Rabbi Nochum Stilerman, the legendary fundraiser who raised over $400 million for various causes over the last 50 years, has now made the tools of his trade a public offering: how to internalize discipline, make a rigorous regimen into routine, and actualize dreams.
veryone at the 12th Siyum HaShas in MetLife Stadium heard Rav Yissocher Frand tell the story. Soon batei midrash the world over were abuzz with the tale.
An older talmid chacham Rabbi Nochum Stilerman had developed a personal study program for himself and sought Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l’s endorsement for it. The program would have had Rabbi Stilerman completing two tractates of Talmud (Brachos and Pesachim) and the Sefer Tehillim by his next birthday his 71st. Rav Finkel however sent Reb Nochum back to the drawing board.
“But what about the rest of the Torah?” the Rosh Yeshivah demanded. “Draw up a plan to finish kol haTorah kulah!” Reb Nochum went home and drew up a five-year plan to finish 12 masechtos (all of Seder Moed) all of Tanach and the sefer Mesilas Yesharim. He brought a detailed printout to Rav Nosson Tzvi who reviewed it and said “But you’re not finishing Shas!”
“Rosh Yeshivah” Reb Nochum protested “to finish Shas according to this program I’ll need many many years.” “Go print out a learning program for the whole Shas ” Rav Nosson Tzvi insisted. “As well as Tanach the Shulchan Aruch and the machzorim of the Shalosh Regalim.” The Rosh Yeshivah himself intended to be Reb Nochum’s chavrusa for learning the machzorim.
Reb Nochum went home and with the help of his good friend Reb Meir Hellman developed and printed out the plan which also included the Lakewood Chazarah Program a six-time review of each sugya. Some 2 500 pages later he had a program to present to the Rosh Yeshivah – a program that would take 23½ years to complete.
When Rav Nosson Tzvi saw the three-volume printout he exclaimed “Now that’s a plan! THAT’S a plan!”
“But Rosh Yeshivah” Reb Nochum objected “I can’t do this! I’m already 70 and it would take me until I’m over 93 to finish this — at a pace of ten hours of learning a day! I hope to live to 120 but how can I undertake a plan that I can’t possibly complete?”
The Rosh Yeshivah struggled mightily to stand up and while quivering in his place he said “And do you think I can do what I’m doing? Look at me!”
Rav Nosson Tzvi then reached under his tablecloth and pulled out his plans for the Mir which included adding more buildings to the yeshivah and making space for even more talmidim. “Do you think I can do this?” he asked Reb Nochum. “Of course I can’t.
“But you and I have a great advantage” Rav Nosson Tzvi continued. “We both realize that we can’t possibly do what we would like to do. Everyone else fools themselves into thinking that they can do what they want to do. You and I realize that we are in the hands of the Ribono shel Olam and that we can’t do more than commit ourselves to the task.”
In the weeks since Rav Frand’s retelling of this story it spread across the world and landed in a Har Nof beis medrash where two chavrusas were chewing it over with one concluding “You know if that [old guy] can do it why can’t I?”
Unbeknownst to this pair the “old guy” sat just over their shoulders several seats away lifting his eyes from his sefer as their conversation reached his ears. Had they known their rhetorical question might have received a reply.
Rabbi Nochum Stilerman is no fresh-faced greener when it comes to making plans. The program he presented to Rav Finkel was born of a half-century of wisdom and decades of experience as a management consultant and fundraiser that took him to the very apex of his field. Having developed campaigns that raised $300 million for various causes over the last 50 years Rabbi Stilerman has spent the last three decades giving seminars teaching overflow crowds of eager listeners the tools of his trade. And the most valuable item in his toolbox is his “SMART system” — a method of internalizing discipline making a rigorous regimen a routine thing and constructing bulwarks against the yetzer hara.
Always a Fundraiser
Rabbi Nochum Stilerman greets visitors at the door to his Jerusalem apartment with a ready smile. He and his wife, Mrs. Denah Stilerman, are settling into their new home as they grapple with Israeli bureaucracy. Seated at a table on the mirpesset, facing an expansive view, he recounts the latest struggle — making aliyah.
“They didn’t accept the signed statement of the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah attesting to the fact that we were Jewish,” he expounds, half in amusement and half in disbelief. “We needed an American rabbi’s signature. Luckily Rabbi Yisroel Reisman was in town and bailed us out. Our kesubah wasn’t enough proof for the Jewish state that we were married. We needed to present an American marriage license. They didn’t accept the signature of a Badatz beis din — they wanted a signed statement from an American lawyer.
