The p’tirah of Moreinu Sar HaTorah Rabban Shel Kol Yisrael Rabbeinu Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky ztk”l shook the Jewish world to its core. With the shloshim upon us, the Queens Jewish Link chose to commemorate the Gadol HaDor with unique portrayals of Rav Chaim from three Queens rabbanim residing in Eretz Yisrael mostly since their days in yeshivah: Rav Binyomin Kirschner, Rav Yaakov Aaron Skoczylas, and Rav Zev Stark.
Rav Binyomin Kirschner
Rav Binyomin Kirschner grew up in Hillcrest. His parents, Tommy and Ann, now reside on Long Island. Rav Binyomin, a resident of Ramat Eshkol, Sanhedria, now heads Kollel Rabbeinu Yosef Shalom in the Elyashiv residence.
Rav Binyomin first arrived in Eretz Yisrael at 18 to attend a yeshivah. By the beginning of Shanah Bet, Rav Binyomin learned that he happened to be a seven-minute walk from the revered home of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztk”l, Rav Chaim’s father-in-law and the gadol ha’dor of that time period. This began a decade-long relationship with the gadol. Rav Binyomin came to daven in the caravan outside Rav Elyashiv’s just after the gadol survived a life-threatening surgery, when he was given a day or two to live. Rav Binyomin was a constant figure in the home and hospital, and can attest that it was divine intervention that made Rav Elyashiv survive. Rav Binyomin spent the final six months of Rav Elyashiv’s life visiting daily, often together with Rav Moshe Elyashiv, the eldest son of the gadol ha’dor.
This connection led to a decade-long kesher with the Kanievsky household. “It felt like I was there for 20 years,” explained Rav Binyomin. The Kanievskys knew of his connection with the Elyashivs, and he was never considered an outsider in their home. Rav Binyomin would make a weekly visit to Rav Chaim zt”l, bringing the gadol thousands of sh’eilos. “Rav Chaim was always warm and accepting,” said Rav Binyomin. “Maran was often sitting and learning when I arrived, and the gadol either stopped to respond to the sh’eilah, answered while learning, or finished learning a particular k’vius before responding.” Many of these questions were quite strange, yet Rav Chaim would always have an instantaneous answer.
Similar to Rav Aharon Rokeach of Belz, often Rav Chaim responded with a warm smile to melt one’s heart, based on what the gadol had studied that very day. Considering that Rav Chaim learned eight blatt of Gemara each day, it is not farfetched to think that hashgachah played a role in responses. Rav Binyomin once found Rav Chaim learning the fifth perek in Moed Katan on a Thursday, four days later the 16th perek of Y’vamos, and then a few days later daf pei-beis in K’subos – a whopping 250 blatt learned in a mere week. On occasion, Rav Binyomin would bring Rav Chaim issues of pikuach nefesh. On one such instance, Rav Binyomin met Rav Chaim while he was already in bed for the night.
Rav Chaim was once asked why different paths are given to parents when they came with questions of what to name a newborn. “Mah Sh’nochnin” was the gadol’s reply, meaning that the response is articulated in shamayim for Rav Chaim to deliver. Rav Chaim’s responses were often
midah k’neged midah. For instance, someone who was undergoing chemotherapeutic treatment, the gadol advised studying the topic of Nazir.
For those Rav Binyomin met, Rav Chaim was considered a shtick Torah, always surrounded with its holiness detached from our world. “People felt that they saw the truth standing before the gadol in a moment of realness.” It did not matter if you were chareidi, modern, or not yet frum; Rav Chaim peered into the neshamah, always demanding the same ask: “Where are you holding in learning?”
Rav Chaim often gave making Havdalah on wine as the s’gulah based on Gemara for having a son. One person came forward and said that the s’gulah failed to work. Rav Chaim suggested that maybe there were aveiros that needed repentance. When this failed as well, Rav Chaim blatantly said the wine was tainted as yayin nesech. It was revealed that an aide in the home poured the wine back into the bottle each week, tainting its capabilities. To Rav Chaim, everything was based on Chazal in the Torah, and there was no way to weasel out of anything.
Pointing to the derech eretz of Rav Chaim, Rav Binyomin related a story of when he brought in a proper convert. Rav Chaim said of geirim that they should be loved like an only child. In one instance, Rav Binyomin brought Rav Chaim pleasure from bringing before the gadol a ger who had just come out of the mikvah and was a Jew for a mere ten minutes. In another situation, an African American had undergone a full conversion. Rav Chaim related to a grandson that he would have said the brachah of M’shaneh HaBriyos, a blessing that Rav Chaim made just once in his lifetime, but in order not to make the convert feel uncomfortable, the gadol passed on the mitzvah – and we all know how precious each mitzvah was to the Sar HaTorah.
In preparation for a sefer, Rav Binyomin would often ask Rav Chaim sh’eilos to clarify Rav Elyashiv’s customs, and would in turn receive a real opinion.
