It was about 25 years ago when the phone call came. I was a young kollel yungerman living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Forest Avenue in Lakewood.
“Hello, this is Mrs. Appelbaum. I am calling on behalf of Yeshiva Ohr Chodosh, a local yeshiva located near you. Would it be possible for you to host some of our bochurim for a Shabbos seudah?”
After consulting with my wife, I agreed. Thus began a beautiful 25-year relationship with both the hanhalah and talmidim of the yeshiva, a connection that continued and continues long after the yeshiva closed its doors.
One of the greatest gifts of that relationship was getting to know Rav Yosef Gelbwachs, one of the roshei yeshiva. Rav Gelbwachs’ untimely passing last week brought a flood of memories with lessons for the future combined with sad feelings of dashed hopes.
Getting back to 25 years ago, the yeshiva sent several bochurim to our home and I found them to be wonderful, well-behaved kids. We had great conversations, they enjoyed the seudah, and most of them sang and were receptive to divrei Torah with practical lessons. Perhaps most importantly, they all thrived on warmth and attention.
In hosting the bochurim for seudos, something that we did regularly for more than fifteen years until our daughters were teenagers, the relationship was mutual: We gained so much and they gained so much. I became very close to the yeshiva and started volunteering to learn with some bochurim during night seder. Eventually, I began learning with bochurim during morning seder and second seder, and developed close relationships with the talmidim, with many of them continuing until today, as they are raising their own families.
In order to fully understand the magnitude of the loss of Rav Gelbwachs, we must first understand the revolution that he and his then partner and co-rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Ohr Chodosh, Rav Binyomin Friedland, created.
In those days, nearly three decades ago, there was virtually no framework for young bochurim who, for whatever reason, did not “make it” in the regular school/cheder and yeshiva system.
Many of the kids were wonderful, fine kids, whose self-esteem had taken a tremendous beating as a result. Some had mild learning disabilities, reading issues or difficult home situations, and some had simply not been given the requisite spiritual oxygen in their former framework to bloom, blossom and flourish.
Yeshiva Ohr Chodosh addressed these issues. It was a task that Rav Gelbwachs understood would not earn him any kovod, only bizyonos, but he and the rest of the hanhalah of Ohr Chodosh were not seeking kovod. They wanted to help kids – kids who were more difficult to help. They knew that what they did would often not be properly appreciated. Their successes would often not be appropriately recognized, and their so-called failures would be magnified. Nevertheless, they forged on because they were in the business of helping Hashem’s kids, not making a name for themselves.
How Did They Succeed?
How did they do it?
The old-fashioned way.
Rav Gelbwachs combined tremendous warmth and love with showing his talmidim that he believed in them and had expectations of them.
They made small classes, hired super-devoted, talented rabbeim, gave the talmidim a lot of individual attention, and got chavrusos to learn with them one on one. Suddenly, so many of them began to blossom in the way that parched flowers in a desert begin to blossom when they are given a little bit of water. Their approach was not as complicated as one would think: Give the talmidim a lot of warmth, give them some space, make some allowances, but convey expectations and red lines. Show them that academics is not everything, but try to get each talmid to accomplish as much as he can, and make Yiddishkeit and shemiras hamitzvos geshmak. Not a yoke, but geshmak.
Certainly, they were not equipped to handle bochurim with serious behavioral or psychological issues. Those talmidim were sent to frameworks that catered to them. They did cater to wonderful boys who hadn’t made it until that time. Rav Gelbwachs did this with tremendous devotion, with love, with caring, and with a sense of mission and achrayus. He undertook the thankless task of fundraising and the resultant bizyonos. He had absolutely no airs about him, ever. From the day that I got to know him until his last day, he symbolized true humility. He wasn’t trying to be humble; he truly didn’t think that he was remarkable in any way.
He had to deal with second-guessing from both the right and the left, and, because it was impossible to be successful with every talmid, especially those who had never tasted success in their lives, he would at times shoulder undeserved blame for those who weren’t matzliach.
Nevertheless, he continued with a mission. In hindsight, we can see how successful he and the rest of the hanhalah were. When I see so many of those talmidim who have established wonderful Torah families, who are amazing husbands, and who are wonderful and sensitive fathers who have gone on to become successful, productive and upstanding members of our communities, I am overwhelmed. If not for the fact that a Yid like Rav Yosef Gelbwachs cared, what would have happened to them?
In addition, so many amazing mechanchim cut their teeth at Ohr Chodosh volunteering for night seder programs. I vividly remember the great mechanech and rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Geldzahler, learning with bochurim at Ohr Chodosh during night seder and delivering divrei chizuk to them on Thursday nights.
An Unfair and Horrible Stigma
Now, I wish I could say that this story has a happy ending and everyone realized the value that this yeshiva had as it grew and grew and continued to flourish, but that is not what happened.
I don’t know if these horrible terms are still used, but I remember back then hearing people – foolish, small-minded individuals – describing the yeshiva in cruel, hurtful ways, such as “reject yeshiva” and “a yeshiva for kids with issues.” It wasn’t at all. The majority of these kids were wonderful Yiddishe neshomos, full of chein, who just needed a bit more attention and a bit more warmth, but sadly, in our hyper “looking over your shoulder” society, a stigma became attached with sending kids to that yeshiva. This led to difficulty with enrollment and difficulty with fundraising.
The rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Shaarei Yosher, Rav Yosef Rosenblum, was an enthusiastic supporter of the yeshiva and would often speak at their functions. He once paraphrased the posuk in Megillas Eicha that states, “Noshim rachmoniyos bishlu es yaldeiheim – Women full of mercy cooked their children.” He was referring to the fact that parents often refuse to send their children to a yeshiva like Ohr Chodosh even though that is what they desperately need, because they can’t bear the stigma of such a “reject place” attached to their wonderful family name. He would rail against such parents who, in his words, “view their children as an ornament, like a nice ring or a Cadillac.” Just like I must have a Cadillac to show my status, so must I have perfect kids to show my status. If the kid gets “cooked” as result, well…so be it.
I recall that when I would occasionally be asked to write an article or a letter on behalf of the yeshiva for PR, enrollment or fundraising purposes, the roshei yeshiva warned me, “Don’t write that the yeshiva infuses the talmidim with ‘warmth,’ because that is a code word for a ‘reject yeshiva,’ and parents whose children need such a yeshiva will hesitate to send them here.”
Progress, But Still a Long Way to Go
Boruch Hashem, we have made a bit of progress on this issue since then, but much of the stigma attached to a yeshiva that caters to regular boys who are not at the top of the class still remains. It is time for us, as a community, to once and for all overcome the foolish, cruel way that we stigmatize yeshivos and children. As parents, we must learn to have the gumption to do what is right for our children, despite what other idiotic and often wicked people will say. If we can move the needle just a bit more, that would be a tremendous zechus for Rav Gelbwachs’ neshomah.
As for me, whenever I get invited to the bris of a child of one of my Shabbos bochurim or chavrusos from my Ohr Chodosh days, and whenever I receive an invitation to one of their children’s bar mitzvahs, I realize that if not for Rav Gelbwachs and his wonderful colleagues at Ohr Chodosh, who knows what would have happened to some of these kids? Who knows where they would be today?
I know how much nachas he had when talmidim would visit with their families.
Often, one doesn’t get much credit or kovod in this world for doing the right thing, despite the naysayers. That is in this world. In the next world, who knows if we will even be able to get near his mechitzah?