Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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29 Sivan 5761 - June 20, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Rebbetzin Mattel Schlesinger o"h
By Betzalel Kahn

Last Friday thousands of people tearfully accompanied the distinguished Rebbetzin Mattel Schlesinger o"h on her last journey in this world. She was the widow of the late HaRav Yechiel Michel Schlesinger zt"l, rosh yeshiva and founder of Kol Torah Yeshiva. She was over 96 years old.

The Rebbetzin was born in Biel, Germany on 29th Elul 5604 (1904) to HaRav Moshe Yehuda Jacobson, an active member of the local community, and to her mother Channah, who was known for her chesed activities within the community. Her father, a descendant of some of the most illustrious families of German Jewry, was known for his fierce adherence to pure halochoh and original undiluted Judaism. The story goes that because of worries about the kashrus of the local mikveh, his family would travel for an hour to the mikveh in the neighboring town. In order not to insult the rov of his town, who supervised the kashrus of the local mikveh, they would also dip in this local mikveh the following day.

In this house Rebbetzin Mattel absorbed an intense Jewish education of Torah and yir'oh. She excelled in her studies at the local school, her intellectual qualities merging with her wonderful character traits into a personality of exceptional nobility.

She was orphaned from her father zt"l when she was ten years old. This event strengthened her personality and made her twice as mature as other girls her age. Due to her outstanding capabilities, as well as her dedication to her tasks, she was appointed the head of a kindergarten in the Karlsruhe community for a period of three years, amazing everybody with her devotion to the education of Jewish children. When she left this position, the community awarded her a special certificate, which extolled her amazing devotion, the special attention she paid to every child and his problems, and her efforts to inculcate the spirit of original Judaism into tender young souls.

When she reached a marriageable age she made it clear that she wanted to marry "the biggest talmid chochom in Germany," and in 5690 (1930) she married the great iluy and masmid, HaRav Yechiel Michel Schlesinger, one of the top bochurim of Slobodke and Mir Yeshivos, who had acquired a reputation of toiling in Torah with depth and acuity.

He absorbed the Torah of the great rabbonim of prewar Europe. In both his Torah studies and his yiras Shomayim he followed in the footsteps of the "chassidei Ashkenaz" of the previous generation, his father Rav Eliezer zt"l and his grandfather Rav Eliakim Getshick zt"l, who disseminated Torah and yir'oh in the Hamburg kloiz for many decades.

Before the sheva brochos week was over, the young couple said farewell to their family in Hamburg and set off for Ponevezh, Lithuania. The chosson wanted to join the ranks of the famous Yeshiva there. The fact that Mattel agreed to leave her place of birth and the home of her wealthy family in order to settle in far-off Lithuania, to lead a life of pure Torah and absolute devotion to her young husband's spiritual needs, was a source of much astonishment to all her acquaintances.

The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Y. Sh. Kahaneman zt"l recounted in later years the extent of the Rebbetzin's love for Torah: She gave birth in Ponevezh to her oldest son, Rav Moshe Yehuda, and would take him for a walk next to the windows of the Yeshiva. When he asked why she was doing this she said that because of her husband's great hasmodoh she did not see him very much, and so she at least wanted to enjoy the sound of Torah emanating from him. In addition, she also wanted to get her son used to the voice of Torah from an early age.

During his time in Ponevezh, Rav Yechiel Michel also trained to become a dayan, doing shimush in the beis din of the Ponevezher Rov. He acquired a magnificent reputation, and was called to serve as a dayan on the Frankfurt beis din, and as the head of Rav Breuer's Yeshiva there. As soon as he arrived he managed to instill a new spirit into the community and the Yeshiva, and his talent for leadership of the generation in the path of Torah and yir'oh and for maintaining high religious standards within the community very quickly manifested themselves. Rebbetzin Mattel during this period gave her husband complete moral support, taking care of the household, and ensuring that he would be able to fulfill his duties undisturbed.

