Mourning Rav Shlomo Gissinger
Last Wednesday morning, the 11th of Elul, Rav Shlomo Gissinger sat in a meeting with rabbanim, askanim, and worried parents whose children were not yet registered for school this year.
Rav Gissinger was weak and sick, a little more bent than usual, but the pose was characteristic — listening, really listening, taking in the pain, the words they spoke and the truths they could not articulate, weighing options on the scales of the Torah he’d mastered — all of Shulchan Aruch and the commentaries — and the Torah of human emotion, in which he was equally proficient.
He was frail, but the eyes flashed with empathy, with wisdom, with humor.
Less than 48 hours later, late on Thursday night, his aron rested in the shul he’d founded and built, Zichron Yaakov, surrounded by people reciting Tehillim through the night, desperate for those last few hours with their beloved rav.
And over the shul, over the neighborhood, over all of Lakewood, spread a blanket of wonder and worry: What now?
Whom will we ask?
A talmid of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky in Torah Vodaath, Reb Shlomo was enthralled by his rebbi. He became a talmid in Torah, in halachah, in Yiddishkeit, and in middos.
When Rav Yaakov moved to Monsey, Reb Shlomo wanted to follow his rebbi, but Rav Yaakov said no. “Your place is in Lakewood,” he told the young talmid chacham, who would bring his burning hasmadah to Beis Medrash Govoha.
More than 30 years ago, he opened a small kehillah “across the lake,” moving to a neighborhood that was then considered distant. In time, it would become the central shul of a central neighborhood.
A magnificent building would rise, a thriving kehillah would form; and in the middle of it, a man of average height, dressed in a plain suit and hat.
He was the king. The king of the four chelkei Shulchan Aruch and the fifth one as well. He ruled in a world into which most people, even accomplished scholars, don’t venture — lab reports and medical scans. The chemical makeup of various medications, how vibration molecules produces friction that can heat food, slight shifts in the molad between the north and the northeast; and he had the ability to take this knowledge and incorporate it into a world of nervous wives and worried husbands, to reassure those terrified of doing an aveirah and encourage those who’d long ago slipped out of the system.
The relationship between this rav and his people was poetry.
Who were his people? His beis medrash, Zichron Yaakov — named in tribute to his rebbi, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky — is large and impressive, but that kehillah was not the extent of it, not by a long shot.
Rav Gissinger’s people consisted of many who didn’t daven in his shul, attend his shiurim, or even invite him to their simchahs. He was their secret, the relationship that enabled all others, yet came without obligation or strings attached.
“We would sit with patients and try to help, making $140 an hour,” a Lakewood therapist remarked, “and we were looking to the Rav, who, with a few words, opened all the doors and took nothing in return.”
He would walk out of Maariv in the evening, a small group forming around him as he headed down the aisle, and by the time he stepped out onto Sunset Road, there was a crowd. The Rav would head across the street into his simple home and start receiving people.
For hours, the line continued, couples who needed to be heard, those struggling with infertility or other medical issues, parents of children — or the children themselves — facing spiritual challenges. The man who would introduce himself as “Shlomo Gissinger,” who dressed and conducted himself with perfect humility, concentrated on each one — only on them — before answering and moving on with the line, which generally continued until well after midnight.
At one time, the Gissinger family had a parrot. The bird would call out the words it heard most often, repeating, “Come in, come in, come in,” the soundtrack to the chesed and compassion in this home.
This was the office of offices, connected to the rest of Lakewood and the wider Jewish world with invisible lines of concern and love. There were no gabbaim or secretaries, not even a waiting room. There was just the dining room, and a support staff consisting of the Rebbetzin and their children.
And from that house, people came out as from a rebbe’s chamber, looking more relaxed and confident — not (just) because of the brachos, but because of the eitzos, the solutions.
Rav Gissinger had the answers.
And after he gave the answer, he wrote the next chapter as well.
A young Lakewood family welcomed several struggling teens, young men who couldn’t live in their own homes. On a short Erev Shabbos, one of these teenagers was in the hospital. The devoted askan left his own wife and children, dedicating himself to the needs of the patient.
Throughout the day, he called Rav Gissinger with various halachic questions, and at one point, he wondered if he would even make it home, back to Lakewood, for Shabbos. Rav Gissinger asked where precisely he lived in Lakewood, and then the Rav told him that he couldn’t make it back before the zeman, and suggested he spend Shabbos in Brooklyn.
In Lakewood, a young mother of four small children struggled to make peace with the idea that her husband wouldn’t be home for Shabbos. She worked valiantly to smile and keep up her children’s spirits, but it took work. Then, ten minutes before the zeman, her doorbell rang.
It was Rav Gissinger, holding a chocolate cake. “I heard your husband won’t be home for Shabbos,” he said, “and I wanted to give you a bit of oneg Shabbos.”
Overcome, the woman said, “Can the Rav please bentsh my children?”
She shepherded the children out on to the porch, where Rav Gissinger bent over.
“May you be happy in your avodas Hashem,” he said to the young children.
Then he stood straight. “It doesn’t look good when the rabbi is late for shul,” he said with a wide smile, and hurried off.
