The tiny apartment in Yerushalayim’s Batei Machseh was simple and unadorned as were most of the small living quarters in the impoverished neighborhood. Its location, partially underground, added a cold and dark dimension and one would have expected it to be the home of one of the more downtrodden of the destitute inhabitants of the Holy City. Yet, an air of kedusha emanated from that obscure hovel and a steady stream of people made their way in and out with great reverence.
For decades, until his passing in 5692 (1932), Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt’l, “Mara D’Ara Yisroel” led the never ending battles for the sanctity of Yerushalayim and the continuity of its pure mesorah amidst the struggle to survive rampant poverty, widespread disease and the pressure exerted by the ruling Turks and later the English.Although entrusted with huge amounts of money by the myriad “Kollel” funds set up by the Kehilos of the Diaspora, Rav Yosef Chaim took nothing for himself and refused the well-meaning supporters from abroad who offered to move him to better accommodations as would befit the Rav of Yerushalayim.
Rav Sonnenfeld was especially involved in helping poor kallah’s set up their new homes. The Yerushalmi families of that era could not afford to purchase the basic utensils every kallah needs to establish herself and it was the Rav’s special fund that made a chasuna possible and enabled the new couple to get on their feet.
So it was with an air of expectation that the young kallah, Chaya Ruchama Shenker, granddaughter of Rav Yosef Chaim, approached her Zaide to ask for his help. “Am I any different than the other penniless girls who look to you for support?” she beseeched the elderly Rav.
“I am sorry”, Rav Yosef Chaim replied. “I have never taken a penny for my own family and cannot begin to do so now. But I can bestow upon you a special gift for your mesiras nefesh in helping me to abide by my rule. I will bless you to have sons whose Torah will light up the world!”
In future year’s people would approach Rebbetzin Chaya Ruchama to ask for herbrachos. Her tear-filled tefilos were legendary and people would flock to the ezras nashim of the Chevroner Yeshiva on the Yamim Noraim to observe the Rebbetzin’s heartfelt prayers. To this day people recount with wonder how she was the only woman to fall to her face on the floor during “korim” in utter devotion to Hashem.
Her father, the son-in-law of Rav Yosef Chaim, was the famed gaon and tzadikRav Shmuel Hillel Shenker zt’l. As a child in Kovna he merited a bracha from Rav Yisroel Salanter zt’l. Indeed, throughout his life, Rav Shmuel Hillel exhibited a tremendous level of yiras shamayim and dveykus. On Shabbos nights he would begin his seudah by singing Kah Riboin Oilam immediately after Kiddush, unable to partake of any food before first expressing his profound feelings for Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
When the shidduch for Chaya Ruchama Shenker was suggested with Rav Zvi Hirsh Kopshitz, Rav Shenker left it to his father-in-law Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld to decide if the match would be up to their lofty standards. Rav Zvi Hirsch, a native of Minsk, had arrived with the first talmidim who accompanied the Alter of Slobodka when he came to establish the Yeshiva in Chevron. “How was the trip by sea to Eretz Yisroel?” Rav Yosef Chaim enquired, seeking to put the young man at ease and engage him in conversation. “We spent the entire time learning Sefer Charedim with the Alter”, replied the young Rav Zvi Hirsch. Rav Yosef Chaim had heard enough. The shidduch was approved and the engagement was celebrated within a few days.
The home established by Rav Zvi Hirsch and Rebbetzin Chaya Ruchama was outstanding even by the measure of Yerushalayim of old. Every evening, before heading to bed, Rav Zvi Hirsch would set aside time to daven for his children to grow in Torah. Rivers of tears would flow during these nightly tefilos and as the children grew their father’s utter devotion to their aliya in Torah made a profound impact on them. When one of the boys entered cheder or began studies in a new Yeshiva, it was standard practice for Rav Zvi Hirsch and his Rebbetzin to fast on that day as they said Tehilim and poured out their hearts in tefila.
It was to this home full of kedusha that a baby boy was born in 5693 (1933) during the year of mourning upon the petira of the Zaide, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. And so he was named Yosef Chaim; a constant reminder that his success in Torah and Yiras Shamayim was the living fulfillment of the bracha bestowed by Rav Yosef Chaim to his granddaughter so many years before.
