by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
Approaching the Yahrzeit of R’ Zelig Epstein, this coming 13th of Av, I finally realized what I miss about him the most: in many ways it is what he did not have, rather than what he did have. R’ Zelig had no Gabbai. Whether you were coming to his home in Flatbush, his office in Yeshiva Sha’ar Hatorah, or his room in camp Ohr Sheraga, R’ Zelig was the one, who would open the door to greet you. If you called his home, he was the one to answer the phone, and if you wanted to speak to him, he, at an age exceeding 95, had the time to talk to you. At a time when we all surround ourselves with calendar appointments when Gabbaim often control access to whom we can or cannot speak to, and in times we need to be available to one another most, I dearly miss R’ Zelig dearly.
When learning in Yeshiva Sha’ar Hatora in Queens, we would see R’ Zelig arrive every day to Yeshiva from his home in Flatbush with R’ Moshe Fried, a talmid of R’ Zelig who was also living in Flatbush and gave R’ Zelig a ride to Yeshiva every for ten years. Just like that. No car service, chauffeur, or anything fancy; R’ Zelig would get a ride with one of the yungerleit. I remember the times I needed a ride from the Yeshiva to Brooklyn, or back. It was a special treat. I would get to huddle in the back of the car and listen in to their conversations. R’ Zelig, who was married to R’ Shimon Shkop’s granddaughter and had learned under R’ Yeruchem in the Mir, had so much to share about a world we have lost. He would share his perspective on halachic matters, weigh in on contemporary issues, and so much more.
Recently, R’ Moshe shared with me some of these stories that reminded me once again why I missed so much R’ Zelig and the remnants of the Mussar Yeshivas we cherish so much.
R’ Zelig was incredibly careful not to idealize life in Europe before the war or paint it in rosy colors. Still, he did miss much of its simplicity. R’ Zelig liked to say that when the washing machine was first invented, the news overwhelmed everyone. “Can you imagine not spending all those hours on washing clothing every week?!”, many wondered. “How much more time would we have and how much more we would accomplish if just we didn’t have to spend time on laundry!” many exclaimed. Yet somehow, we all found ways to remain overwhelmed despite all the wonders of technology. R’ Zelig juxtaposed this with a story he recalled, as he was walking with his grandmother in her little town in Europe when they ran into the town’s tailor. “Is that you?!” the tailor exclaimed, “I had not seen you since your wedding.”
People had less, yet they led incredibly meaningful lives. R’ Zelig missed that simplicity and embodied it at the same time. He did not have anything but a simple hat and jacked, neither looked particularly new and a life of integrity. R’ Zelig had time for everyone because Klal Yisrael was his priority. He had time for so many because he didn’t need time for anything of excess. That is why he had time for a serious and detailed conversation with a bochur on what should be the next masechta for him to learn, just like he had time for prominent balebatim to discuss Klal related issues. We were all his priority.
The greatest of Rashei Yeshiva and Rebbe’s would come to consult with him, often with their own drivers and fancy fur coats. At the time, I wondered about this. Why do all these fancy cars, and leaders with gabbaim come and consult him in his office, which was located in our old dormitory building on a side street in Queens?
Today I realize they came to R’ Zelig because he didn’t have any of what they had. He wasn’t interested in shtik or fanfare, he just wanted to do good for others, which is why they sought out his advice.
R’ Moshe, who after years of learning in Yeshiva and Kollel decided to pursue a degree in social work while still learning in Yeshiva, would ask R’ Zelig about issues of counseling, mental health, and hadracha asking him how these issues were dealt with in Europe before the war.
R’ Zelig acknowledged the tragedy of not properly addressing these issues. He would say that before the war you would see individuals with issues of mental health, yet many of them would suddenly disappear one day and no one knew where they went. Issues that could have been more easily addressed with better know-how and resources were not addressed, and many either lost their lives or were lost to Klal Yisroel as a result of that. It was clear R’ Zelig recognized we need to do better and cannot let anyone “disappear,” or feel helpless and alone.
