Indeed, with the passing of Rav Shmuel Elchonon Brog on this past Thursday, Erev Rosh Chodesh Teves, December 13, the American Torah community not only lost a great tzaddik and soldier of Hashem, but they also lost a tremendous masmid who was always immersed in Torah; they lost a mechanech par excellence who had a profound impact on generations of talmidim; they lost a rebbi who was like a devoted father to untold numbers of baalei teshuvah, who patiently and lovingly taught them and put them on the path of sustained growth in Torah and avodas Hashem; and they lost a paragon of ahavas Yisroel whose burning love for every Yid was such that he could not bear to hear a slight on a another jew and never turn away a Yid who sought his counsel and assistance.
In his quiet, unassuming way, Rav Shmuel Elchonon Brog impacted thousands of young talmidim and talmidos, saved scores of marriages and raised an exemplary Torah family of gedolei Torah and marbitzei Torah, talmidei chachomim and wives of talmidei chachomim who continue to illuminate Klal Yisroel.
THE UNBROKEN CHAIIN OF YIDDISHKEIT
Rav Shmuel Elchonon Brog was born 84 years ago to the day! in Pittsburgh, PA to his parents Reb Meir and Mrs. Yocheved Brog. Undoubtedly, the fact that Rav Shmuel Elchonon remained frum, became a ben Torah and talmid chochom when virtually everyone of the friends with whom he grew up slowly discarded Yiddishkeit, was due to example set by his parents and grandparents and his tremendous devotion to the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em.
His father was literally moser nefesh for shemiras Shabbos, accepting any kind of work that he could find. Starting as a newspaper salesman, having to find for his spot every Sunday he then found a menial job as cleaning toilets for the Buster Brown Shoe Company, in order to avoid chillul Shabbos. He was eventually promoted as a traveling salesman selling shoes for the N/E Division of the company. He was thus able to keep Shabbos without the constant fear of being fired every Friday. His parents then relocated to Scranton, PA where there was a non-active frum community. His two grandparents also made a remarkable impression on young Shmuel Elchonon. His paternal grandfather R’ Yaakov was a shochet in Pittsburgh and was known for his deep-seated piety. His maternal grandfather was Rav Eliyahu Zev Kochin, a Rov and av beis din in the city of Pittsburg, PA.
Several years ago, a woman asked Rav Brog, “How did you remain an ehrliche Yid when that entire generation, with nearly no exception, was lost to Yiddishkeit?” Rav Brog explained that his Zeide, Rav Kochin once called him over when he was a boy and pointed to the large Shas on the shelf saying, “You see those seforim, they contain the secrets of everything; the secrets of the entire world.”
Rav Brog once related that as a child he attended the local Orthodox Talmud Torah after public school where the basics of Yiddishkeit were taught. At that time, he heard from a few friends that the Conservative school was much better with much better facilities and amenities. The thought was tempting and he wanted to transfer there. When his father heard this, he became furious. Young Shmuel Elchonon, seeing his father’s anger, ran away and locked himself in a room. His father, a strong man, threatened to break the door if the child did not come out and go to the frum Talmud Torah. Just as that time, a new person came to town and opened a new Talmud Torah which was more exciting. Throughout his life, Rav Shmuel Elchonon would attribute his success in Yiddishkeit and in remaining frum to the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim, of listening to his parents and grandparents and following in their path even when it was difficult — that is what he felt saved him and ensured that his link in the chain of the mesorah would remain unbroken and he would in turn be able to pass it on to the next generation.
71 YEARS IN YESHIVA RABBEINU CHAIM BERLIN
Rav Shmuel Elchonon was an only child. His parents, whose burning devotion to Hashem enabled them to suppress their natural parental love and desire to keep him home, chose to send him — despite his being their only child – away from home at the tender age of 13 years 1942, to New York so that he could have access to a true Torah education. As the tester of Yitzchok Elchonon was a friend to Rav Kochin, it was supposed to be a shoe-in to be accepted. The regular tester was out on that day and the one who gave the entire exam did not accept the young student. In the end, he was accepted in the hallowed portals of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin and he never left!
