| Magazine Feature |

The One-Hundred Percenter

Rav Yechiel Perr, founder of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, believed in pushing his talmidim to their maximum, yet he was no anxious perfectionist. He taught young men to calmly live life doing what’s right and figure out how to be their best selves.

Photos Mattis Goldberg, Personal Archives

South Ozone Park, Long Island, in the 1930s: an insignificant hamlet buried in the gaping maw of Long Island on the outskirts of New York City. Yet a soft green shoot, poking through the gravel and concrete-locked streets would eventually lay deep roots, drawing sustenance from life-giving subterranean wells, growing tall to spread shade and beauty throughout the world. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Rav Yechiel Yitzchok Perr ztz”l.

As a wide-eyed child, he imbibed authenticity and appreciation for Torah at home. His father, Rav Menachem Mendel Perr, rav of a local shul, served as a lighthouse to lost and drifting Jewish souls. He was learned yet humble, eschewing the kavod of leading larger, more successful shuls, or even of just sitting on the mizrach vant. Reb Menachem Mendel chose to sit among his balabatim, gravitating toward those who talked in shul, seeking to improve their conduct without explicit tochachah. Later, even when he would daven in Reb Yechiel’s yeshivah, he refused to sit on the mizrach vant.

Reb Menachem Mendel was a soft, shy person, but tough and unyielding when he saw a threat to kevod Shamayim. He would object if a speaker at a eulogy implied that the deceased was in Gan Eden, despite not having observed one letter of the Torah. On many occasions, Rav Perr would later emulate his father’s humility and strength, taking positions that were right, albeit unpopular.

When Yechiel was just a young boy learning Mishnayos Bava Metzia with his father, they came across the halachah that if a Kohein tells his son to retrieve a lost item from a cemetery, the son may not obey. Reb Menachem Mendel paused, then said to his son, “Yechiel, I want you to know, if I ever tell you to do something that you think is wrong, you shouldn’t listen to me.”

Yechiel was shocked, but internalized the lesson, which became a cornerstone of his philosophy of life. Everyone must listen to the small voice in his mind, the one that tells him right from wrong. A person is misled when he lets this voice be drowned out, either by his own rationalizations or external, even authoritative, voices.

Reb Yechiel’s mother was a fiercely religious woman as well. Her mantra was, “We are all in service of the L-rd!” Although she was intensely proud of a daughter’s higher education, when they began reciting a non-Jewish prayer at the graduation ceremony, she jumped up and grabbed her children by the hands, saying firmly, “Come children, we’re not going to stay here while they pray to foreign gods.”

A teenaged Yechiel attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin for high school, after which he was one of the earliest students of the Philadelphia Yeshivah. Following that, he learned under Rav Aharon Kotler in Lakewood, quickly becoming one of Rav Aharon’s prized talmidim. Rav Aharon even called his talmid by his first name, a rare sign of distinction.

Rav Aharon entrusted Rav Perr to carry out various missions, and he accompanied the Rosh Yeshivah on a number of fundraising trips. Once, at the prompting of his friends, Reb Yechiel once worked up the gumption to ask Rav Aharon why specifically he was forced on occasion to tear himself away from his beloved Gemara for these tasks. Rav Aharon’s answer would guide Reb Yechiel throughout his life: “Vayl du kenst! Because you can!”

The awe and trepidation Reb Yechiel felt toward Rav Aharon were palpable. He would quote Rebbetzin Kotler, referring to the day of Rav Aharon’s petirah as “the day of the Churban,” and would often deliver a hesped on Rav Aharon’s yahrtzeit. One year, before uttering Rav Aharon’s name, he said, “The oilam knows that I don’t like shtick.” Then he stood up and said Rav Aharon’s name, before sitting back down and continuing his hesped. He would paint a picture of Jewish life in early 20th-century America, trying to impress upon his students the total revolution Rav Aharon had wrought.

