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A Page from His Book

Rabbi Meyer Yedid is showing how the power of a daf Gemara can reshape not only a person, but an entire community

Photos: Moshe Oiknine

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’m trying to write, but the quiet is unnerving because suddenly after months of talking, talking, talking, everyone’s out of words.

Montreal, where I live, is a few hours away from going into total lockdown — stores, schools, everything. They are threatening a curfew and under the game faces and forced joviality, there is genuine panic.

Maybe not panic, but certainly not calm because how tranquil can you be when you really have no control over anything? Oh, and you have to smile for the children!

Those feelings were swimming around my consciousness when I got to the last chapters of a book by Rabbi Meyer Yedid, entitled The Power of Tranquility (ArtScroll/Mesorah) and near the end, I bumped into this reflection.

My computer wasn’t working properly and the technician I phoned tried helping me for a while, and then asked, “Can I go into your computer?”

This was a while back, when remotely accessing computers was slightly new. “How can you go into my computer?” I asked, slightly on guard.

“I’ll just give you a code to type in and I’ll come in,” he said.

This was the first time the concept was introduced to me, but after thinking for a few seconds, I realized that all he could take from my computer was my shiurim, and he was welcome to enjoy them.

I followed his instructions and suddenly, the screen changed. I grabbed my mouse to move it to the left, but the cursor moved to the right. I moved the mouse up, and the cursor went down.

“What’s happening?” I asked with alarm.

“Sir,” he said, “let go of the mouse. I am controlling your computer.”

As I sat there like a golem watching him do whatever he was doing, I realized that this is a great mashal for life. You do the best you can, but at some point, you have to let go of your mouse and realize that Hashem is truly controlling your computer and you don’t have to worry about things that are not in your control…(p. 270).

This metaphor is helpful, for sure, but even more impactful if you’re able to hear the words in the rabbi’s voice.

Years ago, Rabbi Yedid was speaking late on Friday night in a dark, overheated room at the Agudah Convention. There was cholent and kugel on the tables and really, I should have been out like a light within three minutes. But there was something in his voice that was soothing and invigorating at the same time, a call to action even as it told you to stay calm.

“ ‘Zechor rachamecha Hashem…’ What does that mean, to remind Hashem of His own mercies, would we think He forgot? We’re reminding him?”

He spoke of creation. Of Hashem’s kindness and our role in seeing it and expressing it, using remembrance as a means of tefillah. He spoke of how “zechirah,” positive remembrance, stimulates the potential in other people as well, and I wanted this man to never stop talking.

It wasn’t a breathless, “Thank-you-Hashem, look at the sunset, we’re lucky to be alive.” It was measured and thoughtful, the voice reflecting not just knowledge, but experience.

The source sheets checked out, for sure, and they were impressive, but what made the difference was the way they carried the grit of the Brooklyn streets.

That’s because Rabbi Yedid didn’t land here — speaking and writing and teaching — straight out of rabbinical school. In fact, just the opposite.

Time to Go

Chacham Yom Tov Yedid Halevi, chief rabbi of Aleppo, Syria, was a rav from an era and culture of great rabbanim and great kehillos.

As the 1980s neared, there was no longer much stability in the dusty alleys and white-walled marketplaces of Haleb (Aleppo). Political unrest and turmoil had destroyed the economy, and the Jewish community, in particular, had seen tens of thousands of its sons leave for Eretz Yisrael or America. The ancient kehillah of Aram Tzova, dating back to the Churban, was a shadow of its former self, but the rav saw no reason to adapt.

Torah, Chacham Yom Tov believed, was everything, and if he could give his community, which he led from 1959, an ability to learn and a love of learning, then he would have succeeded.

The rabbi was a posek and mechaber seforim, a man who left home at 3 o’clock in the morning to learn with scholars in the kollel, but the best hours of his day were spent teaching Torah, ensuring not just that the children would learn Torah, but that they would experience the joy of Torah.

Yet one by one, the people kept leaving, and in 1981, it was the Rabbanit, Helen Yedid, who traveled abroad to visit her oldest son, who had escaped Syria in 1973.

She saw a different world, and she suggested to her husband that the future lay elsewhere: It was time to go.

