Rabbi and Mrs. Baruch Shapiro
haven't visited my native city of Seattle in many years -- except
mentally during occasional moments of nostalgia. But I have maintained
steady contact with doings there, through travelers and students in
Eastern yeshivos, and I find that much that has transpired there during
my years there and since has left a strong imprint on its other sons as
it has on me - much as the Warsaw experience marked all of that city's
native sons, as Lodz did the Lodzers, and Tiktin the Tiktiners. The
almost total geographic isolation of the Northwest community of 10,000
Jewish souls certainly made the Seattle experience a definable one -
especially in view of some of the outstanding personalities that were
there during those years. For besides being the last stop on the grand
transcontinental tour for many a meshulach and lecturer (and some
settled there either in delight or exhaustion), it was also first
touch-down for many who left Europe through Siberia, and decided not to
travel further East.
who stayed were Rabbi Baruch Shapiro and his Rebbitzen. The Rav was a
talmid (disciple) of both Reb Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (who gave him
semichah) and the Rogatchover. He had been touring America on behalf of
Mizrachi during the first decade of the 20th Century, and stayed on in
Seattle to help raise funds for the construction of the impressive
Bikur Cholim Synagogue. There he met his Rebbitzen, Hinda Gershonovich,
daughter of a family that had settled in Seattle to earn a livelihood
by supplying Alaskan gold-miners with victuals. For over half a
century, he was few people's rabbi, but everyone's Rav, while she was
the Rebbitzen of Seattle.
I. The Rav
Shapiro's training in Dvinsk prepared him for the classical role of
stodt-rav, but Seattle was no European shtetel. This did not faze him,
and his career was typified by his own interpretation of the Chazal:
"Royal leadership can only exist with one who has a kupas shratzim (a
chest of creeping things) behind him" -- referring, he said, to
rabbinical positions abandoned out of principle: He helped build the
Bikur Cholim and then left it, allegedly because he refused to take the
president's daughter in marriage. A dissident group set up another
congregation with the improbable name "Theodore Herzl," which he led;
but he left again (Herzl turned Conservative) to lead the newly-founded
congregation Machzikei Hadas for the next forty years.
succession of distinguished rabbis headed the 500 families of the Bikur
Cholim in a variety of styles -- some frenetic, others phlegmatic; some
scholarly, some folksy; occasionally, combinations of all. The
community ran the shechitah, built a mikvah, founded a Talmud Torah, a
"yeshiva," a Hebrew Day School. Through all the vicissitudes of
community life, Rabbi Shapiro seemed to make immersion in Torah study
his primary and all encompassing occupation, pausing now and then to
comment or goad, instruct or object as the occasion demanded ... When
the butchers were not faithful to their schedule of washing the meats,
he spoke up to chastise them ... When the Hebrew school's lay committee
wanted to experiment with non-traditional approaches to education, or
to dismiss an "old-fashioned" but competent staff member, he intervened
-- and no one dared disagree . . . The townspeople were overwhelmingly
Mizrachi-affiliated, but when Agudath Israel came to the fore as the
organizational arm of leading gedolei Torah, he formed an Agudah branch
(one could almost say a "cell") in his Machzikei Hadas. ... His Chevrah
Shas that met regularly to study Gemara was a delight to novices for
his clarity of exposition, and to seasoned lomdim for the sprinkling of
depth-charging probes he would drop ... Rabbi Shapiro taught Gemara
privately to select boys of high school age, and instructed them to
continue their yeshiva studies in the East.
of the first to leave on his direction was my oldest brother. Rabbi
Shapiro announced the time of his departure from the bimah on his last
Shabbos in town, urging the congregants to be at the railroad station
to send off their delegate to the Torah center in the East. Several
minyanim of people were in Seattle's Union Station that next evening
... Whenever yeshiva students returned home for vacation, they were
invited to address the congregation on Shabbos. There we were,
fourteen-year olds and twenty-year olds, reporting to our friends and
elders on our experiences and changing philosophies . . . Not
surprisingly, some yeshiva students who had returned to Seattle had
standards of conduct and halachic practice that went beyond the limits
set by Rabbi Shapiro in his "extremism," but he seemed to accept this
with an unspoken approval.
wrote the gittin (documents of divorce); all the complicated halachah
problems came to his desk; and he, in turn, was in correspondence with
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, and with his close colleague, Rabbi
Eliezer Silver ... "Shapiro's Shul" may not have appeared to be
stage-center in Seattle, but in many ways it was.
