When sent by Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, to raise funds in Atlantic City, Harav Yekusiel Yehudah Bittersfeld asked his Rosh Yeshivah what the message of his appeal should be. “The mission of a yeshivah bachur is ‘laamod l’shareis lifnei Hashem — to stand and serve before Hashem,’” was the response he received. Rav Bittersfeld took that missive to be his life’s work: to stand ready to serve Hashem in every way.
Rav Bittersfeld was born into a prestigious family in Sunik, Galicia, in 1930. His father, Reb Avraham, was from Gorlitz, and was a well-to-do businessman with roots in Gorlitzer and Sanzer Chassidim. His mother, Rachel, was the daughter of Reb Chaim Mordechai Frankel, who in turn was the son-in-law of the Kolbesover Rav, the son of the Yeitev Lev, zy”a. His lineage traced back to Harav Naftoli of Ropshitz, zy”a.
In his youth, Yekusiel Yehudah learned with private melamdim whom his father hired, and he grew up in the atmosphere of Torah and avodas Hashem until the outbreak of World War II in his region, in 1939. When the German army invaded Poland after the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the western portion of Poland fell under Nazi control, Avraham and his older son fled to Lemberg (Lvov), where he felt it would be safer to remain under Russian jurisdiction. Rachel insisted on remaining in Sunik to care for her elderly father, and young Yekusiel Yehudah remained with her.
Ultimately, Avraham was deported to the concentration camps, and Rachel’s father was taken by the Nazis, on Motzoei Yom Kippur, and shot. As he was taken from his home, he told his young grandson, “Do not forget me!” The young Yekusiel Yehudah took this as a command to perpetuate the mesorah in which he was raised, and, throughout his life, he mentioned often that he was trying to keep up this very mesorah.
As the War progressed, Yekusiel Yehudah and his mother experienced many miraculous salvations, which he eventually wrote down in order to memorialize them for posterity. As the War came to an end, he received a certificate to enter Mandate Palestine with Aliyat Hanoar, while his mother remarried in Paris and traveled to America. He was placed in Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim, a cooperative run by Poalei Agudah, and eventually made his way to Yerushalayim where he met his cousin, the Satmar Rebbe, zy”a.
The Rebbe spoke to him about going to learn in a yeshivah and advised him to attend either Yeshiva Kol Torah in Yerushalayim or Ponevez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. When he visited Ponevez on Shabbos Chazon, the Ponevezher Rav, zt”l, drew him near, and spoke to him in his inimitable way of conversing with those whose hearts were wounded. As a result, Yekusiel Yehudah decided, “Po eisheiv — I will remain here!”
For the next few years, as he learned diligently in Ponevez, he developed close relationships with many Gedolei Yisrael, including the Chazon Ish, zt”l, and the Belzer Rebbe, zy”a. He described having an open door to enter the home of the Chazon Ish, who allowed him to discuss with him anything that was on his mind. “One time I had a bad dream, I went to discuss it with the Chazon Ish,” he once remarked.
During that period, he was active in Pe’ilim, the organization which battled the secular authorities for the souls of the new olim, the immigrants arriving from Europe and elsewhere. As part of this struggle, it was suggested that, because of his oratory skills, he should travel to America to galvanize support for the missions being undertaken by Pe’ilim. Some were worried that if he would travel to America, his mother would convince him to remain there with her, and they opposed the idea of sending him. Nevertheless, the Chazon Ish sent him, and even arranged his visa for the trip.
Upon his arrival, he spoke at a gathering which was arranged for Pe’ilim, and with great emotion he declared, “Will your brother go to battle, and you remain here?” (Bamidbar, 32:6) His words rang loudly in the ears of the crowd, and the response set the stage for increased support for Pe’ilim.
His reunion with his mother was heartwarming, and he spent some time with her during his planned stay. As Sukkos approached, he happened to meet Hagaon Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, at a bus stop, and Rav Aharon convinced him to come to Beth Medrash Govoha for Simchas Torah. The trip entailed some degree of mesirus nefesh, as he had been separated from his mother for quite a while, but this Yom Tov in the presence of the Rosh Yeshivah and the yeshivah bachurim was a watershed moment in his life. As he experienced the uplifting maamad of simchas haTorah of the yeshivah, he decided to remain in Lakewood, and developed a strong bond with Rav Aharon and Rav Shneur, zt”l.
Rav Bittersfeld remained in Lakewood for 10 years and, in 1955, Rav Aharon acted as his shadchan. Rav Bittersfeld he married, tbl”c, Rebbetzin Rivka née Kruger, the daughter of Harav Chaim Tzvi Kruger, zt”l, who had served as the Rav of Brussels, Belgium, before World War II, and was a prominent member of Agudas HaRabbanim at the time.
