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On the Road to the Kosel

A Conversation with Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky.

Until that moment, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky’s face had worn a broad smile. All at once, he took on an entirely different demeanor.

Just a few minutes earlier, the gate to the parking lot at the Kosel Hamaarovi had been opened before the black Hyundai carrying our group. The police officer stationed at the entrance hurried to admit us as soon as the driver, Rabbi Naftali Shuldiner, told him in a quiet tone, “This is Rav Kamenetsky.” The policeman had clearly been given instructions in advance to grant us immediate admission. We were even spared the standard examination of the underside of the car with a mirror, which is intended to ensure that no explosives or other such items have been hidden between the wheels. We turned left, the gate was opened, and a security guard working for the Kosel Heritage Fund showed us where to park.

Rav Shmuel emerged from the car and exchanged the rabbinic frock he was wearing for a different frock. At that moment, his facial expression changed. I did not have to wait long to understand the meaning of his actions, for it soon became apparent: He gazed at the Kosel, the very last remnant of the Bais Hamikdosh, and began tearing kriah.

And then there was a sudden shout from the side: “Kevod harav, Noa bat Chaya!”

Rav Shmuel and the rest of his entourage – including several of his sons, a grandson, and yours truly, who had been granted permission to come along for the ride and ask questions on the way – turned to locate the source of the cry. Nearby were two Sephardic women, who had clearly been blessed with the ability to recognize a gadol when they saw one. As soon as they noticed Rav Shmuel, they hurried toward him, one of them pushing a young girl who was clearly not well. “Noa bat Chaya!” she called. “For a refuah sheleimah!”

I looked at Rav Shmuel. He was already deeply immersed in thoughts concerning the kriah – about the tragedies our nation has suffered, the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, and the endless yearning for it to be rebuilt. By what right, I mused, did that mother invade his privacy at this moment?

But Rav Shmuel did not exhibit even the slightest trace of indignation. On the contrary, his characteristic smile reappeared. For a moment, he let go of his lapel and focused completely on the girl and her mother, warmly wishing her a refuah sheleimah and health for the entire family, among all of Klal Yisroel. For a moment, it seemed that his radiant countenance alone was enough to bring healing to the girl. The mother regained her equanimity. “Thank you, kevod harav!” she cried, waving her hands.

– – – – –

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, rosh yeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, arrived in Eretz Yisroel last Wednesday to participate as one of the main guests at the annual convention of Lev L’Achim in Bnei Brak. As soon as the event in Bnei Brak ended, he was already on his way back to Ben Gurion Airport for his return trip to JFK Airport in New York. Our trip to the Kosel took place in the hours leading up to the convention.

Why did the rosh yeshiva see fit to make the great effort of coming to Eretz Yisroel for this event?

Rav Shmuel replies simply, “I am prepared to help Lev L’Achim in any way I can.”

Why is that?

Again, the rosh yeshiva’s answer is simple: “Because the Ribbono Shel Olam is very happy with what they are doing. They are saving souls. They are bringing other Jews back to Him.”

Our conversation takes place on our way to the Kosel Hamaarovi. In response to my question, Rav Shmuel confirms that he visits the Kosel on every one of his trips to Eretz Yisroel. He has just left Bnei Brak, where he visited the homes of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The Kosel Hamaarovi in Yerushalayim is his next stop. There, he will meet a number of his grandchildren, who are eager to see their grandfather. Since he has no time to visit them at their homes — since he is visiting the country for less than a day — they have chosen to meet him at the Kosel instead.

Rav Shmuel sits beside the driver, Naftali Shuldiner, his close talmid. “You certainly must have heard of his father, Rav Yossi Shuldiner zt”l,” the rosh yeshiva asserts. “He was a noted askan.”

Three of us are crowded into the seat behind him: two of the rosh yeshiva’s sons, Reb Avrohom and Reb Dovid, and I. Another seat in the rear of the car is occupied by another two passengers: Reb Zev, another son of Rav Shmuel, who accompanied him on his trip from America, and his grandson, Pinchos.

We drive down Rechov Ohalei Yosef in Gush Shemonim in order to meet with a talmid of the rosh yeshiva, who awaits us on a street corner. He is overjoyed to see the rosh yeshiva and invites him to attend the upcoming wedding of one his children. The rosh yeshiva asks when the wedding will take place. The man replies, “In Cheshvan.” Rav Shmuel smiles, as if to say, “How could I come in the middle of the zeman?”

