Monday, July 25, 2011

How Far is Lizhensk from Oceanside? Mishpacha Magazine article

Mishpacha Magazine




The Baal Shem Tov wrote that the Mashiach

would come when his teachings spread

out to the four corners of the earth.

Once far from Yiddishkeit himself,

Rabbi Tal Moshe Zwecker is now

helping to fulfill the Baal Shem Tov's vision by

opening the world of Chassidus to the Englishspeaking

public. With his translation

of the sefer Noam Elimelech,

he has brought the tzaddik

Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk

— whose yahrtzeit is on

21 Adar — into the

lives of his readers

… and himself


Throughout the generations, tzaddikim have spoken about the great segulos

associated with the kever of Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, and thousands travel there

on his yahrtzeit, 21 Adar. Rebbe Mendel of Riminov said that visiting the kever of

Reb Elimelech ensures that a person will be inspired to do teshuvah before he passes

away. Similarly Rebbe Meir of Premishlan said that davening at the kever is a segulah

for yiras Shamayim. Other tzaddikim have said that the grave of the Noam Elimelech

is the only kever in Europe to still possess a direct link to the tzaddik.

"It's like a trip through a time machine," Rabbi Zwecker says. "Life hasn't changed

so much since then. Many people still draw water from the well and ride in horsedrawn

buggies. You feel like you're in the middle of a chassidic story. This is where

they came from; they davened and walked in these same forests and hills."

On his first visit to Lizhensk, Rabbi Zwecker brought along his newly printed sefer,

MiPeninei Noam Elimelech. He said that although he felt intimately connected to the

Rebbe from translating the sefer, it was his first time meeting him "face-to-face."

"It was an extremely emotional moment for me. I, too, cried and davened for a

long time in the tziyun and never saw such an awakening of teshuvah as I did among

the people there. It was such an outpouring — people were screaming and crying as

if the world was ending. When I came out, my clothes were soaked — I was literally

dripping with sweat and tears."

Reb Elimelech is quoted as having said that he nullified and sweetened the

suffering associated with the birth pangs of Mashiach. When Rabbi Zwecker

brought his book to the Kaliver Rebbe of Yerushalayim, the Rebbe asked

a poignant question: "If what Reb Elimelech said is true, how then can it

be that the world has been through so much suffering since then?" The

Kaliver Rebbe himself knew firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust, making

the question even stronger. "It could have been so much worse,"

the Rebbe answered, "so much worse." Only someone

who saw what he saw, could say such a thing.

How Far is Lizhensk from Oceanside?

by Gavriel Horan

Photos: Ouria Tadmor, Meir Haltovsky, Reuters

In this "I" generation — with Internet,

iPods, and BlackBerrys — we are

more plugged in than ever, but more

"plugged out" from genuine relationships

and connection. This carries over into all

aspects of life, including our relationships

with each other, ourselves, and Hashem.

While youth are crying out for love,

meaning, and connection, they don't know

where to turn. Rabbi Tal Moshe Zwecker,

author of the acclaimed English translation

of the chassidic classic Noam Elimelech

MiPeninei Noam Elimelech (Targum),

believes that Chassidus may be a balm to

society's ills.

"As our generation deals with the

challenges facing kids at risk, the baal

teshuvah movement, and the challenges

of an outside world that becomes more

and more morally degenerative every day,

chassidic teachings may be the secret to

our renewal," Rabbi Zwecker said. "I think

people are looking to connect to something

that's bigger than themselves nowadays.

The teachings of Chassidus about

love, compassion, and simchah

fill a tremendous void

in so many people

who are suffering

so much today."

Seeing Rabbi Zwecker today with his

long, flaming red peyos and beaver hat,

one would never guess that he, too, was

born to a religiously disconnected family.

Yet he made the difficult leap from secular

society to some of the most elite inner

circles of the chassidic world. Becoming

a true chassid is itself a challenging feat,

but Zwecker wasn't content to end there.

