Goodbye, My Dear Friend Tzemach

By Rabbi Gedalia Potash, Shliach in Noe Valley, California.

Hashliach Tzemach Yehoshua Cunin, A”H.

When I think of Tzemach so many different memories come to mind from the hundreds of hours we spent going on mivtzoyim together to making matzah brie in the Chabad house kitchen in Westwood, to his unstoppable laugh and so many more great times that I shared with this wonderful friend and one of a kind human being.

For me and so many others when the news of Tzemach’s sudden and tragic passing spread around the world an instant sense of shock and disbelief set into our minds and hearts. How could this be? Is this real? Tzemach, such a vibrant and caring soul, a devoted husband, dedicated father and dear friend to so many. His life cut short, just ripped away leaving behind his now heartbroken wife and 5 young children.

As Shabbos came closer details of the levaya were announced. An unthinkable tragedy was now becoming a reality we had to face. Shabbos of Gimmel Tammuz past with another painful reminder of the dark exile we are in. When will the suffering end? When will the light of Moshiach begin to shine? How much more we now need the comforting smile of our dear Rebbe.

‪Sunday morning‬ arrived and I could not bear the thought of being at the funeral of my dear friend Tezmach but not being there was not an option either.  My four hundred mile journey passed in a fog of sadness and sorrow. While still in a daze my GPS reminded me I had arrived.

It was ‪3 pm‬ right on time for the levaya. With a sense of nervousness and feeling of uncertainty, I get out of my car to the sound of a dull voice coming from the loudspeakers down the block. I joined throngs of men and women, young and old walking hesitantly and with long faces past Tzemach’s home, towards the Bais Chaya Mushka Girls school from where the Levaya would soon depart.

As we got closer the voice from the loudspeaker got stronger, by now it was clearly recognizable that this was the voice of Tzemach’s father Rabbi Shlomo Cunin. What could he be saying after losing a dear son? How did he have the strength or words to say anything at all? As I stood in the crowd on the now blocked off Pico Blvd, I hear Rabbi Cunin describe the buckets of tears he shed over the loss of his son. Suddenly with unfathomable strength, he switched gears and gets into action mode.

Tzemach can no longer put on tefillin! he shouts. We have to be Tzemach’s arms and head and put on Tefillin! Who has not put on tefillin today? Raise your hand if you have not put on Tefillin! Several hands go up. Please step forward and come put on Tefillin for Tzemach. At least half a dozen people step forward and are assisted with this great mitzvah.

Helping people in general, but Mivtzah Tefillin, in particular, was something Tzemach was so passionate about. I know this first hand from the when we spent a year together on Shlichus in Sydney, Australia. We would go on Mivtzoyim every Friday to an area called Double Bay. That area would be getting a new permanent Shliach and it was our job to drum up some interest and help get things started. 

Tzemach had such a soft and gentle way with people but he was also very determined and focused. I often wondered about this seeming paradox, perhaps it was because he cared so much for every Jew that he was so determined to make sure that they don’t lose out on the opportunity of a mitzvah. In general mivtzoyim with Tzemach always went till the last minute, giving ourselves just enough time to get to where we would be for Shabbos with five minutes or less to spare before licht tzinden.

I remember on a particular Friday afternoon we encountered a young fellow and offered him to put on Teffilin. When the young man declined, Tzamach, in his charming and sweet manner kept pushing but the fellow wasn’t buying it. Eventually, the guy says “I see you really want me to put on tefillin, but I don’t want to do it.” To which Tezmach responds “You know something? I do want you to put on Teffiln but actually, you want to put on tefillin even more than I want you to, you just don’t know it.” The fellow broke out in a big smile and rolled up his sleeve. As we spent the year together this kind of sweet but persistent persuasion became Tzemach’s hallmark and style. It worked a lot of the time but not always.

On another occasion, Tzemach was excited when we heard about a potential new customer, a Jewish businessman who worked nearby.  It soon became clear that the building in which he worked had a serious security protocol and chances of getting into his office were highly unlikely. We tried on several occasions but to no avail.

