We Knew He Cared| September 9, 2020
Rabbi Shlomo Gissinger used halachic authority with genuine warmth and love
Photos: The Lakewood Shopper
Although young, my husband was honored to be a confidant of the world-class posek, who occasionally called him for advice on handling complicated sh’eilos. Only at the levayah did my husband learn the truth — Rabbi Gissinger made a habit of building up the confidence of a new generation of rabbanim, and went out of his way to be mechazek them by feigning a need for their suggestions.
Rabbi Gissinger, whose first yahrtzeit fell on Tuesday, 12 Elul, radiated so much love to all he met that everyone was convinced that they had a uniquely close relationship with him.
“I really got in trouble during the shivah,” says the Rav’s son, Binyomin Gissinger of Lakewood. As I sit with him and his mother in her home as they prepare for the gala hachnassas sefer Torah being held on the first yahrtzeit, where Rebbetzin Gissinger shares memories of her esteemed late husband, he reads off text after text he received in the days after his father’s petirah. “Guys would say, ‘You know how close I was to him.’ ” They’d insist that their relationship with the Rav had been special, something really out of the ordinary. But despite his diplomatic equivocation, Reb Binyomin knew the truth — there were hundreds, if not thousands, who were equally sure that Rabbi Gissinger loved them more.
It wasn’t an act. The Rav with the radiant face, the leader of hundreds of congregants, the expert whose opinions in kashrus and medical halachah were sought by talmidei chachamim around the world, loved every single Jew deeply and unconditionally.
In the Gissinger dining room on Sunset Road, the walls are a cheerful, homey gold and 16 chairs flank a dining room table that looks to be about half the length of a football field. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the gentle smiles of Rav Avrohom Pam and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and the grandfatherly visage of the Chofetz Chaim gazing down from the walls speak volumes about the character of the giant who lived here.
Shlomo Gissinger of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was born in 1944 to a family whose values imbued him with the capacity for greatness. His father, a tailor, spent months being fired weekly for refusing to work on Shabbos. Eventually, his principled stand won the admiration of an Italian factory foreman, who opened the production floor each Sunday for Mr. Gissinger to make up his Saturday quota.
As a bochur in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Shlomo found his rebbi for life in Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. It was Rav Yaakov who sent Shlomo to Lakewood, predicting that the bochur would thrive in Beth Medrash Govoha, then comprising just 129 yungeleit under the leadership of Rav Shneur Kotler.
And like the chassidic tale of the man who travels in search of a treasure, only to find it buried in his own backyard, it was in Lakewood that the budding talmid chacham learned of a girl from Brighton Beach named Merril Gold.
The shidduch came about through a happy accident. Merril’s twin sister, Mashie, and brother-in-law, Chaninah Posner, extended a Shabbos invitation to a bochur they thought might be a good match for Merril. Not wanting the boy to feel awkward, they invited a friend to come along with him. It was the afterthought, Shlomo Gissinger, who caught the Posners’ eye.
“Whenever the conversation became heated, he smoothed things over,” recalls Rebbetzin Gissinger. Although possessed of a formidable intellect himself, even as a young man, Rabbi Gissinger’s concern for others was what set him apart.
All her life, the kallah had davened for one thing: “Shivti b’veis Hashem kol yemei chayai.” With her marriage to Shlomo Gissinger, her dream became a reality. The young couple made their home in Lakewood, where the kallah taught for 15 years in the local Betzalel Hebrew Day School, allowing Reb Shlomo to learn undisturbed in BMG’s kollel.
Aside from the regular yeshivah limudim, he also began to delve into topics that were somewhat off the beaten track, with a thoroughness and expertise that belied his years. The subject of tolaim was something of a meis mitzvah in those years, with few people aware of the seriousness, and prevalence, of the issue. With his rebbi, Rav Yaakov’s, encouragement, Rabbi Gissinger began to spread the word about this underestimated prohibition.