He wanted to ensure that others, who grew

up outside the chassidic community as he

did, could have access to the rich teachings

of Chassidus. His encyclopedic memory

and masterful grasp of Hebrew, Yiddish,

and English led him to begin the daunting

task of translating many of the chassidic

classics into English for the first time

ever in an easy-to-read and down-to-earth

style. Today, his books are helping to bring

thousands of English speakers into the

world of Chassidus. And precisely because

he made that journey himself, he is able to

pave the way for others.

Peyos in America Rabbi Zwecker

was raised in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and

Oceanside, Long Island, by secular Israeli

parents who left Israel in search of greater

economic opportunity. Although in Israel

they had little to do with Yiddishkeit, in

America they found themselves searching

for a Jewish identity. "My parents had the

syndrome that most expatriate Israelis do:

they became more religious when they left

Israel. One of the worst results of Zionism

is that Israelis feel Jewish just by living in

Israel — they wear their Judaism on the

flag. When they get to chutz l'Aretz and

are surrounded by a sea of non-Jews, their

Jewish identity has nothing to hold on to."

Therefore, it is not uncommon for secular

Israelis living abroad to take on all sorts of

religious practices that they would never

have dreamed of doing when they were in

Israel, such as Kiddush, candlelighting, or

kashrus in the home.

In America, the Zweckers went to a

nearby Conservative synagogue a few

times a year and made Kiddush and

hamotzi each Shabbos. The year before his

bar mitzvah, Tal Moshe used to regularly

go to services on Shabbos morning,

always arriving just in time for the Torah

reading. He thought he was arriving for

the beginning of prayers and erroneously

believed that the davening consisted of the

Torah reading followed by the Shemoneh

Esrei of Musaf — never knowing there

was such a thing as Shacharis. While

visiting relatives in Raanana the week of

his bar mitzvah, which the family was to

celebrate in Israel, he accompanied his

cousin to shul on Shabbos morning. "Don't

worry," he assured his cousin, "I go to shul

all the time in America. I know exactly

what's going on." When they arrived at

shul on time, he was surprised to find them

davening Shemoneh Esrei before Kriyas

HaTorah. "They do everything backwards

here in Israel," he said. "First they daven,

then they read from the Torah!"

Rabbi Zwecker's first memory

of chassidim was encountering the

"old fashioned" Satmar chassidim in

Williamsburg. His family enjoyed the

sight, as a relic from the past. As they

drove through the neighborhood, they

would stop to ask directions just to get a

closer look at their archaic clothes and to

see the peyos they thought were left behind

in Jerusalem's back alleys. Rabbi Zwecker

grew up speaking Hebrew at home and

"peyot" is the modern Hebrew word for

wigs. For years afterward he tried to figure

out how the chassidim got their "wigs" to

stay on just above their ears. Years later,

when Rabbi Zwecker was becoming frum,

he had contact with a number of Satmar

chassidim who he says were among the

kindest, most generous people he had ever

met, quite contrary to what he had been

told as a child. His father did, however take

a liking to the Chabad chassidim he met,

since they were always nice to Israelis. "It

never even occurred to him that they were

trying to be mekarev us," Rabbi Zwecker


The teachers in Conservative Hebrew

School happened to all be Orthodox,

although the students used to make fun

of them incessantly and never paid any

attention. The only time young Tal Moshe

ever paid attention was when his teacher

used to read traditional chassidic tales

and stories about the Arizal to the class.

It captivated his imagination and passion.

Seeing this, the teacher took him aside and

said, "You have a good head. Why not

apply yourself to your Hebrew studies?

It may come in handy some day." Rabbi

Zwecker listened and ended up graduating

Hebrew school with honors. He learned

to read and write Hebrew in the process,

in addition to speaking it at home, which

would eventually aid him along his


A Budding Kabbalist In public high

school, ethnic pride was the watchword,

yet how could he be proud of his own

ethnicity if he knew so little about it? So he

began his search.

