Outside of the immediate family, few knew that Chaya Sarah had fallen gravely ill. Those who were at her side in the final weeks had been buoyed by her unwavering faith that she would recover. Chaya Sarah’s husband, ybd’l, Rabbi Akiva Rothenberg, described how he and his sons and sons-in-law, on the advice of Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlitah, had learned Mishnayos Masechtah Shvi’is together as a segulah for a refuah, while their wives reviewed halachos related to tznius. He recalled the family’s fervent davening and impassioned tefillos.
“It was a spiritually charged time for our family… We saw the crisis as a nisoyon from Hashem that was meant to draw us closer to Him,” Rabbi Rothenberg reflected. “Chaya Sarah was infused with bitochon and constantly lifted the family’s spirits.”
“From the moment my parents shared the diagnosis with us, they conveyed their solid faith that the yeshuah was in Hashem’s hands, and that we were not going to look to doctors for hope and chizuk. We would turn only to Hashem,” recalled their daughter, Mrs. Etty Kanarek. “I spent Shavuos in the hospital with my parents. They embodied this belief with every word and action. I saw how my parents davened Shemoneh Esrai after the surgery… It was Yom Kippur in the room.”
Chaya Sarah’s sudden illness had forced her to take a leave of absence from her post as director of LRRC, a multi-service agency that helps kollel and low income families from Lakewood access social service information and government programs. Her absence was felt deeply. She maintained steady communication with her staff for as long as she was able to, resolving problems, brainstorming, directing.
“She called while in the hospital to discuss a report,” a staff member recalled. “She sounded very weak but so full of bitochon. When I told her that I’d given birth a few days earlier, she was so happy for me. Her voice suddenly took on new life. Who knows how much strength it took from her to give me such a heartfelt mazel tov.”
PASSION TO HELP OTHERS
Chaya Sarah had taken over the leadership of LRRC just two and a half years earlier, bringing with her more than 20 years of experience as executive administrator of the Village of Kaser, a Vishnitz municipality in Monsey. She had overseen all of Kaser’s departments including compliance with government regulations, taxation, budgeting, grants, housing and social services. Drawing on that vast experience coupled with her talent in building a team, she expanded LRRC’s scope of operations and it began servicing the community in unprecedented numbers.
She cultivated relationships with numerous banks in and around Lakewood, promoting good will toward the yeshiva, and initiated projects that profoundly benefited yungerleit and other citizens of Lakewood. One of the most successful of these was a series of counseling sessions for prospective home buyers that enabled participants to become eligible for mortgages with lower down-payments and lower interest rates.
LRRC training sessions taught members how to keep a mortgage viable by managing payments and taxes in a responsible and realistic manner. An applicant holding a certificate from a seminar was afforded special consideration from banks with whom Chaya Sarah had built a relationship of trust. Thanks to this system, almost a thousand yungerleit were able to become first-time homeowners.
She also met with clergyman of minority denominations to encourage them to take advantage of LRRC’s services, vastly improving community interrelations. She went so far as to hire a Spanish-speaking kollel wife to translate the LRRC brochure into Spanish and arranged for Spanish-speakers to be invited to join the training sessions.
Rabbi Ahron Kotler told the Rothenberg family at shiva that when he informed government representatives working with LRRC that Mrs. Rothenberg had passed away, they were shaken. “I expected them to immediately ask, “So who is filling in, who’s the go-to person?” Rabbi Kotler said. “But they were too distraught to talk. Some actually cried.”
“Her dedication to the Lakewood Community and the mission of assisting those in need knew no bounds,” wrote Dr. Dovid Friedman, CEO of LRRC, in a message of condolence. “Through her role as executive director, thousands of families were helped and their financial burden eased.”
“Mrs. Rothenberg had tremendous concern for b’nei haYeshiva. Her nesius ohl and devotion was apparent in her heartfelt expert advice and assistance to so many,” wrote Rav Malkiel Kotler, along with the other roshei yshiva of Lakewood in a stirring tribute. As a token of their hakoras hatov for her remarkable contribution to the Lakewood community, LRRC on December 28 dedicated a new office in her memory in a poignant ribbon-cutting ceremony.
