The 28th of Adar marks the first yahrzeit of Reb Yaakov Meltzer zt”l. Reb Yaakov, a beloved member of the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, was a brilliant talmid chacham, a tremendous baal chesed, baal t’kiah, and a devoted medical practitioner. He was astute in the laws of taharos, hilchos eruv, and safrus. His priorities were defined by Torah and his chiyus was Torah and mitzvos.
A Life of Shivti B’Veis Hashem
Reb Yaakov’s whole life was a life of “Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu, u’vahem nehegeh yomam va’laylah.” Reb Yaakov turned every place that he entered into a beis Hashem. He came from an Americanized religious home where the value of receiving a high-quality secular education was paramount. His maternal family came to America before the Civil War, yet maintained its steadfastness to Yiddishkeit. Reb Yaakov attended John Bowne High School in Queens, and he proudly wore the only yarmulke and tzitzis in the entire school. He understood that he had to be m’kadeish shem shamayim. Everybody knew him – the Orthodox kid – and everyone admired and respected him.
A Lifetime Love of Learning
At the levayah, his cousin and lifelong friend Rav Yaakov Bienenfeld, rav of the Young Israel of Harrison, recalled those early years. “Reb Yaakov would wake up early each morning, daven, study Chumash with Rashi, and learn halachah. At the young age of 12, he understood the importance of Torah study, learning halachah, and davening, and he did this while enmeshed in very secular surroundings. Yeshivah bachurim were in awe of his unique lifestyle and commitment to Torah.” He intuitively knew the obligations of a ben Torah in this world. His challenges and struggles always appeared natural and effortless, because he was so persistent and tenacious and never compromised on Torah standards.
Reb Yaakov graduated high school at the age of 15, and was awarded a full scholarship, granted to the top five percent of science students in the US, to continue his science studies at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot, Israel. He arrived in Eretz Yisrael to study science, but Reb Yaakov, knowing the value and primacy of Torah study, went to learn in yeshivah. After five months in one yeshivah, his rebbeim, recognizing his talents, told him, “You are ready to study in yeshivos of the highest rank in Israel,” which he did diligently for the next six years. He learned in Yeshivas Itri and afterwards in the Mir. While studying in Itri, he became very close to Rav Moshe Rosengarten, the author of the popular set of s’farim D’var Moshe al haShas. He excelled in Torah study and gained a thorough grasp of Tanach, Shas, and Shulchan Aruch.
Reb Yaakov returned to the States, married, had a large, beautiful family, and continued his studies in the Sha’ar HaTorah kollel run by Rav Zelik Epstein for ten years. Eventually, he became a Physician Assistant, and stayed engrossed in his learning for hours every morning and evening.
His daughter Yael iterated this ideal: “My memories of my father are of him always with a sefer, both at home and at work. Whenever I would go visit my father at work, if he wasn’t with a patient, he would be sitting and learning. In nursing school, I was lucky enough to work together with him as his medical assistant and see for myself his constant Torah learning at any spare moment. Back in the days when we had one car, I would often pick up my father from his job. I was the proud daughter, watching my father walking out of the hospital in his black pants, white shirt, tzitzits hanging out, and a sefer in his hands.”
Reb Yaakov’s chavrusos remember the excitement and simchah that he derived from a geshmake he’arah or a chidush in a sugya: Rabbi Laib Roberts, a chavrusa and very close friend, commented that learning wasn’t something that he did; it was just part of him. Rabbi Shlomo Agishtein, another chavrusa, commented, “Rabbi Meltzer was one of those people who ‘worked bein ha’sedarim; he was someone whose day was devoted to learning with an interval for work.”
Reb Yaakov, who worked for many years in Williamsburg, arranged with a chavrusa, Reb Mark Bondi from the neighborhood, to learn together on the train so that his time commuting should be properly utilized. At times when the train was full and they were learning while standing, invariably non-Jews would offer them their seats in order that they could study together in a more pleasant manner. Reb Mark attributes this to the special chein that Reb Yaakov radiated; everyone knew that he was special. When they learned Maseches Rosh HaShanah, Reb Yaakov dazzled Mark with his extensive knowledge of astronomy and its application to kiddush ha’chodesh.
His Unique Style of Chesed
His medical expertise was sought by many, including Rav Belsky. He would help anyone who came, anytime. At the levayah, his son Yerachmiel spoke about early memories of his father’s devotion to chesed. “Growing up, our Shabbos meals and my father’s naps were constantly interrupted by someone seeking my father’s medical advice.” Reb Yaakov would always avail himself to others with a smile and good cheer. Sha’ar HaTorah bachurim would routinely stop by, and he never demanded any remuneration or co-pays from the Kollel yungerleit.
A Kew Gardens resident recalled how Reb Yaakov would climb five flights of stairs when his elderly father needed medical assistance, refusing to have him brought to the home office and then check on him the next day.
His son Tzvi recalls an incident that occurred in Staples. Reb Yaakov was approached by an African American woman who thanked him profusely for being such a great “doctor” and helping her child. Reb Yaakov mentioned afterwards that he had taken care of her son 15 years before.
