Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter is no stranger to pain and challenges, but life’s difficulties have never dampened his primal, internal joy
Photos: Mishpacha archives
This is an article I wanted to write for 25 years, way before I heard of Microsoft Word, and my only exposure to Mishpacha was the Hebrew magazine you could read for free if you also bought knishes and ate them on site at the tiny bakery on Rechov Ashtori Haparchi, near the yeshivah of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik.
It’s a story that formed in a span of two hours, when, as a 20-year-old bochur, I got to sit in a large room with light brown tiles that felt like a million flights up in a building on the corner of a Jerusalem street that you would never find if you weren’t looking for it — and even if you were, it would take work.
I know it’s a thing for people to boast about having known popular gedolim before they were famous (“I used to walk right in/drive him/sit there for hours”), but in this case, it wouldn’t be accurate. Because people knew, even if there wasn’t yet a formal gabbai or appointment system.
There was a makeshift waiting room, some plastic Keter chairs in an entranceway, assorted family members — some of them hampered by emotional and physical delays — passing through and occasionally trying to discourage the people from waiting around.
But it never worked. People came because they’d heard the name of this “poshute Yid from Yerushalayim,” as he refers to himself, and wanted his brachos, his advice, to be connected with a man who seems to live in a current of electricity.
I knew of him because back in America, his sefer — it was called Leket Amarim — was passed around the yeshivah. It was different from the mussar classics on the shelves, even as it spoke of the very same Creator, and there was even something mildly contraband about it. But that wasn’t its appeal — it was more the way the author took ups and downs, struggles and obstacles, and fused them with Torah from the Gaon and the Chofetz Chaim and the Sfas Emes, and at 18, who doesn’t need to hear that? Whose soul isn’t silently crying for the message that the bad days are really good, the dark days have light, and the fight is what matters most?
I got inside, and the tzaddik — he looked like he was about 40 years old, with jet-black hair and beard and an unlined face, though now I know he was in his mid-sixties — took my hand.
I didn’t know much about Breslov, but you had the sense that this Yid with the large white yarmulke wasn’t there to bring you into his world, but quite the opposite — he’d take you on your terms and show you how right there, wherever you were, was where you were meant to be, to play your part in your story, not in someone else’s.
After answering my questions and offering brachos, he learned that I was from Montreal, and told me he had to get a package to Canada, so it was perfect: I was returning home for Pesach a few days later, and he got up and rummaged around for a set of tapes he was sending to a friend in Toronto. I didn’t bother running through the geography, but happily accepted the shlichus. He couldn’t find the tapes, and asked me to wait while someone brought them to the apartment.
I said sure, and instead of sending me out of the room, he let me sit there, at the table, while we waited.
He was a gracious host. He told me about the pictures on his wall — Rav Shmuel Shapira, walking in the streets of Meah Shearim with his eyes shut tight.
He trembled as he discussed man’s ability to completely rise above his surroundings, to “lach zich ois,” to laugh off the apparent actuality of this world and instead to see a different, truer reality.
And it’s this idea that would become his brand, his message, his appeal: from Breslover chassidim to roshei yeshivah to Litvaks to kano’im, his home became a magnet for all types of Jews in need of blessing or advice.
Because Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter isn’t just aware of Heaven, but connected to Heaven at every instant. Sit there and look at his eyes, which — even as they take in so many tzaros, shed tears for another Jew, flash with empathy and love — are focused elsewhere. Study his motions, the way he seems aware of another Presence besides you at all times. And hear his plea — to thank Hashem, to live with that gratitude, to see the constant flow of chesed and bounty.
In that humble apartment on Rechov Spitzer, where one could still touch the poverty and hardship, where unwell family members circulated, where suffering appeared the reality, he taught differently: There is only Hashem’s will, and Hashem does only good, and so it’s always good for the person who’s plugged in. The youthful face, the energy, the smile of delight, were what drew the people — a nation believing, but not always feeling to realize just how good it all really is.
Simchah in Tears
You could always find him around Meah Shearim. He was a frequent mohel, so you could approach after a bris, and in those days, he still davened in the kloiz, the central Breslov shul at the end of Rechov Meah Shearim.
The years passed and Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter’s reputation spread past the web of stairwells on Rechov Spitzer. Those steps… 87 steps, seven flights, from the ground to his apartment. He would walk those steps several times a day, sometimes carrying a handicapped child. Of course, there was no elevator.
