Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Last Novardoker

Rav Yaakov Galinsky zt”l, whose first yahrtzeit is this week, became famous by traveling the world and telling his life story in his droshos. But despite his fame, he was also a hidden tzaddik. Why did he take it upon himself never to refuse to deliver a drashah, and what did Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky tell him when his doctors forbade him from delivering shmuessen and traveling abroad? What kept him strong when his son was lying on his deathbed and what did he say on the day the Twin Towers fell? In a conversation with two of his grandchildren and with Rav Chaim Berman, his illustrious son-in-law, we are treated to some incredible, obscure stories about the life of this great man.

Exactly one year ago, on the 22nd of Shevat, 5774 (January 23, 2014), the great maggid and tzaddik, the last Novardoker, Rav Yaakov Galinsky zt”l, passed away. Despite his many claims to fame, everyone knew him simply as “Reb Yankele.” We all called him that, as if he was our friend.

But Rav Yaakov was a giant by any calculation. And his towering greatness was matched by his humility. This was illustrated by a personal encounter of my own with him, which I have mentioned before: I once found him sitting on a low stone wall at the entrance to Yerushalayim, jotting some notes on a used checkbook. As I drew closer, I saw that he was writing an outline for a shmuess that he was about to deliver at the Seret-Vizhnitz bais medrash on Rechov Ohalei Yosef in Yerushalayim. He had come from Bnei Brak by bus, and he was waiting for his son, who lived in Yerushalayim, to arrive in a taxi and accompany him to his destination.

I offered to take him in my own car and to call his son to let him know that he didn’t have to come, or that he could go directly to the Seret-Vizhnitz bais medrash if he so desired. Rav Yaakov acquiesced. In the car, he asked me what I did for a living and how much I earned every month. I was surprised by the questions, but I answered him. He then asked me if I was fluent in English and I admitted that I wasn’t. I soon learned that he was trying to find out whether he could solicit my aid for the kollelim under his aegis, which he held dear. Had I been fluent in English, he told me, he would have offered me to join him on his upcoming trip to America – at my own expense, of course. And had I earned a bit more, he would have asked me for a donation.

One thing was unmistakably clear: Rav Yaakov’s entire life revolved around his own Torah learning and that of the hundreds of avreichim in the kollelim he had founded. It was for that purpose that he traveled from country to country, sacrificing his own dignity and honor for the sake of raising funds for Torah learning.

This past week, at the conclusion of the year of mourning following his passing, I sat down with several of his family members, who are responsible today for maintaining his kollelim, including his son-in-law, Rav Chaim Berman.

I pose my first question to Rav Berman.

What made your father-in-law willing to do anything necessary, even at the cost of his own honor, to support his kollelim?

“It was his love for the Torah,” Rav Chaim replies. “That was his sacrifice for the Torah. He gave up his own honor for the sake of the Torah.”

Even at such an advanced age, he traveled the world to raise funds, without gabbaim to accompany him.


Rav Galinsky’s life story is a lengthy tale of self-sacrifice. His son-in-law continues: “He began traveling abroad for his yeshiva in the year 5730. He was away from home for a large portion of the year. He did everything in order to sustain his yeshiva in Chadeira. In 5744, the yeshiva in Chadeira closed and he opened a yeshiva with Rav Hillel Cohen zt”l in Rosh Ha’ayin. He accomplished many incredible things there, building up many bochurim. He later went on to open a kollel where they could learn after their marriages.” With those few words, Rav Chaim summed up decades that Rav Galinsky spent teaching Torah and founding institutions for avreichim and yeshiva students.

