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My Mother, Lakewood’s Matriarch

Eytan Kobre

Rebbetzin Rischel Kotler was just 17 when she bid farewell to her family forever. But with wisdom, selflessness, a strong moral compass, and lots of courage, she saved herself and countless others time and again throughout the war. And for the next 65 years, she became the central pillar of support and wise counsel for a burgeoning yeshivah and community.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How much greatness of spirit can one person absorb in a brief 17 years in her childhood home? As I listen to Rabbi Aaron Kotler share memories of his mother, Rebbetzin Rischel, barely a month after her passing at age 92 on the second of Av, the answer becomes apparent: a lifetime’s worth, enough to build and sustain entire worlds of individuals, institutions, and communities. I’m sitting with Reb Aaron in his home at the epicenter of America’s preeminent city of Torah, where he figures prominently as the man who oversees its primary “industry,” Beth Medrash Govoha. There couldn’t be a more fitting venue for this conversation than this town, in which every brick of every building and every family on every street bear silent but eloquent testimony to his mother’s peerless life. The conversation ranges far afield, over continents and eras, from wartime dislocation and trauma to the nascent budding of Torah in America and on to today’s burgeoning frum landscape, driven largely by the indefatigable engine that is Lakewood. But we somehow keep returning to a time and place of long ago, to his mother’s 17-year youthful idyll in a place called Memel. It was there that the Rebbetzin’s parents, Rav Aryeh Malkiel “Leib” and Sarah Yehudis Friedman Hy”d, set down roots and raised three daughters, Rischel (Kotler), Rochel (Sarna), and Shulamis (Volpe). And it was that home that fortified Rischel with values so potent and deeply sown that her life’s next seven and one-half decades were but one long unpacking and sharing of those spiritual and moral treasures with the world. 

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