Passaic's Rabbi Heshie Hirth was the ultimate Torah builder
Photos: Family archives
When Rabbi Heshie and Ettie Hirth arrived in Passaic in 1978, there were no kosher stores, only a declining marginally Orthodox population that was remnant of a bygone era, and no viable chinuch options. There was, however, a tiny starting-out yeshivah gedolah, whose rosh yeshivah would entrust Rabbi Hirth with the building blocks of the kehillah over the ensuing decades.
By the time Rabbi Hirth passed away in the beginning of Tishrei 43 years later, the Passaic-Clifton community was thriving. Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic — the school Rabbi Hirth had founded with just four dozen kids — boasts four divisions and is now the second-largest private school in the State of New Jersey. Three mesivta high schools, a world-class yeshivah gedolah, half a dozen kollelim, a plethora of shuls, and a dizzying array of chesed organizations all call Passaic-Clifton their home.
For over four decades Rabbi Hirth built, developed, and ran the Passaic-Clifton community, with seichel, love, and loyalty — loyalty to his ever-increasing staff, loyalty to his beloved rosh yeshivah, and loyalty to Hashem, His Torah, and His people.
Sent to Build
It was in the early 1930s when Mr. Yechiel Hirth, his parents, and siblings escaped their native Ukrainian town and headed for the US. Industrious and talented as Mr. Hirth was, his jobs would inevitably end on Friday afternoon, when he took leave for Shabbos. After several disheartening weeks, he and his brother finally found steady work in a hardware store whose owner was willing to overlook the Saturday absence in exchange for the two valuable assiduous employees. When the store owner announced he was closing up his shop and selling the building, Mr. Hirth and his brother decided to purchase the property and start their own real estate company — a venture that would prove to be successful and allow the family to support needy institutions and individuals with utmost generosity. Yechiel Hirth married Esther Landgarten — a fellow immigrant from Poland — and together, the young couple settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their son Heshie, their fourth child, was born in 1950. This was before the American Orthodox community came to appreciate the value and significance of Torah learning, yet Heshie forged his own path ahead that included the highest reverence for Torah study. It was an outlook that he would maintain for the rest of his life.
He enrolled in RJJ for high school, and it was in those years that he was exposed to many great Torah personalities. When he reached beis medrash age, the young bochur headed to Rav Levi Krupenia’s Kamenetz yeshivah, which was located in the small hamlet of Woodridge, New York. One of the maggidei shiur there was Rav Meir Stern, a young talmid chacham and star disciple of both Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l and Rav Berel Soloveitchik ztz”l, who had just begun teaching American bochurim.
During those years that Heshie Hirth had learned under Rav Meir Stern, the seeds of a partnership were planted — one that would color the Torah landscape in America and establish the hitherto sleepy northern New Jersey town of Passaic into an ir v’eim b’Yisrael, home to hundreds of families of bnei Torah.
After Heshie married Ettie Brisman, the young couple traveled to Eretz Yisrael where Heshie learned in Yeshivas Brisk, and before returning to the United States, he was advised by Rav Berel Soloveitchik to go follow his rebbi, Rav Meir Stern — who had since moved to a small town in New Jersey called Passaic.
It was an unconventional move: The community was pretty much in its infancy, and the yeshivah had only a handful of talmidim. But the arrival of Heshie and Ettie Hirth to the Passaic-Clifton community meant the Rosh Yeshivah would have a loyal soldier — a talmid who was smart, successful, capable, and talented. Most of all, though, he was “geshikt.” As Rav Mordechai Hirth, Rabbi Hirth’s older brother, noted in his hesped, the Yiddish word “geshikt” means more than just skilled — geshikt also means “sent.” Sent to accomplish, sent to build, sent to achieve the task at hand without losing focus.
He Wasn’t Kidding
When the community grew to the point that the Rosh Yeshivah felt it was time to build its own mikveh, Rabbi Hirth took up the task. A full time kollel yungerman, he was inexperienced in fundraising — and this was long before the days of fundraising seminars and executive director conferences — but Rabbi Hirth would close his Gemara at night, drive into Brooklyn, and knocked on doors to raise the necessary funds to carry out the Rosh Yeshivah’s project. Years later, he would regal bochurim with stories of those tough early days he spent fundraising and the encounters that could have left him dejected — like the fellow who told him that in his opinion Passaic didn’t need a mikveh, it needed a pizza shop, and only after they had a pizza shop would he contribute to the mikveh. (Rabbi Hirth did make sure to return for a donation when “Teddy’s,” a kosher pizza store, opened up on Passaic’s Main Ave.)
