April 24, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
April 24, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Reviewing: “Rav Mordechai Schwab, A Tzaddik in Monsey: Glimpses of His Greatness,” by Yehoshua Schwab. Adir Press. 2023. English. Hardcover. 376 pages. ISBN-13: 9798218962715.

Rabbi Mordechai Schwab was the younger brother of Rabbi Shimon Schwab. Rabbi Mordechai learned in Kamenitz under Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz. Rabbi Baruch Ber once asked of himself, “In what merit can I stake a claim to Olam Habah? Do my chiddushim match up to my predecessors’? Can my sacrifices match up to those who died al kiddush Hashem?” Rabbi Baruch Ber, the gadol hador, in all his humility, finally “found” a merit: “I loved every Jew as he was.” This was Rabbi Mordechai Schwab, who made time in his day for all Jews, treating each individual equally and with great love.

The biography “Rav Mordechai Schwab, A Tzaddik in Monsey: Glimpses of His Greatness,” written by Rabbi Schwab’s son, Rabbi Yehoshua Schwab, is a biographical compilation of stories, insights, and memories of this gadol. Rabbi Mordechai Schwab traveled from Russia to Shanghai with the Mir Yeshiva during the Holocaust. He experienced his own yetzias Mitzrayim. We think the course of life is man-made, but we do not always see the hidden miracle therein. For example, when Germany and Russia signed a nonaggression pact, an autonomous zone was created, which allowed many Jews to escape.

Rabbi Mordechai Schwab lived by two axioms: “When I look at a person, I see a tzelem Elokim, a person made in the image of God.” “When I hear a person knocking on the door, I run with the same enthusiasm as if it was Eliyahu Hanavi.” Despite trying to keep his good deeds private, Rabbi Schwab epitomized someone who loved his fellow Jew, stood up for his beliefs and valued time. When Rabbi Schwab was visiting someone on Pesach, he drank from their glassware despite his chumra. This delighted the host greatly. When asked by his son why he drank from the glass instead of a paper cup, Rabbi Schwab replied: My chumra is d’rabanan; however, making another Jew feel bad is d’oraysa.” Taking out the garbage and cleaning the house were not beneath him either.

While he resided in Monsey, Rabbi Schwab served as a rebbe in Yeshiva Beis Shraga. He managed to give a shiur in the Agudah shul in Washington Heights to baalei batim while also serving as a mashgiach in Yeshiva Gedolah of Passaic. This involved a great deal of travel by both taxi and bus. It was because every moment was precious to Rabbi Schwab that he was able to find the time for all the responsibilities he took upon himself, with an emphasis on “himself.” He did not want to delegate to or burden others; Rabbi Schwab was not one to rely on favors either.

Once, Rabbi Schwab was tasked with collecting money for a certain organization. He forgot about the matter until the last few days when he frantically got the money together and mailed it out. In his haste, he forgot to seal and stamp the envelope. Rabbi Schwab called the post office, but there was nothing to be done. He spent that Shabbat sleepless and shaken; he got up early and decided to prepare his shiur for that afternoon. The following week, the organization’s head called Rabbi Schwab incredulously: “I don’t know how it happened, but we got the money.” The rabbi took this as a lesson that when tasked to do something we need to do it right away.

When Rabbi Schwab was visiting his son in Israel, he noticed that a lot of people were driving on Shabbat. He posited that these people were Arabs. When a car passed by them with a couple in it, Rabbi Schwab said, “It must be that the wife is expecting, and the husband is driving her to the hospital.” His son asked, “Ta, do you really believe that?” They later confirmed that this was indeed the case.

Rabbi Schwab always stressed the need to make a kiddush Hashem. This did not mean boasting of one’s actions. His own children did not know the full extent of his chesed. One day they saw the canceled checks that came back to the house. (In those days when you wrote a check the bank would mail it back to you as a receipt.) The majority of checks Rabbi Schwab wrote were not for bills or personal needs; rather, they were for tzedaka. Once, a businessman came to Rabbi Schwab despondently. He had been cheated by a lawyer in a business deal and was out $70,000, the entirety of his liquid assets. Rabbi Schwab asked the businessman, “Was the money honestly acquired?” The businessman said that it was. “Ehrliche gelt” is not lost, said Rabbi Schwab. The businessman soon made back the money.

As Rabbi Yehoshua Schwab acknowledges, we cannot know all of the greatness of his father; this is because he kept many of his deeds hidden. But we can aspire to follow in his ways from what we derive from this book. One example given by Rabbi Mordechai himself is the story of his great-grandfather, Rabbi Shimon Erlanger, after whom his brother was named. Rabbi Shimeleh served as the shamash of his shul. Yehoshua bin Nun merited to become the leader of klal Yisroel because he served as a shamash. This demonstrates the importance of serving others. Rabbi Mordechai Schwab was a melamed throughout his life; he shunned honor. He declined to succeed Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky as the rav of his shul upon the gadol hador’s passing as this would involve having to wear a long coat, which might fill him with ga’aivah (haughtiness).

Rabbi Schwab passed away nearly 30 years ago. “A Tzaddik in Monsey” is a recent addition to the Feldheim library. The lasting impression the rav had was demonstrated to me when I tried to purchase the book from the publisher’s website, only to find out it was sold out. Upon being notified that the book was back in print, I purchased it immediately and read it in one sitting. As the product of a Breuer’s education myself (having gone to high school in Mesivta al Shem Rav Shlomo Breuer—who was Rabbi Schwab’s father’s rebbi), I feel a personal connection to Rabbi Mordechai Schwab. As a young boy visiting my grandparents in Washington Heights, I would receive a bracha from Rabbi Shimon Schwab on Friday nights. Additionally, I have a strong kesher with Rabbi Shimon’s son, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Schwab, a nephew of Rabbi Mordechai.

This volume gives us more than just a story arc. It truly is a glimpse into the greatness that was Rabbi Mordechai Schwab of blessed memory. By learning from and relating his stories, you are linking the chains of a mesorah that go back to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Yehoshua bin Nun and Moshe Rabeinu. However, as Rabbi Schwab related from his brother Rabbi Shimon, if, as the Chafetz Chaim said, one would eat manna in the desert but not attribute any thought as to how he would like it to taste, it tasted like nothing. When davening, we have to devote our attention to what we are saying. If we learn and feel a burst of inspiration but don’t do anything about it, then what have we accomplished? One should take the stories, lessons and mussar of Rabbi Schwab to heart.

As Rabbi Mordechai Schwab’s son-in-law, Rabbi Binyomin Forst wrote in a tribute published in The Jewish Observer shortly after the petira: “He was an inspiration during his lifetime for all who came in contact with him. One left his presence with a resolve to better himself. [It’s] incumbent on those who knew him to share their impressions… If these lines are instrumental in stimulating others to emulate some of his middos, particularly his quality of finding merit in others, perhaps he will forgive us for writing them.”


Chaim Yehuda Meyer is an attorney and journalist who resides in Brooklyn.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles