Rav Nosson Wachtfogel ZT”L

November 24, 2022

A Tribute to the Mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoha Rav Nosson Wachtfogel

Rabbi Yitzchok Landa

Perhaps most telling of the unique greatness of the mashgiach Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel zt”l is the reluctance of all those who knew him to attempt to capture him in words. In preparation for this tribute, the Voice reached out to scores of the mashgiach’s talmidim and even family members, asking for an interview. The response from all was nearly identical:

“I didn’t really know him.”

“I spent a lot of time with him, but I can’t talk about him.”

“Ask someone else. I shter zich to try to describe him.”

For all his being in the public eye as the mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govoha for 50 years and the driving force behind the founding of tens of kollelim around the world, R’ Nosson succeeded in hiding from view in plain sight. His gadlus and avodas Hashem were, for the most part, unknown. This was partly due to the simplicity of his ways and partly the result of his great efforts to conceal his greatness.

“He strove with all his might his entire lifetime to conceal his true abilities and deeds,” wrote Rav Heshy Arem shortly after his petirah. “We could not possibly plumb the depths or scale the heights of his greatness.”

Nevertheless, there is much we can learn from the little we have been able to glimpse of the Mashgiach. In honor of his 24th yahrzeit, the Voice presents a biographical sketch of Rav Nosson Wachtfogel.

Early years

R’ Nosson Meir was born on 9 Adar 1910 in the small town of Kuhl, Lithuania, where his father, Rav Moshe Yom Tov Wachtfogel, was the rav. As a boy, he attended the yeshivah ketanah in Kelm together with Rav Chaim Stein, later rosh yeshivah of Telshe, and learned under Rav Elya Lopian. When his father was offered a distinguished rabbanus in Montreal, Canada, the family moved across the ocean, but young Nosson, although still under the age ofbar mitzvah, stayed in Europe.

At the age of 15, he joined his parents in the Western Hemisphere and enrolled in Yeshivas Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan in New York, where he was part of a chaburah that included such future gedolim as the great posek Rav Moshe Bick, rosh yeshivah of Brighton Beach and Mountaindale Rav Yehuda Davis, and Rav Avigdor Miller.

After a short time there, R’ Nosson convinced the chaburah to return to Europe, where he joined the Mir yeshivah in Belarus at age 17. He learned there for seven years, growing close to Rav Yehuda Zev Segal, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, and later Rav Chatzkel Levenstein.

In 1936, R’ Nosson set out to return to his parents in Canada. When his ship arrived in New York, he met with Rav Elchanan Wasserman and consulted with him regarding his next move. R’ Elchanan advised him to go back to Europe. With his parents’ permission—although he hadn’t seen them in seven years—R’ Nosson headed straight back across the ocean, returning to Kelm and learning under Rav Daniel Movshovitz of Kelm, who became his rebbi muvhak.

When the war broke out, although he could have left on his Canadian passport, R’ Nosson stayed in the yeshivah until Russian forces invaded Kelm. He was then evacuated with a group of British citizens to Australia via Moscow, Riga, Vladivostok, and Brisbane, eventually landing back in Montreal.

Building Torah in America

The Mashgiach was a driving force and innovator behind the growth of Torah, yeshivos, and kehillos in America. Upon his return to the United States, he was part of the founding of what was likely the first kollel in the country, in White Plains, New York, in 1942. The newly arrived gadol Rav Aharon Kotler was asked to be the rosh yeshivah before anyone had heard of Lakewood. R’ Aharon demurred for the while, choosing to focus his efforts on the Va’ad Hatzalah. Later, he agreed—but explained that a rosh yeshivah should recruit the talmidim and not be hired by them. He therefore opened BMG in Lakewood, and the White Plains Kollel joined the fledgling institution as its first talmidim.

Later, as mashgiach, R’ Nosson pushed the founding of community kollelim by BMG talmidim all across the country and even the world. He oversaw the creation of kollelim that were the nucleus of the development of frum kehillos in at least 30 cities, including Montreal, Boston, Chicago, Long Beach, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami Beach, Denver, Deal, Toronto, Mexico, and Melbourne.

