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Rav Don Ungarischer zt”l

Growing up on the cul-de-sac of Edwin Lane nearly four decades ago, we lived two houses away from a black-and-white sprawling country home, a remnant of the era when Monsey, NY, consisted of acres of farmland. Our neighbors, the Ungarischers, resided in the two-family home with one of their married daughters. From time to time, I would see Rav Don Ungarischer, a patriarchal figure in his frock, heading to or from yeshiva, a sefer under his arm, a serene smile on his face. I was but a child, yet I instinctively sensed that I was in the presence of greatness.

Forty years ago, Bais Medrash Elyon was the pioneering yeshiva in Monsey, a mighty citadel of Torah that spawned some of our generation’s Torah giants, including Rav Shmelke Taubenfeld, Rav Shraga Moshe Kalmanowitz, Rav Hersh Goldwurm, and, ybl”c, Rav Moshe Green of Yeshiva D’Monsey, Rav Chaim Steinwurzel of Bobov, and Rav Yisroel Chaim Menashe Friedman of Satmar, and many, many others.

It was during the early stages of Monsey’s birth as a Torah community that Rav Don Ungarischer came to Bais Medrash Elyon to assist his illustrious father-in-law, Rav Reuvain Grozovsky. Rav Reuvain founded the yeshiva in 1945, at the end of World War II, along with the legendary builder of Torah in America, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Bais Medrash Elyon, affiliated with Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, was founded in the rural, small-town environment, conducive to peace of mind and ameilus baTorah.

Rav Don remained at the yeshiva for the rest of his life, first assisting Rav Reuvain and then assuming the mantle of leadership of the yeshiva, a position he kept for the next 53 years, until his passing this week at the age of 88.

 

“The Rosh Yeshiva was constantly learning,” a longtime talmid recalled. “I can’t recall seeing him without a sefer, no matter what else was going on at the time. When I was in Eretz Yisroel, I would call the Rosh Yeshiva every Friday and constantly hear bochurim speaking in learning in the background. His ga’onus and hasmadah were crystal clear, yet when he spoke with you, he had all the time in the world. He would frequently call his talmidim, who had learned by him years earlier, just to ask how they and their families were doing.”

 

Rav Ungarischer served as both rosh yeshiva and devoted father figure to his talmidim, yet remained humble, unassuming and eminently approachable.

 

“I had come back from Eretz Yisroel, after spending several years learning in Bais Medrash Elyon, and planned to go to Lakewood to enter the parsha of shidduchim,” the talmid related. “The Rosh Yeshiva invited me to come back to Bais Medrash Elyon and promised that my shidduch prospects won’t suffer because of my choice,” the talmid recalled. “The Rosh Yeshiva didn’t just give me a bracha. He gave me a havtachah (promise).”

 

On Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, the talmid rejoined Bais Medrash Elyon.

 

By Chanukah of that year, he was a choson.

 

Ten years later, the talmid is still learning and shteiging in the yeshiva.

 

Once a talmid, always a talmid.

 

“This wasn’t the only time I merited to hear the Rosh Yeshiva’s havtachah,” the talmid recalled. “On another occasion, I was at a wedding, and a childless couple approached the Rosh Yeshiva for a bracha. The Rosh Yeshiva gave them his bracha, but the woman’s brother insisted that she would not move from her place until Rav Don promised her a child.

 

“The hour was late, and the Rosh Yeshiva had to leave. But he couldn’t bear the distraught woman’s pain, and so, against his usual policy, Rav Don gave the suffering woman a havtachah.”

 

The talmid recalls the Rosh Yeshiva coming into the yeshiva some months later, a smile on his face. “I made a mofes!” Rav Don joked to his talmid, who had witnessed the scene. “The woman who asked me for a bracha gave birth to a baby boy.”

 

Most moving about this story wasn’t the promise from the mouth of an adam gadol, nor its speedy fulfillment, but the humility of the Rosh Yeshiva, who didn’t take his status seriously, and joked about the “mofes as if it was simply a coincidence.

 

“The Rosh Yeshiva had a special kesher, not only with his talmidim, but also with their children, whom he knew by name,” the talmid continued. “Whenever I would bring my children, the Rosh Yeshiva’s face lit up as he gave them sweets and asked what they were learning in yeshiva. This was, unquestionably, his greatest nachas.”

