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Tribute to late Rabbi Shea Heller

Rabbi Shea Heller at the dedication of the Torah he donated.

By Mattis Goldberg

DEAR Reb Shea,

It is hard to believe that you are no longer with us. Throughout your life you were a fighter. You fought as an American soldier in Korea. You fought illnesses. In fact just last week when I saw you for the last time, you were sitting on your couch with an oxygen machine close by and you were very weak. Suddenly you gave a hard bang on the couch and stated firmly that you were going to fight this illness until the end.

Most of all you fought against the tide and that is what inspired me the most. Let me explain.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) states that a father has several responsibilities toward his son. A father is required to circumcise his son, redeem him if he is a first born, teach him Torah, marry him off and teach him a craft. Some say that a father must also teach his son to swim.

Rashi explains that it is possible that this boy will travel by ship and the ship will sink. If the son does not know how to swim he’ll drown.

Some commentators ask: Circumcision, craft, etc., are essential. However, why is a father required to teach his son to swim on the off chance that he will travel on a ship that will sink? I once heard a homiletical answer by Rabbi Yosef Heineman.

It is essential for a Jewish father to teach his son to swim against the tide. Throughout the centuries Jews have often lived in societies where the lifestyles were the antithesis of values derived from our holy Torah. Therefore, the Talmud requires Jewish fathers to teach their children to swim against the tide.

REB Shea, you were the ultimate fighter. You grew up in Denver of the 1920s and 1930s, a member of the famous Heller family, which dated back to the arrival of Rabbi Velvel Heller in Denver in the 1890s.

Granted, Denver had a large religious community at the time. There were many immigrants who came from Europe who remained steadfast to the religious values they were brought up with in Europe. There were some great rabbis, including Rabbis Halpern, Ginsberg and Kauvar, at the time. A front cover of the Intermountain Jewish News from 1923 announced the arrival of Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, founder of the daf yomi program.

Unfortunately, though, many Jews from the second generation in Denver and throughout the US succumbed to the pressures of the societies surrounding them. But you swam against the tide.

I REMEMBER 12 years ago when we both moved to the new neighborhood of Ramat Bet Shemesh in Israel. We felt a special bond because of our Denver connection. As they say in Yiddish, we were landsman (from the same land).

Shortly after we moved in, my wife and I invited you for Shabbat. At first you were hesitant. Having lived alone your entire life you liked having your own space. Finally you agreed to come over for the Friday night meal and walk back home. Eventually, you agreed to stay with us for the entire Shabbat and we loved every one of your stays.

You taught me so many lessons.

First of all, you absolutely loved Shabbat. Shabbat gives us a taste of the eternal world, but many of us fail to taste it. You, however, tasted it and basked in its glory. After I made kiddush for my family you loved making your own kiddush, and when you were finished, you lovingly poured grape juice for our children, who were always excited about receiving an extra serving.

You truly enjoyed my wife’s cooking and never ceased to compliment her for every dish she made. We knew, for example, that you enjoyed a good brisket or a piece of grilled trout, and here is where you conveyed an important lesson.

If a person enjoys a good steak during the weekday as well as on Shabbat, it is not clear whether he loves Shabbat or is simply a glutton in love with food.

You were different. I had many opportunities to observe you while you ate during the week. You never made a big deal about what you ate. You ate to live. You did not live to eat. Therefore, when you showed so much interest in the food served on Shabbat, I realized that you truly enjoyed Shabbat and honored it by enjoying the special culinary dishes.

You loved singing the zemirot songs on Shabbat. You had different tunes that you picked up from your travels throughout your lifetime. You had niggunim tunes you picked up from the chasidic courts of Bobov, Breslov, Chabad, Satmar and Skver, to name a few. You had tunes you picked up in the Sh’or Yoshuv Yeshiva as well. Of course you had the home grown niggunim you picked up during your childhood in Denver, such as a tune you picked up from the late Manny Feder (to the words of Mah Yedidus).

YOU were truly in love with the Torah. Friday night after the meal you would go to sleep for a few hours and then wake up in the middle of the night and study until the morning. I am sure that the scene of your constant Torah study is etched in my children’s memory. Hopefully, when they are older these memories will inspire them.

I will not forget just a few weeks ago when I visited you on Passover in the hospital. You were so weak that you had no strength to study Torah by yourself. When I entered the room you were so excited, “Mattis, it is good you came. Please open up the book next to my bed and read me some words of Torah.”

You were always running from one study partner to the next. It was awe-inspiring to watch someone in his eighties pursue Torah study with such intensity.

I remember the party that Rabbi and Mrs. Mordechai Adelman made in your honor when you received semicha ordination. You officially became a rabbi at the age of 75, after five years of intense Torah study.

Who thinks about starting to pursue rabbinical study at age 70? You did, and you accomplished the goal you set for yourself.

YOU were a real Zionist. You had an intense love for Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. At a late stage in your life you uprooted yourself from your home in Denver, from all of your familiar surroundings.

