Reb Volf Greenglass, the mashpia in Montreal for over six decades, is known for his avoda, care for his students, wisdom, and wit. Read about his life and farbrengens from a soon to be published book.
The following is an excerpt from “The Mashpia – The Life, Lessons and Farbrengens of Reb Volf Greenglass.” Reb Volf was the mashpia in Montreal for over sixty years and is famously known as “the Rebbe’s Mekubal.”
The English book on Reb Volf is its final stages of editing. Anyone who had personal interactions with him should send their recollections to [email protected] or Whatsapp audio to 514-572-6076.
Teaching Chassidus wasn’t just something Reb Volf did during the designated times for shiurim. Even outside of the seder, he would seek out the bochurim and engage them in Chassidus.
Many students would recount the same experience: One day, they would be called over to Reb Volf’s house, where they would learn a maamar together. Then Reb Volf would demand of them, gently and lovingly, to learn the maamar by heart for the coming Shabbos afternoon and to then recite it in front of all the other students.
The students would always say they didn’t have a good head and that it was difficult for them to memorize anything by heart. Reb Volf would encourage them, coach them, and empower them, and then check up on them during the week. Finally, Shabbos would arrive, and the students would have learned the entire discourse by heart. Many have described this exercise as foundational. It set a tone and inspired them to become true, committed chassidim to the Rebbe and Chassidus.
Reb Volf would often say that learning Chassidus by heart and continuously reviewing it whenever one has a free moment is an inner, permeating way of serving Hashem – an action that has no parallel in its refinement of the person’s character.
On one occasion, he went over to a student learning a Chassidic discourse and told him, “Learn, learn it well and review it again. I myself learned and reviewed this discourse more times than the number of hairs on your head.”
Reb Volf would use the term, “A bochur should have maamarim ‘in stock’” so that it is readily available whenever he wants.
Reb Volf was very much into reviewing whatever one learned. He would encourage the bochurim to review during the summer the Gemara they learned in yeshiva throughout the year. He would tell them that reviewing it constantly will help them remember it for life and serve as a foundation for future learning of Gemara.
Reb Volf didn’t only teach out of books or in the classroom. Some of his most memorable Chassidic lessons took place during farbrengens and other informal gatherings.
Reb Volf treasured niggunim, wordless chassidic melodies, and he would take time to teach them to his students. Outside times for official learning, he would gather a group of interested students and patiently teach them the niggun. He would sing it a few times and then have them sing it a few times until they knew it well.
Rabbi Yankel Blotner, who came to learn in Montreal in the late 1960s, recalls how, at one fabrengen, Reb Volf taught the bochurim a niggun from his youth.
“He made great effort to see that we learned it, and he told us how he and his fellow students in the Otvotzk days had heard it from bochurim of other chassidic circles, and they would sing it in the presence of the Frierdiker Rebbe.
“Several nights later, we had a fabrengen with a chossid who was unfamiliar with this niggun. When we started singing it, he looked upset and asked why we were singing what sounded like a Polish niggun instead of a Chabad one. When we told him that Reb Volf had taught it to us, he apologized and gave his approval to the niggun.”
On one occasion, Reb Volf merited to start a nigun in front of the Rebbe. It was at the farbrengen of Lag BaOmer 5711 (1951). During the farbrengen, the Rebbe turned to Reb Volf and said, “You have a chush in negina, say a niggun.”
Reb Volf recalled this moment: “I was commanded, so I began a Chabad niggun. The crowd did not know the niggun I started, which I had heard from R. Berel Kurnitzer in Otvotzk, so I was forced to teach the niggun. After the farbrengen, they all came to the home of R. Berel Baumgarten, where I was staying, to hear the niggun again.”
Reb Volf knew the power of chassidic melody and that chassidic gatherings like these – farbrengens – were an opportunity for the boys to be inspired and inspire others in a profound way.
“Besides farbrengens that the yeshiva faculty and mashpi’im would organize,” shared R. Itche Mayer Lipszyc, “there were those times when bochurim would farbreng among themselves. At one such farbrengen, the mood was just right. We were farbrenging intensely all night, and one of the older bochurim – I believe it was Yerachmiel Stillman – was working on one of the younger students, encouraging him to straighten out his act. Nobody noticed that it was already 7:30 a.m., time to start the day’s learning schedule with the morning study of Chassidus.
“From where I was standing,” continues Lipszyc, “I noticed that Reb Volf had quietly come in and was standing behind a partition in the room, and he was listening in to the farbrengen. Meanwhile, a younger mashpia, Reb Itche Meir Gurary, then in his first or second year at the yeshiva, came in and was about to break up the farbrengen. After all, learning time is learning time. Seder is seder.
“But then, from my position, I was able to see and hear Reb Volf quickly intercept him and tell him, ‘Leave them be. A farbrengen like this is better and can accomplish more than seder Chassidus.’”
Saying “L’chaim” over a cup of spirits is a time-honored feature of the farbrengen. Although in time the Rebbe limited younger men from drinking more than four shots, farbrengens remain high-spirited affairs. Especially so before that limitation, spirits were more free-flowing.
Reb Volf himself recalled, “The farbrengens in my house would be very lively, and sometimes bochurim would dance on the table, while many would end up with the boys sleeping under the table, and the room a mess!