 

Rivka F., an older single, whose father was one of the original talmidim of the Rosh Yeshiva, recalls the Rosh Yeshiva’s constant interest in her welfare, his tireless phone calls to shadchanim on her behalf, and the way the Rosh Yeshiva kept her situation foremost in his mind. Even when bedridden with cellulitis, he made tireless phone calls late at night regarding a shidduch with one of his talmidim, just as a father would overlook his own discomfort for his son’s welfare.

 

The Rosh Yeshiva would also visit patients in nearby hospitals, giving them chizuk and making them feel as if he had all the time in the world to sit at their bedside.

 

Gentle as a lamb in his dealings with others, in matters of Torah principle the Rosh Yeshiva was a fearless lion. He did whatever he could to ensure that Monsey remain a makom Torah.

 

His middas ha’emes was well known. In fact, some of the talmidim recall telling the Rosh Yeshiva a story and hearing him repeat it, even months later, with the exact words, without any embellishment or additions.

 

His hakoras hatov was legendary. Reb Shimon Mendlowitz recalled, “The Rosh Yeshiva never forgot a favor, no matter how small, that was done to him or the yeshiva. He would constantly express his gratitude to our illustrious father and how he had built Bais Medrash Elyon. The Rosh Yeshiva attended every family simcha, be it a wedding, bar mitzvah, or bris, even in Brooklyn, as a sign of hakoras hatov.”

 

One talmid related that the Rosh Yeshiva would show appreciation to many former donors of the yeshiva, even when they were no longer in a position to help the yeshiva. His hakoras hatov was based on the kindness that had been done in the past and not on what could be expected in the future.

 

A prominent Monsey askan echoed, “The Rosh Yeshiva constantly thanked anyone who did the yeshiva a favor, no matter how small or insignificant it may have seemed. I once received a phone call from the Rosh Yeshiva, asking me to come to his home and discuss something. I assumed it was connected with a yeshiva matter, but I was mistaken. The Rosh Yeshiva heard that I was going through a certain difficulty and wanted to discuss ideas that could help me. We spent an hour discussing this personal matter from every angle. Knowing how precious the Rosh Yeshiva’s time was, this gesture was especially meaningful.”

 

The Rosh Yeshiva’s soft-spoken approach and accessibility were a mark of true genius. As Rav Shimon Schwab famously said, “If you would come to Radin and ask for the home of the Chofetz Chaim during his lifetime, passersby would ask, ‘Who? Oh, you mean Rabbi Kagan, the old man who prints seforim?’ It was only after his petirah that the full measure of his gadlus was revealed.”

 

 Likewise, Rav Don’s influence on the Olam HaTorah cannot yet be adequately understood. Bais Medrash Elyon spawned many of the Torah giants and leaders of our generation.

 

 BAIS MEDRASH ELYON, CIRCA 1945

 

The year was 1945. The Jewish world was still reeling from its loss. The crematoria had only stopped smoking, and the European continent was soaked with the blood of the Six Million.

 

For the Olam HaTorah, the Holocaust and the devastation it wrought would take years to recover, if at all. Before World War II, the primary bastions of Torah in the world were located in Eastern Europe and Russia. The Jewish community in Eretz Yisroel was small, and in pre-war America assimilation was rampant.

 

The Russian yeshivos had been ruthlessly eradicated by the Communists during the 1920s, leaving the thriving yeshivos in Europe as the main hope and source of life for our nation. In the early 1930s, mature yeshiva graduates from the States who wanted to truly grow in Torah would cross the ocean and attend the great yeshivos of Poland and Lithuania. The Holocaust ended that great era, and the hope for the survival of Torah seemed bleak.

 

It was visionaries such as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, together with European Torah giants including Rav Reuvain Grozovsky and Rav Aharon Kotler, who arrived on these shores on the eve of the war, who saved American Jewry from assimilation. By founding the great Torah institutions of yesteryear – still in operation today – they collected the ud mutzal mei’eish, the remaining embers of the fire, and breathed new hope into a stagnant era.

 

Rav Shraga Feivel, who preferred to be called “Mister Mendlowitz,” aimed to build a yeshiva similar to those we had tragically lost, a yeshiva that would facilitate complete dedication to Torah study without distraction, in the spirit and tradition of the great yeshivos of yesteryear.

 

Rav Shraga Feivel wanted to purchase a hotel up in the Catskill Mountains, where the air was fresh and clear, with the temptations and lures of the city far away. This would serve as the home for the fledgling bais medrash, where serious bnei Torah, graduates of Torah Vodaas, would grow into the leaders of tomorrow.