At the levaya, Rav Aharon Shechter, the rosh yeshiva of YRCB, said, “He was a cheilek, a part of the eitz chaim of the yeshiva; he was part of the very walls of the life-giving Torah branch of the yeshiva.” Rav Aharon told over how just watching Rav Shmuel Elchonon come to the yeshiva, learn and be marbitz Torah there served as a daily shiur for the entire yeshiva.
Without a doubt, the dominant influence who shaped his personality in his years as a talmid in Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin was the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner. Throughout his life, Rav Brog would quote Rav Hutner and learn his seforim with great reverence. This impact that Rav Hutner and the yeshiva had on that early group of talmidim was an absolutely seminal one. He helped shape their personalities and their worldview. The unique mesorah and lessons from Yeshiva Chaim Berlin remained with Rav Brog for the rest of his life. Indeed, he remained in the yeshiva first as a bochur, then as a yungerman in Kollel Gur Aryeh, later as a maggid shiur and then as a principal in the mesivta. In fact, in the 71 years since he first came to the yeshiva, he never once missed davening in the yeshiva on yomim noraim.
Rav Shmuel Elchonon’s hasmodah combined with his sterling personality and middos impressed the yeshiva’s mashgiach, Rav Avigdor Miller, who hand-picked him to become his son-in-law, husband to his oldest daughter Scheine.
Rav Brog thus became extremely close to Rav Miller and, although Rav Miller and Rav Hutner had two very different paths in avodas Hashem, Rav Brog had the uncanny ability to reconcile the two becoming a very close talmid of his father-in-law while simultaneously remaining bound heart and soul to Rav Hutner as well.
He would often refer to his father-in-law as a malach Elokim, heavenly angel and he was deeply influenced by the pathways and thinking processes of his father-in-law.
The life that Rav and, tbl”ch, Rebbetzin Brog lived together was the prototype of a true Torah relationship between husband and wife. The home that they created with its harmony and shared values, was a home in which the Shechinah resided.
In fact, one of Rav Brog’s most important chassodim was the sholom bayis counseling that he gave to countless couples. He didn’t just counsel others, rather, he lived and embodied all of the lessons of self-effacement, forbearance and transcending oneself in order to give to others. Together, the Brogs established a wonderful family that serves as the next link in the hallowed chain of service of Hashem.
Rav Avigdor Miller once related that his son-in-law, Rav Brog was one of the people who was on his list of people who could bring Moshiach! In a time when the term “tzaddik” has been somewhat cheapened and is used to describe anyone with positive character traits, Rav Shmuel Elchonon was a person who fit the age-old description of tzaddik. His deep-rooted ahavas Yisroel, his love for every Jew even those whom others found it difficult to love, his total self-effacement, his ability to swallow slights to his honor and the way that he conquered the natural instincts and desires for matters of Olam Hazeh, all done quietly and discreetly, attested to a true tzaddik whose life’s goal was to serve his Master in any capacity that he could.
A story is told about Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz in which he took himself to task for not loving the son of a simple, poor person, a beggar, with the same degree of love as he had for his own children. Perhaps that exalted level of ahavas Yisroel is not possible in our generation, but to watch the way Rav Shmuel Elchonon Brog loved his fellow Jews – not just those who were easy to love, but rather the umlolim, the poor souls who are shunned by the entire world, the poor souls who are in such difficult, mental and physical states that they make it hard for anyone to love and help them — it was these kinds of people whom Rav Brog and, tbl”ch, his esteemed Rebbetzin, brought close to them, healing their tortured souls.
Shortly after their marriage, Rabbi Brog brought home a guest for dinner that soon became a regular and eventually moved in for close to twenty years. When that fellow would come to the home after a day of work, he was particular in the way he liked his meals. The Brogs would drop everything to see that his meal was ready. He had numerous other demands as well and Rav Shmuel Elchonon and his family enveloped him in love. After the person became ill, the Brogs tended to his personal needs and one would attend to a close relative.
No task was beneath Rav Shmuel Elchonon to the extent that he would get on his hands and knees to cut the fellow’s toe nails…!
