Category Archives: Personal Reflections

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Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l: Recollections at his Shloshim

It was more than 30 years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island, that I received my first letter from Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l. I still have it, and keep it in a safe place.

For a relatively young out-of-town high school rebbe /would-be writer having just made his first submission to the Jewish Observer, the flagship printed medium for the dissemination of Torah thought and perspectives, simply receiving an acceptance letter from the magazine was a wonderful surprise.

More wonderful still, though, was the warmth of the words in Rabbi Wolpin’s personal note, in which he expressed his appreciation for my offering and which was full of encouragement to keep writing. And over ensuing years, both before and after I joined the staff of Agudath Israel of America, each of the essays I wrote for the JO was acknowledged with new words of appreciation and encouragement from its editor. That was Rabbi Wolpin. He was rightly renowned as a top-notch writer and a top-notch editor. But he was a top-notch mensch, too, a top-notch nurturer, empathizer, partner and coach. And, although he was much my senior in both age and ability, he was a top-notch friend, too.

It was 1970 when Rabbi Wolpin assumed the editorship of the JO. Back then, as a high schooler myself in Baltimore’s “T.A.”, or Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had a keen interest in hashkafah, and a literary bent. And so I read the Jewish Observer avidly and considered Rabbi Wolpin, whose keen insights and wonderful prose animated the magazine, an intellectual hero. So it’s no wonder that first acceptance note, years later, was, and remains, cherished to me.

As does the memory of the first time I met Rabbi Wolpin in person. It was in the mid-1980s and my wife and I decided to take a long-distance shopping trip from Providence to Brooklyn one Sunday with our two youngest children. I called Rabbi Wolpin to see if we might stop by his home to meet him, and he and his rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim tovim, didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

I vividly recall how welcoming the Wolpins were to us when we arrived at their home. And I remember, too, how our two-year-old son, our first boy, ran around the room and repeatedly tossed off the yarmulke we had recently begun putting on his head. I was embarrassed by that behavior, even a little worried that it might herald more rebellious actions in the future. Rabbi Wolpin laughed and assured me that it was perfectly normal and that I had no reason to be concerned. I was greatly reassured. (The little boy is a respected talmid chacham and rosh chaburah in a large kollel today, with a family of his own – and he keeps his head properly covered.)

A decade after that visit, at the invitation of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, we moved to New York and I was privileged to joined the staff of Agudath Israel. A large part of that privilege was being able to work with Rabbi Sherer, of course, and with Rabbi Wolpin.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with him, the experience was rewarding. Whether it was on a professional level, regarding articles in the JO or interaction with various media, or on a personal level, like when one of us happened to pass by the office of the other and stopped in to ask a question or offer an observation, I was impressed anew each time by his incredible knowledge, savvy and insight.

And then, as I came to realize what Rabbi Wolpin’s position as the JO’s editor actually entailed, I was much more than impressed.

Soliciting manuscripts, fielding submissions (including the surely difficult task of sending rejection letters that were nevertheless kind and encouraging), analyzing and editing copy, interacting with writers and editorial board members – not to mention penning his own perspectives and well-wrought commentaries – were all part of his portfolio. And I don’t remember ever seeing his face show any of the pressures under which he labored. Always a smile, always a happy greeting, almost always a good pun or humorous observation. Just thinking of him now makes me smile as I write.

Above all, perhaps, his respect for talmidei chachamim was a life-lesson in itself. He was, it seemed to me, in almost constant contact with not only the respected Rabbanim on his editorial board but with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He would consult them on “judgment call” issues and they would call him with concerns and guidance. And he was always appreciative, seeing himself as fortunate for the very fact of those interactions. He was a modest man, and, despite his important position in Klal Yisrael, kept as low a profile as he could manage. While he was a true and illustrious oseh, a “doer,” he saw himself more as a me’aseh, a facilitator of the work of others.

There can be little question that the world of intelligent, well-written and compelling Torah thoughts in English today derived directly from the toil of a Seattle-born, public school-attending melamed’s son, who was born in 1932 and, at 15, traveled to New York to study at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. There, the boy, who would become the Rabbi Nisson Wolpin the world of Torah would come to know and revere, absorbed the teachings and devotion to Klal Yisrael of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, and became close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l and Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l. Several years later, he joined the yeshivah founded by Rav Simchah Wasserman, zt”l and then studies in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

After his, and the JO’s, retirement in 2008, Rabbi Wolpin effortlessly slipped back into the life of the beis medrash, which he had really never left. Two years later, he and, tbl”ct, Mrs. Wolpin moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Wolpin’s nurturing (and skillful editing) of younger writers like my dear friend Yonasan Rosenblum and me, and his featuring of seasoned scribes like Rabbi Nosson Scherman, shlita, and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, made the JO what it was – and in the case of the former group, helped us develop our critical thinking and writing skills.

Recently, I had the opportunity to leaf through scores of Jewish Observers. It was a bittersweet experience. I was enthralled anew at the quality of the writing, so much of it not only perceptive but prescient, and so much of it still timely even after the passage of many years. But I was anguished anew at the fact that the JO has long ceased publication. And, of course, well beyond that, anguished at the fact that Rav Wolpin, z”l, is no longer with us, at least not in person, here in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© 2017 Hamodia

POTUS and the Piñata

“Fire this ignorant teacher for inciting violence against our POTUS,” read one of the many overheated comments to l’affaire piñata (forgive the language cholent). “More indoctrination from the filthy left,” contended another commenter. On the other side of the controversy was someone who wrote, “Um … This is genius. This teacher deserves a medal.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Colorado contretemps that birthed the above: A celebration of the Mexican cultural holiday of Cinco de Mayo at Roosevelt High School, in the Rocky Mountain state town of Johnstown, included an assault on the aforementioned POTUS, or President of The United States.