The yeshiva in Chadeira was opened in 5710 by Rav Yaakov’s rebbi, Rav Avrohom Yaffen, rosh yeshiva of Novardok. Rav Yaffen chose Rav Galinsky to serve as the rosh yeshiva alongside his good friend, Rav Elchonon Perlmutter. Over the decades, he taught Torah and mussar in the yeshiva to thousands of talmidim, who went on to owe him their spiritual lives. In 5750, Rav Yaakov founded a network of kollelim known as Marganisa D’Avrohom, named after his father, who was killed in the Holocaust. Rav Yaakov himself learned in the kollel twice a week, spending hours studying there with great intensity and absorption. Whenever someone would approach him to ask him to deliver a shmuess or to discuss some other matter, it could take a full fifteen minutes before Rav Yaakov noticed their presence. As a rosh kollel, he gave special attention to the avreichim in his institutions, offering them guidance and advice as if they were his own children.

“When he left the yeshiva in Rosh Ha’ayin, he opened four kollelim,” Rav Berman relates. “One was in Kiryat Sefer, another was in Beit Shemesh, a third was in Brachfeld [in Modiin Illit], and the fourth was in Yerushalayim. He kept those kollelim running with tremendous effort and self-sacrifice, for decades.”

In the context of those efforts, Rav Yaakov visited New York and its philanthropists on hundreds of occasions. He also traveled to Europe and to South America despite his age and medical condition.

About fifty avreichim learn at the kollel in Kiryat Sefer, which is located in the Zichron Moshe shul on Rechov Nesivos Hamishpat and is headed by Rav Yehuda Kanner, the rov of the southern neighborhood of Kiryat Sefer. The kollel has a demanding, rigorous daily schedule, which includes the study of Choshen Mishpat. Some of its members have already moved on to occupy prestigious positions of their own. They include Rabbi Lipa Liushev, who is now the rov of the Green Park neighborhood of Modiin Illit, and Rav Sholom Blau, who is a dayan in Kiryat Sefer. Others have become maggidei shiur and mechanchim in various yeshivas. The kollel in Yerushalayim, which is located in Ramot and has seventy avreichim, is headed by Rav Eliyahu Schmerler and also includes a program for the study of Choshen Mishpat. Two former members of this kollel are well-known dayanim: Rav Ephraim Landy and Rav Tzvi Shpitz. The kollel in Beit Shemesh, headed by Rav Menachem Kirschenbaum, serves eighty avreichim. The entire network of kollelim is headed today by Rav Yaakov’s son, Rav Elimelech Galinsky, and grandson, Rav Abba Tzvi Galinsky.

Even in his final years, when it was difficult for him to travel, Rav Yaakov asked Rav Shteinman if he should send someone else to raise money for the kollelim. With a smile, Rav Shteinman answered him with a play on words: “Chazal say that shlucho shel adam kemoso, when a person sends a messenger, it is as if he has died.” In other words, Rav Galinsky was to continue making the trip himself to raise funds for his institutions. As long as a person is alive, he must make the effort himself. Rav Galinsky listened to Rav Shteinman, and he expended tremendous effort, at great personal cost, to continue supporting his kollelim. When his doctors tried to dissuade him from traveling, Rav Yaakov would beg them to allow him to go. At one point, when he was extraordinarily weak, he went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky to ask if he could close his kollelim. Rav Chaim’s response was a shocked “Not under any circumstances!” In the last two years of Rav Galinsky’s life, when he was over 90 years old and his doctors forbade him to leave the country, he worked hard to raise money within Eretz Yisroel. The upkeep of his four kollelim continued to preoccupy him until his very last day on earth.

How many avreichim did he support?

“About two hundred. People saw that he spoke from the depths of his pure heart,” Rav Berman says. “He wasn’t trying to make a profit. He poured his entire heart and soul into raising money to support Torah learning. And because of that, people gave money to him.”

