The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Lankry, zt”l
King David teaches in the Book of Tehillim (89:3), “Olam hesed yibaneh – The world is built on kindness.” Hashem created the world with kindness, with the intention that we will emulate His graciousness.
In order to fulfill our mission of bringing hesed into the world, we must understand what hesed really means. It means an action that is motivated by a spirit of generosity, an action that we are not obligated to do, isn’t repayment for an act done for us, and for which we expect nothing in return. Hesed means giving out of a spirit of genuine and selfless generosity.
Avraham Avinu is known as the embodiment of the virtue of hesed. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l (1892-1953), explains that Avraham dispensed kindness not out of a sense of duty, but out of a burning desire to give. Avraham’s soul was infused with the spirit of hesed.
The prophet Michah instructs: “…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your Gd.” We fulfill our spiritual destiny not by doing acts of kindness – but rather by loving those acts. Our focus must be not on the acts themselves, but on the joy we experience when we perform such acts. We are to not just act kindly, but to love acting kindly.
Rabbi Shlomo Lankry, zt”l, was such a person – someone overcome by a burning desire to help those in need, filled with compassion for his fellow man, who dedicated his life to alleviating other people’s pain and distress, with no expectation of honor or of anything in return.
Not Letting Anyone Feel Alone on His Watch
Just as Avraham sat in the doorway of his tent hoping to welcome guests, Rabbi Shlomo stood on Kings Highway waiting for an opportunity to help another person. And just like Avraham, who not only served his guests water, but fed them an entire meal, Rabbi Shlomo extended himself above and beyond, looking after all of the person’s needs.
His son, Rabbi Moshe Lankry, recalls that as a young boy, he would see his father standing in front of Sisu, his bookstore on Kings Highway, looking “to the left and to the right – not only once, but a few times. I didn’t understand what he was doing. Then one day he said to me, ‘Moshe, you see that lady? Walk her home.’ So I did. I spent an hour with her listening to her life story. And when I got back, my father asked, ‘Nu, how was it?’ I learned a lot about my father then, and a lesson for life.”
The Mishnah (Avot 1:5) instructs, “Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household.” Likewise, the Gemara (Shabbat 104a) teaches, “The way of those who do hesed is to run after the poor.” Rabbi Aaron Lankry experienced this every Friday night alongside his father.
“Every Friday night after shul, my father would take us to every shul in the neighborhood looking for a rabbi, a shaliah, anyone who didn’t have a place to go, and bring them home with us. And many times they didn’t leave; they would stay for months.”
Rabbi Shlomo Lankry’s daughter, Emily Antar, says she does not remember a week without guests.
“And I don’t mean cousins or other relatives,” she clarifies. “Our guests were people who had no place to be.”
Rabbi Aaron said his father was committed to “not letting anyone feel alone on his watch,” and he attributes this commitment to the rabbi’s own experience as a refugee arriving on American shores, when he and his family were greeted with an outpouring of kindness.
A Mission of Torah and Kindness
Rabbi Lankry was born in the village of Beni-Mellal in Morocco, which had a small but vibrant community of Torah-observant Jews. Prior to his bar-mitzvah, he was sent to learn in the Schneider Yeshiva in England, where he studied under the yeshiva’s founder, Rav Gedalia Schneider, a disciple of the Hafetz Chaim. (The Schneider Yeshiva produced a number of other outstanding rabbis, as well, such as Rav Eliezer Lopian and Rav Alter Alperin.) During his period in the yeshiva, Shlomo learned Yiddish and became acquainted with the culture of European Jewry. He would later credit his experience in the yeshiva with engendering within him the feeling that every Jew is a brother to whom one is committed to help.
At the age of 21, he returned to Morocco seeking a bride, and he married the woman who became his eshet hayil and lifelong partner, Zehava. The couple moved to Meknes, where the rabbi taught in the yeshiva while Mrs. Lankry taught in the preschool. Already early in life, he set himself on a mission to teach Torah and extend kindness to his fellow Jews.
Although the Jews in Morocco were treated well, hostility towards them intensified in 1967, following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. For the sake of their family’s safety, Rabbi Shlomo and Zehava made the difficult decision to leave Morocco. Most of the Jews who left Morocco at this time emigrated to Israel, but Rabbi and Mrs. Lankry decided to sail to the U.S. so they could live near great yeshivot, and because they felt their two sons had a greater chance of retaining their religious commitment in America. Mrs. Lankry had two brothers learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, so that is where they chose to settle.
Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Mrs. Lankry describes, they “were like a computer mouse; a force moved us around, and wherever we went, we found our way.” She says she feels an enormous debt of gratitude to all those who helped them during those early years, and she believes this experience shaped the rabbi’s commitment to helping other people and ensuring that they never feel alone. They were helped by people like the Zachs family, who invited them to live with them from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur; Mr. Meyer Birnbaum, who gave them an apartment rent-free for three months; and Rabbi Avraham Newhouse, who helped them attain their green cards. These people, among others, were the “force” sent by Hashem that guided the new immigrants to where they needed to be.
“Everyone Knows Where to Find Me”
While living in Mr. Birnbaum’s apartment, Mrs. Lankry cooked meals for him to express her gratitude. Mr. Birnbaum, owner of Mauzone catering, quickly discerned her talents as a cook, and hired her to work for the catering business. The rabbi, meanwhile, began working at Magen David Yeshivah and organized a minyan for the Moroccan students learning at the Mirrer Yeshiva.
With his keen eye for the community’s needs, the rabbi partnered with Shimon Cohen to open a store of religious books in the heart of the community. He always wanted to be near a yeshiva, and so he established his store – called Sisu – on Kings Highway, around the corner from the Mirrer Yeshiva.
