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Bonded Hearts

One a rosh yeshivah, the other a savvy criminal lawyer. With Rav Aaron Brafman’s shloshim approaching, his brother Ben shares the secret of their unbreakable bond

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FIND YOUR SPARK One imagines that a lawyer spends most of his energy poring over dry legal tomes and that a rosh yeshivah will be immersed in Talmud 24/7. Yet the truth is that while intellectual activity is part of both job descriptions an equally large part has to do with helping people through the roughest times of their lives

"I still can’t believe we’re having this conversation”

Ben Brafman says seated at the conference table of his gleaming East Side office with 26th-floor views of the river. It’s just a few weeks since the petirah of his brother Rav Aaron Brafman the beloved longtime menahel of Derech Ayson/Yeshiva of Far Rockaway and to him it feels as if one half of a pair of Siamese twins has been severed.

On the surface of course the “twins” were by no means identical. As many people heard Ben say at the levayah when their father was in a coma during his last months Rav Aaron would show up for bedside shifts in his black suit Gemara in hand; Ben would appear to relieve him wearing a sweat suit and toting legal papers. When a nurse expressed surprise that they were actually brothers Ben quipped “He’s adopted.”

“I am not adopted ” Rav Aaron rejoined firmly “and we are not different.”

Their lifestyles certainly looked different; one spent his time within the hallowed walls of the beis medrash while the other tried high-publicity criminal cases in court. One kept a low profile while the other would be tailed by paparazzi after big trials and makes appearances on television when necessary. One has a beautiful house with a pool the other lived very modestly uninterested in luxuries. “I always struggled to find the right gift for my brother for his birthday ” Ben remarks. “I think I bought him every single tie that could match a black suit. Once I bought him a nice watch but he was reluctant to wear it. He didn’t think it was appropriate for a rebbi to wear an expensive watch.”

In his brother’s absence Ben Brafman is finally starting to understand his passion for Torah.

Many have compared their relationship to a Yissachar-Zevulun partnership as Ben’s substantial legal earnings helped relieve the financial pressures of his brother’s large family. But Ben dislikes that label. “That makes it sound like a business partnership” he says like a man who buys his Olam Haba by paying someone else to learn for him. “Our relationship was based on love.”

Can’t You Be Like Aaron?

The brothers grew up together in Williamsburg then Crown Heights. Their father Sol Brafman who ran into his Vienna shul on Kristallnacht to save Torah scrolls made it out of Europe to the US after that night of horror in 1938 together with his parents. Their mother Rochel (Rose) the only member of her family to receive a visa was sent alone to the US; her parents and sister perished in Auschwitz. Having seen their families decimated by the war Mr. and Mrs. Brafman senior were fiercely devoted to what family remained and inculcated that loyalty in their children.

Aaron was the bechor born in 1943; soon after his birth his father shipped out to serve as a combat sergeant in the Philippines. “Our father always said he survived because Hashem was watching over him ” Ben relates. “So many of his fellow soldiers were killed right from the beginning as they tried maneuvering from the boat to the shore. The Japanese were mowing them down from concrete bunkers. He said he just kept saying Shema Yisrael over and over.”

The other Brafman children Malkie Ben and Shevy were born after Sol’s return. Ben recalls a simple childhood — his father worked as a garment cutter at a very modest salary although he always found money for tuition. Ben’s paternal grandparents particularly his grandfather were a constant presence and left a deep impression on the children especially Aaron.

“My grandparents appeared more frum than my parents,” Ben says, although his father’s deep attachment to Judaism was evident through his service as president of every shul he ever belonged to (the last stint lasting over 30 years). “My grandfather had a long white beard, my grandmother wore a sheitel, and they spoke to us mostly in Yiddish. My grandfather would learn with Aaron, and they’d invite me to join them. Aaron was a real budding talmid chacham, but me? What can I say — I wasn’t really interested.”

Aaron and Ben, five years apart, were sent to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, where “Aaron was the future gadol and I was the oisvorf.” Today Ben might have been labeled a “kid at risk,” but in those days, he was considered simply a bad egg and reprimanded accordingly. Rebbis were constantly wringing their hands and saying, “Why can’t you be like Aaron?”

