Monday, January 15, 2007

Reb Chuni Spiegel

Editor’s note: It has been 30 years since the tragic, untimely p’tirah of our dear uncle, Reb Avraham Elchonon Spiegel, zaicher tzadik l’vracha. They say that time heals many wounds, but in this case time alone would not be enough. The great tragedy and sadness of his p’tirah is only mitigated by the work of his wonderful children and the sweetness of his grandchildren who not only remain steadfast to every principle that he believed in, but are also perpetuating his memory through their Avodas HaKodesh.

We know that this tremendous hislahavus HaTorah V’Chassidus comes only because of the zechus of his great neshama and that of his great and pure Avos that have watched the children and grandchildren grow to become the b’nai Torah and b’nai Aliyah that make their family so proud. But the great zechusim of my uncle, Reb Chuni, z”l in ensuring this hemshech hamesorah is only part of the story. It was, and continues to be the mesiras nefesh of his Rebbitzen, who, almost single-handedly, nurtured a generation of children, alone, but not really alone. The vision and strength, the sweetness and chayn of “der groiseh niftar” stood and continues to stand behind this hatzlacha in every aspect of all of their lives.

Indeed, it is the neshama of R’ Avraham Elchonon, his spirit, his vision and his ideas that played such a vital role in the founding and the development of Talmud Torah Ohr Elchonon, which is true to all the ideals for which Reb Avraham Elchonon Spiegel stood. It is a yeshiva that imbues its talmidim with the beauty of Torah, the g’feel for another yid and most of all, Ahavas HaBorai. It is not a new yeshiva. It is a yeshiva that is continuing a mesorah that was personified by the shortened but very full life of its namesake, Reb Avraham Elchonon Spiegel, zaicher tzadik l’vracha.

May the Ribono Shel Olam give the strength to Reb Binyamin, Reb Menachem, Reb Naftali Aryeh, Reb Muttie, and their chosheveh shvogger Reb Moshe Rowner and family to continue in every aspect of their Avodas HaKodesh and give richly deserved nachas to our dear aunt, Rebbitzen Shoshana, tlit”a.

May every letter of Torah learned in the yeshiva be a zechus for his holy neshama.

The sands of time have not diminished the vivid memories of so many chaveirim who shared their thoughts with the family members who conveyed them to me. It is difficult to express the emotions, the excitement, and the bren, that I heard in the brief conversations.

Can you really describe a smile that lit up a room? Is it possible to express the searing pain that went through his heart when hearing of another Jew’s tzarah?

Can one put ink to paper to describe Yiras Shamayim that transcends any mortal expressions of faith?

I spent a few hours on the phone listening to stories and another few hours typing them. But I know that no matter how much listening and typing I would have done, I still would hardly be able to convey a glimpse of an individual who seemed to have been from a previous generation in Torah and Avodah, yet was able to relate to his nephews and nieces in Woodmere almost as a peer. I will never forget the impact he made upon my life with his personification of deracheha darchei noam in every aspect of his life. T’hai Nishmaso Tzrura B’tzror HaChaim.

As this is perhaps the first written recollection of stories, it is my hope that they will prompt many more memories and ma’asiyos that will eventually become part of a greater work about Reb Avraham Elchonon Spiegel, zecher tzaddik l’vracha.

Reb Avraham Elchonon Spiegel
Yamim He’erichu – Shanim Lo He’erichu (Shabbos 105b)
Compiled by his nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky based on the recollection of his friends and family

Reb Avraham Elchonon Spiegel, known throughout his life to all who knew and loved him as Reb Chuni, was born in May of 1936, the youngest of seven children of Harav Pinchus Eliyahu Spiegel, the Ostrove-Kalushiner Rebbe in the Bronx and his Rebbitzin Basha (nee Burstein). He was the younger twin to his brother, Reb Dovid Spiegel who is currently the Ostrove-Kalushiner Rebbe, in Cedarhurst, New York.

Reb Pinchus Eliyahu was a descendant of a long history of Torah and Chassidus. His father, HaGaon HaTzadik Reb Naftali Aryeh was the son-in-law of Reb Yaakov Yitzchok Unger and a grandson of Reb Avraham Elchonon Unger, Reb Chuni’s namesake. Reb Chuni’s twin was named for his elter zaide, the great Rebbe, HaGaon HaTzadik Reb Mordechai Dovid Dombrover z”tl.

