Rav Yehoshua Yaakov Leeder ZTL In Honor Of His Shloshim

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ryl.jpgI can just picture his expression. A slight, shy smile. Eyes opened wide but perplexed. Why did they all come? Why were they all there? It was on so short a notice. It was raining, snowing, sleeting, hailing. So slippery and cold. Such a Tircha. For what? He wasn’t a Rosh HaYeshiva, nor a Rav, or a Maggid Shiur. Never appeared in a picture in a newspaper, rubbing shoulders with the Who’s Who of the Torah world. So why did they come? Rabbanim, Roshei Yeshivas, Choshuve Bnei Torah, important Balei Batim. From the tri-state area and beyond. Thirteen Hespedim. Two and a half hours. Late at night. Thousands packed into the Levaya. Hundreds in the rain & mud by the Kevura. Why?

Perhaps Rav Mendel Slomovits, a Mechutin and Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivas Toras Chaim, summed it up best; “I just came to give him Kavod. I just want to give Kavod to someone that was Borayach Min HaKavod.”

Borayach Min HaKavod. Do we know what that means? Are there still people today that are truly worthy of being called Borayach Min HaKavod?

The Siyum HaShas. Everyone does Daf  Yomi today. Madison Square Garden. We all want to be part of it. In 1975, it took place in the Manhattan Center. A few thousand could fit inside. Roshei Yeshivos, Admorim, Bale Batim. Many that had not taken part in the learning cycle. A crowd stood outside the building. There was no more room inside. One of them, Abba, had finished Daf  Yomi with Tosafos. His friend stood next to him in the rain. “Don’t you think you deserve a seat inside?” he asked. The smile, a wave of the hand. It’s all right. HaBorayach Min HaKavod.

A package in the mail to his parents in Boston. The newest edition of Eitz Shosul, the Yeshiva’s Torah journal. His brother Mordechai is looking through the Table of Contents. He sees a piece that his brother wrote. By HaRav Yehoshua Leeder. Mordechai makes a phone call to Staten Island. To his brother. “Yehoshua, you have Smecha? Why didn’t you tell us?” An unclear reply on the other end. What for? HaBorayach Min HaKavod.

Another brother is speaking to a friend who works for Hatzolah. The friend mentions Abba. The brother is astounded. He too makes a phone call. “How long are you working for Hatzolah? A year? And you never told us? Yehoshua, you’re in your forties, why did you decide to join?” His answer? So typical. Yet so much an explanation of who he was. “You have to do what people need,” HaBorayach Min HaKovad.

It is possible. We saw it. Even if we did not focus on it. And therefore, this is being written. So that the world should know that this Tzaddik existed. And taught us that even in today’s day and age, it’s still possible.

Here then is a small glimpse of the story. Of this Talmid Chochom. Of this Tzaddik. Of this Baal Middos. Of this Baal Chesed. Of my Shver. Abba.

EARLY LIFE

Malden Massachusetts. In the 1950’s, there was practically no Yiddishkeit there. Yet in such an environment, Abba and his siblings were raised by their parents, HaRav Sholom Leeder zt’l and ybl’t his wife, Evelyn, our special Bubby. There was no yeshiva day school in the area, so he and his brothers all went to Public School. Wearing yarmulkas. “Yidden who don’t do aveiros wear yarmulkes,” said their father.

Zaidy was a Rav who felt responsible for the many dying shuls in the area. He used to daven in a different one each Shabbos to help strengthen them. As the children grew older, he spread them out to daven and lain in the different shuls. To make Kiddush in elderly peoples homes. Achrayos for the Klal.

Abba from early on was known to be a bright child. He displayed an interest in so many things. In Torah, math, science; how to use his head. And his hands. Bubby referred to them as “Goldene Hands”.  