“One time, at a private audience with the Rebbe, my wife mentioned that she didn’t appreciate the occasional disorder that came from the lively farbrengens. The Rebbe assured her, ‘דאס איז דאך זיין ענין’ (This is his job is [to inspire the bochurim])!”
The Rebbe’s concern for the young men under Reb Volf’s charge went beyond their spiritual well-being or intellectual development.
One time, as Reb Volf recalled, there was a bochur in the yeshiva in Montreal who didn’t want to eat before davening. According to halacha, a Jewish day should start with preparations toward prayer, not breakfast. The problem is that often an empty stomach can make it difficult to focus on the prayers. Thus, a bite is permitted beforehand. In this case, the bochur was physically infirm, and his mother became so worried for him that she complained to the Rebbe that he wouldn’t eat before davening.
After hearing the mother’s concerns, the Rebbe sent the bochur a letter stating that from now on he must eat something before davening, and to remedy his past behavior, he should encourage his friends to also eat something before davening.
Along with the Rebbe’s instructions to eat a little before davening, Reb Volf still maintained that some moderation was in order.
As one former student, Shmary Brownstein, recalled, “The mashpia once saw me take a second piece of mezonos before shacharis and exclaimed, ‘Tzvei seudos (Two meals)?!’And then, lifting his hands in the air, he added, “Heint darf der davenen zein… (Today the davening must be extra special)!”
In much the same way, Reb Volf’s care for the bochurim went far beyond their spiritual needs. In addition to teaching them Chassidus and proper behavior, he would look after the material needs of the students.
As the Rosh Yeshiva of Tomchei Temimim Montreal, Rabbi Leibl Kaplan, put it, “Reb Volf was there for the students from morning until night. In yeshiva, he would go around from table to table and engage the students in learning and see if they needed any assistance in understanding something.
“He would visit the dormitory and care for the physical needs of every student. He gave himself over to each and every student with his entire heart and soul.”
During his dormitory visits, Reb Volf would dispense advice on all matters, as Rabbi Yankel Blotner recalled. “One evening, he came to our dorm and saw that we were frying potatoes. He commented: ‘S’iz nit gezunt esen gepregelte far’n shlofen (It’s not healthy to eat fried food before going to sleep).’”
Rabbi Nachum Ehrentreu, today a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, summed up the way bochurim felt about Reb Volf: “He worried for us just like a father. He purchased winter clothes for many of the students and paid for the out-of-town students’ visits to the doctor. To those he thought would be ashamed, he gave a monthly stipend, as if he did this for everyone. He didn’t ask if they needed it or not.”
And so, if a student was missing proper shoes or clothing, Reb Volf would go out of his way to make sure the bochur had whatever he needed. “Once,” says Ehrentreu, “Reb Volf told me, ‘G-d forbid there should be a student who does not have what he needs.’”
Keeping the Rebbe’s Name
Despite the Rebbe’s love and dedication to the yeshiva, there were times when certain issues caused the Rebbe distress.
On one occasion, the Rebbe caught wind that the bochurim had been interfering with the management of the yeshiva, which he then brought up during an audience with Reb Volf. He was so upset by this report that he declared he would withdraw his personal association with the yeshiva and remove his name from its letterhead.
“I became very concerned,” said Reb Volf, “and started trying to advocate for the boys, and to explain why their actions hadn’t been so bad.
“After trying several different arguments, I saw that it was not helping. So instead I said a quote from the sages: ‘Bein kach u’bein kach bonai heim ([Hashem says] However they act, they are My children [and I cannot replace them with anyone].’ [Likewise, the students of Tomchei Temimim are like the Rebbe’s children: Regardless of their undesirable conduct, the Rebbe should keep his name on the yeshiva.]
“As soon as I said that, the Rebbe’s facial expression changed and took on a more favorable expression. Indeed, he decided not to remove his name from the yeshiva.”
Lag Ba’omer Parade Signage
Reb Volf was one time standing in the hallway of 770 when the Rebbe picked up letters from the Mazkirus office to bring to his room. As the Rebbe was walking, the Rebbe read one letter and tore it up into four pieces and put it in the garbage. Reb Volf went right away and pulled out the letter. The letter was full of complaints as to why the Bochurim are making these props and posters for Lag Ba’omer and how much bitul Torah it causes.
Since then, every year, Reb Volf would help the bochurim of the Montreal Yeshiva with preparing for the Lag Ba’omer parade, sometimes doing so until 3 am.
In the year 5743, Lag Ba’omer was on a Sunday. On Motzei Shabbos, bochurim were preparing for the parade inside the building, but outside it was raining. Reb Volf came to make his traditional sign bearing the words: “שמור את השבת לקדשו.” A bochur turned to him and said, “It’s raining, what are we going to do?” Instead of answering, Reb Volf said, “Give me the markers and placard.” By the time he finished, it had stopped raining, and it didn’t rain till after the parade…
Rubie Minkowitz recalls that Reb Volf once commented to him that the signs should be in lashon hakodesh. “When I suggested that more people would only understand the signs if they were in English or French, he told me that the power of the osiyos, the Hebrew letters, will have a much greater effect on the people.”