"I wasn't biased," he said. "I was

looking for answers about what life was

all about." In order to do that he turned to

unlikely sources — the New Testament,

the Koran, and a wide assortment of

Eastern religions. One by one he found

holes in everything. The only place he

found any answers to his questions about

life was when he finally turned to books

about Kabbalah in English. There the

purpose of Creation and the world made

sense. "Kabbalah teaches that everything

we do is either rectifying or destroying

the world. I realized that by not keeping

Judaism, I was destroying the world." But

he soon came to the conclusion that he

didn't know enough about Judaism yet to

become a mekubal.

His father surprisingly agreed to enroll

him in evening classes at the local Young

Israel — Chumash, Talmud, and Halachah

— that were taught by yungeleit from the

nearby Shor Yoshuv Yeshiva, founded by

Rav Shlomo Friefeld, ztz"l. As he started

learning, he began to daven regularly

and to keep kosher. Keeping Shabbos,

however, was a major hurdle. "When

you keep Shabbos, you know how easy it

is," he said, "but when you first look at a

hilchos Shabbos book, it looks impossible!

There were numerous volumes of the most

intricate laws — how would I ever manage

to keep them all?" He also realized that

keeping Shabbos would result in a major

confrontation with his parents.

Oceanside High School produced

dozens of baalei teshuvah due to the

dedicated efforts of the local NCSY

chapter. But Tal's parents wouldn't let

him attend the NCSY events because they

were afraid it would inspire him to become

totally religious. When he finally managed

to attend an event one Shabbos, he was so

impressed at how easy it really was to keep

Shabbos that he made a deal with Hashem

that he would become shomer Shabbos

by Rosh HaShanah. That year on Rosh

HaShanah, at age sixteen, he accepted the

yoke of mitzvos and made a commitment

to become totally frum. He said he never

remembers crying as much. "It was the

first time that I had ever come face-to-face

with the concept of a personal relationship

with G-d. I felt that I was speaking

personally to Him and taking Him up on

the great opportunity to do teshuvah that

He endowed us with."

Although he initially kept his Shabbos

observance hidden from his parents, it was

only a matter of time before they found

out what he was up to. At first they were

furious, and it actually took years to heal

the rift. "When a person becomes a baal

teshuvah," Rabbi Zwecker explains in

retrospect, "it's essential to love, respect,

and honor your parents and to keep them a

part of your life as much as possible. Today

they are proud of me in many ways, but it

wasn't easy to get to that place."

On his first observant Purim, a friend

took him to get a brachah from Rav

Avraham Pam, ztz"l. Rav Pam blessed him

that he should learn kol haTorah kulah.

That summer, Tal Moshe locked himself

in a room and learned through the entire

Maseches Brachos — the first time he

had ever learned Gemara. He was already

seeing the siyata d'Shmaya in his learning

and he felt that Rav Pam's brachah was on

its way to fulfillment.

After graduating high school, the frum

community of Oceanside paid for Tal

Moshe to spend a year learning in yeshivah

in Eretz Yisrael. During this process, he

never lost his passion for mysticism or

the esoteric, but he soon realized that frum

people don't just become kabbalists. And

so he began delving into the teachings of

Chassidus — whatever he could find in

English, which at the time was very little,

and he found a new passion. "Chassidus

basically takes the deep concepts of

Kabbalah and makes it practical for

everyday life so that anyone can relate to it,"

he explained. By the time he went to Israel

to learn at Yeshivas Kerem B'Yavneh, he

was already committed to a chassidic way

of life. "I realized that Chassidus is a living

philosophy. It's not just a cold system of

thoughts and ideas, it's a whole way of

life and I wanted to live that life." He now

needed to find a rebbe to teach him how to

be a chassid.

He used his time in Israel to visit as

many chassidic communities as he could

in search of a rebbe and his fluent Hebrew

allowed him to easily transverse language

barriers that most baalei teshuvah could

not. His first time visiting Toldos Aharon in

Meah Shearim during Succos, for example,

he was bombarded by tens of invitations

for Yom Tov seudos until two prospective

hosts actually fought over him until they

agreed to share him for the various seudos.

