| Magazine Feature |

Satin & Steel

Just hours before he passed away with all his children gathered around him Rav Yisroel Grossman instructed Rebbetzin Nussbaum to look in the pocket of his jacket. Inside were three $100 bills — an unusually large sum for her father. “Use it to marry off the girls” he told her

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I t was a request that would change her life.

In 2007 Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman called his sister with a dilemma. Graduation was around the corner. The girls — many of whom were orphans or from severely deprived backgrounds — were welcome to stay in Migdal Ohr indefinitely and benefit from the higher education programs he’d established. But they needed to be shepherded into the world.

It would be better for them to “leave home” to study. Of course when they had some kind of qualification they would need to be guided through shidduchim. Then they would need to be married off…

While he took care of marrying off the alumni bochurim Rav Grossman needed a counterpart to take care of the girls. The task Rav Grossman presented to his sister was crucial — and one that required the utmost delicacy.

“He’s just a year older than me. We were always close.” This is how Rebbetzin Rochel Nussbaum explains the request.

By her side Miss Fabia Preminger the Rebbetzin’s partner in all her endeavors laughs. “The Rav chose Rebbetzin Nussbaum because she’s a powerhouse!”

As a decade’s worth of tales attest his choice was spot-on.

Rabbanit Ima

With her own large family married off it would have been easy for Rebbetzin Nussbaum to adopt a slower pace after the busy years of raising her children. She could have focused solely on being present for her husband the revered Rav Naftali Nussbaum a prominent av beis din and rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Chayei Moshe.

It would have been far easier than taking on responsibility for hundreds of girls. Easier than ensuring that each of those girls has a place to study for a profession in which she’ll excel. Definitely easier than looking for shidduchim for those girls — from making inquiries to approving first-date outfits.

But easy isn’t a word in the Rebbetzin’s lexicon. Last year alone, Rebbetzin Nussbaum — the girls call her Rabbanit Ima — married off over 300 girls. This involved far more than linking arms with the bride and holding a candle while walking the kallah to the chuppah.

“Rabbanit Ima” takes each girl into her heart — and like a mother she takes the kallah shopping for clothing and linens appliances and furniture. She soothes away fears and arranges for therapy. She listens laughs listens some more and above all cares.

Larger than Life

I’m a few minutes early for our interview and I look around the hotel lobby wondering if the occupant of the couch over is my rebbetzin. She wears a hat atop her sheitel and her straight back gives her an air of dignity.

I’m about to approach her when the lobby door opens and purse flying off one arm hands clutching sundry shopping bags slightly out of breath from rushing there’s a woman in her late sixties pillbox hat over a short blonde sheitel. There’s an energy about her and I half stand up in greeting. She sees me rushes over and wraps me in a hug. No mistaking Rebbetzin Rochel Nussbaum.

By her side is Fabia Preminger, Brazilian born and the age of the Rebbetzin’s children, but sharing the Rebbetzin’s wide smile and undeniable warmth. We kiss on both cheeks and sit down. The Rebbetzin is in a rush to show me her latest couple: a beautifully decked-out bride, a smiling, black-hatted chassan.

“The Rebbetzin has spent the last two days in Bnei Brak, finding places for girls in various frum colleges,” Fabia whispers. “She helps each girl figure out what they want to study, and then finds a place that’s the best fit. And then she takes them to the interviews.”

The Rebbetzin is still gazing at the picture of her newest couple. I signal to Fabia for help, as I try to direct the Rebbetzin away from her satin-swathed bride, and back to the beginning of it all, back to her childhood in Batei Varsha in Meah Shearim. Fabia nods her understanding and brings out a huge coffee-table book on the history of Meah Shearim. She flips through a few pages and slides the book in front of the Rebbetzin.

The Rebbezin looks down at the sepia-toned picture and clutches her hands together. “The Tatte!” she exclaims. “See! The Tatte. Here he is with the Beis Yisrael of Gur.” She looks down at the picture and shakes her head. Then she points to the buildings in the background. “See there, up those stairs — that was our home.”

Fabia gives me a wink. “I was there a number of times. Tiny. Two rooms, the whole thing was maybe 50 square meters [540 square feet], maybe less. But big enough for the Migdal Ohr graduates’ simchahs to be celebrated there — engagements, brissim…”

There are more pictures of the Tatte: Rav Yisroel Grossman was the rosh yeshivah of Pinsk-Karlin for nearly six decades, and a fifth-generation Yerushalmi — his sandek was none other than Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.

“Tell her about the Chazon Ish,” Fabia prompts.

“Okay, okay.”

When she was a little maidele, just two years old, the Rebbetzin tells me, her father took her along on a visit to the Chazon Ish — “They were very close.” —Rav Grossman asked the Chazon Ish for a brachah for his daughter. “She should marry a gadol b’Torah,” the Chazon Ish blessed the tiny girl in pigtails.

