Friday, 27 January 2012
The Baba's Promise
This article originally appeared
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It’s not every day that a dentist from Boro Park becomes a close follower and confidant of a member of the distinguished Abuchatzeira dynasty, but that is what happened to Dr. Gedaliah Mordechai Stern. In a riveting conversation, Dr. Stern shares some of his memorable encounters with the mystic known to the world as “Baba Elazar”
By Meir Wolfson
He was an All-American Boy, or at least the Jewish version thereof. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Gedaliah Mordechai Stern fulfilled the dream of the average Jewish mother of his time by becoming, “Mein zin, der dokter — my son, the doctor,” a dental surgeon specializing in dental implants.
Fast-forward 30 years. The boy who grew up on sewer-to-sewer stickball, a diehard fan of the local professional sports teams, has grown into a world expert in dental implants. He is listed in The Legends of Implant Dentistry and, more importantly, merits through his practice to develop close relationships with many leading gedolim of our day.
The sea change, says Dr. Stern, can be traced back into the inner chamber of one of the most mysterious gedolim of our time, who considered Dr. Gedaliah Mordechai Stern one of his closest confidants: Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira ztz”l of Beer Sheva, whose recent tragic passing shocked the world.
Only One Recommendation
Middle age has nothing on Dr. Stern, who agreed to share the story of his life and his relationship with Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira after receiving a special dispensation from gedolim. Graced with a warm disposition and easy manner, he relates that he enjoys what he does so much that he jumps out of bed at around four each morning, thinking, “I get to spend another day helping people after being kovei’a itim laTorah!”
And that’s not because he gets to put his feet up. Weekdays are spent running from room to room to treat his many grateful patients. But when we are sitting in his beautiful office (“a gadol agreed with me that zeh Keili ve’anveihu applies to medicine and to the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, as it does to other mitzvos”), the first thing Dr. Stern jumps to point out is that his success is not his.
“The Hashgachah started from the very first minute of my life,” he says resolutely. “I was born in Maimonides Hospital. I know because each time we walked past it, my mother would point to an upper floor of what was then known as the Goldberg Building and say, ‘That’s where you were born.’
“When I finished dental school at NYU, I wasn’t at the top of my class. I couldn’t invest the time it would have taken to finish at the top because I wanted to be able to learn part of the day, and I had gotten married and already had two children — the only student out of a class of 120 to have any children.
“I wanted to get a residency in the department of surgery at Maimonides Hospital, but there were 1,400 applicants for three spots. I was the first of many to interview, and the secular Jew who was the head of the department said, ‘Sorry, we don’t take shomer Shabbos Jews.’ This was in Maimonides Hospital in 1980!
“Suddenly, an Italian doctor, Andy Ketainya, said, ‘Get off the guy’s back. He said he’ll work it out with the other residents.’ Which was true; I took the Motzaei Shabbos and Sunday night shifts and the secular holidays, and they took Friday night and the Jewish holidays. I never had to go in on Shabbos.”
But the department head had another objection. Applicants needed two recommendations and Dr. Stern had only one. Dr. Stern asked him to at least take a look at the one recommendation that he did have. The department head acquiesced, reading aloud, “I endorse this young man for whatever endeavor he undertakes in life.”
“When he finished, I said, ‘This is an endeavor.’
“‘That’s true,’ he conceded, ‘but this is only one recommendation.’
“‘Could you please read to the committee who signed the letter?’
“He looked down at the paper. It was his own signature! Several years earlier, there had been a strike at Maimonides, and they had no staff. I volunteered for a few days, and he was so grateful that he wrote me this letter. ‘I was born in this hospital,’ I said when he looked up, ‘and I want to train here.’ I was accepted on the spot.”
Although the siyata d’Shmaya was obvious to Dr. Stern, the next morning a top professor at NYU summoned Dr. Stern to his office, and asked, “Which senator do you know?” When Dr. Stern replied that he didn’t know any of them, the professor couldn’t believe that someone without earthly protektzia got one of the prized positions.
Boro Park to Beer Sheva
Dr. Stern could easily have breezed through life as a successful dentist in the States, but already from his formative years he felt a strong urge to be in Eretz Yisrael. He therefore got a part-time job delivering groceries and saved his money.
“When I had $200 I bought a charter ticket. As I walked the streets, it hit me that my grandfather had gone up in smoke in Auschwitz and here I was in Yerushalayim, something that my grandparents only dreamed of. I knew that one day I would move to Eretz Yisrael.”