Rabbi David Ozeri disputes the idea that Sisu was a store. “It was not a store,” he insists. “It barely had any merchandise. Sisu was a front – a front for the rabbi to do hesed, to save people’s lives, to be mekarev people.” In fact, Rabbi Aaron Lankry shared that a pile of checks from rabbis and Torah scholars who had purchased etrogim were found in the back of the store, having never been cashed.
Rabbi Lankry always felt that sitting on an upturned milk crate was the way he could provide the most help. He would say, “Everyone knows where to find me.”
Indeed, everyone knew that Rabbi Lankry would be there when they needed him. As the rabbinic leader of, and driving force behind, the Chevra Kadisha for over 50 years, he was the man that the entire community turned to in their darkest times. He would be available 24/7, even in the middle of the night, to guide, console and reassure. When asked why he would answer the phone at 2am knowing there was nothing he could do for the family until morning, he responded, “I have to pick up the phone in the middle of the night to say, ‘Don’t worry, I am taking care of everything’.” The rabbi couldn’t sleep knowing that a community member, whom he regarded as a family member, was in distress.
Daniel Sultan, whose father and grandfather worked alongside the rabbi in the Chevra Kadisha, and who himself has worked with the rabbi for 30 years, marvels at how he was “so full of energy and compassion, and dedicated to preserving the dignity of the departed.” Mr. Sultan says Rabbi Lankry “supported every endeavor of our committee,” adding, “we owe him a great debt of gratitude.”
When the committee came to the rabbi for advice on purchasing new burial plots, he concluded by saying, “But you won’t need them – Mashiah is coming.”
The Shoulder We All Leaned On
Mrs. Lankry relates that Rabbi Lankry first became involved with the Chevra when a fellow rabbi of Moroccan descent passed away, and he volunteered to perform the taharah (cleaning the body in preparation for burial) to ensure that it would be done according to tradition. Jacob Arama, who himself was a dedicated member of the Chevra, was so impressed with the honor that the rabbi bestowed upon the departed that he urged Judah Sultan, the original head of the Chevra Kadisha, to hire him. The rabbi was working at Magen David at the time, and he didn’t want to accept the position, fearing it would disrupt his teaching schedule. But Mr. Sultan called the Board of Magen David and said, “We need him,” and they worked out an arrangement.
Rabbi Lankry spent the next 50 years ensuring that every deceased person was treated with dignity and respect, helping the deceased greet Gd in the next world in the best way possible. He performed the ultimate act of hesed – “hesed shel emet” (true kindness”) – preparing the body for burial and cemetery rites, a hesed which cannot ever be reciprocated. Rabbi Saul Kassin describes the rabbi’s role as “one of the most difficult responsibilities in public service, the truest, most selfless act of benevolence one can do for another.” He was the shoulder we all leaned on. He worked tirelessly, attending to every detail of thousands of funerals – sometimes handling multiple funerals on the same day – comforting the family during the shivah and even beyond, encouraging them, in his own special way, to stay connected to each other.
Even while devoting countless hours to serving Hashem and community, Rabbi Lankry always made his family his highest priority. His daughter, Adina Mezrahi, recalls, “We knew he was there for us. My father was always the one we would call when we needed someone to pray for us…and we knew we would be well and all would be okay. I remember growing up dancing with him and how he danced with his granddaughters at their weddings. He made us all feel so alive, which is incredible considering what he did every day.”
Rabbi Lankry was blessed with keen insight into human nature, and truly understood people. Rabbi Duvi Bensoussan described the rabbi as a second father who “knew you were capable of greatness and wouldn’t settle for less,” adding, “He believed in me, introduced me to my mission, telling me I was meant to be a talmid hacham, and he never let me be anything less.” Reflecting on Rabbi Lankry’s example, Rabbi Bensoussan says, “If you want to find clarity and purpose in your life, find someone who believes in you and will be relentless to hold you to that path.”
Masquerading as a Simple Man
Rabbi Bensoussan and Rabbi Eli Mansour both humbly acknowledged that “We did not give enough kavod [respect] to Rabbi Shlomo. He wouldn’t let us.” The rabbi’s humor and joviality made everyone around him feel relaxed, but also had the effect of concealing his greatness. As Rabbi Mansour said at the arayat: “The rabbi was very humble, very private in his avodat Hashem [service of Gd]. He masqueraded as an adam pashut, a simple man. But he was very far from simple. Only now will we hear the stories.”
His daughter, Mrs. Emily Antar similarly says, “So many people approach me and begin, ‘You don’t know what your father did for me.’ We are beginning to understand the scope of my father’s legacy of hesed.”
Rabbi Lankry’s passing has left a great void in our community, but the family is mobilizing to fill it, to whatever extent possible, by continuing the rabbi’s work. “So far, there are three of us needed to do his work, and I’m sure more of us will be involved,” Mrs. Emily Antar added. As Rabbi Aaron Lankry said, “It isn’t over.” The impact of the rabbi’s lifetime of kindness, his example of humility, gratitude, and yirat Shamayim (fear of Gd), will, please Gd, endure through the dedicated efforts of his family and the countless people he inspired.
We all pray that these efforts will be successful, in the great merit of Rabbi Shlomo ben Rahel.
(Author’s Note: It has been my humble honor to write this tribute to Rabbi Shlomo Lankry, zt”l. It must be emphasized, though, that no amount of words – and certainly not a 2000-word article – can even begin to capture the sheer magnitude and of his awe-inspiring work and legacy.)