Every week, as I conduct interviews, I learn a lot about different anashim gedolim. As I listen to the interviewees, I am inspired by the divrei Torah, divrei mussar and hashkafah I hear, as well as the stories of the fascinating lives of the many leaders whom I have written about.
This coming week, the second day of Iyar will mark the first yahrtzeit of my zaide, Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky zt”l. He was a man loved by whoever met him, and he was revered and admired by the thousands of people who benefitted from him warmth. He was warmly welcomed by every circle of Yidden and non-Jews too. He spoke to a first grade talmid with the same enthusiasm and love as when he spoke to a United States senator, and he davened for a yasom with the same heart that he davened for his own children and grandchildren.
My zaide grew up in Tzitivyan, a shtetel in Lithuania, in the home of my elter zaide, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky. There was nothing there besides a few chickens and a blatt Gemara. Chashivus for Torah was in the air he breathed, and it became part and parcel of his being. He learned under the gedolim of Telshe, and he vividly recalled the fiery shmuessen of the Telzer rov, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch.
His heart was big enough to care for every Yid. As a young man, he shouldered an awesome responsibility, building an entire infrastructure of Torah in a community that was spiritually barren. In 1956, he founded Yeshiva of South Shore in Woodmere, NY which later merged with Yeshiva Toras Chaim of East New York, the yeshiva in which he began his career in chinuch. He felt that if the Ribono Shel Olam gave him the strength to do, then he must do. He was never active in kiruv, but every Yid who met him felt closer to the Ribono Shel Olam. His smile was pure, and his motives were transparent. If he could bring a child closer to Hashem, he accepted the boy into his yeshiva, regardless of background, financial ability, or any perceptions about his yeshiva.
He was active in almost every type of chesed imaginable, without being part of any organization. Bikur cholim, chesed shel emes, shidduchim, job placement, almanos, yesomim, tuition scholarships, camp scholarships, kiruv, intermarriage prevention, tzedakah for aniyim, Yissochor -Zevulun partnerships, pidyon shevuyim, and many other endeavors were all on his to-do list every single day. He busied himself with the simple needs of any Yid, all while running a yeshiva, making important chinuch decisions, and loving each and every one of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
Although I know much about my zaide, I had the unique opportunity to interview my father, Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Toras Chaim of South Shore and a weekly contributor to these pages, to hear some stories again and learn some more tales and information about my zaide, who I knew and loved for over three decades, in honor of his first yahrtzeit.
[Note: To ensure clarity to the reader, I refer to Rav Binyamin as “my grandfather” or “Zaidy.” My father refers to his father as “my father.”]
Growing up, how did the hashpa’ah of the gadol hador, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, influence Zaidy and your life at home?
“When I was younger, Rav Yaakov played a much greater role in our life than when I was older,” my father begins. “Rav Yaakov was the rosh vaad hachinuch of my father’s yeshiva, Yeshiva of South Shore, and every crucial decision was made based upon Rav Yaakov’s guidance. In fact, Rav Yaakov was the one who suggested that his talmid, Rav Shmuel Dishon, become a rebbi and later a menahel at the yeshiva.
“We would go visit Zaidy Rav Yaakov in Monsey very often, and he and his rebbetzin, ‘the Mooma’ (his second wife), would come to Woodmere to visit us. I remember travelling to Monsey one year for Selichos to daven with him and staying for Shabbosos, and even a Pesach Seder. I even used his home as a base to prepare for shidduchim in Monsey. Oftentimes, when a situation would arise and my father had to make a decision, he would say, ‘Mir darf freggen Papa’ [pronounced with the accent on the last syllable – ‘P’pa’]. Rav Yaakov’s children would refer to him in the European dialect, P’pa.
