This story personifies the essence of Rav Yaakov, a giant in Torah and middos, who was extremely medakdeik in halachah, though never at anyone else’s expense. He spent his days immersed in the sea of Torah, but he had the time and gefil to guide, advise and commiserate with others.
Rav Yaakov was a giant in Torah and in kabbolas yissurim. The way he spent his final hours is a powerful testament to the way he lived his life.
Walking into the Bistritz home just days before yetzias haneshamah, talmidim and friends encountered a surreal scene. Rav Yaakov was lying in bed, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, who had turned the dining room into a mini-bais medrash.
“It was unbelievable to watch,” recounted a neighbor. “Rav Yaakov was already very weak, just a short time before his petirah. But from the ruach in the room, and the nonstop learning, one could think this was a regular yeshiva. Despite his pain and weakness, Rav Yaakov was learning diligently with his sons. There was no regular talk going on. If anyone had anything to say unrelated to learning, he had to leave the dining room.”
Torah, Torah, and only Torah, even in the shadow of the Malach Hamovess. That personified Rav Yaakov.
Yet, the beloved rosh yeshiva, who spent most of his life in the bais medrash, was not a somber man of few words. Those who knew and admired him recall a Yid full of life and charm, a brilliant conversationalist who knew how to make everyone feel valued.
“He was a man who was constantly besimchah,” recalls Rav Shneur Aisenstark. “His face glowed with happiness. Rav Yaakov was in the bais medrash from early morning until late at night, learning with and teaching his talmidim, even when he no longer had the strength.”
“He truly cared about every talmid like a son,” added another rebbi in the yeshiva. “When my own son was hospitalized a number of years ago and refused to get out of bed, Rav Yaakov left the yeshiva and came to the hospital to visit him, and to take him for a walk down the hospital corridor. When he was discharged, the rosh yeshiva visited him every night to learn with him, until he felt better.”
The talmidim of Merkaz HaTorah, even those who graduated many years earlier, considered him a father figure. One talmid, who is married for over fifteen years, had a steady seder with the rosh yeshiva every Motzoei Shabbos. Another talmid made the lengthy trip from Lakewood to Montreal to visit Rav Yaakov during the final week of his life. He stayed for a few minutes, parted from his rebbi, and turned back home. He later recounted that the drive, over twelve hours, was incredibly worthwhile, even though he was able to see the rosh yeshiva for only a short while.
What made Rav Yaakov so universally beloved? Was it his exemplary hasmadah, combined with his self-effacing humility and his ability to put himself into another person’s shoes? Was it the care and concern he showed every bochur, and his ability to bring out the best in each talmid? Was it the way he listened, really listened, and made everyone feel important?
Perhaps it was all of the above.
“My rosh yeshiva radiated joy,” recounted a close talmid. “He always had a warm smile and all the time in the world for everyone. You could talk to him about everything. People came to discuss shidduchim, shalom bayis issues, parnassah problems, whatever was bothering them. He somehow understood what everyone needed.”
Another talmid, who came from an impoverished home, recalls his early months in Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah, when he was struggling with the lack of basic funds to purchase an occasional snack or wash his laundry.
“One day the rosh yeshiva called me into his office,” the talmid recounted. “He asked me, ‘How are you managing with money?’ I began to stammer and explained that my parents paid tuition. But he wasn’t talking about tuition. The rosh yeshiva reached into his drawer and handed me an envelope. ‘This is spending money for the next few weeks,’ he said. ‘I want you to buy yourself a Danish sometimes, and you should also buy one for a friend.’
“I was moved and impressed that the rosh yeshiva thought of me, but most of all that he instructed me to buy a treat for a friend. He had the whole person in mind: my physical, spiritual, and even social growth.”
Born in Eretz Yisroel, where his father still resides, Rav Yaakov came to the United States as a young bochur of sixteen. He learned in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, where he quickly achieved a reputation for his diligence and sterling middos. One of his colleagues recalled hearing from a friend who was in the yeshiva at the time, “Yaakov Bistritz, the new boy from Eretz Yisroel, creates the whole ruach in the yeshiva.” Even though he was a foreigner with a pronounced accent, he quickly became one of the most popular and beloved bochurim.
