Harav Avraham Yaakov Teitelbaum, Zt”l
Erev Shabbos, 17 Marcheshvan, marked the 50th yahrtzeit of the legendary Harav Yaakov Teitelbaum, zt”l, an illustrious talmid chacham who was at once diminutive and larger than life; gently flowing water and brilliant fire; humble of spirit and expansive of heart.
In his introduction to a memoir penned by Rav Yaakov’s oldest son, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, Rabbi Nosson Scherman writes:
“Harav Yaakov Teitelbaum was a prewar talmid chacham who did not let America change him … he changed his corner of America. His Rebbetzin was his mirror image.
“I had the privilege of spending only six weeks in the proximity of ‘Reb Yankele’ during his long tenure as manhig ruchani of Camp Agudah. He had a profound influence on the staff members and campers who were wise enough to come close to him.
“It was 1953, and the yeshivah world was a far cry from what it is today. Reb Yankele left his stamp on all the Torah camps in America. Few people today remember what an important influence he was.”
Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum was born in 1897, in Husyatin, Galicia. Upon the outbreak of World War I, many Jews fled to Vienna. That is where 17-year-old Yankele found himself. He became the youngest talmid of the Gaon Harav Meir Arik, zt”l, from whom he learned for seven years. He absorbed the derech halimud of his Rebbi, who gave him semichah.
After years of learning day and night, Rav Yaakov became a leader of the many bachurim in Vienna who lacked a formal yeshivah and were sorely in need of direction. He became president of Zeirei Agudas Yisrael’s Yugendgruppe.
Inspired by the electrifying call of Harav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, at the first Knessiah Gedolah, he gave the first Daf Yomi shiur the day after Rosh Hashanah in 1923.
In subsequent years, when Rav Shapiro visited Vienna, he and Rav Yaakov learned the blatt together. Even during the Nazi occupation of Austria and, later, during the London blitzkrieg, Rav Yaakov traveled great distances, often at considerable personal risk, so as not to miss saying a shiur, regardless of how many participants showed up.
He knew the importance of structured, systematic learning, and encouraged the establishment of Amud Yomi for people whose schedules or abilities precluded their participating in Daf Yomi.
Rav Yaakov’s shiurim in Zeirei had a major impact on his boys, who were enthralled by his Torah knowledge, noble conduct and personal charisma. He sent bachurim to learn at Rav Shapiro’s Yeshivah Chachmei Lublin and other great Eastern European yeshivos. He kept young men on the derech haTorah, despite the insidious encroachment of Haskalah and other popular movements.
One of his prize pupils was Reb Alter Fuchs, Hy”d, who, after the passing of the Rogatchover Gaon, zt”l, became Rav of the beis medrash.
Some of the finest families in Klal Yisrael today descend from those bachurim for whom Rav Yaakov was an anchor, a lighthouse, a father.
In 1938, Rav Yaakov married Frieda Steinhof, daughter of a Viennese family. As Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum notes, the chassan and kallah’s family backgrounds were very different. Rav Yaakov’s family, Chassidim from Galicia, were very close with the Rebbes of Kopyczynitz and others of the Ruzhiner dynasty; Frieda’s was Austro-Hungarian, “as Ashkenaz as could be. What they did have in common, though, was their yiras Shamayim and focus on Torah and mitzvos.”
After living for a year under the increasing Nazi choke-hold, with their lives endangered several times, the Teitelbaums were able to leave for England, where they spent the next 10 years.
In 1948, the Teitelbaum family sailed for America. After several months in Manhattan, they settled in Kew Gardens, Queens. For the next 20 years, as the dynamic and beloved Mara d’Asra of K’hal Adas Yereim, Rav Yaakov helped grow what had been a tiny Jewish community into a burgeoning one.
The presence of Rav Yaakov and his Rebbetzin drew many newcomers. Many who were nurtured by the Rav became Roshei Yeshivah, Rabbanim and community leaders.
In 1951, Rav Yaakov was invited to become manhig ruchani of Camp Agudah, in Highmount, New York and later in Ferndale. He set the tone for the camp, in learning, hashkafah, and all matters of ruchniyus. The chassidic warmth of his zemiros added a special spirit to the camp.
A Rosh Yeshivah of one of the major chassidic yeshivos recalls, as a bachur, going with his friends to Camp Agudah for melaveh malkah, “Zich unvarmen bei’m tisch fin Reb Yankele Teitelbaum.”
He captivated the boys with beautiful, heartwarming stories of tzaddikim. And he taught a generation to stand up for kvod Shamayim, as when he organized a gathering, addressed by Rabbanim, to protest breaches of tznius at a nearby hotel.
