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We’re One Big Orchestra

(Photos Shulim Goldring Meir Haltovsky Family archives)


ou know that thing that music is meant to do? How it kind of makes us happy but also wistful? How we feel nostalgic for times gone by but also inspired about the day ahead?

Rivie Schwebel’s living room has a pretty similar effect it turns out.

About half an hour into our interview I excuse myself to cancel the next meeting. This feels like a place I don’t want to leave.

When chatting with the man with one of the most distinctive voices in Jewish music the music and the setting becomes the metaphor: everything else falls into place. Rivie and his wife talk real-life responsibility to family to the community to the older generation and the next generation.

Rivie’s in the middle of reminiscing about the old days in Queens Friday afternoons sitting and singing with his friends Baruch Chait and Abie Rotenberg when he exclaims “Those were the best times mamesh the best days ever. We need to recreate that give our kids that kind of comfort and security in Yiddishkeit in the future.”

He leans back in the armchair in the corner of a comfortable living room filled with seforim and family photos graced with a large piano and picture of the Skverer Rebbe. “I don’t mean because we were just carefree kids I’m talking about the whole era and culture. We knew our role every Yid understood what was expected of him.”

And I feel like Rivie Schwebel is unwittingly — or perhaps consciously — sharing the secret of his famous voice his style. If it’s not yet a genre it should be. He’s looking back and looking forward all at once.

Ohr Yisroel in Queens was its menahel Rabbi Nisson Wolpin z”l used to say “perhaps the finest cheder America has ever seen.”

Reb Shea Geldzahler created a unique institution through hiring accomplished talmidei chachamim as rebbeim and setting no limits on how much a child could learn. The rebbeim taught Queens children of the ‘60s in Yiddish an idea well ahead of its time.

“But it worked ” Rivie remembers “the cheder invested us with a certain heimishkeit.”

But the exposure to Klal Yisrael and Agudath Israel came on long Shabbos afternoon treks from Forest Hills to Kew Gardens.

Reb Aron Schwebel was a product of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz’s Torah Vodaath but he was rooted in Galicia in prewar Reisha (Rzseszow). Nowhere was this influence more evident than in his tefillah the nusach and nuance and spirit of that world. Shuls were jammed when word spread that Chazzan Schwebel would be davening.

A small shul in Forest Hills heard about the chazzan and offered him the vacant cantorial position. Deeply impressed with his personal conduct and knowledge they asked the new chazzan to serve as rav as well.

“Forest Hills was sort of lonely ” Rivie remembers. “Most of the kids in school lived in Kew Gardens. On Shabbos afternoons my father would walk us me and my brothers Heshy and Shea to Pirchei and wait there and then walk us back. I think about it now how tired he must have been — he was rav and chazzan he worked hard on Shabbos — but he wanted us to have a taam a taste in Yiddishkeit and he knew we would find it there.

“That’s where I first encountered Agudah: the stories the heroes the values. You felt part of Klal Yisrael part of its history in those groups.”

Eventually, Reb Aharon Schwebel moved his family to Boro Park.

“We were against the trend, once again,” Rivie says ruefully. “People were starting to leave Boro Park when we arrived, but my father wanted the best environment for our growth.”

When those first Yamim Noraim approached, a delegation arrived at the Schwebel home. They wanted the newcomer to Boro Park to serve as baal tefillah at the Agudah of 14th Avenue.

When Reb Aharon Schwebel davened on the Yamim Noraim, his three sons would stand around him, “encircling him as a wall,” in the words of the piyut.

Rivie starts to hum. “His tenuos in Malchiyos, Zichronos, and Shofros, each nuance exactly as he’d heard it as a child… his tefillos would transport you.”

Mrs. Debbie Sherer once told Rivie that on Motzaei Yom Kippur after Havdalah, she would urge her husband to have coffee and eat something, but Rabbi Moshe Sherer would refuse. “Not until I call Reb Aharon Schwebel and tell him how extraordinary that davening was.”

Rivie was singing already — SimchaTone, Jep, Pirchei — but he didn’t see the amud as his place.

Not yet, anyhow.

“Honestly, I didn’t really feel comfortable davening from the amud until my father passed away. He was the baal tefillah.”

Rivie learned in yeshivah under Rav Tuvia Goldstein, but his grandfather, Reb Aryeh Leib Parnass, had a suggestion.