Throughout his life, Rav Perr would zealously guard his rebbi’s legacy, and he bristled whenever stories about Rav Aharon were manufactured or even altered in the slightest way, easily ticking through a list of elements in the story that were untrue. Accuracy and truth were paramount to him; he had notebooks upon notebooks of stories, vertlach, and insights from Rav Aharon and the many other gedolim he had met, and he would consult them often to ensure that nothing he quoted was false or exaggerated, even after the passage of many years. Here too, he was influenced by Rav Aharon, who was an expert on stories about the Vilna Gaon and was fastidious about relaying them accurately. Reb Yechiel was one of a group of only three talmidim who learned Chovos Halevovos, Shaar Habitachon with Rav Aharon, during which the Rosh Yeshivah would recount story after story about gedolim of yesteryear.

When Rav Yechiel married tbdlch”t Rebbetzin Shoshana Perr, nee Nekritz, great-granddaughter of the Alter of Novardok, an important new thread was introduced into the warp and weft of his worldview. His marriage brought Rav Yechiel into the orbit of such storied Novardoker gedolim as Rav Avraham Yoffen and Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz. Characteristically, Rav Yechiel studied and imbibed their teachings until he became one of the foremost mussar masters of his day.

In 1969, Rav Nachman Bulman and Rav Perr  founded the Yeshivah of Far Rockaway on the twin bedrocks of Torah and mussar. A sign hanging in the old yeshivah building read: This yeshivah was built for the purpose of teaching Torah and mussar.

The yeshivah endured many years of financial and communal difficulties. At the time, Far Rockaway was a very American neighborhood with little notion of serious yeshivah education and values. Nevertheless, Rav Perr persevered, while never compromising on his scrupulous honesty. As one example, he refused to represent himself as a resident of the dorm building, even though it would have saved the yeshivah thousands of dollars in mortgage costs. In this way, he trained generation after generation of committed talmidei chachamim, rabbanim, lay leaders, and balabatim. Upon hearing the news of his petirah, many of his students asked sh’eilahs whether they should tear their clothing in mourning.

True to his identity as a baal mussar, Rav Perr remained humble and kind, even as the number and prominence of his talmidim exponentially grew. He never felt it beneath him to be involved in the minute and prosaic details of his family members’ lives. He played games with his children, told them stories, and helped with science projects. When his father-in-law passed away, Rav Yechiel arranged for his mother-in-law to move into the upstairs of his home, just across the hall, sacrificing his personal privacy for 20 years. She also accompanied the Perrs to Camp Bnos, where they spent their summers as head staff.

Rav Perr’s position never led him down the path of egotism and ga’avah. He recalled his father-in-law’s wry vort about rabbinic kavod: “When you’re invited to a chasunah, do you think they really want you there? They just need a kapoteh (frock) there. They don’t need you.”  Rav Perr expanded upon this: “I could just send them my kapoteh on a hanger or a mannequin. I’m nothing more than a prop to show the audience that the baalei simchah are a frum family in good standing, complete with a frocked clergy member. The meal needs candles, and the chuppah needs a gray-bearded overweight man wearing rabbinic garb.”

Much like a brilliant diamond, it’s impossible to isolate the defining facet of Rav Perr’s personality. He was a gaon in Torah, and baal mussar par exellance; expert in halachah, and immersed in machshavah. He was perfectly comfortable in crowds, but also by himself. He knew what to say to the grieving widow, the depressed young man, the struggling bochur. And he was content to sit alone, gazing at the lights of the menorah, deep in thought. He had no use for inanities, but he could engage in lighthearted conversation to put a person at ease.

He was exceedingly busy, yet also serene, with an appreciation for the small things in life. When Rav Perr’s longtime partner in chinuch, Rav Aaron Brafman a”h,  menahel of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, would deliberate whether to declare a snow day after a heavy snowstorm, the Rosh Yeshivah in turn would encourage Rabbi Brafman to enjoy the beautiful snowscape. Rav Perr then made his way home, singing, “Zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagilah v’nismechah voh! — This is the day that Hashem has made; let us be joyful and happy on it!”

He was deeply passionate, idealistic, and inspirational, yet down-to-earth and practical. He preached the Alter of Novardok’s intense form of bitachon, but also encouraged people far from that level to take, as he would say, “just a sliver of bitachon into our little pockets.” He navigated thorny questions such as whether and how a baalas teshuvah should sit shivah for her loving non-Jewish father. On Yom Kippur, he would encourage everyone to make a kabbalah, then split it in half, and resolve to keep it only until Chanukah.