R’ Moshe friend was known to be very close to R’ Zelig. He shared with me once that someone wanted to speak to R’ Zelig and asked R’ Fried to arrange for a meeting with R’ Zelig. Not wanted to overwhelm R’ Zelig R’ Fried told the person to contact the Yeshiva office and try and make an appointment the regular way and if that does not work out, he would “get him in sooner”. After some time R’ Fried saw the individual and asked him if he was able to arrange the meeting the conventional way and ended up despairing on the meeting. When Rabbi Fried mentioned this to R’ Zelig R’ Zelig was very upset. “If anyone ever needs my help, you must let them contact me immediately.”
This was very much in line with R’ Zelig’s golden personality. He was not looking for any fanfare, nor was he looking for any kind of exclusiveness. He led a life of anivus and dedication to the Klal. When asked what his greatest accomplishment he would come with to Olam Haba, R’ Zelig thought for a moment and said: “for now, I just hope I didn’t hurt anyone.” It was this simplicity, approachability, and valuing of others, that made R’ Zelig admired by so many.
Yet this would not mean much without R’ Zelig’s Gadlus in Torah. R’ Zelig dedicated himself to the study of Torah day and night, never tiring of his study. Sometimes he would spend day in a row in his office in Yeshiva, and could always be seen learning with a safer. His dedication to giving light to R’ Shimon Shkop’s writings, the Talmudical Encyclopedia, his shiurim on Sefer Hamitzvos and so much more, did not show any signs of slowing down even in his nineties.
I recall spending the summer with R’ Zelig in camp Ohr Shraga in Upstate New York in one of the last years he was there. Bochrim from all different Yeshivas came to him and asked him questions in learning, no matter if he knew them or not, nor did it matter what masechta or sugiya they were asking about. R’ Zelig talked to them with stamina and excitement. A good discussion of the Gemara and Rishonim was the only thing that was able to get R’ Zelig to raise his voice and speak fiercely. He was young all over again. So deep was his love for learning and commitment to Talmud Torah.
So great was R’ Zelig’s dedication to his learning and Talmidim that when the president of the United States, President Bill Clinton, wanted to meet with R’ Zelig in Washington and the time set up by the White house scheduler was Thursday, R’ Zelig responded that he would not be able to come since that was the day of the week of his weekly shiur in Yeshiva and he could not cancel it. Teaching Torah to his Talmidim was more important to him that meeting the president of the United States(who was then able to reschedule and meet with him…)
R’ Zelig’s profound connection to the life of Yeshiva did not allow him to lose perspective of the broader community. Every Sunday, R’ Zelig made sure to give a shiur to the balebatim of Queens in the Yeshiva. R’ Zelig saw the Yeshiva as part of a broader Torah community. Those who left Yeshiva and on to work maintained their connection with R’ Zelig and Balebatim were welcomed by him often as they sought his advice and chizuk.
There was a time that a bochur was interested in a particular Shiudduch, which his rebbe thought would be a good shidduch for him, while his parents objected to the Shidduch. The bochur came to ask R’ Zelig for his advice. When R’ Zelig heard that the bochur was torn between his parents and his rebbe from Yeshiva, he told the bochur: “is your rebbe planning on supporting you after you get married?” The bochur told him the answer was no. It became clear to him that if his rebbe has no plans of supporting him after he gets married, perhaps he should not weigh in against his parents.
Today, I and so many others, miss R’ Zelig dearly. I don’t only miss his gadlus in learning, his passion for Klal Yisreol, or his anivus. I miss a Gadol with no Gabbaim. I miss someone who represents a world we have lost, a world of care for each individual, time for every person in need, and sympathy for anyone in trouble. As I sometimes listen in horror stories of schools that decide to “pass” on accepting a student who has no school, a troubled individual who was not able to hear them out, another Moised that has an automated voice messaging system with twenty different extensions yet without one person to answer any of them, a bochur that feels like there is no one who can hear him out, or of a girl that can’t find a shidduch and has no one that can bear with her as she shares her concern, I miss R’ Zelig. I am reminded that R’ Zelig’s simplicity, anivus, dedication to Klal Yisrael that brought so many to his door, is there to inspire all of us. We just need to pick up from where he ended. May his Neshama have an Aliya and be a Zchus for all of us.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, author, and teacher. He studied in Yeshiva Sha’ar Hatorah and is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America.