“My father was the trailblazing rabbi trying to convince the world that eating unchecked lettuce was worse than eating chazir,” remembers his son Reb Binyomin, who recalls putting heads of lettuce through their washing machine’s spin cycle in order to analyze the effectiveness of various cleaning methods.
Undaunted by communal skepticism, Rabbi Gissinger spoke out about the gravity of eating insects, and the multiple issurim each bug represented. Together with Rabbis Yitzchok Sokol and Pinchos Bodner, he produced a video on the topic and presented workshops in schools. In time, he became the rav hamachshir of the nascent Bodek, and galvanized others, including Rav Moshe Vaye of Israel, to champion the cause as well.
In pre-Internet days, how did a sheltered kollel yungerman become an expert in thrips, aphids, and obscure details like their pedicel antenna structure?
Rabbi Gissinger put in hours at the public library, often without taking notes, committing vast amounts of scientific literature to memory. This academic proficiency would become useful later in life as well, as he became known as the address for complex medical sh’eilos across a broad range of specialties.
But it wasn’t the technical knowledge that caused people to seek him out — that came later.
“It was the chesed in his heart,” says Rebebtzin Gissinger simply.
The Gissingers had barely been married five years when people began to approach Rabbi Gissinger for help.
He had no official position at the time, and was in a city where talmidei chachamim abounded, but his approachability and eagerness to help stood out. People brought him sh’eilos for psak and sought advice. And even when the topic was beyond his pay grade, Rabbi Gissinger never blinked — he just added another area to his expertise.
Rebbetzin Gissinger still remembers her husband’s first major breakthrough in helping a friend with a medical crisis. After sifting through piles of medical books for hours, he placed a call to the hard-to-reach Italian specialist. He introduced himself confidently, and when the doctor miraculously came on the line, he held his own in a complex discussion filled with medical jargon. “Yes, Dr. Gissinger,” the foreign expert finally said, “I think I can help you.”
It would not be the last time the self-taught medical halachah expert would be mistaken for a doctor; sometimes his contacts wanted to know where his medical degree was from.
Once, Dr. Jerome Check, an infertility specialist he often consulted, went away for vacation. Rabbi Gissinger asked him, “Who will I ask my questions to when you are out?” Dr. Check laughed: “Rabbi, you know more than all my nurses and technicians combined.”
With his inimitable combination of scientific expertise and simple, approachable warmth, he made friends in the halls of hospitals everywhere, and countless lives were saved and babies born because of Rabbi Gissinger’s uncanny ability to forge alliances with doctors from every hospital and branch of medicine.
It was more than his vast medical knowledge that impressed the doctors he interacted with, though. When they saw his total devotion and concern to every patient he assisted, they were inspired to give their all to the rabbi’s charges, too. Dr. Check often discounted his services for Rabbi Gissinger’s cases; in one instance, when a couple couldn’t pay even the reduced fee of several thousand dollars, he wrote a check from his own pocket to cover the balance.
They saw that he cared.
Room for All
People had already been beating a path to Rabbi Gissinger’s door for years by the time he opened a formal shul. Khal Zichron Yaakov, named after his rebbi muvhak, began in 1987 as a small minyan in the Gissingers’ basement. “South of the Lake,” it was then the farthest outpost of frum civilization, but is today near the heart of a bustling Torah metropolis.
As rav of a thriving kehillah, Rabbi Gissinger now had a formal venue to be marbitz Torah, but his humility and love for the smallest and the simplest remained unchanged. In his bent-down brim and short jacket, Rabbi Gissinger blew kisses to the children at Avos U’banim, didn’t hesitate to stand on a chair to lead the singing, and thought nothing of placing his foot in the garbage can to press down the overflowing mass of paper towels.
Now with an official kehillah, the lines of people waiting to discuss halachah sh’eilos, shalom bayis, chinuch, or medical concerns continued to grow. At hours that others were retiring for the night, Rabbi Gissinger was just getting started. As anxious petitioners and urgent phone calls vied for the Rav’s attention, and waiting visitors dozed on the living room couches, the Rebbetzin would warm his food, then rewarm it… and rewarm it again. As the years passed, she learned that she couldn’t just leave the food by the microwave and go to sleep; she’d wake up to find it untouched, unless she personally sat up to ensure he had a bite to keep body and soul together.
