A HOUSE OF TORAH
May 23, 2017
Beis Moshiach in #1069, Interview

To mark the holiday of Shavuos, a time when morei tzedek gather at the Rebbe, we spoke with Rebbetzin Sima Ashkenazi to hear about the responsibilities of a rav and her life as a rebbetzin, wife of Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi a”h.

By Miri Schneersohn

Photos by Yisroel BardugoA DONE DEAL

As a couple, the Rebbe accompanied us every step of the way from the first moment. The Rebbe was even involved in our shidduch. The Rebbe spoke in praise of me to my husband’s family and suggested they do the shidduch.

I remember that we met and he told me what the Rebbe said and how as far as he was concerned, it was a done deal. If the Rebbe said so, it was obviously the right shidduch and we were only meeting because of protocol, but actually, it was finalized from the outset!

My life’s dream was to marry a talmid chacham and to prove to the Litvishe family on my father’s side that there are talmidei chachomim in Chabad. Boruch Hashem, my dream was fulfilled.

KFAR CHABAD

We were chassan and kalla. My father-in-law went to the Rebbe for Yud Shvat. The Rebbe asked where we would live and he said we hadn’t decided yet, either Yerushalayim, where the kalla lived, or Tel Aviv, their city. The Rebbe asked, “Why not in Kfar Chabad, the capital of Eretz Yisroel?” The Rebbe concluded explicitly that my husband should learn in the kollel in Kfar Chabad and that we should live in Kfar Chabad.

I had previously signed for a conditional loan when I started seminary since I dreamed of going and teaching in a development town. I had planned on deciding with my husband before we married whether it would be Kiryat Gat, Brosh or Taanach. Once the Rebbe stated his opinion, the rest fell by the wayside.

Then we were suddenly made an offer to live in Modiin. Modiin at that time consisted of mountains and rocky hills and the place was not built up as it is now; there wasn’t even a main road. They wanted to bring a group of bachurim who would learn Torah by day, and at night would guard the area. They needed girls to cook and clean, and they were looking for a couple who would live there. My husband would be the rosh yeshiva, would give shiurim and supervise the bachurim, while I would be a mashpia for the girls.

I went with my husband’s parents in a military truck to look at the place. The truck had a hard time making it up there as it was really disconnected from the rest of the country. They told us that once a month a truck would come with food, and beyond that there wouldn’t be any contact with the outside world.

I liked the idea and agreed and then my husband went to see the place and we decided to ask the Rebbe. We thought the idea might be feasible. He would teach Torah and receive a salary. The alternate, 200 liras I would get as a teacher plus 200 liras he would get in kollel would be very hard to live on.

My husband’s grandmother, Rebbetzin Karasik a”h, was very devoted and wanted to support us. I was unwilling for her to do this and wanted to be self-supporting. The idea of us living in Modiin, which would enable him to learn Torah, spread Judaism, and earn us a salary, appealed to me.

The chassan asked the Rebbe and the answer was a quote from Shulchan Aruch Admur HaZakein which says that after marriage one should sit and learn for two or three years and not think about anything else. We knew then, that until three years were up, we would not listen to any suggestions. Of course, we settled in Kfar Chabad.

JUST LEARN TORAH

At the beginning of those years, on Erev Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, R’ Shloimke Maidanchek asked my husband to temporarily run the Talmud Torah until he found a principal. He asked that my husband show up to greet the students the next morning. If he did not go, they would not open the Talmud Torah.

My husband was taken aback, would the children of Kfar Chabad not learn?! Although he was a young man, he had a great sense of responsibility and realized there was no other choice.

My husband came home at 12 that night and told me that he had to show up at the Talmud Torah the next morning. I said, “No way! You are not going to the Talmud Torah. The Rebbe said explicitly, two or three years,” and we were just at the beginning. I went to R’ Shloimke’s house and knocked at the door. He opened it and did not understand what I wanted.

I told him that I wanted to let him know that my husband would not show up in the morning at the Talmud Torah. He yelled at me that I only cared about my husband and not about the chinuch of the children of Kfar Chabad. I told him that I care very much but we had an explicit instruction from the Rebbe about two or three years and until three years passed, we were not listening to any suggestions.

