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r' Ginzberg

r' Ginzberg

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Just Me and

a s o n

you
r e m e m b e r s

In his more than 50 years as executive director of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Avrohom Ginzberg z”l not only kept the yeshivah’s many branches and programs financially afloat but served as an example of what selfless dedication to Torah was really all about. His son, Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg, recalls the early years of struggle, as well as the deep bond between Reb Avrohom and his rebbi, the rosh yeshivah Rav Henoch Leibowitz
Alan Teigman of Teigman Images
photos Meir Haltovsky,

by Yisroel Besser

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Just Me and You

He was surrounded by prayerful throngs,

At the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center, Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg has showed how to bless Hashem in both gratitude and suffering

tourists, tzedakah collectors, and security personnel, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. “Rabbi Ginzberg?” It was an unfamiliar face. The young man quickly explained that he recognized the rabbi from the small picture that had accompanied a magazine article. He and his wife were facing a formidable personal challenge and that piece, titled “This Wasn’t the Way It Was Supposed to Be,” was a wellspring of hope to them. He removed his cell phone and called his wife, while still holding the American rabbi by the arm. “I’m at the Kosel. I met Rabbi Ginzberg,” he said, and then he handed the phone to the rav. The rav wasn’t sure what to say or what not to say, but this he knew: the woman was in pain, and so he wept along with her. Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg knows how to weep. In the pages of this magazine he has shared a very difficult personal nisayon — the illness and subsequent loss of his beloved grandson — and the response from readers was tremendous. Yet what makes him unique, and what made that unknown young man at the Kosel seek him out, is his ability to find and give inspiration even from the vale of tears. There are many who can bless Hashem in gratitude, fewer that can do so in suffering; the rabbi of Cedarhurst’s Chofetz Chaim Torah Center has proven himself up to the task. But today I am visiting Reb Aryeh Zev for a different reason. It is a few months after the passing of his father, Rabbi Avrohom Ginzberg z”l, and I have come to Reb Aryeh Zev’s summer home in the country, which is far from his thriving kehillah and myriad speaking and personal commitments,

to hear the tale of Rav Avrohom, a humble, resilient, dedicated soldier of harbatzas Torah. The weather cooperates by obscuring the outside world behind relentlessness gray sheets of pouring rain, allowing us to turn inward and focus on a world that may be long gone but is still fondly remembered.

Just Me and You Much has been writ-

ten about the roshei yeshivah who rebuilt Torah on these shores. But often overlooked are the souls at their side, the ones they depended on to get the job done. And that’s the

story of Rabbi Avrohom Ginzberg, Reb Aryeh Zev’s father. While generations of Chofetz Chaim talmidim looked to their revered rosh yeshivah, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, the rosh yeshivah in turn looked to his confidant, Rabbi Ginzberg. There was a sense that, whatever the task, Reb Avrohom was up to it. Reb Aryeh Zev tells me that this quality of reliability was developed early on. “My father’s family was from Narol. During the war, they were exiled to Siberia and my zeideh was drafted by the Russian army. One day, when

my father was 11 or 12, rumors reached the family that their father had been wounded. My grandmother sent her young son — my father — to try to gather information about the location of his father. He walked through snow and darkness, eventually reaching the next town. There, he was told of a Jewish soldier who was dying in the shul. He hurried over there and found his father, whose life was slowly ebbing away.” Young Avrohom Ginzberg was able to save his father’s life. For the first time. A while later the boy was allowed entry

into the United States. He went alone, with neither money nor connections in his new home. All he had was a burning desire to make up for lost time, to immerse himself in learning. He heard about the fledgling Chofetz Chaim Yeshivah in Williamsburg and joined as a talmid. The early 1940s was a difficult time for Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. To understand those days, some background history is necessary. Rav Dovid Leibowitz, a great-nephew and talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, had distinguished himself in a chaburah of lions, the

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Rabbi Ginzberg’s efforts evolved into a major movement in American Orthodoxy. (From top right) With Rosh Yeshivah Rav Henoch Leibowitz; greeting Rav Moshe Feinstein; in conference with Rav Elyashiv; life partner with the Rosh Yeshivah; in consultation with Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zichronam livrachah

At the 50-year celebration, Rabbi Ginzberg turned to the Rosh Yeshivah and smiled, “Rebbi, when do the two years end?”

