Just over a year has elapsed since the untimely passing of Dr. Tali Skoczylas a”h, on 7 Sivan 5779. The Queens Jewish Link spoke with Rabbi Yaakov Aaron Skoczylas, who now resides in the Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood in Yerushalayim, to learn more about what made his father so special, and the unique father-son bond the two shared.
Shortly after the 2005 birth of their firstborn son, Rabbi Skoczylas and his wife chose to leave behind their home in Brooklyn and make aliyah, moving to Ramat Eshkol. “I credit my successes directly to my parents for always standing behind my decisions and believing in my growth,” explained the rabbi, who is the author of the world-renowned and oft-quoted Ohel Yaakov sifrei halachah series. “It gave me a distinctive boost of confidence to know that my father and mother took a meaningful interest in the day-to-day of my life despite my move halfway around the world,” continued Rabbi Skoczylas. “My first few years of marriage were spent under Rav Moshe Pirelli in Boro Park’s Yeshiva Derech Chaim. These Torah giants pushed me further and molded my election to raise my family in Eretz Yisrael.”
Upon arriving in Israel, Rabbi Skoczylas spent more than five years davening Shacharis minyanim with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l in the alleyways of Meah Shearim, at the behest of a close talmid of the Rav. A later distinguished influence includes Rabbi Matisyahu Deutsch, the noted dayan from Ramat Shlomo, where Rabbi Skoczylas studied for five years. Rabbi Skoczylas, a local graduate of Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe in Kew Gardens, also gained a close relationship with Rabbi Baruch Gottesman of Kew Gardens Hills while in high school at Ohr Torah Institute.
Many have commented on Dr. Tali’s intense focus on davening and learning. Rav Elyashiv’s minyan would include some of the most erudite scholars, yet even they would point to Dr. Tali’s concentration, a notion repeated in the minyanim of other g’dolim on his visits to Israel. Dr. Tali was known to choose a project and keep focused without wavering. After Shacharis each morning at Chasam Sofer in Kew Gardens Hills, Dr. Tali would learn two mishnayos without fail. This admirable practice was noted by many, who felt that if a busy doctor can set aside time each morning to learn, anyone can change his routine. Rabbi Skoczylas’ Queens upbringing set him up for seeing many perspectives and gave him the understanding to never be embarrassed of goals and aspirations.
Dr. Tali Skoczylas found tremendous pleasure in learning with his son b’chavrusa and watching him as he climbed the ladder of Torah learning and teaching. It seemed like every couple of months, a new sefer halachah in the series Ohel Yaakov was published, bringing much nachas to the proud father. “I was my father’s address to discuss Torah topics,” explained Rabbi Skoczylas. “Although he was Israeli, I became his connection to the ruchniyus (spirituality) aspect of the Holy Land. Rather than me repeating its words, my father preferred to see explanations inside a sefer. His interests went deep as he yearned to understand the remedies to his queries.”
Rabbi Skoczylas remarked on his father’s sheer enjoyment from observing his son’s rise in spreading Torah. “I have been married over 16 years, and not once did my father quip about his financial support to our family. He had a special joy from seeing my growth and this exemplified his love of Torah.”
Over the last year, some have remarked how, despite what they thought they knew of Dr. Tali, they were amazed at how little they actually knew. Dr. Tali was not one to interfere, and in his extreme humility, did not believe himself to be someone noteworthy. On a visit to Rav Elyashiv, he was reluctant to enter the chambers, as he did not feel he was on the level to offer advice. At the directive of a grandchild of the Rav, he finally entered. “I am happy to see that the Rav is eating well,” he told the Rav. The relatives were amazed how he knew there had been a previous issue. The doctor explained, “When I was here in Cheshvan (of that year), I went to the Rav for a brachah after davening, and when I touched his skin, it became apparent that the Rav was malnourished.” The grandchildren were quite moved by this observation and kept in close contact in the years ahead. In his humility, Dr. Tali only presented insight into his visits with the revered Rav when others persisted. The connection with Rav Elyashiv led to a final visit at the hospital, where Dr. Tali recited two pieces of T’hilim as the Rav nodded in agreement of its words, an action many could not believe possible at the time, considering the Rav’s dire condition.
Rabbi Yaakov was appointed a moreh horaah tzedek at the Beit Horaah HaKlali in Jerusalem, headed by the highly regarded poseik Rav Ben Tzion HaKohen Kook, also a student of Rav Elyashiv. Here, he receives letters, emails, and calls at any hour of the day or night, often on a designated hotline, both from locals and those abroad. A typical hour sees men and women, young and old, Hebrew, English, and Yiddish speakers calling with questions from New York, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Some recent questions included: “Is one allowed to swim during the Three Weeks?” “Is it permissible to bask in the sun on the Shiv’ah Asar B’Tamuz fast?” “Is there a solution in regard to immersing a new electrical appliance?”
Following a page from his father’s book, Reb Yaakov answers his callers with patience and respect, delving deeper into the delicate matters, trying his best to relate to each experience. Reb Yaakov states that he can feel his father watching over him every step of the way. It is not an easy task to give advice on the spot; it takes tremendous siyata diShmaya (Divine assistance) to deliver the correct response, and there is also a sense of incredible responsibility. Repeating the decisions and t’shuvos from g’dolim like Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein and Rav Moshe Sternbuch helps Rabbi Skoczylas achieve clarity in his answers.