I point out the Bais Hamussar founded by Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, as well as Yeshivas Givat Shaul, which Rav Wolbe also established. Exactly ten years ago, on Chol Hamoed Pesach, Rav Wolbe’s levayah began at the yeshiva building. Rav Kamenetsky takes in all the sights.

The Wolbe and Kamenetsky families are connected. Rav Shmuel’s father, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, was a son-in-law of Rav Hirsch Heller of Slabodka. Another son-in-law of Rav Heller was Rav Avrohom Grodzensky Hy”d, father-in-law of Rav Shlomo Wolbe. I surmise that Rav Shmuel’s son, Reb Avrohom, is named after Rav Avrohom Grodzensky, and Reb Avrohom Kamenetsky confirms my guess.

I mention to Rav Shmuel that I just received a copy of testimony given by Rav Wolbe to the representatives of Yad Vashem in December 1966 regarding his efforts to procure visas for the talmidim of the Mirrer Yeshiva during the years 1940 and 1941. Rav Shmuel is impressed. “Interesting,” he says. “I would be glad to receive a copy of that testimony.”

If the rosh yeshiva makes such great efforts for Lev L’Achim, then we can infer that every avreich should also make his own contribution to their efforts.

My comment is half question, half statement. Rav Shmuel responds, “Of course. What is the question?”

It is a debatable subject. On the one hand, “chayecha kodmin – your life comes first.” On the other hand, learning with someone “weaker” is also a chesed.

This time, Rav Shmuel’s answer is less terse. “Bringing Jewish souls back to Hashem is the greatest chesed. It is literally hashovas aveidah. That is what Rabbeinu Yonah calls it.”

Rabbeinu Yonah speaks about kiruv?

“Yes. He speaks about bringing souls back to Hashem. Hashem is waiting for His children to come back to Him.”

I take advantage of the opportunity to speak about kiruv in general.

What is there to say to someone who doesn’t keep anything at all? How does one open a dialogue with such a person?

“One should explain that he can become closer to Hashem,” Rav Kamenetsky replies.

But a person like that isn’t “there” yet. He can’t relate to such ideas.

The rosh yeshiva remains firm in his convictions. “Perhaps he isn’t ‘there’ yet, but he will hear what you are telling him. His neshamah will hear it. You have to explain to him what it means to be close to Hashem and that it is possible for him to achieve that.”

It is said that Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l used to tell avreichim to learn Gemara with chilonim. He used to say, “You won’t understand it, but learning a daf of Gemara together can work wonders.”

“It’s true. It can work wonders, and the learning itself is a wondrous thing.”

What type of efforts are being made for kiruv in America? Is there an organization there that is the equivalent of Lev L’Achim?

“There are organizations,” the rosh yeshiva says, “but none on the scale of Lev L’Achim. And none have experienced the same level of success as Lev L’Achim has. In America, kiruv takes place on a more individual level, in individual locations and with individual people.”

The rosh yeshiva adds that he is not certain of this, but he believes that there is a difference between kiruv in Eretz Yisroel and kiruv in America. In Eretz Yisroel, baalei teshuvah tend to become bnei Torah. In America, while there are baalei teshuvah, few of them actually become bnei Torah.

Why is that?

“Perhaps it is the positive effects of the air of Eretz Yisroel.”

And why are the Sephardim more open to being drawn back to Yiddishkeit?

“Perhaps because they are closer to Hashem. The Sephardim were never affected by external influences and modernization. Life in Europe had a negative effect on Ashkenazic Jews.”

– – – – –

I sense that it is an opportune time to benefit from the rosh yeshiva’s wisdom, and I take advantage of our brief, shared journey to ask additional questions. I ask whether his visit to the homes of the gedolei Yisroel in Bnei Brak was interesting. “Very interesting,” he replies.

Did they tell the rosh yeshiva something he didn’t already know?

“No. But they were full of life and vitality. They were leibidig.”

Of course, the rosh yeshiva has been asked to speak at the Lev L’Achim convention. I ask him whether his speech is already prepared in his mind. He admits, “No. It is still not ready.”  Will he be addressing avreichim who are already active in the organization or those who are unsure as to whether they will join? Or, perhaps, will he be speaking to the leaders of Lev L’Achim?