Well, the assault, while physical, wasn’t on Mr. Trump’s person but rather on his countenance, which graced a piñata, a papier-mâché figure traditionally filled with sweets, released by celebrants’ banging at the container with sticks until it breaks. Which it did here, leaving the president’s smiling, if deflated, image lying on the ground as the candies were liberated.

Whether the teacher who oversaw the celebration, who was quickly suspended, was guilty of any crime isn’t clear. The contention of some present that the other side of the piñata featured Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto certainly complicates any judgment.

The candy kerfuffle raises the issue of teachers’ conveying their personal political or social attitudes to their charges. That educators should not engage in overt politicking is entirely reasonable, of course; but entirely inevitable is that more subtle, and thereby more insidious, conveyances of their outlooks will take place.

I am reminded of my English class in 1970. Our teacher – I’ll call him Mr. Levin – was an unabashed liberal, an implacable foe of then-POTUS Richard Nixon, and a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, societal moral norms and all that stood in the way of what Mr. Levin considered progress. Teenage me, by contrast, was vocally contrarian whenever political or cultural matters came up in class readings, assignments and discussions; the teacher and I thus had many opportunities for what might politely be called dialectic. My grades in Mr. Levin’s class were not what I felt they deserved to be, but I attributed that to a persistent recurrence of the laziness with which I had been accurately diagnosed. I wondered, though, if there may have been more to my B’s and C’s than met the eyes.

And so, one day, when the members of the class were assigned to write a poem about any topic we chose, a devious idea dawned: I would write an entirely disingenuous anti-war sonnet, making no more of an effort than I ever did, just to see if it might affect my grade. I held my nose and did the deed. Sure enough, I received an A+, my first (and, I think, only) one. Mr. Levin even hailed my accomplishment in a glowing comment beneath the grade.

And people wonder why I can sometimes be cynical.

What I gleaned from that experience was the realization that grades sometimes reflect a grader’s biases rather than a gradee’s mastery of material or skill. And that teachers, being human, bring their personal attitudes and outlooks to their classrooms.

That truism escapes some public school parents, who delude themselves into thinking that their children’s minds are being filled with only facts and skills, not with the values of those into whose care they place their progeny. All classroom education, no matter the subject, involves a relationship between teacher and student. And so, the character and life-philosophy of a teacher is always – or always should be – an important consideration.

Including for those of us who entrust our children to Torah institutions. You won’t find anyone more dedicated than I to the view of secular education expressed by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. He rejected the valuation of secular studies as limited to their “practical utility,” an attitude, he maintained, that deprives young Jews from “the pure joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.” He asserted that secular learning can be “a road leading to the ultimate, more widespread dissemination of the truths of Judaism.”

But for that to be so, it must be transmitted by Jews who comprehend that purpose. If we dismiss “English,” the catch-all term for secular studies, as unimportant, and thus entrustable to teachers who have knowledge of facts but not the perspective for presenting them in a Torah context, we fail our children.

Creating a capable cadre of bnei Torah who can expertly teach writing, literature, science and history from an authentic Torah perspective requires the guidance of Gedolim. It is guidance, though, we do well to seek.

An edited version of this essay appears in Hamodia

What Worked for Us: Some Shidduch Advice

 “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

I don’t own stocks, but am familiar with that disclaimer, required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for ads peddling investment opportunities.

It’s cited here because I’m about to share some choices, borne out as wise ones, that my wife and I made over the past decade and a half of involvement in the shidduchim of our children, as of recently, b”H, all married.

Of course, we know that the bottom line wasn’t our wisdom, hence the SEC-style disclaimer. That we so delight in our children-in-law, all of whom we see as our own children, if shared with our wonderful mechutanim, is, in the end, the result of siyatta diShmaya. And part of our brachah  is who our children themselves are – which I attribute to the one of us who did most of the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) in raising them. And both she and I have, as well, great zechus avos v’imahos.

So I can’t guarantee that doing what we did will yield the same results with which we’ve been blessed. I’m convinced, though, that those still “in the parashah” of shidduchim might find some of our choices to be worthy of consideration.

There are, of course, communities within Klal Yisrael that have formulated particular approaches to the various aspects of shidduchim. I don’t mean to speak to members of those communities, as they presumably follow the hadracha they have received. What follows here are simply the lessons gleaned by one pair of average parents, not authoritative pronouncements born of scientific analysis or nevuah.

 

We don’t run the show.

Although parents must make their proper hishtadlus in shidduchim, as in all things, we tried to avoid the trap of imagining that we can somehow know everything there is to know about a person or a family; or that we could, no matter the strength of our resolve and imagined wisdom, determine, or even imagine, the future. There are always myriad “unknown unknowns,” not only in the future but in the present. All one can, and must, do is try to do what is right. The ultimate success of any venture is always in Higher hands.

Corollary: Questions about any serious health issues are not improper. Questions about non-serious ones are. Ditto about the health histories of a prospective shidduch’s parents or grandparents.

Corollary: When it comes to researching a family’s reputation, dig, but don’t excavate. It’s a hishtadlus, not an FBI investigation.

 

Fretting is forbidden.

During “dry spells,” we didn’t engage in, or allow, handwringing. It serves no constructive purpose, and is in fact destructive in many ways. “Bishaah tovah” isn’t just a throwaway phrase, or even simply a brachah. It is a truth. There are auspicious times for things to happen, and we aren’t privy to knowing those times. And, as the chassidishe vort has it, all yiush (despair) is shelo midaas (without thought).

 

Look for the best match.

