the passing of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, thousands of shluchim have been left bereft of their general and their best friend

Photos: Meir Haltovsky, Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch

You may have been there yourself and directly felt the electric energy; you may have only seen the video clips and watched as that energy jumped off the screen.

The Torah poured forth in flowing Yiddish, expounding on a potpourri of chassidus, halachah, dikduk and aggadah; even those who didn’t fully understand were able to follow the rise and fall of his voice, the sharp emphases followed by the slowly released intonation. They sensed a truth that transcended verbalization.

Then they would break into song, and the square gray-white beard topped by the sharply bent hat brim would blur as his forearm went up and down, up and down. The crowd’s voices swelled and quickened to the rhythm of the forearm’s pace.

Then he’d speak again. More Torah, more chassidus. More energy.

And more hope for a day when the keilim, the vessels, will be able to accept the ohr.

The concept of ohr and keilim is a fundamental one in the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and one that characterized all that he did. There is a great ohr, a Heavenly light, waiting to descend upon this world, as we transform it into a dirah batachtonim, “a dwelling place for the Shechinah in the lower world” by our own deeds.

But this light is too great for us to withstand. Our keilim, our “receptacles,” are too feeble, too fragile, to contain it. Should the Great Light descend, unfiltered and unconcealed, the vessels would shatter.

But there will come a day, the Rebbe taught, when that will change. Our keilim will become strong enough to withstand the greatest of all lights.

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe took on the role of leadership in 1950, he set an impossibly high bar for himself. His position as the Rebbe of Chabad chassidim would comprise only a fraction of his life’s mission; the end goal, as he outlined in his very first maamar, famously titled “Basi L’gani” (lit. "I came to My garden") was to fortify a “dirah batachtonim,” a dwelling place for the Shechinah in this lower world.

The Rebbe sought to bring down the ohr. And for that, he needed keilim —  vessels so strong and durable that they could contain even the greatest light.

The Rebbe was a master at delegating, and he handpicked sergeants, officers, colonels, and lieutenants, to serve in the army that he built.

And then there was the general.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky was the man whom the Rebbe entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the entire network of shluchim across the globe.

There was so much ohr ready to descend. Rabbi Kotlarsky was there to provide the keilim.


uring Covid, we in Russia were going through a very hard time,” says Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia. “We received a lot of help from various individuals in the States, among them Rabbi Kotlarsky. Before Shavuos, I decided to send a package of cheesecake and wine to all those people who had helped us, as a token of our appreciation.”

When Rabbi Lazar received a call from Rabbi Kotlarsky, he assumed it was to thank him for the thoughtful gift.

“But he didn’t thank me. He was very upset. He said, ‘I sent the package back to the company. Don’t ever show me appreciation! That’s not what I do this for!’”

This encounter was emblematic of Rabbi Kotlarsky’s entire self-perspective. It was never about him. He was a shaliach with every fiber of his being, a messenger acting on behalf of his rebbe.

“I worked with Rabbi Kotlarsky for twenty-five years,” says Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. “He was always there for min a shaliach, no matter what he needed. Whether it was communal or personal, he was there, taking the first flight out to do whatever he could to help.”

He refused any and all forms of appreciation, no matter how minute and basic. “Over the years, Rabbi Kotlarsky raised hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Rabbi Mintz. “But he never took a commission. In fact, when he wired money to a shaliach, he would pay the wire fees himself.”

But this took little sacrifice because the “himself” factor was non-existent, as evidenced by his epitaph, whose text he  alone had drafted.

“Sha’af kol yamav ligrom nachas ruach lichvod kedushas adoneinu moreinu v’rabbeinu ul’vaser tov ub’hosafah — He aspired all his days to generate nachas ruach to our master, our guide, our teacher, and to report back good tidings.”

The long list of his accomplishments is glaringly absent, because in his mind, they were all subsets of one all-encompassing goal: To fulfill the will of the Rebbe, who trusted him to do exactly that.

Rabbi Kotlarsky didn’t start at the lower end and ascend the ladder of positions before reaching a leadership role; the Rebbe tapped him for this particular position the moment he stepped forward in a quest to join the ranks.

