He Who Extends His Hand

March 21, 2024

Elisheva Braun

Ubiquitous? Yes.

Mysterious? Maybe.

A source of melded pity and pride? Oh, absolutely yes.

Welcome to the world of meshulachim, quiet witnesses to Lakewood’s homes, halls, and hearts.

When three meshulachim showed up at the Voice office a couple of weeks ago—a marvelous sampling of a venerable Yerushalmi, middle-aged Sefardi, and young, wiry Israeli, I just had to ask for an interview.

The conversation was a clapped-together occasion.

The men filled two armchairs and a dragged-in swivel in the Voice entrance, overlooking the whizzing Lakewood traffic. I sat on a stray folding chair, recorder in hand and Ivrit-speaking coworker my lifeline.

Far from home; never alone

Avi Mizrachi* was first to introduce himself. He spoke slowly, deliberately. He knew how to command a room.

Dark featured, he sported a vaguely Mediterranean look under his respectable, trimmed gray beard, utilitarian glasses, and double-breasted suit. He seemed at ease in his collector role. Perhaps it was because, unlike the rest of his little group, he collected for others, not himself.

“I want to say that the ahavat Yisrael and simchah with which the people of Lakewood greet meshulachim, we don’t see anyplace else,” he said as he arranged himself in the armchair.

“I got to Lakewood from Boro Park a few weeks ago. I get off the bus and bent down to take my suitcase, which has wheels. I planned to walk the 20 minutes to Rav Leifer’s house, where I would stay. The first car that passes stops. The driver jumps out, grabs my suitcase, puts it in the trunk, and opens the door for me like I’m the prime minister. He invites me in and asks me where I want to go.

“I was walking in the streets last week, and an avreich followed me. He asked me why I wasn’t wearing a coat. I said, ‘I’m fine. I’m wearing three sweaters, and I have a coat at my host.’

He asked again, ‘Are you sure you’re okay? It’s cold.’ He wouldn’t leave me until he was assured that I really was fine and didn’t need a coat.”

“When I came to Lakewood last year, the bus stopped near a big kollel. I saw an avreich and told him that I need to get to Rav Leifer, the Nadvorna Rebbe.”

He pauses to explain. “Rav Berel Leifer has 60 beds and offers breakfast and supper. There are people who stay at his house for weeks and weeks, and it’s all free of charge.”

He returns to the story. “The avreich didn’t have a car, so I went to the street to look for a ride. Then the avreich came running after me. He said, ‘Wait here. I borrowed a car from my friend so I can drive you.’” He chokes up, remembering the warmth of the exchange.

“These stories aren’t singular; they’re not exceptions. This is Lakewood.”

Sitting next to Mizrachi, Shimon Eisenbach,* his generous mustache and cream-white beard flowing onto a Yerushalmi rekel, exudes a grandfatherly warmth. He’s here, he told us, to raise money to marry off his children.

Now, he speaks.

“I got to the house of one balabos, and he said, ‘Come back after Minchah.’ After Minchah, I came, and he wasn’t there. A little later, I was walking in the street, and someone called from a car. ‘Come here.’

‘What do you want?’ I asked him.

‘I asked you to come yesterday after Minchah, and you never came. I don’t have money on me. Come with me to the bank, and I’ll take out money.’

I went with him to the bank. The man gave me $40 and drove me back to where I’d been. This is Lakewood, the ir HaTorah.”

V’hachessed,” Mizrachi throws in.

V’hachesed,” Eisenbach echoes. “There’s almost no such thing in the world like there is in Lakewood where thousands of people go to yeshivah and learn all day. Kollel yungerleit here live with the minimum, no luxuries. The women work so the men can learn. The Torah is mashpia on all the people, on the children, on the girls and women, everyone. It’s clear that there’s a great ruach Torah here. Everyone here gives with a smile, with joy. They say, ‘Thank you so much for coming.’ The hachnasas orchim is incredible.Rav Aharon Kotler, who built Lakewood, is looking down and having so much hana’ah.”

Avi Mizrachi picks up the thread of conversation.

