The Kapischnitzer Rebbe
Reb Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel zt"l

  The sixteenth of Tammuz marks the yahrtzeit of the Kapischnitzer, Rebbe, Reb Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel zt'l. Renowned for his supreme kindness and great ahavas Yisroel (love of ones fellow Jew), the Rebbe was already a legend during his lifetime. On his weak and frail shoulders he carried the pain and suffering of countless individuals, and often when he heard of the problems of others he would break down weeping uncontrollably. The grief of his fellow Jews tormented him much more than his own afflictions, and indeed the Rebbe often put his name and honor at risk in an attempt to help others.

A man once came to the Rebbe crying hysterically. He had just arrived from Europe and was hoping to settle in America. His wife, however, had been refused entry due to her ill health and was on Ellis Island awaiting deportation. "Don't worry," the Rebbe told him, "I promise you that by next week your wife will be here together with you." Hearing the Rebbe's words the man calmed down and went away a new person.

One of the chassidim who had witnessed the scene plucked up his courage and asked the Rebbe how he was able to make such a promise with such ease. "You saw how hysterical that man was," the Rebbe replied. "My first concern was to calm him down and boruch Hashem I succeeded. At least for the next week he will feel better. If after a week he sees that I was wrong and his wife was deported, he will say, 'Avrohom Yehoshua is not a real Rebbe, Avrohom Yehoshua is a liar.' But at least for a week I succeeded in helping him." With that the Rebbe took out a Tehillim (Psalms) and started to cry: "Please Hashem, see to it that Avrohom Yehoshua didn't say a lie, please don't make me a liar!" Hashem heard his prayers and within a week the woman was granted permission to stay in America, and was reunited with her husband.

The first Kapischnitzer Rebbe
Reb Yitzchok Meir zt"l
Born on the fourth of Iyar 5648 (1888) Reb Avrohom Yehoshua was named after the Apta Rov, the Oheiv Yisroel, of whom he was a direct descendant. The first six years of his life were spent in the town of Husyatin where his mother's father, Reb Mordechai Shraga, was Rebbe. After the Husyatiner Rebbe was niftar in Iyar 5654 (1894) Reb Avrohom Yehoshua moved to Kapischnitz where his father Reb Yitzchok Meir established a large court. Although Reb Yitzchok hadn't 'inherited' any chassidim, his great tzidkus (righteousness, integrity) drew many chassidim and Kapischnitz soon became established as a major chassidus. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Reb Yitzchok Meir fled with his family to Vienna. It was here in Vienna that the fame of his son, Reb Avrohom Yehoshua, began to spread. It was a time of upheaval, a time of hunger, turmoil and tragedy, and Vienna became a haven for thousands of homeless and penniless refugees.
Reb Avrohom Yehoshua went every day to the train station to welcome those who arrived. Taking their heavy suitcases on his shoulders, he accompanied them to their new accommodations. After he had jotted down the refugees' addresses he would regularly drop money and food through their doors for their daily upkeep.

Reb Avrohom Yehoshua's house became a center of tzedoko (charity) and chesed (kindness). His kindness knew no bounds. He was particular not to go to sleep at night until he had distributed every penny in his possession to tzedoko. Astronomical sums of money went through his hands, and when his funds were exhausted he would borrow from anyone who was willing to lend him. Even when he was already heavily in debt to his creditors he didn't stop borrowing money and giving it away to the first needy person he met.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana 5696 (1936) Reb Yitzchok Meir, the Kapischnitzer Rebbe, was niftar, and was succeeded by his son, Reb Avrohom Yehoshua. At first, people were sure that the pressure of being Rebbe would force Reb Avrohom Yehoshua to give up his chesed work, but it was not so. The new Rebbe carried on just as before, dividing his time equally between his chassidim and the needy. Outside his door were two queues: those who had come to give the Rebbe a pidyon and receive his brocho (blessing), and those who had come to receive a donation. Often the queue of those who had come to receive money was longer than that of those who had come to give.