After Ninth grade, Maimonides opened up in Brookline and he studied there for three years. His achievement test score, taken at the end of High School, was the third highest in the country. The scholarships began to pour in. Cornell, MIT, so many more. But Abba wanted a program that included Torah. He went to YU. To Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s shiur. Considered the hardest shiur in RIETS. Someone related at the shiva, an incident from that period. “Once, Rav Aharon asked a question to one of the talmidim. He didn’t know the answer. Reb Aharon turned to the best boy in the shiur and asked him. He answered but uncertainly; it had to be pulled out of him. Thinking about it later, I realized that the second boy answered that way so that the first boy wouldn’t feel bad. It was a hard question. Even he had trouble answering it. And I know the first boy felt better because of it, because I was that first boy. And that smart, sensitive boy in the shiur, was your father”.

At the end of his fourth year of YU, he received a masters in mathematics, and was contemplating becoming a physicist. The world was his for the taking. But something greater was calling to him. He had tasted a higher sweetness and wanted more of it. A chaburah of bochurim where going to learn in Yeshivas Itri in Eretz Yisroel, and he decided to join.

His hasmadah from that period was extraordinary. Rabbi Erhlich from Passaic, was a talmid in Itri at that time. He related, “There was a chaburah of older bochurim that set the tone for the rest of us. All they did was learn. Morning, noon, and night. Bain hasdorim and bain hazmanim. Shabbos and Yom Tov. Your father was in that chabura. What else could the rest of us do but follow their lead?”

After two years of being machkim b’aveera d’arah, Abba made a decision. The world of Abaya V’rava, of Rashi and Tosfos, the world of Torah, this world would be his.

Coming back to America, Abba first learned by R’ Chaim Epstein in Eastern Parkway. “He was always carrying a mishnayos and making siyumim,” a fellow talmid from that period remembers.

In the summer of ’73, his uncle Rav Nosson Lomner, a Rebbi in MTJ, invited him to Camp Yeshiva Staten Island. By the end of the summer, he had joined the Yeshiva. He had come home. Here, he would marry his aishes chayal, Laya. Here, he would raise his family. Here, he would learn in Kollel for more then 15 years. Here, he would be director of Camp Yeshiva Staten Island for 25 summers. “The anchor of the community,” cried the Rosh Hayeshiva Rav Reuvein Feinstein at the levaya. “As far as I’m concerned he was always here.”

The anchor. Al Shilosha Devorim HaOlam Omad. In these three things and more, Abba was truly an anchor.

TORAH

“Yehoshua lo yamush metoch h’ohel,” Rav Gershon Weiss, the Menahel of Yeshiva Staten Island, quoted in his hesped. “He had such a love for Torah; Torah by him was something to live with.” The sides of his Shas, filled with ha’oros. His Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura underlined and annotated. So many people that benefited from his wisdom over the years. A friend who became a Rav, used to call Abba with his shailos. “All my yidios haTorah come from your father.”

I once asked him about Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. Did he have any stories? He looked shocked. “Stories? I was in awe; I could not open my mouth in front of him!” Yet Reb Shimon Mandel remembers only one person in shiur who caused Rav Moshe zt “l to retract a ha’ara. Abba.

But it wasn’t just his vast knowledge of Torah that made him unique. It wasn’t just the hasmadah. Not the seven blatt a day with Tosofas. Not the siyumim on Shas and Mishnayos. Or the siyum on Tanach with Malbum. It was something else.

It was his ability to apply his knowledge of math and the sciences to the Torah. “How many people ever figured out how much the luchos weighed?” Asked Rav Reuvein, “Or how much the kapores weighed and that the total should be about 10,000 pounds and the question is how do you carry the 10,000 pounds? But it bothered him. Every nekudah of Torah.” Hafoch buh V’hafoch buh d’kula ba. The concept of yeish ma’eyin could be proven based on the laws of physics. And he thought of it while learning the sugya of kinyan chalipin. He saw the four basic elements of science in the first four pesukim in Berashis. From the Torah it was clear that time had to be a creation. His charts on Mesaches Yevomus, on the Mazalos in Sanhedrin, on Meseches Kinim, so methodical. Does a pomegranate really have 613 seeds? Find out. Torah was alive!

