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Growth Curve: Chapter 17

“Harav Eisental said you have a job for me, something with a drug dealer and a yeshivah bochur?”


“Benny, are you around? Are you feeling better?”

“Feeling better?” Benny didn’t understand.

“Yes, your wife told Reb Motti that you weren’t feeling well, that’s why you didn’t show up the past two days.” The Rosh didn’t sound like his usual aloof, composed self.

“Right,” Benny said. Smart wife he had. “I’m starting to feel better, yeah.”

“Good,” the Rosh said, “because we need your help.”

Benny eyed Tziporah. According to her, Ner Olam had weakened the link between him and the family; it had overtaken his focus and skewed his priorities. He was supposed to be mending bridges now, not getting sucked deeper into the water.

“Just a minute please,” he told the Rosh. Then he covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Tziporah,” he said, “I’m not sure what’s going on. The Rosh sounds weird, like worried maybe? And he said he needs my help. Let me hear him out.”

Tziporah nodded. Her shoulders were still stiff, distant.

“Okay, sorry, I’m here,” Benny told the Rosh.

“So, how should I start?” the Rosh said. “It’s Meir Elbogen, yes? He asked Mrs. Maryles for his passport, because of some family simchah in Europe. Which is fine, he’s a big boy and there’s no reason why he can’t fly out to meet his family. Except that… Mendy Kornbluth, you know, the dorm counselor, noticed he’s been speaking to this strange man quite a bit lately.”

Benny wasn’t following. Why in the world would the Rosh care who Meir was talking to? And what did it have to do with his cousins in Europe?

“Do you hear me?” the Rosh demanded.

“I hear, but I’m not sure I understand,” Benny confessed. “What is the Rosh Yeshivah worried about?”

“Have you ever heard of khat?”

Khat. Of course Benny knew about the leafy green stimulant. Here in Israel it was not quite mainstream but not really contraband, and he could pick out the telltale smell at his Yemenite barber or when passing some of the cool teens doing pushups in the park.

“Sure, I know about khat,” he told the Rosh.

“Good. You know that it’s legal here, but it’s an illegal drug in Europe, yes?”


“So there are some clever characters who are becoming very wealthy by smuggling khat to Europe, where they can sell it for a very nice profit. These characters, you understand, they’re too smart to actually take any risks to their own security,” the Rosh said bitterly. “Instead, they find kids — young, dumb, trusting kids — and offer them free trips to Europe, in exchange for taking along a little package. Just happened to my nephew’s son, actually. He ended up in some French jail, they had to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to pay the lawyers.”

Benny felt a bead of sweat begin making its way down his temple.

The Rosh sighed. “Until now I’ve only heard of the handlers targeting Israelis. Your average Srulik from Kiryat Sefer isn’t going to know much about international law, he’s all excited to get a free trip to Europe, it’s just a few hours away and Israelis love traveling. And the money is great, no way can his parents come up with so much spending money for him.

“But some of them get caught,” the Rosh went on, his voice turning harsh. “A lot of them have been getting caught lately, actually. It’s a bad parshah, a very bad parshah.”

“Okay, I hear that,” Benny said.

“You can imagine that an English-speaking bochur with an American passport is an even better courier, right?” the Rosh went on. “You don’t need a Gemara kop to see the advantages. So Kornbluth said there’s this guy who’s been hanging around the dorm, schmoozing with Meir. Then I heard about this trip to Europe. And if you’ve seen Meir lately, you know he’s not himself — nervous, jumpy…

“So I tried to speak to his parents, just to verify the whole story, but I can’t get through. I could ignore it, assume he’s a good kid and he really does have this European simchah. Or I can be smart — I didn’t start this job yesterday, you know — and not assume anything.”

Benny took a deep breath. “Whoa. I hear. What does the Rosh want me to do?”

“I want you to make sure that Meir doesn’t get on that flight unless it’s an innocent trip to some chasunah. He has one of those early morning flights, takes off around 5 a.m. It’s nine o’clock now, yes? Mrs. Maryles already gave him his passport, and we can’t exactly take it away from him — he’s an adult. I’ll keep trying his parents, but in the meantime I want you to talk to Meir, connect with him and get the truth. I imagine he’ll leave the dorm around one or two in the morning, so that gives you some time.”

