An Interview with Rav Shmuel Kaufman, Legendary Rebbi for More than 50 Years at Yeshiva Bais Yehuda of Detroit

Not only has Rav Shmuel transformed the lives of the numerous Jewish children entrusted to his care, but, because of the positive exposure to Yiddishkeit that they encountered in his classes, they went on to build exemplary Torah families. In addition, countless of his talmidim themselves became mechanchim, mechanchos, menahelim and menahalos who have in turn taken the opportunity to transmit the Yiddishkeit and love of Yiddishkeit that they received from Rav Shmuel to future generations of talmidim… and the chain continues…

 

The Yated is honored to present this interview with Rabbi Kaufman wherein he shares with us some of his contagious enthusiasm for chinuch along with vital guidance and instructions in how to reach Yiddishe kinderlach, Jewish children, today and everyday in a way that will last…for eternity.

 

FROM PLAYING BALL WITH GENTILES TO PROMINENTPOSEK!

 

When did you begin your career in chinuch?

 

Rav Shmuel Kaufman (RSK): I began teaching at Yeshiva Bais Yehuda more than 55 years ago, in 1956. In truth, however, I was informally involved in chinuch long before that.

 

Can you explain?

 

RSK: Sure. I don’t know how to say this, but already from a very young age – even before my bar mitzvah, I felt an inner need to be mashpiah, to impart Yiddishkeit to others. I am not sure where that urge came from. Possibly it came from my maternal grandfather, Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman (All for the Boss), but it was not from him directly because I didn’t really know him. He moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1939 when I was about five years old. Nevertheless, I am certain that it was probably in his zechus.

 

I’ll tell you a story. Once, when I was a bochur walking in Williamsburg, I saw a young bochur with a yarmulke on his head, playing ball together with a group of goyim. After the game I went over to him and shmuessed with him. It turned out that he did not have a father and there was really no one around to guide his spiritual growth. So I said to him, “You are coming with me to Telshe in Cleveland!” He came with me. After I had left Telshe, I heard that he returned to New York and was planning on attending a certain yeshiva that I did not think would be good for him. I jumped into my car and drove from Detroit to New York, (a 13 hour drive at that time. Ed.) where I spoke with him and convinced him to go instead to Lakewood. He ultimately developed a very close relationship with Rav Aharon Kotler and is today a very prominent talmid chochom and posek.

 

You drove all the way from Detroit to New York just to speak with him?!

 

RSK: Yes. I felt that he should go to Lakewood.

 

You mentioned that you went to Telshe in Cleveland. Were you mashpia there too?

 

RSK: After Torah Vodaas, I went to learn in the Telshe Yeshiva of Cleveland. There too, I asked for the largest room in the dormitory. They put a bunch of kids who were much younger in my room and I was mashpiah on them.

 

How did you ultimately begin your formal teaching career?

 

RSK: The year before I came to Detroit, I together with a few friends, went to Los Angeles where I taught and was a counselor in a summer camp that was under the auspices of Rav Simcha Wasserman, zt”l. What can I say? That camp was an eye-opener for me. It was the first time that I realized that there are so many Jewish children out there who weren’t frum. Most of the children in that camp came from homes that were not Shabbos observant. They knew very little about Yiddishkeit but were very receptive to it. Although I had known that most Jews were not religious, this was the first time I internalized the fact and the repercussions for the next generations.

 

Boruch Hashem, we were very successful that summer. The kids loved us. Rav Simcha was so impressed that he offered me a teaching job in Los Angeles for the coming year. I did not know what to do. I called my uncle, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg and asked for an eitzah. He told me that I should not take the job. As a child I had been inflicted with polio and ever since, I have suffered from a limp. He felt that it would be too difficult with shidduchim to be out in Los Angeles, so I declined the job.

 

“I LOVE CHILDREN AND I LOVE BEING MASHPIAH!” “YOU ARE HIRED!”

 

How did you end up in Detroit?

 

RSK: Rav Yosef Elias, who was then the principal in Yeshiva Bais Yehuda, came to Telshe in Cleveland. I went to talk with him because I was interested in a job in chinuch. I had no formal experience at the time and Rabbi Elias asked me, “What makes you think you are cut out for chinuch and that you will be a good rebbi?”

