By Susy Adler
“Good men need no monuments; their deeds are their shrine.”
—Mishnah Shekalim 5:2
My brother, Robi Flegmann, ז״ל, R’ Moshe ben R’ Dovid, whose Sheloshim is on Thursday, epitomizes this Mishnah. Robi was a man of integrity, humility, genuine warmth, and deep ahavasTorah—a true mensch. He touched the lives of so many, young and old, Jew and non-Jew, people from every walk of life, and he had a profound impact on this community.
When I was asked if I would write an article in conjunction with the Sheloshim, I thought to share a Gemara that Robi often quoted. In Yoma (35b), it states that in the World to Come, Hillel will be mechayev, or obligate, the aniyim; Rav Elazar ben Charsom will be mechayev the ashirim; and Yosef will be mechayev the resha’im.
When it comes to the Day of Judgment, a person who says that he was too poor to be involved in Torah will be told that Hillel, who was destitute, was dedicated to Torah to the extent that he would freeze on the rooftop of the beismidrash in order to hear the words of Torah being taught. Similarly, the rich man who uses his wealth as an excuse will be compared to Rav Elazar, who amassed a large fortune but also accomplished greatly in Torah. The rasha who tries to make his strong evil inclination into a scapegoat for his sins will be measured against YosefHaTzaddik, who overcame great temptations in his life and clung to Torah values despite his nisyonos.
Allow me to stretch this to say that Robi Flegmann, z’l, is mechayev all of us, the regular people. We can mistakenly think that because we are just “regular,” from regular families and regular homes, with regular jobs and regular lives, we cannot reach outstanding levels in Torah and tzorchei tzibbur. Robi is the example that we will all be measured against as someone who clearly showed us that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.
It is clear from the hundreds of people who visited us during shivah, and who continue to reach out to us from around the world, that Robi leaves behind a legacy that reaches well beyond the scope of his family. He was a role model for everyone who crossed his path. He successfully built a yeshiva, a shul, and a business, yet seemed to still have all the time in the world for his true passion, limud and harbatzashaTorah, and the love of his life, his family.
The Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island was Robi’s “fourth child.” He partnered with other dedicated individuals to bring to life the dream of a new yeshiva in the community. It is remarkable that his passion and devotion to ensuring the growth and excellence of the yeshiva’s chinuch did not dwindle through the years, but only got stronger. Long after his own sons graduated from the yeshiva, he continued to feel the achrayus for each student as if he were his own son. We were told that often at board meetings, where emotions can run high and where there were people with louder voices, deeper pockets, and stronger points of view, they ultimately turned to Robi and deferred to his opinion when a decision had to be made. They understood that his motivation was pure and his voice was the sound of reason.
At the levayah, my nephew beautifully relayed a story of the time when my brother planned to travel to Israel with his family for midwinter vacation. With the bags all packed and ready by the front door, Robi suddenly declared that he could not depart to the airport. He explained to his confounded family that Yeshiva Ketana did not have enough funds to cover the payroll for the rebbeim, and he did not have the conscience to go on a pleasure trip knowing that “his” rebbeim would not be paid. On the spot, he wrote a check from his own home-equity line of credit to cover the salaries; only then was he able to continue with his travel plans with peace of mind.
Perhaps most telling of Robi’s menschlichkeit was not his expected relationship with rebbeim, parents, or members of the board of the yeshiva, but rather his connection to the Latino custodians, who were always greeted with a warm smile, a kind word in their native Spanish tongue, and inquiries about their families and favorite soccer teams. As displayed by their concerns when he was not feeling well, the love and admiration that these individuals expressed toward Robi is a true example of what a kiddushHashem is all about.
The magnificent Bais Medrash of Harborview, a beautiful shul by anyone’s standards, was erected in large part due to Robi’s tireless efforts. Our father, a’h, told us countless times about the majestic shul in his hometown of Maad, Hungary, which was built on the highest hill in the area and with elaborate architecture and intricate design; it was clearly the focal point of the town. In Mexico City also, where my siblings and I were raised, each shul was more beautiful than the next and commanded a certain respect and pride from all who davened there. With these paradigms of kavodha’tefillah toward which to aspire, Robi approached the mara d’asra, Rabbi Kalish, with the mission to build a shul more beautiful than the lavish homes that surround it. He agreed to take on the position of president with this goal in mind, and with the condition that once this glorious edifice was built, the tefillos there would be recited in a respectful and silent atmosphere.
This past year, on the Shabbos preceding Selichos, Robi stood up in the shul that he was instrumental in building and delivered a heartfelt plea to his kehillah, reminding them of the importance of davening for each other and treating the z’mantefillah with proper respect. Part of his message was: “We are a tzibbur, a team, a family, and HaKadoshBaruchHu views us that way. We are not a bunch of random people who happen to daven in the same place for our own individual problems. We are viewed as one kehillah, and if any one of us does not treat tefillah with the kavod that is required, that person, according to Rav Avigdor Miller, is devaluating and possibly negating his neighbors’ tefillos. I know that this is an awesome responsibility none of us would like to play with.” Robi’s desperate entreaty at such an auspicious time moved the listeners to tears.
