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The Holy Rabbi That I Knew
by Dr. David Lazerson
I would like to share with you a few stories about Rabbi Elimelech Zweibel that I experienced first-hand being a bochur in the Morristown yeshiva. I was a "greenhorn" in Yiddishkeit and a proud student in the newly founded Tiferes program at Morristown, NJ.

I would see Rabbi Elimelech, of course, several times throughout the day, and quite frankly, was always afraid to get too near. Though he was always disarmingly warm and friendly, to me he seemed to me like Moses himself! His long full beard and his deep penetrating eyes. 

It's funny now, but if I saw him coming down the hallway I would quickly duck into the nearest open door or room. I wasn't ashamed about my "ba'al teshuva" somewhat typical alienated American Jewish background. It was more like "who am I to be near such a holy person!"

My journey back to my Jewish roots began at the University of Buffalo. In my last undergraduate semester, I decided to take a course called "Jewish Mysticism." I was intrigued as my knowledge of being Jewish was a far cry from anything mystical. It was more one of joining a country club and having bagels & lox on Sundays. The Shliach, Rabbi Nosson Gurary, used to say things like "a person should be son into thinking Chassidus, that he or she could walk into a lamp post and not even feel it!" 

That's what Rabbi Zweibel was like. He was in this world but, at the same time, other worldly. Like I said, more akin to Moshe Rabbeinu than someone like me, who would spend time focusing more on my Buffalo sports teams and my music than on deep Chassidic discourses.

An incident at the Rabbinical College in Morristown illustrates this point about Rabbi Elimelech.

I was sitting in the college office when Mrs. Zweibel walked in. Her car had a flat tire and she was using the yeshiva's phone to contact her husband. Mind you, this was the days before cell phones. Way before cell phones, in fact. We're talking the early 70's. Perhaps five minutes later, Rabbi Zweibel showed up with tools in hand to change the tire. He walked into the office proudly displaying a hammer and screwdriver – hardly the proper tools to change a flat tire. I could only smile at this powerful dichotomy of somehow being in the physical world while at the same time being so beyond it.

I also recall the time I had "graduated" from the Tiferes side of the building and was invited to learn with the big boys in the regular yeshiva program! It took me almost 9 months of intense effort on my part to make this move and I was beyond excitement. Not just heavy duty Chassidic philosophy but the teacher was none other than Rabbi Elimelech himself!

Needless to say, despite my looking the part as I now had a beard and wore a black hat, I still sat in the back row of the class and tried not to be in the direct view of Rabbi Zweibel's gaze. The class was very deep and always seemed to divide up into three distinct sections. One group sat there pretty much as wide-eyed as myself. We somehow felt that we were connecting with our very essence and Hashem Himself! Much of it went way over my head but I did give it the old solid college try. The second group fell into a deep sleep. And the third group, well let's just say their response was smiling, giggling, and outright laughing. The class was that intense! 

But I think the most incredible incident was the story of the Zweibel's well, and how it made a huge impact in my life. A bit of background to this story is required. 

Back in the early 70's, my wife Gittel and I were the second couple to get married from Tiferes - my buddy, Shlomo Greenberg and his wife were the first. For both of us it was huge news back in those days – as it meant a very different kind of wedding complete with some new customs, mechitza, and a whole lot of wild dancing. In any case, we were the first couple to actually move off the yeshiva grounds and into the Morristown community at large. We lived right next to the Morristown public high school in an attic apartment of a large, old three story house. I was on cloud nine. What could be better? I was learning part time. I was attending Rabbi Lipskier's wild and inspiring farbrengens. Hitting up the yeshiva for minyonim. And working part time with a gardening company. On the other hand, my wife was not a happy camper. For her, it was a bit lonely living in Morristown. While we had many guests for Shabbos and the Yom Tovim, she had no close friends in the community and no family either. She accepted it all very graciously and so the months went by.

