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The Kopyczynitzer Rebbe: Reb Moshe Mordechai Heschel Zt"l

By B. Moses

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission

Shortly after the Rebbe's passing, several of Kopyczynitzer chassidim were reminiscing and exchanging personal anecdotes about their beloved Rebbe Zt"l. Suddenly, one of the group declared, "I know you were all close to the Rebbe, but I was the closest of all. For whenever I was going through one of my more difficult periods, the Rebbe never waited for me to call him. The Rebbe would actually call me every day to find out how I was". Another chassid declared, "perhaps he called you as well, but it was me he called every day when I was down" A third and fourth follower echoed the remark, and soon every one of the group has blurted out what seemed to him the obvious "I was the one who was really closest to the Rebbe"

During a visit to Eretz Yisroel more than twenty years after the Rebbe's passing, one of his sons struck up a conversation with a lonely old man in a hotel lobby in Yerushalayim. When he discovered with whom he was speaking, the elderly men withdraw a worn leathered wallet from his pocket. He opened it and produced a tattered photo of the Rebbe. "Your father was my best friend," he declared with tears rolling down his cheeks. The Rebbe's son had never heard of this individual, but to him that was not surprising. For he had met hundreds of individuals of varied ages, backgrounds, and affiliations all claiming the Rebbe was "my best friend"

Indeed, they all were right. To holocaust survivors left alone in the world, he was their "family" and their close confidant. To countless teenagers he was a father and a mentor. To everyone who knew him he was their best friend. Like his father and grandfather before him, he combined the boundless ahavas yisroel of Apta, and the aristocratic royalty of Ruzhin. Many came to him for a brochas and advice; many more came for strength and encouragement, none left disappointed.

According to a family tradition, his father Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Kopyczynitz made the long arduous journey from Vienna, Austria to visit Eretz Yisroel in the late 1920's. On the 15th of Sivan he traveled to Me'aras Eliyahu, a cave high on Mount Carmel, where it is believed Eliyahu Hanavi had hidden. The Rebbe had one son and several daughters, and he davened for another son. One year later to the day his wife gave birth to a baby boy. The child was named after his maternal grandfather, Reb Moshe Mordechai Heschel of Perlzovizna- Warsaw.

While still a small child, he showed signs of greatness. At the tender age of five, when his father requested that his grandfather, Reb Yitzchok Meir of Kopyczynitz, give a brocha to one of the other children. Reb Yitzchok Meir responded "ask Moishele to give a brocha". He was a frail and sickly child, twice having contracted scarlet fever that severely weakened his heart. To the amazement of his family he would never complain, and was always a "mesamaiach bchelko". In 1935 Rav Yitzchok Meir passed away, and his son Rav Avraham Yehoshu succeeded him as Rebbe.

In 1939 after suffering Nazi persecution for more than a year, the Heschel family fled to the United States. The court of Kopyczynitz was reestablished on Henry Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where it soon became a focus for many of their loyal Chassidim, as well as attracting numerous new followers. Reb Moshe Mordechai, was a devoted disciple of his father; he thrived in the atmosphere of kedushah and chessed and constantly emulated his father's ways. The Tolnoa Rebbe, Reb Yochanan Twersky Z"L once commented in awe "Reb Moshel'e level in Chessed was the same as his father's"

In his youth, Reb Moshe Mordechai studied in Mesifta Tifereth Yerusholayim, and learned under the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Moshe Feinstein, ZT"L, who had an exceptionally close relationship with his father Reb Avaraham Yehoshua. Shortly before his wedding, Reb Moshe Mordechai received Semicha from the Reb Moshe.

In 1952 he became the director of the Release Hour Program for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, which provided one hour of Jewish studies for public school students. Rabbi Wolf Karfiol, in a moving tribute published after the Rebbe's passing recalled the Rebbe's approach "It was his nature to boost the morale of the leaders by regularly offering them sincere words of encouragement and praise. Then he would speak to the children. He always seemed to have a perfect understanding of how to secure a child's fancy and trust, and in this way he was able to instill in them a desire to continue in the program. When a child exhibited a desire to learn more about his religion, he was encouraged to enter first a Talmud Torah, and eventually a Yeshiva. It was at these times that the special qualities of patience and understanding really came to the forefront. Instead of criticizing, he offered assistance. He knew that many of the children and their families were beset by financial and religious problems, but through his constant probing and encouragement, most of these problems were solved, and many of these boys and girls consequently found their way back to Yiddishkeit through this program."

