| Magazine Feature |

Heart of the Matter

While others may see jeans and piercings, for Benjie and the other men behind Lev Teen Center, it’s always about neshamos

Photos: Jeff Zorabedian

A cool Tuesday evening found me driving along the winding lanes and rolling hills of scenic Monsey, New York. For a city slicker like me, I might as well have been in Montana.

Zipping down Viola Road, I hung a right at Number 161, turning onto a spacious expanse of land surrounding a building that looks like it could pass for a countryside church. Half a year ago, it was. That’s when a big-hearted dreamer named Benjie Brecher bought it and turned it into the new home of the Lev Teen Center.

The metaphor of the converted church — turning the profane into the something so precious and holy — is an apt one for Lev Teen, which has been a vehicle of transformation for countless chassidic teens in the Monsey area. For the past seven years, the center has been a home and a haven for kids who need one. And now it, too, has a home of its own.

I spent several hours at the center that night, and here’s what I saw: No amazing miracles. Nothing.

Nothing but kids being kids. Tons of food, lots of schmoozing and chilling — mainly chilling — and a night seder, and Maariv in the mix, too.

And that’s the Lev Teen miracle. It’s a place where kids whose lives have been filled with dislocation and dysfunction can go to spend time on an island of genuine acceptance, sometimes for the first time ever.

The kid who’s been through seven elementary schools and five high schools — in tenth grade. The boy from a home broken beyond repair who’s been living in a tent in the woods — and not because he’s into camping. The top bochur in a top yeshivah who slowly slid way down and out the door of Yiddishkeit — while no one had the faintest clue why.

Every boy here has had far too much drama in his young life, often due to trauma in the family — death, divorce, jail, you name it — and needs a place where he can just be, and belong. Amid all the craziness, they’re desperate for a bit of normalcy. And Lev Teen Center is Normal City.

Here, no one bats an eyelash when a boy walks in with curled peyos and a buzz cut, along with a multicolored yarmulke — or none at all. The lingua franca for almost all of them is Yiddish, but the conversations are a far cry from what one hears on the streets of Williamsburg or Monsey.

But however a boy might dress or talk or act, he’s met with neither shock, condemnation, nor coddling, just unquestioning affirmation. He’s allowed to be who he is — and the lack of reaction is itself a great healing balm for a wounded soul. And ever so slowly, it starts the process of coming back home.

Mechy Brandwein, who helped run programs in Lakewood’s Minyan Shelanu teen program for seven years and is now doing the same at Lev Teen Center, observes, “Our basic philosophy is that every human being has a fundamental need to belong. So, give them a nonjudgmental place to belong, and which along the way promotes good values — and they’ll be happy there. There’ll be no reason to walk out.

“No one ever walked out of here because it was too frum for them. You know why? Because the frumkeit wasn’t forced on them. We’ve never shied away from being frum; in fact, we are unapologetically, proudly, very frum. But we don’t preach, we don’t coerce and we don’t insist. It’s just who we are.”

A Place of Their Own

For teens who’ve dropped out of everyday frum life, programs like Minyan Shelanu and Our Place in Brooklyn have been filling a critically needed role for years. But not so long ago, Rockland County, which is home to one of New York’s largest frum, and largely chassidic, populations, had nothing to offer kids on the margins and beyond.

Enter, seven years ago, Benjie Brecher and Zishe Kushner.

Although Benjie is a businessman, not an academic, he’s got a PhD in the topic of teenagers, which he earned in the School of Hard Knocks. He was 11 when he lost his father, and became a pretty wild adolescent. Much to his Yiddishe mama’s chagrin, when he came of age he told her, “I’d rather go to the war than go to yeshivah,” and prepared to enlist for an army tour of duty in the jungles of Vietnam.

But his brother Ephraim pushed him to give Yiddishkeit one last chance and go meet a man in Far Rockaway named Rav Shlomo Freifeld. He did, and he was hooked for eternity. For the next 26 years, until Reb Shlomo’s untimely passing at age 65, Benjie was at his side, drinking deeply from his rebbi’s wisdom. Benjie went on to publish several volumes of Reb Shlomo’s classic shmuessen, to convey the outlook on life that transformed the lives of hundreds of talmidim and their families.

