It’s 2:45 in the morning. The neighborhood is asleep. But at 16 R’chov Aishel Avraham, loud knocking can be heard. Leah awakes, dresses herself quickly, but not at the expense of her high level standards of modesty, and rushes to open the door. This time it was a young father whose baby has been crying for hours with an earache. With her vast medical knowledge, she dispenses what is needed with caring advice and begs him not to hesitate to come back if he needs anything else. Her evening had ended just shortly before after she had penned her many letters to those unfortunate souls needing strengthening. Her sleep would be further interrupted that night.
‘Our nebulizer broke. Do you have one we can borrow?’
‘My neighbor has alzheimers. He left home and…’
‘My wife gave birth recently and she…’
Hillel obligates the poor and Leah Chollak A’H obligates us to emulate her all with her non-stop chessed. Always with warmth. Always with compassion.
Every mother valiantly attempts each day to complete her lists of must-do’s for her family. Leah was no different…except that she considered all Jews to be her family.
How is it possible that she will no longer answer the door? It was just a plain wooden door but it glowed with an ethereal light- the door that was known to all as a place of refuge for the distraught and the needy.
Rebbetzin Chollak a”h was her husband’s loyal partner in founding Ezer Mizion and turning it into a chessed empire of tremendous dimensions. Her entire life was devoted to helping others and she was especially dedicated to the ill, the unfortunate, and the suffering.
Surplus food was sometimes given out by large companies. The amount was limited and everyone wished to benefit. Ezer Mizion was not in charge of distribution but so many would call Leah who would contact those who were in charge and literally beg them to save ‘a dozen of this and 10 pounds of that for so-and-so who needs it so badly’.
From small needs to big needs, everything was important to her if it would lighten the burden of another Yid. She ran a large scale Financia Loan Center with such concern for each person’s situation that no one felt any sense of embarrassment when applying for a loan. During the Center hours, when applicants would come, many of them male, she would don special clothing to enhance her amazing level of modesty. Her caring did not diminish till the last moment. From her sickbed in the hospital, she reminded her husband: Oy, we have to give money to this one and that one. Could you please take care of it. Her concern even extended to the time when…as she reminded her family who will have to be called so they would not be shocked upon hearing the public loudspeakers announcing the levaya.
Many described her as a noble queen who directed, guided and advised-quietly with no fanfare. Her concept of modesty extended way beyond her clothing. She shunned fanfare, stating that it was not proper for a woman. Only once did she reluctantly consent to accompany her husband when he was being honored. She was shocked to find that when she left the crowd momentarily to pray mincha, a photographer followed her and snapped a picture of her in the midst of her praying. Never again did she join her husband in any public affair honoring Ezer Mizion. In the last few weeks, her health condition deteriorated. She asked her family to sew a new hospital gown for her, to meet her unique modesty needs in the hospital.
One of her many projects was making shidduchim (matches) for those with medical issues. She invested all her energy into this project and merited much Divine assistance in her quest. Many Jewish homes were created due to her efforts. She is remembered as always with a phone attached to her ear. But never, say her children, was it at the expense of family. ‘When she talked to us, she was all ours. She was our Ima, nothing else.’ And she was so careful not to burden us with her involvements. ‘I recall once when I wanted to wash the dishes and I came to the sink and found it empty. Ima said: I was on the phone and the dishes just got done by themselves. She was always calm, never appeared pressed for time. Our home was a cheerful, warm place to be where each one of us had our special place with Ima.’
Rebbetzin Chollak a”h was born 58 years ago in Netanya to Reb Eliezer and Mrs. Sarah Schwartzman a”h. Her father was one of the primary disciples of Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin zt”l and was a close friend of the Admor of Strikov ztvk”l. Upon moving to Netanya, he founded the local Daf Yomi shiur and delivered the shiur regularly.
In this house, she formed her unique character, absorbed her way of life, imbibed modesty and purity, and grew in understanding of Judaism and love of good deeds. Her parents’ home in Netanya was a citadel of kindness and a magnet for the needy and unfortunate. The girls were often sent to accompany patients to the various hospitals. In this atmosphere, she soaked up a deep aspiration to increase Torah and chessed among the Jewish people. Indeed, her life very much mirrored the home in which she grew up.
When she came of age, she married Rabbi Chananya Chollak shlita, a man of chessed and an indefatigable doer. Together they built a home where the very walls were steeped in Torah and pure fear of the Creator.
Over the years, Ezer Mizion’s work spread to a range of medical fields, including mental illness, special children, geriatrics, and cancer support and has expanded to serve over 650,000 people annually in fifty seven branches across the country under the leadership of Rabbi Chananya Chollak shlita and his wife, Rebbetzin Leah Esther a”h.
But Leah did not content herself with remaining in an ivory tower overseeing the management of the organization. Her role was not that of an aloof CEO whose contact with those in need consisted of reviewing reports. Her home became a bastion of chessed. The Chollak house was a public domain. At all hours of the day and night, people would come in to ask advice or request help.
It all began during her first year of marriage which was largely spent running back and forth to the hospital to care for her sick father, but she did not ignore the plight of other patients whom she met there. When at home, she stood over giant-sized pots cooking meals for families who were too distraught by the illness of one of its members to pay attention to their own needs. Ezer Mizion eventually developed a Food Distribution Division which provides 74,000 hot meals each year in addition to midnight snacks and sandwiches but Leah joined the list of volunteers and continued to help in the cooking. The last delivery from her home came just two weeks before her passing. Those partaking of her meals never dreamed that they were prepared by one who herself was suffering from the same disease. And more. In addition to helping cook for the main kitchen, she cooked for her own ‘customers’ providing food to meet their personal preferences.
