This was the Rabbi Trenk doctrine: I’m not telling you what to do. The first part isn’t important. How we got here doesn’t make a difference. Why agonize about what was? The main thing is to move forward
he moderator cleared his throat and moved on with his list. The roshei yeshivah seated at the dais listened intently to the question about expelling a troublesome young man from a yeshivah high school.
It seemed intriguing enough. The roshei yeshivah on the panel sat silently, formulating their answers as the audience at the Torah Umesorah convention session leaned in to hear.
The stillness of the moment was interrupted by a roar.
“A Yiddishe neshamah! A Yiddishe neshamah! A Yiddishe neshamah!”
The voice was raspy but melodic. Rav Dovid Trenk was jumping up and down, protesting the question, the topic, the fact that expelling a bochur was being discussed.
From the dais, Rav Elya Svei looked down at the distinguished “heckler” with undisguised respect.
“We don’t argue with Rav Dovid Trenk,” he said.
Reb Dovid was born in New York in 1941 to Reb Shea and Bas-Sheva Trenk. It was a home filled with erlichkeit and strength not yet common in America, a home that would produce gedolei Torah. A talmid of the Mirrer Yeshivah, Reb Dovid would devote himself to the lessons of his rebbeim, a beloved talmid to each one.
Dovid Trenk was the sort of bochur who enlivened the chasunahs of others, but he was equally energetic in private dancing before his own elderly grandmother as he tried to cheer her up.
It didn’t start with chinuch; it started with pure gutzkeit, well before he ever stood in front of a classroom. When one of his friends from Camp Munk went to work, Reb Dovid — still a bochur — invited the friend to learn with him each evening in the Mirrer Yeshivah.
“We learned,” recalls the lifelong friend, “but he kept making me feel like I was the rebbi, that my questions were helping him understand the sugya. His ahavas Yisrael and his ahavas haTorah were all one.”
That ahavah — for people, for Torah, for HaKadosh Baruch Hu — came pouring out. Reb Dovid never announced that he was going into chinuch. He was simply himself, and the people came close, drawn by the light.
He married Rebbetzin Leah (Bagry), and after several years in kollel, he took a position teaching ninth grade in Yeshivas Mir–Brooklyn. In 1971, the Trenks moved to Adelphia, New Jersey. Before there were experts and response teams, Rabbi Trenk was working alongside Rav Yerucham Shain at the Adelphia Yeshivah of the 1970s, touching Yiddishe kinderlach with the warmth of his gaze, the searing power of his optimism and faith.
A young man was considering joining the yeshivah, and he came to spend Shabbos in Adelphia. On Shabbos afternoon, one of the talmidim came around looking for batteries.
The visiting talmid was astonished and concluded that this wasn’t the yeshivah for him.
Later, he told the menahel why he couldn’t stay in Adelphia. “A boy was mechallel Shabbos.”
Rabbi Trenk should his head. “No, it didn’t happen. It can’t be.”
“But I saw it happen,” the teenager argued.
Rabbi Trenk met his gaze. “You’re right, this might not be the best yeshivah for you.”
He said it in his way, forceful and kind and laced with love, and the visiting bochur understood the message. If you’re seeing chillul Shabbos as the reality, then this isn’t a yeshivah for you. In this yeshivah, we look at people differently.
The young man remained, becoming one of Rabbi Trenk’s closest talmidim.
It wasn’t only in his own yeshivah. Years later, Reb Yitzchok Fuchs, one of Rabbi Trenk’s “talmidim” from Camp Munk, received an application from a young man who wanted to join his popular Eretz Yisrael summer experience. Reb Yitzchok had heard conflicting reports about the applicant, and he asked the opinion of the bochur’s rosh yeshivah. The rosh yeshivah couldn’t vouch for the young man — but he sent Yitzchok to someone else, who eventually directed him to Rabbi Trenk.