That is to say, not necessarily the most meyuchas young man or woman, the most high-community-status family, the wealthiest, or the one who is most like oneself… What is being sought is the best match for the person being matched. It’s a life-partner being looked for, after all, not a badge of honor, stock portfolio or carbon copy. When my wife and I had the luxury of choosing among several proposed possible shidduchim for one of our children, we always kept paramount in our minds that we were seeking the best complement for the particular son or daughter.

And never, after the fact of a successful shidduch, did we ever allow ourselves to think that “We could have done better.” There is no “better”; there is only what is right. And what’s right is better than better; it’s best.

Corollary: While a young person is wise to confide concerns to his or her parents, and the parents are wise to offer their feelings, the final judgment about continuing, discontinuing or becoming engaged must be the young person’s. And no pressure to make a particular decision should ever be brought to bear on him or her.

Corollary: Making a particular educational background or yeshiva gedolah (or type of one) a requirement for a young man is unwise. As is making cooking skills, appearance, or a particular vocation or income-potential a requirement for a young woman. Adjustments to “dream futures” can be – and usually are – made by married couples. All that really matter are the shared goals and the suitability of the individuals to each other.

Hint: Shidduchim suggested by siblings or friends of the single are particularly worth pursuing.

 

…And for the biggest mentch.

There are many maalos that may inhere in a young man or young woman being proposed as a shidduch. For men, it might be excellence in Torah-study or accomplishments in other realms; for women, it might be scholastic achievement or exemplary homemaker skills. The most important qualifying credential, in our experience, is mentchlichkeit. The personal character of a person, we believed and believe, stands well above and beyond all others on the roster of maalos. When “doing research” on a prospect, while we were certainly interested in accomplishments, reputations and skills, what really mattered to us were accounts of how the prospect interacted with others, and accounts of their personal good will and consideration of others. That might seem obvious, but it can’t be sufficiently stressed.

Parents of a young person seeking a spouse, and the young person, are not yeshivah administrators seeking a Rosh Yeshivah or a hotelier looking to hire a caterer. We’re talking marriage here – building a happy home and raising a Torah-centered family. Eyes must always be kept on the prize, and it’s not a sefer or a cooking award.

Hint: Ask someone who would know about how the prospective shidduch davens.

Corollary: Baalei teshuvah should be given the same consideration as anyone, if not greater.

Corollary: If asked for a photo, the ideal answer is a simple “no.”

 

Don’t promise what can’t be delivered.

While there are stories of parents who pledged financial assistance they simply didn’t have and who miraculously became beneficiaries of unforeseen windfalls, “ein somchin al hanes” is the operative principle in life. We considered it wrong to pretend or imply in any way that we had resources we did not. In fact, throughout our shidduch-making years, we were never in a position to pledge support – any support – to a potential marriage partner for our daughters (nor did we ever request support for our sons). Did that shrink the pool of prospects? Surely it did (at least in the case of daughters), but that wasn’t a bad thing. It narrowed down the “contenders,” making decisions less fraught.

As a result, our daughters married young men who either did not, to their credit, expect support, or who didn’t need it. Some of those chassanim, now all wonderful fathers, intended to learn for years, and did so. They and their wives were willing to live simply – in some cases very simply. Others pursued parnassah, either part-time or full-time. All, though, are bnei Torah who are koveia itim laTorah and dedicated to raising their own children to cherish Torah and Yiddishkeit. Does anything else really matter?

 

No “no”s after one meeting.

Unless a prospective partner is judged to be utterly, outlandishly, painfully “wrong” after a first meeting, a second one is always proper. Few people are zocheh to be able to perceive all that needs perceiving – or to project all that needs projecting – when meeting a stranger for the first time.

 

Chasunos are not marriages.

Chasunos last a few hours. Marriages, with determination and siyata diShmaya, last lifetimes. And there is zero correlation between, on the one hand, the number of hot dishes (or lack of them) at a reception, the number of courses at a seudah, the reputation of the photographer or the lavishness of a wedding hall and, on the other, the success of a marriage or the happiness of the couple. Even at the chasunah itself, the joy of the friends of the chassan and kallah and the others present, and the joining of two sets of parents in a shidduch are what beget the true simchah of the event. Nothing else makes any difference

The rule should be that when there is a choice, be it ring, gifts, hall, caterer, band, photographer, or any other element of an engagement and chasunah, the less expensive, more simple option should win out. It can’t be sufficiently stressed that Thoreau’s advice “simplify, simplify” could not be better placed than in the context of a chasunah.

I realize that bands, photographers and “high end” establishments all need to make their parnassos. But they’re not endangered; there will always be people who will dismiss the advice my wife and I offer here. If you’re smart, though, you won’t.

And may you have hatzlacha in all.

© 2017 Binah Magazine

Fortunate Fallout?

The fallout of what has most alarmed some about President Trump’s immigration executive order may turn out to be a blessing.

There are certainly reasons to question the order, which restricts immigration from seven countries, suspends refugee-admission for 120 days and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely—and is, at this writing, halted by a federal court.

There are the humanitarian concerns that have been highlighted by much of the public and many media; and the fact that immigrants from problematic lands are already subject to very strict, multi-layered vetting procedures. And then there is the fact that no Americans have died as a result of terrorist acts in the U.S. by immigrants from any of the seven targeted nations.

What’s more, the blacklist doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon – the countries that yielded the 9/11 attackers.

But the most disquieting concern about the executive order was raised by, among others, former CIA Director and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“We’ve fed ISIS a major argument,” he contended, “that I think will help them in recruiting, and that increases the chances of a potential attack in this country.”

He went on to explain that Islamic State operatives and recruiters will seize upon the president’s targeting of some Muslim-majority countries to make the case that the West is at war with the religion of Islam rather than with the scourge of terrorism, a contention that was strongly rejected by President George W. Bush and President Obama.

