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To Know and to Grow

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky is still dreaming of ways to elevate and illuminate the American Torah landscape

Photos: Mishpacha archives, Meir Haltovsky

There is a laughter that is true and a laughter that is false.

When Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky takes my hand, he laughs quietly, the truest laughter I’ve ever heard. There is such kindness in his smile, in the way he looks at me as if he knows me, as if he understands what I say I want and what I really want. It reassures and encourages and says, “You’re a good guy.

Keep it up.”

The Rosh Yeshivah is looking at me expectantly — I’ve come to talk, haven’t I? — but I find myself wishing I could just sit quietly and soak in the smile and wise eyes for a bit longer: the Rosh Yeshivah sitting at this small table, a dish of apricot and mango before him, in a small room where the art on the wall includes a poster with the words of a passuk, “Ki vo yismach libenu, ki b’sheim batachnu,” both words “ki” in bold.

The Rosh Yeshivah’s accent is a blend, European elegance set to the cadence of out-of-town America. It sounds as if he’s adapted it, over his many decades, to the people with whom he speaks.

After learning I’ve just come from Montreal, the Rosh Yeshivah tells me that he also once lived in Canada. After they emigrated from Lithuania, his parents lived in Toronto, and at the time — the early 1940s — he was a talmid in Lakewood, trying to get back to Canada for Yom Tov, but the customs agents at the border wouldn’t allow him entry, claiming his student papers weren’t in order.

“They were very rude, the people at the border,” he recalls, as if beyond the inconvenience and dashed hopes and longing to be home, the rudeness was what disturbed him most.

That rudeness gave Rav Shmuel the chance to spend Succos with his rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler.

Even today, decades later, he still remembers that Succos with Rav Aharon. The Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah “didn’t make an eisek” from his daled minim. “Someone brought a lulav and esrog, and he was very happy with them,” Rav Shmuel recalls. He also remembers the Rosh Yeshivah working the phones over Chol Hamoed. “He wanted the oilam to come back to Lakewood for Simchas Torah, even the yungeleit; he felt it was important to be b’simchah in the place where you learn Torah.”

So why doesn’t the Philadelphia Yeshivah welcome back the bochurim for Simchas Torah? I ask. “We also need a vacation,” Rav Shmuel quips. (In recent years, the oldest shiur has, in fact, started to come back to yeshivah for Simchas Torah.)

Though Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Aharon Kotler were close friends, having been fellow talmidim in Slabodka, Rav Shmuel only met his rebbi when he was 20 years old.

“I was learning in Yeshivas Ner Israel by Rav Ruderman, a relative and close friend of my father, and Rav Aharon came to Baltimore to raise funds. I spoke with him, and I was transfixed. I knew I wanted to follow him back to Lakewood.”

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 781)

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