He was extremely outspoken, yet he was quiet and unassuming. He considered himself to be, proudly, at the far-right of Orthodox Jewry, yet there was no Jew – frum, non-frum or completely assimilated – whom he did not love like a brother. He was tough as steel and unyielding even in the face of tremendous pressure, yet he was all heart and emotion and could cry rivers of tears from the pain of another whom he did not even know. He was a masmid of awesome proportions who could spend hours upon hours in uninterrupted Torah study, yet he spend untold hours raising funds for the needy and traveling far and wide to help one or two, or a hundred, fellow Jews.
He was Rav Yisroel Kolman Krohn and he was someone whose equivalent is impossible to find. He was one of a kind whose presence was a gift to all who merited to bask in its light and warmth. He taught and inspired thousands over many, many years, asking nothing in return, neither pay nor recognition, only that the emes he was sharing be appreciated and taken to heart.
He had no title, no official position, no job description. Yet he was a rebbi to thousands, he was a fundraiser who raised many millions for tzedakah single-handedly, he was a counselor to broken and lost neshamos literally around the globe, he was a kiruv professional, he was a close talmid to many great rabbeim, and so much more.
If you’d ask him who he was, he’d probably tell you he’s a nobody – or at most a simple Jew whose goal was to be nothing more than an eved Hashem.
His Unforgettable Shiurim
While I’d heard much about Rav Kolman, my personal involvement with him was the same as for the thousands of others who had heard him speak over the years. Rav Kolman would famously give shiurim geared especially for children throughout the entire night of Shavuos (for years, he did it on both nights of Shavuos), as well as throughout the long day of Tisha B’Av. A well-versed talmid chochom who was especially knowledgeable in the widest scope of the fascinating aggados of Chazal, he simply couldn’t bear the fact that so much of Shavuos night was being lost to children who stayed up, due to lack of structure or oversight, and that the long hours of Tisha B’Av were similarly wasting away while thousands of pure tinokos shel bais rabbon simply had nothing to do.
As with almost everything else in his life, rather than merely “speak” about the issue, Rav Kolman just stepped in – with no pomp or fanfare – and began what was to be a lifelong endeavor that held children (and often many of their parents!) spellbound as he taught Torah laced with mussar, hashkafah, fascinating stories and exhortations to continually reach higher. He opened vistas to children who would never otherwise be exposed to the greatness, the purity and the reineh emes, the unadulterated truth to be found in our Torah, our mesorah, and our gedolei Yisroel.
On Shavuos night, when he would speak of the awesome power of Torah, he would encourage, beseech and exhort his listeners to take the fullest advantage of the coming morning’s tefillos. “In just a few hours, we’ll all be davening Ahavah Rabboh,” he would say, referring to the tefillah where we ask Hashem to open our hearts to His Torah. “Do you know what you can accomplish during Ahavah Rabboh? This is your chance! This is an unequalled opportunity! Grab it!”
Of course, his words were richly interspersed with ma’amorei Chazal, Medrashim and stories of gedolim from centuries ago until contemporary times whose lives were completely changed by one heartfelt tefillah. Rav Kolman’s words would enter the pure hearts of the children and indeed affect their lives forever. As one of the Lakewood roshei yeshiva mentioned in his hesped, numerous talmidei chachomim have noted how their Ahavah Rabboh remains forever influenced by the words they’d heard years ago as children from Rav Kolman.
Though the Shavuos and Tisha B’Av shiurim were perhaps his most well-known, Rav Kolman delivered many others as well, some on a steady basis – such as his popular Motzoei Shabbos va’adim – and others impromptu, as necessity dictated. He could be walking on a snowy day and pass some boys playing outside, their classes canceled due to the weather. Fifteen minutes later would find them all cozily ensconced in one of the yeshiva’s side rooms, engaged in an exciting rischa d’Oraisa, the heated give and take of Torah study that the boys would forever remember.
The Maggid Spooks
Rav Kolman could deliver the strongest mussar – and he never shied away from doing so when he felt it necessary – and the recipients of his words were rarely, if ever, hurt or insulted. This is because his message was delivered with warmth, often with humor and wit, and always with palpable love. He didn’t believe in toning down the truth – emes was emes – and his audience appreciated his candor because they knew that every word was heartfelt.
He had unlimited respect and the deepest feelings for his older brother, Rabbi Paysach Krohn, noted author, lecturer and mohel, and he would quote him often. Sometime after Reb Paysach’s first book, The Maggid Speaks, came out to wide acclaim, Rav Kolman told a story during one of his va’adim, a story about every neshamah’s ultimate judgment not necessarily easy for an audience to digest.