Many years later, during a visit to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt'l who at the time was lying ill in bed, the Rebbe advised him that if he wanted to make a quick recovery from his illness, he should stop taking kvitlach (written petitions). He added, "When I was a young man, I was unusually strong. I even managed to undergo an operation without an anaesthetic, and I hardly felt the terrible pain. This was all before I started to accept kvitlach. Since then my strength has left me and I have become weak and frail. Therefore I suggest that if you want to regain your strength and become healthy, you should stop taking kvitlach."

Only two years after Reb Avrohom Yehoshua became Rebbe, Yiddishe life was shattered by the German occupation of Vienna. The Rebbe was seized and forced to clean the streets to the amusement of the jeering Germans. The Yidden tried desperately to free their beloved Rebbe from his humiliating job, but to no avail. Finally, the Nazis agreed to allow one of the Rebbe's chassidim to take his place in exchange for a large bribe. The Rebbe, however, refused to leave his post. He told his family, "What do you think? Should I stop at another Yid's expense? Chas vesholom!" (G-d forbid!)

After a time the Nazis let the Rebbe free, realizing that their plan to degrade and humiliate him had backfired. The Rebbe hadn't felt degraded in the slightest - in his humility he hadn't felt it below his dignity to scrub the city streets.

On another occasion in an attempt to humiliate the Rebbe, the Germans sent one of their officers to cut off his beard. The Rebbe promptly stuck out two fingers and told the officer, "Rather cut off my fingers, but don't touch my beard." The German, startled by the Rebbe's courage, left without carrying out his evil orders.

In a drosho (speech) given many years later in America about Akeidas Yitzchok (the Binding of Isaac), the Rebbe said, "The test of the Akeidah wasn't just to see if Avrohom Ovinu would listen to Hashem, for who wouldn't do so after Hashem had explicitly asked him? Indeed, if Hashem would have asked Avrohom to give away his own life it would not have been a chiddush. Here, however, Avrohom was commanded to offer up someone else. To have to watch how the second person is suffering, that takes true mesirus nefesh (self- sacrifice)." The Rebbe ended his words, adding, "When I was in Vienna under German control, I accepted all my suffering with love, but when I heard about the suffering of others, it was just too much for me to bear."

Despite the pleas of his chassidim that he flee Vienna, the Rebbe stayed put, refusing to leave his followers behind. Tortures and threats did not bother him. Only when it became increasingly difficult to keep the Torah and mitzvos did he finally give in and reluctantly agree to leave Vienna. After intense efforts, a visa was secured for him and his family, but surprisingly, the Rebbe did not leave Austria. The fact was that he simply didn't have the money to pay for the trip. Hearing of his plight, one of the Rebbe's wealthy chassidim gave him money for the journey to America.

The Rebbe later confessed that this money proved to be a test for him. At first he decided to keep the money for himself, to pay for the tickets, but on second thoughts he decided not to change from his usual practice of not keeping money in his possession and he distributed it all to tzedoko. The Rebbe's family was shocked when they found out that he had given all the money away, but the Rebbe remained unperturbed and consoled them, telling them to put their trust in Hashem. They didn't need the money for another few days, until the planned date of their departure, and he was confident that Hashem would help them.

The days passed and nothing happened, but still the Rebbe didn't lose his bitochon (faith, trust). Finally, on the morning of their planned journey, a couple came to bid farewell to the Rebbe. When they heard that he didn't yet have the money to pay for the tickets, the woman took off her jewelry and sold it to raise the money for the trip. (After the war's end, the couple arrived in America and the Rebbe returned to them the exact amount that they had given him.)

On his arrival in America, the Rebbe settled in the Lower East Side of New York where he opened his beis hamedrash (shul and study hall). The Rebbe had hardly unpacked his bags, and he was already out of the house dedicating himself to the task of saving the lives of the Yidden he had left behind in Europe.