– – – – –

At the beginning of the week, I visited Rav Chaim Berman at his home on Rechov Rashbam in Bnei Brak. It was a brief visit, but by Rav Berman’s standards, it was far too long. He agreed to it only in honor of his father-in-law and because he felt the pressing need to publicize the dire straits of the kollelim that Rav Yaakov previously headed and supported. We will not speak about Rav Berman himself at length, since we gave him our word on that subject. In addition to Rav Berman, two other members of Rav Yaakov’s family were present: Rav Berman’s son, Rav Yosef Shlomo Berman, and another of Rav Yaakov’s grandsons, Rav Abba Tzvi Galinsky. At my request, they began the conversation with a few stories about their revered grandfather that were previously known only to the family.

“Once, our grandfather received almost 100,000 shekels as an inheritance. It could have been a tremendous source of relief to him, considering that he lived an extremely modest lifestyle and maintained a very tight budget, but he took nothing for himself. He used the money to open another kollel; he didn’t take a cent of it.

“For seventeen years, he ran a vaad here in Eretz Yisroel for avreichim striving to grow in their yiras Shomayim, their bitachon, and especially their middos. He founded a similar vaad in Gateshead 16 years ago, and he remained in touch with that vaad until the end of his life. A third vaad of this nature met in America for many years. He remained in contact with these groups by telephone and through letters. Of course, he also visited them in person whenever he traveled to those countries.”

What is special about Rav Galinsky’s kollelim?

“The fact that they were founded and sustained through our grandfather’s mesirus nefesh. He made tremendous sacrifices for two things: to deliver drashos and shmuessen in order to bring Jews closer to their Father in Heaven, and for the sake of his kollelim.”

Do the kollelim practice a special approach to learning? Do they learn mussar? Do they follow the Novardoker approach?

“Perhaps the distinguishing feature of these kollelim is the fact that they integrate iyun learning with the study of halachah. The avreichim learn Choshen Mishpat in the mornings, and the afternoon is devoted to the in-depth study of Shas along with halachah. But the fact that a person was willing to make great sacrifices throughout his life in order to sustain the kollelim is a reason in itself for him to be deserving of Divine aid in keeping the kollelim running.”

At the end of his life, in fact, Rav Galinsky was deeply preoccupied by these kollelim, which were his most cherished cause. In the tzavaah he issued while he was still alive, his son, Rav Elimelech, and his grandson, Rav Abba Tzvi, were designated to bear the burden after his passing. “He shook hands with them on the arrangement and tears flowed from his eyes,” said Rav Berman.

– – – – –

Rav Yaakov Galinsky was born in Poland in Teves 5681 (1921). He learned in Novardok and then, in 5708 (1948), was exiled to Siberia along with hundred bochurim. In almost every one of his drashos, he recounted some of his experiences in Siberia. He arrived in Eretz Yisroel one year after the state was founded. He was very close with the Chazon Ish, a relationship that is the subject of many more stories. Rav Galinsky was known as the quintessential maggid. He never refused a request to deliver a shmuess. The entire Torah world respected and admired him, but this was especially true among devotees of the Chazon Ish, including the Steipler Gaon and, later on, Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

Rav Galinsky once related that he had asked Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, “Why is the brachah of shelo asani goy phrased in negative terms? Why do we thank Hashem for not making us non-Jews instead of thanking Him for having made us Jews?”

Rav Shach smiled and replied, “Rav Yankele, as a Novardoker, you shouldn’t be asking this question. For you, it is enough that Hashem did not make you a goy. Now, it is your responsibility to become a Jew.”

Despite his “Novardoker” background, Rav Galinsky had a very unique sense of humor. Once, after the Twin Towers had fallen, he delivered a shmuess at his kollel about the insignificance of man and the danger of crediting oneself for one’s own accomplishments. During his shmuess, Rav Galinsky, who was very short, remarked, “Who would ever have thought that I would be taller than the Twin Towers?”

Rav Chaim Berman, son-in-law of Rav Galinsky, is a brother of Rav Mordechai Shlomo (“Rav Shloimke”) Berman zt”l, who was the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva and a son-in-law of the Steipler Gaon. Their father, Rav Yehuda Berman zt”l, was a prominent talmid chochom and world-class tzaddik who passed away at a young age. Along with Rav Galinsky’s grandsons, Rav Chaim has numerous stories to share.

