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Rabbi and Mrs. Baruch Shapiro


I 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.

Two 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

Rabbi 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.

A 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.

One 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.

He 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.

Neighborhoods 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 neighborhood.

The Rav's Will

When 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.

In addition to a bequest of several hundreds to local institutions, Rabbi Shapiro left sizable sums to surviving relatives, and charitable institutions, as well as:

o $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 Kotler's Yeshiva.

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.

Whatever 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.

The 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

People 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.

They 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.

In 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.

An 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."

During 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.

The 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."

"Feh!" 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!"

On 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?)"

We 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 in Russia.

She 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.

Nachum 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."

"Well," 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 better inspiration."

When 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.

Holding 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.

When 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.)

When 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 tearful concentration.

She 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.")

When 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.

27 September 2020
9 Tishri 5781

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01 January 1970
9 Tishri 5781
Erev Yom Kippur

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