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Tuesday
Jun052018

“Every neshama has a particular mitzva...

…which is the gate through which the flow from above comes down and since you have merited that…”

We were saddened to hear of the passing of Rabbi Sholom Dovber HaKohen Gutnick a”h, a senior Chabad rabbi, Av Beis Din and Rosh Yeshivas Chabad in Melbourne. He was 94. * He was a linchpin in the “Australian Revolution.” He strengthened Judaism in Australia where he had gone to live as a bachur with the blessing of the Rebbe Rayatz.

A FAMILY OF MESIRUS NEFESH

Rabbi Gutnick’s mesirus nefesh was an integral character trait of his extended family.  His father, R’ Mordechai Zev a”h, was a prime example of this trait.  R’ Sholom Dovber did not know his father well since his father passed away at a young age and his children, Rabbi Shneur Chaim a”h and Rabbi Sholom Dovber were young children at the time of his passing.  Yet, the father’s influence was quite apparent in his children.

R’ Mordechai Zev was born in 5657 (1897) in Priaslav to a longtime Chassidishe family.  His grandfather, R’ Avrohom, was a Chassid of the Tzemach Tzedek.

In his youth, R’ Mordechai Zev learned in Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch and was shown special attention by the Rebbe Rashab, the founder of the yeshiva.  The acting dean of the yeshiva, the Rebbe Rayatz, wrote in a letter about R’ Mordechai Zev that he received a “good chinuch” to Torah and service of the heart.

In 5699 (1939), when one of R’ Mordechai Zev’s sons visited Otvotzk, the Rebbe Rayatz told him, “When your father was 18 he was already proficient in Shas and Poskim.”

R’ Mordechai Zev was one of the first shluchim of the Rebbe Rashab. He was sent to the Caucasian Mountains in 5674 (1914) in order to rejuvenate the state of Judaism of the Jews living there.  R’ Mordechai Zev was beloved there and several years later, after he married, the community requested that he be appointed their rav.

In 5681 (1921) R’ Mordechai married Chaya Basya a”h, the daughter of R’ Avrohom Braverman, who was wealthy and had a large family.  They settled in Tarashtza, near Kiev. 

The Rebbe Rayatz asked him to serve as rav in Tiflis in Georgia.  R’ Mordechai accepted the position but was never actually able to move there.

The situation in those days and the persecution of R’ Mordechai by the secret police after he had helped build a mikva oppressed his spirit.  He was warned by a friend who had connections with the police to leave Russia.  He was also very concerned about the chinuch and safety of his children in Russia. 

With the help of the great Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld a”h (1848-1932), rav in Yerushalayim, he was able to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel. The Gutnick family settled in Chevron and then moved to Tel Aviv.  The Rebbe Rayatz was pained over his leaving Russia and wrote, “His absence here is obviously apparent.”

A CHASSIDIC HOME IN LONDON

Rabbi Sholom Dovber was born in 5684 (1924) when the family still lived in Tarashtza. 

R’ Sholom Dovber was only three years old when they left Russia for Eretz Yisroel and from there they moved to London.  When he was seven years old, his father R’ Mordechai Zev passed away in London on Yud Tes Kislev. Their mother remarried Rav Asher Abramson, a distinguished and learned rabbi in London who served as a dayan.

Rabbi Abramson was one of the great Chabad Chassidim and when the Rebbe Rayatz lived in Otvotzk, Rabbi Abramson went to see him for the holidays.

R’ Gutnick remembered that as a young boy his father, R’ Mordechai Zev, began spiritually awakening the Jews of London.  They were the first to encourage others to do Mivtza Matza and keep Family Purity in London and they inspired people to observe Shabbos, long before these became popular campaigns.

The Gutnick home, even after the passing of their great father, was a meeting place for the wise, and the Torah greats in London would come and go from their home.  R’ Gutnick recalled the rabbanim and rosh yeshivos who frequented their house in those days such as the famed Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky – Senior Dayan of the London Beth Din, Rabbi Nachman Shlomo Greenspan – Rosh Yeshiva Eitz Chaim Yeshiva London, Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson – the Zhlobiner Rav, Rabbi Yitzhak Dubov and others. 

“Hosting people was so routine at our house that the key was on the outside, in the mailbox, and people opened the door themselves and walked in.” 

R’ Sholom Dovber also remembered the inspiring musar lessons he heard in yeshiva in London on Fridays from the famous rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian z”l.  “I would cry each time,” said R’ Gutnick.