Before embarking on the campaign, Rabbi Hirth first spent several months learning the intricacies of Maseches Mikvaos. He managed to put together the money and then moved onto the next steps. He hired architects, sat with engineers, plumbers, electricians, and contractors, stewarding the project to its completion. But even then he wasn’t done. For four decades, he ran the mikveh’s operations, making sure everything was working properly, updating and upgrading when necessary, and attending to the minutest detail.
And so it was with every step in the community’s development: The Rosh Yeshivah would decide it’s time for a new mosad, and his loyal soldier would carry it out.
When the first group of children of the yeshivah’s kollel yungeleit were ready to start school, coupled with the children of some former Passaic talmidim who had since settled in Passaic-Clifton and gone into the workforce, they needed a chinuch option other than sending kids on the 8 a.m. Northbound NJ Transit to Monsey. Together with the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Hirth called a meeting of several dozen parents in order to announce the opening of the Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic.
When the floor opened up for questions, one woman raised her hand: First, she asked, who will be on the board? Secondly, how will the new school ensure that the parents have input into the curriculum? “They won’t,” answered Rabbi Hirth bluntly. “In our school, decisions will be made by one criteria: daas Torah.”
That day, Rabbi Hirth would gain another partner: Duvy Gross, who had recently moved from Brooklyn to spacious Passaic where, for the price of an apartment in Brooklyn, he was able to purchase a single family home complete with a backyard and a two-car garage. Mr. Gross became the first parent to register his child in school, and over the next three and a half decades alongside Rabbi Hirth, Mr. Gross would contribute time, energy, and financial resources into the communal coffers.
In the beginning there was just a handful of children, the money was scarce, and they had no reason to suspect that they would ever have more than 100 kids or so in their little community school. But the Rosh Yeshivah had made a decision, and Rabbi Hirth got the parents on board, hired teachers, and purchased a small, two-story house — upstairs for the girls and downstairs for the boys.
Reb Akiva Hirth, Reb Heshie’s younger brother who stood behind him every step of the way as he embarked on one endeavor after the next, recalled standing with Reb Heshie on the inaugural day of Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic and looking down at the scene in front of them: A run-down building on High Street and just 50 children from 20 families. Reb Akiva remembers turning to his older brother in disbelief and saying, “Are you kidding?”
From the lectern at his cherished brother’s levayah some 34 years later — speaking to a crowd that included thousands of Yeshiva Ktana parents and talmidim seated in the cavernous Ohel Rivka hall of Bnos Bracha, one of the four divisions that compromise the Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic today — Reb Akiva cried out, “No! He wasn’t kidding! And who can imagine today there would be 2,600 children learning because of one man?”
Setting the Bar
Rabbi Hirth was technically the fledging school’s executive director, but also served as principal, substitute teacher, secretary, maintenance man, and even janitor when the need arose. One student from those early days in Yeshiva Ktana — who spent far more time than he should have in the principal’s office — fondly recalls getting sent to Rabbi Hirth’s office. “He didn’t discipline us,” the former student recalls. “He’d hand us a Danish, and we’d get to work with him, sorting out papers, schlepping desks and chairs with him, and doing whatever needed to get done.”
And it wasn’t only the mischievous youngsters that he put to work. Harry Rothenberg, a Harvard-trained attorney with the famed Rothenberg Law Firm and long-time chairman of the Yeshiva Ktana dinner, remembers getting a call from Rabbi Hirth that he needed help painting classrooms to make sure they would be ready in time for the new school year. “I showed up, and there we were, a bunch of parents holding paintbrushes, and together with Rabbi Hirth, we painted the classrooms,” says Mr. Rothenberg.
When the student population outgrew the building on High Street, Rabbi Hirth purchased an old, abandoned dental clinic for the new boys’ division, allowing the girls to use both floors of the High Street building. A few years later the girls’ school outgrew the building entirely, and Rabbi Hirth set his eyes on a stately building located on Pennington Avenue, which until then had housed The Pennington Club, an exclusive club for stiff-collared gentlemen who would gather to smoke cigars and show off their wealth.
