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Rav For Life, Rebbi Forever

Eytan Kobre

Twenty-five years after his passing, Rav Dovid Lifshitz ztz”l, is still considered the rebbi to generations of English-speaking, all-American RIETS talmidim

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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“Students knew that Reb Dovid was a rosh yeshivah and a tzaddik but most didn't  realize that he knew kol haTorah kulah. Reb Dovid dancing at his daughter's chasunah in 1971, with mechutanim Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Chaim Stein (Photos: Family archives)

E ven a thumbnail biography of Rav Dovid Lifshitz ztz”l — whose yahrtzeit this year on the ninth of Tammuz marks 25 years since his passing — gives a sense that he was the quintessence of litvishe rabbinic royalty.

A prized talmid of the famed yeshivos of Grodno and Mir, he succeeded his father-in-law as rav of the prominent Polish city of Suvalk and led it devotedly until the horrors of the Holocaust wrote the last chapter of its history in blood.  

Arriving on American shores after the war, Reb Dovid served for decades as a leading rosh yeshivah in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon (RIETS) and stood at the helm of important communal organizations like Ezras Torah and Agudas Harabbanim. Known throughout his life simply as “the Suvalker Rav,” he was a veritable prince of Torah, an important link in the solid-gold chain connecting a new American generation back to the prewar glory of the European Torah world and beyond.   

So much for what the eye sees from afar.

But Reb Dovid’s talmidim, who are warmed still by the love he lavished on them well over a quarter-century ago, had a closer, more intimate view of their rebbi, one that revealed other facets and faces. “I once drove my rebbi to the Lower East Side to bake matzos,” recalls Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, rav of Woodmere’s Aish Kodesh whose three years in Reb Dovid’s shiur created a lifelong kesher with him. “As we were heading down the FDR Drive, Reb Dovid asked me to say a vort because he knew I dabbled in chassidish seforim. Although it wasn’t his background, he never discouraged me because he saw I came to all the sidrei hayeshivah. I decided to say over an Avnei Nezer on Pesach I’d seen the night before, but as I started to speak, he stopped me, telling me to immediately exit the highway.

“I didn’t know what was happening, but I drove for a block or two until he told me, ‘Stop here.’ Then he said, ‘You can’t say over such Torah while you’re driving.’ He took my hand in his, closed his eyes, and asked me to say the Torah. I did, and he was crying as I said it. Then he said, ‘Come.’ He and I got out of the car and did a rikud right there, on some side street off the FDR, as people from the neighborhood looked on.

“That was my litvish rosh yeshivah.”


On His Shoulders

Born in Minsk in 1906, Reb Dovid was a grandson of Rav Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz, a prosperous Grodno businessman who had the distinction of authoring a classic sefer on Seder Kodshim entitled Olas Shlomo. 


With Rav Aharon Kotler, early 1950s

When his zeide was niftar in 1919, 12-year-old Dovid penned a lengthy tribute to him (which appears in a newer edition of Olas Shlomo) that, for its sophisticated Hebrew and mature, insightful prose could easily have been the work of an older talmid chacham. 

Around the same time, Dovid’s father moved his family to Grodno to escape the Bolshevik takeover of Minsk, and there, Dovid joined Rav Shimon Shkop’s Shaar HaTorah yeshivah. 

Under Reb Shimon’s tutelage, Reb Dovid experienced five years of prodigious growth in Torah, and then, at his rebbi’s urging, left Grodno for Mir, where he was recognized as a tremendous baal kishron. 

During his seven years there, he drew close to both the rosh yeshivah, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, and the mashgiach, Reb Yerucham Levovitz. (Many years after leaving the Mir, Reb Dovid was summoned to deliver a hesped in the yeshivah at the conclusion of shivah for the venerated mashgiach.) 

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 715)

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