pride of the Slabodka yeshivah. Respected as a synthesis of both Torah and mussar, he’d been invited to plant Torah in the United States as rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath. After a disagreement between Reb Dovid and the administration, he left Torah Vodaath and established his own yeshivah, taking most of the talmidim along with him. The nascent institution showed great promise. The American youngsters drank in thirstily their rebbi’s Torah, but it lacked the infrastructure of an established yeshivah and Reb Dovid was quickly overwhelmed by the administrative and fundraising responsibilities. He soldiered on, but due to his frail constitution he wasn’t up to the task. He was niftar young — very young — leaving only one son, who was himself a sickly young man: Reb Henoch. Reb Henoch was still unmarried and utterly alone when he assumed the mission of taking the spark his father had ignited and turning it into a roaring flame. The odds were against him, but it was at about that time that Hashgachah sent the young rosh yeshivah a gift, a bochur who had just joined the yeshivah — Avrohom Ginzberg. At a dinner marking 50 years of Rabbi Ginzberg’s dedication to the yeshivah, Reb Henoch turned to face his closest friend and repeated the words he’d said back then: “It’s just me and you, Abe. Just me and you.” But back in the 1940s, Avrohom Ginzberg was only an 18-year-old bochur. He wanted to learn, but he also wanted to bring his parents to the United States — a dream that required no small amount of money. Armed with twin gifts of capability and dedication, he learned all day and worked all night, literally. He did it by learning all three of the yeshivah sedorim with great hasmadah and then sleeping for one hour. After his “night’s sleep,” he worked the night shift at a bakery, schlepping sacks of flour. Then, he managed another hour of sleep before Shacharis and a new day of learning. His efforts on both fronts bore fruit. He earned his smichah, becoming Rabbi Avrohom Ginzberg, and succeeded in bringing over his parents and younger siblings.

He even purchased the bakery for them, on credit. Ginzberg’s Bakery in Bensonhurst, where the family settled, would be a fixture for two decades. Reb Avrohom then set out to build a home of his own. He married Rebbetzin Adele (Koffler), who was his partner and support until his last day. He also was eager to start teaching others and pass on what he’d learned. But Reb Henoch asked his prized talmid to stay. “Please,” said Reb Henoch, “remain at my side for two years and then you can set out on your own.” At the 50-year celebration, Rabbi Ginzberg turned to the Rosh Yeshivah and smiled, “Rebbi, when do the two years end?”

To Be Like Rabbi Ginzberg Reb

Henoch, with Reb Avrohom at his side, persevered and the yeshivah grew remarkably. The Williamsburg building was sold to the Pupa kehillah (it’s still in use as the famed matzoh bakery) and the yeshivah moved to Queens, where its glory era began. The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a huge building that was being used by a Conservative congregation with a declining membership, was for sale and the yeshivah purchased it. The balabatim’s minyan was maintained on the yeshivah’s new campus — although according to Orthodox practice, of course — and Rabbi Ginzberg served as rav. In time, the shul’s name was changed from Forest Hills Jewish Center to Congregation Chofetz Chaim, a name which the younger Rabbi Ginzberg has adapted and perpetuated in his own Cedarhurst kehillah. Reb Avrohom was able to pursue both of his interests, rabbanus and the yeshivah, teaching and guiding even as he stood loyally by Reb Henoch, overseeing the running of the more practical aspects of what was evolving into a major movement in American Orthodoxy. In his role as executive director, his responsibilities included everything except giving shiurim. He was the go-to man for the various branches looking for funding, advice,

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or bureaucratic assistance with expansion, summer programs, or personnel. He did fundraising, represented the yeshivah and the Rosh yeshivah at all public functions, was one of the founders of the AARTS program (accreditation agency for yeshivahs), and was the yeshivah’s ambassador to the community and politicians. As the yeshivah grew to encompass new branches, shuls, and other institutions, Rabbi Ginzberg worked to implement Rav Henoch’s vision. Through it all, he was completely bittul to his rebbi. “My father worked tirelessly. Even his trips to Eretz Yisrael were for the yeshivah,” Reb Aryeh Zev recalls, pointing out that Chofetz Chaim has a branch in Yerushalayim’s Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood. “Once, about ten years ago, we were in Eretz Yisrael together and I said, ‘Daddy, this time you’re going to relax and enjoy.’ I made reservations at a nice hotel, one with delicious mehadrin meals and luxurious accommodations. He said to me, ‘Aryeh Zev, the room is really nice and the food is good, but I want to sleep in yeshivah, to eat with the bochurim.’ “I laughed and told him that a proper night’s sleep would make him realize how badly he needed the rest. He woke up in the morning and said to me, gently, ‘I really appreciate what you’re trying to do. Now, please, I want to move to the yeshivah.’ I gave up.” Yet Reb Aryeh Zev also underscores the duality of his father’s role as both rebbi, and talmid. “His effect on his mispallelim was tremendous. He maintained a lifelong kesher with the families in his shul, their children, even their grandchildren. On each and every visit to Yerushalayim, and there were many over the years, he would look up all these families, ask to see current pictures, show them how much he cared.” While sitting shivah in Yerushalayim, Reb Aryeh Zev noticed an unfamiliar man in the room. The fellow identified himself as a child of a very modern Orthodox family who were members of Congregation Chofetz Chaim. “Your father influenced me greatly,” he told the aveilim, “and I told my parents that I wanted to attend yeshivah. They were adamantly against it, but I persisted. Finally, they asked, ‘Why do you want to learn in a yeshivah so badly?’ I answered, ‘Because I want to become like Rabbi Ginzberg.’ They were quiet when I said that. They let me go.”

