Rabbi Dovid Trenk used love to reach and teach
Writing a book is always a journey, but sometimes, there are two journeys taking place at once.
You learn about your subject, and you learn about yourself.
Like most of my other books, this one grew out of a magazine tribute, but that was no easy feat either. Rav Dovid Trenk was niftar on a Sunday, which in magazine terms, is the eleventh hour. If we were going to cover it that week, the article would have to be written within hours. And while it’s never simple to speak to those closest to a niftar, after a few days, at least they have some clarity, the ability to express themselves. But now, when the pain was still so fresh and searing?
There’s such a thing as too soon.
Still, this was Rabbi Trenk. Just saying his name caused people to smile, for he was a man who’d spent the better part of his life teaching people not to say “I can’t,” to live big and be big — and so we had to try.
For the talmidim of Rabbi Dovid Trenk, there would never be another like him. There was an army out there who deserved to have the world know who their rebbi was.
So we started late on Sunday afternoon and submitted it just ahead of the deadline at Monday dawn and, baruch Hashem, we’re still writing the story.
What I learned, first off, is that the talmidim of Reb Dovid aren’t just the formal alumni of the respected yeshivos, Adelphia and Moreshes Yehoshua, in which he taught. They were behind the counters of pizza shops, yungeleit from the vasikin minyan at which he davened every morning, and yes, even gedolim.
As one prominent rosh yeshivah conceded to me, “Reb Dovid didn’t only see the weaknesses and insecurities in those who were down and out, he saw the holes in the so-called ‘mutzlachim’ also. He knew what we needed to hear and he made sure we heard it. We loved him too.”
The media coverage in the weeks following his passing on 27 Sivan last year at age 77 indicated that others got it too. Every frum newspaper and website seemed to have discovered the magic of this man and his approach, the stories and videos and pictures coming in the kind of deluge usually reserved for a gadol hador.
For half a century, Rabbi Trenk shaped the chinuch landscape at the grass-roots level. He married Rebbetzin Leah (Bagry), and after several years in kollel, he took a position teaching ninth grade in Yeshivas Mir-Brooklyn. In 1971, the Trenks moved to Adelphia, New Jersey. Before there were experts and response teams, Rabbi Trenk was working alongside Rav Yerucham Shain at the Adelphia yeshivah of the 1970s, reaching young bochurim with the searing power of his optimism and faith. For decades he taught in Camp Munk (referring to himself as the oldest camper), and eventually moved from Adelphia to found Yeshiva Moreshes Yehoshua in Lakewood.
So what was it? What’s the Trenk doctrine?
There was a tremendous ayin tovah there, to be sure, a joy in the successes of others, and a gentle, patient, wise, encouraging smile to talmidim, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and every single Yid.
There was an unusual freshness and energy, a willingness to be human, to be himself. On a rainy summer day in Camp Achim decades ago, Rav Elya Brudny explained it to me by quoting the pasuk in Koheles (7:29): “Asah Elokim es ha’adam yashar — Hashem made man to be straight, v’heimah bikshu cheshbonos rabbim — but they have sought many intrigues.” People make things complicated.
“Who doesn’t want to embrace a talmid who asks a good kushya? Which maggid shiur doesn’t want to break out in a dance when he says over the vort of a Reb Chaim? But we have cheshbonos — this doesn’t past and that will look strange and people will think we’re strange — so we lose the yashrus. But Reb Dovid never did,” Reb Elya said. “He had the purity of a child and never veered from the way Hashem created him. Yashar. Holy. Pure.”
It was this simplicity and clear vision that allowed him not to just see what others missed, but also to miss what others saw. By him, it was an art.
One day last summer, one of my kids did something dumb, as kids sometimes do (my children often ask why I don’t write about them more, so here goes — be careful what you wish for). My wife called to discuss the home situation with me right as I was going into an interview and about to turn off my phone. Not only did I feel powerless, I couldn’t even properly empathize with her at that moment, and certainly wasn’t ready to confront the child in question. It was a heavy stone inside my heart as I walked into the home of Rabbi Zevi Trenk, Reb Dovid’s brother, for a scheduled conversation.
