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Tuesday
Jan222019

THE PASSING OF THE REBBETZIN O.B.M.

Rabbi Chaim Sholom Ber (Berel) Lipsker of the chevra kadisha of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in New York, tells about the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka ah on 22 Shevat 5748/1988. * About the emergency meeting in his home, about the Rebbes instructions throughout the night, about the object wrapped in paper that he got from the Rebbe and the ring that was placed near the coffin.


It was the end of Shevat 5748. Nothing foretold what would take place shortly. Those closest to Beis Rebbi knew that the Rebbetzins health had declined lately and she was very weak, but nobody thought it was life-threatening. Dr. Feldman wanted the Rebbetzin to be hospitalized but she refused. Hearing this, the Rebbe asked for a doctorsconference so a decision could be made.

The night of 21 Shevat, the doctors met in the home of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin. The Rebbetzin was in one of the rooms of the house and the Rebbe came home relatively early from 770.

After a lengthy discussion, the doctors unanimously decided that the Rebbetzin needed to be hospitalized for two weeks. Rabbi Zalman Gurary, who supervised matters concerning the Rebbetzin’s health, went to her room and told her what the doctors decided, noting that their decision was with the Rebbe’s consent.

Before she left home for the hospital, the Rebbe went to her room and spent a few minutes there. Then the Rebbetzin walked out to the waiting car. The Rebbe escorted her until she entered the car. The destination was Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. This was not viewed as an emergency and a room in a regular department was prepared for her.

When the Rebbetzin arrived, the room wasn’t ready yet and she sat down on a chair next to the room. She spoke to the people around her. She asked her aide to bring her clothing and certain items the next morning.

One of the doctors began to ask the Rebbetzin the standard admittance questions. While talking to him, she suddenly asked for a cup of water. Mrs. Esther Sternberg, who was nearby, ran to get her some water. She knew that the Rebbetzin would not be pleased that she was there because her children needed her at home, but she couldn’t allow herself to stay home at such a time and she accompanied the Rebbetzin without the Rebbetzin being aware that she was there. She therefore sent the cup of water to the Rebbetzin with the family assistant, R’ Sholom Dovber Gansbourg.

As the doctor continued asking questions, he noticed the Rebbetzin turning pale. He checked her blood pressure which was sky high. He asked the Rebbetzin, “Are you with us?” The Rebbetzin said yes. A short while later she turned pale again and once again, the doctor asked her, “Are you with us?” This time, she did not respond.

The doctors reacted swiftly. The Rebbetzin was hurriedly brought into the room and placed on the bed. She was suffering a heart attack. They spent a long time trying to resuscitate her but it was of no use. It was shortly after midnight.

Rabbi Chaim Sholom Dovber Lipsker of the chevra kadisha of Agudas Chassidei Chabad was one of the first to hear the sad news.

“When I heard the news,” he told Beis Moshiach, “I was in utter shock. Nothing prepared us for this. After the initial shock, I knew I had to act immediately. I had to set aside my feelings and start dealing with the burial process.

“I first called all the gabbaim of the chevra kadisha: R’ Tzvi Fuchs, R’ Chaim Meir Bukiet and R’ Eliyahu Nachum Sklar and invited them to an urgent meeting in my home. Within half an hour, we were all sitting together to discuss the place of burial and the arrangements for the funeral. There were several options of where to dig the grave and we needed to make a decision, whether near Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother, or near her mother, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, or near her grandmother, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah. We decided to bury her next to Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah.

“Later, we found out that when R’ Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, asked the Rebbe for instructions about the funeral and place of burial, the Rebbe said that this was within the purview of the chevra kadisha and that we should make all the decisions. Although at that point we did not know about this, it was obvious to us that we had to present our suggestion and of course, if the Rebbe decided to change it, we would follow his instructions. In fact, the Rebbe hardly got involved and he asked us to make all the decisions.”

THE REBBE ASKED: WHERE IS LIPSKER?

At 1:40 in the morning, the Rebbe went to the door of his house and asked R’ Meir Harlig whether any of the members of the chevra kadisha were present. When R’ Harlig answered that R’ Tzvi Hirsh Fuchs was there, it was apparent that he wasn’t whom the Rebbe wanted. The Rebbe asked, “Where is Lipsker?” R’ Meir didn’t know what to say.

