Rabbi Yehoshua Friedman, famed in Skver as ‘Shia Gabbai’ for more than a half century as he acted as the personal aide and gatekeeper to two Rebbes in New Square, was niftar early Shabbos afternoon. He was 89.
A New Square resident who was close to Reb Shia said that the Rebbe’s direction for the entire yeshivah to attend the levayah until the beis hachaim underscored the passing of the generation with Reb Shia’s passing.
“He stood by the door and didn’t leave for 50 years,” the friend said. “He was available 24 hours for the old Rebbe, and l’havidl bein chaim l’chaim, for the present Rebbe. There was never a ‘no.’”
Born in a small Hungarian town in 1925, Reb Shia survived a transport to Auschwitz and arrived in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to begin a new life. He married Hindel Roth, the daughter of Reb Yidel “Nanasher” Roth, known in Hungary as a tzaddik and poel yeshuos, and the couple established their home in Eretz Yisrael.
Reb Shia managed to develop what was described as an extraordinarily close connection with Harav Aharon of Belz, zt”l, traveling daily for an hour each way to daven with the Rebbe.
When his daughter took ill in the late 1950s, Reb Shia came to the United States with her to seek medical treatment. As the Skverer Rebbe, Harav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, zt”l, was part of the Belzer family — he was married to a granddaughter of Harav Yissachar Dov, the Belzer rebbe, zt”l — Reb Shia came to his tischen and grew close to the Rebbe.
After a short while, Reb Shia was hired to be the personal aide, cook, launderer and gatekeeper to the Rebbe. Joined shortly afterward by, yblc”t, Reb Shaya Ungar, the duo — known in Skver as “Shaya and Shia” — became the faces of Skver when visitors arrived or at simchos attended by the Rebbe.
Reb Shaya would sit at the desk and help people write kvitlach and take phone calls while Reb Shia would stand by the door, letting people in. All matters, from simple things to the most sensitive decisions made in the Rebbe’s court, passed through their hands.
Mendy Greenwald, a New Square resident, said that Reb Shia once told him that even when the Rebbe was out of town, he couldn’t sleep for more than three hours at a time.
“These two held the fortress for years,” he said.
When the Skverer Rebbe was niftar, Reb Shia was charged with lighting that ner tamid that was placed beside his kever. He would go to the kever in the beis hachaim in New Square every Friday to light another candle that would burn all week.
Reb Shia was himself a talmid chacham of note, constantly seen with a sefer in his hands when he was not busy with the Rebbe. He loved lomdei Torah, donating a significant part of his salary to tzedakos associated with Torah.
Reb Shia partially retired several years ago, but would still come around the Rebbe’s home frequently. Fellow chassidim noticed his deteriorating health four weeks ago, when he was mattir neder in order to be able to sit during krias haTorah.
Following Reb Shia’s petirah on Shabbos, the tzavaah was opened to reveal his innermost thoughts.
“I am asking permission from the Rebbe,” wrote the devoted “Shia Gabbai,” “to write on the matzeivah: ‘He was an eved ‘l’avdei Hashem — a servant to the servants of Hashem.”
Reb Shia’s wife passed away several years ago. He is survived by his fourteen children, grandchildren and a wider circle of Skverer chassidim mourning the passing of an era.
Shivah will be observed at the niftar’s home on Jefferson Ave. in New Square until Friday afternoon.
Yehi zichro baruch.