A Man Cared: A Satmar Chossid Lands in a Chabad House


yosef-tevelAn Inspiring Tale: Recently, one of Crown Height’s most amazing personalities, Rabbi Yosel Tevel z”l, tragically passed away. He was the founder of many Crown Heights organizations, including Ahavas Chesed among others. Many people don’t know that in his early years, right after he got married, he spent some time helping the Chabad of Berkeley (or “Berzerkeley” as he would call it), California. While there, he met people from various backgrounds with many different stories. The following is just one of many:

None would have imagined it would happen to him. Married with six kids, a certain Satmar Chossid from Williamsburg, Yoel Brickstein*, suddenly disappeared from his home and family. No one knew what had happened to him. People started to speculate his whereabouts, but the truth remained a mystery. The truth was he had been having a terrible time in business and when things got really bad, he unfortunately got involved in a heavy gambling addiction. The habit grew out of control until it completely consumed him. Soon, he felt coerced to gamble on a regular basis. The expensive habit needed to be financed and before long he had sold whatever small possessions he owned in order to fund for his addiction. He knew that if the situation surfaced and people found out this plague had afflicted the breadwinner of the family, it would be his total end. He knew his wife would receive community pressure to ask her husband for a get. She would not want to stay married to a compulsive gambler, nor want her kids exposed to the habit.

The husband, seeing his life coming crashing in on him decided to run away, as far as possible. He snuck out of Williamsburg, but where to run he didn’t know. He was afraid to fly because he figured that that G-d would crash his plane. He was indeed surprised that the lightning bolt had not already come down on him. His idea was get on a bus and go as far as possible. Berkley was a bustling city at the time. The streets were filled with crowds of druggies. It was the last place one would ever expect to find a religious Jew, let alone a Satmar Chossid. It was a perfect escape.

Upon arrival in California, Yoel had very little money and food. He felt utterly lost in his life situation and decided that the first to do was say to say goodbye to his Yiddiskeit. Having grown up in a strong Satmar family, this would be no easy task. His first objective was to get his beard and peyos removed completely. Without the long hairs following him around he would fit into the crowd and be free to start life anew. He walked into an old barber shop and asked the barber to shave it all. He wanted to have nothing that would physically resemble his past. The more secular the look, the better. A barber was a perfect place to start with that agenda.

When the barber approached him with the razor, he suddenly saw an image in the mirror of his grandfathers who were killed in Auschwitz. They were looking at him with a pleading expression in their eyes. These were his grandparents who were killed for just wearing a beard, the very thing that he was now removing on his own free will. He began to shake uncontrollably. Why couldn’t he just be left alone? Why did his past have need to haunt him? He had to calm down. He couldn’t though. He tried to relax but it was to no avail. What was it that was making him so nervous? He realized a simple act of removing his beard wouldn’t happen so fast. How would he fit in to the life of Berkley looking the way he did now? His beard and peyos, although a bit hippy looking, were not exactly part of Berkeley trends. Why was it so complicated to become secular?

Yoel wandered the streets and decided that if he couldn’t look like a goy, he would do the next worst thing: make aliya and become a Zionist. He felt that by doing this he would be finally killing his identity, running away with no return. He walked into the Israeli consulate. Seeing such an odd sight as a Satmar chossid at the Israeli consulate in San Fransico, the man behind the counter began to interrogate him. “So where ya from? What brought ya here?” “That’s quite some religious look you got!” Unfortunately for him, some of the “minor” details of his story, like the gambling addiction and how he had left his wife without a divorce and that her family were after him, made the man at the consulate refuse to help him make aliya. The story seemed almost comical to the clerk who told him that the consulate could not do anything for him with his present situation. “You got to fix things up first then we can help you. If you still want to make aliya come back and see me. Good luck until then. Hey you know something, the Chabad house in Berkeley can surely help you,” he said as the chossid was walking out the door in despair. At first, he didn’t believe that Chabad would help him but the clerk encouraged him, “Chabad never threw anyone out. You can go to them with confidence.”

