As one friend expressed, “Yony deserves an entire book.” It is our hope that he will get one. But for now, as Klal Yisroel reels from the pain of his passing on the fifteenth of Av, traditionally a day of nechomah for our nation, this tribute will try to paint but a tiny sliver of the vibrant portrait of Reb Yony’s life.
Just the mention of Reb Yony’s name is enough to bring a smile to those fortunate to know him. You couldn’t help but smile when you thought of Reb Yony, a tayere Yid who was mechazeik and was from the originators of the vosikin minyan in Lakewood, who would attend that minyan and then learn for hours, whose knowledge of intricate halachos was so extensive that experienced rabbonim were in awe. Reb Yony, who would remain awake all night learning in the Mir as a bochur, then walk to the Kosel for vosikin and continue learning for hours.
Reb Yony, who would show up with such genuine simcha to set up the apartments of his newly engaged friends, installing stoves, washing machines and sinks on his own, while he was still waiting to set up a home of his own.
Reb Yony, son of the renowned talmid chochom Rav Yosef Meir and Chana (nÃ©e Hess) Kantor, who found his bashert and was married six short years ago, and who left behind a beautiful three-year-old son, Avrohom Dovid.
Reb Yony, who already guaranteed his toddler son in yeshiva before his petirah to pave the way for his precious child; who purchased a mehudar pair of tefillin, the most mehudar that money could buy, and wore it for a few days before his untimely petirah. His beloved son will inherit these tefillin along with his father’s legacy of simcha and chesed.
Reb Yony was a man of many talents, but most of all an abiding example of pure ahavas Yisroel.
He never lived a life of ease and comfort, yet his sole desire was to bring ease and comfort to others. He was blessed with an abundance of chein. “He was so zees,” his relatives and friends recall. Even as a child, he undertook responsibility for his siblings’ happiness. As the second child in a large kollel family, Reb Yony grew up wearing inexpensive suits, but later bought his siblings the better suits because it would bring them simcha.
Later, when he reached adulthood, Reb Yony quietly and modestly married off all his younger siblings, providing the funds to pay for their entire weddings and supporting those who remained in kollel. How he achieved this almost superhuman feat without burdening anyone is a mystery.
“With Yony, no one ever knew how he managed these things,” said a friend. “Yony never spoke about himself or what he was doing. Everything was done quietly, without fanfare.”
When one of his younger brothers was becoming bar mitzvah, Reb Yony slipped a substantial sum into the pocket of a sister. “Buy him a nicer hat and suit,” Reb Yony whispered. “He really needs it.” This wasn’t a one-time occurrence. It was maasim bechol yom.
As Reb Aron, the brother following Yony, recalled, “In our family, only three of us are working, while the rest are in kollel. For many years, whenever a family member needed money for a simcha or emergency situation, Yony would call the two of us, and we would split the amount three ways. This continued for many years.
All those years, I had never imagined that Yony was only charging us a small fraction of the sum necessary and that he was paying for most of it. This is in addition to all the other times he would quietly foot the bill, even without asking us for our share. Yony would never have told us anything, even now, had it not been necessary.”
A Brilliant Mind
One of Reb Yony’s best-kept secrets was the incredible depth of his knowledge and his grasp of complicated halachic sugyos. He dressed casually, yet was respected, even revered, by the leading rabbonim in the kashrus industry.
For many years, Yony’s parnossah was in the wine industry. He was one of the leading experts in the manufacturing of kosher wine and traveled the world as an advisor for the OU under the Manischewitz brand. He visited plants in far-flung places to ascertain if they could be kashered and would trouble-shoot, trying to figure out how to make things work. He knew all the issues involving yayin nesech and how to prevent them.
The hechsheirim business is a huge industry, with lots of stress and last-minute complications. Throughout it all, Reb Yony remained calm and unflappable, insisting on the highest standards and never taking shortcuts. He was trusted by the top names in hechsheirim. They knew that Reb Yony’s word was backed by halachah and that Reb Yony would never mislead anyone or take the easy way out. There were times, as family members recall, when Reb Yony would receive threats from factory workers for exposing less than ideal situations, but he never backed down.
“He was in business for thirty years and had many people working for him,” recalled a friend who used to join him on some of the trips. “In all the years, no one ever asked how much Yony was paying them. They all knew he would give them the maximum and keep the minimum profit for himself.”
His brother recalls a meeting between Reb Yony and the heads of the Badatz’s wine hechsher. Before the Shmittah year, the Badatz wanted to produce their wine in South America to circumvent Shmittah complications. They scheduled a meeting with Reb Yony to discuss their options. Reb Yony was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, as usual, and a broad smile. The rabbonim began asking him questions and Reb Yony responded, then countered with his own. His questions and explanations revealed an incredible grasp of halachah and of the entire industry.
