Velvel Kesselman, 91, a Devoted Chassid in Stalin’s USSR and Kfar Chabad, Israel

by Menachem Posner –

Reb Velvel Kesselman, longtime mashpia (spiritual mentor) in Kfar Chabad, Israel, passed away on March 10 at the age of 91, leaving a legacy of piety, scholarship and humility.

He and his identical twin, Shalom Dov Ber (Berel), were born into difficult circumstances. The year was 1927, and Stalin was tightening his iron vice on religious life in the Soviet Union.

Their father, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, was a devoted Chassid and a stalwart in the Chabad underground network of Jewish institutions that spanned the expanse of the Soviet empire. The Kesselmans lived a quasi-official existence outside of Moscow.

The boys were born with very low birth weight and a message was immediately dispatched to Leningrad, asking the sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—to pray for the well-being of the mother and her babies.

Weeks later, the Rebbe was arrested and sentenced to death by the Soviet authorities. After extreme pressure was applied, the Rebbe’s death sentence was replaced with exile in distant Kostroma. The Rebbe was given six hours at home before he was to be taken to carry out his sentence.

Upon being reunited with his family, one of his first questions was about Bluma Kesselman and her babies.

When the boys were toddlers, their father was arrested for the “crime” of teaching Torah and was not present for their upshernish, the traditional hair-cutting for a boy’s third birthday. As a persona non grata, there was a time when he was forced to clean the streets and was often absent from home, on the run from the Soviet authorities who were aware of his continued efforts on behalf of Judaism.

In order to remain “under the radar” and save money (of which there was never enough), the Kesselmans lived in a shack that functioned as bucolic summer house during the winter, and relocated for the summer months to the humble homes of people then vacationing in the country. This meant that they were almost always uncomfortable, freezing in the winter and hot in the summer.

The homes they lived in were often substandard, with leaky roofs and drafty rooms. Food was scarce; the Kesselmans lost two daughters to malnutrition and privation.

But the arrangement afforded them the opportunity to educate their children in authentic Chassidic style far from prying eyes.

At one point, the two Kesselman boys were sitting at home and studying when the GPU (the precursor of the KGB) came looking for their father, who had anticipated their visit and was away. However, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, one of the leaders of the underground movement, was hiding in their attic since the secret police were looking for him at his home.

The officers began to grill the boys. Hearing the exchange downstairs, the fugitive came down from the attic and paid the officers to leave, Soviet-style.

For the rest of his life, Velvel would marvel at the celebrated Chassid’s willingness to risk his own life for the sake of the young boys.

Making Rounds to Hospitals, Bases and Businesses

Following World War II, along with a thousand or so other Chabad Chassidim, the Kesselman family escaped the Iron Curtain using Polish passports. After a period in displaced persons’ camps, they made their way to Paris, where a Chabad community and yeshivah was forming in the suburb of Brunoy.

At that point, the Rebbe requested that Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman relocate to Israel and serve as mashpia (“mentor”) in the Chabad yeshivah in Lod.

An older teen at the time, Velvel joined the yeshivah in Israel, where he resumed the studies he began in Russia and continued in the DP camps.

In 1954, he married Chana Aronov, the daughter of Chabad Chassidim, who had been born in the Holy Land.

The couple settled in Kfar Chabad, where Reb Velvel became a certified teacher, a calling to which he devoted his life until he reached retirement age. As one could expect in an intimate village where everyone knew everyone, he also served as the postman.

His twin brother, known as Berel, served ass mashpia in the yeshivah in Kfar Chabad until his untimely death in a car accident in 1987 at the age of 59.

A devoted and humble Chassid, Reb Velvel relished the opportunity to share Judaism with others in his signature unobtrusive style.

When he hit retirement age, this became a major part of his daily routine.

He woke every day before 5 a.m., immersed in the mikvah, and studied and prayed for several hours at the Bais Menachem synagogue, where he was the beloved mashpia. He then would make his rounds to hospitals, army bases, the airport and businesses, where he would wrap tefillin with men, and distribute Shabbat candles and Torah literature.

A Discreet and Respected Mentor

A fiery Chassid, he traveled regularly to New York to bask in the uplifting presence of the seventh Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. As a token of recognition of his position on the spiritual committee of Kfar Chabad, every year the Rebbe would personally give him a set of hadasim (“myrtles”) to use with his lulav and etrog for Sukkot.

On one occasion, the Rebbe saw him walking outside on a chilly day without a coat and chided him, saying, “Here is not Kfar Chabad. Here you need to wear a coat.” For the rest of his life, rain or shine, he always wore a coat when outside in New York.

After once being told that the kosher standards in the Diaspora may not have been as high as those in Israel, he never again ate chicken or meat outside of Israel. His same exacting personal standards extended to where he set his eyes, and he was very particular not to place himself in a situation where he would even see something that was inconsistent with Torah values.

When the Rebbe requested that every Chassid appoint a personal mashpia for him/herself, many turned to Reb Velvel, confident that the discreet, gentle and respected mentor would have their best interests in mind and share objective guidance with them.

This included the famed mashpia, Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, who was more than 20 years his senior.

He regularly taught Torah classes in Bais Menachem, which was a stone’s throw from his home, and was eager to learn with anyone who asked.

He passed away at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, where he spent hours putting on tefillin and praying with staff and patience over the decades.

In addition to his wife, he was survived by their children: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kesselman (Johannesburg); Rabbi Leizer Kesselman (London); Sterna Gruzman (Rishon Letzion, Israel); Rivka Gottlieb (Jerusalem); Mendel Kesselman (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman (Kfar Chabad); and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom carry on his legacy of Torah scholarship and communal leadership.

Despite their age difference, Reb Velvel was a friend (and mentor) to the legendary Reb Mendel Futerfas. (Photo: JEM)
The Rebbe handing Reb Velvel a set of “hadassim” (myrtle branches) prior to Sukkot 5748 (1987). (Photo: JEM)
Reb Velvel waiting to receive a dollar from the Rebbe in the winter of 1991. (Photo: JEM)

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