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The Best Days of My Life

It might have been decades ago — how is it that the hallowed months and years in yeshivah, closed off from the mundane pressures of life, are still the engine pushing them forward?


The Game-Changer // Ner Israel, Baltimore

When I arrived at Ner Israel in Baltimore in March of 1995, I had expected to stay for two months, completing my second and final year of yeshivah that had started with a life-changing experience at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem. In the fall, I would attend a major four-year university in New York.

In Baltimore, I quickly discovered a new level of devotion to limud haTorah and an immense kavod haTorah that was evident in the lives of inspiring peers — and an entire city’s residents. More importantly, I was enveloped by the love of the mashgiach Rabbi Beryl Weisbord, my rebbi Rabbi Yissocher Frand, and the inimitable Rabbi Chaim Dovid Lapidus. As the yeshivah’s liaison with the university programs available for bochurim, Rabbi Lapidus played a crucial role for those of us who had been raised in Modern Orthodox families.

Three and a half years later, Rabbi Lapidus greeted me the morning after my engagement when I arrived in the beis medrash with my future father-in-law, Rabbi Ilan Feldman — himself the son-in-law of our rosh yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Weinberg. His smile spoke volumes about the role of a yeshivah and the relationship with a talmid.

While I originally thought to be there just a few months and “move on,” I was privileged to learn in Ner Israel for seven and a half years.

Rabbi Ariel Shoshan, rav of Ahavas Torah, the Scottsdale Torah Center

Pulled to the Light // Mesivta of Long Beach

My most precious memory of my high school yeshivah days took place one long, cold Friday night in the midst of winter zeman in 1985. Following the seudah, the bochurim went to learn in the beis medrash. Those who resisted the temptation of going to bed were rewarded — at 10 p.m. — by a white Styrofoam bowl of hot cholent, after which many talmidim retired to the dormitory.

However, those of us who continued to learn past the cholent were given an even better treat. At some point in the night, the beis medrash lights, for some reason, suddenly went out. We, who were in the midst of battling out the true understanding of Tosafos, were greatly disappointed. What could we do?

It was then that we noticed that one light remained aglow: the menorah by the amud, with its yellow flickering lightbulbs! Like moths to a flame, we instinctively got up, seforim in hand, and quickly rushed toward the light. There we were, a group of aspiring talmidei chachamim, holding our precious Gemaras on a slant towards the dancing lights, straining our eyes for just a little longer…

Rabbi Moshe Bamberger, Mashgiach Ruchani, Beis Medrash L’Talmud / Lander College for Men; author of the ArtScroll/Mesorah Great Jewish series


Those Two Words // Yeshivas Beer Yaakov

It wasn’t the shiurim, or even the tishen — when he would share stories and interactions that he had with his rebbi, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, his chavrusa Reb Shmuel Rozovsky or his uncle the Brisker Rav that stand out for me —  as awe-inspiring and fascinating as they were. Nor was it the incredible rischa d’Oraysa that would ensue in every shiur as he would argue, fight and refine his svaros and diyukim with us — his eager, thirsty talmidim of Yeshivas Beer Yaakov who were trying to understand and see the depth and nuances that he was revealing to us in every word of Rashi and Tosafos.

Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, our rosh yeshivah, was a gaon olam who was the bridge to the mesorah we had only read about in books. We expected that. It’s why we were there.

It was that one morning when I came into the beis medrash early and heard the Rosh Yeshivah beginning a new sugya. It started off with the two words of a song that he had composed. The words were “Amar Abaye.” Those were in fact the only words of the song. The song, he explained, starts off with the enthusiasm of one who starts a sugya — “Amar Abaaayeh.” The second set of Amar Abayes is with the yeshivish question and pondering emphasis and kvetch to it. We’re digging deeper. The last set is the resolution, the simchah, the uplifting joy that two simple words of a great sage 2,000 years ago wrote, that was alive in our small, empty beis medrash that morning. It is that love song that I still hear every time I read Abaye’s words today.

Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz, rav of the Young Israel of Karmiel and a popular tour guide.


One Blatt after Another // Yeshivas Ponevezh

In the early 1960s, there weren’t too many American bochurim learning in Eretz Yisrael, and certainly not in Ponevezh. But, though I was not much past my bar mitzvah, I had grandparents there, and that became my yeshivah for three years. When I think back to those years, what I remember most impactfully was the hasmadah, one blatt after another. The maggidei shiur, Rav Shach and Rav Dovid Povarsky, covered 47 blatt of Mesechta Bava Basra in a winter zeman.