In his later years, the Mashgiach founded and directed an organization called Kollel International, which fundraised and established more kollelim in small communities. Three such kollelim were founded near Lakewood—in Manalapan, Toms River, and Howell. Less than a week before his petirah, the Mashgiach was working to establish another kollel, in Long Island.

In addition to founding the kollelim, R’ Nosson put great effort into recruiting bnei yeshivah from Lakewood to move to the out-of-town areas, assuaging fears regarding kosher food, schools, and more. At times, he was known to apply considerable pressure. When a project had not seen movement for a while, he would ask, “Vos shluft men—Why are we sleeping?” He was known to travel or make calls at all hours of the night to get things moving.

He also worked to create branches of the yeshivah. The Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, founded in 1953 with Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky and Rav Dov Schwartzman, was a direct result of his efforts, as were Yeshiva of Long Beach and Yeshiva Gedola of Passaic. The yeshivos in Scranton and Denver soon followed. Rav Elya Svei credited the Mashgiach with convincing him to join Philadelphia; “We all owe our lives to him,” he is known to have said.

In 1997, R’ Nosson and Rav Shlomo Wolbe led a successful delegation of senior rabbanim, roshei yeshivah, and mashgichim to try to save a Jewish cemetery from destruction in the city of Kaliningrad, Russia. The mayor of the city reported that the sight of the “venerable old men, who undertook the journey to Russia to protest the grave desecration,” prompted him to sign the permit for its protection.

Mashgiach of thousands

In 1943, R’ Aharon asked R’ Nosson to serve as mashgiach of BMG. R’ Nosson had a contract at the time to take on a post as rosh yeshivah of a prestigious yeshivah in New York, but R’ Aharon persisted. When R’ Nosson explained that he could not give shmuessen because he did not know the art of public speaking. R’ Aharon was not concerned. “You’ll pick it up,” he waived away the fears.

R’ Nosson accepted the position and served for more than 50 years, until his petirah in 1998. Speaking was not an issue. He gave many shmuessen on a weekly basis and over 20 va’adim each week to various groups of talmidim.

“He never prepared for va’adim,” explained Rav Yosi Teitelbaum, author of the sefer No’am Hamussar, a compilation of R’ Nosson’s va’adim. “He spoke on the parshah, but it was always whatever was on his mind. They were not like the schmuessen. He didn’t have to prepare—the va’adim were a reflection of himself; they were who he was. He never talked about anything he had not already attained.”

A va’ad or shmuess was not just a shiur or pilpul. R’ Nosson would not say anything without a practical point. “Vos nemt men aheim fun dem—What can we take home from this?” he would ask about any vort.

Both R’ Aharon and R’ Nosson continued living in New York for many years, commuting to Lakewood. R’ Nosson’s rebbetzin, Chava (née Slomowitz, daughter of Rav Yisroel Zalman Slomowitz, rav of Goniadz, Poland) was one of the primary mechanchos at Bais Yaakov High School and Seminary in Brooklyn, under the auspices of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan (the two were graduates of Sarah Schenirer’s school in Krakow). During some years, R’ Nosson came home only for Shabbos, living in the dormitory with the bachurim for the duration of the week.

The Mashgiach faced the daunting task of relating to the American bachurim, so different from those with his own European-educated background. “But he held no airs,” Rav Teitelbaum testified. “He treated everyone like an equal and never demanded any deference.”

R’ Nosson’s son-in-law Rav Yosef Burstyn, rosh yeshivah of Mesivta of Lakewood, mentioned shortly after the Mashgiach’s passing that in the early years of the yeshivah, when no snacks were available, the Mashgiach would bring apples from Brooklyn. Traveling by train and bus, he took as many as he could carry.

After R’ Aharon’s passing in 1962, R’ Nosson personally ensured that the handover of the leadership of the yeshivah was transferred to Rav Schneur Kotler with complete shalom. The same occurred after the petirah of R’ Schneur, in 1982. Although the new roshei yeshivah were a generation younger than R’ Nosson, his deference and respect for them lacked nothing.