The Rebbe asked, “When is the aron (coffin) coming?” R’ Meir said it would be some time before it arrived. The Rebbe asked, “Where is Groner? I need the tefillin, siddur and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch to know the dinim.” R’ Meir said R’ Groner was busy with the funeral arrangements. The Rebbe went back into the house and up to his room.

Half an hour later, the Rebbe went outside again, to the porch, and asked R’ Meir Harlig, “When is the aron coming?” R’ Meir said it would take more time. Again, the Rebbe asked about R’ Berel Lipsker but he hadn’t arrived yet, since he was busy with the funeral and burial arrangements.

At 5:20 in the morning, the Rebbetzin was brought from the hospital. Outside waited members of the secretariat and the chevra kadisha. There were also present a number of those who were regulars in their home and those close to the family. Those were chilling moments. The secretary entered the house and informed the Rebbe that they had brought the Rebbetzin and asked where to place her. The Rebbe said, in the kitchen.

Minutes later, the Rebbe went out, wearing a coat (his hands were out of his pockets) and he slowly descended the steps while R’ Groner went downstairs on his right, one step higher. The Rebbe held the iron gate and walked to the pavement. By then, they had taken out the stretcher from the car and those present began to go up. The Rebbe turned around and followed the stretcher, this time ascending on the right of the stairs while constantly looking at the bed. People were in shock and in pain.

Mrs. Gitlin of the chevra kadisha and Mrs. Sternberg took the Rebbetzin from the stretcher and placed her on the floor of the kitchen, near the back entrance. They laid her on small branches and wood that had been placed on the floor so she wouldn’t be directly on the ground. Her head was southward and two large yahrtzait candles were lit near her head.

These moments are engraved in R’ Lipsker’s soul and he remembers them as though they occurred yesterday, not over 30 years ago.

“After they placed the Rebbetzin in the kitchen, the Rebbe went back up to the second floor by way of the stairs near the kitchen. A few minutes later, he came down holding a bundle of bills and asked whether I was there. I immediately went over and the Rebbe gave me the money and said it was for the burial plot.

“I said to the Rebbe that the plot was already paid for, for when the Rebbe Rayatz bought the section he paid for all the family members, but the Rebbe insisted that I take the money and told me to find out how much it cost and whether the amount he gave was enough. He also told me to find out the cost of the gravestone.

“The Rebbe told me that surely they would sew the shrouds in the house. This was an unusual request for we usually bring shrouds that are already made. But obviously, if the Rebbe said so, we complied, and I called the women who prepare the shrouds and asked them to come to the Rebbe’s house to sew new shrouds there.

“The Rebbe called me over again and gave me an item in a paper wrapping. He said to place it in the aron. I did not open it, so I have no idea what was inside. When the women came to sew the shrouds, I gave them the envelope and asked them to sew it into the head covering.

“In the meantime, R’ Chesed Halberstam, who personally served the Rebbetzin, gave me a ring that Rebbetzin Sheina, may Hashem avenge her blood, gave her sister as a gift. Over the years, the Rebbetzin guarded this ring and valued it highly. R’ Chesed said the Rebbetzin wished for this ring to be buried with her.

“I remember that during the night, as I stood near the Rebbe, the Rebbe asked something. I don’t recall what the question was, but I remember that when I opened my mouth to say something, the Rebbe stopped me and said, ‘I’m not a rav and you’re not a rav!’ (This reminded me of a similar line I heard from the Rebbe two weeks before the passing of my father-in-law. I had yechidus and said something in connection with my father-in-law’s health. The Rebbe said, ‘I’m not a doctor and you’re not a doctor!’)

“The ones who had the z’chus of digging the grave were the members of the kollel. When they traveled to the cemetery, I couldn’t help but recall 6 Tishrei 5725, the date of the passing of the Rebbe’s mother. At the time, I traveled with some bachurim to dig a grave for Rebbetzin Chana. Since the cemetery is run by the union, they did not allow anyone to work there except for their workers. They met us as we were digging the grave and asked us to leave and let their workers dig, but we insisted on digging.