At that event, Rabbi Kotler, numerous community representatives and officials from government and private agencies spoke about Chaya Sarah’s overflowing passion for helping others. They shared memories and testimonials of her extraordinary efforts on behalf of those in need.
“She never lost sight of the applicants for social services at LRRC who for various reasons were not eligible,” Mr. Isaac Birnhack, a case manager at the agency, told listeners at the ceremony. She could have said, “What can I do? I don’t make the regulations.” But she refused to turn anyone away. She called private agencies, she networked and used all her contacts until she found a way to help the person.
“For the busy head of an agency to go to such unusual lengths to help someone who was not even a client – and she did this time and time again – is truly extraordinary,” Mr. Birnhack said.
HER FATHER’S LEGACY
“Chaya Sarah wvas raised in a home permeated with chesed and askanus, an environment that shaped her life,” noted Rabbi Rothenberg. Her father, Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Labkovsky z”l, served as executive director of MTJ in the 1970’s and enjoyed a close relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l. As the founder of AARTS, an agency that secures government funding for yeshivos, Rabbi Labkovsky had frequent dealings with gedolim and government officials.
In her administrative posts both at Kaser Village and LRRC, Chaya Sarah followed in her father’s footsteps, using her broad array of skills and wealth of experience to strengthen Torah mosdos and assist families of b’nei Torah. One might have expected this dynamic individual to bask in the glow of her many accomplishments but she was very understated about her role.
“I can’t emphasize enough her aneivus,” a staff member wrote during the shiva. She had no airs and never tooted her horn. She constantly had Hashem’s name on her lips. When things worked out, she would share the good news with the staff, saying, “Look what the Eibeshter did for us – it’s a neis!” She never mentioned how much leg work she had poured in, how many strings she had pulled to make it happen. She even gave credit and praise to others for her own ideas and work.”
HARMONY AND BALANCE
People who knew Chaya Sarah well were amazed at the diversity in her personality. She had qualities that were outwardly contradictions but instead of causing conflict, they harmonized and balanced each other.
“She was a polished businesswoman but we knew her as humble and unassuming,” her daughter, Mrs. Nechama Weissman, reflected. “She was a seasoned executive who sat in on meetings with government officials but in essence, she was a person of simplicity. Her greatest joy was giving to her family. Her pride was in being a loving mother and wife who took every member of the family under her protective wing. She could never do enough for us.”
Her staff and co-workers described other aspects of her multidimensional nature. “She set high standards of performance and had herculean goals,” wrote one staff member in a letter to the family. “But this same super-achiever was a sensitive, benevolent leader, a kind and gentle shepherd. She created a nurturing environment where employees wanted to perform, yearned to please her and make her proud.”
“In today’s competitive corporate world, it’s almost impossible for someone running a high-powered agency to remain so sensitive to the needs of others. It’s almost a contradiction. Yet that is who Mrs. Rothenberg was, that is how we knew her,” a co-worker wrote.
Sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable on the one hand, she remained steadfast in her hashkofos, her chashivus for Torah and uncompromising standards of tznius. She gave over these values without preaching. When a daughter wavered over whether to keep or return a new item of clothing that fell short of ideal in terms of tznius, she offered simply, “Take my checkbook. I have a hunch you’ll find something better.”
“She was genuinely unmaterialistic but always looked beautiful and put together,” her daughter, Mrs. Etty Kanarek, recalled. “She had a natural flair for putting an elegant touch to a simcha or an outfit but did it quietly.”
The Rothenberg children all separately describe their mother as “selfless,” someone who gave without limits, with no strings attached.
“I lived in Eretz Yisroel for a few years after my marriage,” her daughter Mrs. Tzippy Yankelewitz, reminisced. “When my daughter was born, my mother flew to Eretz Yisroel with such joy. She brought the entire layette, baby swing and infant seat. She set up my apartment, rearranged my drawer to hold all the baby equipment. I see her in my mind’s eye running up a steep hill from Hachi Kdai schlepping groceries in hot weather… staying up with a crying newborn at night…cooking delicious meals for my husband and me and then disappearing ‘to give us our privacy.’ And she did the same for all my sisters – in the most natural way, as if it was no big deal.”