A founding member of Far Rockaway’s Hatzolah chapter, Benjie tended to his rebbi throughout his last, disease-wracked years. “For the last seven years of his life I was with him just about every day. Rebbi’s neshamah actually left the world as he lay in my hands,” Benjie says. “I used to ask him questions every day, and in all the years since he was niftar there hasn’t been a question I’ve had that he didn’t already answer for me.”

In 1969, Benjie and Sussie Brecher married and settled in Far Rockaway, building a home of Torah and chesed in the heart of the vibrant community that sprang up around Rabbi Freifeld’s Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv. With a trademark unmade tie around his neck and unlit pipe perpetually dangling from his mouth, Benjie cut a distinctive figure in the neighborhood as a local chesed legend, a strong, silent type whose insouciant manner masked a heart of gold open to any Jew in need.

Reb Shlomo’s petirah in 1990 left Benjie bereaved and bereft. But, he says, “I said to myself, my rebbi said I need a rebbi.” Ever the man of action, he promptly pulled up stakes from his longtime community and moved up to Monsey, to be near Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, whose Torah wisdom and life guidance he treasures to this day.

Benjie spent many successful years in the food industry, and eventually sold his business to a public company, assuming the position of a senior executive at a company with 8,500 employees in 30 plants worldwide.

One day, however, he decided to call it quits. After the retirement party, he remembers thinking, Okay, I have financial security, but what am I going to do now, go on vacations for the rest of my life? With the image of Reb Shlomo’s abiding love for every lost Jewish soul clearly before him, Benjie decided to do what his rebbi would have told him to do: go look for frum kids in trouble.

Having learned that the parking lot of a nearby 7-Eleven was a central teen hangout, Benjie was there every night for three weeks straight, schmoozing kids up and getting a read on the local dropout scene. He came home one of those nights and told his wife, “I want to become the Seven-Elevener Rebbe.” Before long, however, he realized that setting up shop to do outreach in a convenience store parking lot was not a realistic path to make his vision a reality. He would have to find another way.

Mechy Brandwein (L) and financial mainstay Benjie Brecher outside the converted church that symbolizes so much more. The first surprise was how full it was and how eager the boys were to have a place to call their own

We’re Jews, Too

At that very moment, elsewhere in Monsey, Zishe Kushner was beginning to lay the groundwork for just such another way. The grandson of the recently deceased Rav Ozer Yonah Kushner, who was a much-beloved rebbi in places like Los Angeles, St. Louis, Florida, Mexico, and eventually Mesivta of Long Beach for nearly three decades, Zishe has chinuch in his bones.

Ever since Zishe was a bochur in Lakewood, he’d had a passion for helping struggling teens. One day eight years ago, Zishe received a call from the frum owner of a big Monsey door and frame company who employed 12 such young men. He said they had approached him with a complaint. “Why do you pay us like you pay your Mexican workers? We’re Jewish boys, you should pay us more!”

“Well, for one thing,” he replied, “they’re more available than you guys are, and frankly, more reliable. Even so, if you guys would act like Jews, I would be willing to pay you more. But you act worse than Mexicans. Why should I pay you more?”

He was totally unprepared for what came next. They responded, in unison: “You know, the truth is we would act more like frum Jews, except that we don’t have a shul to go to and people to learn with. We can’t just walk into any shul with our jeans and T-shirts and long hair — people will laugh at us. If you’ll get us a shiur, we’ll learn.”

He called Reb Zishe and asked him to start an evening program for these boys, Minchah and Maariv and learning in between. Thursday nights, the sessions ended with a kumzitz extending late into the night. Over the course of the year, the program doubled in size, and that summer, Reb Zishe took many of the boys with him to work in the Stoliner camp. From there, many of them went on to learn in Eretz Yisrael.

