By Allison Silver
This Sunday marks the shloshim of Chazzan Sol Mitgang, Yisrael Zalman ben Avraham Mordechai, a’h. Chazzan Mitgang was a neighborhood treasure who loved spending time with his family, enjoyed his multiple weekly visits to the JCC, and was beloved at Congregation Bais Ment where he davened for the amud and gave out berachos with warmth and sincerity. In his quiet, unassuming way, Chazzan Sol was a model of strength and of unwavering faith in Hashem.
Chazzan Mitgang grew up in Radzanov, a town in Poland. He was part of a beautiful chassidishe family of eight children. He was the youngest boy, the 7th child. His father was a tailor, and Chazzan Sol had envisioned becoming one as well. (In fact, when he came to America he did work as a cutter in the garment district.) But his life was interrupted. His family was affected as soon as World War II broke out, and they were soon sent to the Malawa ghetto. From there, he was deported to Auschwitz. Because of his early arrival there, Chazzan Mitgang often said that he “built Auschwitz.” He was there for three torturous years but always had tremendous emunah in Hashem.
When the number was tattooed on his arm, 76459, Sol looked at it and, using a gematria, believed he would survive. Sol calculated that 7 plus 6 equals 13, which is the gematria of “echad”—“One,” meaning Hashem. Then he added the last three digits to get 18, the gematria of “chai”—life. Sol believed that Hashem would let him live.
Chazzan Sol first became a chazzan in Auschwitz on Yom Kippur. He desperately wanted to daven with a minyan on the holiest day of the year. Remembering both the words and the tunes of the Yom Kippur davening, Sol, with his beautiful voice, was naturally chosen to be the chazzan. When a lookout yelled that the Nazis were coming, Sol jumped from the building. He lost his teeth in that incident, and was punished. But his emunah did not waver. He also fasted every Yom Kippur, including the ones spent in the concentration camp as well as the last one of his life, when he was almost 102. Ultimately, Sol did survive the horrors of the Shoah, but with the exception of one sister, his entire family was killed.
Sol believed that Hashem helped him survive, although he would always say not to rely on miracles—“Do! And G-d will help you!” he would say. He believed in hishtadlus and he believed that Hashem was with him.
In 1949, Sol Mitgang came to America, where he rebuilt his life. He got a job in the garment district, married a fellow Holocaust survivor, Celina Neuhaus, and had a son, Charles. Sol also became the chazzan of the Remsen Heights Jewish Center in Canarsie where he served the congregation for 40 years, davening, leining, and teaching bar mitzvah lessons.
In 1992, Sol and Celina Mitgang moved to Lawrence to be closer to their children, Linda, a’h, and Charles Mitgang, and their children. Chazzan Sol quickly became part of the fabric of the Lawrence community. He would share his Holocaust and pre-war stories with friends and neighbors. He was part of the close kehillah of Congregation Bais Ment where he would often be asked to daven, and especially to bentch rosh chodesh with his beautiful voice. Chazzan Sol was careful to daven and put on tefillin every day, and was always focused on the weekly parashah.
Sol always greeted everyone with a proper “good morning,” “good Shabbos,” or “hello,” and expected the same in return. In fact, when he greeted someone who did not respond in kind, he would ask them if it was Tishah B’Av. When the confused individual would say that it was not, Chazzan Sol would answer, “Then why didn’t you say hello?” He taught the man this lesson with his signature humor and wit.
Years ago, the Satmar Rebbe famously told people that if they wanted a berachah, they could go to anyone with numbers tattooed on his or her arm who is still frum. Many people came to Sol for berachos, and he always obliged. Chazzan Mitgang viewed his entire life as a blessing, often saying that immediately prior to his grandfather’s death, his grandfather blessed him with arichus yamim, longevity. Chazzan Sol believed in the power of a berachah.
Chazzan Mitgang attended many of the JCC programs geared toward our neighborhood seniors and Holocaust survivors. At these events, he was often asked to lead the group in singing Hatikvah and to make the berachah of Hamotzi on the bread. Two weeks before Chazzan Mitgang passed away, he was at a sukkah party at the JCC where he was recorded singing, with a full and strong voice, the Hamotzi on the challah.
Chazzan Sol Mitgang is survived by his son, Dr. Charles Mitgang, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Mitgang family and the Lawrence community will miss Chazzan Sol Mitgang, with his beautiful voice and special berachos. We will take the lessons of emunah and perseverance learned from him and incorporate them in our daily life. May Yisrael Zalman ben Avraham Mordechai be a meilitz yosher for his family, the community, and all of Klal Yisrael.