As he readies for this year’s 100th Agudah Convention, Rabbi Naftali Miller shares his unlikely story
Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab
The radiant smile, the sheer positivity, infectious zeal and genuine love for each and every member of Klal Yisrael, has propelled Rabbi Naftali Miller into a very public role as chesed director, communal askan, and Agudah’s chief development officer. As he readies for this year’s 100th Agudah Convention, Rabbi Miller shares his unlikely story – of a struggling child from a broken home catapulted to success by a mother’s faith
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine before Purim this past year, the world witnessed a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions unfold before their eyes. The Jewish community of Ukraine in particular had to contend with an existential threat, facing not only physical danger but spiritual upheaval as well.
A desperate call went out to world Jewry, and a flurry of fundraising platforms were set up to assist in every way possible. With time, Agudath Israel’s Vaad Hatzalah proved to be a long-haul campaign, distributing tens of millions of dollars and providing for crucial rescue and resettlement efforts.
And they weren’t the only ones. Simultaneously, Chabad activists were working around the clock to ensure the safety of those fleeing from, and those still in, Ukraine. Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, one of the prime askanim involved in the Chabad effort, was approached by a friend who suggested that he meet with the Agudah — perhaps there was some overlap between the organizations, and perhaps they could streamline results by coordinating efforts. At first, Chabad leadership was skeptical — historically, each organization had played its own role with little intersection, but Reb Mendy agreed to a meeting of the two delegations. Heading Agudah’s Vaad Hatzalah was Rabbi Naftali Miller.
Reb Mendy admits to having harbored doubtful misgivings before going in. Yet his personal reservations melted as soon as the meeting with Rabbi Miller adjourned. The smile. The simchas hachayim. The raw, authentic, and unadulterated enthusiasm and determination in the ability to help another Yid left Reb Mendy taken with the Agudah leader.
Reb Mendy isn’t the only one. The radiant, thousand-watt smile that is perpetually worn by Rabbi Naftali Miller, his sheer positivity, the infectious zeal and genuine love for each and every member of Klal Yisrael, has catapulted him into a very public facing role, one that includes organizing and operating some of the most colossal chesed projects today.
As he readied for this year’s 100th Agudah Convention, Rabbi Miller shared with Mishpachahis community-conscious journey — from director of development for Yeshiva Derech Chaim and cofounder and director of the Chasdei Lev organization for rebbi and teacher support, to becoming chief development officer of Agudath Israel of America as well as of its Vaad Hatzalah. It’s a role he’s supremely grateful for, but also one that he never sought — and one that, given his background, not he nor others would ever have expected.
“Naftali has this ability to bring people together for a good cause,” says Sol Werdiger (second from right), Agudah’s chairman of the board. As head of the Vaad Hatzalah, Rabbi Miller knew there was no rest for the weary, providing for crucial rescue and resettlement services. Because when it comes to others, Reb Naftali is all about their needs
The Gift of Peace
“We grew up in Kensington, a neighborhood that straddles the border between Boro Park and Flatbush, where homes were cheaper and where, at the time, there were just a handful of other frum families on the block,” Rabbi Miller shares. “My parents divorced when I was just seven years old, leaving my mother with me and two younger brothers, ages five and three.”
The divorce upended the carefree childhood years for the young Miller boys. “I remember being at a friend’s house for Shabbos, and when the father started to make Kiddush, it was too much for me to watch, and I just ran out of the room. I’m not sure I realized it then, but I think deep down I knew what a normal family life was supposed to look like, and the fact that I didn’t have it in my life was just too upsetting,” Rabbi Miller recalls.
In addition to the anxiety the divorce induced, their financial situation took a nosedive as well. “The divorce settlement stipulated that my father would pick up the tab for both tuition and rent, an arrangement crucial to my mother given that her earnings amounted to just $1,000 a month,” Rabbi Miller says. But more often than not, the promised money never came through, leaving the family broke.
Yet like the rays of the sun peeking through the clouds and brightening up a gloomy sky, Rabbi Miller’s mother doubled down on warmth, cheerfulness, and staying grateful to Hashem, dispelling what could have otherwise been a bitter, anxiety-ridden childhood.
Instead of wallowing in guilt and shame, she promoted joy in the simplest activities and radiated enthusiasm for the little they had. Rabbi Miller recalls the atmosphere in his humble home in the days leading up to Yom Tov. “There was no money for extra treats on Succos or Pesach, so instead, she would build up excitement by baking us a special cake — each Yom Tov had its own special type.”