Being the guest, he was served first for

all of the courses and was given the best

sleeping spot in the succah. When the fish

was served, he politely waited for them to

bring out the silverware, until he realized

that their custom was to eat fish with their

bare hands. Not wanting to offend his

hosts, he joined in. Years later he learned

this custom dates back to early chassidic

teaching, and the belief that in the direct

and intimate handling of the food, the holy

sparks within are elevated; Rav Mordechai

of Nadvorna preferred to touch the holy

mikveh that day, rather than with a fork that

had only been toiveled once long ago.

Meeting the Rebbe When Reb

Tal Moshe's grandmother passed away,

he spent time with his cousins in Raanana.

They ended up missing the last Shacharis

minyan at the local shul and asked someone

if there was another minyan in the area.

"The only minyan at this hour is by the

Rebbe," someone told them. "There's a

rebbe in Raanana?" Rabbi Zwecker asked

in astonishment. He had spent numerous

Shabbosim in the chassidic enclaves

of Jerusalem and Bnai Brak, but never

thought that there was a chassidic rebbe

in the heart of secular Raanana that he

had visited so many times. After davening

in the beis medrash of the Clevelander

Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Rosenbaum,

shlita, the Rebbe invited Zwecker to come

back sometime to join him for Shabbos.

"When I heard the Rebbe's davening

and then saw him recite Kiddush in the

highly emotional and tearful Nadvorna

nusach, I felt that I was experiencing

firsthand the concept that one who says

Kiddush becomes a partner with Hashem

in Creation. Here was a tzaddik who had

partnered with Hashem and I wanted to be

connected and attach myself to him."

Rabbi Zwecker eventually became a

regular guest at the Rebbe's Shabbos table

and even spent several months living

in his home. During their time together,

Reb Tal Moshe took every opportunity to

learn with the Rebbe alone, both Gemara

and Chassidus, and to absorb the nuances

and customs of Chassidus in general and

Nadvorna Chassidus in particular. As their

relationship developed, the Clevelander

Rebbe saw that Reb Tal Moshe was serious

about becoming a chassid and told him

that if this was the path he wanted to take,

he would have to learn to dress and act

the part. This was a necessary ingredient

in order to eventually be able to integrate

into a normal chassidish community

— especially when it comes to raising

chassidish children.

Only Yiddish Will Do After his

year in yeshivah in Israel was up, the

Rebbe sent Tal Moshe to his brother-inlaw,

the Sulitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel

Shmelke Rubin, in Far Rockaway, where

he remained for several years while

simultaneously learning in Yeshivas Shor

Yoshuv. Rabbi Zwecker spent so many

Shabbosim by the Sulitzer Rebbe that he

became a fixture in their house. After a

short time, the Rebbe told him that they

were no longer speaking "goyish" and

would converse exclusively in Yiddish

from then on. When Reb Tal Moshe

objected that he didn't know Yiddish, the

Rebbe's response was, "So learn!" Within

a short time of only conversing with the

Rebbe in broken Yiddish, he eventually

became completely fluent, making his total

immersion into chassidic life all the more

realistic. Although the change was drastic,

Rabbi Zwecker was so deeply committed

to the ideals of Chassidus that he simply

grabbed the ball and ran with it.

When he married his wife, a student of

Rav Moshe Weinberger of the Aish Kodesh

kehillah in Woodmere, the Zweckers made

aliyah to Beitar, eventually relocating to

Ramat Beit Shemesh, and began raising a

family in true chassidic fashion. He learned

in kollel for many years in the Clevelander

Rebbe's kollels in Beitar and Raanana, and

eventually received smichah Yoreh-Yoreh.

"Although I had been going through

the motions for some time, I realized that

I still didn't really know much about the

teachings of the chassidic masters," he said.

"I used to learn Chassidus on the parshah

like everyone does, but from that alone, I

was unable to glean a cohesive approach

to Yiddishkeit and life." When he asked his

Rebbe about it, the Rebbe told him that if

he really wanted to understand Chassidus,

he would have to start from the classics

Noam Elimelech, Siduro shel Shabbos,

Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Kedushas

Levi — and learn them from beginning to

end. Although the first address for many

newcomers to Chassidus is Tanya and

Likutei Moharan, the Rebbe told him that

they required much more background

in order to learn them properly. Another

essential eitzah he received along the way

was from the son of the Spinka Rebbe,

currently the Krula Rebbe of Boro Park.

