Amongst the numerous charismatic Jewish leaders with which Eretz Yisrael is blessed, Rav Avner Afgin is undoubtedly a standout. In fact, he is considered to be Israel’s only Sephardic admor. Even more striking, perhaps, is the demographics of his followers, many of whom are New York-based Satmar chasidim. To watch him impart divrei Torah and give brachos in Hebrew in his distinctly Yemenite accent and hear his followers answer “umein” in their Hungarian ones is certainly intriguing. But apparently, authenticity and sincerity break through all superficial cultural barriers.
So when I enter the apartment in Yerushalayim where Rav Afgin is staying, I am not surprised to encounter two chareidim sitting in the dining room whose faces I am convinced I’ve seen before. I soon discover that they are, indeed, fellow Brooklynites.
“Both of us have businesses in Brooklyn,” the older of the pair tells me. “We should really be home, but we came here to help Rav Afgin.” He then shares a rather intriguing story about how he became connected to this Yemenite Rebbe.
“I have eight children, but my oldest daughter didn’t have children for seven years after she got married. Rav Afgin happened to be in Monsey to be sandak at someone’s bris, and a cousin of mine told me to come over and ask him for a brachah. Rav Afgin suggested that I come to Eretz Yisrael and daven with him at the kever of Shmuel Hanavi on the day after Lag Ba’Omer. He calls this ‘tikkun hatefillah,’ and it takes two and a half hours to say, accompanied by many tears. I flew to Eretz Yisrael and did as he said. A year later, on the day after Lag Ba’Omer, my daughter had a baby. My wife and I took it upon ourselves to help him whenever we could in all his endeavors. This was 19 years ago.”
I ask if Rav Afgin’s ability to help others in this way is what draws people to him.
“You have to understand that he doesn’t just give brachos; he is mispallel with people. He himself didn’t have children for 11 years, so being childless is something about which he feels very strongly. His Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Sharabi, told him that the makor for children is at the kever of Shmuel Hanavi, who passed away at the age of 52, which is the gematriya of ben. There are 11 couples in New York who were blessed with children after his tefillos there, and he recently made a special mesibah for them. He does amazing things for people.
“Years ago, he used to daven at the kever of Shmuel Hanavi twice a year, but he doesn’t have the koach for it anymore. He can barely stand up by the time he’s done, and he’s even fainted a few times in the middle of the tefillos. He subsequently changed it to only once a year, but he hasn’t done it for the past two years because even that is too hard for him.”
I inquire about the nature of their ongoing relationship with Rav Afgin.
“Our job is to shield him and try to make things as easy as possible for him. Whenever he travels to the United States he stays only by me. A lot of people want to see him, but he can’t have too many visitors because he has diabetes, a problem with his eyes and other medical issues. He covers up his problems very well, so it can be hard to tell. People try to break down the door, but we only allow a certain number of people inside per day. When he comes to New York, he’s totally b’hatznei’a leches [modest and inconspicuous]. I arrange a minyan in my house, and that’s where he davens. We don’t put out any advertisements that he’s in town. But after word gets out that he’s arrived, we are inundated with requests for an audience. His only desire is to help others, and there are many people in need of a yeshuah, but we try to protect him for his own good. That being said, there was never anyone who wanted to consult with him and wasn’t ultimately able to.
“When people come to him with a kvittel he doesn’t just take it and send them on their way; he listens very closely to whatever they have to say. Sometimes we ask him why he doesn’t just give them a brachah and let them go, but he says, ‘No. I have to make tikkunim and fast for them.’ We tell him he has to stop, but he says that he can’t.