But Rav Yaakov Meir loved those steps. “Imagine,” he once remarked, “how could someone like me, with so little money, have ever dreamed of living so close to the shul? Only because the builder made this apartment at the top of the steps, and others didn’t want it, so he had to sell it for less money. These steps, these wonderful steps, they gave me my beautiful apartment close to the heilige shul…I owe these steps so much…”
In time, about 15 years ago, he moved to an apartment deeper in Meah Shearim, more conducive to receiving chassidim, on Rechov Chevras Shas. Then he moved again, to his current apartment, at the top of the highest building in the adjoining Beis Yisrael neighborhood, where his porch affords him a clear view of the Makom Hamikdash and where he spends hours each day in hisbodedus.
And yet, he’s still available.
Still, it isn’t as easy as it once was. He doesn’t circulate much beyond the apartment and kehillah attached to it, but visitors who want to get in can call the gabbai and be given an appointment.
And now, inside the room, that incredible light, the near-tangible cloud of his dveikus, is the same as it always was. Greater, even, for its been two more decades of uninterrupted connection, of serving not as the end of the path but as the beginning, a doorway welcoming you to form your own connection.
In recent years, the theme has been all-encompassing gratitude — focusing on brachos, on seeing the Presence of Hashem, on taking an extra minute after Shemoneh Esreh to simply feel overwhelmed by thanks. There is no bad, ever.
The simchah is constant. But if you hear a brokenness, heartache, the slight cry of anguish that sometimes escapes — that’s teshuvah, for he lives in a state of repentance. It isn’t complaint and it isn’t suffering, it’s love.
One year I spent Purim afternoon in the apartment on Rechov Spitzer. There wasn’t a huge crowd and the door was wide open. Rav Yaakov Meir sang the same song, again and again. A Seret-Vizhnitzer niggun composed by Rav Chaim Banet, from Tehillim 41: “Ani amarti Hashem chaneini.” When he reached the high part, “Refaah nafshi ki chatasi lach — Heal my soul for I have sinned against You,” he wept and held his heart with shaking hands, as if physically locating the sins and wiping them away.
Then he shared a vort from the Rebbe.
The Rebbe, of course, is the Rebbe with whom he was raised, the Rebbe whose teachings his fathers and teachers brought to Jerusalem 150 years after the Rebbe was gone, the Torah still as warm as when it had first been transmitted in Zlatopol or Breslov or Uman, passed down with love and reverence and no small degree of self-sacrifice.
“Bechiah — weeping,” Rav Yaakov Meir said in name of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “is the roshei teivos of b’shimcha yegilun kol hayom — In Your Name they will rejoice all the day.”
It was quite a sight — the Jerusalem sky darkening in the window of the apartment while a man in a gold beketshe sits at a tear-drenched table, crying, and so b’simchah.
Those close to him offer yet another layer of depth to the insight. Until three years ago, Rav Yaakov Meir presided over the Rosh Hashanah kibbutz at the main shul in Meah Shearim — the moments before he raised the shofar to his lips were among the most exalted of the year. He would call out the pesukim, lifting the people along with the shofar blasts, ending with the triumphant Breslover notes of Ashrei ha’am yodei seruah.
And in the middle of the holy pesukim one year, someone entered the packed shul and approached the bimah. He tapped Rav Yaakov Meir and told him he was needed at home.
Rav Yaakov Meir lowered the shofar and slipped out of shul.
There was a commotion in the house: His wife wasn’t feeling well and the children, though no longer young but still incapable of caring for themselves, needed to be cleaned, soothed, fed, helped.
Tatte came home and took care of them, enveloping these people HaKadosh Baruch Hu had given him to care for with love. Then he returned to shul. He walked back to the bimah, his face as serene and radiant as when he’d left, and continued the pesukim.
B’shimcha yegilun kol hayom. All the day. In every situation, at every moment.
Raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rav Yaakov Meir’s family was exiled after the war in 1948, when Jordan took control of the area. His father, Rav Dovid Shechter, a pillar of the Breslover chaburah, was incarcerated in a Jordanian prison camp for many long months. Hot, starving, deprived of basic needs, Reb Dovid made it his mission to help as many people as possible. As he was being separated from his family, his wife, Chaya Dinah, had quickly sewn their savings, 18 lirot, into the hem of his coat — and those coins would save lives again and again, as he befriended Jordanian guards, using bribery and personal charm. Reb Dovid spent those months finding ways to obtain precious food and medicine for others less capable or fortunate than he.
