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Tuesday
Dec132016

ECHOES OF THE REBBE’S VOICE

“You visited the Itzkowitz family already?” the Rebbe asked the next time we met.  “Yes,” I said.  “What did you think? Would you want a house like that?” * “When you build a palace up above in heaven, the Master of the Universe will give you a gift down below,” said the Rebbe as he pointed upward with his finger. * In an exclusive interview with Beis Moshiach, Rabbi Nochum Stilerman tells about the kiruvim he had from the Rebbe for over fifteen years.  He also reveals the heavenly story with the bracha he received from the Rebbe over sixty years ago, and the closing of a circle three months ago in the Bostoner Rebbe’s beis medrash in Har Nof.

A peaceful, comfortable atmosphere greets you when you walk into the Stilerman home in the penthouse on the fifth floor on Ruzhin Street in Har Nof.  The hosts’ graciousness, the magnificent scenery seen from the garden-like balcony, the beautifully appointed living room and the large space elegantly and beautifully furnished, reminiscent of a typical American home in Boro Park, all add a special element to the story that follows.

The warm smile and kind eyes of Rabbi Nochum Stilerman, a Jew with a Litvish-American appearance in his seventies, bespeak a long and fascinating life story.  When he recounts the chapter of the close connection he merited to have with the Rebbe over the years, his glance sharpens and he is clearly overcome with a powerful nostalgia.

“May the Ribbono shel olam have nachas from you, may your parents have nachas from you, and may you have nachas from yourself!” said the Rebbe to him in a yechidus which took place close to his bar mitzva, 62 years ago. 

“To me, this is the greatest bracha a person can get in his life.”

POSTER BOY OF THE DP CAMP

Even before arriving in the United States and meeting the Rebbe, Chabad Chassidim were a presence at important junctures of his life, that began seventy-five years ago in Oryol, Ukraine.  His father was R’ Yisroel Rechter (the family’s name was changed during World War II).  He was a senior official in the local government and he made a living by running a factory that manufactured toothbrushes.  He disguised his Jewish identity well but used his position to help produce forged passports for Chabad Chassidim who were caught or interrogated by the authorities, so they could escape under an assumed name.

Under the shadow of the KGB, the Rechter-Stilerman children grew up as shomrei Torah and mitzvos despite the constant danger.  Then, one day, the father of the family was arrested for the crime of possessing t’fillin. His situation became more complicated when they opened his t’fillin and discovered “secret writing.”  To the Russian agents, this was proof that he was a spy who concealed secrets in “religious boxes.”  Fortunately, some of his friends bribed the right people and he was released.

During World War II, when Nochum was a boy, the family packed their bags and began a long, exhausting journey.  They reached distant Samarkand where they met many Jews who had escaped the terrors of war, including well known figures among Chabad Chassidim.

After the war, they escaped Russia and wandered through Europe until they reached a refugee camp in Bois in France.  There Nochum’s image was captured on camera as he learned Torah.  He later discovered that his picture was used as a fundraising tool for the Vaad Hatzalah under the headline, “Save these Children!”

SENT TO HELP THE COMPETITION

When he was ten, in 5711, after much wearying travel, the Stilerman family arrived in the United States and settled in Crown Heights.

R’ Yisroel decided that a shomer Shabbos grocery store was needed in Crown Heights, which did not yet exist.  A few days later he rented a store on Albany Avenue between Eastern Parkway and Union Street and the first shomer Shabbos grocery store in the neighborhood opened.  However, he found that the business wasn’t profitable and he sometimes sustained big losses. He worked hard for a living, from five in the morning until after midnight.

Three years passed and the business acquired steady customers and began to stabilize.  One day, someone who looked like a Lubavitcher Chassid appeared in the store who introduced himself as Yaakov Lipsker.  He had just moved from New Jersey to Crown Heights and he had a large family.  R’ Yisroel soon realized that this man wanted to inquire about opening another shomer Shabbos grocery store in the neighborhood.

Worried about his livelihood and doubtful that another store would be successful, he tried to dissuade him from the idea.  He proved to R’ Lipsker with facts and figures that it wasn’t worthwhile, especially when the Blue Laws in force at that time made it illegal to open a store on Sunday.  This obligated a shomer Shabbos store to be closed two days a week.

