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That Was a Leader

Over a period of 30 years, the Novominsker Rebbe drew me close to him

 

Beyond the huge blow to Klal Yisrael, the passing of the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow ztz”l, is a personal loss for me. Over a period of 30 years, the Rebbe drew me close to him. Shortly after I was appointed editor of the English Yated Ne’eman in 1989, I received an invitation to come visit the Rebbe and his Rebbetzin in the Har Nof apartment of his son-in-law Rabbi Yitzchok Treger.

I was then a baal teshuvah of less than ten years, and the name Yonoson Rosenblum was unknown. But the Rebbe or the Rebbetzin must have seen an editorial or two and their curiosity was piqued. My chief memory from that meeting is how the Rebbetzin, like myself a Chicago native, put me at ease by telling me that she remembered reading frequently as a girl about my maternal grandfather in the Sentinel, the local Jewish weekly.

That first meeting became an annual event on the Rebbe’s visits to Eretz Yisrael to meet with former talmidim and whenever I was staying in Brooklyn.

Both the Rebbe and his first Rebbetzin a”h, were unusually broad-minded. She played a major role in developing a limudei chol curriculum in the Novominsk Yeshivah, as a means of developing skills that would augment the limudei kodesh. The Rebbe’s respect for her keen intellect was palpable. I remember her accompanying him to a large meeting of balabatim at an Agudah convention when she was already very ill and he did not want to leave her side. He turned to her frequently to hear her opinion.

In 1994, I published a translation of Rabbi Betzalel Landau’s Hebrew biography of the Vilna Gaon, to which I added a chapter on the charamim of the Vilna beis din against chassidus. ArtScroll insisted that the chapter be submitted to a major Lithuanian rosh yeshivah, Rav Aharon Schechter, and, lbdlch’t, to the Rebbe for approval.

I began that chapter by noting how hard it is for us to today, when the works of the great chassidic masters are studied in all yeshivos, to comprehend the context in which those charamim were issued. The Rebbe’s only comment on the chapter was to tell me to cut all the apologetics and dancing around and just state the facts. I didn’t listen on that point, as I felt other sensitivities were at play. And I sensed what I would later learn explicitly: The Rebbe was more than willing to discuss issues and offer advice, but extremely reluctant to tell others, kablu da’ati.

During the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, I received a call from the Rebbe, while in an airport between flights. He wanted to discuss some columns I had written on the Gaza withdrawal, and to tell me why he disagreed. We discussed the issue for close to half an hour, neither convincing the other — though I was certainly of two minds on the subject. What struck me most was his final remark, “But you are free to write what you want.”

At the time, I headed a Jewish media resource organization for foreign journalists in Israel, Am Echad, which was almost entirely financed by Agudath Israel of America, of which the Rebbe was the Rosh and head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. In short, he was my boss.

But more than that, my entire office only existed because of him. I had spoken at an Agudah convention advocating for building upon the Am Echad missions led by Rabbi Moshe Sherer ztz”l by developing a permanent media presence in Israel, from which most of the negative stories about the chareidi community were then emanating. The Rebbe seized upon the idea and pushed a group of Agudah’s leading balabatim to make it a reality. He personally affixed the mezuzah at the opening of the office, at the head of a large American delegation, and subsequently held a fundraising gathering at his apartment in the old building of the Novominsk Yeshivah.

Yet he did not insist that I follow his opinion.

The Rebbe preferred to lead by intellectual suasion and the force of his formidable intellect than by virtue of his authority. As a scion of a chassidic dynasty, trained in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, the ability to appreciate more than one perspective was part of his intellectual hard-wiring. He was a beloved rosh yeshivah in the Breuer’s community, and would almost certainly have been chosen to lead the community one day, had he not accepted the mantle of his father’s chassidus.

It was that ability to traverse boundaries that made him not only a unifying figure for American Torah Jewry, but also such an effective representative to the outside world. On separate occasions, I brought Yuval Steinitz, then a first-term MK and subsequently a leading minister in multiple Israeli governments, and prominent journalist Ben-Dror Yemini to meet him. Both walked away awestruck.

And with that same gentle wisdom did he guide an occasionally headstrong young man from a very different background over many years.

 

Rabbi Avrohom Pinter: An Appreciation

I first met Rav Avrohom Pinter at a convention of the British Agudah in the seaside resort town of Bournemouth a little more than a decade ago. How the conversation started I don’t recall, but I do remember that a smile never left his face — or mine — during the hour or so we spoke. His exuberance and keen understanding of a myriad of issues would have made him the ideal companion if cast ashore on a deserted island.

We had a chance to renew our acquaintance a year and a half ago when I was in England to research an article on Chinuch UK, an ad hoc organization created to represent Torah schools in the face of an effort by the Ofsted school inspection regime to impose an anti-Torah curriculum.

Rabbi Pinter’s Yesodey Hatorah school was at the center of the controversy. For more than a decade, the girl’s high school had been consistently ranked among the top 20 secondary schools in Britain, out of more than 6,000, in terms of the students’ performance on exams in eight separate subjects. Thus when Ofsted inspectors gave the school a failing grade, it became clear to the Torah community that nothing besides pure malevolence toward Torah values could explain the finding.

Dr. David Landau, a medical researcher with more than 60 published papers to his name, was appointed as lay head of Chinuch UK, with the mandate to create relationships with the important governmental and parliamentary figures. But he quickly realized that he did not have a single connection to any of the key figures. Fortunately, however, one person had close connections to each of those figures: Rabbi Pinter. He put those connections at Dr. Landau’s disposal, and equally important, became his mentor in precisely how to approach each meeting.

Dr. Landau quickly learned something that Rabbi Pinter’s trademark wit made it easy to miss: his laser focus on advancing the needs of his community, while not losing sight of the needs of other communities with whom common ground could be found. At the end of each meeting, he could explain to Dr. Landau why he had told the joke he had at precisely the moment he did.

On that trip to London, Dr. Landau, my host, took me to a meeting in Stamford Hill with Rabbi Pinter and Mrs. Chaya Spitz, the director of the Interlink Foundation, which guides a host of Orthodox non-profits, at the Interlink offices.

After that meeting, Rabbi Pinter bid me to join him in the adjacent conference room for a multiracial meeting of local activists and politicians — Rabbi Pinter himself served as a councillor on the local Hackney Council for many years. Among those in attendance were at least two clerics of other faiths. I don’t really remember the subject matter, just my amazement that a chassidic Jew, in full regalia, was the one who had convened the meeting and to whom all present directed their attention.

In terms of his ability to connect across the entire Jewish spectrum and to non-Jewish government officials and legislators, Rabbi Pinter was to the British Torah community what Rabbi Moshe Sherer and Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger ztz”l were to American Orthodoxy, albeit with a style and easy humor that was all his own.

Note from the editorial board: Mishpacha Magazine hopes to publish a fuller tribute to Rabbi Pinter in an upcoming issue.

 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 807. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

 

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