“Probably avreichim who are already active,” he replies, indicating that it will be a speech of chizuk and encouragement.

Our discussion leads me to mention one of my sons, an avreich who lives in Neve Yaakov in Yerushalayim, who was asked to join a group of avreichim working for Lev L’Achim in the city. He is still uncertain what to do, I tell the rosh yeshiva, since he is afraid that the activities might harm his night seder. They asked him to attend the convention, but he refused. He was told that if he hears the speeches, he will certainly be convinced to join the volunteers, and he replied, “That’s exactly why I don’t want to go.”

The rosh yeshiva smiles. “He’s afraid to commit.”

Rav Shmuel asks a few questions about my son: his age, his stage of learning, and what else he does. I tell him that my son runs a night kollel and a Friday kollel in his neighborhood. The rosh yeshiva makes no demands, but his tone implies that he would recommend that my son also become involved in kiruv. I ask, “How much does the rosh yeshiva feel an avreich should ‘give’ to others?”

“Maaser,” Rav Shmuel says. “He should give maaser of his time.”

I share with him a fascinating insight that Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin once discovered: The avreichim who seem to be the most innocent and naïve, who seem to be incapable of opening their mouths, tend to be the ones who are the most successful in kiruv. Rav Shmuel is not surprised.

“Kiruv is completely above nature and beyond our comprehension,” he says. “Success is min hashomayim. Every avreich is granted siyata diShmaya for the sake of the person listening to him. His success is for the benefit of that person.”

We are approaching the Old City. The car is moving sluggishly due to the heavy traffic. We are traveling on Route 1 in Yerushalayim, which runs parallel to Rechov Shmuel Hanovi. It is a road that is always congested and was even more packed with cars on Chol Hamoed. I point out the light rail stations where the most recent vehicular terror attacks have taken place. Another terror attack recently occurred at this very spot, claiming the life of Yochai Shalom Sherki Hy”d. The rosh yeshiva looks at the stations and at the concrete pillars that have been placed there to prevent similar attacks. His eyes grow sad.

“Tonight,” I remark, “the State of Israel will shut down for Yom Hashoah, which is observed tomorrow and begins tonight. All the stores, restaurants and places of entertainment will be closed.” Rav Shmuel is silent. “The Kamenetsky family made it through the Holocaust in peace,” I add. “Rav Yaakov zt”l came to America before the war.”

It turns out that I am not exactly correct.

“Some of the family did perish in the war,” he corrects me. “Some members of the Grodzensky family were also murdered by the Germans, as was the Wernichovsky family.”

The next day, Rebbetzin Wolbe explains to me that Rav Hirsch Heller had three daughters: One married Rav Yaakov, another married Rav Avrohom Grodzensky (Rebbetzin Wolbe’s father), and the third married Rav Wernichovsky, who was murdered, along with his wife and children, in Kovno.

What is the Torah perspective on the Holocaust?

“It was a churban,” Rav Shmuel says. He goes on to elaborate on the tremendous nisayon that Hashem brought upon the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the mistake of those who believed that it was to herald the establishment of the state and the beginning of the redemption.

Every ordinary chiloni invariably asks the same two questions whenever he has an argument with a chareidi: Why don’t you – meaning, the chareidim – join the army, and where was G-d during the Holocaust?

“I can understand why they ask that,” Rav Kamenetsky replies. “From their point of view, it is a major question. But why don’t they recognize that it wasn’t the first churban in the history of the Jewish people? We have been persecuted and slaughtered throughout our history.” He makes a gesture in the air, as if Pesach is still here and he is pointing at it, and adds, “In Mitzrayim, we also went through a terrible ‘Holocaust.’”

What about the issue of the army?

“The fact that yeshiva students are sitting and learning is what causes the army to succeed.”

I gather that we should answer a chiloni with the truth, even if he can’t accept it and won’t believe it.

“Why wouldn’t he believe it?” the rosh yeshiva asks.

A chiloni doesn’t believe in the power of the Torah to protect us!

“But that’s what Chazal say. He should be told that that is what our sages say: The more we learn Torah, the more the army will be successful. He might say that he doesn’t believe it, but he really will believe it.”

