The Satmar Dayan speaks his mind and heart

September 25, 2020

I’ve always known that the Satmar Dayan, Rabbi Mordechai Betzalel Klein, is a fighter for Yiddishkeit. Having observed him from afar, it wasn’t difficult to make out the spirit of the warrior for Torah that is his essence. But meeting him in person allowed me to see another dimension of the Dayan’s personality: the sincerity that encompasses every action he takes and every word he speaks, and the middas ha’emes which pushes him to address challenging topics and dilemmas.

When conversing with the Dayan, one can feel his heart. Clearly enunciated in the conversation are his feelings about different topics, without timidity. It was a kavod to speak with the Dayan and to hear his guidance in preparation for Yom Kippur.

A leader, a warrior

Ever since his arrival in Lakewood 40 years ago, the Dayan has seen his role as more than just leading the kehillah entrusted in his hands. As a well-known mohel, the rav hamachshir of a hashgachah, and a lochem milchemes Hashem, he often lets his voice be heard on many of the issues facing Lakewood. In fact, during the course of our conversation, the Satmar Rav of Lakewood, as he was officially named after the passing of the Satmar Rebbe the Beirach Moshe zt”l, was called to the phone more than once for input on various concerns that the Lakewood kehillah is facing.

A vort he tells me during our candid conversation sheds light on his approach to matters that might be seen as controversial: The Yismach Moshe once said, “Ribono Shel Olam, I am ready to never see light, but bring Mashiach already!” The Dayan, a talmid of Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund zt”l, ga’avad of Yerushalayim, as well as a staunch Chassid of the Satmar Rebbe zt”l, feels the same way about some of the problems against which he leads the fight. “Let them think I’m extreme. I don’t care. I just want to bring about kvod Shamayim!” he tells me.

I ask the Dayan what lessons we are to learn from last year’s tragic occurrences. From the certainty in his voice, it is clear to me that he has already given this question much thought.

“Rashi says in the beginning of Parshas Noach that where there is a deficiency in kedushah, the result is catastrophe. And Rashi adds these words: ‘v’horeges tovim v’ra’im’—and the lives of tzaddikim are lost together with those of resha’im.’

“It’s scary. But if you think about it, I think it is obvious. In Lakewood alone we lost so many tzaddikim, nebach.” The Dayan sighs. “The breaches in kedushah caused by the internet are well known. We have to start taking this seriously.”

The Dayan shares another area about which he is concerned: kedushas beis haknesses. “Lately,” he says with obvious pain, “there is a practice that I have seen, and it bothers me very much: the lack of proper dress during davening. Men come into shul and have no problem davening with bare arms. The whole tzibbur is wearing hats and jackets, and you want to daven in your shirtsleeves? OK. Even short sleeves are fine. But to daven with your arms completely revealed, besides not being respectful of the makom kadosh you are standing in, is against halachah. The Mishnah Berurah (91:2) states clearly that one has to cover his body during davening. The Nosei Keilim explain that one has to dress as if he is standing before a king. If you had a meeting with President Trump, would you go dressed that way?

“And then there is the smartphone issue. I have to protest. What should I do, let this go on? People are not embarrassed to take out a smartphone in shul. It’s terrible!”

Arrival in America

How did the Dayan, who was born and raised in Eretz Yisrael, come to lead a kehillah in Lakewood?

The Dayan shares some historical context. “After the Yom Kippur War, the heilige Rebbe z”l encouraged the Chassidim to leave Eretz Yisrael. It was extremely dangerous back then; the Arabs were always ready to attack. The Rebbe said that whoever could find a means to come to America should do so.”

The Dayan was learning in kollel in Yerushalayim at the time. In 1974, eight years after his marriage, his father-in-law, Rav Menachem Mendel Friedman zt”l, moved to New York, where he became a maggid shiur in Kiryas Yoel. Shortly thereafter, the Dayan and his family followed suit, settling in Brooklyn.