“They can’t understand why I don’t have a birth certificate,” he marvels. “Who doesn’t have a birth certificate? It’s just that important papers were left behind as we escaped Russia in the middle of World War II.”
His parents made their way west after the war, stopping over in France at a “semi–DP camp” for four years. It was there, when Reb Nochum was six, that he began his long and illustrious career in fundraising.
“The Vaad Hatzala in the DP camp used my picture in a fundraising appeal,” he recounts with a smile. “I was their poster child. They sent out this picture with the words, ‘Save these kids!’
In 1951 Rabbi Stilerman’s family reached American shores. His father opened the first shomer Shabbos grocery store in Crown Heights, and employed his precocious son as delivery boy. The enterprise quickly nabbed a notable customer.
“I was told that I was the only person for whom the Lubavitcher Rebbe stood up,” he says with a glint in his eye. “I frequently delivered the groceries to his apartment. Sometimes he had to get up from the table where he was learning to open the door for me.”
His relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe continued for years. Reb Nochum can still recall the brachah the Rebbe gave him at his bar mitzvah: “The Ribono shel Olam should have nachas from you, your Tatte and Mamme should have nachas from you, and you should have nachas from yourself.”
“I learned from this, that you should always be able to look in the mirror and take pride in what you’ve done” says Reb Nachum as he remembers that night 57 years ago. “To me, that’s the greatest brachah a person can receive.”
Although the Rebbe’s brachah took several years to reach fruition, young Nochum quickly proved his perspicacity.
“I wasn’t a very quiet kid,” he admits. “You could fill a book with my escapades. But the Ribono shel Olam was very kind always to send me great role models. More than the numerous other gedolim whose paths I was zocheh to cross, these specific gedolim shaped the course of my life: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Avigdor Miller, and Rav Avraham Pam, zichronam livrachah.”
Reb Nochum put in some serious hishtadlus to meet some of those role models. It gave him the chance to hone the skills he would use so adroitly later in life.
“I had my first organized fundraising campaign when I was just after bar mitzvah,” he says. “All the schools were holding a campaign to raise money for Chinuch Atzmai in Israel. To anyone who raised more than $650, they were giving away a set of Rambam. Fifty-seven years ago, $650 was a lot of money. I was in Torah Vodaath at the time, and I really wanted those Rambams.”
Young Nochum Stilerman began shaking the pushke and pounding the pavement, hitting up everyone he knew for donations. Before long, he had widened the scope of his campaign and found himself knocking on the front doors of some noteworthy personages.
“I went to the Satmar Rav,” he says. “I just introduced myself and explained who I was raising funds for, and I said that whoever raised more than $650 would win a set of Rambam. Nobody had bothered to tell me that he might not be so pro-Chinuch Atzmai. But in fact, he gave me the largest gift of anybody: ten dollars. So naturally, I told everyone else I solicited that the Satmar Rav had donated ten dollars. The Bobover Rebbe gave me a very nice donation after that. And of course, so did the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“In the end, I managed to raise all the money,” Rabbi Stilerman recounts. “I brought it in to Rav Nesanel Quinn ztz”l — he was in charge of the campaign for Torah Vodaath. He was very impressed with my collections. He gave me the set of Rambam — which I still have to this day — plus he gave me another surprise: a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Summer camp was another setting where he would encounter significant role models.
When he was 16, he signed on as a counselor at Camp Yeshiva in Swan Lake, New York. The head counselor there was none other than Shimon Eider — the future posek and author of numerous sifrei halachah.
“Rav Eider was in his early 20s then, a phys ed instructor at Yeshiva University,” Rabbi Stilerman recalls. “It was from him that I learned the skill of organization. He showed me his plan for the whole nine-week camp. It was programmed down to the minute.”
Divine Providence gave Reb Nochum the opportunity to try his hand at implementing Rav Eider’s regimen. During camp, Rav Eider received the sad news of his mother’s petirah. He was forced to leave immediately for the city, entrusting his nine-week program to his young assistant.
“Rebbetzin Horowitz, whose husband had founded the camp, was very demanding,” Reb Nochum explains. “She didn’t trust me, a 16-year-old kid, to take over this whole program, ki hu zeh, and she really forced me to account for every minute. To keep track for myself, I had to write everything down on a chart.