You left the luxuries of America behind you and moved to the land of milk and honey.

You lived in Safed, the city of kabbalists, then moved to the holy city of Jerusalem, and finally fulfilled your lifelong dream of owning a home in the land of Israel, when you bought one in Ramat Bet Shemesh.

Even though it was your private home, you treated it as public domain. You gave several scribes a key to your house and they were free to come and go as they pleased. One of the rooms in your house was specifically set up for them. You did not charge them a penny of rent during the many years they used your apartment.

There are many laws in the Torah that one can only uphold in the land of Israel. Many apply to produce, such as the laws of tithing, the sabbatical year and the laws of orlah (fruit trees).

As soon as you purchased your house you planted the shivat ha-minim, the “seven species” by which Israel is known, in your back yard.

The law of orlah stipulates that one must wait four years to eat from a newly planted tree’s fruits.

You waited patiently for four years, but when you finally were permitted to enjoy the fruits of your labor you did not eat them yourself. You put tens of pounds of produce on trays and invited your community to partake in the delicacies.

Often when I visited you would take me to your backyard and with the innocence of a child you would show me your developing produce.

WHAT amazed me most about you, Reb Shea, was your ability and willingness to live together with any type of Jew. This especially came to light during the last period of your life. Here you were, a proud Zionist, living together with the Satmar chasidim, perhaps the most anti-Zionist community in Ramat Bet Shemesh.

When you first moved into the neighborhood, you used to engage them in ideological debate. After a while, though, to quote your exact words, “I decided to keep quiet.”

So here you were living with people who were on the polar opposite of your ideological radar, yet you lived in harmony with them for more than 10 years.

And you did not just live with them, you gave to them. Last year, you realized your lifelong dream when you donated a Torah scroll to the Kiryas Rama Synagogue, dedicated in memory of your parents, the late Boruch and Baila Heller.

You sponsored the annual Lag b’Omer banquet for the synagogue as well.

I am sure there are many anonymous acts of kindness you did for your community, which you took with you to the grave.

The Satmar community, too, although it did not agree with your ideology, treated you with unbelievable kindness. Its people brought you into their homes for Shabbat and holiday meals, drove you around, helped you with your errands and with various medical issues.

Starting from last year, when you suffered a bad case of cellulitus until your last stay in the hospital, your neighbors from the Satmar community were totally dedicated to you.

You taught me a great lesson: Two Jews can have different opinions, but they can and must learn to live together as one nation.

I LOVED conversing with you about the history of the Denver Jewish community, especially the old West Side. You were a living history book.

You always spoke in awe when describing the dancing of the late Rabbi Shlomo B. C. Twerski on Simchat Torah. In fact, you told me that you were with him in the room when he passed away on Simchat Torah 1981.

You appreciated the Denverites who visited with you in your home in Israel. Some of the people you mentioned were Jonathan Beren, with whom you were very close, Rabbi Howard Hoffman and his son Yehoshua, who was your guest for Shabbat on several occasions. Some of the others who visited you were Nate and Amy Davidovich, Rabbi and Mrs. Hillel Goldberg, your cousin Dovey and Fran Heller and Ari Krausz.

You served and observed some of the holy Torah leaders of the previous generation. When the Grand Rabbi of Bobov, the late Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, came to Denver, you drove him to the Colorado Rockies and to Idaho Springs.

You told me that approximately 10 years later you went to visit the Bobov synagogue in New York. The Rebbe was eating his Shabbat meal together with hundreds of his chasidim. You went inside and stood in the bleachers surrounded by many chasidim. The Rebbe pointed to someone in the crowd and suddenly you realized he was pointing to you.

You approached the Rebbe, whom you had not seen for 10 years, and were amazed when he called you by name and asked you how you were.

You accompanied the late Rabbi Eliezer Rosen when he traveled to Israel to bury his wife, the late Irma Rosen. You sat privately with Rabbi Rosen during the shiva, when the Grand Rabbi of Belz, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, came and sat for over an hour attempting to comfort him.

YOU were very fond about going to the mikveh, purifying yourself in its waters. When you became ill, you stopped using the mikveh temporarily, but longed to purify yourself again. When you came to our home for Shabbat a little while later, I mentioned there was a new, state-of-the-art mikveh next door, with top filters and very clean water.

You were so excited. When I woke up the next morning you had already come back from the mikveh. You were so excited you could not stop talking about it for the duration of Shabbat. Such was your love for and dedication to the mitzvos.

You were very proud of the fact that you were a ritual slaughterer, a shochet, a position your father and several of your uncles held. Once, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a ritual slaughterer in Ramat Bet Shemesh did not have his special slaughtering knife. You called him to your home and proudly took out the knife you had used when you were a shochet, and gave it to him to use.

Reb Shea, I will miss you. I will miss your pleasant manner, your love for life. Mostly I will miss your love for Yiddishkeit.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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