“He used to go out to speak every day. Sometimes, he would deliver several drashos in a single day, even though it was far from easy for him. He maintained this routine on Yomim Tovim and Chol Hamoed, as well. His family wanted to come visit, but he preferred to deliver drashos of chizuk to the public. And he never cared about how many people attended his drashos or who they were. He was dedicated to inspiring his listeners, and he always demanded more and more of himself.”

Why did he drive himself so intensely?

“In the year 5752, when he was 71 years old, he began having chest pains and he had to undergo a catheterization, which was a much more complex procedure at the time than it is today. He resolved that if he survived the procedure in good health, he would never turn down a request to give a drashah. He kept up that commitment until the end of his life. In 5764, when he was 83 years old, he had an infection in his ear and spent six weeks in the hospital. He was so weak that he couldn’t wear anything but a robe made of thin fabric. His body was pumped full of antibiotics. He spent forty days in the hospital and the doctors forbade him to deliver any drashos. Even then, he didn’t want to give in to their demands, and he asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky what to do.”

What did Rav Chaim tell him?

“He said that he should give no more than one drashah each day and that he should speak for no longer than ten minutes.

“In his later years, he had a growth in his chest that spread to his vocal chords. That made it very difficult for him to speak, yet he still did not turn down requests to deliver drashos. People thought that he was simply hoarse; they didn’t know that his vocal chords had actually been damaged. He expended enormous effort to speak. Until the very end of his life, he made tremendous sacrifices to teach Torah.

“There was once an incredible incident that happened involving Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The doctors told Rav Yaakov that he had an infection in his ear. He went to Rav Chaim and told him that an operation had been scheduled for after Sukkos. Rav Chaim said to him, ‘The year and its curses will end. The infection will go away.’ Before the scheduled operation, he went to be examined and the doctors informed him that it seemed they had been mistaken and there was no infection after all.”

– – – – –

Rav Yaakov Galinsky was one of the most well-known rabbonim in the world, primarily as a result of his many drashos, which gave him a great degree of public exposure and made many people aware of his life story. At the same time, it turns out that much of his tzidkus was concealed.

His grandson relates: “I was once asked to spend the night at my grandfather’s home, and I noticed that after he finished learning and went to his room, he opened a notebook and wrote a few things in it. I peeked at the notebook and saw that it contained a neatly organized chart. The columns were labeled ‘Talmud Bavli,’ ‘Talmud Yerushalmi,’ ‘Medrash,’ ‘mussar,’ ‘Tehillim,’ and ‘Rosh’ [i.e., Orchos Chaim LehaRosh]. Each row represented a day. Every day, my grandfather took notes on whether he had learned what he had committed to learn.”

I presume that he always completed his daily commitments.

His grandson continues: “The incredible thing is that he had ninety years of Torah, mussar and chessed behind him, yet he still worked hard every day to be sure that he was fulfilling the Will of his Creator.”

What can you tell us about the vaad?

“The mussar vaad that my grandfather established ran for thirty years. There were about 10 select avreichim who belonged to it. Every week, he would speak about a specific topic, and after the shmuess they would decide together on a practical kabbalah. He had several rules for the vaad: It had to contain a limited number of avreichim, they had to commit to learning mussar twice each day, and they had to sign every week to confirm that they had carried out their practical commitments. The vaad was held every Motzoei Shabbos. Even when we had family simchos, we knew that we had to finish seudah shlishis quickly so that our grandfather could get to his vaad.”

The vaad took place even in the hospital, and even at the most difficult times in Rav Galinsky’s life.

