How Do You Measure the Success of a Torah Pioneer?

This past week, Klal Yisroel suffered the enormous loss of two remarkable Torah pioneers, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, longtime editor of The Jewish Observer, and Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of South Shore and the architect of Yiddishkeit in the Five Towns of Long Island.

Each of these pioneers operated in his particular area, but the common denominator between them is that their accomplishments have become such a part of the mainstream that most people in today’s world don’t even realize the magnitude of their revolution. Perhaps the greatest tribute to a Torah pioneer is that his groundbreaking work has been so successful that people cannot even contemplate a world without what their trailblazing accomplishments.

Setting the Standard

In the case of Rabbi Wolpin, he took the helm of The Jewish Observer in 1970 at the behest of his rosh yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky. At that point, The Jewish Observer was a relatively new magazine with a limited readership. In his nearly forty years at the helm of The Jewish Observer, Rabbi Wolpin succeeded in making it the address for the responsible Torah viewpoint on all of the burning issues facing the frum community.

As a child and a teen, I remember how much we appreciated the monthly arrival of The Jewish Observer. Those were the days before the Yated or any other responsible frum publications. The Jewish Observer’s serious tackling of hashkofah issues, biographies of gedolim, and timely and timeless reading really set the standard for everything that followed.

Today, in 2017, it is hard to contemplate what things were like in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. What The Jewish Observer did was raise generations of young people on Torah hashkofah and Torah ideals. As the mouthpiece of Torah Jewry, it imbued our collective community with the pride and confidence in its mission and vision that had been lacking until then.

Rabbi Wolpin was the consummate osek betzorchei tzibbur l’sheim Shomayim. He never made the publication about himself. He never took the spotlight. He used the publication to spotlight issues, not people. I can’t say this with definitiveness, but to my memory, as a reader every month since the mid-1970s, I don’t remember ever noticing Rabbi Wolpin’s picture in the magazine.

He never engaged in sensationalist hero worship. He was very discerning about the issues that the magazine focused on. In the late 1990s, I graduated from being an avid reader of The Jewish Observer to an occasional contributor, and I had the zechus to get to know Rabbi Wolpin on a personal and professional level. With Rabbi Wolpin, there was no demarcation line between personal and professional. He was a person with absolutely no airs. He was real.

A Man with a Mission and a Man of Torah

Comfortable in his own skin, Rabbi Wolpin did not have to try to project confidence and decisiveness, because he was naturally confident. He understood his mission and he understood the limitations of working within a multi-layered organization with varied interests. With savlonus, good nature, good cheer and a great sense of humor, he managed to put together a magazine that was both relevant and engaging, while not insulting to one’s intelligence. The feeling that I had as a relatively young writer was that working with him was not only a zechus, but a pleasure.

Another thing that came through when working together with Rabbi Wolpin was that although he was devoted heart and soul to the publication, it wasn’t the only thing in his life and it wasn’t what defined him. He had a rich life of diligent and constant Torah learning, longtime chavrusos and friends, family members, classes that he taught, and hachnosas orchim with varied guests whom he and his wife constantly invited, thus making his life and his sippuk hanefesh multi-dimensional.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that The Jewish Observer didn’t define him, his pioneering role in the renaissance of Torah journalism and the written word of Torah thought cannot be overemphasized.

“Asisi Shlichusi”

Rabbi Wolpin’s amazing success is what ultimately led to the suspension of publication of The Jewish Observer. What he had pioneered had gone mainstream to the extent that most people didn’t even recognize what the frum world had once been without The Jewish Observer. They didn’t even realize the impact of The Jewish Observer when it was the only voice of Torah Jewry out there.

Rabbi Wolpin, due to his humility and self-deprecation, would never consider himself a visionary and Torah pioneer, but that is what he was. He certainly will be able to say, “Asisi shlichusi.” He left the world of chinuch of children in 1970 in order to contribute, as Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky put it, to the chinuch of adults. He educated generations and imbued them with the Torah viewpoint or “Torah glasses,” as Rav Mordechai Gifter would say. If Rabbi Wolpin would read these words, he would first tell me not to print them. He would then give me his wry smile, shrug his shoulders, and wonder what the fuss is all about.

Transforming a Midbar

The second Torah pioneer who Klal Yisroel lost last week was Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky. For more than sixty years, Rav Binyomin was involved in his pioneering role in creating the infrastructure for the burgeoning Torah community that has become the Five Towns as we know it today.

He started in the mid 1950s by building the elementary school of Yeshiva of South Shore and TAG school for girls. With the constant guidance of his father, Rav Kamenetzky literally changed the paradigm for Jewish education on Long Island. He was a rov, a principal and a Torah builder, and there was no task too menial for him in his avodas hakodesh of creating what one could deem a yeish mei’ayin.

I first got to see Rav Binyomin in action about 34 years ago, when I went to the Five Towns as one of the founding members of the yeshiva gedolah established by his son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Knobel, who had been my rebbi a few years earlier when he was a maggid shiur at Yeshiva Ner Yisroel of Toronto. The architect of the yeshiva was Rav Binyomin, who understood that a community could only thrive and grow in Torah if there was advanced limud haTorah within its confines.

From the Fingers of One Hand to Numerous

In the mid-1980s, when the yeshiva started, the surrounding area was a veritable midbar with respect to advanced Torah learning. I remember periodically going to daven Mincha in the large shul. It was a shul with hundreds of members, yet the number of people attending the one Daf Yomi shiur could be counted on one hand.

Fast forward three decades. The yeshiva has gone through incarnations and changes, but the bottom line is that the Five Towns is teeming with Torah. There are yeshivos and kollelim, and the shuls are filled with sounds of Torah study and shiurei Torah. All of those are thanks to the visionary leadership of Rav Binyomin, who realized that in order for a community to thrive, there must first be chinuch for young children followed by advanced Torah learning.

Don’t think things were easy. I remember seeing, on numerous occasions, Rav Binyomin being subjected to bizyonos and mockery, but he had this way of either not noticing or acting like he didn’t notice and just soldiering on.

He never stopped.

Until just a few months ago, he was still active and helping the Torah empire that he built stay afloat. He found nothing more rewarding than accomplishing on behalf of Yiddishkeit. He remained vibrant, cheerful and optimistic, despite suffering setbacks over the years.

From a Mission to Mainstream

How did he do it? He was a pioneer. He believed in his mission and looked at obstacles as temporary deterrents to be overcome with hard work, perseverance and, above all, a deep, abiding belief in his mission.

I remember the first time I visited his house at 357 Barnard Avenue in Cedarhurst. It was a Friday night and we went for an oneg Shabbos after the seudah. He was in his element, jovial and telling us stories about learning in Europe as a child and then coming to the midbar that was the Five Towns in the 1950s and building from scratch.

I visited that house numerous times since and it was always the same. He looked to the past for direction, but his focus was always on the future, on what he could still do.

The fact that today the Five Towns is a successful, burgeoning frum, spiritually developed community, to the extent that most don’t even remember that it wasn’t always that way, is the greatest tribute to Rav Binyomin Kamenetzky’s pioneering revolution.

The revolution has gone mainstream.

Rav Binyomin Kamenetzky and Rav Nisson Wolpin were each Torah pioneers in their own area of achievement. They had the singular privilege to live long enough to see their pioneering efforts and the revolutions that they each spearheaded become mainstream. What a zechus!

Yehi zichrom boruch.