Brooklyn, NY – Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, the coronated “Liozna Rebbe” of Boro Park, put his photographic memory and penchant for ancient languages to good use. He says his Living Torah Museum, which features million-dollar hands-on artifacts — from ancient weaving equipment to taxidermied biblical animals — fulfills his educational philosophy: “If you touch history, it touches you”Join our WhatsApp group
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Mishpacha Magazine in this weeks edition featured Rabbi Deutsch, reprinted here with permission exclusively on VIN News.
Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch has a pithy way of summing up his approach to life. “You have to cover a lot of ground,” he maintains, “before the ground covers you.”
Lots of us have pet projects, from writing a sefer to remodeling the kitchen. But Rabbi Deutsch has many, many pet projects, and all of them are on a hugely grand scale. While most of us would have been more than pleased with ourselves had we created a Living Torah Museum, Rabbi Deutsch simultaneously juggles a family, a congregation, a business, two chesed organizations, a radio show, fundraising and tours for the museum, about a thousand daily e-mails, and his own ceaselessly burbling font of inspired ideas for expanding the museum.
Merely mentioning so many different undertakings makes my head spin, but Rabbi Deutsch only laughs. “I’ve trained myself to sleep only three hours a night,” he says, then admits, “It took twenty years to build up to it. On Shabbos I sleep a lot.” His packed daily schedule begins with the vasikin minyan at 5 a.m. and ends with a Torah learning session while the rest of the world sleeps, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Tall and loose-limbed, projecting a peculiar blend of relaxed self-assurance and contained intensity, it’s easy to see how this forty-four-year-old perpetual motion machine was once a challenge for his rebbeim.
“I was the kid who was always getting kicked out of class,” says Rabbi Deutsch, who was raised in a Lubavitch family in Crown Heights. “I wouldn’t stop asking questions. We’d be learning a mishnah, and I’d want to know what the words really meant — which animal was being referred to, what the vessels looked like. But my rebbis used to think I was trying to be chutzpahdig, and I ended up with more than my share of slaps.”
Despite his disruptiveness, Rabbi Deutsch managed to go all the way through the Chabad yeshivah system, receiving his smichah there. Then, remaining true to his personal philosophy that “a rav should make his own parnassah,” he enrolled in Kingsborough Community College and later Brooklyn College, to study business.
While still in school, he entered a competition open to all students in New York State, in which each contestant had to submit his proposal for a start-up company.
“I made a plan for a company to sell odd-sized shoes,” he says. He won the competition, and in 1988 revamped the proposal and resubmitted it, representing New York in a contest sponsored by Deca Clubs of America and the US Department of Education. Again, he won first place.
“I was the only frum person ever to have won this sort of national competition,” he says proudly. “After that, I was inundated with job offers from every major corporation. I worked for several different companies, but my longest position was with J & R, the Manhattan electronics superstore, where I was the head of finance for eleven years.” Today, he continues to work as an independent business consultant, a job to which he devotes five to eight days a month.
For almost thirty years, Rabbi Deutsch considered himself a fully engaged member of the Chabad Chassidus; at one point, he says, he was giving ten shiurim a week in Crown Heights. But after the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, developments within that community prompted him to move from Crown Heights to Boro Park, to the house on 41st Street that now houses the museum as well.
He established a new shul with a nucleus of others with Lubavitch roots, who chose him as their Rebbe. “I wasn’t really interested in becoming a Rebbe,” Rabbi Deutsch claims. “I was pushed into doing it.” He took the title of Liozna Rebbe, after the Belarussian town of Liozna in which Chabad Chassidus had its earliest origins. Rabbi Deutsch still maintains ties, however, to the old neighborhood: his brother-in-law is the head of the Community Council in Crown Heights, and his chesed organization feeds three hundred families in Crown Heights every week.
As the Anshei Liozna shul grew, its new rebbe began organizing deliveries of kosher food for needy families, calling his program Oneg Shabbos — mushrooming from a small group of deliveries into a mini-empire. Today, he claims, “We are the largest kosher food pantry in New York.”