A year later, accompanied by her two youngest children, a daughter and a nine-year-old son, she set off for the new world.

They took a bus up the coast to Damascus, then flew to Amsterdam.

“It was my first bus ride, then my first airplane ride, and then the first time I saw snow,” recalls Rabbi Meyer Yedid. “It was a lot to take in.”

And then they flew to New York.

“We arrived at Kennedy Airport and I stepped out into a new planet. I saw these big buildings and I was completely overwhelmed. I just felt tiny.”

It would only get harder.

It took a full year until Chacham Yom Tov was able to join his family, so his wife and children meanwhile moved into a small, one-room apartment in Brooklyn.

“I was an outsider from the first moment,” remembers Rabbi Meyer, “trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing there.”

He spoke Arabic, and the kids at the Magen David yeshivah spoke English. Ironically, even as he lagged behind them in secular subjects, he was way ahead of them in Kodesh, as a product of the advanced system in Haleb.

“I was the outsider either way,” he laughs, but it’s a laugh that makes no attempt to disguise old hurt.

He didn’t have the clothing that other kids had and he didn’t get sports. “The first time I saw someone walking down the hall with a baseball bat, I ran, certain that he was planning to beat me up.”

But he worked hard to fit in and by seventh grade, he seemed to have met the goal, mastering English and making friends. “But then one day, a kid randomly told me, ‘You’re such a goody-goody,’ and it broke me,” he admits. “I would say that for the next ten years, it influenced my decisions — the need to show people I was regular, that I wasn’t trying too hard.”

So instead of being a goody-goody, Meyer Yedid worked on being normal, learning to play ball, to chill with the guys, to get marks that were good enough but not too good. His father was already in America, but though Chacham Yom Tov was respected in the community, he didn’t take an active leadership role, choosing to use his time in America for learning. For over 30 years, he sat and learned, starting at dawn and continuing late into the night, seven days a week, every day of the year.

There were moments, of course. “In high school, at Shaare Torah, our rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Hillel Haber, would discuss hashkafah and I found myself intrigued. He also showed me a different way in chinuch, the way a rebbi could interact with talmidim with genuine friendship and warmth. When he led a kumzitz, I felt so connected.”

Now, walking in the garden of his Deal summer home, Rabbi Yedid pauses suddenly, as if he’s having an epiphany. “Ratzon is real — a spiritual longing creates a reality,” he says, “and I know I wanted. I was busy playing ball, hanging out, but I certainly wanted… I remember walking past the Mirrer yeshivah building on Ocean Parkway and feeling a longing. I wanted to be a part of that. It created something.”

But wanting and doing isn’t the same thing. He graduated high school and though he had hoped to study in Eretz Yisrael for a year, the Gulf War made that impossible, so he joined most of his friends and went directly to work.

“My brothers were selling jewelry and they let me in. I loved it. I felt like I was made for sales. Between business and basketball, my life was complete.”

Another Door Opened

It was during that time that Meyer was exposed to a different facet of the community as well.

“I got an invitation to a parlor meeting one summer day. I wasn’t used to formal invitations and events — it wasn’t my world — so I figured it was probably some sort of class reunion. I had never even heard the words ‘parlor meeting’ before. It turns out it wasn’t just a party. It was an event to benefit yeshivat Shaare Torah and they wanted the assembled businesspeople to cover tuition for those who couldn’t pay — $7,500 a boy.

“Eddie Betesh is going around the room soliciting people — this one covers tuition for five students, the next one for ten — and my head is swimming. They reach me and I don’t know what to say, so I finally whisper, ‘I need to think about it,’ and they moved on.”

But later on, Ralph Tawil — one of the fathers of serious tzedakah-giving within the community — approached the bochur.

“Young man,” he said, “what’s with your pledge?”

Meyer Yedid was uncomfortable. “Mr. Tawil, I make 250 dollars a week right now and I don’t even have a bank account. I’m developing experience and contacts, but I’m not there yet.”

Ralph Tawil wasn’t impressed. “You don’t believe in G-d?” he asked. “Take Him as a partner and make a commitment, you’ll see the blessing.”

