As a young man, Abba Zalka was sent by his parents, Jonah and Chaya Rivka Gewirtz, to learn in the newly established yeshiva in, of all places, Cleveland, Ohio. He had the good fortune to study together with someone several years his senior, a rebbi of mine, the inimitable Rav Meyer Zanitsky zt”l. Abba Zalka would wake up at five in the morning and learn for three hours, so that he could be on equal footing with Reb Meyer.
Eventually, Reb Abba Zalka went to learn with Rav Dovid Leibowitz zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yisroel Meir Hakohen (Chofetz Chaim), who played such a prominent role in his life. Although he passed away in 1941, while Reb Abba Zalka was still a relatively young man, he always referred to Rav Dovid, with great reverence and love, as “rebbi.”
In fact, Rav Henach Leibowitz zt”l, Rav Dovid’s son, would refer to Rabbi Gewirtz as his father’s talmid muvhak. About twenty years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Rav Dovid Leibowitz, a major commemorative tribute was held in New York, with Rabbi Gewirtz chosen to deliver one of the major addresses. Rav Avrohom Pam commented on that drasha, “It was as if I had seen my rebbi (Rav Dovid Leibowitz) come alive before my very eyes!”
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After Rav Gifter finished his short stint as a rabbi in Baltimore, he applied for a rabbinic position in Waterbury, Connecticut, a prestigious position at the time. His main competitor was Reb Abba Zalka, who was, at the time, a young rov in Bradley Beach, New Jersey.
Rabbi Gewirtz had already heard about Rav Gifter and been highly impressed by what he had heard. Rav Henach Leibowitz was sitting in his bais midrash when Rav Gifter, freshly back from Europe, entered to sit and learn. Word soon spread in the bais midrash that a true talmid chochom was among them. Soon, many of thebochurim gathered around Rav Gifter to fire questions at him. Reb Abba Zalka remembers hearing from his friends how the young Rav Gifter deflected the questions and quieted his challengers. As one witness described it, it was like a lion defending his terrain. The others came to contest, argue and strive with Rav Gifter in learning, but with precision and passion he silenced them all. They were learning Maseches Yevamos in the yeshiva and Rav Gifter was not, but it made no difference. At this point, he was completely comfortable in anything he had ever learned. He had mastered the masechtos and now he was thirsty for more and more learning. Especially after spending so much time on the boat away from a bais midrash, Rav Gifter was hungry for the ris’cha de’Oraisa (fire of Torah) and pilpul chaveirim he had treasured in the yeshiva.
The astonished group of bochurim had been exposed to greatness and they would never forget it. Reb Abba Zalka was very impressed upon hearing the story.
When the Waterbury synagogue board voted, their choice was Reb Abba Zalka. When they informed him, he told them that they had made the wrong choice. Rav Gifter, he explained, was destined for greatness. As he put it, “He’s a better man than I.” So the shul hired Rav Gifter, who would always remember Reb Abba Zalka’s kindness and generosity.
Eventually, when Rav Gifter finished his tenure in Waterbury, he was succeeded by the same Reb Abba Zalka, based on the recommendation of Rav Gifter. In fact, Rav Gifter picked him up at the station when he came to replace him, since he was eager to finally see Reb Abba Zalka in person, saying later, “I had to meet the man who praised his competition and gave away his job!”
Rabbi Gewirtz remained the rov in Waterbury for the next 25 years, until he was invited by Rav Gifter to become the executive vice president of Telzer Yeshiva in 1968.
Not only did Rav Gifter remain connected with Rabbi Gewirtz, but the close relationship between the Gifters and the Gewirtzes carried over to the next generation, as Rabbi Yonah Gewirtz became a closetalmid of the rosh yeshivah, and Reb Dovid Gewirtz kept a connection, as well. And then it intensified even more, as the Gewirtz grandchildren came from New Orleans to learn under Rav Gifter.
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In the early 1940s, after Rav Gifter left Waterbury, Reb Abba Zalka became the rov. He focused his energy and efforts on building the community, and build he did. He established the day school and oversaw the kashrus, while bringing many families closer to Yiddishkeit. For 25 years, he shaped the Waterbury community. Nurturing relationships, he helped them grow as families and individuals. During his time in Waterbury, Reb Abba Zalka communicated with the great talmid chochom, Rav Yehudah Leib Forer zt”l, Rav Elazar Shach’s rebbi and the rov in Holyoke, Massachustes. In their correspondence, Rav Forer referred to Reb Abba Zalka as “mechamed nafshi, the one for whom my soul desires.”
