Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Adar 5764 - March 18, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Reb Michel Goodfarb -- The Rav Chanina ben Teradyon of Our Generation

by M. Samsonowitz

Part II

The first part discussed R' Michel's distinguished Yerushalmi family and his younger years in the Mirrer yeshiva. It also described how he got his start in a lifelong career of chessed at the tender age of 17. He was stricken with disease a few years later, but he seemed to be cured and got married. His chessed activities became bigger and broader.

Hard Decisions

Besides helping to sustain impoverished families on a day-to- day basis, and particularly before the holidays, the most important assistance which Reb Michel gave was helping families marry off their children. Many families were able to make it through the month, but were overwhelmed by the huge expenses involved in marrying off a child.

Reb Michel was the unknown "mechuton" in dozens of shidduchim, providing the commitment and funds to pull everything through. He was often present at the last-minute negotiations in the wee hours of the morning which could make or break a shidduch. A widow would promise $30-40,000 for her child's dowry, but it was Reb Michel who took the responsibility to come up with the amount. He would urge the family to plan a normal wedding so the children wouldn't feel deprived.

Friends helped a yeshiva student who was an orphan from both his parents to find a shidduch, but they didn't have money to pay the expenses. They brought the student to Reb Michel and told him, "You have to be this guy's father and mother rolled into one!" Reb Michel promised to pay a large part of the expenses, and the youth's friends promised to come up with the rest.

When this chosson's first son was born, Reb Michel told him, "Consider me your father. What do you need for the baby? I want you to go out and buy whatever you need and send the bill to me." The appreciative young father honored Reb Michel with sandeko'us.

Years later, Reb Michel continued to follow the fortunes of the young man, and continually checked to see if he needed money during pressured times. But the young man refused to take a penny, and told Reb Michel gratefully, "You put me on my feet, but I'm taking care of myself now."

In another case, the father of a yeshiva student died a week before his son's wedding, leaving his family of ten children without support. During the levaya, many friends and communal workers spoke passionately about the need to help the devastated family, but after the shiva, no one stepped forward to help. The only one who was there, year after year, was Reb Michel, who helped pay for the weddings of each of the children. He confessed when the last one married, "The yoke has finally dropped off of me." He hadn't even known this family before he began helping them.

The father of a family of seven children became ill. Reb Michel prevailed on a doctor to operate for free (Reb Michel said: Why collect money to pay the doctor to do the operation if he'll agree to do it for free?), but the man passed away shortly after.

The widow used to phone Reb Michel for advice on all kinds of problems that arose. "I know Reb Michel will have the right answer for me," she explained.

His Net Extends Beyond Yerushalayim

In the early years, Reb Michel helped mostly Yerushalmi families. He widened his net when a philanthropist promised to give him large amounts for charity if he would help families outside of Yerushalayim.

Reb Michel established reliable contacts in the major cities in Israel from Tsefas to Beersheva, who reported to him about local families in need. From then on, Reb Michel traveled around the country helping these families too.

He also became involved in helping Sephardic girls from disadvantaged homes who had spent their high school in religious school dormitories and couldn't return to their homes afterwards. They were in the unfortunate situation of having parents who could give them nothing towards their marriage -- and no young man wanted to marry a penniless girl. So Reb Michel got involved and married them off. These girls were typically from development towns like Dimona, Migdal Haemek, Kiryat Gat and many more.

During the years of the large Russian aliya, Reb Michel felt there wasn't enough assistance offered to Russians in need. He sought out needy Russians and expressed his sincere concern as well as giving them financial help. Whether for widows and orphans, disadvantaged Sephardic girls, or newly- arrived Russians, his heart was big enough for all.

Some donors found that giving money to Reb Michel was the best investment they ever made. When the businesses of several of his donors abroad collapsed, he organized relief to hold them up during their difficult period until they got back on their feet.

Handling Difficult Charity Recipients

Reb Michel's selflessness and altruism was especially remarkable when you consider the individuals with which he occasionally had to deal. There were times when swindlers tried to convince him they were worthy charity cases, but his razor-sharp intuition could smell out who was telling the truth and who was not. Part of being a responsible gabbai tzedokoh is knowing whom not to give tzedokoh to, as well as whom to give to.

A man once came to Reb Michel armed with hospital documents. He told Reb Michel a moving, mournful story about his severe heart problem and how he couldn't provide for his family because of it. Reb Michel's wife couldn't hold back her tears to hear the man's tragic story, but Reb Michel just listened impassively. After hearing everything the man had to say, Reb Michel analyzed his claims, and showed how the man was lying, and his medical claims were false. The man left the house humiliated, without a penny of charity money in his pocket.