My husband did not go. Then there was an offer from the yeshiva in Lud and they pressured him about bachurim who were left without a maggid shiur. Their maggid shiur, R’ Zelig Feldman a”h, had moved to Yerushalayim and they needed a replacement. My husband said he would ask the Rebbe, and at least in the interim, until he got an answer, they could not leave the bachurim without a shiur every day.

The Rebbe answered that it wasn’t for him. The yeshiva wanted to pay him for the two weeks he had worked but I was not willing for him to accept it. I told him, “Donate the money to the yeshiva. We won’t be taking this money, which is not in accordance with the will of the Rebbe.”

At the end of three years, we went to the Rebbe for Tishrei 5729 where we had yechidus three times. The Rebbe instructed my husband to continue writing his first seifer according to the many instructions and guidance he had received from the Rebbe. He also said he should continue to learn for a fourth year in the course of which he should accept a job in one of our yeshivos.

Before Pesach, the yeshiva g’dola in Kfar Chabad asked him to be a meishiv. He continued to learn until the tragedy in which Rabbi Garelik was killed, and he was elected as Rav of the Kfar.

SHABBOS KODESH

I never disturbed my husband from learning Torah and going to shiurim; I never stopped him from going to a kiddush and farbrengen on Shabbos. Back then, they farbrenged only on Shabbos Mevarchim. In our first year of marriage, I would prepare kiddush in the house, and after the davening, all the young men would come to farbreng. I would set up and arrange things ahead of time and from another room I would listen to the niggunim and what I could get from the divrei Torah, and I was pleased. I was willing to work and prepare, as long as I had a home of Torah and Chassidus.

In the years that followed, when we had children, my husband led the Friday night meal, and on Shabbos day I would make kiddush myself and we would eat the Shabbos meal, sing niggunim, and I would review a sicha on the parsha and the children would say what they had learned that week in school. I ran a wonderful Shabbos table while my husband was at the farbrengen. After the meal, I would clear off the table and set it again for the bachurim who ate in our home on Shabbos. I would put the children to sleep and take the baby in the carriage and go and give a shiur on the parsha at the immigrants’ hostel near our house. When most of the residents left the hostel, I stopped, and in later years the Shabbos afternoon shiur resumed.

THE RAV AS A FAMILY MAN

My husband was extremely devoted to the family. He was so close to the children. He would sit and talk and tell about the period of time that he was by the Rebbe as a young boy, and over the course of time he recounted, quoted, and described all those years. He guided them in Torah and contributed so much to them. They knew that their father wasn’t just any father, that he was also a rav, and he gave of himself to the children even though he had no free time. But he had no greater joy than when sitting with the children and grandchildren. On any festive occasion, we would make a big evening and invite everyone and farbreng for hours with wonderful spiritual content and great joy.

PEOPLE ARE WAITING FOR ME!

I thank Hashem that I never interfered with his holy work. Whatever had to be done, he did. If he had to travel to shluchim, to help them with conversions and mikvaos, I never told him not to go. He traveled to South America and to Poland to supervise the sh’chita there. He traveled to Ukraine for the harvesting of wheat for shmura matza. He traveled to check the bakery in Dnepropetrovsk. He flew to the Rebbe for Shavuos and for all sorts of communal matters, and to the holy gravesites in Ukraine, and I did not stop him.

The one time that I told him, “Maybe you shouldn’t go,” was on his final day. He felt so unwell and was scheduled to travel to Tzfas to give a shiur in the yeshiva. I said, “Maybe you need an EKG? Maybe you should go to the clinic?”

He said, “How can I not go? People are waiting for me!”

That was his mantra, people are waiting for me. I need to help people. He did not think about himself. At the same time, he was such a devoted husband. People told me after he passed away, “Think of it as his going to the Rebbe,” “Think of it as his going to Haditch.” I said, “But what about phone calls?” He would call three times a day to ask how I was doing and how the children were and to share what was happening with him.