The Kapischnitzer Rebbe
Reb Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel zt"l
There was hardly a rescue meeting at which the Rebbe wasn't present. His whole being was given over to helping and saving his fellow Jews in Europe. Once, as the Rebbe was traveling in a car, the sea coast came into sight. At the sight of the sea, the Rebbe burst into tears, saying, "We are sitting safe and sound on this side of the sea. Who knows what's going on, on the other side? Who knows what's happening?" Hearing that the Rebbe neglected himself and didn't eat properly, one of the gedolim (sages) wrote him a letter asking the Rebbe to take better care of himself and to eat a healthy diet including meat and other nutritious foods. The Rebbe sent him back a letter in which he wrote, "I have taken upon myself not to eat any meat products during the week until Hashem has mercy and saves His people. I tremble in fear when I think about the terrible agony of our fellow brothers. My hair stands on end at their plight. And therefore, even though I would very much like to fulfill your request, I am not able to do so until I hear some good news from our fellow Yidden. Hashem should have mercy on them that they should at least have bread to eat."

Right after the war ended, the Rebbe traveled to Eretz Yisroel to thank Hashem for having saved him from the Holocaust. While in Eretz Yisroel the Rebbe decided to open an institute for the many orphans and refugees who had nowhere to go. The Rebbe took upon himself the financial burden of its upkeep. Called Beis Avrohom, the institute is based in Petach Tikva where it flourishes to this very day.

The Rebbe visited Eretz Yisroel ten times altogether. Each time was a new experience for him, a true joy to be in the Holy Land. On the way back to America from one of the Rebbe's trips, he was accompanied by one of the gedolim who bitterly bemoaned the spiritual decline in Eretz Yisroel and the chilul Shabbos (Sabbath desecration) which one sees everywhere. "That's odd," the Rebbe told him. "I was also just there, yet I didn't notice any of the things you are complaining about. Boruch Hashem, there are new yeshivos springing up all the time, with new shuls and mikva'os also. Each time I go to Eretz Yisroel I come back happy, having witnessed the steady improvement from my previous visit!"

The Rebbe played a major role in Agudas Yisroel, being instrumental in many of the achievements of the Aguda. The Rebbe would say that he was not really worthy of being on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, but since he had an obligation to listen to the words of the gedolim, he could not refuse their request to come and join in their meetings!

The Rebbe was among the founding members of Chinuch Atzmai (semi-private religious school system in Israel), together with Reb Aharon Kotler zt'l. Reb Aharon would often say that if not for the Kapischnitzer Rebbe, he would never have been able to cope with the stress and burden of ensuring Chinuch Atzmai's continued survival. Reb Aharon's friendship and admiration for the Rebbe knew no bounds. He held the Rebbe in very high esteem and would often say that the Rebbe was "the Godol Hador (the generation's leader) in tzedoko and chesed."

Although the Rebbe was a man of few words and hardly ever spoke in public, when Reb Aharon Kotler pressed him to speak, he would do so in deference to the Rosh Yeshiva. His words, flowing straight from the heart, always left a mark.

On one occasion, after the Rebbe had been pressed to speak, he said, "Rabbosai (gentlemen), you will forgive me if I speak. I only ask that you listen to me because I am an old man and my time will come very soon. Rabbosai, I believe with all my heart that I will be called before Beis Din Shel Ma'aloh (the Heavenly Court) and I will be asked if I have done everything I could to save the thousands of children in Eretz Yisroel. What will I be able to answer? What can I say? I am an old man and I don't have any more strength, what can I do? But you gentlemen, you are still young and can still help. I can tell you that you will all be asked if you did your utmost for Chinuch Atzmai. You can still do so, Rabbosai! But what will be with me, what am I going to answer?" And with that the Rebbe began to weep. All those present were deeply moved by the Rebbe's heartfelt words and each one gave a substantial sum.

