Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Elul 5759 - August 18, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Mrs. Chana Belsky -- Remembering an Inspiring Woman on Her First Yahrtzeit
by M. Samsonowitz

11 Menachem Av marked the first yahrtzeit of Chana Tzirel Belsky ("Tanta Chana" or "Bubbie Belsky" as she was lovingly known to the many who fell under the spell of her shining personality). So many are still at a loss to digest that this paragon of ahavas Yisroel and emunah is no longer with us.

In Klal Yisroel, there are gedolei Torah. And there are illustrious communal workers. And there are devotees of chesed who help thousands in need. All are essential, and all of us owe a great debt to such people. But just as essential are those unassuming Jews who on the surface seem almost commonplace, but are in reality powerful models of what a Torah Jew is supposed to be.

Their influence, which is often unspoken, is nevertheless deep and encompassing. People are drawn to them, to bask in their love, caring, emunah and selflessness. Such a woman was Mrs. Chana Belsky.

As one of her many "girls" wrote the family after the shiva, "I came to this country as a 19 year old single Jewish girl and became frum in the town I was living. Then I came to New York. I suddenly realized that being a frum Jew was not straightforward any more. Everything became complicated. Here, there were all kinds of frum Jews behaving in all kinds of ways. It was at this critical point that Hashem brought your parents into my life.

"I have been zoche to meet some exceptional people in my life, but Bubbie Belsky was in a category all of her own. When I met Bubbie Belsky, there was no more confusion about what kind of a frum Jew I was going to be. I felt totally liberated from thoughts of what color hat the boys I dated should be wearing, or what style clothes I should wear or what kind of people I should be hanging out with. By just being who she was in the most natural way, she showed me that the essence of my life has to be about my relationship with Hashem. The hat, hemline, and the rest will all fall in the right place because they are all secondary."

A Home Dedicated to the Community

Chana Belsky was born in 1916, the oldest daughter of Reb Binyamin Wilhelm, the founder of Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, a unique visionary who was convinced that Judaism would win the day even in the acculturating, rapidly assimilating American Jewish community of the early twentieth century.

On her mother's side she was a fourth generation American, since her great-grandfather, an ardently religious man from Hungary, had arrived in the U.S. shortly after the Civil War. She grew up in a home which revolved around community involvement and breathed total devotion to Torah and Yiddishkeit. These anchors became prominent features of her own home.

The young Chana was a cheerful, bright girl with firm religious principles. She was patient by nature and never lost control of a situation. She had the unusual mix of being exceedingly down-to-earth and practical, while always remaining a fervent optimist.

Since there was no Bais Yaakov when she was growing up, her father hired Jewish teachers to teach her tefillos and halachos. Her father taught her himself the works of the Chofetz Chaim, including his vital guidebook Nidchei Yisroel for Jews who had settled in the U.S. Fluent in both Yiddish and Hebrew, Chana studied the Tze'ena Ure'ena on the parsha, and other popular religious works in Yiddish. She knew many of them backwards and forwards.

Chana willfully shared the burden of running the busy Wilhelm household. The family hosted a never-ending array of guests and meshulochim, and it was Chana who frequently prepared the rooms for the guests and served them. One of the guests whom she graciously served was HaRav Meir Don Plotzky, a famous rav of Ostrow in pre-World War I Poland and author of the Kli Chemdo, who had come to New York as part of a delegation of Agudas Yisroel to encourage the Jewish immigrants to remain faithful to Judaism.

But to the Wilhelms, hospitality and caring for their fellow Jews didn't just apply to rabbis and other notables. At one point, the Wilhelms took in an orphan girl to their home. Before the girl moved in, Chana and her sister had slept in one bed, and their youngest sister slept on a folding cot. But when the orphan moved in with them, she received the cot and all three sisters slept on one bed.

The Wilhelm's didn't just take the girl into their home to have her work for them, but enrolled her in night high school so that she could get an education and eventually get a respectable job. The Wilhelms insisted that she eat at the table with the family, instead of eating in the kitchen as many others would do. This concern and consideration for even the most disadvantaged elements in society remained a hallmark of Chana for life.