 

“I’ll tell you the truth,” I told him, “I LOVE children and I LOVE being mashpiah!”

 

Upon hearing that Rabbi Elias exclaimed, “You are hired!”

 

You were a bochur when you began teaching in Bais Yehuda?

 

RSK: Yes. At that time, most of the rebbeim in Bais Yehuda were bochurim. It was an outstanding staff of dedicated mechanchim. There were, of course, the older principals and founders of the school, who were married, Rav Sholem Goldstein and Rav Avrohom Abba Freedman. Then there were the two Flam brothers, Reb Yisroel and Reb Sholem, Reb Shnayer Weinberg, and others, all of whom went on to become great mechanchim and menahelim.

 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHINUCH THEN AND NOW

 

What was it like teaching in 1956? What is the difference between chinuch then and chinuch now?

 

RSK: The yesodos, the underlying foundations of chinuch are the same, but certainly the situation differed greatly from the situation today. When I came to Detroit, 30% of the kids in the school were frum and 70% were not. In many ways, the school back then had to serve as a kiruv school. Today, things are very different – everyone is frum.

 

I remember making up songs that really caught on and were mashpiah tremendously. I had one song that went “Yeshiva is the place for me!” There was another song that began with the words “Shabbos is the day of rest!” These songs that we sang every week had a tremendous impact on the young kids. It gave Yiddishkeit meaning and at the same time made it fun. Chinuch and kiruv were inseparable in those days.

 

What grade did you teach?

 

RSK: For most of my career, I taught seventh grade boys. Believe it or not, my first class, however, was third grade girls!

 

I remember coming to Detroit with my friend, Reb Yosef Moseson. There were two grades available, one boys’ class and one girls’ class. He absolutely insisted that he could never teach girls. I didn’t want to teach the girls’ class either, but I did him the favor and let him teach the boys.

 

So did it work out?

 

RSK: It was morahdig! The girls were great. They so wanted to learn. Everything I taught them they absorbed like sponges. I will never forget when the Jewish Federation of Detroit came to inspect the school one day. It was a Friday and I was singing Lecha Dodi with the girls. You know the song, “Lecha Dodi, cheerry beery bum, Likras Kallah, cheerry beery bum!” The girls loved that song and sang it with such gusto that the Federation members looked amazed. I just wanted those girls to love Yiddishkeit!

 

THE PONOVEZHER ROV: “IF THEY GO TO YESHIVA, I PROMISE THAT THEY WILL MERIT TO SEE MOSHIACH!”

 

So what was different between then compared to now?

 

RSK: Like I said, in those days, a rebbi didn’t stop at the door of the classroom. I remember driving kids to camp in the Catskills, there and back. The parents didn’t understand the importance of camp and were not willing to invest in it or bring their children there so the rebbi did it all.

 

Bais Yehuda had an afternoon school at the time as well. The afternoon school catered to children in public schools whose parents wanted them to have a minimal Jewish education. I must say, some of my greatest success stories came from those afternoon students. There was one kid in the afternoon school, such a special neshamah, who is today a menahel of one of the largest schools in America!

 

I remember when the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahanaman, was once in Detroit. I decided to take my class from the afternoon school to see the tzaddik. Who could know what kind of a hashpa’ah he could have? I packed them into my car and we went to where he was staying. Some of those children I felt I could probably prevail upon to enroll in the day school. I told the Ponovezher Rov that I felt some might ultimately attend the day school. I asked him if he could say something to help convince them. He told me in Yiddish which I translated into English, “Tell them that if they go to yeshiva, I promise that they will merit to see Moshiach!”

 

We were surprised. Nevertheless, one kid piped up, “And what about you rebbi (referring to the Ponovezher Rov), will you see Moshiach?”

 

The Rov smiled and said, “I won’t be alive anymore!” The children then asked the Rov, “Maybe you can tell us when Moshiach will be coming?” Still smiling, the Rov did not reply.

