Remembering Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l: An Interview with his son, Rav Elchonon Berenbaum

From the streets of Baranovich and Mir, to the Bais Aharon synagogue in Shanghai, to Ocean Parkway in Flatbush, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l remained in the same place, the beis medrash. He reveled in the Torah of his great rabbeim, and he fed the hungry neshamos of American boys. He was mechanech his talmidim to reach gadlus. His hasmodah and yegia in Torah were only matched by his love for his talmidim. The radiance of Rav Shmuel’s Torah still lives on today in his talmidim, his yeshiva, and the thousands of yungeleit he cared for and supported. I had the zechus to talk with his son, Rav Elchonon Berenbaum, ram in Yeshiva Beis Meir in Lakewood, in honor of his father’s tenth yahrtzeit on 28 Teves.

Can you tell us about your father’s gadlus in Torah?

My father never stopped shteiging! Even as he was constantly teaching Torah and always worried about his talmidim’s growth, he never was satisfied with his own level of learning. Rav Yitzchok Kleinman zt”l was a talmid of my father’s many years ago, and he once commented that his rebbi, Rav Shmuel now, was a different person than his rebbi, Rav Shmuel 50 years ago; he had become so much greater since then.

My father would not miss a seder in yeshiva. Every talmid knew my father would only be mesader kiddushin at a chasunah after second seder. Even the night of the yeshiva’s dinner, he wouldn’t miss second seder; he would only go afterward. Nothing was as choshuv as Torah.

Once, during the later years of his life, when he was well into his eighties, there was a snowstorm. The roads were impassable, and there were no cars on the street. My father insisted on walking to yeshiva, and he went outside and started his trek. As soon as he started walking, there happened to be an emergency vehicle on the road that was driving around. The driver noticed my father, and gave him a ride to yeshiva.

My father never stopped chazering. He spent most of his day horuving on yeshiva’s masechta, preparing for shiur. He was in yeshiva form morning to night, and was constantly learning, and talking in learning. It didn’t always come easy to him. I heard that he once told of the numerous times that he almost had to chain himself to the walls of the beis medrash in order to stay at the Gemara!

How was he able to keep shteiging for so many years?

He was always dovuk to his rabbeim. His rabbeim were his life. He learned in Baranovitch under Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Lubchansky zt”l, Rav Dovid Rappoport zt”l, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt”l, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l, and Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l. All his rabbeim were dear to him, and he emulated their actions. His chaveirim from his chaburah in Mir and Baranovitch were so close to him, they were like family. He was especially close with Rav Nochum Partzovitz zt”l, Rav Nachamchik zt”l, Rav Aharon Kreiser zt”l, Rav Boruch Rosenberg zt”l, and Rav Asher Lichtenstein zt”l. Towards the end of his life, when he was already a zokein, a talmid of his who was a yasom got married. At the chasunah, my father stood on a chair in middle, and made sure that the bochurim were dancing extra leibidig. I asked him later why he did it, and he told me, “My rebbi, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, mashgiach in Baranovich, did the same exact thing at a yasom’s chasunah, so I did it as well.”

His rabbeim held him in high regard. There was one time in Baranovich when the yeshiva could not afford to feed the bochurim for a few days. When the yeshiva finally got hold of some leftovers, a few loaves of stale bread, the bochurim protested, and did not eat. Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky gave my father mussar, and told him that he must eat to have kochos to learn. He then paused and said, “Vey tzo mir that I have to give mussar to such a choshuve bocher like Shmuel Berenbaum.”

He was born and raised in Europe, and learned under gedolei olam in the yeshivos of pre-war Europe. How was he able to connect with the American talmid?

With love! He loved all his talmidim, sometimes even more than a father loves his son. He was also full of personality, with a beautiful hadras ponim. He was a very emotional person, but not in the American way. People think that if you’re emotional, you cry. My father had so much more emotion to him. He loved and cared about his talmidim so much, and his talmidim felt it. He had a talmid who lost his wife and was left alone to care for a few young children. Not only did my father attend the levayah, he went in the car with the young yesomim on the way to the levayah, and spoke to them like a grandfather speaks to his grandchildren.

He had a close talmid who became very wealthy. My father learned with him once a week. At a parlor meeting for Mir Yeshiva, my father rebuked this talmid for not giving enough tzedokah, and told him he has to give more. After this incident, this talmid did not come to learn with my father for the next few weeks, out of embarrassment. When my father realized, he called him up, and said jokingly on the phone, “What’s the matter, we’re not friends anymore?” Once he broke the ice, the talmid answered, “Chas veshalom! But ich hub moirah from the rosh yeshiva!” My father strengthened his kesher with him, and he continued to shteig in Torah and chesed. He later told me that when my father was niftar, he felt like he lost another father.

My father had a talmid in Lakewood who used to travel into Brooklyn every week to learn with him. One week, my father noticed that his jacket was frayed. He looked at him and said, “It doesn’t pas for a ben Torah to walk around with such a jacket. Here is money to buy a new one.”