“When I finished my work here last year, I was standing outside at Rav Leifer. I asked an avreich, ‘Can you help me call a car to take me to Kennedy Boulevard? I don’t speak English.’

He answered, ‘Why a taxi? I want to drive you.’

‘It’s bitul Torah,’  I told him. ‘You learn.’

‘I have a break now. Come, I want to take you.’

He opened the door; he told me to sit. While he was driving, he asked me, ‘Who are you collecting for?’

Avreichim, poor families, kimcha d’pischa,’ I told him.

He gave me $50. As he dropped me off, he said, ‘Thank you for giving me the zechus of driving you and for letting me give to your tzedakah.’ Not only did he give, he gave me a feeling that I provided him with the zechus of tzedakah and chessed. It was unbelievable.”

Giving graciously

Eisenbach nudges his adoptee. “Say something.”

Moshe Cohen* shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Thin, with small, olive-toned features and a wool black coat buttoned all the way up, he couldn’t be older than 21.

“I want to add to what he said. This is my first time here. I’m here for two and a half weeks. I was embarrassed and…you know. Right when I came, I got to a house, and someone opened the door. He said, ‘Come in, sit down. Do you want a drink? It’s cold outside. He went to his closet—he noticed I wasn’t wearing a scarf—and he gave a scarf to me and to the friend who was with me. He gave us tea and prepared food for us.

“In the evening, we wondered, ‘Where will we eat?’ Someone told us there’s a hachnasas orchim, a rebbetzin who prepares food. We came to the house, the woman’s name is Rebbetzin Levy, and I see a shefa of food—meat and chicken and potatoes… I go to people’s houses, and they see I’m uncomfortable. They put the money in front of me; they make me feel comfortable.

“I’m a chosson, an orphan,” he shares. “Last week, I was in the yeshivah and told a bachur my story. He gave me a dollar. Twenty minutes later, I was about to leave the yeshivah. He must have thought about it. He followed me and gave me $200. He said, ‘You should have a suit.’ Where else would you see such a thing?”

“Sometimes we collect in other places,” says Cohen, “and you can see that it’s hard for the person to take money out of his pocket. Here, the people tell us, ‘Thank you for being mezakeh us. It warms the heart.”

“Tzaddikim, tzaddikim,” Mizrachi murmurs.

“It’s interesting,” my translator broke in on my behalf. “A lot of people in Lakewood can’t afford to give generously.”

“Everyone gives,” says Eisenbach. “That’s what’s special about Lakewood. They give maaser, they give a dollar, they give what they can. They always give something.”

When asked what Lakewood can do to better support meshulachim, Mizrachi and Cohen say there’s no room for improvement.

“We have no complaints. It’s not for nothing that so many people come here to collect.”

“It’s not possible to do better than this,” adds Eisenbach. “My only suggestion would be to make a beis hatavshil on the other (south) side of Lakewood so people wouldn’t have to travel so long for every meal.”

Navigating a new world

Cohen explains, “There are people who go from house to house and rely on mazel. Others hire drivers who know the addresses to go to. Some are here for many years. They already know where to go.”

With empty pockets, no family nearby, and a language barrier, where do the men start after landing in the goldene medinah?

“We go to Rav Leifer. When we come, he never says, ‘I’m in middle of learning, I’m in middle of a sugya, I’m in middle of checking my lulav, my esrog.’” Mizrachi paints the scene. “On the spot, he shows each person their bed. It’s clean; it’s ironed. He gives the code to the house and a check, and he arranges a driver for the morning. Every morning from 10:00 to 12:00, there’s breakfast. 10–12 at night is supper. There’s a big shefa of food, trays of chicken, schnitzel, meat… You see tens of meshulachim, sometimes 70 at a time. On Shabbos, about 50 meshulachim all eat there together. Rav Leifer sits at the head of the table, he says divrei Torah, we sing, and we feel like we’re home.” Tears glisten in his eyes.

Thousands of miles from family, separated by necessity and a great, rolling ocean, he found home.