His teenage son, Yaakov Meir, was known during those years of privation for the way he stood in the field with an open Gemara, learning by the light of the moon, since there was no other source of light during those long nights of curfew.
There was no Breslov yeshivah back then. Rav Yaakov Meir was a talmid of Slonim, where he became a chavrusa and close friend of the rosh yeshivah, later the Rebbe — Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky, known as the Nesivos Shalom.
As a young married man, Rav Yaakov Meir was part of the World Association of Breslov Chassidim, the official body charged with guarding, and eventually reclaiming, the kever of Rebbe Nachman in Uman. This public venture brought Rav Yaakov Meir out of his solitude, forcing him to raise money, to advocate, and attend meetings.
And yet, even once the Iron Curtain fell and Uman became accessible, Rav Yaakov Meir did not join the mass pilgrimage on Rosh Hashanah, opting instead to stay behind and lead the kibbutz at the kloiz in Meah Shearim.
No one is quite sure why he didn’t travel to Uman, but some insiders attribute it to a request made by Rav Levi Yitzchok Bender, who asked Rav Yaakov Meir to see to it that the Rebbe would have a kibbutz in Jerusalem as well.
Over a 30-year period, Rav Yaakov Meir left Eretz Yisrael just once, traveling to Uman midyear and finally encountering the site that was the object of so much yearning.
Three years ago, everything changed. Just as no one is sure why he didn’t go, no one can point to the reason for the shift, but the news rocketed through the Breslov community that he would be joining the Uman kibbutz for Rosh Hashanah.
This year, on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780, Rav Yaakov Meir made his third visit to Uman. Today, a large campus has been built near the tziyun, called Kiryah Ne’emanah, which also houses Rav Yaakov Meir’s massive beis medrash, Keren Ohr, with room for thousands of people. Like a blanket of longing, the chassidim spread themselves out around the revered mashpia as he sat in the tziyun, weeping the tears of a long-exiled chassid before his rebbe while reciting the Tikkun Klali, the special ten chapters of Tehillim recommended by the Rebbe.
In Breslov, there is a great wariness of “mefursamim” — tzaddikim gone public. There is the Rebbe — Rebbe Nachman — and he serves as the tzaddik. Rav Yaakov Meir, worried about this, is eager to be a chassid among chassidim, refusing titles or open displays of honor.
In a letter he wrote to a close friend, Rav Yaakov Meir took the unusual step of sharing some of his difficulties. “You, my dear friend, know that tirdos aren’t anything new to me — I have cooked and cleaned and tended to the health challenges of my family… but lately, a true difficulty has arrived in that I’ve become a “mefursam shel sheker” and there are new demands on my time, on my peace of mind….”
So why? Why did he make the decision to go beyond the narrow alleys between his home and the mekubalim yeshivah Shaar HaShamayim where he teaches Torah, and open his doors to the public?
No Triumph as Sweet
Rav Yaakov Meir, a product of the kloiz, a child raised at the end of a table listening to elders speak, first in Katamon, then in Meah Shearim, absorbed much from the earlier generation of Breslov mashpi’im — Rav Avromele Sternhartz, Rav Shmuel Shapira, Rav Levi Yitzchok Bender, and others. Inspired by those burning with Breslover fire, Rav Yaakov Meir felt compelled to share it as well.
All around him, he saw bochurim misusing their energies — some wasting their time on the futility of this world, others lost to extreme zealousness, which was equally unproductive.
And so he developed a system, the golden means, which is based on his mesorah going back to Rebbe Nachman. In his own words, the goal is to be “tzu G-tt un tzu leit,” pleasing to the Creator and to other people as well.
In his kehillah, which includes a third and even a fourth generation, all Jews are welcomed and respected, this despite the fact that he won’t accept any sort of government funding and won’t associate with the formal State of Israel. But it really makes no difference, because that’s just a shitah, while ahavas Yisrael, cherishing and honoring each and every Jew, is the goal. The ideology can never dull the luster of a Yiddishe neshamah — when you’re in front of him, you’re like his child.
He offers brachos. And in some situations, he’ll offer very practical advice.
“Turn the heat up in the room, because if it’s cold, it’s very hard to get out of bed,” I once heard him suggest to a mother whose teenage son wasn’t getting up for Shacharis.
Other times, he will withdraw into a world he inhabits alone, and he might study the forehead, and lift the palm of the person sitting before him. “Don’t worry, you will have children, several children,” he remarked to a young man worried about the future, gently letting his visitor’s hand drop.