As camp mother for many years, Rebbetzin Teitelbaum kept a maternal eye on the campers, enhancing their comfort and looking out for their welfare.
In honor of Rav Teitelbaum’s yahrtzeit, Hamodia interviewed Mrs. Miriam Leiser, eldest daughter of the Teitelbaums, who graciously shared memories of growing up in a home of gadlus.
As Shared by Mrs. Miriam Leiser:
When I mention my father’s name to people who remember him, their faces instantly light up.
During shivah, many who had known my father came to be menachem us. One after another, each one whispered, “I was closer to your father than anyone else. I was his best friend.”
I looked at my mother in wonder: “How many best friends did Dedi have?” That was the effect he had on people. And truthfully, it was the way he made us feel, as well. I was sure I was his favorite, and I imagine my siblings felt the same way.
My father did not discipline us with anger, or punishments. He once observed a Rebbi of young children holding a stick to keep his charges in line. He instructed him to put it down immediately.
The biggest thing I learned from my father was the way he taught proper behavior by example. His actions were the greatest lesson.
The sefer Chofetz Chaim was always with him. We never knew what was going on in shul, because my father never spoke about the affairs of his mispallelim.
As the oldest girl, born after three boys, I had many opportunities to spend time with my father, especially after my brothers went away to yeshivah. I accompanied him on walks, and we discussed many subjects.
Before leaving the house, my father checked his appearance, making sure his beard and peyos were neat, his bekeshe closed and spotless.
When I asked him why he was so meticulous about those things, he said, “We live in Kew Gardens (which was predominantly Gentile in those days.) When I leave my home, I am an ambassador of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Do you remember, when we lived in London, how impeccably dressed the guards at Buckingham Palace were? We have to shine the same way.”
My mother lived that mindset, as well; you never saw her outside in a tichel or housecoat.
My parents enjoyed a beautiful marriage. My mother ran our home and took exemplary care of my father. He had to follow a special diet, because of digestive problems, and she made sure to serve him the right foods.
My father took an interest in our studies, reviewing Chumash with Rashi, and Navi, with me, before a test. After high school, I attended Bais Yaakov Seminary, which was initially a two-year program. I was very unhappy that, during my second year, the school sent my favorite teachers, including Rebbetzins Pincus and Zoberman, to the new Boro Park branch.
I decided not to go back, and my father said he would teach me instead. We learned Shemoneh Perakim LaRambam. My father saturated each lesson with yiras Shamayim and hashkafah, and I soaked it up. That was my father’s derech in all his teaching.
He encouraged questions, and explained everything with infinite patience. At times he would say, gently, “I don’t know, but when Moshiach comes I guarantee that everything will be answered.”
I was a curious, thinking child. I appreciated the freedom and independence our parents gave us, and the knowledge that they trusted us. It made us want to live up to that trust.
I remember a discussion with my father on the subject of tznius. I asked him, “If tznius is so important, why should we look pretty? Why not just dress like nuns?”
“Because that’s not what the Torah wants from us,” he told me. “Hashem created a woman as a woman and of course she should dress in a modest and refined manner, but a Jewish woman certainly shouldn’t look like a nun.”
Once, while we were walking on the street together, I unwrapped a small sucking candy and popped it into my mouth. Not seeing a trash can nearby, I dropped the candy wrapper on the ground. My father looked at me and gently asked, “Why did you throw it down?”
“There was no can, Dedi.”
“But Hashem made such a beautiful world. Why ruin it by littering? Please pick up the wrapper and keep it in your pocket until you find a trash can.”
Our Shabbos table was beautiful. My father didn’t pressure us to repeat what we had learned during the week. He told sippurei tzaddikim, which flowed from his lips, one after another.
My father taught us the precious niggunim he had learned from Reb Meir Shapiro. He also taught those songs to the counselors at Camp Agudah at the Friday night kumzitz.
How special those kumzitzen were! My mother and I sat in the back of the room, in our little corner, listening and taking it in. My father also established a custom of walking on Motzoei Tishah B’Av with the counselors and whoever else wanted to join, up and down the darkened roads near camp, singing haunting songs of yearning, such as “Kol bayaar.” His talmid muvhak, Harav Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, continued that custom after my father’s petirah.
In overseeing the learning programs at camp, my father was greatly attuned to the children’s feelings. If a camper didn’t know the answer to a question, he asked him an easier one. He distributed candies and coins to make the kids feel good.
In the early years of camp, there were no professional learning Rebbeim. My father prepared counselors to deliver the shiurim. He emphasized to the staffers that play time was an ideal venue for inculcating middos tovos. Teaching them to be mevater, to pursue shalom, to help one another, not to be arrogant; all of this was part of their growth in ruchniyus.
