hen Rav Dovid Chaim Stern of Bnei Brak comes to Boro Park, the home of his host Reb Aryeh Wald looks like a beis medrash for the ingathering of the exiles. Rav Stern has no court or kehillah, and his adherents run the spectrum of Torah Jewry: chassidim from Monsey, Litvaks from Lakewood, businessmen from Manhattan and the Five Towns, and Sephardim with roots in Aleppo. They don’t daven in the same style shuls or send their children to the same schools, but when their mentor visits America, they all join together under one roof for a few short days of spiritual elevation.
Rav Stern is not a rebbe only for chassidim. He unites thousands both in Israel and around the world, likely because of his multifaceted affiliations. He is Hungarian-born, but he grew up among the giants of the litvishe community and was personally nurtured by the Chazon Ish. At the same time, Rav Stern is fully proficient in chassidic Torah and the esoteric world of Kabbalah; 40 years ago he received an endorsement of his enormous powers of tefillah from the Beis Yisrael of Gur zy”a. Yet he combines chassidus with the Torah of his rebbi muvhak, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein ztz”l, his mentor from the time he was a bochur in Ponevezh. (In fact, the shiurim of Ponevezh rosh yeshivah Rav Dovid Povarsky that were prepared for publication are based on Rav Stern’s notebooks from yeshivah.)
Keys to Prayer
After fleeing Serdehely, Hungary, to pre-state Palestine with his family, Reb Yisrael Zecharia Stern established a successful business in Bnei Brak. He would often visit the rebbes of Gur with his son, Dovid Chaim.
When Reb Yisrael Zecharia’s wife was declared a “vegetable” after a massive stroke, father and son traveled to the Beis Yisrael of Gur. But when the Beis Yisrael was asked for a brachah for the ailing mother, he turned to Reb Yisrael Zecharia and said, “Your son has a great power of tefillah.” Then he instructed the young Dovid Chaim, “Go and daven for her. It’s her only hope.” The young man davened, but apparently did not understand what great powers of tefillah the Rebbe was referring to.
And his mother? She was still sick. The doctors said she was dying. Father and son came back to the Rebbe. “Did you daven like I told you to?” the Beis Yisrael asked.
The young man shrugged, as though to say, “Who am I to daven?”
“I told you that your tefillos are deemed important in Shamayim,” the Rebbe insisted. “Go now and daven like you never davened, and know that if she doesn’t live, you are a murderer. You are her only hope!”
The young man hastened to the Kosel, where the wellsprings of tefillah burst open in an outpouring of emotion and tears. He spent four days begging and pleading, banging down the Gates of Heaven, until on the fourth day, his mother’s conditions improved.
“It was in your hands,” the Rebbe told him when they met again. “You’ve been endowed with the keys to tefillah.”
I’m a Simple Man
Rav Stern’s spiritual gifts weren’t lost on his illustrious father-in-law Rav Chaim Moshe Mandel ztz”l, a venerated mekubal known as the “poel yeshuos” of Bnei Brak. Rav Mandel was considered a holy man who performed wonders that healed thousands. People say he had only to utter the words “ye’alem, ye’alem [disappear]” and the illness would disappear.
On one hand Rav Mandel was a fire, but he was also extremely gentle and concerned for the kavod of everyone, even a young child. When both he and his rebbetzin were old and couldn’t move about easily, one of the grandchildren would sleep over just in case Rav Mandel needed assistance during the night. One night the child woke up to the loud whispering of his grandparents in their bedroom, and concerned for their welfare, quietly opened the door. To his shock, he saw Rav Mandel lying on the cold floor of their tiny bedroom, unable to pick himself up, having fallen in such a way that his wife couldn’t get off her bed to help him without stepping on him. The obvious solution, said Rebbetzin Mandel, was to call the grandchild — that’s why he was sleeping there in the first place. But Rav Mandel objected. “G-d forbid to wake a sleeping child!” the Rav insisted.
Rav Stern spent many years caring for his elderly father-in-law in the Mandels’ small apartment on Raavad Street — a few doors from his own apartment — where he witnessed the unusual combination of self-effacement and spiritual confidence of someone attached to a higher realm.