Rav Perr emphasized the importance of being, as he called it, a “one-hundred percenter,” not an “eighty-five percenter,” whether in Torah, tefillah, middos, or even worldly work. Nevertheless, he did not allow himself to be paralyzed by perfectionism. Something could be “good enough,” but only if that was the extent of what he could accomplish at that moment, not because he couldn’t be bothered to extend greater effort.

He was cerebral and philosophical, yet intensely emotional. He routinely shed tears when saying Shema on Yom Kippur. His son Rav Avraham Perr tells how on a recent Erev Pesach, his father sat in his house reading the parshah of the Korban Pesach with tears streaming down his face. Behind the letters on the page, he could hear the animals bleating, feel the spray of blood, and almost taste the roasted meat. Alas, Hashem decreed it out of reach.

He was curious about everything in the world, from traffic signs to the latest physics discovery out of the Large Hadron Collider. He wanted to learn from everything and everyone, and most of all from gedolei Yisrael. Before taking some of his children to visit Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, he instructed them pay attention to everything they noticed in the gadol’s home.

After hearing his creative pshat in a maamar Chazal, a person would never see it the same way. His close readings of Chazal’s words, and even the pauses in their conversations, would reveal precious insights. Rabbi Chaim Bressler, a talmid chaver of Reb Yechiel, related that he once overheard two yeshivahleit speaking in Lakewood Yeshivah many years ago. One said, “So and so thinks like Yechiel Perr.” The other responded, “No one thinks like Yechiel Perr!”

Rav Perr never shied away from the subject of death, seeing a person’s eventual death as an important tool for stripping away temporal, fleeting concerns and preoccupations. Before each Neilah, he would urge the congregants to rally their last vestiges of strength. “Rabbosai,” he would say, his imposing figure only slightly stooped from the long fast, his advanced years, and having served as the shaliach tzibbur for Mussaf, “I want to remind you why we say Avinu Malkeinu during Neilah even on Shabbos — because it’s pikuach nefesh mamash!”

He would never tire of expounding upon G-d’s awesomeness, by trying to illustrate the vastness of the cosmos. “Imagine you get into your car and really floor it. You don’t stop for gas, bathroom breaks, or to change a tire. Even you guys who just started driving would probably get bored after a while. Just keep driving for hundreds, thousands, and millions of years — you would not reach your destination of one light year until over eleven million years! Now, just multiply that by fourteen billion, and you’ll have an idea of how big the universe is.”

One time a person called Rav Perr about a shidduch with a certain Novardoker’s daughter. Reb Yechiel told him, “I really don’t know the girl, but the father is extraordinary.”

“What is he? Is he a mashgiach?” the man inquired.

“No, he’s not a mashgiach.”

“Is he a rosh yeshivah?”

“He’s not a rosh yeshivah. He’s a serious talmid chacham, but not a rosh yeshivah.”

“So then what is he?” the man wanted to know. Rav Perr thought for a moment or two and then said, “You know what he is? He’s the kind of person to whom it does not matter at all if you know what he is.”

The line went silent for a minute, and then the caller asked the question we all should ask: “You mean such people really exist?”

Yes, such a person existed. And we knew and loved him.

Rabbi Yehuda Meir Keilson is a talmid of Rav Yechiel Perr and authored two books of Rav Perr’s mussar vaadim, entitled Mind over Man and Faith over Fear (Israel Bookshop Publications). He translated and annotated a number of Jewish classics for ArtScroll Mesorah, including a two-volume Derashos HaRan, and a series of  Kisvei HaRambam.


A Faithful Conduit
Eytan Kobre

Almost exactly thirty years ago, I placed an ad in the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway dinner journal. The yeshivah was led by Rav Yechiel Perr, whom I had gotten to know just a few years earlier.

My ad read: In honor of the Rosh Yeshiva, about whom we cite the words of Shir HaShirim, B’tzilo chimadti v’yoshavti u’piryo mosok l’chiki, in his shade I delighted and there I sat, and his fruit was sweet to my palate.

Several days later, a letter arrived from the Rosh Yeshivah.

After we came home from the dinner, my wife and I sat down and read the dinner journal for the first time. And there we came across your message. I want you to know how touched we both are by your words, by your caring and by the loyalty you demonstrate.

