Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

We Owe it All to Her

Rebbetzin Rischel Kotler a”h, the matriarch of Bais Medrash Govoah, the eim hamalchus, the mother of Torah royalty, is gone. My mind drifts. I picture a scene from many, many years ago. After 24 consecutive years of learning, while amassing 24,000 talmidim, Rabi Akiva finally returns home. The multitudes gather to show their respect, as one woman, Rochel, struggles to make her way through the crowd. At that moment, Rabi Akiva utters those epic words, the axiom for every ishah kesheirah: “Sheli veshelachem shelah hu – What is mine and what is yours is all from her” (Kesubos 63a). In the English vernacular, we owe her everything.

As a proud talmid of Lakewood, and now a father to a second-generation talmid, I recognize the overriding truth that everything we have and all that we’ve become we owe to Rebbetzin Rischel Kotler. While her husband, Rav Shneur, our “Rabi Akiva,” took Bais Medrash Govoah and transformed it into the largest makom Torah in the world, the Rebbetzin, through her legendary mesirus for Torah, served as his “Rochel,” willing to sacrifice everything to make the virtual explosion of Torah learning into a reality.

If she could somehow enhance the quality of life for a bochur, yungerman, or his family, nothing was beneath the Rebbetzin. Her care, compassion and attention to detail were ever present.

I can vividly recall the first time I met the Rebbetzin. At the time, I was a chosson learning in Lakewood, and I had an infection that needed medical attention. I did not know which doctor to go to, and someone suggested that I call the Rebbetzin. It seemed incongruous to bother the Rebbetzin about such a trivial matter, but the fellow encouraged me to go. “Would you ask your mother?” he urged. “I go to the Rebbetzin for anything I need,” he explained. I was still hesitant, but I picked up the phone to call. I have a clear recollection of hanging up numerous times before I actually heard the Rebbetzin answer the phone. I introduced myself nervously, and she suggested that I come to her home so she could discuss the matter with me. Now I really felt silly. But it was too late.

I headed over to the Rebbetzin’s home and she welcomed me in. She offered me a cup of tea and asked me to sit down, and I immediately felt comfortable in her presence. I told her that I was a chosson and even offered that my rebbi, Rav Shloims Eisenberger, and his wife, Tamar a”h, were my shadchanim. I knew Rav Shloims was a talmid of Rav Shneur. The Rebbetzin’s face lit up as she said, “You know that Rav Shloima was a talmid of the rosh yeshivah, and a talmid is like a child. So if Rav Shloima is your rebbi and the rosh yeshivah was his rebbi, that makes you my ainikel.” I smiled, warmed by the feeling of connection. I knew I was in good hands.

The Rebbetzin recommended that I see Dr. H., a skin specialist. She called his office and asked for an appointment. He was willing to see me immediately. Arriving at the office a short while later, I realized that I was the only one there. I asked if the doctor and his staff were staying late because of me, and they responded that yes, they were staying open for Mrs. Kotler. I was soon ushered in to see the doctor and he commented, “So you know Mrs. Kotler? Boy, she is one incredible woman.” I don’t know how Dr. H. knew the Rebbetzin. But like everyone else who merited an encounter with the Rebbetzin, the indelible impression would not be forgotten. Not by a baochur in need of advice, and not by an irreligious doctor. And not by thousands of women in Lakewood who saw in her their role model, the paradigm of chashivus haTorah and

the quintessential eizer kenegdo.

Those who came to the yeshivah in the generations before me saw in her a mother. From my tekufah in yeshivah and onward, we saw a bubbe who cared deeply for each of the bochurim and yungeleit and their families. When she met my wife, she made her feel special and privileged to be the wife of a yungerman, so proud to have chosen to lead this lifestyle.

Fast forward about two decades. I was privileged to conduct an interview with the Rebbetzin and was escorted into the kitchen where the Rebbetzin was waiting for me. I reminded her of our first encounter. She smiled and assured me that she remembered the story. I could not see how that was possible. She did for countless others daily what she had done for me. But it felt good regardless. She inquired about my family and well-being and applauded our commitment to chinuch.

Then, as she began to speak, she traveled back in time to the early days of Lakewood. She spoke of the challenges facing that generation, one to which the term kollel was almost completely foreign. She spoke of hardships, sacrifice and poverty. But her eyes sparkled as she recalled the overwhelming love and mesirus nefesh for Torah that those early families possessed. Their material possessions were minimal, but those who learned at Bais Medrash Govoah at the time sensed that they were building something more. Something unique and pure. The world scoffed, but they persevered.