RAV – POSEK HALACHA

Even a young man with smicha for rabbanus cannot pasken for himself or others. When there is a local rav, he has to go to him and ask and get his p’sak halacha. As long as Rabbi Garelik was alive, my husband did not pasken for himself, even though the rav gave him smicha before we married. Even during the life of the rav, the rav demanded that he pasken and said, “You yourself are a shoemaker” - a Russian expression which means you yourself are knowledgeable.

Rav Garelik, at the end of his life, claimed he did not see well and my husband should pasken. When ordered to do so, he paskened in the rav’s presence, but he never paskened at home for us.

I will add that every young man who learns and receives smicha for rabbanus, it’s so that he should know what to ask, but in order to resolve the question, he must go to the rav. There is no such thing as a young man who has smicha who can pasken.

Parenthetically, I will add, that when it says, “make for yourself a rav,” in the Mishna, it means a mashpia and not a rav that paskens halachos. A mashpia knows the person and what is appropriate for him in various situations but this had nothing to do with paskening halachos.

WIFE OF THE RAV

Maintaining a communal home is holy work. To help people materially and spiritually, there is nothing greater than this. My husband would say, “If someone calls at two in the morning, it means it’s urgent.” Of course he would answer. He would usually answer the phone throughout the day. One time, a woman called whose little girl had lost consciousness. I immediately ran to her house and took the girl and got into someone’s car and raced to the hospital.

When we got to Asaf HaRofeh, the driver had to turn right and in her haste, she collided with a traffic sign island, knocked the sign over and nearly overturned. Boruch Hashem, she managed to straighten the car out and continued zooming to the emergency room. All along the way we cried and screamed to Hashem, we said T’hillim and I urged her to drive more quickly because the girl was grunting terribly and I was afraid for her life.

We arrived at the emergency room in tears and shouted, “Save her!” Boruch Hashem, after a few minutes, they told us they had managed to rouse her and it all ended well. Whenever I pass by there, I say the bracha you recite at the scene of a miracle that occurred to you.

DO NOT SPEAK DEROGATORILY
ABOUT A JEW

When my husband was a teen, my in-laws went on shlichus to Brazil and he went to learn in 770. That fall, the Rebbe told him to go to Montreal. He went to 770 for Pesach and had yechidus after Pesach, the eve of his 16th birthday. In a note, he wrote to the Rebbe that he wants to return and learn in 770. The Rebbe asked why, but he did not want to say. The reason was that the yeshiva in Montreal asked him to pay a large amount of money for tuition. They thought his parents made good money in Brazil and could afford it.

He did not want to tattle on the yeshiva and he knew his parents had no money to spare, but he did not want to say this to the Rebbe. He did not answer and the Rebbe pressed him and said, “Why don’t you tell me the truth?”

He tried to be evasive so the Rebbe tried another way and asked who his chavrusa was. He said that for Nigleh he learned with Shmuel Lew. The Rebbe said, “Shmuel Lew is a Chassidishe bachur, he keeps to the times. That is so good, so why do you want to leave?” Then the Rebbe said, “Who are the teachers?” and my husband listed all the staff. The Rebbe concluded, “That is all good.” And that is how, for ten minutes, the Rebbe tried to extract the answer but my husband did not want to say until he burst into tears and the Rebbe said, “I see that it is so hard for you so I won’t ask anymore.” The Rebbe gave him instructions and then, when he returned to Montreal, the matter was settled.

When my husband was a young boy he felt strongly that you don’t speak negatively about a Jew. One would think that if the Rebbe is asking, you answer, but this is how he conducted himself throughout his years of rabbanus. There were all kinds of disputes that he had to contend with but he never wrote to the Rebbe negatively about anyone. The Rebbe once said to my father-in-law, “Your son is even less of a writer than you,” and this strengthened the idea that really this is how it is supposed to be and one should not tattle on Jews.

