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Changing Lives 

“Our father changed the trajectory of his students’ lives. He perceived the greatness in them they could often not yet see, and lifted them to that vision”



ur father, Rabbi Hillel Belsky, was born in Brooklyn in 1946, to a rich mesorah.

Despite his litvishe roots, our father’s grandfather, Reb Yehuda Leib Tzireles, frequented the Slonimer Rebbe’s tishen in Mush, Russia. The Rebbe urged him to become a melamed, but the Zeide resisted; he didn’t want to support himself through Torah, preferring instead to try his hand at business. But following a narrow escape from an accident in his mill, he embraced his destiny as a melamed tinokos, paving the way for future doros.

His grandson, our zeide, Rabbi Meir Belsky, was an only son born to Russian immigrants. While his grandparents were talmidei chachamim and tzidkaniyos, our zeide would likely have gone the way of so many others had his determined mother not insisted on registering him in cheder. Despite the erosion of Yiddishkeit in America in the ’20s and ’30s, she wanted to ensure her son could converse with her revered father. This also carved a pathway for generations to come.

In our father’s words:

Years later, when my brother and I started yeshivah, we were the only ones in the entire extended family who could interact with Zeide. He was very old and lived in the Home of the Sages of Israel on the Lower East Side. On Sundays, the family would gather to visit him. He would come out of the beis medrash and greet everyone. Then he would say goodbye, explaining that he had to return to his learning. My brother and I could go into the beis medrash and recite Chumash and Rashi and receive candies from his shtender.

In what he would later describe as a miracle, our grandfather returned to New York from California, where his mother summered for her health, to find his yeshivah high school registration canceled due to insufficient enrollment for the ninth grade. A meshulach visiting his father’s furniture store encouraged Zeide to travel to Brooklyn to meet Rav Yitzchok Hutner, who was assembling a high-school group of five boys. Zeide would be the sixth. In my father’s words:

In 1936, Mesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin and my father were born. The rest was history. My father became a son to Rav Hutner, consulting him for everything.
My father was the first of his chaburah to marry, and so I was the first of the next generation. My brothers and I were the bikkurim, the first fruit. My father took us to the Rosh Yeshivah’s maamarim when we were far too young to understand them or the language.
When we were children, our father worked for Torah Umesorah, flying around the country starting day schools. He was often gone during the week. Our mother, herself an orphan, asked him what instructions he left her in case he did not return. Only one, he said. Make sure all the boys — we were four — make their way to the Rosh Yeshivah.
Chaim Berlin became home. My fear and awe of the Rosh Yeshivah did not diminish, and I learned a lot about kevod haTorah, mesorah, and standing up for emes. The Rosh Yeshivah made it known that he was watching over me. My friends said it was because he loved me. And so it was. Love and fear; fear and love. The dimension of awe was intentionally instilled.

“One can see who your tailor was,” Rav Hutner told our father with obvious pride. He absorbed the kevod haTorah, the fealty to mesorah, the breadth and depth and vision, making it a part of himself.

Even after our grandparents moved to Memphis, our father continued in Yeshiva in New York, learning in Bais Shraga and then Chaim Berlin. In 1967, he married our mother, Judy Benoliel, daughter of Yosef and Rachel Maimon Benoliel, descended from a prestigious Sephardic rabbinic family from Seattle. After a year in Kollel Gur Arye, our parents moved to Memphis.

Still in his early twenties, our father began a 55-year-long chinuch mission at Rav Hutner’s direction. Talmidos of those early years in Memphis could not compute how young he was when he taught them and served as their menahel at the Goldie Margolin School for Girls, founded by his father There was the kevod haTorah he learned from Rav Hutner. And there was something else, as well.

The Rosh Yeshivah was a tremendous believer in the potential of man… and there was a broad view of Torah life that was liberating and exhilarating.
“A collection of dots arranged in a circle is one circle…the Ribbono shel Olam is in the middle of your circle, and then everything you do is part of the circle.”
Indeed, from him we learned how each person needed direction according to his particular circumstances. He would look at past, present, and future. I studied this closely. Each student needed to be herself and grow into who she was meant to be, rather than [look] to some image to which she needed to conform. It was the Rosh Yeshivah’s trademark, and it became mine.

Our father was committed with his life’s blood to synthesizing what he learned from Rav Hutner and to building kavod and chashivus for bnos Yisrael.