Later, his occupation was that of a broker in the diamond district. To this very day, more than 40 years later, his acts of chessed remain an area legend. The late Skverer Rebbe HaRav Yakov Yosef Z"L, once remarked "Reb Moishele purifies 47th Street". One of the many famous anecdotes is of the young yeshiva teacher who had hoped to devote afternoons to earning a few extra dollars in the diamond market, and had approached friends and relatives for leads. They only responded with, "Best wishes, but you don't expect me to give away customers, do you?" When the young man confided in Reb Moshe, he immediately produced his entire list of clients and contacts.

The young man was shocked. A "list" was a brokers most precious and carefully guarded secret of the trade. "How can I possibly take this, you are practically giving me your entire Parnassah?" "Do not worry", was the astonishing response, "Our parnossa (sustenance) is in the hands of the Ribbono Shel Olam, and He has enough for both of us". . . . "Don't worry"

On the 16th day of Tammuz 5727 - Reb Avraham Yehoshu suddenly passed away while on a visit to Monsey. The oldest son, Reb Yisroel Z"L, steadfastly refused to accept the position, insisting that his brother Reb Moshe Mordechai, who was seventeen years his junior be the next Kopyczynitzer Rebbe. Reb Moshe too refused the position, but after a full year of intense pressure from the Gedolei Yisroel he was compelled to accept the position. On his fathers first Yahrtzeit, he succeeded him as Rebbe.

In his new position, he immediately began to devote all his energies to Klal Yisroel. Even though he was not physically strong, his strength lay in utilizing, all his capabilities to assist those who needed help and guidance. Not only did he befriend those who sought him out, but when he heard of a person in need, he did not hesitate to travel anywhere to offer his services.

When someone came to speak with the Rebbe, they immediately had the realization that they were in the presence of gadlus and kedushah. This however, did not preclude their feeling that they could be "themselves. There was no need to put on airs or to put on an act. The warmth and enthusiasm, with which the Rebbe welcomed everyone, great and small alike, lifted the burden from their shoulders before they had even spoken a word.

The Rebbe was never satisfied in simply doing chessed. He was always attuned to the sensitivities of the receiver. As one recipient put it, "when the Rebbe did a favor for someone, the person felt as if he was the one doing the favor, and the Rebbe was the one receiving it...

In a moving letter to the Rebbe's family one widow told her story: "When my husband suddenly passed away of a heart attack, I did not know how I would manage. I had a close friend who too was a widow, for whom a special fund had been established. Every time she wanted to buy a new suit for her son, she had to request the money from a committee. I could not bear thinking of such humiliation. Then the Rebbe asked me to come to his office. Upon my arrival, he gave me words of encouragement and simply handed me an envelope. Inside there was enough money to marry off my children...

Then there is the memory of a time when a young man who was a member of a different chassidic dynasty, encountered some personal problems in connection with his upcoming marriage. Upon hearing of his difficulties, the man's Rebbe realized that there was only one man who could deal with them properly. He called the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe and asked him to speak to the young man. When he entered the room, Reb Moshe saw that the young man was depressed. So he stretched out his hand, offered him a hearty "Mazal Tov," and then, to relieve the depression, said, "I am sorry I wasn't present at your engagement. Let us have a short dance right here, so that I will be able to observe the mitzvah of being mesameiach a chosson." In a second, the two were humming a niggun and spinning around the room in joyous dance. It was not long before the young man realized that he had found a person who, in one second, could change a person's whole outlook. A short time later, the Rebbe was present at the young man's wedding.

