Memory Lane: Rabbi Zvi Gottesman, Spared from the Massacre
Continuing our historical journey into the history of the one-century-old Beth Israel of Boro Park—which has now stood at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and Fifty-Sixth Street for 100 years—this week we recall the tenure of Rabbi Zvi (Harold) Gottesman who served this congregation in the 1940’s and early 50’s, after having been miraculously spared from the infamous Hebron massacre of 1929.
He shares an eerie distinction with his colleague and successor at Beth Israel, Rabbi Hershel Stollman, whom we profiled in our last edition of Memory Lane—as he too was learning in Chevron at that time, and likewise was miraculously spared.
A Scion of Greats
The Gottesman’s were actually Heller’s, proud descendants of the Tosafos Yom Tov—and Rebbe Avraham Yosef Yuska was a direct ben achar ben of the great commentator of Mishnayos, as well as of the leading lights of the Chassidic movement. The Rebbe was born in Iași, Romania (pronounced Yassi, a town on the northeastern border of Romania/Moldova), to his father Rav Meir—who was named for his grandfather Rebbe Meir’l of Premishlan. On his mother’s side, he was a descendant of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and the Rebbe Rav Baruch’l of Medzibuzh. After the passing of his father, he succeeded him as the Rebbe of Iași.
This is where his son, Tzvi was born in the year 1914. In 1921, the family immigrated to America where they would put down roots that would in turn bear generations of dedicated Torah Jews all raised on American soil. Rav Avraham Yosef Yuska’s shul was located at 91 Hart Street, in Williamsburg.
At some point Zvi and his older brother Leibel made the trip to learn in Knesses Yisroel in Chevron.
A Wind From Above
They were both learning in Chevron in August of 1929. Leibel (who went on to write a lengthy memoir in tribute to his massacred chaverim) had already returned to America, and was by then a rov in Harlem. He gave lengthy interviews to the American newspapers about the tragedy, and among the information that he passed on was the light wounding of two “Sanders brothers” who lived at 169 Hart Street in Brooklyn, nearby Rabbi Gottesman’s father’s Shul, Congregation Emunah Sheleima, (as we have noted above). He mentioned that the brothers—whose father was a peddler— sold newspapers to pay for their passage to Eretz Yisroel. He also mentioned “Baruch Kaplan” from Brooklyn who escaped uninjured.
But Zvi was sharing a taxi with a couple of Arabs as he was heading back for Shabbos. He sensed their snickering, and his intuition told him that Chevron was not safe. Just then, a wind came and blew his hat out of the car, and he grabbed the opportunity to flee—saving his life.
In that same year, the following article appeared in one of the Yiddish language papers in Eretz Yisroel: “Chevron Yeshiva Bachur from America Receives First Semicha for Rabbanus…
“Always with a smile”
Zvi returned to America in the early 1930’s, and married in Esther Itzkowitz, and would go on to serve the remainder of his years as a community Rabbi. From around 1947 to 1956 the family lived in Boro Park, and he served as the Rav of Beth Israel
In 1954, he temporarily succeeded Rabbi Levinthal of Philadelphia as Rabbi of Congregation Bnei Abraham of Philadelphia, and he commuted between the two cities.
In 1957, he was the Rabbi in San Juan, Peurto Rico, and after two years went to California, and was serving as a chaplain in the San Diego. Recalls a niece of Rabbi Gottesman: “He always walked into a room bringing simchas hachyim with him… he was always with a smile.”
Rabbi Gottesman’s final pulpit was at Congregation Chevra Tillim in San Francisco where he served for five years, until his passing in 1968—following a tenure of rabbonus enabled by Divine miracles, a portion of which was spent in Boro Park of yesteryear.