“The owner of the framing business wasn’t too happy to lose all his workers, but of course he was very happy at the strides they had made in Yiddishkeit,” Zishe says. “Meanwhile, due to our success, I had lost my whole program and I wasn’t sure whether to continue on. But my rebbi, Rav Shlomo Zalman Kaufman, a chashuveh rav here in Monsey who was just recently niftar, told me, ‘Not too many people have the talent to bring these boys back. If the Eibeshter has given you the ability and the passion to help these kids, you’ve got to keep doing it.’

“So I threw myself into building it up again and it was all siyata d’Shmaya that kids were even interested in coming. Here I am, a chassidishe guy with a long red beard, and what am I offering them already, some food? But they started coming.

“Now, I’m a rebbi and I didn’t have the wherewithal to keep this afloat, and certainly not to go big, as I hoped to do. Through a family connection, however, I was able to approach Benjie Brecher. The moment I pitched the idea of what I was doing, he said, ‘I’m all in. Where do I come to meet you?’

“Ever since, he has been the financial mainstay of Lev Teen Center — which was his name for the program — up to and including investing a lot of his own funds in the purchase of the new building.”

With the growth of the program, the yearly budget has ballooned accordingly. Since few of the boys have cars, the center pays for Ubers to ferry them to and from night seder, to the tune of  2,000 dollars monthly, as well as providing dinner for scores of hungry teenagers five nights a week.

And sometimes, a meal is more than just a meal. Mechy Brandwein tells of one boy who came every night for an entire year and would consume huge amounts of food at dinner. “Three years later, he had moved on, and we were doing a fundraising campaign, so I asked him if he wanted to participate and he said sure. That’s when he told me that when he was coming here, he was living in a tent in the woods.

“His father died when he was just a child and his mother was mentally unequipped to care for him, so one day he packed his bags and moved out and nobody cared enough to find out where he’d gone. In fact, he had nowhere to go but he had too much pride to tell anyone, so he would sleep in the woods. When he’d come here at night, that was his only meal of the day.”

The center holds major events at every Yom Tov throughout the year featuring big-name entertainers and special trips. “We incentivize them to come,” Benjie explains. “If a kid comes to night seder for 40 nights, he gets to go on a special trip to places like Miami and Arizona.

“You have to be sincere to do this and we are sincere and the kids know it. They see this isn’t a money-making operation. Most parents don’t give us much. Although some pay tuition for the yeshivah program, many just don’t have money to give.”

Zishe says that even at the outset, Benjie’s role went way beyond his financial backing. “The kids look up to Benjie as a cool guy, with his ever-present pipe and his Hatzolah work, and in town he’s respected and successful. So he was also able to attract boys to the program.”

Benjie remains the Zeidy of the center. During my visit there he didn’t stop moving, circulating around the room and moving easily from one teen to the next, sharing a wisecrack with one, giving a compliment to another. As he puts it, “No one walks in here without being shocked at the fact that as tzubrochen as these guys are, they are so ‘up,’ and the reason they’re ‘up’ is because of us, we’re ‘up’ people and we give them that chizuk.” That same upbeat feeling permeates the Brecher home, too, which is why it has become an unofficial satellite location of the program, with kids coming and going all the time.


In It Together

Stigmas don’t fade easily, and the program wasn’t always welcomed with open arms. It moved from one venue to the next until it found a home in the shul of Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman. He made it clear to his kehillah that hosting Lev Teen Center was nothing less than a fulfillment of the basic responsibility of arvus, of one Jew caring for the spiritual survival of another. The program used the main shul for night seder, after which the boys would head downstairs to a recreation room in the basement where they could unwind without getting into trouble.

“The truth is,” Rabbi Wachsman reflects, “that when Benjie first suggested this idea, it was hard for me to see what the great benefit would be. Just to have a place to come together? I assumed they have so many other attractions. So the first surprise was how full it was, how eager they were to come and how important it obviously was for them to have a place they could call theirs.

“Most of the kids have beautiful middos — these are sweet, sweet boys who wouldn’t harm a fly. They’re just lost, because they went through trauma beyond belief and have so many complex problems. Just the fact that there was someone here saying, ‘I’m not going to give up on you, I’m going to give you time,’ mamash made the difference. They really have no place to call home, but they saw in Benjie someone who really cared about them.”