After 25 years, the time had come for a change. Rabbi Gewirtz had reached a plateau in his professional life in Waterbury. His congregation had flourished under his stellar leadership, and he had succeeded in molding the kehillah according to his image of Torah-true Judaism. Bonds of friendship had been created between him and the congregants, some of which have endured until this day. He had established and maintained Beth David Academy, one of the very first American out-of-town day schools with a Judaic studies faculty who were bnei Torah and G-d-fearing, an unusual feat in those days for a day school in a small community. He had made a difference in the lives of his congregants, and they sorely wanted him to remain in Waterbury, but he sought a greater challenge.
The opportunity came in a phone call from his old friend (and one-time competitor) Rav Gifter, during which he offered him a position at Telshe Yeshiva. Rabbi Aaron Paperman zt”l had recently left the yeshiva, and the yeshiva was in need of someone to undertake fundraising and other administrative functions. Rabbi Gewirtz was appointed to the newly formed position, vice-president of Telshe Yeshiva, in 1969,and the rest of his illustrious career with Telshe, as the saying goes, is history.
Reb Abba Zalka would often say, “My approach was not just asking for a check. I educated people.”
In a sense, then, while the yeshiva was educating the students who entered its portals, Rabbi Gewirtz reached out and educated the lay population about the critical importance of supporting a yeshiva. He was an eminently effective teacher, because Jewish values and ideals resonated within him. Thus, when Mr. Adolph Beren once remarked to him that he himself doesn’t understand why he funds Telshe Yeshiva more generously than his own shul in Marietta, Rabbi Gewirtz explained to him that his shul, as beloved as it is, is but a local institution, but Telshe Yeshiva is an institution “upon which the continuity of our people depends.” He hammered home the point by saying, “You depend on the yeshiva, for your children’s future depends on the yeshiva!”
In addition, Reb Abba Zalka would take his rebbetzin along on his fundraising trips, as she was as essential to the mission as he was. As a couple, they were inseparable, thus setting a standard for those travelling away from home to raise funds for Torah. They displayed how it must be a joint undertaking, a united objective, and a unified goal.
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When Reb Abba Zalka’s grandson, Rabbi Yonah Gewirtz’s son, Danny (Doniel), was learning in the Telshe Yeshiva, Rav Gifter challenged him to finish the masechta he was learning and then to take a test on the material. Rav Gifter promised Danny $100 if he passed the bechinah. Danny had grown up in New Orleans and had made tremendous progress since he came to the yeshiva. But finishing Maseches Bava Kama was a much greater challenge than anything he had ever attempted before.
At the time, he was in Rav Dovid Barkin’s shiur, learning with a son of Rav Shaul Dolinger, another second-generation Telzer. Danny knew that his father was a talmid of the rosh yeshiva and that his grandfather was a close friend. Danny felt that he wanted to excel in order to please everyone. Therefore, in order to finish, the learning partners decided to learn one blatt a day of Maseches Bava Kama. Soon, though, they encountered some difficult topics and realized that they were not going to finish.
After a brief talk with his son, Danny’s father gave Rav Gifter the update. When Rav Gifter encountered Danny, he said, “Dan, I spoke with your dad, and he says you are close to finishing. Are you ready for the bechinah?” Danny said that he was not yet ready. Rav Gifter assured him that he would only be asked questions on the material he had learned.
When the time came for the test, Rav Chaim Stein and Rav Dovid Barkin were also in the room. Rav Chaim asked Danny a question on Tosafos, even though the bechinah was only supposed to be on Gemara and Rashi. Fortunately, Danny happened to know that particular Tosafos. But then Rav Gifter asked Danny a question about something at the very end of the masechta. Danny looked at the rosh yeshiva and reminded him that he had not finished the masechta. Nevertheless, Rav Gifter told him, “I will tell you the Gemara and then I will ask you a question on it. Let’s see how you think. Let me hear your explanation [sevara]. I want to see how your mind works.”
Although Danny was nervous, he answered Rav Gifter to the best of his ability. To his surprise, Rav Gifter said, “I’m sorry, but you did not earn the $100 reward. And I have to call your father to tell him.”
Danny was devastated. He had worked for an entire year to finish, but he had just fallen short. And furthermore, Rav Gifter had assured him that he would only test him on what he had learned. It seemed to him that the only question he had not answered correctly was the one on the part of the masechta he had not learned. Still, he waited and listened as Rav Gifter picked up the phone to call his father.
“Reb Yonah,” Rav Gifter said into the phone, “I just finished testing Danny. And he did not earn the $100 for the bechinah.” There was silence on the phone that seemed to last a lot longer than the five seconds it actually was. Then, a wry smile appeared on Rav Gifter’s face. “Instead, I am going to give him one hundred and fifty dollars. That is what he deserves for such a wonderful accomplishment and such a great sevara!”