“When you take an energetic kid and give him a lot of responsibilities, he’ll live up to those responsibilities,” Reb Nochum posits.
When the future Rav Eider returned to Swan Lake after the shivah, he found the camp running like a Swiss watch. Young Nochum Stilerman had withstood the first test of his organizational skills. The seeds of success that had been sown would eventually, decades later, sprout into the SMART system.
Save the Cats
After finishing yeshivah and marrying Denah Nemeth, Reb Nochum took a turn in rabbanus as the rabbi of a shul in Middle Village Queens, but decided to leave not long after the birth of their first child, Tzippy (wife of Dr. Eric Thal). “I loved the people and the teaching, but I worked harder on Shabbos than any day of the week,” he explains. “I hardly ever saw my family. The Shabbos meals were always rushed. I left rabbanus because I wanted to be a shomer Shabbos.”
He took a radically different direction in his next job, joining a major New York marketing firm as an associate. His first assignment was to help the firm fulfill a $500,000 bequest left by a recently deceased client. The will stipulated that the money fund a program to save Siamese cats from the endangered species list. Young Rabbi Stilerman — or Norman, as he was now known to his coworkers — immediately set about contacting any institution he thought might join the rescue effort. He got no takers. The problem, he quickly learned, was that the money in the bequest was simply not enough to do anything: a truly successful operation would cost millions of dollars.
He reported his gloomy findings to his supervisor, but got little in the way of encouraging feedback. Come back with a plan, he was told — or you’re out. Reb Nochum returned to his office to contemplate. For some odd reason the firm had supplied him with two live Siamese cats, which reposed in his office. Entranced by their blue eyes, he suddenly found a firm resolve. “Don’t worry, I’m going to save you,” he told the cats. (“I was talking to them by this point,” he confesses.)
He hit upon the idea of using the bequest money to run a fundraising campaign, which would raise the amount needed to fund the larger effort to save Siamese cats from extinction. He ran back down his list of institutions and got a tentative go-ahead for the project from Columbia University. And was his campaign ultimately successful? Rabbi Stilerman smiles. “Let me ask you, did you ever have any idea that Siamese cats were once on the endangered species list?”
A Brachah for the Shamash
Although he basked in the accolades of his colleagues, Reb Nochum now knew he did not want to spend the rest of his life in marketing. When an opportunity came up with a large pro-Israel organization, he was unsure whether to pursue it — he would be the only frum employee there, and also the youngest, at 25 — and approached Rav Moshe Feinstein ztzl”l for guidance. (Reb Nochum had a relationship with the gadol hador through his regular attendance at Rav Feinstein’s Chumash shiurim.) Reb Moshe counseled him to apply for the job, and he was soon hired.
Reb Nochum had been with the organization just a few months when it began preparing for its large annual convention in Los Angeles. That year, 1967, the convention came on the heels of Israel’s astounding victory in the Six Day War. The event therefore attracted particularly keen interest; both IDF chief of staff Yitzchak Rabin and Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon were tabbed as speakers. Sensing the opportunity to make a dramatic impact, the organization’s CEO convened a meeting of the board to solicit suggestions for his planned convention speech. Reb Nochum was among the administrative staff invited to the meeting, and when the CEO went around the room to invite input, Reb Nochum was ready.
“I had come up with some ideas that would really put us on the cutting edge,” Rabbi Stilerman recounts. “When my turn came, I put it all out there. I called it ‘seizing the time’; this was right after the Six Day War, and everyone in America had become very pro-Israel. I said we should do a few things to capitalize on it: mint a commemorative coin that said, ‘America and Israel, A Common Destiny,’ and start a big membership drive for our organization. I said we could ride the coattails and double our membership. The CEO pondered for a moment, and then said, ‘I’ve never heard such a stupid, idiotic thing in my life. That’s what happens when you hire a guy with a yarmulke.’
There was a stunned silence in the room, and the meeting awkwardly moved on to the next agenda item, but Reb Nochum was reeling.
“People came up to me afterward to offer encouragement, telling me my idea was great, and it wasn’t right for the CEO to have treated me that way,” Rabbi Stilerman says. “I was ready to quit. But I had a family to support. I couldn’t afford to be principled. I asked Reb Moshe about it. He said, ‘It happens.’ He advised me to tough it out.”