A Yid once came crying to the Rebbe. He was very poor and desperately needed a new hat, but he didn't have the money to buy one. The Rebbe owned two hats, one which he wore every day, and a second, newer one, which he kept for special occasions. Hearing his request, the Rebbe went and brought his new hat and presented it to the man. Realizing that this was the Rebbe's better hat, the man refused to take it, the other hat would be good enough for him.

"Listen," the Rebbe told him. "The mitzvos that a person does in this world attire him as his clothing in the Next World. If I give you my old hat now, then in the Next World I will also be dressed in an old hat. I would rather keep the old hat for myself in this world, and in the Next World I will have a new one."

The Rebbe didn't just give of his time and possessions, but of his physical being also. When he saw a sign asking people to donate blood, he decided to answer the call. The Rebbe's family tried to persuade him to change his mind. He was already old and weak and they were worried that it would be detrimental to his health. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, the Rebbe told them that if they were worried, he was willing to spend a few days in bed after he had given the blood.
The Kapischnitzer Rebbe during a tish
In his later years, the Rebbe's health deteriorated and he suffered a heart attack. The Rebbe, however, ignored all his family's pleading that he give up his work for the klal. On one occasion, when the Rebbe announced his intention to go to a certain fundraising event, the family called Reb Aharon Kotler in desperation and asked him to try to make the Rebbe change his mind. Reb Aharon canceled his shiur and traveled to New York to speak to the Rebbe.

The Rebbe, realizing that his family had been responsible for Reb Aharon's visit, told them bitterly, "Tell me, my children, don't you all need air to breathe? Why can't you understand that a mitzva is to me like air to breathe? Why am I alive if not to perform mitzvos and to help others? If I can't continue to do mitzvos, why do I need to live? If you are all truly interested in my health, then you must make sure that I can carry on doing chesed and tzedoko!"

The Rebbe's mesirus nefesh knew no bounds. Once, a few days before Sukkos, the Rebbe fell ill with pneumonia. His family knew that he would eat and sleep in the sukkah regardless of his condition. The family phoned up the Satmar Rebbe zt'l who was a close friend and admirer of the Rebbe and begged him to talk the Rebbe out of it.

On erev Sukkos, the Satmar Rebbe arrived and informed the Rebbe in no uncertain terms that it was strictly forbidden for him to eat and sleep in the sukkah. A person has an obligation to look after his health, especially a leader of Klal Yisroel who has to set an example for others. For twenty minutes the Satmar Rebbe elaborated on the severity of guarding one's health, andhe ended off saying that if the Rebbe would eat and sleep in the sukkah it would not be a mitzva but an aveira.

After the Satmar Rebbe had ended his long discourse, he said to the Rebbe, "Nu, Kapischnitzer Rebbe, are you going to sleep in the sukkah this year?" The Rebbe looked the Satmar Rebbe squarely in the face and replied, "Tell me, Satmar Rov. What would you do if the positions were reversed, chas vesholom, if it was you who was lying in bed with pneumonia and I had just given you this drosho. Would you really not sleep in the sukkah, or would you stay in the sukkah despite the illness?"

The Satmar Rebbe stood up and with a smile on his face he said, "Kapischnitzer Rebbe, I give you my brocho (blessing) that you should be able to sleep in the sukkah and that no harm shall befall you!"

The Rebbe won the respect and the esteem of all the gedolim of his era. One of his most faithful followers was the Ponovezher Rov, Reb Yosef Kahaneman zt'l. Every time Rav Kahaneman arrived in New York he phoned the Rebbe from the airport to let him know of his arrival, and ask if it was convenient for him to come and say Sholom Aleichem. From the airport he would take a taxi straight to the Rebbe's house. The Rov would often say that from the day the Chofetz Chaim was niftar he hadn't had a Rebbe until he met the Kapischnitzer Rebbe.