On the spot, Meyer Yedid made a promise to sponsor a student.

“The gates opened. I had a great year,” he recalls.

He walks to the desk in his study and removes a worn envelope. “A few weeks ago, I mentioned this in a derashah and the next day, someone from Shaare Torah came and brought me these papers.”

He holds out a stack of receipts, a record of payments for that entire year.

“It was nice to be part of the giving. I had grown up with very little and it felt good.”

Business continued to improve as well. “My brothers were very good to me; they allowed me to develop a niche in the company.”

Yet another door opened to him a few weeks after he landed hard on the basketball court.

He was landing after driving to the net for a rebound when he felt his ankle twist and he went down. “It was a real injury, and I was laid up for weeks, stuck in bed.”

It was boring and depressing.

One day, a book fell down from the sky. Yes, really. Or almost really.

You know how every bookshelf has those volumes that seem permanently relegated to the side, never to be opened? “It was a present we had gotten when we graduated 12th grade, and I put it on the shelf, with no intention of ever cracking the binding, but it tumbled down on to my bed, so I opened it.”

Meyer Yedid read one page, and then another. He was soon swept in, reading chapter after chapter in Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s Rejoice O Youth. “Many years later, I was speaking with the venerated American-born rosh yeshivah Rav Yaakov Hillel, and he told me that it was the very same book that did it for him, opening his mind to something new.”

The injury healed. He got back to the courts. And also to learning.

“For the first time, I began to have a deeper understanding of the purpose of life, an appreciation for my Creator, and a real connection to my father and his Torah,” he remembers. “For the first time, I started to notice the living, breathing Torah infrastructure within our kehillah, the shiurim, and talmidei chachamim. I made many new friends in the beis medrash.”

And Meyer Yedid also discovered the sefer that would claim his love.

I Wanted It All

“I always said Tehillim, but I wanted to understand what I was saying, so I started to learn Tehillim. I bought a bunch of peirushim on Tehillim and started to write over various ideas I had seen. It gave me great solace,” Rabbi Yedid says.

After a few weeks of collecting these thoughts, he performed an act of great courage.

“You’re Ashkenaz,” he tells me, “so you don’t get what it means for us to show something like that to a father. My father didn’t tolerate foolishness, he was a great talmid chacham, and he wasn’t American, he didn’t do the ‘you’re so amazing, wow’ thing.”

With trepidation, Meyer handed over the notes of the first perek.

Chacham Yom Tov read it slowly, saying little, but then he gave his son a notebook of his own. It was his own chiddushim on Tehillim, years of love and toil peeking out from every page. It was the ultimate haskamah.

“I understood what I was being given, and I engrossed myself in his chiddushim, typing them up one perek after another. Working on my father’s Torah shaped my outlook and built up my yirat Shamayim, since his commentary brings Dovid Hamelech’s love, faith, and strength to life. I understood, from my father’s writings, what it means to be have a personal relationship with Hashem.”

Rabbi Yedid eventually had enough material for a whole sefer, and even though Chacham Yom Tov was initially hesitant to print it, he was pleased when he saw it come together. “When my father agreed and gave his blessing to that work, it was one of the great moments of my life.” (The first volume of the sefer Meir Tov was released in 2002, what would eventually become a peirush on all of Tanach by the last rav of Haleb.)

Meyer was 23 years old, learning more than he ever had. “I guess it was enough for someone to suggest a prestigious shidduch for me, a girl who was a Bet Yaakov graduate. For me, that was way above my league — it was the real deal. But for some reason, she was okay with me.”

Rabbi Meyer and Rabbanit Renee (nee Didia) got married. “We found an apartment right near Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s shul, so that was special.”

The new husband didn’t go to kollel, but with the encouragement of his wife, Sundays were fully given to learning while during the week, he managed to put in about six hours of learning every day.

“I fell in love with Torah, all of it — Gemara, mussar, halachah, hashkafah — and I just wanted to know all of it.

“One Sunday,” he continues, “I was learning in the Deal synagogue when a respected gentleman, Joey Dwek, comes over to me and says, ‘Meyer, you need to be an avreich in kollel, that’s your calling. There’s a new kollel opening at Yad Yosef under Rabbi David Ozeri and Rabbi David Sutton, and you should apply.”