“When we got married,” Rabbi Kotlarsky shared in an  interview with Mishpacha, “we informed the Rebbe that we would go anywhere he wanted us to, no matter where in the world it was.”

But uncharacteristically, the Rebbe did not issue a clear response, and it eventually became evident that the Kotlarskys’ shlichus was going to be right there, in Crown Heights, New York.

The Rebbe knew the Kotlarskys well — Reb Moshe’s father, Rabbi Tzvi Yosef (Hershel) Kotlarsky, was born in Poland and attended the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah established by the Rebbe Rayatz, the Frierdiker Rebbe(previous Lubavitcher Rebbe) in the city of Otvotzk, Poland.

The Rebbe Rayatz appointed the senior Rabbi Kotlarsky to be one of the nine shluchim to lay the foundations of Torah in Montreal, Canada. In 1946, he came to New York where he was introduced to a young woman named Golda Shimelman. They married and had eight children, the oldest of whom was named Moshe Yehuda. Meanwhile, Reb Hershel joined the administration of the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Crown Heights and was one of the earliest chassidim of the Rebbe.

One of the remarkable traits that Moshe Kotlarsky demonstrated early on as a child was exemplary kibbud av v’eim. Neighbors recalled how he would run for blocks to help his mother carry the groceries home.

But along with exceptional kibbud av came exceptional kibbud rav.

From a very young age, Moshe showed a profound passion to develop a relationship with the man who stood at the front of the beis medrash, led farbrengens, and bestowed constant blessings upon hundreds of followers.

The Rebbe.

Rabbi Kotlarsky would share how, as a young child, he and his friends concluded that the most ideal opportunity to interact with the Rebbe was to hold the large outer door to 770 open as he left the building; this way, you could score a “yasher koach” from him.

“But I had a better idea — if I would open the door after Kiddush Levanah, I would get a ‘yasher koyach,’ a ‘gutte voch,’ and a ‘gutten chodesh’ all in one. It was a bargain.”

And so that Motzaei Shabbos, Moshe Kotlarsky opened the door after Minchah and remained there, standing guard until after Maariv. He did not move from his position at the door while all the other chassidim proceeded outside to recite Kiddush Levanah with the Rebbe. Finally, the Rebbe began making his way toward the door to come back inside.

“The Rebbe entered and looked at me. ‘Were you mekadesh levanah yet, or were you too busy holding the door?’ he asked gently. I admitted that I hadn’t yet recited the tefillah. The Rebbe instructed me to go get a siddur and say Kiddush Levanah. Then I was to come to his room.

“I knocked at the door and he opened it, a broad smile on his face. ‘Yasher koyach, a gutte voch, a gutten chodesh.’”

Perhaps it was this shrewd intellect and deep-seated dedication that influenced the Rebbe’s decision to choose Moshe Kotlarsky as the one to take a vision and create reality from it, or — to term it as he may have — to take the ohr and encase it with keilim.

Rabbi Kotlarsky accepted the task, assuming the role of vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, whose goal was to assist and oversee Chabad shluchim internationally. His devotion to the mission was boundless; he was available at all times, would never miss a phone call, and would even board a flight immediately if it was necessary.

Rabbi Shalom Moshe Paltiel is the shaliach to Port Washington, Long Island. “Some twenty-five years ago,” Rabbi Paltiel shares, “we were struggling mightily to maintain our local Chabad institutions. Someone suggested that I reach out to a Yid named Lenny Spector, who led a private group at the HSBC bank. If I’d move my account into his group, I was told, Lenny would take care of me and make sure all would be in order.”

Rabbi Paltiel followed the advice, and it proved to be a financial lifesaver. One day, Rabbi Paltiel reached out to Lenny. “I’m so grateful to you for all you’ve done,” he said. “What can I do to repay you?”

“Well, to be honest,” Lenny responded, “Rabbi Kotlarsky has the entire Chabad account — worth tens of millions of dollars — in HSBC. If he would move the account into my group, it would boost my portfolio and be very helpful for me.”

Rabbi Paltiel put the call through to Rabbi Kotlarsky, who barely batted an eyelash before arranging for the transfer to happen.

