Yosef was listening, Ephraim could see. He took his own words seriously, but he’d also learned how to listen to other people
phraim Milner had a pretty easy schedule, he had to admit. It was work he enjoyed, and he liked the atmosphere in yeshivah. Besides being the driver and learning with some of the weaker boys during seder, he was a bit of a celebrity.
Dating, to them, was shiny and exciting — is it true that your parents let you spend however much money you wanted? Like, you could go buy a Zegna tie for shidduchim and they wouldn’t say a word? How do you decide what kind of car to rent? Are you an Emerald Club member after all these years?
Most nights, he didn’t mind the questions. The boys were young and innocent, and anything was better than the Lakewood dorm, five years of new roommates zeman after zeman, feeling silly to admit they were busy and sillier still to admit they were getting engaged. Instead of giving him the wedding invitation, they would leave it on the table — Ephraim Milner! — and when he thanked them, they would say, “Of course, and I’ll totally get it if you can’t come, no pressure.”
On nights when Ephraim wasn’t in yeshivah, the Modena boys made a scene. If they saw him leaving or coming back, there was hooting and cheering, “Ooooh, Ephraim is busy… pssshhhh…” and sometimes there was singing, even dancing. They were young, these boys, so young.
Now, as he headed for his old Corolla, he was spotted — he realized he’d been walking slowly, sort of hoping for it to happen — and a few bochurim came pouring out of the dorm.
“Ephraim, looking sharp,” Harari called out.
“Wait, can I be dorm counselor tonight?” That was Lieber, the wise guy. “I mean, how will we fall asleep without you? And who will tell Lorb his bedtime story if you’re not here?”
Lorb snorted and tackled Lieber from behind. “Maybe I can borrow your teddy bear, Shimshy.”
Ephraim tried to look serious and above the banter as he opened his car door, but inside, he loved every bit of it. He smiled to himself and Lorb turned and punched Lieber, saying, “My teddy bear? Don’t you remember you came to borrow it in the middle of the night last night because you were so homesick?”
“No one,” said Harari, “was ever homesick for Detroit, guaranteed. No way.”
Ephraim Milner pulled out, still smiling.
He didn’t have a date, and he’d only asked Shuey Portman for the day off a few minutes earlier. Something had been tearing at him and he felt like he had to act. There was something relaxing about doing the trip up the Thruway, the mountains a carpet of vibrant fall colors, without having to worry about a date, the polite father with the why-are-you-27-and-single wonder in his eyes as he made small talk about parking, the inevitable surge of hope and then of disappointment, the sheer weariness after dropping the girl off and having to drive home.
He passed Monsey, his sense of adventure growing as he turned onto the Palisades.
Ephraim wasn’t big on ambition. When shadchanim challenged him to share stories of his own innovation, he shrugged. Last year, he had gone out with a girl who was into mountain climbing, and he told her he didn’t see the geshmak in walking up a hill when there was a working chairlift. That night, the shadchan had called up and hissed, “Are you like, determined to stay single forever?”
He hadn’t built shtenders or manned daled minim booths or even won the bicycle for selling the most raffle tickets in school, but tonight he felt energetic.
Parking on the Upper West Side was impossible, he realized, and after several unsuccessful trips around the blocks near 91st Street, he finally pulled into an underground garage. What’s $30 when you’re about to change the world?
He nodded at the doorman and stepped into the lobby, determined to hold on to the sense of purpose he was experiencing. He waited for the elevator and jumped back when a little poodle came out and snapped at his shoes, then felt foolish. He grinned at himself in the mirror inside the elevator, as if to reassure himself that he could do this.
He got out on the fourth floor and knocked.
Yosef Hartstein was only a year older than Ephraim, but he already appeared to have achieved his long-held dream of being a millionaire by 30. Ephraim had no idea if his old halachah-seder chavrusa was or wasn’t an actual millionaire, but he’d started out interning on Wall Street and now managed his own hedge fund. They’d been sitting together at a chasunah a few weeks earlier, and Yosef, who’d taken to speaking slowly, thoughtfully, as if every word was very significant, had said, “You know Ephraim, you’re still doing the yeshivah thing, more power to you, maybe you can help me with something.”
He wanted very much to give tzedakah, he said, and he did his part for social service organizations and various chesed funds, but he felt like all the yeshivos had gotten too corporate. “They’re all so slick and professional. I want to support Torah, I believe in it, but I want to keep it real, you know? Is that even possible anymore?”
Ephraim had nodded politely and davened inwardly for the table to fill up.
But he’d remembered Yosef Hartstein’s comment this week and, once he had the idea, he hadn’t backed down until he’d called Hartstein and made an appointment. Ephraim knew that if he wouldn’t act right away, the idea would slip away on its own.
Now, he leaned forward on a lime-green sofa that felt like it was filled with sand, and said, “Yosef, when you were speaking I was just sort of listening, it was interesting. I don’t know much about yeshivos or how they operate, and to be honest, I don’t have much in my bank account, so I couldn’t really relate to your dilemma, you know? But I knew you meant it ernst, that you were saying something. That was it.”
Yosef was listening, Ephraim could see. He took his own words seriously, but he’d also learned how to listen to other people.
“Anyhow,” Ephraim continued, “it popped into my head recently because I landed at this yeshivah, I think I told you about it, and I don’t think there’s too many places like it. It’s like, it restored my faith in the whole system: no gimmicks, no shtick, just a good guy pouring his heart and soul into his talmidim and trying to build them. All day, every day. And they’re mamash floundering, money-wise, they don’t really have a donor base or anything, and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I should really tell Yosef about this.’ So here I am!” He smiled brightly and spread his arms apart. That was it. That was the pitch.
“Wow, that’s touching. I appreciate that you remember what I said that night and I appreciate how you view the yeshivah where you work, that’s very impressive,” Yosef said, then took a sip of water, as if preparing himself to respond.
For a moment, Ephraim thought his old friend was about to write out a check and he panicked, not even sure to whom the check should be made out.
“Okay, thanks Ephraim, give me the coordinates of the yeshivah and I’ll follow up myself. I’ll do my own poking around, and get back to you,” Yosef said.
Ephraim wasn’t sure what coordinates meant, but he felt relieved and proud as he told Yosef where the yeshivah was.
to be continued...
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 827)
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