When R’ Yisroel saw that R’ Lipsker was serious about opening a store and was not convinced by his arguments, he offered a compromise.  “You are a Chabad Chassid. Let us ask the Rebbe.  We will do what he says.”  Of course, R’ Yaakov loved the idea.

They went to 770 and had yechidus.  R’ Yisroel Stilerman spoke about the difficulty in running the store in previous years and candidly told the Rebbe his fears, saying there was no room for another shomer Shabbos store.  He told the Rebbe, “It is reasonable to assume that both of us will lose out.”  The Rebbe listened closely and when R’ Yisroel finished the Rebbe smiled and said reassuringly, “Don’t worry.  I assure you there will be parnasa for both of you.”

R’ Yisroel accepted this wholeheartedly. He immediately agreed to the opening of another shomer Shabbos grocery store at a distance of only one block from his store, on the corner of Kingston and Union Street.

R’ Yisroel’s submission and faith, despite not being a Lubavitcher Chassid, is something we can all learn from.  He did all he could, happily, to help R’ Lipsker open and run his store and was even willing to lend him three thousand dollars (a lot of money in those days), so he could buy merchandise and open the new business.

R’ Yisroel’s son Nochum, who was a delivery boy for his father’s store, was often sent to help the owner of the competing store.  His father would send him with products that were missing in R’ Yaakov’s store.  R’ Yisroel helped him contact salesmen and informed him of where to get the best prices.  In instances where certain distributors refused to sell their stock to the new store, R’ Yisroel got involved and gave them an ultimatum, “If you refuse to sell to R’ Yaakov, you will also lose me as your customer.”

As he told this extraordinary story about his father, R’ Nochum wanted to verify that we would print it with all the details. When I asked him why it was so important to him, he said:

“For many years the story was not publicized.  Twelve years ago, my family gave permission for the story to be published, provided all the details were correct.  I was very disappointed when I discovered that the publishers left the Rebbe’s name out of the story and instead referred to him as an anonymous rav.  So I’m asking you to publicize the story, with the Rebbe’s name, to rectify that vital missing detail.”

WHICH TEFILLA IS MOST BELOVED TO THE REBBE?

From a young age, Nochum helped in the family business and was the store’s delivery boy.  He became a known figure in the neighborhood as he maneuvered a pushcart, filled with boxes, through the streets of Crown Heights to deliver customers’ orders.

Many regular customers loved the young boy and asked how he was and gave him tips in the form of drinks or candies.  As time went on, he became a regular guest in the homes of Admurim and distinguished people in the community, including Rebbetzin Chana a”h, the mother of the Rebbe, who was one of the store’s first customers.  At times, he also delivered orders to the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s home when they lived on New York Avenue on the corner of President Street.

During our conversation, R’ Nochum shared the details of his close and personal relationship with the Rebbe for over fifteen years, from 5711 to 5727.  He spoke nostalgically and was precise in every detail as he went back sixty years.

His frequent encounters with the Rebbe mostly took place in Rebbetzin Chana’s home where the Rebbe visited frequently.

“I was curious about which tefilla the Rebbe likes best so I asked Rebbetzin Chana to find out for me.  The next time I visited her house, the Rebbe was there too, and after indicating to me that he had been informed of my question, he began to tell me, word by word, ‘Modeh ani lefonecha ….’

“The Rebbe literally shaped the course of my life.  For example, I shared an inner struggle with the Rebbe that I was going through when I was of shidduchim age.

“I was very concerned about the fact that I walked around the neighborhood pushing a pushcart.  I believed it would harm me when it came to shidduchim, as I feared I would be perceived as a ‘nebach.’  It wasn’t something I could share with anyone else.  I felt comfortable consulting with the Rebbe who, like a good friend, listened to me, reassured me, and told me to continue as before. ‘You have nothing at all to be afraid of,’ he said, and I was reassured.”

Rebbetzin Chana showered him with love and Nochum knew that with every delivery he would be asked to come in and sit down and she would serve him a cup of milk and a piece of cake. He could continue on his way only after he ate and drank. Every visit there was an experience, especially those times when he also encountered the Rebbe.

“Sometimes it was very uncomfortable.  The Rebbetzin would seat me on a certain chair in the living room, which the Rebbe also used.  If I was sitting and the Rebbe walked in, the Rebbe would not sit in a different chair, and nor would he allow me to get up for him.  He would wait for me to finish the milk and cake.

