Yes, There’s Life after Death| March 7, 2023
“If you’re going through a brutal, inexplicable loss or any form of tragedy, I wrote this book for you”
Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Family archives
IT was the spring of 1986, and Rabbi Gershon Schusterman’s path to the future was focused and forward. He and his wife Rochel Leah (née Deitsch) had moved to Long Beach, California as a young couple in 1971 as shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, where they were raising their large family of 11 children (ranging in age from 14 to 16-month-old twins) and building a kehillah from the ground up.
Rabbi Schusterman had joined a developing day school and was soon director of the 400-student Hebrew Academy of Orange County. He was also an insightful and sought-after rabbinic advisor for others when they were faced with overwhelming challenges or grief, considering himself — well-trained rabbi that he was — as G-d’s “defense attorney,” dispensing Judaism’s time-honored answers to those struggling with tragedy and loss.
And then, his own world collapsed around him.
On a Sunday morning 10 days before Pesach, while he was teaching an early-morning class to a group of bochurim 30 miles away in Los Angeles, Rabbi Schusterman received a desperate phone call from his wife — she was feeling awful and needed medical attention. He drove home as fast as he could and raced with her to the nearest emergency room. Rabbi Schusterman sat in the lobby of the ER, praying for his wife’s speedy recovery, when just half an hour later, the attending physician approached him looking like he was about to cry.
“I’m so, so sorry,” the doctor said. “We did everything we could….”
Rochel Leah, just 36 years old, had suddenly passed, leaving behind a stunned, devastated family, a shattered community, and a shell-shocked 38-year-old widower with 11 young children to care for.
“When someone else goes through a painful experience, we say it’s a test. But when we ourselves go through it, it’s often such a devastating tragedy that we can’t process it,” says Rabbi Schusterman, who today is in private enterprise and lives in Los Angeles with Chana Rachel, his wife of 35 years and the woman who raised his children. “For the first time in my life, I had to confront all the platitudes and teachings I’d been so confidently giving over to others, and realized how little I really understood of what I’d been preaching.”
For years, Rabbi Schusterman considered writing a book that would help others come to terms with incomprehensible tragedy and misfortune and find the inner wherewithal to move forward. He’s finally sharing the hard-earned insight and wisdom culled from his own long and formidable journey in his raw, honest, and often wrenching account, Why G-d Why? How to Believe in Heaven When It Hurts Like Hell, which he says is “a book for the broken-hearted. If you’re going through a brutal, inexplicable loss or any form of tragedy, I wrote this book for you.”
Nothing is Random
Rabbi Schusterman says the book — about loss, suffering, tragedy, G-d, and ultimately, about hope — was over three decades in the making, the core outline based on a seven-week course he gave after his wife’s passing to community members who were trying to make sense of the sudden loss of their beloved rebbetzin.
“The majority of the parent body of our school wasn’t frum, but they were on an upward trajectory and we were all growing together,” he says. “After Rochel Leah passed away, they were both devastated and spiritually challenged: How would they navigate this? They had so many questions — how could this happen to the rebbetzin? To her family? So through my own grief, I had to be there for them. We talked about how little we really know about G-d’s master plan for all of us, how each of our neshamos has its own journey that our limited logical minds aren’t privy to, and how not understanding the why of the tragedy doesn’t mean that G-d isn’t fully in the picture and running the show.”
It was especially important for the kehillah, because around that time, another highly popular book tried to answer the same existential question first posed all the way back in the beginning of Jewish history by Moshe Rabbeinu himself, of why the righteous suffer. Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Conservative clergyman Harold Kushner, offered an answer — but, says Rabbi Schusterman, not a Jewish answer: Kushner postulated the heretical notion that there are pockets of untamed evil and chaos that even G-d hasn’t conquered, that G-d is incapable of preventing certain tragedies or evils in the world. According to this denial of Divine Providence, then much of human pain and suffering is essentially arbitrary — an idea that’s not only not comforting but quite unsettling.
And so, with myriad traditional sources in hand, Rabbi Schusterman presented an authentically Jewish perspective — of G-d as the Master Planner and how nothing is random.
But there was just one hitch: While he knew intellectually that Hashem is All Good, he was in such deep shock and pain that he couldn’t formulate the emotional language to express his own difficult feelings.