For the Rebbe, there was no such thing as a generation gap between him and any other member of Klal Yisroel. Long before the term "teens at risk" rose to the top of our agenda, the Rebbe devoted inordinate amounts of his precious time to these youngsters. He did not limit himself to those on the fringe, his ahavas yisroel extended even to young gang members. Chassidim waiting to see him would stare in wonderment at the sight of a teenager accompanied by police officer entering the Rebbe's room. The cops too knew the "Rebbe", and had agreed to release the youngster to his care. In one instance, the Rebbe requested that he be appointed the youngsters legal guardian. The Rebbe made the young man a member of his household. Nevertheless, the youngster found it hard to break with the gang completely. The Rebbe refused to give up on the boy, instead continuing to give him considerable attention and help. Though others constantly discouraged him, and said he was wasting his time, but the Rebbe persisted in his efforts. Eventually, his approach was proven correct. Today, that youngster is a true Jew, a 'shomer Torah U'Mitzvos' and the head of a wonderful family.

One year prior to his untimely petirah, the Rebbe underwent what was then still considered experimental open-heart surgery. One of the his close chassidim related this anecdote. "Shortly before the Rebbe left New York to travel the Mayo Clinic, I told him of a young girl, a distant cousin of mine from Eretz Yisroel, who was likewise scheduled for difficult surgery at the clinic at the same time. I too traveled to the clinic to be with the Rebbe, and was there shortly after the Rebbe awakened from the anesthesia. The Rebbe was still very weak, and was barely able to speak. Nonetheless, the Rebbe asked me to take out his checkbook and write a check to the family of the little girl. I wrote out the check and the Rebbe weakly signed it. I wanted to wait until the Rebbe dozed off again before delivering the check. The Rebbe turned to me and requested that I bring to them immediately. I said "the bank is closed now in any case, so there is no reason to rush I would rather sit with the Rebbe a little longer." He responded, "Go now, and let them be a have a little "ruyigkeit" (relieved of worry) a minute earlier."

When the young girl was released from the hospital, her father went to negotiate for payment of his bill. The cashier smiled, "Your account is clear. The Rabbi took care of it last week."

While he was still convalescing from his surgery, he heard that the young son of a chassid intended to enroll in a co-ed high school. Despite his weak health, he traveled to the summer camp the youngster was attending. The Rebbe sat on a bench with his arm around the boy's shoulder and confided, "I've been inactive for two months now. I haven't sold a single policy in all this time."


"Yes. Helping people do what they really know is right - that's my insurance premium. . . . We know the type of genuine Torah school you should be going to next year - won't you help me?"

The boy agreed to attend a frum Yeshivah, and today he is an ehrlich and respected askan.

By the following winter the Rebbe had fully recovered from his heart surgery. Once again, an ever-increasing stream of individuals made their way to his door, and the Rebbe's constant campaign of chessed was at its zenith. Then suddenly on Erev Pesach 5735 the unthinkable happened. The Rebbe suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and three days later on Shabbos, the first day of Chol Hamoed he returned his pure soul to his Maker.

The Levaya which took place on Sunday, was one of the largest the streets of Borough Park had ever seen. Tens of thousands filled the streets, as the world mourned its terrible loss. Teenagers the Rebbe had taken out of prison in his cognizance, and families held together by his patient counseling wept together united in sorrow. A dynasty had lost its Rebbe, a community its dynamic leader, and hundreds of individuals their mentor, teacher, and best friend.

Several years ago, HaRav Hagaon Reb Shaul Brus Shlit"a, Rosh Yeshivas Beis HaTalmud spoke at a Yahrtzeit seudah in the Kopyczynitzer Shul. In concluding his remarks Rav Brus told the large audience that filled the Shul. "Everyone here has his personal story involving the Rebbe's Chessed, and I know more than all of you. Many people do Chessed, but the Rebbe was moser nefesh for chessed. He gave his entire self on behalf of a fellow Jew. We know that the final Geulah will be in the merit of chessed. It will be in the merit of the chessed shown to us by the Rebbe".

Twenty-Seven years after his passing, the legacy of Kopyczynitz is being perpetuated through the Rebbe's four children. The golden heritage of Chessed continues to flourish as they follow in the footsteps of their heilege father and grandfather.

Some of the anecdotes in this article were taken from moving tributes published in the April 1975 Jewish Observer and the Pirchei "Darkeinu" both publications of Agudath Israel of America.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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