Her Marriage

After finishing high school, Chana went to work as a bookkeeper in her father's business. When she turned 20, HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, the visionary principal of Torah Vodaas who was one of her father's close friends, suggested a shidduch for her with one of his best talmidim: Rav Dov (Berel) Belsky, who had earlier studied in Radin under the Chofetz Chaim.

The young Chana was enraptured when she heard of the offer. "Nothing more has to be said," she declared. After years of studying the Chofetz Chaim's works, she saw it as a great privilege to marry one of his disciples. The young man told her his dream of working for a few hours and spending the rest of his day studying Torah and Chana willingly agreed to share it. This was their ideal at a time when kollel was unheard of and everyone around them was rushing to assure themselves a comfortable living.

Fired with religious enthusiasm, the young Belsky family decided to visit Palestine, where they could imbibe the rarefied spiritual atmosphere of Jerusalem before setting up their own home in New York.

First the young family traveled to Poland to visit her paternal grandfather. Reb Binyamin's father was thrilled to see his American granddaughter and her husband. Who would believe, he thought as he looked at Chana and her learned husband in astonishment, that such a scholar and such a devoted Jewess could grow on American soil? Chana's grandfather proudly introduced the young couple to all the relatives in Poland.

They arrived in Yaffo in 1936. In that period, Americans were not permitted to journey to Jerusalem because of Arab disturbances and violence. Even in Yaffo, many times they barely escaped fire from Arab snipers. After waiting three months to visit Jerusalem without any improvement in the situation, the young couple had no choice but to return home to the United States.

The Beginnings of Bnos

Back in Ross Street in Williamsburg, Rabbi Belsky opened a small business, and Chana soon settled down to raise her children. Soon after she returned home, the fledgling Bais Yaakov school opened its doors, and the Bnos organization was also founded. Chana Belsky became one of its most active counselors. Until almost the end of her life, she would meet yearly with "my girls" -- some of whom are the wives of roshei yeshivos today -- to recall those beginning, heady years of building Yiddishkeit.

She taught Pirkei Ovos and parsha to Shabbos groups and studied with them appropriate selections. She featured parties and celebrations in her home on various occasions. She taught kallos the marriage laws. She unobtrusively organized the first Bnos camp in the late 40's in a farmhouse in Connecticut. Although she did not spend the summer with the girls, she hired camp counselors and visited the site.

Her involvement in Neshei Agudas Yisroel went on for decades, and she was instrumental in running many of its projects such as to help orphanages and raise money for Eretz Yisroel. After years of involvement in Neshei Agudas Yisroel, the time finally arrived when its presidium wanted to honor her for her years of devoted work. She originally agreed to sit on the dais but only with great reluctance. At the dinner she felt so uncomfortable that she left the dais and went to sit in the crowd with her daughters.

Within a short time, Chana had established herself as one of the neighborhood's pillars who was involved in everything that was happening.

Her involvement in the community did not merely concern communal endeavors or fundraising for countless causes. Even more than her communal activity was the personal touch she had on people's lives. She became a central address for countless individuals who needed sensible advice, a kind word, or a meal to eat. She was sought out by couples who were having sholom bayis troubles. In her clear- headed, sensible way, she was able to grasp the source of dissension and propose workable solutions. Because she was so well-liked and revered, her words had a strong impact on listeners.

Everyone Was "Unzereh"

Tanta Chana possessed many laudable qualities, but the two qualities which friends and devotees recall the most are her sterling ahavas Yisroel and her hospitality.

Tanta Chana had every reason to be proud. She was the daughter of one of American's Torah pioneers, and the wife of a distinguished talmid chochom. She was a close friend of many couples who grew up in the early twentieth century in the U.S. who formed the inner circle of American Torah scholars. Many of her children married into distinguished Torah families. If she would have been arrogant, it would have been entirely understandable.

But she was the exact opposite. Her total lack of pretension was unique. Everyone was welcomed into the home with the same warmth and joy, whether a rosh yeshiva, a nephew, a seminary girl -- or a mentally ill vagabond. Her son, Rav Yisroel Belsky, recounts, "There was no such thing to my parents as a Yid who was not unzereh. Everyone came to our house -- Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Chassidim, Litvaks." Everyone was given the same welcome treatment and no one was looked down upon.