In our interview, one refrain repeated itself: “Vos vet zein mit chashivus haTorah?” Affording me a glimpse into the world of Torahdike malchus, she lamented the fact that while boys nowadays look for many qualities in a young lady, they forget the most important one of all: chashivus haTorah. Years ago, despite the financial hardship and lack of emotional support from the community, they had the joy of Torah. And the couples, where husband and wife were machshiv Torah equally, shared that dream.

 In addition, these families had each other. And above all else, they had Rav Aharon. Rav Aharon Kotler only came to these shores because of a declaration uttered by Rav Chaim Volozhin 170 years beforehand: “Der letzte stantzia fahr Moshiach vet kummen vet zein der golus fuhn America — The last exile before Moshiach comes will be the golus of America.” Rav Aharon believed so strongly in the words of Rav Chaim that he was willing to bypass the opportunity to go to Eretz Yisroel and instead transplanted himself in America. Rav Aharon planted the seeds and his son, Rav Shneur, spread the fruit of those trees throughout the globe.

Rav Shneur was not born in a vacuum. He was a disciple of his zaide, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, a gadol hador, who nurtured him for seven years. Rav Shneur basked in the warmth of his grandfather’s essence, gleaning from his selflessness, kindness, and exceptional middos. Rav Aharon was the unapologetic protector of Torah. His fiery eyes glistened with the uncompromising truth and passion for Toras Hashem, and he emblazoned the fire of Torah on the souls of a nearly destroyed nation.

And yet, it was Rav Shneur who built Lakewood into a global Torah center, the lifeline for American and world Torah Jewry. Rav Shneur knew a secret, one that drove him to accomplish extraordinary feats. He believed in every person, not just lip service belief. Rather, he had absolute faith in the elevated nature of every Jew. Bais Medrash Govoah was not a yeshivah of thousands to Rav Shneur. He knew that every Yid was the missing piece. Each one was critical, vital to our existence. Rav Shneur never saw nationalities: Americans, Israelis, Russians, Mexicans, Iranians, Australians. Instead, he saw Jews, and he loved Jews. All Jews. He perceived the inherent holiness in each, sensing their purpose, activating their neshamos to perform the will of Hashem. Rav Shneur possessed a klorkeit in the understanding of the Yiddishe neshamah, unparalleled clarity into the depth and beauty of every Jewish soul.

Rav Shneur never officially planned to build the largest makom Torah. He was merely driven to help others grasp their own significance. And so, Lakewood became the makom Torah it is — not “his” makom, but the Ribbono Shel Olam’s makom, with room for each individual to grow at his own pace. For gedolei olam to be become even greater. For developing Torah scholars to discover their strengths and chase their dreams for ever greater kedushah, greater gadlus ha’adam.

And the Rebbetzin was his enabler. She opened her heart and her home to everyone. Some needed chizuk and guidance. Others needed wisdom and a shoulder to cry on. She gave each what he needed.

Together, our generation’s Rabi Akiva and Rochel created the largest yeshivah since Pumbedisa.

Years ago, Rav Mordechai Shapiro, a close disciple of Rav Aharon Kotler, celebrated the bris of his son when living in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Although Rav Shneur generally did not attend such out-of-town celebrations, as he already traveled twice a week to New York to collect money, he made it a point to attend. He began his speech by saying, “You must be wondering why I came. If my father were alive, he certainly would have come. Kumt ich in zeine platz — I am coming in his place.”

Rav Shneur merely wanted to carry on the legacy. The platz was filled.

The Rebbetzin helped him fill that platz. Her commitment and dedication manifested itself in a global way, but also in a very private and real manner. Fiercely protective of his precious time, she told me that Rav Shneur never once had to look for a coat hanger for his coat. It was always there in the closet waiting for him, a subtle but profound gesture, but just one example of her loyalty and chashivus haTorah.

We can only imagine the Rebbetzin’s kabbolas ponim in Shomayim. With the multitudes listening to Rav Shneur’s brilliant and incisive shiurim, his Rebbetzin now joins the crowd.

And in Shomayim, the echo of Rav Shneur’s cry reverberates: Sheli veshelachem shelah hu.”

Yehi zichrah boruch.



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