So many of my friends were children of survivors — and it wasn’t that long after the war — but Torah made us happy. The Chazon Ish’s influence was everywhere, and you still felt the yiras Shamayim he had exuded in the beis medrash of Ponevezh.

This picture is a treasured reminder of that era, the Rav himself seated to the side. It was at the groundbreaking for the yeshivah’s branch in Ashdod, which became the Grodno Yeshiva, and the Rav, perpetually building, was thrilled. Next to him is the donor, Reb Yehoshua Zees, then Dayan Shmuel Boruch Werner, a dayan in Tel Aviv who davened in the yeshivah and spent much time learning in the beis medrash. To his left is the rosh yeshivah, Rav Shloim’ke Berman, son-in-law of the Steipler, and I am the bochur in between them, soaking in the atmosphere of pure Torah that warms me still.

Reb Abish Brodt, a renowned baal tefillah and accomplished askan


That’s Not Why You Come to Yeshivah // Yeshivas Mir, Yerushalayim

After two years of post yeshivah high school learning in my beloved yeshivah’s “overseas program,” I received the blessing of my wonderfully supportive parents to return for a third year of learning. Following in the footsteps of my illustrious (and brave) older brother, I ventured out from my comfort zone and found myself waiting in line in the middle of the Mir beis medrash to meet the venerated Mashgiach and be accepted.

Rav Aharon Chodosh ztz”l immediately gave me that look that said, “I know exactly where you’re coming from,” but I didn’t expect him to also care about where I was headed.

“Why do you want to come here?” he said in his unforgettably demanding tone.

I thought that giving the best-sounding answer would be the best idea, and besides, it was the truth. “I want to be swept up in the electric atmosphere of the packed beis medrash and be part of the booming kol Torah. I want to learn in a place where there is nothing but learning!” I finished my piece and waited for the smile and the pat on the back. Instead, I got a loud rebuke.

“That is not why someone goes to yeshivah! You come to yeshivah to become a yerei Shamayim!”

I can’t vouch for achieving yiras Shamayim, but I can say that with every passing day since that encounter 26 years ago, I appreciate the message more and more, and I attempt to transmit it to my children and my talmidim. The objective of time spent in yeshivah is way beyond the actual learning we do — it is in order to see every situation in life in this world through the prism of Shamayim – Chayim shetehei banu ahavas Torah v’yiras Shamayim.

Rabbi Binyamin Wolff, rebbi at Aish HaTorah and Darche Noam (Shapells), and Rov of Kehilas Ner Avraham in Shaarei Chesed.


Still Drawing the Inspiration // Yeshivas Beer Yaakov

The attached photo is from my seudas preidah in Adar 5741/1981, as I was preparing to come back to England to be married to my wife, after three years of wonderful learning at Yeshivas Beer Yaakov when Rav Shlomo Wolbe ztz”l (to whose right I am seated) was the mashgiach and Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro ztz”l was the rosh yeshivah. They were glorious years in so many ways, opening my eyes to entirely new pathways in limud HaTorah and avodas Hashem, inspiration on which I draw to this very day, some forty years later.

The sweetness, impact and vitality of the Torah I learned in Beer Yaakov was enhanced by the avirah of Eretz Yisrael that is machkim, plus the many good friends I was privileged to make among the bochurim. Rav Bentzion HaKohein Kook, today a famed posek and prominent rosh kollel, and for many years the gabbai of Rav Elyashiv’s early evening Gemara shiur, was my bekius chavrusa for about two years and one of my roommates in my earliest days in the yeshivah. I will never forget waking up on my very first morning there, somewhat disorientated, seeing the sun streaming in through the trissim, the azure blue sky outside and Reb Bentzion sitting up in bed with a beaming smile, looking across at me with reassurance and welcome and then slowly saying the most amazing, heartfelt Modeh Ani before carefully and meticulously washing negel vasser. It seemed otherworldly, which in so many ways life in Beer Yaakov, certainly then, truly was.

Rabbi Mordechai Ginsbury, rav of the Hendon United Synagogue, London


Surprise Entry // Shor Yoshuv

One frigid morning late in the winter of 1967, my then-roommate Shmelkie Brazil (today a beloved rosh yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael) somehow convinced me to learn Rambam with him for a half hour before Shacharis. We were learning in the nearly deserted Shor Yoshuv beis medrash when suddenly the door burst open and the rosh yeshivah, Rav Shlomo Freifeld — hat and beard encrusted in ice — came in and just stood there, slowly looking around the room. His all-encompassing gaze quickly passed over me, and then, in a classic double-take, returned and stared intently at me in disbelief for a few seconds.

