When I first approached Mrs. Hadassah Weizel to request an interview, she absolutely refused. In the more than 30 years that she ran Yad Eliezer, one of the largest chessed organizations in Israel, she never agreed to have an interview published. “You can write a book for my 121st birthday,” she said. “Have a nice day.”
“Wait a minute — I’m not writing a eulogy. I sense that you have a message that will inspire Jewish women. You have gone to such lengths to nourish people’s bodies; why not nourish their souls?”
“I am not looking for kavod,” she replied.
“This is not about your kavod. It is about kvod Shamayim.”
After a moment of quiet, she said, “I see. Well, in that case, I need to think about it. Call me again later.”
An hour later, Hadassah was ready to talk.
“Life is about emunah,” she said. “It all starts with emunah; it ends with emunah. In the middle? Emunah.”
Starting With Emunah
I was born in 1944, in Israel under British rule. Even though I was very young, I remember the War of Independence, sitting in the bomb shelters for what seemed like forever. I was little, but I remember. Some things you don’t forget; like being scared when my father would go out to buy bread, and the joy and celebration when he returned.
We lived in a small home, where the outhouse was outside, and the water was shlepped in from the cistern. Bathing was done in a bedroom with a bucket and a shmatte. I knew poverty, but was deeply loved. I worked from the time I was eight years old, packaging steel wool for a few coins. At first it was for pocket money, but as I got older, I earned enough to buy my own clothing and other personal belongings. When I was 18, I started teaching and would bring my father my paycheck. I loved teaching. It was a chance to take all that I had learned, and share my emunah with others. All of my classes, no matter what the subject was called, were based, to some degree, on the mussar sefarim that I love.
Since I was 22-years old, I have had problems with my health. There wasn’t much I could do to get rid of my suffering, so I chose to see it as a test, and I was determined to pass. The first part of being omed b’nisayon is acknowledging that the tribulation is a test; that is emunah. The next step is to do something positive. For me, that was mostly chessed and tefillah.
An Organization Born of Emunah
I had a neighbor who was not well. She and most of her children suffered from various ailments. I took them to a private doctor to see what could be done. He examined each of them and then sat down and told us there was good news and bad. The good news was that nobody was genuinely sick. The bad news was that they were all undernourished. He explained that just as a car can’t drive without gas, a body cannot survive without food. As long as they were not eating properly, the symptoms would continue.
My father, Rabbi Eliezer Lipa Benzman, a”h, a caring and patient soul, had passed away not long before and I wanted to do something to benefit his neshamah. I started sending my daughters out each week to collect food for this family.
Of course, they were not the only family unable to feed their children. When it became known that we helped people with food, the requests came pouring in. Soon we were sending all of my daughters’ classmates out to collect food. Then other classes and other schools got involved.
I am especially grateful to Mrs. Yocheved Elyashiv (wife of Rabbi Avraham Elyashiv, son of Harav Elyashiv, z"tzl), who was a principal in Givat Shaul at the time. She believed that what we were doing was important and good for chinuch. She would periodically take the girls out of class and send them in groups to collect food.
Now we have large delivery trucks, but then they would pile the food into a taxi and send it to me. We would then repack the food items into boxes that were delivered monthly to needy families.
At that time, the whole operation was taking place in my two-and-a-half-room apartment. Food was constantly coming in and going out. With time, we were able to find sponsors who helped us buy food in bulk, which we then divided into baskets to deliver. Once a month we would have what I called an ‘organized balagan.’ We would unscrew the doors from our clothing closets and lay them on top of the furniture to make shelf space. Every corner of our home was filled with the mitzvah. All of the family members and many of the neighbors were involved.
It wasn’t easy, having three small children, working as a teacher, and running Yad Eliezer... but I loved it. When I think back to how I accomplished as much as I did then, it’s hard to fathom. I also can’t understand now how we would fit food baskets for 360 families in our little home. I have a picture of my son Dov, who now heads the organization, sleeping in his bed with crates and crates of food stacked up behind it. The salon was for my husband’s learning, and the kids had a tiny room, so the office of Yad Eliezer was my bedroom. There was no room for a desk, so I would sit on one bed and have my files open on the other.
Besides the other things, I also wrote and published booklets based on practical applications of the mussar sefarim that I learned and poetry that I wrote, and would go to the Kosel daily to daven neitz. There was even a period of a year and a half when I would get up at 2:30, go to Kever Rochel, then from there to the Kosel. Tefillah has always been an important part of my life. Whether I was davening for my family, friends, and neighbors, or the success of Yad Eliezer, anything that was important to me was transformed into tefillah.
One of the earliest challenges was in knowing how to disperse the money and food that we collected. The Gemara in maseches Shabbos brings Rabbi Yossi’s statement, “May my portion be with those who collect the tzedakah and not with those who dispense the tzedakah.” It is easy to know who to collect from, but difficult to know to whom to give. At times people would get upset with me for not giving them what they wanted. There was one time that a woman felt that she deserved more than I gave her. Poor thing, she was mentally unstable, but I felt bad having to say no. It is a hard decision to make.
