Being the rebbetzin of the rosh yeshiva was her life’s mission. Rav Mottel was a genuine ud mutzal mei’eish, an ember rescued from the fire, who’d escaped churban Europe, while his wife and ten children tragically perished.
During these challenging and lonely war years, Rav Mottel in Shadova, Lita, and his brother-in-law, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, founded the Telshe Yeshiva in the idyllic enclave of Cleveland, Ohio, focusing on rebuilding what the Nazis had destroyed.
For Rav Mottel, who was then 52, the loss was especially searing. He had already lost his first wife, Rebbetzin Perel Leah, daughter of Rav Yosef Leib Bloch and the mother of his elder children, in 1930. That same year, he lost his father, father-in-law, and his third child. A year later, still grieving from the losses, he married his zivug sheini, Rebbetzin Chaya Kravitz, who adopted his motherless children as her own. They were blessed with a large family, and lived simply in the shtetl of Telshe, their lives revolving around the yeshiva.
In 1940, Rav Mottel and Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch were able to escape then Soviet occupied Lithuania and travel to the United States, hoping to re-establish the Telshe Yeshiva and bring over its talmidim and their families. Tragically, the Nazis invaded Lita a short while later, and savagely butchered its Jewish inhabitants in 1941-42. The roshei yeshiva spent the rest of the war years in limbo, unable to contact anyone, frantic with worry. It was only in 1944 that they discovered the depths of the devastation. They were each the sole survivors of their large families.
Instead of wallowing in their pain and loss, Rav Mottel and Rav Elya Meir drew upon superhuman reserves of strength in order to rebuild what was destroyed, in everlasting memory of the kedoshim. And succeed they did. With very little financial support, these Yiddish speaking immigrants persevered, founding a beautiful and glorious edifice of Torah, which, at its heyday in the sixties, had over 450 talmidim.
Yet the two roshei yeshiva still needed to rebuild their lives and families. Shortly after the war years, Rav Mottel, then 52, was visiting the holy Kapishnitzer Rebbe, the famed Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, in New York, regarding a brochah for the yeshiva’s success.
The rebbe was very impressed with the refined and determined rosh yeshiva, and decided upon a perfect shidduch. Esther Mindel Mandel, daughter of Reb Zev and Fruma Leah Mandel, came from an American-heimish background, while Reb Mottel was a true Litvak. Yet the rebbe felt the shidduch was min haShomayim. The Mandels, who owned a seltzer company, were renowned for their mesiras nefesh for Torah and yiras Shomayim. In fact, when they lived in Woodbridge, NJ, for a while, where there were no yeshivos, they hired a tutor to learn with their sons six hours a day, before and after school!
Later, when they moved back to Brooklyn, Mrs. Mandel began a series of shiurim and night classes for young girls, which became the seed of the future Bais Yaakov movement. Two of the rebbetzin’s illustrious brothers were Rav Menachem Manis Mandel, founder of Yeshiva of Brooklyn, and mechanech Rav Nachman Mandel.
Rebbetzin Esther Mindel, 35, who was then raising her young son alone, met the rosh yeshiva, and the shidduch was celebrated. The couple married in the Kapishnitzer Rebbe’s home; the rebbe was the mesader kiddushin. A day later, they moved to Cleveland, where the rosh yeshiva returned to his task of rebuilding the yeshiva, brick by brick. For their seventeen blissful years together, until Rav Mottel’s untimely petirah in 1964, the rebbetzin devotedly cared for all his needs. Rebbetzin Esther gave birth to three more children, two sons and a daughter, the ultimate revenge against the Nazis.
“Bubby and Zeideh had a beautiful relationship,” a grandson recalled. “Bubby’s entire life was the yeshiva. She was involved with its fundraisers, with the kollel wives, helping them however she could. During the terrible fire (in 1962), she arranged for clothing and shelter for the displaced bochurim.
“Yet most importantly, she cared for Zeideh with superhuman devotion. She made sure he ate his meals on time, that he didn’t overstress his heart, and that he got enough sleep upon doctor’s orders. Bubby was a strong, independent woman, but she was completely dedicated to Zeideh with every fiber of her being. She never called him by his first name; it was either ‘the rosh yeshiva’ or ‘Reb Mottel.’”
