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If Not for My Rebbi, I Wouldn't Be Here Today

Yisroel Besser

Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz is remembered for his lomdus, warmth, and legendary devotion to the teachings of his rebbi, Rav Chaim Brisker. But most of those memories are handed down from one generation to the next. In honor of his yahrtzeit on 5 Kislev, Mishpacha spoke to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Sapochkinsky, who merited to live in Rav Boruch Ber's house, and who became a chassidishe Yid by following the instructions of the legendary litvishe rosh yeshivah.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

 He was the rebbi. He was the talmid.

      Few figures lived both titles to their fullest as did the Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Boruch Ber. His shiurim, masterpieces of depth and profundity, are still the surest path to lomdus, the introduction for many a hard-working bochur to the thrills of becoming a yeshivahman. Yet he maintained the reverence and awe of an eager young talmid for his own rebbi, Rav Chaim Brisker, even after he took his rightful place on the Eastern Wall of the Lithuanian Torah world.

      He was a man of lekach (scholarship) and of libuv (heart), the very soul of the Torah. A man of tears and of song, of poetry and prayer.

      And today, seven decades after his passing ushered in an era of unprecedented suffering for our people, a new world has risen in which those three words -- “Reb Boruch Ber” -- have again come to symbolize the totality that can be attained through toil and tearful supplication.

      There are not many left who remember the great man, who heard him deliver the legendary shiur or sing heartfelt zmiros at his Shabbos table. Not many who saw the luminous face, crowned with the immense yarmulke, framed with the wild white peyos.

      Rav Moshe Chaim Sapochkinsky doesn't just remember: he carries those memories before him, in his heart and soul. For, as he puts it, ever so simply, “If not for my rebbi, I wouldn't be here today. I owe him everything.”

      Rabbi Sapochkinsky is a sprightly, vibrant man, bright blue eyes twinkling with vitality and gentle humor. He is the rav of one of Montreal's most historic shuls, the Nusach Ari shul founded by his late father-in-law with a group of Russian Yidden, and a respected shochet. And, perhaps unlikely for a Kamenitzer talmid, he is a distinguished Lubavitcher chassid. “That is where my rebbi sent me,” he says.

      A most intriguing story ... 


On a Chair in the Woods

      Rabbi Sapochkinsky was born in the Polish hamlet of Suvalk -- “a town with not one chassid.”

      The Divine Hand that kept young Moshe Chaim from harm was evident in the summer of 1938, when he was fourteen. His mother was suffering from arthritis, and was advised by her doctor to spend the summer months in the healing air of a resort town, Druskenik.

      What the words Cape Cod do for a blue-blooded American, does the name Druskenik do for a student of the prewar yeshivah world. While Druskenik doesn't evoke memories of balmy, lazy summer days at the beach, it conjures up a yearning for a “Druskenik summer.” The resort town was the gathering place for budding scholars -- a place to share, argue, and deliberate the fine points of a Rashba or a nuance in the Rambam with the best and brightest of the other yeshivos.

      Its proximity to Vilna and Grodno made Druskenik the summer home of many gedolim: Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rav Boruch Ber spent their summers there, as did many chassidic leaders. In fact, it seemed that everyone wanted space in Druskenik. Every home became a hotel, every kitchen a restaurant, and the poor Jews of the town looked forward to the yearly economic boost during the summer months. Unwilling to lose the bnei yeshivah who had no connections or money, the rav of Druskenik formed a committee to help every bochur find a bed in the town for the days of bein hazmanim, and the tranquil streets would be filled with the sounds, the passion, and the energy of a beis medrash for those few weeks.

      Moshe Chaim, who was off from cheder, was privileged to accompany his mother to enjoy the country air in Druskenik. As boys will do, he went to the shul and soon found himself a friend, another youngster his age. The two children spent a happy afternoon playing together.

      The boy, whose name was Yehoshua, asked Moshe Chaim if he wanted to meet his grandfather.

      “Who is your grandfather?”

      “The Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Boruch Ber,” was the reply.

      The boy had never heard of Kamenitz or its rosh yeshivah, but he took his new friend up on the offer. Together, they walked into the woods, where, surrounded by a wall of pine trees, Rav Boruch Ber sat on a striped beach chair, engrossed in learning.

      He looked up and greeted his einekel, who introduced his new friend. Reb Boruch Ber greeted him warmly.

      Over the next few days, as Moshe Chaim and Yehoshua formed a deep bond, Moshe Chaim spent more and more time in proximity to the holy Rosh Yeshivah. One day, Reb Boruch Ber asked the boy where he learned. He replied that he had graduated cheder in Suvalk and would likely go the yeshivah in Lomza, as did most of the boys in his hometown.

      “Come learn by us, Kamenitz has a wonderful yeshivah ketanah, for boys your age, and I will take care of you.”

      The boy was intrigued, and went to ask his mother. Mrs. Sapochkinsky made her way through the forest and approached the Rosh Yeshivah.

      “Who will take care of him?” she asked.

      “My rebbetzin will treat him like a son, and we will ensure that he eats well and sleeps well.”

      She wrote a letter to her husband, asking his permission, but he knew little of Kamenitz and the Rosh Yeshivha.

      “But he asked the cheder rebbi in Suvalk, Rav Zimmerman, who assured him that Kamenitz was a 'good' yeshivah, and he gave his consent. Months later, when I came home for Pesach, the rav, Rav Dovid Suvalker, greeted me excitedly, wanting to know all about Kamenitz and Reb Boruch Ber. Only then was my father really convinced.”

      There is a famous picture of Reb Boruch Ber seated on his chair in the woods of Druskenik, with two boys standing behind him. One is his grandson, Yehoshua, and the other, in most books, remains unidentified. Until now. It's the Jew with bright blue eyes sitting next to me, Reb Moshe Chaim. He reaches into his wallet and withdraws the original, showing me the handwriting across the back.

      “This is my mother's handwriting, it's all I have from her. What happened was that on that first day, there was a photographer out there in the woods, so Yehoshua and I stood behind his grandfather for a picture. My mother was so excited with it that she sent a copy to her brother in America with a note on the back. Later, when I reached America, I went to visit this uncle in Lowell, Massachusetts. He handed me the picture, a reminder of a simpler time, the most peaceful few weeks of my life.”

      And so, when the vacation came to a close, Moshe Chaim joined Yehoshua and his grandparents for the trip to Kamenitz. They took a train to Brisk, and from there, a wagon to Kamenitz. True to his word, Reb Boruch Ber looked out for the boy throughout the trip. 


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