“My father was a visionary. Yet regardless of how he saw things, he always deferred to his rebbi”

What the Rosh Yeshivah Wants Reb Aryeh Zev’s par-

ents were the ones who were closest to Reb Henoch and his rebbetzin, and he has many stories from those earlier times. “The Rosh Yeshivah and his rebbetzin had no children of their own, so my father was the one they called when the boiler broke and he was the one who accompanied them to the doctor,” he recalls. “When I was a little boy, my father traveled to Eretz Yisrael for an extended period to establish the branch there, and we stayed with the Leibowitzes. I remember that one morning I was sitting in class in cheder and a kid sitting near me gasped, ‘The Rosh Yeshivah’s here!’ ” Indeed he was. Reb Henoch had come to bring little Aryeh Zev

Reb Aryeh Zev. “ When the yeshivah had no money, my father made sure everyone got paid but himself and the Rosh Yeshivah”

his snack, which he’d forgotten in the Rosh Yeshivah’s car. Every Succos, the Rosh Yeshivah and his rebbetzin would travel to the Chicago home of the rebbetzin’s brother, Rav Trop, for the first part of the holiday. With no succah at home, they would join the Ginzbergs for the meals of Shemini Atzeres. But according to Reb Aryeh Zev, there was another purpose to this arrangement. “The Rosh Yeshivah wanted to make sure that my father would eat in the succah on Shemini Atzeres, since he held it to be halachically required. But my father, unwilling to forfeit his own father’s minhag, would sneak a quick meal in the house before the Rosh Yeshivah arrived.” The depth of the personal connection between the two men was shown when the Rosh Yeshivah had a favor to ask of Reb Aryeh Zev, who was traveling to Eretz Yisrael. “He instructed me to purchase four chelkas, burial plots, near each other; two for him and his rebbetzin and two for my own parents.” Yet when Rebbetzin Pesha Leibowitz passed away many years later, Reb Henoch decided that he wanted her to be buried in Queens, so that the yeshivah’s many talmidim could daven by the kever of the “mother of the yeshivah.” When Reb Henoch was niftar, he was laid to rest next to her. Reb Aryeh Zev suggested to his father that they, too, should start looking for burial plots in New York. “No,” said the elder Rabbi Ginzberg. “We will go to Eretz Yisrael. That’s where the Rosh Yeshivah said we should buy, and I never heard that he changed his mind!” Many roshei yeshivah and builders of Torah are blessed to have capable people around them. The partnership between the Rosh Yeshivah and his executive director was, however, unique. “My father was a visionary, and he was both practical and energetic. Yet regardless of how he saw things, he always deferred to his rebbi,” Reb Aryeh Zev recalls. “Reb Henoch once told me, ‘Your father never once said no to anything I suggested. He never once felt that whatever favor I needed was beneath him.’ ”

