Kivrei Tzaddikim in America
By Yosef Gesser
Visiting kivrei tzaddikim affords us an opportunity to forge a link with the Gedolim and tzaddikim of the past and the noble legacy they have transmitted to us. The source for this lofty practice is in the Gemara. In Taanis 16a it is related that there is a minhag to visit a cemetery on a fast day in order to awaken in ourselves feelings of humility and an inclination to do teshuvah. A second Talmudic source is Sotah 34b, where we learn that Calev went to Me’aras Hamachpelah in Chevron to daven so as not to be influenced by his fellow meraglim, who would slander Eretz Yisrael.
The practice is cited in a halachic context as well by the Rema, who writes that it is customary to daven at the graves of tzaddikim on Erev Rosh Hashanah, which the Mishnah Berurah explains are sacred places where prayers are more readily accepted because they are buttressed by the zechus of the tzaddikim at rest there.
Visiting kevarim, both in Eretz Yisrael and in Europe, has increased in recent years. In Europe especially, groups travel regularly to the tziyunim of the Torah giants who lived there. In May 2006, Hamodia Magazine featured an article entitled “Sacred Sites on American Soil,” which focused on the fact that many Gedolim and tzaddikim of the last one hundred fifty years are interred in North America, mostly in and around the New York area. We were fascinated to learn that Torah luminaries such as Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Harav Reuven Grozovsky, Harav Avraham Pam, and the Rebbetzin of the Chofetz Chaim, zichronam livrachah, are buried only a short distance from Boro Park and Flatbush.
Readers were also introduced to Rabbi Yonah Landau and his Vaad Hanessiah L’Kivrei Tzaddikim B’Artzos Habris V’Canada, who have spearheaded a movement to revive interest in visiting kevarim in North America and who have been arranging trips to the resting places of Rabbanim and Rebbes in various communities outside New York City, such as Buffalo, N.Y., Philadelphia, Pa., Chelsea, Mass., and Winnipeg, Canada. We noted that one local site in particular that has been drawing numerous petitioners due to the valiant efforts of Rabbi Landau is the kever of Harav Yaakov Joseph, zt”l, the first chief rabbi of New York, located in Union Field Cemetery in Queens.
Our discussion with Rabbi Landau highlighted the fact that it is especially beneficial to visit kevarim that have been neglected. On a practical level, when cemetery officials become aware that these holy sites receive visitors regularly, they pay more attention to maintenance. Secondly, when one kindles a ner, davens, or recites Tehillim at a gravesite, zechuyos accrue l’ilui nishmas the person who is buried there, a chessed the niftar desires to repay by interceding on behalf of petitioners from his place in the Olam Ha’emes.
One individual who decided to act on this information is Reb Baruch Amsel of Queens, New York. He was particularly fascinated by the fact that Rebbetzin Frieda, the Rebbetzin of the Chofetz Chaim, had come to America in the early part of the twentieth century and is buried relatively close to his home. He and a friend decided to visit her kever, which happens to be located near the graves of many Rabbanim, Roshei Yeshivah, and Rebbes.
Reb Baruch discovered that while many other well-known personages who lived fairly recently are buried in that area, a number of Rabbanim who had passed away many decades earlier were also buried there. Based on the inscriptions on their matzeivos, it appeared that they were talmidei chachamim of stature, some of whom had written noteworthy sefarim. Yet he had no clue as to the nature of their accomplishments. He also gradually began to investigate the sections of other cemeteries reserved for shomrei Torah u’mitzvos and Rabbanim in New York State and in other states.
What Reb Baruch found astounded him. He discovered the graves of a number of Rabbanim who seemed to have been long forgotten. Many of them lived in the late 1800s or early 1900s, when assimilation was unfortunately widespread. It seemed safe to assume that many of these kevarim had been abandoned and that there was no one to mark the yahrtzeits of the niftarim.
Reb Baruch started doing research on these Torah luminaries based on the limited information that appeared on the matzeivos. Many of the Rabbanim had indeed made major contributions to the growth of Yiddishkeit in the United States, but are largely unknown today. Coming from a family with a rich background in Jewish history, he was aware that while scores of books have been published about kivrei tzaddikim in Eretz Yisrael and Eastern Europe, there is not a single source identifying the resting places of Gedolim and Rabbanim in the United States.
To fill this void, he and the organization he founded, the Institute for Judaic Culture and History, are compiling such a reference book. It will include a short biography, photos, and directions to the tziyun of each Rebbe or Rav. Some of Reb Baruch’s biographies have already appeared in the daily Hamodia in the “Today in History” column. Harav Naftali Horowitz, the Krule Rebbe, shlita, has encouraged him, saying that he will accrue many zechuyos through his efforts.
