The sad news of the demise of the esteemed Rebbetzin Rishel Kotler, widow of HaRav Schneur Kotler zt"l, and daughter-in-law of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l, Roshei Yeshiva of Lakewood, hit the American public at the end of this past Shabbos, Parshas Mattos-Masei. She passed away on Friday night at the age of 92.
The Rebbetzin was born in Adar 5613 in a town near Memel. Her father was HaRav Dov Arye Malkiel Friedman, who in his youth was one of the star talmidim in Yeshivas Slobodka, a lion of the elite. He invested all of his powers in study and self-improvement though Mussar and due to his humility and refinement and the general policy of the early Mussar movement, refused to serve in a rabbinical post, which would be using his Torah knowledge as an `ax to grind'. He owned a business which served to support his family and was run largely by his wife. Her mother was Rebbetzin Sarah Yehudis Hy"d, scion of a well born family, who came from Verzhon near the border not far from Memel. It was a family with twenty-four generations of famous rabbonim. Her famous grandfather, HaRav Yisroel Nosson, served as Rov of Ligom. His father was the author of "Ahavas Eison", printed at the end of the standard edition of the Rambam, and an outstanding disciple of HaRav Simcha Zissel of Kelm, disciple of Rabbenu Yisroel Salanter.
Rishel's parents' home was known as an open hotel to all the needy and hungry who arrived from Lithuania. In addition, as outstanding people of chessed, they took in people coming for medical treatment from nearby Germany, especially in Koenigsberg which was a major medical center. Her mother, a distinguished woman, often accompanied people to their medical examinations while also raising funds to cover their medical and surgical expenses.
Among the house guests were such famous figures as HaRav Elchonon Wassermann. Rebbetzin Rishel told that he went out one motzei Shabbos to raise money for his yeshiva, returning several hours later terribly disappointed in his failure to raise any money. Her parents decided on the spot to go out and raise money, and went out that very night to the wealthy people of the city until they had gathered a considerable sum for the yeshiva, which they turned over to HaRav Elchonon. It was in such a home that she grew up, where only two values reigned supreme: love for Torah and exertion for chessed, which she internalized and practiced throughout her life.
She was sent off to the school in nearby Memel at a young age, taking along her even younger sister, who later became Rachel Sarna. Later, her parents sent them to the seminary in Telz. Their room was just behind the window of the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch Hy"d. From their room they could see him standing at his shtender all night learning Torah. It was examples and concepts such as these which were her guiding lights from early childhood.
Even as a young girl, she was outstanding in her concern for others, putting it even before her own needs. In a moving interview which she gave shortly before her passing to Hebrew Yated's Ketifah magazine, she described how she often came home at night at her parents' home, searching in vain for a place to lay her head down, but not making an issue of the fact that her bedroom was occupied by guests, taking it for granted that their needs came first.
As a girl, she went several times to Kelm to visit her relatives who were related to the Alter of Kelm. She also spent time in the home of HaRav Gershon Majdanek, one of the principals of the Talmud Torah (yeshiva) of Kelm. She would play with his daughters and with other girls. One time, HaRav Gershon entered the room and asked, "How can you sit here playing when there is a Jew across the street sitting shiva for his father?" She says that this was an important lesson for her in sharing the burden or sorrow of another Jew even though she had no connection to him. These things were engraved in her heart throughout her life.
In 5698 (1938), when the Germans captured Memel, all the Jews fled to Lithuania. After finding a safe haven, her parents made a great effort to rescue the sifrei Torah which remained in the shul in Memel. Among the refugees was R' Nosson Gutwirth, a student of Yeshivas Telz, who was sent to bring back the sifrei Torah left behind in Memel. At tremendous risk, he succeeded in the mission. Thus the family fled together with the sifrei Torah from Memel. At first they went to Verzhon. After a time they left for Kovno and then to Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno. They found themselves a small apartment in the building where HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky was living. He was the mashgiach of the Slobodka yeshiva. They were on the first floor and above them was the Friedman family.
