Our people have not experienced as difficult a period as we are living through now since the awful days of the Holocaust. We have not lost as many good people in as concentrated a time since then. Over the past few weeks, every day has brought fresh deaths and more news of people dying. People of all ages, young and old. People were hale and productive one day and the next day they were dead and buried.
Whose heart cannot be broken?
Who can go through day after day without fear and dread?
Our lives have been turned upside down. Many of the things we took for granted have been taken from us. We are basically confined to our homes, unable to go anywhere.
The beautiful Yom Tov of Pesach was celebrated under the constraints of not davening in shul. Minyanim are shut, shuls are closed, and yeshivos and schools are shuttered. There are no simchos for us to attend. We can’t go to levayos or to be menachem aveilim. Stores are closed, as are parks and public places. Airplane flights are down 95%. Many people are out of work, and those who aren’t are making less money. Storekeepers and business owners are losing more money every day and davening for the economy to get restarted.
Everybody knows people whose lives were lost. Leaders, relatives and good friends. People you have known for years. In a flash, they were gone.
Since the last time I wrote, I have lost many friends, acquaintances, people I knew, and people I looked up to. And I am not the only one.
Every life snuffed out is a tremendous loss, but to our world, the most prominent loss was the passing of the Novominsker Rebbe, an outstanding talmid chochom and leader. Born in 1930, in many ways his life resembled the history of Am Yisroel – with ups and downs and different masaos and stops along the way to various goluyos where Klal Yisroel planted itself and ultimately succeeded.
His idyllic childhood as the son of a rebbe in Brooklyn was interrupted by the war, when much of his family and 6,000,000 Jews were wiped out by the Nazis. The world crashed in on him and there was sadness everywhere. Everyone lost relatives and close ones; rabbonim and rebbes lost their lives along with peshutei am. It was a time of uncertainty. Nobody knew what the future held, or if there was a future. But within a few years, the Jewish world began flourishing. The Torah community, which was given up on by many, entered a steep growth incline and hasn’t stopped growing since.
The rebbe learned under great rabbeim and displayed the brilliance he would later use for the benefit of Klal Yisroel. He grew in Torah and middos, as well as in his understanding of people and the world. He dedicated his life to learning and teaching Torah.
He began his career as a rebbi in the Skokie HTC yeshiva, where he stood out as an American-born and trained talmid chochom who spoke English without an accent and related well to American boys. He appealed to them with his wisdom as he introduced them to his world of Torah greatness, presenting the Gemara clearly and in a way described by a talmid as “delicious.” He made learning so appealing that boys forfeited leaving the yeshiva for other opportunities in order to be able to learn and grow under his tutelage. Many modeled themselves after him and resolved to dedicate their lives to Torah, just like their rebbi.
After spending seven years in Chicago, he accepted the position of rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of the Breuer’s kehillah in Washington Heights. It was a testament to his personality and greatness that just as the Chicago community was attracted to the American-born future chassidishe rebbe, so did the German Yekkishe kehillah become enamored with him. In fact, even after he left there upon his father’s passing, he would return to say shiurim. The last shiur was said over the telephone shortly before his sudden passing.
When his father passed away, he assumed his position as admor of Novominsk and moved to Brooklyn, where he established a rebbistive and yeshiva. That became his final stop, and from there his reputation spread. He became a fount of Torah and gadlus for masses of people. From his membership in the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel and the Rabbinical Administrative Board of Torah Umesorah, he became an esteemed leader many looked to. In every situation, he could be counted on to provide articulate and eloquent responses to the issues of the day. His convention addresses presented measured, clear directives for a people desperate for leadership.
How did he accomplish as much as he did and how was he able to relate to different factions, each one seeing him as their own?
I came to know the rebbe many years ago and was able to see him from up front as well as behind closed doors. He was unfailingly kind and a gentleman when addressing people. He was modest and displayed a lack of pretention. He understood people and knew what to say to uplift someone and make them feel good about themselves and optimistic about their situation.
Very often, people get lost in the moment and lose sight of the big picture. He never did. His life was one of optimism. The life he led was a guide for him not to look at things negatively and forsake hope. He didn’t experience the Holocaust up close, but he learned from it never to give up hope and never to forget that Hashem runs the world and has a bigger plan.
He was smart, and when presented with a problem, he provided a smart answer. He didn’t have patience for foolishness and pettiness. He was always on the side of yosher, of honesty, of Torah and of mesorah. He never lost sight of our responsibility in this world and took very seriously the position Hashem placed him in where people turned to him for guidance and direction.