That fear of the executive order playing into terrorist hands resonates strongly with many, as it did with me in the days after the order was signed. Ensuing events, though, led me to a very different place.

One doesn’t have to harbor particularly positive feelings about the mass protests that came in the wake of the executive order to recognize their impressive magnitude: Almost immediately after the order’s signing, 10,000 protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Battery Park, another 10,000 in Boston’s Copley Square, thousands more in front of the White House, and many hundreds in major airports and city spaces across the nation.  And protests persist to this writing.

I don’t like large noisy demonstrations, even in support of ideals like human rights. Mobs remind me of, well, other mobs, like those of the past and the present that were or are informed by things other than humanitarianism – things like animus for the West, for Israel, for Jews. They are ugly organisms, amalgams of evil individuals bound together by hatred. Even the innocuous roar of citizens protesting some insult to the environment or new regulation, a sound that occasionally rises 13 floors to my office in lower Manhattan, makes me shiver.

Maybe it’s in my genes, or the residue of some vicarious memory of what my father, hareni kapparas mishkavo, recounted to me about how the Jews in his Polish town in the 1930s had to stay inside and lock their doors as Pesach approached, when groups of marauding churchgoers, spurred by angry sermons they had heard, would move down the streets looking for Jews to attack.

Still and all, aside from the inevitable anarchists and rabble-rousers dedicated to nothing more than anarchy and rabble-rousing, many – I suspect most – of the protesters of the president’s order were people of sincere good will expressing sincere concern for other people, of other religions and nationalities, and for refugees fleeing persecution or war-torn lands.

What I came to realize was that the sight of such mass protests can’t have been entirely lost on the Muslim “street.” There might, in other words, be a silver lining to the immigration order kerfuffle in the vocal opposition (justified or not) it elicited from a broad swath of American citizens.

I imagine an Islamic State recruiter trying to convince a confused Arab or African teenager seeking some “higher” calling to join a terrorist cell targeting Americans. “Trump, that kufr!” Malevolent Mohammed rails at his charge. “He hates ‘the prophet,’ hates Islam!” But the boy has seen images (these days, even dusty desert villages are “on the grid”) of American citizens – the very people he is being urged to murder – standing up for Muslims. It’s got to at least confuse the kid.

Some readers (probably many) will see an overactive imagination here. But there have indeed been Muslim extremists who, exposed to unexpected Western good will, have turned their lives around. Is it irrational to hope that the reaction to the recent presidential order might serve to help others do the same?

Maybe only a few will be impressed, and there will always be bad people. But every ex-terrorist-wannabe counts.

© 2017 Hamodia

Perceiving the Good

More than 40 years ago, at just about this time of year, the rebbi insisted I leave class. I readily obliged.

The details of what prompted my banishment, while amusing, aren’t important. All you need to know is that someone had called out something while the rebbi’s eyes were in his sefer, and that it hadn’t been I. (Admittedly, on a number of occasions during my schooling I would have rightfully been accused of various violations of rules or decorum. That particular time, however, I happened to be innocent.).

Irate at the unfairness of it all, I marched to the office of the principal, Rabbi Joel Feldman, shlita, announced with righteous indignation that my punishment had been unjust, and declared that I had no intention of ever returning to that shiur. I was convinced, I declared, that the rebbi, while a fine man, had it in for me.

I was surprised by the principal’s reaction. He didn’t ask me to identify the criminal (and, honoring the high school omertà code, I would never have told him anyway), but simply said, “Well, I can’t send you to the lower shiur; you’d be bored. So I guess I’ll send you to Rabbi Rottenberg’s shiur.”

Rav Yosef Rottenberg, shlita (may he have a refuah shleimah), was Baltimore’s Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim’s “high shiurrebbi at the time and its eventual Rosh Yeshivah. I was taken aback but readily accepted the offer.

That marked a turning point in my life. Although the shiur was somewhat over my head, I made some effort (for a change), and actually did some learning. Rabbi Rottenberg, a brilliant Torah-scholar and talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, truly became my rebbi. His broad knowledge of both Torah and worldly matters, not to mention his well-honed sense of humor, were inspiring. When I graduated, he recommended me to Yeshivas Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan, where I learned before returning to Baltimore and continuing my studies in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael.

I owe any hatzlachah I had thereafter to Rabbi Feldman, Rabbi Rottenberg… and Rebbi X (not his real initial), the one who ordered me out of shiur.

I don’t write those words facetiously. Hakaras hatov is due for any tov, intended as such or not. Why else, the baalei mussar ask, could Moshe Rabbeinu be “indebted” to the water or to the earth to the point where Aharon had to strike them to bring about the makkos of dam, tzefardeia and kinim? Inanimate objects can’t be objects of what we call “gratitude.” They can, though, be objects of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” – which is for our own benefit, not that of the objects.

And that requirement to recognize good exists even when the good is sourced in something negative. In last week’s parashah, Moshe is described by the daughters of Yisro as an “ish mitzri,” an “Egyptian man.” Midrash Tanchuma has it that the reference is to the “ish mitzri” Moshe had killed in Mitzrayim, whose death was the cause of his flight to Midyan. Moshe, in other words, in a sense, owed much to that Mitzri.

Many years after being kicked out of shiur, I myself, ironically, served as a rebbi and principal of a yeshivah, in an ‘out-of-town’ community. And one day, I found myself forced to leave – not just the classroom but the institution. A new overseer, working with a board of directors with a very different vision than I had of what the yeshivah should be, told me that he couldn’t guarantee my position for the following school year.

I was heartbroken to leave my beloved yeshivah and community. And more, to be forced to entertain something I had often said I would never do: move to New York. But Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, had asked me to join Agudath Israel’s staff. Tearfully, my wife and I and our young family left our home of 11 years.