Rav Shmuel mentions, in the course of our conversation, that his father, Rav Yaakov, was also involved in kiruv. It wasn’t something he did on a regular basis, but he did cause people to return to Yiddishkeit. One of those people was a man whose daughters had married non-Jews. He himself went on to become fully observant. And he was not the only one.

Can the rosh yeshiva tells us about a specific incident involving his father?

“Yes,” Rav Shmuel says. “There was a certain doctor who came from a well-known family, who felt that once he became a doctor, he was permitted to be mechallel Shabbos, and he began working in his clinic on Shabbos. My father influenced him to observe the mitzvos. My father even told the doctor that if he kept Shabbos, he would find him an appropriate spouse. Indeed, that is what happened. The doctor committed to keep Shabbos, and he went on to be very successful.”

Would you accept a bochur to the Yeshiva of Philadelphia if his father is a baal teshuvah?

“Yes,” the rosh yeshiva says. He continues, “We once had a bochur, who is an avreich today, who was seen by one of the roshei yeshiva while he was reciting Tehillim. The rosh yeshiva felt, based on what he saw, that the bochur was worthy of being accepted and that he would likely succeed in the yeshiva. He had no father, and his mother wasn’t shomer Shabbos at all. We accepted him, and he was very successful indeed. He went on to learn in Brisk in Eretz Yisroel. Today, he is a highly accomplished avreich.”

Our conversation moves on to the subject of the teshuvah movement and baalei teshuvah and the differences between the attitudes in Eretz Yisroel toward baalei teshuvah and those in America, where society tends to be friendlier to them. The problem, Rav Kamenetsky asserts, is that the baalei teshuvah themselves feel that they are not respected.

I tell the rosh yeshiva about a din Torah that was held before Rav Shteinman between the menahel of a Talmud Torah and a group of parents, who demanded that children from families of baalei teshuvah not be accepted to the school. Before even hearing what Rav Shteinman ruled, Rav Shmuel declares, “They must be accepted!” Sure enough, that is exactly what Rav Shteinman said about the case.

By this point, we have already entered the Old City. “The rosh yeshiva’s visit is very short,” I remark. “Just a visit to Bnei Brak, then the Kosel, then some time to rest, and then the Lev L’Achim convention.”

He laughs. “That is the schedule, but I am not sure I will get the time to rest.”

I make an effort to steer the conversation to political issues. The rosh yeshiva is clearly not eager to be discussing such matters, but his politeness overcomes his reluctance. He is not fond, to say the least, of President Barack Obama’s policies on anything concerning the Jewish people.

In the face of his apparent capitulation to Iran, is our job to be silent?

“Our job is to protest!” the rosh yeshiva says.

What about the prohibition to provoke the nations?

“That applies only when it is not a time of danger. According to the experts, Iran represents a significant danger to the people of Eretz Yisroel.”

Naftali Shuldiner notes Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s recent address to Congress, which took place in defiance of Obama’s disapproval. “He was very successful,” the rosh yeshiva says.

Shuldiner asks, “Should Bibi have done that?” In other words, was it proper for him to insist on delivering the speech, despite the conflict it created with the president of the United States? Rav Kamenetsky replies in the affirmative, without hesitation. Shuldiner presses, “If he had asked the rosh yeshiva if he should come, the rosh yeshiva would have said yes?”

“Absolutely,” Rav Shmuel replies.

I ask about the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in America, citing the continued incarceration of Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin as evidence that anti-Semitism exists there. The rosh yeshiva is uncertain whether the case of Pollard is proof, since he was portrayed as a “traitor” who caused American spies to be exposed and killed. As for Rubashkin, he concedes that his harsh sentence might have been the result of hatred for him as a Jew.

In conclusion, I ask if the rosh yeshiva feels that chareidi Jews in the State of Israel should adopt the same approach practiced by their brethren in America: supporting a large political party, which will in turn be obligated to fulfill all the criteria that are necessary for a chareidi Jew to adhere to his faith in the State of Israel. This is an idea that was once suggested by the Belzer Rebbe, one that would eliminate the need for chareidi political parties and thus leave the chilonim with no one to blame.

Rav Kamenetsky turns to face me and smiles. “That is politics,” he says. He does not involve himself in politics.