He suggested that Tal Moshe write his

own mafteiach — an index of topics and

ideas on the inside cover of every text he


"Chassidus is a system. It requires

systematic study. Most of the seforim

weren't written by the rebbes themselves,

and some essential concepts are only

explained in depth once in the middle of

the sefer," Rabbi Zwecker explained. His

notes would eventually allow him to easily

cross-reference all of the main concepts in

Chassidus — a tool that was essential when

writing his footnotes for Noam Elimelech.

Connecting to Reb Elimelech

As he seriously learned through Noam

Elimelech while taking notes, he realized

that he had the beginnings of a sefer on

his hands. "There aren't many English

translations of chassidic seforim out there.

I realized that there was a gap — many

English-speaking baalei teshuvah are

drawn to the teachings of Chassidus, but

they have no way to access it. There I was,

a Hebrew and Yiddish speaker raising

a chassidish family and I didn't know

anything about the depths of chassidic

thought. So what was happening with

everyone else?"

Eventually he went to the Clevelander

Rebbe with the idea of publishing an

English translation of Noam Elimelech.

After receiving the Rebbe's brachah,

he bounced the idea off Rav Moshe

Weinberger in Woodmere. Rav Weinberger

was much more hesitant for fear that a

possible mistake in translation might elicit

harsh judgments.

"You have to speak to a mekubal who

knows these things," he said. He sent

him to Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter, rosh

yeshivah of the renowned Yeshivas Shaar

HaShamayim. But Rav Shechter was

also discouraging. "Noam Elimelech is

such a difficult sefer, why not start with

something easier?" When Rav Schechter

understood that the translation was only

going to include non-esoteric selections

from the original sefer, he gave his blessing

as well. "There's no better way to develop

a close relationship with a tzaddik than by

learning and publishing his sefer," he said.

"It brings great light into the world."

After putting up one advertisement

looking for donors, an overwhelming

influx of calls and e-mails from people

who were interested in the project began

pouring in. "I never believed the response

would be like that," he said. Today the

book is already in its third printing after

only two years. Shortly after the book

came out, he received a call from a chassid

in New York who has since hired him to

start working on an English translation of

Kedushas Levi, which will be coming out

shortly. He is also working on a second

volume of Noam Elimelech on the Yamim

Tovim as well as a collection of chassidic

teachings on Pirkei Avos.

All the seforim contain a mixture

of teachings and stories, which makes

them even more accessible. "People love

stories," he said. "There's no better way to

give over the philosophy of Chassidus than

through stories. A chassidic story has the

power to capture the heart and imagination

of people."

In All Your Ways In his famous

epistle written to his brother-in-law, the

Bal Shem Tov describes a vision he had in

which the Mashiach told him that he would arrive when the

teachings of Chassidus "will be disseminated and revealed in

the world, and your wellsprings will spread outward ..." Rabbi

Zwecker sees it as his personal mission to continue the Bal

Shem Tov's lofty goal of hastening the coming of the Mashiach:

"The Torah of the Bal Shem Tov is the Torah of Mashiach. It

emphasizes the deeper meaning of the Torah, ahavas Yisrael,

and finding goodness even in the darkest places in our lives.

The wellsprings of the Bal Shem Tov have to spread out to all

the Jews out there who are so far away, who need someone to

love them — to ignite that pintele Yid."

"The Baal Shem Tov came to the world at a time when the

simple Jews were very estranged from avodas Hashem," he

explained. "He reminded them that Hashem loves their prayers

and their singing. He reminded people that eating, sleeping,

dancing, every breath, every story, every aspect of life is all

avodas Hashem." Although the chassidic courts of today

represent strongholds of mainstream Yiddishkeit, Chassidus

was once a kiruv movement that sought to help connect the

simple, brokenhearted Jews of Europe with their Creator.