The young man arranged to meet with Chacham Asher Hatchuel, the rosh kollel, who told him that they didn’t generally accept those who had already gone out to work, but that they’d consider making an exception for him.

Telling his wife was the easy part. “I asked if she was prepared for us to take a 90 percent pay cut, and she said, ‘Sure.’ Telling my brothers was harder.”

Isaac Yedid, the boss, looked at his younger brother. “You’re my brother. Whatever you decide, I have your back.”

Not only did he let Meyer leave the business, he was even kind enough to find work that his brother could do during bein hasedorim.

Rabbi Yedid is visibly moved as he shares this. “I tell parents all the time that no one can be successful without family support and encouragement. It’s like fuel, it allows a person to thrive — for me, my brothers’ reaction and support was the push I needed to soar.”

Rabbi Yedid’s career adjustment from jewelry salesman to avreich came at a time when the Syrian Torah community was rediscovering its own ahavas haTorah.

He never planned to formally teach, but it was happening organically. Old friends reconnected in the beis medrash, and a shiur sprouted around young Rabbi Yedid. One shiur spawned another, and suddenly, he was at the center of the rebirth.

In a recent interview on ArtScroll.com following the release of his book, Rabbi Yedid reflected on those years. “It was a nice challenge,” he said, describing the time the way one might assess a piece of art or music. “It was nice to make it all work.”

All In

Chacham Baruch ben Haim was a talmid of Porat Yosef, part of the old-time “wonder class” that included Chacham Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul, and Rav Sion Levy. In the 1950’s, the gifted scholar was invited to come serve the growing Syrian community in Brooklyn. He married the daughter of Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin of Shaare Zion and took an active role in helping his father-in-law, eventually succeeding him as rabbi of the community.

Shaare Zion, the community’s flagship institution founded in 1941, is blessed with several minyanim and a roster of shiurim and groups. Among his many accomplishments, Chacham Baruch established the Shaare Zion Torah Center, an independently-run operation for teaching Torah to people of all ages. After his passing, his position sat vacant for months, a perpetual search underway for a leader of a shul that serves thousands of congregants.

One Erev Shabbos in 2006, Rabbi Hillel Haber called and asked Rabbi Yedid a favor. “Can you go pray in Shaare Zion tomorrow and make an appeal for your alma mater, Shaare Torah?”

Rabbi Yedid agreed, and then the next day, he stood up in the main synagogue of Shaare Zion before the reading of the Torah.

On Motzaei Shabbos, a delegation from the shul invited the rabbi to address them during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. When he arrived, he found the sanctuary filled to capacity for his speech.

“I thought the speech was okay, but I was shocked when they came back to me, after the second speech, to offer me the job of rabbi.”

Rabbi Yedid listened politely, but wasn’t seriously considering it.

“When they left, I told my wife what they wanted and it was like a joke. There was no way I was going to spend most of my day officiating and speaking at events. I hadn’t given up my parnassah to do anything other than learn and teach Torah.”

But they persisted, asking him to try it for one month. He agreed to give it a shot, and three weeks in, the decision was made.

“I was done. I needed to learn and this was pulling me away.”

But then he met a revered rosh yeshivah from Eretz Yisrael who happened to be visiting New York. “I told him, very proudly, that I was walking away from the job because I needed to learn more.”

The rosh yeshivah listened, then looked at Rabbi Yedid intently and said, “There’s no way you can leave, it’s assur to leave. You have a koach to connect with the people and their children, and you’re exactly where Hashem wants you.”

Ready to Face the Day

In 2006, Rabbi Meyer Yedid took his place as the main rabbi in the distinguished synagogue, joining the list of revered chachamim who had served, and continue to serve, at Shaare Zion over the years.

“I had the merit of sharing the stage with Chief Rabbi Saul Kassin, who prayed side by side with me. He was a pure, humble, G-d fearing man and I learned a lot simply from observing him.”

Torah took hold of Shaare Zion, the historic walls shaking with the sound of men learning. Morning, evening, Shabbos, Sunday….

“When our community gets into something, we’re all in,” he remarks.

