As the trusted physician of rebbes and gedolim, Dr. Eliyahu Schussheim brought his emunah into the world of healing and beyond
It was Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh Adar of 1977. The seudah in the Schussheim home was over, and the children, Ariel and Dror, were learning the parshah with their father.
Suddenly, two obviously agitated Gerrer chassidim knocked on the door of their Kiryat Moshe home, and within a few moments, Dr. Eli Yosef Schussheim said goodbye to his family and was out the door with them. He raced toward the Geula neighborhood where the Gerrer Rebbe, the Beis Yisrael, was in his room in the beis medrash on Ralbach Street, in great pain.
A quick exam made it clear that the Rebbe had to go to the hospital — but the Rebbe refused, even as Dr. Schussheim, who understood the Rebbe’s hesitation due to chillul Shabbos and perhaps more esoteric reasons, tried to convince him otherwise.
In a similar situation, another doctor might have left the house, noting that he’d done what he could, but not Dr. Schussheim. He remained in the Rebbe’s home until Motzaei Shabbos, when the Rebbe agreed to be taken to Hadassah Hospital. For the next few hours he waged a desperate battle for his life, but early the next morning, Sunday, 2 Adar, chareidi Jewry was orphaned of one of its greatest leaders.
Dr. Schussheim, physician to gedolei hador and founder of the Efrat organization that supports and empowers mothers-to-be, remained with one memento of that day. The Rebbe’s family did not forget him, and in appreciation for his dedication, they gave him a special gift: the Rebbe’s high yarmulke. Since then, each year on Seder night, he would wear the unique yarmulke. But this year’s Seder was to be the last time — Dr. Schussheim, 80, passed away on 29 Sivan.
The First Test
Dr. Eliyahu Yosef Schussheim was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where his Polish-born parents had fled before the war, leaving behind a large family, all of whom perished.
Life in Argentina might have been tranquil, but it was accompanied by dire poverty. At one point, the situation was so bad that the Schussheims decided to return to their native Poland, but they didn’t even have enough money to purchase tickets. In retrospect, this poverty saved their lives — and in time, the lives of more than 80,000 babies.
Eli spent his childhood and adolescent years in the community’s schools, and was also a member of the shul’s children’s choir. But his parents were soon in for a surprise: Eli decided that he wanted to be a doctor, despite the myriad challenges involved regarding mitzvah observance. He began the process, but after just two years, he was faced with his first test: Final exams were scheduled for Shabbos.
“My father reached out to the deacon of the faculty and asked if he could take the test a different time,” relates Dr. Schussheim’s son Dror. “But the man was vehemently opposed. My father didn’t back down, though, and informed the deacon that if he could not take the test on a weekday, as excruciating as it would be, he would suspend his studies.”
And despite his young age and lack of resources or protektziya, Schussheim kept his word. He didn’t come to the test and prepared to give up his dream. There was no one more shocked than Eli Schussheim when the deacon sent a message asking to meet with him.
“This is the first time that I hear that a Jew cannot write on the Sabbath,” he said to his stunned student. “I saw how you are ready to sacrifice your life’s dream for this principle, so in total contravention to regulations, I will allow you to take a makeup test, and you may take all Saturday tests on Friday from here on in. I trust that you will not share the test with any of your fellow students.”
In 1964, Dr. Schussheim completed his medical studies, specializing in general surgery. He was already married and had established a thriving clinic in the South American capital, when he made a decision: They were moving to Eretz Yisrael. And so, leaving their families behind, they boarded a ship for the month-long journey (at the time, there were no civilian flights between the two countries). Dr. Schussheim found a position at Shaare Zedek hospital, and the couple purchased an apartment in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. There was a small Sephardic shul in that building, where Rav Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l served as the rav — and that’s how they forged a close relationship that lasted until the end of Rav Eliyahu’s life.
“I Listened to You”
Dr. Schussheim was a man who knew how to maximize every minute in This World. He was a doctor at Shaare Zedek and Hadassah Ein Kerem medical centers; was the physician for the Jewish Institute for the Blind and also served on its board; he was the supervisor of mohelim on behalf of the Religious Affairs Ministry; he established the Neve Simcha senior citizens’ home in Jerusalem; he wrote the medical reports for the state comptroller; and there was his personal crowning achievement as founder and director of the Efrat organization.