“Whatever matters to you, mattered to her,” remarked her daughter, Etty. “She heaped praise on us for any accomplishment, big or small, thanked us to the sky for the slightest thing. She believed in us and made us each feel we were just wonderful. Even as adults, we all constantly turned to her for advice and approval.”
“We all knew deep in our hearts what she wanted from her children and what we were capable of being,” Mrs. Devorah Ackerman said. “We’re not carbon copies of each other… My siblings and I each have our own identities. But with all our differences, there is so much love and openness and caring for one another – and that comes from my mother.”
“We grew up in a home of affection, respect and harmony between parents. We saw in them the epitome of unconditional love for each of their children. That is how we know such a thing exists.”
Another daughter, Mrs. Zeesy Munk, reminisced about the two and a half years she frequently hosted her parents during the week in Lakewood so her mother would not have to make the commute back and forth from Monsey each day while working at LRRC.
“I learned so much from watching my mother up close. I loved how she interacted with my kids. I saw how she literally had no boundaries when it came to helping people. She was constantly involved in crisis management. She would come home at 11:30 at night, sink down exhausted and try to unwind. Her cell phone would start to ring. Don’t take it, I begged. She would smile wistfully and pick up the phone.
“She was always absurdly worried about imposing on me. She insisted on using old linens from home so I wouldn’t have to ‘wear out my guest room linen by frequent washings.’ She would buy food so I wouldn’t have the “burden” of extra cooking and shopping. She was so sensitive about not intruding on my privacy, she would slip out of the room as soon as my husband walked in the door after work.
“In my heart I cry, ‘Ma, if only I had one more day for you to “impose” on me! One more day for you to teach me how to be a better person!’”
BECAUSE SHE CARED
Her children reminisced about their mother’s history of devotion to her elderly parents and mother-in-law who each, separately, moved in with the Rothenbergs when they could no longer live on their own.
“My mother took responsibility for my grandmother’s extensive care, familiarizing herself with all the technical and medical issues,” a daughter related. “When my grandmother insisted on eating only chicken that was kashered at home, my mother did it for her without a trace of resentment, even with her mother-in-law supervising her!”
When her own father and then her mother suffered illness in their old age, Chaya Sarah again became the primary care-taker. She threw herself into getting them top medical attention and made key decisions about their care. “She knew so much, she was like a walking reference manual but didn’t push her convictions on anyone. You could disagree with her. She didn’t take things personally,” her daughter commented.
A staff member at LRRC noted that this trait enabled Chaya Sarah to soothe tensions in the office when a deadline was looming or when clients behaved rudely or inappropriately.
“Instead of reacting angrily, she urged us to see these explosive people either as unwell or going through something very painful,” the co-worker wrote. “She urged us to reach out to them with extra empathy and patience, to help them see past their pain.”
“Time and again I’ve seen how she built people up when someone else would have crushed them. She was able to turn people and situations around because of the time she took to show she cared,” yet another staff member recalled.
When asked how she was able to see beyond angry, rude behavior, she gave the credit to her husband, as she often did when complemented for an original idea or profound thought. “Abba taught me how to step back and to see things from the other person’s perspective,” she told her daughters.
In a sign of the mutual admiration between husband and wife, Rabbi Rothenberg added an affectionate footnote to this story. “True, I remember giving her this advice. But she was better than me at implementing it.”
“She had no pettiness in her,” Rabbi Rothenberg reminisced. “Her focus was on how to grow spiritually and how to be of help to others. Despite tremendous pressures, she never lost sight of priorities. While commuting back and forth to Lakewood, she found it hard to daven with kavonah in the mornings. So she took upon herself to daven maariv when she had more time. You could see the intensity of her davening from her krias shema, from just a glance at her.”
He recounted how his wife had poured her energies into helping him set up a shul in the Bates-Horton neighborhood of Monsey a number of years ago. The community of young kollel families and b’nei Torah was delighted when the Rothenbergs settled in their midst and agreed to turn their basement into a small beis kenesses until a larger one could be built.
“When it came to carrying out the plan, it was Chaya Sarah who actually got it done,” Rabbi Rothenberg recalled. “She oversaw the finishing of the basement down to the last detail. She had tables custom-built to accommodate the room’s narrow dimensions. She calculated how to maximize the space to seat as many people as possible.”
