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Wednesday
Aug082018

LOYAL CHASSID AND PARAGON OF CHESED

He was born and raised in an atmosphere of perpetual fear and yet his life was suffused with mesirus nefesh to observe mitzvos. * The Rebbe prophetically revealed his rescue from Soviet Russia even before he himself knew! * In Eretz Yisroel he was a model and symbol of chesed and giving, along with being a shliach of the Rebbe at his place of work and with the mivtzaim that he did for years. * A biographical sketch of the life of the recently departed R’ Yonah Lebenhartz a”h.

 

LEFT: R’ Yonah (left) on a special visit to the mayor of New York, Abe Beame
RIGHT: Chassidim from Russia on Chol HaMoed at the Kosel. From right to left: R’ Elimelech Lebenhartz, R’ Moshe Lebenhartz, R’ Yonah Lebenhartz, R’ Mordechai Gorodetzky, R’ Moshe Goldschmid, R’ Katshuli, R’ Simcha Gorodetzky, child – Eli Katshuli, [R’ Yechezkel Cohen].
WE WERE USED TO FEAR

R’ Yonah Lebenhartz a”h was born in Moscow in 5691/1931 to his parents, R’ Avrohom Shmuel and Mrs. Etka Lebenhartz. Despite the persecution at the hands of the communists, his parents raised him to observe Torah and mitzvos in the ways of Chassidus with mesirus nefesh. The parents themselves were models of mesirus nefesh, as their home was open to Chassidim who came to Moscow. From time to time, there were even Chassidishe farbrengens. This was despite the fact that their home was close to the headquarters of the secret police in Moscow known as Lubyanka.

The persecution by the communists is what caused the parents and children to leave Russia for Eretz Yisroel. For a few years, they lived in Tel Aviv but for various reasons, they returned to Russia and settled in Moscow again.

After the Germans invaded Russia during World War II, the family fled and arrived in Samarkand where they suffered from poverty. At a certain point, they obtained a textile machine which helped a bit with supporting the family. The older boys, Zalman and Yosef, who were still young, ran the small factory in their home.

One day, R’ Mendel Futerfas showed up at their home along with another distinguished Chassid. They demanded that the children learn in Tomchei T’mimim which had secretly been founded in Samarkand. The parents explained that if the children did not work, they would have no earnings. In the end, they compromised and let Yonah, the third son, go and learn, while R’ Mendel and his friend made up the loss.

Eventually, the younger boys, Moshe and Elimelech, attended Tomchei T’mimim in Samarkand while Zalman and Yosef remained at the machine.

R’ Yonah, who was a little boy at the time, later told about the fear they felt as they learned:

“We knew that if we were caught, our parents would be sent to jail and we would be placed in an orphanage where they would re-educate us. We were constantly on the alert. If I saw someone on the street who looked suspicious, I would cross to the other side. Today, it is impossible to understand, but that was the atmosphere we grew up in. We were always on guard. We got used to fear. We got up in the morning, washed our hands and were afraid.

“The fear wasn’t baseless. One time, policemen came to the room I learned in. My friends had escaped every which way and it was my job to put the s’farim in a hidden place. I started running with the s’farim and the policemen chased me. It was enormously frightening but thank G-d I managed to get away in one of the alleys. After that, the class moved to another hiding place.

“Every time we suspected they were after us, we changed the location of where we learned. Sometimes we would sleep there at night so we wouldn’t be seen coming and going. We did all we could not to get caught.”

AVOIDING WORK ON SHABBOS

At the end of World War II, the family wanted to leave with the wave of Chassidim escaping via Lvov, but they missed the opportunity and the gates closed. At that point, they moved to Chernovitz where they did all they could to work while observing Shabbos and their Chassidic way of life. As R’ Yonah related:

“Zalman worked in one factory and my brother Yosef and I worked somewhere else. The factories were small and only 10-15 people worked in them. We worked a 12-hour day shift one day a week and a 12-hour night shift the following week. These factories belonged to the government, and we had a local manager whose job it was to supervise the work and ensure that the output would meet the assigned quota. In order to meet our quota, we could work at a regular pace without putting in too many hours, but the financial situation was such that people had to find an additional source of income in order to subsist even minimally. We had to work many hours at tiring, physical labor, but there was no choice. Most of the merchandise was not reported to the authorities and was sold on the black market. That extra income was more than the regular income.