Before that happened, Dr. Stern was earning an extremely respectable income as a New York dental surgeon. One day Rabbi Avrohom Wolf, his elementary school principal at Toras Emes Kaminetz, came into the emergency room. He told Dr. Stern that he had a nephew, Dr. Dahvid Wolf, who had a practice in Beer Sheva and needed another dentist.
Logically, it was a ludicrous move. The offer in Beer Sheva was for approximately one-tenth of what Dr. Stern was then earning. His father tried to persuade him not to go, but Dr. Stern knew that if he didn’t move to Eretz Yisrael then, he might never do so.
The Stern family made aliyah in 1982, right before Chanukah. During their first two years in Eretz Yisrael, Dr. Stern earned an extremely modest income. Then one day a man walked into his office and said that Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira had sent him. Dr. Stern had never heard of Rav Elazar before, but he welcomed the man into his office. This man had gone to the hospital the day before because his throat had swollen to a concerning size, but had been sent home because they couldn’t find a significant problem. Dr. Stern took one look at him and realized that he had a condition that turned out to be Ludwig’s angina, a disease so rare that Dr. Stern has seen only one case in over 30 years of practice. He sent the man back to the hospital, which literally saved the man’s life.
“How did the rabbi know to send him to me?” he wondered.
After that first introduction to Rav Elazar, Dr. Stern continued to receive patients every so often who said they were sent by the Rav. After noticing that each case Rav Elazar sent him left him with a specific insight, Dr. Stern decided it was time to go meet this unusual rav.
“Here was a man completely cut off from the world around him,” Dr. Stern explains, “yet he knew more about medicine, business, and every other topic we discussed than anyone else I knew.”
That meeting was the first of what would eventually become a regular session. Being a temimusdig American with a scientific mind, Dr. Stern would at first ask questions that no one else would dare ask, and Rav Elazar humored him. One day, for instance, Rav Elazar mentioned that Rav Moshe Feinstein’s family had called to say, “Baruch Hashem, today Reb Moshe has pneumonia.”
“Baruch Hashem?” Dr. Stern asked in surprise.
Rav Elazar explained that the family would call each day, and compared to what Reb Moshe was suffering from in his final weeks, “only” pneumonia was good news. “Only the Kol Yachol, yachol — only the Omnipotent can [help],” said Rav Elazar sadly.
“So why don’t you make a miracle?” asked Dr. Stern — a question he now considers both naive and somewhat presumptuous, but one that was indicative of their relationship at that point.
“Miracles are not our way,” replied Rav Elazar. “It wasn’t the way of my father and grandfather [Rav Meir Abuchatzeira and the Baba Sali]. The Gemara says that if a miracle is performed for someone, he loses some merits in Heaven. It’s not always in a person’s greatest interest to have a miracle performed for him.”
When Dr. Stern pressed him further on the subject of miracles, Rav Elazar told him a story of when it might be justified. Rav Elazar would spend time in Switzerland in the home of Nissim Gaon each year. He couldn’t vacation in Eretz Yisrael, because people would follow him wherever he went. In Switzerland he was able to rest, relax, and, most importantly, to learn.
But getting to Switzerland was no simple feat, since Rav Elazar was extremely conscientious about shmiras einayim. El Al respected his sensitivity and allowed him to be driven directly to the airplane after everyone else had boarded, and to be seated in the first seat behind the cockpit. On one flight, a woman approached Rav Elazar’s gabbai, Avraham, and asked to speak to the rabbi. The gabbai politely explained that the Rav doesn’t meet with women. He asked how she knew Rav Elazar was on the flight, and she explained that she was an off-duty stewardess and she had seen his name on the passenger list. While they were talking, the Rav, who wore a hood over his head to shield his eyes, realized what was going on, and said that she could speak to him through Avraham.
The woman explained that she had been diagnosed with a growth, and she was on her way to Switzerland to remove it, even though the doctors held out little hope for her. Rav Elazar instructed Avraham to ask whether she believed in G-d.
“Not really,” she replied.
“Then why are you coming to me?” asked Rav Elazar.
She explained that her illness had led to introspection, and she was rethinking her beliefs. Rav Elazar asked whether she was willing to accept the basic mitzvos — Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah — if she would recover. When she said that she would, he instructed her to go ahead with her plans in Switzerland.
Rav Elazar ended the story there, but Dr. Stern pressed him for the details of the outcome. “She actually called the Rabbanit last night,” said Rav Elazar. “She wanted to know how to keep those mitzvos.”
In the words of the Rav, when this woman reached Switzerland, she checked into the hospital for surgery. After rolling her into the operating room, they decided to do one more scan. To everyone’s shock, the scan was absolutely clean. There was no sign of a growth whatsoever. The doctors sent her home.