Read those words again. The emotion they bear within them, their elegance. Do you see why I found the Rosh Yeshivah’s fruit so sweet, why I took such delight just to sit in his shade? No one – no one – wrote like Rabbi Perr, spoke like Rabbi Perr. And most of all, as my cousin Rav Chaim Bressler said in his hesped, quoting what he overheard a bochur say about the Rosh Yeshivah when he was yet a young man in the Lakewood of the ’50s, “No one thinks like Yechiel Perr…”

He was just different.

Plainspoken, yet profound. The two were symbiotic, with the profundity made all the more powerful when clothed in simple, direct words. The Rosh Yeshivah lobbed rhetorical bombs. Consider: “What is mussar? Mussar is hope.” Boom.

Confident in who he was, in what he knew and had received, and in what he had to give, yet never taking himself too seriously. He was real beyond real. So real that I’m not certain people would be ready to read examples of his realness.

Highly original in his way of thinking, in how he approached a Chazal, in how he expressed himself, while remaining so deeply connected and submissive to his great rebbeim, to gedolei hadoros. He was a faithful conduit to the glory of the pre-war European olam hayeshivos; a story told by the Rosh Yeshivah came with dates and names and whom he’d heard it from.

A number of years after that earlier dinner, I was a dinner honoree for the yeshivah; it must’ve been a slow year and they were desperate (even the fact that my wife would be out-of-town that evening didn’t deter them). In my remarks, I said I assumed I knew why the Rosh Yeshivah had chosen me as an honoree — as a true Novardoker, he wanted me to grow from an experience that shared much with asking for nails in a grocery store.

But why, I continued, did I accept the “honor”? Because, I said, I had experienced from the Rosh Yeshivah a sense of caring that I had previously only felt from my father, alav hashalom.

Perhaps countless hundreds felt that way; I have no idea. I only know how he and the Rebbetzin made us feel. We weren’t family — at least of the conventional kind. We weren’t talmidim. And yet, the pride they took in us, the twinkle in the eye when they spoke with us, the feeling that even if we didn’t feel we were special, for some inexplicable reason they thought so about us — there are no words for all that.

And now he has left, ascended. And Elisha’s words as Eliyahu ascended on high well up within my heart: Avi, avi – my father, my father.

Eytan Kobre is a writer who lives in Bayswater, New York.


No Lost Links
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

On Erev Pesach, 1969, I came to the Novardok yeshivah in Brooklyn to daven Minchah. The yeshivah was located close to my future in-laws, and I was intrigued by mussar at the time.

I knew no one there, but Rav Yechiel Perr came over, sat down, and befriended me, and as I came from Boston to Brooklyn with some frequency over the next year, we became close. On Erev Pesach one year later, his wife’s grandfather, Rav Avraham Yoffen, died in Jerusalem. Rav Yoffen was the son-in-law and successor of Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novardok (1849-1919), and led the legendary expansion of the Novardok network in inter-war Poland.

Now, on the day Rav Yoffen died, Rav Perr came over and sat down next to me again. He was broken. How could the family possibly make a Seder that night? The next day he told me how agonizing the Seder was.

For Rav Perr, it was a personal loss — but more than a personal loss. Mournfully, he told me: “He was the link, the last link, to the world of Novardok that is no more. Its unique spiritual feeling, tone and practices — he was the last link, and now he is gone.” Rav Perr was in deep mourning.

As I got to know Rav Perr more over the decades of our friendship, I came to see how this was the only thing he ever taught me that was wrong. Rav Yoffen was not the last link! True enough, the Novardok yeshivos of pre-war Europe and the unbelievable self-sacrifice of its students — many stayed in the yeshivah even though they had no shoes, and others founded yeshivos without a penny to their name — was gone. But the adaptation of Novardokk to a very different world was underway, due to Rav Perr. He translated the Novardok idiom in thought, in shmuessen, in commentaries on the Alter’s masterpiece of mussar, Madreigas HaAdam, and, most importantly, in practice.

Rav Yoffen was not the last link. For a while I thought that Rav Perr himself was the last link. This, too, I came to see, is wrong, Rav Perr, staring into the abyss of what he thought was the last link, rescued the elevated spiritual mode of mussar known as Novardok and created new links, new continuity, new generations. Even as he could not reach the level of Rav Yoffen and we cannot reach the level of Rav Perr, we, due to his tireless teaching and confidence, can sustain his ideals in our own world.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the editor and publisher of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver, Colorado, and the author of numerous seforim about the mussar movement and other subjects.


