Rabbi Sholom Yaakov Chazan, Beis Moshiach
On 29 Tammuz 5779, Rabbi Sholom Mendel Simpson passed away, 90 years to the day after he was born in 5789 (1929).
He was born to his parents, R’ Eliyahu and Fruma Itta (Yaichel) Simpson a’h. Sholom Mendel was born into a home imbued with Chassidus and Hiskashrus. His Father, Reb Elye, was from the early temimim in Lubavitch and served as one of the chozrim (oral transmitters) of the Rebbe Rashab.
In an interview with Beis Moshiach, Rabbi Simpson shared some childhood memories:
“When the Rebbe Rayatz arrived in New York in 1929, he stayed in Boro Park in my father’s home.
“In 1940, my father was one of the people who worked feverishly to extricate the Rebbe Rayatz from the inferno of Europe. After the Rebbe Rayatz arrived on safe shores in the US, he asked my father to be the gabbai for yechidus. Later, the Rebbe appointed him to the committee for the Sefer Torah of Moshiach and he was also involved in publishing the monthly publication Ha’Keria V’Ha’Kedusha.
“Every night of yechidus, my father would sit in the room on the left at the end of the hall on the first floor of 770, in the room which is used today as the yichud room. The hall had a long bench where people sat and waited for yechidus. Before they went in, they went to my father so he could help them formulate their requests to the Rebbe.
“Since in those days, most of the Chassidim were unable to understand the Rebbe because of his health, and my father was one of the few who understood him, most of the people wanted my father to come in to the yechidus with them. This way, he could repeat what the Rebbe had said to them.
“My father didn’t take a salary for any of the work he did for the Rebbe. He said that since his financial state did not allow him to give the Rebbe maamud properly, he paid his maamud by working for the Rebbe.”
Reb Sholom Mendel described his relationship with the Frierdiker Rebbe:
“My father was of the opinion that a bachur doesn’t need to take up the Rebbe’s precious time, so I had a yechidus for my bar mitzva. I stood very close to the Rebbe and boruch Hashem, I was able to hear and understand the Rebbe’s bracha.
“Other than that, when I had questions, my father told me to write them. He brought my questions to the Rebbe and I received written responses. One of the questions was particularly interesting. In those days, a track for Limudei Kodesh only, had been established in Tomchei Tmimim in New York. I learned in this track, but my mother really wanted me to at least learn proper English.
“I asked the Rebbe and the answer was: In response to your question – study secular studies too and use it afterwards to be mekarev Jews to Yiddishkeit.
“Of course, this was a personal answer and cannot be applied to others.”
MEMORIES OF FARBRENGENS WITH THE REBBE RAYATZ
“I also had the tremendous zechus to participate in farbrengens of the Frierdiker Rebbe. It was a special zechus because not everybody was allowed to enter. The farbrengens took place in the dining room of his apartment on the second floor of 770, and since it was small, it wasn’t possible for everyone to attend. Only select Chassidim went in and the doors were closed behind them.”
Rabb Simpson related a fascinating anecdote:
“There was someone who came from Brownsville every time the Rebbe farbrenged. He went up the steps to the Rebbe’s apartment and since he wasn’t allowed to enter, he stayed on the stairs. That’s what happened, time after time. I once asked him why he kept coming when he wasn’t able to get in. He said: Regarding Moshe Rabeinu it says, ‘whoever sought G-d went to the Tent of Meeting,’ and Rashi says, ‘From here [we learn] that one who seeks out the countenance of a wise man it’s like greeting the Divine Presence.’ I fulfill this just by coming here, even if I don’t have the privilege of seeing the Rebbe!
“Chassidim, as well as talmidim from the yeshiva, who were unable to enter, stood near the doors in the hope that the doors would open for a moment and they would be able to sneak in. The Rebbe Rayatz’s son-in-law, later to be the Rebbe, wanted as many Chassidim as possible to participate in the farbrengen, and every so often he stood near the door and opened the doors with a smile, motioning to the Chassidim who waited near the door, to quickly slip in.