I loved his maamarim, and he knew it. He told me that… there was no one who absorbed the maamarim more deeply. I took it as a compliment. I have made Pachad Yitzchok the backbone of my chinuch career. I have taught it to boys, girls, men and women.

He also gave of himself in ways that were uniquely his own: endless compassion, deep support and understanding for the individual, and attention to her needs. He shared his humanity and struggle, and made growth through challenge not only possible but definite.

Rav Hutner wanted a person to make friends with his yetzer hara, so to speak. He interpreted “sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam” to mean that a person must use his nefilos as stepping stones to higher ascents. He always wanted to know not just how well one was doing, but also how poorly.

In Memphis, in Chicago as menahel of Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov, and in Eretz Yisrael, to which our parents moved in 1998 to establish Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim seminary, our father changed the trajectory of his students’ lives. He perceived the greatness in them they could often not yet see, and lifted them to that vision.

He was a tremendous mechanech, reaching and encouraging every talmidah, from the most challenged to those from the most distinguished homes; from the struggling to the truly gifted, elevating her and exposing her to her own majesty. He raised the bar for his students’ way of thinking. He made Yiddishkeit malchusdig, showing the chashivus of being a Yid and a bas Yisrael. Talmidos saw this in him; it was the theme of all he taught.

Even the way he gave tochachah to a talmidah, with humor and positivity, enabled her to feel valued and respected. Even the most challenging of classes became a changed group.

On his desk, he kept a copy of The Little Engine That Could, demonstrating in his lighthearted way the belief that each of us truly could, that determination is our inheritance, and the ability to keep climbing is what distinguishes us as the bnos aliyah he davened that each of us would be.


Our Father's Pachad Yitzchok Purim
Mishenichnas Adar Marbin B’simchah

In Adar, we are to transcend any state of mind in which we find ourselves, other than simchah. When we learn Torah despite adverse conditions, we are protected. So it is with simchah: When we are happy, despite any cause to be sad, Hashem protects us!

Our father taught transcendence. He constantly reached beyond himself, whether in his state of mind, toward the insensitivity of others  or his own challenges. To be joyful on Purim for simchas Purim’s sake was not simple for him. A serious person by nature, he never enjoyed silliness, small talk, or surface relationships. But he stretched, and his Purim was a work of art in which this concept shone. Witnessing all this, we learned lessons in transcendence for our own lives.
Destruction of Amalek — Leitzanus

“One derisive statement — leitzanus — invalidates a hundred rebukes.” (Mesillas Yesharim)

Vayivez Eisav es habechorah.” Eisav, grandfather of Amalek, not only gave away his inheritance in both worlds, he scoffed at it.

The root of this derision lies in a fundamental lack of appreciation for chashivus.

Amalek is the first of nations, v’achariso adei oveid. There can be no rehabilitation for Amalek, because he refuses to take the role of Klal Yisrael seriously. After Yetziyas Mitzrayim, in a world where yiras Shamayim was palpable, Amalek had the azus to demonstrate his disdain and fearlessness, as Rashi says: “Just as a boiling cauldron into which no one dares enter, when one wicked man does so, although he gets scalded, he cools it off in the eyes of others” (Devarim 25:18).

“Mr. Z,” short for Mr. Zilzul, was born of our father’s attempt to teach this lofty idea to his students; he taught them to notice derision in its slightest form and weed it out of their speech and their environment. For years after seminary, girls would write to him, “I met Mr. Z. on a date and ran for my life. I heard a shiur, and the speaker himself turned out to be Mr. Z. I stopped going.”
Chashivus — the Flip Side of Leitzanus

Our role in this world is to build chashivus, to recognize value, to battle the influences that suggest that sacred details don’t matter.

We fear derision. Yet when we have obliterated Amalek, which we celebrate on Purim, we are no longer afraid of derision or ridicule; we are free to present or disguise ourselves as we choose.

Ideally, we will masquerade as being on a much higher level than we are, without fear of being mocked. Once the wickedness of Eisav is gone, we are free to borrow his middah of “faking,” with which he attempted to trick his father about his tzidkus. This is the highest form of “chitzoniyus me’oreres es hapenimiyus,” wherein we create a façade that is authentic.