And his face! The shine of his eyes, the wide-open smile, the excitement as he said over his chiddushim. This was unique.

AVODAH

Abba once made a calculation. If the Asara Reshonim get as much sechar as everyone else that comes to the Minyan combined, how much does the first of the Asara Reshonim get? The hanhala used to tell bochurim to “look at Rabbi Leeder when he davens.” It was simply a son speaking to his Father. Without fanfare. An awareness of in front of whom was he standing. Always. He was once asked to be an Eid by a Chasunah. “We need someone honest.” His word, good as gold. A daughter was sick, not in school for a few months; Abba continued his carpool obligations. Why not. Someone tried to pay him for work done on Chol HaMoad. He declined. “Money made for work on Chol HaMoad, aino roeh siman brocha, will not see a brocha come out of it. Throw the money in the garbage, it’s the same as giving it to me.”

The simcha in the home. The Shabbos table. Abba at one end, Mommy at the other. The zemiros. “I put my children on my lap during zemiros because that’s what I saw your father do,” a neighbor told the aveilim. As Reb Meir Platnick, Rav of Kehal Kesser Mordechai of Flatbush and a Mechutin put it, “a geshmak to be by a seudas Shabbos, where children want to come and convene around their parents. Where they look forward for a Shabbos, to be together with their parents. Azah chavivus! Mein Oilam Habbah!”

It was not just the children. The Shabbatons that went on there. Baale Teshuvah that started their journey there. Bochurim that made the Leeder home their second home. An atmosphere created by Abba and Mommy. Unconditional love and acceptance.

Ivdu es Hashem besimcha. Abba loved a good laugh. There were many trademark Abba jokes. Laughter truly was the best medicine. A very young neighbor was having a tantrum while Abba was fixing their stove. “Your smile is upside down,” Abba informed him. That was the end of the tantrum.

The Ramban writes in his famous letter “accustom yourself to speak gently to all people, at all times. This will protect you from anger…” It could have been written with Abba in mind. “A precious neshama, a pure neshama,” is how Rav Chaim Mintz described him. “He had no zich.” He never seemed to get angry. Never. Not when some bochurim busted a water pipe in camp. Not when the filter in the pool which he had built was almost destroyed. Not when he was involved in a year long, million-dollar lawsuit over a car someone had borrowed from him, and had crashed into a brand new Mercedes. Not when as a child, his brother innocently took his valuable and rare buffalo nickel to buy a candy with. He had an ability to constantly stay calm under pressure. A doctor, months after seeing him, recalled him as “the patient who never complained”. He just never seemed to take things personally. And these middos made an impression. “Anytime we kept quiet during a machlokes,” said a son in his hesped, “we got that from you, Abba.”

GEMILAS CHASADIM

“From when he was a small child, he always loved to help everyone,” remembered his mother.  Chesed. There are those that do chesed and there are those who are the personification of what chesed is. Abba and Mommy ran many gemachs. A money gemach, for bachurim and Kollel families. A medicine gemach in Yeshiva. A second hand furniture and clothing gemach. A change gemach for the machines in camp. Abba arranged a wholesale wine order twice a year for the community. And on and on.

You didn’t even need to ask him and he was already there. A neighbor was mentioning to him about a branch that was hanging over his Sukkah. Five minutes later, the neighbor’s wife noticed Abba on the tree, cutting down the problematic branch. He would shovel the path in front of the Yeshiva before shacharis on snowy mornings. The numerous times he fixed stoves, refrigerators, and sinks, in pressured situations such as right before Shabbos or Yom Tov. Or two o’clock in the morning. The hundreds of times he took care of medical emergencies, and always with a smile. An ingenious innovation to help build the Eltingville Mikvah saving them thousands of dollars. “He was probably the biggest nadvan in the Yeshiva, “ mentioned Rav Gershon Weiss. “I spoke to the new manager in camp. He told me that when the engineers came into camp and saw the tremendous kishron that went into camp to save money over the years. In electricity, in the water, and in other things, it amounts to hundreds of thousands of  dollars. No one knew about it. He didn’t brag about it.”