When all was complete, Chaya Sarah still wasn’t satisfied. The basement had a cement floor which she felt detracted from the room’s dÃ©cor. “It’s a makom tefilah. It should be bakovodig,” she said. And she set about painting the floor herself.
Taking care of the shul remained a priority even after she accepted the directorship of LRRC and began commuting back and forth to Monsey. “Before touching her own kitchen when she arrived home erev Shabbos, she made sure the shul was immaculate,” her daughter recalled.
If there was a kiddush after davening Shabbos morning, the baalei simchah were invited to use the Rothenbergs’ fridge to stash food platters until they were ready to be served. At times the baal simchah would simply set down a couple of plates of herring at the end of mussaf.
“My mother would whisk the plates upstairs to her kitchen, arrange the herring on a pretty platter with kichel around it and bring it down right on time,” her daughter related. “No one expected her to do this. It just gave her pleasure to enhance someone’s simchah. On Simchas Torah, she made trays of delicious chalopshes for all the mispallelim… She was constantly thinking of others.”
VA’ANI B’CHASDECHA BOTACHTI
Chaya Sarah’s illness advanced so aggressively, it defied all efforts by her doctors to treat and contain it. Complications set in and Chaya Sarah endured periods of excruciating pain. In the grip of pain, she would whisper, “I’m mekabel yesurim b’ahavah.” When the pain subsided even minutely, her children and husband, who kept a 24-7 rotation by her bedside, heard her utter words of gratitude, “Hodu LaShem ki tov… and “V’ani b’chasdecha botachti, yogel libi bishuosecha.”
She continued to assist others, even while terribly weak. Co-workers and others who had spoken to her over the phone in that period recalled during shiva how she had offered them her help. They were shocked to learn afterwards that she had been sick at the time. A staff member wrote to the family, “Your mother constantly called to check up on me since I was having a rough pregnancy. I found out later that this was when she was sick and on oxygen!”
Family members visited her in the hospital to be mechazek her; yet it was she who strengthened them. “She was so appreciative of any help and felt terrible that she was taking us from our families,” her daughter Nechama recalled. “As usual, she drew us out about what was on our minds and filled us with encouragement and hope that the yeshua was “around the corner.” If she suspected differently, she and my father gave no hint of it. We held on, praying that she would survive this nightmare.”
Tragically, it was not meant to be.
She was niftar on Shabbos Parshas Matos. Despite brief notice, an overflow crowd of more than 800 people thronged to the levaya. The moving hespedim impacted and inspired many of the listeners to follow her golden example in their own lives. Many hundreds came to be menacheim the family during shiva. Broken-hearted relatives, friends and co-workers shared emotional stories and testaments about an extraordinary woman who was deeply loved and admired and who had enriched the lives of so many.
She is survived by her devoted husband and beloved children and grandchildren, as well as her brothers. May her zechusim bring them yeshuos and endless brocha, and may her shining legacy light the way for them and for all of Klal Yisrael.
Mommy, they say time is supposed to heal but the anguish of losing you is still so raw. The pain shoots up without warning like the thrust of a knife. We all adored you so. Like a magic wand, your love wiped away worries, solved problems and bestowed help and comfort. You never asked us for anything, and lavished appreciation for any small thing we did for you. Just spending time with you was the biggest treat. Each of us felt we had an exclusive bond with you. We always felt so cherished.
Mommy, from hundreds of stories and tributes that poured forth in the week of shiva we discovered how much you meant to so many others – how much they, too, valued and loved you.
Your staff at LRRC described how you inspired them to produce their best. They recalled you as a “person of incredible stamina, talent and motivation who never lost her kind, gentle and motherly demeanor.”
“She was a friend, mentor, a place of peace and calm for all of us,” one person wrote. “When you spoke to her she would listen attentively with a soft smile on her face. She took a personal interest in us and got to know our spouses, our children and even our family dynamics. She really cared. She was a pillar of strength, an anchor.”
Mommy, you believed be’emunah shelaimah that the yeshuah was around the corner. Now, in the olam haemes you are surely basking in the radiance created by your pure faith. Help us keep your torch burning, Mommy! Daven to Hashem to heal our broken hearts and to strengthen us with bitochon as we try to move on without you.