Twenty-four hours of tragedy turned to joy. A true v’nahapoch hu story for the month of Adar.
On motzei Shabbos, my daughter received a phone call. “Could you please come to babysit so we can go be with Chani? Levi never woke up.”
That’s how I first heard of the tragic sudden passing of nine-year-old Levi Yitzchok Wolowik, son of the Chabad shluchim of the Five Towns.
Levi’s mother Chani made my oldest son’s shidduch. His grandparents, Rabbi and Mrs. Moshe Kotlarsky, have been my family’s lifeline since my husband passed away almost five years ago.
After dropping off my daughter in Crown Heights I sped to Woodmere.
The house was buzzing with incredulous family and community members. Some had been living in a kind of twilight zone since the morning, when Chani found her still angelic son in bed when she went to wake him up for shul.
“Things like that just don’t happen, right?” she asked quietly as I made eye contact with her when I entered the dining room. Her composure was so soothing. She was the one comforting every devastated person who arrived. “We just don’t understand and questions don’t help,” she kept repeating.
Hundreds gathered for the funeral procession
of Levy Yitzchok Wolowik (insert),
who went to bed Friday night and never woke up.
(Photo credit: Levi Teitlebaum, CrownHeights.info)
And then I heard this: “The dinner must go on.” She was referring to their annual community dinner scheduled for that Sunday evening. Four important families were being honored. Over five hundred people had made reservations. The dinner journal had just gone to print on Friday. Every detail had been meticulously planned by this phenomenal shlucha and her crew. She was a soldier in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s army and she was well trained.
Concerned comforters were weighing the pros and cons of holding the dinner. But for Chani and her husband Rabbi Zalman Wolowik there was no question. The event had to go on. That was what the Rebbe would have wanted.
Her mother was conversing with some educators. “We need to tell our children the Torah truth the way we were raised Hashem gives and Hashem takes away Hashem be blessed .aren’t we aiming to raise strong children?”
I am always in awe when I see Torah in action, when I see halacha at work. I remember in my previous secular life thinking that the gauge of caring was the depth of inconsolable sorrow one expressed.
As I continued to witness and be a part of this surreal tragedy, Levi’s older brother, Mendel, age 14, was on a flight from Detroit, where he goes to yeshiva, being escorted by an elder bochur. It wasn’t until he got home that he was told the entire story by his loving, anxious parents.
With tears still in his eyes he came downstairs, took out a sefer, and started learning the laws of mourning. Soon I heard his father instructing him, “Even if a mourner’s hair is long, he must still wait 30 days until cutting it . Chicken cannot be part of the menu tonight. We’re in a state of aninus now.”
Until I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his shluchim and chassidim I had never seen or experienced such reactions to tragedy.
“By rebuilding you will be consoled” was the message the Rebbe sent the devastated Israeli city Kfar Chabad in 1950 after an Arab terrorist snuffed five precious souls. After his wife’s passing in 1988, the Rebbe quoted Koheles 7:2, “The living should take to heart,” and directed his chassidim to derive inspiration and guidance from her life. He refused to allow previously scheduled events to be canceled.
Sunday morning the funeral hall was overflowing. Watching four of Levi’s siblings, Mendel, 14, Goldie, 11, Binyamin, 7, and Yerachmiel, 5, do kriah tore everyone’s heart. Hundreds of blinking cars joined the procession past 770 Eastern Parkway, Lubavitch’s world headquarters, and Chabad of the Five Towns, where thousands waited to pay their loving respects.
At the gravesite in Old Montefiore Cemetery (where the Rebbe is also buried), the sounds of crying seemed to be accompanying the heart-wrenching thuds of sand being shoveled on to the coffin. Recitation of a few psalms followed. (No eulogies were said as per Chabad custom.) The mood was heavy, the air was cold; only the predicted snow storm held off.
And then with the emergence of the stars in the sky the “v’nahapoch hu” happened. The spacious, elegant dinner hall of the Sephardic Temple was glimmering with lights and a beautifully-clad audience. From the luscious smorgasbord, to the majestic centerpieces, everything was just right. Those same people who had just been bathed in sorrow and tears three hours ago were now regal and joyous. The energy in the room was contagious. The dancing floor was overflowing.
Only a few hours after Levi’s funeral, over 500 people attended
Chabad of the Five Towns’ annual dinner.
They were all lovingly following Rabbi and Mrs. Wolowik’s “Personal Message,” printed on a dainty card placed next to each wine glass: ” we were taught by our beloved Rebbe, ZY”A that the only way to confront tragedy is to persist with even more energy and more joy. There could be no greater way to honor Levi a”h. He is no doubt looking on and having Nachas from this gathering tonight.”
“In my life I have never seen such an outpouring of love,” Levi’s grandfather, Rabbi Kotlarsky, told the dinner crowd. “You’ll never know what this means to us because there are no words . I was Levi’s sandak . This is not an easy day.”
He recalled that the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “Where does it say that you have a contract with God to have an easy life?”
Rabbi Kotlarsky, who is development director of Chabad’s international emissary network, continued, “We are being tested.” First, the murder of the Holtzberg shluchim in the terror attack in Mumbai, then the Wonderland accident during the Chabad of the Five Towns’ Chanukah celebration, now this – all in midst of an economic crisis plaguing America. “I’m making a declaration,” Rabbi Kotlarsky said, “we will not be deterred . In the face of tragedy we will persevere, the Rebbe never let us take a step back . We will build the largest building our programs will flourish.
“Tonight’s program should be full of happiness, the opposite of what we endured today. The honorees should be b’simcha. Simcha poretz geder [joy breaks all boundaries].”
Mrs. Tamar Pevsner, one of the honorees, encapsulated the evening’s mood perfectly: “When we first came to the dinner we all felt it was so wrong. What are we doing here? But as the evening progressed we saw that Chani and Rabbi Zalman were so right. This is where we had to be and this is what we had to do. The focus has to be on the joy of the soul, not the heaviness of the body.”
By the end of the evening, another honoree, Dr. Michelle Fox-Slesinger, had also transformed her initial discomfort into hope for the future: “We will do more for Chabad of the Five Towns.”
The entire day was just an incredible, extraordinary mix of tragedy, faith, inspiration and joy. But the Wolowik family is still without their Levi Yitzchok.
Oh God Almighty, look down at your wonderful people who with their unwavering bitachon refuse to be deterred by any challenge you hurl their way, and please transform this month of Adar into a time of permanent eternal joy. Let us soon hear the song (Isaiah 26:19), “Hakitzu veranenu shochnei afar – Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust.”
(Postscript: A children’s library in Levi Yitzhok’s memory is being planned.)