In Tribute to Rav Yosef Mitnick ztz”l whose shloshim was the beginning of last week
I'M walking briskly up Rechov Yirmiyahu, one of the steepest inclines in Yerushalayim, as I dodge tractors, huge piles of sand, and groups of restless bochurim that look like the beginnings of a hafganah. As I walk, I’m thinking: Rabbi Mitnick, I’m coming, I’m almost there, keep the hespedim going...
I’m on my way to the levayah of my beloved teacher from BYA high school, Rav Yosef Mitnick ztz”l, choshuve talmid chacham, mashpia, and close talmid of Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l. Rav Mitnick, whose shloshim was earlier this week, was well known as a mechanech for over 60 years, holding positions at a number of yeshivos, and was a founding member of Kollel Gur Aryeh of Flatbush. Though over two decades have passed since my 11th-grade hashkafah classes with Rabbi Mitnick, my memories rush back fast and strong...
On the Friday night before the rav’s petirah, while I was in the kitchen serving, my husband and kids were having a lively discussion about the middah of gaavah. One of my teens emphatically declared, “The middah of gaavah is never okay!”
Though generally I’m hesitant to stir up trouble by arguing with my teenagers, this time I rushed into the dining room with a smile as I proudly proclaimed, “That’s not true! Rabbi Mitnick, our teacher from high school, taught us about gaavah d’kedushah!”
And boy, did he teach us that. Rabbi Mitnick lived ga’avah d’kedushah.
He was so proud of his Yiddishkeit and connection to Hashem, Torah, and mitzvos. He conveyed so much love for anything connected to Judaism and the Ribbono shel Olam. You couldn’t help but feel passionate about avodas Hashem and ruchniyus from hearing his lessons.
He taught us to hold our heads high because Hashem chose us as His nation above all the others, “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim.” We belong to a special, elite club that was handpicked by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. For Rabbi Mitnick, being a Yid was never only about the do’s and don’ts; it was primarily about the privilege of being Hashem’s chosen people.
He told us his legs sometimes bothered him because he wasn’t so young anymore. “But when I teach, I have no legs!”
And we saw him dance, jump, and act out his lessons like a man 30 years younger. I remember him jumping on his chair and singing, “shelo asani goy, goy, goy!”
It’s hard to forget the pride in his voice when he told us he was the first kollel yungerman in Chaim Berlin’s kollel. “I’m telling you, girls, I would have framed that first check if I hadn’t needed the money so badly!” This was at a time when learning in kollel was not nearly so common and accepted it is today.
The reverence Rabbi Mitnick had for his rosh yeshivah and lifelong rebbi, Rav Hutner, was incredible. He consulted his rosh yeshivah on every question, from all aspects of his life — whether his role as head of the family, Shabbos, Yom Tov, or other areas of hashkafah, it was always about subordinating himself to the Rosh Yeshivah.
Who can forget the rav joyously singing the words from Rav Hutner’s ma’amar: “Al tismichi oyavti li ki nafalti, kamti, ki eishev bachoshech, Hashem ohr li!” With his strong emphasis on the word “Hashem,” the message was loud and clear. No matter how dark things are, Hashem is always there for us. He also taught us the concept of “Sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam” to us; even great people can fall many times. Never give up hope!
In the way Rabbi Mitnick spoke about the leaders of Klal Yisrael, “the yeshivah velt,” and the old days of Chaim Berlin in Brownsville, we saw his strong reverence for Torah and gedolim. I remember him once relating a Torah thought that “shook up the velt.”
“Girls, when I say ‘the velt,’ do I mean the goyim in Japan and Russia?” he elaborated. “No! What’s ‘the velt’? I’m talking about the Torah velt, of course! That’s the only velt there is!”
And his simchah! Even now, nearly 25 years later, I can picture his beautiful smile and hear his hearty laugh. Although he constantly stressed the important things in life, he still had a fantastic sense of humor, which he used to great effect.
In one famous incident, Rabbi Mitnick was teaching us the idea of how everything and everyone in this world is here to serve Yidden. There was a wooden plaque hanging nearby with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s picture on it. Rabbi Mitnick hammered a nail into the plaque to serve as a hook, and said to it, “Ike, hold my hat!”
He never poked fun at anyone else — only at himself. “Girls, you know I’m only 40,” he told us once, then broke into laughter. “My son just turned 43 last week!”
He once made an error in some information he was presenting in a lesson, and admitted, “I guess I made a mistake. That’s the first mistake I made since 1957!” And his exuberant laugh again rang out in the classroom, spreading joy.
Rabbi Mitnick expressed his deep care for each of us in so many ways. In the wintertime, he told us, “Girls, make sure you wear a hat when it’s cold outside. Most of a person’s body heat escapes through the head. I know some girls don’t want to wear a hat because it’s ‘nebby’ [yes, he used that word!] but that doesn’t matter. You need to take care of your health!”
When we were in 12th grade, we didn’t have Rabbi Mitnick as our everyday teacher anymore, but he made a special visit to our classroom to give information to the girls who would be going to Eretz Yisrael for seminary. He gave each of them a sheet of paper with the heading: “Rabbi Mitnick’s Family in Eretz Yisrael.” He wanted to make sure his former students had families to connect with while they were far from home.
Even years after I graduated high school, I personally saw the deep connection Rabbi Mitnick felt with his former talmidos. With a smile radiating pure simchah, he attended the weddings of several of my sisters, joyfully wishing them mazel tov on starting their own homes. When my sisters and I sat shivah for my mother a”h, who passed away at a relatively young age, Rabbi Mitnick took the trouble to be menachem avel, even though by then walking was quite difficult for him. We were deeply touched by the warm, encouraging words he offered as a nechamah for our loss.
AS I enter the beis halevayos on Rechov Shamgar, I hear the emotional words of Rabbi Mitnick’s grandson eulogizing his simchas hachayim and love for every grandchild — and every Yid.
“Oy, what I would do to get one more kiss from the Zeide!” cries the grandson.
I too have tears in my eyes. But through the tears, a smile forms. I realize how blessed I and so many others were for what we gained from knowing this incredible individual.
Yehi zichro baruch.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 972)
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