By Rachel Stein
A unique and sublime personality, Rav Moshe Garfunkel zt”l shone his extraordinary light in Cleveland, Ohio for decades, elevating the city’s level of ruchniyus in many areas. He synthesized two disparate derochim, Chassidish and Litvish, into a spectacular path of avodas Hashem. Seeking role models, Rav Moshe became very close with the Veitzener Rov and Rav Moshe Gershon Goldzweig. He also developed a special relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Rav Moshe was born on July 29th, 1947, in Chicago. In 1960, just after his bar mitzvah, his parents displayed great mesirus nefesh for his chinuch, sending their ben yochid away to learn in Telz Cleveland. Telz Chicago had not yet been established, so Moshe and several other bochurim left home and teamed up together. From the day he left, Mrs. Garfunkel sent her son a daily letter, continuing this practice every day. After he got married, the letters continued and included his wife. A mother’s love and parents’ mesirus nefesh sculpted their son’s persona of gadlus in Torah, yiras Shomayim, and ahavas Yisroel.
Even at a young age, Rav Moshe demonstrated a fiery passion for Yiddishkeit. During his formative years, cholov Yisroel products were not available in Chicago. For seven years, he abstained from dairy products.
As his bar mitzvah approached, Rav Moshe wanted the Veitzener Rov to participate in his simcha. However, due to the mixed seating, the rov declined.
“If the rov doesn’t come,” Rav Moshe informed his father unequivocally, “then I’m not coming.”
Subsequently, his bar mitzvah was one of the few affairs in Chicago that boasted separate seating in those days.
Rav Moshe learned in Telz High School, moved on to bais medrash, and then studied in the Telz Kollel for many years. A brilliant talmid chochom, he was driven to understand halacha in addition to his regular study of Gemara with Rishonim and Acharonim. For many years, he maintained a chavrusashaft with Rav Avrohom Gershon Tress, son-in-law of Rav Mottel Katz. He received Yodin Yodin semicha from Rav Moshe Feinstein, testimony to his meticulous shemiras halacha.
When Rav Moshe became a chosson, he and his chavrusa learned through the entire Maseches Niddah, turning to Rav Moshe Feinstein with any shaylah that arose. This kindled a close relationship between Rav Moshe and Rav Moshe Feinstein.
As a yungerman, he stayed with the same chavrusa for seven years. Together, the chavrusashaft went through Shas over three sedorim a day. Whenever they got stuck, they called Rav Moshe Feinstein for clarity. Rav Moshe Feinstein cherished Rav Moshe, holding him in high esteem. Whenever Rav Moshe traveled to New York, he would visit the gadol hador. Even when Rav Feinstein was not well enough to see general visitors, his door was always open to Rav Moshe Garfunkel.
Personable, affable, and outgoing, people liked Rav Moshe and wanted to be close with him. In his inimitable way, he was able to convey love and caring while remaining uncompromising in his dikduk b’mitzvos.
In the early 1980s, Rabbi Leibel Scheinbaum, a rebbi at The Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, was inspired by the Siyum Hashas. Speaking to some baalei batim in Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland, he said, “You should all get involved in Daf Yomi. And I know just the yungerman who can give a wonderful shiur!”
That was the beginning of Rav Moshe’s 6 a.m. Daf Yomi shiur in South Euclid. Every morning, he drove from Wickliffe to South Euclid, approximately thirty minutes, to teach the Daf. His vibrant and thorough presentations were always well received.
A core group of older Holocaust survivors attended the shiur along with their children and some native second-generation Americans. Though it was an eclectic array of people, Rav Moshe related to everyone with love and respect, and those feelings were mirrored back to him. The shiur formed a real friendship with him, not limited to the relationship of rov and baal habayis, but an authentic camaraderie. His special chein drew people close to him, a unique feature for someone whose resolve and dedication to Torah was ironclad.
Mr. Harry Brown, a lawyer and community activist, was one of Rav Moshe’s staunch supporters. The special minyan that his wife’s family (the Pollacks and Kellers) instituted for the Yomim Noraim served as the impetus to bring Rav Moshe to their community. Graciously accepting their invitation to join this minyan, Rav Moshe brought along his Chassidishe minhogim. As the minyan’s respect and love for Rav Moshe grew, they asked him to move to Beachwood to be their rov, and he agreed. During the week, davening took place in the Chabad House, and on Shabbos in Rav Moshe’s home. Mr. Brown was instrumental in helping Rav Moshe find a house and make the transition to Beachwood. Thus, Congregation Zichron Chaim was born.
Concurrently, there was another heimishe Beachwood minyan in a house that was converted into a shul. The two minyanim decided to merge. In 1986, they bought a house and combined both minyanim into a cohesive shul. At that point, they rented out the auditorium of Yavne High School for Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim to accommodate their growing kehillah.
Rav Moshe displayed tremendous kavod to the older people in the shul, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. They, in turn, had great respect for him as a rov and talmid chochom. He forged relationships with their children and grandchildren which spanned continents as they grew and formed their own families. Many of these second- and third-generation shul members continued turning to Rav Moshe from around the world to ask him shaylos in halacha and hashkafah.
A compassionate listener, Rav Moshe was approached by the entire community for eitzos and support. He helped anyone who reached out to him, regardless of whether he was a shul member. To Rav Moshe, everyone was special because he was a Jew; their level of frumkeit was irrelevant. It was this unconditional love that endeared him to so many. He could be close with anyone. The most unaffiliated Jew, a ben Torah, and a Chassidishe Yid were all treated with love. For years, he gave a shiur in his home for people who didn’t have a strong background, and he also taught a shiur to yungeleit who learned in kollel for ten years. Everyone was worthy of his time and attention.
