In honor of the recent yahrtzeit of Reb Zalman Deitsch a”h on 29 Tammuz, we present a collection of stories that epitomize his life and legacy.
In connection to our recent interview with Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier, and in honor of the yahrtzeit of Reb Zalman Deitsch a”h on 29 Tammuz, we present a collection of passages from the book A Chassid, A Businessman about his life and legacy. Reb Zalman was a role model and an inspiration, and showed a generation that one can run a successful business while living with the highest chassidishe ideals.
By Dovid Zaklikowski
Joining the Business
After the passing of Sholom Deitsch [Zalman’s father, who passed away during his engagement], the family was suddenly thrown into unknown territory, grieving for their beloved father and breadwinner while preparing for a wedding. Every day brought new pain and new challenges. As the oldest child, it took all of Zalman’s strength to pull the family through.
As was the custom, before the wedding the whole family went for a private audience to receive the Rebbe’s blessing. At one point during the audience, Mirel asked who would support her family, to which the Rebbe responded that Zalman would take over his father’s textile business and help support his mother and siblings. “But he doesn’t have any experience,” Mirel said. The Rebbe lifted his holy hand, smiled, and said, “He will yet learn.” He blessed them that the business should prosper, with the same words he had used with Sholom several years earlier about their Sukkos farbrengen, “be’yeser se’es u’be’yeser oiz” (even more vigorously).
The first steps in the textile business were not easy. Competition was fierce, and no allowances were made for beginners. More than once he asked himself, “What am I doing here?” But he never forgot the Rebbe’s words in that fateful private audience, “He will yet learn,” and the blessing that the business should prosper “be’yeser sees u’be’yeser oiz.” He knew he was not alone—he had the Rebbe’s berachah with him.
The office of Deitsch Textile, which Zalman shared with his mother, was a cramped room in a New Jersey warehouse where hundreds of rolls of fabric in various materials and designs were waiting to be measured, cut, and shipped off to customers.
In yeshiva, Zalman had been a stellar student whose world was contained within the volumes of Chassidus and Gemara. His heart had never been in measuring tape and rolls of fabric.
Now, as he entered the warehouse each morning, he yearned to be back in yeshiva, tackling a difficult piece of Gemara or Chassidic discourse, chanting the singsong of a maamar, mapping the Creation of the world as explained in Chassidic teachings.
If he could not be in kollel, at least he could ensure that his business had a soul. He would be scrupulously honest, he resolved, and use his profits to partner with the Rebbe’s shluchim. Thus he would combine the worlds of business and shlichus.
Zalman’s approach to business brings to mind the famed Chassid of the Alter Rebbe, Reb Binyomin Kletzker. Reb Binyomin was once calculating the profits from his lumber business, and at the bottom of a long column of figures wrote the words, “Ein od milvado” (There is none besides Hashem). When someone asked how he could mix business and Chassidus, he responded, “It happens that during davening to the Master of the Universe, a person’s mind sometimes wanders to the world of business. Why, then, should we wonder if our minds wander to G-d in the midst of business dealings?” (Toras Menachem, vol. 7, p. 56).
A Family Man
Zalman and Cyrel were blessed with twelve children: Toby, Shaya, Mendy, Nechemia, Levi, Altie, Chessy,
Hindy, Rivky, Sruli, Rochel, and Nosson. Zalman invested much of his energy into his children’s education.
Zalman felt uncomfortable taking more than a few days off at a time, saying that the more he worked, the more he would have to give for tzedakah. Thus family vacations were mostly limited to short trips, among other places, to Niagara Falls, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and museums.
When he came home in the evenings, however, he would leave his business at the office, devoting
most of his time to his children and Torah study. When the older children ate supper with their parents, the conversation centered on what the children had done that day.
Zalman, in the relaxed atmosphere, would discuss what they were learning. Knowing that their father would request a full report, the children made extra efforts in their schoolwork so that they could answer his questions and have good news to share at the table. As the younger children grew older, the suppers took much longer. Zalman would review the Gemara with the mefarshim beforehand, and a lively discussion would commence. The children knew that the best time to get help with a difficult passage or topic in their studies was in the evening hours.
His daughters recalled that when they went shopping, he would compliment them on the quality and modesty of their clothes, always wanting them to look their best.
When his sons went to out-of-town yeshivahs, he continued to follow their progress, studying the Gemara they were learning that year so that it would be fresh in his mind. Their conversations on the phone always centered on their studies.
From time to time, he would ask them to write down what they were learning and fax it to the office. His office staff attested that when these faxes arrived, he would stop his work and review them immediately,
taking great pleasure in what they wrote.
No Business Here
Zalman never discussed his business with his children. In fact, they say, when he came home from work, they could never tell if it had been a good day or not. All they knew was that he worked in shmates (the textile business).
“In a way, my father’s involvement in our future shlichus was already starting when I was growing up,” said Shaya, director of Chabad in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, “with the way he raised us with the ideology that we should become shluchim.”
Toby recalled how her father would reverently repeat stories about shluchim. “He would give shluchim so much honor and respect whenever the family hosted them,” she said. “You knew this is what he valued.”
Zalman almost never took his children to the warehouse; they understood later that this may have been because he didn’t want to spark their interest in the business. His plans for his children were evident to anyone who walked into the Deitsch home. His true desire was in Yiddishkeit, Chassidishkeit, and being a shliach. That is where his true essence was. For the average person, it would be surprising that no one followed him into business, but he was not the average person.
As Crown Heights residents, the Deitsches opened their home and supported the Rebbe’s shluchim in whatever ways they could. The International Conference of Shluchim was a special time for Zalman. “Those days are among the most delightful days for me on the calendar,” he wrote one year. “Just the meeting of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, who during the year are in some corner of the globe, is a good reason to uplift one’s mood. If you add to that the wondrous and miraculous stories they have to tell, it is as if the entire time they are here, we are given an additional soul.”