“The only person who never said that was Aaron,” Ben says.

While Ben barely stuck it out in yeshivah, Aaron would remain there for more than 20 years, studying in its kollel and being appointed to serve as a maggid shiur while still in his twenties. There, he became a close talmid of last generation’s gedolim — Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Gedaliah Schorr, and Rav Avrohom Pam.

Ben admits he was simply not attracted to the learning. “If I’d had a rebbi like my brother, maybe I would have become interested,” he says today. Fortunately though, he enjoyed the protection of his older brother, who never made him feel judged even though he did occasionally make unsuccessful efforts to get his younger brother interested in learning. Ben remembers the two of them sharing a bedroom in Crown Heights, from which they could hear the sounds of the Lubavitcher chassidim singing at their farbrengens nearby. Aaron would be immersed in a Gemara, but as for Ben, “I was in awe that he wasn’t bored by it,” he says. “It intrigued me that he was so absorbed. That was the main difference between Aaron and me. He had an unquenchable thirst for Torah. He could sit in the beis medrash with the clock whizzing by, while I couldn’t wait to leave.”

Now, in his brother’s absence, Ben Brafman is finally starting to understand his passion for Torah. He has begun learning Pirkei Avos with his grandson, and for the first time, he says, he’s actually appreciating Torah learning. “We started with an ArtScroll version, to make it easier and clearer. I was stunned — you can see your whole life in there.”


So Little Time

Sol Brafman was an erlicher Yid who had utmost respect for Torah, but worried about his children’s ability to survive financially. When Aaron announced his intentions to pursue a career in chinuch, his father insisted he get a college degree. “They argued a little — my brother didn’t see the need for it,” Ben says, “but my father wanted him to have a backup.” Aaron, who always had perfect grades, went to Brooklyn College and earned a degree in history.

The higher education gave him an intellectual edge when dealing with unaffiliated Jews as well as professionals in his own community. He was able to discuss politics and events in Eretz Yisrael with depth and perspective. Yet as someone who placed great emphasis on understanding world affairs according to hashkafas haTorah, Rav Aaron’s first move was always to consider how his own distinguished mentors ztz”l would have approached these matters.

“As a student of history, Aaron understood the contours of the world,” Ben says. “He saw Eretz Yisrael as a neis, and it was through his urging that I got more involved in pro-Israel advocacy. He saw how the media was guilty of intellectual dishonesty and held an egregious double standard where Israel was concerned. Since he knew I had access to secular media, he told me to use it to defend Israel.”

Ben had established contacts in the media, and has since gone on the air numerous times to explain Israel’s position in times of conflict. During the Gaza war, he appeared — at Aaron’s urging — on Fox News to demonstrate that the Palestinians blamed Israel for problems that had nothing to do with the Jewish state. After the segment aired, Ben received phone calls from all over the world.

Both brothers agreed that Orthodox Jews as well as Israel are unfairly targeted by the media and held to impossibly high standards. “There are hundreds of thousands of erliche, law-abiding Orthodox Jews in this country, but when one of them breaks the law, the media rushes to point fingers as if we’re all crooked,” Ben says.

Ben, like his brother, went to Brooklyn College, majoring in political science and working as a waiter in the Borscht Belt and doing standup comedy to put himself through school. After earning a law degree from Ohio Northern University Law School and a master’s in criminal justice at NYU Law School, he launched a career that quickly took off.

While the brothers pursued different career paths, both were characterized by sharp intelligence, an excellent memory, and a drive for excellence. While one was a baki in Talmudic law, the other became an expert in American law, and each found his passion in his calling and devoted enormous amounts of time to it.

One evening Rav Aaron was in a bookstore, surveying the shelves filled with seforim, and sighed, “So little time.”

The clerk misinterpreted his words. “You have time,” he said. “We’re open till eight.”

“No,” Rav Aaron replied. “I meant there are so many important seforim, and so little time to learn all of them!”

Both Rav Aaron and Ben would have somehow liked to stretch time. Rav Aaron rarely arrived home before 10:30 at night, while Ben put in 80-hour weeks at the beginning of his career and still maintains a demanding schedule. “If it weren’t for Shabbos I’d be dead,” he maintains. “Aaron was always so proud of me when I’d finish a trial and leave the courtroom early on Friday, telling the reporters I had to get home for Shabbos. He loved the kiddush Hashem it made.”