An older single gentleman wanted a brachah for a shidduch. Rav Yaakov Meir thought for a moment, then informed him that he carried the name of an ancestor who’d been engaged to a girl, but then broke the shidduch. The jilted kallah had never forgiven that zeide, and that was holding this descendant back. Rav Yaakov Meir told his visitor how to go about achieving a tikkun so he could move past this obstacle.
And if there is one central message to everything he teaches, it is this: The struggle is the goal. The yetzer hara was also created by the Source of Good, and its pull is what makes us human. Fighting the yetzer hara is the point of living. And triumphing over it? There is no sensation quite as sweet….
This central lesson is the corollary to his constant theme of seeing good and being thankful.
There is only chesed. The nefilos, the falls, are chasadim. The menios, the obstacles, are also chasadim. There is only the flow of His love, every second. Not only that, but those who stumble are climbing and those falling are fighting.
One year at the Purim seudah he called out, “Do you know what the problem was with Amalek? Do you know the real taineh on Amalek?”
Rav Yaakov Meir quoted the pasuk, “Vayezaneiv becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha — He cut off all the stragglers at your rear.” And then he looked around the room. “Ich vehl aich dertzeilen, I will tell you…
“Amalek ‘cut off’ — meaning, he mocked and disdained the ‘stragglers,’ he didn’t see the glory of the noshrim, the shababnikim, the ones off the derech and at risk. He didn’t see who they really were. He didn’t see the beauty of a Yiddishe neshamah.”
Keep It Simple
Rav Yaakov Meir is a big proponent of reciting a hundred brachos every day. He’s even written a sefer to that effect, called Hamevorach Yisbarach, and it’s this sefer that he gives to bar mitzvah bochurim. (Chazal tell us this was the solution Dovid Hamelech used to stop a spreading plague, perceiving that the flow of life is connected to reciting brachos.)
Recently, Rav Yaakov Meir confided to an American visitor that it’s simply impossible for him to see a reality other than HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s constant goodness and protection, and the brachos are just an opportunity to articulate that. As one point, Rav Yaakov Meir’s cardiologist happened to be visiting Meah Shearim and decided to come visit his distinguished patient while in the neighborhood.
The professor was welcomed with great respect, and sat down to speak with Rav Yaakov Meir. At that very moment, Rav Yaakov Meir suddenly felt very weak and he couldn’t talk. The doctor immediately took his pulse and realized his host was having a heart attack right then and there. He acted quickly, sending him to the hospital for a procedure that saved Rav Yaakov Meir’s life.
“In that story, you can see it clearly, but in truth, this is the metzius of every moment, every breath, whether or not we can see it,” he says.
Rav Yaakov Meir, man of such personal suffering, a father of unwell children and grandchildren, and one who has buried more than one child, smiles and waves his hands in the air, like a child at a surprise birthday party, overwhelmed by delight and unable to speak.
Temimus, he says, we have to go b’temimus, simple and straightforward, not to be too sophisticated. He often quotes one of the great influences on his life, Reb Avromele — Rav Avraham Sternhartz, a great-grandson of Rav Nosson of Breslov — a torchbearer of Breslov who arrived in Yerushalayim in 1936, carrying the Torah, stories, and traditions of the Rebbe, and until his petirah in 1955, he was a fountain of leadership and light to younger chassidim.
Reb Avromele, Rav Yaakov Meir recalls, would thank Hashem at the end of the day, after Maariv. He would praise his Master, listing the various kindnesses he’d observed and those he hadn’t even seen, and then start beseeching HaKadosh Baruch Hu for the future.
“Please, Hashem, allow me to wake up tonight on time for Tikkun Chatzos, let me not be late, and let me feel strong. HaKadosh Baruch Hu, allow me to say Modeh Ani with true kavanah, to experience the joy of gratitude and to wash negel vasser and feel the purity….”
That’s the call of Rav Yaakov Meir, and you can see it in the warmth that floods his features, the way he rises with the music to dance, arms raised to allow the flow of joy within him to go outward — and always, always, the way he seems to be perfectly aware of the Shechinah, remaining humbled before the Creator Whose presence he senses at every second.
Temimus and dveikus, perfect faith and perfect connection, simple joy and simple hope.
The light he reflects that comes from somewhere well beyond him, the light of a different world that he has somehow managed to bring here, with him, into hearts and into homes.
How to explain it?