In 1947 the Rov was in America to raise funds for the building of the Ponovezh Yeshiva. Due to the difficult times, he wasn't successful in his attempts and after ten months, trudging from door to door, he had hardly managed to raise any money. The Rebbe, hearing of his plight, collected ten thousand dollars for him - a staggering sum in those days - and the Ponovezher Rov was finally able to go back home a happy man.

Another of the Rebbe's great admirers was the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Yehuda Zev Segal zt'l. The Rosh Yeshiva met the Rebbe on a visit to America in 1966 and became very close to the Rebbe, often sending him kvitlach to daven (pray) for him. After the Rebbe's petirah, the Rosh Yeshiva wrote to the Rebbe's family, asking them to send him one of the Rebbe's personal belongings. The family sent him a kappel (yarmulke, kippah) which the Rosh Yeshiva treasured greatly. He would wear it every Yom Kippur. Sometimes, he would also lend the kappel as a segulah (auspicious object) for sick people.

In addition to the Rebbe's many tzedoko activities, he was also very involved being mekareiv those who had strayed from the path of Yiddishkeit. With his warm heart and sincere words he succeeded to rekindle the light of Torah and mitzvos in many.

Once, as the Rebbe was walking along a street on Shabbos, he came across two Jewish teenagers who were smoking. The Rebbe strode over to them and said, "My sons, although I don't know you at all, I am convinced that you both have caring hearts and if you would realize how much it hurts me to see you smoke on Shabbos, I am sure that you would both drop your cigarettes in order not to upset me like that."

One of the young men dropped his cigarette straight away. His friend, however, had no intention of giving in so easily and replied, "Rebbe! Don't you know where you are? You are in America! We're in a free country and everyone is entitled to do as he wishes. I am not telling you what to do, and I don't expect you to tell me what to do!"

The Rebbe laughed at the young man's words, and he replied, "My son, you have raised a good point. I will now ask you a question. If you were to come across a man lying on the ground, with blood gushing from his nose, would you just walk away and say we are in a free country and I am under no obligation to help him? I'm sure you would do your best to help him.

"Similarly, when a Yid is mechalel Shabbos it is much worse than blood gushing from his nose. The Yid's very soul is being sucked away. When I see a Yiddishe neshomo bleeding and his life ebbing away, how can I stop myself from running over to help?" The Rebbe's honest and penetrating words left their mark and in due course both men became baalei teshuva.

The Rebbe personally called upon storekeepers, pleading with them in gentle and kind tones to close their shops on Shabbos. On one street that the Rebbe passed almost daily, there was a Jewish storekeeper who kept his shop open on Shabbos despite the Rebbe's pleas. The Rebbe, seeing that his attempts to close the shop on Shabbos hadn't succeeded, tried a different tactic.

As the Rebbe approached the man's store, he would cross the street. After passing the store he would cross back again. At first, the storekeeper pretended to ignore the Rebbe's boycott, but after a while the shame was too great for him. He closed the store on Shabbos and asked the Rebbe to walk in front of his shop.

The Rebbe's house was open to anybody who wished to enter. Every person was made to feel at home, regardless of his social status or background. The Rebbe made a special point of inviting those who were looked down upon or mocked by others. The homeless, those who were not totally sound of mind, those who had no one else to turn to - all found their place around his table. No one was ever refused.

The Rebbe satisfied each one of his visitors' demands and desires, no matter how absurd it was. One of the Rebbe's regular meshugo'im (crazies) once complained to the Rebbe. He was upset that the Rebbe always sat in a beautiful chair at the head of the table and was always given the first portion. He felt that he was also entitled to such preferential treatment. From then on, the Rebbe sat the man alongside him at the head of the table, in the same chair as he sat in. When the food was brought in, the man received his food together with the Rebbe, both being served at the same time.