Rav Gifter removed his personal checkbook from his pocket and wrote out a check for $150 and handed it to Danny. Danny took the check home with him, framed it, and proudly displayed it on his wall.
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At the end of Rav Gifter’s life, as he slipped away into the twilight, Reb Abba Zalka went to visit him. As Rabbi Gewirtz later recounted at Rav Gifter’s levaya, when he sat down next to the rosh yeshiva, there was no response; the rosh yeshiva, he learned, was unable to communicate. Therefore, instead of talking, Rabbi Gewirtz decided to sing the classic mussar niggun to the words of the great Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto from Mesillas Yesharim, “Adam do’eg al ibud domov ve’eino do’eg al ibud yomov – Man worries about the loss of his money, but doesn’t worry about the loss of his days. Domov einam ozrin veyomov einon chozrin – Man’s possessions do not help him and his days do not return…”
He repeated these solemn words over and over, as he cried.
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The Gewirtzes were more than just close friends of the Gifters. They were family. Reb Yonah and Reb Dovid, Reb Abba Zalka’s children, both had a special relationship with Rav Gifter. On the last Rosh Hashanah of Rav Gifter’s life, when he was already quite ill and non-responsive, Reb Dovid came by with his family to wish the rosh yeshiva and the rebbetzin a gut yohr, as they always did.
When Reb Dovid entered the house, he was overcome by a strange feeling. He had always been somewhat intimidated by Rav Gifter, and yet, in many ways, he viewed the rosh yeshiva as his grandfather. In fact, as a young child, Rav Gifter had bounced him up and down on his lap. He even sang to him a special ditty titled, “Reb Dovidel fun Vasselkof” (Reb Dovidel, Reb Dovidel fun Vasselkof, itzter er iz in Tahrnoff…). When Dovid was young, Rav Gifter would sometimes call him “Reb Dovidel fun Vasselkof.”
When Dovid had gone away to yeshiva, Rav Gifter had demanded that he send him his Torah thoughts. Rav Gifter would return them with his comments and sign the letters, “With love, Mordechai.” As Dovid explained to me, the Torah thoughts were not always up to par and Rav Gifter would let Dovid know that he expected more of him. Consequently, the next letter that Dovid would send would usually contain a sharper Torah thought.
But now, Reb Dovid felt strange, because he saw that Rav Gifter was a shell of his former self. Although he had been placed by the table, he was unresponsive. When Reb Dovid walked into the room, he wished the rebbetzin a gut Yom Tov and a gut yohr, and then turned his eyes to Rav Gifter. Although Reb Dovid was overcome with emotion, he still wanted his yearly bracha. That was what kept him going from year to year. And now, it seemed a distant dream.
Ignoring the reality, Reb Dovid called out, “Rebbi, ah gut yohr! Can I have a bracha?” When no response was forthcoming, Reb Dovid continued, “Doesn’t the rosh yeshiva remember me? Please, rebbi, give me a bracha…”
Reb Dovid was becoming quite emotional as he sat down right next to his rebbi. “Rebbi, please…it’s Dovidel fun Vasselkof.”
Through his tears, Reb Dovid began to sing the lullaby that Rav Gifter had sung to him when he was a young child. Amazingly, tears began to roll down the rosh yeshiva’s face, too. Then, once more, Reb Dovid begged the rosh yeshiva for a bracha he was unable to deliver. Finally, Reb Dovid asked for one amein, as he slowly repeated the bracha he had heard from the rosh yeshiva so many times in his life.
Shockingly, Rav Gifter suddenly responded, “Amein ve’amein!”
Reb Dovid’s tears blinded his vision, but it was this bracha that he would remember more than any other.
The bracha for Reb Dovidel fun Vasselkof.
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With the petirah of Reb Abba Zalka, the two yedidim have been reunited. As talented as he was, Reb Abba Zalka allowed Rav Gifter the peace of mind and menuchas hanefesh to lead the yeshiva while he embraced his role as the achisamach, a rebbi of a different sort. With that compliance, he cemented his legacy as the paradigm for executive vice-presidents. During the tumultuous period of uncertainty and transition following Rav Boruch Sorotzkin’s petirah, it was Reb Abba Zalka who, financially, held the yeshiva together. That will never be forgotten.
Amongst those who greet Reb Abba Zalka will be his great rebbi, Rav Dovid. He will see his rebbi once more and perhaps share with him one of his keen insights into the depths of the Seforno. The thousands he merited with the privilege of supporting Torah will come to thank him for their Olam Haba.
And now, he will have a chance to teach them once more.
Yehi zichro boruch.
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The author thanks Rabbi Yisroel Schneider, who wrote a beautiful tribute to Reb Abba Zalka on the occasion of his seudas preidah from Telshe Yeshiva. Some of the material in this article originally appeared in that tribute.