Learn to Say It
Yisrael Bachrach

I had the privilege of learning in a mussar vaad with the Rosh Yeshivah from 2013 to 2016. Periodically, the Rosh Yeshivah instructed us to practice fundamental ideas we discussed — he called it “homework.” We were to complete the homework and report back to vaad the next day about the experience.

The Rosh Yeshivah encouraged us to live life lishmah, which he defined as doing what’s right because it’s right. He explained that doing things lishmah doesn’t require lofty thoughts or special kavanah, it just means doing chesed, for example, because it is the right thing. The Rosh Yeshivah cautioned that it is difficult to do things purely lishmah, since we enjoy recognition and kavod from others who notice our good deeds.

“Do a significant chesed for others, and don’t tell anyone about it for three weeks,” he told us. “And if you can hold it in for longer, don’t share it for another week and then another week…”

Another time, the Rosh Yeshivah emphasized the importance of admitting your faults. Even if you realize you made a mistake, he said, you seldom admit it, preferring to shift blame elsewhere. He taught that a person must learn to say, “I was wrong” and take responsibility for words or actions that were incorrect.

The Rosh Yeshivah instructed us to practice saying the words, “I was wrong” for 24 hours as many times as possible. For instance, when you are learning and your chavrusa says a better terutz than you, instead of just agreeing with him, say, “I was wrong and your answer seems right.”

I remember the Rosh Yeshivah adding, “If you learn to say, ‘I was wrong’ to your chavrusa maybe you will learn to say it to your wife too.”

The Rosh Yeshivah often stressed the importance of honesty, including not exaggerating or twisting the truth in any way. The problem, he explained, is that we are so used to overstating or adjusting the truth to fit a narrative, we don’t notice how often this happens. To work on speaking the emes, we need to notice the words we say.

One example he gave was telling your chavrusa, “I’ll be back in a second.” It’s never one second, and it’s not emes. Same with, “I told you a million times!”

“Keep a tally over the next 24 hours,” he instructed us. “Take note any time you catch yourselves saying something that is not 100 percent true.”

When I returned from an exciting Chol Hamoed trip this Pesach, someone asked, “So, was it the best day ever?”

“It was a really great day, but it’s hard to know if it was the best day ever,” I responded.

The lesson stuck; I’m still trying to speak with complete honesty, as the Rosh Yeshivah taught us.

Yisrael Bachrach learns in Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.


My Two Teachers
Alan Morinis

When I originally stumbled on mussar in my reading in 1997, I wanted to learn more, so I phoned Rav Perr and said I wanted to meet. I arrived at the yeshivah he had founded in Far Rockaway — the first time in my life I set foot in a yeshivah.

Rav Perr welcomed me, a total stranger from another world, with a warm kiss on the cheek. The warmth of his greeting drew me closer, opening the door to a deep, personal, extended relationship with him, with Rebbetzin Perr, their children, and the Far Rockaway community. I stayed in their home, I ate at their table, I sang with them on Shabbos, and I was welcome to ask anything that came to mind.

From this giant of a man, I received a transmission of a distinctly Jewish spiritual light, a transmission he had received from his own father and teachers. It is his legacy that, to the best of my ability, the same light illuminates my writing and ourwork at The Mussar Institute. One time when I was in New York, I called Rav Perr to ask if I could come to Far Rockaway for a visit. He said the timing was not good, because Mrs. Perr had had surgery and he had errands to do. I offered to come along with him, and he agreed.

Our first stop was the supermarket. Rav Perr took a cart, and I put my hands on the handle to push it for him — but he would not release his hands.

“This is my mitzvah,” he said, referring to taking care of his wife in her hour of need.

“It is my mitzvah to serve my teacher,” I countered.

Rabbi Perr accepted that, but he still did not release his hands. And so we went through the supermarket with four hands pushing the cart, each of us fulfilling our mitzvah.

Rav and Rebbetzin Perr were a team, and while she deferred to him in the areas where he had greater expertise or responsibility, it was never as a junior partner but as a wise equal. I would be sitting with him in his study late at night learning from him and Mrs. Perr would come to the door and ask, “Yechiel, can I sit and listen?”