“A few years passed, and I got a call from Lenny,” Rabbi Paltiel recounts. “He informed me that he was moving over to Signature Bank and could no longer be of help in HSBC. He said he’d be happy to have my account in his Signature group, but since he wouldn’t have Rabbi Kotlarsky’s very significant Chabad account, he wouldn’t have the clout that he’d once had to make sure that I stayed out of trouble.”

Signature is a much smaller bank than HSBC, and Rabbi Kotlarsky would have little to gain by downgrading to the less resourceful institution. “I asked him if he would switch the entire account to Signature, since this would help me. He immediately agreed.”

Rabbi Paltiel points out that Signature didn’t even have a branch in Crown Heights. This was around 20 years ago, when the only available option to send checks to an out-of-area bank was by mail. And that is precisely what Rabbi Kotlarsky began to do.

He was a leader but never saw himself as such; in fact, he would rarely use the word “I” in reference to any of his accomplishments. “He wouldn’t say ‘I sent a shaliach to such and such a place,” says Reb Efraim Mintz. “It was ‘the Rebbe sent a shaliach.’ He never saw himself as anything other than a conduit to fulfill the mission the Rebbe tasked him with.”

There was an insight Rabbi Kotlarsky liked to share. When Aharon HaKohein was appointed to kindle the Menorah, the Torah uses the term “Vayaas kein Aharon — and Aharon did so.” Rashi offers an ambiguous explanation: “L’hagid shivcho shel Aharon shelo shinah — to tell the praise of Aharon that he did not change.” The intent of these words is unclear. In what sense did Aharon not make any changes? What change did he refrain from making?

Rabbi Kotlarsky would quote one of many beautiful explanations. Aharon had just been appointed to one of the most prestigious positions in the Jewish Nation. His personality could have shifted as a result; he could have grown haughty, aloof, inaccessible. But he didn’t. Aharon did not change —  he remained one with his brethren, his humility dwarfing his prestige.

Rabbi Kotlarsky was a general who saw himself as a soldier —  l’hagid shivcho shelo shinah. He was a humble soldier, just like all his fellow shluchim, and would do anything to help a fellow comrade.

Rabbi Paltiel shares another experience he had with Rabbi Kotlarsky’s magnanimity. In the early days of his shlichus, he desperately needed about $600,000 to keep his operations afloat. Urgent appeals to potential lenders fell short, until one day a lender called him and offered the entire sum as an interest-free loan.

“I found out that it was Rabbi Kotlarsky who had made it happen. He had called the lender and offered to guarantee the entire loan.

“I had consulted with Rabbi Kotlarsky about this, but had no idea that he would do anything of this magnitude to help me.” Rabbi Kotlarsky never mentioned this episode to Rabbi Paltiel after that.

But Rabbi Paltiel paid a visit to Rabbi Kotlarsky during his final illness.

“I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I know what you did for me.’ He didn’t deny it.”

His assistance was hardly limited to finances. He was there for the shluchim in times of need and, perhaps most notably, in times of tragedy.

Rabbi Yisroel Deren, regional director at Chabad Lubavitch of Connecticut, knew Rabbi Kotlarsky since childhood. The relationship strengthened over time as Rabbi Deren embarked on his shlichus, and the two kept in regular contact. On November 5, 2010, tragedy struck the Deren family when their beloved son, Mendy, passed away at age 36. This coincided with the Kinnus Hashluchim, where thousands of shluchim convene for a weekend of chizuk, unity, and celebration. Rabbi Kotlarsky served as the chairman of the Kinnus Hashluchim, and while it was in session he was completely consumed with this responsibility.

But when Mendy Deren was niftar everything stopped. The thousands of shluchim joined in the levayah, and the Kinnus schedule was rearranged to accommodate it. The procession began at Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and continued to the cemetery.

“I got out of the car when we reached the cemetery,” Rabbi Deren recalls, “and there was Rabbi Kotlarsky. He was holding a stack of papers. He said, ‘All the paperwork was taken care of. You just need to sign. And all expenses have been paid.’”