“In the places we worked there were Jewish managers and we were able to come to an agreement with them that we would work on Motzaei Shabbos or Sunday instead of Shabbos, even though on the government work reports it said we had showed up at work on Shabbos. We tried to be professional and loyal workers out of the desire to get the managers to accommodate our special needs. There were also times when the demand for merchandise was weak and we could take some days off. Of course, we chose Shabbos.

“The demand went down at the start of 5713 since the government began supplying a lot of cheap merchandise and we had to find other places to work where we could make a living and keep Shabbos.

“Some of the small factories moved to distant places like Georgia, Latvia, and Kyrgyzstan. I went to Sukhumi in Georgia. It was Erev Pesach when I found out that there was a secret minyan at a local chacham’s home. When I went there, the chacham wanted to check me out and started talking to me in Yiddish. He asked me where I was from and I told him, from Nevel. He responded with, ‘Haleluhu B’Nevel’ [which is what the Mitteler Rebbe said about Chassidim from Nevel]. The chacham brought me into his home and revealed that he was a cousin of Rabbi Yehuda Kulasher [a distinguished Tamim].

“In Sukhumi, I made friends with Jews who had a connection with Lubavitch, and I was able to work there while observing Shabbos. After about two peaceful years, the owner told me that the Communist party had asked him why he had a Shabbos observant worker. I told him firmly I would not desecrate the Shabbos. In the end, we agreed I would go to the factory but would not work.”

While R’ Yonah worked in Sukhumi, he was made a good shidduch offer. When he received a bracha from the Rebbe, he became engaged to Devorah Gorodetzky (daughter of R’ Simcha). The wedding took place in Tashkent with many Chassidim who lived there in attendance. After the wedding, the young couple lived in Sukhumi for a short while.

They then settled in Tashkent and became part of the Chabad community that secretly maintained a flourishing Chassidic life.

THANKS TO LISTENING TO THE REBBE

After many years of oppression by the communists, the oldest Lebenhartz brother, R’ Zalman, was able to leave Russia with his family in 5717 for Eretz Yisroel. For the family, this was the first crack in the door to salvation.

The family that remained behind the Iron Curtain began sending letters to the Rebbe via the brother in Eretz Yisroel, and they asked for a bracha to leave Russia. As R’ Yonah related:

“At first, we made up that only our parents should ask to leave, and later the rest of the family, for the purpose of increasing the chances of being a granted a visa, but the answer from the Rebbe was to ask for visas for all the families at once. According to the normal way of doing things, this was most surprising, but if the Rebbe instructed, that’s what would be done.

“After we got visas for Eretz Yisroel, we all arrived at the OVIR Russian emigration office and asked for exit visas. What we feared came to pass. The clerk said, ‘You have only one brother there and you all want to go? If you want to reunite, let him come here …’ Of course, we were denied visas a short while later.

“We asked the Rebbe again about asking for exit visas just for our parents or part of the family, but again the Rebbe said to submit a request for all of us. In the end, everyone got exit visas and we arrived in Eretz Yisroel.”

THE CHILDREN ARE COMING!

The amazing miracle connected with R’ Yonah’s leaving Russia was told by a friend of the family, R’ Benzion Vishedsky:

“One Friday afternoon, at the end of Tammuz 5726/1966, I went with my father, the mashpia R’ Moshe, to Assaf HaRofeh Medical Center in order to visit our mechutan R’ Simcha Gorodetzky who was hospitalized. When we entered the room, we were surprised by his elevated mood, something which was not the norm at the time because of concern for his family who suffered behind the Iron Curtain. His son R’ Mordechai and daughter Devorah (wife of R’ Yonah) were still in Russia.