“I want you to go to Eretz Yisrael, where my friend has a yeshivah.”

The friend was Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, and Rivie Schwebel would find his rebbi.

Under Rav Scheinberg, Rivie would discover the joy in learning Torah. Until today, he spends the first half of the day in the beis medrash and still finds nourishment for his soul in the great chassidic courts of Jerusalem —where at the tish in Toldos Aron on those long-ago Friday nights —he would soak in the unique atmosphere and music.

“The more people singing together, the nicer the song,” he reflects.

After three years in Torah Ore, Rivie returned home. That’s when someone suggested the shidduch with Leba Wassner.

Had she heard him sing before? “Of course. I was like, ‘Rivie Schwebel, wow.’ ”

Was there a famous solo or song with which she associated his voice? She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes. “Tzofiah Halichos Beisah” from Amudei Shaish.”

They married, and Rivie got to know the next great influence on his life.

Joseph Wassner lived in Belle Harbor — a bit out of the way — and that suited him perfectly.

“My shver taught me about generosity. But more than that, he taught me that things have to be done quietly — that it’s not about you.”

Reb Yossel Wassner was a Boyaner chassid who was an intimate of both the Satmar and Lubavitcher Rebbes. “My father was able to do something that conventional chassidim could not,” says Mrs. Schwebel. “He could be friends with these tzaddikim, ask about how they were feeling, give them the company they didn’t really get elsewhere.”

The Satmar Rebbe spent lots of time in Belle Harbor in his later years, and he and Yossel Wassner would go for a walk each day.

Rivie eventually joined his father-in-law’s textile business, singing all the while.

“I collaborated with friends — I never really wanted to go it alone. Ali Scharf, like Abie Rotenberg, really gave me opportunities, writing songs and allowing me to join in.”

Rivie never saw himself as a singer, but Abie Rotenberg has his own opinion. “I consider Rivie to be much more than a singer. Music oozes out of him. It’s a legacy he inherited from his father, who combined tefillah and melody to bring himself and his mispallelim closer to Hashem. Rivie is also an amazing baal tefillah, but he’s extended that passion to popular Jewish music. His deep, rich voice is recognized the world over — not only for its unique timbre, but for the sincerity and depth of feeling he puts into each phrase.”

Textiles and singing and learning and raising a growing family.

And then Agudah’s Rabbi Sherer came calling. “Rivie, I need you to get involved. Get some friends, I’ll teach you guys how to work for the klal.”

Ultimately, the relationship between Rivie and Rabbi Sherer would develop to the point that Rivie was asked to serve as chairman at one of the Agudath Israel dinners. “I arrived at the hotel and Rabbi Sherer was waiting for me. ‘Listen, Rivie, eat and drink now, go wash up, because once you’re up there, that’s all you’re doing. You need to be completely focused. You can’t be a chairman and also be somewhere else at the same time.’ ”

In a sense, Rivie concedes, Rabbi Sherer was identifying the potential challenges to askanus. “There’s no doubt that his analysis was right on, that it applies to more than just a dinner. We’ve gotten too busy, everyone’s distracted. We’ve lost the sense of urgency.”

“There was no such thing,” Mrs. Leba Schwebel points out, “as someone being asked to help and begging off. We were raised by survivors, and we were imbued with a drive to do. But the bigger and more established our community has gotten, the less important these things have become.”

Over the years, Rivie grew closer to the work of Agudath Israel, seeing this phenomenon firsthand, particularly in the work he does for the Department of Yeshiva Services and for Chayim Aruchim. He saw it especially in the work of Chayim Aruchim, a division of Agudah that provides counseling and direction for families of terminally ill patients, and advocates and lobbies for the rights of those patients.

“Between my father and my father-in-law, I was in the hospital for two years straight, sitting at the bedside of an elderly patient and seeing the potential problems. I realized that the basic outlook of the medical community is, ‘Look, your father can’t enjoy a steak anymore,’ or, ‘your mother isn’t playing bridge ever again,’ so what’s the point of living?”

Rivie shakes his head. “But that’s not what life is about.”

“I remember a particular doctor who’d been among those who felt it would be best to let my father slip away. Then, my father’s situation improved and we had a minyan in the hospital on Rosh Hashanah — and he davened at the amud. The doctor walked by and saw my father saying Hineni, before Mussaf.”