At one point I asked Harav Moshe Halberstam, zt”l, of the Badatz Eidah Chareidis, if I should give the job of distributing the money to someone else, but he told me that it was my role to fulfill and that I would get Gan Eden for it. I would have kavanah during Birkas Kohanim, when it says “Ya’er Hashem panav eleicha” — that Hashem should enlighten my eyes so that I should know what to give, to whom, and how much.
After running Yad Eliezer from home for twenty years, we needed to expand and we needed more money. At that point, I started traveling to chutz la’aretz with my husband, mostly to England and America, to raise money.
Sori Tropper, who became my partner and the head of American Friends of Yad Eliezer, was a very gracious hostess and we would stay in her home. She ran her office out of her kitchen. We would joke that we were running our “business” between my bedroom and her kitchen.
Sometimes it was scary, knowing that so many people were depending on me to bring in huge sums of money; before I would knock on a door, I would say a tefillah. When I walked out with success I would thank Hashem. It made me close to Him. I daven every day for our donors. I have pages of lists. I thank them for helping me build my Olam Haba. I help them and they help me.
Because my husband and I were teachers, we could only travel to raise money during our vacations. The best time was from right after Rosh Hashanah until Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. For 12 years, I didn’t sit in a sukkah with my children. They would stay in Israel with their grandparents. We asked Harav Baruch Shimon Shnearson, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Tshebin, beforehand, if this was the right thing to do, and he quoted the passuk from Tehillim (perek 37), “Kol hayom chonen u’malveh, v’zar’o livrachah — All the days he is gracious and lends, and his children are a blessing.” He told us that the Chasam Sofer explained that acts of chessed bring only benefit to the children, and since our motive is to do chessed, no damage will come to our children because of it. Baruch Hashem, I can say that I have tremendous nachas from my children, my sons-in-law who are talmidei chachamim, and my many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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On the second night of Chanukah, twenty-one years ago, I woke up at around three in the morning with a sore throat. I thought I heard sawing at the door, and I woke my husband. He was sure that it was just the rain and wind. A few minutes later I woke him again; I was sure that there was someone trying to get in. My husband got up to check and didn’t see anything, but they were at the outer gate. A few minutes later, they were in our home. I think that they must have drugged me because I blacked out for a few minutes. When I came to, one of the masked robbers was holding my head to the wall, so that I couldn’t see what the others were doing. I didn’t understand why my husband didn’t stop him. Only when he let go for a moment I saw that they had stabbed my husband many times. Twenty-one times, to be exact.
I asked the robbers what they wanted. “You want money? I’ll give you money. Just put down the knife.” I had received a large donation that day and had not yet taken it to the bank. But it was tzedakah money and I didn’t want them to take it. There were two handbags in my room. One looked full and the other was nearly empty, aside from the donation. He opened the full one and found nothing significant. We had a safe in the house, and my husband told me to bring it to them. I tried the combination, but it wouldn’t open. My husband also tried, but it wasn’t working. That, too, was a miracle. At this point, my husband had bled a lot and was saying “Shema Yisrael.” He told the robbers that he knew that he was going to die, but that it was a shame for them to have the sin of stealing tzedakah money. He offered to make them a cup of coffee and leave on good terms. In the end, they cut our phone cords, took the safe, and left. They told me that one was going to stand outside the door for ten minutes with his gun, to make sure that I didn’t leave to call the police or an ambulance. After about four minutes I saw that my husband’s life was slipping away, and I ran out and banged on the neighbors’ doors. They were all sleeping. I went up two flights, knocking on all the doors until someone opened. The only words that I could get out were, “Ambulance! Police!” They came quickly and took my husband. He lost so much blood, it was a miracle that they were able to save him. He had been stabbed all over his body; they sewed him up like a doll.
We saw many miracles. First, the fact that my husband survived, despite being stabbed so many times. Then the fact we couldn’t open the safe – the robbers didn’t know it only had checks in it, all of which were cancelled in the morning - and that they missed most of the cash that was in the house. They took the little jewelry that I had, but that was insignificant in the scheme of things. When my husband was able to go back to teaching in the yeshivah, he spoke to the boys about what happened, and told them, “You think that I was almost killed because of Yad Eliezer, but I think that I was very likely saved because of Yad Eliezer.”
Every shekel and every bit of food that I am able to distribute, every blessing that is made over those foods, those are my eternal merits. That is what is important to me. It is the mitzvos that fill my ‘treasury.’ The way I see it, just as in this world when you have mastered one grade you move up to the next, the same thing is true spiritually. You master a spiritual level, and you need to take a test. If you pass the test, you go to a higher, harder level. Our job in this world is to do all that we can to pass those tests.