Within 30 seconds, he would say something to which she would softly say, “Yechiel, that’s not the way my father told it over.”

“Nu,” he would say, “What did your father say?” and he would listen to her version with an open mind.

It was in tribute to those precious conversations that I dedicated my book, Everyday Holiness, to “my two mussar teachers.”

Alan Morinis, PhD, is the founder of The Mussar Institute and author of the book “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” which documents his encounter with Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr.


You Can Do It
Rabbi Zev Kaufman 

When I was a twelfth grader in YFR, an older chavrusa suggested I check out the Rosh Yeshivah’s vaadim. I was extremely nervous, as I had never approached the almost seven-foot giant at the front of the beis medrash, but of course I had heard about the legendary Novardok mussar vaadim, exclusive to the older bochurim.

He would give the talmidim assignments: “Call your mother and tell her you love her — and don’t tell her I told you to do it,” or “Respectfully criticize an older person who you see doing something wrong.”

I shuffled nervously to the Rosh Yeshivah’s desk.

“Would it be possible to join the Rosh Yeshivah’s vaad?” I stammered.

After gazing at me for what seemed like an eternity, he answered, “Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

At the first vaad I attended, the Rosh Yeshivah was discussing initiative. He painted a scene: You’re on a plane, and all the pilots became incapacitated midflight. You don’t know how to fly a plane, neither does anyone else, and everyone is paralyzed with fear. Do you enter the cockpit and give it a try?

I approached the Rosh Yeshivah afterward and held up my hands, showing him where my nails had dug in as I was immersed in the vaad.

“I don’t know if this is for me,” I said.

“Keep coming,” he responded.

Each of those vaadim opened new vistas of kochos hanefesh. The Rosh Yeshivah taught us that we aren’t stuck with our middos, but that we have the ability to mold ourselves: rooting out negios (internal biases), taking new paths, and always growing. The Rosh Yeshivah taught us to take life seriously in his discussions of chinuch and rabbanus, the pros, cons, and gravity of the responsibility of guiding a shul, a yeshivah, a community, all with the objective to empower us to take responsibility, make decisions, and above all, think as individuals, not as mindless followers of the herd. He would often speak of his relationship with Rav Aharon Kotler, teaching us the most powerful life principle: “If you can do it, you must do it.”
When I was a bochur, the Rosh Yeshivah told me the yeshivah needed a new tune for Mizmor L’Dovid for Shalosh Seudos. Until then, I’d composed songs only as they came; I had never consciously sat down to write a tune. But the Rosh Yeshivah said I could, so I sat to review the meforshim on that kapitel — and a song was born.

The Rosh Yeshivah asked me to, so I discovered I could. And have continuously discovered more that I can do, and therefore must do, because of his belief in me.

Rabbi Zev Kaufman is a rebbi in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, a singer/songwriter, and founder of the Cedar Media Studios creative marketing agency.


Make Your Dream Your Reality
Rabbi Yosef Brown

The Rosh Yeshivah knew that one of the biggest impediments to growth in Yiddishkeit is the discomfort of “What will people think?” He trained us to develop our ability to go against the tide by asking us to do a small act we would be uncomfortable with. We would thereby gain a resilience to others’ opinions, on order to learn to stand up for the ratzon Hashem, even under social or other pressure. I, for example, decided to wear a tie on Shabbos three inches longer than usual. Over the course of Shabbos, I realized that most of what I believe other people think is only in my own head — and even if it is in fact in their head as well, why should that stop me from pursuing what I hold to be correct? This exercise did its job; it became clear that if I would focus only on things that are truly important in Hashem’s eyes, and not what “the velt” thinks is important, I’d be much better off.

He asked each of us to write an obituary about ourselves, and then to read it out loud in front of the  vaad. This forced upon us the realization that life is an opportunity, it’s serious, and at some point it will end. He made us take it seriously: Make sure your obituary doesn’t just remain a dream, but becomes your reality.

The Rosh Yeshiva would teach us by sharing his own thought processes. One Elul, the community was shocked when a respectable meat company was caught selling treif. The day after the scandal broke, the Rosh Yeshivah walked into the vaad room. We were learning the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah, where Rambam speaks about how teshuvah is not only on deeds but on middos. The Rosh Yeshivah started to read the Rambam.