“In the year 5759, when his son, Rav Nachman zt”l, was on his sickbed, the vaad focused on simchah. They worked on maintaining true joy. His son’s condition did not detract from their avodah, or at least if it did cast a cloud over the simchah, it was impossible for anyone to tell. At the end of that year, his son passed away from his sickness. When his second son, Rav Avrohom Tzvi zt”l, passed away as well, Rav Galinsky was terribly distraught. One of the members of the chaburah came to his home and found the rov standing there, with tears streaming from his eyes. He didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, he felt the rov grasping his hand. ‘Do you understand?’ Rav Yaakov said. ‘Without the avodah of the vaad, it would be impossible to get through these things!’”


Rav Yaakov did not like it when people told stories of his “wonders,” but his tefillos were always answered, and many people were saved by his brachos. A prominent philanthropist from Mexico related that he had once been suffering from a terrible stomach ailment and the doctors had given up hope of curing him. When Rav Yaakov went to Mexico, the man asked for a brachah. “Show me your tzitzis,” Rav Yaakov instructed him. The man sought to evade the request. Realizing that he did not wear tzitzis, Rav Yaakov purchased a pair for him. At his next checkup, the man related, the doctors were astonished to discover that he was completely healthy.

There was another man, who had been childless for many years, who approached Rav Yaakov for a brachah. Rav Yaakov told him, “I will give you a brachah, but I want you to guarantee that if you have a child, you will donate $1,800 to the kollelim.” The man agreed instantly. During Rav Yaakov’s shivah, he came to fulfill his promise. A baby girl had been born.
Rav Meir Fogel, who sometimes served as Rav Yaakov’s companion, shared the following story: “Once, when we were in Lakewood, NJ, a Chassidishe man came with a list of the names of his family members and asked for a brachah for them. Rav Yaakov read through the names, murmuring something for each one. Suddenly, he stopped at one of the names and asked, ‘How is this child?’ The man was astounded. Rav Yaakov gave the child a brachah.”


As famous as Rav Yaakov was, his true greatness was concealed. He was an outstanding tzaddik who overflowed with love for his fellow Jews, but his tzidkus was not accompanied by any sort of fanfare. His son, Rav Elimelech, relates, “There was once a person who said some highly disparaging things about my father. Naturally, my father did not respond. A while later, my father told me that the man had asked him to request a loan on his behalf from a certain gemach, since he would receive a much larger sum if my father requested it. Abba asked me to convey his request to the owner of the gemach. I said, ‘I can’t do that for someone who spoke about you in such a derisive way.’ In response, my father exclaimed, ‘I studied in Novardok! If you don’t go, I will go myself!’”

Rav Galinsky’s granddaughter once related that, as a child, she had gone to visit her grandfather, and he had noticed that something was bothering her. She revealed that she had been deeply hurt by an incident at school. The next day, when she arrived at school, the principal came to her and asked what she could do to help. When the young girl expressed surprise, the principal said matter-of-factly, “Your grandfather came to me at seven o’clock this morning and asked me to find out if anything was troubling you.”
Rav Yosef Shlomo Berman, Rav Galinsky’s grandson, related, “A Sephardic Jew once came to my grandfather and told him that his daughter had not been accepted into a high school. He asked my grandfather to intercede on his behalf. My grandfather immediately donned his jacket and headed for the door. The avreich was flustered. ‘I meant for the rov to make a telephone call or give me a letter to bring to the school,’ he protested, but my grandfather put on his hat and coat, and we went to the school together.”
The story does not end there.

“This took place during the afternoon, when the school was closed. ‘Help me jump over the fence,’ my grandfather asked me. I protested that it wasn’t fitting for him to do something like that, but he insisted. Once we were inside, we went to see the principal, who is the daughter of one of the most prestigious Sephardic rabbonim in the country. My grandfather said to her, ‘How could you refuse to accept this girl into your school? Don’t you know that I used to go around with your father, with great mesirus nefesh, and convince parents to send their children to Torah schools? Are you prepared to accept responsibility for what will happen to the girl if she isn’t accepted into your school?’ Of course, the girl was then accepted.”



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