Rabbi Yedid joined a team of rabbis who were in the midst of creating a revolution. “There are over 100 rabbis in our community teaching men, women and children of all ages. Rabbi Raymond Haber is a tremendous force, as are so many others,” he says. “We are blessed.”

(About ten years ago, I was sitting in Jerusalem with my rebbi, Rav Yosef Elefant, and he was describing the power of in-depth learning to reshape a community. “Wake up early one day, go before Shacharis, and see what Rabbi Yedid has going on in Shaare Zion at the morning,” Rabbi Elefant told me, “and you’ll see how when you give a community the oxygen it needs to thrive, everything else falls into place.”)

Torah would open all other doors as well.

A Syrian friend of mine once commented that the chiddush of Rabbi Yedid was that even while there were people dancing at a mixed simchah in the shul ballroom, there were men one floor down engrossed in the Ketzos during night seder. I share this with Rabbi Yedid and he comments, “Not just any men. Sometimes it was the same men who were upstairs, who came down to sit and toil in learning. That’s how families grow — slowly, surely, the light reaches everyone.” It started with the adults — shiurim for men and women — but, true to the marching orders he’d received from the gedolim, Rabbi Yedid started to learn with the young people as well.

“And,” he says, “I learned very quickly that if you focus on the young people, get them learning, then you can inspire the entire family.”

These days, the early morning seder is vibrant, but along with the energy and happy commotion, there is another element as well. Hundreds of people file through the room each morning for chavrusas and shiurim while Rabbi Yedid sits at a table, delivering a shiur.

Most of the young people, off to work or school, stop by his table on the way out to wave and smile. They don’t interrupt the shiur and he doesn’t stop speaking, but he nods, smiles back — not a formal goodbye, but more in the way of children and their father, simply showing that the connection is alive and well.

Armed with his smile, they are ready to face the day, because in his smile, they see something — the expectation and the confidence that they are capable.

The Vision

With Torah throbbing in the shul, the next step was obvious.

The Syrian community is blessed with extraordinary institutions, but it was also growing exponentially and there was a need for more schools.

Rabbi Yedid knew what worked, and he set out to create a school based on the very same approach.

Y.D.E. (Darchei Aram Tzova, abbreviated to alef-reish-tzaddik, or Ere”tz) was created in 2011, and nearly a decade in, the astuteness of that original decision has been proven again and again.

With its boys and girls divisions for both elementary and high school, it numbers close to two thousand students. The yeshivah has sent forth talmidim to the most prestigious yeshivos, and also to academic and business programs of excellence. (In 2019, it was the recipient of Torah Umesorah’s “school of the year” award.)

“There is a belief in the power of a daf Gemara that governs everything,” one of the staff members tell me, “a deep-rooted desire to let every talmid feel that connection.”

The elementary schools — both the boys and girls divisions — have high standards, but instead of those standards making it exclusive, it has created a push in the community to be part of it. “Rabbi Yedid works with the parents, and if he feels a child will do well here, he’ll find space even when there is none,” says a staff member at the school. “But at the same time, there’s an understanding that the home is part of the process, that the parents are full partners.” And those partners have responded enthusiastically, as the school has become yet another way of elevating homes and families who want to be part of the network.

Rabbi Yedid, rabbi, speaker, and community leader, is somehow in the center of it too, his office at Y.D.E the headquarters for everything else.

He is the rosh yeshivah. He carries a big responsibility for the budget. He deals with hundreds of parents. But his tenth-grade talmidim see him simply as their devoted rebbi, with his calm, serene smile and unhurried air.

“What’s amazing about his shiur,” reflects one of the rebbeim, “is that as busy as he is, he prepares a serious, high-level shiur, even if it means he doesn’t get to sleep. Yet he’ll come into shiur armed with Rabi Akiva Eiger and the Ketzos, after spending hours organizing it perfectly, and if he sees that the boys need something else, then he’ll shift on a dime. If there is an idea in the Gemara that seems troubling in hashkafah, he’ll close his Gemara and tell the boys to do the same — and then just talk. He’s in no rush. They need to get it clear, and in his classroom, it’s always possible.”