 

Two of those children were brothers and they enrolled in Bais Yehuda Day School. Eventually, I sent them to learn in Telshe, Chicago. I remember once, when they were in Chicago, I was told that they were looking to leave the yeshiva. I got on the next plane to Chicago and Boruch Hashem, they ended up staying. Today, they both have large families and many of their children are kollel yungeleit.

 

A LETTER THAT SAYS IT ALL

 

So what is different today?

 

RSK: Today, all of the children in the schools are from frum families so you don’t have some of the more dramatic stories that you had back then. In truth, however, kiruv kerovim, reaching out to frum kids, is just as important and, perhaps, even more important than kiruv rechokim. Rebbeim have no idea how they can impact a frum child! I will share with you a letter that I just received. This letter is from a former talmid, a frum boy from a frum family who learned in my class years ago. The letter speaks for itself:

 

Dear Rabbi Kaufman,

 

While going through some of my old papers, I discovered an article I wrote for The Jewish Press about 10 years ago. At the time, The Jewish Press was soliciting articles on the topic of “Who was your favorite teacher and why?” and I decided to write one about you. Unfortunately, for various technical and silly reasons, I never sent it to The Jewish Press – a decision which I greatly regret today and for which I apologize. Nonetheless, when I discovered the article lying around somewhere recently, I thought, at the very least, that I should send it to you now. Reading it 10 years later, I realize that my English and manner of expression leave much to be desired. Nonetheless, I did not attempt to fix the original article. I wanted it to sound exactly as I wrote it when I was 18. I hope you like it:

 

The best teacher I ever had and the one I owe everlasting gratitude to is Rabbi Kaufman, may he live and be well, who taught me in 7th grade in yeshiva Beth Yehuda in Detroit. The year I entered his class, my main interests in life, together with the rest of my class’s, were mainly topics like Grant Hill and Barry Sanders, while serious topics like learning Gemara came second. All this changed that year. Within a month we were all “converted” and Gemara was actually exciting.

 

Rabbi Kaufman brought the Gemara alive to us and made it appear as if we were actually asking and answering the gemara’s questions. We would argue with each other until we would all have to gather around Rabbi Kaufman’s desk to figure out a Ritva “together” to solve all of our questions. Then we would invite the principal to our classroom to tell him what we had just discovered. We learned that entire year without ever having a test! And this is in 7th grade!

 

But this isn’t what made Rabbi Kaufman so unique. When he felt it was the time for it, he would stop learning and tell us a story about tzaddikim or about his own family (his grandfather is the hero in “All for the Boss”). Indeed, Rabbi Kaufman is known throughout the school as an excellent storyteller, and all classes are rewarded to a story by Rabbi Kaufman if they are good.

 

On other occasions, he felt it necessary to talk to us from the bottom of his heart about Yiddishkeit. Some of these “schmoozes” had a tremendous effect on me. I remember once when he tried to impress upon us the importance of not watching TV and movies and how one can visibly see holiness on the faces of tzaddikim which came from not watching TV. This inspired me so much that then and there I decided to drastically cut down on my own movie watching. This is but one example.

 

Rabbi Kaufman also inspired me with basic yiras shomayim. When I, or any other student, would return to the classroom from the bathroom, Rabbi Kaufman used to scream out in his own very special way, “Did you say asher yatzar?” and if the answer was yes, it was followed up by, “… with kavonahh?” To this very day, when I make a brochah, I actually think about what I’m saying, rather than just rattling it off as I did previously.

 

But it wasn’t even all these things that made Rabbi Kaufman so special to me. It was the closeness I felt to him that allowed all the aforementioned to take place. I could tell he cared for me. If he saw I didn’t understand the Gemara in class, he would call me on the phone that night to learn with me (without me ever asking him to). If I didn’t have lunch one day, he would take me to pizza.

 

Kids in my class would fight over who would get the privilege of getting Rabbi Kaufman his coffee, washing out his breakfast bowl and opening the door for him. Then, if we were good (and it was hard not to be in his class) he would take us out for a drive in his car during lunch…

 

This is what made Rabbi Kaufman so special to me and this is what enabled him to have such an effect on me and on so many other people. Since it’s impossible to thank you correctly, I’ll just say simply, thank you for everything and may you continue to teach and touch the hearts of so many more students for many more and healthy years to come. Amen.

