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The Rose of Sharon

Eliezer Shulman

As a brilliant disciple of the Chazon Ish, Rav Yaakov Edelstein could have spent his life secluded in the beis medrash. Instead, even the cynics clamored for his advice and blessings

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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EVERYONE’S RABBI Who would have guessed that one of the founding bochurim in Ponevezh, a disciple of the Chazon Ish, would become the beloved rav of upper-crust, mostly secular Ramat Hasharon? Even if there was a long line outside Rav Yaakov’s door, he always gave priority to “his” people (Photos: Moshe Goldstein, Shuki Lehrer, Mattis Goldberg, Yehuda Farkowitz, and Berish Filmore)

While the Torah world has keenly felt the loss of Rav Yaakov Edelstein — who passed away three weeks ago on 25 Shevat — none are more broken than the residents of the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, where he served as the town’s rav for 67 years. Most people would expect a place like Ramat Hasharon, ensconced between yuppy North Tel Aviv and opulent Herzliya, to have a more “modern” chief rabbi, someone who could “fit in” with the locals. But the pall of mourning hovering above the town is palpable — over this talmid of the Chazon Ish, who served as a father figure to religious and secular alike.

“I’m going back to the beis medrash now,” deputy mayor Yaakov Koretzky, one of hundreds of Rav Yaakov Edelstein’s baalei teshuvah, tells me as we walk past the famous house on Rechov Naomi where so many lives were transformed over the years. “There at least, I’ll still feel the Rav’s presence.

“You know,” he continues, “Rav Edelstein was like our eved. He was bound heart and soul to the community, to the residents, the students, everyone. He worked for us. He davened for us. He thought about us and worried for us. He was our spiritual father and we’re now just beginning to understand what we lost. I used to meet Pinchas the shoemaker, who’s been here as long as the Rav, and he would tell me, ‘Koretzky, we have to get the Rav new shoes. Look, his shoes are falling apart.’ People didn’t realize how the Rav would walk all over town in service of the community.

“In most cases, when people speak about the Rav, they don’t really know, and those who do know, don’t speak. There is much more hidden than is known. Far be it from me to explain who this tzaddik was that Hashem chose to plant here, in the secular city of Ramat Hasharon.”

Koretzky became close to Rav Edelstein 18 years ago as a teenager, shortly after his mother died. “Until then, my life had been so smooth, like every average secular guy.

“Life revolved around friends and soccer and all the other things that kept us busy, and then suddenly, I didn’t know who I was anymore. Somehow, the Rav found me. It was the first time someone put me in front of the mirror and showed me what my life really looked like and how I could turn it around.

“Our Rav didn’t need to be busy with a guy like me or the hundreds of others like me who flocked to him. I’m sure it would have been much easier for him to be surrounded with yeshivah bochurim, but he chose to open his home to all those who had differing worldviews. He never criticized, nor did he force Torah onto anyone. People came from all over to get a brachah from him — secular, religious, traditional, it didn’t matter.”

Although Rav Yaakov was respected as one of the gedolim of the litvish world, for many years he was a close disciple of the tzaddik nistar Rav Moshe Yaakov Rabikof, known as the Sandlar (shoemaker) of Tel Aviv and head of a secret group of kabbalists

Today there are 36 minyanim in Ramat Hasharon, says Rav Edelstein’s son Rav Yitzchak Edelstein, a maggid shiur in Yeshivah Ketanah Torah Betifartah and rav of the “Young Israel” minyan in Ramat Hasharon, “and my father would make sure to participate in each one. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah he would daven in his regular shul, but starting from Maariv of the second night, he would go around to the old shuls of the Turks, the Persians, the Yemenites, and the Greeks, the baal teshuvah minyanim, the dati-leumi, the traditional. In every place, he would speak, calculating his time carefully. Shacharis here, Tekias Shofar there, Mussaf, Minchah and Maariv in other places. If you ask the mispallelim of the various shuls, they’ll tell you that Abba belonged to them. He knew everyone, asked about this one’s father, remembered that one’s grandfather, and with the older ones, knew about every grandchild or great-grandchild that was born. Before he fell ill two years ago, he was already 91 and still walking the streets of Ramat Hasharon to every one of those shuls, giving his regular shiurim.”

Staying Together

And to think, when Rav Edelstein came to the town as a ten-year-old immigrant in 1934, he started out in a chicken coop.

He was born in the Russian town of Szumiacz near Smolensk, where his father, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Edelstein, served as av beis din. Yaakov and his brother Rav Gershon shlita — longtime rosh yeshivah of Ponevezh and one year his senior — spent their early years learning Torah with their father once the town came under Communist rule and all the chadarim were closed down. In 1932, after the death of their mother Rebbetzin Miriam (daughter of Melstovka av beis din Rav Mordechai Shlomo Movshovitz), the young Rav Tzvi Yehudah, his two sons, daughter Pesia (Gershonovitz a”h), and his mother managed to obtain passage on a ship from Odessa to Eretz Yisrael.

As they had not registered with any of the political movements at the time, they had to fend for themselves for a place to live, and although relatives who came to greet them at the Haifa port offered to share their own tiny apartment with the new arrivals, there was really no room for all of them — and so the family split up, with Pesia going to one relative and her grandmother to another. Rav Tzvi Yehudah refused to separate from his two sons, however, and searched for a place where the three could live together so that he could continue to teach them Torah. Nothing, he said, could compensate for learning with his sons.

Soon the small fragmented family found themselves a home — an empty chicken coop in the village of Ramat Hasharon. A few crates courtesy of the owner of a nearby orchard served as beds, chairs, and a table, but father and sons needed nothing more, as long as their days could be filled with learning Torah in freedom. (excerpted)

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