“To be mekarev levavos,” Rav Elazar explained with a sigh, “we sometimes need to see nissim. But in general, it’s not our approach.”
Rav Elazar didn’t only balk when it came to the subject of nissim. Though most news stories of his tragic petirah referred to him as either a Baba or a mekubal, as a close confidant, Dr. Stern deems those descriptions off the mark.
“Not only did he oppose the use of practical Kabbalah, he would object if I would use even the most basic Kabbalah terms in regard to something I learned. If someone would mention the sefiros, he would say that we have no knowledge of what these things mean. It was rare to hear him quote a Kabbalah sefer. He was more likely to quote from Chofetz Chaim, Michtav MeEliyahu — regular seforim that everyone can learn.”
Dr. Stern illustrates Rav Elazar’s disillusionment with “kabbalists” with a story. “Many years ago, I got a phone call from a man whose name I can’t divulge. He asked me whether I could take him to Rav Elazar. The Rav didn’t like it when people ‘piggybacked’ on my visits, but in this case I felt that I should say yes. Years earlier, when I was in eighth grade, I took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty with a friend. I was sitting on the outside deck, and a big wave came up and washed over me. It was the end of December and it was freezing cold. This man was there with a friend, and the two took off some of their outer clothing and gave it to me so I could warm up.
“Every one of my mentors — be it my rosh yeshivah in Emek Halachah, Rav Tuvya Goldstein ztz”l, my mashgiach in Kamenitz, Rav Simcha Zissel Levovitz ztz”l, or Rav Elazar himself — would stress the importance of hakaras hatov [gratitude]. Though 40 years had passed, I still appreciated warming up on the ferry with this man’s outerwear, so I told him that I would take him with me to Rav Elazar.
“He came with his son. It seems that he had moved into a small out-of-town community, and when he had gone house hunting there was one house that was particularly affordable because there were rumors that it was haunted. As a Jew, he knew that there is no such thing, so he bought the house.
“From the day he moved into the house, however, his son began to emit strange noises from his throat. Nothing they could do prevented this uncontrollable voice from coming out of him. They came to Eretz Yisrael and went from one mekubal to the next. They poured lead. The kid had kameiyos dangling from his neck in every direction. But the voice continued to ‘speak.’ People insisted that the boy had a dibbuk that needed to be exorcised, and this man wanted Rav Elazar to remove the spirit.
“They came with me to Beer Sheva, and I went into the Rav’s room to explain the situation. Suddenly the Rav heard the voice from the courtyard and asked what it was. ‘That’s the boy with the dibbuk,’ I said. The Rav instructed us to bring the boy into the room. He took one look at the boy and all the kameiyos and said, ‘Dibbuk, shmibbuk.’
“‘Take off all the kameiyos,’ he instructed. ‘Your son needs a psychologist.’ The man went back to America, and the boy was diagnosed with a rare neurological vocal disorder in which the vocal cords were stimulated, perhaps through subconscious suggestion because of what people said about the house. They called the Rav back to find out whether he should be placed on medication. The Rav answered that it wasn’t really necessary, but if it made them more comfortable, they could. Today this boy is the proud father of a happy Yiddishe family.”
Going to the Masters
Looking back on their three-decade relationship, Dr. Stern realizes that from the day he met Rav Elazar, the Rav was slowly moving him in a better direction.
Several years after making aliyah, and while still earning a modest salary, Dr. Stern asked one of his associates whether he was going to the dental convention in New York — a convention that now takes place at the Javits Center and draws some 60,000 dentists and their staff. His associate said that it would be unrealistic to go from Israel, but that if Dr. Stern wanted to go, he could.
Strolling through the convention center, Dr. Stern heard a voice call out, “Yingerman mit der kappel, kim du aher — Young man with the yarmulke, come here.”
An elderly man named Jack Wimmer was standing in a booth “decorated” with all kinds of instruments for doing dental implants. Although the field of dental implants was not new at the time, it had fallen into disuse when the world of dentistry turned to dentures and bridges for tooth replacements.
“I had asked my teacher in NYU whether there was any other way to go about giving people teeth,” recalls Dr. Stern, “and he insisted that there wasn’t. Well, there was this one method of implants that had been in use for a while, but it was just a relic of the past.
“Yet here was Jack Wimmer, a Yid who had made it out of the Krakow ghetto and established a dental laboratory in America in which he had some 75 dental technicians doing implants during the 1950s, offering to teach me his skills.”
It didn’t make much sense to go into a field that was dying, but Dr. Stern went to discuss it with gedolim. “Rav Elazar in particular encouraged me to go into the field, telling me that in ten years I would need a building just to handle all the dental implant patients.”