Reb Zevi invoked the foundation of Reb Dovid’s philosophy. “My brother,” Reb Zevi recalled, “was often in the car, traveling between Adelphia and Lakewood or Brooklyn. He didn’t listen to music, so what did he do in the car? He listened to a tape. Which tape?
“I’ll tell you. He listened to the same tape, again and again, finding the same 30 seconds. That was his selected listening. He would hear the clip, then press pause and rewind and listen to it again. He listened to it hundreds of times, maybe thousands. Sometimes, he would call me from the car and say, ‘Zevi, you’ve got to hear this,’ and he would play it for me, as if I had never heard it before.”
The tape featured a shmuess by Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, and the part that so moved Reb Dovid was the Mashgiach asking, in a slight sing-song, “Vos vilst du fuhn di kinder? What do you want from the children?”
Then the Mashgiach continued. “When you were their age, you were doing the exact same things… what do you want from the children? When you were their age, you were doing the exact same things… vos vilst du fuhn di kinder?”
Right there, in Rabbi Zevi Trenk’s living room, a little blanket of relief and calm wrapped itself around me. I was thinking of my own children, and it’s true I’d done the same things at that age. Worse, probably.
But it took Rabbi Dovid Trenk ztz”l to teach that to me — to stop viewing children through adult eyes and judging them according to your adult sensitivities. Have patience. Have faith. Relax.
It wasn’t a “what do you want from the children” of hands raised in surrender. It was a “what do you want from the children” that comes from a place of optimism and confidence, a subtle message that replayed itself in every story I’ve heard over the last year about seeing — really seeing —the spark of the Divine in others, seeing the beauty of life, seeing the inherent goodness in those around us and seeing blessing unfold if you believe it will come.
I can’t say a story I didn’t really know 12 months ago changed my life. Yet.
But I hope it will.
The following is an expert from the soon-to-be-released Just Love Them: The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Dovid Trenk, by Yisroel Besser
HE MADE YOU HUMAN
“I had a dream last night,” Rabbi Trenk once told a friend, “and in my dream, Mashiach came… everyone was dancing, but Mashiach was looking around, as if trying to find someone. Finally, he asked me, ‘Where is everybody? Where is everybody? Where are all the rest of the people?’ I didn’t have an answer, but that’s my job in this world… to make sure that when Mashiach comes, everyone is there to greet him…”
It wasn’t just an attitude or ideology, but a calling. Rabbi Dovid Trenk was on a mission: He wanted every single bochur to have access to the beis medrash, to feel welcomed in the beis medrash, to be cherished by his rebbeim.
Regular attendees at the annual Torah Umesorah convention were familiar with the loud, somewhat raspy voice that would come from the back of the room, a call for more compassion, more tolerance, more patience with the young people of Klal Yisrael. Reb Dovid didn’t require a microphone and it made no difference to him if his name was on the official schedule of featured speakers. They were talking chinuch and he would share his vision of chinuch as well.
At a panel discussion with leading roshei yeshivah, the moderator asked a question about expelling a troublesome bochur from yeshivah.
It seemed intriguing enough. The roshei yeshivah on the panel sat silently, formulating their answers as the audience at the session leaned in to hear.
The stillness of the moment was interrupted by a roar. “A Yiddishe neshamah! A Yiddishe neshamah! A Yiddishe neshamah!” Rabbi Dovid Trenk was jumping up and down, protesting the question, the topic, the fact that expelling a bochur was being discussed.
From the dais, Rav Elya Svei looked down at the distinguished heckler with undisguised respect. “We don’t argue with Rav Dovid Trenk,” he said.
Every neshamah has the same right to Torah. This was the message that visitors to Adelphia received even before words were exchanged, as nervous young boys coming for their bechinos were quickly overwhelmed by the man and his obvious eagerness to teach them Torah.
A young man came to yeshivah in a T-shirt and jeans. He was dismayed to see how all the bochurim dressed, and walked into the office feeling silly about having been so ill-prepared for the dress code. “I’m sorry about the way I’m dressed,” he said, and Rabbi Trenk immediately stopped him, putting a hand on his shoulder and smiling.
