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Growth Curve: Chapter 21

Avi muttered something under his breath — Benny was pretty sure it featured “stupid Americans” with some other choice words


Benny was checking on the sleeping kids, making sure everything was in order before he’d start winding down for the night, when his phone rang. It was Avi.

“They found him,” he said tersely. “Cornered him after Arvit. I know these guys, I dealt with them before. I made sure they didn’t touch him, but I have to tell you that they’re not gonna give up on their money. They were expecting to make a nice profit off your bochur, and now they lost out instead. You want to keep him safe and his kneecaps in good shape, make sure they get their money.”

Benny clutched the edge of Momo’s fuzzy blanket, then let it go. “How much?” he whispered, as he backed out of the room. The last thing he needed right now was a crying kid.

“Talk to him, he’ll tell you,” Avi said. “He’s pretty scared. And then call me back and let me know when pickup time is. I’ll be there to make sure they don’t leave any marks on him.”

“Wait,” Benny said. “I have the suitcase. With the khat. Is that what they want? Because I have it.”

“Idiot, why didn’t you tell me?”

Benny shrank from Avi’s anger.

“I—I don’t know,” he managed, “so much was going on.”

Avi muttered something under his breath — Benny was pretty sure it featured “stupid Americans” with some other choice words. But when he spoke aloud, his voice was serene. “No worries, I’ll come get it now. I think it will be very helpful, actually. They’ll want the suitcase back, I’ll have some demands for them. We can negotiate.”

“Okay,” Benny said. He hung up. Then he quietly went back into the kids’ room and pulled the suitcase out from under Momo’s crib.

“I need to bring this downstairs,” he told Tziporah, who was putting the last batch of challah into the oven. “Someone’s coming to pick it up.”

In the dark parking lot, he dialed Meir. Meir answered on the first ring.

“Hello?” he croaked.

“Hey, Meir, it’s Benny Muller. Everything okay?”

Meir breathed into the phone. “Um, um,” he said. Then the floodgates opened. “No! No, not okay. They’re gonna kill me, Reb Benny, I promise you! Jackie came—”

“Jackie?” Benny interrupted. “Who’s that?”

“He’s the guy who gave me the suitcase, the one I was talking to the last few weeks,” Meir said dully. Then his pitch rose again. “So he came tonight — he knows where I daven, he knows the schedule here. He had two friends. Big guys. One was swinging a crowbar. They pulled me over under a streetlight and told me I’m playing games with them, I never went to Brussels, their guy didn’t get the suitcase. That I’m a lowlife, a thief, I took their suitcase, and they know how to deal with thieves.

“Then the second guy,” Meir’s voice got shaky, “he pulled out his phone and showed me pictures of some people they dealt with. Reb Benny…” he stopped.

“I’m here,” Benny said.

There was a strangled sob.

“He showed you pictures?” Benny asked gently.

“Yeah,” Meir said. “You can’t imagine what they did to those guys. Their faces — they were smashed in. Like, no nose left. And one of them, his arm….” He was weeping outright now.

Benny breathed in, then out. “But you’re safe,” he said reassuringly. “You had Avi watching you, right?”

“Yeah,” Meir said. “Avi jumped in as soon as they got nasty. He knows these guys, I think they know him, too. He told them to keep their hands to themselves, not to touch me. They disappeared after that. But they’re coming back. The boss doesn’t like stealing, and I need to pay them back for the plane ticket, for the stuff I lost. Tomorrow after Shacharis, they said.

“What should I do?” he sounded frantic now. “I know the ticket cost 700 dollars. The stuff in the suitcase — I have no idea how much they want for it. But even 700 dollars, how will I get that by tomorrow morning? Reb Benny, you can’t imagine those pictures….”

Benny clutched his phone and tried to keep the tension out of his voice.

“I’ll make sure you have the money,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“Ha,” Meir said with a strangled sob. “Don’t worry? When I’m about to get beaten to a pulp?”

“Give me a few minutes,” Benny said. “I’m going to work this out.”

Benny dialed the Rosh.

“Hello?” the Rosh answered.

“Sorry I’m calling so late,” Benny said. “This is urgent.”

“That’s okay,” the Rosh answered.

Benny swiftly updated him about the visitors, about Avi, about the money, and the morning deadline.

“So this Avi will give them the suitcase, right. And then we just have to figure out the cost of the ticket. It was 700 dollars, yes?” the Rosh asked.