Perhaps the best way is to use his own words, a vort he likes to repeat in the name of the Chasam Sofer.
Rav said to his uncle, Rav Chiya, “I did not see Rabi Yehudah Hanasi accept the kingship of Heaven upon himself,” meaning he did not see him recite Krias Shema. Rav Chiya said, “When Rabi Yehudah Hanasi passed his hands over his face, he accepted the ol malchus Shamayim upon himself.” (Berachos 13b)
Rav was asking his uncle a question: Rabbeinu Hakadosh, whose dveikus was perpetual, why was it necessary for him to “accept” the kingship of Heaven if he was always there? How can someone receive that which he already has?
The answer was that Rabi Yehudah Hanasi would “pass his hands over his face” — he would cover his face before the clarity of his awareness of Shamayim for just a moment, allowing himself into the world of hester, of concealment. In that instant, he seized the opportunity to be mekabel ol malchus Shamayim once again.
It’s a vort, right? A beautiful thought to say over.
But it’s more than that: It’s a peek into the world of this Yid, who lives a few blocks from stores that sell freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and make olive-wood penholders, who meets people from that world all day, yet soars so high. But really, he doesn’t come down to meet them, not at all.
Instead, he extends a hand and lifts them up as well, so that they too might touch eternity. And maybe, for an instant, they too will feel the gratitude and thanks. Maybe they too will merit saying, with perfect clarity, Modeh ani lifanecha.
JUST OPEN YOUR EYES
In addition to being a spiritual mentor and guide for the many who flock to him for life guidance, Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter is a magnet for youth as well. While he’s no longer young, he has his finger on the pulse of a struggling generation. Some questions and answers to help navigate the challenges
Every parent davens that his children will be refined and pure. While there are no guarantees, what can parents do to increase the chances of success?
One thing we can do is to emphasize the sweetness of avodas Hashem, and make sure the actions are actually connected to HaKkadosh Baoruch Hu. When you do a mitzvah, you have to know for Whom you are doing it. When you sit down to learn, Whose Torah are you learning? When you stand in tefillah, Whom do you encounter? It has to be real and feel real: Hashem has to be the reality. Talk to your children about Hashgachah pPratis, remind them again and again that HaKkadosh Baruch Hu watches over each and every one of us, always, working wonders on our behalf.
How can parents transmit a tangible emunah at home?
By sharing stories, talking about Yidden who merited salvation, who experienced miracles. They can be personal stories too, not only from generations past. The world is full of wonder — – just look around and open your eyes: everything that happens to a person has the spark of Hashgachah pPratis. Hashem’s care and love for us can be seen in every encounter, if we look for it.
How can we inspire children growing up in a cynical, me-centered generation?
Through sharing stories of tzaddikim and their struggles. We need to stress that gedolim toiled and worked to reach greatness — – no one was born a gadol b’Yisrael, and nothing of value comes easy. Hashem just wants us to try, to do ours. It’s crucial to teach children to be kind, to give others the benefit of the doubt, to cultivate the middah of being able to wish well for others, to be happy in the good fortune of others. If they learn to be happy for others irrespective of their own challenges, to be able to rejoice in the happiness of their friends, they will draw blessings upon themselves as well.
Is it realistic to expect a person to rise above personal trials and hardships?
Yes, by remembering that everything comes from Shamayim. Even when you face a challenge, it was chosen for you from Shamayim, tailor-made just for you and that’s the will of Hashem. Why? What for? Nish mein gesheft — that’s not my business. I don’t have to understand why HaKadosh Baruch Hu does one thing or another. What I need to know is what Hashem wants from me in that challenging situation.
If a person has fallen and failed, what can he do to lift himself up again?
The yetzer hara has a strategy — – he likes to shlep people down with the memory of their misdeeds. But when that happens, a person needs to judge himself kindly, to sift through his personality to find good qualities, or reasons why he isn’t as guilty or horrible as he might think. Hashem loves him wherever he is, and even from that dark place he can continue to serve Hashem. Ein ha’adam metzuveh shelo yihiyeh lo yetzer hara — — it’s not an aveirah to feel temptation. The yetzer hara breaks a person, that’s its function. Hashem wants you to have a yetzer hara, and struggle with it. Don’t fall into despair because the yetzer planted ideas or temptation in your mind and heart. The yetzer was created for a holy purpose — that we overcome it. By triumphing over it, we’re choosing our G-dly soul and giving nachas ruach in Shamayim.
— Aryeh Ehrlich
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 806)
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