“I remember that when I was about 11 years old, I wanted to fast on Tisha B’Av. When I mentioned my overly-zealous aspiration to my father, he told me to call Zaidy Rav Yaakov. I presented the shailah to my zaide, and he asked me, ‘Why do you want to fast on Tisha B’Av? You are not yet a bar mitzvah.’ I responded, “I want to prepare myself for next year. After all, it’s chinuch.’ Rav Yaakov, in his wit, answered me, ‘Why do you have to prepare for next year? You don’t believe that Moshiach will come and there will be a Bais Hamikdosh? You have to believe that next year we won’t have to fast on Tisha B’Av!’
“Rav Yaakov felt a certain responsibility for my father’s yeshiva and for the Five Towns community in general. He was the one who encouraged my parents to move out here. The relocation was very hard for my mother. I was just a baby at that time. After the first few years living in Woodmere, my mother still had no friends and she hardly had anyone who she could relate to. She grew up in a chassidishe home in the thriving Jewish community in the Bronx, and with great mesirus nefesh she moved out to a religious wasteland. Rav Yaakov told her what is by now the famous line, ‘If you plant, even in a midbar, it will grow!’ Because of the achrayus he took, he felt a responsibility to be mechazeik the yeshiva and the community in every way he could. In the early years of the yeshiva, he attended the annual dinners. He would also head the yearly meeting with the rabbeim and the menahelim the day before yeshiva started to be mechazeik and guide the melamdim at the beginning of the new school year.
“Rav Yaakov had a big hashpa’ah on the yeshiva. I can tell you the story that everyone knows, but it really happened. When the yeshiva started in 1956, there was already a frum community living in Far Rockaway. There was a co-ed school there, but many families in Far Rockaway wanted a more heimishe yeshiva, with only boys, with yeshiva on Sunday, and with every other aspect that makes a yeshiva a yeshiva. My father was the one who got the building and started the yeshiva. Many of these families sent their sons to the new yeshiva. These families were mostly only one generation away from Europe, and some were Holocaust survivors themselves. Being accustomed to the mesorah of children in cheder learning in Yiddish, they insisted that the new yeshiva follow their mesorah and teach the boys in Yiddish. My father was skeptical, since all the boys spoke English as their native tongue. He presented the shailah to Rav Yaakov, and Rav Yaakov instructed him that the rabbeim should teach in English. “If the child naturally speaks English,” he explained, “then that is the language he thinks in. If he has to translate the Yiddish into English in his head, even if he understands Yiddish, it is another step of processing and their havanah will not be the same.”
“Rav Yaakov said this vort about himself as well. When I was in Vienna a few weeks ago, Rabbi Horowitz, a mashpia in Elad who came to Vienna from Eretz Yisroel to attend the Dirshu siyum, told me that when they had the Knessia Gedolah in Yerushalayim in the early 1980s, the organizers wanted Rav Yaakov to address the gathering in Ivrit. However, Rav Yaakov insisted that he speak only in Yiddish, even though there may be a language barrier to some of the assembled. ‘If I speak in Yiddish,’ Rav Yaakov explained, ‘I am speaking from my heart. It will be devorim hayotzim min halev and it will be nichnas el halev. But if I speak in Ivrit, I will have to first translate the Yiddish to Ivrit in my head and it will not be yotzim min halev. It will be coming from my head.’”
Did Zaidy talk a lot about his rabbeim?
“He loved his rebbi, Rav Dovid Leibowitz. He always talked about his middos. Rav Dovid was a great-nephew of the Chofetz Chaim and he learned in Radin before he learned in Slabodka. Eventually, he moved to America, where he was first rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas before he opened Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yisroel Meir Hakohein in 1933.
“My father told me this story about Rav Dovid. There was a bochur in yeshiva who used to shave with a razor. The other bochurim went to Rav Dovid to ask him to have this bochur leave the yeshiva. ‘Does he keep Shabbos?’ Rav Dovid asked. The bochurim answered in the affirmative. ‘Does he keep kashrus?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does he keep other halachos?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So how can I throw him out of the yeshiva?’ Rav Dovid continued, ‘Maybe he doesn’t know the halacha. Teach him the halacha! Tell him that one may not shave with a razor!’ Rav Dovid’s love for his talmidim was something that my father always talked about. I think that he was influenced by his rebbi, and he built his talmidim in the same way. He always looked for the good and gave them chizuk just as his rebbi Rav Dovid built talmidim.”