“R’ Simcha did not wait but immediately joyfully told us, ‘The children are coming!’ My father sat down next to him and expected to hear how he knew this extraordinary news. R’ Simcha said, ‘This morning I got a letter from the Rebbe dated 3 Tammuz. At the end of the letter, the Rebbe wrote in his handwriting: For a speedy and complete recovery. In the margin he added: I just received your letter of 4 Tammuz and the pa”n that followed – it is most surprising that he writes that he is not worthy (ch”v) and is not answered etc. And yet your offspring and their households have received exit visas from there and could there be a better answer than this?!

“R Simcha said, ‘Nu, we have the most reliable information that the children are coming …’

“My father returned home and excitedly told my mother the astonishing news that the Rebbe announced that our sister and her family were soon coming to Eretz Yisroel.

“The style of this letter is rare; few are the occasions that the Rebbe testified about himself, in such a conclusive way, that he actively works to break the boundaries of nature. And in this letter, the Rebbe writes to R’ Simcha clearly that ‘my answer to your letter is receipt of exit visas for your progeny and could there be a better answer than this?’

“Two months later, the children left Russia with their families, our sister Devorah with her husband R’ Mordechai Gorodetzky and Devorah with her husband, Yonah Lebenhartz. They arrived on Hoshana Raba 5727.

“Then another amazing thing was discovered. When the two brothers-in-law were asked when they received their exit visas, it turned out that they received them the day after Tisha B’Av, two weeks after R’ Simcha got the letter from the Rebbe! R’ Simcha knew before they did, through the Rebbe, about the exit visas! Aside from the clerks in the emigration office, nobody knew about the exit visas. The Rebbe simply conveyed regards from heaven to R’ Simcha!”

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel, R’ Yonah and his family settled in Kfar Chabad.

A year later, he traveled to the Rebbe with a group of Chassidim who had emigrated from Russia at that time. During their visit, those who had left Russia were given special treatment by the Rebbe, like being able to stand near him during the shofar blowing.

THE REBBE’S FACTORY

After establishing the Nachalat Har Chabad neighborhood in Kiryat Malachi, where many Chassidim from Russia lived in the early years, the Rebbe also concerned himself with seeing to their livelihoods. The Rebbe encouraged the founding of the Golgo-Tex factory for textiles, in order to provide parnasa for the people who lived there.

R’ Yonah was one of the founders of the factory and one of the managers together with his brother Zalman, his brother-in-law R’ Mordechai Gorodetzky, and R’ Moshe Goldschmid. The Rebbe gave many brachos for this factory as well as monetary aid and help in obtaining large orders.

One can get a glimpse into the way of life of a manager of a Chassidic factory from a film that was made by the public broadcasting network that documented a day in the life of R’ Yonah. The camera follows him throughout the day and documents the day of a Chassid who lives in a modest apartment, eats a simple breakfast and hitches rides until he gets from Kfar Chabad to the factory. He makes his way there while saying T’hillim, and when he arrives, he runs the place with traditional Chassidic warmth and without a computer or any modern aids. These images that were broadcast made a Kiddush Hashem and a Kiddush Sheim Lubavitch.

His son, R’ Shmulik, told Beis Moshiach:

“It’s only natural for an older manager of a factory to bring in his sons to work alongside him so eventually they can take over, but my father felt that he was carrying out the Rebbe’s shlichus in Golgo-Tex and that it wasn’t a tool for self-advancement. That is why he did not bring us in to work with him.”

GEMACH YONAH

One of the activities that best characterizes R’ Yonah was the gemach that he started and ran very devotedly for many years. He was busy day and night giving loans to Chassidim whom he knew from near and far, to the point that sometimes, it seemed as though it was his livelihood. R’ Yonah did it all with a friendly face, simplicity and modesty with encouraging words, so the recipient did not feel any shame whatsoever in taking a loan. Every resident of Kfar Chabad who knew him, knew that this is the way it was.

