Photo Credit: Dr. Yitzchok Levine
Rav Shimon Schwab

An unofficial Simchas Torah hashkama minyan was organized by the Gradman-Hirschberg families together with a small group of the Germans. This was followed by a delicious “Kaffe and Kuchen” Kiddush breakfast at the Gradman house. I was very proud to have been asked to join this group shortly after my bar mitzvah, because they needed me for minyan. This group was purposely kept small not to interfere with the main minyan, and the hashkama davening was timed to end shortly before 8:30 a.m., when the main davening would begin. One year a minor crisis erupted when the hashkama minyan took a few minutes longer, and Mr. Rauneker, who was not in favor of the hashkama – walked in and was quite upset. He said, using the old German word for davening, “Why are you interfering with the ohring of our shul; I am running this, not you!”

Needless to say, a cool, calm and wise Rabbi Schwab soothed things over, as he had done on so many other occasions.

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Hosting Gedolim

I proudly remember some of the Gedolei Yisrael who graced our home and shul in those early years. Rav Elchonon Wasserman spent a Shabbos in our house and davened in the shul. After arriving home from shul Friday evening, my father wanted to honor him by giving him his seat at the head of the table. Reb Elchonon would have nothing of it. My father insisted, until a compromise was reached whereby my mother set up two places, side by side at the head of the table.

My father fondly remembered seeing Reb Elchonon, who had left his door open, peacefully asleep during the night, his hands folded under the side of his head, and compared his look of total trust and bitachon in Hakadosh Baruch Hu to that of my infant brother Myer, who was also peacefully asleep nearby with full trust that all of his needs would be taken care of by his parents. This was a vivid lesson in bitochon.

Then there was the charismatic Ponevezher Rav, Rav Avraham Kahaneman, who attracted large audiences both in our house and in shul when he spoke on several occasions. He was a master storyteller, especially about his recollections of the Chofetz Chaim.

There was Reb Chatzkel Pertchovitz, an emissary of the yeshivas in Yerushalayim, who would usually come in the summer. I remember him crying bitterly while saying one of the “Tzion” kinnos on Tisha B’Av. The practice in the shul at that time, in accordance with the German minhag, was to divide the saying of the Tisha B’Av kinnos among the members of the congregation. Some members had specific Kinnos which they said every year.

There was the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Harav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, from whom my father received semicha. This great gaon and tzaddik spent a week in our house. He always davened Shacharisk’vosikin,” during which the Shemoneh Esrei is said exactly at the moment of sunrise. In conformity with this timing, he davened Shacharis privately in his room in our house. Otherwise, he davened with us in shul.

There was a nephew of the Chazon Ish, Rav Shmaryahu Karelitz, who was a big tzaddik. Of course, the famous Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz, fiery leader of Vaad Hatzalah and later rosh yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, was in our house and in shul many times during the war years.

At the request of Rav Kalmanowitz, my father organized an appeal in shul on behalf of Vaad Hatzalah, in which he publicly auctioned off his own personal Sefer Torah, which he had brought from Germany. I remember it was sold for $2,000, quite a large sum of money in 1944.

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Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He then taught as an adjunct at Stevens until 2014. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.