Throughout the summer, my father had a tremendous impact on those counselors. Many of them absorbed their hashkafas hachaim from him. Twice a year, on Chol Hamoed Sukkos and Chol Hamoed Pesach, the counselors visited our home in Queens to spend the day farbrenging with my father, listening to his divrei Torah and singing together.
My father was, by nature, soft, flexible and understanding. And yet when it came to upholding principles of Yiddishkeit, he was strong as a cedar tree. He was unswervingly loyal to the teachings of his great mentors: Harav Meir Arik, Harav Meir Shapiro, and the Imrei Emes of Ger, zy”a, and tolerated no dilution of pure Torah hashkafah.
At camp, he was careful about which speakers were invited to address the boys. Anyone who took a compromising stance toward, for example, Zionism, was not given a platform.
One year, certain board members decided not to rehire my father, since they thought his shittos were too extreme. The counselors went en masse to say that if their Rav wasn’t coming back, neither were they.
My father treasured shalom and sought to promote it in every situation. My close friend got married and, unfortunately, encountered difficulties in shalom bayis. The couple came to my father for help, and he succeeded in creating shalom between them.
My father once had to adjudicate a stormy machlokes among counselors at Camp Bnos. They emerged from the meeting marveling about how Rabbi Teitelbaum worked things out so that everyone came out smiling.
My father was a true sonei betza; he didn’t ask rich congregants to give more money to the shul, and he didn’t push for fundraising dinners. His attitude was, “Whatever I am supposed to get, Hashem will provide.”
He didn’t want my mother to take an outside job, even if logic dictated that the money would prove helpful. He explained his reasoning with the mashal of an urn filled with water: “Attaching a second spigot to the urn will not increase the amount of water inside.” This was such an intrinsic part of him that it became the mindset of his children, as well.
At the time my father opened our shul, Kahal Adas Yereim, the excitement of Zionism was very much in the air, even among frum people. My father spoke strongly against the concept, explaining the motives of the secular politicians, and distinguishing between love of Eretz Hakodesh and the Zionist ideal of the “normalization of Jewish existence.”
He did not raise his voice, his delivery was calm, patient and sweet, but he spoke clearly and powerfully. He was one of the yechidim in America espousing the daas Torah of the Chofetz Chaim, the Brisker Rav and the Chazon Ish, zt”l.
One day, Reb Yaakov Greenwald came to talk to my father, who noticed that he was worried.
“Yankel, what’s bothering you?” my father asked softly.
The man shook his head, finding it difficult to speak, but finally he said, “Rebbi, some of the baalei batim asked me to request that you stop expressing your shittos so strongly, about how the medinah is taking Yidden away from Torah.”
My father didn’t flinch. “Tell the baalei batim that this is what I heard from Gedolei Yisrael and this is the path I follow. If they are not happy, they have a choice. I never compelled them to daven in our shul. They are free to go elsewhere, even if I am left with zero mispallelim.”
Some did leave. The ones who stayed formed an extraordinary core of exemplary individuals, a very special kehillah.
My father brought a tremendous dimension of ruchniyus to Camp Agudah, which, in the early years, was many children’s first exposure to Yiddishkeit.
Mr. Elimelech Tress, z”l, recognizing my father’s strength from his work with Zeirei, hired him to help the camp grow. My father established learning groups, and innovative programs such as Mishnayos b’al peh.
He allowed the children to wear shorts during activities, but when they came to daven, they had to dress in a more dignified manner. The idea of color war bemused him, that kids who behaved quietly all year long suddenly “shpringen oif’n tischen” (jump on the tables).
He eventually did allow it, although he disliked competition, but carefully monitored the presentations to preclude anything inappropriate. He once stopped a comedy skit because the players went too far in poking fun at others.
After my father’s petirah, I learned increasingly how much Gedolei Yisrael respected him. When a new mikveh was being constructed in Williamsburg under the auspices of Satmar, the Rebbe, zy”a, asked my father to inspect it, as he was an expert on the subject.
When my father said that something in the mikveh’s construction contradicted a fine point mentioned in a sefer, the askanim mentioned it to the Rebbe, who immediately ordered the structure to be changed, in consonance with my father’s decision.
My father had already passed on when my husband and I merited an audience with Harav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, zy”a, the Rebbe of Skver. I was overcome when the revered Rebbe, learning that I was Rav Teitelbaum’s daughter, rose from his chair, in honor of my father.
He constantly was marbeh kvod Shamayim, his life was one long manifestation of kvod haTorah, and he profoundly honored and loved all of Klal Yisrael.
Yehi zichro baruch.
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