One Motzaei Shabbos, he had no official receiving hours, so the crowds thinned by about one, remembers Rebbetzin Gissinger. Seeing the house quiet down, she urged her husband to have Melaveh Malkah and turn in. “I can’t!” he protested, “I still have eight people coming.” Sure enough, at 1 a.m., eight family members of a seriously ill patient crowded in to spend two hours discussing their relative’s case with the one person they could trust to give them the time and understanding the sensitive case required.
Though the family joked about the disorder of the Rav’s filing system, his love for his seforim, combined with his love for the people seeking his advice, gave him an uncanny ability to find exactly what he needed.
Once, a woman asked a sh’eilah and got a strict ruling that left her in tears. Concerned that the circumstances surrounding the sh’eilah hadn’t been properly explained, a friend urged her to present it to Rabbi Gissinger. The Rav listened in his usual intent way, then assured her that her concern was unfounded. Seeing her surprise and uncertainty, Rabbi Gissinger sprang to his feet, excitedly telling her that he even had the handwritten psak of Rav Moshe on that very question. He climbed on a chair, reached above a bookcase, and took down a single folded paper in Rav Moshe’s handwriting. It was one piece of paper in a library of thousands of seforim, that had likely not been touched in decades, but in the face of one woman’s anguish he laid hands on it at a moment’s notice.
Money, prestige, and influence were not the currency of Rabbi Gissinger’s humble home office; he championed the cause of the downtrodden and the forgotten. In all his endeavors, Rebbetzin Gissinger was a steadfast support at his side, cooking the food he’d carefully feed to hospitalized patients, accompanying him to avoid yichud problems, redting shidduchim, welcoming guests at the strangest hours.
I lose count of the number of times the Rebbetzin refers to “one of the boys who lived here for a while.” When I press her for a number, it seems clear that she’s lost count, too. More, it doesn’t really matter, because in their humility, fostering dozens of young people didn’t strike the Gissingers as a noteworthy accomplishment.
Reb Binyomin tells the story of the family’s first adoptee. He was in fourth grade, and a classmate from abroad was having a hard time adjusting to the home he was boarding in, so Binyomin begged his parents to take the friend in. “I would never do that if one of my kids asked,” he says, the disbelief palpable. But somehow, the ten-year-old knew that to his parents, it would be the most normal thing in the world, like some kids asking their parents for a new pair of shoes.
Lost or searching young people knew they always had a listening ear and warm bed at the Gissinger home; even in the throes of his final illness, Rabbi Gissinger was seen bounding up the stairs to check if the guest room was ready for a last-minute guest. (It was; Rebbetzin Gissinger had long ago learned to always keep it ready, since she never knew who would show up or how long they’d stay.)
Rabbi Gissinger never rested until every student in Lakewood’s crowded system had a school to attend. When one school insisted they simply had no more space, Rabbi Gissinger personally showed up and counted the desks, pointing out, in his usual warm and gentle way, exactly where they could fit one more desk.
Another time, he visited a school administrator’s office on Erev Yom Kippur, assuring the man he was prepared to stay all day, if need be, until the school agreed to accept the child — he’d already told his kehillah not to wait for him for Kol Nidrei.
The Gissinger family still receives messages that their father has gotten more children into school. “One principal told me, ‘Your father got another boy in. I thought, what would Rabbi Gissinger tell me if he was alive? So I took him,’” relates Reb Binyomin.
His influence extends beyond the grave, because they knew he cared.
Chinuch with Love
The weight of the community’s problems and individuals’ sorrows lay heavily on his shoulders, but behind the fine beard, Rabbi Gissinger’s face was remarkably unlined and youthful until the end.
Possessed of a naturally upbeat disposition, the pain he was privy to on a daily basis rarely got him down for long, say his wife and son. His simchah was contagious, and though he would grieve along with his broken visitors, his natural resilience would quickly reassert itself.