Right before davening was about to begin, he signaled to me with his finger to come to him. As I stood near him at a respectful distance, he gestured with his finger to come closer still. I slowly approached the shtender he was sitting behind. His two fingers then beckoned me to bend down till I could feel his moustache tickling my ear. He then whispered four words that reverberate in my soul until today: “Yossi, you made my day!”

Yossi Toiv (Country Yossi), a popular entertainer, composer, radio show host, and magazine publisher


The Greatest Favor // Mesivta of Long Beach

Chazal teach us that “shimush chachamim,” serving a talmid chacham, is greater than learning Torah from him.

When I was in tenth grade in Mesivta of Long Beach, our dorm counselor, Reb Yossi Rosenbaum (Jo Ro) took those who’d respected curfew on a trip: We got to join Rav Moshe Feinstein’s home minyan on the Lower East Side. It was a special morning. When davening was over, Rav Moshe turned to me and handed me some money. He asked me to go downstairs to the local market to buy the Algemeiner Journal for his rebbetzin. The way he made a young yeshivah bochur feel like he was really doing the greatest favor is a memory I’ll never forget.

Why didn’t I hold onto the money Reb Moshe gave me and pay for the paper with my own? Well, that’s the folly of only being 15…

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, kashrus director, Chicago Rabbinical Council


The Other Side of the Table // Satmar Cheder

I was a young kid, before bar mitzvah, on the day of the farher. The Satmar Rebbe, the Berach Moshe, was coming to the Satmar cheder to farher the boys.

It was a big event, the air rippling with emotion as the Rebbe entered the building. In our classroom, the melamed had come up with an innovative way to make sure the Rebbe would have nachas from the results. The melamed had positioned all of the boys around the table, but rather than the usual seating, he put the “better” boys, the baalei kishron and ones who knew the material well, on one side. The second side of the table was for the ones who probably couldn’t answer the questions well. When the Rebbe entered, the melamed maneuvered things so the Rebbe was facing the bright talmidim.

Those boys felt great, of course, while the ones relegated to the second side of the table felt lousy about themselves.

I’m not telling you which side I was on, but I remember the moment like it was yesterday: Rather than follow the melamed’s plan, the Rebbe came around to face the boys on the second side of the table. And as if he realized exactly what the melamed had done, he asked them questions too — easier questions, more basic yedios that they could all answer. Of course they felt great answering the Rebbe’s questions, and when he left the room, everyone felt much taller.

He had been in there for just a few minutes, but on that day, the Satmar Rebbe sent a lesson that remains with me, and inspires me still.

Rabbi Moshe Aron Hoffman, Mosdos Satmar


Always With You // Yeshivas Mir, Yerushalayim

I was overwhelmed when I entered Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim for the first time. Coming from

a yeshivah of a few hundred to one with many thousands was quite a difficult jump. One piece of information I gathered made a world of difference. It was known that the rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l, had a mission to make every talmid feel like a son. And, if you just asked, he’d gladly learn with you. Only you. Because he loved you. Like a son.

It took a while to gather the courage but eventually I did — which lead to my chavrusa and me learning with the Rosh Yeshivah on a weekly basis. I was one of dozens but that didn’t matter; I loved him, and he loved me. Like a son. At times the Rosh Yeshivah was even lying on the couch due to lack of strength, but the chavrusashaft carried on.

And then it came time to leave. To say goodbye to a yeshivah that had become my family, to say goodbye to a rosh yeshivah who had become like a father. I was leaving Motzaei Yom Kippur and knocked on the Rosh Yeshivah’s door on Erev Yom Kippur to say goodbye. “The Rosh Yeshivah isn’t available,” the Rebbetzin said. I tried back again, and then again on Motzaei Yom Kippur. Neither attempt was successful.

One last try before leaving for the airport. The Rebbetzin, aware of my many earlier attempts, led me to the Rosh Yeshivah’s bedroom. There, the Rosh Yeshivah lay, in his pajamas, clearly exhausted. The Rosh Yeshivah greeted me as if we were in his study in the middle of the day. He had the warmest smile, he leaned over and gave me a loving kiss, and then wished me a heartfelt brachah for continued success. That kiss is still with me and the brachah still carries me. And the next kiss, when the Rosh Yeshivah was mesader kiddushin at our wedding, left us the message: “I’ll always be there with you…

Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib, rav of Congregation Zichron Eliezer, Cincinnati


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)

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