Shedding a Tear in Chicago…For What We Have and What We Are Missing

THE SURPRISE

 

Davening had just ended. I was putting away my tefillin when he came over.

 

“You should have been there! You should have been in Chicago last week!” he exclaimed.

 

I had an instinctive feeling that he was talking about the 50th anniversary dinner honoring the roshei yeshiva that the Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago recently celebrated, but I was surprised. I had never associated this individual with Telshe Chicago. He was a fine yungerman, a yungerman whose parnassah is that of avodas kapayim, connected with the construction industry.

 

“You learned in Telshe?” I asked.

 

“Certainly! I learned there for a few years. I came to Telshe nearly 30 years ago and it became the foundation of my yeshiva years.” he replied. “As soon as I saw that they were celebrating 50 years, I knew that I would go. How could I not show my hakoras hatov to the two roshei yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin and Rav Chaim Dov Keller, and the unforgettable menahel, Rav Chaim Schmelczer zt”l?”

 

I was a bit surprised at the depth of his feelings. Yes, he is truly an ehrliche Yid who takes his Yiddishkeit seriously, but he is not a maggid shiur or a rov. He is a person who dons work pants and a work shirt everyday and goes to construction sites and houses to engage in his trade. I simply did not associate him as someone who had such a powerful life-long bond with his yeshiva, but boy did I make a mistake!

 

When he started talking about the roshei yeshiva and the event, he told me, “I am not ashamed to admit that there was more than one occasion at the dinner that I cried. Yes, I shed tears. I can’t tell you why, but I can certainly tell you from looking around that I was not the only one. There were people crying all over – fathers and grandfathers with white beards shedding a tear or two throughout the evening.”

 

A CHASUNAH MADE BY “PARENTS”

 

As he was talking, I was trying to figure out what it was about the yeshiva that engendered, so many years later, such depth of feeling in this talmid and obviously in so many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others. And then the yungerman himself related a story from the “sheves achim” after the dinner, the beautiful gathering of hundreds of alumni who stayed after the long dinner program to sit together with the roshei yeshiva and sing and hear words of bracha from fellow alumni. That story made it all clear. It is a story and lesson so applicable today, a story and lesson that are important to share, absorb and try to emulate.

 

Rav Dovid Goldberg, a Telshe Chicago alumnus and prominent rosh yeshiva today at the Telshe Yeshiva of Cleveland, got up to speak. He related how the terrible snowstorm that wreaked havoc on the Midwest cancelled or seriously changed the travel plans of so many alumni who were slated to attend the dinner. In fact, as he was driving from Cleveland to Chicago, he was in constant contact with his brother, Rav Yehuda Goldberg, a maggid shiur at the Riverdale Yeshiva, who was waiting in the airport due to a storm-related flight delay. He was not at all sure that he would even make it to the dinner. Rav Yehuda asked his brother, Rav Dovid, “At what point does it become too late? At what point should I turn around and go back home because I will miss the event anyway?”

 

Rav Dovid replied, “Even if you can make it for the sheves achim following the dinner, it will be worthwhile. After all,” he said, “if your parents were making a chasunah and you were unavoidably delayed, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to make it, even if it meant coming late and showing up towards the end of the chasunah?”

 

All of a sudden, it was clear. They viewed their roshei yeshiva as father figures. The relationship between the early roshei yeshiva in America during the first few decades after the war and their talmidim was akin to a parent-child relationship, echoing the Gemara’s words about a rebbi taking precedence, because parents bring one to Olam Hazeh, while a rebbi brings his talmidim to Olam Habah.

 

FIGHTING FOR IDEALS…OR LIVING THE IDEALS

 

The question is why? Why was it that way?

 

Yes, today, too, many bochurim have close relationships with the new generation of roshei yeshiva, and that is wonderful. It is the way it should be. But from this writer’s unscientific observance, even those relationships are not the same as those forged by the roshei yeshiva and their talmidim in the initial yeshivos here in America.

