Reb Ze’ev Kraines taught the first class I ever walked into at Ohr Somayach
In the summer of 1979, my wife and I had our lives upended forever when we walked almost by accident into Ohr Somayach while honeymooning in Israel. Everything about that summer remains clearly engraved in my memory: Rav Aharon Feldman’s aggadata shiurim; the first meeting with Rabbi Nachman Bulman ztz”l after Shabbos davening at Ohr Somayach, when I suddenly realized in the midst of the conversation that we would not be returning to America.
Among the most important players in those first months were Rabbi Ze’ev Kraines, who passed away last week, and his rebbetzin, Nechama. Indeed Reb Ze’ev taught the first class I ever walked into at Ohr Somayach, on ikar v’tafel in blessings. Nechama quickly set up a chavrusa in Hilchos Shabbos with my wife, Judith, and, no less important, gave her the challah recipe that has served us well for 40 years.
My wife and I were given an apartment among a group of young Ohr Somayach kollel couples. The couples were approximately our age, but the husbands were already learning with Rav Berel Schwartzman ztz”l while I was trying to master Rashi script. Those couples — the Kraineses chief among them — became our models for the journey ahead.
Ze’ev had entered Shema Yisrael (the predecessor of Ohr Somayach) six years earlier, after experiencing Simchas Torah in the yeshivah. As his introduction to the dorm, his guide took him to the basement to find a metal bed, which he then sprayed and set on fire to rid it of bed bugs. Ze’ev could not help but be struck by the contrast to the rosewood paneled Telluride House at Cornell University, with its winding grand staircase and chandeliered ceiling, in which he had he spent his freshmen year in college in the “young genius” program.
Yet he made the leap with enthusiasm. Once he perceived truth, he acted. Rabbi Noach Orlowek, who learned together with Ze’ev in his early days at Ohr Somayach, said at the shivah that Reb Ze’ev possessed a particular balance that he had only seen in one other person — a world-renowned mashgiach. Usually, said Rabbi Orlowek, someone who follows through immediately as soon as he sees the truth will be very intense and run over others in his pursuit of the emes. Not Ze’ev. Serenity was the middah most frequently mentioned by his children during shivah, and a smile was his constant companion.
FOR ALMOST A DECADE, we had only intermittent contact with the Kraines family, as Ze’ev took positions as an assistant rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina, then as a principal in Mexico City (even though he did not speak Spanish at the time he accepted the job), and finally, as a teacher, principal, and the rav of Ohr Somayach of Sandton in South Africa. He held the last position for 27 years, until he and his rebbetzin fulfilled their dream of moving back to Eretz Yisrael about a month ago.
In the early ’90s, the first of the ten Kraines sons began coming to Israel for yeshivah gedolah. The oldest, Zachariah, was only 16 when he arrived. The Rosenblum family, with seven sons of our own, was the natural choice for his home away from home. It was our privilege to become the first port of call as successive sons arrived. The Kraines brothers introduced a musical element to our Shabbos table hitherto lacking. They also informed my wife that as delicious as her challah is, it could not be based on their mother’s recipe.
Each brother was different from the other — some scholarly, others less so; some funny, others quiet. But they all bore the stamp of the Kraines’ home, where, at times, they shared one massive bedroom. They obviously took pride in being a Kraines. Just as the 12 tribes encamped around the Mishkan, each understood that they were unique but indispensable to the whole. Each one of the Kraines boys (and the two daughters as well) conveyed the feeling of being fully accepted for who he was and a vital component of the Kraines team.
And they clearly viewed themselves as a team, with Ohr Somayach of Sandton as the family project. They were, at least initially, the only observant children in a wide radius, and so naturally became one another’s best friends. Between their shared project and closeness to one another, a unity was forged. At the shivah, I saw something unique. All ten brothers sat in a row and spoke in turn. There were no separate groups, and only one subject: their father.
At the Shabbos table over the years, I often probed the brothers for details of their parents’ child-rearing strategies. I understood that such a family does not happen by accident, but only with a lot of thought and effort put in. At the shivah house, I was not surprised to learn that in addition to the nightly family dinners, the Kraines family met together once a week to discuss both positive things that they had noticed about one another and where there was room for improvement as a family. Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families was not only studied but put into effect.
No such family is built without a foundation of mutual respect and shared understanding between the parents. Ze’ev, a poet at heart, would enunciate a beautiful, elevated vision, and before he was done, Nechama would be figuring out plans to bring that vision into reality.
This past Shavuos, Ze’ev was in remission from the disease he had battled for a number of years, and after the chag my wife and I joined Ze’ev and Nechama for a two-day trip to the South African bush country. I was amazed that my ethereal friend had mastered a stick shift and managed to extract us from a rocky jam, after we lost the path in an animal park as the sun was setting. But even more impressive was the palpable respect and closeness to one another of Ze’ev and Nechama. He always referred to her by the diminutive “Nechamele.” We had chosen our models well.
THIS PAST ELUL, the last Kraines son departed for yeshivah in Israel. With seven children living in Eretz Yisrael and five in the United States, the long-anticipated time to make aliyah had arrived. Ze’ev was no longer strong enough to lead his kehillah, and a little over a month ago, his doctors told him that if he hoped to get on a plane to Israel, he better do it soon. Within a very short time, the effects of a lifetime were packed up, with most given away, and the Kraineses made aliyah.
Around the same time, Reb Ze’ev published his first sefer, Shlal Ze’ev, a collection of essays (some of which had already appeared in Dialogue). He always looked for topics about which not much had been written, such as the definition and status of chassidei umos ha’olam, so that he could plumb the original sources on his own.
At a Motzaei Shabbos gathering a few weeks ago, Ze’ev passed out the sefer. Already attached to an oxygen machine, he reflected on the various stops of his rabbinical career and the zechus to have affected Jewish lives in each of them.
Just how many became clear in his last weeks. At one point, his heart stopped and a call went out for Tehillim. Despite the lateness of the hour, one of his sons counted 1,200 responses on one of the Tehillim WhatsApp groups the next day. Ze’ev and Nechama’s impact on Jewish souls was reflected in the overflow levayah in Beit Shemesh, with all those present trooping in a torrential downpour, through deep mud, to the graveside at close to midnight.
Even in his last week, Reb Ze’ev’s calm did not depart. “My portion is very sweet,” he told anyone who asked. Three days before his passing, his sons Akiva and Shmuel both made a siyum HaShas, though he could only participate by video hookup.
That week, he also met his younger daughter Chaya’s chassan. “How can I get engaged,” she had wondered, “without my father’s approval. He is my best friend. I can talk to him about anything.” The vort took place at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital two floors above where he would breathe his last two hours later.
He himself summarized best his too brief, but quietly productive life: Mitasi shleimah.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com