He says he never stopped believing that Hashem runs every aspect of the world and that nothing is random. That was baked into him from infancy by his European-born parents who spent the war years in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and wound up in Paris before arriving in the US in March of 1948 with him — a newborn — in tow. (Rabbi Schusterman was born in Paris, as the authorities wouldn’t let his mother on the ship so close to her due date.) His father, Reb Mottel Schusterman, was a printer of holy seforim (including Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Igros Moshe) and the baal korei in “770” for almost 38 years. His brother-in-law, married to his sister Leah, was Rabbi Binyomin Klein a”h, the Rebbe’s secretary. His other sisters were shluchos, and he himself had gone through the Chabad yeshivah system and emerged as a dedicated shaliach prepared to weather any storm.
“I searched my emunah and it was intact, but my personal relationship with Hashem was clouded over with a big grudge,” he admits. “In my mind I accepted G-d’s goodness as an article of faith, but my heart had gone cold. I wasn’t sure I could be G-d’s defense attorney anymore. I didn’t play mental gymnastics and try to convince myself that somehow it was good. It was bad, tragic, and emotionally devastating. I knew without a doubt that it was Hashem’s plan, but why? Why did this have to happen to us? To me? At the time, I didn’t know that I could talk to Hashem directly about my anger, disappointment, and feelings of betrayal — after all, I told myself, I was a rabbi who was supposed to have the answers, and it just was passt nisht for someone in my position to shake his fist at Hashem.”
And anyway, there was no time for the luxury of processing. Rabbi Schusterman was the area’s senior shaliach, school director, and a single parent of 11 children. And it was Erev Pesach. For Yom Tov, Rochel Leah’s mother flew in from New York, but there were no words worthy of describing her tzaar.
For Mrs. Deitsch, a widow, it wasn’t her first loss. She’d lost her husband, and several years before, another daughter — a young mother with seven children — also passed away. Her pain was overwhelming.
But pain and blessings can exist side by side, and it wasn’t long before Rabbi Schusterman found himself facing a crossroads: Would he wallow in self-imposed victimhood forever, or would he move on, coming from a place of life, despite the loss?
Close to a year after Rochel Leah’s passing, Rabbi Schusterman was paid a visit by his sister Rebbetzin Nechoma Greisman, who had moved from New York to Eretz Yisrael and was a popular chassidic mashpiah for English-speaking women around the country. But it wasn’t only a visit to see how her newly-widowed brother was faring. Nechoma had an agenda: She had a close friend in Jerusalem, Chana Rachel Baron, a talented, resilient single woman originally from New York who was then working as an English teacher at Michlala College, and she saw their marriage as a real possibility. Would he be willing to think about it seriously?
Rabbi Schusterman knew that the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged widows and widowers to remarry. The Rebbe had even told a certain rebbetzin whose husband passed away, “A spouse who passes away and is in Olam HaEmes wants what is best for the surviving spouse and does not have complete and final menuchah until that spouse remarries.”
Rabbi Schusterman himself would come to realize that love is not something parceled out in small, finite portions.
“Love is dynamic,” he says today. “It grows and expands, just as a parent’s love can accommodate many children. Of course, the past relationship cannot and should not be jettisoned, but rather laid to rest gently and lovingly, giving one the ability to move forward. Our hearts are huge and hold a tremendous non-exclusive capacity for love.”
How Much Love
Meanwhile, Nechoma returned to Israel and explored with Chana Rachel the possibility of marrying her widowed brother.
And really, Gershon Schusterman’s story is as much Chana Rachel’s as it is his.
Nine years earlier, before Chana Rachel set off for Israel, she went for a brachah from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He instructed her to network with shadchanim, and as Nechoma Greisman was on the list, they met and soon became good friends. And on an earlier visit, the Rebbe had blessed her that she would “raise children in a Yiddishe way,” although at the time she didn’t read anything unusual into the blessing.
“When Nechoma spoke to me about her idea, I knew it was right,” Chana Rachel, today a popular teacher of chassidus and a relationship and dating coach, says of the suggestion that would change her life in ways she’d never imagined. “Of course, leaving Eretz Yisrael for California would be a shock to my system, and 11 kids — how would I manage that? But Nechoma was confident. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you,’ she encouraged me — and she stuck to her promise, although I suddenly realized that I’d be going from being one person to being responsible for what seemed at the time like a corporation.