What the family lacked in material prosperity, their mother made up for in emotional wealth. She would liberally dispense compliments to her kids, praising them to the hilt, never letting them see her defeated, and always vigilant about creating a positive vibe in their broken home.
“When it was time for my bar mitzvah, my mother didn’t have the $450 needed for the very modest affair. But she never stopped thanking Hashem for the good, and just days before the bar mitzvah, a check came from the IRS with her tax refund, covering the exact amount to the cent,” Rabbi Miller recalls.
And despite all the baggage she was carrying, there was never a word of negativity. “My mother never complained, never uttered a negative word against my father. In fact, despite all the broken commitments — he didn’t come through with the money, he didn’t show up as promised — she would insist that we call him on his birthday and stay in touch with our grandparents. Even after I was married, my mother would call to make sure I wished him a happy birthday,” Rabbi Miller says.
“My mother always taught us that we have to do what’s right. Your personal decisions — whether to make a call, whether to attend a simchah, whether to send a gift — shouldn’t depend on how the other person treated you or even mistreated you. Remove all that from the picture, and ask yourself what you think is the right thing to do, what’s your personal standard of right and wrong. And that’s what should guide you.”
Soon after the Miller boys got up from shivah for their mother two years ago, Naftali met an acquaintance who was mired in a very messy and painful divorce, and who was considering taking very dramatic steps against his spouse.
“Look, you have the right to do this,” Naftali advised. “No one will say you’re not entitled to take tough measures. But you have to realize that your children are at stake. If there’s one thing you can learn from my mother, it’s that it takes two to fight — and you can give your children that gift of peace.”
A short time later, Naftali got a phone call. “You were right,” the man told him. “When I gave in, the entire dynamic changed.”
In conference with Mir Rosh Yeshivah and Moetzes member Rav Elya Brudny (right), and Agudah executive board member Mordy Herzog (center). “Naftali touches everybody he comes into contact with, whether it’s a doorman, driver, delivery guy, photographer, or donor. He has this way of making everybody feel valued and respected”
In a Bubble of Love
With all their hardships, Naftali and his brothers lived in a bubble of love and endorsements. Only years later did their mother reveal what was really going on. “She told us that not a single night went by when she didn’t receive a phone call from one of our irate teachers or rebbeim, enumerating a list of our misdemeanors and antics,” Rabbi Miller says. Yet she understood that her kids were going through a unique set of challenges growing up with an estranged father, and so she would nod along with the caller on one hand, and then resume complimenting her kids just the same for the amazing work they were doing in school.
Rabbi Miller remembers all the months that their father didn’t make good on his financial obligations, and there was simply no money to pay yeshivah tuition for the three rambunctious Miller boys. But instead of bemoaning her lot, Mrs. Miller would put a smile on her face and go off to spend her Sundays marching up and down Brooklyn’s McDonald Ave, going into the various factories that dotted the neighborhood.
“She would go into the front office and ask of the items that were imperfect or unsellable. She’d get a few sweaters from a clothing manufacturer, some spice samples from a spice plant and, merchandise in hand, she would head over to the flea market where she would sell her wares for a few dollars.” A beaming Mrs. Miller would then take the money and head over to the yeshivah office where she would happily hand it over, making a small dent in her monthly obligations.
“I learned that ‘not having the money for it’ was never an answer to why we couldn’taccomplish something,” Rabbi Miller says.
Even those heroic efforts didn’t endear the Miller family to their schools. Rabbi Miller estimates that by the time he graduated eighth grade he had gone through six different elementary schools. Yet he rattles off this rather remarkable stat in a voice that sounds like he’s telling a good joke, and without the slightest hint of bitterness.
In fact, despite his own often less-than-stellar elementary school experiences, in 2007 Rabbi Miller cofounded Chasdei Lev, a volunteer organization dedicated to alleviating the financial burden and uplifting the honor and dignity of rebbeim and morahs around the country. Chasdei Lev coordinates the distribution of over $10 million worth of products for close to 6,000 rebbeim every Yom Tov season.
Today the polished gentleman sitting across from me in Agudah’s well-appointed conference room and dressed in a neat suit and tie, is on his way to a philanthropist’s home to discuss a new chesed initiative. In some ways, his childhood years seem very far away. But Rabbi Miller says that as a kid, he never thought of his family as destitute. Growing up in his mother’s home was the farthest thing from an underprivileged childhood, and she made it clear that anything in life is possible with siyata d’Shmaya. That realization is the bedrock foundation of everything he’s accomplishing today.