Rabbi Trenk heard the question, then offered his opinion. “I’m not telling you what to do, Yitzy — but you have to take him.”
This was the Rabbi Trenk doctrine: I’m not telling you what to do. The first part isn’t important. How we got here doesn’t make a difference. Why agonize about what was? The main thing is to move forward.
But you have to take him.
A group of talmidim in Adelphia broke into the teacher’s lounge late one night and made use of the video monitor. Rabbi Trenk, the menahel, found out and came to the building, heading straight for the lounge.
But he didn’t go in. He stood outside, in the hallway, and cried out words of Tehillim in an anguished voice. He never even addressed the young men. He conveyed disappointment, then hope, and then he left.
Another talmid missed yeshivah for several days. He simply didn’t show up. One day, Rabbi Trenk told his talmidim, “Come, we’re going on a trip.”
The bochurim excitedly piled into Rebbi’s van. They drove around the corner and headed straight for the dormitory, where they filed into the room of their absentee friend. Rabbi Trenk started shiur, the bochurim participating exuberantly. Then they left as suddenly as they came, heading back to the classroom, one more bochur joining them in the van.
Rabbi Trenk was an innovator. On Motzaei Shabbos, he would rent a gym and swimming pool for his bochurim; he would raise the money and drive them. He would sit on the bench as they played ball, looking in his seforim — but raising his eyes every so often to watch his boys play. And at those moments, he appeared the happiest man in the world.
Rabbi Trenk read to them from a mussar sefer each day — not one of the classics, but All For the Boss. He wanted them to dream big, to live Yiddishkeit to the fullest.
Rabbi Trenk would speak about gedolei Yisrael with reverence, describing the ahavas Yisrael of his rebbe, the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, and the kavod haTorah of his rebbi, Rav Shmuel Brudny, who had such respect for his own young talmidim that he would stand up when they came to ask him questions.
He told and told and told, speaking of tzaddikim like an art collector discussing priceless works of art, but to the bochurim, Rabbi Trenk was simply articulating the greatness they already saw in him.
When Rabbi Trenk spoke, it was like the entire backdrop, everything around him was muted, and only he glowed. Everything he did or said, it seemed, made an impression.
I remember the way his voice trembled as he tore up and down the long road leading into Camp Munk — where he served as a learning rebbi — in the moments before Rav Mordechai Gifter was slated to arrive on a visit.
“Rav Gifter is coming, Rav Gifter is coming,” he cried as he ran between rows of white-shirted boys, touching us with his reverence, leaving little drops of awe behind him on the grass.
But it wasn’t just for Rav Gifter. Rabbi Trenk’s sister, Rebbetzin Leah, is married to Rav Dovid Cohen. I was their waiter one summer. When Rav Dovid Cohen came into the dining room, his younger brother-in-law Rabbi Trenk would rise to his feet and stand at attention, conveying a message about kavod haTorah. I saw him lean over and kiss the hem of Rav Dovid’s jacket — his brother-in-law — more than once.
Rebbetzin Leah Trenk’s aunt, her father’s sister Hinda, was the wife of Reb Elimelech Gavriel Tress. On summer Fridays, Rabbi Trenk would drive from Camp Munk to wish a gut Shabbos to his wife’s aunt, Mrs. Tress. When he came into the room, he would bow, folding himself in two in honor of this ishah chashuvah.
Nothing seemed contrived, or trite, or bombastic for him; he filled a room with his presence, but he wasn’t entertaining. He was just real.
He saw a boy sitting forlornly on a bench during lunchtime on Erev Tishah B’Av. The camper was just a few weeks after his bar mitzvah, and he was terrified about the impending fast, the long, hot, hungry day ahead. Rabbi Trenk sat down and asked what was wrong. The boy didn’t answer, but when Rabbi Trenk persisted, the boy admitted that he was anxious.
“About Tishah B’Av?” Rabbi Trenk asked in surprise, as if the day were six months away.
