Sitting Among Angels, an Interview with Harav Shmuel Avishai Stockhammer
By Rabbi Avraham Dov Greenbaum
Ever since he was a child, Harav Shmuel Avishai Stockhammer was dedicated heart and soul to public service. As a young man, he was an active askan of Agudas Yisrael in Sao Paulo.
Stepping up to the podium at an Agudah conference, he began by citing the Midrash (Tanna d’vei Eliyahu 11) asking who was responsible for the death of 70,000 Jews during the debacle of Pilegesh b’Givah. It declares that the Gedolim of the generation were the guilty parties. After Bnei Yisrael settled in Eretz Yisrael, the Gedolim should have girded themselves with iron chains, lifted their robes to their knees, and run from one Jewish community to another for a year or two, spending one day in Lachish, one day in Beis El, and teach the people derech eretz, so that Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s Name would be magnified and sanctified in all the worlds that He created throughout the universe. But instead of doing that, each one settled comfortably in his own vineyard or field and said, “I’ll just take care of myself instead of going through that bother.”
Rav Stockhammer concluded, “The goal and purpose of Agudas Yisrael is to make sure that we don’t limit our scope of activities. We take it upon ourselves to go out and to make all of Klal Yisrael our personal concern.”
After he returned to his seat, Harav Shmuel Shedrowitzky, zt”l, came over to him. He was the right-hand man of Harav Yitzchak Meir Levin, zt”l, and he whispered, “You spoke just like an Agudist from Warsaw or Lodz!” This was Rav Stockhammer’s introduction to Agudas Yisrael.
Rav Shmuel Avishai Stockhammer is a Vizhnitzer Chassid, a prolific writer, a composer of music, and a poet. For decades, he served as the secretary of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
The name Shmuel Avishai is quite unique. How did you acquire it?
I was born in Yerushalayim in Adar of 5705/1945. The sandak at my bris was the Damesek Eliezer of Vizhnitz, zt”l. My father didn’t know which name to give me. On the one hand, he wanted to name me after his father, who probably had perished back in Romania during the Holocaust, but he had received no information confirming his father’s demise. The Rebbe told him, “Give the baby a name that will allude to your father.”
My father, Harav Yehoshua Moshe Stockhammer, was an accomplished poet, and so he gave me the name Shmuel Avishai, a contraction of shmo el avi shai — “his name is a gift to my father.” The Rebbe approved and pointed out that the name Avishai can also be a contraction of “Avi sheyichyeh — my father, may he live.”
What are your first memories of the Vizhnitzer court?
I was 8 years old when my father first took me to see the Imrei Chaim on Shavuos of 5713/1953. The Rebbe sang the Vizhnitzer version of Baruch Hu Elokeinu, and I was mesmerized. My father whispered in my ear, “Watch well. This is what an angel looks like.”
Soon after this, Rav Yehoshua Moshe took his family to Sao Paulo, where he established a yeshivah and stood at its helm for the next 13 years. In 5718/1958, when the Imrei Chaim made an extended trip to the United States, the Stockhammers flew in to be with him. The Rebbe remained in Williamsburg from Elul until midwinter, and it was an unforgettable experience for them.
For the Yamim Nora’im, Rav Yehoshua Moshe served as the chazzan, while his sons served as his choir. Rav Shmuel Avishai was 12 years old at the time, and the Rebbe paid close attention to him. One Shabbos, he arrived a bit late to davening, since he was up very late at the Friday night tisch. At the kiddush after davening, the Rebbe asked him why he was late. The Rebbe wanted to show him that he saw and he cared.
“The Rebbe’s tisch lasted seven or eight hours regularly,” Rav Shmuel Avishai said. “Many years later, my father-in-law, Harav Moshe Ernster, zt”l, asked me how American Jews were able to handle such a heavy schedule. The answer is simple — the Rebbe enchanted them with his appearance, his words of wisdom, his emotional singing, and his sincere davening. The American Jews were looking for a warm home, and they found [it] by the Rebbe.
“On the Rebbe’s suggestion, I stayed behind and went to learn in a yeshivah in Monsey. Later, I went back to learn in my father’s yeshivah in Sao Paulo, but when I was 20, I returned to the U.S. to learn in Beis Medrash Elyon under Harav Gedaliah Schorr, zt”l.”
In the summer of 5728/1968, Rav Shmuel Avishai and his brother Harav Avraham Dovid returned to Eretz Yisrael. As soon as they presented themselves to the Rebbe, he asked, “Nu, what new niggunim have you brought me for Yom Tov?” The Rebbe was well aware of their musical talent. Even while they lived in Brazil, they used to send tapes of their songs to the Rebbe. Now, he appointed them his court minstrels. Every Friday night, they were invited to sing at the tisch, and many of their songs have become part of the Vizhnitzer tradition until today.