“I had protektzia since I was a ben-bayis and very close to the Rebbe’s house. My mother, Rebbetzin Fruma Itta a’h, baked the challos for Shabbos for the Rebbe’s household, and I brought them to the Rebbe’s house. In those days, there was no store in Crown Heights that sold kosher products, and I would go to the East Side of Manhattan and bring kosher dairy products. I would also bring meat to the Rebbe’s house. These errands gave me the position of ben-bayis and I was present at some of the Rebbe Rayatz’s farbrengens at the end of his life.
“I remember that at a Shavuos farbrengen, Rabbi Dovid Stockhammer a’h (the father-in-law of Rabbis Mordechai Mentlick and Moshe Pinchas Katz a’h) was present. He began to sing, Lama yomru ha’goyim etc. and when he sang the part about the gentile’s idols, ‘it has a nose and does not smell, it has eyes and does not see … their gods are blind, their gods are deaf …’ the Rebbe enjoyed it very much and laughed out loud.”
ON THE “SDEI CHEMED” EDITORIAL BOARD
When the Rebbe followed his father-in-law to America, he was appointed to run (among several more organizations, also) the “Merkos L’Inyoneich Chinuch”– an organization that spearheaded many educational outreach activities and was the forerunner of the Shlichus empire the Rebbe later established. As a young man, Reb Sholom Menedel was mobilized:
“I was still a bachur and was towards the end of completing my semicha. I worked a little bit in chinuch at the Talmud Torah in the shul where my brother-in-law, R’ Mendel Feldman was the rabbi. One day, Rabbi Chadakov a’h called me to his office and asked whether I could help out with the office work in Merkos’ office.
“I worked in the office on many things like shipping out Talks and Tales and other pamphlets and selling and distributing sefarim and books published by Kehos and Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. The Rebbe worked alone in his room but from time to time he would come to our office to take the mail that had come for him, or the like. The secretary, Rabbi Kwint took these opportunities to repeat an interesting dvar Torah he had heard to the Rebbe.”
The Rebbe also ran Kehos, the publishing arm of Chabad Books, Rabbi Simpson was mobilized for that too. The Sdei Chemed, a momentous Halachic-Talmudic encyclopedia was published by Kehos in the 1940s. Rabbi Simpson’s name appears as one of the people involved in editing the indexes. Rabbi Simpson told us how this came to be:
“When the Rebbe arranged the publishing of the Sdei Chemed by Kehos, he asked me to make an index for the sefarim. I worked on it with R’ Yitzchok Zalman Posner a’h, and since it was a lot of material, the work took nearly a year!”
“Since you had a connection with publishing the sefarim” we asked Reb Sholom Mendel, “perhaps you can tell us about the display of Kehos sefarim which is in the entranceway to 770?”
“The display case was placed in the entrance to 770 back in the 50’s and I had the job of replacing the sefarim in it. Every few months I changed the display and put in the new books that had been published by Kehot. The Rebbe liked this very much and once in a while he would stand and look at the new sefarim that were on display.
THE REBBE APPOINTED HIM AS SECRETARY
“At the beginning of 5712/1952, two years before I got married, after I had already been working for Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the Rebbe asked me to work as his secretary.”
“‘Your father is a baal sod (can keep things confidential),’ and the Rebbe added with a smile, ‘and certainly you too will be a baal sod.’ I was very happy about this incredible privilege and began to work with the Rebbe.
“The first year, I worked in the Rebbe’s room with the Rebbe working at the yechidus desk while I worked in the left corner near the window, opposite the door, where I had a small desk. I also used some of the shelves on the wall for my work.
“I went to the Rebbe’s room nearly every day for two or three hours. I tried to be immersed in my work and not to disturb the Rebbe with my presence. I heard, when my father was gabbai for the Rebbe Rayatz, that when he went with a group of people to yechidus in order to explain to them afterwards what the Rebbe said, he never looked at the Rebbe’s desk so as not to see what he did not need to see. ‘My job was to listen to the Rebbe and to convey this afterwards, that’s all,’ he said. I tried to copy my father and to concentrate only on the work that I had to do.