“The Rebbetzin would ask how I was.  She would always ask me, ‘What did you learn today in Chassidus?’ even though I wasn’t raised as a Chassid and did not learn Chassidus.  Nevertheless, I wanted to satisfy her so I tried now and then to read Chassidic ideas so that I could repeat them to her.”

“I HEARD THAT YOU ARE BUILDING A HOME,” SAID THE REBBE WITH A SMILE

“The following story happened when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old.  I read a story in Talks and Tales that seemed far-fetched to me, about the Rebbe Rayatz and his father, the Rebbe Rashab.  I decided to tell it to the Rebbetzin on my next visit and ask her whether the story (which follows) was true.”

The Rebbe Rayatz related, “When I was a little boy I wondered whether angels could calculate numbers.  I asked my father who said, ‘That’s a good question.  I am sure that the Angel Michoel counts every chapter of T’hillim that a Jew reads and forms a lightbulb in a chandelier that illuminates above and below, for him and his descendants.’ Following this, my father would sometimes ask me, ‘What’s happening with your chandelier?’”

“When I repeated this story, I could see that the Rebbetzin was familiar with it and she authenticated the story.  I said to her, ‘I would like to create a beautiful chandelier of my own by saying T’hillim.’ 

“The Rebbetzin replied with a smile, ‘For a chandelier you first need a house, so you have a place to hang it, and a house is built through doing mitzvos and learning Torah and Chassidus.’ I heard her, finished the cake and milk, and was on my way.

“The next time I went to Rebbetzin Chana’s house, the Rebbe was there.  The Rebbe turned to me, with a twinkle in his eyes, and said, ‘I heard that you are building a home.’  Then he immediately asked, ‘What type of house would you like?’ I was surprised by the fact that little me was the subject of a discussion between the Rebbe and his mother and was confused by the question.

“Then the Rebbe suggested that I go to the Itzkowitz family who lived in Boro Park, with whom we had a prior relationship, so I could be impressed by their house and draw inspiration as to what sort of house I wanted.”

Nochum did as the Rebbe said and went to Boro Park to the Itzkowitz home.  When he arrived at the address, he knocked at the door.  Someone opened it and asked who he was looking for.  Nochum said, “I came to see your house.”  The person looked at him in surprise and with a chuckle responded that the house was not for sale or rent.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me here to get my impression of your house,” Nochum explained.  This seemed quite strange to them but they said, “If the Rebbe sent you, then come in and we will give you a tour of the whole house.” 

THE REBBE’S MESSAGE THAT BECAME HIS LIFE’S MOTTO

“Did you visit the Itzkowitz family already?” asked the Rebbe the next time we met.  “Yes,” I said.  “What did you think? Would you want a house like that?”

“The house is nice and spacious,” I said.

“Was there anything in particular that you liked about the house?” asked the Rebbe

“Of all the rooms, I liked the living room best,” I said as I explained, “right next to the living room is a garden with various kinds of trees.  When you are in the living room and looking out the window, you see the green garden and it gives you the feeling as though you are sitting in the yard.  But instead of the fruitless trees that grow in the Itzkowitz garden, I would want fruit trees.” 

“The Rebbe seemed pleased with my response and said, ‘That’s a good thing to want,’ and he quoted from a verse in Parshas VaEschanan, ‘It will be when Hashem your G-d brings you to the land … houses full of everything good that you did not fill … vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’  Then the Rebbe gave his blessing and said, ‘When you build a palace up above in heaven, the Master of the Universe will give you a gift down below,’ and he pointed upward with his finger.”

This message from the Rebbe became R’ Nochum Stilerman’s motto for life.  It is only after hearing this story from him that you understand from where he got the idea for the response that he offers anyone who asks him what he does.  “I am building a palace up above.”  Yes, he is indeed busy building a palace.  The fact that he needed two weeks to free up some time from his very exacting schedule to hold this interview proves it.

For the last fifty years, R’ Nochum has waged a campaign to raise huge sums of money for yeshivos and chesed institutions to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars! When he turned seventy, he decided to drop everything and devote himself exclusively to learning Torah.  Directed by the late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel z”l, he prepared a detailed plan to learn the entire Torah: Tanach, Talmud Bavli, Shulchan Aruch, etc. It is a twenty-three-and-a-half-year plan and in order to keep up the pace, he has to learn ten hours a day!

He is building a palace up above b’ezras Hashem.

