Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l and the “Mafia Godfather”


rav-aharon-kotlerThis seemingly too-incredible-to-be-true story actually took place. It was during World War II when twenty-four rabbonim were being held in Italy and faced being returned to Nazi-occupied Europe and certain death.

Rav Aharon Kotler, founder and rosh yeshiva of the Lakewood Yeshiva,turned to the well-known askan and subsequent author of Ethics From Sinai, Irving Bunim, and asked him who could intercede on behalf of these 24 rabbonim. Irving Bunim suggested the Italian Mafia. Rav Kotler urged Mr. Bunim to contact them immediately.

After contacting them, he asked Rav Aharon, “Who are we sending to the meeting?”

Rav Aharon replied, “You and I are going.”

Off they went to meet the godfather of the Mafia, Joe Bonnano. Rav Aharon did not speak English, so it was Mr. Bunim who explained the problem of the 24 rabbonim trapped in Italy.

The Mafia chief asked Mr. Bunim, “Who is the elderly man sitting next to you?”

He told him, “He is the godfather of the Jewish people.”

“Really?” asked the Mafia chief.

“Yes!” replied Mr. Bunim emphatically.

“Tell him I want a blessing.”

So Mr. Irving Bunim turned to Rav Aharon and in Yiddish told him, “Ehr vill a bracha fun de rov. (He wants a blessing from the rov).”

“Zog eim ehr zol leiben lang un shtarben in bet.”

Irving Bunim turned back to the mafia chief Joe Bonnano and told him, “The rabbi blesses you with long life and you should die in bed.”

Upon hearing this, the mafia chief replied, “I like that,” and promised within 2 weeks to arrange the freedom of the 24 rabbonim stuck in Italy, which he did indeed accomplish.

Twenty-something years later, in 1964, a shiny black stretch limo pulls up in front of Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. Two fancy-dressed men get out and walk up to the office. They say are looking for Rabbi Kotler. Out comes a man who introduces himself.

“No, not you,” say the two Italian guys. “We are looking for an older man.”

“That was my father,” says the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shneur Kotler, “but he passed away a number of years ago.”

The Italian men explain that they are the Bonnano brothers, and that their father always “attributed his long life to your saintly father’s blessing. Now that he has just retired, we are taking over the business and we came here for the same blessing.”

“I’m sorry,” says Rav Shneur, “my father could do that, but I am not on that high level.”

Disappointed, but clearly understanding the concept of yeridas hadoros – the descent of the generations, the new Mafia chiefs bid farewell to Rav Shneur.

For saving 24 rabbonim from the Nazis, and with Rav Aharon Kotler’s bracha, Joe Bonnano – the Mafia godfather – lived to 97 years old.

{Emunah Magazine/Noam Amdurski-Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Rav Schneir declined because there was no good reason to give a mafia honcho a brocho. (Unlike Rav Ahron who did have a good reason.)

  2. Rabbi Perr from Far Rockaway was meshamesh Rav Aharon for a long time and Rabbi Perr said this story never happened.

  3. BTW, are you sure it was Joe Bonnano? While he was the Mafioso who became the boss of the Bonanno crime family in the 1920’s, he only died in 2002. His son died in 2008.

  4. I find this story hard to believe as the identity of the 24 rabbonim is never given.If it were true the story would end with …amongst those those rabbonim were…Or I would see in some obituary that …during the war he was stranded in Italy…

  5. I heard the story from someone that was there and this version has many mistakes.
    (1) In addition to Reb Aharon there were several other rabbonim/roshei yeshivos present including Rav Kalminovitz (Mir) and Rav Yoffen; I have never heard that Mr. Bunim was part of this meeting (although he may have been involved behind the scenes). In addition, Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro (presently from Queens, formerly from East Flatbush) also went along and served as a translator for the rabbonim, who only spoke yiddish.
    (2) While I’m sure the refuges were “chashuva” people, they were not 24 rabbonim but yeshiva bachurim.
    (3) The sons of the mafia god-father came to Rabbi Shapiro (not to Reb Shneur) after their father had been shot and was in critical condition. Rabbi Shapiro advised them that Reb Aharon had already passed away and that his son (Reb Shneur) was ill and unable to bless them. It appears that the Bonnano boys never made it to Lakewood.
    This story has been more or less accurately published previously and this version is incorrect.

  6. dont know if it happend or not but anyone with an inkling of what R’Aron was wouldn’t be surprised if it did.brings to mind a “memra” i heard in the name of R’Yoel Titelbaum ZT.when asked if one should believe all the stories about the Baal shem tov he responded that if you believe them all you’re a shota but if you dont believe they could of all happend than your’e an apikores.

  7. Rabbi Amos Bunim, Shlita, son of irving Bunim has said in print (letter to Kashrus Magazine) that this tory never happened.

  8. I don’t know why anyone shouldn’t belives this and all these comments denying it are dishonoring the greatness of HaGaon Reb Aharon Kotler z”t. Even if it isn’t true (which i doubt is the case) it is still an amazing story!

  9. It is only a story. The reality is that my great uncle from Berlin survived in Rome, after liberation he became a baby doctor, delivering babies all his life in Rome. When I went to visit, he would walk through different parts of Rome, chatting with everyone. Who didn’t he know? Do you think the Mafia bothered him? No. He had delivered their kids and grandkids – he discriminated against noone.

    This story of Bonnano helping save Jews is magical wishful thinking. My grand mother Eva founded and ran Friendship House in NYC, a refugee and sponsorship center for German Jews. THEY really rescued a lot of German and some other Jews when the State Dept vowed not to let a single Jew in. I have letters from Eleanor Roosevelt and some wealthy German Jews of the time.