Every day, people came in to tell him all kinds of tragic stories. He would listen carefully, and quickly assess the situation. In one case, a friend from abroad asked to check out a charity recipient who claimed to be suffering from a medical condition. Reb Michel asked the doctor treating the lady why he was taking so much money for a relatively low- cost treatment. The doctor began to stammer and soon Reb Michel discovered the trick. The doctor was overcharging the patient so the patient could convince a rabbi that she was deserving of charity. Reb Michel refused to give her a penny.

He often tested people who appeared to him suspect by telling them, "If it's worth your while to come for 100 shekel, I'll give you that." In most cases, they didn't come.

One person tried to convince him of how poor his family is by sending him a bag of milk for shalach monos. Those gimmicks didn't faze him.

Even worse than the swindlers were the abusive and brazen beggars who self- righteously felt Reb Michel owed them charity.

One poor "Neturei Karta" family used to criticize him for voting in Israel elections as the gedolim urged, but he ignored their remarks and supported them anyway. Once, a political figure told him, "Why do you tolerate this? Tell them you won't help them unless they go to vote." Reb Michel totally rejected the suggestion.

During later periods of his life, when he was dangerously ill, there were beggars who brazenly told Reb Michel, "If you give me money, you'll have a refuah shleimoh." He was hurt by their crassness, but didn't allow them to unfairly extort money from him.

Then there were the beggars who barged into his house and dared him, "We're not going until you give us money!"

He told them coolly, "Go ahead and sit."

One disgruntled charity-seeker even slashed his car tires. Friends advised him, "If things have reached such a head, better to give up your work!"

But Reb Michel replied unconcerned, "Why? Am I doing it for myself? I'm doing it for Klal Yisroel." He would not let such a thing deter him.

He once received a nasty letter full of curses from a person who was angry that he hadn't been given charity. Reb Michel consulted with a rov about what to do. When the rov told him to ignore the letter, Reb Michel replied, "I won't give him money he doesn't deserve, but maybe I should mollify him so he'll calm down?"

In another case, a person who he didn't give charity funds to sent him a bitter letter that said, "All your sufferings until now were nothing in comparison to what I hope and pray will come upon you now!" Another talmid chochom who saw these fearsome words, burst into tears. But Reb Michel remained calm. He was concerned about one thing only -- if he had done anything wrong.

He would occasionally check his doubts with great poskim, and they always vindicated him. In this case, Reb Michel didn't ignore the harried writer of this letter, and instead arranged for another gabbai tzedokoh to help him.

In an even worse case, a person refused charity funds cursed him in public, and even called him a Nazi. Shaken at the man's violent reaction, Reb Michel reassessed the man's needs and came to the conclusion that his situation made him eligible for charity funds. Reb Michel was nevertheless wary about giving him money directly, lest the man feel he would get his way by cursing. So he went to the man's brother, gave him cash and told him not to tell his brother where the funds came from. The man eventually found out, and sent a letter of apology in a taxi.

A woman from Tsefas visited Reb Michel's home and told him about her difficult situation. He took out 700 shekels and gave them to her. The woman told him, "I came from so far, from Tsefas, and my life is so hard!" Reb Michel explained that he was helping hundreds of families and therefore couldn't give each one his full needs.

The woman began to scream and curse. So he placated her by giving her a little more.

The screams and shouts that accompanied the disappointment of those who had hoped to get far larger sums from Reb Michel, usually evoked a soft, apologetic response from him. "I am a broken and suffering man," he would say. "I never caused you harm. May you be written in the book of perfect tzadikim and have nachas from all your descendants."

He would tell his close friends about such people, "I understand these unfortunate people, and try to help them. I would like to give them even more, but I cannot diverge from the halacha which HaRav Shlomo Zalman paskened."

Once, when discussing his many sufferings, Reb Michel mentioned that the mental anguish caused by his physical sufferings was worse than the physical suffering itself. Nevertheless, the indecision he felt concerning what amount to give to each needy person was even more painful.

Sometimes his physical pains wouldn't let him sleep at night, but that didn't prevent him from meeting with people who came to see him the next day, even if he was exhausted. "I have to sit down with these people and decide whether to give them or not. The greatest pain of all is having to tell a person, `I can't give you any more than this.' "

HaRav Fisher, with whom he frequently consulted, told him, "Ignore all the thanks and appreciation you get. Appreciate instead all the curses and shouting that rain on your head. This is what will give you your reward in Olom Habo because it proves that you labored and suffered in doing chessed."

How Did He Know?

The more Reb Michel carried on his charity activities, the more he developed a sixth sense of knowing who was worthy and how much he needed. In the later years, story after story occurred in which no one understood how Reb Michel was able to sense how desperate a family was and exactly how much they needed.