One day, a refined but distraught-looking man knocked at the door. “I am the son of Rav Moshe Mordechai of Lelov,” the man told Rav Stern, who opened the door. “My father, the Lelover Rebbe, is seriously ill.”
“The Lelover Rebbe’s son is here and is asking to daven for Rav Moshe Mordechai ben Chana Raitza,” Rav Stern told his father-in-law.
But Rav Mandel raised his eyes and turned to the young man, Rav Shimon Nosson Notta: “Shalom aleichem, Lelover Rebbe!”
Rav Stern hastily corrected his father-in-law: “This is the son, not the Rebbe.”
But Rav Mandel insisted, “You’re telling me? In Shamayim they already declared him the Rebbe.”
“He was so holy,” Rav Dovid Chaim Stern once said of his father-in-law. “But I am a simple man. What do people want from me? Daven. Daven and Hashem will help you as well.” But that makes no difference to the crowds who flock to him.
At the end of his father-in-law’s levayah in the summer of 1996, Rav David Abuchatzeira shlita, and the hidden tzaddik Rav Yehudah Zev Leibowitz ztz”l — Rav Mandel’s closest friend, who actually lived in the Stern home for over a decade until his own passing — came over to Rav Dovid Chaim and handed him kvittlach instructing him, over his protestations, to lead his father-in-law’s disciples. The message was clear: he had to accept the mantle of leading the tzibbur.
Open the Gates
In the 18 years since then, people from all walks of life have been streaming to the small house on 24 Sokolov Street, where he moved after Rav Mandel passed away. Why did he sell the Raavad Street apartment, where he lived for 35 years, and move into a rental? According to his confidants, he sold his home to marry off two orphaned brides. Later, I will hear stories of his staggering acts of chesed and the Beis Avraham fund he established with the Steipler Gaon ztz”l. Selling his apartment was only one of them.
Rav Stern could have been a wealthy man had he not spent nearly all his father’s assets on tzedakah. He himself used to go from house to house in Bnei Brak collecting for the fund, although not a grush found its way into his own pocket. Rav Stern could have lived in a well-appointed, single-family home in one of Bnei Brak’s upper-class neighborhoods, but like the rebbes of old, he makes sure never to have money in his possession at the end of the day that could go to tzedakah when he goes to sleep — which often happens at hours that are neither night nor morn.
While men file into the living room, the Rebbetzin sits in the kitchen, always surrounded by women who seek her out for brachos. “She’s like an X-ray machine,” Rav Stern says of his wife, quoting her father Rav Mandel.
The sign on the door reads, “Even if the Rav told you to come at a specific time, or on a specific date, you must make an appointment in advance so that someone else who comes from far will not lose out.” And those who enter know that despite the mysterious, Kabbalistic aura that permeates the house, they will not be offered lachashim and Sheimos, miracles and wonders, kameiyos or segulos for an instant yeshuah. The 80-year-old rav will tell them — whether they want to hear it or not — what his holy eyes see, and will expose the flaws that need rectifying.
The Rav demands a lot. Some of those demands are related to kedushas beis haknesses: not to eat, drink, or speak about anything mundane in shul. But there are also instructions about uninterrupted Torah learning.
Sometimes he suggests an even more difficult task: to really respect one’s wife, to do her will, and to make sure there’s no anger in the home. “That is the key to all yeshuos,” he tells them.
Rav Stern always makes some general demands on his petitioners, but he often goes one step further, demanding what they in fact lack. Then he will tell them, “If you accept this upon yourself, I accept upon myself to daven for you.” And when he does that, the yeshuah is virtually guaranteed. He davens constantly for the names that have been brought before him. He keeps a list of names on his desk and does not let up until the Gates of Heaven are opened.
Is This the End?
At a recent shiur, Rav Stern talked about how he clearly sees the Geulah drawing near, how according to the words of the Chazon Ish we’re clearly on the way to full redemption. “My father, Reb Yisrael Zecharia, brought us to Eretz Yisrael in 1946. He then purchased the flour mill in Bnei Brak, as he had been advised by gedolei Yisrael to do. And since there were few cars in Bnei Brak at the time, my father was the Chazon Ish’s driver.”