 

You have inspired thousands of talmidim in your life. What is your formula?

 

RSK: I once asked the Ponovezher Rov on one of his visits to Detroit, “I am a rebbi. What is the best way to reach American children?” The Rov replied emphatically, “Nohr mit gutskeit, nohr mit gutskeit, nohr mit gutskeit!” These words made such an impression on me and became my motto – “Nohr mit gutskeit – only with goodness” with positive reinforcement and simcha.

 

One of the things I decided to do immediately when I began my chinuch career was to smile at every single child whom I would encounter in the hall. You have no idea what a genuine smile can accomplish. It makes children feel so good!

 

Needless to say, they always looked forward to being in my class. In my class I taught them with enthusiasm. I loved them and loved them and loved them with my entire heart and soul. I told them stories. I knew that their view of Yiddishkeit was being formed and was dependant on how it was presented to them. I was the catalyst for many of them to continue learning in yeshiva. Even if they didn’t end up in yeshiva, perhaps, because of me, they might one day send their own children to yeshiva or otherwise have a positive outlook towards Yiddishkeit.

 

I understood that it was possible that the type of families these children would eventually establish might be influenced by my seventh grade class.

 

THE REMARKABLE STORIES YOU WITNESS IN CHINUCH

 

Have you had any interesting stories in your chinuch career that you can share with us?

 

RSK: There are so many great stories. I don’t know where to start. I will just tell you two of them that immediately come to mind.

 

I spent most of my chinuch career in Detroit other than a four year period after I married when I taught in Elizabeth, NJ, so that we could be near my wife’s mother who lived there. I have to tell you the following story from that period just so that you should understand how wonderful it is to be a rebbi and what rewards you reap.

 

In September of 1962, Shabbos Shuva, I told four boys in my class, “Tell your parents that you are going to Lakewood with me for Shabbos!”

 

So we went to Lakewood and spent a tremendously uplifting Shabbos there. At shalosh seudos we heard a fiery shmuess from the rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler. After shalosh seudos, I looked for my boys but I could only find two out of four. I took those two boys up to the beis medrash to Rav Aharon and told Rav Aharon that I was teaching in Elizabeth and these two talmidim of mine wanted a brocha. Rav Aharon was very tired after having exerted himself in the shmuess. He was already very sick at the time and two weeks later, on Chol Hamoed Sukkos, he was hospitalized… and never returned home. Rav Aharon asked the boys, “For what do you want a brocha?” The first bochur responded, “For anything the rosh yeshiva wishes.” Rav Aharon replied, “Zolst du zein gebentched – you should be blessed.”

 

Turning to the second bochur, Rav Aharon again asked what sort of brocha he would like. The boy answered, “I want a brocha that I should be able to learn.” In Yiddish, Rav Aharon told me “Tell him that for learning a brocha doesn’t help. You have to horoveh, toil yourself.”

 

Suddenly the boy began to shout at the top of his lungs, “I’LL LEARN, I’LL LEARN, YOU GIMME THE BROCHA! GIMME THE BROCHA!”

 

I was mortified! At first Rav Aharon was shocked but then he stood up and his face wreathed in a smile, said to me, “Tell him that if he will really toil and learn with all of his ability, he will become one of the gedolim of Klal Yisroel and he will be a boki in kol haTorah kulo – the entire Torah.” By this time the whole yeshiva (which was small at the time) heard the commotion, had gathered around and answered a resounding amen to the rosh yeshiva’s brocha.

 

Do you know what happened to that bochur? He began to learn with tremendous hasmodah. He would come to my house to learn every Shabbos. I hadn’t even finished my cholent and he would already be there, ready to learn. From then on, I ceased to sleep on Shabbos afternoon. This bochur wanted to learn. He went on to become one of the best bochurim in the Philadelphia Yeshiva after which he learned in Ponovezh. Today he is a rosh kollel in Eretz Yisroel. When he went to visit Rav Shach, Rav Shach would stand up meloh komaso – to his full height, in his honor. Before he entered my class, his entire Gemara learning had consisted of two blatt Gemara… today he is a true godol b’Torah, who knows all of Shas bi’iyun!