The way that Rav Shmuel Elchonon would give his most precious commodity, his time, for others, was another testament to his deep-rooted ahavas Yisroel. He would patiently explain something like a simple Mishna over and over until a talmid would understand it. One family member recalls him explaining the same Mishna 24 times to one talmid who had difficulty grasping it. There was no limit on his time talking to people who were having difficulties, giving them advice and just listening to them. He perfected the art of listening, hearing people’s problems, never cutting them short and offering wise advice.
In fact, when someone he knew was going through a very tough period, Rav Brog would call him every single day to cheer him up. Rav Brog was a quintessential maskil el dal, a person who understood what the poor person and the person undergoing travail needed and, with sensitivity, keen human insight and love, dispensed the tal shel techiya — the life-giving dew and moisture to empower these souls to grow.
PURITY OF SPEECH
When both a son and son-in-law say that they never heard their father or father-in-law speak a word of loshon hora nor a bad word about anyone, you know that they are speaking about someone with a peh kodosh. Family members have occasion to see a person with his guard down, but when it came to speaking loshon hora, Rav Shmuel Elchonon’s guard was never down. His son related that “When we children would be having a discussion and loshon hora would inadvertently creep into the conversation, our father would bang on the table and exclaim, ‘Loshon hora!’ At times we would argue and respond that what had been said is notloshon hora and our father would reply, ‘But is it loshon tov?’ It wasn’t just that he refrained from speaking badly of others, he actively sought the good and positive in others.”
This dedication to purity of speech began at a young age. His rebbetzin recalled that when they got married they began a daily learning seder of five to ten minutes devoted to learning the laws of loshon hora together. When one of his daughter married, he encouraged her to likewise start a seder in the laws of loshon hora with her new husband.
His striving for purity of speech wasn’t limited to speaking about others. His entire way of talking was positive. When he was feeling unwell, he would never say, “I don’t feel good.” Rather, he would quip, “I don’t think I am ready to run the marathon.” His lexicon simply did not contain the words ‘bad weather’. Downpours of rain or snow did not change things – it was still a “nice day”.
Another component of his purity of speech was the temimus with which he ‘walked’ with Hashem; it was the way that regardless of how difficult things became for him, he never complained and was always happy with his lot. A few years ago, he lost his vision in one eye. His son-in-law, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, related that his father-in-law once gave a ‘krechtz’ and immediately retracted it, “I have no taanos whatsoever!” He faced multiple health challenges including two open heart surgeries, but he never complained. He always focused on Hashem’s kindness and how good Hashem had been to him.
If the speech component of his mouth was holy, the eating component was equally so. His rebbetzin explained that for decades he ate the same exact meal every day, salad and cottage cheese. When she asked him if she could serve him something else, some more variety, he would invariably respond, “No.” It was just perfect the way it was.
Matters of Olam Hazeh simply did not have meaning for him. His mind and heart were far too focused on Olam Haba. One of his children related that he never ate pizza. He felt that pizza was a symbol of an American food. He felt that he gotten to where he was by turning his back on the American culture of his early youth that had caused the spiritual demise of so many of his peers from his childhood years.
LEARNING, DAVENING AND SHABBOS
When one saw Rav Shmuel Elchonon Brog davening, one clearly saw the concept of avodah shebelev. He always davened intensely, out of a siddur, the picture of concentration and dveikus. His children remember how devoted he was to tefillah betzibbur. It was nearly impossible to get him to miss a minyan. Even during summer vacation and the like, the first priority was being able to daven with a minyan for all three tefillos.
Rav Brog loved Shabbos. His daughter recalled from her childhood, how “my father’s face was different on Shabbos than it was during the week. On Shabbos it shone.” Every Shabbos, the Brogs had numerous guests at their table, guests from all walks of life. Rav Brog would share insights from the parsha, he would speak about hashkafa issues with the many guests who graced the table. He would sing all of the zemiros in the bentcher and revel in the kedusha of Shabbos. That is why he wanted his wife and children to be dressed in their Shabbos best for all three seudos including Shalosh Seudos; he also encouraged his wife and daughters to make challah every week in honor of the Shabbos.