He says his organization feeds 18,000 people a month, with 165 drivers and a $6.5 million annual food budget. The packing is done by other volunteers, including school groups who come in to help. Oneg Shabbos is affiliated with social service agencies like the United Way, Food Bank for NYC, City Harvest, and Met Council, and partners with local food distributors and national manufacturers who donate goods. This year’s Pesach distribution, which served around 5,000 families, was an all-day affair at the Brooklyn Navy Yard involving 250 volunteers.
While Rabbi Deutsch spends time every morning attending to the operation’s finances, he says that his wife is the real force behind the day-to-day operations. “My wife is my partner in everything,” he maintains. “I couldn’t do it without her. There aren’t so many rebbetzins who can unload a tractor-trailer, or drive a Hi-Lo.”
Million Dollar Artifacts The way Rabbi Deutsch tells it, his museums all began out of his childhood drive to know what the objects in the Mishnah and Gemara really looked like — all the questions his rebbeim were unable to answer. Realizing that many of the puzzling words in Torah came from other languages, as a young man he set about to learn ancient languages — eleven of them, to be precise.
“Well, I have a photographic memory,” Rabbi Deutsch says with a smile. “That’s very helpful.” When I ask what they are, he ticks them off in well-rehearsed fashion. “Greek and Latin,” he begins. “Rabbi Belsky also knows those — not too many rabbanim today can make that claim, you know. Then there’s Egyptian hieroglyphics, Proto-Canaanite, Phoenician, Ksav Ivri [early Hebrew lettering], Persian cuneiform, Ammonite, Amorite, Old Babylonian, and Assyrian.”
Along with this linguistic tour de force, he began studying the ancient world, traveling to such renowned museums as the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Israel Museum, and meeting with professors of ancient history and archaeology.
“I began doing this for myself, for my own curiosity,” he says. “But I realized that people are learning and davening without really understanding the words they’re reading.” His dream began to take shape: to help Jewish children truly understand what they are learning in all its richness, “to get excited instead of counting floor tiles.”
After consulting with many gedolei Yisrael (Rav Yisroel Belsky, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav David Cohen, Rav Yechezkel Roth, and Rav Binyamin Landau are but a few on his long list of contacts) and getting their blessing, Rabbi Deutsch began acquiring the artifacts that became the basis of the Torah museum. The museum opened its doors in 2002. By 2004, he was featured in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), America’s leading popular journal about antiquities, in an article by its editor, Hershel Shanks, entitled “Yes, Virginia, There IS an American Biblical Archaeology Museum. (Hint: It’s in Brooklyn).”
The BAR article sparked two important developments. One was that Shanks’s daughter, who was Jewish but not observant, got interested in her Jewish roots and ultimately chose a religious lifestyle. The second, more crucial to the museum, was that the article caught the attention of Dr. Donald Brown, the last living member of archaeologist James Starkey’s 1930s excavation of Lachish, a city conquered by King Sancheriv on his way to besiege Jerusalem. Another of Brown’s distinctions was that he “was the last man alive to have been in King Tut’s tomb,” Rabbi Deutsch says. “He had been allowed to keep a lot of the artifacts he’d uncovered. Now ninety-six years old and a religious Christian, he didn’t want his things to go to a big museum. So when he read the article, he called me up.”
Rabbi Deutsch jumped into his car and drove more than eight hours to Brown’s home in Waterville, Maine. “Starkey used to wear a big hat, and one day some Arabs, who mistook him for a Jew, killed him,” Rabbi Deutsch says. “Half of the artifacts he had uncovered in Lachish went to the British Museum, and for a long time the other half were nowhere to be found.” In the end, he discovered, it was Brown who had kept them, and now he’s been entrusted with a collection of items estimated to be worth about $4 million: Israelite pottery, oil lamps, wine stoppers, and arrowheads. Brown also gave him some items uncovered during an excavation of the tomb of Rameses II’s wife, Meryt Amun, that he had been permitted to keep because they were considered “doubles”: an alabaster cosmetic dish with the queen’s name on it, other cosmetic utensils, and jewelry.