Rav Kolman knew just how to ease the message in. With his inimitable wit, he smiled and said, “I would tell this story to my brother Reb Paysach to print, but then he’d have to call his book The Maggid Spooks!”
Through laughter or through tears, he knew just how to deliver each message.
I was once speaking with someone who worked with teens and young adults who lived at the fringes of frum society. We were discussing various speakers who’d been brought in over the years to speak to these troubled neshamos. One can imagine that such an address is fraught with difficulty, as one does not wish to turn off the audience by appearing judgmental, condescending or harsh. On the other hand, simply delivering fluff would be seen right through as well.
“Do you know who the most popular speaker over here is?” the fellow asked me.
Curious, I asked who it was.
“Rav Kolman Krohn,” he stated emphatically. “He stands here and tells these kids that they’re gonna burn for every aveirah they do – and they can’t get enough of it.”
Seeing my surprise, he elaborated: “More than anything or anyone else, these kids appreciate the truth. They don’t want to be lied to, and Rav Kolman says it like it is. But Rav Kolman doesn’t just yell at them. He demands the same of himself, and they see that he means that just as much, if not even more, and he invites them to join him in growing, bit by bit, together. With his emes and his hartz, he has managed to touch people who so many others could never reach.”
From Atlantic City to Lakewood
Many years ago, a boy who had come from a frum home but had since left Yiddishkeit found himself driving back to New York from an evening spent in Atlantic City. Realizing that it was Shavuos night and that he was passing by Lakewood, a spark of curiosity arose in him and he decided to detour into the legendary city of Torah. He arrived at the yeshiva and followed voices to what was then the old Bais Medrash Govoah dining room, where Rav Kolman was in middle of giving his Shavuos night shiur.
Just as the boy walked in, Rav Kolman was in middle of exhorting the children, “Nobody should ever think that it’s too late for him or that he’s too far gone. Everybody can come close to Hashem. All you have to do is decide to do something and do it!”
The message and the purity and power of the person delivering it combined to shake the boy up in a way that sent him reeling. In a daze, he made his way to a corner of the ezras noshim and began crying uncontrollably. Later, after he calmed down somewhat, he approached Rav Kolman and told him about his life and about how for the first time he felt such a strong urge to make a change.
“But I’ve been burned too many times,” the boy said. “I can only try if you, nobody else, would agree to learn with me every day.”
As Rav Kolman later related, he didn’t know how he’d find the time, when he’d find the time or where he’d find the time. “But how could I say no?” So like so many other times in his life, he committed to giving simply because he could not turn the person down.
The two learned Gemara together, and slowly, as they covered more and more ground in the Gemara, the boy made slow, but positive, changes in his life as well. Eventually, the pair finished the masechta and made a siyum. At the siyum, with the boy’s father in attendance, he and Rav Kolman said the Hadran. They then honored the boy’s father with reciting the Kaddish.
The father began, but then, in middle of his recitation, he burst out crying. No one knew what caused the outburst, and eventually he pulled himself together and finished the Kaddish. When Rav Kolman asked him if everything is okay, he said, “Everything’s more than okay. Only it suddenly hit me while I was saying the Kaddish how for years I thought that I would have to say Kaddish on my son. And here I am, saying Kaddish at a siyum that he’s making on a masechta!”
“Nothing Stood in His Way – Not Even Himself”
Rav Kolman fought like a lion to defend Torah in its purest form. He couldn’t stomach any falsification of the Torah, even the smallest watering down of its message or spirit. He decried the crass materialism seeping into even the best places, the wasted hours, days and weeks during which our precious tinokos shel bais rabbon are being given more and more heretofore unheard of “necessary off days,” and the confusion of what kinds of teachings or messages should or should not be brought into our homes or schools.
Perhaps not as well-known is how he fought like a lion against himself, against every last trait and middah he felt needed to be worked on. He was a member of a small va’ad of old-time Lakewood talmidim who put all feelings of honor and shame aside in their united quest to perfect themselves. They would speak openly of what traits they felt needed to be improved, admitting their failures and exhorting each other to do better.
For years, he and Rav Dovid Lenchitz zt”l, another member of the va’ad, had an agreement where, because they both felt they needed to work on ka’as, anger, they agreed to give each other a certain amount of money any time they failed to control their anger. When Rav Kolman met one of Rav Lenchitz’s sons years later, he told him, “Your father was my rebbi in savlanus, patience.” Then, explaining the “deal” they’d had between themselves, he self-deprecatingly confided, “I had to stop after a while because it was getting too expensive!”
