Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Tammuz 5764 - July 14, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Rebbetzin Pesha Leibowitz a"h
by B. M.

The close to two thousand who attended the levaya of Rebbetzin Pesha Leibowitz--aside from the many telephone hook- ups broadcasting the hespedim--testified to the love and connection Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim's talmidim and alumni felt for their Rosh Yeshiva's wife after her petiroh on erev Rosh Chodesh Tammuz.

As Rav Naftali Portnoy, the Rebbetzin's nephew, said, "The thousands of people at the levaya of this eishes chayil, were past and present talmidei hayeshiva ranging from bochurim and young men to 65-year-old talmidei chachomim. And among this broad range of individuals were so many who felt such a personal loss . . . For the Rebbetzin was truly a mother to them . . ."

Indeed, that is the sense of loss that was most often expressed: that the thousands of talmidim of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim of the past 60 years had lost their mother, for she was truly the mother of the yeshiva. No matter how large the "family" became, she had time and concern for every one of her "children." Though she was not zoche to give birth, she was the consummate mother of thousands.

From where did Rebbetzin Leibowitz acquire her vast capabilities, her love for Torah and for those who learn it, her keen insight into the needs of others? Her lineage and her affiliation with the great luminaries of Radin provided the tools that she would employ throughout her life to accomplish her unique and lofty goals.

Solid Roots

Rebbetzin Leibowitz was born Pesha Trop in Radin in 1927 to HaRav Avrohom and Esther Trop. Rav Avrohom was named after his great ancestor, the brother of the Vilna Gaon. Rav Avrohom's father was HaRav Naftali Trop, who was the rosh yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva in Radin. Rebbetzin Pesha attributed much of her successes in life to the brochoh and hashpo'oh of her grandfather.

Esther (Sapir) Trop also descended from a prominent family of talmidei chachomim who later settled in Petach Tikva.

The Trops spent World War II deep in Asiatic Russia, with Rav Avrohom imprisoned in Siberia. After the war, the Trops reunited and fled to the United States, where Rav Avrohom became the rosh yeshiva of the Stoliner Yeshiva.

Several years later, Pesha married HaRav Henoch, the son of HaRav Dovid Leibowitz, a nephew of the Chofetz Chaim and a talmid of HaRav Naftali Trop. In the hesped said by HaRav Abba Zalka Gewirtz, a long-time friend of the Rosh Yeshiva, he said that the Rebbetzin's mother used to say that the Leibowitz's shidduch was actually made by special shadchanim: HaRav Naftali Trop with his talmid HaRav Dovid Leibowitz. This most appropriate shidduch bore beautiful fruits.

A Devoted Wife

After coming to America to be rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas, HaRav Dovid Leibowitz soon founded the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva in Williamsburg. When Pesha married HaRav Henoch he was already the rosh yeshiva, as his father had passed away. The Leibowitzes lived in Williamsburg until the yeshiva moved to Forest Hills.

In the early years, the Rebbetzin taught limudei kodesh at Breuer's High School and at Rav Avrohom Neuhouse's Bais Yaakov. She was considered a brilliant teacher. Many attested to her quick intelligence, and years later women still recalled their Morah with affection. Rav Yosef Singer, a talmid, related that he once met a woman who years before had had the Rebbetzin as a substitute for only one day, but that one day had an impact on her that she never forgot.

The Rebbetzin had been taught by Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, the well-known disciple of Soroh Schenirer. Rebbetzin Kaplan commented that out of the many excellent students she had taught over several decades, two students stood out: Rebbetzin Freifeld and Rebbetzin Leibowitz.

Despite her success in educating girls, the Rebbetzin chose to terminate her brief career in order to devote herself to her husband and the yeshiva. The Rebbetzin spent the rest of her life helping the Rosh Yeshiva cultivate the yeshiva and the bochurim and opening branches throughout the United States and in Israel.

The Rosh Yeshiva attributed his accomplishments to the Rebbetzin. She devoted her days and nights to caring for the Rosh Yeshiva. Their family friend and doctor, Dr. Raymond Feinberg, quipped, "When the Rosh Yeshiva coughed, it hurt the Rebbetzin."

The Rosh Yeshiva would say that the Rebbetzin took care of his needs to the degree that did not have to take care of them at all.

The Yeshiva's Mother

Along with the Rebbetzin's devotion to the Rosh Yeshiva, she exhibited unusual concern for the bochurim and also for former talmidim of the yeshiva. She involved herself in their physical and spiritual welfare, and contributed significantly to their growing into bnei Torah.

The talmidim looked to the Rebbetzin as a mother. And she herself displayed the complete devotion and concern of a mother. One of the yeshiva's top talmidim did not live in the dorm, but walked home about half a mile every night. When he got engaged, the Rebbetzin's first comment was, "Soon I will be able to stop worrying about his late night walks home after seder."