I remember my zaide telling me that December 7, 1941 was the day of the levayah of his great rebbi, Rav Dovid Leibowitz. Rav Dovid was niftar suddenly at the young age of 52. It was a shock and a blow to the Torah world, especially to his own talmidim. As they were leaving the levayah, they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and FDR’s declaration of war on the Axis Powers. “It was the worst day of my life,” my grandfather told me.
“Immediately after he arrived in Toronto in 1938,” my father continued, “Rav Yaakov sent my father to learn at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yisroel Meir Hakohein under Rav Dovid. The financial situation in the yeshiva was difficult and there was almost nothing to eat. When he was in yeshiva in Europe, he was well taken care of. He used to eat teg at different houses, and I remember him talking about the half decent meals he received. He also recalled how he got farhered weekly in the home of Rav Archik Bakst, rov of Shavel, where he received hot rolls as a reward. But here in New York, he was starving. He wrote a letter complaining to his father, ‘Why did you send me here?’ Rav Yaakov responded with what is now the famous praise he said about his old chaver from Slabodka: ‘If I were a rich man in Europe, I would have sent you across the ocean to learn in the yeshiva of Rav Dovid Leibowitz.’
“Rav Dovid was a gaon. Rav Yaakov once told me that there was a certain yungerman in the Kovno Kollel who would say chaburos. Rav Dovid was older than him and was the rosh chaburah. When he finished, Rav Dovid would argue so strongly that this bochur became so distraught and was moved to tears. This yungerman himself was a big metzuyan, and he eventually became a rosh yeshiva of a big yeshiva in America, yet Rav Dovid was always so far ahead of him.”
Can you talk a little about the founding of Yeshiva Toras Chaim of South Shore?
“When my father was actually ready to start, the yeshiva needed a home. He had very little money and was unable to find a house or a building. He reached out to his cousin, Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, president of Torah Umesorah, to help him out. He told him about an irreligious man who lived and died in Woodmere and instructed in his will that his house be left for ‘Jewish education.’ In 1956, the house was still sitting empty, overgrown with grass and in a state of disrepair. My father tried securing it for the yeshiva, but the inheritors refused to give it to him. They did not believe that he was a credible Jewish education institution, as his yeshiva was still not in existence! But my father would not give up. He told the inheritors, ‘Your father died and he has no rest. His house is still sitting empty. We are starting a yeshiva, and on September 7th we are moving in!’ After some more effort and logistical planning, the inheritors agreed to give the house for the yeshiva, and 4 Oak Street was the first home of Yeshiva Toras Chaim of South Shore. When my father set his mind to something, no one was able to stop him. He focused on his goal and nothing else mattered.
“In the early days, he was constantly busy with the yeshiva. Payroll was always a pressure. There was a time when he put together a board of directors and a tuition committee, but after a few instances when they did not treat the parents with the proper respect, he dissolved the board and took on the entire achrayus himself.
“He faced a lot of opposition when he opened the yeshiva,” my father continued. “Rav Shmuel Dishon, one of the first menahelim of the yeshiva, told me that after he started the yeshiva, my father was approached by a rabbi in the community who said, ‘Rabbi Kamenetzky, whatever you stand for, I am against!’ But he didn’t waiver, and he stayed strongly attached to his Torah ideals and the derech that he was mekabel from his father, Rav Yaakov.
“He learned a lot from Rav Yitzchok Schmidman. Rabbi Schmidman was an amazing man. He was moser nefesh to build talmidim in America, and his Yeshiva Toras Chaim in East New York was the sixth cheder in America. He charged a nickel for tuition, and it was he who had a tremendous impact on my father to offer any child a Torah education regardless of whether or not he was able to pay tuition.”