Benny pictured Meir sitting alone at his shtender, tension rippling across his face as he struggled over his Gemara. Echoes of Ephraim Grossman’s pep-talk with Meir replayed in his mind. You’re learning, you’re shteiging, you’re going places. One day soon, you’re going to see that you don’t need all that kiddy stuff from Benny Muller.

Suddenly Benny was angry. Who am I, how do you see me, he wanted to ask the Rosh. As the eager-beaver volunteer who feeds, entertains, motivates, and inspires your guys for pennies, then gets thrown away when his rent gets too high and he can’t afford the luxury of holding down the job? Or maybe as the crisis-manager you can ignore or summon depending on your mood?

But no one talked that way to the Rosh. Instead, he said, “Shouldn’t Ephraim Grossman handle this? He’s very obviously been trying to build a connection with Meir this zeman. I don’t even know if Meir is goires me at this point.”

“No, it has to be you,” the Rosh responded commandingly. “Grossman’s a real asset when it comes to learning, but no boy would open up to him in a vulnerable way. He’s tough, he’s shtoltzy… this is something for Benny Muller.”

Another bead of sweat ran down Benny’s temple. He wiped it off tiredly.

“I need a few minutes to think this through,” he told the Rosh. “I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up the phone and approached Tziporah.

“So, that was the Rosh,” he said. “And he wants me to help out with something.”

Tziporah listened as he described the strange call.

“Crazy,” she said. “This is bizarre. And scary. What do you think?”

“What do I think? Well, I hate that this is happening,” Benny said. “I hate the way the Rosh just expects me to jump up and perform when he needs me. And I hate that I couldn’t just be firm and say no. But…” He looked at Tziporah, then at the stone buildings extending outward and upward. “But it sounds like Meir might really need help.”

Tziporah’s face softened. Whatever her misgivings about Benny’s job, she still had a soft spot for the Ner Olam guys.

“So what are you going to do?” she asked.

Benny spread his hands and shrugged. “What do you think? I’m not getting involved unless you think I should.”

She pursed her lips for a minute and looked into the distance.

“I think you should go talk to Meir,” she said.


Benny walked through the door of the apartment, shoulders sagging, and found Tziporah at the washing machine.

“He wasn’t in the dorm?” Tziporah asked.

“Nope,” Benny said. “The guys said he was all excited about his trip, wanted to get to the airport early. What’s next?”

Tziporah poured some detergent into the washing machine, selected the warm setting, and turned it on. She turned to face Benny.

“I think your next step is to talk to Yaakov Lederberg,” she said.

Benny snapped to attention. “Lederberg? From downstairs?”

Tziporah nodded with surety.

“Why in the world,” Benny asked, “would I talk to the tzaddik of Ramat Eshkol about a banned substance? What does he know about khat?”

Tziporah didn’t flinch. “He seems pretty savvy, actually. And he has connections. You should talk to him.”

Benny’s skin crawled at the thought of consulting the person who had taken a front-row seat to his betrayal of Tziporah. But he wasn’t really in a position to question her right now. All his instincts had been so off these past few days — these past few weeks. Who knows, maybe even the past many months. Tziporah was clear-eyed enough to see where he’d lost his compass; he had to listen to her now.

He walked down the stairs slowly and stopped at the Lederbergs’ door. It was new, slick, strong, not like the weak, warped wood of his own.

Benny knocked lightly. It was close to eleven; a bit late, but still okay. The wife answered.

“Hi?” she half-said, half-asked.

“Hello,” he said self-consciously. “Is your husband around, by any chance?”

“I’m sorry, he’s still out learning,” she said.

Benny pursed his lips. “Do you know which beis medrash he’s in?”

“I think he learns in Bnei Hayeshivos at night,” she said.

“Okay, do you expect him home soon?”

She shook her head. “Not until 11:30 or so.”

“Wow,” Benny said, not trying to hide his admiration. “Special guy, the world needs people like him.”

She ducked her head — was it embarrassment or emotion? He wasn’t sure, and he hoped he hadn’t stepped out of line.

“Thanks for your help,” he said, and headed down.