Before long, one of the rabbonim apologized. He hadn’t known that he had to study the halachos before talking to such an expert. As they left, he gave Reb Yony a hug and said, “We underestimated you.”
We underestimated you.
A Caring Heart
Everyone loved Reb Yony, from the crankiest toddlers to teens at risk to prominent rabbonim, but few realized the depths of his maasim tovim. During the shivah, the stories poured out, such as the time one of his friends was making a bar mitzvah and had no money for tefillin. Reb Yony told him about a sofer who was offering tefillin at a discount price. The friend bought the tefillin for half price, never dreaming that Reb Yony paid the other half.
There was the time that a friend was building a sukkah for the very first time. Reb Yony offered to help him, but the friend didn’t want to take advantage and hired someone to do it. Reb Yony came to see the sukkah and praised the handiwork, then called the man who built it to compliment him.
He regularly dropped food packages at the homes of those struggling to make ends meet. He spent hours being mechazeik young men who had left the yeshiva world, who felt alone and misunderstood. He would get down on all fours to give his friends’ children piggyback rides, yet felt at ease discussing halachic issues with leading poskim.
There were so many facets to Reb Yony. He was a man of manifold talents and strengths, yet what stood out most of all was the sweetness of his personality and the way he fargined everyone. Although he didn’t merit to build his home until he was in his late forties, he danced exuberantly at simchos, had incredible patience for other people’s issues, and enjoyed being with the families he adopted as his own.
Rabbi Mendel Tress, who merited a close relationship with Reb Yony, recalled, “He was a ben bayis at our home for many years, joining us for Shabbos meals, and forged a close relationship with all our sons. It was such a treat to have him for a meal. Reb Yony was not just a wonderful guest. He was the life of our Shabbos table. He would sing zemiros, play with the children, say a gut vort, and just enhance the seudah for everyone. He had an endless capacity for joy and a heart filled with warmth. Reb Yony was pure gutskeit. He was incapable of hurting a fly.”
He would fix the bicycles for the children on the block and help their fathers with technical issues, a blocked sink, an electrical problem, or whatever they needed. He was a genius with his hands and used them to bring joy to others.
“He was a gaon in bein adam lachaveiro,” said his aunt, Mrs. Rivka Pollack. “He didn’t have a jealous bone in his body. He took his younger siblings shopping, set up their apartments and supported them after they moved to Eretz Yisroel. And his kibbud av v’eim! He had such incredible respect for his parents. Once, a new daughter-in-law was coming to visit and things were hectic. Reb Yony turned to his mother and said, ‘My mother never loses herself.’ He was such a sweet, good person, a ben chein who even a policeman would let go without giving him a ticket.
“A few months ago, I saw Yony at a wedding. He came over to me to shmooze, to ask how I was doing. I couldn’t believe it was the same person who was supposed to be so sick. He looked so calm and happy, full of life and hope.”
Another aunt recalled that when her daughter got married, she hadn’t even had a chance to visit the Lakewood apartment, but it wasn’t necessary because Reb Yony set everything up. He put up the window shades, placed mezuzos on the doors, and made sure the apartment was ready for the new couple. This was done without any invitation or request. If there was a need, Reb Yony was there.
He had been that way ever since he was a young child.
“When I came to Yeshiva Bais Hatalmud from England as a bochur, I hardly knew a soul,” said his longtime chavrusah and friend Rabbi Moshe Gruner. “Yony was learning there at the time (he later learned at Yeshiva Mir Yerushalayim before going to Lakewood). He was the first to come over to me with a big smile and make me feel welcome. Later, when we lived in Lakewood together, he would come over often. He set up my apartment and we learned together bechavrusah for many years.”
A Self-Made Man
Reb Yony and his brother, Reb Aron, who both lived in Lakewood, had an exceptionally close bond, but there were some things Reb Aron only discovered years later, after Reb Yony was married.
“Throughout the years, I always assumed that Yony was a happy-go-lucky guy, that he was okay with his situation, because he always had a smile and seemed so happy. He danced at the weddings of his siblings and relatives with such genuine happiness after having raised the money or paid for the simchos himself. He loved playing with our children and just being in the center of things.
“And then, one day, I was going through a difficult situation and was a little down. My wife and children knew that they couldn’t talk to me. Yony walked in, as he often did, in the evening, and sensed my mood. He tried to talk me out of it, but I wasn’t interested. I said, ‘Yony, this has nothing to do with you. You’re a single guy. You don’t have these burdens and worries.’ I guess in my pain I was a little callous, because then Yony told me something I’ll never forget.
“My dear brother, Yony, said, ‘Okay, I’ll leave, but first I want to ask you something. Do you really believe I’m a happy person?’ I was taken aback by the question, but I answered, ‘Of course.’ Yony was the happiest person I ever met. Ever since he was a kid, I never saw him without a smile on his face. My kids loved Uncle Yony. He was just a ray of sunshine.