Reb Naftali Aryeh arrived in America in the late 1920s and was joined in the early 1930s by his three sons, Reb Moshe, Reb Elchonon Yochonon and Reb Pinchus Eliyahu.

Despite the winds of change when so many immigrants had r”l abandoned Yiddishkeit, let alone Chassidus, the Spiegels remained steadfast to the mesora that they had received from their great zaides, going back to the Chozeh of Lublin.

It was this atmosphere that helped raise Reb Chuni in a home that was steeped in Torah, Chassidus and Yiras Shamayim. Like his revered father, Reb Naftali Aryeh, Reb Chuni’s father, Reb Pinchus Eliyahu was a Yid who never compromised on the slightest chumra in Yiddishkeit, despite being surrounded by a community that was slowly assimilating into American culture. Reb Pinchus Eliyahu had never eaten meat in America and his father who had a small shul on Faile Street in the Bronx was so removed from this world that he did not even know what his own house looked like. Once Reb Naftali Aryeh’s shammas left him outside his home and expected the Rebbe to just enter. However, the Rebbe, steeped in thought, tarried and walked a few yards before he realized that he might have strayed from the place that the gabbai had let him off. An hour later the gabbai returned and noticed that the Rebbe looked puzzled as to where he actually lived.

As with all of their children, Reb Pinchus Eliyahu and his Rebbitzen made sure that their children went only to the best yeshivos. Together with his twin, Chuni would travel by subway from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, to Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef. The Rebbitzin was wary of the influence of many of the neighborhood boys who often were lured from learning Torah by the appeal of the American life. She asked the corner police officer to make sure that every day the boys would go to Yeshiva, which he did diligently. The years there were indeed filled with success in Torah and Yiras Shamayim and his care and concern for other Yidden were clearly apparent at this very young age.

His brother Reb Dovid remembers: “We once went on a Chol HaMoed outing to a park where there was a nearby fair. Our parents gave us just enough money for the trip, as of course, being Pesach we were not allowed to eat anything – not even drink water from a fountain. On the way home, Chuni noticed a Jewish boy from the neighborhood who was eating cotton candy. Chuni was shocked and approached the kid. “It’s chametz! We are not allowed to eat this on Pesach!” The youngster replied that he would throw it away but wanted Chuni to pay him for the loss – five cents – the exact amount of carfare home. Without hesitation, Chuni gave him the nickel and proudly watched the boy throw the cotton candy into the garbage. At this young age, Chuni did not care if he had to walk a few miles to get home. He was willing to give up all his money to ensure that a Jewish child would not eat chametz on Pesach.”

After graduating elementary school, and a short stay in high school in RJJ, at age 15 Chuni left to go to the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. Immediately he became well known and beloved, not only to his revered rebbeim, Reb Mottel Katz, Reb Elya Meir Bloch and the rest of the hanhala, but to all the talmidim of the Yeshiva. His ubiquitous smile, simchas hachaim and love for chassidus were admired by the entire yeshiva so much so that he was the first bochur in the history of the very Litvishe Telshe Yeshiva who was allowed to grow his beard and payos. And he wore the beard and every aspect of his Chassidishe heritage proudly. All who saw him realized that there was a special light coming from him. There was a spirit of ehrlichkeit and simplicity that emanated from him. In fact, when the city of Cleveland decided that they were going to produce Chalov Yisroel they decided that they had to market their product as suitable for the most pious of Yidden. Without his permission, they took a picture of young Chuni and put it on the bottle.

After spending a few years under the tutelage of the great luminaries of the Telshe Yeshiva, Reb Chuni went with a group of bochurim to learn by the great Gaon, Harav Ahron Kotler zt”l and join his brother R’ Yankel who was already a talmid there. Later his twin brother, Reb Dovid would join them as talmidim of Reb Ahron.