Rav Brog’s devotion to limud haTorah was extraordinary. He learned regular sedorim for himself and set goals for himself that had to be met. His daughter related that as a child, when she went to sleep at night she would invariably hear her father’s singsong voice learning and reviewing entire Masechtos of Mishnayos by heart. He would not go to sleep at night until he had finished his quota. There was no such thing as his sitting and doing nothing. If he wasn’t engaged in his myriad mitzvos of teaching and chesed, he was learning himself.
During the summer, when the family went away, they all knew that there was no such thing as embarking on a trip until the learning sedorim had been completed. His Rebbetzin recollected that, “There were times when we had girls boarding in our house. One of those girls once left a note thanking us and in it she wrote, ‘One thing never changes — Rabbi Brog is always learning!”
BELOVED BY ALL
Another thing about Rav Shmuel Elchonon Brog was his effort to flee anything that had even a whiff of controversy or machlokes. Even when he was slighted or wronged and could rightfully have been upset or offended, he swallowed his pride, forgoing his honor in order to avoid creating any rift. He was so beloved because he never wronged anyone. Once, on the day of the wedding of one of his children, he disappeared for a period of time. No one knew where he had gone. Later, it was revealed that there was a person who, through no fault of his own, he had been unable to invite to the wedding. Rav Shmuel Elchonon went to that person crying copious tears and begging for mechila if he had inadvertently offended him.
When it came to kibbudim, honors, one of his sons said, “He did not have a taavah, a desire for kovod or anything similar.” A grandson recalls how zaidy attended a siyum in his yeshiva, where Rav Brog was accorded a lot of honor. The next morning, he called his grandmother and was told that zaidy could not eat as he felt nauseous from all the honor he received the previous evening.
“His entire life was harbotzas haTorah.” These were the words of Rav Aharon Shechter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin at Rav Brog’s levaya.
For many decades, Rav Brog served as a maggid shiur, menahel and rebbi for the special track at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. Many of those talmidim graduated from his track into the beis medrash and went on to become the elite of YRCB. He also taught hashkofa for over 35 years at the high school of Yeshiva of Brooklyn.
The amount of time that he spent, during the last decades of his harbotzas haTorah, teaching and guiding his talmidim – a combination of American baalei teshuvah, Iranians, Russians and Israelis, was just remarkable. He would teach with infinite patience, introducing them to the rudiments of Torah learning and slowly, painstakingly bringing them up to the level where they could be mainstreamed into the regular yeshiva program. The task of teaching these talmidim demanded inculcating them with hashkofa. Rav Brog would think nothing of spending 2 to 3 hours conversing with a student and addressing his hashkofa questions. His rebbetzin remembers many occasions when her husband would stand by the door, on the threshold of their home, talking with a talmid for hours…
Perhaps Rav Aharon Shechter put it best when he said at the levaya, “Rav Shmuel Elchonon gave a shiur in yeshiva by example. Just watching him and his personal conduct was a shiur in and of itself.”
His children recollect how in Camp Morris, throughout the summer, they would see their father teaching at a picnic table in the intense heat, his voice booming for hours… he would use every bit of his strength to inculcate Hashem’s Torah into his talmidim. He was undoubtedly responsible for thousands of baalei teshuvah who accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah and mitzvos and went on to establish exemplary Torah families. His hashkofa shiurim to girls in Yeshiva of Brooklyn are also remembered by generations of talmidos with fondness and reverence.
Just as he was mechanech par excellence to his talmidim, so too, he was the ultimate mechanech and role model for his sons. When his children were growing up, he made sure to learn with each one every day. It didn’t matter if he had a simcha or other obligation, learning with his sons always came first.
One of his sons related, “When I was young, I used to enjoy a certain entertainment venue. My father saw me and quipped, “I have heard of a seder in talmud Torah, but I have never heard of a seder in bittul Torah!”
When the children were young, he would hold them spellbound with stories. He would tell them stories with subtle life’s lessons woven into them. Those warm memories remain with his children until today.
His daughter, Rebbetzin Basya Cohen, tells over a notable story. “Once, when one of my sisters was in her early teens, she received a bottle of perfume as a birthday present from a relative. Needless to say, we never had these things in our home and my sister didn’t even know what it was. She came to my father and asked him, “What do I do with this?” My father replied, “What is your best sefer?” My sister answered and my father then instructed her, “Rub a little bit of perfume on each page of the sefer…”
It was this example of practical chinuch and chinuch by example that enabled him and his rebbetzin to establish such an exemplary Torah family.