You didn’t have to be a shaliach to be on the receiving end of Rabbi Kotlarsky’s overwhelming care and concern. Ari lived with his family in Florida when tragedy struck. His eighteen-month-old son had drowned in a swimming pool, leaving a devastated family. But misfortune would soon strike again. Ari’s wife was expecting, and the ultrasound revealed that the fetus had a severe heart condition. They were advised to move to New York where the baby would be able to receive top-level care immediately upon birth. They left immediately, and Ari, who had been in yeshivah with Rabbi Zalman Wolowik (who had since become Rabbi Kotlarsky’s son-in-law), made arrangements to stay in his old friend’s home. The baby was born in very serious condition. “For seven months, he hovered between life and death,” says Ari. And then, on the second day of Succos, the baby succumbed, a second death in the family within a year.

“I am a quiet person by nature,” says Ari. “I never expressed the anguish I felt inside.” It wasn’t just the tragedy. Ari had never intended to stay in New York for such an extended period of time, but as the months passed, it became evident that Florida was no longer his home. He enrolled his children in local schools and sold his home in Florida.

“It was such a difficult period, but I told no one.”

One day, Ari received a call from Rabbi Wolowik. “My father-in-law would like to speak with you,” he said.

“I had never met Rabbi Kotlarsky before,” says Ari. “I’m not a shaliach. I didn’t know what he wanted from me.”

Ari entered Rabbi Kotlarsky’s office and took a seat across from him. Rabbi Kotlarsky handed him an envelope. It held $2,500 in cash.

“I really needed the money because the move had been so costly,” Ari reflects. “But it wasn’t the money, as much as the sentiment and sensitivity that came along with it.” The two spoke for a while, and suddenly the dam burst.

“I erupted, I burst out crying, finally sharing what had been weighing on me so heavily. Rabbi Kotlarsky listened and gave me so much chizuk.

“This wasn’t a story,” Ari comments, reflecting on the memory. “It was a personality. This was who he was. There must be so many stories so much greater than this one.”

Rabbi Kotlarsky displayed these traits even with the smallest sensitivities and for the youngest children. Rabbi Yacov Barber was the shaliach to Melbourne, Australia when his wife, Mrs. Rivki Barber, a beloved teacher, passed away at age 49. After the shivah, Rabbi Barber was in Crown Heights together with his children, and Rabbi Kotlarsky asked if he could stop by his office. Rabbi Barber came along with his nine-year-old son, Mendel. Rabbi Kotlarsky first handed Rabbi Barber a check for a significant sum of money.

“I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary, but he waved me off,” Rabbi Barber recounts.

Then, Rabbi Kotlarsky reached into his pocket and pulled out a fifty-dollar bill.

“He handed it to my son, Mendel, and said, ‘Go buy yourself a toy.’ It blew us away — neither I nor Mendel have forgotten that.”

He exceeded any expectation in caring for the shluchim, going light-years beyond his job description.

Rabbi Aryeh Lang and his wife, Leah, have been the shluchim to Camarillo, California for 22 years. They were blessed with a son, Zev, who was diagnosed with autism at age two. When he was seven, the Langs tried to have him enrolled in Camp HASC, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

Somehow, Rabbi Kotlarsky got wind of what was going on and personally called Rabbi Simcha Scholar, CEO of Chai Lifeline, the parent organization of Camp HASC. Zev was readily accepted to HASC and has attended every year since. He eagerly awaits those precious two months as each summer approaches.

“Whenever Rabbi Kotlarsky saw me, he asked about Zev,” Rabbi Lang recounts.

Rabbi Laima Barber is the shaliach to Mauritius (an Indian Ocean island). Some years ago, he endured a deeply painful experience when his wife’s pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. He was in New York not long after, and Rabbi Kotlarsky, already very unwell, found out what happened. Rabbi Barber’s phone rang — it was Rabbi Kotlarsky.

“I heard what happened,” he said, “I would like to send you some money.”

“Thank you so much,” Rabbi Barber responded, “but really, it’s not necessary. Money is the least of our problems right now.”

“No, Laima,” Rabbi Kotlarsky persisted. “You’ve always been there for me. I want to help you out.”

“But I’m telling you,” Rabbi Barber tried to insist, “it’s okay, we don’t need it right now.”

“Listen,” said Rabbi Kotlarsky. “Do me a favor. Take it and buy some jewelry for your wife.”