Rivie, the man with the unashamedly emotional singing voice, doesn’t pretend he’s not crying as he continues. “The doctor stood there transfixed at the sight of a sick, elderly man on fire with dveykus, with connection, with the complete humility inherent in those words. My father was never more alive than when he said that Hineni….”

Rivie recalls doing the late-night rounds with a respected doctor. “He showed me several cases in which he’d issued instructions regarding treatment for a particular patient, instructions that the nurses had chosen to ignore. It’s as if the decision of ‘mi yichyeh, umi yamus’ was given to these nurses and orderlies to make.”

“But when I talk about it to younger people, they give me that look. ‘What’s it got to do with me?’ ”

He shrugs. “We have work to do.”

Beyond practical involvement, Rivie became an Agudist.

“It started at 14th Avenue Agudah and Rabbi Sherer,” muses a long-time friend, “but he really bought into the whole mission as well.”

And that relationship continues with current Agudah leader, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel.

The Veretzky beis medrash, known as Landau’s, is familiar to many as Flatbush’s minyan factory. To the Schwebels, it’s just shul.

And among Rivie’s fellow mispallelim and close friends is Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel.

“It’s a very special shul with an exceptional rav. Every drashah is great. One of the highlights of the week is Reb Chaim Dovid’s Mishnayos chaburah before davening on Shabbos. I’ve gained so much from our association.”

Though he’s already served as Agudah convention chairman, playing the role at this year’s convention does feel different.

“Look, it’s no secret that people are cynical and stressed. Chinuch is hard, parnassah is hard, I get it. But at the same time, we need to rally.”

That’s the forest. Then there are the trees.

When Rivie listens to his wife talk about her passion, his expression is that of an admiring student.

Mrs. Leba Schwebel delivers emunah chaburos to women, a program and curriculum she developed together with some friends.

“There are so many wonderful women, wives and mothers, who are committed to halachah, who send their children to the finest yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, but inside, they feel disheartened and confused. The chaburos aim to give them back the enthusiasm, the pride they should feel in their role as Jewish women.”

Rivie is pensive. “We used to know that. We were raised with the sense that every Yid can change the world, and should change the world. We need to wake up.”

This conversation is the real music that comes out of this home.

Every Jew has a mission. Every Jew can fulfill that mission. We need to work together.

When I tell veteran music producer Sheya Mendlowitz that I’ve interviewed Rivie, he instantly intuits that the story will be about more than the man himself. “The article isn’t about Rivie, it’s about that room, the conversations, right?”

And he explains: “Rivie isn’t just the person, the kindness and empathy and seichel. It’s also Leba, the family, the children, and the whole feeling in that house. You walk in there with a concept and you walk out feeling like anything is possible.”

Sheya remembers when the concept of what would become the HASC concert was a vague half-idea. “Of course, I went to the Schwebels. Both Rivie and his wife are musically gifted, but more important, both of them have this sense of achrayus, of wanting to change the world. I walked out not just with chizuk, but with their financial backing as well. Both the Schwebel and Wassner families were early sponsors.”

Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding was working on the second JEP album and he approached Rivie to sing. Rivie mentioned that he felt that the album should include a string section.

“I laughed,” Reb Yosef Chaim recalls, “and told him that we were a bunch of yeshivah guys fronting the money. There was no way that we could afford a string section. He asked how much it would cost, and I told him about five thousand dollars. He said okay and gave me the money.”

Rabbi Golding pauses for effect. “On the album cover, we wrote thanks to Rivie Schwebel — with strings attached.”

Rivie was part of so many great releases, his voice associated with so many classic solos, but he never considered making his own album. “No way. I love singing with other people. I’ll do chuppahs alone, that’s a special zechus, but the real magic of song is when you can hear achdus as well.”

Rivie’s music reflects Rivie’s essence, says Rabbi Baruch Chait. “Beyond his natural ability to harmonize is the neshamah in his voice — and he’s so versatile and relaxed on stage that it’s a joy to appear with him. I remember, not long ago, we performed together and, because I’d arrived late from Eretz Yisrael, there was no time to rehearse. Rivie, typically, reassured me it would be fine, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.’ The gentleness and easygoing nature, the respect for others, is always there. It’s why he’s an effective askan.”