The planning for the convention proceeded apace until the big day arrived. The day went smoothly. After the big-name speakers had exited the stage to applause, the organization’s CEO rose to address the gathering. He took the microphone, and everyone in the hall waited breathlessly — the organization’s staff, most of all.
As the CEO began speaking, his topic suddenly became clear— he was using Reb Nochum’s same suggestion about “seizing the time” that he had himself so gruffly rejected months before. No sooner had he finished his first sentence than the hall erupted in wild applause. The other staffers and directors recognized Reb Nochum’s concept also, and soon he was bombarded with a volley of handshakes and back-slaps.
“The CEO could see he got a great response the first time,” Reb Nochum recaps, “so he kept reworking it. He must have said it six different ways. Every time, the crowd loved it. He finished his speech to a standing ovation.”
After the CEO descended the dais, Reb Nochum joined the receiving line to offer congratulations. The CEO warmly shook every hand that was offered to him — except Reb Nochum’s.
“I held my hand out, but he just looked at me for a second, then looked away and walked right by,” he says. “I was devastated. I was so upset, I didn’t know what to do with myself — I just burst into tears.”
At that moment, another member of the organization, Marvin Schubow, approached him with a vort that gives Rabbi Stilerman chizuk to this day.
“He spoke to me about the Chanukah licht,” he recounts. “He said, ‘You know that the shamash lights all the other candles, and then stands aside while the brachah is said. The brachah is only for the candles, while the shamash has already been set aside and forgotten. But if the shamash hadn’t done its job, there would be no light.’
“Then he set me straight. He said, ‘Your job is to be the shamash. Your job is to enable other people to shine, while you remain in the background. Get that through your head. If you can’t, this job is not for you.
Reb Nochum ably served the organization in the role of shamash, applying his creative energies to fundraising, and developed campaigns that brought in $200 million during his tenure. After eight years in the organization, he again sought Rav Moshe Feinstein’s career advice; this time, Reb Moshe told him the time had come to leave.
Over the next ten years he worked for Ohr HaTorah Institutions, the OU, and Boys Town Jerusalem. Subsequently, he opened his own fundraising and management consulting firm, serving a multitude of organizations, including Sloan-Kettering Hospital, the Bronx Zoo, Cancer Care, Channel 13, the National Kidney Foundation, the World Hunger Fund, and American Veterans.
In 1987, Reb Nochum was approached by Zev Wolfson z”l, who strongly advised him to redirect his energies. As Mr. Wolfson put it in his fervent style: “The time has come for you to utilize your many talents and focus on saving neshamos.” That eventually became Reb Nochum’s passion, and he spent the next 25 years working for kiruv, while learning part-time. Ohr Somayach Yerushalayim, Neve Yerushalayim College, Acheinu, the Gateways Outreach Organization, Aish HaTorah, and the Network of American Outreach Kollelim were among those who benefited from his input. By the end of his 50-year career, he was at the top of his field. He attributes the bulk of his achievement to success in relationships — which would become the cornerstone of his SMART plan.
“The Ribono shel Olam planted in us a need to connect,” he says. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught me that Hashem gave us a need to connect to Him, and the primary way to connect to Him is through connecting to other people. A person needs to connect to Hashem, to others , and to oneself.
At a certain point, Rabbi Stilerman realized that the principles he applied in his work were transferrable. He culled these skills from his experience and distilled them into a program he called the SMART system. (“There’s a researcher in New Zealand doing his doctoral thesis now on this who first coined that term,” Reb Nochum interjects.) In 1984, for the first time, he parlayed this collected wisdom into a seminar at the New York Hilton, titled “How to Raise Big Bucks the SMART Way.” He charged participants a fee of $800 — “In those days that was real money.” He recalls that there were only two frum Jews in attendance: future Young Israel president Rabbi Pesach Lerner, then a bochur in the Denver yeshivah, and future OU executive vice president Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, then the national director of NCSY.
At this point, Rebbetzin Stilerman, who has been sitting in on the interview, cuts in. “My husband usually charges a lot of money for giving over the SMART system. I’m wondering how come you’re getting it for free.”
Rabbi Stilerman calls the SMART plan a “strategic discipline system,” a carefully constructed network of defenses against the yetzer hara, which seeks to thwart all grand plans and dreams. The plan is expressly geared to enable a person to overcome the inertia and apathy that sets in after the initial inspiration expires.