One day I ventured over to the Zweibel's home located in a rather dense woodsy area across the road from the Mo-Town yeshiva. They actually had a well located on their property and we were always welcome there to "toivel" new utensils. It wasn't a typical well that you picture from your story books. At least back in those days, it had a covering that was pretty much level with the ground. You'd lift off this heavy cover exposing a kind of underground stream that flowed under the Zweibels property. So there I was toiveling some new dishes when I heard the door of their home open. Of course, I was hoping it was one of the Zweibel kids and not the good Rabbi himself. But it was indeed him and he was walking right towards the well. I think it did occur to me for a brief moment to drop into the water and hide.

"Shalom aleichem Reb Dovid," he said in a warm tone. "How are you doing?"

Yikes! Was I about to have a conversation with this truly larger than life holy Tzaddik? Me? The wild college kid from University of Buffalo from those crazy times of the late 60's.

"I'm fine," I responded. "Thanks G-d. Doing well."

Before I could even ask him how things were with him and his family he asked me one simple question.

"Are you happy living here?"

I told him that I was very happy with our living situation, being close to the yeshiva while living in Morristown. To my surprise he asked another question.

"And is your wife happy here?"

I answered as best as I could describe the situation. She wasn't so thrilled about it but hey, wasn't I supposed to be the main act? You know, learning, davening, growing in Yiddishkeit, etc.

"Where does she want to live?" He pressed on. "Where would she be happy?"

I was really caught off guard. In my naïve approach to Torah and mitzvos, I figured it was pretty male-based kind of religion. And so, while perhaps not ideal, wasn't it okay for her to tolerate things as is?

I told the good Rabbi that she spoke about Detroit – where her family is from, or Buffalo – where my family is from. Both had Chabad Houses. Then of course, there was the NYC area that had many vibrant Jewish communities and a whole slew of kosher restaurants.

"The Talmud speaks about this very clearly," Rabbi Zweibel continued. "It says that a couple, especially a newly married couple, should live in a place where the wife is happy."

"I didn't know that," I said. "I mean, wow. That's pretty amazing."

Rabbi Zweibel told me to take the matter seriously and to discuss it with my wife, and then to write into the Rebbe for his guidance and advice.

I couldn't believe it. The selfish thing would have been for him to keep us in Morristown and help things continue to grow and flourish. The selfish thing for me would have been to carry on and stay there. But Rabbi Zweibel saw things, as he always did – from a Torah reality perspective. And from that place it was clear what direction I needed to move in – pardon the expression.

"Keep an open mind," he added. "It's truly better for you and your marriage if your wife is happy. Remember, action is the main thing! Here you can't just think about what's best. You have to do it."

I took the Rabbi's words seriously. Gittel and I spoke about the possibility of moving to one of the three above mentioned places. Just months later we were on our way to Buffalo with the Rebbe's blessings for success. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Many speak of Rabbi Zweibel's scholarship. His unique and deep insights into Torah and Chassidic philosophy. Others speak of his incredible memory and how students would find pieces of pages of Chassidus and Rabbi Zweibel would tell them what sefer and what discourse it goes to. Still others talk about how he was so connected to truth that he really could walk down a street thinking powerful spiritual matters, bump into a lamp post and not notice it at all! But I also got to experience first-hand his genuine love and concern for others… and his gentle and wise guidance helping one young ba'alei teshuva couple make the right move.

His "small talk" conversation was anything but. It led to a major move in our lives and in turn, living in Buffalo, I went on to get my Master's degree and doctorate in education. Thus, it was the beginning of my 40 year plus career in this field. I ended up winning the Teacher of the Year" award from two different public school systems and was one of five teachers throughout America in 2008 that was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. 

My gratitude to Rabbi Zweibel is beyond words. I hope in some small way, as a "Mo-Town" yeshiva graduate, I was able to bring him some nachas in the years that followed our move to Buffalo.
 

 


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