“You need to believe me — I don’t even see it. I don’t even see it.”
There was a bochur who did nicely in Adelphia, and when it came time for him to move on, Rabbi Trenk worked to find the right yeshivah for him. He spoke to the menahel of a particular yeshivah to arrange a bechinah for his talmid.
This menahel didn’t sound that eager to accept the talmid. “Can he make a leining on a Gemara, read it on his own without help?” he asked.
“He’s a good bochur and he works very hard,” Rabbi Trenk replied.
“Listen, I’m very sorry,” the menahel said firmly, “but I’m not a babysitter.”
Rabbi Trenk got upset. “My rebbi, Rav Shmuel Brudny, was a babysitter? He took everyone into shiur. If a bochur wanted to learn, he was welcome… he was and you’re not?” he asked.
There was one talmid who consistently missed Shacharis — he simply never came. One day, however, he got out of bed and made his way to the beis medrash, arriving as the minyan was starting Aleinu, the very last part of davening. He sauntered over to his seat and slowly started to remove his tefillin from the bag in order to put them on.
“You made it,” a beaming Rabbi Trenk ran up the aisle to greet him, “you made it, I’m so proud. You came to say Aleinu with us… you came to say Aleinu with us, that’s wonderful!”
There is an unofficial custom following the Shabbos day seudah at the Torah Umesorah convention: The chairman announces where the various roshei yeshivah will be spending the afternoon, so that their talmidim — many of them mechanchim in out-of-town communities with limited access to their rebbeim — can come spend a few minutes catching up.
One year, the chairman stood up and announced the locations. “Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky will receive Philadelphia talmidim in the main lobby, Rav Aharon Feldman will meet Ner Israel talmidim in the conference room, Rav Malkiel Kotler will meet Lakewood talmidim in the dining room…”
As he concluded the announcement, a voice was heard. Rabbi Dovid Trenk was standing on a chair, calling, “And I will meet my talmidim in the kitchen! Dovid Trenk will meet talmidim in the kitchen!”
This was his call — his talmidim may not have been the menahelim, rebbeim, and moros of the American Torah world (though he had many of those as well) — but they were his and they were talmidim. They worked in the kitchen, on the catering staff, the wait staff, the hashgachah staff — and he was as proud of them as if they were famous mechanchim or prominent lay leaders.
His faith in the power of Torah was absolute: There were no castaways or forgotten ones, because every neshamah that had been present at Har Sinai was connected, even if the cords binding them to truth were invisible.
And even in situations in which it was clear that a bochur was acting improperly, Reb Dovid worked hard to teach himself not to react.
One day in shiur, he asked a bochur to bring him a glass of water. The bochur, a new arrival in Adelphia, saw a chance to get attention and brought his rebbi a paper cup filled with vodka. Reb Dovid accepted it and immediately realized that if he would react, the boy might get some badly needed attention, but it will also give the bochur an identity as a troublemaker, which wouldn’t serve him well. So Rabbi Trenk said nothing, and calmly sipped the beverage as if it were water, never saying a word.
There was a bochur in another yeshivah who’d been mechallel Shabbos by turning on a light, and his rebbi, at a loss for how to address the situation, approached Rabbi Trenk and asked what to do about it.
“What to do?” Rabbi Trenk repeated the question, and grabbed the mechanech’s arm. “You should do nothing. That’s what you should do.” And then he leaned forward and said, “And, my friend, do you know how hard it is to do nothing?”
He’d evolved in this area, training himself not to react to perceived wrongdoing over many years.
In the early years of the Adelphia yeshivah, some of the boys would play basketball without yarmulkes on, a practice Rabbi Trenk didn’t approve of. One day, he walked out to the basketball court and saw a bochur playing.
“Yisroel, where’s your yarmulke?”
The bochur looked up and said, “I don’t know, Rebbi, I must have lost it somewhere.”
Rabbi Trenk didn’t hesitate. Knowing precisely where it was, he said, “Well, why don’t you look around in your pocket, I’ll bet you’ll find it.”