Alongside all this, he served as a medical consultant for numerous organizations, some of which his children found out about only after his passing two weeks ago. In later years, he worked for two hours a day as a doctor in a private clinic in Jerusalem’s Mattersdorf neighborhood. He was also an expert mohel, but to avoid taking parnassah away from other mohelim, he only did “free” brissim — primarily for adult immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“My father dedicated all his free time to learning Torah,” his son Ariel relates. “He worked very hard all week, but on Shabbos, he rose to daven with the 6:30 minyan (where he served as the regular baal tefillah), so that he could have time to learn as much as possible. I often asked him if he wasn’t tired, and his answer was that in This World, there is no time to sleep. There are missions to be carried out, and it was a shame to waste even a minute. About six years ago, he started learning in the pensioners’ kollel in the Yeshurun shul. Even when he’d take what he considered a vacation, he’d basically sit and listen to Torah shiurim.”
Ariel remembers that as a kid, the family would go out on their traditional Shabbos walk to the Neve Simcha home, where Dr. Schussheim would spend an hour and a half speaking to “his” patients, while the children walked around the building.
“My father was very particular about this visit, even though he could have easily found someone else to do it,” Dror says. “I remember as a child we once went to Nahariya on vacation. We were there with our grandparents and cousins, but my father was hardly there. He worked all week, and on Shabbos, he needed to be at Neve Simcha.”
Long before the days of Shabbos emergency clinics, the Schussheim home at 6 Reines Street was a de facto emergency care center for all the children who fell and got hurt or developed fever.
“My father made sure to take care of every Shabbos call, even if he’d just gone for a long-deserved rest,” Ariel says. “And he always refused to take money later for any treatment or examination that he did on Shabbos. He was also very careful about any non-urgent procedures — he rarely sewed stitches on Shabbos because in most cases, he felt, it could wait until Motzaei Shabbos.”
The seeds for Dr. Schussheim’s flagship organization Efrat were planted decades back by a friend named Reb Hershel Feigenbaum, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family, aside from one daughter, in the death camps. Living in Eretz Yisrael, he decided to establish an organization called The Right to Live, in order to try to fill a bit of the void left by the 1.5 million children killed in the war.
At some point, Dr. Schussheim joined the organization, drawing on his medical experience and his seemingly endless reserves of energy. This organization was the first incarnation of Efrat, which Dr. Schussheim founded 44 years ago.
“It all began when a mother brought her injured son into the clinic,” says son-in-law Chagai Goldschmidt, who serves as the executive director of Efrat. “While my father-in-law was stitching him up, the mother told him, ‘This child is yours, not mine.’ She reminded him that due to a complicated medical condition, her doctor had suggested terminating, and only Dr. Schussheim had persuaded her that scientifically, there was no justification for doing so. ‘I decided to listen to you, and the child is totally healthy,’ she added emotionally.
“This was a watershed moment for him. My father-in-law always said that he had learned medicine to save lives, and here, through relatively easy actions, thousands of lives could be saved.”
Indeed, throughout its years, Efrat has saved the lives of nearly 80,000 babies. “This number is what we know about,” Goldschmidt notes. “During the shivah many people came and related that they, or their children, had been saved due to a lecture they had heard from him, or an answer that he had written to them after they had sent a query on a medical issue.
“For decades, my father-in-law remained in Jerusalem on Shabbos Parshas Shemos, the week we read in the Torah about the heroic midwives who saved the Jewish babies. On Motzaei Shabbos, Rav Ovadiah Yosef would invite him to be the introductory speaker on his satellite shiur that he delivered at the Yazdim shul. Rav Ovadiah called him the ‘borei nefashos rabbos’ because of all the lives he saved.”
“I met Dr. Schussheim 30 years ago when we participated in a panel discussion in a session in the Agudah Convention,” relates Rabbi Martin Katz, executive vice president of Just One Life. “Immediately I spotted an authentic Yid who loved hearing about the births of Yiddishe kinder as if they were his own. He was all about saving lives, and was a true leader and believer in helping Israel grow through ‘internal aliyah’ — and he was non-stop.
“Even though Efrat and Just One Life share many similarities in the work we do, we were never in competition. We’re there to help each other achieve our mutual goals — to help expectant mothers whose pregnancies are in crisis due to financial concerns and socio-economic stress. As a colleague, I know what he has accomplished and can assure you that his zechusim are infinite.”
Dr. Schussheim traveled throughout the Jewish world in order to save little lives. Although he served as the founder and chairman of the organization, his work was on a voluntary basis, and even in his final years, when he traveled to raise money for the organization, he refused to fly business class, claiming that it was public money that must not be wasted. Efrat’s storage room was and remains in Dr. Schussheim’s building in Kiryat Moshe.