Now that he was together with the Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Avishai began writing the Rebbe’s Torah. Today, there is scarcely a Vizhnitzer household that does not display his sefarim in the bookcase.
When did you become involved with Agudas Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael?
“Agudas Yisrael distributed a monthly newsletter to all its members. Soon after I arrived in Eretz Yisrael, I was asked to write for it. I was paid 100 lira [pounds], and this was the first money I earned in Eretz Yisrael.
“Later on, Rabbi Meir Porush asked me to serve as his personal assistant. After the Imrei Chaim passed away, his son-in-law, Rav Moshe Ernster, asked me to manage the Kiryat Meor Chaim housing project in Yerushalayim, which he had established.”
To this day, Rav Shmuel Avishai heads that community.
Rav Shmuel Avishai’s most important contribution to public service happened then: He was appointed secretary of Agudas Yisrael’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, a position he held for seven years.
Can we say today that Agudas Yisrael is the same movement that was conceived by its founders?
“The concept of Agudas Yisrael was formulated by Harav Yitzchak Isaac Halevi, with the support of Hagaon Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, Hagaon Harav Chaim Brisker, the Imrei Emes and other Gedolim, zecher tzaddikim livrachah. It was subsequently led by Moreinu Harav Yaakov Rosenheim. While other political parties in Eretz Yisrael have not survived, Agudas Yisrael continues to function.
“The Imrei Emes of Ger used to say that Agudas Yisrael will continue to flourish since it connects its name with that of the Blessed Holy One. He pointed out that Agudas Yisrael begins with an alef and ends with a lamed, spelling Hashem’s Name. Our purpose is the glorification of His Name, and all those who plot against it will be thwarted. Harav Yitzchak Meir Levin used to say, ‘The nation of Yisrael is unlike all other nations, and Agudas Yisrael is unlike all other parties.’
“We don’t refer to Agudas Yisrael as a party. Rather, it is a movement. It revolutionized chareidi Jewry in the 20th century by bringing German Jews, Polish Jews, and Lithuanian Jews to one table. It was the first successful attempt at overcoming the enmity between the Chassidim and the Litvaks. Another revolutionary moment was during the first Knessiah Gedolah, when Moreinu Harav Yaakov Rosenheim announced that Agudas Yisrael would never take any steps unless they were approved by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Moreinu explained that political activists might have personal interests. Therefore, we need genuine Gedolei Torah to guide us on the correct path. The members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah were chosen during each Knessiah Gedolah, but the existing members were authorized to appoint new members at any time.
“If you want to know whether the real Agudas Yisrael still exists,” Rav Avishai concluded, “its own success is the greatest proof. The proof of its success is the fact that its opponents strive to emulate us. Take, for example, the creation of the Bais Yaakov movement. At first, it faced fierce opposition. Nowadays, even those groups who refused to establish girls’ schools have their own schools. The concepts of Bais Yaakov and Daf Yomi only grow stronger as time goes by.”
Secretary of the Moetzes
“One Friday in the middle of Kislev 5749/1988, I received a phone call from Reb Feivish Miller, a gabbai of the Yeshuos Moshe. He said, ‘The Rebbe wants you to become secretary of the Moetzes. They are meeting on Sunday. Take a taxi and be there.’ I stood there holding the phone, totally stunned.
“The Nasi of the Moetzes was the Yeshuos Moshe of Vizhnitz. After the Lev Simchah passed away, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe asked the Pnei Menachem to share his position and, after some initial opposition, he accepted. Eventually, we were able to enlist eight more members of the Moetzes: the Alexander Rebbe; the Modzitzer Rebbe; the Bostoner Rebbe, Harav Binyamin Zilber; Harav Mordechai Jaffe Schlesinger; Harav Yitzchak Flekser, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Chayei Olam; Harav Aharon Bernstein; and the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Boyan, Harav Ephraim Fishel Rabinowitz, zichronam livrachah.”
What did you do as secretary?
“What didn’t I do? The secretary had to take care of all the logistics for each meeting of the Moetzes. Also, I was the only person present at the meetings other than the members themselves. I had to write down a brief summary of the proceedings, and it was my responsibility to make the Moetzes’ decisions public.
Between meetings, I was busy traveling from the home of one Gadol to another delivering messages verbally. This was an enormous responsibility. I will never understand how the Gedolim placed so much trust in me.
Who else attended the meetings?
No one at all. Not even the personal attendants of a Rebbe were permitted inside. The Knesset representatives of Agudas Yisrael were not permitted inside, either. Sometimes I felt very small being all alone in the presence of all these Gedolim. If they needed an Agudas Yisrael Knesset member to report to them, he would be told what time to arrive, and then he had to wait outside until he was called in to hear their decisions. Sometimes, this meant waiting outside for hours.