His Huge Heart

Rav Aaron’s knowledge of the Constitution kept him from venturing criticism even when Ben took on cases where the defendant’s actions seemed too contemptible to deserve a defense. “He wouldn’t condone bad behavior, but he understood that every defendant has a right to legal representation. He also believed that the power of the government shouldn’t go unchecked,” Ben says. “But sometimes he’d ask me questions about my more controversial cases.”

As Ben became more successful, both Rav Aaron and Ben became more involved in community chesed, believing the price of success is to get involved for the good of the klal. Ben became an important supporter not only of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway but of his shul Beth Sholom, the Israel Cancer Research Fund, and many other worthy causes — most recently a new cheder in Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood that his son, Rabbi Dovid Brafman, has started. Rav Aaron was equally involved in community work: He spent years administrating a chesed fund that was known to never say no.

“My parents always struggled financially, but they instilled in us children the importance of tzedakah,” Ben told Mishpacha.

It wasn’t simply a question of upbringing; Rav Aaron was known and loved for his huge heart. A boy once walked into Rav Aaron’s office and found him crying, because he’d just heard that a Jewish soldier had been killed by a terrorist. “How many of us weep at the death of a person we’ve never met, on the other side of the world?” Ben asks.

The pressures of their jobs and communal obligations took a physical toll on both of their hearts. Each of them required bypass surgery about a decade ago, first Ben, and then Rav Aaron only months afterward. When Ben spoke to the surgeon after his brother came out of surgery, he said, “Did you see his heart — isn’t it big? Everyone knows what a big heart my brother has.”

The two brothers often found themselves together on behalf of the klal, at yeshivah dinners and other fundraising events. Ben, with his Borsht Belt comic experience and trial lawyer’s oratorical skills, is a sought-after emcee for charity events (he estimates he’s done 110 dinners in the last five years).

“It’s something I enjoy, and I’m good at it,” he says. “I have this kind of self-deprecating form of humor that my brother always enjoyed. People don’t always realize what a great sense of humor Aaron had.”

Coming from parents who had lost family in the war, Sol and Rochel Brafman impressed on their children that family is all-important. No matter how much their lifestyles diverged, the two brothers always maintained closeness and made sure their children stayed close as well.

Their houses were less than two miles apart in the Five Towns, walking distance if a simchah required it. Every year the two families would unite at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway for a Chanukah party, with organized games and sometimes even a clown.

“All the cousins would meet, and it was beautiful to see how the more chareidi and more modern Orthodox cousins would bond instantly,” Ben says. “The night would always end with all the kids dancing around Aaron.”

Ben has two children, a daughter living near him and a son living in Jerusalem, while Rav Aaron’s children are mostly nearby or spread around the East Coast. Ben says his nieces and nephews are all exceptional people, and despite their stellar success in school and later, he never picked up the least vibes of jealousy or sibling rivalry from them — a tribute to his brother and sister-in-law’s chinuch.

Rav Aaron and his wife Rebbetzin Susie (nee Schwarz) rarely took any time off, busy with the yeshivah, the chesed fund, making hundreds of shidduchim, and their own family. Occasionally they went upstate for brief periods, and on the yeshivah retreats; they took some trips to Eretz Yisrael, basking in its kedushah. “My home has a pool, but I think Aaron availed himself of it maybe five times in 15 years,” Ben says.


Find Your Spark 

One imagines that a lawyer spends most of his energy poring over dry legal tomes, and that a rosh yeshivah will be immersed in Talmud 24/7. Yet the truth is that while intellectual activity is part of both job descriptions, an equally large part has to do with helping people through the roughest times of their lives.