Once Reb Michel's son asked him to give charity to two poor families. Reb Michel gave two very different sums to each family. In the end, his son discovered that both families had received exactly what they needed. He couldn't figure out how his father knew exactly what each needed.

Reb Michel would suddenly call up a person, "Please come over. I have a sum of money to give you." The person would drop by Reb Michel's house, and would inevitably tell him, "I was racking my brains trying to figure out how I'd get the money I needed -- and suddenly your phone call came . . . How did you know?" Things like this occurred every day.

Once, Reb Michel was going to make a bris for his second son the next day but that didn't stop him from traveling that day to Netanya to speak to the friends of an engaged yeshiva student. He called them together and inspired them with the importance of helping collect charity funds so their friend could marry. After his inspirational talk, they were all excited and agreed to help.

Reb Michel had many ideas about how to collect charity money. When the first siren sounded in the Gulf War in 1990, the first thing he did was to accompany his elderly father to his own home, since his parents' home could not be sealed properly. The next thing he did was to start calling all of his wealthy friends abroad. He felt that that night was particularly suited for giving charity, since tzedokoh saves from death.

He spent the entire night on the phone with donors, and collected enough money to marry off three orphans!

Other Involvements

Between his own learning and his colossal charity work, what time remained for anything else? Incredibly, he did more.

Reb Michel was a popular speaker at local seminaries, where he spoke about the importance of chessed. At family simchas, tenoim, and other public occasions, he was usually called upon to address the public, due to his exceptional oratory skills.

Because he gave good advice, his own brothers and sisters -- all but one older than he -- and countless others frequently came to consult with him. They took his advice in financial affairs, shidduchim, buying an apartment and many other of life's necessities.

It is virtually unknown that Reb Michel helped numerous charity and medical guidance organizations get off the ground, such as Yad Eliezer, Lev L'Achim, Mish'an LeCholeh, Mogen LeCholeh, Vaad HaRabbonim LeInyonei Tzedokoh and others. He gave the founders not only solid advice, but even financial assistance. When the founders protested his giving them funds, he waved their protests off with, "No, what you're doing is very important."

Reb Michel would be the guest speaker at their fundraising affairs, and would promise to match the funds donated to them. As soon as the organizations had established themselves, Reb Michel bowed out and left them, without seeking any credit. No one knew how involved he had been when these organizations were founded.

Since his charity work was all done on a volunteer basis, how did Reb Michel make his living? Among other things, for five years the Goodfarbs took care of a mentally retarded child.

Reb Michel was just as involved with this child as was his wife. The child would return from his school, Limudei Hashem, with parsha sheets, and Reb Michel went over them with him, trying to make the parsha come alive. He had a knack of knowing how to talk to each person on his own level, including this child.

His warmth and love were not just extended to others, but to his own family too. He would wait for his children to come back from yeshiva or school, and question them about their studies and their friends. When his son mentioned the family names of classmates, Reb Michel only had praise. "His father learned with me -- I remember how he was the best one in the class!" His children couldn't understand how all their classmates were the sons of the best ones in their father's class.

He was very involved in his children's education, and also drafted them to help with his chessed organization. Before the holidays, his daughter would spend hours until late in the night writing out checks for needy families. Despite being busy with chessed, his family was a central part of Reb Michel's life.

In addition to Torah study and chessed, there were two special mitzvos that Reb Michel tried to fulfill with great hiddur. One was the mitzvah of shiluach haken, whose halachos he knew in detail. The second mitzvah was that of kibbud ov vo'eim. His respect and reverence for his father and mother was legendary. He fretted that he couldn't help his father physically, but he rejoiced each time he could drive his father somewhere in his car. He even apologized to his father for the anguish his illness had caused him. After his father's passing, Reb Michel set up an evening kollel to study mishnayos in his father's name.

He took these two mitzvos with utmost seriousness since the reward promised for them was long life, a blessing he had realized in his youth could not be taken for granted.

Tragedy Strikes Again

In the midst of his busy Torah learning and charity activities, tragedy again struck.

Since coming down with Hodgkin's in 1977, Reb Michel had always gone in for regular medical checkups. When five years had passed without a recurrence, the doctors assured him that he was totally cured and the family breathed a sigh of relief.

But when Reb Michel went for a checkup in 1986, the doctor told him that he saw something on the x-ray near the heart that he didn't like. He wanted him to do a special diagnostic test that was only done abroad.

Reb Michel and his wife travelled to the United States for two months. Open- heart surgery was carried out on Reb Michel to determine whether he had fallen ill with Hodgkin's again. The sad news was confirmed. Again Reb Michel had to begin a round of chemotherapy.

