Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

A Light in the West: Remembering Rav Osher Zilberstein zt”l upon his yahrtzeit

By Yaakov Yitzchok Ganzweig

Rav Osher Zilberstein, born in 1888 to his parents Rav Yisroel Aharon and Mechlia, traced his lineage back to Reb Aron Hagadol of Karlin and the Maharsha. Upon the death of his father, at the age of 16, he was appointed as the 10th generation rov of Mezritch. Remarkably, at the age of fifteen, he received semicha from three of the most esteemed rabbonim in the Volhyin region: Rav Shalom Shachna of Matzeieva, the mechaber of Mishmeres Shalom on Shulchan Aruch; Rav Alter Konstaniner, and the Rovna Rov, Rav Yitzchok Shlomo Sherman.

A story is recounted about Rav Zilberstein that vividly illustrates his fearlessness and sharp wit. While once on a train, Rav Zilberstein engaged in conversation with a priest, during which the priest expressed his belief that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood for matzos. Rav Zilberstein, surprised by the priest’s belief, sought an explanation, considering the priest an educated man. The priest justified his belief, stating that he viewed Jews as primitive and lacking self-control. Curious, Rav Zilberstein inquired about the priest’s morning routine, to which the priest replied, “I eat breakfast first thing in the morning.” When probed further, the priest reiterated, “I wake up and eat breakfast immediately.”

With a sharp reply, the young rov said, “Let me share my morning routine. I wake up, wash my hands, dress, and go to the synagogue to pray. Even once I get home, I can’t eat immediately; I must wash my hands, say a blessing, and only then eat. So, whose conduct is more refined?”

In 1918, Rav Zilberstein responded to the call of Rav Aronson, the Chief Rov of Kiev and later Chief Rov of Tel Aviv, to join him in the Kiev Rabbinate. Unwilling to leave Mezritch without a rov, he passed on the position to his brother-in-law.

Rav Zilberstein joined the Mizrachi as he was in favor of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel. He would travel with Rav Meir Berlin to establish local Mizrachi branches. If a town already had a branch of Agudah, Rav Zilberstein moved on. He explained, “Our goal is to advance Torah, and since there is an organization there doing that, we move on to the next town.”

In the early part of 1919, the Bolsheviks entered Kiev. Under the Bolsheviks, Rav Zilberstein exhibited remarkable mesirus nefesh for Torah and Yiddishkeit. The most daring of his accomplishments during that period was the founding and supporting of seven talmud Torahs, at the personal risk of his life. He was arrested several times on the suspicion of carrying on such activities. On one occasion, Rav Zilberstein, along with two others, faced a death sentence by firing squad. Only at the last moment with much rachamei Shomayim he survived. The three had been lined up for execution yet when it was Rav Zilberstein’s turn the execution was stopped and he was able to subsequently escape.

In 1926, he relocated to Winnipeg, Canada, with support from the Mezritcher landsleit. Within a year, he learned English and delivered impactful speeches in various cities and towns across Western Canada and the U.S. His commitment to uncompromising kashrus standards in Winnipeg became a lifelong legacy. Collaborating with the Chief Rabbi of Winnipeg, Rav Yisroel Yitzchok Kahanovitch, they battled to uphold and protect kashrus in the city.

Tragedy struck in 1928 when his wife, Chana Rochel, daughter of Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heshel Twersky of Radomishel and a Belzer and Chernobyler einekel passed away, leaving him to raise his four young children alone. Over five thousand people attended the funeral, and Rav Kahanovitch described her as a martyr of the recent pogroms in Ukraine, as her heart couldn’t bear the pain.

He later married Rebbetzin Reva, a remarkable and supportive woman who raised his children and bore him two more.

The Move to LA

In 1935, Congregation Talmud Torah in Los Angeles, known as the Breed Street Shul, the largest Orthodox congregation west of Chicago, hired Rav Zilberstein as their rov.

His arrival marked a turning point that resonated profoundly within the community. The foundation of the future Torah communities, the standards of Jewish education, and kashrus were built up by him.

