A Tribute To Rav Avrohom Zvi Kushner zt”l
A few weeks ago, in a quiet ICU ward in the once sleepy resort town he helped transform into a Torah metropolis, Rav Avrohom Zvi Kushner zt”l passed on to the World of Truth.
The hospital room was small, but somehow, on that final day, there was enough space to bear witness to the flourishing legacy he was leaving behind.
Tehillims in hand, his wife and children stationed themselves in a protective ring of chairs around his bed, davening and remembering, remembering and davening. The ainiklach filed in and out to say goodbye to Zaidy, to etch his pure face onto their souls one last time. As if fighting a powerful current, they slowly backed away, making room for the next sibling or cousin in line to say goodbye too.
A grandchild started to sing. The rest of the gathering joined in, starting and stopping, and then haltingly starting again, with something like a ball lodged in their throats. Songs of Shabbos, songs of Torah and of geulah, songs that Zaidy loved to sing, the heaven-sent lyrics describing the kind of life Zaidy led more eloquently than any tribute ever will.
Mitaso sheleimah: unblemished generations spawned in the spiritual desert also known as the Lower East Side in the ‘30s. In an era when thousands of ancient chains of heritage waited fruitlessly for the next link to be added, Zaidy had placed his with precision. Through his sacrifice and with his love, the Kushner family lives on.
It had only been a few months since Rav Avrohom Zvi had become my grandfather, and there hadn’t really been time to know him. I did not have the privilege to peer into his heart at its strongest beat, or to hear the highest octaves of a voice that for 89 years had only broadcast truth.
But the stilled heart yet pumps living blood and the silenced voice echoes for eternity. For those who had the privilege to know him and for those who came too late alike.
Zaidy’s link is the story of his life. There were so many layers to the unique piece on which he constantly labored, crafted with a workmanship allowing each angle to sparkle and shine.
Something with this level of beauty is never created alone, and the link we now hold in our hands is no exception. Bubbie’s partnership in this creation is apparent in every perfect edge. It is hers as much as his, and really, the best way to put it is that it is theirs. Their final product is our inheritance – to cherish, to study, and to use as a blueprint in creating our own in its mold.
Rav Avrohom Zvi Kushner was a brilliant man blessed with a phenomenal memory. He could have done anything he wanted in life, chosen any career. He opted to teach children. For close to fifty years, he plied his pure trade at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, faithfully transmitting the joy of limud Gemara to our nation’s greatest asset, the tinokos shel bais rabbon.
Commuting was difficult back then, with no bridges or toll roads in sight. It took buses and trains and entailed getting in and out of Manhattan. He returned home only twice a week. Bubbie, juggling running a home while caring for two babies, waited for him patiently, without a whisper of complaint. In fact, when Zaidy decided to move and make it easier for his family, it was Bubbie who was so reluctant to go. Lakewood was her paradise. The beauty of a pure life shared by the select few young wives in that era who appreciated what a life of Torah really means was not easy for her to leave behind.
Lelameid Torah l’amo Yisroel, forever an integral part of the link he passed on.
Lakewood Minyan was another piece of his eternity. After Rav Aharon Kotler’s petirah, the Brooklyn transplants of Lakewood banded together. The minyan started in the rebbetzin’s apartment. Eventually, it outgrew that confined space, and a building was found nearby. It became iconic, a lighthouse of Torah and tefillah adhering faithfully to the mesorah of the yeshiva on the opposite side of the not-yet-existent Verrazano.
There was never a formal rov in that minyan of great men, but Zaidy faithfully sat at the controls. An outsider could have written up the shul zemanim just by judging his schedule. He was never, ever, late, and he did not leave anything to chance. If it was snowing, extra time was needed to walk to shul, and his departure was calculated accordingly.
Just being on time wasn’t enough. Zaidy needed to be there a few minutes early.
“You don’t just run into shul and start davening. You need some time to gather yourself and your thoughts before you begin talking to the Ribbono Shel Olam,” he would say.
Rav Avrohom Zvi’s voice was another indelible portion of his link.
From his earliest youth, he displayed an incredible talent for krias haTorah. Rav Aharon appreciated his young talmid’s sweet tones and, more importantly, his iron-clad adherence to the proper pronunciation of each tag and each ois. Rav Avrohom Tzvi could be trusted. As per his rebbi’s wishes, he became the preferred baal korei of the yeshiva.
