Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel • “The Kapischnitzer Rebbe”
On Monday the 16th of Tammuz 5727 (1967), Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Kapischnitzer Rebbe, suddenly passed away. The sad news quickly spread, and thousands rushed to his Beit Midrash in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The greatest Rabbis and Rebbes, Roshei Yeshiva and their students, and Jews of every type walked with head lowered behind his casket and accompanied it in silence on the way to his final resting place in Jerusalem.
Who was this Rabbi, who was esteemed and praised to the heavens by everyone? He was obviously very well known and loved by all segments of the population, yet in reality he was also hidden – well known and hidden at the same time.
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel was born in 5648 (1888) to the Rebbe of Kapischnitz, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, in the town of Husiatyn, a small city in Galicia by the Zabrotz River, which then separated Austria from Russia.
He learned the essentials of his Torah from his father, and from his youth he distinguished himself by the goodness of his heart and his good deeds. When he arrived at the age of religious adulthood, he was given a large apartment (according to the custom of Rozhin), which the young Avraham Yehoshua turned into a guest home. Every traveler and destitute person found a place to rest with him, and it was he himself who served them. His father, the Rebbe of Kapischnitz, seeing that his son was destined for greatness, devoted himself to him and educated the boy in his future role. His son helped him with everything that happened in town and for all that concerned Klal Israel. He always said, “You can trust my son Avraham. He never lets anything out of his hand that is not in perfect order.”
When the First World War erupted the Rebbe of Kapischnitz, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, fled with his family to Vienna, the capital of Austria. Vienna was then filled with Jewish refugees fleeing Russia, many of whom suffered from hunger and poverty. Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua worked with great devotion to help each and every one of them, and he became a living legend to all.
In 5696 (1936), his father Rabbi Yitzchak Meir died, and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua was crowned as Rebbe in his place. In short time the young Rebbe of Kapischnitz became quite famous in the Chassidic world, and many came to him for help and advice.
In 5699 (1939), Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel left for America and settled in a suburb of New York City.
Not long afterwards, his home became a center to which everyone turned. All Jews who had a problem addressed themselves to the Kapischnitzer Rebbe, spilling out the bitterness of their hearts to him. The Rebbe, kindhearted and filled with mercy and pity, would console and help them with all his might.
Everything about his appearance reflected a special kind of nobility, with royal mannerisms after the traditional style of Rozhin. At the same time, however, he was friendly to every Jew who entered into contact with him.
The Kapischnitzer Rebbe performed his community work without asking for anything in return. He was always standing in the wings, and his name did not appear in public. He held no official position whatsoever, and throughout his life he fled from honor. Everyone knew, however, that he played a part in everything that concerned the community, and many important institutions were established through his initiatives.
When the Chinuch Atzmai (“independent education”) program was being organized and found itself in need of funds, the Kapischnitzer Rebbe invested all his energies and efforts into this sacred task. Without taking his own fragile health or advanced age into account, he devoted himself with superhuman force to the task of establishing schools in Eretz Israel that were in complete conformity to the requirements of the Torah.
Once in a conference held for Chinuch Atzmai, the participants did not give as much as was asked of them, and so the Rebbe got up and with a tear-filled voice addressed his listeners: “Listen, my dear friends. You are still young, but I am old and sense that my end is near. What will I say on the Day of Judgment, when I will be asked what I did for Chinuch Atzmai? We have an opportunity to save so many children and have them walk in the ways of Torah and tradition!” He sobbed greatly as he spoke, and his words – which emanated from his pure heart – entered the hearts of his listeners, and there and then a great sum of money was collected.
His devotion to the construction of mikvaot holds a place apart. He expended all his money for constructing houses for purification, especially in new settlements in Eretz Israel, whose residents were poor and lacked the means to build a mikveh. He knew no rest before finding funds when necessary, and he built new mikvaot in all corners of the Holy Land.
Because of his community work, be it for Chinuch Atzmai or for mikvaot, the Rebbe often traveled to Eretz Israel. There many people came to see him for advice and assistance.
Once while he was in Eretz Israel, a Jew came to him and complained about his bitter fate, and while recounting his story he mentioned in passing to the Rebbe that he didn’t even have a hat for Shabbat. The Rebbe spoke to him gently as he consoled him, encouraging him not to lose hope. All while speaking to him, the Rebbe also gave him his new felt hat, but the man refused to take it. The Rebbe then showed him that he had two hats, but the man felt that the Rebbe was giving him his new one while keeping the old one for himself. He therefore asked the Rebbe to give him his old hat. The Rebbe kissed him and said, “Listen my son. I have two hats: One for this world and one for the World to Come. The hat that I’m giving you is the one for the World to Come. Do you want to be wearing an old hat in the World to Come?”
One day a fire broke out in one of the yeshivot in town, and a place for Torah study was therefore needed. A Rav from the fire-damaged yeshiva came to ask him for permission to study with his students in his yeshiva, and upon hearing his request the Rebbe became upset and said, almost in anger: “Is it to me that you are asking for permission? Does the Beit Midrash belong to me? On the contrary, it’s yours to do whatever you like. I ask you only one thing: Allow me the right to use it as well.”
He put great effort into having people observe Shabbat, personally going through the streets of New York to beg merchants to close their shops on Shabbat. He spoke gently, with an accent of nobility, and his words had a great effect. He always told Jews going outside to warn Sabbath desecrators to close their shops, but not to yell or get angry with them. Rather, they were to speak gently and utter words from the heart. Whenever a group was formed to observe Shabbat in various areas of town, he supported it both financially and with his advice.
The Rebbe lived an active life until his final day, Monday Tammuz 16, when he left this world. With his passing, we lost one of the great Rebbes who had influenced his generation. May his merit protect us, we and all the Jewish people.