R’ Gutnick related that R’ Lopian, one of the great baalei musar, had a connection to Chabad and would often refer to Tanya in his musar talks.

“Every Motzaei Shabbos we would have Melaveh Malka with Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson.  R’ Eliyahu Lopian would occasionally come to these farbrengens.  Those were very special times when all groups got along,” said R’ Gutnick wistfully.

One of the moving encounters that R’ Gutnick remembered from his youth in London was with the famous Chassid, R’ Yitzchok Horowitz, known as R’ Itche the Masmid (may Hashem avenge his blood), who would visit London on his travels as a fundraiser. 

“R’ Itche was known to be very stringent in all matters of kashrus and would not eat if he did not know for certain that the food in question met his kashrus requirements.  He stayed at a hotel in London and agreed to eat only from the food that my mother prepared.  I would bring him the food to his hotel room.  I remember that he patted my cheek in a fatherly way.”

R’ Gutnick also remembered Rabbi Ben-Tzion Shemtov from the years when he lived in London, between 1945 and 1948. 

“One day, R’ Shemtov attended a Gemara class that I was giving and asked questions.  Then he asked that I give classes in all the shuls.  I think this request came from the Rebbe Rayatz.”

DILIGENCE

It is hard to describe R’ Sholom Dovber’s enormous diligence in his Torah studies in his youth when he learned in yeshivas Eitz Chaim in London, as he simultaneously began to give Torah classes.  In 1946 he went to learn in yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Montreux, Switzerland.  There, at the request of Rabbi Batchko, he began giving classes in Gemara.

It was at this time that he received a letter from the Rebbe Rayatz.  It was 3 Av 1946 and the letter said: I was pleased to hear that you are learning in yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Montreux and Hashem should strengthen your health and you should be diligent and succeed in your learning and inform me of your learning and conduct.

On 16 Elul of that same year, R’ Gutnick received another letter from the Rebbe Rayatz, in which the Rebbe calls him, “the distinguished talmid Mr. Sholom Dovber.” The Rebbe Rayatz wrote: The main benefit in Torah study is to know how to act according to Hashem’s wishes, and not for the cleverness and the rationalizations of leniencies.  Be wary of those scholars whose entire study is in order to find leniencies and permissiveness by way of various and bizarre rationalizations.

The Rebbe goes on to say: I was happy to hear that you are learning Tanya and surely you also learn Chassidus from time to time and Hashem should strengthen and fortify you materially and spiritually and may you be G-d fearing, a Chassid, and a scholar.

A terrible tragedy took place during that period in Montreux, when Rabbi Batchko’s son-in-law was killed by a train.  It was R’ Sholom Dovber who continued to maintain the yeshiva and he continued to give classes in Gemara and even served as the main lecturer.

After about a year, R’ Gutnick decided to return to London where he continued spreading Torah and was also appointed as rav of the Chevra Shas Shul in London’s East End.

From a letter that R’ Gutnick wrote on Erev Shabbos HaGadol 1948 to the Rebbe Rayatz, we get a glimpse of his work in London to spread Torah. 

For Pesach 1947 I returned home (to London) from Montreux, Switzerland, and continued learning in yeshivas Eitz Chaim here.  In the summer of that year I was given ordination to serve as a ruler of halachic decisions and as a judge from the roshei yeshivas Eitz Chaim and also from Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Rabinov, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, Rabbi Nachman Greenspan, and our friend Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson. 

“In Kislev I was appointed rav of the Chevra Shas congregation in London.  Every evening I give a class in Gemara and on Shabbos I speak of timely subjects.  Every Shabbos I give a Gemara class in English to the young working men, who previously learned in yeshivos.  Nearly every day I am in yeshiva.  I request the Rebbe’s holy blessing that Hashem grant me merit in the study of Torah and fear of heaven, to learn and teach, to observe and do. May Hashem send me a good shidduch and to settle down to a good life, true good.”

“I PICTURED HOW YOU LOOK”

At the end of 5708 (1948), R’ Gutnick had his first yechidus with the Rebbe Rayatz, along with his mother.  Rabbi Asher Abramson, who was already married to his mother, had gone to Australia a few months earlier to accept a rabbinic position there.  After he received the Rebbe’s bracha, he settled in Sydney where he worked to strengthen religious observance.