Fast-forward a few more years, after we had acclimated to our new location, and I to my new job, which I grew to deeply appreciate. One Shabbos in shul, I saw Rabbi Y. (not his real initial either), the overseer who was the cause of our exile. He was related to someone in the community and had come to visit.

First reaction: Oh, no! Not him!

But then, a deeper, more profound thought dawned: I owe this guy my new life. And I said to myself, as all feelings of hakaras hatov should ultimately impel us to say, “Baruch Hashem.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, zt”l: A Sheloshim Reflection on His Life

I only knew my father, hareini kapparas mishkavo, for 30-odd years.

I’m much older than that, and knew and loved him my entire life. But I only really knew him – his full life story – for three decades.

How, for instance, at the age of 14, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz had insisted that his parents let him go to study in yeshivah – even though what would come to be known as World War II had begun mere weeks earlier, and the family was fleeing the Nazis.

How SS men who had caught up with his family and other refugees from their Polish town, Ruzhan, had killed his uncle in front of him and packed my father and hundreds of Jews into a shul, and set fire to neighboring homes. Preparing to die, the Jews were rescued by a regular German Army official who had passed by and ordered the Jews out. Eliyahu Hanavi, they suspected, in unprecedented disguise.

How the boy’s parents reluctantly gave him their brachah, and said goodbye to him for, it turned out, the last time.

That was the beginning of a journey that would take “Simcha Ruzhaner” to Siberia, and then America, where, as Rabbi Simcha Shafran, he would become a revered, beloved Rav.

He and his remarkable, beloved eishes chayil Puah had three children, my sister Rochel (Zoberman), brother Noach and me. Our dear father was niftar on 20 Kislev.

In the fall of 1939, the boy who would become our father, holding his tefillin and some apples his mother had given him, set out for the Novardoker yeshivah in Bialystok.

En route, he discovered that the Polish yeshivos had relocated to Vilna. In Bialystok, he heeded a voice in his head crying “Simcha! Get on the train!” to Vilna, and managed to pull himself onto the platform between two cars.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt”l, famously organized the relocation of yeshivos in Vilna; Novardok settled in the “Gesher Hayarok” shul, and, at the end of 1939, relocated to Birzh, where the yeshivah functioned until the Soviets took over in 1941, and demanded that all refugees become Soviet citizens.

Refusing the offer, which the talmidim did, made them foreign nationals. Those without visas to other countries were put on cattle trains and, weeks later, arrived at a Siberian work camp, where they were ordered to fell trees, chop wood, and harvest and grind grain.

My father was the youngest of the chaburah that spent the rest of the war in the frozen taiga, along with their rebbi, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz.

When working, the bachurim would review Gemara or recite Tehillim. When not, they studied the few sefarim they had with them – with a chessboard, mid-game, in front of them, in case their anti-religious overseer should stop by.

The exiles used an assortment of tricks to avoid working on Shabbos, and tried to observe Yamim Tovim, clandestinely baking matzos and using a kosher sukkah in the middle of the night.

In 1944, the group was transferred westward, and eventually smuggled into Berlin’s American zone. My father had a bullet wound scar on his arm from when a bribed guard betrayed them.

The refugees organized a yeshivah in Salzheim, near Frankfurt, and resumed their Torah studies. In June, 1947, after establishing contact with a relative in the U.S. willing to sponsor him, my father arrived at Ellis Island and joined other refugees in the reestablished Novardoker yeshivah, Beis Yosef, in Brooklyn.

With the $75 given him by a Jewish social service organization he bought a new pair of tefillin, his old ones having been weathered by Siberia. (He later discovered that his new parshios had been written by his second cousin and namesake, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz, the Gerrer Rebbe’s personal sofer.)

Another immigrant, Rabbi Yaakov Krett, suggested a shidduch for my father, the daughter of Rav Noach Kahn, a respected Rav in Baltimore, a musmach of Rav Boruch Ber Leibovitz. The young couple had Yiddish in common, and my father, impoverished but resolute, courted my mother by taking walks with her and singing Novardoker niggunim; soon they married.

The couple moved to Baltimore and my father taught at Yeshivahs Chofetz Chaim (“Talmudical Academy”) before becoming the rov of a small shul, Adath Yeshurun – Shadover Shul.

He delivered drashos in Yiddish until more non-Yiddish-speakers joined the shul, and my mother helped him translate his speeches into English. She was a full partner in both his life and the shul, cooking for kiddushim, conducting groups for children on Shabbos afternoons, and much more.

Kiruv’ wasn’t a catchword back then, but that was what my parents were doing, and they raised the commitment to Yiddishkeit of untold numbers of people then and for the rest of their lives.

The shul paid little and somehow, even with the counseling, chasunos and hospital visits, my father found the time to attend night school to study accounting. In addition to his rabbinic responsibilities, he became an auditor for the city of Baltimore. He took his obligations seriously and his co-workers were impressed by his integrity. They said they could set their watches by when he left for lunch break (when he would take walks to keep in good health) and when he returned to his desk.

In the 1970s, a minyan near his office in downtown Baltimore wouldn’t hew to my father’s polite request of a mechitza to accommodate a woman who attended davening, so he started a second minyan. Someone who was there at the time recounts that my father was “the rav, the gabbai, the posek, and often the shliach tzibur” as well as “a role model for how a frum person should conduct himself… [and] interact with all of one’s diverse co-workers, creating a true kiddush HaShem. [He] foster[ed] respect towards Jewish people from everyone he encountered.” Days after his petirah, the minyan, which continues to this day, was formally named “The Rabbi Simcha Shafran Downtown Mincha Minyan.”