“I remember thinking, How do you go from being a guest to making Pesach? And then, Hey, how do you make lunch? I had this image of dumping dozens of cans of tuna in a huge vat and stirring….
“Really, I had no idea how I would manage. I didn’t know much about raising kids of all ages, and especially 2-year-old twins, but I knew how to pay attention to people, and I knew I could give them love. One child, I knew what that was — I could give love to one child. So if I could give love to one, I could give love to two. Sure, I could give love to three… but by the time I got up to four, I couldn’t really wrap my brain around it. I just felt, my heart is big and I can give them all love.”
The wedding was the event of the decade among the Anglos in Jerusalem. Chana Rachel had built up a huge network of friends and acquaintances who were joyous together with her. But the most surprising sight was the chassan, raised on a chair among a throng of well-wishers, beaming like a 20-year-old about to start life with his young bride.
“Well, I wasn’t getting married by default,” he says. “I was getting married because it was a l’chatchilah, the right thing to do from Hashem’s perspective, from my perspective, and from Chana Rachel’s perspective. And if you do the right thing, you’re happy.”
“We both knew it was right and we felt connected to each other,” Chana Rachel clarifies.
Still, did it ever occur to her that she might be entering a minefield?
“Not really,” she relates. “All I knew was that there were 11 children who lost a mother. I really took it on all the way, got in there and did what a mother needs to do.”
Like the first Yom Kippur after their wedding. “I was never involved with food before on Yom Kippur,” Chana Rachel remembers, “but all of a sudden, my entire day revolved around snacks. And during Shemoneh Esreh of Ne’ilah, one of the children needed help. Gershon was davening from the amud, and I knew I had to handle it. As I took that child’s hand and was walking out, I was thinking, What? This is your holy Ne’ilah? But I knew Hashem was telling me, Right now this is the highest service I need from you.
In the beginning, not everyone looked at Chana Rachel as a “tzadeikes rescuing a family in crisis.” Some people — close friends of Rochel Leah, who still couldn’t come to terms with her death — treated Chana Rachel as some kind of interloper.
“One of the kids was acting out in shul on Rosh Hashanah, so I patiently took her out of shul to calm down,” Chana Rachel says. “As I was leaving, women were watching — I felt like I was being scrutinized. ‘You don’t have to do that,’ one woman said. They were looking at the child as a poor orphan, not as my child and my responsibility.”
How Are You?
But trauma is a funny thing. It goes underground. You think you’ve conquered it, and then it pops up at the most unexpected moments.
Chana Rachel was suddenly thrust into the role of mother of many children, some of whom were carrying around a huge burden of pain themselves, and, coupled with Rabbi Schusterman’s multiple obligations in work, community, and at home meant that practically from the day they married, they never had a real chunk of private time. And so, three years later, when the older children were away in summer camp, they made arrangements for the younger children and took a two-week trip to Eretz Yisrael, away from the non-stop family pressure.
As they were strolling through the Old City, Chana Rachel turned to her husband and said, “Gershon, how are you?”
“Baruch Hashem, I’m fine,” he answered, wondering why she was asking.
Chana Rachel persisted. “But how are you really?”
“The sincerity of the question somehow pierced my shell,” he relates. “I suddenly felt weak and dizzy — I went into a tailspin. I re-experienced the entire course of events as the last four years flashed before my eyes. You can call it a breakdown, or maybe a cleansing — because I realized that I was still carrying around a huge burden of unresolved hurt and pain and anger that had built up to deep emotional pressure. I’d done a few months of therapy previously, but although it was a good start, I realized it wasn’t enough.”
What he realized was that anger stemming from tragedy or misfortune can’t be ignored or suppressed.
“When we let go of our disappointment and pain by expressing it from a place of belief and commitment to Hashem, this is a healthy response that ultimately leads to acceptance. That doesn’t mean we’re happy about what happened, but we can arrive at a point where we can acknowledge the reality of what happened and even come to recognize and accept Hashem’s role in it,” he says. He also realized that true “closure” — a term people like to invoke — doesn’t really exist, because losses almost always come back to cause pain. But that pain doesn’t have to turn you into a victim and adversity doesn’t have to define you.