Although his bond with Rav Aharon was an essential part of him, Rav Bittersfeld maintained his connection with many Chassidishe Gedolei Yisrael, and absorbed the maalos from all of them. He would often remark that he would move from Rav Aharon to the Satmar Rebbe and back again to Rav Aharon, seamlessly, and maintained as well a connection to the Skulener Rebbe, zy”a. On the seventh day of Pesach, he would visit Bobov, where the Rebbe would honor him with bentching.
After learning in kollel for five years, he joined his brother-in- law, Harav Moshe Horowitz, zt”l, in Yeshiva Be’er Shmuel in Boro Park, which was established by Harav Yosef Yonah Tzvi Horowitz, zt”l, the Rav of Unsdorf and Frankfort. After joining the yeshivah, he helped establish its mesivta, which served the Boro Park community for several decades.
He was known for choosing Maggidei Shiurim with excellent talent, some of whom included Harav Eliyahu Moshe Shisgal (son-in-law of Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l) and Harav Chaim Baruch Wolpin, zt”l, as well as, ybl”c , Harav Yisrael Spinner and Harav Nissan Goodman, shlita.
As the Menahel of Mesivta Be’er Shmuel, Rav Bittersfeld introduced many innovations to improve its learning and hasmadah. He instituted a night seder, which was virtually unheard of in “in-town” yeshivos at the time, and offered incentives to encourage attendance. On Shabbos, he found a centrally located beis medrash in which the talmidim would gather for a Shabbos afternoon seder.
Although at times he seemed to demand a lot from his talmidim, many expressed their gratitude later in life when they realized that he demanded of them because he saw their potential and wanted to bring it out. A prominent Maggid Shiur told of a time when he was learning in kollel and a position became available. Rav Bittersfeld insisted he accept it, but he objected, feeling he should remain in kollel a bit longer. “The Rosh Yeshivah would not back down, and basically forced me to take the position,” said the Maggid Shiur, who is today known for his skill in teaching talmidim. “The success I have today is a result of the confidence he had in me, and how he molded me in my younger years.”
In the 1980s, he established Yeshiva Harbatzas Torah in Flatbush, which today serves as a kollel for some 30 yungeleit under the leadership of his son, Harav Shmuel Yosef, shlita.
Besides his endeavors in harbotzas haTorah, Rav Bittersfeld made himself available to those who needed chizuk in any manner.
He would often decide to daven in a specific shul on a given Shabbos because it would be beneficial for someone who davened there.
He spent much time visiting sick people, spreading encouragement and good cheer.
“When I was visiting my father-in-law in New York,” said Harav Chaim Nussbaum, Menahel of Mesivta of Toronto, “we would walk home from shul and stop every few feet as he greeted his old talmidim along the way. He would inquire where they were holding in life, often surprising them with his knowledge of the recent developments in their lives as well as reminding them of what they had told him in the past.
He made a supreme effort to attend the simchos of his talmidim, often going to numerous affairs each week. When we asked him if he felt he had to continue doing this as he grew older, his answer was simply, ‘How can I not attend this person’s simchah?’ A talmid of his was a talmid for life.
“When he visited us in Toronto,” he continued, “he was asked to address the bnei Torah. He always expressed the feeling that one has to strive for the most he can do, to add more and not be satisfied with good enough.”
His grandson mentioned how he had a special way of greeting people with the words of a passuk or Chazal. “My name is Efraim, and my greeting was, ‘Becha yevareich Yisrael,’” he said. “For someone named Yitzchak, he would say, ‘Ki b’Yitzchak yikarei lecha zera.’ This was his way of expressing how each person was special, and of conveying his brachos to all.”
His relationship with his children and grandchildren was unique.
“We would call him every week,” an einikel told Hamodia. “He always asked where we were holding in learning, and if we had seen something interesting or if we had a chiddush to tell. He would listen, but never in all the years do I remember him trying to disprove what I was saying. His objective was to encourage us, but not to pressure us.”
Another grandson told of his way of rewarding them for their learning. “He would give us a small sum of money or a prize, and tell us, ‘This is a deposit.’ It was his way of telling us that he was investing in our future, and that he hoped we would be encouraged to continue growing.”
One einikel described how whenever he stayed over in his grandfather’s house and woke up in the wee hours of the morning, he would see his zaide sitting at the table poring over his well-worn Gemara, perhaps with a cup of tea in hand to keep him awake. Another one told of remembering that whenever he went to sleep, he saw his zaide sitting and learning late into the night. “Truthfully, it’s hard to know when he slept. If you see his Shas, with its weathered pages, you see how much toil he put into his learning.”
Harav Yekusiel Yehudah Bittersfeld was niftar on Wednesday, 17 Shevat, and his aron was flown to Eretz Yisrael for kevurah on Har Hazeisim on Thursday.
He is survived by, tbl”c, his dedicated Rebbetzin Rivka, who stood at his side and assisted her husband in all his endeavors; his daughters, Rebbetzin Henny Schiff of Monsey and Rebbetzin Goldie Nussbaum of Toronto; his son Harav Avraham Aharon of Yerushalayim and his son Harav Shmuel Yosef of Lakewood.
Yehi zichro baruch.