Rabbi Wachsman smiles at the memory of the night shortly before Pesach one year when he was available in the shul for people to sell their chometz.

“One of the boys comes over to me and says in perfect Yiddish, ‘Ich vill farkoifen di chometz,’ and then another one after him. They just wanted to be part of something. I was so taken by it. And the funny thing is that Benjie is the only guy in the whole place who doesn’t speak a good Yiddish.”

After five years of the shul’s hospitality, Benjie announced that he had bought a property and Lev Teen Center would be leaving the shul for the Viola Road campus.

“I felt like the neighborhood was losing a shmirah,” Rabbi Wachsman says. “It was such a zechus to have them there.”


It Will Never Work

While Benjie and Zishe made for a powerful duo, Mechy Brandwein’s addition to the staff was a major turning point. As Zishe recalls, “Mechy had been together with me in the Stoliner camp, and when he got engaged to a Monsey girl, I called him up and said, ‘Mechy, you’re moving here!’ He volunteered at Minyan Shelanu for seven years and I knew he’d be able to build the center up. He intuitively understands what the boys need and what they want, what incentivizes them, and gets them to take small steps in the right direction.”

Mechy, a thirtysomething chassidishe yungerman with a warm smile that never fades and a personality that seems impossible to faze, brought with him the formula for success he learned from his mentors at Minyan Shelanu, Rabbis Chaim Abadi and Dovid Bursztyn. “Being a Jewish program is the success of the place,” he says. “The biggest events we have throughout the year — big celebrations of Chanukah, Purim, Lag B’Omer, and more — are all Jewish in character.

“Rabbi Abadi told us you have to do a night seder, even though when we started, people in town said it’ll never work here. ‘In Lakewood, you see, there are litvishe kids and they grew up with Torah, so it works, but it won’t work with chassidishe kids.’ Well, we started a night seder and it’s booming. Same thing when we started the yeshivah: People said it works with litvishe kids, but not with chassidim. L’maaseh, the kids are thrilled to come.”

The yeshivah Mechy speaks of is Lev Torah, a full-day high school program that began this year with a group of 14 boys, for which Mechy is the principal. For yeshivah to work for them, he says, chassidishe kids need their own environment.

“In Lakewood, when a boy was ready to go to yeshivah, we had where to send him, whether it was Waterbury or Eatontown or somewhere else. But in Monsey, most of the kids are really quite chassidish and there’s nowhere to send them, because the culture clash would be just too big. That’s why we started Lev Torah.”

Before the new building was bought, the high school was housed in the shul of Rav Pinchas Mandelbaum, the Chantchiner Rebbe of Monsey. He’s both a Belzer einekel and a talmid of Brisk, and many years ago when he was offered a position heading a Kodshim kollel, the Belzer Rebbe directed him otherwise, telling him, “I know you have kochos for working with boys — go work with boys.”

Three years ago, he opened a local yeshivah called Cheshkas HaTorah for chassidishe boys who don’t fit into the regular system, in order to catch them at a stage before they need a place like Lev Teen. But most nights, he’s at Lev Teen Center, learning and schmoozing with the boys.

“I feel very strongly that a boy needs a place, and these boys have no place. This is a place for them, where they can feel comfortable, and once they do, slowly they start talking.

“I see so clearly how Torah builds them, as much as they’re fighting it. And they like it, because at the end, they’re Yidden and they feel it. There was a program for boys like these which started to fall apart and they called me up for advice. I asked if they had a night seder and they said, ‘No, we don’t want to force boys to learn.’ I said, ‘Stop right there, that’s your problem. You have to have Torah. Not by force, of course, but you have to offer Torah.’ ”


We Don’t Sell It

Zishe Kushner also stresses how critical the learning and davening component is to Lev Teen’s success. “Once a boy knows there’s a night seder and a Maariv, he feels, ‘I am a part of the Jewish nation. Could be I don’t have a yarmulke, could be I have a ring, maybe even a tattoo — but I’m in shul every night, I do Jewish things. Okay, I look funny, I don’t fit into every crowd and I have to figure out what’s my crowd, but I’m not lost, I’m part of something Jewish.’