Rabbi Yisroel Weiss was moving to Edison and in the process of making an extension on the house. The problem? The heating system didn’t reach into the extension and every solution he looked into was expensive. He mentioned it to Abba. A few days later Rabbi Weiss found by his seat at shacharis a catalog opened to a section on boilers. Two hours later, he received a phone call. “Did you see the heater on the bottom left?” Abba asked “Eighty nine dollars; I think that’s what you’re looking for.” Touched at his concern, Rabbi Weiss told him he would look into it. But that’s not all. Later that day, he happened to walk into Abba’s office. Lying there on the desk were about twelve catalogs. Opened. With post it notes all over. With prices and cubic feet written on them. “I asked him how long he worked on it,” Rabbi Weiss recalled, “It was nothing he said, just a few phone calls”. This is chesed.
 
THE FINAL YEARS

It would take a book, no, a sefer, to write about Abba’s last two years. How much suffering he endured. Muscles that used to seem to hold up the world, couldn’t help him raise a finger. A man, so used to running out in all weather for anyone, now had to rely on others for his basic needs. It was hard, so very hard. Yet at the same time it was the most inspiring two years for so many. As Rav Zelig Mandel, his chavrusah during the illness, told the Aveilim so beautifully, “Not for one second should you think that you got to see choshech these past two years. What you got to see was kulo ohr . People are zoiche to have their parents for a lot longer than you will, but the lessons of what ohr and what choshoch is, you’re very lucky…”

It was the constant upbeat attitude of Mommy. Constantly encouraging Abba. It was the constant hisorrarus of seeing Abba learning, davening, contributing what he could to the world as he slowly slipped away. The cheshbon hanefesh that he made, utilizing his time.
A brother came to visit him. “Think of it,” Abba told him, “I have no guf. I have no appetite. I can’t breathe. There’s nothing to distract me, no olam hazeh. Now I can learn.”  He once gave a krechsts in front of a son-in-law. “It’s the oinshim,” he said. A pause, to catch his breath.  “I had to explain that because otherwise you might think I have taanos on the Rebono Shel Olam. That would be a Chillul Hashem.”

The final year when we didn’t know if Abba knew what was going on and the neis that he continued to beat every medical prognosis. The devoted care by his children.  The Staten Island community that went above and beyond. All the Mishnayos learned, the Asher Yatzars said with kavanah, the complete tehillim recited every day, the extra seder in Yeshiva, the machson l’fi groups l’zechus refua shelamah. How Abba was able to come home, and participate in simchos just by being there. How he lived just past sixty. There was so much ohr. And it wasn’t hard to find. Yes, we were very lucky.

One final story. It was the last day Abba was conscious. A year and a day before his petirah, A son had just put away Abba’s tefilin. Abba asked him to do some exercise. “Dance with me. Take my hands.”As the son told it “I took his hands, that last day, I was dancing with him. He said ‘sing a song’ I asked him which song? He started singing. Usually you couldn’t hear him. It was so hard to breathe, he couldn’t get the tone out of his voice. But this time, I put my ear very close and I listened. And he was singing ‘Le’shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim’. We were dancing and dancing..”

Why did they come? Because they knew who it was who was gone. And they knew that they probably never again would know another one like him. A Talmid Chochum. A Tzadik. A baal Midos. A baal chesed. My shver. Abba. Yehi Zichro Boruch.

(Written by a Son-in-law for YWN)


2 COMMENTS

  1. No words can express my admiration for such a Choshuve Yid! We can all take something small that he has acheived and better ourselves, and bringing him an Ilui Neshomo.