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Guardian of the Kfar

Aryeh Ehrlich

Rav Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi, the venerated rav of Kfar Chabad, always had an underlying fear that his time would be up once his family was settled. His prediction wasn’t long in coming — on the way to the cemetery for his own father’s yahrtzeit, he suffered a fatal heart attack. A week after his shloshim, thousands are still grieving over the loss of his fearless leadership and Torah genius.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Wednesday morning, the 23rd of Teves last month, Reb Elazar Holtzman stood waiting outside the home of Rav Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi, the rav of Kfar Chabad for the past 40 years. Holtzman, the Israeli liaison for the Chabad houses in the Far East, had an urgent question for the Rav — the halachic authority for numerous Jewish communities throughout the world, from Bangkok to Beijing, from Tokyo to Seoul to Cambodia to Vietnam. Holzman saw the Rav leave his house and walk toward his car. Rav Ashkenazi had just completed davening with the bar mitzvah–age boys from the local cheder, whom he’d invited to mark the yahrtzeit of his father, Rav Moshe Ashkenazi. When the brief, impromptu yahrtzeit ceremony had ended, the 71-year-old rav said a quick goodbye to his wife Sima, took his suitcase, and turned to his driver. His plan was to travel to Teveria, where he would daven at his father’s kever, proceed to Tzfas to deliver a shiur at the Chabad yeshivah, and finally, head to Ben-Gurion Airport for a flight to Haditsh in Ukraine, where the Baal HaTanya is buried. The Rav was in a hurry, but never too busy to deal with a pressing halachic query, and Rabbi Holtzman presented the transoceanic sh’eilah. “Muttar,” said Rav Ashkenazi, just before he sped away. It was his last psak; as Holtzman was dialing Thailand on his cell phone with the answer, Rav Ashkenazi was clutching his chest as his quick-thinking driver pulled over to the side of the road and called Hatzolah. A few minutes later, it was all over. The news of Rav Ashkenazi’s sudden passing sent shock waves through the chareidi community; thousands knew him personally, but even those who didn’t, felt secure in the knowledge that there was a Torah authority in Kfar Chabad with broad enough shoulders to be a leader during complex, confusing times. Rav Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi had been the symbol of Chabad chassidus to much of the broader Torah world, as well as to government bodies and officials. He was always there, on the front lines — issuing piskei halachah, making decisions, announcing rulings and determinations of public concern. “He had a unique style of leadership,” says his son Rav Eliezer Ashkenazi, a rebbi in the Chabad yeshivah of Montreal and an expert in the writings of the Baal HaTanya, as his father was before him.

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