Rabbi Schusterman tracked down a therapist he’d known from California who was living in Jerusalem, and every remaining weekday of the trip, he spent two hours with this skilled practitioner, finally unloading the pain and anger he’d been carrying around for years — and finally releasing G-d from the grudge he was holding against Him.
And it was none too soon. Because the two of them would have to deal with another shocking tragedy in the Schusterman family. In 1992, Nechoma suddenly passed away without warning in the maternity ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center the day after she gave birth to her tenth child. She was just 39 years old.
Nechoma was Chana Rachel’s mentor, anchor and cheerleader in addition to her sister-in-law, and now that she was gone, the tragedy was all the more searing.
Now it was up to her alone to navigate the challenges of many children of different ages struggling for their self-definition. There was still pain (from the older ones who remembered their mother), a level of guilt (were they betraying their mother by accepting the new dynamic?), and confusion (of the younger children who didn’t even remember their mother).
It was a complicated mix, but Rabbi Schusterman would encourage his wife by telling her, “Remember, you’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Chana Rachel kept her wits about her, strengthening herself in the knowledge that it wasn’t about her.
“When I said yes to marrying my husband I dedicated myself to this. It meant that I was going to raise them with love in the best possible way I could, to teach them Torah, good values and good middos to the best of my ability. This is what I could bring into the family,” she says. “There was no competition here — I never considered myself a replacement for their mother. But I knew that the same Hashem who brought her into the world to bear these children brought me into the world to take care of them and raise them. And I believe that from her perch in Gan Eden, she’s happy with what I did.”
Those children are today in their 30s and 40s, with children and even grandchildren of their own. Still, the growth process is ongoing, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to work it all out.
Are You a Victim?
That’s one reason Rabbi Schusterman feels his book is more important now than ever before. There’s a certain pervasive idea today that it’s better to stay a coddled victim, better to remain in self-pity, better to keep a self-definition of a traumatized person and expect others to accommodate that.
“Adversity doesn’t define us,” he states. “How we respond to it does. Seeing yourself as a victim of circumstances is self-fulfilling. If this is the message you repeat to yourself, then you will become a victim. But you can turn this around and instead see yourself as a person who has been purposefully challenged. This internal message will bring forth your innate resilience and strength. Hashem has faith in you, and wants you to not only survive, but to become better, stronger and more resilient, even as we can’t answer why these challenges have come our way.”
We might not be able to answer, but we can still ask.
“Moshe Rabbeinu asked why, Dovid Hamelech asked why, Iyov asked why. But in Hebrew, there are two words for ‘why’: lamah, and madua. Madua is asking, for what reason? We can’t answer that. We’re not privy to that. But ‘lamah/lemah — how can I go forward with it?’ is something we can all tap into.”
And the bottom line, he says, is all about emunah and bitachon. It’s something implanted in the soul of everyone. “It’s the top and the bottom, the highest point and the fundamental starting point of a relationship with Hashem. If you’re anchored in emunah, then you have a foundation with which to work it through. Emunah is what ultimately carries you over the abyss.
“Because in the end,” he continues, “it’s up to you to accept that this is an intended event, whether or not you understand it, appreciate it, or feel ready to meet the challenge. We need to embrace the mindset that this is from Hashem and therefore purposeful and somehow for our benefit, even if we don’t see it now, and perhaps not even until the hereafter. Life’s waves come at us inexorably, sometimes gently and pleasantly, sometimes surging powerfully, seemingly threatening to overwhelm us. Don’t fight those waves, but like a surfer, know that you can ride the wave by diving into its core and recognizing that there’s a positive plan in what appears to be destructive — even if you might never know what that plan is.”
And sometimes, Rabbi Schusterman says, we’re not even looking for an answer, but for a soul response. Sometimes we think we want an answer, we think we want to scream at G-d’s seeming injustice, but what we really want is His embrace.
He gives an example of an encounter he had with his own son, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, a rabbi in Atlanta. The younger Rabbi Schusterman was venting to his father about a calamity in the family — his cousin was dying of lung cancer — and how difficult and unfair it all seemed.
“As he was talking to me, I began formulating my own rabbinic response as I’d done countless times before, but then I realized that he knows all that — he also gives it over to others. So I said to him, ‘Eliyahu, do you want an answer, or do you want a hug?’ I caught him off guard, and it took him a second to respond. His eyes filled with tears as he said, ‘Tatty, I want a hug.’”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 952)
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