 

THE AMAZING STORY OF *LARRY’S FATHER AND THE BLATT GEMARA

 

When I was a rebbi in Elizabeth, many of the children in my class came from homes that tragically did not keep Shabbos. I once spoke to my class about the importance of keeping Shabbos and how one must be moser nefesh to keep Shabbos. I was then asked by one of my talmidim, “What happens if your parents insist that you should not keep Shabbos?”

 

I explained that such a scenario is a possuk in the Torah that says that if your parents instruct you to be mechallel Shabbos you can’t listen to them. I went on to tell them that even if they get punished, that will only happen once or twice, the most three times and then their parents will leave them alone. At the time I would invite the boys in my class to come over to my house every week and we would talk and learn together. After we finished, I would take them home.

 

There was one boy in my class named Larry. Larry whispered to me, “Rebbi, take me home last.” I did as he asked. When we were alone in the car, he asked me to pull over because he wanted to show me something. I pulled the car over and he pulled up his sleeve. His entire arm was black and blue. “Larry,” I exclaimed worriedly, “what happened?”

 

He told me that on Shabbos, his mother had cooked a certain dish and he refused to eat it, explaining that he had learned from me that it was prohibited to eat something cooked on Shabbos until after Shabbos. His mother called his father. His father, a physical education teacher, took off his belt to hit him. Larry told his father that he was willing to be moser nefesh al kiddush Hashem for Shabbos and he would not eat. This so infuriated his father that he screamed, “Is that how crazy you are!” 
 

I told Larry, “When your father asks for forgiveness, don’t forgive him.” Looking up at me wryly, Larry replied, “My father will never ask for forgiveness.”

 

“Let’s wait and see,” I ended off.

 

A short while later, Larry came to me and said, “You are not going to believe this Rebbi, but my father asked me to forgive him and I said no.”

 

I then told him, “Larry, you have to forgive him but first tell me, what are two things that you do, that really get your father mad?”

 

Larry replied, “My yarmulke and my tzitzis.”

 

“Tell your father that he must wear a yarmulke and tzitzis and if he answers negatively, make a compromise and settle for one.”

 

Sure enough, Larry’s father began wearing a yarmulke when Larry was home. He eventually became a baal teshuvah and began to observe mitzvos.

 

Do you know what happened later, when I was already in Detroit? Larry went to learn in Staten Island and one day he got a telephone call from his father who was crying like a baby. “Larry, come home!” Larry borrowed a car and drove home to find his father still crying. Worried he asked his father “What is the matter?”

 

His father pulls out a sefer Chomas Daas, Fortress of Faith in English and shows Larry that the Chofetz Chaim writes what happens to a person if he dies and goes up to heaven without even the knowledge of one blatt Gemara. “What will I do?” sobbed the father.

 

Larry asked his father, “Dad, how old are you?”

 

“63.”

 

Larry continued, “OK, there is time. On Sundays you don’t work. Why don’t you come to yeshiva on Sundays and I will get some of the guys to learn with you and they will teach you a blatt Gemara!”

 

It took Larry’s father four years, yes, four years, to learn that one blatt thoroughly. Rav Moshe Feinstein, the Rosh Yeshiva of Staten Island, fathered him on that one blatt and Rav Moshe told the bochurim to make a siyum with singing and dancing in celebration of his accomplishment. At the siyum, Rav Moshe cited the words of Chazal that a person can acquire Olam Haba with one hour. Rav Moshe paraphrased that Gemara and said a person can be koneh Olam Haba with one blatt Gemara! Rav Moshe continued and said that when he comes to the next world, that one blatt gemarah will be considered as if he had learned half of Shas!!

 

At the siyum, Larry’s father also spoke and said something very moving, “I was always afraid of dying but now that I learned a blatt Gemara, I have what to come to Olam Haba with and I am no longer afraid.”

 

Within a year after the siyum Larry’s father died!