Within a few months, he was appointed to the Misrad Harabbonim of the city. Following the passing of Rav Isaac Werne, in 1940, Rav Zilberstein was appointed as the head of the Misrad Harabbonim. This appointment effectively positioned him as the Chief Orthodox rov of Los Angeles.

The community in 1935 boasted over one hundred thousand members and hosted almost one hundred kosher butcher shops and eight kosher slaughterhouses. However, there was a lack of oversight over the shechitah and butcher shops, prompting one of Rav Zilberstein’s primary objectives to establish control and ensure regulation.

Initially, he was contracted as the rov of the shul with a salary of $2,000 per year to support his family of six. When the Community Council, with the endorsement of all the Orthodox rabbonim in Los Angeles, appointed him to lead the city’s kashrus supervision, Rav Zilberstein declined the additional $3,000 annual salary allocated for this role.

He never took remuneration whatsoever for his work in kashrus. In fact, once when Rav Yisroel Rosenberg, then president of the Agudas Harabbonim offered Rav Zilberstein the supervision rights on all the wineries in California, Rav Rosenberg assured him that such supervision would earn him anywhere between ten and fifteen thousand dollars a year. Yet Rav Zilberstein refused to accept the offer. Rav Rosenberg was taken aback and asked “You must be a tzaddik hador, you loathe money so immensely.” “On the contrary,” Rav Zilberstein replied. “You are the tzaddikim and money will not blind you, but I love money so much that I fear it may lead me astray. So, I refuse to accept it when my integrity may be affected.”

Rav Zilberstein articulated that, “A rov receives a salary, and it is the rov’s duty, with this compensation, to ensure his community has access to kosher food.” When handling gittin, Rav Zilberstein did not accept payment for this same reason.

Local women would tell him of suspicious activities like late-night meat deliveries. The rov would investigate, scrutinize sales records, and question the butchers. If accusations were confirmed, he revoked the butcher’s hechsher.

Many years later, in the late 1950s and early 1960s some individuals were permitting practices that contradicted halacha. The Agudas Harabbonim launched an investigation into the matter and notified the offending certifiers that they were disqualified from any kashrus supervision. Rabbonim from across the country expressed their solidarity with Rav Zilberstein. Rav Pinchos Teitz, rov of Elizabeth, NJ, and presidium member of the Agudath Harabbonim, was sent to participate in a rally for kashrus organized by the United Orthodox Rabbinate of Los Angeles.

Addressing the crowd, Rav Teitz declared, “Thirty-three hundred years of Judaism stands and cries — it is prohibited. The one who tells you otherwise is instructing you to eat treife!”

During the rally, Rav Zilberstein also spoke, stating, “I want you to know that not one of the 30 rabbonim in our organization receives any compensation in this kashrus program.” He then proceeded to elucidate the issue at hand, explaining what the certifiers were attempting to permit and why it was genuinely treife.

Subsequently, a declaration was signed, affirming that the issue was forbidden. It stipulated that any rov who permitted it would forfeit their authority to certify kashrus. The declaration emphasized the support for the United Orthodox Rabbinate and its program and advocated for the acceptance of Orthodox Rabbinical interpretation as the standard in matters of kashrus.

 

Establishing Jewish Education

The children of that era often attended a talmud Torah after public school. Rav Zilberstein inaugurated the city’s first day school despite significant opposition. The rebbetzin once disclosed his sleepless nights, haunted by the realization that there were Jewish children in public schools who couldn’t even recite Shema!

He declared, “I will make the day school better than the public school, and the children will want to come.” Thus, the Los Angeles Jewish Academy was founded.

When immigrants, who couldn’t afford any tuition, came after the war, Rav Zilberstein would inquire, “Ihr gebt mich eyer vort as vehn ihr vet kennen tzullen ihr vet? — Do you give me your word that when you can pay, you will pay?” Upon receiving their assurance, he would admit their child without further inquiry. The school soon had hundreds of children and they all received a free lunch.

