By Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern
It has been 20 years since the Jewish leader I was closest to passed away far too early for all who knew and loved him. Simon Laufer, z’l, Shimon Zelig ben R’ Shalom, passed away in the summer of 1998, a month before my wedding. He was a well-known philanthropist, a shrewd businessman, a sought-after adviser, a builder and supporter of Torah Institutions and shuls around the world, a ba’al middot tovot, and a true patriarch of our family.
He was a Holocaust survivor, who was born in Krakow in the early 1900s and survived several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He survived through his G-d-given keen intellect and street smarts, as much as through his pure bitachon in Hashem. He married my grandmother, Fran Laufer (who should continue to live and be well), on the steps of Bergen Belsen, in a displaced persons camp right after the war. Throughout his incredible life, he embodied what it means to be a Jewish leader.
The Torah tells us what to expect of a Jewish leader in Parashat Pinchas, when Moshe Rabbeinu asks G-d for his successor, and G-d nominates Yehoshua for this sacred task. I believe there are three major lessons in leadership we learn from this account, which highlight the life and legacy of my zaida, Reb Shimon Laufer, z’l.
First, the leader is generally someone who has experienced trials and challenges in life. He needs this in order to fully understand the people and intuitively know what they need. Yehoshua was only capable of leading the next generation of Jews into Eretz Yisrael because he was with the earlier generation in Egypt. He experienced the crucible of galut — the persecution and degradation. He looked at those seemingly insurmountable challenges and, instead of being crushed by them, he rose to those challenges — faced them head on and was empowered by them. Simon Laufer lived through unspeakable things — and I say unspeakable, because he did not want to talk about it with his children and grandchildren. Instead, he spoke through his actions; he spoke through the yeshivot he established, the Jewish communities he built from scratch, the people he helped charitably and emotionally, and the beautiful tefillot he davened and sang throughout his life. He understood where he and Klal Yisrael had come from and that’s why he was so intent on making sure that he played an instrumental role in where we were going.
Second, a Jewish leader needs to have an awareness and reverence for the mesorah that came before him. The Torah testifies that Yehoshua’s greatness was rooted in the fact that he never left Moshe’s tent, even as he grew older and wiser. The Midrash paints the image of Yehoshua “whose face was like the moon” refracting the light of Moshe “whose face was like the sun.” Simon Laufer was a captain of industry, a self-made American success story, and a proud Jew in a modern world; yet, he was always keenly aware of who he really was deep down—a Galicianer Jew with a Chassidishe soul. He grew up in a Bobover shteibel and he was close to the great Bobover Rebbe, z’tl, Rav Shlomo Halberstam. There was nothing like hearing my grandfather serve as a shaliach tzibbur, or singing zemirot with him on a Shabbat or yom tov. The only way to describe it is with the Yiddish word “heartzik.” As my grandmother recalls it, when he davened he was actually “talking straight to Hashem.” He never forgot his roots and he played an integral role in supporting the re-establishment of Chassidut in America after the war. It was so remarkable to see a clean-shaven man like Simon Laufer receive so much love and respect from a world of people that appeared so different than him — when, in truth, they were so very much the same. My zaida taught me the all-important lesson that it’s not what you see on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside, deep in the depths of your soul.
And finally, a leader must understand people for who they are, irrespective of their different personalities and life experiences. This is why Moshe, when asking G-d to appoint his successor, refers to Hashem as “Elokei Ha’Ruchot L’chol Basar” — the G-d who understands the spirit of all living things.” Yehoshua was chosen precisely with this character trait in mind and this trait is also so true of my Zaida. He was beloved by all — young and old, in our family, and in the broader Jewish community — because he was a man who sincerely treated everyone he came across with dignity, love, and respect. To him, meeting another Jew meant meeting someone who he could have the opportunity to help and impact — that’s why his impact was so widely felt by so many. And his impact was most profoundly felt by his family. He was a model husband, father, and grandfather — a leader of our family, who left a lasting impact on all of Klal Yisrael.
Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory continue to endure as a blessing for us all.