During the last few years of the rosh yeshiva’s life, his dedicated rebbetzin sat in the ezras noshim during his shiurim, gesturing to the rosh yeshiva to calm down if he was getting too excited, because it was a strain on his heart. If it was time for him to eat or take his medicine, she had no qualms about interrupting important meetings to care for her husband. Her devotion literally sustained him, and he constantly expressed his appreciation for her care.
The Katz home hosted many prominent gedolim throughout the years, and the rebbetzin served them meals, feeling grateful and humbled to host these Torah giants. The rosh yeshiva was especially close to Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahanamen, the Ponovezer rosh yeshiva, who was a frequent visitor.
The rebbetzin was not just a matriarch of royalty, an eizer to the rosh yeshiva; she was a distinguished woman in her own right. She was quick-witted, perceptive, and had a keen understanding of human nature. Rebbetzin Esther Mindel was a melumedes, well versed in pesukim and the intricacies of halachah. From the moment she woke up early in the morning (to make sure the rosh yeshiva had a hot drink) until she went to sleep, every move was dictated by halachah.
“Bubby was medakdekes in how to wash one’s hands, cut one’s nails, even put on one’s shoes the Torah way. She made brachos loudly, with concentration, well before it was in vogue. Nothing was superfluous or unimportant,” a grandson recalled.
The rebbetzin spent a long time each day engaged in tefillah, communing with her Creator like a daughter speaking to her father. She kept a list of people for whom she davened, and constantly updated it. She helped people navigate the medical system in Cleveland, recommending the right doctors, and would frequently drive them to appointments. She also found time to help her married children, take her einiklach to yeshiva, cook suppers for the kollel wives when necessary, and prepare her famous esrog jelly as a segulah for whomever needed it.
“She made the most delicious hot cocoa from scratch,” a grandson remembered. “Her challos, which she baked each week, were well known in the yeshiva. Everyone wanted to get… the recipe. In the summers, she would take us to Camp Kol Torah, which was hosted by the yeshiva, but despite her position, she insisted on paying for the food we ate. Bubby wrote us long letters when we went to camp, and sent us money for nosh. When we were growing up, spending time with Bubby was the highlight of our days.”
The rebbetzin had binah yeseirah, the innate knowledge to somehow say the right thing to the right person, giving chizuk when it was needed. One granddaughter recently brought a friend to visit her grandmother. Rebbetzin Katz perceptively realized the friend was upset because she’d recently moved from Eretz Yisroel, and was having a hard time adjusting.
“How could you not be happy here?” the rebbetzin said. “If this is where you are right now, obviously this is where Hashem wants you to be. He has a special plan for you.” These words, spoken with genuine sincerity, made a huge impression on the young woman.
Shabbos was undoubtedly the highlight of the rebbetzin’s week. She would anticipate the arrival of Shabbos each day, and made sure she was ready early on Friday morning. She would often say, “the last hour before Shabbos is really only a half hour long.”
“Bubby would never go out after chatzos, even during the longer summer days,” a granddaughter recalled. “Instead, she would sit at the table, which was covered with a white tablecloth and beautifully set, and say Tehillim.” She would also ask her grandchildren to call her on Thursday instead of Friday, especially during the winter months when time was short, so she could give them her full attention.
During the half-century she was alone after the rosh yeshiva’s petirah, the rebbetzin remained active and involved in the kehillah, continuing to do chesed and drive until her mid-eighties. She married off her children, and derived much nachas from their beautiful families. It was only a decade ago, when she became frail, that the rebbetzin moved to an assisted living center, where she resided until her petirah.
The levayah was held on Hoshanah Rabbah at Shomrei Hachomos Chapels in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and she was laid to rest in the Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey.
The rebbetzin is survived by her children, Rabbi Leibel Katz; Rabbi Avneir Katz; Mrs. Rochel Risha Tress, wife of Rav Avrohom Gershon Tress zt”l; Rabbi Yaakov Zev Katz, rosh kollel of Kollel Yad Chaim Mordechai of Beachwood; as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Yehi zichrah boruch.