When my grandfather established his yeshiva, he opened its doors to virtually anyone who wanted to come. I recently met a talmid who told me that he is forever indebted to my grandfather. His father was niftar when he was a baby, and his mother, an almanah, went to register him in the yeshiva. She apologetically told my grandfather that she has no way of paying tuition. My grandfather took the boy in with open arms, and he even helped her out further by offering her to work in the yeshiva.
“He was not selective and he took in anyone,” my father reminisces. “He did not mind if the parents were semi-religious, as long as they were willing to grow in Yiddishkeit and accept the standards of the yeshiva. Naturally, he reached a broader base than other yeshivos, and the yeshiva continues with these ideals still today. He made it his mission to reach out to all Yidden, frum or not, and help them out in any way possible. Yes, he stood his ground in halacha or hashkafah. Yes, he did get negative feedback from some baalei battim, and he received his fair share of hateful letters as well. But he would not budge from his Torah principles and from the guidance of his father, Rav Yaakov. Sometimes, he was bothered by the lack of sincerity of some of the families who were affiliated with the yeshiva. I remember one time when he came home from a bar mitzvah celebrated by a family who had different priorities than our family, I greeted him and asked him how it was. He sighed and, visibly upset, responded, ‘It was 98% bar and 2% mitzvah!’
“Each and every talmid was dear to him. He took pride in every child’s accomplishments, each according to their level. I remember going with my father to visit a rosh yeshiva of a very distinguished yeshiva, and my father was enthusiastically heaping praise on a talmid in the yeshiva who memorized a siman in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. I was a little embarrassed that what my father considered an accomplishment was probably not considered much in that yeshiva. This rosh yeshiva would reserve that praise for his talmidim who were memorizing perakim in Gemara! But my father didn’t care what anyone thought. He took pride in any aliyah that his talmidim had.
“He used this same enthusiasm to help anyone. Someone who he knew who was in the window business was having a hard time attracting new customers. My father immediately took action and made a call to an acquaintance of his in the construction business. He started heaping praise on this particular vender and, like a master salesman, enthusiastically tried convincing the builder that these windows were the absolute best on the market! I don’t know if he made the sale for this fellow, but he knew how to use his energy and enthusiasm to help others.”
How did Zaidy learn how to fundraise?
“My father was an askan from his very start. There are many letters I found from various organizations thanking him for helping raise money for them. He also drove roshei yeshivos, including Rav Aharon Kotler and Rav Elchonon Wasserman, when he was a bochur.
“He once went with Rav Aharon Kotler to help him fundraise for Chinuch Atzmai. They came to a certain wealthy individual, who gave a very small amount of money. My father was visibly agitated, but after they left the room, Reb Aharon said to him, ‘Efsher takeh er hut nisht tzu geben. (Maybe he really doesn’t have what to give.)’ I think that made a big impact on him. He always looked at everyone in a positive light.
“In fact, a number of years ago, shortly after my father officially retired and I accepted the responsibility of running the yeshiva, I went with him to a man who is known to be a multi-millionaire, but not a supporter of our yeshiva, to solicit a donation. It was a time of great need and we were struggling. We could not afford to raise little monies, so I asked this man for $10,000. When he handed me a $200 check, I refused to take it. ‘We really appreciate your generosity, but we didn’t come here for $200,’ I told him. My father was very upset at me. ‘He wants to give something! How can you not take it?’ he told me. He appreciated any small donation that anyone gave him.
“Today, most institutions grant a tremendous amount of kavod to their big supporters. However, my father was never able to be mechabeid them enough, simply because he gave every donor the same amount of kavod! He would thank the $18 donor with the same enthusiasm as the $18,000 donor. Once someone helped the yeshiva, he was a friend for life and he earned my father’s respect and gratitude.
“About 36 years ago, my father had a surgery and the doctor left a catheter inside him. It caused a tremendous medical complication and a lot of expenses. When someone suggested that he sue that doctor for negligence, he replied, ‘How can I sue him? It will ruin his parnassah. He donated money to the yeshiva. I can’t do that to a friend!’ This doctor was not a big donor. He gave a few hundred dollars over the years. But my father treated every donor like a partner and a friend and with hakoras hatov.”