 

Before he could go through with the plan, Rav Shraga Feivel met Mrs. Berta Halberg, a Monsey pioneer, who lived in the nearby community of Spring Valley, in the Old Nyack Turnpike area. At the time, Monsey was a small hamlet consisting mainly of farmland, with a few dilapidated bungalows and farmhouses. Nearby Spring Valley, on the other hand, had a small Jewish settlement, with two shuls.

 

Mrs. Halberg had two sons learning in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and appreciated the value of bringing a makom Torah to this spiritual desert. Thus, Mrs. Halberg, a real estate broker, met Rav Shraga Feivel and asked him, “Why are you looking for a hotel so far away? There is a large building, a Victorian style summer mansion, up for sale in nearby Monsey, surrounded by the same rustic setting that you want for your students.”

 

Rav Shraga Feivel travelled up to Monsey on a Thursday, asking Rav Shimon Schwab, the rov of Washington Heights, to accompany him on his visit.

 

After much deliberation, the two Torah visionaries agreed to purchase this building for the senior students of Torah Vodaas. Before they were able to head back, however, there was a massive snowstorm and the roads become impossible to traverse. Thus, the distinguished visitors were forced to spend Shabbos in a small hotel nearby, where they learned, davened and sang. (The first Yom Zeh Mechubad in Monsey is still recalled with nostalgia by many old timers.) After Shabbos, they returned home to the city, and Rav Shraga Feivel later returned with the directors of Torah Vodaas to sign a contract on the purchase of the building.

 

However, the process was far from simple. Nothing good ever comes without difficulties along the way. This property came with a clause that it would only be purchased for use as a school. The old building was originally built by a wealthy anti-Semite, who, in his old age, realized that after his passing the property would be sold. He wanted to prevent it from being used as a synagogue or Jewish religious center. He was savvy enough to realize that Jews might want to purchase it, but he didn’t realize that Jews might be interested in establishing a school there.

 

After the purchase contract was signed by Torah Vodaas, the children of the old man heard about the purpose of the school. They were up in arms, trying to stop “those Jews,” but Rav Shraga Feivel argued that it was indeed for a school and that the purchase contract had already been signed. Mr. Mendlowitz won that round.

 

The Victorian-style home began to serve as a yeshiva, the nucleus of the future makom Torah known as the Ihr HaTorah of Monsey.

 

 Rav Shraga Feivel purchased a house for his family right nearby and moved into the neighborhood. The legendary visionary took his young children out to the backyard and told them about the following Medrash. When Hashem created the world, He set aside places on this earth where Torah will one day flourish. Rav Shraga Feivel declared, “This is a place where Hashem set aside for Torah to flourish when He created the world.”

 

Bais Medrash Elyon, at its inception, was comprised of the stellar graduates of Torah Vodaas, and each subsequent year the next group of alumni joined the yeshiva. The yeshiva was led by its visionary founder, Rav Shraga Feivel, and its brilliant rosh yeshiva, Rav Reuvain Grozovsky.

 

Sometime later, when Mr. Shmarya Halberg, husband of Mrs. Berta Halberg, was niftar, Rav Reuvain was maspid at the levaya and told the following story:

 

A great and mighty king once wanted to give a generous gift to his close friend, and offered to give him numerous treasures from his treasure house. The friend merely asked for a chessboard, which contains 64 squares.

 

Said the king’s friend, “Put a coin on the first square, and double it for the second square, making two coins. Double that for the third square, which will give me four coins. Then, double that again for the fourth square, totaling eight coins. And please continue doubling it for the entire 64 squares!”

 

The king was surprised, “Is that all you want? A chessboard with small coins?”

 

The king’s men did as the friend requested and realized that the coins began to add up, until they numbered into the millions of dollars!

 

Rav Reuvain concluded, “Monsey today boasts a small yeshiva with a few families who came to settle in the wilderness. However, just like the pennies, the community will slowly double, and double again, and again until it will become a vast makom Torah.”

 

The Rosh Yeshiva’s words were prophetic. Monsey today is home to at least 200,000 shomrei Torah umitzvos, with more shuls and yeshivos than we can count. All this Torah growth stems from one humble purchase of an old building that could only be sold for use as a school to ensure that Jews don’t move in!

 

 RAV REUVAIN GROZOVSKY ZT”L

 

Rav Reuvain Grozovsky was born on 11 Kislev, 5687/1886 in the city of Minsk. His father, Rav Shamshon Grozovsky, was a dayan and av bais din in the city. From a young age, Rav Reuvain was forced to overcome considerable spiritual hurdles. The city of Minsk was a prime center of Haskalah, socialism, Communism and Zionism. During the 1800s and the early 1900s, scores of young Jews were being caught in the nets of these movements and were convinced by the outer glitter to abandon a life of Torah and mitzvos.