Rav Chaim was very careful never to commit an aveirah, often taking 20 steps back from ever coming close. Examples include the gadol’s drinks always being covered to prevent a loss in learning; walking around two newborn girls instead of between them from the day they are born; and the halachah of Rabbi Akiva Eiger not to drink water after fish because of a danger. On this, Rav Chaim said that a five-minute interval was sufficient.
Each year for matzah baking, there would be a chaburah. Rav Binyomin asked Rav Chaim if it was reasonable to skip four or more hours of seder to participate. Rav Chaim asked Rav Binyomin, “Do they need you?” But Rav Chaim continued that it is a mitzvah so he should still attend. As a youth, Rav Chaim would attend matzah-baking with his uncle, the Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, and hear him scream out, “L’sheim matzas mitzvah!”
When you are in the presence of a person of such high caliber, you take in as much as you can. Rav Binyomin helped people say the brachah of Choleik Mei’chochmaso as they entered the sacred home. Rav Binyomin asked Rav Chaim following the p’tirah of his father-in-law if the gadol could be on the same level, to which Rav Chaim said, “We can be greater; we can be like Moshe Rabbeinu!” Of course, this meant each person on his own level. Rav Chaim strived for greatness and demanded it for himself, learning only for the sake of the Torah and its merits. He never intended to be in the path to be gadol ha’dor, but Rav Chaim accepted it when it transpired.
Rabbi Yaakov Aaron Skoczylas
Rabbi Yaakov Aaron “Yanky” Skoczylas grew up in Kew Gardens Hills in the home of his parents Dr. Tali z”l and Dvora Skoczylas. Today, Rav Yanky is the moreh hora’ah at the Beit Hora’ah HaKlali in Yerushalayim. To date, Rav Yanky has published 20 volumes of Ohel Yaakov, an in-depth halachah series. The Skoczylases live in Sanhedria Murchevet.
Much of Rav Yanky’s interactions with Rav Chaim zt”l surrounded the publication of his s’farim, so much so that Rav Chaim recognized Rav Yanky’s name. Imagine being recognized from the over 150,000 or so people that Rav Chaim saw each year. In 2008-9, Rav Yanky received warm brachos and a letter for an upcoming sefer. Rav Chaim encouraged Rav Yanky to return once the sefer was published. On the return visit, Rav Chaim was perplexed: “Why did you put me next to chashuve rabbanim; I am a simple person.” Rav Chaim was so humble that even his name appearing beside Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Nissim Karelitz ztk”l and his father-in-law was overwhelming to accept.
On a different occasion, Rav Chaim inquired on Rav Yanky’s next sefer, to which he replied, “Bishul Akum.” Rav Chaim countered, “Write on Sh’mitah.” Rav Yanky pushed to learn why this topic was so vital. Rav Chaim stated that when you write, you grow. Rav Yanky began the work, and it remains in production.
Rav Chaim shared a 70-year strong relationship with Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl shlita. Rav Yanky came before Rav Chaim for foresight on letters from Rav Avigdor; Rav Chaim suggested that Rav Yanky return with a bound sefer, not a collection of papers. The two g’dolim had one machlokes. Rav Chaim disliked that Rav Avigdor used a vav within the spelling of his name. Rav Chaim sent Rav Yanky on a special mission: to deliver a gift to Rav Avigdor, an inscribed sefer.
Rav Yanky and his rebbetzin have merited seven sons; each has been zocheh to a chalakah by the Sar HaTorah. Dr. Tali Skoczylas, physician of g’dolim including Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman ztk”l and Rav Karelitz, amongst others, came to Rav Chaim to deliver an update following the harrowing medical procedure performed on Rav Elyashiv. Rav Chaim followed with a brachah that granted Rav Elyashiv his final five years. It was on this encounter that the Skoczylases merited having Rav Chaim serve as sandek for the bris milah of one of Rav Yanky’s sons on that very day.
When Rav Yanky was searching for an apartment to purchase in Eretz Yisrael, Dr. Tali came to Rav Chaim for advice. Rav Chaim had often told Dr. Tali to grow a beard and said that when he would have one, Rav Yanky would have his dwelling. Dr. Tali explained the difficulties to the gadol and kept this encounter in the back of his mind. Upon the p’tirah of his own mother, the first thing on Dr. Tali’s mind was that his son would finally have his own apartment, and so it occurred.
When Dr. Tali took sick, Rav Chaim’s advice was sought. “If his son will write a sefer, the doctor will have a r’fuah.” Dr. Tali had asked Rav Yanky to prepare a sefer on kibud av va’eim, and Rav Yanky followed through. What a tzadik is gozeir, Hashem makes happen. We do not question the ultimate divine plan.
The biggest haskamah one can get for his sefer is a rav who reads its very pages. Rav Yanky visited Rav Chaim when the gadol was davening Minchah. There was a line outside of a few hundred Jews waiting for their moment with Rav Chaim. A grandson noticed Rav Yanky and told him to go first for a brachah on an upcoming sefer. While they waited, Rav Chaim gave a dose of chizuk to Rav Yanky’s son, Eliyahu: “You have nothing better to do than take pictures of me?” Rav Chaim spent over a half hour reading its pages, never even lifting his head. Those who came for a brachah, included some who brought in photographers, were unable to get proper pictures because of how engrossed the gadol was in the sefer. Rav Yanky’s gaavah was building as the minutes passed, but even Rav Chaim’s grandson would not dare pull the sefer from the sage.