Perhaps this is why despite the long hours and the selfless giving, the Gissinger children never felt resentful of the innumerable hours their father devoted to the klal. They were aware of some of life’s grimmer realities from a relatively young age, and often participated in their father’s missions of mercy, but the house was a joyous place to be.
Despite being a father to everyone who sought him out, Rabbi Gissinger did not shirk his actual paternal role.
His affection didn’t take the form of leisurely outings and hours playing board games, but the four Gissinger kids knew that they were always their father’s priority. “You never saw such a devoted father,” says Rebbetzin Gissinger. He would think nothing of traveling to Monsey, where a son was in mesivta, and sleeping there overnight in order to help him prepare for finals. The man who would never take a trip without his phone and a pile of notes and medical records would turn off his cell phone and escape to a park with his daughter so that they wouldn’t be interrupted as he helped her study.
Even when walking was difficult, he would show up on a Sunday morning with a cookie he’d saved for a grandchild from a bris, and with a kind word and his brilliant smile. Despite the myriad demands on his time, he never lost focus on making sure his family felt his love.
His chinuch, whether at home or among the community, was always delivered with love and respect. When something needed to be said, the Gissinger children remember their father leaving notes for them, usually with a maamar chazal and an uplifting message. Always, his chinuch focused on the child’s strengths and potential, and was never critical or demeaning.
Leaving shul after Kiddush Levanah on what would turn out to be the final Motzaei Shabbos of his life, Rabbi Gissinger was approached by a father and his pre-teen son, who had a question about the latter’s mode of dress. Was it acceptable to leave more than one button open at the top of his shirt? Without missing a beat, Rabbi Gissinger answered, “Such a good boy like you, of course if you’re hot and sweaty after playing sports, you should leave it open — leave them all open! But a ben Torah like you, on your level, probably in general the proper thing to do would be to leave just one open.”
A chinuch that uplifted… because he cared.
He Cherished Them All
When Rabbi Gissinger passed away unexpectedly a few months after taking ill, at the relatively young age of 75, he left behind a wide range of mourners.
Thousands lined the streets of Lakewood on a Friday morning, and 60,000 more from around the world listened in on a livestream.
Who were the people who felt a void after his passing?
Torah-true working men who appreciated his wholesome, balanced view of Yiddishkeit.
The black colleague of one of the Gissinger sons, who kept a photo of “his rabbi” on the mantel in his living room.
Bnei Torah with long beards.
The brown-skinned tailor who was overwhelmed when the rav not only shook his hand but embraced him.
Seminary girls in Israel.
Doctors from area hospitals, who wept openly at the news of “their rabbi’s” passing.
The dozens of baalei teshuvah whose journeys began around the Gissinger Shabbos table.
The struggling teens who smoked on the shores of Lakewood’s lake on Shabbos.
The hundreds of mothers who’d despaired of ever attaining that title.
To have met him was to have been touched by him.
Because he cared.
Klal Yisrael’s Rav
By Avrohom Birnbam
He wasn’t my rav, but I’d been in his office several times to discuss knotty issues, questions I couldn’t discuss with anyone else. I’d seen the lines in his living room, people waiting to speak to him in the post-midnight hours. I’d seen other rabbanim, people who had come in from the West Coast and even Eretz Yisrael just to consult with him. I thought I knew him, but I was so wrong.
During the year since Rav Shlomo Gissinger’s passing, I’ve been on a journey: writing a book about his life and the people whom he helped. As I interviewed person after person, I realized just how little I knew. He’d hid his towering greatness under the guise of a helpful, local, Lakewood rav, while his influence spanned the whole Jewish world. He dedicated his life, giving away his privacy, his sleep, and even the time he could have spent learning to help others. When he opened a small shul in his basement in the mid-1980s, he certainly had no inkling that he would one day become Klal Yisrael’s rav.
The following are just a small sampling of excerpts from my upcoming book, to be published by ArtScroll and released in October/November 2020, entitled At Any Hour: HaRav Shlomo Gissinger. How one rav impacted individuals, families, and generations.