“It’s important to understand that this is not an art,” Rabbi Stilerman emphasizes. “Artistic talent is something inborn — you either have it or you don’t. The SMART system teaches skills. A skill is something that doesn’t have to be inborn — it can be learned. This system can be learned by anyone. After a while it becomes second nature.”
As readers have probably guessed by now, SMART is an acronym: specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, and tefillah. (See sidebar.) The system lays out a roadmap for setting specific goals — measuring progress toward attaining them, building a network of friends and mentors who ensure accountability, offering reality checks when an idea goes too far; and, when all the hishtadlus has been done, presenting the offering to Hashem and asking Him to fill in what’s missing.
“The Milwaukee Rebbe, Rav Michel Twerski, who I consider myself close to, likes to say there are three kinds of people in the world,” Reb Nochum says. “There are those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who stand around afterward asking, ‘What happened?’ This system makes a reactive person proactive. It gives you the opportunity to live your life by design, not by default.
“It takes an investment of time,” he stresses, “but that shouldn’t present an obstacle. I compare it to the lumberjack who’s trying to cut down a tree with an old ax. You tell him, ‘You know, you could do this a lot quicker and better with a chainsaw.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, but who has the time to go buy a chainsaw?’
Relationships are the key feature of the plan. “Yahadus can be boiled down to one word: relationships,” says Reb Nochum. “Relationships with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, with other people, and with ourselves. When you’re developing a goal for yourself, you have to think about how this will affect others. By doing this you become a meitiv, and this will draw down siyata d’Shmaya.”
Involving others in your plan brings a side benefit, Rabbi Stilerman points out. “The main thing that propels me forward is the encouragement that others give me — especially at my age. Also, when you have successes, it brings you kavod, which is an important thing. And on the flip side, when the yetzer hara is holding you back, now you also have to worry about the other people who know about your plan, what they’ll think if they don’t see you applying yourself. Embarrassment is a good motivator.”
Rabbi Stilerman has applied all these principles in developing the plan for learning kol haTorah kulah beyond his 93rd birthday — a plan that extends across 23 and a half years, some 1,207 weeks, up until July 12, 2034. Every one of those 8,441 days is scheduled to the minute. And if he had already publicized his plan to his wide circle of acquaintances before the 12th Siyum HaShas — well, now the whole world knows. Thus, he says, he came to this interview with one goal in mind.
“I would hope that everyone reading this article, before they put this magazine down, will make a plan,” he says. “Set a specific goal, something you’ve always wanted to achieve. Figure out how you’re going to measure your progress, to hold yourself to it. Then call someone — someone who will be mechayev you. Rav Yisrael Salanter said that changing a middah is harder than learning all of Shas. But I can tell you, once you begin scheduling your priorities into your life, it becomes a habit. And if you make this a habit, you’ve gained a gift for life.”
Now, that’s a plan.
The following is a general outline of Rabbi Stilerman’s SMART plan. SMART stands for the program’s five components: specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, and tefillah.
Specific. “The plan has to specifically state a long-term goal and a short-term goal,” says Reb Nochum. “It has to say, ‘I want to complete Shas, one daf a day.’ That’s really what Rav Meir Shapiro had in mind when he came out with the daf yomi program.” The goal should also include other people. “There’s almost no goal you can set for yourself that doesn’t affect other people,” says Reb Nochum. “If you want to go on a diet, your improved health will benefit your family. If you want to finish Shas, you’re benefiting Klal Yisrael. Any goal you come up with that does not in some way involve other people is really not a goal worth pursuing.” Furthermore, leveraging one’s connections with other people can act as a check on one’s own behavior. “Rav Dessler ztz”l, author of Michtav MeEliyahu, wanted to quit smoking,” Rabbi Stilerman says by way of example. “He recognized the difficulty of trying to accomplish this on his own, so he made sure to tell everyone around him about his plan. Now he knew that he couldn’t go anywhere to light up a cigarette. He’d be immediately confronted by someone demanding to know what happened to his plan to quit.”
Measurable. Attainment of your goals has to be measured by a set of clear objectives, a checklist, with milestones. “With some goals this is easier,” Rabbi Stilerman admits. “With daf yomi, with fundraising, the objectives are very quantifiable. But what about improving your avodas Hashem? You have to figure out how you’re going to measure that. It can’t just be, ‘I’ll daven with more kavanah.’ You have to come up with a scorecard for yourself.”