Agudah leadership activists Shai Markowitz (right) and Nechemiah Hoch (left) in a briefing with an always cheerful Rabbi Miller: “It’s almost impossible to find him in a negative mindset.”
The Most Vulnerable
After his checkered elementary school career finally ended, Naftali joined the Adelphia Yeshiva in Freehold, New Jersey, under the leadership of Rav Yerucham Shain, a man he credits for not only teaching talmidim how to navigate a sugya, but also how to navigate life.
“He overlooked the petty things, stayed focused on what mattered, and taught us how to function as good people,” recalls Rabbi Miller. When it came to beis medrash, Naftali enrolled in Yeshiva Derech Chaim back in the old neighborhood of Kensington, where he learned under Rav Mordechai Rennert ztz”l and Rav Yisroel Plutchok ztz”l.
He continued in the yeshivah’s kollel after his marriage to Rochel Leah Pam, a granddaughter of Torah Vodaath Rosh Yeshivah Rav Avrohom Pam ztz”l. The young couple’s first apartment was nearby that of his illustrious grandfather-in-law, and that proximity set in motion another defining hallmark of Rabbi Miller: his fealty to rabbanim and to daas Torah. Rabbi Miller had the opportunity to witness the actions of the saintly Rav Pam, and his encounters left an indelible, lifelong impression.
About two years ago, I was working with Rabbi Miller on a communal project and participated in a videoconferencing call Rabbi Miller was hosting to discuss certain options with a particular vendor. Almost as soon as the call had begun, we heard a baby starting to cry in the background. The wails got louder and louder, and soon the vendor was struggling to talk over her baby. While the rest of the attendees waited awkwardly for the wailing to dissipate, Rabbi Miller smiled and gently suggested that the vendor pause her presentation and tend to the baby — the others could wait, he insisted. While the presentation was paused, he proceeded to tell the remaining participants about a car ride that he gave Rav Pam years earlier.
“We had the opportunity to drive Rav Pam home from a wedding,” he told us, “and during the ride, our baby started crying, and Rav Pam suggested that we pull over to give the toddler a bottle. We were a few minutes away from his home, so I told Rav Pam that we could wait just a few minutes and that we’ll feed the baby at home. Rav Pam insisted that we pull over and that the baby be fed then and there.”
It was a lesson imparted by Rav Pam years earlier, about caring for the most delicate and vulnerable among us, and was an inspiration for Naftali as he started, in a quiet and discreet manner, to work for causes involving those less fortunate.
A young Naftali in more difficult childhood days. His mother made it clear that anything in life is possible with siyata d’Shmaya
On Their Terms
Actually, Naftali got his first taste of askanus when he was still a bochur in Derech Chaim.
In the Brooklyn yeshivah, there was no such thing as an “in-Shabbos”; instead, the boys would typically spend Shabbos at home after a week in yeshivah. “I saw that the bochurim would benefit from being within the four walls of the yeshivah during Shabbos as well,” remembers Rabbi Miller, and the young man was off on his first mission for the klal. “I got together with a friend, and we went off on our first fundraising trip, got a nice check, and then visited some of the local shops on Erev Shabbos and offered to buy their leftover inventory at a discounted price.”
The bochurim loved it, and the 40 or so bochurim who had stayed on during the first few trial weeks mushroomed to a few hundred. Soon enough, the Shabbos arrangements weren’t as simple as when he started, and the fundraising rounds demanded more effort — calling various caterers and attending to the accommodations to ensure that bochurim had an option for Shabbos in yeshivah. The administration took note of the talented yungerman, and soon made him an offer to officially join the yeshivah in an administrative capacity, as director of development.
“Development,” for the uninitiated, is often only a slightly more elegant way of saying “fundraising.” But for Rabbi Miller, the title that he would retain throughout his career — first at Derech Chaim, and now, at the Agudah, is indeed more about developing initiatives, launching new projects, discerning unmet needs, and building infrastructure and resources to fill them.
At one point Rabbi Miller felt that some of the bochurim would benefit greatly from a “big brother” program, but after running the numbers, he realized he was looking at a sum of nearly $250,000. Rabbi Miller sourced a philanthropist who he knew was able to come up with that kind of money in a heartbeat, and sent him an email. The “I’m not available / try me later next week / something came up / let’s touch base next month” game continued for nearly two years until finally Rabbi Miller persevered and procured a meeting.