In a separate instance with Rav Chaim, another son got a mini-test of the mishnayos he had been learning. Rav Chaim always encouraged Rav Yanky to write more, and because there is a special chizuk from people worldwide learning your labors.
Rav Zev Stark
Rav Zev Stark was born to Dr. Barry and Diana Stark, also of Hillcrest. Until its closure, Dr. Barry regularly davened at the Utopia Jewish Center. Today, the Starks regularly attend Rabbi Binyomin Ruttner’s Adas Yereim minyan and the Young Israel of Hillcrest. In 2007, Rav Zev, then 24, arrived in Eretz Yisrael for a hopeful z’man of shteiging at Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim. A decade-and-a-half later, Rav Zev leads Kehilas Simchas HaTorah, nestled in the beautiful Judean Hills, just 15 minutes south-west of Yerushalayim, Beitar Illit. The minyan was established for the demographic of more than 400 English-speaking families, who sometimes feel cut off from the Anglo centers in Yerushalayim and Beit Shemesh.
Rav Stark visited Rav Chaim zt”l tens of times and was zocheh to make a final visit just seven days before Rav Chaim was niftar, together with his chaver Rav Binyomin Kirschner. Rav Stark is believed to be the final person from the roughly 80,000 civilians in Beitar Illit to see the Sar HaTorah.
Fifteen years ago, Rav Stark began his visits to 23 Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak. Then, it was more popular to visit Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky a”h. Rav Stark requested of the rebbetzin a brachah for a shidduch to which the Rebbetzin had the budding Torah scholar sit in Rav Chaim’s chair as a s’gulah to merit finding his zivug. This is the same chair sat in by the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky ztk”l, father of Rav Chaim. It was during this period that Rav Stark met his eventual wife, a madrichah from Chicago.
It was widely known that Rav Chaim’s home closed to visitors at 11:30 p.m. It was then that the Rav caught a mere three-and-a-half hours of rest before rising to learn. Rav Stark and a contingent of bachurim once arrived at the front door at 11:31 p.m. for a brachah. The rebbetzin apologized, explaining that the Rav had already retired for the night. She took of her time to speak with the group and deliver blessings accordingly, but had to excuse herself, saying, “I have to get up in three hours with the Rav when he begins to learn.” Rav Chaim would regularly daven at neitz and the rebbetzin would prepare a tea for the gadol to start his day.
Erev Pesach is also a taanis b’chorim. Rav Stark was a rosh chaburah who desired to complete the 90 blatt of Maseches N’darim for the upcoming siyum. Rav Stark did not think that such a task was manageable in a few days and went to Rav Chaim for a brachah to accomplish his task. Rav Chaim was confused saying, “You have a couple days to finish the masechta.” Rav Stark helped out what he could in the home for Pesach preparations and successfully made the special siyum. Afterwards, during a visit to Rav Chaim, Rav Stark told the gadol of his achievement, to which Rav Chaim was delighted and proceeded to quiz Rav Stark on a few topics in the masechta.
At a crowded hesped for Rav Chaim, Rav Stark related a powerful message. Rav Chaim was a giant in Torah whose every moment was accounted for. When Rav Chaim paskened a sh’eilah, it was done with care and concern for the klal. Rav Chaim’s door was open to all walks of life.
Rav Chaim Walkin, Mashgiach and Dean at Rabbinical Academy and Yeshiva Ateres Israel and brother to Rav Moshe Walkin of Kew Gardens, said, “I knew Rav Chaim as gadol ha’dor in midos, specifically in how he dealt with the tzibur.”
Famously, every solitary letter that arrived in Rav Chaim’s mailbox received a reply. Rav Chaim dedicated the most precious gift of time for others to have an easier time. It never made a difference who you were – a Jew who did not wear a kipah, or a rosh kollel – Rav Chaim would always encourage others to learn Torah. One topic that Rav Chaim was passionate about encouraging study was Sh’mitah. Of the tens of thousands of visitors to Rav Chaim, many asked mindless questions, but to the gadol, each person was acknowledged. In life, many of us brush away someone who might be considered a nudnik, but there was no such thing in Rav Chaim’s world.
When Rav Stark’s beis midrash was planning its home, Rav Stark together with Rav Benzion Kreiness and Rav Yossi Gass gave Rav Chaim the honor of pouring the first bit of cement to be placed in the foundation. At the ceremonial cement laying for the spacious structure and without any practical knowledge of the interior architectural plans, the Rav sent his son of nine years to toss in the holy cup of cement. Low and behold, the cement of Rav Chaim now resides just beneath the aron kodesh.
At the same hesped, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, brother-in-law of Rav Chaim, explained of the gadol, “Hashem put Rav Yonason Eibschutz at our front door.”
By Shabsie Saphirstein