As the yeshivah grew, R’ Nosson worked to bring on more mashgichim to attend to the talmidim. Rav Yehuda Jacobs zt”l and ybl”c Rav Eliezer Stefansky, Rav Yaakov Pollak, and eventually, Rav Matisyahu Salomon were all strongly encouraged by R’ Nosson.

The Mashgiach understood human nature and emotions and could get to the bottom of every issue. His advice was sought by all.

Gadol in Torah

As a mashgiach, R’ Nosson was known for his greatness in middos and mussar, but his gadlus in Torah was unique in his generation. Rav Bick testified that among his illustrious peers at Yeshivas Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, only R’ Nosson understood the shiur of the Meitzcheter Illuy, Rav Shlomo Polachek.

Of course, R’ Nosson played down his own abilities as a talmid chacham. “I gave up on becoming a true talmid chacham to be a mashgiach, to help others,” he said.

When R’ Nosson left Mir in 1936, he stopped to bid farewell to Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, from whom he had learned in Kaminetz. R’ Boruch Ber asked the young bachur to bless his own children, and then wanted to give him semichah. R’ Nosson responded that he had already received semichah from Rav Shimon Shkop of Kovno and Rav Lazer Yudel Finkel in Mir. R’ Boruch Ber asked to see the semichah letters and declared that they were not emphatic enough. Immediately, he wrote him a particularly glowing semichah.

R’ Nosson never read it. “Why should I look at it?” he said when asked. “I know who I really am!”

He worked hard to hide. One night, he suddenly gathered a minyan of bachurim and began saying Tehillim for a talmid. It was later revealed that during those moments, the young man had been carjacked by two thugs and was being held at knifepoint. When the bachur survived the ordeal and returned safely, he asked R’ Nosson how he could thank him for saving his life. The reply? “By not telling anyone about it.”

Rav Yisroel Neuman is quoted as saying that the Mashgiach even sought to hide from himself. To avoid any bit of ga’avah, he convinced himself that his accomplishments were naught.

In the final year of his life, one of the yeshivah’s askanim finally convinced him to accept an honor at the annual dinner to help the yeshivah’s fundraising efforts. But R’ Nosson had his way in the end—he passed away just two weeks before the dinner was scheduled to take place.

How can we get a glimpse of who he was? The sefer No’am Hamussar, which is out of print but soon to be republished, is perhaps the best introduction. A grandson of the Mashgiach reviewed the sefer before publishing and commented, “This is the most accurate rendition of who my grandfather was.”

Waiting for Mashiach

One area in which the Mashgiach’s greatness was well-known was the realm of tzpisa l’yeshuah—waiting for Mashiach. Legend has it that he kept a special, clean and pressed suit in his closet to wear upon Mashiach’s arrival. Others say there was a packed suitcase.

When the phone would ring, he would sometimes exclaim, “That must be him!” When a visitor arrived from Yerushalayim, he would inquire about Mashiach. Any commotion in the street was likely caused by the arrival of Mashiach. When a meeting started late and someone asked if he had been waiting, the Mashgiach said seriously, “Waiting? I’ve been waiting for fifty years!”

He refused to make his lodging in America permanent. He never bought a house and always referred to his home as his stanzia, temporary lodging. He would never say, “I’m going home.” Similarly, he called his furniture heltzer—literally, “lumber.”

Many of his shmuessen centered around Mashiach and our yearning for geulah. It was widely known that the “Mashgiach’s song” was “Achakeh Lo.” When he entered a wedding, instead of “Yamim al Yemei Melech,” the band would immediately switch to “Achakeh Lo,” and the Mashgiach would dance, often alone, in the center of the circle, pleading with every bone in his body that Hashem send Mashiach.

He was sure Mashiach was coming any minute. R’ Nosson would often start a schmuess by declaring that this was the “last one in galus,” and a Yom Tov would always be declared as the final one outside Yerushalayim. Before Pesach, he would ask people, “Did you buy your shepsele yet?”

R’ Nosson returned his soul to his Maker on R’ Aharon Kotler’s yahrzeit, 2 Kislev 5758. May this year indeed be the last yahrzeit in galus—and at all.