Three Hours that Made a Difference
In the introduction to his profound Chumash commentary, Chikrei Lev, Rav Heiman describes how his father raised a Torah true family on American soil. Like millions of others, the Heiman family came to America in search of a better life.
“Reb Aharon Heiman, my grandfather’s older brother, arrived in America in about 1900,” Rav Heiman writes. “After becoming wealthy, he wrote to my grandfather in Europe, Reb Tzvi Hirsh, suggesting he come along with his family and join him in Baltimore where he would help them get started. My grandfather arrived in America in 1917 with his whole family. Among them was my father, Reb Nachum Isser, who was a boy at the time and eventually married my mother, Mrs. Roiza.”
With wife and children to support, Reb Nachum Isser heroically defied all the spiritual hurdles America put in his path.
“Despite the great difficulty experienced by many Jews emigrating to America at that time, and despite the evil environment that influenced them to work on Shabbos and cease studying Torah and observing mitzvos, my father overcame everything and went against the popular, corrupt trend,” Rav Heiman writes. “What inspired him to succeed and hold fast to his belief in the Creator? I think the following story that I heard from him was a deciding factor.
“While a young boy in Zager, Lithuania, my father went to shul one morning and heard someone studying Torah with a pleasant niggun. The pleasing voice beckoned him inside… and he found a young bachur sitting and learning to the accompaniment of a tune. This was Naftoli Riff, the son of the local Rov. For two or three hours, my father sat nearby without moving and only gazing at the inspiring sight. He said that this spectacle influenced him to a huge extent! This experience gave him immense strength to fight and consolidate his will to remain true to Hashem and to His Torah.”
Since most salaried jobs involved chillul Shabbos, Rav Heiman’s father opened a grocery store, one of the few shops in Baltimore that closed on Shabbos. He was outstandingly honest, always taking infinite care to never give anyone an ounce less than he paid for. In keeping with his devotion to Torah, he enrolled his son in one of the very few institutions offering true Torah education in 1936.
“When I was five-years-old,” Rav Heiman recalls, “my father took me to the Chofetz Chaim Cheder in Baltimore. I remember how we climbed up stairs that were so old and dilapidated that I grabbed his arm, fearing I might fall… but the moment I met its director, Rav Chaim Eliezer Samson, all my fears vanished. I felt a special love towards him that remained imprinted within me all my years, even after I went to Lakewood to study with Rav Aharon Kotler. Until this day, I remember the words my father said to Rav Samson at that time: ‘Macht a Yid fun mein kind — Make a Jew out of my son!’ I thank Hashem for inspiring my father to guide me in the way of Torah, the way of goodness and uprightness. May his memory be blessed!”
The Ramban writes that the eternity of Yisroel is guaranteed in Hashem’s promise to Yaakov, If Eisav comes to one camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will be a remnant (Bereishis 32:8). Rav Heiman saw the fulfillment of this verse with his own eyes when a tiny remnant of European Jews recreated the Torah world in America, and in his case, Hashem prepared the groundwork years in advance.
Soon after World War I, Rav Samson had arrived in America on a fund raising mission together with the famous Lomza Rov, Rav Leib Gordon, both of them intending to return to Europe at the end of their trip. But Hashem decided otherwise – The Rov of Baltimore, Rav Avrohom Nachman Shwartz, persuaded Rav Samson to remain in Baltimore to direct the cheder he had opened four years earlier.
The cheder thrived under Rav Samson, eventually growing into one of the most important yeshivos ketanos in America. Ten years before World War II, Rav Heiman points out, this was the only cheder in the whole U.S.A. outside of New York, where boys studied Torahthe whole morning.
Until 1944, the cheder only extended to eighth grade. Rav Heiman’s class was the first to break through this barrier and pioneered the extension of the cheder until 12th grade, where its students studied Torah until they were seventeen. Rav Heiman was a local Baltimorian and could have gone home each evening, but he voluntarily stayed in the dorm in order to take part in the yeshivah’s evening seder.
Hashem granted the class with another great chesed by providing it with one of the greatest mechanchim in the country, Rav Yaakov Bobrovski (Rav Yankel Kamenetzker), a talmid muvhak of Rav Boruch Ber Lebovitz, who taught them for four years until the end of grade twelve. He was a great lamdan with a wonderful gift of explaining sevoras and imparted to his talmidim a tremendous geshmak in learning that lasted the rest of their lives.
The yeshiva also had a top-notch moshgiach, Rav Hirsh Diskind (now living in Yerushalayim), a talmid of Rav Yitzchok Hutner. American born and bred, and not much older than the bochurim, he was the most capable of imparting Torah values to the bochurim on their own level. A number of talmidim in Rav Heiman’s class went on to become well-known talmidei chochomim, including Rav Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.
Rav Samson prepared his talmidim to be future leaders of Klal Yisroel. To those with potential for public speaking he would say, “The time will come when you may have to speak before an audience; it’s worthwhile to get used to it now.” He sent the best of them to speak on local Yiddish radio stations.
While still sprouting into a true talmid chacham, Rav Heiman was a lively American youngster with an unusual aptitude for baseball. When the Baltimore Orioles baseball team got wind of his skills, they came along to see his ball-whacking skill for themselves.
“Give us a demonstration,” they demanded.
Rav Heiman complied, socking a baseball so far that its landing place was long revered as a baseball landmark. Excited, the team representatives offered to sign him up for their team on the spot.
“Will this involve any work on Friday nights and Saturday?” he asked them.
“Of course,” came the reply. “Those are our peak times.”
“In that case, forget it!” he said.
Off to Lakewood
Some boys from Rav Heiman’s class once visited Lakewood. Rav Aaron Kotler was enthralled by their level of learning.