Immediately a close kesher was formed and Reb Chuni would sit close to Reb Ahron at the table where the Rosh Yeshiva would give the shiur. Reb Ahron would often take his eyes from the oilam and look affectionately at the 18-year-old Chuni. In fact, this closeness to a chassidishe bochur drew some curiosity from others in the shiur. A few of them had the courage to ask the Rosh Yeshiva what he saw in the young Shpiegel bochur that he seemed to favor him over others by looking at him so often in shiur.

Reb Ahron snapped back in wonder. “Vas haist? Er iz maineh balibter talmid!” (“Why do you wonder? He is my beloved talmid!”)

In fact even the Motzei Shabbos that Reb Chuni became a chosson, Reb Ahron smiled and gently chided him, “You know that I give a shiur on Motzai Shabbos, couldn’t you have chosen a different night to become a chosson?”

Reb Ahron drew a close connection with Reb Chuni and eventually the entire Spiegel family. The Rosh Yeshiva eventually became the shadchan for Reb Chuni's older brother Reb Yankel, who became a son-in-law of Reb Moshe Bick zt”l.

Reb Ahron used to praise Reb Pinchus Eliyahu, quoting the Gemara, “I have seen b’nai aliyah and they are very few, and Reb Pinchus Eliyahu is one of them." Reb Ahron smiled as he added, “ah litvishe Rebbe vos ken guht lernin.”

Indeed, Reb Pinchus Eliyahu revered the Rosh Yeshiva. He once accompanied another Chassidishe Rebbe to a shiur given by Reb Ahron at a meeting of Agudas HaRabbanim. Upon leaving, the other Rav commented on the point that Reb Ahron made a machlokes between the opinion of the Gr’a and the Rambam.

“Imagine a machlokes between the Gr’a and Rambam?’ the Rebbe asked sardonically.
Reb Chuni’s father looked at the man sternly. “Gedenkt! Dos iz Reb Ahron. Remember, you are talking about Reb Ahron!” he reprimanded.

Reb Chuni eventually became very close to the Rosh Yeshiva, helping prepare his seforim for shiur and taking charge of the papers that were filled with ma’areh mekomos that Reb Ahron would ask Reb Chuni to post before the shiur. The family still cherishes many of those handwritten pages that Reb Ahron had placed in the charge of Reb Chuni.

When Reb Ahron took ill in early 1962, Reb Yaakov Hirschman and Reb Chuni Spiegel rotated in round-the-clock care of him. Mrs. Rothschild still remembers how Reb Chuni would hardly eat anything at her home near Mount Sinai Hospital. Instead, he would quickly finish his seudah and immediately return to the Rosh Yeshiva’s bedside.

Reb Ahron, despite his weakened condition insisted that only male nurses tend to him. There were only two such nurses in the hospital. Reb Nosson Nadel recalls that one evening, the Rosh Yeshiva needed to have his bandages changed from a particularly complicated and unpleasant seepage from the wounds of his surgery. They were waiting for the male nurse, a fellow named Mr. White, to tend to the difficult chore of changing the bandages.

However, Mr. White was not coming, and the Rosh Yeshiva was becoming very uncomfortable. Reb Chuni disinfected and washed himself and undertook the unpleasant job of changing the bandages himself.

Slowly and cautiously, with the loving care afforded a child, he removed the Rosh Yeshiva’s bandages and began to replace them with fresh, sterile dressings. Suddenly Mr. White appeared at the door.

“Why are you doing that?” he inquired. Reb Chuni explained that he could no longer let his rebbe lay in such discomfort and decided to redress the wound himself. The nurse was so amazed at the delicate and meticulous care provided to the Rosh Yeshiva that he simply turned to Reb Ahron and said, “I have never seen such devotion, even from relatives. Rabbi Kotler, the truth is that with such devoted students like this young man, you really don’t need me!”

This close personal care continued throughout the Rosh Yeshiva’s stay in the hospital. Reb Chuni never shirked from attending to his every need. Once, in his frustration Reb Ahron commanded him, “Breng mir mein mantel, ich vill aheim gayn! Bring me my coat, I want to leave this hospital!”

It took Reb Chuni’s calm manner to convince the Rosh Yeshiva that he had to continue to remain there.