Several years after the move, his life took an unexpected turn. For many years the Dayan’s father, Rav Eliezer Klein zt”l, had been the rav of Be’er Sheva, where 300 heimishe families lived at the time. He was known as a talented orator who fought for kedushas Yisrael and pure chinuch in Eretz Yisrael. After his petirah, the kehillah wanted the rav’s son Reb Mordechai Betzalel to take over the rabbanus.

The young dayan went to the Rebbe and asked him for advice.

The Rebbe looked at him and said, “I know the kehillah in Be’er Sheva; they need someone to guide them, to give shiurim. Go, but keep in mind that du darfst nisht gein l’hishtake’a sham—it doesn’t have to be permanent.”

The Dayan had his answer. He moved back with his family and settled in Be’er Sheva, arriving shortly before Rosh Hashanah 5739.

As green card holders, the family couldn’t be out of the United States for more than a year. Toward the end of the following summer, the Dayan began making plans for their visit to America. Knowing that he would have to be with his kehillah for the Yamim Nora’im, he decided to travel to America to his Rebbe for Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.

“I came to the Rebbe Thursday night, the twenty-fourth of Av, and I knew I’d made the right choice,” the Dayan says. “When the Rebbe gave me his hand, I felt a shudder run through my body. He had such a heilige countenance, it was overpowering. His face literally shone. At the age of ninety, despite never allowing himself the luxury of a good night’s sleep—he used to go to sleep after alos for an hour and a half before starting his daily avodah—he did not have a single wrinkle on his face.”

The Dayan spent an uplifting Shabbos—the Rebbe’s last on this world—in the presence of the Rebbe.

During Kabbalas Shabbos, the Rebbe motioned to his gabba’im to help him rise when the tzibbur reached Bo’i b’shalom. Vivid memories of the Rebbe dancing that evening, the shine on his face belying his weakened physical state, remain etched forever in the mind of anyone who witnessed that dance, including the Dayan. The Rebbe didn’t usually dance at that point in the davening, but that Shabbos was different.

No one could have foreseen what the Rebbe must have known, but a mere 36 hours later, the world was changed forever:

“Shabbos morning the Rebbe got Shishi, as was his custom every week. It was Parshas Re’eh, and due to the way the aliyos were distributed, the final pasuk in the Rebbe’s aliyah was ‘Lema’an yitav lecha ul’vanecha acharecha, ki sa’aseh hayashar b’einei hashem—So that it shall be good for you and for your sons after you, for you will do that which is straight in the Eyes of Hashem’(Devarim 12: 25). What an appropriate finale to a life dedicated to doing ratzon Hashem!”

The Dayan continues, “The next morning at seven a.m., the news of the Rebbe’s petirah broke. It is hard to describe or even imagine the feelings of the Chassidim. Our world came to a halt. At the levayah, I squeezed myself through the crowds and managed to carry the aron for a few short moments, a zechus I couldn’t give up on.”

A few months later, the Dayan was asked by the newly crowned Satmar Rebbe, the Beirach Moshe, to lead the Satmar kehillah in Lakewood. The Rebbe zt”l had been correct: the position in Be’er Sheva was only temporary.

Mehalech halimud

I ask the Dayan if he would like to discuss the topic of limud Torah.

“Me?” he responds with his trademark humility. “I can talk about the Torah of my rebbi, Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund zt”l.”

The Dayan shares how as a young bachur he would marvel at the hasmadah of Rav Freund, who would be up until 2:30 a.m. every night, learning with a bren, and would be back in yeshivah at 6:30 in the morning, ready to daven.

Rav Freund would give three shiurim each day. The first one took place immediately after davening, when he was still crowned in his tallis and tefillin. He would learn an amud of Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, reading the words of each of the Nosei Keilim, teaching the bachurim the importance of learning the halachah directly from its source.

Every day, Rav Freund would give a shiur in Chovos Halevavos before starting the daily blatt shiur, instilling in the bachurim the importance of yiraso kodemes l’chochmaso—that one’s fear of Heaven must precede his Torah learning.

The Gemara shiur that followed is what laid the foundation of the Dayan’s mehalech halimud. “The shiur was focused on the pashut pshat in the Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos. The focus was to crystallize each word of Rashi and each word of Tosafos and to understand exactly what they wanted to express. We would learn two and a half blatt a week, not bekiyus, b’iyun! It just looked a little different from today’s iyun. Today, many bachurim focus much more on the Acharonim and the lomdus than we did.”