Throughout his more than 60 years as a Rav, my father made deep impressions on young and old, seekers and scoffers, intellectual and spiritual sorts alike. There wasn’t any trick. With his radiant smile, he just presented himself, and Torah, honestly, without pretensions. Someone once remarked that he had always assumed that, to be a successful Rav in America, a man had to be tall and sophisticated, speak the Queen’s English and hold himself aloof – until he met my father.

When, after more than 40 years of marriage, my mother was nifteres, in 1989, my father was devastated. But the inner strength that saw him through so much emerged with time and he resumed his life with vigor, even marrying again. His second wife, the former Ethel Bagry (Mendlowitz), was beloved to my wife and me, and everything a Bubby could be to our children. My father and “Bobby Ethel” exulted in each other’s families’ simchos for 20 years, and my father cared for her, as he did for my mother, during her final illness.

The neighborhood where my father’s shul existed for many years changed and so, in his 80s, he moved to the Greenspring area of Baltimore County. He built a beis medrash in his new home’s basement, and established a Shabbos minyan. A dedicated group of mispallelim considered it their shul; and my father, their life guide.

He learned and taught Torah, and served as the mazkir of the Baltimore Bais Din. His “vacations” were trips to celebrate the simchos of his children, grandchildren and step-progeny.

He would also yearly address a Ner Yisroel high school Holocaust Studies class (taught by my brother, a rebbi), sharing his wartime experiences with that, and other, rapt audiences.

He walked three miles daily, well into his upper 80s. Only a brain tumor slowed him down. When it became necessary for him to have 24-hour care, he moved in with my brother and his eishes chayil Shalvah, both of whom were deeply dedicated to him. Two days before his petirah, my father was able, with Baltimore Hatzalah’s help, to attend the chasunah of one of their daughters. He gave and received brachos from many of the hundreds in attendance, gave the kallah a special brachah before the chuppah, and one to the new couple afterward.

The morning of his petirah, he made a final request. It wasn’t clear what he sought but his daughter-in-law thought she heard him say “tefillin.” When she asked him if that was what he wanted, he nodded yes, and my brother put tefillin on him. Shortly thereafter, Hakodosh Baruch Hu welcomed my father to his eternal reward.

The final day of shivah, a baby boy was born to my and my wife’s son Mordechai and his eishes chayil Leah Gittel. At the bris, a new Simcha Bunim Shafran was introduced to the world.

Zeh hakatan gadol yihyeh. May he prove a worthy bearer of his name.

(Rabbi Simcha Shafran’s memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air: A Polish Jew’s Memoir of Yeshivah, Siberia, America,” is available from Amazon.)

 © Hamodia 2017

Loss and Legacy

Like so many of his generation in Europe, he had an all too short childhood.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was 14, he found himself, along with his family and others from the small Polish shtetl of Ruzhan, fleeing the Nazi invaders with only what they could carry on their backs. Soon enough, the refugees were apprehended and locked in a shul, with a neighboring home set ablaze and the flames growing closer. The din, he recalled, was deafening. People were shouting out the Shema with all their might, crying bitterly, saying Viduy. Then they were suddenly, miraculously saved before the flames reached the shul, by, they suspected, Eliyahu Hanavi, in the guise of a high-ranking German officer.

Then, in a miracle of will, the boy decided to leave his parents to journey to Bialystok, to join the Novardoker yeshivah, a dream he had been promised, before the war, he would be able to fulfill.

The yeshivah, though, wasn’t there anymore, and so the boy jumped onto a train to Vilna, where many Polish yeshivos had relocated. Lithuania was still independent.

It wasn’t long, though, before the Soviets took over, and he and his chaverim and rebbe were sent to Siberia, where they spent the war years, enduring long 40 degrees below zero winters.

He once came close to death there. One of the other young men even trudged for kilometers through the snow on a mission, the trudger thought, to bury the boy, who was rumored to have succumbed.

At war’s end, the group made its way to Germany, were smuggled into Berlin’s American sector and set up a yeshivah in a town called Salzheim. Eventually, the boy, now a young man, was able to sail to America, where he married a respected Baltimore Rav’s daughter, who taught him English and helped him pursue his career, first as a rebbe in Baltimore’sYeshivas Chofetz Chaim and then as a shul Rav, a position he held for some 60 years. They had three children.

He was my father, hareni kapporas mishkavo. And his actual kevurah did not happen until more than 70 years had passed since that day his friend expected to inter him. It took place just before the start of Chanukah.

For all who knew and loved my father – and it is a very large group – his petirah was a wrenching personal loss. But it represented a tragedy for Klal Yisrael, too, and not just in the sense that an oved Hashem and marbitz Torah left this world.

It was a national tragedy for another reason, too, because, among all the many men and women whose lives my father touched and who came to the shivah house or called or emailed their nechamos – a group that included an astonishingly diverse spectrum of Yidden, from talmidei chachamim to the not-yet-frum – not a single one was from my father’s European chevrah.

That dearth, of course, was not unexpected. But it was an unhappy reminder, all the same, that the generation that witnessed the Jewish Europe that once was, and the horror and hashgacha of the Holocaust years, the generation that was our living link to that place and those days, is ebbing.

The only member, in fact, of my father’s Novardok chaburah in Siberia still alive is Reb Herschel Nudel, may he have a refuah shleimah, the man who endured that long, frigid walk to “bury” my father so many decades ago. Considering his astounding chessed, his arichas yamim, isn’t surprising.

And yet, the scene at my father’s levayah that most vividly remains with me was when the announcement was made that grandsons and great-grandsons of the niftar should come forward to carry the aron to begin its journey to the beis olam, where my mother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, and my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zecher kulam livrachah, all lie, awaiting techiyas hameisim.