The Chazon Ish’s brachah came to fruition: Rav Naftali Nussbaum is a towering talmid chachom. “Though quiet,” the Rebbetzin tells me. “Very quiet. Every word, measured. Not like me.” She nudges my arm and leans in. “At our chasunah, my father gave me a gift. Now, it wasn’t his minhag to give a wedding gift, so I said, ‘What is this, Tatte?’ He told me to open it. A tape recorder! ‘So you should have something to talk to,’ he explained.”

We return to the Batei Varsha days.

“When I was growing up, one little boy had a ball. It cost maybe half a lira. The boys would stand on line, waiting for a turn to kick that one ball. The kid with the ball was like the gvir of Batei Varsha.”

If poverty has stalked the family through the generations, magnanimity was its unusual bedfellow. “Who was your inspiration?” I ask. In return, I receive a veritable flood of names, each with a rich Yiddish inflection. We start with the Rebbetzin’s paternal grandfather, Rav Moshe Shneur Zalman Grossman, a prominent Pinsk-Karliner chassid. “You want to know how poor he was?” the Rebbetzin asks. “He was so poor that his idea of luxury was when the man who sold herrings from a barrel would let him dip his hard, stale bread into the brine. Forget a herring! Who could dream of a herring? Just the brine.”


A Life-Changing Shabbos

Then she tells me a story that deserves to be a legend. In those times, when Israel was under Ottoman rule, there were few doctors and medicines, and any medical assistance was costly. Malaria was rampant, as well as other sicknesses, such as leprosy and polio. Rav Grossman looked around and was struck by the sickness that ravaged his beloved people. He resolved to travel to America and raise money for medical assistance.

He boarded a ship in Jaffa and approached the captain with an unusual request. Was there a place he could spend Shabbos undisturbed? He explained that Shabbos was a very holy day for him: he learned and sang and didn’t sleep at all. All he needed was a small cabin where he could be alone, where he wouldn’t disturb his fellow travelers. The captain acquiesced, showing him to a small cabin deep in the belly of the ship, near to the engine room. Just before Shabbos, there was a knock on the door. A young man, in a smart white shirt and well-pressed gray pants, with a small neat beard stood before him. The man had an interesting accent the Zeide couldn’t quite place. He asked if he could join him for his Shabbos.

“With pleasure,” the Zeide answered. “On one condition: I don’t sleep the entire Shabbos, but devote all my time to singing and learning and coming close to Hashem. If you’re willing to participate, I’d be happy to have you join me.”

Deep in the belly of the ship, Rav Moshe Shneur Zalman Grossman sang and danced, he learned and ate and leapt high on a tidal wave of the spirit. His young guest joined him.

When Shabbos was over, the young man turned to his host. “I never had a Shabbos like this in my life,” he said. “What can I give you to express my thanks?”

The Zeide waved his hand, dismissively.

“Really. I’d like to give you something to express my thanks. Have you not a wife and children?”

“The Ribbono shel Olam provides for us.”

“So what can I do for you?”

The Zeide looked at the young man carefully. “Why? Who are you?”

“My family name is Rothschild.”

The Zeide had spent Shabbos with none other than a young Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris. Rav Grossman explained the dire medical situation in Eretz Yisrael, and asked that the Baron send a team of doctors and nurses, as well as find a solution to the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that thrived in the swamps and marshland. The Baron agreed, and true to his word, sent both a team of medical personnel and agricultural experts to drain the swamps.


“He’s Your Brother”

Rebbetzin Nussbaum’s maternal grandmother, Liba Gutfarb, was known as the “gabbiste” or the gabbai’it tzedakah of the neighborhood. To support her family, she served as the cook of Rav Aharon of Belz. After a long day in the Rebbe’s kitchen, she would trudge from butcher to butcher, filling her baskets with the giblets, feet, and necks that the butchers discarded.

Back home, she’d divide up her booty and wrap them in clean cloths, each one containing two feet, two necks, two giblets, and a few coins. Then, she’d take to the streets, throwing her little packages in through the windows of the neediest families. “She taught tzedakah and what it means, matan b’seser,” Rebbetzin Nussbaum reflects.

But Rebbetzin Nussbaum needs to look no further than her parents’ home to find a shining example of unconditional giving — and unconditional acceptance. She was only a little girl when Israel rescued thousands of Jews from Arab countries. “My father went to the transit camps and he tried to help. He found people homes, jobs. A few children he brought to live with us. There weren’t enough beds, so my brothers shared with them.”

How did her father introduce these new members of the family? I ask.

Rebbetzin Nussbaum gives me a light push on the arm. “He said, ‘Say hello, Ruchele.’ ”

“‘Who is this?’ I asked.

“‘It’s your brother.’