“When Rav Samson met the leader of the generation, the Gaon Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Aharon told him with a smile that he was very satisfied with the talmidim of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim that had come to him and was willing to accept any talmid of his without a test!” Rav Heiman recalls.
Rav Heiman’s class of seventeen-year-olds duly arrived in Lakewood. This created a new precedent as until then its youngest bochurim were about twenty-three. Rav Heiman remained there for eleven years, learning b’chavrusa with Rav Shneur Kotler, and becoming a talmid muvhak of Rav Aharon Kotler.
During those years, he married his rebbetzin, Chaya, who had graduated from the Bais Yaakov High School of Williamsburg and Brooklyn College.Rebbetzin Chaya (may she enjoy good health) taught in Lakewood and later taught for twenty-nine years at the Bais Yaakov Seminary for Teachers in Yerushalayim. She has also spent a lifetime helping couples find and enjoy marital harmony, drawing upon her years of experience to author her shalom bayis book,“Right from the Start.”
The Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, was anxious to disseminate true Torah learning throughout America and sent Rav Heiman to start a yeshivah in Boston with the encouragement of Boston’s illustrious Rav Shlomo Margolis. This yeshiva enjoyed ten years of success. It talmidim included Rav Malkiel Kotler, Rosh Yeshivah of Lakewood, Rav Dovid Nojowitz, presently the national director of the Torah Umersorah day schools, and Rav Moshe Sorotzkin, founder of the Telz Stone community near Yerushalayim. But even the devotion of Boston’s small frum community could not prevail against Boston’s “work ethic” driven majority and the yeshiva closed down.
A Beloved Rav
In 1969 the Heiman’s moved to the idyllic Bayit Vegan neighborhood in Yerushalayim. Founded as a frum community with twenty-five families in 1926, Bayit Vegan (“house and garden”) was by then beginning to replace its quaint red-tiled houses with apartment buildings, while its status as a Torah community was increasing with each passing year. Nowadays, it is populated by 20,000 frum Jews and is famous for its shuls, seminaries, and Chassidic centers.
Rav Heiman started off as an educational supervisor at its well known Leuchter cheder, where the children responded to his natural affection. They felt as if they were his own children. He gained such a reputation as a mechanech that after the passing of Rav Tzvi Shraga Grossbard, head of Chinuch Atzmai, in 1993, many leaders and gedolim, including Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, urged that Rav Heiman be appointed in his stead.
Concurrently, he began delivering shiurim and a daf hayomi shiur at the Gro Shul headed by Rav Yechezkel Avramski. Most of its founding members had been German Jews, some of them survivors of the Holocaust, and the shul retained some of their Yekkishe niggunim and customs. But as time passed the shul had developed into a Litvishe kehilla strongly dominated by the neighborhood’s large American kehilla for whom Rav Heiman was heaven sent. Many of his landsleit gratefully exclaimed”At last, we have an English speaking rabbi!” He turned the shul into a place of study with kollels for both avrechim and baalei batim.
Rav Aharon Kotler used to say that gedolim are not appointed or elected, but spontaneously recognized by the tzibbur. Something similar happened after Rav Avramski’s passing in 1976 when the Gro kehilla spontaneously urged Rav Heiman to become their spiritual leader and he reluctantly accepted.
Rav Heiman’s prowess as a leader and poseik spread far and wide. He became inundated with phone calls about halachaand advice from every corner of Eretz Yisroel. Although Torah study was the number one devotion of his life, he accepted his new duties with such love that the people felt they were led not by a Rov, but by a loving father. He constantly inquired after people’s welfare, extracting all sorts of personal information he felt might be useful in giving them advice further down their road of life.
His goal was not only to instill people with halacha observance, but also to inculcate kiddush Hashem in every aspect of their private and communal life. He believed that this even extended to sprucing up the neighborhood, since in our day and age slovenly streets do not engender much respect from outsiders. To this end, he would personally phone municipal representatives to remove untended cars, dumped garbage, and broken branches.
His fear of creating a chillul Hashem was no less. On one occasion, he was driving along a highway and noticed a traffic officer signaling to him to halt. Due to the heavy traffic he could not immediately obey and had to drive on. Instead of rejoicing at his lucky escape, he was gnawed by concern. Perhaps the cop thought he had deliberately evaded him. Would this not be a chillul Hashem!Setting a first in the annals of vehicular history, he turned around his car and headed back to seek out the officer, and he was greatly bothered when he failed to locate him.
During the past year, Rav Heiman suffered from ill health, but was buoyed by the prospect of soon printing the third and final volume of his profound Chumash commentary, Chikrei Lev. Last Wednesday night he finally received the completed sefer and headed to Gro Shul in his wheelchair to announce the joyful news. Perhaps this was the culmination of his life’s task in this world. The following evening he suffered a cardiac arrestand he passed away on Friday afternoon.
Although it was erev Shabbos, a huge crowd came to his levaya at the Gro Shul. Rav Azriel Auerbach, Rav of Kehillos Ha’avrechim in Bayit Vegan, said that Rav Heiman’s life was a fulfillment of the pasuk, Her raiment is power and beauty (Mishlei 31:25). He was powerful in fighting every contravention of halacha, but beautiful in his love and honor for every Jew.
Rav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rosh Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel in Bayit Vegan; and Rav Eliezer Shwarzman, Rosh Yeshivas Beis Medrash Gavoha Lakewood in Eretz Yisroel, also spoke of how his heart constantly overflowed with Torah and kindness. Shortly before Shabbos, he was interred in the Har Hamenuchos cemetery of Yerushalayim. The crowd dispersed home, bearing his indelible memory in their hearts.
Yehi zichro boruch.