Tzemach kept strategizing, maybe we can catch him coming out of the elevator… Maybe we should hang around in the underground parking lot and we will catch him going to his car…..  weeks and months passed with no success. Remarkably instead of giving up and moving on Tzemach’s determination grew stronger and stronger. The more unlikely it seemed the more determined he became. I think he learned this from his father. The greater the obstacle seemed the more driven he was to overcome it and eventually succeed he did.

As the year was coming to an end Tzemach came up with an idea: instead of just trying to stop by his office unannounced let’s make an official meeting. Sure enough, Tzemach called the fellows office and asked to make a meeting about “A very important matter”. I don’t know exactly what Tzemach told him but surprisingly the fellow agreed to meet with us. However, the only time he was available was ‪8 am‬ on a ‪Monday morning‬. We got reshus to miss seder Chassidus and Tzemach and I went to his office. We spoke to him about the new Shliach who had just moved to town and asked for his support in helping get things off the ground. I am not sure what Tzemach had in mind and I don’t know if Tzemach did either…. but that was Tzemach. The fellow graciously declined to get involved but when we asked him to put on tefillin he was happy to do so. Success!

After Sydney, we each moved on with our lives, Smicha, marriage, and shlichus, etc. We kept in touch with each other and exchanged updates several times a year. But now I stand with hundreds upon hundreds of mourners gathered on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, California for the funeral of our dear and beloved friend Tzemach Yehoshua. The crowd has swelled all the way down the block as far as one’s teary eyes could see. All kinds of Jews from the entire spectrum of the community were present. Even some who had become estranged over the years for various different reasons had now been brought together by the shocking and painful passing of Tzemach. Everyone was unified in their mutual sorrow and sadness. At least momentarily differences and grudges were suspended. 

Without warning the beautiful wooden door at the main entrance of Bais Chaya Muskah opened and the coffin of our dear friend Tzemach emerged. A collective gasp was heard followed by heartbreaking tears and overwhelming crying. The words of Yoshev B’seser were mumbled and could barely be heard through the piercing sounds of crying and sobbing. The grief and anguish were palpable and heavy. As the precession continued, Tzemach’s oldest brother led the crowd with Kapitel 44 – Tzemach’s Kapital. He screamed each word with pain and anguish carefully and slowly annunciating each syllable. “Urah Lama Sishan Hashem? Wake up! Why do you sleep Hashem?……Lomo fonecho tastir?Why do you hide your face? ……Kuma Ezrasa Lanu! Arise and help us! ….. these last words of Tzemach’s Kapital eerily captured the emotion and sadness everyone was feeling at that moment.

The procession continued past Tzemach’s house which is right next door the magnificent school he helped build. A feeling of deep grief and sadness was all around. Many acquaintances and friends were present but no one said a word. Hugs and tears were the only forms of communication. Some started to hum Keili Atah V’odekah……. But for most the grief was too much for such a melody. The procession reached the end of the block and an announcement was made: The Kevurah of Tzemach Yehoshua Cunin will take place at Mt. Olive Cemetery in Commerce, California. Could this really be true? Is this just a terrible dream?

As the crowd disbursed I met my dear friend Dovid. We hugged and cried but were not able to express any words. Dovid, Tezmach and I were good friends. We were roommates in Yeshiva… and now…. The reality was too painful and too difficult to bear. 

On the way to the Bais Hachaim my mind wandered down memory lane to those years gone by that we spent together in Yeshiva. Being Tzemach’s roommate meant life was always interesting if not outright exciting. Tzemach was sensitive, kind and nonjudgmental but most important he would always be on the lookout for others who may need a boost and some encouragement. He had a deep admiration and reverence for his dear father and always had a story to share about his father and the Rebbe, some that had happened years ago and others that were in progress. Every story was filled with rollercoaster-like twists and turns with details about his father’s activities. Some in California and others in D.C. or Russia where efforts were being made for the release of the 12,000 Chabad owned Sefarim, that were confiscated and being held by the Russian government. Being Tzemach’s roommate meant getting real-time updates as these wild stories were unfolding. Sometimes in meant Tzemach disappearing for several days while he went to help his father in D.C.

