Monday, Jun 24, 2024

A Taste of Yerushalayim Shel Maalah

An Interview with Rav Sholom Stern – Roshe Kollel of Kollel Hashutfim Speaking to Rav Sholom Hillel Stern, one feels ensconced in the Yerushalayim Shel Maalah of the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood where he grew up. Gems and pearls of Yerushalmi vertlach freely flow off his tongue. For every issue discusses, he has an anecdote, a vort, or an insight, all said with the humility and chein characteristic of the generations of Yerushalmim from whom he descends. Rav Sholom spent time regaling us with stories of his ancestors who were among the founders of the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood, as well as the gedolei olam whom he merited to meet and learn from. He also took time to share his thoughts on some of the burning issues transpiring today in Eretz Yisroel.


 Yated: You grew up in Shaarei Chesed, the old Yerushalmi neighborhood where giants of spirit such as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Sholom Schwadron and the Tchebiner Rov lived. Can you tell us what it was like to grow up in such a hallowed neighborhood and how things have changed?


Rav Sholom Stern: In my family, I am the fourth generation since the founding of Shaarei Chesed. My great-grandfather, the famed Rav Dovid Baharan, was one of the founders of the neighborhood. His daughter, my grandmother, also lived in Shaarei Chesed and my father was raised there as well. In truth, however, I was one of the last children of the Old Yishuv to grow up in Shaarei Chesed. Today’s Shaarei Chesed is no longer an old Yerushalmi neighborhood. Most of the houses there were bought by wealthy Yidden from chutz la’aretz and have been demolished to be replaced by multi-story dwellings. It still retains some of the taam of the old neighborhood, but the Yidden who inhabited Shaarei Chesed when I was a child are mainly gone and, for economic reasons, their children have moved elsewhere, as I did.


You said that your great-grandfather was Rav Dovid Baharan. Can you tell us a bit about Rav Dovid?


Rav Dovid Baharan was a kedosh elyon and one of the founders of Shaarei Chesed. Do you know why the neighborhood was called Shaarei Chesed? It was called Shaarei Chesed because it was founded with chesed. There was a famous gemach called Shaarei Chesed. That gemach purchased a parcel of land in Yerushalayim and built houses on it. The original inhabitants were permitted to move into the houses and slowly pay the cost of the house to the gemach. It was like a mortgage – interest-free of course!


My great-grandfather, Rav Dovid, was a close talmid of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin. Rav Dovid’s father was the famed kodosh, Rav Nochum of Shadik. Rav Nochum was niftar when Rav Dovid was a boy of nine. He was a self-made man who reached the highest of madreigos. Recently, one of his descendants published a remarkable sefer that features many stories about Rav Dovid and his hanhogos.


Did you ever see Rav Dovid?


No. He was niftar before I was born, but I heard many stories about him from my grandfather and from many others.


I will tell you a story. Rav Dovid, like most other Yerushalmim at that time, learned all day and was supported by the chalukah of Rav Meir Baal Haness. There came a time, however, when Rav Dovid decided that he wanted to be self-sufficient rather than rely on the chalukah. He borrowed a tremendous amount of money and invested in lulavim. Before Sukkos, he purchased an entire shipment of lulavim and sent them to the Diaspora to sell. The plan was to turn a significant profit. Hashem, however, had other plans. The entire shipment spoiled, the lulavim became rotten and moldy, and all of the money that Rav Dovid had invested was lost. Indeed, it is said that when Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskind heard that Rav Dovid was trying his hand at business, he said, “Don’t worry, he will be back very soon…”


How did he pay back the astronomical sums that he had borrowed?


That is where the gadlus of Rav Dovid came to the fore. For the rest of his life, Rav Dovid lived in the most frugal way possible, gathering penny after penny to repay his debt. I will give you an example of what frugal means. When he wore his slippers, he would measure the number of steps he took to make sure not to take too many so as not to rub out the slippers and be forced to spend money on another pair. For decades, he ate minimally and spent the absolute minimum on clothes and other staple items, so that he could pay back the debt.


Towards the end of his life, Rav Dovid moved in with his daughter, my grandmother. By that time, he really wanted to stop taking money from the kollel. He was already old and felt that he was not learning on the same level as he once had. He then reconsidered and said, “If I lived in my own home, I have a right to decline the kollel payment. However, since I live with my daughter and don’t know exactly how much it costs her to provide for my needs, I do not have the right or the luxury to decline the chalukah of the kollel.”


Do you have any other interesting things to share about the legendary Rav Dovid Baharan?


One of his most fascinating facets was his deep bond with the sefer Mishnah Berurah. Although at the time the Mishnah Berurah was published Rav Dovid was himself a yungerman who was a godol baTorah, he became extremely attached to it. The Mishnah Berurah almost never left his hand. He knew every letter in the sefer virtually by heart. Once, someone asked him why he was so completely enamored with the Mishnah Berurah, whose author was nearly a contemporary of his. He replied, “Imagine having to learn the Tur, the commentary of the Bais Yosef, the Shulchan Aruch and all of its commentaries 400 times! Until the Mishnah Berurah came out, that was what one was required to do in order to achieve the level of clarity in halacha that can be found in the Mishnah Berurah.