A typical Simchas Torah in Williamsburg would include 200 bochurim from Torah Vodaas descending on the Belsky home to partake of a festive holiday kiddush. After them, the worshipers from the Stoliner shul would troop over to have a bite and say Gut Yom Tov. Then came the oilom from the Polisher shtiebel. The house was totally nonpartisan.

Her daughter recalls, "My friends always loved to come to our house and hang around because my mother was so warm to everyone." When the cousins felt the need to skip school, there was only one place where they wanted to go. She good- humoredly took them in for the day but made sure it was only a one-day event.

Loving Every Jew

Some people are experts at performing kindness with the whole world, but don't know how to perform it with their own. But Tanta Chana was not that way. She was a warm mother who created a happy, loving atmosphere for her children.

When her children got into trouble in school, she never became angry or yelled. Her approach was always one of common sense and communication to resolve a problem. Following her example, her children at a young age learned to help care for the guests and became involved in communal endeavors.

Her favorite song was "Vetaheir libeinu le'ovdecho be'emes." Her motto was "Havei dan es kol odom lekaf zchus," and this is what she wrote in every autograph book she was asked to sign.

Although it seemed as if one couldn't like people more than she did, she would frequently tell her children that she hadn't even come close to her mother's accomplishments in this area. Her community involvement, her hospitality, her total lack of pretentiousness emanated from her love of people. When you met her, you were immediately attracted to her warm smile. She radiated to you that you were an important person to her, and your needs were high on her list.

The hundreds of people who passed through her house looked for a reason to return. And when you visited again, you felt at home, as if you had never left. She didn't forget who you were, and was able to remember hundreds of people -- and their mates and children -- for years after. Her breakfront in her home in Flatbush was covered with pictures of her children and grandchildren -- and countless other families and "grandchildren" of people who had passed through her doors and felt as close to the Belskys as if they were truly family.

A ben Torah who spent years in his youth as their ben bayis, relates, "She made you feel like family -- not just by warmly welcoming you, but by treating you like a son in every way. For instance, when I was in the States visiting just after Uncle Berel (her husband) had his surgery, she suggested that my visit to him in the hospital would mean so much to him. I of course went, and saw how right she was. She would discuss personal issues that had come up in her life with me, as if I were her son."

He relates how throughout the years, he continued his ties with the Belskys even after moving out of New York City. His sisters spent several months with them on different occasions, he brought his kallah there when they had to attend to business in New York, and different relatives (even non-religious ones) felt comfortable enough with the Belskys to visit them too. Even years after his marriage, when he was passing through New York and made a short visit, the Belskys made sure to give him small gifts for his children, as if he were their own son.

Tanta Chana was a natural psychologist who knew how to find the right word to assuage an aching heart. Whether it involved shidduchim, illness, comforting mourners, or making a living, she knew which words to say that would bring relief and comfort. She was realistic in knowing that many of the people who came to her needed far more comprehensive help than a few words could provide, or that at times there was no real solution to their unfortunate situation. But she realized that kindly words provided a certain relief all of their own, even if the effect was only temporary.

On one of her trips to Israel, she visited a talmud Torah which family friends had founded and which proved very successful. When the wife was proudly telling her of the school's overwhelming enrollment and how difficult it was to get accepted, Tanta Chana had but one comment: "But will this make the children arrogant? Then what good is it?"

Open Door to Everyone

Tanta Chana's ahavas Yisroel was surely the motivating force of her exceptional hospitality, which was in a class of its own.

Where could one find a family that would take in the homeless, and even vagabonds and the mentally ill, for months or years at a time?

Guests were always a fixture in the Belsky house. For decades, the family had seminary girls and yeshiva boys staying with them for Shabbosim and holidays and even weekdays.

