Tribute to Rabbi Avraham Ginzberg, zt'”l

by Jonathan Rosenblum
Mishpacha Magazine – February 17, 2012

Because magazines like Mishpacha work with advance deadlines my friend Rabbi Aryeh Ginzberg’s piece on Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah appeared last week, even though he was sitting shiva for his father Rabbi Avraham Ginzberg, the menahel of Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim for nearly six decades. Reb Aryeh, unfortunately, was back in Yerushalayim far sooner than he could have imagined when he wrote last week’s piece for Mishpacha, in order to accompany his father to his final resting place. I would like to share one of the stories Reb Aryeh told of his father, as he sat in Yerushalayim on Motzaei Shabbos before flying back to the United States.

Rabbi Avraham Ginzberg arrived alone in the United States before World War II, and began learning in Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim. He was virtually penniless, and worked nights in a bakery to support himself. While still single, he managed to purchase the bakery, almost entirely on credit. With the profits from the bakery, he was able to bring his whole family to the United States,after the War and the bakery provided parnassah for Reb Avraham’s father for the rest of his life.

The business acumen of the young immigrant did not escape the attention of Rabbi Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz, Rosh Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, and he asked Reb Avraham to takeover the day-to-day running of the yeshiva for a period of two years to help put the yeshiva on its feet financially. That dream of financial stability was never fully realized. The Chofetz Chaim educational network spread across America, inspired by the Rosh Yeshiva’s educational vision. Yet because a very high percentage of musmachim of Chofetz Chaim went into chinuch and few into business, the yeshiva never developed a large donor pool of affluent alumni.

As a consequence, Reb Avraham’s two years extended well over half a century. Each penny the yeshiva raised was far dearer to him than his own money. Reb Aryeh Ginzberg related how classmates once directed him to the foyer of the yeshiva building to see what his father was doing. When he arrived, only his father’s trademark worn blue straw hat, with a red feather, was visible above ground. The latter was digging down to uncover a burst pipe before the plumber arrived in order to save the yeshiva the expense of the digging. When the yeshiva honored Rabbi Ginzberg after more than half a century of service, his son told the Rosh Yeshiva not to bother purchasing any kind of gift because his father would refuse to accept anything that depleted the yeshiva’s bank account in any way.

The story that made the biggest impression on me involved an older couple who had contributed to the yeshiva at one point. Their only son had passed away, and they were alone in the world. When the husband too passed away, Rabbi Ginzberg undertook to oversee all the wife’s needs, which, unfortunately, included numerous calls in the middle of the night to rush to the hospital when she hovered on the verge of death. In her will, she left $250,000 to Rabbi Ginzberg.

The older Rabbi Ginzberg told Reb Aryeh that the money belonged to the yeshiva, as his original contact with the couple arose out of his position in the yeshiva. Reb Aryeh pointed out that the will specified Rabbi Avraham Ginzberg, not Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim. But his father would not budge.

Reb Aryeh first went to Rabbi Leibowitz, who told him that he should take the halachic shayla to the posek hador, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Reb Moshe ruled that the money belonged to Rabbi Ginzberg, and added that he could certainly give ma’aser to the yeshiva.

Reb Aryeh returned to his parents’ home to share Reb Moshe’s psak with his father. The senior Rabbi Ginzberg greeted the news with great joy and told his son that he had done him a great tovah. “How would someone in my financial situation ever hope to make a gift of a quarter of a million dollars to the yeshiva?” he explained. “You have made that possible.” And he proceeded to write out a check for the full $250,000 to the yeshiva, even though he was then carrying a couple of mortgages on his own home, the proceeds of which had also gone to help pay off the yeshiva’s debts.

That story characterized a whole life of thinking nothing of one’s own needs, only those of others, particularly the Yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva. That model deserves to be widely known, especially now that the hero of the story is no longer here to be embarrassed by its publication.