The Rebbe once heard of a man who refused to give his wife a get (Jewish bill of divorce). Months went by and he still refused to give in. The reason for his refusal was quite simple. If he got divorced, who would cook him his meals every day? As soon as the Rebbe heard the story, he called up the man and told him, "Please give your wife a get, and as for your meals, from now on you will be my guest whenever you want." The man divorced his wife and from then on he was a permanent feature of the Rebbe's house: breakfast, lunch and supper.

Although the Rebbe's chassidim were bothered by the many queer characters who frequented the Rebbe's house, the Rebbe ignored all their pleas to stop inviting such people. Once, during the Friday davening, one of the Rebbe's 'regulars' became very unruly. All the attempts to quiet him failed, and when his antics increased in volume and frequency, he was forcibly taken and thrown out of the shul.

After davening, word of the incident reached the Rebbe's ears. In a pain-filled voice the Rebbe exclaimed, "All my years, I have been working to try and achieve the madreiga of `ve'ohavta lerei'acho komocho.' (the spiritual level of loving ones neighbor like himself) Now when I am already old, a Yid is thrown out of my shul! How could one allow such a thing to happen?"

One of the chassidim present piped up and said, "But, Rebbe, there is no mitzva to love such a man, such a person is to be despised. He has no place here." The Rebbe retorted, "Whom did the Torah command us to love? It was not just a Yid like the Chofetz Chaim. About such a Yid it wasn't necessary for the Torah to command us to love him. The Torah's wish is that we love even those who have no special attributes which would cause us to care for them, except for the fact that they are Yidden - Hashem's children. It is about such people that we are commanded ve'ohavto lerei'acho komocho!"

The Rebbe informed his chassidim that until the man was found, he would not make Kiddush. Only after the man had been located and the Rebbe had profusely apologized to him, and begged his forgiveness, did the Rebbe start his Shabbos meal.

His whole life, the Rebbe worked to ensure peace and harmony amongst Yidden. Nothing was more abhorrent to him than machlokes (argument, controversy). Once during a stopover in Paris, the Rebbe learnt of a serious machlokes that had broken out between Polish and Hungarian Yidden concerning which minhagim (customs) and what derech should be adopted in their kehilla (community). Although the Rebbe was an outsider and had not been asked to offer his opinion, he felt that he could not keep silent.

On Shabbos, the Rebbe addressed the kehilla, "Since I have heard that a machlokes has broken out here between Polish and Hungarian Yidden, I would like to ask you all a question. Is there really such a thing as 'Polish' Yidden or 'Hungarian' Yidden? Aren't we all children of the same Father? We're all Yidden who, due to the long golus, have become scattered across different lands. Who knows, perhaps the reason why I stopped over here in Paris was to restore the achdus (brotherhood, unity) in your kehilla. I am willing to stay here and act as a mediator between the different parties, but there must be sholom (peace)!"
In his last years the Rebbe steadily grew weaker and weaker, but still he soldiered on, not stopping for a second to worry about his own needs. On one occasion, a day before he was due to leave New York for a rest, he suddenly canceled his trip and refused to go. When the Rebbe was pressured to change his mind, he disclosed the reason for his cancellation. The previous day someone had approached him on behalf of a tzedoko and the Rebbe had given him his last penny. He had nothing left over to pay for the vacation. The Rebbe said that he always davened to Hashem, asking that he remain active until his last day. And so it was. On his last day - the sixteenth of Tammuz 5727 (1967) - he requested the Sefer Sha'ar Hagmul of the Ramban, which speaks about the eternal reward which awaits those who keep Hashem's mitzvos in this world. As he was busy learning the sefer (book), his holy neshomo (soul) ascended to receive its well-earned reward. Zechuso yogein oleinu. The Rebbe was succeeded by his son Reb Moshele zt'l. Beloved by all who knew him, he was acknowledged as a true oheiv Yisroel continuing his father's ways with grace and dignity until his sudden petirah on the seventeenth of Nisan 5735 (1975).
The Rebbe's grandson,
Reb Yitzchok Meir Flintenstein Shlita of Kapischnitz

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