When R’ Gutnick recalled the special yechidus he had with the Rebbe Rayatz, he was visibly moved.  This was right before they went to Australia, as on their way there they traveled via New York in order to meet with the Rebbe for the first time.  Among the things R’ Gutnick remembered from that yechidus is that the Rebbe told them in connection with their role in spreading Judaism that “to be moistened so as to moisten others” means to reach a state where even the people whom you influence can also, in turn, influence others to Torah and mitzvos. 

On a personal note, the Rebbe Rayatz said to R’ Sholom Dovber, “From the letters you wrote to me I pictured how you look.”

In New York they were hosted by their cousin, R’ Mordechai Teleshevsky.  R’ Gutnick then traveled to Australia with his mother.  When they arrived in Australia, R’ Gutnick went right to work together with R’ Abramson in strengthening the Torah classes and Judaism there.  In reports that R’ Abramson wrote to the Rebbe Rayatz, we find that he tells of the shiurim that R’ Gutnick gave to young people and how he was mekarev them to Torah.

In a report from the first day of Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5749, he wrote to the Rebbe about “the shiur that R’ Sholom gives every Thursday in English to young people who do not understand Yiddish, and we hope that the light-source within will uncover the holy spark within each one of them.” 

In a report of 27 Iyar 5749 he notes, “Bachurim who put on tefillin, two lawyers, a doctor and others attend Sholom Ber’s shiurim.  He speaks in English and his two shiurim have gotten positive publicity, boruch Hashem.”

HEADING THE YESHIVA IN MELBOURNE

R’ Gutnick married Devorah Feiglin on 23 Adar 1952.  The Feiglin family had settled in Australia many years earlier and were the nucleus of Chabad in Shepparton.  Her parents’ home was suffused with Torah, fear of heaven and hiskashrus to the Rebbeim.

By this time, the Rebbe MH”M had taken over the Chabad leadership and in an atypical letter that the Rebbe wrote to him in honor of his wedding; he explained the topic of marital witnesses according to Chassidus and Nigleh.

The home of R’ Sholom Dovber and his wife soon became a house where Torah and Judaism were taught.  In their home there were classes in Chassidus and a cheder for children.  Australia, so far from being a place of Torah, was beginning to become just such a place.

Within two months of his marriage, the nucleus of Anash in Australia met for an emergency meeting in order to see what could be done to get things moving and to start a yeshiva.  One of the resolutions agreed upon unanimously was the appointment of Rabbi Gutnick as rosh yeshiva.

The Chabad yeshiva in Australia was in many locations over the years.  It began in Shepparton with the efforts of R’ Moshe Zalman Feiglin, R’ Gutnick’s grandfather.  Then it moved to Burwood, a suburb on the edge of Melbourne.  Later, the yeshiva moved to the heart of Melbourne.

From a rare document, we discover that on 7 Nissan 1952, a few weeks after R’ Gutnick’s wedding, a letter was written to the Rebbe about the decision to appoint R’ Gutnick as rosh yeshiva. 

“All of Anash gathered, led by Rav Abramson, and the meeting was about the yeshiva.  To our sorrow, we see that throughout this time, whether when the yeshiva was in Shepparton or afterwards in Melbourne, it has been unable to attract local boys who were born in Australia.  We sought the reasons for this and how to rectify the situation.

“It was suggested that we find someone who has the ability to attract young boys who were born here.  Perhaps Hashem will have mercy and through him we will be able to attract those who haven’t been attracted until now.  We all agreed that the man for this job is the dynamic and ordained Rabbi Sholom Dov Gutnick of Sydney who, since he married, is living in Melbourne.  He agrees to this.  It’s just that both sides want to know the Rebbe’s holy opinion and we ask for guidance towards the true path and as the Rebbe instructs, we will do.”

The entire Chabad nucleus in Australia participated in the meeting: Rabbi Asher Abramson, Rabbi Betzalel Wilschansky, Rabbi Nachum Zalman Gurewitz, Rabbi Shmuel Betzalel Althaus, Rabbi Zalman Serebryanski, Rabbi Abba Pliskin, and Rabbi Isser Kluwgant.

From the Rebbe’s answer one can see how the appointment of R’ Gutnick was seen by the Rebbe as most necessary and suitable.  In a letter of 27 Nissan 1952, the Rebbe accepts the appointment and writes to R’ Gutnick:

You surely know that the hanhala of the yeshiva which, along with all its good qualities, according to the letters that I receive from them, sees the need to take on a rosh mesivta and rosh yeshiva who is proficient in the language of the land and its ways who can, in this way, attract Australian youth.  I agree with them.