One Friday night in the years after World War II, the Belskys heard a knock on the door. A 19-year old man stood there, with nowhere to go. He told them that he had just got off the boat, and made his way to shul, where he had gone to daven the Shabbos prayers. A friendly man in the shul noticed him and asked, "Do you have a place to go for Shabbos?"

When the answer was no, the local Jew told him confidently, "Come with me." Standing in front of the Belsky door, the local Jew knocked on the door and then ran away.

The Belskys took the man in, gave him a bed to sleep on for months, found him a job and helped him marry.

Another time late at night, there was a knock on the door. A seminary girl was shooed into the house and quickly shown to a bedroom. The next morning, in the most natural way possible, Tanta Chana prepared her breakfast while the girl introduced herself. She sheepishly explained that she had missed her dormitory deadline and was afraid to get into trouble by knocking on the dormitory door that late. So she decided to go to the one home where the door was sure to still be open at that late hour.

A bochur from Torah Vodaas who was a ben bayis with them for several years, recounts: "I was always amazed how she was capable of receiving guests of every kind. They took in bochurim who acted strange, handicapped bochurim, and couples of every background imaginable. Some were real nudniks, but still the Belskys welcomed them into their home as regular guests.

"I remember one handicapped yeshiva bochur who had become handicapped as a result of lack of oxygen during an operation. He was difficult to get along with. He interfered in other people's conversations. He would fill his plate with food that he had no intention of eating. But Tanta Chana knew how to handle everyone in the gentlest and most effective way. She would tell him, `We'll be happy to see you eat whatever you want. But just take a little in the beginning, and when you finish, you can take more.'

"To nudnik guests who tried to usurp the discussion at the Shabbos table, she would firmly say, `Now we'll ask (someone else) to say something on the parsha.'"

When the Belskys lived in Williamsburg, they took in several older bochurim and let them live in the attic for free. One of these bochurim was from a broken home and he wore a giant-sized chip on his shoulder. But Tanta Chana spoke with him often and earnestly heard him out -- time after time after time. When guests stepped into the house, she would introduce the bochur as if he were a distinguished guest. She frequently praised his beautiful voice, and sat him next to "Uncle Berel" to make him feel even more important.

One Pesach, two yeshiva bochurim from Torah Vodaas who were staying with the Belskys for the entire holiday offered their cleaning services. Tanta Chana sent them to clean up the attic where two old bachelors had been living. The attic was filthy, after many months of the two bachelors hardly lifting a finger to put it in order. There were piles of garbage, it was heavily infested with cockroaches, and the beds and closets stank and were in terrible shape. When the two yeshiva boys reported on the state of affairs in the attic, Tanta Chana's daughter whispered to her mother, "How can you let our guests do this awful cleanup job?"

But Tanta Chana replied, "They are joining us in doing chessed with these people. Shouldn't we all be doing our best to make life better for them? There is no menial work when it concerns chessed."

One of the men was mentally ill and he was losing his sense of time. He began to don his tefillin on Yom Tov, and switched on the light on Shabbos. It was futile to correct him because he refused to listen to what anyone said. When his situation deteriorated, the Belskys had to switch him to a special home. But they regularly came to visit -- despite the fact that he wasn't even a relative and they had done more than their share of chessed to help him.

Tanta Chana maintained her calm even during the toughest times, such as the pressured days before Pesach. She greeted guests and served them some food despite the mountain of stress hovering over her.

Fearless for Jewish Values

One might think that such a caring, kindly soul would find it impossible to summon the backbone when a tough situation called for it. But Tanta Chana was capable of such a reaction when a situation warranted it.

In 1949-50, two large rallies were called by the Torah leadership in the U.S. to protest the intentions of the Israeli government to close the "Fourth Stream," the network of religious schools in Israel that later became Chinuch Atzmai. One of the two rallies were held in Williamsburg, in the spacious Eastern District High School auditorium. A hundred distinguished rabbis graced the dais including HaRav Moshe Feinstein, and thousands of participants sat in the large hall, including many women in the gallery.

In those days, all the chareidim ledvar Hashem had joined together for this event, which was seen as decisive for the fate of all religious Jews in Israel. The stage was framed at the sides with American and Israeli flags.