shifted in Seattle, as elsewhere, and while for many years scores of
Jews would walk several miles over the famed hills of the city to their
cherished Bikur Cholim, eventually the new neighborhood of the 60's was
too far away for the long trek. The Bikur Cholims (there are two - the
Ashkenazic and the sizable Sephardic congregations) relocated in
another area. Machzikei Hadas hesitated, and finally dissolved. The
Rebbitzen had long passed away, but Rabbi Shapiro, a neatly tailored
figure, gray beard closely cropped, walking stick in hand, was a
familiar sight as he made his way to the nearest shul in the new
The Rav's Will
he passed away, Seattleites felt that the Age of Rabbi Shapiro, for a
while in twilight, had come to an end. But it had not. Rabbi Shapiro
left a will, written in Yiddish in 1962, that reminded his landsleit
that he was not forgetting them, and that they would not easily forget
him and what he had stood for.
addition to a bequest of several hundreds to local institutions, Rabbi
Shapiro left sizable sums to surviving relatives, and charitable
institutions, as well as:
$1,000 each to the following: Agudas Harabanim, Agudath lsrael of
America, Mesivta Torah Vodaath, the Lubavitcher Yeshiva, The Satmar
Yeshiva, Hagaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's Yeshiva, and Rabbi Aharon
o $1,000 each to: Chinuch Atzmai, Batei Avos in Bnei Brak
- reflecting a very individual understanding as to what will perpetuate Jewry.
More fascinating, and more revealing, was point 11 in his will.
remains from my estate after burial expenses etc., I leave to the local
congregation ... in Seattle, for the purpose that it engage as Rav a
gadol (an eminent Torah authority) of Shas-and-Poskim type, contingent
upon the approval of three gaonim: Rabbi Eliezer Silver, Rabbi Aharon
Kotler, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. According to the shul's current
income, it could not afford an adequate salary to pay a qualified
individual; thus up to 50% of the salary could be drawn from the
remaining funds of my estate. The rav who succeeds me will find better
circumstances than I encountered ... The impact of his tenure will not
only be for the betterment of the shul he serves, but other parts of
the community would also profit. They will come to understand that as
vital as it is to have English-speaking rabbis, and as effective as
they may be, it is even more essential to have a rav who is a gadol of
Shas-and-Poskim type. Not only for the enhancement of Kvod haTorah (the
prestige of Torah) - which is as essential for Yiddishkeit as is air to
one's breath - but also for rendering authoritative halachic decisions
on the many complicated queries that arise here in this country with
even more frequency than in the old country.
community embarked on its search for a rav to satisfy his stipulations,
and engaged a graduate of American yeshivos who shares Rabbi Shapiro's
general communal aspirations and personal goals. The major beneficiary
of Rabbi Shapiro's will was to be the Congregation Bikur Cholim, from
which he had broken away in his youth, returned to in his old age, and
did not really leave after his death.
II. The Rebbitzen
described her as a typical Rebbitzen - neatly combed sheitel, modestly
styled clothes, full of good wishes and Baruch Hashems. I remember her
more as a typical mother.
had no children of their own. According to the story that was commonly
accepted in town, Rabbi Shapiro had asked his wife after several
childless years of marriage if she would want a release from their
marriage. "No," was the purported reply. "I don't need children, you
will be my child." She devoted herself to fully freeing him from any
and all outside distractions and disturbances, giving him opportunity
for maximum involvement in Torah. She arranged their house with his
study in a front room walled in by windows on three sides. "If anyone
wants to come in to waste his time," she explained, "they should first
realize how busy he is and then maybe not disturb him." . . . After her
passing, the Rabbi was often seen pushing a shopping cart in the aisles
of a local supermarket. He preferred not to ask anyone else to help him
on personal matters. But during the forty-plus years until then, one
can hardly recall seeing him at a non-rabbinical function.
a sense, the Rebbitzen was mother to the larger Jewish community. If
something was amiss, she did not hesitate to pick up her famous
telephone to inquire after general welfare, and then get to specifics.
These "telephone calls from the Rebbitzen" were well known, and
frequently touched my close circle of friends, and we viewed her as a
"mother" to a steadily growing group.
older brother of mine had already joined the Rebbitzen's Shabbos
afternoon study group, and I could hardly wait for a junior class to
start. When I was eight, she did form a new circle of four or five boys
of my age ... During the summer, we would sit around her old oak dining
table, sip lemonade, and recite and discuss Pirkei Avos ["Ethics of the
Fathers"] from Siddurim with English translation. During the rest of
the year, we would learn seemingly random selections from Rashi's
commentary on Chumash, actually selected by her for their moral message
- I still hear Bernard shrilly declaiming: "Af anu yodeem shebamidbar
haya - we always knew that Moshe was in the desert ... But to tell us
praise for Yisro, who was sitting at the height of the world and left
it all to be closer to Hashem."