One time Rabbi Groner called and said, in the Rebbe’s name, that a certain incident had happened and asked him to look into it. My husband did so and then R’ Groner called again and asked about it. My husband asked, “Does the Rebbe want me to say who it is?” R’ Groner said, “No, the Rebbe only wants to know if you dealt with it.” Then he saw how the Rebbe helps him and knows that he did not want to say, and so the Rebbe really did not ask who; he just wanted to ensure that the matter was dealt with. He never wrote or told the Rebbe a bad word about anyone which is surely a very great z’chus.

MOREH TZEDEK

Before he became Mara D’Asra, when he was just a Moreh Tzedek, the Rebbe referred people to him, not necessarily from Eretz Yisroel and not necessarily Lubavitchers, on a range of matters, so he could help them in their plights. He was the spiritual shliach of the Rebbe to help people make the right decision in weighty matters in their lives.

He would often say, “A rav has siyata d’Shmaya when it comes to practical matters.” Especially when they would ask about medical matters that had to do with halacha he would say, “When it becomes practical, come to me and I will pasken for you.” He would never issue a ruling hypothetically.

There was a girl who knew, before she married, that she could not have children because of medical problems. She had received a letter from the Rebbe in which he promised her children. When it came time for shidduchim, there was a doctor who said that hair would grow on the palm of his hand when she had children. And yet, she had the letter from the Rebbe. She asked the Rebbe whether to tell a boy she was going to meet what the doctors said, as well as the Rebbe’s promise. The Rebbe said, “Do as advised by the Mara D’Asra of Kfar Chabad.”

The girl was from Yerushalayim. She came to my husband and told him the situation. He instructed her to meet and when it became serious, to take the Rebbe’s letter along with her and say she wanted to show him something and she first wanted to tell him something important. That is what she did.

Her family in Yerushalayim had no connection to my husband. The day after the meeting, my husband called her to ask how the bachur reacted. He felt a great responsibility in this case the Rebbe gave over to him. The family was very moved that he cared so much.

The bachur accepted and married her and they are now shluchim abroad. There were miracles and they have three children.

MY CONFIDANT

When Rabbi Druckman ran for the position of the rabbanus in Kiryat Mochkin, there was another rav who also ran. During that time, my husband received a letter from Rabbi Chadakov and in the envelope was another envelope from the Rebbe. It was intended for the rav running against Rabbi Druckman. R’ Chadakov asked my husband to be so good as to give the letter to whom it was intended. My husband had no idea what this was about and he went to bring the letter to that rav. The rav opened the letter in his presence and they read it together:

“I am sending a letter with my confidant, Rabbi Ashkenazi,” and the Rebbe asked him to withdraw his candidacy so that Rabbi Druckman could be elected. He did so, and Rabbi Druckman was elected.

THE CHECK THAT WAS TORN AT THE TZIYUN

When the Iron Curtain fell, my husband went to Russia for 24 Teves to daven at the Ohel of the Alter Rebbe. It was very hard to access the Ohel at the time, there was no convenient road, no railing or steps and in the Russian winter it was all covered with ice. My husband fell and got a big bruise so that afterward, he stood at the tziyun in tremendous emotional agitation and great pains. Many people had sent their pidyonos with him. There was a shliach from Eretz Yisroel who asked him to get a check from a rich man in Russia who, after much effort, had agreed to give him $18,000. Someone brought it to Haditch and the rav was asked to bring it back with him to Eretz Yisroel.

He had the check plus two $100 bills in his pocket. He said the maaneh lashon and read the pidyonos nefesh and he ripped each one as is the custom. Since he was overwrought and confused and the lighting was dim, he also tore the check and the money.

When he got back up the hill, he sat down to rest and began checking his pockets. He saw that the money and check were gone. He realized he had ripped them up at the tziyun and didn’t know what to do. The shliach was waiting for the money!

He returned home and told the shliach what happened. The shliach was shocked and said, “I waited so long for it and he finally gave it to me, oy, now it’s gone!”

My husband said, “Tell the man exactly what happened and let us hope he will replace the check. After all, he can see that it wasn’t deposited.”