Interestingly, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who grew up in Shaarei Chesed with Rav Dovid – Rav Shlomo Zalman was a yungerman when Rav Dovid was one of the older inhabitants of the “shtetel, as it was called – would repeatedly say that Rav Dovid was his primary rebbi.


You mentioned Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. I understand that you, yourself, grew up living a block away from Rav Shlomo Zalman. Did you have any relationship with him?


Certainly. Every person who grew up in the old Shaarei Chesed had a connection with Rav Shlomo Zalman. He was close with my parents and grandparents.


I will tell you a story about his middos. My parents had a chicken business. The Auerbachs would order chicken from my parents and I was frequently the one whom my father sent to deliver the chickens to Rav Shlomo Zalman’s home. On one such occasion, I walked up the two flights of stairs with the chickens in hand and knocked on the door. It was Rav Shlomo Zalman who answered the door. I was just a child, not yet bar mitzvah, but he greeted me with his trademark warm smile. He didn’t just take the chickens from me. Rather, he ushered me into the house and sat me down. After inquiring about my welfare, he asked me what I was learning in cheder. When I answered, he asked me a few shailos and talked with me in learning a bit. He praised me for the knowledge that I had displayed and only then did he thank me and send me off. That was Rav Shlomo Zalman. He didn’t want anyone to feel like a delivery boy. He was so attuned to people’s feelings and so wanted me to leave with a good feeling. Indeed, the way to measure greatness is often by observing the way great people do the “small” things.


I also remember how Rav Shlomo Zalman’s entire life was one of halacha and middos. For example, when he would come to a store, even if there was a long line, everyone insisted that he go first. Rav Shlomo Zalman, however, adamantly refused to go ahead. He would say that cutting the line is akin to stealing someone’s time. He held that making another person have to wait longer was a form of stealing.


Was Rav Shlomo Zalman involved in the leadership of the neighborhood?


In truth, Rav Shlomo Zalman could have been the rov of the neighborhood, but he adamantly refused. Many decades ago, Shaarei Chesed had a rov, a great talmid chochom. When he passed away, it was agreed that Rav Shlomo Zalman should assume the rabbonus of the neighborhood, but he steadfastly declined. He insisted that since he was already rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Kol Torah, that job was sufficient. In the end, the rov who was appointed was Rav Avrohom Dovid Rosenthal, a great gaon, who was also av bais din of the bais din of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank and author of the multi-volume seforim Be’er Hamelech on the Rambam. His son was the famed Rav Yaakov Rosenthal, av bais din of Haifa, who passed away about a year ago.


Was there internal strife in the neighborhood?


Absolutely. Like most Yerushalmi neighborhoods of that time, many, even from among the old Yerushalmi families, became Zionistically inclined. The yeitzer hora for these things was enormous in those days. In truth, Rav Shlomo Zalman had a tremendously important influence because of this. He was very mekareiv whose who tilted towards Zionism. His influence was a calming one and tempered things, ensuring that many of these families remained on the proper path.


You mean to say that Rav Shlomo Zalman was not a kanna’i?


It depends how you define the word kanna’i. I am not sure that you know the Auerbachs. By and large, they are very intense. Look at Rav Shmuel Auerbach. He is extremely intense. He is a gaon in Torah and middos. He is a shtick fire! In the shtetel, they would say that Rav Shlomo Zalman is the same fiery Auerbach as his son Rav Shmuel and his father, Rav Chaim Leib, who was also a shtick fire. He was just able to subjugate his natural kanna’us so that he epitomized savlanus and gutzkeit.


Were you ever able to see that fire?


Rarely, but it was there. I will share two examples.


The first was in the way he was mechanech his children. With all of his greatness and exemplary middos, he was still able to demand unswerving dedication to learning from his children. Indeed, his demand from his children that they should not be “am haaratzim” propelled them to become some of the greatest Torah giants in the world.


A second example when Rav Shlomo Zalman’s fire came to the fore was during the tumult in the aftermath of Chief Rabbi Goren’s heter of mamzeirim. His son, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Maalos HaTorah, told me how, during that period, Rav Shlomo Zalman could not rest. He was so upset about how someone could twist halacha and transgress such a basic aveirah that would have ramifications affecting kedushas Yisroel for generations. Rav Shmuel said, “To observe Rav Shlomo Zalman was to see the fire of Torah, the fire of milchamah against siluf haTorah raging within him.”


Did you have a relationship with other gedolei Yerushalayim?


Yes. As an older bochur, I went to learn in Bnei Brak and became very close with a number of the gedolei talmidim of the Chazon Ish. Several of them were Yerushalmim from the Old Yishuv. Two such gedolim were Rav Chaim Brim and Rav Moshe Shia Landau. Rav Moshe Shia was truly a heilige Yid, who possessed a degree of shleimus in avodas Hashem that is rare. He was a giant in Torah, a giant in yiras Shomayim, and a giant in chesed.