In 1963 Reb Chuni married Shoshana Rabinowitz, the daughter of the prominent Reb of Kehilas Ohel Moshe in the Bronx, and the mechaber of the sefer Kol Bo on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, Harav Yisrael Rabinowitz.

There was no question that as long as they could possibly sustain themselves, their she’ifa was that Reb Chuni was going to continue learning in Kollel.

Reb Chuni and his Rebbitzen became pillars of the fledgling kehilla of the Lakewood Kollel community. There was hardly a chessed or communal need that did not find a way to their doorstep, and when there was a problem, they created a solution.

When their oldest son, Binyamin turned five, they decided that the local day school could not meet the needs of educating him with the fusion of Torah and Chassidus to which they aspired. Thus, together with a tiny group of yungeleit, they found an old, decrepit building that once belonged to the American Legion, a veteran's group, and began a tiny school that was named simply: The Lakewood Cheder. Hardly anyone in Lakewood remembers that the Yeshiva that now boasts thousands of Talmidim began as a tiny group of children in a dilapidated building that had a small cache of old guns lying in its rodent-ridden basement. (In fact, some of the first Cheder talmidim remember playing cops and robbers with real pistols left there by the Legionnaires!)

Reb Chuni appointed Reb Zalman Pinchus Quinn to be the first melamed, and Reb Quinn, until this very day, after 40 years of chinuch sadly states: “Until this day, there is no parent with whom I have enjoyed discussing the chinuch of their child like Reb Chuni. I always looked forward to him talking to me about the children. He not only showed true concern for his son, but he showered me so much love and respect that it made me feel important in a way that I can never express.

One Chanuka, when I knew Reb Chuni was steeped in debt and was hardly able to feed his family, he gave me an envelope that contained a few dollars. I was shocked and I refused to accept it, knowing that he probably had scraped his last pennies together to amass even this small sum.

Reb Chuni insisted, ‘Chanuka is a time in which we show Hakaras HaTov to our children’s Rebbeim. I will not let a Chanuka go by without giving my son’s rebbe a token of our appreciation.’”

Reb Chuni cared for both the body and the soul of the Cheder. Reb Tzvi Rothberg was a chosson as a rebbe at the cheder. As the trip to New York from Lakewood was somewhat arduous, he asked Reb Chuni if he could get a substitute for the day of his wedding.

Reb Chuni understood that a substitute could never replicate the familiarity between a rebbe and his talmidim, and so he offered to wait until the class was over and then he would personally drive R’ Tzvi to wherever he had to go in order to prepare for the chasuna. Reb Tzvi agreed, and so it was!

He was constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance the chinuch of the young charges. He once suggested that all the boys in a particular class learn Parshas Ha’azinu by heart with Yiddish translation. Reb Chuni came in personally to kvell after the boys completed the parsha, giving each one of them a special prize.

When he realized that the younger boys were not davening Mincha, even though they were indeed old enough, Reb Chuni appointed Mincha Rebbeim to ensure that Tefilas Mincha was said with the right kavana, even at a young age.

Besides looking out for the community, Reb Chuni was sure to look out for the needs of individuals. Not only would he collect tzedaka for the very poor yungeleit, he would do whatever he could to lift the spirits of the disheartened.

A couple who had no children wished to have their Shabbos table enlivened by the zemiros of young children. Every Shabbos, after every Seuda, Reb Chuni would bring all his children to this couple’s home to sit and sing with the geshmak of a Chassidishe Shabbos Tish.

There was a bakery in Lakewood whose owner was not a Shomer Shabbos. Every Thursday night Reb Chuni would go to the bakery, make sure that Challah was taken, that the oven was lit properly and that all the ingredients for Shabbos Challah and bread were 100 percent kosher.

Though the bakery was closed on Pesach, on Erev Pesach Reb Chuni made sure to see that no transactions took place after the z’man, and that no deliveries of flour were brought to the bakery. Though working as if he was a paid Mashgiach, Reb Chuni never took as much as a free roll to make sure that Yidden in Lakewood would not be nichshal in kashrus or chometz, chas v’sholom.