“They took out guns and warned us to leave immediately. I ran to a nearby public phone and called Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky. He immediately called the leaders of the union and explained the sensitivity of the matter. Only then could we continue to work.

“In 5748, the situation was completely different. Our connections with the union were excellent and there were no issues.”

THE REBBE REMAINED ALONE WITH THE ARON

7:00 in the morning. The emotionally stormy night made way for a new day.

The sound of a rising and falling siren could be heard in Crown Heights. On the door of 770 and other public places were hung official signs, “The funeral of the Tzidkanis Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, daughter of the Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch, wife – yibadel l’chaim tovim aruchim – of the Rebbe shlita of Lubavitch, will take place today, 22 Shevat at 12:00. The funeral will leave from 1304 President Street and pass by the shul and beis midrash of Lubavitch, Beis Agudas Chassidei Chabad, 770 Eastern Parkway.” The sign had a black border.

Those who were in 770 in those years will remember that the plain sign with the black border shook them all up. It was a reality that nobody had dreamed of.

The Rebbe came down to the first floor at 9:30 for Shacharis. He wore a gartel but no tallis and tefillin. The Rebbe, who did not daven with the tzibbur, held a Mishnayos and looked into it the entire time, including during the recitation of the Kaddishim. At the chazan’s repetition, he listened (as usual) from a siddur. His holy face was pale and his hands trembled slightly.

After the davening, a group of women from the chevra kadisha entered the house to do the tahara. After the tahara, the Rebbetzin’s aron was moved to the living room.

R’ Lipsker recounts, “It was time to do kria. The Rebbe asked R’ Groner that nobody be present aside from him and the members of the chevra kadisha. I actually asked them all to leave the room and only R’ Fuchs, the senior member of the chevra kadisha, remained. He began the cut and the Rebbe continued to tear. Even when R’ Fuchs said that according to halacha it was enough, the Rebbe tore a little more.

“Then everyone left the room and the Rebbe remained alone with the aron for about a minute.”

THOUSANDS AT THE FUNERAL

After the chevra kadisha lifted the aron, before leaving the house, the Rebbe asked what would be done – would the aron go first? Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Shapiro said the custom is for the aron to go first.

The funeral began at 12:10. The aron went first, followed by the Rebbe a few feet behind. The chevra kadisha held the aron the entire time, as did the gabbaim and some who were close to the family. Interestingly, during the night, the Rebbe told R’ Groner that he wanted to be one of those who carried the aron but later on, he said that since he saw a difference of opinions about this among the poskim, he decided not to carry the aron.

Twelve police motorcycles went in front of the aron. The Rebbe, walking relatively quickly, reached Kingston Avenue where he commented to R’ Groner, “We have to walk so far,” and continued walking, dragging his feet. The Rebbe was wearing a coat, his hands in the pockets, and his expression, “very closed off.” His mouth was pressed closed in a scary way and he had an exceedingly frightening expression on his face. You couldn’t look at him for more than a second.

Thousands came from all over New York and even further, to attend the funeral. The pain was unbearable and the Rebbe’s terrifying look added to the broken-heartedness of the Chassidim. Hundreds of shluchim were able to make it to the funeral from all over the country.

The Rebbe continued walking until Kingston and the corner of Eastern Parkway where it was decided that the bedlam was too much and the rabbanim paskened to continue by car. Members of the “order committee” cleared a path for the Rebbe to the car and in the meantime, the Rebbe asked where the aron was. R’ Groner pointed at the car with the chevra kadisha that was moving at the beginning of the service lane. Again, they cleared a path for the Rebbe who went over to the aron for a few moments and then entered his car. The Rebbe sat in the front and the secretaries sat in the back.

THE REBBE AT THE OHEL

When they arrived at the cemetery, the Rebbe left the car in a quick movement, took off his coat, folded and threw it into the car. The aron led the way and the Rebbe followed it. When they passed by the Ohel, the Rebbe looked at it for a moment.

R’ Eliyahu Heber of the chevra kadisha went down into the grave to arrange the aron. When they opened the bottom of the aron, as is customary, a loud thud could be heard. The Rebbe, who was standing there, trembled. His hands closed tightly and now and then one could hear a sigh of pent-up tears.