Those summoned came forth, but it took a while before the aron could be lifted. Not that it was heavy. My father wasn’t a physically large man. But it was a challenge for the many young men, all yirei Shamayim, who had heeded the call to find an empty spot to put their hands.

It was an aron, not a shulchan. But the words “Banecha kish’silei zeisim saviv lishulchanecha,” “Your sons, like olive shoots, all around your table” (Tehillim 128:3), even at that agonizing moment, rang like a melodic bell in my mind.

© Hamodia 2017

Harassment, Hijabs and Hoaxes

Widespread reports over the weeks since Election Day of harassment and hateful graffiti aimed at minorities reminded me of something the legendary Agudath Israel of America leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, taught me, the first time I had the honor of interacting with him.

I don’t doubt that some of the scrawled swastikas are just what they seem to be. All it takes, after all, to create one is a hateful mind and a broad-tipped marker, neither of which is usually in terribly short supply.

But no one can really even know whether a graffito in fact reflects the writer’s sentiments or was cynically intended to incite others. And, as to the accounts of intimidation by alleged pro-Trump hoodlums, many lack any corroboration or evidence.

Like the claim of an unnamed black girl on a city bus in Queens, that, the day after the election, several white girls from St. Francis Prep, a local Catholic high school, told her that, now that “Trump is president,” she belonged “in the back of the bus.”

A local newspaper called it a “shocking echo of the Jim Crow South.”

When asked for details that might help apprehend the harassers, though, the alleged victim declined to cooperate.

Then there was the University of Louisiana student who, that same week, told of how two white men, one wearing a Trump hat, stole her wallet and hijab. Confronted with contrary evidence, however, she admitted fabricating her tale.

Many of the recently reported episodes of hate crimes are vague, involve unidentified culprits and are unsupported by witnesses. Often the police aren’t even called, and often when they are, the stories don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Sometimes the alleged victim is even the perpetrator. Kean University student Kayla McKelvey pleaded guilty this past summer for having fabricated threats against black students like herself, sowing panic over the campus.

What has Rabbi Sherer to do with all this?

Well, my first encounter with the man who later hired and mentored me as Agudath Israel’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call.

It was the mid-1980s, and I was a high school rebbe in Providence, Rhode Island. Occasionally, though, I wrote opinion pieces, for the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.

One piece I penned was about bus stop burnings that had been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods displayed images that offended the sensibilities of the local residents. Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were vandalized or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a shul for every burned bus stop shelter. It was not a pretty time.

My article was an attempt to convey the motivation of the bus-stop burners, wrong though their actions were. Imagine, I suggested, a society where hard, addictive drugs were legal, freely marketed and advertised. And a billboard touting the drugs’ wonderful qualities was erected just outside a school. Most people might never think of defacing or destroying the ad, but would probably understand the feelings of someone who did take things into his own hands. For a chareidi Jew, I wrote, gross immodesty in advertising in his neighborhood is no less dangerous, in a spiritual sense, and no less deplorable.

Rabbi Sherer had somehow seen the article and he called to tell me how cogent and well-written he had found it. But, he added – and the “but,” I realized, was the main point of his call – “my dear Avi, you should never assume that the culprits were religious Jews. Never concede an unproven assertion.”

I was taken aback, since hotheads exist everywhere. But I thanked my esteemed caller greatly for both his kind words and his critical ones. I wasn’t convinced, though, that my assumption had really been unreasonable.

To my surprise, though, several weeks later, a group of non-religious youths were arrested for setting a bus stop aflame, in an effort to increase ill will against the religious community. How many of the burnings the members of the group, or others like them, may have perpetrated was and remains unknown. But Rabbi Sherer had proven himself (and not for the first or last time) a wise man.

To be sure, there may be, and probably are, haters out there who are harassing citizens they don’t like, or putting their lack of artistic talent and good will on public display. Their actions rightly evoke our outrage.

But it’s important to remember, even amid outrage, that accusations are easily made, but assumptions shouldn’t be.

© Hamodia 2016

Greetings!

“How do you say ‘the horse died’ in Yiddish?” asked the African-American panhandler to whom I had given a quarter when he accosted me in lower Manhattan.  It was many years ago, shortly after I moved to New York.  A bit taken aback (would you not have been?) by the unexpected quiz, I responded “Der ferd iz geshtarben.”

“No,” he insisted. “A mensch shtarbt.  A ferd paigert.”  He was right, of course.  The Yiddish verb for “died” is different for a human and for an animal.

New York, I remember thinking, is an interesting place.

I never found out how my interlocutor knew Yiddish so well, but, over the ensuing years, I have met many, if less interesting, seekers of alms.

When I first began working in “the city,” as an out-of-towner unaccustomed to street beggars, I made a point of giving a coin or two to each of the bedraggled people on my route who shook a cup of coins or asked passers-by for a donation.  Chazal, after all, teach us to provide charity to all (Gittin 61a).

Rightly or wrongly, though, I eventually came to stop that practice.  There were the times when, after my small donation to an indigent person, I was besieged by theretofore hidden others who, having witnessed my largess, suddenly and magically appeared to stake their own claims. I would have had to carry a bag of quarters each day.

And I came to realize, too, that there are an abundance of agencies and charities that provide food and shelter for the homeless.  I wondered what “extras” the coins and bills in the cups would end up purchasing.  Candy bars?  Cigarettes?  Drugs?

And so, for better or worse, I joined the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, who go about their business without acknowledging the sound of shaken change or the repeated mantras of “got any spare change?”  But I felt (and feel) bad.  I was still ignoring human beings.  That’s not something a descendant of Avraham Avinu should be able to do nonchalantly.  True, the solicitors don’t seem to mind being ignored by so many, and are seemingly happy with the “business” of the ever-present tourists.  But still.

