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Chinuch Journeys

Abie, the brilliantly creative musical composer who became a mechanech in disguise, marvels at how Reb Shaya is still at it 40 years later, helping young Jews find their own individual melodies of meaning in Yiddishkeit.


The external indicators of how a person looks and what he does don’t necessarily tell you very much about who and what he truly is. The trick is to look for the inner story threading itself through the outer layers of another person’s life.

The topic is on my mind after a conversation with Reb Avrohom Yom Tov Rotenberg — sometimes known as Abie — who was in town recently for a “Musical Evening of Connection,” to benefit the chinuch and kiruv work of Rabbi Shaya Cohen, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Zichron Aryeh in Bayswater, New York. But it was also an evening of reconnection between Abie and Reb Shaya, his friend and long-ago mentor.

Their paths first crossed in 1974, when Abie, a local Queens boy, was a bochur in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York. Reb Shaya was a dynamic force in the yeshivah’s kollel. He learned with many bochurim and invited them to his house for meals, and Abie was one of them. A year later, their connection deepened when Reb Shaya headed west, to LA’s San Fernando Valley suburbs, to start a yeshivah high school, and Abie came along. He became Rabbi Rotenberg, teaching ninth grade.

Back then, the Valley was a Jewish desert, and Rabbi Cohen’s high school was a big mix of kids from shomer Shabbos and non-observant homes.

“Reb Shaya jumped into the challenge with tremendous enthusiasm,” Abie recalls. “We talked openly with the kids about the beauty of Torah and Yiddishkeit, about forging a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. No question was ever looked down upon, including about the basics of emunah, and Reb Shaya loved those questions, which he saw as an opportunity. He had a class every Friday called ‘Rapping with the Rabbi,’ where kids could ask any question in the world. It had to be that way — after all, these were kids who weren’t sure where they stood and whose parents weren’t really committed, so how could you have a taineh on them?”

Their efforts began to bear fruit, and Rabbi Cohen started sending kids off to Eretz Yisrael for a few months at a time. “They needed to see what real Jewish living looks like,” Abie says, “and to see that, as Moshe Yess a”h put it, ‘G-d is alive and well and living in Jerusalem.’ ”

Reb Shaya ran SEED programs, staffed by Chofetz Chaim bochurim from back east, and one summer, the SEEDsters blanketed the Valley with posters advertising free pizza and activities along with Torah lessons. When only a few kids showed up to the program, the SEED fellows were understandably disappointed, but without missing a beat, Rabbi Cohen said to them, “Take out a phone book, sit down, and call all the Goldbergs to see if they have a child to send to the program.”

And, Abie says, “With about 700,000 Jews then living in LA, that added up to a whole lot of Goldbergs. And these New York yeshivah boys sat down and called, because Reb Shaya was so full of fire and enthusiasm to reach out. The thing about Reb Shaya is that he’s 100 percent sincere — there isn’t an ounce of self-interest in him, he’s not looking for anything other than to do the ratzon Hashem.”

In 1977, Reb Shaya heard about a few girls who were going to California on vacation, and got them to spend half their vacation doing a SEED program — the high school girls called them the Bachurettes. “He and the rebbetzin set me up with one of the girls, except that this girl insisted she wouldn’t go out unless they set the other girls up too. They went ahead and arranged shidduchim for all the girls. Mine, however, was the only one that worked out.”

It was in Los Angeles, where the Rotenbergs lived for the first years of their marriage, that the seeds of the Journeys series took root. In 1984, Abie sat listening to Moshe Yess and Shalom Levine doing their Megama thing, when, as he recalls, “a lightbulb went off in my head: We can have sophisticated, intelligent folk music in English with Jewish themes,” and he ended up composing most of the first Journeys album while in LA.

After a decade, it came time for the Rotenbergs to move on, to Toronto, which Abie and his wife Sara still call home. He taught for a year in Yeshiva Etz Chaim there, but, he says, “It wasn’t the same, because everyone was frum. Baruch Hashem, we got ‘em to understand the piece of Gemara. But that electric charge of teaching someone who’s coming from nowhere and telling them something and touching their souls and seeing their eyes light up and making a real difference in their lives, that wasn’t there.”

And here Abie Rotenberg’s life trajectory reached an inflection point that’s familiar to many people who spend years in fields like chinuch and kiruv and find themselves lacking the inspiration and drive to continue. In his case, he left teaching to enter a family business. But that was just a day job, something to help support his growing family.

In truth, however, he never left chinuch and kiruv after all. “I’ve never seen myself as an entertainer, Abie observes. “I’ll do kumzitzen or ‘an evening with…’ kind of event, with songs that are usually slow and hopefully thought-provoking. People know I won’t be jumping up and down on the stage and all that sort of thing. I’ve always looked at the music as being an extension of my years in chinuch, where I’m trying to get a message across.”

Abie, the brilliantly creative musical composer who became a mechanech in disguise, marvels at how Reb Shaya is still at it 40 years later, helping young Jews find their own individual melodies of meaning in Yiddishkeit.

“He’s a motor of ideas that never shuts off,” Abie says of his old boss. “His newest passion is a movement he started called Teach-to-Reach, which teaches mechanchim and parents how to make Yiddishkeit alive for their kids. Back in the day, I used to complain to him, ‘Please, no! Not another idea, let’s just run a high school.’ Ultimately though, I think the kids saw that and appreciated that he cared not just about them but about all of Klal Yisrael. He wanted to make a revolution for Yiddishkeit, and he’s still in that mode today.”

Today Abie’s working on a fifth Journeys album, due out early next year, and like everything in his repertoire, the songs all convey either some fundamental lesson in Torah hashkafah or serious social commentary — and always whimsically rendered.

“Every song,” he says, “even those that might seem capricious, or tongue in cheek, there’s always a nekudah of a message that we want to convey. People might not agree with my point of view, but I try to say what I feel and hope it comes across in the music.”

On the upcoming Journeys, one song in particular speaks to an issue Abie has with much of Jewish music itself. “It always bothered me that most of the songs have happy endings. People had tainehs on me for ‘The Place Where I Belong,’ for example, because the song ended with the sefer Torah still encased in glass. And I said, ‘Because that’s real life. Unfortunately, most of Klal Yisrael is sitting on the sidelines. Should I give the song a happy ending just so you should feel good?’ That’s reality.

“And this character on Journeys 5 goes from being a miserable self-absorbed miser to making a huge gift to tzedakah, but he didn’t become frum, he didn’t put on a shtreimel like Howard in the ‘Atheists Convention.’ But it doesn’t have to be a happy ending. Kiruv rechokim doesn’t mean you have to make him a rosh yeshivah, it means bring him a little bit closer, give him a little chizuk.”

It’s a point I’ve found to be equally valid regarding Jewish writing, as well as the stories that circulate around our community, which often seem to be afflicted with an advanced case of happily-ever-after-itis. That in turn reflects an unhealthy exaltation of end-goals over the road that leads to them — and no little amount of disappointment when it comes to real-life challenges. Abie’s been teaching us that kiruv and chinuch — and all of life — are about progress, not end-zone perfection, a basic truth can spare us from so much pain and dysfunction.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 886)

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