Ping Pong on Rosh Hashanah
That pretty much described Bruce’s* inner landscape. He was a young teenager who’d been living with his parents in the Modern Orthodox stronghold of West Orange, New Jersey until his parents turned his life upside down.
It began with a Shabbos visit at some rabbi’s home in Lakewood… which he didn’t join.
It continued with a relationship that was slowly bringing them closer and closer to a more enhanced level of Torah observance… to which he didn’t subscribe.
It culminated in a move to the ultra-Orthodox stronghold of Lakewood where his parents became members of Khal Zichron Yaakov… which he completely resented.
Bruce wanted nothing to do with his parents’ new adventure, but he couldn’t exactly venture off on his own.
Rosh Hashanah was approaching and the Gissingers invited the Abrams* to join them for the entire Yom Tov. Bruce had no choice but to sullenly accompany his parents, but he was not going to make it easy.
The long, serious davening was more than he had bargained for, and by the time the seudah was over, Bruce’s mood had plummeted even further. His parents were terrified that at the rate things were going they might lose this precious, sensitive neshamah to Yiddishkeit.
Bentshing was over, and the adults began leaving the table when Rabbi Gissinger addressed Bruce. “Bruce, perhaps you want to play a game of ping pong with me downstairs in the basement?”
Rosh Hashanah afternoon found the illustrious Rav Shlomo Gissinger playing a mean game of ping pong with Bruce before walking over to Kimball Medical Center to blow shofar for anyone who might need to hear it.
It was one game of ping pong, but Rav Gissinger captured Bruce’s heart. Slowly, their relationship developed, with Bruce seeing time and time again just how much the Rav understood him.
When Bruce married, the Rav was his mesader kiddushin, guiding him through the entire process. Bruce currently lives in Ramat Eshkol* in Yerushalayim, and all of his children attend yeshivos…thanks to a rav who understood that sometimes, the avodah of Rosh Hashanah afternoon is to play ping pong.
— excerpted from the upcoming ArtScroll/Mesorah biography
“He Was My Rabbi”
Reb Binyomin Rotbart manages a wedding hall. Alfredo*, originally from Columbia, was one of the waiters in the hall. Reb Binyomin often keeps in touch with his staff via WhatsApp, and after the Rav’s petirah, he saw that Alfredo had posted a picture of the Rav, surrounded by sad-faced emojis shedding tears!
A bit later, Reb Binyomin bumped into Alfredo and asked him, “Hey, Alfredo, teary eyed emojis? What did you have to do with my rabbi?”
“Your rabbi?” Alfredo blustered, “He was my rabbi! Whenever I was a waiter at an event in his synagogue he would come into the kitchen and try to help me. He was always so nice and helpful. We became friends. There were times when he would hire me to be a waiter at parties held in his own house. He always thanked me from the bottom of his heart. He was the nicest rabbi I knew. He was my rabbi!”
— excerpted from the upcoming ArtScroll/Mesorah biography
Construction of a new shul inevitably comes with a hefty price tag that generally requires fundraising.
Construction of the Rav’s new shul was underway, and Rav Gissinger knew they would need to raise money. The Rav approached Rav Yosef Abecasis. “Reb Yosef,” he asked, “perhaps you could recommend the names of some philanthropists who could help us?”
“Rebbi,” Reb Yosef replied, “we will easily be able to cover the cost of the entire shul in minutes if you just give me a list of all the people you have helped with advice, medical matters, fertility, kids at risk…. People owe their lives to you! They will certainly be more than glad to help complete your kehillah’s shul!”
The Rav’s answer shocked Reb Yosef.
“Reb Yosef,” he said with complete innocence, “I have no idea who I helped. I never take their names. I never write them down. Yes, many people who baruch Hashem have been blessed with children invite me to the bris or kiddush… and there are thousands, but I have no idea who they are. I don’t keep records. I don’t keep lists.”