Rabbi Baruch Levine, who is also a gifted menahel, echoes that thought. “Rivie’s dressing room is always the most popular place to be backstage. He’s relaxed and funny and always asks about your family. He’s genuinely interested.

“Rivie feers tisch without making himself the rebbe!”

Several years ago, Chazzan Schwebel passed away and Rivie cautiously approached the amud.

“He gets lost in conversations about his father’s nusach: it’s like he sees himself as continuing the song, nothing more,” says Sheya Mendlowitz.

When Rivie davens from the amud on Rosh Hashanah at Luxor Estates, in the Catskills, he isn’t alone. Just as he and his brothers once encircled their father, his own sons surround him.

Talented singer and musician Eli Schwebel reflects on the experience.

“One of the most outstanding memories of my childhood is standing with my father and listening as my zeidy, the most beautiful man I knew, davened from the depths of his heart.”

“My grandfather is no longer here. Nobody could possibly embody nusach as he did, but my father has taken his place and now I lead the choir for him. The family grows larger with each Rosh Hashanah, bli ayin hara, and when the climax of Mussaf comes — Oooyy, K’vakaras roeh edro —  just as Yosef saw Yaakov’s face in Mitzrayim, I see my grandfather’s face.”

Rivie is comfortable showing emotion in a way that many other men are not: he’s quiet for a long while before he speaks of Rav Scheinberg.

The relationship was formed as a talmid, but it deepened over the years on Rav Scheinberg’s visits to America.

“He spent Shabbosim here,” Rivie said, “and it was incredible. The Rosh Yeshivah wouldn’t talk on Shabbos, only divrei Torah, yet somehow everyone felt so good and uplifted. He made the kids feel special and happy.”

“He taught them to stand up every time Leba or I came into the room, and he had little jokes with them as well.”

Mrs. Schwebel’s menu would also become part of the Rosh Yeshivah’s itinerary. “The Rosh Yeshivah would always compliment the food, and the only time he would ask what he was eating would be to clarify a safek brachah. But I observed and saw which foods agreed with him, and I created a menu that was sent to all the hostesses along his route.”

In recent years, Rivie has grown close with the Skverer Rebbe. “I don’t only go in for brachos before I do a deal, I try to come in after and thank the Rebbe for his good advice and brachah as well. The Rebbe always says he wishes more people would update him. He’s a big part of our life.”

Rivie pauses, as if unsure whether to share a story. He looks at his wife, who seems to know what he’s thinking. She nods.

“One of our sons was in high school, and he was late for seder for a few days in a row. The mashgiach asked why, and it turned out that he was playing piano during bein hasedorim and he would get into it. He lost track of time. The mashgiach felt the piano was bad for his development.”

That night, Rivie and his wife had an audience with the Skverer Rebbe, and in passing, Rivie shared the story.

Years later, the young man was going off to learn in Eretz Yisrael and Rivie took him to the Rebbe for a farewell brachah. The Rebbe wished him well, and as they were leaving the Rebbe’s room, the Rebbe said softly, “Make sure that in Eretz Yisrael, you find him a piano near the yeshivah.”

“Last year, my wife and I were at orientation in a respected high school for my younger son, and the menahel says, “You have to make sure to find good outlets for your boys, get them piano lessons,” Rivie says, bursting out laughing.

This year, Rivie Schwebel will take the mic as chairman of the Agudah convention and, in his remarks, he’ll try to convey the grandeur of what was, to inspire that same sense of mission in a new generation.

I wonder, only half-joking, if he wouldn’t be more effective with a guitar. “Just start singing. You’ll open their hearts instantly.”

“Maybe,” says the man who much prefers singing with others to going solo, “Maybe. Klal Yisrael is just a big orchestra. We’ve just got to get together and start making music.”

When you hear Rivie’s voice, which solo do you associate it with?

Hamakom yirachem aleihem (Acheinu, Lev V’nefesh)

–  David Golding (Ding)

Lakol zman vo’eis (Dveykus)

–  Nachum Segal

V’sheim Avosai (Hamalach Hagoel, Dveykus)

– Rabbi Baruch Levine

Tatte, Tatte (In a Vinkele, Dveykus)

– Abie Rotenberg

The kol in the heaven proclaims (Return to me My Children, J.E.P 2)

– Sheya Mendlowitz

V’yziku liros bonim (Uray Bonim, J.E.P 4)

– Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 686)

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