Eventually, he went to learn in Lakewood, where he married his aishes chayil, Yitty, née Braun, and remained learning in the yeshiva. In 1986, when Keser Torah, a branch of the Lakewood Kollel, was founded in Montreal, a core group of ten handpicked yungeleit formed the nucleus of the kollel. One of the kollel members recalls that the other nine avreichim all unanimously chose Rav Yaakov as the tenth member of their chaburah, saying, “We’re not going without Bistritz.”
Rav Yaakov spent several years learning in the kollel with hasmadah and was then offered a position as the eleventh grade rebbi at Yeshiva Gedolah Merkaz HaTorah, a bastion of Torah in Montreal. Within a short time, he became one of the most beloved rabbeim. He had the knack of turning bochurim from being “wet behind the ears” into accomplished bnei Torah.
“He instinctively knew how to bring out the best in every bochur,” recalled a colleague. “He was able to teach eleventh grade bochurim, bais medrash bochurim, and even hold fifth grade boys spellbound during an assembly. He had that rare chochmah of understanding how to relate to talmidim of every single age and stage.”
He was a brilliant baal mechadeish who learned at an advanced level, yet was somehow able to simplify his learning to the level of his learning partners.
“You could discuss any sugya in Shas with him, and he knew it as if he was in the middle of learning the same sugya,” recalled one colleague. “His brilliance and grasp of the matter at hand were remarkable.”
After the petirah of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Mottel Weinberg zt”l, and the departure of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Avigdor Altusky, Rav Yaakov was asked to become rosh yeshiva, a position he held until his passing. Despite the numerous burdens now resting upon his shoulders, his devotion to the bochurim remained unchanged. He would come to yeshiva at dawn, and remain there, learning and teaching, until late at night. He was easily approachable and had all the time in the world to listen.
After his long and exhausting day in the yeshiva, Rav Yaakov would go home, where his own large family – eight sons and three daughters – awaited him. He would patiently spend time with each of his children, learning with his sons, shmoozing with his daughters, and making every child feel like an only one. He didn’t share the inevitable stress and travails of running a yeshiva with his family. When he came home, he placed his burdens aside and focused on their needs.
“I remember being in Rav Yaakov’s house one Friday night some years ago,” recalled a friend and neighbor. “It was already late, and the children needed to be put to bed. He had a unique method of accomplishing this. He said to his sons, ‘Whoever puts on pajamas will be able to learn Mishnayos with me in the morning.’ Remarkably, it worked! His sons were so excited to learn with him that they all rushed to get ready for bed.”
Rav Yaakov and his devoted rebbetzin raised their children with a love of Hakadosh Boruch Hu and awareness of His Hashgachah. His relationship with his Creator was real and tangible, and he spoke of it often.
“What struck me most about the rosh yeshiva was his constant good mood,” recalled Reb Odom Silverstein, a close talmid. “He constantly spoke of Hashem’s love for us, even when we can’t see it. One of his favorite expressions was ‘nistorim darkei Hashem.’ He taught us to see the beauty in every situation.”
His ahavas Hashem and acceptance of his situation were strengthened when he was diagnosed with a serious form of liver cancer r”l. The doctors did not give him much hope, yet Rav Yaakov never lost his bitachon and faith. Despite undergoing painful and exhausting treatments, his exemplary hasmadah and simchas hachaim did not abate.
Recently, he told Rav Shmuel Kaufman, the father-in-law of another rebbi, that he hoped to dance with him at his grandson’s wedding. When the chasunah took place, Rav Yaakov was hospitalized. Somehow, he convinced the doctors to give him furlough for an hour or two. With tremendous willpower, he found a ride to the wedding hall and danced with the baalei simchah for twenty minutes. What a dance it was! He then headed back to the hospital, where he was undergoing treatment. Those who saw him dancing with ruach and his trademark smile had a hard time believing just how weak and sick he was.