When that got back to Rabbi Lenchitz, he clarified, “Rav Kolman considered it ‘becoming angry’ any time he got too excited during one of his va’adim. Such was the level of control he demanded of himself.”
As one of his sons exclaimed during his hesped, “My father didn’t let anything stand in his way – not even himself.”
For years, he kept a notebook with a running cheshbon hanefesh, never allowing himself to be satisfied with where he was and to stop striving to become even better. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came to him with their troubles. He raised and distributed millions of dollars over the years for needy people and families. And yet he walked around as if he was a nobody. He came to yeshiva quietly, learned for hours consecutively without making any waves, and said Kaddish in a soft voice that attracted no attention.
If you had no idea who he was, you’d think nothing of him. You wouldn’t dream that here was a man who could speak for hours – spellbindingly – on any topic in Torah, who had close personal connections with Rav Shalom Schwadron zt”l, Rav Yehuda Zev Segal zt”l, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l and so many others, and who with only a few others quietly organized and distributed Rav Segal’s daily learning calendar for Sefer Chofetz Chaim and Shemiras Halashon until it became as popular and widespread as it is today. When the need arose for him to talk, to collect or to do, he did. Once his work was done, he sat back down quietly and let everyone else make the noise, take the credit or widen the path he’d blazed.
He sought to do what Hashem wanted of him, to live with the emes. It was Hashem’s honor and Hashem’s Torah that he defended, never his own, and because of that, even his strongest battles and opinions were never personal. This was what allowed him to demand perfection while at the same time loving people who were as far from perfect as could possibly be.
Paying By the Hour – What a Deal!
A man was once hired to do some painting and other work in Rav Kolman’s house. Though the man walked about bareheaded, Rav Kolman soon discovered that he was, in fact, Jewish, though completely secular. Upon further discussion, Rav Kolman learned that the man had once even attended cheder, but had left it all years ago.
Never allowing himself to miss an opportunity, Rav Kolman approached him with an audacious offer. “Listen,” he began. “I’m paying you by the hour. So why don’t we take half an hour every day to learn some Torah? After all, you know how to learn already, having done so many years ago.”
The man dismissed Rav Kolman’s offer completely. Still, Rav Kolman was never easily dissuaded.
“Come on,” he cajoled. “I’m paying you anyway. It’ll be easy money for you. You don’t have to work and you’ll get paid.”
Put that way, the man eventually agreed.
“But you can’t learn without a yarmulka,” Rav Kolman noted. “So you’ll put on a yarmulka for the half-hour when we learn, okay?”
The man agreed to that as well.
From that day, the two would spend half an hour every day engaged in limud haTorah. The man would don a yarmulka for that half hour, learn, then take it off and get back to work. Still, for that half hour, they were as two chavrusos in any yeshiva.
Rav Kolman put much thought into preparing for their learning sessions. With uncanny insight and a deep understanding of human nature and the power of Torah, he prepared Gemaros that he knew were both fascinating as well as difficult. This led the man to ask questions to which Rav Kolman offered answers that he knew the man would then disprove. In this way, he drew him into a rischa d’Oraysa that was satisfying to both mind and soul.
With time, the yarmulka stayed on even after the learning session was up, and eventually the man realized that as he was engaged in such in-depth Torah learning, it was ridiculous of him not to begin keeping some Torah laws as well. Once he was advancing so far, he confided to Rav Kolman that he felt his children should really be on board as well and not remain in public school. The price of frum schooling, however, was way beyond anything he could afford.
Rav Kolman got on the phone and didn’t rest until the man’s sons and daughters were accepted to a frum yeshiva and Bais Yaakov.
• • • •
An area that was especially dear to Rav Kolman was the kedusha of Klal Yisroel. His sensitive neshamah, cleared of the self-interests, the pettiness and the distractions that typify so many of us, cried from the myriad directions, methods and devices through which our kedusha is being attacked and slowly eroded. He spoke and wrote about this topic at length and did his utmost to impress upon our pure Yiddishe kinder the overriding importance of keeping their neshamos pure and unsullied.
Perhaps, this purity of spirit and soul was what so attracted thousands of children to his shiurim over the years. Who knows whether his pure neshamah was what connected, on such a deep and enduring level, with the pure neshamos of the tinokos shel bais ribbon, leaving an indelible imprint on their neshamos that will never be erased.
Rav Kolman is no longer here. He has gone on to his eternal reward, leaving us numb and bereft. But his impressions, his teachings, his fiery spirit, his heartfelt cries, his purity and bikush ha’emes, and most of all what he taught each and every one of us simply by who he was, will remain with us forever.
Yehi zichro boruch.