The third of Nissan is the yahrzeit of Rabbi David Stavsky (1930-2004). Born in New York, where his father, a Polish immigrant, worked as a watchmaker and was a Torah scholar. David attended Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph for elementary school followed by Yeshiva University High School. His bar mitzvah was in the shtiebel of Rav Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg. He also frequented the home of Rav Moshe Feinstein who lived nearby. Rabbi Stavsky received a bachelor’s in psychology in 1952 and smicha in 1955 from Yeshiva University. He considered Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Moshe Shatzkes to be his primary teachers.
A trip to Israel in 1952 in which he saw many items from the Holocaust on display profoundly affected him. After leaving Yeshiva University Rabbi Stavsky joined the United States Army as a chaplain. Stationed in Denver, he met his wife Ruth Burger who was a Denver native. While visiting Denver, President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. As the chaplain on site, Rabbi Stavsky was asked to perform religious services on behalf of the president. He gathered the Jewish soldiers present and they said Tehillim together. That a Jewish rabbi did so made headlines across the country. Before the president was discharged from the hospital Rabbi Stavsky gifted him a mezuzah.
Upon his discharge in 1957 he was appointed Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Columbus, Ohio. The other candidates for the position were unable to speak Yiddish. Despite being American born, Rabbi Stavsky spoke like a native and was hired. He expected to stay there for only a short time. Realizing that the shul would not attract younger members if the speeches were in Yiddish, he asked the board for permission to change the shul’s language to English and it was granted. The shul started to grow. Rabbi Stavsky had a flair for PR and was a wiz at taking photos of the shul’s successes and having them publicized. He also had an uncanny ability to bridge the generational gap among his congregants and to make Yiddishkeit relevant to all.
The community began to drift to a different neighborhood. Rabbi Stavsky engaged the support of a few community leaders and a new shul was built that became famous for its artistic beauty. He made sure that a covenant was attached to the building requiring it to have a mechitzah and that no microphone would be used on Shabbos. The shul founded the Central-East branch of NCSY, and hosted the first Regional Convention. On Chol HaMoed of Sukkos he would invite the NCSYers to his sukkah for stories and singing. Once a year he sponsored Shabbos with the Rabbi, a shabbaton for youth, the highlight of which was a session in which they could ask him anything.
Knowing that it was not sufficient to educate children, their parents needed to be taught as well, each year during the aseres yemei teshuva the community had a Religious Emphasis Week during which speakers were brought in from all around the country.
He kept up a relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Dovid Lipshutz and a number of Chassidic rebbes. He was especially close with the I-71 rabbonim, named after the interstate that ran through Ohio. They were Rav Leizer Silver to the south and Rav Mordechai Gifter to the north who offered him moral support for decades. Near the shul lived Israel Blum, a Holocaust survivor. When he passed away Rabbi Stavsky began to make funeral arrangements, but was interrupted by a call from Rav Rephael Blum, the Kashiver Rov. It turns out that Israel was his older brother. Rav Blum sent chassidim to perform the tahara and to bring the body to New York for burial. A connection developed between “the Rov and the Ruv.” The Kashiver Rov referred to Rav Stavsky as “Der heileger ruv fuhn mein breeder — My brother’s holy rav.”
Soon after arriving in Columbus he instructed the chevra kadisha on how to care for the cemetery; his instructions were ignored. He called Rav Soloveitchik for a psak halacha concerning the issue. Rav Soloveitchik answered: “We’ll get to the halachah. But that’s not what bothers me. I gave you semicha to be a rav. Assert yourself!”
From the time of his arrival, Rabbi Stavsky saw the need to open a Day School. With the assistance of Jerome Schottenstein the Columbus Torah Academy opened in 1958 with twelve students. The only mikvah in town was in an old run-down neighborhood. Seeing the need for one in the frum neighborhood he began to approach people for help. The first donation came from the local Reform rabbi Dr. Jerome Folkman. The mikvah opened in 1970. In 1994 he helped to found the Columbus Community Kollel. Numerous children from Columbus left to study in yeshivos in other American communities and in Israel. Rav Ruderman referred to his efforts at sending kids out of town as “Rabbi David Stavsky’s export business.” When the boys were home for bain hazemanim, he would invite them over and have each one share something they had learned in yeshiva. When they finished, he would give a drosha tying together what they had shared.
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The fifth of Nisan is the yahrzeit of Nechama Liebowitz (1905-1997). Born in Riga, Latvia, her older brother was the philosopher Yeshayahu Liebowitz and she married her much older uncle Yedidyah Lipman Liebowitz. In 1919 following the Bolshevik Revolution her family moved to Berlin and in 1930 she received her doctorate in German-Jewish Bible Translations and then moved with her husband to Palestine. As her husband was blind, she had the responsibility of supporting them.
For twenty-five years she taught at a Religious-Zionist teachers seminary and was known for her warmth, sense of humor and insight. She would also travel around the country teaching other teachers, newcomers to Israel, soldiers and kibbutzniks. In 1957 Nechama began lecturing at Bar-Ilan University. She also gave Torah lectures on Voice of Israel radio. She left Bar-Ilan after a few years due to internal politics which made her uncomfortable and subsequently lectured in Tel-Aviv University.
Some of her students wished to continue their education and asked her to start sharing with them gilyonot, stencils, with commentary and questions on the parsha. People would send them back with answers and she would review them and make comments and send them back. She did this without pay for over thirty years with the number of her correspondents reaching into the thousands. I recall my mother having many of them from when we lived in Israel in the early 60s. In 1954 she began publishing her questions along with traditional commentary and her own insights. These were later translated into English. Despite her developing new approaches in understanding Tanach she claimed to have no derech and to only be sharing what the other commentaries taught. She declined to be referred to as professor, insisting on being called Morah, or better yet, just Nechama. Morah was the only thing she wanted written on her tombstone.
She refused to leave Israel to lecture abroad despite being offered substantial sums of money to do so. She did not ascribe to Chassidus or Kabbalistic thought and was opposed to the idea of women taking on more mitzvos than they traditionally observed.
In 1956 she was awarded the Israel Prize for her efforts in education. She and her husband never had children and at her funeral her nephew and many of her students recited kaddish.