In 5697 (1937), the Nazis were in power and were making the life of the Jews a misery by means of officially enacted legislation and unbridled incitement. The persecutions became even worse during 5698 (1938-39), and Rav Yechiel Michel reached the conclusion that the end of German Jewry was fast approaching. In accordance with a ruling of HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt"l Rav Yechiel Michel remained in his position, but when the situation deteriorated, and it became almost impossible for him to engage in spiritual activities and his own life was in danger, HaRav Chaim Ozer permitted him to escape and to make use of his abilities in other places.

Although he was offered the prestigious position of rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas Yeshiva in New York, he preferred to move to Eretz Yisroel, because there it was not compulsory to teach children secular studies and because in Eretz Yisroel -- unlike in the Diaspora -- there was no concept of "Sunday," which has idolatrous connotations to it. His rov from Galanta Yeshiva, Rav Y. Z. Dushinsky zt"l, who had already settled in Eretz Yisroel, also ruled that he should move there. Rav Schlesinger's aspiration was to establish a yeshiva in I>Eretz Yisroel for German bochurim who had moved to Eretz Yisroel.

With obvious hashgocho protis Rav Schlesinger managed to escape the German inferno together with his wife and children on the morning after Kristallnacht, the 11th of Cheshvan 5699 (1938). A chain of miraculous events, during which Rav Yechiel Michel hid in the floor of a rented taxi, led them to the Switzerland, where the rov's brother-in-law, Rav Yechiel Guggenheim z"l, was waiting for him. Rav Guggenheim did everything in his power to help the rov and his family.

During his stay in Switzerland Rav Schlesinger looked for donors willing to help him in his ambition of opening a yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel. Although his efforts were not met with success, he was not deterred and as soon as he reached Yerushalayim, a few days after Pesach 5699 (1939), at the beginning of the summer zman he founded Kol Torah Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, setting a clear Torah path for German Jewry in particular, and for immigrants from western Europe and members of the new yishuv in general, to show them the joys of omol haTorah mixed with pure yiras Shomayim along the lines of Lithuanian Yeshivos, nurturing and educating them with his in-depth shiurim and electrifying mussar talks.

Rav Yechiel Michel ran the Yeshiva's spiritual and material affairs with incredible devotion, with Rebbetzin Mattel at his side, with her love of Torah, her wisdom, and her disdain of materialism. She had agreed to accompany him to Eretz Yisroel for the sake of Hashem and His Torah, despite all the difficulties which she knew would be her lot. She gave her husband the remainder of her father's dowry to use for the bochurim in the Yeshiva, and helped him with the day-to-day needs of the bochurim, many of whom were refugees from war-torn Europe. She also helped him by recruiting funds for the establishment and continued existence of the Yeshiva. Her brother Rav Moshe Jacobson zt"l also offered assistance to this new Yeshiva, his brother-in-law's life's mission.

In addition to the financial aspect, the work involved in founding and maintaining the Yeshiva also took a toll on the Rosh Yeshiva's health, and after many years of absolute devotion to the Yeshiva and its bochurim Rav Yechiel Michel developed a sickness from which he never recovered. Despite his poor health, Rav Schlesinger gathered his strength for the sake of the Torah, and in order to facilitate his continued position as rosh yeshiva he moved with his family into the Yeshiva building. The family made do with a room inside the dormitory building, and the Rebbetzin's determination and purity of spirit helped the family overcome all the difficulties.

Demonstrating characteristic care and devotion, the Rebbetzin accompanied the rov on his trip to England to recruit finances for the Yeshiva's Building Fund. She was very worried about his fragile state of health. About a year later, on the 9th of Adar 5708 (1948) the Rosh Yeshiva passed away, aged 50.

After his petiroh, the Rebbetzin felt a duty to continue her husband's great labor and, after consulting with the Chazon Ish zt"l she traveled to chutz lo'oretz to recruit funds for maintaining the Yeshiva without taking any remuneration for herself, thus following her husband's example during his lifetime.