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Passing Tests... with Emunah
When Yad Eliezer had outgrown my home, and we needed to rent an office, it was hard for me to let go. I loved running it from my home, but I realized that it was no longer an option. For 20 years, my home had been the headquarters. That allowed me to run the whole project with hardly any expenses. But when my son took an active role in Yad Eliezer and opened the office, we entered new territory. The whole system that had previously been organized with colored notebooks in my bedroom became computerized. There was more overhead, but we were also creating more jobs, which is also a chessed. The donations increased, and it was worth the investment. But because of my poor health, I rarely visited the new office. Without being there and seeing what was going on, it wasn’t possible to be involved in the same way. While I never took a salary, it was hard to let go of the zechusim. Over time, they hired dozens of people to do the jobs that I had done myself.
Knowing that everything is a test helped me get through that change. It is a test to step up and do what needs to be done, and it is a test to step down when the time comes. We think that we know what is good for us, but really only Hashem knows.”
Although I am “retired,” I still take calls about the Materna. We give baby formula to mothers who cannot nurse and can’t afford to buy formula. I get about a hundred calls a week. I interview the callers over the phone, to see if the need is real. That is something that I can do from home. Walking is very difficult for me at this point, but I still cook. This morning, I cooked five kilos of rice, which I then divided up and packaged for various widows and sick people. On Thursdays, I cook about fifty portions of fish to send out. Afterwards I go out for my daily walk and I go to shul to daven. When I come back, I need to rest, but I listen to a lot of mussar classes; that is my inspiration. I have new conditions now. I ask Hashem, “What do you want from me under these conditions that You have given me?”
I also am involved in a world Tehillim project. People all over the world say one chapter each day. I created a calendar that shows which perek is being said each day, and I distribute it all over the place. I have gotten calls from London, Belgium, even Iran. People like saying Tehillim and knowing that they are connected to others – on the same page.
Yad Eliezer has been the greatest gift of my life. The greatest reward a person can get in this world is to do another mitzvah. Yad Eliezer was born and raised from my yearning for mitzvos. When all is said and done, that is what will stand for me.
It starts with emunah and ends with emunah. In truth? That’s all it is. Emunah.
When I saw Shula Weizel in the office one day, I jumped at the opportunity to ask her about her mother-in-law. Shula was happy to speak to me, and had only positive things to say. In fact, she thinks of her as a mother. She invited her daughter Tzippi, herself a grown woman with children, to join the conversation.
“My mother-in-law was born to give. She doesn’t stop - she just keeps on looking for opportunities. I think it’s in her blood. My husband got the genes, as did my kids and grandkids. I can buy the kids a present, but if a friend of theirs tells them they like it, they will just give it away. I don’t think that there are many things that give my husband as much joy as getting a donation that will allow him to give more money to poor widows. He learned it from his mother.”
“What was it like to marry into such a family?”
“At first it seemed strange to me. I wondered, ‘Where’s the catch? What are they getting out of all of this?’ Their whole lives, their whole home was taken over by their chessed. I was sure that there must be something in it for them. But with time, I saw that they really are genuine. It’s all about helping others.”
“What keeps your mother-in-law going? Where does her inspiration come from?”
“She enjoys learning from sefarim that inspire her. She lives from a ruchniyus perspective. It is very hard for her to stand on her feet, but earlier in the day she can manage it. She wakes up before dawn, and walks to her kitchen with her walker to cook for other people.”
Tzippy jumps in, “Can you imagine? I am young and strong and my grandmother is elderly and unwell, and she sends me meals! It should be the other way around! You would expect that she would be calling me, asking me to come help her - but she never does. Every week she sends me fish, meat, and rice. I’m a working mother and it really helps me, but I feel like it should be the other way around!”
Shula, in her native Hebrew, borrows a word from English to describe her shvigger. “She’s a bulldozer. Nothing stops her; nothing gets in her way - not her illness, not her age, nothing. She gets up to cook, goes to daven, every afternoon she has a group of women over, they divide up sefer Tehillim and finish it a few times, then they eat various foods together to make all of the brachos and answer Amen. My mother-in-law can eat very few foods herself, but provides generously for everyone else. Now that it is hard for her to move, she is looking for new projects that she can do from her bed! Her enjoyment in life is from learning, davening, and giving. That’s what she loves - it energizes her.”
I wonder out loud how it has affected the chinuch of the children to have such a grandmother.
“First of all,” Shula answers, “She prays at length for each member of the family. There have been times that I told her in passing that one of the children or grandchildren isn’t feeling well or had some issue at school, and she would call me the next day to tell me that she went to Kever Rochel or the Kosel to daven for the child, and she is sure that everything will be okay. She has lists and lists of people that she prays for, and she really prays for them - constantly and with mesirus nefesh.
“Even if my mother-in-law needs something in the house, she never interrupts my father-in-law’s learning, and he is always learning. What greater chinuch is there for the kids than to see such a couple? Just bringing the kids to the house is a mussar lesson.
She fills her whole day with mitzvos. If she is a bulldozer, emunah is her fuel!”