In the biography of the famed Chevroner Mashgiach, Rav Meir Chodosh zt’l, his daughter Rebbetzin Ezrachi relates how a single episode in her father’s life made such an impact on him that he frequently mentioned it in his shmuessen. When the young Meir arrived in Kovna to attend Yeshivas Slobodka as a boy of 13, he found himself spending his first Shabbos lonely and homesick. Suddenly, an older bachur approached him and put his arm around his shoulder. The older boy encouraged the young Meir and cheered him up then and repeatedly over the days and weeks that followed. “If not for that boy”, the Mashgiach would say, “Where would I be today?”
As one of the outstanding talmidim of Chevron, Rav Yosef Chaim Kopshitz was in a league populated by the cream of the crop. Yet, he was constantly looking out for younger talmidim talking to them in learning and praising their progress. The master mechanech, who would go on to serve as a mentor to thousands of talmidim, displayed his innate love for every ben torah while yet a young bachur himself.
Many of today’s major Roshei Yeshiva, the top tier of Chevron graduates, including Gedolei Torah such as Rav Aviever Piltz of Tifrach and Rav Dovid Cohen of Chevron, credit Rav Yosef Chaim with their integration to the Yeshiva and their success as marbitzei Torah.
Rav Yosef Chaim was especially close with the Hanhala of Yeshivas Chevron and was a regular visitor to the homes of other Gedolei Yisroel. He was a ben bayis by Rav Chaskel Abramsky zt’l and would often be seen telling his chidushei Torah to Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel zt’l.
After his marriage, Rav Yosef Chaim learned in the Chevron Kolel headed by Rav Mordechai Zuckerman zt’l. He continued to cleave to the elder Gedolei Yisroel and over the years has served as their spokesman regarding many issues. In many situations concerning the Yeshiva world, Rav Schach zt’l was quoted as saying that he wishes to discuss the matter with Rav Yosef Chaim Kopshitz before issuing a psak. Rav Elyashiv zt’l as well was fond of Rav Yosef Chaim and referred many chinuch related issues to him. Indeed, the Posek HaDor’s love for Rav Yosef Chaim was especially evident when even in his advanced years, Rav Elyashiv would rise to stand at full height when Rav Kopshitz would enter his room.
Rav Yosef Chaim’s fame as a gaon and baal masbirled to many offers to serve as a maggid shiur and Rav Kopshitz finally acceded to the request of Rav Yissachar Meyer zt’l to serve alongside him in Yeshivas HaNegev.
After a few years the Six Day War of 1967 brought the Old City of Yerushalayim back in to Jewish hands. Yeshiva Porat Yosef owned an impressive property facing the makom hamikdash but the Jordanians had destroyed the buildings during the 19 years they occupied the city. Yeshiva Porat Yosef was already well established in Geulah by this time and the question arose if they should invest the energy and resources to try and rebuild in the Old City. They consulted the Ponevezer Rosh Yeshiva who urged them to re-open but to keep the Geula branch running as usual. A new Rosh Yeshiva should be hired to say the shiur in the soon-to-be re-established Yeshiva, Rav Schach suggested, and the man for the job is Rav Yosef Chaim Kopshitz.
Today, almost 50 years later, Rav Kopshitz is still saying shiurim and mentoring a new generation of talmidim. The Kopshitz name is synonymous with gadlus in the Torah world. Rav Yosef Chaim’s brothers and brothers-in-law are renowned Rabbanim and Gedolei Torah and include Rav Nissim Karelitz, Gaavad of Bnai Brak and Rav Nosson Kopshitz, Mara D’Asra of Bet Shemesh and a leading posek of the Edah HaChareidis.
Once again, the Gedolei Eretz Yisroel are sending us a reminder of the high regard they have for P’eylim / Lev L’Achim. For a Rosh Yeshiva of Rav Kopshitz’s age and stature to travel to the US in order to address the Lakewood Asifa for Lev L’Achim is an act of mesiras nefesh we cannot ignore. The Gedolim see what is transforming Eretz Yisroel right before their eyes and realize that the mission of Lev L’Achim is as vital and crucial today as it was when Rav Schach zt’l founded the movement twenty years ago.
The Gedolim of America acknowledged the new movement by merging it with their time-honored P’eylim organization creating the united movement of Bnai Torah the world over that is ensuring that every man, woman and child in Eretz Yisroel is given a chance to embrace Torah yiddishkeit.
All eyes are now on Ateres Chana Hall at Bais Faiga, Tuesday evening, July 7thfor the 18th Annual P’eylim / Lev L’Achim Lakewood Asifa where we will once again greet a Gadol from Eretz Yisroel and join him in support of the movement of the Gedolei Yisroel.