He had no other option. He couldn’t become a goy. He couldn’t make aliya. So he showed up at the Chabad house in Berkeley on a Friday afternoon. The year was 1980 and tensions between the Satmar and Lubavitch Chassidim in New York were at an all time high. Walking near Chabad in its own right would be a strange encounter. He would have to disguise his identity. He couldn’t allow them to know who he was. He walked into the Chabad house just as Shabbos was starting. R’ Yossel Tevel, who was then an assistant shliach, beheld a disheveled and disgruntled looking man in front of his eyes. Who was this man walking into the Chabad house just moments before Shabbos? R’ Yossel walked over to him and quickly realized he was in need of a place to stay. “No Problem, the upstairs here has some guest rooms. Go make yourself comfortable,” Tevel said. As the man began to walk up the stairs Yossel couldn’t help but look at the face of this man. Something about it was very odd. First of all, a full beard and then it seemed as if the improperly fit baseball cap was hiding payos. Could it really be this was really a chossid. He had heard stories of Chassidim running away but never seen it. But why would he come to Chabad? Something was odd and he would soon find out.

Yoel went downstairs as they began to daven Kabbalas Shabbos and when they sang Lecha Dodi, his heart broke and he began sobbing. It was to much to for him to handle. So many feeling were racing through his mind. Davening; Who am I. What am I? He gazed at the Chabad house minyan with amazement. He couldn’t understand why these people were so excited about this davening. These were the Jews in California. Why should they care about God? Finally he was free from all that pressures of life back in Williamsburg. Why were all these people who had grown up completely secular coming to spend their Friday night at a service at Chabad? His head was starting to spin. At some point, he couldn’t stand there any longer and he went up to his room. R’ Yossel, who noticed Yoel’s turmoil, followed him upstairs after the davening and asked what the problem was and how he could help.

At first he refused to tell him and insisted that R’ Yossel couldn’t help him. R’ Yossel left the room for a few minutes and came back with a big meal, sat it down next to him, and said “Now you will tell me everything. I promise I will do whatever I can for you, Yoel.” Yoel stared at him blankly. Why should this Lubavitcher care for me so much he wondered to himself. He was happy to have food in front of him. He had hardly eaten anything in days. As he was eating, Yossel waited but Yoel was to worn out. He didn’t yet know how this R’ Tevel was or how much he really cared. He finished all the food in front of him and collapsed on the bed in the room. He fell into a very deep sleep. He slept all the way through Shabbas. To this end, it was obvious to everyone in the Chabad house that this man had a story but no one knew what it was. R’ Yossel was particularly interested to get him to talk so he could help him. Motzei Shabbas would be the perfect time.

After Shabbas, Tevel went over to Yoel and said “Listen, we’re going for a ride in the car and you will tell me your story.” The streets of Bezerkeley have many long roads perfect for a long drive to get the story out of them. They drove for hours. Yoel finally opened up and told his tale….”Now what do I do,” he said as he concluded. “My family will send people to kill me if they know I am alive. They will hunt me down force me to give my wife a get and then do away with me. My life is over. I ruined my life and I ruined my kids lives,” he said. R’ Yossel didn’t like this talk and told him we are going to take care of this. R’ Yossel listened carefully to every word that had been said. From the tears he saw him shed over Shabbos, and now as he told his tale R’ Yossel understood that the person was a good neshama who had lost himself in gambling. Even in his confused state, his desire to do teshuva and return to his family was obvious. The man knew nothing about a secular lifestyle and didn’t belong here in Berkeley.

The next morning R’ Yossel went out to a public phone with Yoel. “What are you doing?” Yoel asked with a terrified expression on his face. “I’m calling your wife.” Tevel said simply. “NO! You can’t do that, they will track us down. They will find me and kill me. NO!” Tevel reassured him, “We will switch phones every few minutes. I can play the game.” Yoel was silent.