Before he returned to Israel to continue a series of treatments, he made a short trip to Toronto to meet with philanthropists concerning his charity organization. He had just been told the most devastating news a person can get, but charity for those in need superseded that.

The various treatments helped and he went into remission. Nevertheless, Reb Michel was never the same after that. This time the disease left him a frail, weak individual who was always coming down with ailments and who needed constant medication and treatments. Despite his fragile state of health, he did his utmost to continue his charity endeavors as before.

In 1989, the Hodgkin's returned. Again Reb Michel travelled abroad to see an expert who specialized in a unique, powerful kind of chemotherapy. He was hospitalized for six months and kept getting weaker and weaker. By the time he left the hospital, he looked almost like a skeleton.

During this time, he received many warm letters from gedolim, wishing him a complete recovery and encouraging him.

When he left the hospital, his doctor told him that if he went into remission, he should come back and the doctor would harvest his bone marrow. Reb Michel discovered that this procedure could be done in Israel. He was eager to avoid the interruption in his chessed activities which the constant traveling for his health caused.

When he returned home, his children greeted their mother -- and just gawked at their father whom they didn't even recognize. He had lost his hair and beard, and looked like a sickly old man.

The humiliating experience of having his appearance deteriorate and being gawked at, happened to him each of the many times he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Hanging on to Life by the Skin of One's Teeth

The Goodfarb family now had to adjust to living with a father who was deathly sick. The house became filled with all kinds of medical paraphernalia. Reb Michel's bouts in the hospital, his chemotherapy treatments, his being connected to IVs and catheters -- all became a fact of life. The family learned to talk about "the illness" as other people talk about having the flu. Mrs. Goodfarb learned how to administer treatments to her husband like a skilled nurse.

The illness again went into remission, but less than three years later, in 1992, Reb Michel was out of remission. Again began another series of chemotherapy, which culminated in a bone marrow transplant. His doctors put him on immunotherapy, an experimental therapy which was supposed to help the bone marrow transplant. His wife would inject the medication, and Reb Michel's fever would fly up to 41. He had to be covered with blankets and was always throwing up.

HaRav Shlomo Zalman would call the hospital at least twice a week and didn't forget to ask how Mrs. Goodfarb was doing and if she was taking care of herself.

Again the illness went into remission. But by 1995, Reb Michel was out of remission again. From that year on, Reb Michel continually underwent chemotherapy and radiation for long periods of time. Hodgkin's kept appearing in different parts of his body. He was a weekly visitor at the outpatient clinic in Hadassah.

An Orphan Speaks

I grew up in Jerusalem, the youngest of 12 children. My father passed away in 1984, 20 years ago. HaRav Yaakov Meir Shechter, the head of the Breslover community to which we belonged, pressed Reb Michel to take our family under his wing. Four of my brothers and sisters were already married, but my mother didn't work and my father, who did work, had left nothing behind to support the family.

Reb Michel at first set up a fund for our family and we lived from the profit that accrued from the fund. As each of us married, Reb Michel paid all the expenses of the wedding, and a big part of the cost of an apartment -- at least $40,000. For the last weddings, my siblings helped but most of the expenses were still covered by him.

When I was engaged, Reb Michel wanted me to take on myself a certain amount of the wedding expenses, about $3-5000. But because I was such a masmid, my brother didn't want me to have this burden. So Reb Michel agreed to cover all the expenses even though he felt he had reached the maximum. He told me I should learn an hour every night over the next three years as a zchus for him.

For Torah learning, he would do everything. He insisted that I write down and sign my agreement to learn an hour every night. Whenever we would meet, he reminded me that my contract was in his safe and said that was worth more to him than all the money there. He would ask if I was keeping it.

He told me several times that merit which comes from chessed is very great, but is not enough. He would tell us that at the end of the Megilloh it says that Mordechai was rotzui lerov echov -- only accepted by most of the Jews but not all. Chazal say that the Sanhedrin kept away from him. Why? Because learning Torah is greater even than saving people.

He would do anything to help talmidei chachomim continue their studies. He said he wanted avreichim to keep learning Torah after their wedding and not leave learning because of parnossoh demands.

My siblings and I felt he was a father to us. He always asked us how we were doing. Those of my brothers with a lot of children were always sent money for holiday expenses.

He and his wife took me to the chuppah and he even wore his shtreimel. He told us he didn't need an invitation to come because they anyway felt like a father and mother.

We came often to visit him and sometimes he sent his daughter to us for a short vacation. We saw him not as a philanthropist but as a relative. He was a true friend. We were so close, that when my wife was to give birth, he told us to phone him even in the middle of the night to tell him the news.


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