Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin recalls his first meeting with Rabbi Akiva Wagner on a visit to Toronto Yeshiva, and a later encounter “in a place called prison.”
My cherished friend, Reb Akivah Gershon Wagner zt”l, was a Yedid Nafshi. Our bond was a testament to our shared and distinct qualities alike. I loved him for his gadlus in learning, yet he made the effort and time to relate to others not on his level. I watched someone who gave away from what he would have loved to do, and insert himself in the other’s matzav so they could make the changes in life he saw were critical.
Reb Akivah was a gaon in Nigleh and Chassidus. More notably, he possessed a profound understanding of the bochurim’s neshamah, which propelled him to give tirelessly until they could navigate their paths independently.
Years back, when my son, Meir Simcha was in his yeshiva, I came to visit and requested to stay in the dorm over Shabbos. I wanted to show my son how a yeshivah bochur needs to remain a yeshivah bochur even after he gets married. In that intimate setting, I witnessed Reb Akivah’s dedication first-hand. His Shabbosim with the yeshiva elevated me spiritually, his davening was heartfelt, and his farbrengen, infused with Chassidus, lasted from Shabbos afternoon until mincha and maariv.
I watched as his devoted aishes chayil opened her home and her heart to the bochurim, providing a space for them to absorb the life-giving Chassidus her husband imparted. The bochurim watched and heard a yid who lived with Hashem for real, making Avodas Hashem a real mission and inspiring them to continue! I recall the feeling of elation after Havdalah after spending the whole day at the Farbrengen.
Reb Akivah’s role transcended that of a traditional Rosh Yeshivah. He delved deep into the neshamah of each bochur, teaching them not just Torah but also the essence of “living” as a Yid. How to be the Yid that he is and how to take the years in Yeshivah and make them the foundation for the life he will build after getting married. His selfless devotion forged an enduring bond of respect and admiration between us.
I was later blessed to find that he shared a similar affection for me. I was thrown in the place called jail in Dubuque, a place where people become forgotten and abandoned. One day I was told I had a visitor. I followed the guard into the visiting room and standing there was My yedid nefesh Hagaon Reb Akivah Gershon a”h, with his most warm smile I can see till today and we hugged each other in a way that touches the essence.
Yes, he gave of his time, got on a plane to visit me in the darkest place made by mankind, to tell me I am not forgotten or abandoned, I am loved and remembered. Other people send a card sealed with a tear, however, that is not enough for Reb Akivah. He physically came to give me the smile I needed to see, with his warm eyes of caring and giving. I knew that by far i was not the “ben yochid” in his life.
Reb Akivah was able to give so much to thousands of his students throughout the years. My dear brothers and sisters, Reb Akivah Gershon left over a whole family who needs your warmth and support.
Please open your heart and give graciously to his family in the same way he made so many students his family! May Hashem Yisboraich give you ALL his brochos with abundant wealth and health and nachas from ALL your children.
Bebrichas Hatzlocho Ubrocho
Sholom Mordechai Halevi Rubashkin