The Rebbe notes that since this is the first yeshiva in Australia and it is named for the Rebbe Rayatz, it needs to serve as a model and symbol of his spirit, ambition and demands in regard to education.  Then the Rebbe adds superlative blessings:

So, as mentioned, I approve of the suggestion that he enter into the position of rosh mesivta and rosh yeshiva in the yeshiva, and perhaps even more than that… May Hashem give him the privilege of planting in the hearts of Jewish boy and girls in Australia this feeling of love for Hashem, love for Torah, and love for Jews, as they are explained and illuminated in the teachings of Chassidus of our holy leaders.

AN INSTRUCTION FROM THE REBBE ABOUT RUNNING THE YESHIVA

R’ Gutnick received letters from the Rebbe regularly with detailed instructions about his holy work in the yeshiva, as well as much encouragement that he merit to take this role upon himself despite the difficulties.  In a letter of 1 Sivan 5712 the Rebbe wrote to him:

Without a doubt you will be successful in increasing the number of students and afterwards also in increasing their quality.

In that same letter the Rebbe encourages him not to be despondent and promises him success in fulfilling his role:

As experience until now has shown…with the proper energy and with the appropriate persistence, Anash has ultimately always succeeded in founding their own schools and in the number of students that continues to grow.  There should be no weakening and despondency because of hardships and concealments.  And based on that – my hope is strong that if they conduct themselves now too, in this place, with the strength referred to before, without a doubt they will succeed in increasing the number of students and then in increasing their quality.

The Rebbe adds that he should accept the position of rosh yeshiva of Oholei Yosef Yitzchok also “for your own personal benefit.”

When R’ Gutnick complained to the Rebbe that he was dissatisfied by the level of the students the year he took the position, the Rebbe quoted the statement of Chazal, “One thousand enter to study scripture and one goes out to horaa (i.e., a rabbi qualified to render halachic decisions).” 

In a letter of 7 Adar 5713 the Rebbe wrote: Every neshama has a particular mitzva which is the gate through which the flow from Above comes down.  And since you have merited that your mitzva is within the tent of Torah and in an institution which was founded in the spirit of and the name of the Rebbe, my father-in-law, therefore every request and p”n is connected with his work in this institution.

Over the years, as the yeshiva grew, R’ Gutnick was very involved in buying a new and spacious property.  He was the one who located the property in which the yeshiva is situated today, on Hotham Street, and convinced the owners, the Leber family, who davened in the shul where R’ Gutnick had been appointed rav, to sell the large property to the yeshiva.  A number of years later, he also found a place for the Yeshiva G’dola.  He put in much effort to build a spacious building and enlisted men of means to do so.

DIVINE PROVIDENCE IN MIVTZA TEFILLIN

In addition to his work at the yeshiva, with the Rebbe’s bracha R’ Gutnick was appointed, in 1952, as Rabbi of Caulfield Shul, a haven for European Jewry after the war, and he together with his Rebbetzin were instrumental in establishing and growing what would become the largest Shul in Australia. The Shul was later renamed ‘Ahavas Sholom’ in honor of their beloved Rabbi. The Rebbe agreed to his accepting the rabbinic appointment on condition that it would not interfere with his teaching at the Yeshiva.

Rabbi Gutnick served there as Rabbi for over 43 years, nurturing and growing one of the largest Shul memberships in Australia, with over 2000 members attending on Jewish holydays. He was instrumental in establishing an afterschool cheder at his shul for children attending public schools, as well as youth clubs and Sunday morning T’fillin clubs. He celebrated at thousands of Jewish lifecycle events for members of the Australian Jewish Community. 

In 1953, he was appointed as a Dayan and later as Av Beis Din of the Melbourne Beis Din, where he served for almost 50 years. While serving at this post he corresponded with many great Rabbis and G’dolei Yisroel. The great Battei Din of Eretz Yisroel and Europe would rely solely on his approval before accepting anyone from Australia to be married overseas. He would go to great lengths to help free agunos from their awful plight of not being able to remarry, even travelling many miles and taking the Beis Din “on the road” to organize a get where the husband could not or would not travel.

There is practically no institution in Australia in which R’ Gutnick was not the first to get involved, whether he ran it, pushed for it or provided assistance.  R’ Gutnick also founded the Kollel Tiferes Z’keinim Levi Yitzchok in Melbourne after hearing the Rebbe speaking about the need for establishing Kollelim for the elderly.