“Maybe he talks through the whole Maariv, or maybe he doesn’t daven a word and runs around the whole time — but he’s there, and the day he decides to daven, he’s there.

“It’s not like we have a mission. We don’t sell anything. We’re just here to keep a boy’s neshamah afloat so that when he’s ready, he can make a move — because he never left. But a boy who goes to a program without night seder and Maariv for two years will look back and say, ‘I didn’t learn a word for two years, I wasn’t in a Jewish program; it’s too late for me.’ ”

The center’s approach is a subtle one, based on the psychological reality of how change occurs in people, and the mentors who come to learn with boys at night don’t always grasp it. As Mechy notes, “We have a problem sometimes because although we’re always desperate for mentors, sometimes they’ll come in here because they’re very motivated — they read an article, they saw a kid in a pizza store, something got them triggered — and they really want to help. But they come in with an attitude of, ‘Okay, I’m here to save a neshamah. Which neshamah do you want to give me?’  They don’t have the patience to wait and give these kids the space and time to grow and change.”

And grow and change they do, albeit at their own pace. “You can look around the room and the results speak for themselves,” says Mechy. “Everyone is a story, kids whom the world wrote off and gave no chance and yet, here they are, thriving in incredible ways.”

The first year Mechy was with the center, he heard that on Yom Kippur that year, a bunch of formerly chassidishe kids got together at someone’s house for the specific purpose of having a party on the Yom HaKadosh. Fast forward to this year, when 27 guys committed to keeping the Yom Kippur fast, most of them coming to shul, too, and eight of them staying at the Brandwein home for Yom Kippur. “One guy said he just stayed in his bed a whole day, and I told him, ‘Gezunterheit, whatever it takes to fast.’ ”

Benjie tells of a hotel shabbaton where on Erev Shabbos, there was a box for the boys to voluntarily deposit their phones over Shabbos, and if they did, they were entered into a lottery for a very expensive electronic device. “Out of 29 boys we took there, 26 of them put their phones in there. And they had a great Shabbos, no devices, no smoking, nothing. My wife couldn’t get over it, she said, ‘How do you do this?!’ ”

“We have hundreds of success stories,” Benjie says. “We have kids in Waterbury, and we’re sending a lot of kids off to Eretz Yisrael, to Neve Tzion, to Fischer’s, to chassidishe chaburos in the Mir.”

During my visit to Lev Teen Center, I sat across the table from one of these success stories, a young man named Shmiel. He had a good job in the automotive field, giving him money to spend and his own car. He’s good-looking, with a muscular build. In short, he was living the dream of every boy who thinks he’ll find satisfaction in the outside world. But three years of coming to the night seder on a regular basis worked its effects, and finally, he said, “Enough of this nonsense. You only live once and this is my only chance to grow, I want to go to Eretz Yisrael,” and headed off to Rabbi Yoni Fischer’s yeshivah in Moshav Matityahu.

Something We Did?

Sometimes, even the successes are bittersweet, because a boy’s parents don’t fully appreciate the struggles he’s gone through and the growth he’s experienced. Benjie shakes his head as he recalls the story of one of the Lev Teen alumnus, a boy who was one of the best bochurim in a very good chassidishe yeshivah, but inexplicably began to unravel, ultimately leaving the yeshivah.

“When our program was located elsewhere in town, his rosh yeshivah came in one day and when he saw how this kid looked — no yarmulke, no peyos, nothing — he just started crying. He knew the boy was struggling, but he didn’t know it had reached this level.

“I went over to him and he couldn’t even speak because he was crying, and I said to him, ‘We’ll take care of him, he’s gonna be okay.’ Today, two years later, that young man has a business, he learns in a chaburah at night. He’s back ‘with the program’ 100 percent.

“But it was a long road. His parents wanted to kick him out because he was being mechallel Shabbos, and his father would call me to say he’s destroying the rest of the family. I would talk to each of the parents on a regular basis and calm them down.