There is a curious custom in Bais Medrash Govoah. Almost everywhere in the world, the gabbai chooses who to honor with an aliyah and calls him up to the bima. In Lakewood, although the choice is still made by the gabbai, the actual announcement is handled by the baal korei. In the sefer Noheg Bechochmah, a compilation of minhagei Lakewood, the mystery is explained. Rav Avrohom Zvi’s encyclopedic memory included the knowledge of the full name of every talmid in the yeshiva. It was simply easier for the gabbai to inform the baal korei who he wished to give an aliyah, and Zaidy took it from there. From there, a minhag evolved.
(When I asked him to confirm the story’s veracity, Zaidy just laughed. “It sounds good,” he said, and left it at that.)
When he moved to Brooklyn, he assumed his natural position at the atzei chaim. The place changed, but the passion never waned. He discharged the tzibbur’s weekly obligation with the same fear and precision seen on his face in the days when it was his rebbi who was listening.
On Yomim Noraim, his voice was loudly heard too. His duties included Shacharis and tekios. One year, a baal Mussaf was needed and he filled that role too. On behalf of his family, his kehillah, and his people, with sweetness and fear, he crowned Hakadosh Boruch Hu as King, begged for His forgiveness, and beseeched his Creator for another year to serve Him.
Successfully cleaving to every last note of mitzvah, halacha and minhag requires what seems like unyielding rigidity. That self-discipline was a primary element of Zaidy’s link. However, it never manifested as weight for others to carry. There was no cost to his dikduk hamitzvos other than the self-sacrifice he asked of himself. Kindness and sensibility were etched into his yirah, completing the ornament of Toras chesed al leshono.
There was a young boy scheduled to lain at Lakewood Minyan in honor of his bar mitzvah. As we all know, not every kid is equally up to the task. On Friday night, Zaidy was tipped off that krias haTorah tomorrow would be nowhere near the standard he required. He did not respond to his well-meaning informant, brushing off the news with a shrug.
The next morning, Rav Avrohom Zvi Kushner, who never davened anywhere else and whose lifeblood was tied to the shul that he founded, slipped out of the house at the crack of dawn. His children wanted to know where he was going. No answer was given. When Shacharis began, he was stationed at his seat at Lakewood Minyan, like any other week of the year.
Later, it emerged to his family that Zaidy had gone to hear laining kevosikin. There would be no compromise on halacha, but the blood of a young child and his proud parents would not be spilled as an expense.
Every week, he scanned the crowd, identifying the guests to whom he would later give an aliyah. “A shul is also chayov in hachnosas orchim,” Zaidy said.
There were also watermarks of chassidus stamped on his link. It was passed on by a father who had arrived from the Ukraine as a nine-month-old baby in 1905. Against all odds and without the benefit of a formal yeshiva education, Sam Kushner stayed a frum Yid. Together with his wife, Ettel, known to her generations as Bubbie from the East Side, he built a home worthy of the sacrifices for Yiddishkeit his ancestors had made in the shadow of the Russian bear.
He passed on the pride he felt in being born a Jew and the joyous duty of living like one. Shabbos in their home was the real thing, starting early and ending late, and Torah scholars were held in the highest esteem. The Kushner family’s minhogim that successfully crossed the ocean were cherished and their mesorah was guarded with care.
Although Zaidy was ultimately a product of Toras Lita, he inherited an appreciation for the chassidishe way of life and the great men who headed that world. As a youngster, he would walk the Williamsburg Bridge to be warmed by the Satmar Rov’s fire. It seemed like the whole bentcher was said at the seudos Shabbos he led, the age-old plea of Ribbon Kol Ha’olamin and the strains of Rav Aharon Hagadol’s heavenly-sent Kah Echsof integral parts of his avodah. When one of his sons became a Rachmastrivke chossid, it didn’t bother Zaidy in the least.
“Noch ah bissel Yiddishkeit. Vos iz shlecht?”
Every strain of our people was precious and worthwhile, even to a man whose own mesorah was kodesh kodoshim, immovable in even the tiniest degree.