He stood outside of Bnei Hayeshivos for an extra minute, steeling himself before going in. At the last moment, he decided to close the second button of his shirt. This was a shtark place.

A few men looked up curiously when Benny walked in, but most ignored him. Lederberg almost jumped out of his seat when Benny tapped him on the shoulder. He was probably scared that Benny was seeking some sort of retribution for this morning.

“Hey,” Benny said awkwardly, “have a minute? I need to ask you something — it’s pretty urgent.”

Lederberg nodded. “I’ll be back soon,” he told his chavrusa, an older man with a silver-flecked beard.


Yaakov Lederberg was a masmid, maybe even a tzaddik, but clueless he wasn’t.

“We need Kobi Eisental,” he said after Benny shared the story. “Here, let me call him.”

Benny stood on the grass outside Bnei Hayeshivos and watched Lederberg speak in low tones on his cell phone.

“So you’ll put him in touch with me? He’ll call me in five minutes? Perfect. Thank you, Reb Kobi,” he said, and put his phone back in his pocket.

“Eisental is my shver’s gabbai tzedakah here,” he explained to Benny. “He has a lot of connections. I figure he can probably help us out.”

The “us” wasn’t lost on Benny.

“There’s this security guy he works with sometimes, very discreet and professional. He said he’ll be able to figure out what to do. Wait.” He pulled his buzzing phone out. “I think that might be him.

“Shalom?” he said. “Ken, zeh Yaakov. Mah? I don’t understand… one minute. Here.” He gave the phone to Benny. “Can you explain the situation? My Hebrew isn’t so great, and it sounds like his English is even worse than my Hebrew.”

Benny nodded. “Shalom,” he said into the phone.

“Hey, this is Avi,” came the rapid Hebrew. “Harav Eisental said you have a job for me, something with a drug dealer and a yeshivah bochur? Tell me what you need.”

Benny gulped. The job now seemed very big, very serious.

“Well, actually, maybe you can tell me,” he said. “I don’t know how this works.”

“Tell me what you do know,” Avi ordered.

“Okay, so I work in a yeshivah,” Benny said. Work? Worked? He thought about his promise to Tziporah: Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to Ner Olam, and I’ll tell the Rosh that I’m leaving.

“And there’s this bochur,” he went on, “who’s taking a trip to Europe.”

“Ah, a trip to Europe,” Avi said. “I’ve heard that one before. Something seems weird about it, nachon?”

Nachon,” Benny said. “He’s not in a good place, a little depressed, lonely, not with the rest of the guys anymore. And some people at the yeshivah saw him talking with this strange person, and then suddenly he says he has to go to Europe. It could be nothing…”

Avi filled in the silence. “It could be. But you’re worried.”

“Yeah,” Benny said, as he thought again of Meir’s agonized face in the beis medrash.

“So this is what you do,” Avi said crisply. “You make sure he doesn’t get on the plane. Bring him back to Yerushalayim. But don’t bring him back to yeshivah, you hear me?”

“Don’t bring him back? Why not?”

“Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because these guys, they’re going to find out pretty soon that their contact never got that nice little suitcase they packed up for your friend. And that means they won’t be getting their money. They’re not very nice people, if you know what I mean. This yeshivah bochur friend of yours, they know where he sleeps, they know where he learns. They’ll find him, and they’ll teach him a lesson. It will be… bo naggid, it won’t be nice. You don’t want that to happen, right?”

Benny swallowed hard. “Right,” he said, suddenly feeling cold. “But what do we do?”

“We have options,” Avi said smoothly. “Call me when you’re back, and we’ll talk.”

“And he’ll be okay? You’ll make sure?”

“Only the Borei Olam can make sure,” Avi said. “But we’re pretty good at this.”

“Okay,” Benny found himself saying to a dial tone.

He wordlessly handed the phone back to Yaakov.

“Do you have my number?” Yaakov asked. “In case you need anything, or need to get in touch with someone?”

“I’ll take it down,” Benny said, pulling out his phone and punching in the number as Yaakov dictated. “Okay, thanks.” It seemed a pretty weak acknowledgment, but that was what he had to offer right now.

“Hatzlachah,” Yaakov said.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)

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