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Rebbi for Life

Kids know. They have an unerring, intuitive sense of who is real and who isn’t



The words of two individuals on opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum recently confirmed for me the power of positive early experiences.

One of those individuals is a talmid chacham of stature in Eretz Yisrael, the other a self-described unaffiliated American Jew. But as youngsters, each of their lives was affected by a particular special rebbi, and neither of them ever forgot it.

Some weeks ago, an email came my way, thanking me for a piece I’d written last year, a remembrance of my elementary school principal, Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein, and his rebbetzin. The yeshivah I attended while growing up in the Bronx was one, I wrote, whose student body “was comprised largely of nonobservant kids, since nearly all my frum contemporaries went to yeshivos out of the neighborhood for what their parents considered a superior education. But my parents felt it was important to support the only local elementary yeshivah and the tzaddik of a Jew who ran it.”

My correspondent wrote that he “was one of those ‘nonobservant kids’ who attended Lubavitcher Yeshiva of the Bronx for eight years.” He’d come across my column and was writing to thank me for my “remembrance of this truly great man.”

It’s what came next that really gave me a jolt. He wrote:

While religion and I have long since parted ways, I do have many fond memories of those eight years, and in particular, of the rebbi. Rabbi Altein was truly a sincere, loving and caring man, who always put the best interest of his students (more than just students to him really) above all else. 

While he disapproved of much of my behavior in my later years at the school (and rightfully so), deep down I always felt his love, concern and tireless devotion in trying to keep me on a healthy path in life. Years later, my dad and I ran into him on Lydig Avenue. We had a brief and casual conversation then, and I have always regretted not keeping in touch since.

Kids know. They have an unerring, intuitive sense of who is real and who isn’t, who’s in it for them and who’s in it primarily for himself — legitimately, for sure, to earn a parnassah — and only secondarily for them.

And however much they may rant and rebel about rules and their consequences, they know, too, when a teacher’s disapproval of their behavior is deserved. They intuit when it’s coming not from anger, a frustrated loss of control, or just the understandable desire for peace and quiet, but from a place of “love, concern and tireless devotion” in trying to keep kids “on a healthy path in life.”

My long-ago schoolmate wrote that he was a grade ahead of me and remembers us being on the same school bus for a number of years. I don’t remember him, just as I don’t remember very much else from those years (although, for the record, I also emphatically deny any involvement in the infamous sixth-grade Spitball Incident of ’71 — it was not me, it was Max Felsenberger).

But I’m overwhelmed by the notion of someone who describes himself as having parted ways with religion still referring to his principal of a half-century ago as “the rebbi.” I’m pretty certain Rabbi Altein never took any courses on teaching methods or classroom control, and I can’t speak to his mastery of pedagogic technique or supervisory skills. But to a now-middle-aged, unaffiliated Jew out there somewhere, he’s still “the rebbi.” Because that’s what genuine love does.

Around the same time, I happened to come across the sefer Hegyon Libi, a compilation of chiddushei Torah on various sugyos in Shas by Rav Yehuda Leib Bogatch, a well-known talmid chacham in Jerusalem. And is my wont, I opened to the hakdamah and began reading, since very often, there’s so much to learn from a sefer’s preface.

In his introduction, Rav Bogatch recalls his many great rebbeim in the yeshivos of Chevron, Slabodka, and Mir, all of them renowned gedolei Torah. But at the end of the sefer, there’s a special section of chiddushim called “Zichron Boruch,” named not for any of those towering gedolim but for Rav Boruch Pinchas Goldberg-Yadler, who had been the author’s rebbi in the Etz Chaim cheder.

Rav Bogatch writes that he dedicated a special section of his sefer to Rav Goldberg-Yadler on topics in Maseches Kiddushin which he learned in his class, because

even though I wasn’t even yet twelve years old when he taught me, I call him “mori v’rabi,” since with his special teaching skills, he’s the one who planted in me at a young age the desire to learn Torah….Mori v’rabi did his holy work with amazing dedication to his students, whom he loved greatly, fulfilling the pasuk of “V’shinantom livanecha, And you shall teach them to your sons,” which Chazal say refers to one’s students.

He exemplified the behavior of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilas, a teacher of young children who was always thinking about them even outside school (see Bava Basra 8b). Rav Goldberg-Yadler never saw his workplace as existing only between the cheder’s walls. Instead, each night after giving a shiur to balabatim in the Knesses Yisrael neighborhood, he would circulate among the various shuls around Yerushalayim where his talmidim were reviewing what they had learned that day. Sometimes, it was only in speaking with him much later on that we learned he had come by to see us learning.

He also took the initiative to stay in regular contact with our parents, so that together, he and they could be partners in helping a child’s spiritual persona take shape. He explained things with great clarity, and he knew how to help a youngster progress according to his abilities. His talks on yiras Shamayim were full of content and delightful to listen to, and his weekly stories, told with special talent, taught important lessons.

It’s unlikely that my old Bronx schoolmate is familiar with Chazal’s exposition of v’shinantom livanecha. But however far down the road he is away from “religion,” the words he wrote about Rabbi Altein — that we were “more than just students to him really” — show he too knows the Chazal that Rav Bogatch quoted.

Perhaps not in his mind, but where it matters most, in his kishkes.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 875. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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