Whenever the Rebbe announced a new mivtza, he would go to the yeshiva and not only urge the talmidim about the new mivtza but would set an example by personally doing the mivtza himself. For example, with Mivtza Matza, he took matzos and personally delivered them to the homes of his mekuravim. For Chanuka, he would go to the yeshiva and help the bachurim build public menorahs.

In 1969, R’ Gutnick went to the U.S. to visit the Rebbe.  Among the instructions he received from the Rebbe at that time was to travel about Europe and Eretz Yisroel and visit Chabad institutions and strengthen them. “You will be my ambassador to the countries to which I am sending you,” said the Rebbe.

Of course, he stopped off in Europe and Eretz Yisroel on his return home.  He visited many institutions and encouraged the staff to continue in their holy work.

R’ Gutnick was visiting the Rebbe when the Rebbe announced Mivtza Tefillin in 5727 (1967).  R’ Gutnick, who was devoted to the Rebbe’s inyanim, saw it as his obligation to put tefillin on with Jews.  He went to a senior citizens center in New York to put tefillin on with the residents.  Before he went, he went to a local grocery store in order to buy something to eat.  The store carried hamantashen, even though it was a few months after Purim. 

When he asked one of the residents to put on tefillin, the elderly Jew refused to do so.  After trying to convince him, the man said, “If you bring me a hamantash, I’ll put on tefillin.”  The man was apparently just joking and did not realize that this was incredible Divine Providence.  R’ Gutnick asked him to wait a moment and he dashed out to his car and brought him a hamantash and then he put t’fillin on the man. 

Afterwards, when he had a yechidus, R’ Gutnick told the Rebbe the amazing story.  The Rebbe asked him where he had purchased the hamantashen and then said that R’ Gutnick should have told the man that he would bring hamantashen every day, if he would put on tefillin every day.

The Rebbe then told R’ Gutnick another story about Mivtza Tefillin, about a father who did not want to prepare his son for his bar mitzva.  One day his wife saw that her husband had completely changed and she wondered what had happened.  She found out he had put on tefillin in the course of Mivtza Tefillin and continued to put tefillin on regularly.

The woman located the person who had put on tefillin with her husband and who had brought about such a change in him. Her husband became a baal teshuva, changing his entire way of life.

The Rebbe constantly urged R’ Gutnick to continue his rabbinic work and his teaching in the yeshiva.  One time, the Rebbe said that it wasn’t possible that his father, R’ Mordechai Zev, was a talented speaker while his children did not possess the same talent.  The Rebbe thus urged R’ Gutnick to speak publicly as much as possible.  R’ Gutnick used his oratorical skills to spread Judaism among all types of Jews.

Rabbi Shmuel Butman related an interesting story at a farbrengen in 770, in the presence of R’ Gutnick.  At one of the farbrengens, between sichos, the Rebbe turned to R’ Gutnick and said with a smile, “Shalom, ha’kol shalom,” which was a phrase said by the kohanim before the gates of the Mikdash were opened in the morning.

Rabbi Gutnick passed away a month ago, on Wednesday, 25 Iyar. He is survived by his children: R’ Mordechai of Melbourne; R’ Meir of Crown Heights; R’ Moshe of Los Angeles; R’ Yosef of Melbourne, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

CHABAD EMPIRE IN AUSTRALIA

In an interview with Beis Moshiach 10 years ago, when Shai Gefen asked R’ Gutnick to encapsulate the revolution in Australia over the more than half a century he lived there, he said:

“When we came to Australia, the place was a spiritual desert, ‘A barren land that was not sown.’  Australia was a country where the ‘no’ was deeply rooted – no to Torah, no to mitzvos, no to yeshiva, no to everything that had anything to do with Judaism.  There were Jews who immigrated to Australia for the sole purpose of distancing themselves as far as possible from a Jewish life.

“With the Rebbe’s great strength we built everything from the ground up.  We came to Australia when there was nothing.  Boruch Hashem, shluchim came and the entire state of Judaism changed.  Rabbi Abramson worked step by step in order to rectify matters and he did this together with the other Chabad rabbanim and the shluchim.

“Brick by brick, the Chabad empire in Australia was built and we have reached a point where Jewish life here is just amazing.  What happened here in Australia is a tangible illustration of the expression, ‘l’chat’chilla aribber.’  According to all logic, nothing should have been able to be accomplished, but with the strength of the Rebbe Rayatz and the Rebbe, Australia has become an empire of Judaism.”

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