Torah Jewry around the world was plunged into mourning after Shabbos Parashas Terumah as news spread of the petirah of Harav Yehoshua Zev Meisels, the Lieger Rav, zt”l, one of London’s longest-standing Rabbanim.
The Lieger Rav was born 83 years ago in Sorvosh, Hungary. His father, Harav Chaim Meisels, zt”l, the Binyan Chaim, was a son of the Uheler Rav, the Binyan Dovid, zt”l, whom the young Yehoshua Zev merited to know in his childhood years. The Lieger Rav was nine years old when his parents and siblings were sent to Bergen-Belsen. His mother, who by that point had been separated from her husband by the Nazis, urged her sons to try to appear stronger and older so they would be selected for the adult work camp; she knew better than to believe the Nazis that the children were headed for better conditions.
The Rosh Hakahal of the town objected to her plan, telling her to put her children on the children’s wagon, but she refused and successfully convinced the authorities that they were older and more capable. He always credited his mother with saving his life. Soon, his mother and siblings were reunited with their father and they were all in Bergen-Belsen for the remainder of the war. The Lieger Rav’s oldest brother, Zalman Leib, Hy”d, was tragically killed right at the end of the War. He was known as an ilui and the Rav would often repeat his divrei Torah.
His father daringly risked his life to ask the Nazis for flour, so they could bake matzos. The Binyan Chaim experienced a well-known neis Chanukah in the barracks, thanks to the Satmar Rebbe, the Divrei Yoel, zy”a, who had been released on 21 Kislev from the very same barrack. A packet of candles fell from the timber roof above where he was lying that night, landing with a thud on his nose. The inmates had been plotting how to find candles for the upcoming day, when these candles miraculously revealed themselves from where the Satmar Rebbe had hidden them, unaware that he would be freed by then. This connection between the Lieger Rav and the Satmar Rebbe, who was a cousin, would soon flourish on safer shores, when the family moved to America after the War.
First, straight after the War, they went to Kerestir for a few months before moving to Montmorency, near Paris, where his father opened a yeshivah. There, the young bachur spent his Shabbosos sitting right next to the Bilgorayer Rebbe, zy”a, who ushered him to his side at his tischen. Then, when they moved to America, the Satmar Rebbe asked the Binyan Chaim to take up rabbanus in Detroit, promising to look after his sons, who became two of his first 10 talmidim. The Lieger Rav became a beloved ben bayis and guest of the Satmar Rebbe; one Shabbos when he went to eat with his uncle, where his other brother was staying, the Rebbe sent a message asking him to come back.
Close Ties With His Rebbe
Masmid that the Lieger Rav was, in no time he became a prized talmid of the Satmar Rebbe, who wrote him a rare letter of semichah — the only one of its kind the Rebbe ever wrote to a bachur. In it, he addressed him with the extraordinary honourable title Moreinu Harav habachur and went on to fill the paper with humbling praise, using the passuk, “Yehoshua … ish asher ruach bo,” with which Hashem described to Moshe how special Yehoshua bin Nun was, to express his admiration for his brilliant talmid with that name. The Rebbe noted that he was witness that the bachur learned day and night. He praised the bachur’s immense knowledge of the Rishonim and Acharonim, which the Lieger Rav would famously quote by heart verbatim in future drashos.
Remarkably, he was the first talmid to record the Rebbe’s shiurim in writing. He was hesitant to start, unsure how the Rebbe would take to it, and therefore did so at first under the table, but the Rebbe noticed and was gratified, encouraging him and even adding his own notations. Some of those shiurim now make up part of the sefer Binyan Yehoshua.
When he then got married, he gave the chashuve duty over to his younger brother, ybl”ch, the Shoproner Rav, shlita, whom he was mekarev in their yeshivah days when they lived away from their parents. The Shoproner Rav later attributed his hatzlachah in Torah to his older brother.
During one period, as a young bachur, the Lieger Rav also merited to learn b’chavrusa with Reb Yankele, Rebbe of Pshevorsk, zy”a, who was then a yungerman. Reb Yankele found the bachur learning in beis midrash and told him, “You haven’t got a chavrusa, I haven’t got a chavrusa. Let’s learn together.”
He received letters of semichah from other Gedolim, including Harav Yonoson Steiff, zt”l, the Sharmasher Rav, zt”l — who gave the distinction to only two others, the Shoproner Rav, zt”l, and the Riskover Rav, zt”l.
Open Home, Open Heart
After his marriage to the daughter of the Lieger Rav, zt”l, he moved to London and instantly became a partner in his father-in-law’s wide-ranging askanus, being instrumental in essential endeavors like establishing local yeshivos and Talmud Torahs and joining the enormous hachnasas orchim operation from their home and shul in Bergholt Crescent. All sorts of broken people would sleep over, taking up the family beds if necessary, and being nourished with food for the body as well as the heart and soul.
After his father-in-law’s passing, he continued the open home policy even when he moved; it ran with a full stock of frozen meals that were free for the taking and also vouchers that they could happily use at a nearby restaurant. It was done with such dignity and warmth that even one person of means became a regular.
The Lieger Rav, zt”l, had such a huge, open heart to all who came to him that he would derive joy just from helping Yidden. Mispallelim of his beis medrash recall that it didn’t matter if it was a chashuve Rosh Yeshivah from abroad or an unknown meshulach coming in to daven in his shul, each would get the same royal treatment, which always came packaged with a git vort or two.