When people wanted to come to visit him, Rav Yaakov had only one condition: “They could come for five minutes to fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim. If anyone wants to stay longer, then they have to agree to learn with me.”
He continued learning with his longtime chavrusah, Dr. Sidney Konigsburg, by phone and in person. Shortly before his petirah, Dr. Konigsburg asked about his boys (three of the Bistritz sons are bochurim living at home). The doctor saw that the answer did not fit the question, until he realized that the rosh yeshiva was referring to his talmidim, whom he considered his own sons.
Despite his tremendous pain and suffering, Rav Yaakov constantly spoke of the chassodim of the Ribono Shel Olam, and of his belief that everything that occurs in a person’s life is for his benefit. We may not always see the full picture, but we feel Hashem’s constant and enduring love of His children.
In his final parting words to his beloved talmid, Rav Yitzy Silber, who traveled from Lakewood to bid farewell to his rosh yeshiva, Rav Yaakov described the derech halimud that his talmidim should undertake after his petirah. He also insisted that he not be unduly praised at his levayah.
His final, unforgettable words were, “You should know that Hashem loves us with an intense love, even more than a doting father loves his only child. Everything He does is for our benefit. This, too, is for the best.”
On the day before his petirah, the rosh yeshiva was very weak and slept for most of the day, waking only before shkiah. When he realized how late it was, Rav Yaakov had only one concern: Was it too late to put on tefillin? He yearned to fulfill this mitzvah one last time.
He spent the Shabbos of his passing in his home, surrounded by his devoted family. Davening on Friday night was conducted with an exceptional d’veikus and spirited singing; Boei beshalom of Lecha Dodi took twenty minutes. The Shabbos seudos were conducted in an exalted atmosphere of Torah and zemiros. It didn’t seem as if this was a sickroom with a seriously ill patient experiencing his last hours of life. Instead, the home was filled with serenity and simchah, with an other-worldly glow.
Towards Minchah time, the time of Dovid Hamelech’s petirah, his children sang Adon Olam as Rav Yaakov closed his eyes for the last time and his neshamah ascended heavenward. He was only 58 years old, yet he accomplished so, so much.
The sorrowful news spread quickly, casting a pall over the Montreal community. A massive levayah was held at Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah on Motzoei Shabbos. Despite the late hour, thousands were in attendance.
Tehillim was said by Rav Menachem M. Karmel, menahel of the Yeshiva Gedolah. The maspidim included Rav Moshe Mendel Glustein, rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva Gedolah; Rav Shimon Zeffren, rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva Gedolah; Rav Yaakov Elya Unsdorfer, R”M, Mesivta Reishis Chochmah; Rav Usher Mintz, rosh kollel, Kollel Kesser Torah; Rav Arye Posen, dayan, Kollel Kesser Torah; Rav Yeshaya Yankel Portugal, Skulener Rov; Rav Yoel Chonon Wenger, rov of Eitz Chaim; chaveirim and chavrusos of the niftar, including Dr. Sidney Konigsberg and Mr. Shuey Goldstein; and Rav Yaakov’s sons.
The aron was then taken to Monsey, where another levayah took place for the New York-based talmidim. The aron was then taken to Eretz Yisroel for kevurah on Har Hamenuchos.
The rosh yeshiva leaves behind his devoted aishes chayil, Rebbetzin Yitty Bistritz; his children, Reb Yitzchok Bistritz, Reb Refoel Bistritz, Reb Eliezer Bistritz, Reb Dovid Bistritz, Reb Shmiel Bistritz, Reb Hillel Bistritz, Reb Baruch Bistritz, Reb Avrohom Bistritz, Mrs. Faigy Lipson, Mrs. Chantsie Heller and Mrs. Esty Lurie; numerous grandchildren, and hundreds of grieving talmidim who have lost a second father.
Yehi zichro boruch.