The resplendent sunshine of Sunday morning, November 14, reflected the bright, memorable smile being remembered by the crowd gathering to honor the memory of Yosef Shmuel Shmelke ben Yitzchak and Rivka, Shelly Mermelstein, z”l, upon his second yahrzeit.
Members of Congregation Beth Aaron, longtime Teaneck friends, friends from afar and relatives from Lakewood, Brooklyn and even a surprise visitor from Israel joined Fran Mermelstein and children Chaim Mayer and Aliza Mermelstein, Suri and Eliot Friedman, Faygie and Dovid Meisels and Ellie and Ayelet Mermelstein and their children and grandchildren in paying a most honorable tribute to Shelly Mermemlstein, z”l, a man whose entire life exemplified the unceasing study of Torah and the unwavering observance of its mitzvot. The new sefer Torah will be placed in Beth Aaron’s beit midrash, a makom tefillah that was graced by Shelly Mermelstein’s presence daily for 44 years. The family members each expressed their gratitude at the outpouring of warmth and ahava of the participants.
The last pesukim of the sefer Torah, newly flown in from Eretz Yisrael, was completed by scores of family and friends in the Mermelstein home on Queen Anne Road. After an interlude of music during which the ink was drying, the sefer Torah was dressed in its lovely new mantle and adorned with its sparkling rimonim and brought out to join the other sifrei Torah and lead the procession to Beth Aaron a block away. The celebratory parade was also a moment of deep emotion as the participants thought of how gratified Shelly Mermelstein would have been to be remembered through such a momentous event.
Once inside the shul, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, mara d’atra of Congregation Beth Aaron and a close personal friend and admirer of Mermelstein, together with Rebbetzin Chaviva, addressed the filled-to-capacity audience with passionate words of remembrance. He once again cited David Hamelech’s words of exultation, “Hodu l’Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo” that he had cited two years ago when the tragic news of Shelly’s accident assembled hundreds in the shul to pray for his recovery. “Sometimes Hashem’s chesed is lost on us and we are left with a sense of despair and confusion. But today, through honoring the memory of our beloved Yosef Shmuel Shmelke, z”l, we are appreciating this exalted moment that we are dedicating l’ilui nishmat our dear friend. We are regarding a sefer Torah not as an object conveying abstract ideas but rather as affording us the breath of life so that we can function on a daily basis. The Mermelstein family reacted to the tragedy of their dear husband and father’s tragic death through the instructions of the Torah on how to navigate the travails of life. The model of a Torah life was exemplified for them by Shelly who, as Rav Soloveichik suggested, was a talmid chacham who is compared to a sefer Torah. The time has come for us to place within the walls of our beit knesset the sefer Torah that reflects his life, which was so profoundly missing from us these past two years. Two years ago we had to be comforted at the loss of the body of our dear chaver. Today we are finding nechama at the loss of his soul. But in the placement of his sefer Torah in our beit midrash we are comforted by the letters that will always be surrounding us, never to be destroyed and always reminding us of the strict adherence to its mitzvot that was the mantra of Shelly Mermelstein’s life.”
After the collation for the community, a seudat mitzvah was held in the social hall. Grandson Yitzchak Friedman offered the siyum on Masechet Brachot. In the course of his explaining the origins of tefillah he noted that even after the formalization of the tefillot of the Avot by the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, room was reserved within the daily and Shabbat/Yomim Tovim davening for personal supplications. In keeping with his constant concern for others, his zeidy would always insert special and personal tefillot and brachot for family and friends.
With dignity and composure, Fran Mermelstein addressed the assembled by quoting the pasuk “Zeh hayom asah Hashem nagila v’lismicha bo,” setting an uplifting tone to the memorial occasion. She posed the classic question as to why the last mitzvah in the Torah, to write for oneself a sefer Torah, uses the adjective “shir” when referring to the text of the Torah. She went on to explain that in actuality the Torah is a song that is set to the melody of the trop, the cantillations, which came after the words. Every megillah as well has its own “shir,” melody, as do our daily and Shabbat/Yom Tov davening. The “shir” inspires and uplifts the soul and adds to the meaning of the words. Nusach hatefillah is sacred and passed down from generation to generation. Today, the melodies of the tefillot have expanded to include current tunes that relate better to the younger generations. However, as expressed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the words never change but the music does.”
“In truth, Shelley did not have a musical ear. In fact, we were fortunate that none of his parents’ yahrzeits fell on a Shabbat so he was spared the onus of davening for the amud without a voice. But I would like to suggest that if we transpose the letters of ‘shir’ we create the word ‘yashar,’ which is an accurate depiction of the legacy of Shelly. He never swayed from the ‘straightforward’ and honest approach to life’s questions and issues (except when he let his grandchildren win in all board games). We are honoring Shelly’s ‘yashrus’ today, his honorable and truthful convictions and his authentic derech ha’chaim by dedicating the ultimate ‘song’ to his memory in the form of a sefer Torah that will reside in his second home for over 40 years at Congregation Beth Aaron.”
On his second yahrzeit we pray that the neshama of Yosef Shmuel Shmelke, z”l, will have an aliyah. “Tehei nishmato tzerura b’tzror ha’chaim.” May he be an advocate in shamayim for his family, community and klal Yisrael.
By Pearl Markovitz