"Today, people also feel estranged from Yiddishkeit

— both secular Jews and the high number of kids 'off the

derech.' Chassidus teaches us that avodas Hashem is for

everyone. It doesn't expect everyone to be a tzaddik — it

expects you to be an erliche Yid. You don't have to be a rosh

yeshivah or a gadol — you have to be the best you that you

can be. Hashem loves you for who you are and for what only

you can contribute. If you're not doing that, then you're in


Rabbi Zwecker emphasizes that if his own rebbeim

hadn't invested their precious time to teach and guide him

into the world of Chassidus, he wouldn't be able to share it

with others today. "I am just giving it back. I wasn't zocheh

to be a student of the Bal Shem Tov, or even to be born into

the tradition, but I've attached myself to it through those that

have a direct mesorah from the beginning."

Three Times Three

Noam and Dorit Sherman of Lod were unable to have children for many years

and finally decided to apply for adoption. Shortly before the adoption process was

complete, Noam was invited to join a group of Israelis traveling to kivrei tzaddikim

in Eastern Europe. He was the tenth man. At the kever of Reb Elimelech in Lizhensk,

Noam beseeched the Rebbe to intercede for them in Shamayim. "You will be our

advocate before Hashem! I came here to pray not for one, not for two but for

three," he said on behalf of his wife, himself, and the future child they so longed

for. Little did he know how providential those words would prove.

Shortly after the trip, the Shermans' sixth fertility treatment was successful and

the doctors announced that they were expecting triplets! Nonetheless, the doctors

warned that carrying triplets could be detrimental to the health of the babies

and strongly recommended aborting two of the fetuses through a process called

dilution. After receiving a brachah from Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, ztz"l, however, the

Shermans decided not to dilute. After nine months they were blessed with three

healthy baby boys.

Five years later, they underwent further treatment, and once more, found out

that they were expecting triplets! This time, the doctors unequivocally told them to

dilute, since the rate of survival of the fetuses was even smaller the second time.

Nonetheless, the Shermans were determined to continue and, once again, gave

birth to three more healthy children. Israel's Channel 2 covered the entire story.

Etti Algrisi, also of Lod, happened to turn on the news that night. The Algrisis had

recently undergone similar treatments and were also expecting triplets. Once again,

the doctors strongly recommended dilution. Although her traditional Sephardic

husband was adamantly against it, Etti had agreed to go ahead with the dilution

process, scheduled for Sunday. When she heard the Shermans' story she began

to have second thoughts. She looked the Shermans up and it turned out that the

two couples lived only a few minutes apart from each other in Lod. The Shermans

encouraged Etti to continue with the pregnancy. The next morning, Etti canceled

her hospital appointment and decided to put her trust in Hashem.

"I prayed to Hashem to give me the strength to deal with whatever needed to

happen," Etti said. The couples stayed in touch throughout the entire term. "Dorit

gave me the strength and faith to believe it was possible." A short time later, the

Algrisis gave birth to three healthy baby boys.

When Noam Sherman davened at the kever of Reb Elimelech, he had no idea

what his words, "I pray not for one, not for two, but for three," really meant —

three times three!


Although the Mossad has not confirmed the following story, it has not denied

it either. As the story goes, in the 1960s, Israeli secret agents in Poland approached

the non-Jewish woman who possessed the key to the kever of Reb Elimelech in

Lizhensk. They offered her a large sum of money if she would give information on

any Russian or Polish soldiers who prayed at the grave. At some point, a high-ranking

Red Army officer came to daven at the kever. As soon as he left, the woman read his

kvittel and, through it, managed to get his name to the Israeli agents. The Mossad

set to work to convince this officer to provide Israel with Egyptian military secrets.

An anonymous source claims that this soldier was none other than dissident Yefim

Davidovitch, a colonel in the Russian Army who later became a famous refusnik,

instrumental in paving the way for the first wave of Russian aliyah. He managed to

get the Israelis detailed maps of Egyptian air force bases, which enabled the Israeli

Air Force to destroy over 330 Egyptian planes in the first hours of war — thanks in

part to the Rebbe Reb Meilech. May his merit continue to protect us!


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