“I thought, my brother? But his skin is dark brown and my skin is white, how can he be my brother? I told this to the Tatte. In reply, he tugged his dark beard. ‘And what color is this, Ruchele?’ he asked. ‘Now, say hello to your brother.’ ”


Brides of all Backgrounds

In this backdrop of caring, Rebbetzin Nussbaum absorbed the two qualities that enable her to connect with girls from a plethora of backgrounds, of every age. “Love. Acceptance,” she tells me when I ask how she becomes a surrogate mother for girls from all over, from Russia to Ethiopia, girls from homes riddled with crime or deprivation. Of course, the Rebbetzin is also mother for anyone she encounters: neighbors, friends, relatives, strangers on the street. But it is the graduates of Migdal Ohr who are her primary concern.

Fabia nods meaningfully. “Tell her about Sara.”

The Rebbetzin is quiet for a moment. I wait.

“Sara.” She gives a long, slow nod.

“Sara’s mother died when she was a baby. Her father turned first to drink, then drugs. He started dealing. He got a tip-off that the police were after him, so he dressed up Sara in her best clothing, a coat, a hat, and took her to the mall. He abandoned her in — of all places — a toy store.

“The police called the social services, and Sara ended up in Migdal Ohr.”

At 18, Rebbetzin Nussbaum continues, when Sara had graduated, Rebbetzin Nussbaum found a place for her to learn early-years education, as Sara wanted to become a kindergarten teacher. In the meantime, her father, having recently been released from jail, wanted to meet with his daughter. Using a pernicious mixture of threats and emotional blackmail, Sara’s father persuaded her to drop out of the course, and return home with him, so that she could work and support him. He even found two jobs for her: a day job in a plastics factory, and a night job working as a cashier in a supermarket.

Torn, Sara turned to the Rebbetzin for advice. The Rebbetzin tried to convince Sara’s father that, with a qualification under her belt, Sara would be better able to support him in the future. For a while, Sara’s father swallowed it and allowed Sara to continue.

But one day, the Rebbetzin received a series of death threats. She contacted the police and a rav, yet ultimately, Sara returned to her father’s home. She took up the jobs and delivered him the paychecks.

Months passed. Sara was lonely and miserable. She called her Rabbanit Ima and asked her to help. The Rebbetzin travelled to Sara’s town and spoke to her father. Nothing changed.

Back in the supermarket, there was one boy who was friendly. Kind. His name was Avraham. Ibrahim, though Sara didn’t know that until they went together to the Rabbanut to register an upcoming marriage.

When the Rabbanut tried to throw Ibrahim out the door, he promised to convert. Why? To marry your Jewish girlfriend?

Nothing doing.

Ibrahim turned to Sara and said, let’s marry in Cyprus. When we come back married, surely they’ll allow me to convert.

“She was so confused when she called me,” Rebbetzin Nussbaum recounts. The Rebbetzin immediately boarded a bus for the hours-long journey up north, arriving just before midnight: ten minutes before Sara’s shift ended. The Rebbetzin waited outside. “When Sara saw me, she fell into my arms. She cried and cried.” Meanwhile, Ibrahim had kept a steely eye on his girlfriend, and the Rebbetzin knew that were she to leave Sara, Ibrahim would likely kidnap her. But how to get away with her?

Heaven interceded. A sum of money was missing from one of the tills and all the workers were summoned for an accounting before they left home. Rebbetzin Nussbaum bundled Sara into a bus and they set off, back down to Jerusalem. After finding Sara a safe place to stay, Rebbetzin Nussbaum confronted Sara’s father. It took all her skill and wits, as well as a liberal greasing of paws, but eventually, Rebbetzin Nussbaum persuaded him that she’d ensure Sara had a good life — and wouldn’t forget him. Sara’s father was taken care of, but Ibrahim was still after his prey. He tracked Sara down and kept a vigil on her — until Sara called the police and Ibrahim was arrested for harassment.

“But that’s not the end,” Rebbetzin Nussbaum explains. “When Sara felt ready to get married, I went from yeshivah to yeshivah, searching for just the right boy for her. You know what it’s like till you get a couple engaged. You smooth the girl’s feelings and the boy’s worries. There were times I turned to my brother and said, ‘Yitzchak Dovid, are we going to get them to the chuppah?’ But, Baruch Hashem, they made it. And now they have children!” For the second time, the Rebbetzin reaches into her capacious handbag and searches for a picture. She waves a picture of two little girls at me, each with identical dark eyes and wide grins: a proud grandmother.

“But how do you have the time? The energy?” I ask.

Here, Rebbetzin Nussbaum points to Fabia. “Everything I do is due to her.” Fabia is a sought-after business professional who is also involved in outreach. But she has a second life — in a purely voluntary capacity — in which she coordinates everything related to the new brides, their homes and households. This means spending every spare moment fundraising. Fabia met Rebbetzin Nussbaum over 15 years ago, when she took a trip to the Grossman home and they were introduced.