“One time his father called me and said, ‘You know that my son is a very honest boy?’

“ ‘Sure,’ I said.

“ ‘Well, then how do I convince him that eating without making a brachah is stealing from the Ribbono shel Olam?’ This was his biggest problem. And then he tells me, ‘Not only that, but a few weeks ago, I didn’t come home right away after davening on Shabbos and he ate before Kiddush.’

“I said to him, ‘Don’t you remember how not so long ago, your son was eating at McDonalds?’

“How do we deal with this? How do these kids deal with this? We just have to keep on going, and focus on the kids. The success we have with parents is convincing them to send their kids to us.”

“Parents’ reactions are very understandable,” Mechy says. “When things go wrong for their children, they feel tremendous guilt, thinking that it must be something they did or didn’t do that caused this. But a parent needs to know that he can do everything right and still experience great disappointment from the path his child has taken. Many of the kids we deal with come from very special families who truly did their best. Ultimately, Hashem is in charge and anything we advise parents is just hishtadlus.”

And yet, the question of how to address what kids who’ve given up their Yiddishkeit are doing to their families is a very serious one. What guidance does Lev Teen Center give parents in these situations? Mechy Brandwein is very clear: “A kid can’t destroy a home. But so long as it’s presented in a normal, not overly harsh way, kids will roll with it. Listen, everyone — even really tough kids — wants a place to sleep.

“And if the rules aren’t presented in terms of Yiddishkeit, but simply as reasonable rules that any home needs in order to be functional — whether it’s a curfew or a dress code, just as there are in public schools, for example — then kids will respond. The problem is when it’s a rule about not having a smartphone in your own room with the door locked, that’s when a kid will ask why that rule is there and will buck it.”

Benjie adds, “If you tell a kid, ‘You want to watch TV in your room? Keep it on low. You don’t want to eat with your family? Okay, but don’t go and eat treif in front of them,’ kids respond.”

The idea, Mechy clarifies, is that if you give kids positivity and get rid of all the negativity, they will respond well. As he puts it, “You won’t have to buy them the cheeseburger. It’s not necessary — and it doesn’t help anyway, because the kids whose parents buy them the cheeseburger aren’t happy.

“I once called Reb Chaim Abadi about a situation in a family where everybody was in an uproar because of one of the kids. Some were shouting, ‘Throw him out of the house!’ and others were shouting, ‘Buy him what he wants!’ I said, ‘What should I do?’ He said to me, ‘How about just telling the parents to just be normal?’

“That’s it: Be normal. Every one of these kids is coming from a situation in which there is an extreme element — extreme abuse, extreme dysfunction, an extreme school experience, or extreme personal struggles. And so, what they really need is to get rid of the extreme and experience the normal.

“In our experience, 50 percent of the kids have had something extreme happen in their family. Sickness, divorce, jail, or something else, something family-related. The other 50 percent is split between experiences of abuse and simple taavos. Somehow, when people talk about the reasons kids go off, they forget to mention that, yes, there are kids who just fall to extreme taavah. There’s a strong core of kids for whom that is a primary reason.

“At Lev Teen Center we say, let’s talk about Shabbos, but about what’s positive, what’s beautiful about Shabbos — not about going to Gehinnom over Shabbos, which never got anybody to keep Shabbos. Let’s talk about anything you want to talk about — or, if you don’t want to, let’s not talk about anything.

“We want kids to reconcile with their parents, and we believe it starts with the kids seeing that being Jewish is a joy, not something to hate and run from. And the better the kid is doing, the more his relationship with his parents improves.

“We don’t want to send a message that whatever you do is just great, because what the kid hears is that he’s weak and really can’t overcome his challenges so we have to cater to his every wish.

“We once had a boy whose father was buying him a steady supply of marijuana, which he was happily sharing with everyone. I said, ‘How’d you get this?’

“He said, ‘How? I asked my father to buy it for me and he said okay.’

“Besides, we really do believe that Yiddishkeit is the best thing in the world for every single kid, so why wouldn’t we make it available for them in a way and environment where they can handle it?”