Today, there is a lot of support and training for young rabbeim and menahelim. However, back in the 1950s, there was almost nothing. How did Zaidy have the wherewithal to run an entire yeshiva with almost no experience?
“The truth is that you are right,” my father says. “There wasn’t much help from the outside. But my father recruited an all-star team of mechanchim to join the yeshiva. Rav Meir Shapiro was the menahel there. He was excellent. He also had a lineup of superstar mechanchim and rabbeim in the yeshiva, and some of them are still in the yeshiva today. Rav Shmuel Dishon and Rav Yehuda Oelbaum (who later became his mechutan, as my brother Reb Tzvi, of Toronto, married his oldest daughter Miriam) were both menahelim in the yeshiva as well. They are all known to be super talented and excellent mechanchim. He spared no effort to hire the best rabbeim, and he obligated himself to pay salaries that he could not afford. He would not settle for anything less than the highest quality Torah education for his talmidim. My eight grade rebbi was Rav Shmuel Chaimson. He was a talmid of Rav Reuvein Grozovsky at Bais Medrash Elyon and a gaon olam. My rebbi at Yeshiva of Philadelphia, Rav Yitzchok Perman, told me that when he was learning in Bais Medrash Elyon, the Ponovezher Rov came and gave a shiur. Rav Reuvein argued on the shiur and a rischa d’Oraisa ensued. Finally, Rav Reuvein declared, ‘Let’s go and ask the bochur Shmuel Chaimson what he thinks. Whatever he says must be the truth!’ Rav Yitzchok could not believe that Yeshiva of South Shore was zoche to have him as a rebbi!”
Any final thoughts?
“A story comes to mind: Right after I got engaged, I went to my father with a problem. I assumed that our minhag was not to eat gebrochts on Pesach. Everyone knows the famous story explaining why Rav Yaakov did not eat gebrochts, but I never saw gebrochts in our house, and I assumed that the minhag carried down to the next generation. To add to my assumption, my mother is from a chassidishe family. I assumed that between my two parents, gebrochts was definitely out. I asked my father how to approach this issue with my new kallah’s family who surely ate gebrochts. How would I explain to them that I won’t be able to eat many of their prepared foods over Pesach? My father pulled me into his study, closed the door, and made sure it clicked shut behind me. He looked at me and he said, “Shhh. Don’t tell Ma, but I also eat gebrochts. And you do too. I just know that Ma won’t want to cook any gebrochts, and she won’t be happy seeing me eat it, so I don’t ask for it, and I don’t eat it in front of her!’ The kavod and sensitivity he showed my mother were legendary.
“About 26 years ago, after the petirah of his mechutan, my wife’s grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin, longtime rov in Detroit, my father heard how he would care about the almanos in his community. He would also call them to wish them a gut Shabbos. My father heard this, and he was so impressed that he decided to do the same. After being involved in the community for so many years, he knew many women who unfortunately lost their husbands. He started calling them every week and he did not stop until a mere few weeks before his petirah.”
I remember visiting my grandfather’s house every Friday as a child, and he was usually in his study working the phones, calling almanah after almanah. Later on, with the advent of cell phones, he had a code in his contacts in his old flip phone, prefacing the almanos with the letter “W” for “widow,” so that all the numbers would be easily accessible. I remember driving my grandparents to Baltimore 13 years ago for a family simcha, and almost the entire time, Zaidy was calling and wishing a gut Shabbos to almanos on his list. The family has already heard from 70 women that they used to get a weekly phone call from my grandfather. He would take notes and inquire about each family member, asking about where they are holding at each stage of their life.
The stories and the memories keep coming. His rich life was full of Torah and chesed. He was an inspiration to everyone who met him, and he left behind a legacy of a beautiful family of talmidei chachomim and leaders. His yeshiva, which he put his heart and soul into, is thriving, and although he is no longer with us, his children and ainiklach, along with his many talmidim, feel his smile and his encouragement each day.
Yehi zichro boruch.