Tevel picked up the phone and dialed his home number. His wife picked up. “Hello, your husband is alive.” As soon as he finished the sentence he hung up the phone. His family now knew he was alive. Now, to the next pay phone. The drove another five or ten minutes and made the next call. “Hello your husband is alive and well and wants to talk.” The confused voice of his wife began to shriek, “What? Who is this? Is he really alive?” Her voice had a mixture of concern and anger. After another few moments he hung up again so the man’s family wouldn’t be able to find out his whereabouts. By the fourth of fifth call Yossel started to feel out the situation and understand better what was going on. “How could he leave us like he did? He embarrassed me and my family I don’t want to see him again I just want a get,” she said. “Listen,” Yosel said, “He loves you and cares about his family. He unfortunately fell down the wrong path…” Yosel tried to explain as best he could, but he saw it was getting nowhere. “Ok I will have to deal with this in person,” Tevel thought to himself. Her husband coming home was still far out of the question for the wife. She would not allow the man to step anywhere near her life.

R’ Yossel told his wife that he was going to New York for a few days. When he made sure Yoel would be well taking care of by his brother Pinchus, R’ Yossel arranged himself a flight and arrived in New York in due time. He first went to 770 in Crown Heights where he asked two friends to accompany him to Williamsburg in the middle of the night. Before even going into the house, one of the men with Tevel took pliers and snipped the phone line outside. He was afraid that the woman’s family might attack them, because they were furious with the husband and here they were associated with him. With the phone not working ,they entered the building knowing the woman could not call her furious relatives. Then they knocked on the door and when the woman opened it, Tevel introduced himself as the shliach who had called her. He told her that her phone was not working so she should not consider calling her family and she should hear him out until the end.

“Listen to me,” Tevel said, “your husband is a good man.” She didn’t want to hear about reuniting with her husband. Tevel knew he was in for a long night, but he was ready for it. He spoke to her for hours, telling her his impressions of her husband and assuring her that he wasn’t a bad person, but the gambling had simply gotten out of control and now he wanted to do teshuva and return to his family. He told her the only reason it happend was because his parnassa had fallen and he wanted to support his family. The whole night, the bochurim with Tevel were on the lookout. At any moment, family members could arrive and the helpless Lubavitcher could end up physically hurt. Tevel didnt care much about the risk. He care more to put this Yiddishe family back together. He told her about how moved her husband had been when they sang Lecha Dodi. The tears he shed over shabbos and how much he missed his family. After eight hours of this, she broke down and agreed to give her husband another chance to rebuild their lives. R’ Yossel quickly called Berkeley and said, “Get a ticket for Yoel and get him on the next plane out to New York.

“Are you sure that it’s ok?” asked Yoel nervously. “I guarantee it,” said Tevel. “Take the first plane you can get to New York and return to your family!”

The man returned and was received by his family. Within a short time he rehabilitated himself and today he has a beautiful family of twelve children. When he married off his children, he invited R’ Yossel to the weddings and told his kids: “This is your grandfather!”

*Name has been changed

Rabbi Yossel Tevel, a member of the Lubavitch community, known and loved for a lifetime of charitable activities, passed away in January at age 55. The Tevel family is now facing a terrible financial situation and need assistance. Please visit www.tevelfamily.com to make a contribution.

{Emunahmagazine.com /Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. This is what the Lubavitcher Rebbe was all about. He was concerend with one point. Helping any Jew no matter who ,what, where, when or why.

    Affiliation meant nothing to him. If you were Jewish he wanted to help you. Whereever you lived close by or the furthest point away he WAS CONCERENED.

    He had ahavas Yisroel for EVERYONE.

    And Yossel Tevel was his chosid.

  2. R’ Yossel Tevel was an unbelievable person he took in a great uncle to live in his house with out family for a couple of years.

  3. “Yoel wandered the streets and decided that if he couldn’t look like a goy, he would do the next worst thing: make aliya and become a Zionist. ”

    LOL How true!

  4. Beautiful story… if true. I wonder… Something(s) doesn’t shtim here. Chabad does great things but it’s quite typical for someone to take a good story and invent a twist to it.

  5. Whoa I am seriously blown away by this story! Mi Kiamcha Yisrael! Thanks Matzav for this story! Please post more such things!

  6. #8…why do you have to take a beautiful story and add YOUR twist to it?????
    Why is it so hard for you to believe that there are people out there who care with a full heart?
    Something amiss in your neshama that you doubt people…
    Go inside and check why you are plagued with doubt and suspicions!!!!