When it’s finally time for me to go, Benjie shares one last story, but first he gives me some background. He had a sefer Torah written for the center’s use, which was completed at his house, with the Lev Teen boys taking turns writing letters. At the hachnassas sefer Torah, Rabbi Wachsman pointed out that that the last letter in the Torah is a lamed and the first letter is a beis, together spelling Lev. And, he continued, every single letter written by each individual boy was indispensable; after all, without it, the entire sefer Torah would have been invalid.

“On the mantel,” Benjie recalls, “I wanted these words to appear in English: In honor of the boys at Lev Teen Center, l’zecher nishmas Rav Shlomo Freifeld.

“I showed it to Rabbi Wachsman, and at first he said, ‘You know, we don’t usually write anything in English on a mantel.’ The he looked at it again for a bit and said to me, ‘For you it’s a good idea.’

“And indeed, when we lein from this sefer every Monday and Thursday, the boys see those words — ‘In honor of the boys’ — and it sends a powerful message.”

When the sefer Torah was almost complete, one boy came in and said, “I can’t write a letter, because I can’t go to the mikveh.” Apparently, he’d once had a bad experience which was preventing him from going to the mikveh — yet he couldn’t bring himself to write a letter without doing so.

“Then,” Benjie says, “he had an idea: he went out to his truck parked outside my house and got his tefillin, and right there, in the middle of the street, he put them on. And then he said to me, ‘Instead of mikveh, I’m putting on tefillin today in honor of writing an ois in the sefer Torah.’

“That year on Yom Kippur, this was the story Rabbi Wachsman told his kehillah just before Ne’ilah began.” —


His Rebbi’s Message

The third day of Succos will mark 33 years since Benjie Brecher’s rebbi, Rav Shlomo Freifeld, left the world. In the waning moments of Shabbos Chol Hamoed, Reb Shlomo sat at his dining room table, in the very spot where he’d taught and laughed and cried with generations of his talmidim, bonding them to him for life.

With Benjie right next to him, he made a “shehakol nihyeh bidvaro,” sipped some tea, and then, with his tzitzis in hand and a smile on his face, his soul departed for its eternal abode.

For Benjie, every single day at Lev Teen Center brings new opportunities to apply the lessons he learned from Reb Shlomo so many decades ago about how to uplift and motivate kids who feel alienated and inferior. More than anything, Benjie says, he strives to imbue in the Lev Teen boys the belief that they too can, in Reb Shlomo’s words, “be big.”

Reb Shlomo, says Benjie, had a way of putting the taste of success within reach of every talmid, even one who felt utterly incapable. Once, after speaking to his talmidim about the importance of finishing the masechta they were learning, one boy approached Reb Shlomo and said it was all irrelevant to him. He, after all, could barely read one line of Gemara.

The very next day, there was a gift waiting for that talmid: a handsome, leather-bound volume of Kesubos — containing only the first daf of the masechta. “This is your masechta,” Reb Shlomo told him. “Now go and make a siyum….”

Another time, a boy in Siach Yitzchok, the cheder Reb Shlomo founded, finally mastered one daf after surmounting his difficulty with reading. After Reb Shlomo tested him, he told the boy, “The next daf isn’t harder than this one — just different. And if you now know this one, you can eventually know all of Shas.” To this day, those powerful words, with Reb Shlomo’s signature beneath them, appear on a plaque that hangs in the home of that long-ago cheder boy, today a grown man.

And there was the infinite patience with talmidim, Reb Shlomo’s willingness to bide his time until it was the precisely right moment to deliver critique. After a student missed davening two days in a row, Reb Shlomo told him, “I missed you.” The young man took it as criticism and responded with a lie about where he’d been.

Only a full half-year later did Reb Shlomo call the student in. “Do you remember,” he said, “when I asked you where you’d been during Shacharis?”

The boy said he did, and Reb Shlomo asked if he also recalled having told an untruth. Again the young man said he did, and after a few moments of silence, he asked why his rebbi had waited this long to bring it up.

Reb Shlomo replied, “Six months ago you hadn’t yet grown ears. Now you have.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

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