(In an interesting sidenote, Passaic won its own share of historical notoriety when US president William Howard Taft came to fundraise at The Pennington Club in the early 1900s and went to relax in a palatial house just up the block from the club, where the 340-pound president got stuck in the bathtub, necessitating the fire department to come and rescue him. The home has since been demolished and replaced by Bais Torah U’Tefillah, a prominent shul in the community.)
Rabbi Hirth purchased the building, renovated it, and eventually doubled its size to house the girls’ school, as well as the Bais Yaakov of Passaic. Soon enough, the boys outgrew their building again, and Rabbi Hirth used his strong business sense and financial savvy to construct a state-of-the-art 80,000 square foot building, complete with large, airy classrooms, a basketball gym, and a rooftop playing area. When the Rosh Yeshivah decided it was time to open up a local mesivta to cater to Passaic’s burgeoning population of home-grown bnei Torah, his loyal lieutenant stood by the ready, going the by-now familiar route of raising funds, procuring suitable grounds, recruiting rebbeim, and attending to the myriad details that go into establishing a mosad.
When the New Jersey population swelled to the point that it necessitated representation in state government to ensure the frum community would get its fair share of government funding, Rabbi Hirth, along with his trusted ally Duvy Gross and Ralph Zucker from Lakewood, cofounded the New Jersey office of the Agudah. But he didn’t just make the call for an office to be established — the three of them split the cost of the new office, each contributing a third annually. Rabbi Hirth was also a staunch supporter of JFS, the Passaic-Clifton social services organization, and helped facilitate the move to its new headquarters.
And it wasn’t only Passaic-Clifton, or even New Jersey mosdos. “He was a captain of an industry,” says Duvy Gross, “and his industry was mosdos.”
As the years went by, the American Torah scene had changed: Donors started opening up their checkbooks with greater generosity, school administrators climbed out of their damp, musty basement work spaces into polished offices, and proud, brick edifices attesting to the primacy of Torah learning were constructed. It was Rabbi Hirth who played a role in effecting this change, and institutions from all over the country would seek out his advice, while the seasoned builder would counsel younger protégés. At his levayah, one school founder — himself a builder of mosdos hachinuch — came to pay his respects to a man, who, in his words “set the bar for mosdos in America.”
“We all looked up to Rabbi Hirth,” he said “and he would set the tone for what a mosad can or cannot and should or should not do.”
I Wouldn’t Change
With all his soaring accomplishments and impressive achievements, Rabbi Hirth never took a break from serving others — and never, ever considered that something was “past nisht.” The same Rabbi Hirth who fundraised tens of millions of dollars, negotiated deals with bankers, constructed beautiful buildings, and had a few hundred employees on his monthly payroll, also spent his Erev Yom Tov cleaning up the towels in the mikveh, making sure the showers were running and the water was clean. Before Yom Kippur — much to the delight of us Passaic children — he would get up on a table, holding a squawking rooster in his hand, and shlug kapparos for his hundreds of talmidim and talmidos. And rain or shine, Rabbi Hirth would direct traffic during carpool, and when the weather called for it, he would don his bright yellow reflective rain gear for the occasion.
Rabbi Yossi Hirth, Reb Heshie’s son, was maspid his father as the mitah passed by the Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic. In his short speech, he told the boys how even as the school’s enrollment swelled to epic proportions, Rabbi Heshie Hirth loved and cared for each and every talmid and talmidah. A rebbi recalled visiting Rabbi Hirth in the days he was awaiting surgery before his last debilitating stroke, and Rabbi Hirth asked him about a particular talmid who was struggling in class. Rabbi Hirth wanted to know what was being done to get him the help he needed. His greatest joy was watching talmidim go on to become bnei Torah and bnos Yisrael of the highest caliber. On Purim day, the line outside his home at 150 Ascension Street was filled with Bais Yaakov of Passaic graduates who were awaiting their turn for a brachah. He reveled in their simchos, dancing with gusto, and shared in their pain.