By this point, we have arrived at the parking lot at the Kosel, and I thank the rosh yeshiva and take my leave of him. He shakes my hand and wishes me success.

We have arrived. The rosh yeshiva emerges from the car, embraces his grandsons, greets his granddaughters, and tears kriah. His sons assist him. We enter the Kosel plaza. Rav Shmuel prefers to daven in the covered portion of the plaza; it is time for Minchah.

We all follow him, and I do not stop watching him. It is incredible to behold the refinement and nobility radiating from his every move. By the time we emerge, news of his arrival has spread and a crowd descends on him. I continue watching him, observing as he responds to everyone who approaches him. Everyone is treated to a kindly gaze, a brachah and a handshake. It isn’t that the rosh yeshiva is unconcerned about his time. Rather, he is simply more concerned about showing respect to others. For me, simply watching him was a lesson in caring for and loving other Jews.

****
WHAT DID RAV YAAKOV WANT, AND WHY DID RAV SHMUEL STOP SMOKING?

In my youth, when I was learning at the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg, I once attended the wedding of one of the yeshiva’s talmidim at Bais Yaakov in Monsey. I was a shy Israeli bochur, and I hung back at the edge of the courtyard where the chupah was taking place. Suddenly, someone came over to me and said, “Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky wants to speak with you.” I was shocked. Rav Yaakov wanted to speak to me? It was impossible. I hesitated for a moment, and another messenger came over to tell me, “Rav Yaakov wants to tell you something.”
I trembled as I approached him. Rav Yaakov was sitting in the front row. I leaned forward and he said something to me in English. I didn’t understand English and didn’t know what he said, but I felt a thrill as I returned to my place. Before long, I was informed that Rav Yaakov had sent for me again. I returned to him, and this time he spoke to me in Yiddish. I didn’t understand Yiddish either, so I went back to my seat in a state of utter confusion. Then it happened a third time. Rav Yaakov had sent for me again. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been the end of the world.
When I approached him one more time, Rav Yaakov took me by the hand, smiled his unique smile, and addressed me in Hebrew. “All I wanted to say was that it’s a shame that you are smoking,” he said. “It’s bad for your health.” If I recall correctly, he added that he himself had just recovered from a tumor in his throat and he felt that it was caused by cigarettes. Since I continued smoking after each time he spoke to me, he realized that I hadn’t understood what he said.
“If you don’t understand English or Yiddish, that probably means that you are Israeli,” he said. I confirmed that. He took hold of me with both hands and said with a laugh, “Do you know why Israelis are called sabras?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “Because they do whatever is mistaber — logical — to them!”
I share the entire story with Rav Shmuel, who enjoys it greatly. “I hope you stopped smoking,” he comments.
Shuldiner reveals to me that Rav Shmuel himself used to smoke and quit the habit “overnight.” I ask the rosh yeshiva if that is true and he nods his head. “For health reasons?” I ask.
The answer surprises everyone else in the car. “Not for health reasons, but because of the taavah. It’s an external yeitzer hara.”

****
RAV SHTEINMAN’S “NEVUAH”

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky feels very strongly about the obligation of kiruv. “We must always show love to other Jews,” he tells me. I point out that there is a concept of “the left pushing away.” He replies firmly, “That is only when you are concerned that someone will affect you.
“It isn’t hard to influence others,” he says. “They don’t know the truth. You simply have to expose them to the truth of the Torah.”
Does that mean that every Jew is a potential candidate for kiruv?
“Yes,” Rav Shmuel says vehemently.
The rosh yeshiva is so certain of that?
“Yes. And I am certain that if kiruv is done, any Jew will be affected by it.”
He reveals that he once spoke with Rav Shteinman about a similar concept, and they discussed the Gemara’s statement that one should daven “for sins to be eliminated, but not sinners.” Rav Shteinman commented that Chazal would undoubtedly categorize Yair Lapid as a total rasha. “They don’t believe in anything,” Rav Shteinman said at the time, “and they will meet their downfall. This government will fall,” he predicted. “Lapid will lose his influence and Netanyahu will remain in power.”
Why did he say that?
“Because Netanyahu wasn’t the bad part of the previous government. Rav Shteinman advised me to speak only about Netanyahu’s partners in evil, not Netanyahu himself, since he wasn’t the evil part.”