 

Rav Moshe ruled that they should write on his matzeivah that “Here lies an adam choshuv me’od – a very distinguished man who served as a beacon of light to all of the bnei hayeshiva!

 

You see! These are the wonderful stories one can witness and take part in when one is in chinuch.

 

ADVICE FOR THOSE ENTERING CHINUCH

 

What advice would you give to people thinking about entering the chinuch field?

 

RSK: If you want to go into chinuch, you have to love every single child, even those who are chutzpadik, even those who behave obnoxiously. Show them that you love them and the chutzpah will disappear. It will melt away. Another critically important point is that if you want to go into chinuch, you have to love learning. You have to love the Gemara, you have to be genuinely excited about the Gemara yourself. When a child asks a good question, you have to say, “Wow! What a great kasha!” You can’t just say it without meaning it! You have to love Torah and the children have to see how excited you are, what a love Gemara you have, what an appreciation for Rashi you have. You can’t fake it. It must be genuine!

 

A rebbi can have such a hashpa’ah both for the good and the bad. I remember when I was a child, I had a rebbi who called me “KKK, an acronym for – Kaufman Klutz Kasha – Kaufman who has the klutz kasha – the foolish questions.” Do you know what such conduct can do to a kid?! It can push him away forever!

 

I remember one such question in class. The rebbi said, “That is a klutz kasha.” Do you know what I replied, “So give me a klutz teretz!” He kicked me out for that one. I was standing in the hall when Rav Dovid Bender, the menahel noticed me (it was not uncommon for me to be in the hall) and said, “Shmuel, what happened this time?” He was such a sweet man and when I told him what I had said, he burst out laughing.

 

The truth is, a rebbi can never ever tell a kid that he is asking a ‘klutz kasha’, because, you know what? At the beginning, a child may ask a ‘klutz kasha’ but if you validate it and then show him what the real pshat is and why the question is not a question, he will begin to ask real kashas. If you love learning and love the Gemara, you will be amazed at how the kids will start to love learning too! You know a good rebbi doesn’t even have to give tests. The kids will love to learn without tests!

 

Another thing is that a rebbi should not be afraid to give mussar if it is done with love. Any child in my class knew that they had to make brochos with kavonah. A child would return from the bathroom and I would ask him, “Did you make an asher yatzar?” If he said, “Yes,” I asked him “Did you mean what you said?” The same thing applied when it came to boreh nefoshos and other brochos. A rebbi’s job is to teach kids what is right and wrong and that means giving mussar when necessary. But that mussar must be given with love.

 

Are you still teaching?

 

RSK: One never stops teaching. My health does not permit me to have a class, but I still go around to all of the classrooms and speak to the children. I tell them stories and they love it. I have the distinct zechus and nachas to see two of my talmidim from Bais Yehuda, serve today as the menahelim of the school. The boys division is headed by Rav Yitzchok Grossbard and the girls division by Rav Zev Poss. It is such a nachas to see these talmidim that were in my class years ago, doing such a wonderful job leading the school.

 

I also do a bit of fundraising for the yeshiva. You know what I see? Every child who went through Bais Yehuda or was in my class has a really warm feeling for the school regardless of where he is today. This could only happen because the rabbeim in Bais Yehuda loved the children and loved learning!

 

Any final thoughts?

 

RSK: When I was in Toronto for my daughter’s and son-in-law’s sheva brochos, I happened to enter a local pizza store on erev Shabbos. I met an individual there who asked me my name. I told him my name and asked his name in turn. When he told me his name it sounded familiar. I asked him if his father had been a former rebbi of mine in Torah Vodaas. He replied affirmatively.

 

“I remember,” I told him, “that your father had a large family.”

 

“Yes,” the son replied, “he did.” And then he said something that caused a shudder to go through my body. He said, “Boruch Hashem, not one of them went into chinuch.”

 

And I say, Boruch Hashem, all of my children – sons and sons-in-law are in chinuch! There is no better occupation! Only in chinuch can you be mashpiah and participate in such life-altering stories as the ones I have recounted!

 

*name changed to protect anonymity