His innate ahavas Yisrael was such that Harav Ezriel Schechter, shlita, said in his hesped that when the Lieger Rav opened his shul, he told him that he wanted it to be v’shachanti b’socham, open to everyone, just as every Yid had a place in the Beis Hamikdash. It is no coincidence that he was niftar in the week of Parashas Terumah, the parashah of this passuk, which summed up his lifelong mission.
The Lieger Rav was known as a baal tzedakah, but he had a unique way of ensuring people’s needs were met. Once, on the plane to Eretz Yisrael, a meshulach despondently told him he didn’t have the necessary visa to stay in the United Kingdom so he was sent back to Eretz Yisrael empty-handed. Not only had he not made any money, he lost the value of his ticket. Without delay, the Rav put aside his pride and went up and down the aisles on the airplane, approaching the Yidden on board, collecting donations, to which he then added his own significant donation, more than making up for the stranger’s losses.
He once visited a local talmid chacham and noticed that he had one unsafe red-hot electric heater to warm his large family. The Lieger Rav expressed concern over its safety, seeing the little ones playing near it, but the talmid chacham admitted that his gas had been cut off since he couldn’t pay the bills. The Lieger Rav asked for all the bills, pocketed them and said, “These bills are not your worry anymore.” And true to his word, for the rest of his life, they weren’t.
Middos and Maalos
Many of the tzedakos he did remained discreet, only to come to light after his petirah, like the person who shared that when he lost his father as a child many years ago, the Lieger Rav was menachem avel him and lovingly assured him that his heart and pocket would remain open to him always, which it was.
The Lieger Rav’s heart was so big that he would stop at nothing to dry a Yid’s tears. In an astonishing chessed shel emes encounter, some 30 years ago, he was walking at night with, tbl”ch, his Rebbetzin in Teveria and they came across a broken-looking bachur sitting on the doorstep of a home. They assumed he didn’t have anywhere to sleep so they went over and offered to put him up in the local hotel.
The bachur shook his head and explained that he had just arrived from America with the body of his father, a chashuve Rebbe, who had longed to be buried in Teveria, but he didn’t have the money required. Upon hearing his plight, both the Rav and Rebbetzin immediately agreed to pay whatever it would cost, and the niftar merited to be buried in a prominent place in the beis hachaim.
Echoing what was said about the Rav’s countless quiet chassadim, Dayan Aharon Dovid Dunner, shlita, noted in his hesped the Rav’s great involvement in the building of mikvaos, an activity that was hardly known to the family. Afterward, they learned that their patriarch was instrumental in the financial and practical aspects of several mikvaos in London and in Eretz Yisrael.
He was a Gaon in middos and a Gaon in learning. He loved learning; he was never seated without a sefer and he spent his life spreading that passion, establishing the very first kollel erev in London, as well as a kollel horaah and another in Eretz Yisrael, Tomer Devorah, which was named for his late mother-in-law. He didn’t just support these kollellim; he went as far as paying for the yungeleit’s babysitting and minicabs to ensure uninterrupted learning, and he sat and learned with the yungeleit, no matter their level.
Dayan Yosef Padwa, shlita, whom the Lieger Rav appointed as Rosh Kollel of the kollel erev, mentioned in his hesped that many of those yungeleit went on to become Dayanim in the kehillah.
The Rav also gave in-depth halachah and iyun shiurim daily in his beis medrash. His drashos, at any event or simchah, were always highly anticipated, as he would masterfully customize his words to suit different audiences. But, no doubt, that which will be most missed is his davening at the amud, especially on the Yamim Nora’im, which came with a timeless, hartzige nusach from his deeply embedded mesorah, as did his hisoirerusdige drashos.
He had a strong feeling for kivrei tzaddikim and traveled to many on their yahrtzeiten, with a special affinity for the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh. He printed the Ohr Hachaim’s sefer in a divided version so that it could be completed by people with a seder throughout the week.
This dedication to mekomos hakedoshim and tzaddikim led to his commitment to building and renovating the ohalim of several, including, zt”l, those of his zeide, the Yismach Moshe, the Satmar Rebbe’s ohel in America, and that of Reb Shayele Kerestir, to whom he felt connected after his brief time living in Kerestir after the War.
Seeking No Heterim
He was medakdek in every mitzvah and minhag and would stubbornly refuse to accept a heter for anything, even fasting on fast days after he suffered a heart attack two years ago.
In fact, it was this ehrlichkeit for even seemingly trivial mitzvos that ended up saving his life then. His Rebbetzin always waited to say brachos when he came home from shul after Shacharis so that he could answer “Amen.” On that fateful morning, he was tired and wanted to go upstairs to take a rest, so she stopped what she was doing to daven so they could complete their daily minhag.
Though feeling weak — obviously due to the imminent heart attack — he waited downstairs with his wife, to answer “Amen.” Suddenly, after one of the brachos, there came no response. The Rebbetzin looked up from her siddur, saw that he was slumped on the chair, and called Hatzolah immediately. The couple’s ehrlichkeit saved his life that day.
The last two years were a gift from the Eibershter and the family cherished them. His grandchildren, too, young and old, loved spending time in his company.
He was niftar on Shabbos, with the entire kehillah coming out to accompany him in the rain on his last journey. He is survived by, ybl”c, his devoted Rebbetzin, who stood at his side in everything he did, especially in his many tzedakah endeavors; his children, Rabbanim and marbitzei Torah; and grandchildren who follow in the sacred footsteps he paved for them, continuing his special legacy. May he be a meilitz yosher for all of Klal Yisrael.