Dr. Stern grows very serious. “People make a mistake when it comes to emunas chachamim. If you know the gadol is a brilliant person, able to see ten chess moves ahead like Sharansky, and he tells you to do something and you listen because you think it makes sense, that’s not emunas chachamim. Emunas chachamim is when a gadol instructs you to do something that seems absurd, and you do it anyway.
“In my life,” he stresses, “I have seen over and over that when you listen to the gedolim, everything falls into place in a way that you cannot imagine.”
During the few years that followed that fateful meeting with Jack Wimmer, Rav Elazar continued to instruct Dr. Stern to go to various “masters” — the people who were most proficient in dental implants, insisting that he study the “outdated methods,” because they would one day return. Though the cost seemed wholly unjustified at the time, the tzaddik’s prescience eventually came to light.
“Today, implants are one of the most popular ways to replace teeth. We have gotten to a point where I can now do in the comfort of my office in ten minutes what I needed ten hours to do in the surgical theater in Maimonides, but no one could have foreseen that 30 years ago, when Rav Elazar insisted that I go into this field. I listened, and I now have the implant empire he foresaw.”
The Malachim Were Pushing
Rav Elazar didn’t suffice with general advice; he took an interest in the specific skills Dr. Stern was acquiring. Once, he asked Dr. Stern whether he had any case studies with him. Dr. Stern showed him an X-ray of a woman who would be visiting his office the next day. Rav Elazar studied it and then said, “Try to get three implants in there.”
Dr. Stern didn’t know what to make of it, because according to the X-ray there shouldn’t have been a problem getting implants into her mouth. But when he, along with his three associates, examined the woman the next day, they found that the X-ray was an illusion: there was no room for even a single implant. Remembering Rav Elazar’s words, Dr. Stern reminded his associates that they had recently learned a new method developed by Dr. Gerald Niznick, an expert from Encino, California. “Let’s try to do at least one implant using his method,” Dr. Stern insisted.
The other dentists weren’t sure, but they tried and succeeded in getting the first implant in place. When they took a new X-ray, they found that they had room for another — and then another.
“Many years later I was at a conference with one of those other doctors, and he asked me why I had insisted on trying to do the three implants. ‘I can’t go into details,’ I replied, ‘but one thing I can tell you is that the malachim were pushing so hard I could barely move my hand during the surgery.’”
All a Front
As Rav Elazar guided Dr. Stern into becoming one of the top dentists in his field, he also encouraged him to develop relationships with other gedolim who would come for implants — some of whom were referred by Rav Elazar. What is it like to have to do work on a gadol, especially for someone whose respect for gedolim is palpable?
“Certainly, it can be very frightening to do dental work on a gadol. I once treated a rebbe whose 90-year-old chassidim would nearly pass out when he walked by them on the street. And here I had to fix his teeth. You have to be able to put aside the fear somehow and do the work. And knowing that I have the opportunity to provide a gadol with teeth that will enable him to learn better, to daven better, and to live with more menuchas hanefesh in general is an unbelievable feeling.”
As the hour grows late on this Friday afternoon, a question continues to gnaw: Why would a tzaddik be so interested and involved in the life of a young dentist?
The answer, Dr. Stern says, is a message that he has learned not only from Rav Elazar himself, but from many of the gedolim he has treated over the years.
“Everything is a front,” he declares with an emphatic clap on the table. “Dentistry — and everything else we do — is a front. Rav Elazar would say that we’re in one business: avodas Hashem. Through my work, I am able to help 20 kollel families earn their way in Eretz Yisrael by paying the wives a fair wage so their husbands can learn. [An office worker later confirms that if not for Dr. Stern, she and her husband would have been forced to move back to the States years ago.]
“Furthermore, we are all able to do kiruv levavos through our work, whatever it is that we do — whether with staff, patients, suppliers, or even tax authorities. There are people I get to meet here whom I would never get a chance to influence in any other arena. I have people coming not only from leftist kibbutzim, but from all over the world. One woman who spent much time with us came as a skinhead from Tel Aviv some 25 years ago. She went on to marry a man who used to be one of the most successful accountants in Tel Aviv. From knowing nothing about Yiddishkeit, he eventually became a great masmid at Novardok yeshivah. Ten years later, he decided to look into Chassidus. She quips that her husband did teshuvah twice: the day he became frum and the day he discovered Chassidus. I could never have communicated with this woman in any other setting.”
The words mas hachnassah have the power to strike fear in the hearts of grown men in Israel. Indeed, the Israel Taxation Authority has been known to make the IRS seem downright friendly. Yet Rav Elazar’s teaching about dentistry being a front for kiruv levavos applied there as well. Less than a week after he opened his first office, Dr. Stern was alone there late one afternoon and two people from mas hachnassah walked in and asked to see his books.