One day not long ago, though, an elderly man sitting on the sidewalk and asking passersby for change focused on me as I approached where he sat.  “Rabbi!” he called out.  “Got anything for me?”

Having been so (somewhat) personally addressed, I had to interrupt my brisk walking.  In Manhattan, that can be dangerous; those behind you are often inhabiting alternate worlds, talking on phones or pecking out emails as they walk.  By stopping short, one can cause the pedestrian version of a vehicular pile-up.  Luckily, though, the foot traffic behind me must have naturally noted my braking, since it just flowed smoothly around me.

I wasn’t, though, about to change my callous custom.  So I just bent down to smile at the fellow and tell him that I don’t generally carry cash (which by then was true) but that I wished him a wonderful day.

I can tell a sincere smile from a contrived one, and the one he returned was the real thing. And along with it came, without a hint of cynicism, a “thank you.”

Whenever I see the fellow in his spot, I make a point of addressing him, just to smile and wish him a good day.  And each time I do, he seems genuinely pleased.  Sometimes, he even beats me to the greeting.  He doesn’t ever ask me for money.

The Gemara in Berachos (6b) quotes Rav Chalbo in the name of Rav Huna as saying: “Anyone who is greeted and does not return the greeting is called a thief.”  His source is a passuk in Yeshayahu (3:14): “The theft of the poor man is in your house.”  Rashi explains that a poor person has no possessions to steal, and so the thievery referred to must be a greeting owed him, of which he was deprived.

Presumably, if an unreturned greeting is a theft, an offered one is a gift.  My indigent friend certainly appreciates that fact.

Greeting every person we pass throughout the day isn’t very practical, and would seem eccentric.  In some cases, personal interactions might even be inappropriate. But in so many others, the opposite is true.  The hurried nature of modern life shouldn’t obscure the testimony of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Brachos 17a), that no one ever beat him to a greeting, as he was always first to offer one, “even [to] a non-Jew in the marketplace.”

© 2016 Hamodia

 

Ferry Tale

Sitting among other commuters in the cavernous terminal, waiting for the next ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, I sensed some commotion in my periphery.  Looking up from my reading, I saw a 40-ish man struggling against several ferry terminal employees, who were trying to get him to exit the room.

Homeless people regularly spend time in the ferry terminal, as they do in other transportation hubs in New York and elsewhere.  They’re often sleeping, and taking up seats with their bodies and their belongings. It’s easy to feel resentful toward them, especially if there are no other seats available.  Until, that is, one thinks about the fact that the large bags of sundry items they lug around and park nearby represent all that they own in the world.  And that their only options for getting rest or staying warm in the winter – other than to subject themselves to crime-ridden public shelters – is to bed down in train, bus or ferry terminals.

Although he wasn’t one of the “regulars,” the fellow who had just entered the room clearly belonged to the fraternity of people with no place to call home.  He was laughing and moving somewhat animatedly as the ferry terminal personnel, who seemed to know him, gently escorted him out of the room.  “C’mon, Jerry,” one large uniformed fellow cajoled him, “Let’s go.”

“No, no,” the homeless man replied, and looked around the room.  “I just want to talk to… the rabbi!”

That would be me, of course.  Oy.

“No, you don’t, Jerry,” Mr. Burly said with a loud laugh.  “You leave the rabbi alone!”

“Just for a minute,” Jerry pleaded, and, releasing himself from his captor’s grip, he ambled over and introduced himself.  “Sholom aleichem, rabbi!  I’m Yosef Shmuel ben Aharon!”

I would never have guessed the fellow was a relative.  “Pleased to meet you,” I replied, smiling, and hoping my discomfort didn’t show.

“Would you happen to have a spare yarmulke on you, by any chance?” he asked.

I was taken aback by the unexpected request.  “I’m so sorry,” I replied.  “I don’t.”  Which was true, but, after he thanked me all the same and was led out of the room, I felt ashamed.  I was wearing a yarmulke under my hat, after all.  Couldn’t I have given it to him and worn my hat at work?  It might have looked a little strange as I moved my morning coffee from the kitchen to my desk, but it would not have eternally stigmatized me.

That entire day, my response to the homeless man bothered me.  Actually, at night, too.

The next day, I put a spare yarmulke in my pocket, just in case Jerry might be at the terminal again.  I had never seen him before, so I wasn’t optimistic. But when I arrived, there he was, sitting quietly in one of the waiting-area seats.  He didn’t see me and I just watched him from afar. When the call came for passengers to board the ferry, though, I went over to him and offered him the yarmulke.

His eyes opened wider than I imagined possible.  He took the yarmulke, leaped to his feet and practically shouted “Thank you so much!”

“My pleasure,” I said, and rushed to make it to the boat before the doors closed.

So many bein adam lachaveiro mistakes in life are not easily correctable, so I was grateful for the opportunity to undo one of my bad judgments.  And yet I worried, too, that I may have made a friend who would come to occupy more of my time than I might wish.  I try to use my commute for learning and reading.  I turn down ride offers from neighbors, so cherished is my “quiet time.”

So, even though I sincerely wished Jerry only well, and hoped that his new (well, to him) yarmulke would somehow benefit him, if only to identify himself as a Jew, I feared that I might have paved the way for a daily conversation with someone who might not even be mentally balanced.  But I didn’t regret my small gift; I knew I had done the right thing.  And that’s all any of us can do, no matter what consequences might ensue.

It’s been many weeks since my two encounters with Jerry.  I haven’t seen him since.

I know it might strike some as silly, but I can’t help wondering if he might have been placed there those two days just for me.

© 2016 Hamodia