Monday, August 13, 2007

The Month Of Elul Is Upon Us - A Time For Reflection

It was a beautiful morning. I had risen early and sat out on the balcony at my winter vacation spot on Miami Beach. Watching the massive tides crashing into each other; and seemingly being able to understand why at one time people thought the Earth was flat. The Atlantic met the heavens as far as I was able to discern with the naked eye.

The year was 1985, the month was January, and my excitement to greet the day was palpable. I loved Miami that time of year, for different reasons than the school-kid on winter break, or than the Hungarians being able to catch up on their poker game, or the Brooklyn women able to show off their new - pool-wigs and two piece bathing suits from Christian Dior. ( Yeah...my wife told me)

I treasured this time of year because I was able to relax and spend precious time with Moreinu Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky zt"l, who spent the last winters of his life in a comfortable Miami rooming house on Collins Avenue.

I went off to daven at the Miami Kollel, and then called Rebbetzin Kaminetzky asking if the Rosh Yeshiva was able to give his shiur that day. The Rosh Yeshiva was weak and frail she said, but planned on giving the shiur in Mesechta Chullin at 11 a.m.

I had not seen the Rosh Yeshiva for a year; I would keep a notebook of thoughts that I would discuss with him when we met either at his Monsey home or in Miami.

The shiur lasted for forty minutes; it was clear that he was struggling with his health. It seemed that it had taken a turn in the wrong direction. After the shiur, Rav Yaakov would answer some questions from the attendees; I always wondered why the entire Miami was not there, rather than the 8-12 seniors (besides me) that came.

Rav Yaakov then ate a light lunch, carefully prepared by his rebbetzin. I was asked in to their dwelling, but as always, I waited for Rav Yaakov outside on the porch.

Rav Yaakov always apologized for "keeping me waiting", while I knew I would sit there forever waiting to speak with the "Rosh Yeshiva" of America. This day was different than many others; Rav Yaakov seemed very subdued, and said in Yiddish..."I am but a half-person, my memory is failing, I can only remember what happened many years ago but not recent events"...

Rav Yaakov had a wonderful wry sense of humor and enjoyed "some" of my healthy cynicism. To cheer him up, I took the liberty of asking him if the plaque the Agudah gave him at the last siyum ha'shas for completing shas was something he valued. He gave me a healthy smile; he said he valued it as much as yesterday's (tzeitung) newspaper.

My list of items to discuss were many, but I understood that my time today with him could be limited, so I began with the issues that I wanted to ask him all my life, but never was able to gather up the courage.

I will list the five topics that I covered in depth with the Rosh Yeshiva over the next week I spent in Miami, plus other thoughts he had on community issues as it pertained to askanims' level of input and involvement in yeshivas, shuls, and religious organizations. At the time, I needed his wisdom on a new project of mine, that brought down the wrath of the community on my head for all the wrong reasons. I was gratified that both he and Rav Pam zt"l, not only agreed with me, but encouraged me greatly. That project is thriving today beyond any one's wildest imagination, baruch Hashem.

The topics:

1- The machlokes (political war) in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in the mid-1960s between him and Rav Gedalia Schorr z"l, that brought the yeshiva to its knees and to the brink of disaster, and truly to this day never recovered its past glory.

2- His outrage and his outspoken position against the establishment of "Yeshiva Torah Vodaath of Flatbush" later to become Yeshiva Torah Temimah, after a near decade long din Torah that forced Lipa Margulies to change the name.

3-His position on secular studies, and college in particular, for the American yeshiva student.

4- His understanding of the function of Agudath Israel of America and the inherent potential dangers of that organization under the charismatic Moshe Sherer, who in my opinion, used the rosh yeshivas often, as window dressing, for his self-aggrandizement. (He did not disagree; more in an in-depth piece)

5-The not so gradual metamorphism of yeshivas being run by baal habatim, some truly dedicated and wise, but many not, and yeshivas being run by families rather than the most qualified yirei Hashem and lomdei Torah.

To be continued......