Torah linked with kindness, fused by the deep understanding that avodas Hashem is the only thing that matters in the end.
Al shlosha devorim ha’olam omeid, and Zaidy’s link contains all three. It is of endless depth, diamond-encrusted layers of Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim lining every inch on the surface of finely polished pure gold.
All of it is held together by the title Zaidy cherished most, the epitaph that defined him at his very core.
Rav Avrohom Zvi Kushner was a talmid. He belonged to Rav Aharon.
It was from his rebbi that all the blessing he brought forth in this world stemmed.
In his youth, yeshiva nearly always ended with 12th grade. Graduating from RJJ meant college, a career, and a home in the suburbs with a white picket fence. But Zaidy said no. The young genius ignored the kaleidoscope of fake American color and headed to the world handed down shechorah al gabei levonah, the world of black and white truth.
He became part of the army that changed the world as it had been known. Young Avrohom Zvi’s emerging link was branded forever by the holy tongs wielded by a rebbi stoking the truest form of fire. For eight years, Zaidy sat in Rav Aharon’s holy shadow, drinking in each nuance of holiness that would sustain him for the remainder of his life.
Chazal clearly set down how a person must approach greatness, how to utilize proximity to people on a higher plane.
Hevei misabeik b’afar ragleihem shel talmidei chachomim. Attach yourself wherever a foothold is presented, and that includes even the dust on their feet.
It is generally understood as a lesson in real time. When a person is privileged to bask in such a man’s presence, he is instructed to value each moment, to count the grains of holy sand that are kicked up as he walks.
Zaidy lived it even deeper. He saved the afar for later too. As the personification of a talmid ne’eman l’rabo, the volumes of dust he had so painstakingly accumulated were carried on his person, going with him wherever he went.
Admas kodesh hu.
Rav Avrohom Zvi never moved from the holy ground consecrated by his great rebbi. He sat and learned on it every moment of his life. Every move Rav Aharon had ever made was etched on his link, every hanhagah saved for posterity. When there was a question in yeshiva as to what the custom was, the roshei yeshiva exclusively called him.
An ainikel once asked him why he would not wear glasses in the street on Shabbos.
“The rosh yeshiva hut nisht azoi gegangen, because Rav Aharon didn’t,” Zaidy replied.
“But Zaidy,” his grandson protested, “the roshei yeshiva today, his own descendants, go with glasses on the street on Shabbos.”
“That is because they need it to actually see. The rosh yeshiva only used it as a reading aid,” he said.
The youngster wasn’t giving up.
“You need them to see too!”
Zaidy smiled. ‘You don’t understand. With our own eyes, we saw the rosh yeshiva go without glasses. I know it’s not the same situation, but I don’t have the chutzpah to do differently than what I myself witnessed. “
He had seen and he just couldn’t. It had been over 40 years since Rav Aharon was niftar, and Zaidy still didn’t have the chutzpah. The dust was still there, and he was still attached.
It is common for someone with such a feeling of closeness to display his rebbi’s portrait on a prominent wall in his home. His son, Reb Benzion, observed at the levayah that Zaidy had no such picture. It wasn’t necessary. The rosh yeshiva’s face hung on the walls of his heart, in living color and framed in fire. A motionless likeness had nothing to add.
Vayeilech Avrom ka’asher diber eilov Hashem.
Avrohom went. He left home to follow the devar Hashem, laying the foundations for the generations built on his lifelong journey toward truth.
Vayavor Avrom ba’aretz.
From the Lower East Side to Lakewood, and on to Brooklyn, Avrohom passed through the land. At every stop, in RJJ, in Lakewood’s Yoshon Bais Medrash, in Torah Vodaas and in Lakewood Minyan, he built another mizbeiach. Rav Avrohom, together with ybl”c Bubbie, his wife Sorah, traveled this world uncovering the glory of our Creator, leaving monuments of eternity for the people who were coming next to always return to and remember their true purpose.
Vayeira Hashem el Avrom vayomer, lezaracha etain es ha’aretz hazos.
Zaidy left us, but we are not empty-handed. The land of kevod Shomayim he uncovered, the link he bequeathed us, was always a privilege for his family and the multitudes of people he touched.
It is now their obligation.
The chain he preserved with his link is now ours to extend.