“That’s what he said,” Benny confirmed.

“What a mess, what a parshah,” the Rosh said wearily. Then he returned to his usual crisp self. “Tell Meir that Reb Motti will give him an envelope at Shacharis tomorrow morning with the money he needs. And that Reb Motti will personally escort him to his meeting.”

Benny exhaled. “Thank you. I will.”

The Rosh wasn’t done. “And then I want you to come to yeshivah, to my office. I want to talk to you.”

“Okay,” Benny said. “But — can it wait until after first seder?”

He needed first seder, he wanted first seder, he wanted that consistency in his life.

“That’s fine,” the Rosh said.

Benny hung up and called Meir with the update.

He stared into the darkness until the headlights of a silver Outlander beamed through the dark parking lot. It was Avi.

Benny waved.

“Long workday, huh?” he said as Avi rolled down his window.

Avi grinned. “You got it,” he said. “Almost time for Tikkun Chatzot.”

“Here’s the suitcase.” Benny motioned behind him. “Should I put it in the trunk?”

“You do that,” Avi said, and he clicked it open. Benny slid the suitcase in and closed the trunk firmly.

“He’ll be safe, right?” he asked as he returned to the front window.

“I don’t think they’ll bother him again after tomorrow morning,” Avi said confidently. “I’ll make them a deal. Like you Americans say, an offer they can’t refuse.”

“Thank you, Avi,” Benny said. “I have no words.”

B’seder,” Avi said. “Nice kid. His face, how do you say it — sheyna punim? It would have been a shame for it to get all messed up.”

That blasé tone… Benny grimaced.

“How does this work, like, as far as payment?” he asked.

“Kobi Eisental told me he’ll make sure I get paid,” Avi said. “And he never lies. So you’re good.”

He extended his hand through the open window. Benny infused all his warmth and gratitude into the handshake.

Benny kept glancing at his watch as he took the kids to gan the next morning. Where was Meir now? What was happening? Was Avi right to be so confident?

He dialed Tziporah.

“Hey, Tzip, sorry to bother you,” he said. “It’s just… I’m nervous about Meir. Do you think I should check on him? Do you think he needs me there?”

“The Rosh said that Reb Motti will be there with him, right?” she said.

“Yeah. And it’s not like Meir asked me to come. So I guess….”

“How about you check in with him in an hour or two,” she suggested. “And I’ll say a perek of Tehillim now, before I start working.”

“Right, okay,” he said. “Thanks.”

Halfway up Shmuel Hanavi, Benny’s phone rang. It was Avi. Benny pulled over to the sidewalk — he was too anxious to focus on the bike — and took the call.

Zehu, all done,” Avi said. “They’re not coming back to bother your bochur anymore, and they’re going to stay away from this yeshivah if they know what’s good for them.”

“Wow,” Benny said. He took a deep breath. “Wow,” he repeated dumbly. He realized his eyes were wet, and he lifted his helmet to rub them. “Thank you so much, Avi, for everything. And for letting me know.”

Nu, of course,” Avi said. “You were worried. I saw. These American kids, no family here, they need people who care. It’s good that Meir has you. And that rav, Menachem was his name? No, Mordechai. I could see right away he has a good heart.”

Mordechai? Benny wondered what Avi was talking about. Wait, that must be Reb Motti.

“Reb Motti? He’s special,” he agreed.

“He couldn’t believe everything you did,” Avi said. “He kept on saying, ‘Benny Muller? B’emet?’ And I told him, you don’t even know half of the story. You hold onto that Benny with both hands, if you know what’s good for your bochurim.”

Benny felt his cheeks redden. “You’re too nice, Avi.”

Avi laughed. For once, he sounded relaxed.

“It was good working with you,” he said. “Stay safe.”

And then the call was over.

Benny slowly replaced his helmet. He looked at the traffic clogging Rechov Shmuel Hanavi: three buses stuck behind a red light, a few taxis, a bread truck making a late morning delivery, some stragglers heading to work, one last van full of schoolkids. The sun was climbing steadily over the buildings to his left, spreading a fierce yellow glow over the scene. It was morning in Yerushalayim, and his chavrusa was waiting in the Mir.

Benny switched the bike back on and starting riding.

Ner Olam looked the same from the outside — unobtrusive stone building with those old-style metal trissim, probably once a three-story apartment building, with a little sign indicating it was now a yeshivah. But Benny’s feelings for the place were no longer the same. As Tziporah had put it, Ner Olam had caused him to lose his balance, his values, almost his family. And the guys inside had seen it all play out. Benny had to steel himself before entering.

