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Old Telshe in a New World: An Appreciation of Rav Chaim Stein ztz”l

Yisroel Besser

Cleveland was a new world, yet Rav Chaim Stein was able to reach out across decades and continents and touch the majesty of Telshe of old. In time, the ninety-nine-year-old saintly figure in the middle of the beis medrash was the lone link, bringing students eighty years his junior into the world he’d seen destroyed.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

In Wickliffe, at the top of a hill, stands a yeshivah.

It’s 3:15 p.m., and afternoon seder is beginning.

In the middle of the spacious beis medrash is the bimah. There he stands, silently ushering in hundreds of bochurim.

It’s the mid-1960s and the talmidim belong to a new world, to casual, easygoing America. Yet when they enter this room, fill the space created by Rav Chaim Stein and others like him, they are able to reach out across decades, across continents, and touch the majesty of Telshe. They know to walk with dignity, to talk with respect, to learn as if the world depends on it.

Because it does.

They file up to him, over the course of the afternoon, this one with a question on the yeshivah’s mesechta, Bava Kama, and another with a complicated halachic sh’eilah. A member of the Kodashim kollel waits his turn patiently, and behind him, another who wishes to request permission to travel to New York.

The would-be traveler needs permission from Reb Chaim, but not just because of his administrative role: it’s because with his blessing, the trip will be easy and smooth. If not, he knows from experience — in fact, they all know —, that the trip will be interrupted by  inclement weather, traffic, car trouble ... so it is when Reb Chaim says not to go.

Because at the top of the hill, in the yeshivah, stood a man at the bimah with the mind of a gaon, the heart of a baal mussar, and the strength of woodchopper, his presence a comforting constant — a rebbi, rebbe, and — ever-so-approachable — a sweet, genuine friend.

As the years went by, bochurim left, and new ones came to take their place. The caliber of the American ben Torah developed, the questions becoming more sophisticated, but the challenges grew as well, the need for chizuk ever greater.

The ninety-nine-year-old saintly figure in the middle of the beis medrash never really moved, though. In time, it was he alone who carried the legacy of old-world Telshe, becoming rosh yeshivah and bringing talmidim eighty years his junior into the world he’d seen, telling about the hamlet of Telshe, of Rav Yosef Leib Bloch and his great sons, as he shared the Torah of destroyed Lita.

Over time, the masses from beyond the hill began to search him out: broken souls in need of a listening ear, thirsty for the words of comfort and hope; sincere Jews in need of guidance; and always, talmidei chachamim looking for pshat.

Reb Chaim was a leader of the bochurim in Telshe of old, then a rebbi to talmidim in the rebuilt Telshe, and finally, a gadol and tzaddik who belonged to a nation until his petirah this week.


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