Rav Moshe Shia, who engaged in a colossal array of mainly hidden chassodim, once came to the Chazon Ish and asked him a “question.” He said that his engagement in chesed is affecting the amount of time and concentration that he invests in his Torah learning. He wanted to know if he should minimize his engagement in chesed so that he could learn properly. The Chazon Ish answered him that he should certainly continue his wide-ranging chesed activities. The Chazon Ish explained his advice by saying that, in essence, Torah combined with chesed, especially chesed to the exalted level that Rav Moshe Shia had perfected, is an “andere Torah” – the Torah itself is on a different level due to the fact that the learner has an additional component of chesed to complement his Torah learning.


Rav Moshe Shia was a moiredige Yid. Once, a heavy snowstorm hit the city. The entire city closed down. Someone who knew Rav Moshe Shia had a car. Rav Moshe Shia asked him to drive through the snow. They came to an apartment…and I can’t begin to describe the poverty. The ceiling was leaking and the freezing wind was blowing in. Rav Moshe Shia came and brought them everything – blankets, clothing, food…


Rav Moshe Shia, together with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, quietly and discreetly performed the most altruistic, remarkable chesed endeavors. It was all done so quietly and discreetly that most of what that they did will never be known.


Where did you learn in Bnei Brak?


There was a yeshiva called Ohel Yaakov. Rav Chaim Brim served as rosh yeshiva for many years. Many of its talmidim were bochurim from Yerushalmi families who came to Bnei Brak to absorb the Torah atmosphere there. When I came, Rav Chaim Brim had already left and was serving as rosh yeshiva in the Skverer Yeshiva in America. Nevertheless, when he returned for bein hazemanim, he would come and deliver a shiur. There were true gedolei Torah who learned there. I remember once, Rav Chaim Brim came to deliver a shiur, and when he saw the distinguished talmidei chachomim who would be listening, he began to recite the tefillah of “Hineni he’oni mima’as” that the baal tefillah says before Mussaf on the Yomim Noraim. He felt unworthy of delivering a shiur to such an distinguished assemblage.


Once the shiur started, it was just amazing. There were kolos uvrokim, figurative thunder and lightning. Rav Chaim presented a sevarah and the talmidei chachomim in the audience began arguing. Rav Chaim was an expert at creating a “matzav,” a situation where there was a raging “war of Torah.” Everybody was swept up by it.


Where did you learn in Yerushalayim?


First in Yeshiva Eitz Chaim and then by Rav Dovid Soloveitchik. In Eitz Chaim, my rebbi was Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher. Learning by Rav Yisroel Yaakov was truly an experience. He taught us in practice and he taught us by example. Rav Yisroel Yaakov would enter the bais medrash in the afternoon at about 3:30. The first thing he did was learn 8-10 blatt Gemara by himself. When he finished, he would walk around to us young bochurim and ask, “Nu, how did you learn this Tosafos?” That is how he guided us and taught us how to learn. He would point out where we had gone wrong in our analysis of the Gemara or meforshim and show us how to look at a Rashi and a Tosafos. He was among the gaonei hador, but the pashtus with which he talked in learning with us was amazing.


I also learned for many years under Rav Dovid and he became one of my closest rabbeim.


As a Yerushalmi who has seen more than one battle over the purity of Yerushalayim, what do you make of the latest anti-chareidi incitement that has swept over the country?


It is an attack on Netanyahu. The left realizes that it will be impossible to best Netanyahu in any way other than to throw the whole populace into a hate-filled frenzy against his coalition partners, the chareidim. The chareidim are his weak link in the chain. Otherwise, they feel he will coast to victory once again in the next election.


Why have you come to America?


Several years ago, I realized that there are many yungeleit who are having an extremely difficult time getting into a kollel. Today, in Eretz Yisroel, it is not easy to gain entry into a kollel and certainly not easy to get on the payroll, especially in the middle of a z’man. For example, a chosson who gets married in the middle of a z’man will not be accepted by most kollelim for several months after his wedding. This can have a terrible impact on his ruchniyus.


Even those who are not chassanim often have a hard time finding kollelim, and thus, an untenable situation has been created where hundreds of yungeleit who need kollelim have no place to learn and no normal misgeres. Needless to say, this is a very difficult situation for anyone. Certainly, for a young man not long after his wedding, it can have very serious ramifications.


I have therefore established Kollel Hashutfim, whose mission is to ensure that anyone who needs a kollel should be able to join our kollel.


Are you rosh kollel?


Yes. I lead the kollel both in the ruchniyus and the gashmiyus aspects.


I suppose you did not come to America for the ruchniyus…


Providing funds for the yeshiva is also ruchniyus! But you are right. I wish I would be back in Eretz Yisroel saying chaburos and overseeing the learning of the yungeleit. Unfortunately, the present economic situation combined with cuts in government funding has forced me to pick up the wandering stick on behalf of the kollel. It is my fervent hope that I will be able to raise enough to cover our debt so that I can get back to the bais medrash and the yungeleit.


Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to the Yated and for sharing your stories and insights.




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