No cameras or recorders were permitted at the meetings. This was a policy that was established at the first Knessiah Gedolah in Katowice. The only record of the meeting was the notes written by the secretary, and no one else was allowed to read those notes.
At the end of each meeting, Rav Avishai would take a seat alongside the Yeshuos Moshe and the Pnei Menachem and write down their final decisions. They scrutinized every word he wrote, and it sometimes took a long time to come up with an acceptable text.
As a Vizhnitzer Chassid, it was hard for me to accept the Rebbe being voted down. But the Rebbe told me to put all personal considerations aside and do my job.
During that period, the Pnei Menachem was the most dominant member of the Moetzes. He looked upon me favorably and often called me to his home or to his beis medrash to run some important errand.
Were the decisions based on a vote?
Most of the time, the Moetzes was unanimous in its decisions. There were occasions when a vote was needed, however. When this happened, I distributed notes to each member, and each one wrote down his opinion. Then, I collected all the notes in my hat, sat down, and wrote down how many notes were “for” and how many were “against.” It was a secret vote.
Were outsiders permitted to come and present their views?
Almost never. If some specific information was needed, an Agudas Yisrael Knesset member would be called in to present it. I remember rare occasions when a secular representative was permitted to speak to the Moetzes. One example was when the Moetzes convened in the Vizhnitz Hotel to decide whether we should form a coalition with the Likud or the Labor party. Both sides begged us to allow them to present their cases, and it was decided to permit it. Chaim Bar-Lev and Rafi Edri came to speak for Labor, while Ariel Sharon and Yitzchak Modai came to speak for Likud. Each side was given 10 minutes to speak, and then the meeting proceeded as usual.
How were the public announcements written?
Usually, they were composed during the meetings. The Moetzes would decide that a public announcement was in order, and they would tell me what the message was. After I wrote a first draft, they would read it through and, once it passed their critique, it was publicized.
One such announcement was about the Oslo Accords. They told me to write that the agreement would harm the settlements in Yehudah and Shomron, and that it would endanger the lives of all Israelis.
At the time, no one understood why that was the case, but the Gedolim’s perception of the future was more clear than anyone imagined at the time.
Delegation of Agudas Yisrael to the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah
After the elections of 5792, when Yitzchak Rabin’s Labor party formed a decidedly left-wing government, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah gave its representatives a clear directive not to join the coalition. The Shas party did join the coalition, against the wishes of the Moetzes, but Agudas Yisrael refused to criticize them for doing so. As the Erlauer Rebbe said, “The foundation of Agudas Yisrael is that its representatives must follow the directives of the Gedolim. Well, Shas has its Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah, and if this was their decision, who are we to tell them what to do?”
The Moetzes decided to send a delegation to Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, and explain to him the reasons for Agudas Yisrael’s absolute refusal to join the coalition. Rav Shmuel Avishai was a member of that delegation. He said, “Harav Ovadiah listened patiently to all that the Erlauer Rebbe had to say, and then he responded, ‘Everything you are saying is true, but by joining the coalition, we will be able to establish another Talmud Torah here and another shul there. All other considerations are secondary.’
“In Rav Ovadiah’s eyes, his Maayan Hachinuch network of yeshivos, Talmudei Torah, and girls’ schools was the entire purpose of Shas’ existence. The schools and yeshivos were the guarantee for the future of Sephardic Jews. The next day, I wrote an article for Hamodia saying that a delegation from the Moetzes had paid a visit to Rav Ovadiah. I didn’t write what the visit was about; I left that to the readers’ imagination. At any rate, we can see from here that the Gedolim might sometimes have important differences of opinion, but this does not affect their love for one another.”
Nobel Peace Prize
The departure of the Lithuanian faction from Agudas Yisrael caused a great disturbance all over the Jewish world.
With Hashem’s help, we managed to unite the factions in 5752/1992, and they agreed to run as one party, while remaining separate entities with separate Moatzos.
One day, the Pnei Menachem called me over and told me that we should name the party Yahadut HaTorah.
The reconciliation came about through the efforts of three Gedolim. Rav Shach did everything in his power to restore our relationship, and the Pnei Menachem and Yeshuos Moshe also exerted great efforts to achieve peace.
Rav Shach appointed Rav Shlomo Lorincz to be his representative, although he was not officially a representative of Degel Hatorah. Rav Avraham Yosef Shapiro represented the Gerrer Chassidim, and I represented Vizhnitz.
I remember trudging through the snow in the streets of Yerushalayim as I went from one home to another to negotiate.
In the end, the Pnei Menachem told me, “If there was such a thing as a Nobel Peace Prize for chareidi Jewry, you would win it.”
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