 

During the first three or four decades after the war, nothing was taken for granted.

 

Today, the life of a yeshiva bochur is scripted. He will attend mesivta and perhaps a different yeshiva for post-high school bais medrash. He then goes off to Eretz Yisroel for several years, followed by a return to America and Lakewood. He will get married, learn in kollel…

 

Years ago, there was no script. The bochur had to write the script of his life. The bochurim had no idea what the future would bring. Bochurim stayed in the same yeshiva for longer. Frequently, their parents pressured them to go to college despite their desire to continue learning. They became idealists.

 

They had to make decisions regarding right and wrong on their own, and that often meant fighting for what was right. Their roshei yeshiva were there in the trenches with them. Not only did they teach them values that weren’t yet the norm, but they often acted as intermediaries and advocates with parents, prospective in-laws and others. This close interaction between rebbi and talmid – every talmid, not just the metzuyanim – created a deep bond, a lasting father figure bond, that continues many decades after leaving the yeshiva. The rebbi, the mashgiach or the rosh yeshiva who guided a bochur during his formative high school years often remained his rebbi for life. He was the rebbi whom he called later, as an older bochur. He was the rosh yeshiva whom he called when navigating the difficult parsha of shidduchim. He was the mashgiach whom he called when he was at a crossroads in life regarding parnassah. And he was the rosh yeshiva who was consulted when a chinuch issue arose with one of his children.

 

Indeed, many bochurim today also enjoy close relationships with their rabbeim, and these words should not be misconstrued as someone reminiscing about a non-existent world. The point, however, is that the very success of the yeshiva world, the fact that all of those early battles have been won, brings with it the by-product that young people do not grow up fighting for an ideal.

 

For example, when cholov Yisroel was not taken for granted, someone who accepted upon themselves to eat only cholov Yisroel was making a sacrifice and a statement. He was fighting for an ideal and was willing to sacrifice his ice cream for it. When kollel was not taken for granted, a yungerman who dedicated the years after his marriage to learning, who decided to undertake the lifestyle of Torah mitoch hadechak as it entailed at that time, became strong because his decisions were an outgrowth of ideals. He sacrificed knowing that he would have no support and no kavod, just battles along with frequent disdain and derision. The kur habarzel strengthened him.

 

The deep bond with their rabbeim was a bond of love, a bond forged through Torah, and a bond akin to what one would call brothers-in-combat.

 

FIGHTING FOR IDEALS… FORGING LIFELONG BONDS

 

Recently, while compiling an article in this week’s Yated in honor of the 10th yahrtzeit of Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l, I interviewed Rav Gifter’s son-in-law, Rav Yaakov Reisman. During the course of the conversation, Rav Reisman told me that despite Rav Gifter being an absolutely phenomenal masmid who was loathe to tear himself away from his Gemara, every talmid knew that they could get an immediate appointment with him if it was regarding going or not going to college. The burning idealism possessed by that generation’s roshei yeshiva, the fact that the situation of that time required them to be willing to throw themselves into fire on behalf of their talmidim, created a life-long bond.

 

That bond is what brought hundreds of Telshe Chicago talmidim to tears last week, as they observed their roshei yeshiva, Rav Levin and Rav Keller, with adulation and fondly recalled Rav Chaim Schmelzer and the deep warmth that they felt and that enveloped them whenever they interacted with him.

 

At the dinner, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin put it succinctly when he emotionally said, “Bonai heim – every talmid, no matter when or for how long he learned in yeshiva, is like a son.”

 

I know that we can’t turn back the clock, nor should we. Nevertheless, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that one of the drawbacks of spiritual affluence, of having won the old battles, is that idealism in general is uncommon and that idealism that was so instrumental in forging unbreakable bonds with rabbeim is no longer here. This has many ramifications for our time. One of them is that it makes it more difficult for this generation of young people to forge that life bond with their rabbeim and roshei yeshiva. I pity those who haven’t been zoche.