He loved his rebbeim and teachers, going to great lengths to ensure their payments would not be delayed. If there was one area where Rabbi Hirth revealed a hint of pride, it was in relating the fact that in all the years of Yeshiva Ktana’s existence, they never missed a payment to teachers. He would fundraise when his rebbeim made weddings, helping them offset additional costs and doing his part in alleviating the burden of a staff he was so grateful to.
He loved his community, always keeping an eye out for families who could use some chizuk — or extra funds. He lent out huge sums of money, helping families maintain a sense of dignity. Quietly and behind the scenes, he ensured that standards befitting a Torah community were maintained, while making everyone feel comfortable and welcome.
And they loved him in return. When doctors revealed a malignancy a few years ago and word got out, Tehillim groups were organized, tefillah assemblies were arranged, and one morah approached her employer with a suggestion that the girls take on various kabbalos in the merit that he have a refuah sheleimah. Rabbi Hirth thanked her but told her he wasn’t worried — a tumor in his body wasn’t a matter of concern between Hashem and Heshie Hirth, he explained, it was between Hashem and almost three thousand children. He then revealed his innermost conviction, the fire that fueled him throughout his long and accomplished life: “Even if I was told that I had one day left to live in This World,” he said, “I wouldn’t change my schedule one iota and would continue doing exactly what I’m doing.”
Rabbi Hirth had a medical history of various cancers over the years, and this time too, he recovered and continued to lead, along with the Rosh Yeshivah, the Passaic-Clifton community. And then 18 months ago, he had a stroke during a heart surgery procedure. As his son Reb Shloime reiterated at the levayah, “We were certain that, like so many times before, it wouldn’t be long before he would bounce back to his beloved family, his schools, and community.”
Alas, it was not meant to be. On Shabbos, 5 Tishrei, Tzvi Lipa Ben Yechiel Yisroel returned his holy soul to its Creator.
In the week of shivah, a torrent of stories came pouring out about this great man — and any printed tribute will only touch the tip of the iceberg. Countless individuals related their personal interactions with him that revealed his care and concern. His children — all outstanding talmidei chachamim in their own right — told of his ahavas haTorah, dikduk b’halachah, kibbud av v’eim, and dedication to his family.
His brother Reb Mendy related that when Reb Heshie had contemplated the idea of floating a bond to help finance the yeshivah, he went to the bank and began introducing himself. The banker interrupted him and smiled. “We know who you are, Rabbi,” he said. The banker proceeded to recall how years earlier, on September 11, 2001, all electronic banking systems had been halted. The Yeshiva Ktana had a payment due a few days later, and Rabbi Hirth withdrew the necessary cash and had it sent to the bank’s national headquarters in Chicago so he wouldn’t miss the payment. Of the thousands of accounts this bank had, they received one payment — from Rabbi Heshie Hirth of Passaic.
He always made sure to keep his slate clean, for the small accounts and the Big Account.
Yehi zichro baruch.
By Jeff Bloom
As he built the Torah institutions of Passaic, Rabbi Hirth brought many families of baalei teshuvah into the mainstream — melding acceptance along with loving, blunt candor. He valued them as they were but knew they could strive for more
In the 1980s and 1990s, as Passaic became an attractive destination for young couples, a wide range of families enrolled their children in the new Yeshiva Ktana. Founded by Rabbi Hirth under the guidance of Passaic Rosh Yeshivah Rav Meir Stern in 1987, various types of families came to the school — yeshivish, out-of-town, baalei teshuvah, etc. While Rabbi Hirth was a master mechanech for all of these families, a large number of the baalei teshuvah who sent their children to Yeshiva Ktana feel a special debt of gratitude for the way in which Rabbi Hirth brought them and their children into the mainstream of the yeshivah world.
While statistics are hard to come by, some estimate that at one point in the 1990s roughly 30 percent of the larger Passaic/Clifton community was made up of newly religious. How did Rabbi Hirth create a community that stands, among other things, as a model for the integration of baalei teshuvah into the larger frum world?
“Rabbi Hirth’s dedication to Klal Yisrael is what led him to broaden his student body to accept children from many different family backgrounds,” one of the local rabbanim observed. “But more importantly, Rabbi Hirth was able to inspire them to share his vision for their sons to grow to be true bnei Torah, aspiring to learn in the finest yeshivos, and for their daughters to marry bnei Torah.”