His subsequent significant endeavor involved establishing the city’s first yeshiva gedolah, aptly named Yeshivas Hamariv. Following the recommendation of Rav Eliezer Silver from Cincinnati, Rav Zilberstein brought the esteemed gaon, Rav Uri Meir Cirlin, to Los Angeles as its rosh yeshiva. Rav Cirlin was a talmid muvhak of the Rogatchover Gaon and the Ohr Someiach. Renowned for his exceptional memory, children even made a game out of testing his knowledge by challenging him with “pin tests” on any daf in Shas. Before he arrived in Los Angeles, Rav Cirlin served as a maggid shiur at the New Haven Yeshiva in Cleveland under Rav Levenberg.

Within a few years of establishing the day school and yeshiva, they outgrew their temporary quarters in the Breed Street Shul. This significant growth led to a groundbreaking ceremony for their new building. Rav Zilberstein extended invitations to all, heralding the event as “an epoch moment in the history of our community.”

Rav Zilberstein was committed to fostering Jewish education throughout Los Angeles. For instance, he was actively involved with the Los Angeles Hebrew Junior High School, founded by Rav Jacob Levine. This institution later evolved into the Rambam Torah Institute, affiliated with Yeshiva University.

In the later years, the Los Angeles Jewish Academy merged with a newer elementary school called Yavneh. This amalgamation resulted in the creation of the largest day school on the West Coast at that time.

To expand the yeshiva gedolah further, and following the recommendation of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, Rav Zilberstein appointed Rav Simcha Wasserman as rosh yeshiva. Rav Wasserman was brought to Los Angeles accompanied by a group of exceptional students. Their arrival filled Rav Zilberstein with hope for a promising future for the yeshiva. However, regrettably, the envisioned success did not materialize.

Rav Zilberstein’s vision extended beyond his city as he maintained a prominent role in the Mizrachi and the Agudas Harabbonim. At the Mizrachi conventions, Rav Zilberstein delivered chiddushei Torah earning commendation from Rav Yitzchok Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, who exclaimed about him, “Boruch mechadesh chiddushim.”

Rav Zilberstein aspired for unity among all factions to better serve Klal Yisroel. During his three-month visit to Eretz Yisroel in 1954, he engaged with rabbonim from all factions and spoke at the Knessia Gedolah, at the same session as Rav Aharon Kotler.

In his address, Rav Zilberstein advocated for safeguarding the sanctity of Am Yisroel and urged the Israeli government to revoke the law mandating the conscription of girls into the army. He also championed support for Chinuch Atzmai, terming it as “mifaleinu hakadosh.”

Reflecting his universal respect and admiration, a banquet was held in his honor, hosted by Rav Herzog, with attendees such as Rav Eliezer Yudel Finkel, Rav Reuven Katz, Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, and various government officials representing the different religious political factions.

Despite his pro-State of Israel beliefs, Rav Zilberstein maintained a close and warm connection with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum. During some of his visits to New York for the Mizrachi conventions, he would seek out the Satmar Rebbe’s blessing and counsel. When Rav Zilberstein underwent surgery, he sent a kvittel to the Satmar Rebbe, detailing the surgery and its scheduled time, requesting the Rebbe’s tefillos for him.

Rav Zilberstein’s level of piety could be seen from the way he conducted himself; he never once looked up to the women’s section which was situated on a balcony. His home, always welcoming to all, hosted Rav Cirlin for many years. He would enthusiastically support anything that would raise the standard of Yiddishkeit. Even though in those days there wasn’t such a demand for cholov Yisroel, he gave Mr. Berel Weiss the funds to launch the enterprise.

As the Jewish community expanded to various parts of the city, Rav Zilberstein remained at its helm. His brain trust included his close colleagues, Rav Eliezer Adler, the Zhviller Rebbe of Los Angeles, and his talmid muvhak, Rav Yonah Ganzweig. The trio engaged in daily extensive conversations over the phone, spending hours discussing communal matters.

If someone were to stroll through the streets of Los Angeles and observe the numerous shuls, kollelim, chadorim, yeshivos, and a plethora of restaurants bearing reputable kosher certifications, the question might arise: How did this vibrant Jewish infrastructure emerge in the glitzy landscape of Hollywood? From where are the foundations of it all? It all sprouted from the aspirations of a single individual who believed that just as oranges can flourish in this city, so can Torah!

If anyone has more stories or information about Rav Zilberstein please contact the author, ravosherzilberstein@gmail.com.

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