As the town of Lakewood grew, so did its needs. Together with Reb Laizer Stefansky, Reb Chuni was at the forefront of building the mikveh in Lakewood. Until that time, people had to travel to Long Branch, New Jersey for a mikveh. The mikveh was checked and fully approved by Reb Moshe Feinstein z”tl. Reb Shneur Kotler insisted that no other Rav was needed to give his approbation, but the newly arrived Chassidishe Oilam in Lakewood were skeptical whether this “Litvishe Mikveh” would abide by every chumra that would be demanded by the Chassidishe Oilam. With quiet chachma, using his relationships with great Chassidishe poiskim, Reb Chuni devised a way that everyone in the kehilla was totally accepting of the mikveh.

When the city of Baltimore began overseeing Cholov Yisrael milk production under the supervision of Reb Moshe Heineman, shlita, Reb Chuni worked diligently to have milk from Baltimore arrive every week at prices that the B’nai Torah were able to afford.

Every Pesach, the Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Shneur Kotler zt”l would fir (conduct) the seder for all the bochurim who were not able to travel home. The Rosh Yeshiva and his entire family would host the remaining bochurim in the Yeshiva’s massive dining room. It was financially impossible to buy all new kailim for the small amount of boys who would stay so Reb Chuni took it upon himself to kasher the entire kitchen for Pesach – milchigs and flaishigs, pots, pans and silverware, according to the strictest chumros.

When a fire broke out in the Laurel-in-the-Pines hotel on a hot Friday night in July 1967, hundreds of people gathered to watch the frightening view of a tremendous building going up in flames. Where was Reb Chuni? He lived right across the street and as soon as the fire broke out he raced into the hotel shul to rescue the sifrei torah that he knew were there. His good friend, R' Avrohom Penzer described how he emerged from the flaming shul, covered in thick, black soot from head to toe, his face beaming with joy as he clutched the sifrei torah in his arms.

But Reb Chuni did not only focus on the spirituality of b’nai Torah. Reb Chuni’s son, Reb Menachem relates that a number of years ago, he once spotted a furniture store on the outskirts of Lakewood. The enticing flyers in the window with offers of ridiculous prices lured him into the store.

The middle-aged proprietor introduced himself as a Mr. Eddie Schuster, and though he was far removed from Yiddishkeit, he was proud of his Jewish heritage.

The course of the conversation led to Reb Menachem introducing himself as Menachem Spiegel. Suddenly an elderly gentleman jumped out of a back room.
“Spiegel?” He asked. “Are you related to a Chuni Spiegel?”
“He was my father.”
“How is he?” asked the old man.
“He passed away many years ago.”
The man’s eyes welled with tears. “Let me show you something,” he said through a choked voice.
He shlepped R’ Menachem over to an old door and pointed up to the doorpost. “You see that mezuzah? Your father brought me that mezuzah when I opened this store! He came in here very often to talk to me about Yiddishkeit! He was from the only people here who would always remind me what it means to be a Yid!”
Then the man broke down and cried.

As the family grew, the pressure of providing for his family mounted and the Rosh Yeshiva together with other Gedolim persuaded Reb Chuni to become a shochet.

After immersing himself totally in the halachos, Reb Chuni was ready for kabalah. He received kabalah from Gedolei Yisrael, among them the Pupa Rav, the Tzailemer Rav, Reb Yona Furst - the Nitra Rav, Reb Moshe Feinstein, the Sigheter Rav, and Harav Landau - Veretzkia Rav.

When Reb Moshe asked to look at his chalef, he was astounded at the perfection of the blade. Reb Moshe asked if he could make a p’gam and have Reb Chuni find it. Reb Chuni left the room and heard a clear knock of the knife. He began to check the knife and at first, he was not able to see any p’gam. After a few moments, he realized what the Gaon had done. The p’gam was on the dull side of the knife!
Reb Moshe smiled and said, “A lesser shochet would have fabricated a p’gam on the sharp side to explain the knock!”

The Sigheter Rav, Reb Moshe Teitelbaum (who later became the Satmer Rebbe) was so impressed after testing Reb Chuni that he immediately made a call and got Reb Chuni his first job. By that time he had moved to New York (in the summer of 1975) and the job took a great deal of travel and preparation.