Her father’s illness during her first year of marriage was the catalyst for many divisions of what later became the monumental organization of Ezer Mizion. With eyes that saw outside of their own personal sphere, both Rebbetzin Chollak and her husband noticed the difficulties of other families in the hospital. A dialysis patient whose funds were fast being depleted by thrice weekly ambulance service for treatment led to a professionally outfitted vehicle to transport him and others like him to clinics and physicians. The Ambulance Division has now grown to 20 vehicles plus a fleet of privately driven cars for those whom public transportation is too difficult due to mobility, respiratory and other challenges. A father and mother spending 24/7 with their child led to a volunteer division now comprised of over 14,000 trained volunteers.
Little by little, the work of Ezer Mizion expanded. The apartment adjoining their own was purchased to house a first-aid station that was open all night and on Shabbos and Yom Tov. The station was staffed by non-Jewish doctors and offered excellent medical care. Tens of thousands benefited from these medical services over the years.
Aside from her work in the framework of Ezer Mizion, Rebbetzin Chollak was visited regularly by lonely, childless women who came to her home to pour out their troubles. In addition to devoting four or five consecutive hours to these “heart-to-heart talks,” she would also prepare for each one her favorite food or pastry, this one with sugar and the other without, this one with salt and the other salt-free. In addition, Rebbetzin Chollak would escort them to the clinic or hospital.
She was renowned for her meticulous care to avoid misuse of funds. When she served as coordinator of Ezer Mizion’s transport network, she worked out of her kitchen. For this purpose, they installed an air conditioner in the kitchen and the electricity for its operation came from the Ezer Mizion offices. After some time, when she stopped managing the transport system, she immediately asked that the electricity for the air conditioner be detached from the organization’s offices.
Similarly, in her extreme meticulousness, she would not allow her family to use the organization’s vehicles. When drivers offered to give them a lift, she would reply that the vehicle is meant for the ill, not for the healthy. In this way, she trained all the organization’s workers by example to be careful with charitable funds.
In addition to the twelve sons and daughters of her own that she brought up, she embraced into her family another four orphans. The children’s family had come to Israel from Iran, but upon their arrival, the father became ill and passed away, and shortly afterwards, the mother died as well. The grandmother was concerned that the children would be given over to be raised by a non-observant family, and so she asked Rabbi Chollak to see to their welfare. Rabbi Chollak asked his wife a”h if she would be willing to bring into their family another four children, aged two to fifteen, who spoke only Farsi. Rebbetzin Chollak was thrilled to have this tremendous opportunity and she happily admitted these children into her home, where they grew up and eventually married and founded wonderful families of their own.
On Sunday night, a grief-stricken crowd numbering more than ten thousand of the finest members of the Torah world, led by prominent rabbanim, roshei yeshivot, dayanim, and Torah scholars, accompanied the matriarch of the Ezer Mizion chessed empire, the tzadekes Rebbetzin Leah Esther Chollak a”h, wife of yb”l Rabbi Chananya Chollak shlita, to her final rest. They came to give honor to the great woman who dedicated herself entirely for Klal Yisrael. People came en masse to repay her in some small way for her extensive, worldwide work on behalf of the Jewish ill.
The Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein shlita began the string of eulogies, crying out: “If the mighty of our people have succumbed, how shall the weak emerge unscathed?’ The city of Bnei Brak weeps, because this city had one house that never rested – neither day nor night, neither on weekdays, nor on Shabbat and Yomtov. The Rebbetzin cared for every sick child. In this home, a huge enterprise of chessed and tzedakah flourished.”
Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern shlita said: “I am too small to eulogize such a great woman, who, together with her husband, merited to be pillars of chessed, life-giving dew and sources of encouragement to the ill. “She was a great women, who had a broad heart, enough for all her children and to add more children to her family, and yet to contain all the Ezer Mizion children as if they were all her own.”
The Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein shlita said: “One of the pillars holding up the world has crumbled, a pillar of chessed of which we cannot imagine nor describe the years of her devotion to chessed. She gave up her whole being to do chessed with others.”
Her husband, Rabbi Chananya Chollak shlita said with great emotion: “I am ashamed to stand here and speak and eulogize my wife Leah a”h, who was so beloved by Hashem. First of all, I want to thank Hashem for the eternal spiritual gift he gave me when it was time to build my home. All through the years, I always told my children, ‘You have a great mother, learn from her.”
“Today, I sat in the hospital and watched the terrible suffering she was going through. Every time I asked her how she felt, she invariably said, ‘Hashem is doing it, so it surely is good.’”
Upon arrival at the cemetery, she was eulogized by the Rav Hatzaddik Rabbi Yaakov Adas shlita, and alongside her grave, her son, the Gaon Rabbi Eliezer shlita spoke. He pointed out her extreme tzni’ut and how careful she was that people should not know of her great deeds. She was a woman who devoted her entire being to Klal Yisrael and now merited that thousands upon thousands accompanied her to her final rest.
She is survived by her renowned husband, Rabbi Chananya shlita, one of the firm pillars of chessed of our generation, twelve sons and daughters, of whom she merited to bring only seven to the chuppah, grandchildren, her brother Reb Nachum Schwartzman from Argentina, and her sisters, Rebbetzin Brenner, Rebbetzin Arbus and Rebbetzin Zacharish, as well as many families to whom she was like a supportive mother, all bitterly mourning her passing at the peak of her development, in her 58th year.
Yehi Zichrah boruch.