“This fellow comes from a choshuve family,” he commented. “He didn’t wake up one day to sell treif meat. There must have been a big nisayon one day to compromise just a little bit, and slowly… look how a person can descend with his yetzer hara!”

Then the Rosh Yeshivah looked down and his tone changed.

“And how do I know I’m not also selling treif? I’m in a different business, in chinuch. I’m not selling meat, I’m selling Torah and hashkafah. But how do I know that what I’m selling is glatt, is untainted? Maybe I teach you things that are wrong, because I may have negios? How do I know my bad middos are not infiltrating what I teach you? Maybe Perr is treif too?!”

And with that, the Rosh Yeshivah put down his head and proceeded to cry, tears streaming down his beard. While everyone else across the country was speaking about the breakdown in ethics, the Rosh Yeshivah was looking only at his own shortcomings and how to fix them.

And we were lucky to be able to watch and learn from him up close.

Rabbi Yosef Brown, a close talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah, is originally from Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Yerushalayim where he learned in the Mir Yeshiva. He is currently a Maggid Shiur at Yeshivas Mercaz HaTorah.


Comfortable in Vulnerable
Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

In the summer of 2006, I was part of a learning chaburah upstate in Camp Heller with bochurim mostly from Yeshiva University-affiliated backgrounds. It was an amazing deal: We would learn in the morning and tutor boys in the camp in exchange for a free summer. But Heller had been sold late in the summer, and the directors were desperate to fill the camp, offering great deals to yeshivos to come and learn basically for free. Yeshiva of Far Rockaway came that first half.

That summer was very intense for me. At almost 17, following a year in Eretz Yisrael, I was trying to find my identity. Moreover, the Second Lebanon war broke out, and we were treated to news of Israeli casualties daily.

One day I decided to stay for the Rosh Yeshivah’s shmuess. I had become friendly with some of the YFR bochurim, even though the ideological differences between us was pretty clear. The Rosh Yeshivah began by addressing the situation in Eretz Yisrael. He then picked up a newspaper interview with the mother of a fallen soldier. Through tears, he read her proud testimony that her son died al kiddush Hashem, and quoting the Madreias Ha’adam regarding Avraham Avinu and the Akeidah, he painted the picture of living a life of mesirus nefesh.

And I saw a Lakewood-educated rosh yeshivah so comfortable with himself that he was comfortable being uncomfortable and vulnerable. I’d never seen such a thing — the depth of his empathy, the normalcy, the nuance. This was a real person, and this was the realness I was seeking, I realized in a thunderbolt of clarity.

I soon became an enthusiastic consumer of anything the Rosh Yeshivah had ever written or said. The apex of my exposure, the very thing that any talmid will mention first, were the vaadim — and in the 18 years since then, the comforting electric hum of those old tape recordings became my lifeline. From this developed a relationship of guidance and warmth. I, an outsider, never “learned by him,” yet I learned so much from him.

For anyone who knew the Rosh Yeshivah, none of this is a suprise — his heart was wider than a six-lane highway and he had a deep sense of achrayus for the Jewish People, seamlessly blending the personality of a rosh yeshivah of a particularistic institution with the rabbinic communal perspective of his father in South Ozone.

Rabbi Naftali Kassorla is a maggid shiur in Kollel Nefesh HaChaim and a rebbi in various yeshivos and seminaries in Eretz Yisrael.


Who You Can Be
David Jemal

After hearing a recording of the Rosh Yeshivah’s vaad on Darchei HaBitachon from Madraigas Ha’Adam, I knew I needed to speak to him. We had several phone conversations, all new to this Syrian Jew from Brooklyn who didn’t know anything about Novardok. But I needed more, so I decided to pop into the yeshivah.

One Sunday morning, I went to pray in YFR. The high school boys’ tefillah was full of passion and fire. Afterward, many of them came over — I clearly stood out — and said good morning, introduced themselves, or asked if I wanted breakfast. Finally, I gathered up the courage and went to put a face to the person they called the Rosh Yeshivah. With a big smile, he said, “Hi, David! It’s nice to meet you. Let’s talk in my office.” That one meeting led to dozens more in yeshivah and his home over three years, or in my car when I drove him and the Rebbetzin to Lakewood for the Chagim.