The talmid sheepishly removed it from his pocket and put it back on his head.
The years passed. Decades after the episode, this talmid met Rabbi Trenk and shared what he considered a humorous memory, Rabbi Trenk’s quick retort on the basketball court.
The rebbi listened to the recollection and he blanched, visibly distressed.
“I did that? Please, please be mochel me.”
“But why, Rebbi? What was wrong with what you said?” the talmid argued, feeling bad that he caused his rebbi pain. “The yarmulke was in my pocket, in fact. You were right.”
“But Yisroel,” Rabbi Trenk said, “you knew it was there and I knew it was there, so why did I have to say anything?”
The talmid stood there, marveling at the fact that his rebbi — who’d been effective and dynamic 30 years earlier — had continued to grow, developing new insights and habits as the years went by.
Rabbi Trenk once stepped into an Adelphia dormitory room and encountered a bochur reading a secular novel. The rebbi considered it an inappropriate choice of reading material, and he took the book from the bochur and ripped in two.
“Oh come on, Rebbi, I had five pages left!” the bochur exclaimed.
Rabbi Trenk didn’t say anything, but a few days later, he came to the bochur and handed him a sheaf of papers. It was the last five pages of that novel, with the inappropriate words and phrases crossed out. Rabbi Trenk had gone and bought a new one, tearing out the few pages so that the bochur could enjoy the end of the story— but first, he’d ensured that it met his standards for what a yeshivah bochur could read.
When Rabbi Trenk turned 70, one of his former talmidim came to visit and drink a l’chayim, accompanied by his own children.
“Rebbi,” the talmid indicated his sons, “these are your eineklach, your grandchildren.”
Rabbi Trenk looked at them and then burst out laughing.
“You should know that I would never let a talmid say that, I didn’t do anything for them, they aren’t my eineklach,” he said, “but in this case, I will accept it. Do you know why? You were in a yeshivah after you left Adelphia, and you misbehaved. The rosh yeshivah there wanted to throw you out and I heard about it. I tried to help out, but he didn’t want to hear from me, it was a done deal and nothing I could say would make a difference.
“But I tried one last thing. I told him, ‘Listen, the parents of this bochur survived the concentration camps and came to America with nothing left. They had children, but those children were not fortunate enough to receive a Torah education — it’s only this boy, he’s the only one who went to yeshivah. They endured Bergen Belsen for one reason: this boy! And you want to push him out of yeshivah?”
Rabbi Trenk looked at the visiting talmid and his family and beamed. “Now let’s drink l’chayim, me and my eineklach.”
On the first day of summer camp, the boys slated to be in Rabbi Trenk’s learning group headed to his small beis medrash in the Camp Munk annex. Learning groups were meant to start at 11:00, but by 11:05, the rebbi still hadn’t made his entrance. He finally came in at 11:10 — ten minutes late on the first day of the season.
He surveyed the room, then pulled a chair to the far end of the table and started teaching. Later on, he explained his strategy to one of the boys.
“I know that all the goodie-goodies, the ones who really just want to learn, will take the front seats, near where they imagine I will sit. The other guys, the ones who are less interested, will go sit in the back of the room, so I wait. On the first day of camp I wait, and I don’t come in until the room is full, and then I pull my chair over to where the ‘back-of-the-room chevreh’ are sitting and teach. You see,” Rabbi Trenk said, “the boys who went to the front, they’ll learn wherever I’m sitting, but the guys in the back… they’re the ones who really need me close by, and that’s where I want to be.”
Reb Dovid once sent a talmid to a different yeshivah and, a few weeks into the zeman, he called the new rebbi to check on the bochur’s progress. “He’s doing nicely now,” the rebbi said, “but check back in a month or so to see if he’s keeping it up.”
Rabbi Trenk was very disturbed by the comment. “You aren’t appreciating what even one day of learning Torah can do for a talmid, how each good day makes him that much stronger — why shouldn’t he be keeping it up?” he challenged the rebbi. That rebbi, who went on to have a successful chinuch career, often recalls that conversation with Rabbi Trenk as a seminal moment in his life.