World War II broke out about a year later, in Elul 5699 (1939) in Poland. But at first, Lithuania was still independent and though fighting raged throughout Poland, Kovno was still safe and many foreign embassies still operated there. Numerous refugees streamed from Poland to Lithuania, among them many yeshiva students who decided on their own to flee Poland, among them almost all students of Yeshivas Mir, as well as students from Kamenitz, Grodno and Novardok. Most of the efforts to leave the country took place in Kovno because of the embassies located there, but the authorities would not allow the refugees to remain in the city overnight and they had to return to Vilna or other places.
During this time, her parents' home was wide open to the Jewish public and many refugee yeshiva students availed themselves of this hospitality while the daughters went off to neighbors and friends to sleep. During the day, Rishel and her sisters were busy sending off telegrams to countries abroad in an effort to obtain visas, passports and other important documents.
Many of the Holocaust victims were seized from their very home, including her father, who was killed on the 17th of Marcheshvan, 5702, in the Ninth Fort near the Kovno ghetto, and HaRav Elchonon Wassermann. Her mother continued tirelessly in her chesed until her own martyr's death on the 11th of Elul, 5704, near Kovno.
She remained alone, the oldest daughter, with her two sisters, (later) Rebbetzin Sarna o"h and Rebbetzin Wolpe tichye.
HaRav Schneur Kotler also came to Kovno as a refugee. At the age of 23 he became engaged to the Rebbetzin. Because of the war her fled to Eretz Yisroel and went to learn in Knesses Yisroel Chevron Yeshiva. He learned there for seven years. During this period he grew close to his grandfather, HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt"l, and to the Brisker Rov.
Rebbetzin Rishel became part of the family of HaRav Yosef Modl zt"l, a talmid of Telz Yeshiva, and went with them to Shanghai. In her identity documents from Shanghai she is listed as Rishel Modl. Her future father-in-law HaRav Aharon Kotler, was very active in arranging for visas and permits for refugees, and after Japan surrendered he arranged for her to go to America. In an interesting letter dated Tishrei 5702, HaRav Aharon wrote that he was sending $160: $40 for Rishel Modl and the rest for talmidei yeshiva.
After she arrived in the United States, she finally wed her fiancee, HaRav Schneur.
After that she started a new chapter in life, as she worked to raise her family and to stand by her husband in his personal growth and in his leadership of Beis Medrash Govoha, at first together with his father and later on his own. She ran the home, teaching her children with the experience she gained in the home of her parents and other gedolim in Europe.
In those days there were no Torah schools in Lakewood, and she sent her children away to learn. They would come home only once a month. Their home was always full of guests and she taught them to give up everything for chesed to others. One time her daughter wanted to sleep in HaRav Schneur's library. She said that it was alright, but her father gets up at 6 in the morning to learn, and she must see to it that he will be able to learn without interruption next morning.
Her husband was niftar 33 years ago. She accepted the din and ran the home as if he were still alive, according to how he would have wanted things to be.
Throughout her long life she gave sichos to women and school girls. She would transmit what she absorbed of the traditions of her own home and family and the family of her husband, to the women of our generations.
Lately she had been weak. On leil Shabbos parshas Mattos-Masei she came to the Shabbos table. However after Kiddush, she suddenly felt ill, and before long she passed away in the presence of her family.
On Sunday morning there was a levaya in Lakewood, leaving from the Beis Medrash of the Yeshiva. The maspidim were: her son HaRav Malkiel, her son-in-law HaRav Dovid Shustal, her nephew HaRav Yeruchom Olshin, and her nephew HaRav Yisroel Neuman. Also her sons HaRav Isser Zalman, HaRav Shraga and HaRav Aharon, and her sons-in-law HaRav Yehoshua Krupenia, HaRav Reuven Reich, and HaRav Gershon Ribner. After the Kaddish, the levaya left for Eretz Yisroel.
In Yerushalayim the levaya left from Mir Yeshiva on Monday afternoon. The maspidim were HaRav Yitzchok Ezrachi, HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, HaRav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, HaRav Meir Zvi Bergman, HaRav Aviezer Piltz, HaRav Yaakov Eliezer Schwartzman, HaRav Dovid Shustal, and HaRav Malkiel Kotler. She was buried in the Chelkas HaRabbonim on Har HaMenuchos, next to her husband zt"l. In the cemetery HaRav Aryeh Malkiel Wolpe was maspid.