“When I entered, the man was very blunt: ‘If you’re coming for money, you can turn around now,’ ” Rabbi Miller recalls the man telling him. So instead of talking money, Rabbi Miller shared his dream.
“We had an hour-long conversation about why this initiative would help more of our yeshivah’s students become successful,” Rabbi Miller shares. At the end of the conversation, Rabbi Miller laid out what they needed to get the program running. After understanding the bigger picture of the overall vision, the man readily agreed to partner with Rabbi Miller, taking upon himself the financial burden to the tune of a quarter-million dollars.
Joining the Movement
Rabbi Miller stayed with Derech Chaim for 18 years, during which time he built an alumni network, grew the development department of the yeshivah, and, as happens to many sincere, industrious activists in the nonprofit world, he got involved in other communal causes as well. Shuvu Chazon Avrohom, the Eretz Yisrael-based kiruv organization that bears the name of his revered grandfather, Rav Avrohom Pam, was one such cause.
On a four-day trip to Eretz Yisrael as part of a Shuvu mission in 2014, Rabbi Miller was joined by Nechemiah Hoch, a son of Shuvu cochairman Dr. Yossi Hoch, and a recent addition to the Board of Trustees for Agudath Israel.
“What struck me about Naftali was his ability to really connect with people and understand their needs,” says Reb Nechemiah. “He connects with rabbanim and basically with everybody he encounters, and gets to understand them and their needs. Over the four-day trip, I kept on noticing his ability to connect, to understand people’s needs. There was a lot of arranging that had to happen on that trip and a lot of decisions about which schools should get what. He has an intuitive knack for understanding the needs of the different schools and the various people involved.”
There was another thing Nechemiah noticed: The young Derech Chaim askan was continuously smiling. “It’s almost impossible to find him in a negative mindset,” says Hoch. “Whatever we compose, a brief or letter or proposal, he’ll never say what something isn’t — instead he always focuses on what something is.”
Dovi Safier, a contributor to this magazine, shared an episode that showcased that singular focus on the positive: “I was once speaking to him about a group that really needed help, but we both agreed they were really difficult to work with. Frustrated, I said, ‘I feel terrible because I really want to help them, but they require so much effort to work with, so maybe it’s better that we stay away.’ But he saw things differently. ‘Because these people are so difficult to deal with, they are the least likely to get help from others, so it’s that much more important that we put in the effort to help them out, no matter how difficult,’ he told me.”
Four years after the 2014 Shuvu mission, Reb Nechemiah was excited when Rabbi Miller’s name was mentioned as a candidate for a position that had opened up in the development department at the Agudah: The organization was expanding, opening new offices across the country, there was a Siyum HaShas on the horizon, and there was a need to expand their development office.
When Rabbi Miller heard about the opportunity, he presented it to his mentor Rabbi Dovid Trenk a”h — the ebullient yeshivah rebbi who inspired a generation with his warmth and love. Rabbi Trenk was the principal back in Adelphia when Naftali learned there, and although Naftali had been a talmid of Rabbi Trenk and has his share of awe-inspiring stories as a bochur, he developed an even closer connection when Rabbi Trenk decided to open up his own yeshivah.
Rabbi Trenk had reached out to a close-knit group of friends — Chaskel Bennett, Aron Rosenfeld, Rabbi Gedalia Zlotowitz, Dovid Bloom, Menachem Braunstein, Hillel Jaffa, Rabbi Nosson Newman, and Naftali Miller to help get the yeshivah off the ground.
“Each conversation, each meeting we had with him was a lesson for life,” remembers Rabbi Miller. “When he heard a talmid sent in $36 or $50 to the yeshivah, he would get so excited — if he got a $100 donation he was completely overwhelmed — because he looked not at the amount, but he saw instead that people wanted to help. It taught us how to view hishtadlus and ultimately rely on Hashem.”
Rabbi Miller approached Rabbi Trenk and asked him if he should join the Agudah team. The answer came back via a text message, Rabbi Trenk’s fervor and excitement conveyed in his trademark all caps: “NAFTLI,” the text message read, “UR JOINING THE MOVMENT OF THE GERER REBBE. R CHAIM OZER. CHFTZ CHYM. YOUR ONE MORE LINKE IN THAT CHAIN. REBBE.”