A Lakewood resident taking the bus to Brooklyn happened to sit behind two Adelphia bochurim: He overheard their conversation, and immediately hurried to call Rabbi Trenk and share the information. “It sounds like they have a small television hidden in the dormitory,” he said.
“Do you know what masechta they’re learning?” asked Rabbi Trenk. “Did you speak with them in learning?”
“No,” the caller admitted that he had not.
“So the open details — what they’re learning, what makes them great, you somehow missed, but their secrets, you caught. Everyone has secrets and everyone has challenges and everyone is fighting the yetzer hara, but we like to see their victories and successes and define them that way, not the other way. You didn’t see those boys at all.”
This love for the underdog and willingness to see their best side wasn’t only something he practiced in Adelphia.
Reb Yitzchok Fuchs, himself a past summer talmid of Rabbi Trenk from Camp Munk, received an application from a young man who wanted to join his popular Eretz Yisrael summer experience. Reb Yitzchok had heard conflicting reports about the applicant, and he asked the opinion of the bochur’s rosh yeshivah. The rosh yeshivah couldn’t vouch for the young man, but he sent Yitzchok to someone else who eventually directed him to Rabbi Trenk.
Rabbi Trenk heard the question, then offered his opinion. “I’m not telling you what to do, Yitzy — but you have to take him.”
This was the Rabbi Trenk doctrine: I’m not telling you what to do. The first part isn’t important. How we got here doesn’t make a difference. Why agonize about what was? The main thing is to move forward.
But you have to take him.
A newly hired rebbi came to solicit advice from Rabbi Trenk before starting his chinuch career. “I asked around,” he told Rabbi Trenk, “and the other mechanchim all said that I have to start firm by laying down the law, and once the bochurim know I mean business, I can soften up.”
“No,” said Rabbi Trenk, “no, no, no. Just go in and love them and teach them and listen to them and build them. That’s all you have to know.”
A particular bochur left Adelphia, and eventually fell out of the frum community and Torah living. He encountered his old rebbi, Rabbi Trenk, many years later and introduced him to the non-Jewish girl at his side. “Rabbi, this is my girlfriend,” he said.
Rabbi Trenk smiled pleasantly and met his gaze. “And you are my talmid, and I will love you forever,” he said, as if finishing the sentence.
A bochur in the yeshivah in Adelphia had committed an act of vandalism, and local police officers appeared in yeshivah to apprehend him. Rabbi Trenk heard about it and came tearing out of the beis medrash, running toward the police car.
Rabbi Trenk saw the bochur, about to be handcuffed, and he drew himself up to his full height and roared, “I am responsible for this boy and you can be sure he will get what he deserves…”
Rabbi Trenk then addressed the officer: “Can you leave him with me and I’ll take him to the woodshed and discipline him the old-fashioned way?”
The officer looked Rabbi Trenk up and down and nodded. “Fine,” he said, thrusting the boy toward his teacher.
Rabbi Trenk did take the young man with him, back into the yeshivah building. But instead of giving him a dressing-down, he kissed his hand, gently asking, “Tzaddik, why? How could you?”
One Shabbos, a young boy in Camp Munk, the child of one of the division heads, mistakenly turned off a light on Shabbos. The eight-year old was inconsolable, crying bitter tears at the chillul Shabbos, even as his parents tried to reassure him that it had been an accident, that it was okay.
Finally, they suggested that they go together to Rabbi Trenk and tell him what happened. Yes, the child agreed, he wanted to do that. He himself told Rabbi Trenk of his aveirah, how he’d accidentally flicked the switch.
“What should I do?” he asked tearfully.
“What should you do?” Rabbi Trenk looked down at him. “Kalman,” he cried out, “what you should do is thank the Eibishter than he made you a human being and he didn’t make you a frog or a tree or a choloptche — He made you as a human being and human beings make mistakes. Say ‘thank you Hashem for making me a human being!’”
The boy wiped away his tears, pleased with the answer. Later on, the child looked up at his father, his eyes brimming with clarity and honesty. “Tatty,” he said, “I hope I never forget what Rabbi Trenk told me.” —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 814)
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