A collector from Brooklyn also augmented the museum’s collection. Attorney Harvey A. Herbert, who had amassed a distinguished collection of objects from the Bayis Rishon era, offered it to the museum on loan. This collection includes, according to BAR, “one of five bullae with the name of King Hezekiah of Judah” (a bulla is a lump of clay impressed by a seal while still soft and affixed to a document), and “the only complete four-handled LMLK (meaning ‘belonging to the king’) jar in the world.”
Not all of the museum’s artifacts are findings from digs. Rabbi Deutsch also buys objects from antiques dealers (“it’s legal to buy antiques in Israel if they were found before 1978”) and from exploration companies that loot ancient shipwrecks.
“About 80 percent of my items come from shipwrecks,” he says, adding, “There are exploration companies that do this, at a cost of about a million dollars per ship.”
Unlike most museums, Rabbi Deutsch’s allows its visitors to actually touch his artifacts (with supervision, naturally). He likes to quip, “If you touch history, it touches you.” I examine a small copper mirror encrusted with green oxidation, then another that has been polished like chrome; he also passes me what he says is the oldest Chanukah lamp in the world (two thousand years old), and a small baked clay object worth two million dollars (probably the closest I’ll ever come to holding two million dollars in my hand). I also hold coins imprinted with the face and name of Antiochus.
Several years ago, the Biblical museum was little more than a large room filled somewhat haphazardly with glass cases and shelves containing ancient artifacts — oil lamps, toys, wine vessels. Today, the room has undergone a face-lift: the long side of the room has been remodeled into stylish, cave-like arches and display alcoves.
“Many Jews lived in caves at the time of the Mishnah,” Rabbi Deutsch explains as I admire the new decor. “There are even sh’eilos in the Gemara about searching for chometz in caves, how far back you have to go, and so on. Many famous Jews, such as Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and Bar Kochba, lived in caves. I thought to recapture a sense of those times by making the room look cave-like.”
From a Torah scholarship point of view, the museum has been invaluable in clarifying difficult points of Torah.
“Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz came to the museum, and when they saw what I had, they asked for my help producing the new ArtScroll volume of Keilim,” Rabbi Deutsch says, bringing out a volume and displaying the introduction, where his help is gratefully acknowledged. “It’s the hardest masechta. It really helps to have an idea of what the terms refer to.”
He has also lent a hand to Torah Umesorah. He provided satellite images and maps to help students track the Jews’ progress through the desert on their journey from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael.
Seven Kinds of Lions For the museum’s pint-sized visitors, ancient coins or wine vessels may not be nearly as exciting as the life-sized stuffed animals they’re invited to pet. But like the Biblical museum, the purpose of the animal museum goes beyond marveling at the wonders of Hashem’s creation: its goal is to help both children and adults better understand the sometimes-obscure references they encounter in Torah.
Walking through the door of the animal museum, the visitor finds himself in a room painted deep teal and densely populated with a menagerie of taxidermist-prepared beasts from water buffalo to ibexes to lions. And that’s only the beginning: a special room at the back, first suggested by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, features the animals of Perek Shirah, dramatically mounted and illuminated by spotlights against walls of royal blue. Upstairs are all the birds mentioned in the Torah, plus another room devoted to sheratzim (lizards), which alternately fascinates the boys and elicits squeals from the girls.
At this point in my tour, a school bus pulls up and deposits a group of seventh-graders from the Mirrer Yeshivah, accompanied by their rebbi. Rabbi Deutsch, clearly practiced in leading this type of group, starts right in with a splash:
“In Megillas Esther, it says Mordechai sent riders mounted on extremely swift animals — referred to as haachashtranim bnei haramachim — to tell the Jews they could defend themselves,” he tells the boys. “Does anyone know what a remach is?”
They shuffle expectantly; no one knows. “One source tells us it means zebra riders,” Rabbi Deutsch says. “Look, I just got a baby zebra. Anybody want to hold it?” He reaches up to pull a small zebra, posed in a sitting position, from a shelf. A dozen pairs of hands reach out to pet it.
“A lot of people think that zebras can’t be domesticated, but they can,” he goes on, clearly in his element. “Rothschild did it — he had a team of four zebras brought to England, and they pulled his coach.” He flicks on a monitor mounted near the ceiling, and a photo flashes of Lord Rothschild, seated regally in his carriage behind four harnessed zebras. Then he directs their attention to a nature video showing zebras leaping through the savanna, to show the boys just how fast they are.