On various occasions, Tzemach invited me to come to LA to do mivztoim for different yomim tovim. etc. Me being a guest and him being a local he always made sure I had eaten and had what I needed. This included many Matzah Brie sessions in the Chabad House kitchen. It was actually on one of these trips that I met a Shliach who would end up being my shadchan. Tzemach and I drove along many of these LA freeways together on our way to put up menorahs in office buildings, hang mezuzahs and meet fellow Jews but now I am driving alone behind a black car that is carrying Tzemach to his final resting place.

As I pass the vehicles in the other lanes all I can see is cars filled with recognizable faces from the Jewish community all heading to the cemetery. It seemed like the entire freeway was heading to Tzemach’s Levaya. Considering the number of people he touched and inspired this definitely seemed plausible.

As we arrived at the cemetery the crowd swelled and the Alter Rebbe’s niggun Daled Bovos was sung. Initially, it seemed a little odd as this is the melody one is used to hearing at a wedding but as the singing continued its soul-stirring melody certainly captured solemness of this moment. The door of the hearse was opened and immediate family members were asked to step forward to carry the coffin. I will never forget the image of Tzemach’s brothers who with military-like precision and sense of duty lifted the coffin and carried their dear brother, my friend on their shoulders.

Somewhat surprisingly they were all wearing their long back Shabbos kapotas. The semi glow of their Shabbos clothes was sharply contrasted by the pain and agony displayed on their faces. I am not sure why they were wearing Shabbos clothes, but in my mind filled with sorrow, I interpreted it to be signaling the holiness that exists even within sad moments. This was a painful loss but Tzemach was a holy soul and this needed to be emphasized especially at this time. Or perhaps it was an expression of their (our) deep faith that this is all very temporary as Moshiach is coming very soon and all this pain will be over. 

As Tzemach’s brothers got closer the big Kriyah tear on the right side of their kapota caught my attention. Each tear was long and noticeable. Some of the white reinforcement fabric that is often placed on the inside of a garment was peeking through the tear, contrasted against the dark black Kapota. In my weak heart that was craving for a message of strength and hope it seemed like the white inner fabric was a symbolic ray of light and hope that was somehow hidden behind all this darkness.

As the coffin was about to be lowered screams of Ad mosai where heard. There was not a dry eye to be found. The crying, the moaning and wallowing were gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. Tzemach’s two sons supported by their grandfathers on each side stood there in utter grief and shock. While Tzemach’s wife and daughters cried out as they clung on to each other. Tzemach’s oldest bother screams out “Tzemach we love you” “Tzemach we love you” as his voice fades Tzemach’s father voice rises “Tzemach Yehousua…..Tzemach Yehoushua…..Klap oiffen tir…..knock on the aibishiter’s door, knock on the rebbes door…. Bring an end to this golus.. you can do it… with your sweet smile you can do it…. We are not going to stop. We are going to add more tefillin, more mikvaos, more Chabad houses until we end this bitter golus and reunite again”.

As the coffin was lowered and Tzemach was buried, screams of heartache and pain reached the heavens. They pierced the heart. It felt like a piece of us was being buried together with Tzemach. Paradoxically there was a simultaneous uplifting feeling of connection to Tzemach’s vibrant soul. Through the precious memories and good deeds that we commit to do on his behalf, Tzemach spirit will live on.

Supported by their two zaydes and surrounded by a shattered family and community, it was now time for Tzemach’s sons to say Kaddish. They were barely able to utter the words through their anguish and pain. There was however a noticeable effort to say the Kaddish in the tune of Davening that the Rebbe would use. How heartwarming to see, in their moment of greatest pain they drew strength from hiskashrus and connecting to the Rebbe, following in the beautiful example their dear father A”H set for them. 

Tzemach you were and remain an example of what a shliach is and how a chosid of the Rebbe should live. With your passing, the golus got darker and the challenge became greater but as you taught us “The more difficult the challenge the more determined we have to be”.

You dedicated your life to ending this dark exile. It is no coincidence that the first letters of your name קונין‎ יהושע צמח – spell the word קיץ, which means the end. We hope and pray for an immediate end to this dark and bitter golus

Goodbye dear friend, goodbye fellow shliach. Until we meet again very soon in the Bais Hamikdosh Hashlishi. Dressed in our Bigdai Shabbos, we will sing and dance together may it be very soon. Amen!  


Nichum Avelim

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