Reb Gedalia Shaffer
In honor of the Yahrzeit, 17th of Adar
(Based primarily on an article in the Kfar Chabad written by YL Ceitlin)
Rabbi Michoel Seligson
To write about Reb Gedalia is not an easy task. Many people in the community described him as a Baal-Habos working to support his family, whereas his main interest in life was studying Torah. Reb Gedalia was a person who by example taught people the value of time. He conducted himself as a Baal Midos par excellence and kept religiously to a structured schedule. Sitting at the computer and waiting for the program to load, he would have a sefer in front of him, so as not to waste even a minute or two of time
One of the articles published after his ptira described him in this way, “Shaffer was not famous, although he was beloved by all. He was not a mashpia, although his advice and way of life changed the lives of many. He lived in Crown Heights and was not a rich person, but his house was always open to the stream of visitors that enriched his life, and the countless seforim that ignited what was viewed as an intellect without boundaries”.
Library in House
The many sforim in the Shaffer home always attracted the attention and interest of visitors. The wall-to-wall, ceiling to floor bookshelves loaded three rows to a shelf with new and old seforim; the common point for them all being that the owner of the house studied them.
Although by nature a quiet person, Reb Gedalia was a dominant presence in his family. Family members would awaken daily to the sound of Reb Gedalia studying Gemoro starting at 5:30 A.M. By 6:30 he was already present at the first minyan of the Skverer shul on Kingston Avenue or at the Bais Binyomin Shul. One of the members of the shul recalled that Reb Gedalia would put on Tefillin with some of the people who collected Tzedoko. Reb Gedalia would give each of them a dollar so that they would return the next day.
Before he left for work, Reb Gedalia would speak with his sons and daughters. He would also review the many newspapers and publications that he subscribed to. His home was also a center for the distribution of charity on Sundays and weekday evenings.
The Gaon and Chossid Horav Avrohom Gerlitzky, one of the Roshei Yeshiva in Oholei Torah who also publishes the “Haoros Ubiurim”, commented about Reb Gedalia, “He was probably the only yungerman in the shechuna to whom we personally delivered the new issue of the Haoros Ubiurim. Although he himself did not write hoaros, we felt that he needed to see it. He would receive his copy on Friday, review it completely, and on Shabbos he would ask and comment on the contents of the Haoros. I valued him as a Baal-habos whose whole essence was Torah”.
Seforim on the bookshelves
“Everything you see here is him” commented his wife Bronya who sat with her oldest son, Yosef. Bronya, a gracious and aristocratic individual, represents the Chassidic-Orthodox perspective at conferences and symposiums, speaks at Chabad Houses on topics of family purity and married life, and counsels individuals and couples. She is a resident scholar for AskMoses.com and Chabad.org, as well.
Every new published sefer found its way to him. One of the big seforim distributors in Boro Park would make a stop at Reb Gedalia’s house to deliver newly published seforim.
“We once estimated between eighteen and twenty thousand seforim. We do not have an exact figure and do not know where all the seforim are located. Gedalia actually knew every sefer or at least the topic of the sefer. He evaluated old and rare seforim and manuscripts but did not collect them. For him, seforim were not just for the appearance but for knowledge. There was no such concept as a sefer not being used. We have seforim that are unknown to us that people still come to use for the research purposes”.
The seforim and their contents are what brought about the shidduch of Bronya and Gedalia. When Reb Gedalia was in the doctoral program in physics and mathematics at Princeton University, Reb Hershka Gansburg OH, on a mission for the Lubavitch Youth Organization, visited his room in the dormitory. He was strongly impressed with Reb Gedalia’s personality and shocked when he saw the many seforim that filled the room. When Rabbi Gansburg returned home, he told his wife, “This is for Bronya”.
Bronya or Bryndel Slavin was born in Paris. Her father, Hachossid Reb Yosef Chaim, escaped with his family from Russia. He was present in Paris in 1947 when the Rebbe met his mother, the Rebbetzin Chana, after she left Russia. He later established the Lubavitch Bais Rivka in Montreal.
“There was not one thing that he did not know, and with all his knowledge, he didn’t show any arrogance”, she said, referring to the Reb Gedalya’s picture on the table. It is interesting to note that in the picture, which was taken at a wedding, Reb Gedalia is studying a sefer. People would always see Reb Gedalya looking into a sefer while walking in the street, just as he did at a wedding or other events.
Rabbi Noson Gurary, the Shliach in Buffalo recalled Reb Gedalia, his chavruso beginning after their respective weddings. “He was a dear young man, outstanding, an inward person, delicate and very spiritual. I think he was above most people. He involved himself not only in studying but in spirituality. This what the Rebbe wants, that people should interest themselves in G-dliness and the intention of G-d. He was not in this physical world”.
For the people of the community, including the ones who knew him, Reb Gedalia Shaffer was a puzzle whose solution will forever remain concealed. Reb Gedalia was a blend of many different factors. He was a worldly person but was particular about taking his children to the Rebbe’s Farbrengens on Shabbosim. This included summer Shabbosim when many people left the city. After the Rebbe would conclude the Maamor, Reb Gedalia would tell his cousin, which Maamor of an earlier Rebbe this Maamor had been based on.