The boys clearly love the tour; they pay rapt attention as Rabbi Deutsch tells them that, contrary to the way most people translate these terms, a tzvi refers to an ibex, whereas ayal refers to a deer. He discusses with them the difference between a beheimah and a chayah, and then, showing them an African Cape buffalo (known as a koi or kvi), asks them to which category it belongs (answer: it’s a safek). Showing them a life-sized, stuffed giraffe, he debunks the myth that we don’t eat giraffe because we don’t know how to shecht it.
“The Shaarei Teshuvah says you pull his ears down next to his neck, and you shecht at the point where they touch,” he says. “But the real reason we don’t eat giraffe is because it’s so expensive — a giraffe costs about $35,000. And New York State has laws against killing exotic animals.”
The boys see the animals that produce kosher shofros, and a few of the boys try out shofros made from such horns. They learn the seven kinds of lions mentioned in Torah, and the twenty-four birds. Upstairs, I’m surprised to find out that the word nesher refers not to an eagle, as it’s commonly translated, but to the griffon vulture. “This bird has the largest wingspan of any bird in Eretz Yisrael,” Rabbi Deutsch says. “About six months ago one of them crashed into a plane at Heathrow Airport in England at 37,000 feet. Until then nobody knew birds were capable of flying so high.”
That’s Not All, Folks The archaeology and animal exhibits aren’t nearly all there is to see in this amazing building. The labyrinth of narrow stairwells connecting the Anshei Liozna shul on the first floor with the museum rooms and Rabbi Deutsch’s modest apartment are adorned with framed, hanging parochos from shuls all over the world: a richly embroidered, olive-colored curtain from the Malbim’s shul in Bucharest, Romania, and another from a shul in Mumbai that is shot through with gold threads and triangular gold spangles worth half a million dollars.
“I like people to see it,” Rabbi Deutsch says, “because the Kohanim wore garments that had threads of gold woven in, and this gives an example of what that means.”
Then there’s a room upstairs devoted to the lamed-tes melachos of Shabbos, first conceived by Rabbi Yosef Rosenbloom, rosh yeshivah of Shaarei Yosher in Boro Park.
“City kids have no concept of what the melachos are all about,” Rabbi Deutsch says. “So I’ve set up this room, filled with spinning wheels, a loom, grinding stones, farming implements, and numerous other pre-industrial tools, to show it to them. In an hour, I can teach them all thirty-nine.”
Our final destination on the grand tour is a room devoted to gedolei Yisrael and the yeshivah world. Decorated with paintings of the village of Mir, and dominated by a huge, roughly carved aron kodesh, constructed by American soldiers in the Krumbach DP camp for Auschwitz survivors, this room also houses his collection of manuscripts of gedolei Yisrael, from the Chasam Sofer to the Rogatchover Rav. A glass case in one corner features the handwritten will of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, an ancestor of Rabbi Deutsch.
The good rabbi tells me that the museum takes some thirty-plus hours to tour in its entirety, and houses artifacts whose total value he estimates to be $19 million (the insurance alone costs $25,000 a month). He is proud to report that the museum recently reached the 250,000-visitor mark. The BAR articles put him on the map for Christian (and even Amish) tour groups, as well as Jewish groups.
“The kiruv organizations send me people all the time — Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach,” he adds. “They don’t even bother answering emunah questions anymore — they just send those people to me, all those questions about carbon dating and archaeology and such.” Animals and archaeology have the advantage of being fascinating topics through which you can obliquely engage an unaffiliated Jew in Torah discussions.
In fact, Rabbi Deutsch says there are people who get “addicted” to his museum, returning time and time again to savor its riches. Many gedolim have graced the museum with their presence, and helped where possible. “Rabbi Belsky, Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Rabbi Yeheskel Roth, Rabbi Shlomo Kanievsky, Rabbi Herschel Schachter , the Novominsker Rebbe — they’ve all been here,” he says. “Some of them will come and spend five, seven hours at a time, and contribute their suggestions.”
