It is with a sense of great temerity and deep grief that these lines are being written in the moments following the extinguishment of a blinding light. We believe that when a tzaddik leaves our midst, the light and the shine leaves with him, whether we feel it or not. For anyone who has ever set eyes on the Skulener Rebbe zt”l, the loss of the glow, the kedusha, the holy aidelkeit that he carried with him for ninety-five years on this earth—and which transformed every room he walked into—it is almost a physical sensation, as a pall of sadness descends over the streets of our communities.
As the zekan ha’admorim, the eldest of the Chassidic rebbes, leaves us orphaned and bereft, we reflect, mournfully, upon a few aspects of his greatness.
A Beacon of Truth
There is no question that the rebbe’s wide appeal and universal reverence were due to the grain of truth that ran through every aspect of his leadership.
When something is meant with earnestness, even small children can sense it. Relates one child of Boro Park of a few decades ago: “Even as small children who would frequent all the tishen in Boro Park, we all knew that Skulen was different. It was heilig. You certainly did not go to Skulen if your goal was to play around.”
This was the magnetism, the pull, the draw that continued until the last days of the rebbe’s life. Even when he was in the hospital during the final period, children and bochurim of the neighborhood were still drawn to his simple bais medrash, because the aura was permeated with his influence of pashtus, yiras Shomayim and ahavas Yisroel.
Despite being unique in his care for every Yid around the globe, tens of thousands of whom streamed to him, he maintained a simple bais medrash – no massive buildings, no fancy operation, and no convoys of vehicles. A simple espousal of Hashem’s word, with an overflowing of ahavas Yisroel.
But here is one dichotomy that can only exist in tzaddikei emes, true tzaddikim who are permeated through and through by the truth and the Presence of Hashem: Very few could name one person who had so much love for a Yid in him – a quality of the rebbe’s about which volumes could be filled – and at the same time be one of our generations’ fiercest warriors in the battle for kevod Shomayim.
The Weight of a Generation
The rebbe visibly carried the pain and the weight of his generation. He was the address for every Yid’s pain, and he was on the front lines of battles for kevod Shomayim.
This was something that he certainly inherited from his father, the previous Skulener Rebbe zt”l. And it is worthy of reflection that in our generation, in 2019, there was a leader who was as concerned with the spiritual needs of this generation as the physical well-being of each and every individual.
Who can forget the sight of this frail nonagenarian, who sat in the prisons of Romania for the sake of Hashem seventy years prior, being transported with his last ounces of strength to the Citi Field asifah, of which he was the primary driver.
It was with the same encouragement, the same love, that he counseled every initiative for the improvement of Yiddishkeit. This writer was present at a meeting for mechanchim to which the rebbe came with tremendous exertion—but he would do anything to affect one Jewish soul.
He exhorted those mechanchim to instill in their talmidim the awareness of a “Bashefer on this earth, that every brocha that we recite is an expression of emunah and yiras Shomayim, from the Modeh Ani with which we begin our day to the Krias Shema that concludes it.”
The rebbe’s efforts in maintaining Chesed L’Avrohom to rescue the children of Eretz Yisroel can fill volumes. It began with his father, who aroused wonder, as this rebbe from America and Romania dedicated his life, into his advanced age, to rescuing neshamos. This continued with the rebbe, who kept up the care for the adopted children from Romania, but also for the thousands whom he himself adopted, through Chesed L’Avrohom or otherwise.
Purified by Mesirus Nefesh
All of this was on top of the enormous mesirus nefesh in his personal life. The rebbe’s personal avodah was like tzaddikim of a century ago in Europe. All the children of Boro Park would repeat stories of the Skulener Rebbe falling asleep into his soup as he would be at the seudas Shabbos. This was due to him rarely lying down in a bed, and when he did, it was for a short time only.