— excerpted from the upcoming ArtScroll/Mesorah biography
Another Jew’s Pain
Rav Shlomo and his rebbetzin once went to an out-of-town community for a simchah. The baal simchah placed them with the Bernsteins*, a couple who’d been trying unsuccessfully for years to become parents. He was hoping that perhaps the Rav could help the couple.
It was the pre-cell phone era, and the phone rang again and again, with many people trying to reach Rav Gissinger. That evening, while the Rebbetzin was schmoozing with her hostess, Mrs. Bernstein asked, “What does your husband do that is so important? During the three hours that you’ve been staying here, I’ve fielded more phone calls than in all the three years that I’ve lived in this house!”
Over the course of their stay, it had become clear that the Bernsteins did not have children. Thus, the first thought to hit the Rebbetzin was, ‘This woman appears to be in her high thirties and does not seem to have children, I have to tread carefully when I answer.’
“Well,” the Rebbetzin replied, aware that Mrs. Bernstein did not have kids and trying to tread careully, “people call with all kinds of sh’eilos. My husband also deals a lot with helping people have children.”
“Really?” she exclaimed, “Could he possibly help us?”
The Rebbetzin invited the Rav to join the conversation, and Mrs. Bernstein poured out her entire story. It wasn’t an easy case, but the Rav threw himself into it, connecting her with Dr. Jerry Check, a renowned fertility specialist with whom Rabbi Gissinger worked with for more than 20 years. She underwent a difficult treatment protocol that can, at times, be painful.
The Rav was in touch with her every night, guiding her as she underwent the treatments. One Erev Shabbos, the Rav called and she didn’t answer. He tried again and again. When Shabbos came, he hadn’t yet reached her, and he could no longer call. The Rav looked troubled. The Rebbetzin noticed that he was tossing and turning the entire Friday night.
“What’s the matter?” the Rebbetzin asked, “Why can’t you sleep?”
“I’m afraid that Mrs. Bernstein is in great pain,” he replied, “and might be angry with me. It’s possible that she is angry with me and that’s why she wasn’t answering the phone….”
Throughout Shabbos, Rav Gissinger agonized over the pain Mrs. Bernstein must have been experiencing. When he tried calling again on Motzaei Shabbos and there was no answer, he was beside himself. “Oy, she must be furious with me for causing her all of this pain!”
Finally, on Sunday night, she answered the phone cheerfully exclaiming, “Rabbi Gissinger! How are you?”
“I was worried about you,” the Rav answered.
“I’m feeling fine,” she answered. “I was away for Shabbos and just returned home.”
Rav Gissinger did not say one word to her about his own personal agony throughout Shabbos and Sunday, and his two sleepless nights of worry. But that night he slept peacefully; he was so relieved that she was well.
Soon after, she found out that she was expecting twins. Rav Gissinger guided her straight through her very risky pregnancy and she had twins, a boy and a girl. Rav Gissinger flew back to their hometown for the bris.
— excerpted from the upcoming ArtScroll/Mesorah biography
The Last Yom Kippur
It was the most hallowed moment of the year. Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. The Rav had just finished his pre-Ne’ilah derashah. The ezras nashim of Khal Zichron Yaakov was packed. Many women were shedding tears. The Rebbetzin felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around to see a young girl standing there with a message. “Rebbetzin,” she whispered, “The Rav asked me to call you. He’s standing outside the side door of the ezras nashim.”
“Why would my husband come now, right before Ne’ilah? What could have happened?” the Rebbetzin worried. She hurried out and found him standing there, bedecked in tallis and kittel.
“Merril,” he said in his soft voice, “I forgot to ask you for mechilah before Yom Kippur as I usually do. Please be mochel me.”
There were tears in the Rebbetzin’s eyes as she answered, “Of course I’m mochel you!” As she said the words, she was thinking to herself, For what? What did he ever do that he has to ask me for mechilah?
The Rebbetzin walked back to the ezras nashim completely awed at what had been preoccupying her husband seconds before Ne’ilah.
It turned out to be his last Yom Kippur.
— excerpted from the upcoming ArtScroll/Mesorah biography
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 827)
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