That is the culture of the yeshivah. While others might frown on an overly familiar relationship between talmidim and their rebbi, at Y.D.E it’s normal for a rebbi to be getting text messages from a teenage talmid at midnight, looking for help with anything from a Tosafos question to a personal challenge to an issue at home.

“He had a vision, and he stuck to it, and he’s still running with it,” one of the lay leaders in the community tells me, “and rather than veer from it, he builds on it.”

The girls high school has that same focus on connection to teachers and chinuch as a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week job. “We aren’t trying to change anyone, but rather, to help them access what’s already there,” Rabbi Yedid says.

The yeshivah — Darchei Aram Tzova — received its name as a mission statement, a yeshivah in which the pride of the Syrian Torah world would be restored. In inviting a young talmid chacham to join his staff early on, Rabbi Yedid expressed the conviction that “this will be a place where we want to take sons-in-law from.” (Indeed, earlier this year, the Yedids’ daughter married a Y.D.E alumnus.)

Just Like in Shul

I wonder if a shul as large as the one he leads — on a regular, Shabbos, well over a thousand people pass through its doors — would mind that their rabbi has essentially taken on a second career.

“I’m careful not to let it overlap — I try to be sensitive,” he says. Some of his closest families don’t send their children to the school, and some of the most engaged parents pray elsewhere.

“I don’t get paid by the head, and they recognize that we’re all partners here, trying to do what Hashem wants. If you believe in Torah — and baruch Hashem they also do — then how can you close any door?”

Then came COVID, and somehow, he was ready.

“Because, with all due respect, saying a shiur or giving a derashah is nice, but it’s not the same as really learning with people, giving them the keilim, the tools to understand Torah. Torah is acquired through work and it’s up to teachers of Torah to provide students with the motivation and energy to toil.”

Students, in this case, meant adults, both men and women, and Rabbi Yedid, along with Rabbi David Sutton and Rabbi Joey Haber, created the format that could work for anyone, anywhere.

Torahminds.com is an online yeshivah, with classes in halachah and lomdus, mussar and tefillah; and registration, source sheets, and talented, knowledgeable maggidei shiur presenting well-prepared shiurim.

In the first weeks, Prayer Through Songs was launched: It was billed as an online fusion of shiur and kumzitz, but it was really something so much more. It gave the people so deeply bound with their shul, and so desperate to feel the warmth of its embrace, a chance to stay connected.

Tens of thousands of viewers found solace and hope in the sessions over those first frightening, lonely COVID weeks, the rabbi giving them back the simple joy of sitting in shul even when they could not.

“The rabbi is always innovating, it’s sometimes hard to be part of his team, because the ideas never stop,” quips a close colleague. “He will call everyone in for a meeting, and while presenting his latest proposal, he’ll articulate every detail, down to the logo. Then, two hours later he’ll check up to see what we’ve accomplished.”

Fifty years ago, in Aram Tzova of old, Chacham Yom Tov made it clear that learning Torah is the priority. In Brooklyn, his son is carrying on the tradition.

Let Them See You

During our conversation of several hours, this rabbi of a massive shul and rosh yeshivah of a major institution doesn’t once check his phone; nothing in his movements or actions indicates that he’s actually a busy person.

Tranquility is certainly part of his story, but there’s more. When I ask him what his next book will address, he doesn’t hesitate. “The power of chinuch,” he says.

We’re standing near the end of his driveway, and one of his neighbors notices him and approaches, clearly agitated.

“Did you hear, rabbi?” the man says, and indicates a truck parked nearby. “The town is cutting down all these trees along the road, it’s terrible.”

Rabbi Yedid considers him for a moment. “Why is it terrible?” he asks.

“Because what will be with our privacy?”

Rabbi Yedid ponders this, then smiles and pats his friend on the shoulder. He hasn’t yet spoken, but for some reason, the other man is now smiling as well.

Ever since the young jewelry salesman sat down at a table in the kollel and said his first shiur, the trees have been falling, one by one, and Rabbi Meyer Yedid has been pushed forward, forward, forward.

Zechor Rachamecha Hashem.

Rabbi Yedid turns to his neighbor. “Don’t be afraid to let them see you,” he says.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 845)

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