When you went to see him and sat down at the dining room table in his unpretentious home, you felt that he had all the time in the world for you. As you spoke, he listened and looked into your eyes with a certain loving trust. He did not look down at you. You felt welcome and at home, and what you were saying was important to him, because you were important to him. He responded intelligently and warmly, never betraying the trust. He was serious and his words were measured, and when he said he would do something, you knew he would. His words were reassuring and his actions were noble, honorable, principled and virtuous.
He sought achdus and pined for a time when everyone could work together with mutual respect. Although he was by nature an ish hashalom, when the situation demanded it, he would go to war. He was fine and gentle, but when required, he could be tough. Even in times like that, nobody felt put down, because they knew that he was saying what needed to be said and that it was clearly thought through and emanating from the pained, thinking heart of a serious and great person.
We took the rebbe for granted and thought that he would always be here. It was getting more difficult for him to get around, but because of his deep sense of achrayus and his appreciation of good people and those who were close to him, he forced himself to attend public functions and continue his avodas hakodesh.
And then we awoke to the terrible news that he had passed away in the middle of the night. It probably has been said before, and it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true anyway. He hated fanfare and left us during the night as we slept and did not know that he was in a critical situation. He would have had an enormous levayah with many tens of thousands joining to mourn his passing, yet there was barely more than a minyan there to give him kavod acharon.
For the moment, it compounded the tragedy that we were not able to give him the respect he so richly deserved and earned through a life of ameilus baTorah and helping Yidden, but if you look at the big picture, as he always did, his life will be celebrated and he will long be remembered by his talmidim, by the people he helped, and by Klal Yisroel – and the size of his levayah will be forgotten.
His life will long provide an example of the heights an American yeshiva bochur can reach and how much we can achieve if we set our hearts and minds to it.
Oy lonu ki lokinu.
The passing of my good friend, Reb Avrohom Aharon Rubashkin, brought me back to the period during which the business he spent decades building was taken from him and his beloved son was sentenced to 27 years in prison. It was during that time that I came to know him. His simple emunah and bitachon were contagious. He was not broken; his faith remained as strong as ever. He would always tell me, “Der Ribono Shel Olam bleibt nit ah baal chov.” He knew that the story would have a happy ending, and it did.
I knew Yossel Czapnik for forty years. He was a good friend and later a loyal employee. His devotion to the chassidus and rabbeim of Ger served as an inspiration to me in our cynical time. A fountain of knowledge, he was beloved by such gedolim as Rav Shneur Kotler and Rav Elya Svei for his brilliance and wit. A friend to many, young and old, he was cut down by the awful virus.
I came to know Willie Stern through his work in Kovno. He was in my house a few months ago, and at age 86 he was energetic as he planned for the future. An aristocrat and gentleman, he created a revolution of Yiddishkeit in its formerly forsaken home in historic Kovno. He was well known in London, where he made his home, and around the world for his many acts of charity and kindness.
Rav Yosef Kantor was a tzaddik and talmid chochom who lived in Monsey. Rav Avrohom Gordon was a rebbi in Monsey for some fifty years. He was a fine man, always with a smile and something nice to say. Rav Boruch Hersh Feder of Williamsburg was learned and knowledgeable, a great conversationalist and a good friend.
Rav Ze’ev Rothschild of Lakewood was loyal and principled, and always unfailingly honest in his interactions with the Yated. Noach Dear sought to use his life to do good and be mekadeish shem Hashem in the halls of power and justice.
Rav Nachman Morgan was my parents’ tenant after he married Esther Schapiro, a daughter of Rav Zorach. He also spent his life teaching Torah. He introduced me to the tapes of Rav Shalom Schwadron when I was a young boy. I was so enamored by him; I can still repeat the first shmuess Reb Nachman played for me on a cassette player.
Mrs. Chana Tabak was in a league all her own. Together with her husband, she built a home of Torah and chochmah in which she raised an outstanding generation. A dear and treasured friend, she excelled not only in wisdom and wit, but also in chesed and maasim tovim. She was the paragon and epitome of a Jewish mother.
I can go on, but it is too sad and painful to reminisce about all the people I knew who were niftar over the past month. Read the pages of this paper and weep over all the korbanos.
Let us all resolve to do our best to fill the gap left by the passing of hundreds of gutteh Yidden around the world. Let us fill the gap left by so many people everywhere being forced to daven without a minyan. Let us fill the gap created by the closing of yeshivos and schools.
Let us daven that Hashem quickly remove the awful plague from our midst.