Today Boro Park, Tomorrow the World Already overwhelmed by what I’ve experienced here in Boro Park, I’m flabbergasted to learn that the Living Torah Museum already has a branch in the Catskills, and another one slated to open soon.
“The one in Boro Park is more focused on Tanach,” he explains. “In South Fallsburg, which people tend to visit during the month of Av, the focus is more on the time of the Mishnah, and I’m planning on opening a museum later this year in Lakewood that will be focused on the time of the Gemara.”
In fact, he’s working on producing a replica of an ancient Israeli marketplace in South Fallsburg this summer. “In the time of the Mishnah, people worked: I want to show the kind of commerce that went on then.” In the summer, he drives up to the museum in the country every day — then drives back the same day. “It’s okay,” he says with a wave. “I don’t mind the driving — I like having time to think.”
Why doesn’t he delegate more of the museum’s burgeoning responsibilities? He says there are already about thirty people involved in the museum: doing research, fundraising, purchasing, leading tours. “But it’s hard to find people who are qualified to answer all the questions that come up,” he admits. “So I do most of the tours myself.”
His next project, about five years away from realization, is to build an almost-full-size model of the Mishkan. “You’re not allowed to make it exactly the same size, so we’ll make it about one amah shorter,” he says. “I envision a main room for the kids, then side rooms for the lamdanim — because there are at least eighteen alternative ways to interpret the text.” He’s also trying to buy a plot of land on which to create a Biblical botanic garden, to be filled with all the plants mentioned in the Torah. “I have a ten-year plan, I have a twenty-year plan …” he says. “If I had 35 or 40 million dollars, I’d buy a huge park, and put it all there.”
In the meantime, this rabbi-businessman-curator is justifiably proud to be the CEO of his self-made chinuch and chesed empire.
“I have Torah, avodah, and gemilus chesed all under one roof,” he says, referring to the museum, the shul, and Oneg Shabbos. “We have food for thought, and food for consumption. But it’s all done for the purpose of yagdil Torah v’yaadir. If we can help people live Torah and mitzvos with a deeper appreciation, then we’ve really accomplished our goal.”
TRUE BLUE: The Search for Techeiles
One of the many fascinating exhibits highlights the search for the original source of techeiles, the dye that the Torah prescribes for use in making tzitzis.
“About a hundred years ago, the Radzhiner Rebbe, after doing extensive research in Italy, concluded that a type of squid, the cuttlefish, was the source of techeiles,” Rabbi Deutsch says. “It shoots out a brown ink which, when mixed with spices, produces what he believed was the color of techeiles.
But later gedolim, Rav Moshe Feinstein included, maintained that the cuttlefish couldn’t be the source of techeiles, since the Gemara says it comes from a snail (the chilazon) and doesn’t need mixing with other elements.
Earlier this year, Dr. Zvi Koren, an Israeli professor of chemistry who specializes in ancient dyes, analyzed a scrap of 2,000-year-old fabric with an indigo-colored stripe found at Masada, and determined its origin to be the murex trunculus snail. This discovery corroborated evidence that Rabbi Deutsch had amassed that pointed to the importance of the murex snail in the ancient world.
“During the Second Lebanon War, the Israelis dropped a bomb near Sidon that uncovered a pit full of murex shells,” he says. “It was evidently an ancient Phoenician garbage dump! The Phoenicians mention the murex in their writings, and in the museum, I have a gold pendant recovered from the excavation of an ancient Phoenician ship that’s in the shape of a murex. We also have ancient coins with a murex image on them, and a 2,000-year-old murex shell here with a hole bored in the shell to extract the dye.”
“The Talmud says that the blood from the chilazon changes color when exposed to the light of the sun, and that’s true of the murex; when you take out the blood it’s a yellowish-purplish shade, but when you hold it up to the sun for a few minutes, it turns blue. That’s the biggest proof that this is the real techeiles.”
He says Rabbi Yisroel Belsky is convinced we’ve identified techeiles, but has Rabbi Deutsch himself begun wearing murex-dyed tzitzis? “I might if somebody found an ancient pair of tzitzis that was found to be dyed with murex,” he says. “But until such time, I’m staying with the shitah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rashab, that it’s better not to wear techeiles than to wear the wrong thing.”