Rav Moshe demanded strict adherence to Torah, and he wasn’t afraid to tell people when they did something wrong. When speaking with someone whose child planned to marry a goy, he informed him that he could not attend the wedding. His piskei halacha were delivered with unwavering confidence. Yet, his eyes and heart radiated love and compassion.
During Rav Moshe’s tenure, the Beachwood community was transformed. A ba’al emes, he wasn’t afraid to say what was necessary. Whether encouraging shaitel-wearing or directing a father to send his son to mesivta, Rav Moshe articulated his feelings on the matter.
“You should send your sons to mainstream yeshivos,” he told baalei batim who didn’t have such high aspirations for their children’s limud haTorah. “From there,” he continued, smiling, “they will move forward to Brisk.”
Together with Rav Yankel Velvel Katz, Rav Moshe instituted the first full-time kollel in Beachwood. This kollel was the forerunner of the many advanced and successful kollelim now dotting the landscape of the contemporary Cleveland communities.
Congregation Zichron Chaim was the first shul in Cleveland to host a kollel without charging rent, a prime example of Rav Moshe’s extraordinary vatranus. He wholeheartedly shared his shul and gave over the function of harbotzas Torah for his baalei batim to Rav Yankel Velvel Katz and the kollel. Rather than viewing the kollel as competition, he saw them as his co-workers in his avodah as rov.
Rav Moshe always encouraged bochurim to attend yeshivos where they could grow and thrive. During bein hazemanim, when they came home, he instructed Rav Yankel Velvel to have them speak between Mincha and Maariv. When a visiting rov or rosh yeshiva came from Eretz Yisroel or elsewhere, Rav Moshe invited him to give the drosha. His primary goal was lehagdil Torah uleha’adirah. Concern for his ego was never a consideration, and he willingly stepped aside to further his objective of harbotzas haTorah.
On a personal level, as well, he never did anything for kavod. He had many minhogim based on halacha or Kabbolah, but his actions were never done to promote his own honor.
Concern for his kehillah was always front and center in his mind. During one trying period, a disproportionate number of his congregants were battling cancer. While Rav Moshe was in Eretz Yisroel visiting family, he approached Rav Chaim Kanievsky for an eitzah.
“What can we do to change the gezeirah?” he cried to Rav Chaim.
Rav Chaim advised him to institute Yom Kippur Koton in his shul.
When Rav Moshe returned and implemented the new agenda, his baalei batim marveled that even while visiting his family across the world, they still occupied such an important place in his heart.
When boys in his kehillah were becoming bar mitzvah, Rav Moshe used the occasion as an opportunity to imprint life values in their hearts.
“You can be a great talmid chochom,” he encouraged them. “That should be the most important part of your life.”
As a father, he always expected excellence from all his children. At the same time, he instilled them with the confidence that they could achieve the lofty goals he had mapped out for them. He taught by example. And he displayed the same confidence in members of his kehillah, always encouraging them to reach for the stars.
When it came to beautifying mitzvos, money was irrelevant. Rav Moshe’s priority was to make the best sukkah, buy the most mehudardike lulav and esrog, and purchase the finest quality tefillin for each of his children.
Rav Moshe’s rebbetzin, Vivian, was a true eizer k’negdo, his partner in every way. She handled meals for aveilim, assisted in the area of bikur cholim, and arranged women’s shiurim. The rebbetzin made sure that the women felt part of the shul, that they felt committed to it and that their needs were met.
As his shul grew, Rav Moshe invited Rabbi Alexander Charlop to serve as rabbi alongside him. Although this was an uncommon gesture, Rav Moshe’s uppermost concern was to serve the needs of the kehillah. He was very generous in the way he treated Rabbi Charlop, giving him free reign in delivering shiurim and alternating giving drashos on Shabbos.
A staunch oveid Hashem, the following vignette illustrates his tenacity in Yiddishkeit. In his later years, Rav Moshe was once in the hospital during Shabbos following a fall. He was on a ventilator and seemed unaware of his surroundings. Yet, when the nurses tried to insert an IV line, he motioned them not to insert it near his makom tefillin.
“Is it because of your makom tefillin?” his children asked, and Rav Moshe nodded.
After Shabbos, his family consulted with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv as to the best way to proceed. By the time they got his answer, Rav Moshe no longer needed the IV.
Throughout Rav Moshe’s illness, Rebbetzin Vivian showered him with her full attention, caring for him with dedication and devotion. She was always beside him in her role as rebbetzin and as his steadfast aishes chayil.
On Erev Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, Rav Moshe was niftar. The kehillah was heartbroken. Although Rav Moshe had moved to Lakewood a while ago, their tears flowed; everyone felt that he had loved them like his own children. And losing a parent is always heart-wrenching.
Rav Moshe is survived by his devoted wife, Vivian, and their children who have followed their parents’ path of inspiration: Rav Benzion and Nomi Garfunkel, Rav Yisroel and Frumi Garfunkel, Rav Shmuel and Raizy Garfunkel, Rochie and Rav Dovid Metzger, Rav Avrohom Menachem and Faigy Garfunkel, Rav Chaim Shimon and Sarah Garfunkel, Rav Yitzy and Shifra Garfunkel, Cheved and Rav Aaron Mueller, and Rav Yosef Dovid and Toby Garfunkel.
Exacting and loving, an exceptional talmid chochom, Rav Moshe uplifted his family and community. Rarely do we find the special combination of middos and kochos that Rav Moshe personified: radiant chein, dikduk in halacha, absorption in Kabbolah, gadlus in Torah, savlanus, and vatranus. While his petirah leaves a vast void for the generations he loved and who loved him, the derech haTorah that he set in motion remains his eternal legacy.
“Avi, avi, rechev Yisroel,” Mr. Brown laments. “He was our shield, our protector, like the chariot of an army. No one can replace him.”
Yehi zichro boruch.