He continued to relate how from that point on, he would daven Shacharis k’vasikin with the Chazon Ish, how their home followed the minhagim of the Chazon Ish, how the mill was under the Chazon Ish’s kashrus supervision, and how young Dovid Chaim Stern became a loyal disciple.
“On Succos of 1949, my father and I visited the Chazon Ish,” he tells a group that has assembled in his room. “He had only two chairs in the succah [the Chazon Ish was not blessed with children]. As the youngest, I remained standing so that my father and the Chazon Ish could sit. Suddenly, I felt two hands on my shoulders, forcing me into one of the chairs. It was the Chazon Ish, who preferred to stand and let his guests — even a 15-year-old like me — sit.
“It was in the days after the establishment of the state. My father wanted to hear what the Chazon Ish had to say about it. ‘Is it the as’chalta d’Geulah?’ my father asked. ‘Is this what Am Yisrael has been waiting for?’ And the Chazon Ish replied, ‘Di medinah vet nisht halten lang. Ober der ibergang vet zein gur shver [The state will not last long. But the interim period, that will be very difficult].’ ”
Rav Stern offers his own explanation of those cryptic words: “When the Chazon Ish said ‘not long,’ I understood it would last 60 years, perhaps a bit longer. Now, it’s already the interim period. Yetzt iz der ibergang. We sense the battles that will ultimately bring Mashiach. Not everyone will be spared. Not everyone will be zocheh. Hashem should help that we should be spared and merit a gemar chasimah tovah.”
The Rebbe’s Gift
When young Dovid Chaim became bar mitzvah, his father enrolled him in Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, which had opened then in Bnei Brak, headed by Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner shlita. Young Dovid Chaim was among its first talmidim. From there, he continued to Yeshivas Maharitz Dushinsky in Jerusalem, the yeshivah of Rav Yagel, and then to Knesses Yisrael–Chevron. While in Yerushalayim, he formed a close relationship with Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, and eventually moved with the Mashgiach to Yeshivas Ponevezh. Rav Stern became Reb Chatzkel’s “chozer” on his shiurim; he would sit beside the Mashgiach, and later repeat his words in Hebrew for those who were either not fluent in Yiddish or in the Mashgiach’s heavy style of speaking. “I learned everything from him,” he later related.
Rav Stern’s connections with gedolei Yisrael of the postwar generation didn’t end there. Each Shabbos, his father Reb Yisrael Zecharia would walk with him to the Tel Aviv beis medrash of Rav Aharon of Belz for Shalosh Seudos and Melaveh Malkah. Many tzaddikim and rebbes sat around the table. But Reb Yisrael and Dovid Chaim were seated next to the Rebbe, as per his instructions, and to the surprise of many of those present.
Each Erev Pesach, father and son would receive three matzos for the Seder from the Rebbe, and when Dovid Chaim became engaged, he received an unusual gift from the Rebbe: a Korban Minchah siddur. “Give it to your kallah as a gift, so she should daven,” the Rebbe instructed him. Since then, she has been davening alongside her eminent husband, who is endowed with intense powers of prayer.
He also learned lofty levels of shemiras einayim from the Belzer Rebbe: A woman once came to the Rebbe for a brachah and advice. “Stay here in the room,” the Rebbe instructed Reb Dovid Chaim, who was there at the time. He instructed the gabbai to bring in seven other men. Only when there was a minyan did the Rebbe lower his head, almost till his knees, and he was then ready to accept the woman.
However, despite Reb Dovid Chaim’s exceptional shemiras einayim, he makes sure not to usurp the position of the baal habayis when he stays at people’s homes in America. If the woman of the house wants to go to another room for the Shabbos seudah, he will ask that she sit at the end of the table.
Let’s Make a Deal
Rav Stern’s day is replete with mystery. He walks for two hours a day around the parking lot beneath his home, as the Chazon Ish instructed him to do many years ago. He learns Mishnayos in his thoughts as he walks. It is one of his shittos in learning.