Rabbi Moshe Herman, a Hatzalah paramedic who saved Reb Yaakov’s life after the first time he went into cardiac arrest, penned the following description after Reb Yaakov’s p’tirah. “When I joined the local yeshivah over 25 years ago, Yaakov Meltzer was an older yungerman in the kollel. He was a serious ben Torah but someone who was easily approachable, friendly, and down to earth. He was one of the original Hatzalah members, and during my time in yeshivah he became a PA. Our community owes him more than it can ever pay back.”
A Kew Gardens family shared the following story. “My son had to take a blood test before a certain procedure and was terrified of blood tests until someone in Kew Gardens suggested Dr. Meltzer. He came to our apartment, gave him something that put him to sleep, and spoke to him to calm his anxiety before taking the blood. My husband offered to pay him, but he refused. What a baal chesed and anav!”
Reb Yaakov had no gaavah and he took no credit for himself. He felt that his medical acumen was a gift from Hashem, and he should use it to help people. Reb Yaakov was known to all his patients as Rabbi/Doctor for this very reason.
An aspect of his humility was how he was unfazed by the petty grievances that seem to consume so many. Reb Yaakov’s children recall that he avoided any vestige of machlokes and always desired that everyone should be b’shalom. He did not bother to waste time focusing on perceived slights or harboring animosity towards anyone.
A patient relates that one time she was parking in the street near Reb Yaakov’s house and accidentally dented a neighboring car. It was a pretty bad dent, so after Reb Yaakov finished checking her children, she asked him for a pen and paper to leave a note on the car that she dented. When describing the make and model of the car to Reb Yaakov, he remarked nonchalantly, “Oh, that’s my car.” Her children were so shocked by his calm demeanor that they remember the incident until today.
An example of his ingenuity occurred on a Shabbos Parshas B’reishis when Reb Yaakov was in Chapman Lake, Pennsylvania. It was Shabbos M’varchim and no one knew the molad. By using the previous month’s molad he mentally calculated the current molad by adding the correct number of hours, days, minutes, and chalakim for the upcoming molad.
Nobody knew about half of these activities because they were done out of ahavas Yisrael and a devotion to doing the right thing with total humility and self-effacement.
His son Reb Zev mentioned at the levayah that his father never looked at himself. He recalled that as a young boy he was reprimanded for looking into a mirror. Reb Yaakov explained to his son that one should never look at himself but rather focus on others. (Subsequently, he did not allow his sons to purchase t’filin mirrors.) Indeed, this message was one of the guiding principles of his life.
He strove to fulfill each mitzvah in its finest fashion. He used to answer Amen Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah out loud b’chol kocho in accordance with the halachah. Rav Paysach Krohn noted how inspired he was by listening to Reb Yaakov’s powerful voice and that he was the first person he saw who fulfilled this halachah to its fullest.
He took on certain chumros, but never imposed them on others, even his children. For example, he would only eat at a kiddush if he could wash on bread, in keeping with the shitas HaGra.
His daughter Chana recalls his adherence to oneg Shabbos. Reb Yaakov was makpid to buy delicacies for Shabbos with no monetary limits. He always explained to his children that Shabbos doesn’t cost.
His z’hirus in kiyum ha’mitzvos was done because it was the right thing to do, not merely to conform with others. For example, he began his checking lettuce for bugs long before it was in style.
Dedication to His Family
His ultimate nachas was his family. His devotion to his mother was constant, treating her regally and referring to her in third person. After his father died, he took care of all her needs, day and night.
Family members and close friends related how he and his wife Debbie always seemed to be in Shanah Rishonah. His daughter Tirtza recalls that until he bought an upscale coffee maker for the house, he would go to the store every morning to pick up a brewed coffee for his wife.
His children adored, respected, valued his opinion, and sought advice on every issue. His son Tzvi said at the levayah that he would call him several times a day.
His daughter Chana attributes her constant yearning to be close to Hashem to her father. He’d always sing “Bilvavi mishkan evneh” to her as a baby. As a matter of fact, she walked down to that song at her chasunah.
Leah, another daughter, reminisces how she jumped at any opportunity to assist her father. A few weeks before his p’tirah, she brought him chicken soup and, while parked outside her parents’ house, she received a ticket. All she remembers is looking at the ticket and smiling; the ticket is just money, yet it was more important that she had the opportunity to help her father. Indeed, all his children looked up to him and felt his love.
At the levayah, his youngest son-in-law, R’ Yechiel Akuka, noted that everything the family does will continue to be performed in consonance with their father’s hadrachah.
A Lasting Legacy of Torah and Chesed
At the levayah, his son Reb Zevi noted that although his father was engrossed in chesed and mitzvos, the biggest simchah that his father ever had was through learning.
Yerachmiel recalls that the last sugya that his father learned with him right before he was niftar was Yeihareig v’al ya’avor. “It was certainly no coincidence that this, of all lessons, was my father’s “last will and testament.” This was his essence: A legacy of m’siras nefesh for Torah, mitzvos, and others.
Y’hi zichro baruch.
By Rabbi Binyomin Hellmann