“When I opened the office,” says Dr. Stern, “I put in a seforim shrank with a set of Chumashim and some other seforim. I pulled out a Chumash and said, ‘Here are my books.’
“‘Don’t be a wise guy,’ they said.
“‘Even if you held a gun to my head, I wouldn’t know where to start,’ I replied. ‘If you want to speak to the people who know about the accounting, you can come back tomorrow morning.’
“‘But since you’re here,’ I continued quickly, pulling out a Chumash before they could run off, ‘the parshah we will read this week is Vayeitzei. We read that Yaakov saw angels going up and down a sulam [ladder]. The Baal HaTurim says that sulam has the same gematria [numerical value] as both mammon [money] and oni [poverty], because one’s finances can easily go up or down. But the Baal HaTurim also points out that sulam contains the same letters as l’mas [for taxes]. You know why? Because you guys are here as messengers of Hashem. If you came to take some of my money, it means that I didn’t give enough of it to tzedakah, and I have to thank you for delivering this wake-up call.’
“They just sat there staring at me. They never heard such a response in their lives. This is what it’s all about, though. Talk to people — no matter who they are — with darchei no’am [in a pleasant manner], and you have a chance to influence them for the better.”
Dr. Stern’s second experience with mas hachnassah, which came 15 years later, shortly after he opened his second office, would have frozen most people in their tracks. This time mas hachnassah came in the guise of a tall brute of a man, who walked in with his face steeled in a stoic expression. Again came the command to be shown the books.
“I don’t know anything about the accounting,” replied Dr. Stern. “All I know is that this is a beit charoshet [factory] for chesed. You want to be a partner, welcome. If you don’t want to take part in it, at least don’t get in the way.’
“Glaring, the man barked, ‘How much do you charge for an implant?’
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘Mrs. Klein ate potato peels in Auschwitz. How much would you charge her for an implant?’
“‘Every doctor has a price list. How much do you take for a post?’
“‘Mrs. Weiss lost her husband and her son in separate terrorist attacks 30 days apart,’ I said evenly. ‘How much would you charge her?’
“He was growing increasingly agitated. ‘How much do you take for a crown on an implant?’ he pressed.
“‘Come with me to Mattersdorf,’ I offered. ‘We’ll visit the home of the woman with 17 children who needed a crown. You tell me how much to charge her. If I can help it, no one leaves this office without dental care.’
“The man was literally shaking with anger, and he got up and said, ‘I have to leave. I can’t listen to this anymore.’”
The man eventually returned, but Dr. Stern had time to prep his anxiety-filled staff before the next visit, advising them to treat the man like any other Yid who walked through the office’s doors. That’s what they did, and there were no problems.
“When I was in Beer Sheva later that week, I bumped into the second-in-command at mas hachnassah. ‘What in the world did you say to that guy?’ he blurted out as soon as he heard my name. ‘No one ever got so much as a smile out of that investigator. He came back that day devastated. You blew him out of the water!’”
“Go to All Three” As Dr. Stern built up his practice, eventually opening a luxurious office on Jerusalem’s Ussishkin St. while maintaining an office in Beer Sheva and traveling several times a year to New York to treat patients there, Rav Elazar continued to guide his every step, pushing him to actualize his potential. There were times when Rav Elazar would instruct Dr. Stern to do things that seemed either entirely impossible or foolhardy.
“Years ago, he was sending me to masters in the field who would say, ‘I want a thousand dollars per day of training. Don’t come if you don’t have it.’ I would ask Rav Elazar how I could go without the money. ‘Just go,’ he would answer. Then the person would hear that I was from Israel or something else like that and he would refuse to take money from me.
“Once, I asked him whether to attend a conference in Los Angeles, Boston, or Florida, and he told me to go to all three. I explained that no one goes to three conferences in a week — maybe one or two a year — and it would be impossible to get to all three without traveling on Shabbos, since they overlapped.
“Often, when I would say something like that, he would reply, ‘You say it’s impossible, I say it is possible. One of us is wrong.’ Invariably, he would be right.
“In the case of those conferences, I decided to skip Boston, spend Shabbos with my parents in New York, and then go to Florida for the next conference. Shortly after I arrived in New York, the organizers of the Boston conference called me to say they had to move their conference to New York. They asked, ‘Will you still be able to come as our guest?’ I ended up making it to all three.
“Sometimes I would pinch myself,” concludes Dr. Stern. “These stories are hard to believe when you hear them. Imagine living through them!” —
Dr. Stern would love to hear more stories regarding Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira ztz”l. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org