“And then Yony said to me, ‘Would you believe me if I told you that every morning, when I wake up, I have to work on myself to be happy? That I don’t leave the house until I can put a smile on my face and be truly besimcha? Sometimes it takes a few minutes and sometimes half an hour, but I’m constantly working on it. Other people don’t have to suffer because I’m going through a hard time.’
“I was stunned. I had been so close to Yony, and we spent so much time together. But this was a side of Yony that I never knew existed. I never realized how alone he must have felt all those years while waiting for his basherte, because he never let on.
“When he got engaged, boruch Hashem. We were giddy with excitement and joy. The entire Lakewood was thrilled with the simcha.
“Can you imagine? Yony must have heard these wishes thousands of times and never said a word. During other simchos, he was busy seating and serving the guests, making sure things flowed smoothly. Only once he was already a chosson did he share his feelings.”
At Reb Yony’s chasunah, family and friends estimate that there must have been around 800 people present, most of whom were not invited. Everyone felt that Reb Yony’s simcha was their simcha, because everyone considered him their best friend. People in their fifties and sixties were dancing for hours like young men. It was a simcha that would reverberate in their hearts and minds for many years.
Three years after their marriage, Reb Yony and his wife Sara P’nina were blessed with their only son, Avrohom Dovid. Once again, Lakewood rejoiced with the mazel tov. Reb Yony was blissfully happy. After all these years of davening and longing, of playing with other people’s children, he merited a Kaddish, a child of his own.
And then, two years later, on Chol Hamoed Pesach, came the terrible news. Reb Yony had been diagnosed with the dreaded disease.
Reb Yony had a decision to make: He could try to keep his condition under wraps in order to have privacy during this difficult time, or he could share it with others, to benefit from their tefillos. Knowing Reb Yony, it really wasn’t a choice at all. Before long, everyone and their brother had heard of Reb Yony’s diagnosis, and their collective tefillos stormed the heavens.
Shortly after Reb Yony was diagnosed, an acquaintance went to Aron, Yony’s brother, and gave him his credit card. “I want to tell you something about Yony,” he said. “A couple of years ago, my business was going through very hard times. I ruined my credit, had no money in the bank, and didn’t know where my next dollar would come from. One day, Yony came over to me and gave me a loan of ten thousand dollars. ‘You don’t have to pay it back now,’ he said. ‘It’s a long-term loan.’ I was hesitant to accept it, but I really didn’t have a choice. Boruch Hashem, the money went a long way, and I was able to build up my business again.
“I never repaid the loan,” the man said, with tears in his eyes. “However, now I want to repay it. Here’s my credit card. Whatever you need for Yony – medical equipment, a comfortable chair, or anything else – just put it on my card.”
When Yony was first diagnosed, he refused to let the doctor’s diagnosis limit him. He continued doing what he’d always been doing: learning, working, helping others, and, most importantly, being a devoted husband and father.
Rabbi Moshe Gruner attested, “As his illness progressed, despite his terrible, unrelenting pain, Yony continued to learn with incredible mesirus nefesh. Sometimes he would be writhing on the floor in pain, but he waited for the spasm to pass and then continued to learn. The learning literally kept him going, giving him strength.”
Up until his final days, Reb Yony refused to admit defeat, hoping and davening that he would triumph over his illness, even as he grew weaker. “I can’t go yet,” he would say. “There are too many people who rely on me.”
A month before his petirah, when a younger brother came from England to be with him, Reb Yony was excited, but then joked, “Don’t tell me things are so bad that they had to bring you!”
A short while before his petirah, Reb Yony made his final siyum. Incredibly, during his lifetime, he merited to make over 200 siyumim, including several on the entire Shas. Although he usually didn’t say Kaddish, as the minhag is not to say Kaddish when one’s father is still alive, this time he asked his father, Rav Yosef Meir Kantor, if he could say Kaddish. However, his father did not want to give up hope yet and felt that he should not say Kaddish. Hopefully, he would merit a refuah and would make many more siyumim.
Sadly, despite the fervent tefillos and medical efforts, the decree from Above was sealed. Reb Yony had fulfilled his tafkid on this world, emulating his Creator by filling his days with acts of chesed for others. Before his petirah, he made a heartfelt plea for his family, asking them to stay united and care for each other, as he had done.
Reb Yonason Ephraim is survived by his devoted wife, Sora Penina, who stood at his side and cared for him devotedly throughout his illness; his three-year-old son, Avrohom Dovid; his parents, Rav Yisroel Meir and Chana Kantor; and nine siblings. He also leaves a legacy of gutskeit, the legacy of a Yid who lived to bring smiles to other people’s faces.
Yehi zichro boruch.