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The Soul Behind The Soles

Meir Wolfson

He wasn’t a smooth talker and lacked the typical fundraiser’s skill set. But Reb Zalman Ashkenazi, exuded a passion for his cause that donors couldn’t ignore, and built one of the largest chesed empires in this world, raising millions to feed and clothe the poor of Israel in a dignified fashion. Just weeks after the “human turned malach” ascended to the Heavens, we met with family, friends, and donors, to learn what passion fueled the man behind Mesamche Lev.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It’s doubtful many of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who benefited directly from Reb Yoel Yekusiel Zalman Yom Tov Lipa Ashkenazi paid much heed to the signs announcing his petirah on Rosh Chodesh Adar I of this year. If there was ever a person who aspired to maintain anonymity among his beneficiaries, Reb Zalman, as he was known, was that man. And he almost succeeded.

Few who knew him as a newlywed yungerman living in Meah Shearim in 1971 could have imagined Reb Zalman becoming a one-man chesed machine. He was extremely shy — a trait he never outgrew, even when spending his days raising money for the less fortunate.

Reb Zalman’s “career” began unceremoniously one Thursday afternoon forty years ago, when he realized his chavrusa lacked money for bread, milk, and other basic staples. And that night Reb Zalman heard that a widowed neighbor also lacked money for Shabbos necessities. Reb Zalman spent Friday morning collecting for these two families, and before Shabbos, brought them challos, fish, wine — the works. By the next week, says a confidant wryly, it was his unofficial job to supply both families with food. Before long several other families joined the club of Mesamche Lev.

During the Yom Kippur war, Reb Zalman returned to America, but his heart always remained with the poor and needy of Eretz Yisrael. Never allowing Mesamche Lev to become a source of parnassah, he worked as a melamed in a Satmar cheder and spent his nights running from donor to donor “tzi helfen nuch Yidden,” as he put it. He would sometimes pay a substitute to watch his second-grade class during lunch recess so he could meet more donors.

The numbers eventually grew to staggering proportions: 62,000 pairs of shoes, 30,000 pounds of shemurah matzoh, and 4,000 cases of wine before each Pesach; 300,000 pounds of meat and poultry before Yamim Noraim; close to 500 mishloach manos baskets to widows and widowers, accounting for some 3,500 orphans, each containing an envelope with money for Pesach; dozens of weddings for orphaned brides and grooms each year.


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