As children, we dressed up as Queen Esther year after year, waiting to see what special effects our mother would add to our regalia — gold trim with bells, sparkly veil, velvet cape. We never tired of stepping into the dress of the mysterious figure of Esther Hamalkah, dressing up — into a higher form than our everyday selves. (Teens wouldn’t dare dress up; it was just not mechubadig.)
Adults at our table were introduced to a different kind of Purim from what they were used to; no lowly figures were costumed, no cheap talk was uttered. Something much higher was demonstrated. The food was special, the décor elegant, and the divrei Torah divine. Our father never lost his air of malchus, and he drew all visitors into his arc of holiness on Purim.
He felt one could teach chashivus to children by being machshiv their needs. After all, a child begins in a self-contained orbit. Eventually, the child grows and reaches higher. The child reaches for malchus; not holelus or zilzul!
If adults act like children, then the children grow up to be children. If they see adults modeling chashivus, eventually they strive for a meaningful Purim.
Tefillah and Vulnerability

Dodi li v’ani lo.” (Shir Hashirim 2:16)

“All my needs I ask from Him, and not from elohim acherim.” (Rashi)

If we turn for our needs to sources other than Hashem, these are elohim acherim! We have so many “solutions” and resources that we try to access before we turn to Hashem as a last resort.

Our father would say: “Ask Hashem directly when you need something — even a new dress!!
Thus, said our father, there is no shidduch or parnassah crisis; there is only an emunah crisis.
Apply to the Source!

The tefillah of the person in need is most potent. We see this in three instances:

Vayishma Elokim es kol hanaar. Yishmael, rather than Hagar, was answered.

In an unusual exchange, Rachel asked Yaakov to daven for her the way Avraham did for Sarah. Yaakov answered that unlike Avraham, he had other children. Yaakov was telling Rachel that Hashem wanted her tefillos, the tefillah of the one in most acute need.

Mordechai told Esther: “U’mi yodea im la’eis kazos higa’at lamalchus.” He wanted to make sure that Esther did not feel a false sense of security in the palace while her brothers were in trouble. Rather, he emphasized, she should see herself as the one in need, because the nitzrach is the one voice Hashem wants to hear most in times of trouble.

Our father was not afraid to feel vulnerable, to share his vulnerability, and to beseech Hashem for his needs from a position of vulnerability.
This is the power of Purim!


Students Recall

› Rosh Chodesh Adar, we all locked our doors and didn’t come down for Shacharis as “Purim shtick.”

I can picture Rabbi Belsky when he gathered us all together to reprimand us and ask what we thought would be an appropriate punishment. Ultimately, we chose to wake up for vasikin at the Kosel the next day. But the way he dealt with us, I felt, defined his overall approach to us — how much he truly cared about us and wanted us to learn and grow.

And the next morning, to our utter surprise, we glimpsed his proud face at the Kosel. Then we knew we’d made the right choice.


› I remember Rabbi Belsky teaching about leitzanus in Pachad Yitzchok, and I took what he said about mockery and sarcasm to heart. He explained how terrible it is to be a mocker.

After the class, I went to his office, ashamed, and said, “I don’t know what to do. I’m sarcastic.”

He leaned forward and said, “Me too.”

He then went on to explain that you can use it for good, to mock evil and sheker. It made me feel so good, because I felt so terrible before he said that, and as usual, in one line, he changed everything.


› I wanted to share how his legacy lives on in my home. Rabbi Belsky taught me not to settle for a Mr. Z., and I was very careful about that when I was dating. He sharpened my antenna to notice what is most important in the man I would marry, and I appreciate the hadrachah he gave us in his Machshavah classes in this area. Baruch Hashem, a lot has happened in 11 years, and now I have an amazing husband and three beautiful children, and I can still hear Rabbi Belsky’s voice in my head!


› As my last year in high school was coming to an end, I did not know how to formulate the words to thank Rabbi Belsky for the most incredible, life-changing four years. He believed in me and empowered me to become who I am today. I was standing in his office trying to say what I felt in my heart. How does one say thank you for so much goodness, gadlus, and care?

As I began to try to express my gratitude, he stopped me and said, “You are the thank-you.”

How can one even try to evaluate the greatness in those words? They sent me soaring, aiming for greater heights, anything to remain Rabbi Belsky’s thank-you.


L’illui nishmas Rav Hillel ben Rav Meir z”l, whose daughters who were also, proudly, his lifelong talmidos:
Mrs. Tamar Sokol, Neimas Bais Yaakov
Mrs. Adina Maryles, Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim
Mrs. Devorah Pinkus, Diverse Learners Initiative (DLI), Torah Umesorah
Mrs. Miryam Biala, Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1004)

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