The goal of his project is twofold, says Reb Baruch: one is to preserve the memory of departed Gedolei Yisrael and to provide a place for Yidden to pray in times of need, especially those who find it difficult to travel abroad; the second is to alert cemetery administrators to tend to the upkeep of the kevarim. For example, due to the efforts of the Institute, the management at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens restored the fallen matzeivah of Harav Dovid Rodinsky, a founding member of the Agudas Harabbanim.
Reb Baruch reports that he has seen overt siyatta diShmaya in his work. Once, he left his organization’s card at the site of a particular kever, hoping that a family member who might visit there in the future would find it and contact him with information regarding the niftar. Two days later a relative called him.
The majority of graves of Gedolim and tzaddikim in the United States are located in and around New York City, mostly in Queens and on Long Island. One of these is the gravesite of Harav Dovid Halberstam, the Sokolover Rav, zt”l, located in Union Field Cemetery in the Ridgewood section of Queens. The text on his matzeivah informs us that he was compelled to leave his kehillah and family in Europe and travel extensively to raise money for them and for the many aniyim who were dependent on him, but he was never to see them again. The inscription relates further that he was niftar on 30 Kislev 5700/1939, and because of World War II, it was impossible to send his aron home to Europe for burial. This tzaddik was a grandson of the great Shinove Rebbe and a great-grandson of Reb Chaim Sanzer; he was “exemplary for his lofty qualities,” “loved people and brought them close to Torah,” and concealed his good deeds.”
Another tzaddik, Harav Eliezer Chaim Rabinowitz, the Yampoli Rebbe, zy”a, a great-great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and forebear of the famed Skolya dynasty, visited the United States in 1913 with the intention of traveling ultimately to Eretz Yisrael. When World War I broke out, he was forced to remain in America. Unfortunately, he became ill and was brought to rest in Mount Judah Cemetery after he was niftar on 5 Iyar 5675/1916. The Torah thoughts of this tzaddik, who was reputed to be a baal mofes, can be found in his well-known sefer, Si’ach Eliezer.
One can glean some idea of the gadlus of a niftar from the words that appear on the matzeivah – and at times from what doesn’t appear. For example, in the case of Harav Levi Yitzchak Greenwald, the Tzelimer Rav, zy”a, who is buried in Wellwood Cemetery on Long Island, his middah of humility is immediately apparent from the simple words “Here lies Levi Yitzchak,” without any titles (although his saintly father, the Chuster Rav, zy”a, is noted on the stone). The inscription notes that the text appears exactly according to the niftar‘s wishes. The Rav apparently left these instructions to downplay his gadlus despite the sublime levels he attained in Torah and tzidkus, having led kehillos in Europe and America. He contributed greatly to the rebuilding of Yiddishkeit in the United States. It is reported that many childless couples were helped after davening at his tziyun.
A noteworthy kever in Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, Long Island, is that of Harav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zt”l, one of the foremost poskim of the twentieth century, who was niftar in 5733/1973. As the director of the legendary mosad hatzedakah Ezras Torah, he carried the plight of tens of thousands of families in Eretz Yisrael on his shoulders.
Although he was a Gadol with an all-encompassing knowledge of Torah, Rabbi Henkin was an extremely humble person who shunned public recognition and refrained from sitting on the dais at rabbinical conventions or voicing his opinion in a public forum. Reflective of Rav Henkin’s modesty is the fact that his matzeivah is a simple one and does not lie near those of other great Rabbanim. Reb Baruch notes that Rav Henkin’s sefer Lev Ivra, published in 1924, was the first sefer in lashon kodesh to be printed in the United States.
Noteworthy historical facts have come to light as a result of Reb Baruch’s efforts. Reb Yisrael Ber Kursheedt (d. 5612/1852), whose kever is in Beth Olam Cemetery in Queens, is the only known talmid of Harav Nosson Adler, the rebbi of the Chasam Sofer, to be buried in the United States. The niftar was a contemporary of Harav Avraham Bing, the chief rabbi of Wurzburg, and Harav Wolf Heidenheim. According to Reb Baruch, it is reported that Rav Adler held these three talmidim in very great esteem and would often compare them, saying that Reb Avraham was a “charif“(sharp one), Reb Wolf was a “medakdek“(careful in mitzvos),and Reb Yisrael was a “chacham.“
Closer to home, I was astounded to learn that in Washington Cemetery in Flatbush, bordering on Boro Park, one finds the resting places of a number of Rabbanim who helped to build Torah life in this country. The best known of these is Rabbi Hillel Hakohen Klein, zt”l. Rabbi Klein was born in Hungary and was a talmid of the Ksav Sofer. Later he was a maggid shiur in the yeshivah of Harav Ezriel Hildesheimer in Eisenstadt and served as a Rav in the town of Libau, Latvia. He arrived in America in 1890 and became a dayan on the beis din of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph, as well as his trusted assistant. He served as Rav of Congregation Ohev Tzedek on the Lower East Side for over 35 years.
