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49th St. Hub of Halachah

Rifka Junger

Rav Moshe Stern, the Debrecener Rav, focused on kavod Shamayim while soothing postwar survivors and struggling Yidden. Twenty years after his passing, he’s still the rebbi of a generation

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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EVERYONE’S REBBE The Debrecener Rav wasn’t only the rav of his kehillah; he became the posek for every Yid in Boro Park and beyond. His magnetic personality attracted people from all sectors — from Oberlanders to Litvish, from chassidish to American-born. (Photos: Family Archives)

I n the late 90s, when I attended high school in Boro Park thousands of miles from my home in Vienna, I spent a lot of time with my newly married brother and sister-in-law who lived on 1514 49th Street, in the apartment situated right above the home of her grandfather, Rav Moshe Stern ztz”l — the Debrecener Rav.

The first time I entered the young couple’s newly renovated home I discovered a door off their dining room that seemed to lead to nowhere. Gingerly opening it, I felt like I’d been thrown back to der alter heim. Before me were three rooms of bare wooden floors lined wall to wall with raw wooden bookshelves, heaving with the innumerable seforim that filled it. I soon learned that these rooms were only a fragment of the Debrecener Rav’s library.

I would regularly go downstairs to sit with die Bubbe — the choshuve Debrecener Rebbetzin — a gentle and caring woman. Of course, I was careful never to walk into the Rav’s study or disturb him in any way, yet I often managed to catch a glimpse of him — a man tall in stature as he was in his gadlus haTorah, whose piercing glance and gentle demeanor left an indelible impression.

Of Hungarian rabbinical stock and staunch follower of the Chasam Sofer’s derech (his wife was the Chasam Sofer’s great-granddaughter, but the Chasam Sofer’s mesorah was established long before he married), the Debrecener Rav (pronounced “Debretzeener”) was a combination of world-renowned halachic authority, caring shul rabbi, fiery speaker, author of numerous seforim, and dedicated father figure. From simple questions to highly intricate sh’eilos, he was one of the foremost poskim of the last generation, and provided shimush (rabbinical internship) for a vast number of American rabbinical students of his time, no matter their affiliation. 

In Boro Park, together with the Bobover Rebbe ztz”l

His expertise was in solving newly-arisen complex halachic concerns on numerous technological and other modern-day issues (his sefer Kuntres Ha’Electric discusses dozens of sh’eilos involving gadgets and electricity). Dayanim and rabbanim worldwide give much weight to his halachic rulings and consider his Be’er Moshe — an eight-volume set of responsa which he began compiling in 1969 — an essential part of their library.

Two decades after his passing on 2 Av in 1997, my brother Rav Shaul Yechezkel Schwartz, who is now the Debrecener dayan in Boro Park, shared memories of his zeide — this special man who was not only his grandfather through marriage, but his teacher, rebbi, and role model.

I Would Not Return

Born in 1914 to Rav Avraham and Gittel Stern Hy”d, Moshe and his four brothers were known as the “ilu’ishe Stern boys” who showed tremendous potential as future gedolei Torah — although the only sibling to survive was his renowned brother Rav Betzalel, author of Betzel Hachochma, who served as rav in Melbourne, Australia and later in Vienna, Austria.

Reb Moshe’s main Torah influences were his father Rav Avraham Stern, the dayan of Neuhäusel (today Nové Zámky in Slovakia bordering Hungary) and author of Malitzei Aish and other seforim; and his maternal grandfather (Reb Avraham’s father-in-law), Rav Yosef Meir Tigerman Hy”d, the Neuhäusler Rav and one of the Hungary’s eldest gedolim.

Rav Tigerman was 96 years old when he was killed in Auschwitz together with his son-in-law Reb Avraham and and his youngest son, Meshulam, who was still a bochur. (The local bishop offered to hide Rav Tigerman, but he refused to leave his kehillah. It is said that on the three-day cattle-car journey to Auschwitz, the Rav and his son-in-law the dayan spent their time learning the laws of dying al kiddush Hashem and discussed which nusach of the brachah to say when being moser nefesh.) (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 669)

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