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The Power of Example

The Rav's shivah house confirmed what I already suspected. Wonderful middos are rarely an accident


hivah houses, I’ve concluded, can be excellent places to pick up lessons on child-rearing (though by the age most of us become regulars in shivah houses, our children have, by and large, flown the coop). If someone you admire loses a parent, it is more than likely that you can learn something about how he became the person he is from hearing about his parents. As my own parents used to say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

When Mrs. Chana Klagsbald, the mother of Rav Shlomo Klagsbald, the rav of the shul where I most frequently daven, passed away recently, I was confident that there would be some remarkable stories about her, just as there had been when his father passed away seven years ago.

The Rav is fluent in Shas and poskim. His greatness in Torah is, as Chazal tell us, “not an inheritance.” But the product of his own efforts.

No less remarkable, however, is his greatness in middos: his pleasantness to one and all, patience, and humility. One former chavrusa has told me on more than one occasion that when his sons were growing up, he always pointed to the Rav (then just a mispallel in the same minyan) as the person he would most like them to emulate. And those qualities, I surmised, have a great deal to do with his parents.

The Rav’s mother arrived in Israel as a young girl in 1936. Her father, a Gerrer chassid from near Krakow who had helped Sarah Schenirer set up the first Bais Yaakov seminary, went to visit the Imrei Emes before leaving Poland.

“I’ve come for a brachah, not a psak,” he told the Rebbe. He had made up his mind about the dangers awaiting European Jewry.

The Rav’s father, Moshe Klagsbald, a native of Tchebin, only arrived in Israel after the Holocaust, having survived six Nazi work camps and internment in Cyprus. None of his immediate family survived. When his future father-in-law asked him who would conduct negotiations for him, he replied that he could do so himself, though the Tchebiner Rav had offered to do so.

To the question, “What do you want?” he gave the most straightforward reply possible: “I want to marry your daughter.” Nothing else mattered.

The young couple went to live in Ramat Gan, where Mr. Klagsbald found employment with a distant relative. (His mother had told him during their final goodbye that all Klagsbalds are related.) But when the Rav’s older brother came home from school one day without a yarmulke, explaining to his concerned mother that some boys on the street had told him that a yarmulke was not necessary in Israel, the family moved immediately to Bnei Brak, where they lived in the same apartment building for 65 years.

The Klagsbalds went through life with zero expectations, though their desire to aid others was legendary. Mrs. Klagsbald still lived alone at 93, unaided until her final months, during which she was frequently hospitalized. Even then, she complained every time the Rav came to visit — which was frequently — that a phone call would have sufficed. At 93, she still had an easy speech with those seven decades younger. At the shivah, a young woman in the building related that after the recent birth of her first child, the first person she called from the delivery room was Mrs. Klagsbald, and only then her mother.

The senior Klagsbald went to work in his son-in-law’s office the same day he passed away, at 94. A month or so earlier, a young avreich in the building knocked on the door to borrow some tools to repair a broken lock on his front door. Mr. Klagsbald asked him whether he knew how to repair a lock, which the avreich confessed he did not. So his 94-year-old neighbor did so, and then asked whether there was anything else in the apartment in need of repair. He stayed making those repairs for an hour and a half.

The Rav shared with me another story about his father. A neighbor from a different entranceway, in their three-sided building around a central courtyard, knocked on his door with a petition seeking permission from his neighbors to expand his small apartment upward on to the roof. Mr. Klagsbald inquired whether he needed the room for his family or to increase the value of his apartment. The neighbor, whom Mr. Klagsbald had never met before, replied that his family had outgrown their apartment. Mr. Klagsbald signed immediately, even though the neighbor pointed out that the expansion to the roof would cast shade on his apartment.

“I already thought of that,” Mr. Klagsbald replied.

The young man then told Mr. Klagsbald that none of the neighbors in his entranceway had been willing to sign. Mr. Klagsbald told him that he would see what he could do to help.

He then went to each of the neighbors and told them that there was a young avreich who needed to move because of the small size of his apartment, but could not afford a larger apartment, and asked them to contribute $10,000 to purchasing a new apartment. All responded that they did not have that kind of money and had to help their own children.