He rises early and immerses in the mikveh, and at 4:30 he’s already on the way to his shiur in his shul. Aside from these hours and the hours when he receives the public, he spends most of his time sitting in his room learning, while maintaining a taanis dibbur. This is one of the things he demands from every ben Torah, and even from laymen: “You want a yeshuah?” he asks. “Do as I say. Learn uninterrupted. It sounds easy, but it’s really a very difficult thing to do.”
Sometimes, after hearing the spiritual challenges he poses, the petitioner might find it easier to undertake a material pledge, such as a contribution to a needy family; or, he might instruct someone to actually go out to collect for someone needy. Rav Stern believes in the infinite benefits of actively doing chesed for others, and his followers swear that he sees the appropriate rectification for every soul.
A Russian oligarch whom the gabbaim primed as a donor for the aron kodesh in his beis medrash came to Rav Stern. But the Rav saw the best path to his tikkun, and an aron kodesh wasn’t it. After receiving a dressing-down for his sins, the gvir emerged with a smile on his face, telling those outside, “The Rav gave me the address of a poor family in Rosh Ha’ayin that I should give the money to each month instead.”
Later, when the gabbaim questioned why the Rav didn’t ask him to donate the aron kodesh, as he wanted to, the Rav replied, “But that was not his tikkun. An aron kodesh would not help him.”
Still, there are no quick fixes, and Rav Stern warns those who ask him for a brachah not to accept upon themselves something they will not be able to keep. Still, with a sincere desire to improve, they can effect significant change. “If you work with all your might not to speak anything mundane in shul, you will see that Hashem will protect you,” he says. “If you pledge kedushah and tzniyus, then from Above there will be mercy on you.”
The stories of yeshuos, of course, abound and are expected: barren women blessed with children, ill people who recovered, paupers who became rich, and others who saw their profits soar after following his instructions. But there is one common denominator: one mustn’t violate his instructions. Given that he seeks the spiritual reason for a person’s troubles and also the remedy, Rav Stern considers the “prescription” he offers a deal in every sense. “I’m just the agent, the lawyer. I present the deal so that Yidden will give something to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, will improve their ways, and as a result they will merit a yeshuah,” he says.
The segulos and yeshuos all stem from the power of tefillah and self-improvement. “But it must be consistent and uninterrupted,” he warns. If the yeshuah is ultimately delivered — the daughter gets married, or the couple finally has a child — and the spiritual commitment has not been fulfilled, Rav Stern says he feels it. “Oh, now they are coming to me from Above with complaints about So-and-So not living up to his end of the deal. I’m only the go-between, but I have to give answers.”
“You want a yeshuah?” he asks a Jew seeking advice. “Give tzedakah. Not plain tzedakah. Quality tzedakah.” He personally supervises these givers to ensure that the donation is generous, that it will empower the recipients to emerge from the cycle of poverty.
When Rav Stern began his Beis Avraham fund decades ago, in order to help marry off the generation of Holocaust survivors learning in Ponevezh at the time, the Steipler said to him, “We’ll do it together.” He gave Rav Stern a letter of recommendation and 15 Israeli liras as a starting sum. “He does alone what entire institutions do, if not more,” the Steipler later wrote about Rav Stern. The Steipler managed the fund’s accounts himself and guided Rav Stern on what to give to whom. Over the last 60 years, Beis Avraham has assisted over 100,000 people in dire financial straits.
Today everyone needs a yeshuah — either for a family member, a financial situation, a health condition, or a safety issue. Several businessmen from Ukraine recently traveled to the apartment on Rechov Sokolov to ask Rav Stern about the precarious situation they’re facing in their country. Rav Stern gave them three instructions, which he said would ward off all danger: to recite the Tehillim of the day every day, to be especially careful to refrain from any idle talk in shul, and — as we are entering the Messianic era — to pray and yearn for the ability to live in Eretz Yisrael.
Hard conditions to implement, but as another petitioner leaves the building with a smile on his face, you know they’re not impossible. “I davened the way I was supposed to, the way the Rav told me,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was clear that the Rav carved out a path to my salvation.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 527)
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