Rabbi Shaya Cohen, a prominent Chofetz Chaim talmid, was once in the office when the Rosh Yeshivah asked Rabbi Ginzberg to go to the Catskill Mountains and locate a suitable property for a summer camp for the yeshivah. Rabbi Ginzberg argued that there was no money, that the yeshivah couldn’t undertake the additional burden, that it was the wrong time. Yet the next morning, Rabbi Cohen observed that Rabbi Ginzberg was wearing a pair of high rubber boots. “I’m going up to the Catskills and it’s muddy at this time of year,” Rabbi Ginzberg told him, with a shrug. “It’s what the Rosh Yeshivah wants.” Reb Aryeh Zev shares another tale, this one a story that he heard during the week of shivah, when hespedim were delivered at the many Chofetz Chaim branches. “Rav Aryeh Rodin of Dallas recounted how once, in the middle of a blatt shiur, Rav Henoch reflected that he wasn’t sure that his partner, Rav Avrohom, wouldn’t reap a larger reward than the Rosh Yeshivah in the Next World. ‘I get to deliver the shiurim and shmuessen and derive tremendous sipuk, fulfillment, from interacting with talmidim, while Reb Avrohom faces the daily pressure and burden of keeping the yeshivah afloat.’” Perhaps the most classic Rabbi Ginzberg story was the one related by Rabbi Yonoson Rosenblum in these pages, just after Rabbi Ginzberg’s petirah, about an incident that remained a secret for close to 40 years, until Rav Aryeh Zev shared it at his father’s levayah. It’s a tale that goes back to a time of great financial difficulty for the yeshivah and, by extension, Rav Avrohom. “When the yeshivah had no money, my father made sure everyone got paid but himself and the Rosh Yeshivah,” Reb Aryeh Zev recalls. He then explains that in addition to not having received his salary for close to a year, his father had taken out two additional mortgages on his home to keep the yeshivah going. There was an elderly couple he was acquainted with who, Rachmana litzlan, suffered the loss of their only son. Reb Avrohom stepped in and became their surrogate son,

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At his great-grandson’s bris. Now they’re learning together in Shamayim
taking responsibility for their health and financial issues, visiting them often and generally being there for them. The man eventually passed on and his wife, who was very ill, went to live in a nursing home. In addition to visiting her two or three times a week, Reb Avrohom was frequently called in the middle of the night with questions regarding her care. When she passed away, Reb Avrohom, as executor of her estate, was responsible for ensuring that her will was followed, according to her wishes. One night, the will was left open on the dining room table and 15-year-old Aryeh Zev, with the curiosity of youth, looked over the details. “I was thrilled! She’d left $250,000 directly to my father. Finally, there would be some money available for my parents’ personal needs. “My father responded that the money belonged to the yeshivah, rather than to him personally. I insisted that the will said nothing about the yeshivah, but my father said that he was nothing more than a representative of the yeshivah and, therefore, whatever there is essentially belongs to the yeshivah.” The teenager hurried to Reb Henoch’s home and shared the story with him. “The Rosh Yeshivah told me that he wasn’t a posek, and that I should ask Rav Moshe Feinstein what to do.” The spirited bochur immediately took a train to the Lower East Side, where the posek hador heard him out and carefully studied the will. He paskened that the money belonged to Rabbi Ginzberg, and suggested that the maaser be given to the yeshivah. When Rav Henoch heard the psak, a smile slowly spread across his face. “Go tell your father what Reb Moshe ruled,” he instructed the boy. “I thought it was a bit strange that the Rosh Yeshivah smiled broadly when I shared with him the psak that the yeshivah had just lost the better part of a quarter of a million dollars. But I hurried back to my father with the psak, and he just shrugged. ‘The money is going to the yeshivah,’ he said. I argued

again and again. Finally, my father looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know what a favor you did me with that psak. For so long now, I was disturbed that because of my own difficult financial situation, I would never merit helping build the yeshivah. Now that the gadol hador has paskened that the money belongs to me, I also can have a share in helping the yeshivah. And for that zchus I will always be grateful to you.’ “And then I understood why Rav Henoch smiled. He knew the depth of his talmid’s devotion better than I did, and he saw where it was headed.”

Until the Last Day Just a few short

years ago, Rabbi Ginzberg retired from the yeshivah. He was desperate to return to his first love, learning Torah, and he established a retirees’ kollel in the beis

medrash of his beloved yeshivah. He urged, inspired, begged, and even offered to drive people, and finally he managed to create a chaburah of elderly Yidden who came together each day. The rishcha d’Oraysa, the passion and spirit of in-depth learning, infused them with new strength. “One morning, my father gave his daily daf yomi shiur in shul, and casually mentioned to his balabatim that he was going to the hospital for a small procedure. It really was pretty routine, surgery to remove water on his lungs, and I accompanied him. While the orderlies were prepping him for surgery, he chatted with them. A young male nurse heard that he was a rabbi from Chofetz Chaim and said, ‘My grandpa learned in that yeshivah.’ “My father identified the nurse’s grandfather and immediately asked, ‘So is your mother Nancy or Susan?’ It turns out that

