The American Torah world suffered an immeasurable loss Tuesday night with the petirah of Hagaon Harav Chaim Leib Epstein, who transmitted the Torah of his rebbeim in Mir and Lakewood to the next generation for nearly 50 years, most of them as Rosh Yeshivah of Zichron Meleich in Boro Park. He was 79.
Although he was born in the Mir, Poland, and was a prime talmid of Hagaon Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, Reb Chaim was nonetheless content to learn Torah, teach a small cadre of talmidim and remain away from the spotlight.
“He was allergic to kavod,” one of the maspidim at the levayah in Boro Park Wednesday declared.
Yet, close to 10,000 people gathered on Wednesday to honor his memory at two levayos — in Boro Park where he taught since 1972 and in Lakewood, where he first made a name for himself as one of Reb Aharon’s maatikei hashemuah. About five blocks were closed by police to handle the crowds that spilled out both from the yeshivah and from a nearby hall, where there was a live hookup.
Reb Chaim was a familiar figure on Boro Park’s streets, walking to and from his yeshivah on its outskirts, so deeply engrossed in thought that he was unaware of whom he passed. He was considered a baki in all areas of Torah, an expertise honed by decades of total immersion in learning.
“Reb Chaim Epstein learns Torah lishmah,” someone recalled hearing decades ago from Harav Moshe Wolfson, Rav of Beis Medrash Emunas Yisroel and Mashgiach of Yeshivah Torah Vodaath.
Even among a generation of giants, Reb Chaim stood out. His hasmadah in learning, his ceaseless caring for his family, his talmidim — for any other Yid — reached monumental proportions, as illustrated by numerous anecdotes related at two levayos.
“There was no 30-minute meeting with him and that was it,” said his son, Reb Aharon Dov, during his hesped in Boro Park. “He would ask for the person’s number two days later to ask how things were working out, telling him he has an eitzah or an answer.”
The Rosh Yeshivah’s son, Harav Shlomo Zalman Epstein, recalled once looking for a taxi in Manhattan to return home from a visit to his mother in the hospital. He hailed a cab, when his father suddenly called to him — “nein, nein — no, get another taxi!”
He returned to the curb and asked his father what the problem was.
“That taxi has a sign on top [with an inappropriate message],” Reb Chaim explained. “Why bring it into Boro Park?”
“Can you imagine his level of concern?” noted his son.
According to Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, whose father, Rabbi Meilech Silber, founded the yeshivah that today bears his name — Zichron Meilech — Reb Chaim was happy to keep the yeshivah small, with about 30 to 40 bachurim and yungeleit learning there at any given time.
“He wanted to keep it small so he could have a relationship with each talmid,” said Rabbi Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council.
Rabbi Silber recalled that when he was a bachur learning in Zichron Meilech, the Rosh Yeshivah insisted on having a personal relationship with each bachur.
“He wouldn’t say shiur for one day a week, when he would call bachurim to keep in touch,” he said. “He had a list of bachurim, and on that day he would call them to make sure everything is fine, if they have any problems.”
The Rosh Yeshivah was known as a final address for many people outside his circle of talmidim as well. As one of the elder Gedolim in Brooklyn, other Rabbanim would refer problems to the little study in his modest home on 16th Avenue and 46th Street.
“Everybody looked up to him,” said one person at the levayah, who said he knew the Rosh Yeshivah for a half century. “Even the older Lakewood people.”
As much as he cared deeply about his talmidim, he ran a close-knit family where he constantly inquired about the welfare of this grandchild, how that grandchild was learning or if this daughter-in-law was feeling fine.
“As much as he was for the klal,” his son Reb Shlomo Zalman said, “we never felt it.”
Reb Chaim Leib was born in 1936 in the Polish city of Mir to Reb Yosef Dov and Shaina Itta Halevi Epstein. Reb Yosef Dov was a known personality in the Mirrer chronicles, serving as the secretary to the Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Leizer Yudel Finkel, zt”l. But he was “more than a secretary,” Rabbi Silber said — he held a position that brought him in close contact with other Gedolim, such as the Mashgiach, Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l. Reb Yosef Dov was an esteemed mechaber of a number of sefarim including Mitzvos Habayis.