With the stamp of approval from his rebbe, Rabbi Miller joined the Agudah, injecting his exuberance into the storied 42 Broadway headquarters of the organization. “Agudah will be turning one hundred this year,” Sol Werdiger, Agudah’s chairman of the board, told me, “and a lot of the reason that we’re able to have a dynamic board with a lot of young new blood and look forward with great excitement to the next hundred years is in no small part due to Naftali and his ability to bring people together for a good cause.”
On his first day at the Agudah, Rabbi Miller contemplated the siyata d’Shmaya and sheer impact of an organization with a national presence and manned by skilled and professional staff under the guidance of gedolei Yisrael: “A tragic car accident had claimed the lives of an elderly frum woman in a far-off state. Her children, who were not observant, wanted to cremate her remains,” Rabbi Miller remembers. “The extended family was in touch with the Agudah, and the matter reached the desk of Rabbi Mordechai Biser a”h, the former special counsel to the Agudah, known for his dedicated efforts on behalf of religious freedom and sanctity of life. Rabbi Biser jumped in and was able to stave off the procedure and ensure that she received a kever Yisrael.”
Under Rabbi Miller’s watch, a donor had pledged a half-a-million-dollar dedication to the Agudah, with the understanding that the Agudah would undertake a certain project. “The checks started coming in, and the money was earmarked for that project, yet when it was brought before the Moetzes, the rabbanim ruled that the Agudah shouldn’t undertake it,” recalls Rabbi Miller’s assistant. “Everyone who was involved in securing the donation held their breaths — but Rabbi Miller, in his typical inimitable way, stayed calm. He called Rav Dovid Feinstein for a brachah that the situation resolve itself amicably. Rav Dovid assured him that the situation would work itself out to everyone’s satisfaction.
“The donor was technically absolved of his pledge; after all, the project had been shelved. But a week later, he told Rabbi Miller that he would not only continue to pay off his pledge, but that Rabbi Miller was free to use the money for any project he wished. To me, the way in which Rabbi Miller dealt with the situation — both validating the donor’s feelings and relying on emunas chachamim — is a classic example of how he operates, and the strength of his positive attitude and relationship-building.”
Those who work with Rabbi Miller on a regular basis all report a similar theme: Rabbi Miller is the ultimate empathizer, with a profound understanding of how people feel and how they want to be treated.
“Naftali is one of the most sensitive people I’ve encountered. He touches everybody he comes into contact with, whether it’s a doorman, driver, delivery guy, photographer, or donor. He has this way of making everybody feel valued and respected,” says Mordy Herzog, a member of Agudah’s executive board. “That’s why he can ask for something so big. To someone else, the guy would say ‘no way,’ but somehow, you can’t really say no to Naftali. Because you know it’s never about him, it’s about him bringing you aboard on his mission. I’m still trying to figure out how his magic works. I believe it’s a special gift given to certain special people that are true shluchei d’Rachmana.”
One of Rabbi Miller’s “pet projects” is the Chasdei Lev distribution for families of rebbeim. Last Yom Tov, he arranged for the distribution of staples to 6,000 rebbeim, and this coming Yom Tov the list of recipients is set to grow. It’s his great privilege and honor to count Rav Reuven Feinstein as a sounding board and supporter in this effort.
“Rav Reuven and his Rebbetzin a”h made Chasdei Lev a true priority,” he says. “Nothing is beneath their dignity when it comes to helping our rebbeim. Over the years, they recommended specific food products that they consider to be of high quality. Rav Reuven has guided me how to negotiate deals with vendors, and helped me weigh the merits of major or minor items. Most moving of all is that way he personally attends every distribution, even when he’s not feeling strong. That kind of support is priceless.”
Our conversation is taking place on the eve of Agudah’s 100th annual convention, and the topics on the agenda include such issues as tzedakah priorities, autonomy of our school system, religious liberties, anti-Semitism and anti-chareidism, and concern about the progressive winds blowing onto the political landscape. But these questions don’t shake Rabbi Miller’s equilibrium, because he doesn’t pat himself, or any of the askanim he works with, on the back for his successes.
“I firmly believe that any success we may have had, and will have, is solely due to siyata d’Shmaya. The credit for the results doesn’t go to us. Our job is to play our part and let Hashem do the rest.”
Rabbi Miller himself is Exhibit A. And the same Divine koach that had propelled a kid from an admittedly “broken home” to the pinnacle of organizational leadership today can also ensure that His people will continue to thrive, come what may.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 938)
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