At that point, Mr. Klagsbald offered them an alternative: Sign the petition. And in that manner, he succeeded in gathering all the needed signatures.

THE RAV’S SHIVAH HOUSE confirmed what I already suspected. Wonderful middos are rarely an accident, but more often reflect the kind examples with which those in possession of such middos grew up.

That lesson was reinforced during my recent conversations with Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld on the Meor campus kiruv network that he founded. Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld told me he quickly realized that the single biggest determinant of success would be the quality of the rabbis he hired to direct the programs on different campuses. And the single most important trait to look for, even before their ability to give a good shiur or to engage students with little Jewish background easily, was their commitment to the Jewish People and willingness to be moser nefesh on behalf of their fellow Jews.

He then gave me two examples of how such rabbis are produced. “I once asked the father of one of my ‘stars,’ ” Reb Beryl told me, “ ‘How did you produce such as son?’ ”

The father replied that before his son’s bar mitzvah, he had thought a long time what he could give his son that would instill in him the need for mesirus nefesh on behalf of the Jewish People. His solution: He donated a kidney to a fellow Jew.

Another of the Meor campus rabbis was also inspired by a memory of parental sacrifice to help a young Jew find his way toward religious observance. His father, a maggid shiur in a prominent yeshivah, once brought home a young man from nonobservant home from Shabbos davening. The young man soon became a fixture in the home. At some point, the rabbi spoke to him about taking on the mitzvah of tefillin. But the young man — a vegan — said he would never put on tefillin, as it required the killing of an animal.

It took the quickness of a talmid chacham to circumvent that obstacle. He told the young man that any day he put on tefillin, he would not eat meat that day. So instead of causing the death of a single animal to produce a pair of tefillin, he would actually be saving animals from slaughter by putting on tefillin. The “deal” worked, and continued for a long time, until the young man was fully committed to the mitzvah of tefillin.

At some point, most parents learn that there are no guarantees and no magic formula for producing wonderful children. Tefillos and siyata d’Shmaya are always crucial despite our best efforts.

But it is also crucial to know the power of our example far exceeds any explicit messages that we might convey.


Rabbi David Rebibo a”h: Builder of Phoenix Orthodoxy

Little more than a year ago, my wife and I had a Shabbos lunch together with Rabbi David Rebibo a”h, who passed away last week, and his wife of 71 years, Rebbetzin Odette Rebibo, at the home of their son Joel Rebibo, with whom I have attended the same morning shiur for over a quarter century. Even for a couple not far away from celebrating their golden anniversary of marital bliss, there was something inspiring about meeting two people married far longer who still delight in one another’s company and the memories of a long life together of adventure and achievement.

Courage was the shared quality that made both the adventures and the achievements possible, beginning with the decision to marry at 18 and 17, respectively. He had grown up in a home with no running water, in the Jewish quarter of Salé, Morocco, across the river from the national capital of Rabat. He lost his father to tuberculosis when he was only seven. When he was 12, a relative provided enough money to send him alone on a boat to France, and the yeshivah of Rav Chaim Chaikin, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, in Aix-les-Bains.

She had survived the war as a child hidden with a Catholic family. After the war, her nonobservant parents agreed to send her to Gateshead, out of fear that her deep spiritual nature would find its expression in the Catholicism to which she was exposed in those years in hiding. From the start, the young couple were determined to make it on their own, without help from her well-to-do family, who were not enthusiastic about their daughter’s youthful marriage.

And it took courage as well to set out for Phoenix in 1965, at the behest of Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky of Torah Umesorah. On an exploratory visit the preceding year, the local Reform and Conservative clergymen assured Rabbi Rebibo that there would never be an Orthodox community in Phoenix. They were trying to be helpful.

That warning was well-founded. Phoenix had no Orthodox shul, apart from a shtibel, where the minyan consisted exclusively of old men; no kashrus supervision; no Orthodox school; and the closest mikveh was over a two-hour drive away. Moreover, parochial education at that time was viewed as almost un-American, which dimmed the chances of attracting Jewish children from public schools.