“Growing up in Queens, I was able to encounter many different walks of life and watch as they each served Hashem and honored his torah in their unique way,” articulated Rabbi Skoczylas. “My siblings and I would look up to my father and witness how honoring his parents came paramount.” In America, a sefer Torah had been commissioned in Dr. Tali’s father’s memory and, following the p’tirah of his grandmother, Rabbi Skoczylas suggested that his father commit to a similar gesture in Eretz Yisrael. “My father did not question the difficult financial burden and only asked where, when, and how,” noted Rabbi Skoczylas. The sefer Torah was eventually given to a beis midrash filled with talmidei chachamim, amongst them Rav Asher Arielli.
For the past decade, Rabbi Skoczylas has been very fortunate to develop a closeness with Rav Avigdor HaLevi Nebenzahl, the Rav of the Old City of Yerushalayim. Four years ago, Rabbi Skoczylas published a new 700-page sefer MiTziyon Teitzei Torah, which was based on Rav Nebenzahl’s rulings. More recently in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Skoczylas has been receiving calls from abroad, inquiring on procedures for loved ones who had passed away and could not be flown for burial in Eretz Yisrael. He forwarded these and many other difficult questions to Rav Nebenzahl for a final determination.
For Rabbi Skoczylas, the path to involvement in halachah began when he asked a question regarding a kitchen pot and was advised to study the laws more carefully to avoid future issues. Soon, he began to study under rabbanim from the Eidah HaChareidis, where he learned practical solutions and how to guide others. Then, his first sefer, originally printed for family and friends, became a reality; this was a dozen years ago. Some copies of this work were given to a local s’farim store and barely a week later, the establishment called for a restock, beginning the storied path. His father remained a constant force behind Rabbi Skoczylas publishing each new volume. “After the first few s’farim were printed, my father suggested that we include some of his friends in the mitzvah of spreading Torah,” explained Rabbi Skoczylas.
“My father believed in sharing the merit from participating; he gladly would have provided any necessary funding, but in his humility wanted others to share in the joy.” Dr. Skoczylas was always happy to open his heart to aid others; if ever asked for assistance, he would often only react, “How can I help?” Growing up, Rabbi Skoczylas recalls a notable community rav who would use his father’s basement office for appointments. He later learned that when this rav would come monthly to pay his rent, Dr. Skoczylas would not accept the funds, not having the heart to charge a local rabbi. Moreover, the value of parnasah had special meaning to Dr. Skoczylas. The general practice of a doctor is to charge a copay, a fee over what the health insurance company will pay for services rendered. According to his wife, Dr. Skoczylas never once charged a Jewish patient this extra fee, simply being content with whatever the health insurance provided, not wanting his patients to feel the burden of out-of-pocket charges.
With over 15 s’farim now published, one story that stands out was witnessing the Sar HaTorah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, studying the pages of one sefer for a half hour straight. “It does not make sense that my words can have such an impact; the entire process has been a chesed of Hashem,” said Rabbi Skoczylas. In Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim in Queens, Dr. Skoczylas would also encounter bachurim who learned from his son’s s’farim. This would give him a special nachas as he would call Rabbi Skoczylas, “Go further, push onward.” Rabbi Skoczylas also holds a close connection with Queens rabbanim, including Rav Shaul Arieli, his family’s rabbi, and Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, where Rabbi Skoczylas was instrumental in assisting in the preparation for his hugely successful sefer Chukas HaTorah written on the laws of Nidah.
Recently, the administrative board of the Beit Horaah HaKlali has decided to open a modern, sophisticated website enabling many individuals around the globe to send in their inquiries. The interactive, user-friendly interface allows for questions to be easily communicated to the rabbis and dayanim of the Beit Horaah and receive a quick reliable response. The head of the Beit Horaah, Rav Ben Tzion Kook, who personally knew Dr. Tali, felt tremendous admiration and appreciation towards the humble physician and opted to dedicate the new website in his memory. “These days, there are many individuals who seek halachic advice, but do not always have a rav to turn to, or one who is readily available,” explains Rav Kook. “We are here to provide an immediate response. The halachah does not discriminate. We answer questions of people from all walks of life and the entire religious spectrum. Accepting calls from around the globe fulfills the words of the prophet Yeshayahu, “Ki miTziyon teitzei Sorah u’dvar Hashem miYerushalayim.”
Additionally, the Beit Horaah publishes a weekly popular newsletter, Shoalin V’Dorshin (asking and answering), addressing halachic matters. “Our distinguished Beit Horaah has become a model for many communities around the world that are in the process of establishing their own centers. Our goal is that no Jew should ever hesitate to turn to a rav. All we try to do is to give the best answers that will be in accordance with Hashem’s will,” communicated Rav Kook. Rabbi Skoczylas also serves as the Rosh Kollel at Beit Mordechai Yitzchak in Ramat Eshkol, Yerushalayim.
There is no doubt that Dr. Tali Skoczylas is watching from Gan Eden, collecting tremendous nachas ruach from his family’s strides. Today, Mrs. Dvora Skoczylas, Reb Yaakov’s mother, who was always on the same page as her husband, going side by side with his endeavors, continues to be a strong supporter of all her children’s activities and aspirations.
The Queens Jewish Link wishes a special mazal tov to the Skoczylas family as they welcomed a baby girl on Erev Tish’ah B’Av.
By Shabsie Saphirstein