Memory Lane: Rev. Moshe Gershon (Morris) Finkelstein, Z”l
Heating the Sfardishe Shul with Coal and Kindness
As we inch closer to the Yomim Nora’im, the unsung heroes are our Shul gabo’im who accommodate the requests, assign seats, and put up with endless complaints, as they go about their holy work. Today, we focus on a Shul Shamass in the Sfardishe Shul from its founding in 1915, for half a century.
Reverend Morris Finkelstein—a selfless, humble servant of the Klal, a talmid chacham who served the religious and personal needs of the congregants of Anshei sfard... and anyone else in need. He served shul in a variety of capacities--all of them marked by one common theme; selfless giving, without anyone the wiser.
It is difficult to imagine such a person—a mix of scholarship and middos Tovos—residing in Boro Park one century ago. But as we will see, the testimony to his character was remembered decades later by those to whom he did acts of kindness.
Reb Moshe Gershon was from the Slutsk area, a city that was filled with pious and learned men. In the Yizkor book which chronicles Jewish life in Slutsk, he recalls fondly those days—and it seems that avodas haklal was something that he had begun back home.
Reb Moshe came to America around 1907-10. He first settled in Newark and then moved to Brooklyn between 1915- 1920. He left a wife and two daughters while he tried to get settled in the US. His wife, Sarah joined him with the two girls after a couple of years. They had another daughter and then two sets of twins 2 years apart.
Because he had been orphaned as a boy himself, he always had a special place in his heart for almanos and yesomim; and throughout his life he went out of his way to help them. One day, a boy who used to study gemara with him came to Shul and sadly related to Rabbi Finkelstein that he would be going out to work, as he had recently been orphaned and his mother needed the money. Without blinking an eye, Rabbi Finkelstein said to him, I will pay you the $14 per week that were going to earn at work—just stay by the Gemara. That person was Rabbi William Cohen, a respected Rav in Hartford, Ct, and always attributed this to the sensitivity of this special man.
One morning, the priest from the church on Fort Hamilton Parkway came to the Shul looking for Rabbi Finkelstein. He explained that he needed to see for himself this special man who did the following act of kindness. “The Sfradishe shul had an Italian janitor who used to shovel the coal into the furnace! One day he got drunk and died when he tumbled down the stairs, leaving a widow and a bunch of children. Reverend Finkelstein called in his wife and said, “I know that it would be difficult for you to shovel the coal, but you have mouths to feed. Why don’t you come and do the lighter work around the shul, and I will shovel the coal myself. That Sunday, the Catholic preacher dedicated his entire sermon to the example of the kindness of this neighboring Rabbi.
His twins were among the inaugurating class of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim of Boro Park. One memory of a child from that time: I .remember, as a child, Rev. Finkelstein’s dynamic leadership of the children on Purim during the reading of the Megilah. He held up a baton, during which time the children allowed to klap as much as they wanted… and his face beamed with delight as the children reveled in this joy… and the moment he raised it, the noise ceased immediately.”
This ability to relate to children translated to the countless stories that later came to light, in which Rabbi Finkelstein saved families and individuals from crisis—spiritual and material.
A granddaughter relates: He was always there when grandchildren got sick. He would come to entertain us with stories. He also was always available to tutor limudei kodesh. There were times when I would argue with the teachers who might have presented something differently than my Papa, because I believed that my Papa was always right.
Upon his passing at the age of 90, he left behind a family of Torah observant Jews that has continued to grow and thrive in the ensuing years in communities around the world—a fitting legacy to their patriarch who has dedicated himself to his fellow Jews for so many years in Boro Park of yesteryear.