The Rebibos nevertheless moved their family of four children from Memphis to Phoenix (where a fifth child would be born) to give it a try, armed only with their bitachon and determination. Remarkably, over 50 children, ranging from kindergarten through seventh grade, were registered when Phoenix Hebrew Academy opened its doors in 1965 in what had been a private house. Within just a few years, Rabbi Rebibo established the Phoenix Vaad HaKashruth, started Beth Joseph Congregation, and built a mikveh. Today, there are more than half a dozen shuls in Phoenix and environs, six kosher restaurants, and multiple mikvaos.

My wife and I were briefly in Phoenix a month ago, and it is nearly impossible to believe what has grown from such humble beginnings in the span of less than 60 years. We toured one beautiful shul in Phoenix and another in nearby Scottsdale, and had dinner in a lovely restaurant owned by the former kiruv rabbi on the University of Arizona campus. None of these existed when I was last in Phoenix about 15 years ago. There is also now a girls’ Torah high school and a mesivta for boys.

It would be easy to forget — but a serious mistake — that one man created the infrastructure that today makes it possible for Phoenix, America’s fifth-largest city, to attract Orthodox Jews from all over America. Or the qualities that made it possible for him to do so — above all, an overwhelming love of Torah and every Jew. The latter encompasses a nonjudgmental nature that allowed him to see the potential in each Jew.

The following story captures that ahavas Yisrael, and its impact. (It has been previously written up in South Africa’s Jewish Life by Rabbi Dr. David Fox, who is married to the Rebibos’ only daughter, Debbie Fox, the founder and director of Magen Yeladim International Child Safety Institute, and creator of the Safety Kid program.)

In their early days in Phoenix, the Rebibos used to pack the whole family into a car and drive to Tucson for a proper davening for Rosh Hashanah. Along the way, Rabbi Rebibo would stop at state penitentiary to ascertain whether there were any Jews imprisoned whom he might lift up before the New Year. On one such trip, he ended up at a federal penitentiary instead by mistake. But as usual, he inquired of the warden as to whether there were any Jewish inmates. There was one being held prior to trial because he could not raise bail. He insisted that he was innocent.

Rabbi Rebibo offered to post bail, but the warden told him that at that point he could only do so through the federal prosecutor back in Phoenix. Rabbi Rebibo reached the prosecutor on the phone. He turned out to be Jewish, though nonobservant. And he told Rabbi Rebibo that all those pending bail claim to be innocent, and that were he to post bail, he would likely lose his money. Nevertheless, Rabbi Rebibo insisted on driving back to Phoenix with his family to post bail before proceeding on their journey. The prisoner was subsequently acquitted at trial, and eventually made aliyah.

Meanwhile, the federal prosecutor was so impressed by the degree of Rabbi Rebibo’s dedication on behalf of a fellow Jew that when his wife passed away at a young age, he came with his two sons to consult with Rabbi Rebibo about mourning practices, and they kept up a relationship for a number of years.

Over half a century later, Rabbi Rebibo received his payback. Rebbetzin Rebibo was in Shaare Zedek hospital for some tests. The line for one particular machine was long, and it appeared that she would have to remain in the hospital over Shabbos, which she very much did not want to do. While Rabbi Rebibo was involved in making arrangements for his wife, he received a call from his rabbinic successor in Phoenix, who was calling for a blessing. Rabbi Rebibo explained that he was too occupied to think clearly about an appropriate brachah, and explained the situation to his former assistant rabbi.

The latter had a congregant in his office as this conversation was taking place. That congregant remembered that Rabbi Rebibo had protektziya in Shaare Zedek about which he might not have known. One of the federal prosecutor’s sons had become observant and made aliyah, and he was now the chief of the surgery department at Shaare Zedek. Rabbi Rebibo was able to find him in his office, and he gladly arranged for Rebbetzin Rebibo to have the necessary test in time to return home for Shabbos, which was fast approaching.

What a life! I certainly hope that my friend Joel Rebibo, a senior editor at Hamodia and a talented writer, who served as his father’s assistant in Phoenix for six years, takes my advice and tells the story at book length.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1017. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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