Reb Gedalia had an interesting history. He was born in 1945 to second generation Americans, proud of their Yiddishkeit and supporters of Torah organizations. Some people assumed that Reb Gedalia was a Baal Tshuva, and when asked if he was, he would answer, “I have not yet done Tshuva”. But find a Chossid that has in his youth studied Likutei Torah with his grandfather. Reb Yehuda Leib Frank arrived in the United States as a child, and his father was a Chossid of the Tzemach Tzedek. Before Reb Gedalia and Bronya’s wedding, regarding Reb Yehuda Leib, the Rebbe commented, “He is a Chassidisher Yid”.
Reb Gedalia felt very close to his grandfather. Once, his grandfather was hit by a car while on his way to shul. He asked the driver to take him to shul so that he shouldn’t be late for davening. After davening, he went to the hospital with cuts in his lungs.
Reb Gedalia studied in Yeshivas Achei Tmimim of Dorchester, founded by the Previous Rebbe. He also befriended the Rabbonim Gaonim, Rabbi JB Soleveitchik and Rabbi Mordechai Savitzky.
Rabbi Chaim Melul, a Shliach in France, and married to Reb Gedalia’s sister recounted, “My father-in-law Reb Michel Shaffer was the honorary president of the Yeshiva. Gedalia, the oldest, had an influence on the whole family and was very serious. He did not sleep much, learned a lot and prayed seriously. When I would translate Kehot Seforim into French, he always gave me sound advice. When he was asked about a certain topic, he would answer that he wasn’t familiar with the subject, but would answer when pressed. He was an expert and a profound thinker. When he would visit different sites around the world he would study them not as a tourist but as a philosopher. For everything, he found a source in Torah. Not everyone is able to reach his level. He was one of a kind”.
After Reb Gedalia’s wedding, he wished to study in the Kollel. The Rebbe agreed on the condition that it would not interfere with his studies at the university. The Rebbe inquired about mathematics, although Reb Gedalia was studying practical physics. He intended to delay these courses for six months but the Rebbe advised him not to, rather, to complete them, graduate with flying colors, and attain a reputation in this field. Half a day he studied in the Kollel. One day he was approached by Russian academic colleagues with a mathematical problem. It took him a month to complete the research, and he then understood why the Rebbe had inquired about mathematics in particular.
Reb Yosef Shurpin, his business partner, described Reb Gedalia, “He was sparkling, to say the least, and knew how to work with people. In difficult times, he acted as a diplomat and tried to settle everything. He knew what to say and was able to relate even to a child. He used to say that everyone had an expertise in a certain field and we could learn from him. The non-Jewish clients loved him and had a special respect for him”.
Over the course of the years, Reb Gedalia met with professionals in many different fields. His life style as a religious person in general, and as Chossid in particular, left them with a positive impression and a strong feeling for Judaism, Chassidus and the Rebbe.
The last tractate that Reb Gedalia studied was Moed Koton. He had completed the Talmud two times. The tractate concludes with the verse, “Torah scholars do not have peace in the world to come”. Reb Gedalia’s son adds, “We think that Torah scholars do not have rest in this world also, because they are constantly studying the everlasting Torah. Anyone who knew my father knew that he never rested.”
On the Shabbos before his trip, Reb Gedalia studied his usual shiurim, including the sefer Akedas Yitzchok on the Torah.
On Purim, directly after Shabbos, the house was full of people collecting Tzedoko, “He was a generous person who not only wrote the check, but interested himself in the welfare of the person and the reason that the person was collecting money” said a family friend. Every person was seen by him as a whole world and received his full attention and concentration. Reb Gedalia managed to console the Stock family at the passing of Reb Shimshon on Purim. Despite his knowledge, and the fact that he was an eloquent speaker, he usually remained on the sidelines and kept silent. A photographer recorded Reb Gedalia sitting in the Stock’s house listening to the conversation amongst the people. This would be not only his last picture, but one of few pictures that are left of him. Over the course of the years, he refused to be photographed. Speaking in public and attracting attention were alien to his personality.
On Wednesday, the 17th of Adar, the bitter news arrived that Reb Gedalia’s life had been cut short. A close friend noted that on this day in Jewish history, Reb Yosef Karo completed the Shulchan Aruch. Reb Gedalia was truly “A man of the book”. He internalized Torah knowledge and Jewish law in every aspect of his life.
He left a brother, Reb Benzion, in Boston, and two sisters, Mrs. Bitman in Baltimore, Mrs. Melul in France.
His wife, Bronya and his children: Liba and her husband Reb Yehuda Goldman in Teaneck, New Jersey; Nechama and her husband Reb Efraim Simon, on shlichus in Teaneck, NJ; Devorah and her husband Reb Doron Slutzkin, in Switzerland;
Batya and her husband Reb Ari Kievman; Chana and her husband Reb Shlomo Minkowitz. Yosef Chaim, Yehuda, Shaina, Yitzchok and Michal.
When Mrs. Shaffer was asked about her feelings, she said, “Sometimes you meet a person and you say I would have liked to have known him more. I wish I would have had more time with him. If I should ask questions of G-d I could ask, why did I merit to have Gedalia as a husband for thirty-eight years. I tell my children, look how our life has been formed through the blessing that we had”.
“In conclusion, I feel strange that an article and a picture will appear in the newspaper. Do you know the difference between last year and this one? Last year you would not have been able to write an article on Gedalia Shaffer”.
Yehi Zichro Boruch! May Reb Gedalia’s memory serve as an inspiration for awakening concern and consideration for one another, and for the utilization of every moment, as a cherished treasure, in fulfilling our mission of studying Torah and doing Mitzvos.
We should speedily witness “The ones who dwell in the dust will awaken and rejoice” with Reb Gedalia amongst them.