Ben’s white-collar clients are largely first-time offenders who exercised bad judgment and got themselves into legal hot water. They’ve messed up, often big time, but they aren’t hardened criminals or sociopaths; in fact, their shame and sense of failure is exacerbated by their previously respectable status in society. His celebrity clients, the occasional hip-hop star or football player, tend to be young people who suddenly found themselves in possession of tremendous fame and fortune and haven’t learned to handle it wisely, leading to mistakes like drug abuse or violent altercations. Ben has said he’s talked more people out of suicide than many psychiatrists, and is accustomed to the middle-of-the-night crisis phone call and need for hand holding. With his take-charge yet warmhearted manner, one can easily imagine him reassuring hysterical young people or anguished businessmen like a kindly father proffering a strong shoulder and the calm voice of reason.

Rav Aaron had a softer, more retiring presence, yet he also spent countless hours helping the current and former talmidim who brought all their problems to his doorstep. “I would call him at 11 at night and he’d be on the phone with a couple, trying to convince them to get counseling, to consider the effect a divorce would have on their kids,” Ben says. “He saved hundreds of marriages and hundreds of talmidim.”

Ben was in line at a Five Towns bagel store the Sunday after the shivah when a young man approached him wanting to share his story: Some years ago, he’d been on the brink of not graduating from high school. But Rav Aaron took him under his wing and then sent him to Eretz Yisrael to learn, and when he returned, encouraged him to go to medical school.

“If not for him, I would’ve ended up with no career, doing a lot of drinking and drugs like my old friends,” he said. Today he’s the head of anesthesiology at a major hospital.

“I’ve heard dozens of stories like this,” Ben says.

There was the executive from a high tech company who paid a shivah call, nattily dressed in a suit, tie, and yarmulke, his tzitzis out. He related that he had become a real bum when finally he came to Yeshiva of Far Rockaway his senior year. “Other people wrote me off, but Rabbi Brafman spoke with me for an hour and a half,” he said. “After that he told me, ‘Alright, I’ll give you a chance. There’s good in you, there’s a spark I like. But you can’t come in a sweatshirt. Clean up your act, and I’ll help you out.”

The bochur went home, polished his shoes and had his mother iron his shirt. When he showed up at yeshivah the next day, Rav Brafman said, “You look great. Good start.” He assigned tutors for him and consecrated some hours to learn with him himself.

Today, this shomer mitzvos Jew works in high tech, and continues to dress in a bekavodig way — to the point where his manager pulled him aside and said, “You know, you’re doing a great job. But the suit and tie? You know, we’re a high-tech firm; it really isn’t necessary.”

The former sweatshirt wearer replied, “Actually, for me, it is. As you see, I wear a yarmulke and tzitzis every day. As an observant Jew, it’s not appropriate for me to dress informally.”

The manager, a non-Jew, was so impressed he began sending him e-mails on Fridays to remind him to leave early.

“My brother was never knee-jerk spontaneous in his dealings with talmidim. He’d never just throw somebody out,” Ben says. “He’d learn the facts, try to understand — not that the reasons were excuses, but he felt they were morally relevant. Today I do the same thing; I try to give people a second chance, try not to pass moral judgment. No one is perfect. I learned this from my brother.”

While neither of them condoned bad behavior, Ben says he had to work on himself to master his temper, while Rav Aaron was by nature a calm, sweet-natured person who didn’t get angry. He spent 47 years co-leading the yeshivah with Rav Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, yet the two were never heard to raise their voices. With his profound sense of caring, Rav Aaron forged deep relationships with generations of talmidim, putting their growth first and encouraging them to bring out their best even as others might have labeled them as failures.

Ben observes that his brother Rav Aaron was a “gavra rabba” — a very great man: “Not just a talmid chacham, but a great husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, friend, and brother.”

But Rav Aaron was also a worrier: He worried about his talmidim, about the problems in the frum world. Carrying a sense of responsibility for the klal at large, Rav Aaron delivered regular shiurim and mussar vaadim not only within the confines of the yeshivah, but to the local balabatim as well. Immersed in the problems of the kehillah, he believed Mashiach’s arrival was imminent.

“In the last ten years, he saw the world spinning out of control,” Ben says. “He never owned a television, but he listened to news on the radio, and was convinced the world was at war with itself and that Hashem isn’t happy with us. When he first got sick, he prayed even more for the Geulah.” Spiritual giants don’t really leave us, though; they continue to pray for us — and worry for us — from the higher spheres, where there are no more mechitzos of the physical world. Ben, especially, is still counting on him.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 676)

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