A jack-of-all-trades, Robi was also a successful businessman known for his honesty, warmth, diligence, and work ethic. These qualities endeared him to his business associates, who considered him family. More often than not, he was the only Orthodox Jew that they encountered in business and was a walking kiddushHashem who broke down many negative stereotypes and preconceived notions. Soon after his petirah, a company with which he dealt held a business meeting, at which all the busy participants who had pressing items on their agenda rearranged their schedules to gather at a memorial ceremony and pay homage to their beloved associate and friend.
Although busy with his own business, Robi, on multiple occasions, noticed young entrepreneurs with a drive to succeed in his field. Instead of considering them as competition or leaving them to find their own way, he helped them and spent countless hours teaching them the ins and outs of the trade. He did this for fellow Jews, which some may consider an achrayus, but what was unique was when he took non-Jews under his wing, alerting them of profitable business opportunities without even asking for a cut for himself. Such wholehearted and sincere selflessness is truly rare.
All who knew him well can agree that above all, Torah was his greatest passion. The joy that he felt when hearing or giving over a new thought about something he had learned was visible in his eyes. He proudly delivered the dafyomishiur at the Agudah in Far Rockaway three mornings a week for over 20 years, and he was included in the prestigious book The Pillars of the Daf. Recently, after his condition forced him to stop delivering the dafshiur, Robi attended the Agudah for Minchah one day and was visibly shaken and moved to tears as he walked by the room where he had so often given the shiur. He was filled with acute sadness about no longer having the z’chus of being a maggidshiur, something that gave him more pleasure than most other things in life.
Robi filled every available moment with different chavrusas, covering a range of Torah topics. His respect for rabbanim from every point of the hashkafic spectrum was immense; he was drawn in by their genuine love of Torah, and he felt an affinity toward every one of them, as they, too, connected to and respected him in return. His most precious business contract, which he proudly showed off to many, was his “Yissachar–Zevulun” shtar. Robi had created a partnership with a young man learning in kollel in Kfar Chassidim, Israel, which he considered his most treasured investment. He was honored to support this man’s family with their material needs, while they shared the spiritual rewards for the man’s Torah learning. During his last trip to EretzYisrael this past Shavuos, one of the only stops Robi made was to visit this “partner,” and learning with him visibly energized him more than anything else could at that time.
A most telling anecdote was shared by Rabbi Feiner, who developed a close relationship with Robi soon after moving into the community. The rav said that after years of talking with Robi, only recently did he discover that Robi was in business. Their countless discussions were filled with divreiTorah and holiness, and his business only came up as a side point in one of his conversations about Torah with the rav. First and foremost, he was a ben Torah and that’s all that was apparent from his relationship with the rav. This makes such an impression because, as my brother liked to say, Americans tend to define themselves and others by what they do for a living, and a businessman whose favorite topic of conversation is not his business dealings is an unusual find.
Robi taught us what tzedakah and hachnassasorchim truly are. Much more than a dollar amount on a check, he opened his doors, literally, to rabbanim. He made his home theirs, and his house became the base and command post to people who needed a home away from home. He showed support to many who traveled to Lawrence on behalf of different organizations, not necessarily with the largest donations, but with the warmest welcome, a delicious meal at his table, a comfortable bedroom for Shabbos, constant chizuk, and true friendship.
So many have mentioned Robi’s signature warm smile. We heard over and over again how he made people feel like he was their best friend; he really loved every individual so much. He had a kind word for everyone and made sure to thank, encourage, and acknowledge all he met. We were told that he greeted the young teenagers in shul, whom others would overlook, with genuine concern and care, making them feel like they mattered. Robi paid attention to people whom most of us tend not to notice. A meal was not served at his house after which he did not go to the kitchen afterwards to thank the housekeeper for her efforts and tell her that everything was delicious. Even once walking became so difficult and every extra step took great strength and energy, my brother insisted on walking into the kitchen to show his hakarasha’tov.
Family meant the world to him. He was an incredibly devoted husband who, after close to 30 years of marriage, still held the car door open for his beloved wife and poured her drink before his. He was a loving father who cherished his three children and their families, always making them feel like they were the most important people in his life. He was a dedicated son and brother who aspired to unite the family and maintain the strong mesorah of past generations. Robi spearheaded a project to revive the Flegmann family wine label, which was vibrant for generations in Europe before the war. He knew that accomplishing this would bring our father, a’h, tremendous satisfaction, nachas, and nechamah. His outstanding kibudav motivated this, and the gift he gave our father was priceless. He treated all his family, blood relatives and in-laws alike, with the utmost respect, and was thus admired and genuinely loved by all.
At the levayah, my brother shared the story of Robi’s younger years in Mexico City, where, at age 10, he was chosen as the captain of the soccer team; “El Capitan” was a prestigious position in a young boy’s life. He took his job seriously and understood that it was up to him to choose the most skilled players in order to create the best team. However, it was after the game when he truly shone, as he gathered the boys he was not able to choose, the ones who were lacking in athletic aptitude, and spent time teaching them and practicing so that he would be able to include them in the future. This shows his essence.
I recently heard a beautiful thought. So many books are published describing the lives and accomplishments of various gedolim. People often ask, “Why read these if we cannot hope to reach the heights of these individuals?” The answer I heard is that even if we cannot attempt to reach the same level, these stories can lead us in the right direction. A compass that points north will most likely not help us reach the North Pole, but it will guide us in that direction. When I share stories about who my brother was, I know that it seems like big shoes to fill. But I say that we can all be guided by him and we can strive to go in his direction, aim high, and reach the destination. Just like Robi—a regular guy . . . who achieved greatness.