August, when we were on vacation from summer sessions in Hebrew School,
we'd report to her house for Shacharis at 9 in the morning, to pick
cherries from her trees ... to learn Chumash and Rashi.
printed text was more than adequate. But her personal comments often
hit with greater impact. After reading that "the world is but an
anteroom . . ." the Rebbitzen added, "Mr. Ginzberg - you know, the
furniture man - once sent his helpers to measure our house for carpets.
I chased them out. - Who needs it? Another time he tried to deliver a
truck loaded with a brand new dining room set. Look, kinderlach, at
this one. Is anything wrong with it?"
Jerry smiled, "It's not exactly Better Homes and Gardens."
she said, wrinkling her nose. " 'Va'avadtem eitz va'aven - and you will
worship wood and stone!' There's nothing wrong with this set; one
shouldn't make idols out of furniture!"
another occasion she told how yet another person had offered the Rav a
large sum for no reason other than admiration. "Gelt iz begimatriya
blotte (the numerical value of 'money' is equal to 'slime') Ver darf
es? (Who needs it?)"
believed her - for her scornful smile, for her kindly eyes, and for her
reputation. She had told the Rav during their courtship that she
thought a diamond engagement ring a waste of money. The Rav bought her
one anyway so she sold it and sent the money to his impoverished sister
had a different approach with each boy, but the common denominator was
a lavishing of praise and love. To one, she constantly said: " I always
tell your mother how lucky she is; you're the best boy in all
Seattle."- Usually followed by "So how could you think of doing ... ?"
With this policy, she talked him and his anxious mother into turning
down a scholarship to a co-ed Jewish summer camp in Canada.
was president of a youth group, led by Dovid P., a Jewish soldier from
New York City stationed nearby. She asked Nachum how he could expect to
get inspiration from Dovid, when he isn't even religious. "But he knows
so much about the Jewish people and about Eretz Yisrael," Nachum
protested. "I'm sure he's as religious as he can be in the army!"
"Does he put on tefillin?" she asked
"I'm sure he does!"
"If he doesn't - " "Then I agree. - But he does, I'm positive."
she said quietly, "I asked him ... He's a very fine boy. He dropped his
eyes in shame when I asked him about tefillin, and he told me the
truth. The answer was 'no'. He is a fine boy, yes. But you need a
the Sefer Torah was taken out for reading on Shabbos, some of the boys
used to kiss the Torah and run out to play. The Rebbitzen once
admonished, "When we open the aron we say: Veyanusu mesanecha - When
the ark travels, Your enemies will run away, - Hashem's enemies, not
boys like you." That was the end of Kriyas HaTorah recess.
the Torah scroll after reading was a privilege. Once Bert seized the
privilege, but found it a weighty one - that day, the Rav delivered an
unusually long drashah before it was returned to the ark. She later
told Bert, "You know how I always listen closely when the Rav speaks.
But today I couldn't take my eyes off you. You held the Torah with so
much love, like someone holds a baby." Bert seemed to see himself as
some kind of royal bearer of the scroll since then, and we had trouble
wresting our turns from him.
I neared Bar Mitzvah, I dropped my membership in the Rebbitzen's
Shabbos afternoon sessions, and younger boys stepped in. (Strange as it
seems, none of us had sisters in that age group, so there were no
comparable girls' sessions.) But her influence did not end. She
convinced me to join the shul's daily 6:45 Shacharis minyan, and - to
accommodate my schedule - she would bring me a hot breakfast. (She once
told me, "The walk to shul is exactly 'MaTovu' until 'Rabbi Yishmael,'
" referring to the prayers she recited as she accompanied her husband
on the morning trek to shul.)
one of the boys would read the Torah, she never failed to tell us how
immensely she enjoyed it. Once Bert read parts of Eichah for practice.
I could feel all of Yirmiyahu's sorrow," she said, "in the way you read
three words: 'Bacho sivke balayla - you will cry in the night.' " And
she had him repeat the phrase several times, while she shut her eyes in
took sick several weeks before I left for a yeshiva in the East. My
Gemara rebbe used to poke gentle fun at the way adolescent boys revered
"the Rebbitzen." After he visited her in the hospital, he also
confessed to an awe over her mastery of Tanach. ("My husband refuses to
teach me Gemara. He tells me there is still enough for me in Tanach,
and he must be right.")
we heard of her passing several months later, we thought that Seattle
would never be the same. That was not exactly so. Those who had known
her would always feel her influence . . . It was those who didn't know
her who would really miss her.