One of those parents recalls the first meeting he and his wife had with Rabbi Hirth.
“Despite how we looked at the time, and how obviously limited we were at the time in our Torah knowledge, he was incredibly accepting of us, and made us feel very comfortable, as if we were a perfect match for Yeshiva Ktana. At the end of the conversation he was very positive, and then added, in his loving, blunt, matter-of-fact manner, ‘You’ve got to get rid of the TV.’ And looking at my wife, he added, ‘You’ve got to cover your hair better.’ That’s it. Straight to the point: loving, blunt, real, honest, simple, caring, direct, accepting. He wrapped all that into one sentence. He said it in a way that we totally accepted and felt good about it. It was gadlus. He completely accepted us into the school, and as we grew in our Torah observance, we developed a very close relationship with Rabbi Hirth. His quick and loving acceptance of us was a very big part of our growth in observance.”
Steve Berman moved to Passaic in 1989. “I had no idea what the yeshivah community was about,” he candidly admits. “I had no idea coming into Passaic from a more modern community where my kids would go to school or what derech they would go on.” Rabbi Hirth arranged a tutor for Berman’s oldest son, who joined the first sixth-grade class of Yeshiva Ktana, along with Rabbi Hirth’s own son. Today, Mr. Berman has four married sons living in Lakewood, alumni of yeshivos like the Mesivta of Long Beach and the Mir, and three daughters married to bnei Torah. “I look back at what Rabbi Hirth did for our kids,” he says, “and the hakaras hatov is phenomenal. Words can’t explain it.”
Alison Sage has a similar story. When she and her husband Michael moved to Passaic 27 years ago, they had only been observant for a short time and didn’t really know or understand the finer nuances of the Orthodox lifestyle. Rabbi Hirth interviewed them upon arrival and promptly involved them in various leadership roles in Passaic.
“I often regarded his personal advice as though it came from my own father. I’m sure he was just as attentive to those in our community who grew up frum, but I sensed that he wanted baalei teshuvah to feel valued and validated,” she says. “He was a Renaissance man, way ahead of his time, and there was no handbook out for how to bolster the spirit of the baal teshuvah. He just intuited it all.”
This intuition expressed itself at times in an exquisite sensitivity to the particular needs of baalei teshuvah. Leah Greenman remembers how Rabbi Hirth told the Yeshiva Ktana parents that while many other large communities had made takanos to limit the size of bar mitzvah celebrations to just family members, he felt he couldn’t do it to his baal teshuvah families because the celebrations would be too small.
This same sensitivity touched people during some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. Marla Schachter shares: “At the bris of Avi, our son with Down syndrome, we were very broken. When my husband said to Rabbi Hirth, ‘If Avi is able, I would love for him to be in school with his two older brothers,” Rabbi Hirth replied to him, without flinching, “I will do everything in my power to make it happen. If I have to speak to Rabbi Bender at Darchei Torah to learn the ropes, I will do whatever it takes.’ Rabbi Hirth held true to his word, and Avi attended Yeshiva Ktana for nine years.”
A few years ago, Rabbi Hirth delivered a moving hesped for a beloved second grade teacher at Yeshiva Ktana. He related how he had told her how they had gone to the same yeshivah, so to speak, referring to their shared experience with serious illness. His heartfelt admiration for the path she had taken, from the beaches of California to Passaic — where she raised a beautiful frum family and faced a long and difficult illness with rock-solid emunah — was palpable.
One father’s last memory of Rabbi Hirth was sharing with him the nachas that his son, a recent graduate of Yeshiva Ktana, was learning at a level in mesivta beyond the father’s wildest dreams. “You should have wilder dreams,” Rabbi Hirth told him with a laugh and a broad smile.
What might have seemed like a wild dream to some — that families of baalei teshuvah, and specifically their children, should be full participants in the most profound aspects of what the frum world is all about — was something Rabbi Hirth never doubted. And with his trademark sense of achrayus, he put his heart and soul into making it happen.
Alison Sage speaks for these families when she says, “Rabbi Hirth was beyond special. He was the closest expression of an adam gadol in This World with whom I could ever have had a relationship. He was my father, my mentor, my cheerleader, my teacher, my friend. The loss of all of that is just overwhelming.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 879)
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