“One time, I couldn’t restrain myself and I glanced over at the Rebbe. The Rebbe was going through his correspondence and the sight that I beheld was amazing. The Rebbe took a letter in one hand and with his other hand he held a pencil and moved it incredibly quickly down the page. He then placed the letter in a pile of letters that he had read and went on to the next letter. I couldn’t believe how quickly the Rebbe read and I was riveted to the sight.
“Suddenly, the Rebbe looked up and when he saw me watching him, he said, ‘Sholom Mendel, you do your work.’
“The first year, as I said, I worked in the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe didn’t want the letters to leave his room and he preferred having all the work done there. Although these were the first years of the Rebbe’s leadership, there were many letters every day, but when the number grew there was no choice but to move my work to the main office.
“The work grew as the years passed. The phone didn’t stop ringing and people were in and out at all hours of the day. The commotion in the secretaries’ office did not enable me to concentrate on my work. I moved some of my work to the small archives room near the ‘small zal’ in 770.
“Later on, I moved to a more spacious office on the third floor of 748 Eastern Parkway and things were more organized.
“As the years passed, the Rebbe’s impact on large groups in the Jewish world and l’havdil, the non-Jewish world, grew and the number of letters grew too. The Rebbe worked in his room until midnight and when he went home, he took piles of letters and sichos for editing which he worked on during the night. When the Rebbe returned in the morning, he brought responses to those letters.
“Rabbi Kwint once asked the Rebbe why he didn’t go on vacation. The Rebbe answered with a smile: If you find me someone to take over while I’m on vacation, I’ll be able to go…”
SPECIAL KIRUVIM FROM THE REBBE
The people closest to the Rebbe were his secretaries. Rabbi Simpson told us about this special relationship:
“The Rebbe always inquired about personal matters such as the welfare of the family and the children etc. Along with the kiruv, he required that we be punctual and that everything be organized and efficient.
“Between my engagement and my wedding, the Rebbe spoke to me several times about the preparations for the wedding and even gave me specific instructions. However, since the Rebbe did not say these were instructions for people in general, I don’t think I should publicize them.
“When I was engaged, the parents of my kalla went to Eretz Yisrael and my kalla remained alone in Crown Heights. The Rebbe met her on the street and stopped to say hello. The Rebbe asked her whether she missed her parents. This conveyed a tremendous feeling of closeness, like a father inquiring about his children.”
“Did this feeling of closeness interfere with your hiskashrus to the Rebbe?” we asked.
“Whenever I had to enter the Rebbe’s room, just knowing that shortly I would be standing in the presence of a man of G-d, was enough to set me trembling.
“Entering the Rebbe’s room for my work never became routine. Each time it was special. I always felt that despite the kiruvim, the Rebbe is the Rebbe and the distance between Chassid and Rebbe is infinite. On the contrary, the closer you are to the Rebbe, and see his greatness up close, and I saw awesome and amazing things which are impossible to describe – one’s hiskashrus and bittul grow.
“My father was a role model in this. I merely had to recall how he would act with the Rebbe Rayatz. My father’s hiskashrus, being a Chassid of three Rebbeim, was with every fiber of his soul. He educated us not to make a move in life without first asking the Rebbe.
“On yechidus nights, although my father went into the Rebbe’s room several times with people, he stood in fear and awe before entering each time and put on his gartel and entered as though it was the first time in his life. Whoever saw him standing behind the Rebbe as the Rebbe said a maamar, saw what hiskashrus and bittul he had. It was an amazingly lofty model of hiskashrus.”
In the next issue we will bring more of this rare interview, describing Rabbi Simpson’s involvement in publishing the Rebbe’s correspondence in the volumes of the Igros Kodesh.
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