A prominent Talmid Chochom, (Talmudic scholar) Rabbi Preschel was a Jewish historian, bibliophile and journalist. He was considered a twentieth century “Benjamin of Tudela,” who traveled around the globe, researching and writing about Jewish communities, synagogues and personalities. His world wide explorations included Catalonia, Spain, where he spoke to descendants of Marranos who returned to Judaism, and Cochin, India where he interviewed members of the “Black” and “White” Jewish communities.
Tovia was born in 1922 to Moshe and Pearl Liba (Shapira ) Preschel. Moshe Preschel, a successful businessman was a son of Rabbi Yochanan Preschel, Rabbi and Av Beis Din of Snyatin, Galicia, the author of various Seforim and Torah articles. The previous Rov of Snyatin, Rabbi Avrohom Steinberg, the author of Sheelos and Teschuvos Machazeh Avrohom was so great a genius that it took fourteen years to find a worthy replacement; Rabbi Yochanan Preschel became his successor at the end of World War I.
Tovia’s mother, Pearl Liba, was the daughter of Czortkover Chassidim, Shlomo and Osnat (Herzog) Shapira.
Tovia was an only son who had a brother Yosef who had predeceased his birth. His oldest sibling, a sister Dorah, who was nine years his senior, once related that when Tovia was just a small child and would walk down the street in Vienna, people would say, “there goes the little genius.”
In addition to attending Cheder in Vienna, Austria, Tovia’s parents engaged private rebbes to teach him. One of them was Rabbi Shmuel Hubner ztl who was later to translate several volumes of the Talmud into Yiddish, underground while living in Belgium during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Rabbi Hubner prepared him for his Bar Mitzvah which speech Tovia delivered in Hebrew. He gave Tovia private lessons not only in Gemorrah but also in the Greek language.
Towards the end of 1938, following the Anschluss, when Austria was taken over by Germany, Tovia was sent to London on one of the Kindertransports organized by Rabbi Solomon Schoenfeld. Tovia’s farewell to his parents in Vienna was the last time he was to see his mother. She was later deported from France to Auschwitz where she perished.
Tovia led a revolution with the children on the Kindertransport against their organizers when they were served dairy while still being fleishig. Schoenfeld who was a Yekke had them served dairy three hours after meat according to the German minhag (custom). He did not realize that he would upset the young refugees, many of whom had come from Polish backgrounds and waited six hours as opposed to three hours after meat.
Young Preschel had many of the children jumping on the tables shouting that they would never eat milchig (dairy) while they were still fleishig. They yelled they would adhere to their own minhagim and refuse to be “converted.” Solomon Schoenfeld immediately apologized and promised it would never happen again. From then on Rabbi Schoenfeld formed a close affectionate relationship with Tovia Preschel whom he fondly addressed as “Theo.”
In London Tovia Preschel studied for many years at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva. His main teachers were the Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Elya Lopian, ZTL one of the great Mussar leaders of his generation, Rabbi Shlomo Nachman Greenspan ZTL, a well known rabbinical scholar and author and Rabbi Arye Ze’ev Gurwitz ZTL one of Rabbi Elya Lopian’s son- in -laws, who was to later serve as Rosh Yeshiva in Gateshead, England.
A former Talmid of Etz Chaim Yeshiva in London, Reuven Cohen now residing in Jerusalem, who came menachem avel (comfort) the family, stated that he still has a picture etched in his mind of Tovia who was known as an illui, (genius) standing at the Bima for hours on end, learning.
Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky ZTL, head of the London Beis Din, was seeking a chavrusa for his son Menachem and asked the Rosh Yeshiva of Etz Chaim to recommend someone. Rabbi Lopian recommended Tovia Preschel to Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky. Tovia became a Ben Bayis at the Abramsky household and a life long friend of Menachem.
For many years, Tovia Preschel spent every single Shabbos and Yom Tov at the home of Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky. The relationship between the Abramskys and Tovia kept up even when the Abramskys settled in Jerusalem. Rabbi Abramsky served as the Sandek for Tovia’s son Dr. Yochanan Preschel.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer, the late Radziner Rebbe of Boro Park was also a good friend of Tovia Preschel from their days together in London at Etz Chaim. Tovia used to talk to the elder Radziner Rebbe, Mordechai’s father in learning. Although Tovia was young in years, he was mature enough to enjoy discussing Torah with people double his age.
Tovia who had been active on behalf of Irgun Zvai Leumi in London, served as a volunteer in the IDF during the war of Independence. He was to eventually receive a citation for his activity on behalf of Etzel, from Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
He was an editor of the 2 volume first edition of the New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel.
In Jerusalem Tovia Preschel served for a period as an editor at Mossad HaRav Kook. He also contributed to Encyclopedia Talmudit in its original Hebrew version as well as to the English edition. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin asked Rabbi Preschel to prepare for him a sample of what an entry would look like in an English version and used Preschel’s prototype for the rest of the entries.
Rabbi Tovia Preschel was the author of the entry, “Talmud” in Encyclopedia Americana and contributed many articles on Jewish and Rabbinical scholars to the Encyclopedia Judaica and Encyclopedia Ivrit . He wrote chapters for dozens and dozens of books as well as contributed to various collections of biographies such as Eleh Ezkerah, published by Dr. Isaac Lewin on behalf of Agudas Yisrael. Writing in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, he worked for various Jewish newspapers including the Israeli dailies Herut, HaTzofeh, Hamodia, the NY ango weekly, The Jewish Press, Allgemeine Zeitung, and the Hebrew weekly HaDoar.
Rabbi Tovia Preschel also wrote for Torah periodicals such as Sinai,and HaDarom, published by Rabbinical Council of America , HaPardes, of Agudas Harabbonim of America and Or Hamizrach under the auspices of US Mizrachi and other Torah collections.
Preschel would attend the Daf Yomi Shiur that Rabbi Simcha Elberg would deliver in the Agudah of Boro Park. When Rabbi Elberg could not attend, Rabbi Tovia Preschel would take over and give the shiur. After Rabbi Elberg passed away, Rabbi Tovia Preschel took his place as the editor of the HaPardes Rabbinical Journal.
Rabbi Tovia Preschel is survived by his wife Chana Rochel (Flam) Preschel, his children, Dr. Yochanan Preschel, a psychiatrist in New York, Dr. Shmuel Aharon Preschel, an internist in Lakewood, Dr. Pearl Herzog, a Jewish History Professor at Kean University, Rabbi Chaggai Preschel a Talmudic scholar in Jerusalem and author of the five volume Bichagvei HaSelah, grandchildren and great grandchildren.