R’ Shmulik told us about the chesed that was imprinted in his father’s very DNA:

“My father was in the business of giving loans; he did it and enjoyed it. He had antenna with which to detect who needed a loan and whom he could help in other ways, such as a gift of blankets from the Golgo-Tex factory. He always kept large amounts of money in his pocket, so he could lend it immediately in case of need. There are people whom I have no idea how they knew him, but they got a loan from him along with encouraging words.

“One morning, I noticed an especially joyous look on his face. To my surprise, he told me that he had worked hard to obtain 100,000 shekels which he needed to return that evening. Just then, a man came who asked for a loan for a large amount of money with the promise that he would return it that evening. ‘I gave him the amount that I had, and I merited yet another mitzva,’ he said to me. The truth is that I had a hard time with this and Ia expressed my concern about the possibility of the loan not being repaid that evening. My father did not react. He was just very pleased by the z’chus to do another mitzva.”

R’ Yonah also donated nice sums of money, with all his acts of tz’daka and chesed being done quietly.

Another project he was very involved with was partnering with the Chassid R’ Zushe Wilyamowsky, the Partisan, in arranging Moshiach seudos around the country.


“Together with some friends in Kfar Chabad, we would come up with a nice donation for this purpose,” he once told me (author of this article). R’ Yonah chuckled when he said, “One time, R’ Zushe said to me, ‘Now I need to ask you and you are doing me a favor, but really you ought to beg me to take your money so that in the future time too, you will merit to give.’”

Aside from his private gemach, he was very involved with the Rebbe’s mivtzaim. Even when he was older, you could see him standing at the t’fillin stand at the airport and with youthful vigor putting t’fillin on passersby, while offering encouraging words.

***

In recent years, his health deteriorated, and he passed away on 28 Adar. He is survived by his wife Devorah, and his children, R’ Yosef Yitzchok, R’ Sholom, and R’ Shmulik of Kfar Chabad; R’ Mordechai – shliach in Kiev. Mrs. Fruma Lipsker of Petach Tikva, Mrs. Chana Vogel of London, Mrs. Dini Heber of Crown Heights, and Mrs. Begun of Brazil.

MESIRUS NEFESH FOR T’FILLIN

R’ Yonah told this story which illustrates his mesirus nefesh for mitzvos:

I became engaged while working in Sukhumi in Georgia. The vort took place in Tashkent, where the kalla was from. I planned on traveling by train to the city of Sochi, and from there to take a flight to Tashkent.

When I got to the airport, I began to laook for an opportunity to put on t’fillin. Due to the lengthy train ride, I had not yet put on t’fillin, and I had a six-hour flight ahead of me. I knew that by the time that I got to Tashkent it would already be night. The hour was late and the flight was going to leave relatively soon, and there was no possibility of my leaving the airport in order to find a place to put on t’fillin.

After many exertions, I managed to get permission to daven in a side storage unit that belonged to the airport. I was standing and davening, and suddenly there was loud knocking on the door. In the doorway was a high-ranking police officer. He took me to the police offices on the second floor, where I was led directly to an investigator who began a barrage of questions about the nature of my trip.

I told him that I was traveling in connection with my job. He placed a call to Sukhumi, and they told him that in fact I did work in the factory. Now he demanded to know about the objects that I had tied on my body, but my answers did not satisfy him. The detective wanted to open the t’fillin, and I understood that if I didn’t protect them, the t’fillin would be defiled.

I began to scream at him, “I will not allow you to open them. You are not Jewish, and you have no right to do this.” This was a very dangerous tactic, but I had no choice. I continued to scream, “If you don’t believe me, find an older Jew and ask him.”

In the face of my assertiveness, the investigator backed down, and he actually went looking for and found an older Jewish woman, who reacted with surprise, “Such a young Jew and he prays?”

Thanks to that I was allowed to go on my way, and I arrived peacefully in Tashkent to celebrate the vort.

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