The shliach did so. The rich man was so excited, because he considered it a sign of blessing that his check was ripped at the tziyun like a pidyon nefesh, that he gave the shliach double, $36,000!

WHEN A RAV SAYS SOMETHING

This is an interesting story that we heard after my husband passed away. My son Yossi asked the public to tell stories about him that they remembered. Someone from the Kfar recounted the following:

Over 20 years ago, this man sold T-shirts with the logos of all sorts of companies on them. He was in touch with all the companies and paid them for the right to use their logos, but there was one American company that he tried repeatedly to contact, without success. In the meantime, he bought the print plate and printed their logo on the shirts. Years went by and he made a nice profit on it, but he never paid the company for this.

One day, he received a letter from the company in which they demanded reimbursement for the use of their name all those years. They demanded that he take back all his merchandise from the stores and pay a very high fine for the profit he made over the years. He was frightened and went to my husband to consult with him. My husband asked him whether the company owners were Jews and he said no. My husband said, “Ignore them.” The man wondered, “What do you mean to ignore them? I have a legal summons!” My husband said, “Throw it out.”

He listened to my husband and threw out the summons with kabbalas ol. After a while, they hired a private investigations firm who went to all the stores and removed all the unapproved merchandise with their logo on it. They ignored the shirts that the man from the Kfar had printed, even though his shirts were not hidden and were in the display windows! Everyone was sure they had some sort of agreement with him because otherwise, why weren’t his shirts confiscated? They emptied the other stores of all their merchandise and ignored him completely.

Over twenty years passed since then and a few days before my husband passed away, the man thanked him, “You saved me and thanks to you I was left with a good parnasa. I threw the summons into the garbage and they didn’t demand a thing from me.” The rav waved his hand dismissively and said, “It was really nothing. After my 120 years, tell the story.”

DID YOU ASK A RAV?

There was an older girl to whom a divorced man was suggested as a shidduch. They met and all seemed well and she wanted to get engaged. She had a Lubavitcher friend who told her you don’t make these decisions without the Rebbe. The single had no connection to Chabad or the Rebbe but her friend insisted, so they went to the Rebbe. At the dollar line, she said she was about to get married and she wanted a bracha.

The Rebbe asked her, “Did you ask a rav?”

She was taken aback by this question and thought maybe she did not hear correctly. The secretary said yes, that is what the Rebbe said, did she ask a rav.

She returned to Eretz Yisroel and decided to go to the rav of the largest Chabad community in the country and that is how she came to my husband. She told him the story and he said he wanted to speak to the prospective groom.

He asked the man where he got divorced and he said in Sydney. My husband asked whether he had a certificate proving his divorce and he said no. The get is given to the woman and the man is supposed to get a certificate attesting that he was divorced, but this man did not have one.

My husband called Rabbi Lesches, who was the rav and Av Beis Din in Sydney at the time and asked him about this case. R’ Lesches said there was a divorce because the man had severe psychological issues. R’ Lesches did not want to give him a certificate so that a clever rav, who would wonder why there was no certificate, would call him and would hear the story, then be able to save another woman from falling into this man’s hands. Thanks to my husband who delved into this, and thanks to the Rebbe who referred her to a rav, the shidduch was off.

HE SET HIMSELF ASIDE

The rav had various sides to him. He was a big talmid chacham, and Torah knowledge permeated the depths of his being. Aside from that, he had superior character traits. He cared about every Jew. He did not do anything just to get it over with; he wanted to help with all his heart and soul.

They say that what a Chassidishe farbrengen can accomplish, even the angel Michoel cannot accomplish, because when Jews, from the depths of their heart, want to help someone, and they bless him, it accomplishes great things. He had the great desire to help people because he never saw himself as the center of things. He put himself completely aside in order to help others. He also had tremendous soul powers. We see how the Rebbe relied on him, with his abilities and his enormous knowledge, that he could really be of help!

May he accomplish up Above for all of us, the hisgalus of the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach, and may we hear “Torah chadasha m’iti teitzei” immediately. Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu, Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed.

L’ilui nishmas my husband, Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel ben Moshe Ashkenazi, a”h.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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