Reb Chuni took his avodas hashechita seriously with the utmost responsibility. He never left to shecht without immersing in the Mikveh. In fact when a new mikveh in Boro Park opened Reb Chuni decided that he would be the first one to use it and so he obtained the key. At 4 o’clock in the morning, he entered only to find that only the bor geshamim was filled. The main mikveh was still empty and dirty rainwater was standing in the bor – freezing and murky. There was no other mikveh open at that hour and so Reb Chuni immersed himself in that mikveh.

Reb Chuni’s parents, the Ostrove-Kalushiner Rebbe and Rebbitzin were particularly pleased that their son became a shochet. Reb Spiegel had never eaten any meat in America and the chickens that he ever ate were only from shochtim that he knew.
To have a son shecht the chickens was considered a special zechus.

Reb Chuni’s mother was extremely close to her son; his kibud Av V’Aim was of a magnitude that is indescribable. When living in Lakewood, Reb Chuni’s mother once mentioned that she needed potatoes and could not get to the store because of the terribly snowy conditions in Long Beach. Despite the miserable weather, Reb Chuni got into his car and drove over three hours to bring her the potatoes!

He was not only worried about chickens for his parents. In those days, it was inconvenient for yungeleit to shlug kaporos with live chickens. They would have to either travel to New York or find a chicken and a shoichet in Lakewood on their own. Despite the importance of the minhag, it entailed a tremendous amount of bitul Torah. Reb Chuni, now that he had a kesher with a slaughterhouse, would bring a truckload of chickens to the Yeshiva for the yungeleit – a tremendous saving of time and money for them.

During his entire tenure as a shochet, Reb Chuni continued to serve his parents each and every need, no matter how difficult, no matter how distant, and no matter how tired he was.

The kesher was so close that as a chosson, despite the Chassidishe minhag to have both fathers walk the chosson down to the chupa, the Rebbitzin insisted that she would walk her Chuni down to the chupah.

On the job, he was scrupulous about every single detail. Though shochtim were allowed a quota of chickens for their families, and though almost every shochet followed the unofficial rule of an extra chicken or two, Reb Chuni would never take anything that was not due him. If he missed a day, he would take less than the number of chickens allotted to him. If he brought home a chicken for a friend, he would pay the owner of the shlachthois the exact amount and would not take an extra penny from his friends for his efforts in shechting the chicken.

When Reb Chuni started shechting in Empire, he was bothered that there were no shiurim for the shochtim. He quickly got to work on creating a solution. Reb Chuni gathered some old gemoras from his shul and brought them along with him and began giving a daf yomi shiur for all of the employees at Empire.

Because of the long distance from the shlachthois to his home, Reb Chuni would sleep over. He was very bothered that he was away from his wife and children all week and so every night he would call home and learn with each one of his children.

The trips to Miffletown, Pennsylvania were long and difficult. There was a rotation of drivers and in addition to gas and tolls, the driver was paid $52 for his labors in driving the four hour trip. The week of the tragic accident that took the life of Reb Chuni and his fellow shochtim, the designated driver’s car broke down and Reb Chuni offered to drive instead.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, an envelope was found in one of Reb Chuni’s z’l pockets. Inside was a check for $52 made out to the one who was originally designated to drive. He obviously planned to give it to him thinking, “Just because your car broke down, I did not want you to lose out on the $52.”

Those types of actions and hanhagos were indicative of Reb Chuni’s nature. He made sure to consider the feelings of every individual in every aspect of life.

We say in Tehillim, "Uz Yimolay Sichoik Piynu." R' Shabsi Yudlevich would quote the medrash, “What is this 'sichoik', this 'gelechter', that will fill our mouths in the time of Moshiach? At the time of techiyas homaysim all who are worthy will come back to life and they will be the same age as when they were niftar. This will be the gelechter: zaides with black beards will dance with their white-bearded sons…youthful bubbes will dance with their elderly daughters…”

Reb Chuni left the world so suddenly, so tragically, but the strength of his Rebbetzin held the children and family together in a way that no one could have imagined. Every one of their sons and son-in-law, and their eineklach are surely bringing nachas to Reb Chuni in his special place near the kisay hakovod.

We look forward to the day when we will all dance together at the time of techiyas homaysim, b'viyas goyel tzedek b'mihayra v'yumaynu amein.