HaRav Teitz was addressing the crowd about the need to save Jewish education in Eretz Yisroel, when suddenly a man ran onto the stage and threw the Israeli flag down. A few minutes later, a second man went up to lift the Israeli flag up. Minutes later, the first man was back tearing it down.

Pandemonium broke loose. Some anti-Zionists in the audience stood up and were prepared to walk out. Arguing and fighting erupted. It looked as if the rally would come to an aborted, unsuccessful end. HaRav Moshe Feinstein began weeping in his seat.

Sizing up the situation, Tanta Chana quickly left the gallery, darted onto the stage and took the microphone from the speaker. Addressing the unruly crowd, she began to speak firmly, "Yiddishe kinder! Don't you see there are rabbonim here? How can you cause them such anguish? How can we do such a chillul Hashem? Everyone please sit down in your seats and don't move!"

The flustered crowd heard her sensible words and slowly moved back to their seats. The rally continued on schedule and turned out to be decisive. Tanta Chana was just a young woman of about 34 at the time, but she was a tower of strength when the situation called for it.

Many years later, Tanta Chana found herself propelled into a similar situation, when Israel's Chief Rabbi was visiting New York and asked to visit Torah Vodaas. The school's administrators had received instructions from gedolei Torah that they should welcome the spiritual leader. Rumors were heard that a "protest committee" was being organized to greet this representative of the Zionist state.

Tanta Chana was just walking up to the yeshiva with her daughter when she saw a group of ten married men angrily milling around. The egg cartons in their hands made it only too clear what they were planning. "We must stop this," she told her daughter decisively.

Her daughter nervously tried to convince her not to get involved, but Tanta Chana had made up her mind. She walked right into the crowd, and pushing with her hands, told all of the protesters, "Go home! Go help your wives in your own home!"

The dumbfounded men moved back to avoid contact with her, but Tanta Chana followed them all the way to the Ditmas Avenue train station, where they disbanded in embarrassment. The meeting at the yeshiva was held without the participants having a clue of the unsightly fracas they had been spared.

A Career of Chesed

Tanta Chana worked as a bookkeeper in garment factories in Williamsburg and in Boro Park. Far from seeing her job as a career, Tanta Chana saw it as another conduit by which to do chessed. She spoke often to her co-workers about emunah and Yiddishkeit, and many became stronger because of her influence. Her co-workers responded to her as if she were a mother, a person who they could implicitly trust.

Her assistance was not limited to encouraging them spiritually, and she tried to help them on every front, including finding homes and jobs and inviting them for meals. She convinced her bosses over the years to hire many dozens of unfortunate individuals who were in need of money or an occupation. There was a mentally ill woman who used to bang on the Belsky door in the middle of the night, when Tanta Chana would wake up and invite her in even at that unearthly hour.

She found this woman a job in the factory sewing zippers in pants, which eased the woman's frazzled state of mind and kept her occupied for hours every day.

Reaching Out to the Russians

When the large Russian immigration began in 1989, and tens of thousands of Russian Jews poured into New York, only a few Jewish religious organizations were prepared to offer assistance.

But the Belskys, who were officially retired, didn't sit back. They organized a special night school staffed by volunteers to teach English as a second language to the Russians, at the same time interjecting in the curriculum extensive knowledge about Judaism. This school ran for several years, with classes being conducted 3-4 nights a week, and with a steady enrollment of 200 Russian students of all ages.

Chessed for the Russians branched out in other areas. Soon the Belskys were collecting used furniture and running a used clothing store that offered almost-new clothing and closeouts from manufacturers and stores, which they distributed free to their students. Many of the students became regular guests at the Belsky table, and were given guidance and advice to help direct their beginning steps in this country. Some began to practice mitzvos under Tanta Chana's influence.

Tanta Chana was able to succeed at this very difficult task because of her all-encompassing ahavas Yisroel. She saw the Russians as her brethren who were endowed with a Jewish soul like hers.

Helping the Mentally Handicapped

Tanta Chana also began working at Beis Ezra, a home for the mentally handicapped. When she showed up at the organization and asked for a form to fill out, the lady looked at her dumbfounded. "Mrs. Belsky - YOU want to fill out a form and give references?! Everyone knows who you are and you don't need any references!"