Rav Klein spearheaded efforts to upgrade the level of kashrus and working conditions in slaughtering housesand matzah bakeries. He co-founded the Agudas Shomrei Shabbos, which promoted Shabbos observance and assisted Shabbos-observant Jews in finding employment. He served as the honorary president of the Agudas Harabbanim, president of the newly founded Agudath Israel of America, treasurer of Ezras Torah, nasi of Kollel Shomrei Hachomos of Yerushalayim, and vice president of the Orthodox Union – and yet he is known to have said, “There is but one title that I bear with conscious pride, and that is Hillel Hakohen.”
Rav Klein passed away on 6 Nissan 5686/1926. Ironically, Rebbetzin Klein, who was a granddaughter of Harav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, was nifteres the next day from illness, unaware of her husband’s petirah. She is buried next to him.
Kivrei tzaddikim can be found in other communities throughout the United States, as well. The kever of Harav Yehudah Heschel Levenberg, zt”l, is in New Haven, Connecticut. He served as Rav there for seventeen years and established the first yeshivah in the United States outside of New York City. Rav Levenberg displayed great mesirus nefesh for his talmidim, doing everything from collecting vegetables for their meals to raising funds to enable the yeshivah to function, sacrificing his own growth in Torah. Rav Levenberg was niftar in 5698/1938 and is buried in Congregation Beth Israel-Vilner Lodge Cemetery in New Haven.
Harav Tzvi Hirsch Grodzensky, an older cousin and chavrusa of Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the Rav of Vilna and posek hador,Reb Boruch adds,served as chief rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska, and is buried there. Rav Tzvi Hirsch, who was niftar on 18 Teves 5708/December 31, 1947, was a leading member of the Agudas Harabbanim, and it is reported that the Brisker Rav once commented that had Rav Tzvi Hirsh stayed in Europe, he would have become as well known as his younger cousin.
In the Belair Road Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, lies the grave of Rabbi Avraham Rice (Reiss). Rabbi Rice, a product of the Wurzburg Yeshivah in Germany, was the first ordained Rav to serve as the mara d’asra of a kehillah in the United States. When he arrived in the United States from Germany in 1840, he set about raising the abysmal level of mitzvah observance here. He became the Rav of Congregation Nidchei Yisrael, the first and only shul in Baltimore at the time. Rabbi Rice answered questions on halachah from all over the United States. He also established precedents for the correct spelling of names of various American cities, which was necessary for the writing of gittin and kesubos. He valiantly fought the growing Reform movement but unfortunately had limited success. Under pressure from members of his own shul to make changes that were not sanctioned by halachah, Rabbi Rice eventually resigned from his position, although he continued to use his talent as a writer to speak up for the Torah viewpoint against Reform antagonists. The seeds he planted eventually sprouted in the vibrant Yiddishkeit that would later emerge in and around his community decades after his petirah in 5623/1862.
The tziyun of Harav Yaakov Chaim Perlow, zt”l, who was the Stoliner Rebbe in the early part of the twentieth century, can be found in the Hebrew Memorial Park-Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Detroit. The Rebbe, who resided in Williamsburg, used to visit his chassidim in various communities. One of these was Detroit, where he spent three weeks each year. During a trip there in 5706/1946, he was niftar suddenly just prior to Minchah. The question arose as to where he should be buried; it was resolved when it was discovered that among his belongings, the Rebbe had packed his tachrichim, from which it was understood that he wished to be buried in Detroit. Rav Perlow, who is known as the Stolin-Detroiter Rebbe, was known for his numerous chessed involvements and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining various Torah institutions. His hospitality was legendary; on Shabbos people of various backgrounds flocked to his home.
To our gratification, the article about kevarim that appeared earlier in Hamodia has inspired individuals and groups to visit these gravesites. Harav Dovid Goldwasser, Rav of K’hal Beis Yitzchok in Flatbush, saw an opportunity after reading the article. During the summers of 2007 and 2008, several dozen people from his kehillah made a group visit to many kevarim in two cemeteries in Queens. At each site, Rav Goldwasser delivered divrei Torah and spoke about the accomplishments of the niftar, and the mispallelim said pirkei Tehillim on behalf of Klal Yisrael. The participants experienced great hisorerus on these trips, and Rav Goldwasser reports that a number of yeshuos materialized as a result.
A group from another chashuva makom Torah in Brooklyn, K’hal Chizuk Hadas, led by Harav Yisroel Gornish, also visited local kivrei tzaddikim, where they davened and listened to the Rav speak of the gadlus of the niftarim. Hopefully, other kehillos will follow suit and make similar excursions.
Among the many benefits of visiting kivrei tzaddikim are the opportunity to daven andto arouse within ourselves a sense of humility and a desire to do teshuvah, the ability to generate zechuyos for the niftarim, and the ability to awaken rachamei Shamayim. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of what may perhaps be the biggest benefit – the opportunity to be inspired by the lives of these great people and to strive to emulate their accomplishments and to sanctify Hashem’s Name in the world, as they did.