the boy’s grandfather had been a talmid of Rav Dovid Leibowitz, and the lone talmid that had accepted a pulpit in a shul without a mechitzah. Though it was a big nisayon back then and many of the best young rabbanim felt that there was no choice, Chofetz Chaim talmidim always remained steadfast and never accepted such positions. This talmid, however, had compromised, and as a result, he grew distant from the yeshivah. My father, however, refused to allow the relationship to lapse completely, and he maintained personal contact with this fellow throughout the years, attending his simchahs, including the bris of this young orderly. They had a meaningful if short conversation before my father was wheeled off to surgery.” It would be the last conversation Reb Avrohom would have in this world. “I keep replaying that conversation, how fitting it was for my father to leave amid words of kiruv and ahavas Yisrael, and, of course, conversation about his beloved yeshivah.” Although the operation was successful, while he was still on the operating table Reb Avrohom went into cardiac arrest and passed away, plunging his family and the wider Torah community into shock. For his son, the full potency of the blow was expressed at the levayah, in just a few words. “My father’s chavrusa, an older man whom my father had persuaded to join the retirees’ kollel and who’d been revitalized by the learning, came up to me, and asked despondently, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ” For Reb Aryeh Zev and his family it’s been a difficult year, as well, a year where they’ve been deprived of both the wisdom of old age and the sweetness of youth. “Our first grandson, beautiful little Alter Chanoch Henoch, was also taken from us this year. At the shivah for him, I told my father how much it pained me that this child wouldn’t get to learn with his elter zeideh, who loved nothing more than to share Torah with his eineklach.

“I was wrong. Now they’re learning together.” He adds, “When the situation with our grandson took a turn for worse, my father went out to the cemetery and walked up and down, all around the area where the Rosh Yeshivah is buried. He was taking down numbers and calling this congregation and that one, totally driven to locate a free space. Eventually, he found a kever and he purchased it. When our sweet einekel was taken, he was laid to rest right near his namesake, Rav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz.” Reb Aryeh Zev called his father soon after the kevurah to thank him for the gesture. “I said that it was literally a case of HaMakom yinacheim eschem. The special place he found brought us so much nechamah.”

Still Building

Reb Aryeh Zev Ginzberg is well-acquainted with the suffering and challenges of the people — and when it came to establishing an eternal zecher for his beloved grandson, he wasn’t satisfied with something ceremonial. “I sat down with my kids, Yudi and Ilana Jeger, and I asked them how they would want to honor the memory of their son. We talked about the various chesed organizations with which the community is blessed, and there are many, baruch Hashem. But we wanted to do something unique, something that would address a truly pressing need. “Crisis, catastrophe, challenge — I don’t care what word you use for it — the shidduchim situation is terrible and our community is coming up short. We have international organizations that remind us not to speak lashon hara and teach us to do kiruv, and they are wonderful, but there is no grassroots effort to help the thousands of singles who are languishing in every shul in every community.” The family therefore established Simchas Chanoch, an organization that gives ordinary people tools and resources to suggest and initiate shidduchim, empowering them through

group meetings and a central database. “This idea was particularly meaningful to our children, because through helping establish Yiddishe homes, Chanoch will live on in the homes we’ve helped to build.” To date, the budding organization has hosted and organized tens of communal shadchanim meetings, inspiring nonprofessional shadchanim to suggest shidduchim of their own. “The goal should be that a Yid who doesn’t go a day without learning daf yomi or a woman who never misses saying her Tehillim should be unable to fall asleep on a day that they didn’t do something to help move a shidduch along.” If it sounds ambitious, it’s because it is; Chanoch came from an ambitious family, ambition fueled by ahavas Yisrael and a sense of responsibility. “Look, my children rose up to their nisyonos beautifully. Everyone, the doctors and nurses and other patients, could only marvel at their attitude and perspective. My son-inlaw delivered a drashah at the shloshim for his son that a prominent rav told me was more effective than any shmuess on emunah. But that was only stage one. Now, the nisayon is to use what happened as a springboard to create something positive. That’s what we’re trying to do.” Six hours have passed since Reb Aryeh Zev and I began our conversation. As we conclude, my emotions play tricks on me. Some of the stories were so sad, yet I feel only happiness and uplifted. This, then, is the gift of Reb Aryeh Zev, a son who misses his father, a zeideh who is pining for his beloved grandson. Yet for him pain and joy are twin rivers that flow in the same direction: growth, encouragement, chizuk. He accompanies me out to the front steps. The rain has subsided and a sliver of lateafternoon sun has broken through the gray mist. Whereas others might look and see the last drops of rain, I have no doubt that my host sees something else — the ray of light. —

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