Rabbi Barber did just that, purchasing a piece of jewelry that he and his wife will forever cherish.


father would say that the Rebbe rarely said ‘thank you,’ ” says Reb Mendy Kotlarsky, who has succeeded his father as the vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. “The greatest thanks was when he asked you to do something else for him.”

The Rebbe had high expectations of Rabbi Kotlarsky.

In 1984, the Rebbe received a letter from two leaders of the Jewish community in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In broken English, they described how few people in their community were observant, and they desperately needed a rabbi to guide them. The Rebbe read the letter and scrawled something at the top before handing it to his secretary, Rabbi Hodakov. Rabbi Hodakov read the Rebbe’s message which consisted of a one-line question: “Does Kotlarsky, sheyichyeh, know about this?”

Rabbi Kotlarsky received a call from Rabbi Hodakov, who described the request from Cochabamba. “Do you know about this?” he asked. Rabbi Kotlarsky responded that he was not aware of the situation in Cochabamba. He then heard the Rebbe’s voice in the background.

“If he knows, what has he done about it? And if he doesn’t know — how can it be that there is a country for which he is responsible, and he doesn’t know about this?”

At times, the sense that the Rebbe was pleased with his efforts could come through seemingly mystical channels.

The Rebbe once instructed Rabbi Kotlarsky to go to the Caribbean Island of Curaçao. When he arrived, he asked a taxi driver to take him to the Jewish center. Upon arrival, a fellow approached him and asked why he was there.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me,” Rabbi Kotlarsky responded.

The man’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Then you came for me!” he said.

He then shared his story: He had been raised on the island, unaware of his Jewish status, but his grandmother, on her deathbed, told him to marry a Jewish woman.

She left him with another piece of advice. If he ever encountered any sort of problem, he was to contact the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn.

“I married a Jewish woman, and we have a son and a daughter,” the man shared.

But then he went on to explain that the local education system was under the control of the Church, and prayer was part of the school day. When the Catholic children prayed, the Jewish children had been allowed to play ball.

Now there was a new bishop in charge, and he had decided that every student must participate in the religious service. At the beginning of the school year, the headmaster had forced his son to join.

“My son refused to go to church, and the headmaster tried to prod him inside,” the man said. “My son resisted, and in the scuffle that ensued, the headmaster ended up on the floor.”

The man’s son was immediately suspended and had nowhere to go to school.

“Last night, my grandmother appeared to me in a dream and reminded me about the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

Rabbi Kotlarsky traveled back together with the man, who spent Purim in Crown Heights and enrolled his son in the Lubavitcher yeshivah.

The father was exhilarated by the experience, and when he returned to Curaçao, he wrote a thank-you letter to the Rebbe. He expressed his gratitude and signed off, “You touched the heart of a small Jew from a small island.”

Rabbi Kotlarsky kept a copy of the Rebbe’s response, written in Hebrew, which was then translated into English and mailed off to Curaçao. The message reads:

Every Jew carries a piece of the Divine within him, as explained in Tanya, Chapter 2… so there is no such thing as a small Jew, as you refer to yourself.

Because every Jew is a kli, magnificent enough to contain an ohr that transcends all boundaries and limitations.

“My father would want everyone to think about what they could do,” says Reb Mendy Kotlarsky. “Whether it’s chesed or mitzvos, everyone can do a little more.” One of the last programs Rabbi Kotlarsky initiated was the “Mitzvah Society,” which seeks to spread the joy of mitzvos to Jews worldwide. “My father was adamant that we do it,” says Reb Mendy. “He was passionate about the idea that one mitzvah can tip the scale.”

Armed with an incalculable number of mitzvos, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky left this world on the 27th of Iyar, 5784. Up in Shamayim, he has surely reunited with his rebbe, drinking from the fountains of his wisdom, the familiar flow of Yiddish emitting a potpourri of chassidus, halachah, dikduk and aggadah.

And true to his wishes, Rabbi Kotlarsky had good tidings to share — ul’vaser tov ub’hosafah.

Thousands of Chabad Houses dot the globe, and millions of Jews have been affected, drawn close to something they felt but could not explain.

Because the oros are hard to see.

Yet with each passing day, the keilim grow stronger, sturdier, more resistant — facilitating the speedy rebuilding of an everlasting dirah b’tachtonim. 


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1018)

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