She also devoted herself to raising her eight children on her own to Torah and yiras Shomayim, the youngest of the orphans being just six weeks old. Her sole concern was to raise her children along the path laid down by her late husband. Living in terrible conditions of poverty, the Rebbetzin brought up her children in the Torah path, taking care of their spiritual development with warmth and love, using her resources of wisdom, and her spiritual and emotional strength, despite her widowhood and loneliness, the day-to-day difficulties, and the trials of the period, both spiritual and material.

Hashem rewarded her efforts to raise her sons and daughters in the spirit of their great father. Before she did anything, she would always ask herself first what her husband would have done, at the same time consulting with the Chazon Ish and other gedolim about various matters. The gedolim were amazed by her greatness and insight and honored her greatly, as was befitting for an eishes chover who was conspicuous in her great love of Torah.

Whenever she went to consult with HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l -- her husband's chavrusa whom he appointed as his successor as rosh yeshiva -- he would stand up for her as an eishes chover.

The Rebbetzin was a role model for all her acquaintances. She always had the right word for each occasion, showing her family and acquaintances the correct path in life, and teaching them how to stand up to life's trials and temptations. She herself was a living example of what she preached. Her prayers, which were recited slowly and with great feeling whilst ignoring her surroundings, were a wonderful example to onlookers as to how to communicate with Hashem with one's entire inner being.

The Rebbetzin had the merit of seeing her efforts bear fruit. Her sons and sons-in-law are outstanding talmidei chachomim, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are worthy of their great ancestry. She was constantly involved in all her descendants' development and education, both young and old. She had an insight into the specific nature and character of each one of her dozens of descendants, and approached each one accordingly. Even in her very advanced years, until the very end, she expressed a constant interest in the development of each one of them. Her mind was totally lucid until the end.

On erev Shabbos parshas Behaalosecha she felt unwell and was taken to Shaarei Zedek hospital. During the week she became weaker and her condition deteriorated, but she remained aware of her situation. When her son asked her why she was sighing, she replied, "I'm not sighing because of the pain, it's because of my sins."

Last Thursday there was a further deterioration in her condition, but she encouraged her family to travel to Bnei Brak for her granddaughter's wedding. At the same time she turned to one of daughters-in-law standing at her bedside and said to her, "In a few hours I shall encounter the divine presence!" In the late evening hours she went into a restful sleep, in the course of which her soul left its earthly abode.

The Rebbetzin's levaya, which was attended by many thousands, left Kol Torah Yeshiva last Friday. Eulogies were delivered by her eldest son, the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Yehuda, HaRav Shmuel Auerbach rosh yeshiva of Maalos HaTorah, her son, Rav Eliezer, head of Kollel Volozhin in Bnei Brak, her son, Rav Avrohom, head of Kollel Beis Yechiel in Bnei Brak, Rav Yisroel Bondheim, a ram at Kol Torah Yeshiva, Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth rosh yeshiva of Chochmas Shlomo, Yerushalayim, her son, Rav Eliakim, author of Pnei Moshe, and her son Rav Yaakov, all of whom stressed her greatness as an eishes chayil, the crown of her husband and "Mother of the Yeshiva" who supported her husband in founding and maintaining the Yeshiva. They talked about her strength of spirit over fifty-two years of widowhood, during which she ran a household and raised her descendants to Torah and yir'oh.

At midday the Rebbetzin was laid to rest in the family plot at Har Hazeisim. She leaves behind her an extended and wonderfully blessed family, headed by her oldest son, HaRav Moshe Yehuda, who replaced his father as rosh yeshiva and her sons and sons-in-law: Rav Nosson Zvi Shulman, Rav Ben- Zion Bordiansky, ram at Kol Torah and Rav Shimon Shreiber, author of Vezos Liyehudo and head of a kollel in Tel Aviv.


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