The other purpose of a scorecard is to show when victory has been achieved. “A critical part of the plan is celebrating successes — publicly. The celebration gives chizuk to yourself and includes others in your accomplishment, which in turn gives them chizuk. The more public the celebration, the more it reinforces your plan, reverberates to others, and builds on itself.”
Reaching a milestone also provides opportunity for taking stock. “I call this the RUB formula: Review, upgrade, and broaden. First, gauge what parts of the plan are working, and what parts aren’t. Then, make what I call an upgrade: drop any aspect where you’re falling down. After upgrading, broaden the plan, by telling even more people about it.
“The term upgrade is very important psychologically. It’s important to conceive of this as a redirecting and refocusing of your energies, and not as a failure. Because once you form a negative image that you have failed, that often ends the plan.
“And the timing for this is also critical. You should be making this decision at the time of the celebration, when you’re malei simchah.”
Accountable. “You have to ask yourself: Who am I accountable to?” says Rabbi Stilerman. “A fundraiser is accountable to his boss, to the stakeholders — donors, the beneficiaries of the funds, Klal Yisrael — and, ultimately, as I learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, also to himself.”
Even outside the fundraising arena, a person needs to develop accountability for himself, Reb Nochum advises. “The mind is a great rationalizer. We even rationalize on Hashem’s behalf: ‘HaKadosh Baruch Hu will understand if I don’t get up early today, since I was out late at a chasunah last night.’ The only way to avoid this trap is to have a mentor and a friend. Just like the mishnah in Avos says, ‘Asei lecha rav, k’neh lecha chaver.’ The yetzer hara is very experienced — you need siyata d’Shmaya to overcome it in any event. But if you don’t have a rav and friends who will push you along, you’ll take shochad from the yetzer hara.”
Realistic. When one implements this part of the plan, Rabbi Stilerman says it is crucial to ask oneself two questions: a) Did anyone ever before do what I’m planning to do? And b) What’s my own track record on endeavors like this? It’s important to arrive at honest answers to these questions, he says, because setting unrealistic expectations can have devastating consequences when they go unmet.
“Everyone’s heard the expression, ‘Nothing succeeds like success,’” says Reb Nochum, “but I’d like to add a corollary: ‘Nothing fails like failure.’ If you experience a really crushing failure, it can set you way back in terms of your own inspiration and motivation.
Tefillah. Rav Stilerman says that this final component is the most important to the success of the entire plan. “Without tefillah, without the knowledge that we put in our hishtadlus but the end results are really up to Hashem … it won’t go,” he states simply. It’s a balance, however: “I taught this course in Lakewood about eight years ago. Once the mashgiach, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, sat in. At the end he said, ‘Without tefillah, nothing happens. Of course we have to do our hishtadlus. This hishtadlus includes heartfelt tefillah, and b’ezras Hashem our tefillos will be answered with tovah.’
“That’s really the most empowering part. After you do your hishtadlus, you can just be calm knowing that Hashem will do His.”
Who’s the Real Giver?
Rabbi Stilerman says that sometimes, the greatest gift you can give is enabling someone else to be the giver. He shares a story. “My brother Rav Pinchas Gruman lives in Los Angeles, one of founding rabbanim of the kehillah there. (Yes, we have the same two parents, but when we escaped Russia, we had to change passports, and he and I ended up with different last names.) He’s one of five people to have smichah from Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l. Rav Shneur Kotler ztz”l was very close to my brother, and stayed at his house all the time when he came to California. Once I happened to be there at my brother’s house at the same time as Reb Shneur. He asked me to come along with him to one of the balabatim, whom I knew through my own fundraising. Reb Shneur gave him a pitch for Lakewood. This gvir was very much moved. I didn’t usually see that when I went to him. He also usually didn’t write a check right away, but this time he did.
“Reb Shneur thanked him very much, we went out and he unfolded the check and saw that it was for $100. He became very distraught, to the point of tears. I tried to comfort him, but he waved me off. He explained that what saddened him so greatly was that this check was this man’s whole connection to Yiddishkeit. ‘I’m not crying for myself,’ Reb Shneur said. ‘I’m crying for his lost opportunity, for his neshamah. He could have built Lakewood. I’m not sad for myself, I did my hishtadlus. I feel bad for him.’
“Rav Shneur told me, bsheim his father, that if you enable other people to give, it’s much greater than if you give yourself.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 428)