Love and Honesty
Thousands of people pack into the main beis medrash on Yom Kippur in Kiryat Belz, Jerusalem, but over the years, there were two noticeable figures up front in their kittels: The Belzer Rebbe and Dr. Eliyahu Yosef Schussheim. As the personal physician of the Rebbe and his family, he was honored each year with hagba’ah. Two years ago, the Rebbe himself purchased it for him.
Dr. Schussheim was always in attendance on Succos at the Belz ushpizin tish on Yosef Hatzaddik’s night. The Rebbe would ask the gabbaim to keep shirayim for him on the side, as a token of his appreciation. But this type of relationship wasn’t exclusive to Belz — as Dr. Schussheim was the personal physician for over 40 gedolei Yisrael, including Rabi Yitzchak Kadouri, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Moshe Halberstam, the Gaavad of Dushinsky, the Nesivos Shalom of Slonim, the Lelover Rebbe, and Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg author of Tzitz Eliezer, zecher tzaddikim livrachah, to name a few.
He was also often called to the homes of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Avraham Shapiro, and many others, who trusted his decisions on medical matters. The family related how he came to the home of Rav Avraham Shapiro after he was nominated for the position of chief rabbi. To the Rabbanit’s surprise, the doctor claimed that the position would actually give the elderly rav strength, so she agreed to it.
What was it about him that so charmed gedolei Yisrael?
“For one thing, he had an amazing diagnostic ability,” says Ariel. “In the era before precise imaging tests, he was able to diagnose a disease or a condition with precise accuracy. Rav Ovadiah Yosef remarked on several occasions that everything our father said could be trusted. One year, our father ruled for one of the rebbes that he not be allowed to fast on Yom Kippur. The gabbaim considered blocking the Rebbe’s seat with a curtain to conceal the Rebbe from the public when he was eating and drinking on this holy day. But the Rebbe firmly refused and said, ‘I want people to know that if Dr. Schussheim says to eat on Yom Kippur, that’s what I need to do.’ ”
Did he ever discuss his experiences in the homes of gedolim with his family members?
“A few years ago, we actually asked him about it,” Dror relates, “And his answer was very simple: ‘I came to work, to be a doctor and to save lives, not to tell stories.’ But at the same time, he would come home and marvel at the simple home where Rav Elyashiv lived — he would daven there regularly. He also would describe how Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was connected to all of Klal Yisrael.
“He found something unique about every rav, in order to connect us to through it to Torah and mitzvos. Although we all studied at religious Zionist institutions, we would regularly go with our father to many tishen. Abba actually came from a chassidic home, and he felt connected to the atmosphere, the tefillos, the niggunim and the tishen, and he conveyed that bond to us.”
But this bond, the love and appreciation, did not come on account of his honesty and integrity.
“One year, a particular rebbe approached him with an unusual request,” Dror relates. “One of the people close to him was a mohel who had apparently not passed the Rabbinate tests, and he wanted our father to intervene. But although our father was extremely respectful of this rebbe, he firmly refused, saying it was a matter of pikuach nefesh and he could not be instrumental in such a thing. We didn’t hear this story from our father, but from the Rebbe himself, when he came to be menachem avel.
For the Good and the Bad
In addition to his diligence in Torah, his yiras Shamayim, and his absolute dedication to saving lives in the framework of Efrat, his sons note his unshakeable emunah.
“He would say ‘gam zu l’tovah’ for everything — little and big, good or bad,” says Dror. “There was a time when he was involved in a business deal that hit the rocks. He had already invested a lot of money, and some of the family had been firmly opposed. In the end, it failed. My father constantly repeated that it was all from Shamayim and for the best — and he really meant it.”
His busy, accomplished life came to an end with no warning, during the Shabbos sheva brachos for a grandchild. As always, he was serving as the shaliach tzibbur, and as he was singing Bircas Hachodesh in one of his favorite tunes, he suddenly collapsed. Family members heard him murmur, “Order an ambulance, I’m having a stroke,” before he lost consciousness.
“We didn’t have the opportunity to prepare,” says Dror. “Our father was healthy and fine, and just a few days before he collapsed, he danced at the wedding like a young man. He didn’t even leave a will. But there is no doubt that his path in life, his yiras Shamayim, his utilization of time, his ingrained middah of chesed, and the seriousness with which he approached everything he did, are his true will and testament.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 866)
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