SALVATION CAME FASTER THAN I COULD IMAGINE

Years passed and R’ Nochum and his wife decided to move to Eretz Yisroel to live near their children and grandchildren.  For a while they lived in an apartment adjacent to their daughter’s apartment but after some time the owner of the property asked them to leave so he could sell it.

They did not have the funds to buy an apartment and they wanted to rent an apartment in Har Nof.  As they looked for a suitable apartment, a wealthy person offered to rent his apartment to them for an unlimited amount of time.  “You have nothing to worry about.  I am not going to sell it in the near future.”

Not long afterward, they were surprised to be told that the owner wanted to sell the property and they had to look for something else, “But if you are interested, you have the first option to buy.” 

Their disappointment, and having to deal with looking for yet another apartment, made the couple feel helpless and they nearly decided to return to the United States.  They felt that whatever was required to become owners of the apartment would be a tremendous hardship at their age.  How would they manage?

Rav Stilerman declined to go into detail, but with a huge smile related that the Ribbono Shel Olam orchestrated it so that the Rebbe’s bracha was magnificently fulfilled, and he and his wife merited to become owners of a “house filled with every good thing that they did not fill… [complete with] olive trees that they did not plant ….”

“My wife and I never dreamed we would live in such an exclusive apartment.  It was obviously Divine Providence that led us to live in such a house.”

THE ALIYAH

Three months ago, on a Friday, the 15th of Av, Erev Shabbos Parshas VaEschanan, in the afternoon.  Shabbos was approaching.  The last stores were closing. R’ Nochum was leaving after a visit to the clinic on Shaulzon Street and his wife called and asked him to pick up a few items at the store near the clinic.  A person who identified himself as an English speaker went over to him and begged him to take the brochure, Living Jewish, published by Chabad of the Cardo in Yerushalayim.  He said, “I have some left and want to go home.”

Hurrying home, R’ Nochum looked through the booklet.  As he scanned the different columns he started walking more slowly.  One of the stories was familiar to him from somewhere.  He suddenly remembered.  It was the story he had read in Talks and Tales in English sixty years earlier, about the Rebbe Rayatz and his father, the Rebbe Rashab.  He also remembered all the details of the events that occurred with the Rebbe as a result of the story.  When he arrived home, he couldn’t wait to tell his wife.

Shabbos came in as he was still digesting the powerful feelings stirred by the hashgacha pratis that conjured up his treasured memories. The next day, like every Shabbos morning, he went to daven in the beis medrash of the Bostoner Rebbe which is near his house. 

The people who daven at the Bostoner shul know that whoever wants an aliya, for any reason, has to ask the gabbai ahead of time because the aliyos are usually taken up by those who have an obligation and baalei simcha.  This is why R’ Nochum was surprised to hear the gabbai call him up, “Yaamod Rav Nochum ben ha’Rav Yisroel, shishi …” for no apparent reason.

He approached the bima, said the bracha on the Torah, and then the baal koreh began reading from the Torah.  “I don’t know how to explain it but suddenly, I heard the Rebbe’s voice reading these two verses, ‘And it will be, when Hashem your G-d brings you to the land that he promised to your ancestors, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, to give to you big and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of everything good that you did not fill, dug out wells that you did not dig, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant and you will eat and be satisfied.’

“My knees knocked together and I caught my breath.  I shivered and could not get over it.  I was standing in front of the Torah in shul in Yerushalayim on Shabbos Parshas VaEschanan 5776 and I was reliving the moments when I heard the Rebbe quote these two verses, over sixty years earlier!

“I could barely say the bracha when the reading was finished.”  People did not know why R’ Nochum looked so shaken.  They quickly sat him down and brought him a cup of water.  A short while later he went home without telling anyone what happened during the aliya.

***

We sat in his magnificent living room, contemplating his home that is full of beautiful things, some of which he did not buy.  While we were still thinking how amazing all this was, he invited us out to his balcony and showed us the fruit trees – olives, lemons and pomegranates.  All this came ready-made for him with the penthouse that he got as a gift from Hashem.

“Build a palace up above in heaven,” said the Rebbe to a fourteen-year-old boy over sixty years ago, “and the Master of the Universe will give you a gift down below.”

A prophecy? Ruach Ha’kodesh? It was certainly a bracha fulfilled.  Tzaddik gozer – a Tzaddik decrees – v’Hashem mekayem – and Hashem fulfills the decree!!

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