Once in a while, I have occasion to attend a chasunah graced by the presence of Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, the venerated rosh yeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva. Whenever I see him, I am always mesmerized by the sight of this great man greeting everyone who crosses his path and interacting with people from a wide range of backgrounds. It has struck me that while Rav Shmuel’s stature is far beyond us in many ways, and many of us cannot hope to attain his lofty level of Torah knowledge or avodas Hashem, we can all certainly learn from the way he interacts with others. In many ways, Rav Shmuel’s interpersonal conduct can serve as a model of dedication to kiddush Hashem.
Over the course of a 25-year period, four of my brothers learned at the Philadelphia Yeshiva at various times. In order to gain some insight into this aspect of Rav Shmuel’s greatness, I turned to them to develop a better picture of the rosh yeshiva’s attitudes and hanhagos.
Rav Shmuel is known for noticing everyone around him, greeting everyone he encounters, and showering attention even on the people who others might consider insignificant. Is this something that he has taken upon himself as his personal mission as a gadol b’Yisroel or is it also a form of behavior that he expects of his talmidim?
“There is no question that the rosh yeshiva teaches us to look past ourselves and to think about others,” one of my brothers replied. “In almost every shmuess he delivers, he exhorts us to contemplate what we are able to do for other people and to keep the needs of others in our thoughts. We have all had experiences in which we were walking down the hall when the rosh yeshiva suddenly stopped us and asked, ‘What are you thinking about?’ We have learned to be prepared for that question in advance. I never understood it to mean that the rosh yeshiva expected us to be thinking about the sugya we were learning at all times. I felt that he didn’t want us to feel that we were isolated, in our own individual bubbles, but rather to be thinking about the people around us.”
“I had a different understanding,” another brother interjected. “I thought it means that the rosh yeshiva just wants his talmidim to be thinking at all times. That is what it means to be an eved Hashem.”
Do you feel that the rosh yeshiva’s unique conduct has filtered through to the bochurim? Would you say that there is anything about the bochurim in the yeshiva that stands out as a unique attribute?
“As a former Philly bochur myself, I would say are there many unique things about the bochurim,” one brother said. “There is one thing, though, that stands out in my mind: Whenever we went to the washing station in the yeshiva, we always found that the cups were already filled. The rosh yeshiva always appreciated when the bochurim would make sure that they refilled the cups after they used them as a chesed for the next people who would use the sinks. That eventually became the standard conduct in the yeshiva. Recently, I visited the yeshiva and I checked if this was still happening. Sure enough, all the cups were still full.”
What other expectations does the rosh yeshiva have of his talmidim?
“He always asks the bochurim in the yeshiva to dress neatly and to maintain a dignified appearance. He admonishes his talmidim to make sure that they do not appear slovenly or unkempt when they walk in the streets. He even insists that the bochurim wear their hats with the brims down, which is considered more dignified. In addition, he teaches his talmidim to wear their hats and jackets whenever they are outdoors, even on the short walk from their dormitory rooms to the bais medrash. Aside from the subject of attire, he teaches the bochurim other hakpados as well, such as avoiding walking on grass and ruining its appearance, whether it is on yeshiva property or it belongs to others, and putting away seforim after they are used, rather than leaving them scattered throughout the bais medrash in a disrespectful fashion.”
What is the underlying message of all of this?
“The rosh yeshiva’s message is that we represent the Torah, and that is a major responsibility and our sacred mission at all times.”
My brothers echoed my observation that Rav Shmuel treats every human being with respect, regardless of the person’s origins or status in society. On that note, they had several stories to tell.
Recently, Rav Shmuel was visiting a camp, and the counselors brought a group of campers with special needs to meet him. As the campers were introduced to the rosh yeshiva, one of the girls proudly announced, “My brother’s name is also Shmuel!” Her counselor was horrified at the comment, but the rosh yeshiva did not miss a beat. “Yes, isn’t it a beautiful name?” he replied.
The rosh yeshiva’s interactions with non-Jews are also quite remarkable. He was once walking in the street with a bochur after a snowstorm had deposited a thick blanket of snow on the streets of Philadelphia. When a large snow plow began making its way down the street, the rosh yeshiva turned and waved to the driver, gesturing to express his thanks.
On another occasion, he noticed an African American girl shoveling the snow around a fire hydrant. The rosh yeshiva approached her and asked, “Did anyone ask you to do this?”
“No,” she replied.
“It’s extremely kind and thoughtful of you to be doing it,” the rosh yeshiva complimented her.
“Once, he was walking in the street with a bochur, and there were two black teenagers having a boxing match further down the road,” one of my brothers related. “The teens had removed their shirts for their fight, and had left them on the ground a few feet away. When they noticed Rav Shmuel approaching, they respectfully stopped their fight and hurried to gather their discarded shirts, which were closer to the rosh yeshiva. Rav Shmuel told the bochur who was accompanying him to bring the shirts to the teenagers in order to spare them the extra effort of retrieving them. Then he greeted them and made small talk about their families and jobs.”
Has the rosh yeshiva ever made any explicit comments regarding the importance of greeting non-Jews?
“I was once learning Orchos Chaim L’haRosh with the rosh yeshiva,” one brother replied, “and when we reached the subject of greeting others, he asked me, ‘Do you say good morning to everyone?’
“‘I try,’ I replied.
“‘You must do it all the time,’ he admonished me, ‘even to goyim.’”
In advance of every bein hazemanim, my brother added, Rav Shmuel delivers a shmuess about the importance of increasing kavod Shomayim at all times. “He always reminds the bochurim that Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz used to admonish his own talmidim to be very careful not to create a chillul Hashem. Rav Boruch Ber’s talmidim were men of tremendous stature in their own rights, and if even they had to be warned about this, then we must certainly be very cautious.”
What aspect of being a talmid of Rav Shmuel do you feel has had the greatest impact on you?
“Much more than the shmuessen that the rosh yeshiva delivers, it is the fact that he teaches by example,” my brother asserted. “Everything he teaches us is reflected in his own conduct. Just as he admonishes us to think about others, he himself does the same. I have seen him approach a singer at a wedding to ask for his business card, merely to make him feel good about himself. His actions speak to me even more than his words.”
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Mifal Kiddush Hashem has released two books published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications: Living Kiddush Hashem, a comprehensive guide to the mitzvah and mission of kiddush Hashem, and Making Hashem Proud, a book of stories and lessons for children. For additional materials, contact firstname.lastname@example.org