by Rabbi Sholom Avtzon
Being that this Sunday, Chof-Zayin Sivan, is the 30th yahrzeit of my mother Rebbetzin Cheyena (also known as Rebbetzin Binah) Avtzon, I am dedicating this week’s story to portray a glimpse of her life.
She together with her two surviving sisters (Mrs. Pesha Matusof & Mrs. Teibel Levin) were raised by their uncle Reb Yonah Kahan, known to all as Reb Yonah Poltaver, after their mother and father passed away in their teenage years. Growing up in Communist Russia and remaining not only frum but a chassidishe was not easy, especially for girls. We were told that many of Anash told their daughters, “Learn from Leibel and Aidele Karasik’s orphaned daughters, be like them.”
She so personified what a Jewish woman is; that once at the N’shei Convention, the Rebbe publicly asked where is Rebbetzin Avtzon and he then stated “She is my shlucha”. Hearing this, the delegation of women from Michigan waited until she joined them, and only then proceeded to go to the Rebbe.
The Rebbe often noted that his mother’s name, Chanah, is the acronym of the three mitzvos that were entrusted to Jewish women. They are Challah, (which happens to be mentioned in this week’s parsha), Niddah which denotes the purity of a Jewish family and Hadlakas Haneiros, bringing light into the home.
Boruch Hashem my parents are blessed with a large family, defying the doctors’ orders not to. Yet there was always room for a guest. Many people still remark on how noticing and especially experiencing her extraordinary hachnasas orchim, is what inspired them to keep their house (or Chabad house) open to other Jews. It was open for Rabbonim, who knew that in the Avtzon (or then the Gasthalter house) one is assured that the shechita is mehudar, as my father, Reb Meir a”h, would shecht the chickens for the family. Meshulachim who needed a place to stay for a few days would get one of the three bedrooms and regular Jews who came for food, advice, or a shoulder to cry on would also come over. She was always available. As the saying goes, “If there is room in the heart, there is room in the house.” Yes, there was a blessing in her dough, whoever came left nourished in body and spirit.
But it wasn’t only that they had someone to speak to, she made them all so comfortable, that even on Pesach she invited a family whose minhagim were not like ours and they were made to feel at home.
Concerning the mitzvah of family purity, when my parents came to Michigan, there was an old dilapidated mikva, which wasn’t situated in the best section of town. This obviously had a detrimental effect on the amount of people who used it. So one evening, on her way back home, she made a neder to build a mikva, in a secure place.
After securing some pledges from generous individuals, she informed the Rebbe of the plans. The Rebbe then instructed her (then in the early 60’s) to obtain Italian tiles. He explained that if the mikva can boast of Italian tiles, it would bring pride to those who use it.
In a yechidus afterwards, the Rebbe began asking her about the size and color of the tiles and stating that the towels should match. Realizing that it will take time to get all the details, she answered in general, explaining that she doesn’t want to spend the Rebbe’s valuable time on such trivial matters.
The Rebbe replied, “There is no better way to spend some time than to make sure that a mikva is beautiful even in its cosmetic appearance, which will make it easier for people to begin using it. When it comes to Taharas Hamishpacha, nothing is superficial.”
Boruch Hashem her continued efforts on behalf of the mikva, bore over the years she lived in Detroit, tremendous fruits and hundreds and indeed thousands of families began using it, and follow the halachos of Taharas hamishpacha.
In the early 70’s she began arranging many functions for Russian Jewry. Not only did she worry about their spiritual needs but also helped them settle and obtain whatever assistance they can receive from the federation as well as from the government. In addition to arranging public sedorim and supplying individual families with matza and other kosher l’pesach products, she also arranged brissen for children, teenagers, adults and older men.
Once a year she made a large gathering honoring those who had a bris, and presented the young children and teenagers with their own brand new bicycle. When the Rebbe was informed about this event, he sent a dollar for each of the honorees.
One year, my parents received an extra dollar and when they called Rabbi Chodakov to ask why an extra dollar, he replied, the Rebbe is the one that counted out the dollars and there must be a reason. On the day of the event, there was one more bris.
Understanding that some people might have misgivings about it being done in a shul or office, she arranged with the assistance of one of her friends, whose husband happened to be a member of the Jewish Federation, that Sinai Hospital would make the operating room available one hour a week, just for this purpose.
Initially the mohel was a dear friend of the family, Rabbi Sholom Goldstein a”h. But as time passed, it was apparent that the newcomers would be much more comfortable if the mohel also spoke Russian. So Rabbi Goldstein taught milah to a Shomer Shabbos Russian doctor and he took over.
One time, the hospital administration decided to use this as part of their fundraising efforts. The director and a few members of the administration were present at one of the brissen. After the bris was done my mother immediately called up mazkirus in order to inform the Rebbe that the bris took place, the name that was given, as well as to ask him for a brocha that the person has a swift recovery.
A few minutes later an announcement was made over the loudspeaker, “Mrs. Binah, you have a long distance phone call.” My mother took it and Rabbi Chodakov was on the phone. He said that the Rebbe instructed him to ask if the metzitza was done b’peh or through an instrument.
She replied that as she is never present at the bris itself, she would have to ask the mohel and would respond as soon as she speaks with him. When the mohel heard the question he was blown away. He responded, “At every bris I do, I am careful to do metzitza b’peh. However, this time being that members of the board were present and I was fearful at how they might view it, I decided to rely on the lenient opinions that say it may be done through an instrument. And this is the only time the Rebbe inquired. What ruach hakodesh he has.”
Her accomplishments were tremendous, but she never looked for honor, always giving it to those that helped her. Her demeanor was so refined and warm that even those that opposed the work of Lubavitch, felt it was an honor to work with Rebbetzin Avtzon. She was loved by all.
Obviously all of these activities, plus everything else she did brought light, not only into her house, but into the homes of many others as well.
May we emulate her ways.
P.S. If anyone has an anecdote or experience with my parents, please share it with me and the entire family. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!