Only a few guys noticed he was there. He nodded at them briefly, walked swiftly to the Rosh’s office, and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” the Rosh said.

Benny walked in. The Rosh stood up, leaned over his desk, and shook Benny’s hand hard. Man to man.

“Sit down, Benny,” he directed. Was it Benny’s imagination, or were those pale blue eyes a bit warmer today?

“So first of all,” he said, “Meir is safe. I don’t know all the details or how exactly you pulled this off, but I know you’re the one to thank for that, yes?”

Benny nodded. How much did the Rosh know? How much should he know?

“Reb Motti had a very interesting conversation with this bodyguard fellow,” the Rosh said, studying Benny intently. Those eyes. They saw everything. “And I’m wondering, how did Benny Muller manage to arrange all this? How did you know?”

What were we missing? He didn’t say the words, but Benny heard the question lingering in the air.

Benny shifted in the chair. He looked at the floor, then raised his eyes and looked directly at the Rosh.

“There were two things,” he said. “One was the drugs. I didn’t know too much about that in the beginning, but a neighbor of mine connected me with Avi — that’s the security guy — and he knew all about these smugglers, how they work. So yeah, I did bring him into the picture, but it’s not like I know a lot about this stuff.”

The Rosh nodded. “And the other thing?”

“The other thing,” Benny said, “is really what came first. Meir’s not the type to smuggle drugs, or to take a quick trip to Europe. But he’s in a bad place. A really bad place. He was learning 24/7 with no breaks, no rachmanus for himself. And he was talking about his family, his friends, even Ner Olam , in a really negative way. He was completely burnt out. By the time these smugglers started hanging around yeshivah, he was desperate for a break. And that — that I did know about. I saw it happening.”

The Rosh pinched the bridge of his nose. “You saw it happening,” he repeated.

Benny nodded. Was that an accusation? An affirmation? Should he have raised some sort of alarm? It wasn’t exactly like he had an open door to this office; every time he’d tried discussing the Friday learning program, or getting some sort of incentive for the guys, the Rosh had made it clear that Benny was to stay in his very marginal lane.

“We’re sending Meir for help,” the Rosh said suddenly. “Professional help. He needs it. You realized. We didn’t.”

The words sat between them, solid, unchallenged. The Rosh had never been one for pretty language; he said things as they were.

Benny stole another glance at the Rosh. The Rosh looked right back at him, blue eyes glinting. “You know, we have lots of different people on staff here,” he said. “Different guys relate to different role models. Of course we have the older, shtark types, the mainstay of the yeshivah. But it’s also important for us to bring in people who are young, who get it. The Benny Muller types.”

Benny nodded cautiously.

“What happened here is interesting,” the Rosh said slowly. “You did something far beyond your job description. Obviously, you shouldn’t be the one dealing with violence, drugs, hiring bodyguards.” The Rosh spat out the words distastefully. “That’s not your job, it shouldn’t be your responsibility. But the second thing you’re saying, the way you notice what’s going on with the boys….”

He pinched his nose again and then looked keenly at Benny. “You obviously have a gift. This is something different from Ephraim Grossman, and so valuable.”

Benny breathed in the silence.

“Benny,” the Rosh Yeshivah went on, “I’ve been discussing something on and off with a few other roshei yeshivah. We’re thinking of forming a small group, one or two rebbeim from each yeshivah, to be trained by Dr. Marks — you know, the big psychiatrist, the one who deals with the American bochurim learning here.

“We want him to give a thorough course on warning signs and red flags, and how to understand the boundaries between mental illness and character deficiency, to know when to refer bochurim out. Then these rebbeim will be like the point men when a bochur needs help.

“We need someone like that on our staff,” the Rosh went on. “All the yeshivos are looking for this kind of sixth sense combined with professional training. What do you say? Does this sound right for you?”

Benny rubbed his eyes slowly. He could still feel the sting of his previous conversation with the Rosh right here in this room. This was the man who had casually dismissed his plea for help with the rent, then expected him to jump in and save Meir. Did Benny really want to accept his offer?

“You think about it,” the Rosh said, back to his cool, unemotional self.

Benny nodded.

The Rosh reached across the desk for one last handshake. “Whatever you decide,” he said, “we’re grateful.”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 944)

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