But knowing and learning with the Rosh Yeshivah wasn’t enough. I needed more — to be connected to his Torah and bring it to the public. My greatest zechus was that I had the honor of putting out Choosing Not to Choose, based on his vaadim on the B’tekufos Olam section of Madraigas Ha’Adam.

In the introduction, the Rosh yeshivah writes:

“To want to learn mussar, you have to have a certain worldview about where you are going, what it’s all about, and why you should. Otherwise, why should a person be interested in change? Why should a person be interested in being different than he is? You become interested in mussar because you become interested in doing something with yourself; you are sick and tired of the old self… and are willing to learn and see what else you could be.”

David Jemal lives in Brooklyn, NY with his family and is the author of Choosing Not To Choose, a sefer based on the vaadim of Rav Yechiel Perr.


Answer Your Own Question
Ari Goldwag

I was always musically inclined, and my years in yeshivah had awakened a learning-teaching talent as well. Several times, the Rosh Yeshivah had told me to pursue my talents in the service of Klal Yisrael, but I struggled with the balance between learning, teaching, and music.

“Do I focus on one over the other?” I asked him as a newly married avreich. “Should I invest my soul in music? Are learning and teaching Torah greater goals? What takes precedence — or can these talents be used in tandem?”

Our conversation lasted for about half-an-hour, at which point the Rosh Yeshivah said, “Ari, usually after about fifteen minutes, I can help someone discern the answer to their own question — they see they know it themselves. But we’ve been speaking for half an hour, and I don’t hear that you have clarity in your own question.”

What Rebbi said 23 years ago as we discussed my vague question was characteristic of his worldview (as I understand it): If we had clarity in our questions, if we could bring the issue into focus and we were truly seeking the will of Hashem, we could trust that we already knew the answer.

“Make sure you are really right,” Rebbi would qualify as he guided the group of bochurim in his mussar vaad to find within ourselves the voice of Hashem’s will.

Those profound lessons would shape my way of thinking. In the years since, I’ve returned time and again to mussar vaad recordings, Rabbi Perr’s voice my constant companion. And with time that voice would become mine, as he said many times: “One day you’ll think of this idea I’m teaching you now, and you’ll be under the impression that you thought of it yourself, as you’ll have forgotten where you learned it from. That will be my greatest nachas.”

Ari Goldwag is a singer, songwriter, composer, and producer of contemporary Jewish music, as well as an author and teacher who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.


I Never Say Goodbye
Rabbi Zvi Soroka

The Rosh Yeshivah was a stickler for emes. If he gave you a compliment, you knew it was genuine. He never embellished stories about gedolim — he related them in great detail, with a focus on the lessons, but he never exaggerated.

I once saw him get up from his seat, take a sefer from the bookshelf, write in it, and place it back on the shelf. After he walked away, I took down the sefer to see what he had written. It contained a complex Talmudic thesis the Rosh Yeshivah was mechadesh a few years back. He had crossed it out and written one word beneath it: “Ta’isi (I was mistaken).”

He didn’t pander to others and detested flattery, even to solicit a large donation. Hashem will always take care of the yeshivah, he believed. The only question was who would have the zechus of being its benefactor.

At a levayah for sifrei Torah destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, I heard the Rosh Yeshivah compliment singer Gershon Veroba on his latest album, a collection of the songs of Moshe Yess a”h. He told him it was impressive and he enjoyed it immensely. I was surprised that he would find it important to be mechazek a talmid who was already an adult and an accomplished artist. The job of a rebbi never ends, I learned.

The Rosh Yeshivah was real, and he taught us how to live in the real world. He would quote obscure sources and even draw a lesson from Popular Mechanics magazine. When he was told in the middle of night seder that Rav Shach was niftar, he promptly got off his chair and sat on the floor. The entire beis medrash followed suit. We sat there, all of us on the floor, silently pondering the loss of a gadol hador.

Twenty years ago, the Rosh Yeshivah wrote me a letter while I was in camp. He signed off, “You know I never say ‘Goodbye,’ only ‘To be continued…’”

Now I have to say, “Goodbye.” But how do you say goodbye to the Rosh Yeshivah of a lifetime?

Rabbi Zvi Soroka is a rebbi in Yeshiva Darchei Torah.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1010)

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