One of the hashkofa lessons that he continuously inculcated was the importance of the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim. On many occasions, he related that this mitzvah was a foundation upon which Yiddishkeit was built. He said that without kibbud av v’eim, a person has no connection to his past, no connection with the holy avos. It is as if he is cutting himself off from his mesorah. As stated earlier, he himself attributed the fact that he remained frum when his peers did not, to kibbud av v’em. At family simchos and gatherings, he never tired of extolling the mitzvah and explaining how it was the key to personal growth in avodas Hashem.
In fact, when he was a bochur and a yungerman learning in Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rav Shmuel Elchonon would write and mail to his parents a postcard every single day! After his parents’ passing, they found shoeboxes of his postcards that were held, preserved and cherished by his parents.
Another aspect of his chinuch and harbotzas haTorah were the seforim that he wrote for the English speaking public. He also published the book, “The Essence of the Jewish Home” based on the Hebrew work of his close friend, Rav Elchonon Yosef Hertzman zt”l. He then wrote the sefer “Challenge of Eternity” on Mesilas Yeshorim in conjunction with Rav Shabsi Wigdor zt”l. In1965, he translated Chomas Hadas after having learned it himself over thirty times.
He was also instrumental in ensuring that the first seforim written by his son-in-law, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, on the laws of Shabbos would be published. He encouraged his son-in-law to write the seforim and spent much time editing and improving the final product. Rav Cohen relates that “without my father-in-law’s encouragement and guidance, I would never have begun writing my own seforim.”
Despite some significant health challenges, Rav Brog continued with his harbotzas haTorah until shortly before his passing. In fact, he gave his regular hashkofa classes in Yeshiva of Brooklyn just two weeks before his passing. He was hospitalized approximately one week before his petirah. Just three days before he was niftar, he told the staff, “I am so weak! Shabbos is coming, how will I prepare for Shabbos?”
During those last few days when he was very weak, he turned to his son and said, “I want to tell you something. Tell them that everything Hashem does is for the good!”
On Thursday, Erev Rosh Chodesh Teves/December 13, the heart that pulsated with love of Hashem and His People ceased to beat and Rav Shmuel Elchonon was summoned to the yeshiva shel maalah. After spending seventy one years in the beis medrash of YRCB, he was carried out from there. His levaya was held at Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, where a hesped was delivered by the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Shechter and then proceeded to Kennedy Airport where hespeidim were delivered by his sons, Rav Yisroel Brog, Rav Meir Brog and his son-in-law, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen. He was flown to Eretz Yisroel for burial on Har Hazeisim. In Eretz Yisroel hespedim were deliverd by his sons, Rav Eliyohu Zev, Rav Avrohom and Rav Yaakov Moshe where he was layed to rest a few hours before Shabbos. Rav Meir Bergman, shlita related that the great Rav Shach zt”l prayed all his life that he should merit to be buried on Erev Shabbos after chatzos.
Rav Brog leaves behind a wonderful family that follows in his hallowed path. His Rebbetzin Scheine Brog and his children Rav Eliyahu Brog, rov of the Bais Yisroel Torah Center in Flatbush; Rav Yisroel Brog, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva and Kollel Tiferes Avigdor in Wickliffe, OH; Rav Avrohom Brog, R”M in Yeshiva Ohr Hameir of Peekskill; Rav Yehudah Brog of Yeshiva Bais Yisroel; Rav Meir Brog, rosh chaburah in Beis Medrash Govoha of Lakewood; Rav Chaim Brog of Lakewood and Rav Yaakov Moshe Brog of Lakewood; and his daughters, Rebbetzin Basya Cohen, wife of Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, rov of Khal Ateres Yeshaya in Lakewood; Mrs. Rochel Leah Kaplan, wife of Rav Akiva Kaplan, rosh kollel in Monsey and longtime rebbi at Mesivta of South Monsey; and Mrs. Yocheved Klein, wife of Rav Avrohom Eliezer Klein, R”M at Yeshiva Torah Chaim in Lakewood and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren ke”h.
Yehi zichro boruch.