“Yeah, it’s tonight,” the boy said.
“But Mashiach can still come! ” Rabbi Trenk said. “There won’t be a Tishah B’Av. You’re all worried about nothing.”
That night, this camper saw Rabbi Trenk come into the dimly lit dining room for Kinnos. Rabbi Trenk looked completely devastated, as if trying to process something incomprehensible.
Mashiach hadn’t yet come.
Rebbi, as they called him, remained a presence in their lives long after his talmidim left yeshivah. A talmid called one day; he had a lot on his mind, he said.
Rabbi Trenk’s solution was unexpected. “Call me in the early morning, around four a.m., and we’re going to learn every day. It will clear your mind like nothing else.”
When the daughter of a talmid was diagnosed with an illness, the talmid and his wife were completely overwhelmed. They were in the hospital on that first day, speaking with the doctor, when Rebbi walked into the room. He realized they were in consultation with the doctor, but he didn’t leave. He waited next to the young girl’s bedside for 45 minutes, simply being — feeling, feeling, feeling so deeply — and then he left, without having said a word to his beloved talmid, who was still deep in conversation with the doctor.
There was a difficult young man in yeshivah. During bein hazmanim, the challenging teenager and his parents had a bitter fight. In desperation, his mother called the only rebbi her son had ever liked. Rabbi Trenk spoke with her, then suddenly said he had to hang up.
Two hours later, there was a knock at the front door of the Brooklyn home — it was Rabbi Trenk, there to speak with his talmid. Rabbi Trenk sat with the bochur for ten minutes, reminding him of who he was, the path on which he was headed, then turned to leave, driving two hours back to Adelphia.
He eventually opened a yeshivah of his own, Moreshes Yehoshua, and askanim assured him that generations of devoted talmidim would come to the inaugural dinner in his honor.
“For me?” he asked in genuine surprise. “Why would anyone come for me?”
And then he took ill, and Reb Menachem Yechiel Dovid Trenk gave the shiur of his life. Talmidim rallied, in tefillah, in Torah, in maasim tovim.
Rebbetzin Trenk created a special feeling in the house, the atmosphere her husband most appreciated. Visitors were made to feel welcome.
The Rebbetzin would ask visiting talmidim to take a picture with her husband, ostensibly to make her husband happy, but of course, it was a means of making the talmid feel good.
And like every other interaction with Rabbi Trenk, these bikur cholim visits were completely real, without formality. Rabbi and Mrs. Gedaliah Zlotowitz came to visit not long after Reb Dovid was diagnosed. Mrs. Zlotowitz, seeing Rabbi Trenk so weak, in such pain, began to cry.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Zlotowitz, you’re allowed to cry, please cry,” Rabbi Trenk whispered, his voice lacking the strength it once had, but still filled with the same passion. “Please cry for me.”
As he grew weaker, close friends suggested that the Rebbetzin close the door to visitors to protect her husband’s dignity.
“The talmidim feel like he belongs to them just as he does to me,” Rebbetzin Trenk said, “and they’re probably right.”
He was niftar this Sunday. One of his closest talmidim, Rabbi Naftali Miller — director of development at Agudath Israel of America — was headed to the airport en route to Brazil, where he had meetings scheduled in advance of the upcoming Siyum HaShas.
Now his rebbi was gone. How could he leave New York? But this was for spreading Torah — how could he miss the meetings?
His phone rang. It was Rebbetzin Leah Trenk, just an hour after losing her husband.
“I heard you have a dilemma,” she said. “He would want you to go. Go and be matzliach.”
With the passing of this fountain of chiyus and emunah and ahavas Yisrael, this rebbi, who gave them the purest and most authentic Torah in the world, a generation of talmidim — an army of those who’d been overlooked by others — square their shoulders and wonder about the road ahead.
And perhaps they can hear the raspy voice once more. Go, it says, go and be matzliach.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 767)