Even after talmidim married and left the yeshiva, she would call on erev Shabbos to wish them a Good Shabbos. She continued to worry about them and their finances. After they had children, she would ask about them. And when former talmidim came to visit, she would ask them about other alumni, much as a mother asks a son about his brother's welfare.

In recent years, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Rebbetzin rarely went away for Shabbos. One time, they had to go away. After packing and the other arrangements had all been made and they were ready to leave, the Rebbetzin heard that a certain alumnus was coming to the neighborhood for Shabbos. The Rebbetzin felt that this particular talmid could use a little encouragement. She felt that if she would run into him, she could give him the chizuk he needed. So she canceled her plans and stayed home, and then arranged to "run into" this man. The talmid who related this story commented, "This was the extent the Rebbetzin would go for other people."

The Rebbetzin's unusual concern prompted many at the levaya to express their devastating feeling of loss of a mother.

Keen Insight

After the Rebbetzin's petiroh, the Rosh Yeshiva described the essence of the Rebbetzin's life. He said that she epitomized emmes and ehrlichkeit, along with the gift of binah yeseiroh. In her own learning, which she continued throughout the years, she always aimed for the true understanding. She disdained the idea of reciting the text without comprehension.

The Rebbetzin had an unusual knack for understanding the needs of others. Often, people would come to see the Rosh Yeshiva. Not wanting to overtax her husband, she would sometimes ask them to come a different time. But at times she would look at the visitor and assess that he needed to see the Rosh Yeshiva right now. She would let him in.

If she felt that a bochur needed to apply himself better, she would ask him to tell her something he had learned. Or she would ask what the Rosh Yeshiva had said in the shiur. Knowing that the Rebbetzin might ask, the bochur would make sure to pay attention in the next shiur.

Once, with no alternative, the yeshiva's hanholoh decided to dismiss two boys who were unruly. The Rebbetzin made a deal with the hanholoh. She agreed that the boys would not live in the dorm but she offered her basement for them to sleep in, as long as the boys could remain in the yeshiva. She gave them the extra care she felt they needed. Today, these two boys are respected rabbonim.

In fact, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Rebbetzin generally had between six and eight boys sleeping in their basement. Often, but not always, these were boys who needed a little more attention, some extra mothering. The Rebbetzin helped shaped these boys into bnei Torah.

The Rebbetzin had ways of helping others without them even realizing it. She would get money to people without them knowing. When she heard that people in Israel could not afford to buy clothes, she began organizing packages of secondhand clothes. She herself would bring clothes over when she and the Rosh Yeshiva took their annual trip to Eretz Yisroel. For these trips, she packed the minimum for herself but squeezed as much donated clothing as she could into as many suitcases as she could.

One time after closing all of the luggage, she realized she had forgotten to include a donated coat. She immediately removed some of her own items (the few that were there) and packed in the coat.

The Rebbetzin's intuitive chessed reached beyond the boundaries of the yeshiva. Once, the Rebbetzin heard that some girls in a certain school were not receiving what she felt was a full curriculum. She asked a man affiliated with the yeshiva, who had some girls in the school, if she could use his basement. There she arranged a Sunday School, which included several girls whom she taught what she felt was missing in their school.

The Rebbetzin had the unique ability to relate to adults and children alike and to understand what they needed. For children who came to visit, she always had a lollipop at hand. For the adult, a listening ear.

Tasteful Simplicity

Another unusual trait the Rebbetzin exhibited was great simplicity. She always had used furniture and did not spend money on herself unless it was necessary. Her dress was simple. Nonetheless, she had an aesthetic touch within the tzimtzum. Everything about her was clean and appealing. She probably inherited this from her mother, who demonstrated this same tasteful simplicity. During the war years in Siberia, the Rebbetzin's mother took gauze bandages and made them into curtains.

Her Last Days

During her final days in the hospital, the Rebbetzin suffered greatly. However, she characteristically pushed herself aside for the needs of others. Her nephew, Rabbi Portnoy, related that soon after she suffered a stroke, he went to visit her in the emergency room. A few weeks previously she had asked him to arrange a job interview for a former talmid. The Rebbetzin's first words upon seeing Rabbi Portnoy in the hospital, were, "Were you able to take care of the interview?"

Throughout her last few weeks, she was unable to keep her food down. But when her husband came in she would control herself, not wanting to distress him.

For good reason, HaRav Leibowitz would call his wife, "Mein heilige Pesha." A maggid shiur in the yeshiva and former talmid, HaRav Reuven Hochberg, stated, "He would say that he experienced Olom Habo in this world being granted such a good wife."

The memory of Rebbetzin Pesha Leibowitz should inspire us to emulate her ways, as she inspired so many others throughout her life.


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