 

Rav Reuvain, however, was educated in his home to swim against the tide. Not only was he not influenced by the spiritual pollution poisoning the youth of Minsk, but the adversity strengthened him in his Yiddishkeit.

 

As a bochur, Rav Reuvain learned in the Zivchei TzedekShul in Minsk, together with an elite group of brilliant young bochurim. Two of the younger members of the group were Rav Aharon Kotler, future rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, future rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Concerned that the noxious atmosphere of Haskalah would adversely affect them and their learning, Rav Reuvain convinced Rav Aharon and Rav Yaakov to leave Minsk and join the Slabodka Yeshiva with him. He invested great effort trying to protect the bochurim, especially those endowed with great intellect, from the designs of the Maskilim who exerted even greater efforts to ensnare gifted bochurim.

 

In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, the Slabodka Yeshiva found itself in the city of Kremenchug in the Ukraine. At the time, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and his own yeshiva, Knesses Bais Yitzchok, were also in exile in Kremenchug. It was there that Rav Boruch Ber met Rav Reuvain and decided to take him as a son-in-law.

 

Rav Reuvain became extremely close with Rav Boruch Ber. The mutual love and admiration that they had for each other were legendary. Rav Boruch Ber appointed Rav Reuvain as a rosh yeshiva in the yeshiva, and Rav Reuvain became active as Rav Boruch Ber’s right hand.

 

Upon his arrival in America after his miraculous escape from Churban Europe, Rav Reuvain dedicated his time and energy to hatzolas nefashos, rescuing those who could still be saved. For months, his wife and children wandered as immigrants, living as guests at the homes of various families who sheltered them. They had no apartment and no source of income due to the fact that Rav Reuvain was busy day and night, engaged in feverish hatzolah activities.

 

It was only in 1945, towards the very end of the war, that Rav Reuvain returned to his harbotzas haTorah with his appointment as rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and Bais Medrash Elyon of Monsey, a position he held until his petirah on 22 Adar, 1958.

 

FROM VIENNA TO MONSEY

 

Born in Vienna in 1923, Rav Don Ungarischer miraculously escaped Churban Europe in 1939 as a young bochur, along with two of his siblings. His parents were supposed to follow on the next ship. Tragically, there were no further ships, and they joined the Six Million kedoshim, Hashem yinkom domom.

 

Upon his arrival in America, Rav Don joined Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and became atalmid muvhak of the legendary Rav Shlomo Heiman, his rebbi in Torah and yiras Shomayim for the next six years, until Rav Shlomo’s petirah.

 

The brilliant young bochur’s hasmadah and middos attracted the attention of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, who took the orphaned boy under his wing, buying him a new suit and caring for his needs. The Rosh Yeshiva never forgot that devotion, which was later repaid tenfold.

 

From Torah Vodaas, Rav Don joined Bais Medrash Elyon. In 1947, Rav Don married a daughter of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Reuvain Grozovsky. The week of sheva brachos took place during the last week of the zeman, and Rav Don was unsure of whether he should commute to Monsey for just a few days. His father-in-law encouraged the chosson, saying, “Do you know how precious a week of Torah is?”

 

Certainly, the Rosh Yeshiva knew. His talmidim cannot recall a time when they didn’t see Rav Don with a sefer in his hand, whether it be in a doctor’s waiting room, on an all-night trip home from Montreal in a car, or even waiting for a chupah to start. He was in the bais medrash all day and late into the evening, rarely taking off unless he was forced to go on a fundraising mission to keep the yeshiva afloat.

 

During the difficult era when his rebbetzin was ill, while he took care of her needs, the Rosh Yeshiva found solace in his learning.

 

In his early years at Bais Medrash Elyon, Rav Don and his rebbetzin resided in a two-room apartment, across the hall from other young families, on the second floor of a small house next to the bais medrash. (The Schiff family lived on the ground floor.) Later, the Ungarischers moved to Edwin Lane, in slightly larger accommodations, with the same Spartan lifestyle.

 

In 1952, when Rav Reuvain became unwell, he instructed his brilliant son-in-law to begin delivering shiurim in his place. At first, Rav Don related his father-in-law’s shiurim. He began saying his own shiurim after Rav Reuvain’s petirah in 1958, when he formally accepted the title of Rosh Yeshiva.