The two make an unlikely duo: Fabia has a Master’s from Hebrew University; she’s published articles in professional journals in Hebrew and English and speaks worldwide. Yet the two women share a rapport that seems deeper than a shared sense of mission. Fabia reflects on this: “My four grandparents, zichronom livrachah, were Holocaust survivors, and they gave my parents a strong sense of community. My parents, l’havdil, are business professionals and community leaders — they believe in the power of example — tzedakah, chesed, unconditional love. Although we’re from such different backgrounds and a different generation, I think it’s these ideals that create the bond between the Rebbetzin and me.”

Fabia uses her incredible creativity to spearhead new initiatives, including beautiful, laminated cards to be used under the chuppah. She was also involved in setting up the bridal salon in Migdal Ohr. Run by Rebbetzin Esther Grossman, wife of Rav Yitzchak Dovid, the bridal salon is a haven of organza and lace: it stocks a wide selection of beautiful wedding gowns, veils, shoes, and jewelry for each kallah to choose from. On the big day itself, a team of volunteer make-up artists and hairdressers give the kallah her special glow.

Rebbetzin Nussbaum’s children also help her in her endeavors. Still, at times it’s tricky to draw the lines between her own children and the girls she adopts. “My daughter complained to me once, she said, I’m nervous — what if I get married on the same day as one of your Migdal Ohr girls — whose chasunah will you go to?” Since then, Rebbetzin Nussbaum has gone out of her way to make her own children feel special — and have them play a role in this all-encompassing chesed operation. “I try to be there for them. They move into my home after they have babies. Shabbos Hagadol, I invite all the children and grandchildren for the meals.”

Our conversation veers back to the brides Rebbetzin Nussbaum and Fabia help.

There are more stories, more names: Noa, Rivka, Shulamit, Rachel. There are stories of poverty, abandonment, drugs, even suicide attempts. And then there’s Rabbanit Ima, unafraid of the grit, the tears, the detritus of bad decisions and desperation. Coaxing these girls into the future, providing their needs — providing what they need to feel human, feminine, valued, loved.

One girl, suffering from a broken engagement, was taken on a three-day trip to a spa by the Dead Sea. Another was taken on a trip to Eastern Europe, to daven at the kevarim of her ancestors. Every daughter with her needs. “You know,” Rebbetzin Nussbaum tells me, growing pensive, “these girls, if you don’t see them into their own homes, married, settled, then you haven’t finished their education.”

She continues, telling me how her father had also taken this cause into his heart. Just hours before he passed away, with all his children gathered around him, Rav Yisroel Grossman instructed Rebbetzin Nussbaum to look in the pocket of his jacket. Inside were three $100 bills — an unusually large sum for her father. “Use it to marry off the girls,” he told her.

“To me that was the makeh b’patish. That my father told me this as one of his last instructions. That makes it sacred.”

Tower of Light

As children, Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman and his sister Rochel were particularly close. Rav Grossman, aka the Disco Rabbi, got his name through a telling incident. Having just moved to Migdal HaEmek, he sought out a minyan. Asking passersby, they responded with a cynical: you want a group of men, go to the disco. Rebbetzin Nussbaum relishes telling the story: “You think a chassidish boy from Meah Shearim knew what it means a disco?”

Down at the disco, Rav Grossman literally and figuratively, changed the dance music. Even when faced with opposition, Rav Grossman was unfazed. When people threw stones at him as he walked down the streets, he gathered up the stones and declared that these would be part of an institution he would build. When boys told him that their fathers sat in jail, he set up a program for prisoners, teaching them both Torah and a trade, and setting them on a path for a productive life.

It’s hard to define Migdal Ohr, other than by its name — a Tower of Light. Its activities span the gamut of human need: schools for children of deprived backgrounds; a special orphanage for orphans from the former Soviet Union, who grapple with psychiatric and psychological scars; on-site foster homes; the prisoners’ program; clubhouses for at-risk youth; and more. The town of Migdal HaEmek has been transformed — and along with it, thousands and thousands of lives.

“All of us inherited a love of kindness from our parents and grandparents,” Rebbetzin Nussbaum reflects, “but Yitzchak Dovid was special.” She recalls how, one wintry morning, Yitzchak Dovid set out to cheder. En route he met the mailman, and he tucked the family letters into the inner pocket of his coat. When he returned home that evening, his coat was gone. “Where’s your coat?” his mother asked.

“There was a boy in cheder with no coat, he was cold,” the young Yitzchak Dovid explained. Not that there were spare coats at home — not that there was money for a spare coat at home. But even as a child, Yitzchak Dovid couldn’t bear to see anyone suffer. As for the mail — that evening, his father had to track down the new coat-owner and retrieve his letters.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 544)

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