Moshe adds, “Pizza Plus gives pizza for free. I see tens of people come in. They give with a smile. They tell us, ‘Maybe you want to take more. Maybe you’ll be hungry later. Take as many slices as you want.’

“I want to talk about Mrs. Shanik. Everyone who comes gets money, orange juice, cashews, cake. Her door is always open. Tens of meshulachim, I think thousands of dollars a week,” Mizrachi says. “Also, there’s a local organization called Ozer Dalim. They rent out credit card machines very cheaply. They also cash checks and vouchers very cheaply, a lot cheaper than the other places who make money off these things.”

“Tomchei Tzedaka gives teudot, and they also distribute money sometimes. They work with a lot of yiras Shamayim,” says Eisenbach.

“I, for example, have been coming for many years, so they already have me in their system. I just need to get my certificate renewed every once in a while,” Mizrachi explains.

“Before I came,” Cohen says, “Tomchei Tzedaka called my mother. ‘He should come after we do our research and give the teudah,’ they told her.”

Are all causes created equal?

Eisenbach says, “There are people who give the same amount to everyone. Others ask a couple of questions and give what they want to.”

Day of giving

What’s it like collecting on the day when “Kol haposhet yad nosnim lo,” when we give to everyone who extends his hand?

“I was here Purim a few times,” Mizrachi says. “In the morning, there are big seudos. There are people who don’t open their hands so much during the year, but on Purim they open them wide. Many of them have rules—how much they give to who.

“We wait in line. Everyone gets $100, $200, $250, $300, $360… People really give. Their houses are open, huge amounts of food on the tables. It’s amazing. Chaval al hazman.”

The men gather their things, stretch, and stand.

There’s a piece of myself that I see in them, I reflect. The part of me that’s trudging through the cold, the part of me that’s far from home. I think we all recognize the us in them.

Beyond the “There but for the grace of G-d go I,” relief, there’s a deep sense of kinship, of connection; acknowledgement that at our hearts, we galus Yidden are all the same.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” Eisenbach says into the quiet. “The people of Lakewood have many, many zechusim. We have to go now; our driver is waiting. Thank you, thank you.”


It was the frantic height of suppertime, or rather it should’ve been. I was running behind schedule and hadn’t made anything edible yet. My kids’ stomachs rumbled.

As I sautéed an onion on the highest possible flame, the doorbell rang.

A meshulach.

I remembered the words of my impromptu interviewees from earlier that week. Their tear-tinged gratitude playing in the background, the flat-hatted meshulach’s plight resonated more than ever as I gave my three-year-old a turn to hand over the credit card.

I turned around, murmuring amen to his brachah for nachas fun der kinder and closed the door.

My house was lit and heated and smelled of burning onions. (Oy!)

My heart was full.


A slice of love

Many Lakewood stores offer free goods to meshulachim. We caught up with Pizza Plus’s Moish Lanky, one such owner, to hear how he feeds the needy while keeping their dignity intact.

“When meshulachim come in, we don’t ask questions or have them show their papers; we just serve them.

Once, there was a long line of meshulachim in the store. My friend, who was waiting behind them as one worker served the entire line yelled to me, ‘Moish, you’re so cheap! You have so many customers; you can’t hire another worker?’ Little did he know that the customers he saw weren’t paying.

“That’s our goal. We want to treat the meshulachim with respect, just like our customers. The customers who do know these are meshulachim appreciate it. They don’t mind waiting, because they know it’s part of the chessed. Sometimes, they even offer to pay for the meshulachim. I know that a lot of customers prefer to patronize my place because they want to in some way be a part of the chessed.”

“I learned chessed at home,” Moish continues. “All the credit goes to my parents, who always hosted people in their home. There was not a single Shabbos without guests in our house. This is my way of trying to emulate them.”

He adds, “The Gemara talks about a tanna whose wife’s tefillah was answered because she gave meals to poor people. There’s something special about giving prepared food.”

“There should be a lot of Lakewood pride,” Moish smiles. “Our town is known as a town of chessed. Some host, others volunteer for Hatzolah or Chaveirim or do something else. This is my little part in the chessed we all do.”

*Name has been changed