During the shivah, we received a letter from a talmid who lives out of town. He wrote that when he was in Mir, he was a “gornisht,” and most of his rabbeim and certain members of the hanholah gave up on him. But my father would not give up, and he would constantly remind him to learn and daven, expecting him to live up to the standards of the best bochur in the yeshiva. He wrote that he knows that the rest of the hanolah had ta’anos on my father for bothering him so much, yet my father persisted. Today, he is a fine ben Torah and an ernste mentch, all because he felt the ahavah from my father.

Rav Yaakov Bender said over at the shivah that there was a bochur in Mir Yeshiva who used to gamble. A few yungeleit came into my father and insisted that the bochur be thrown out of yeshiva. My father got very emotional, looked up at them, and asked with determination, “Did you fast 40 ta’aneisim before you came here? If not, then I’m not ready to throw him out!” Rabbi Bender then said, “I know who this talmid is, and I was standing next to him at the levayah. Today, he is a choshuve yungerman.” But that is just the first part of the story. A few months ago, I met Rav Bender and he told me the rest of the story.

Rav Bender had said over this story one year at a dinner for Yeshiva Darchei Torah. During that time, there was a boy in the yeshiva who was faltering. The hanholah was almost holding by calling his parents and suggesting that he leave for a more suitable yeshiva. After a few weeks, this boy started to improve in every aspect. His learning improved, as well as his davening and his interaction with other boys. The menahel, Rabbi Trenk, called his mother and inquired as to what contributed to her son’s sudden change for the better. She answered that she heard Rabbi Bender say the story of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum at the dinner, and thought to herself, “If Rav Shmuel can fast for a talmid, then I can surely fast for my son!”

My father fasted many times for the hatzlocha of his talmidim. Over the years, we knew of times when he would fast, including for his own grandchildren, particularly when a grandchild of his took ill.

He taught by example. He loved to learn all of Shas biyun, and he did so early in the morning, late at night, and during bein hazmanim. But the bulk of his day, he toiled over the masechta of the yeshiva’s limud, preparing his shiur.

Tell us more about his shiur.

His shiur was kodesh kodashim! Every word of the Gemara was “upgelerned.” He did not skip anything. There was what to learn in every word of the Gemara, and my father taught this to his talmidim as well. The shiur gave my father life. Towards the end, when he was already a choleh mesukan, he was so weak that he could not even talk. He insisted on going to yeshiva to say a shiur. When he arrived and started saying the shiur, he was like a new person! He was talking clearly, smiling, and delivering the shiur with the same patience as always. It was unbelievable!

When it came to emes in Torah, he possessed unwavering strength. Rav Aharon Kreiser used to say about him that he was “vi a leib,” like a lion. I remember once during a shiur kloli in Mir, given by a choshuv talmid chochom, my father did not agree with one part of the shiur. He got up with passion, and started arguing with this talmid chochom in middle of the shiur! He would not give up, and it caused quite a commotion in the beis medrash. Later, when I asked him how he was able to do that, he answered, “If you would have seen how Rav Aharon (Kotler) zt”l hut geshlugen in lernen vi a leib, you would not have any questions!”

How did he get involved in chesed and tzedokah for yungeleit in Eretz Yisroel?

My father was always looking to help yungeleit, but in America, he wasn’t needed as much. There wasn’t such a big need for a massive keren for American yungeleit, but there was a big void in Eretz Yisroel. He always had a love for Eretz Yisroel, especially talmidei chachomim in Eretz Yisroel. His mechutan, Rav Dovid Schustal, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Gavoah, gave him the chizzuk to start the keren, which bears his name today. My father raised millions of dollars for talmidei chachomim in Eretz Yisroel. He would spend yom tov in Bnei Brak at the home of my brother, Rav Aryeh Leib zt”l, and there would be a fundraiser every year for his keren. During the last Sukkos of my father’s life, Reb Reuvain Schron hosted a meeting with many gedolim in attendance in his sukkah in Yerushalayim. My father, being extremely sick, felt that he could not attend, yet Rav Chaim Kanievsky paskened that he should attend. He was mevatel da’as to Rav Chaim, and with great mesiras nefesh, he attended. People saw his mesirus nefesh for the keren, and boruch Hashem, the keren continues to thrive.

A year before he was niftar, on erev Yom Kippur, he was busy the whole day with chesed. He was raising money for a rosh yeshiva who was in a lot of debt, and he was attending to a child who wasn’t well and needed specialty care. He returned home late in the day, and his driver asked him, “What is the rosh yeshiva going to eat? It’s almost Yom Kippur.” My father replied, “Mir geit essen mitzvos! I will eat mitzvos!”

Is there anything you saw as a child that would give us a glimpse of your father’s greatness?

My father was the same at home as he was in yeshiva; always positive. He was only mechanech positively. He was tough on us, just like he was tough on his talmidim. But we took it, because we knew that he loved us so much. He was mechanech by example. He went through a few tragedies in his life, but the simcha that radiated from him as he was mechadesh a chidush in Torah never left him. We watched him daven, literally omeid lifnei hamelech. He would beg the Eibishter like a child talks to his father. He was an inspiration to us all. He was so real. We saw that, and we emulated him. He lived for the Eibishter and he lived for his talmidim.

Yehei zichro boruch.