 

Rav Don’s shiurim, known for their clarity and precision, were similar in style to those of his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Heiman. The Rosh Yeshiva was a master of explanation, following the tradition of Rav Shlomo, breaking everything down to its basic elements and building from the foundation upwards.

 

There is a well-known story about Rav Shlomo, who came to the bais medrash on a snowy day to deliver a shiur and found only a few talmidim who had braved the elements. Nevertheless, the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas delivered a powerful shiur, with the same bren and enthusiasm. “I am not only teaching Torah to you, but to your talmidim, and their talmidim, and their talmidim after that,” he explained to the bochurim.

 

This is the approach of Bais Medrash Elyon to every talmid. Just as every word in Rashi and Ramban, no matter how subtle, must be accounted for, so too every nuance in the soul and the personality of each talmid must be brought to its fullest potential.

 

To further achieve that goal, the yeshiva has a daily mussar seder after regular sedorim and learns hilchos shmiras halashon several times a week. In fact, many have remarked that there is a discernible refinement and aidelkeit that typify a Bais Medrash Elyon bochur.

 

 THE REBBETZIN A”H

 

The Rosh Yeshiva’s entire life, and the lives of his family, revolved solely around the yeshiva. For many years, Rebbetzin Ungarischer was the devoted bookkeeper, CEO, and fundraising organizer of the yeshiva. When the Rosh Yeshiva would leave on a fundraising trip, which occurred several times a week, the rebbetzin would tell him who should be visited. The Rosh Yeshiva was in touch with her constantly by phone, informing her who was home and who wasn’t, and she modified the itinerary accordingly.

 

When the Rosh Yeshiva came home, often after 1 a.m., the Rebetzin always had a hot supper ready for him. And the next day she would enter the figures appropriately, create receipts and prepare a deposit. There was no one more organized; her memory was flawless.

 

The rebbetzin was moser nefesh to ensure that the kollel yungeleit were paid on time.

 

In February of 2007, the rebbetzin was in the hospital, being wheeled into the operating room for what would be her final surgery. She had been gravely ill for two months and could hardly get out of bed for weeks before, but there was something else on her mind. That month’s kollel checks had not yet been disbursed. One of the askanim walked over to her stretcher and informed her that on that day the checks were being given out to the kollel yungeleit. The rebbetzin smiled and her face lit up. Her mind was put at ease. and she was able to go into surgery

 

The external appearance of the Bais Medrash Elyon building was always a priority for the Rosh Yeshiva and the rebbetzin due to kavod haTorah. As an askan related, “In 2002, the original building of the yeshiva (now completely renovated) was in the early stages of renovation. There was an old, rickety wooden porch around the perimeter of the building. An area of this porch was beginning to collapse due to its having been exposed to the elements for over a century and a half.

 

“The Rosh Yeshiva requested that the maintenance crew repair it. Overhearing the request, one of the faculty members asked the Rosh Yeshiva, “Why repair it? Isn’t the entire porch slated to be torn down in the very near future?” The Rosh Yeshiva replied that it was true, but explained: “In any case, we can’t leave it like this for any length of time, because it appears neglected. Yeshiva property must be taken care of and cannot have a neglected appearance.”

 

The repair was done and, a short while later, the porch was completely demolished.

 

Though the physical trappings of luxury were meaningless to the Rosh Yeshiva, kavod haTorah was paramount.

 

The Rosh Yeshiva maintained a close relationship with many roshei yeshiva and gedolim, and had an especially close kesher with Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, who was niftar this past summer, and ybl”c Rav Simcha Schustal.

 

The Rosh Yeshiva maintained his grueling schedule of being marbitz Torah, doing chessed, and learning nonstop until his petirah on Monday, 3 Cheshvan.

 

The Rosh Yeshiva is survived by his illustrious children, Rav Yerachmiel Ungarischer, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Elyon of Bnei Brak; Rav Boruch Ber Ungarischer; Rav Shimshon Ungarischer; Rebbetzin Faigy Falk; Rebbetzin Yocheved Swiatitzky; Rebbetzin Handler; and Rebbetzin Malin, wife of Rav Isser Yehudah Malin, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Knesses Yehudah in Yerushalayim. He was predeceased by his son, Rav Refoel Reuvain Ungarischerzt”l.

 

Yehi zichro boruch.

 

The author would like to thank all those who contributed to this article on short notice, including Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum, Rabbi Avigdor Litmanowitz, Rabbi Menachem Savitz, Mrs. D. Pirutinsky, and others who wish to remain anonymous.