Zalman knew that his mission was to be in the business world, but he also took an active part in all the Rebbe’s campaigns to promote Jewish observance. In a 1985 letter to the Rebbe, he asked that his activities should give the Rebbe nachas, “and I should have the strength and fortitude to fulfill them.”
The Rebbe’s Messages
In addition to his regular study sessions and helping his children with their homework, beginning when he arrived home at seven each evening, Zalman dedicated much of his time to Torah study.
Zalman’s study of the Rebbe’s maamarim and published correspondence intensified after the Rebbe suffered a stroke in 5752 (1992). A few months before Zalman passed away in 5766 (2006), he completed all of the Rebbe’s voluminous published teachings in Likutei Sichos, Sichos Kodesh, Toras Menachem, Igros Kodesh, and Reshimos.
His rigorous study regimen ensured that he always had something to share with the Jewish customers and businesspeople he encountered. Once, a Chassid of the Munkatcher Rebbe walked into his office. “I just read a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to a Munkatch Chassid,” Zalman said (Igros Kodesh, vol. 21, p. 135). The letter was written to a couple who had requested a blessing for children. “The Rebbe wrote, among other directives, that he [the husband] should, from time to time, envision the Munkatcher Rebbe’s face, and that they should make the effort to assist people with their spiritual needs, and Hashem should give them an abundance of material and spiritual sustenance.”
To both men’s astonishment, it turned out that the Chassid standing in Zalman’s office was the son who was born to the couple after receiving that letter. Zalman immediately gave him the volume where the Rebbe’s letter to his parents was found.
His schedule also included in-depth study of the Rebbe’s maamarim. Whenever an occasion presented itself, he had one ready to repeat from memory. Throughout the year, he had set times when he would deliver a maamar from memory in shul. In addition to his birthday and his parents’ yahrtzeits, after 5754 (1994), he would also review one on the Shabbos before Gimmel Tammuz. Once, at a family gathering, he reviewed a maamar by heart, amazing the attendees, including several scholarly Chassidim, who wondered out loud how a businessman could have the time for such deep study.
He would study whenever he had a chance, always keeping a likut, the new weekly sichah booklet of the Rebbe’s talks, with him. Once, when stopped by a police officer, Zalman told the officer he was rushing to teach a class. The officer asked to see the material he was going to teach. Zalman pulled out the likut, which he had folded in his jacket pocket, and he let him go.
On special occasions, the Rebbe would distribute booklets or volumes that he wanted people to study. On the 20th of Cheshvan 5750 (1989), the Rebbe distributed Kuntres Etz Chayim, by the Rebbe Rashab, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the Rebbe Rashab’s birthday. Nechemia, then a fifteen-year-old yeshiva student, had a hard time understanding the content. When he told his father, Zalman studied one chapter a night with him until they finished it. “He showed me how to cherish a volume the Rebbe distributed,” Nechemia said.
The Tefillin That Saved a Life
On Zalman’s desk at the warehouse there was always a pair of tefillin ready to be put on anyone who had not yet done the mitzvah that day. The businessman had his ways of convincing the reluctant to roll up their sleeves and put on tefillin. If he felt that a person was committed enough, he would encourage him to purchase his own pair, at times subsidizing the cost. He also helped yeshiva students who would go out weekly on mivtzoim with purchasing pairs to use on their routes.
One day, he received a call from someone whom he had helped put on tefillin a few days before. The man was very emotional and told him that the same day he put on tefillin, he had been in a grave car accident. A truck had rammed into his car from behind and completely crushed it.
The rescue teams could not believe that anyone could have survived, “but I exited the car unscathed. They took me for checkups and I was fine.” The man said that he had recalled at that moment what Zalman had quoted him from Gemara (Menachos 36b), “The one who puts on tefillin, his days are lengthened.”
“I’m calling to thank you for saving my life,” the man concluded.
A Home for Everyone
People who met Zalman and Cyrel at their children’s Chabad Houses often ended up coming to Crown Heights and spending a Shabbos in the Deitsch home. The Lubavitch Youth Organization also regularly called asking them to host guests from out of town who would come for the Pegisha, a weekend retreat called “Encounter with Chabad” that brought nonobservant Jews to Crown Heights for a Chassidic experience.
Mr. Eagle, who was a college student in Amherst, remembered how, after his first visit, he was given an open invitation. “They were very warm and accepting of me.”
As he became more observant, he faced some opposition from his family, and the Deitsch home became a refuge for him. “Even though they had a big family, I was like a son. I felt the love from him as though I was another son.”
In fact, Zalman would say, “Here the Rebbe is the host,” considering his home like a Chabad House, open to all. “There were always a lot of Shabbos guests; the table was always full,” Mr. Eagle recalls. He remembers Zalman as a quiet but forceful presence. “He didn’t waste words.” Shabbos to Zalman “wasn’t about him taking a rest or taking it easy, but just about doing the avodah.” This included leading the meal with words of Torah and song. “It was a very lively Shabbos table.”
While he always welcomed guests, making them feel comfortable and included, he made a point of sitting with his children directly around him so that they were the center of attention. Though generally a reserved person, at the Shabbos table he would speak to every guest and ask them to share something from their lives, a story, or a meaningful idea they had recently heard or learned.
Until today, the Deitsch home is known to be welcoming to guests. Cyrel continues to host many people to sleep and eat Shabbos meals.
The book A Chassid, A Businessman is available on Hasidic Archives as well as in Crown Heights bookstores and on the Amazon Kindle. The audiobook is available on audible.
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I used to stand next to Reb Zalman at farbrengens, I remember he would regularly repeat the sicha to his children between sichos.