And another Erev Shabbos story. One week, minutes before the zeman, Rav Gissinger drove into a Lakewood development. He saw an acquaintance and asked where a particular couple lived.
After being directed to the correct address, the Rav headed to the basement apartment and knocked.
Months later, the resident of that apartment approached the neighbor who’d shown the Rav to his house.
“Do you remember half a year ago you told Rav Gissinger where I live? Do you know why the Rav came here so close to Shabbos?”
He continued. “You’re aware that my wife and I have no children, and we’ve been waiting so long for good news. On that Erev Shabbos, the doctor had good news — the lab reports went to him and also to the Rav, who tried calling us, but there was no answer. Our phones were off. So he drove here, eager for us to get the happy news before Shabbos, not to have to wait until after.”
Rav Gissinger’s brother, Reb Heshy, davened in the shul. Being handy, he had many tools, and one day, the Rav called to borrow to a screw gun in order to hang up window shades. Reb Heshy assumed that his brother was installing shades in his own house, and offered to come help.
No, it turned out, that wasn’t the case. A young couple was moving into a new apartment, and there were no window shades. The Rav considered this his problem. He stood on a rickety chair in the rented apartment before the young couple arrived, doing a bit more to ensure their privacy.
Late at night, the Rav was sitting with a visitor, the phone ringing seemingly without cease.
He picked up just two times. Once to arrange what sounded like a meeting. A divorced gentleman he knew could only see his children if there was supervision, and he, Rav Gissinger, determined to protect the dignity and reputation of this person, had volunteered to serve as the supervisor.
The other call he took was from Rabbi Chaim Abadi of The Minyan, a shul and center for the teenagers of Lakewood. Rav Gissinger apologized to his visitor for the interruption, saying, “It’s Rabbi Abadi and he’s saving the children, we have to be there for him.”
At Rav Gissinger’s levayah last week, Rabbi Abadi called out in a voice heavy with pain. “What’s the plan? What’s the plan? Who will worry about the children of Lakewood now?”
In the world of kashrus, it was Rav Gissinger to whom mashgichim turned for clarity and guidance, the man who understood the process, who’d mastered the halachos, who would climb into vats, behind machinery, under equipment, to gain a bit more understanding. All this was holy too.
And then there was another facet to his rabbanus: the fire. The man who dealt with every issue and problem in Lakewood was a fountain of simchah.
There were moments in the year when the joy that simmered within him burst forth. On Simchas Torah, it came pouring out. He couldn’t contain himself when they sang the words, “Chazu, chazu, banai chavivai,” waving his hands up and down, and when they sang “Ashrei ish shelo yishkakecha,” he would spin around and around.
And Purim was another time. The man exposed to so much pain reveled in the atmosphere of pure simchah. And it was then that they came, hundreds of people, bearing mishloach manos, a chance to say thank-you for whatever the secret favor had been, the line snaking out of the house and down the sidewalk.
And just as during office hours, there were only individuals. He locked eyes with each person, letting them know he was theirs, they were his, that the connection was real.
Over the last several months, the people who relied on him so heavily suffered. The Rav wasn’t always in shul. He was weak, then weaker.
The last public derashah was at the levayah of his close friend Rav Dovid Trenk, held in the shul. Rav Gissinger was supported by his children as he left the shul after delivering his hesped, walking slowly across the street back to his house. Then he stopped and, pain and concentration evident on his face, he turned around and started to make his way back toward the shul.
He hadn’t thanked the policemen who were controlling the crowds outside the shul, and it was important to express appreciation.
The lessons of his rebbi, Rav Yaakov, guiding him even when there was so little left.
In that derashah, Rav Gissinger quoted what his rebbi, Rav Yaakov, had said when being maspid Rav Aaron Kotler. (Of course, Reb Shlomo issued a disclaimer. “Not that I’m like my rebbi…”)
“Ich hob gemeint, I thought,” Rav Yaakov had wept by Rav Aaron’s levayah, “that we would greet Mashiach together, tzuzamen.”
“And I too, Reb Dovid,” Rav Gissinger whispered, “I thought we would greet Mashiach together.”
They are together, tzuzamen, these two friends, but the world they left behind still waits for Mashiach.
As Reb Shlomo Gissinger was laid to rest with the onset of Shabbos, a song seemed to play in the background, a song that was sad, but also sweet, and the words were “Chazu, chazu, banai chavivai… see them, see My sons.”
Reb Shlomo, so many sons, from the elite talmidei chachamim in yeshivah to those who haven’t seen a Gemara in too long, from the chassidim of Skver who were so bound to you to the secular doctors who were captivated by your knowledge and warmth — they all looked to you, they all mourn you and the Torah you embodied.
Look at the sons of your kehillah, those who lived in the world of your derashos and shiurim, those who waited for your “good morning” to start the day.
Look to your family, the ones who made it possible for you to give and give. Look at Klal Yisrael, a nation grieving for a fallen rav, understanding — even those who never met you — just what a loss this is.
Chazu, look — for in mourning you, they are expressing what a rav means, the glory of Torah, the light of halachah, the precision of Shulchan Aruch.
Chazu… look down, and be a meilitz yosher.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 778)