The Dayan shares an anecdote as a case in point. “I was once giving shiur in beis midrash on the famous Tosafos on daf beis in Bava Basra. When I was done, a yungerman came over and told me that he had learned the Tosafos many times before, but he had never realized how much the Tosafos is saying, how much lies behind each word of Tosafos!”

A heavenly revelation

As a little boy in Be’er Sheva, Mordechai Betzalel was privy to many of the happenings in the life of his father. The Dayan shares an outstanding tale which he heard from the protagonist himself, as a hisorerus for the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Rav Eliezer Klein was sitting at home with his son when a man named Reb Yaakov walked in and asked to speak to the Rav. Sixty years later, the Dayan recalls that conversation clearly.

Reb Yaakov said that upon his arrival in Eretz Yisrael after the War, the Zionists succeeded in pulling him away from the religious upbringing he had received as a boy in Europe. First his peyos were cut off, then kashrus went. Very soon he had abandoned shemiras Shabbos as well.

Shortly thereafter, he began experiencing frightening dreams in which his deceased father, dressed, in his words, “like on Yom Kippur,” warned him sternly that he must do teshuvah. This happened three times, but he kept on laughing it off, blaming these visions on his guilty conscience.

And then, one Friday night, everything changed. Yaakov had just returned home from the movies, and he headed for the light switch to turn on the lights. Suddenly, in the dark, he heard a voice calling out from behind him.

The Dayan’s eyes shine as the story unfolds.

“Yankel, Yankel! Are you going to continue to do aveiros?”

Terrified, Yaakov turned around and saw his father, wearing his tallis and kittel, standing in the room, his face somber. Yaakov could not believe his eyes. Was he dreaming again? He was completely awake, and yet his father, who had passed away years before, was standing before him!

He didn’t have much time to think before he heard his father speak again. “I warn you, this is your last chance! If you don’t do teshuvah, your life will be cut short.”

And with that his father disappeared.

Feeling faint, Yaakov’s mind was made up: he was “coming home.” The next morning he walked to the mechanic shop where he worked and excused himself, telling his boss he wasn’t feeling well and needed a day off.

Yaakov made his way to Bnei Brak, to the home of the Chazon Ish. He walked into the room, and before he could even open his mouth, the Chazon Ish took one look at him and said, “Your father was by me too. He told me everything.”

Yaakov froze, incredulous. He had come to tell his story, and the Chazon Ish knew it already!

The Chazon Ish put down his head. After 10 long minutes, the tzaddik lifted his head again and spoke.

“Many people have sadly gone off the path, but they never get a hisorerus from shamayim. There must be a mitzvah that you did that is protecting you. Tell me, what is it?”

Yaakov thought for a moment and then said that even after abandoning Torah and mitzvos, he never declined a request to come to shul to complete a minyan.

“It’s not that,” the Chazon Ish said. “Do you remember ever being moser nefesh to bring a Yid to kever Yisrael?”

Suddenly it dawned on him. Of course Yaakov remembered.

“Tell me the story,” the Chazon Ish said.

Yaakov related that at the onset of the Holocaust, two women from a neighboring town came to Yaakov’s town and said that a 12-year-old boy had passed away, and since all the men in their town had been deported, there was no one to bury him. Yaakov’s father told his young son, also 12 years old, to go bring the niftar to their town. “Gott geit zein mit dir—Hashem will be with you,” he said.

Yaakov went. He had the boy tied onto his back, and, ignoring the heavy weight and the terror of being caught by the Nazis, made the half-hour trek back to his town, where he helped his father bury the niftar.

The Chazon Ish heard this and said, “That mitzvah isn’t letting you become a goy!”

“It is never too late to do teshuvah!” the Dayan concludes, his face aflame. “Let us use these days to return fully to our Tatte in himmel, who is waiting with open Arms. And we’ll be zocheh to a gut, gebentsht yahr!”