This was not only later in life; his entire life was a continuum of sacrifice, as the following story demonstrates. The previous rebbe, at the bar mitzvah of Rav Yeshaya Yaakov (the newly-minted Skulener Rebbe), related as follows: “One of the reasons we need to recite Shehecheyanu tonight is because my son, Yisroel Avrohom, survived. Back home, when we would gather for davening in a cellar, we always had a scout at the door who would alert us if the police were coming. One time, we were caught and my son and I were arrested. The authorities wanted the names of everyone else who was there, but we would not give them up. They took my son and strung him from the ceiling, feet up, and made us watch as he suffered. My Yisroel Avrohom begged me, “Tatteh, Tatteh, dertzeil nisht. S’iz git, s’iz git. Father, don’t say. It is good. It is good.”
As great as was his care for another, his care for himself was nonexistent. His entire life was about mesirus nefesh for others.
“Not Without ‘My Children’”
Rabbi Dr. Isaac Levine was involved in much rescue work after the war, and recalled the wondrous personality of the rebbe’s father – his tzidkus and his selfless dedication to each and every Yid, endangering his life, and sitting in prison for defying the Romanian government with great brazenness.
“To the end of his life—in Romania and in the safety of America—he could not abide the suffering of even one Yid in the most faraway country, and he would knock on every door, in every hall of power, to save a life spiritually or materially,” he related.
“His activities in Romania resulted in his imprisonment, along with his son. When we in America heard that the Skulener Rebbe was imprisoned, we immediately began lobbying at the U.N., and we secured freedom for them. But the rebbe said, ‘I will not leave without my children.’ From that moment, he did not rest until he had done everything for the children that he adopted.”
His son inherited this complete dedication, and saw every single person in Klal Yisroel as his child. Like a father, he worried for the spiritual future of this generation. And, keracheim av al bonim, like a father, the love and the compassion were never-ending.
Klal Yisroel, in particular the American community, has lost a beacon of holiness, mesirus nefesh and truth. And whether they knew him or not, our generation has lost a tzaddik who loved and cared for each and every yochid within it.
For the sake of this generation, let us hope that the rebbe will never abandon “his children” and be a meilitz yosher for each and every Yid in his exalted place On High.
Healing Hearts with Yiras Shomayim
As noted, the Skulener Rebbe was an address for so many to find yeshuos, and one of the directives that he—who always encouraged more yiras Shomayim, and more frumkeit in our communities—would commonly give families was to don larger yarmulkas, which are a symbol of our fear of Heaven.
One time, a father of a number of children was diagnosed with heart failure, necessitating a complex heart operation. They were from Boro Park and already had large yarmulkas. Afraid that the rebbe would tell them to buy even bigger ones, they went out and bought a smaller size, and when the rebbe indeed told them to get larger ones, they readily complied.
On the next doctor’s visit, which included new tests, the doctor came out and informed the father, “I don’t know how to explain this, but I don’t see any need for surgery!”
Another story: A talmid chochom approached the rebbe, who was then with his rebbetzin in Columbia Hospital. His child suffered from a complex heart condition, and the doctors wanted to insert a trach tube before the patient went home, and the home was already set up with all the machinery.
The rebbe suggested to the family to undertake a certain resolution related to Yiddishkeit, and then stated, “Your child will go home breathing independently.” Astoundingly, shocking the entire medical team, the patient indeed went home, and breathed independently for ten more wonderful years.
The following was heard by this writer from a firsthand witness:
“My friend had a brain tumor, and they were going to do surgery. I said, ‘Let’s go to the Skulener Rebbe.’ We waited a long time to get in, and we got a minute or two with him. He places his hands on my friend’s head and told him to get a haircut. They performed another test…and the tumor was gone.
“A few years later, he got very sick, and doctors could not figure out what was going on with him. Again, I said, let’s go to the Skulener Rebbe. My friend was so weak, we had to shlep him up the stairs. The rebbe again placed his hands on his head, told him to get a haircut, and soon thereafter, he returned to complete health.”
There are countless such stories, and they all highlight the defining characteristic of the Skulener Rebbe: the deepest love for his fellow Jew, body and soul.