Tanta Chana accompanied the residents of the home to the doctor and gave freely of her time. She helped them until the last year of her life, when she was already extremely ill. Even though she couldn't visit their home anymore, she had enough strength to get out of bed and sit with them when they came to visit her weekly.

After Tanta Chana passed away, the home's social worker who visited the family during shiva told them, "I'm a professional with a degree, but it was your mother who taught me how to work with these women with all my heart."

No Complaints

The last few years of her life, Tanta Chana suffered from progressive heart disease. Heart surgery which had been carried out years before, had not proved successful. In the last year or two, she was house bound because she was too weak to take more than a few steps. She utilized her limited physical functioning to engage even more in the heartfelt, lengthy prayers she always prayed.

During this period, visitors heard her reciting the prayers slowly, word for word, as if she were counting precious coins. When her husband's chavrusa came to study with him, she insisted on being helped up and seated within range so she could enjoy the kol Torah of the two studying.

Her large family and many friends did not forget her during this period. She was inundated with daily visits. Granddaughters visited to show their new babies, new chassonim and kallos stopped off to visit. Many asked her for a blessing, and her reply was often, "You should be zoche to have a hoichene neshomoh like Zeide."

A smile was perpetually on her lips, despite her frequent nodding off to sleep. She never failed to gracefully thank everyone who came to visit or who did anything for her.

One admirer recounted, "I hadn't seen Tanta Chana in years, but I had just arrived in New York from Israel and wanted so much to see her. It was painful to see how she had physically withered in the past few years, but her nobility and graciousness radiated as usual. Although I had only become acquainted with the family because my husband had been a ben bayis by them and I wasn't particularly close, the moment she heard I had come to visit, she made a monumental effort to stand up and greet me at the table. She gave me her special, heartwarming smile and mustered the strength to say a few words, which I knew took tremendous effort on her part. I felt so honored she did that."

Despite her extreme weakness, she insisted on being brought to family simchas. She would sit in a wheelchair enjoying the festivities, talking with those around her until fatigue overcame her and she had to leave.

After Pesach 1998, the Belskys moved to a downstairs apartment underneath one of their daughter's homes. At that point, Tanta Chana was very weak and could do very little on her own. In addition to heart disease with complications, she was undergoing chemotherapy. But one could not hear a word of complaint. She frequently told her daughter, "I'm satisfied with my life." To anyone who asked her how she was feeling, she replied a fervent, "Boruch Hashem."

Nobility in Suffering

During Tammuz and Av she grew steadily weaker. On the Tuesday before Tisha B'Av, she suddenly experienced a spurt of energy for the first time in months. She requested to be placed in front of a typewriter and slowly wrote this message: "I have wonderful children and I hope they will always remain like this. I am waiting for Moshiach." After these few words, she could go on no more.

Early on Friday, she was having difficulty breathing, and the family took her to the hospital. In between gasps, she told her daughter, "I have no complaints. I am satisfied."

When the nurses came to take a blood sample, they apologized for the inconvenience. But Tanta Chana, even in that desperate state, gave her famous smile and said, "It's OK."

The lab work showed massive toxicity. She was given large doses of antibiotics and was attached to a respirator. She slipped into a coma later that day and for three days the family anxiously stood nearby while one life system after another collapsed.

This noble woman departed this world on Monday, at 2:00 p.m., 11 Menachem Av.

From Los Angeles, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and all over New York city and the Catskills, mourners poured in to attend the levaya and later, to visit the family during shiva. During the levaya, she was eulogized by her mechutan HaRav Pam, and her illustrious sons R' Yisroel and R' Mendel. Her aron stopped at Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, the yeshiva to which she had been connected her whole life.

She was blessed with a namesake on the very night of her levaya, when a granddaughter gave birth to a baby daughter.

She left many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all over the globe who are imbued with the deep values and chessed which she had practiced her whole life.

And she left behind many thousands of individuals whose lives were inestimably enriched because they crossed her path.

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