Reb Chaim escaped the Nazi Holocaust together with the rest of the yeshivah by going to Shanghai.
The famous picture of the Mirrer Yeshivah in the Ohel Rachel shul shows one young boy among the grown men — an 8-year-old Chaim Leib Epstein. His father procured for him a melamed, Reb Yosef Liss, who learned with him during the sojourn in Shanghai.
The Epsteins arrived in the United States in 1946, and the 10-year-old boy, not knowing a word of English, went to learn in Torah Vodaath, under Harav Eliyahu Shisgal, zt”l, and Harav Elya Chazan, zt”l.
When Harav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, set up Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey for gifted talmidim, Reb Chaim went there and learned for a short while, until the Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Reuven Grozovsky, zt”l, was niftar. He then went to Lakewood, to Reb Aharon.
Reb Chaim’s connection to Reb Aharon was so close that even 50 years later he still considered himself as a talmid before his rebbi, his son Reb Shlomo Zalman said.
“Losing Reb Chaim,” another one of the maspidim declared, “is like losing a shtickel of Reb Aharon.”
In 1961, Reb Chaim, then 26, married Esther Musha Bender, 18, his eishes chayil for 50 years until her passing four years ago.
Rebbetzin Epstein, who was a daughter of Harav Dovid — the menahel of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath — and Rebbetzin Basya Bender, a”h, a longtime teacher at Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, willingly accepted a life of few luxuries to facilitate her husband’s advancement in Torah.
The couple lived in Lakewood for 11 years before moving to Boro Park, when Reb Chaim began teaching. He first took a job in 1971 as maggid shiur in the Yeshivah of Adelphia for two years before becoming Rosh Yeshivah of Zichron Meilech. He replaced Harav Mottel Weinberg, zt”l, who was leaving to become Rosh Yeshivah of the Yeshivah Gedolah of Montreal.
At his hachtarah as Rosh Yeshivah, his rebbi, Harav Shisgal, was so excited that he was mattir neder in order to come to speak at the event. He had taken a vow not to speak publicly.
From the beginning Reb Chaim made a conscious decision not to seek, or not to end up in, the limelight. He rarely addressed public gatherings, and when he did attend he would be seen sitting in the middle of the audience.
A story retold at the levayah illustrates to what lengths the Rosh Yeshivah hated kavod. Once, following a public event in Lakewood where he had been invited to speak, he approached Hagaon Harav Shmuel Berenbaum, zt”l, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, and apologized for not having noticed his entrance and not having stood up in his honor.
Reb Chaim later told his family that when he had entered the hall, he was stunned to see 1,000 people in attendance, with a seat for him at the dais.
“I should sit up front when there are so many talmidei chachamim here who are far greater than I?” he said. “I will lose all my Olam Haba over this!”
So the Rosh Yeshivah made up, he said, that he would concentrate intensely until he lost recognition of where he was. It was only after the event ended that he noticed that Harav Berenbaum had come in and had been sitting next to him the entire time.
Reb Chaim took ill several years ago and his condition deteriorated in recent weeks. He was hospitalized in New York-Presbyterian–Weill Cornell Medical Center as tefillos were recited for him around the world and the name Refael was added two weeks ago.
The Rosh Yeshivah was niftar late Tuesday night. Following the levayos, kevurah was scheduled for Wednesday night in the Lakewood beis hachaim, near his Rebbetzin. He is survived by his eight children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
It was announced that the Rosh Yeshivah’s son, Harav Shlomo Zalman, who has been very involved in Zichron Meilech for the past decade, will be taking over his father’s position.
Shivah will be observed at the Epstein home, 1608 46th Street in Boro Park, until Wednesday morning.
Yehi zichro baruch.