R’ Lipsker: “The Rebbe asked about the sheets with blood and said they should go into the aron. I told the Rebbe there was no room in the aron. The Rebbe said he wasn’t mixing in and that rabbanim should be asked what to do. Rabbi Marlow, Av Beis Din of Crown Heights, said that one of the poskim held that it was permissible to place the sheets next to the aron (after he paskened, some heard the Rebbe mumble something; they heard the words “piskei dinim”). I could see that the Rebbe was dissatisfied by this p’sak.

“After they put in the aron, I placed the ring next to it. The Rebbe noticed this and asked what it was. I said that the envelope that the Rebbe gave me was sewn into the shrouds and I had just put in the ring that Chesed gave me.

“I saw that after I said that the envelope he gave me was sewn into the shrouds, the Rebbe appeared pleased.

“The Rebbe also asked about the plastic over the grave of Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah and I said that a board is placed with plastic over it, on which is placed earth from the grave. When the plastic is lifted, the dirt falls into the newly dug grave.

“Throughout the burial, the Rebbe looked at the grave. When Kaddish was said, before the words ‘v’yis’hadar,’ he stopped as his voice choked, and then we could hear the sound of crying. The entire Kaddish was said in a tremulous voice and there were tears in his eyes.”

At this point, R’ Groner and others helped the Rebbe change his shoes to non-leather ones. R’ Berel Junik and Dr. Weiss supported the Rebbe on the right.

Then the Rebbe went into the Ohel and stayed there alone for several minutes. The Rebbe did a circuit around the tziyun and cried such terrible cries that could be heard outside. Then he left the Ohel and those present stood in a row for nichum aveilim. It was a difficult scene. The Chassidim could not believe they would have to console the one who always comforted them.

The Rebbe entered the car but got right back out and plucked grass, as is customary. On his seat in the car a board was placed, as is done for mourners. By 1:40, it was all over. The Rebbe returned to his home with many driving behind him, some in private cars and some on buses. All felt sorrow and pain. The thousands who arrived during the burial remained outside the cemetery and only after the Rebbe returned home were the gates opened and all were permitted to go to the place of the fresh grave.

At 3:15, mincha was davened in the Rebbe’s house. The Rebbe davened at the amud and said all the Kaddishim. Only those shluchim who came to New York for the day, some of whom returned the same day, were allowed in.

THE REBBE COMPOSED THE WORDING ON THE GRAVESTONE

R’ Lipsker: “During the Shiva, the Rebbe asked Rabbi Piekarski when to put up the gravestone. After he looked into the matter, he told the Rebbe that according to the kabbala of the Arizal, the stone should be put up on the eighth day. Although the Shiva ends on the seventh day, in the morning after davening, the rest of the day is considered part of the seven days of mourning and therefore, the stone should be put up only the next day.

“As per the Rebbe’s instructions, I asked R’ Meir Chaim Greenbaum, who made gravestones, how much it cost to make a stone and put it up. I think it was $1200. When I told the Rebbe through the secretaries, the Rebbe gave me a check for that amount.

“During the Shiva, R’ Groner gave me the wording for the stone, typed on paper. As is customary, the chevra kadisha had to approve the wording. We did not know who had written it but it was clear that the Rebbe had authorized it and of course, we immediately approved it. It was only a few years later that we learned that the Rebbe himself had written it out by hand. Before the Rebbe Rayatz’s name he left a space and indicated with two dots that at this point he wanted to copy the titles used on the Rebbe Rayatz’s gravestone.

“The Rebbe also marked the words that needed to be in big letters. R’ Groner typed it all up and gave it to the Rebbe for his approval. The Rebbe underlined the emphasized words.

“At the final mincha of the Shiva, on Monday afternoon, I went to the Rebbe’s home with Greenbaum. When we passed by the Rebbe to console him after davening, the Rebbe said, ‘Surely, the stone will be ready on time.’ Greenbaum said that the stone was ready and the Rebbe noted, ‘Regarding the placing of the stone, it should be done (not on the seventh day but) on the eighth. The main thing is that Hashem should help you to merit to see the fulfillment of the promise, arise and sing those who dwell in the dust and may Hashem fulfill the requests of your hearts, each and every one of you, for visible, revealed good.’”

Even in the midst of personal tragedy, the Rebbe bestowed such bountiful blessings.

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