| Magazine Feature |

With Heart and Soul  

Longtime mechanech Rabbi Leibish Lish learned through his own challenges about connecting with a child’s inner world

Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab, Yossi Goldberger, Personal archives

 January of 2020, some 90,000-strong packed into the MetLife Stadium for the 13th Siyum HaShas. More than three years have passed since then and, should nature run its course, the memories would have waned by now.

Their dissipation has been strangely reluctant, though. The unity, the joy, the clarion call for further growth in Torah, continue to live on in the hearts and minds of all who were there.

Nature, for some reason, has not been running its course.

And that could well be because it wasn’t all that natural. These were moments when we knew we were encountering something otherworldly; the neshamah, which never forgets, gave a small leap and we all felt it.

Such moments are never forgotten.

And that’s why, for many, the name, or at least the face, of Rabbi Leibish Lish will ring a bell. He wasn’t the keynote speaker, but something about his 180-second speech carried all the magic it needed to remain a lasting memory.

“This is Rabbi Lish,” he began and the force in his voice demanded immediate attention. They turned in his direction, taking note of the dynamic figure with a red beard and curly peyos, sitting next to a young boy.

The audience grew silent, as he shared the story of this child, whose name was Shimon Yehuda. Three years prior, Shimon Yehuda had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that was so severe that the doctors wouldn’t even consider treatment. The family turned to Rav Yitzchok Koledetsky, who told them that Shimon Yehuda should work to finish one full masechta. Shimon Yehuda took the gadol’s instructions seriously, and he persevered, ultimately completing Maseches Berachos.

“He never gave up!” Rabbi Lish roared into the microphone. “Day after day, in the most difficult times… it was tough, it was hard, but he wouldn’t even skip a day!”

Then Rabbi Lish’s voice jumped a few more decibels to the point where it virtually cracked. “Please join me in giving Shimon Yehuda a truly well-deserved round of applause!”

And the crowd of 90,000 did exactly that.

The speech ended, Rabbi Lish sat down, and the program moved on to its next segment.

But the minutes-long address left the audience with some lingering questions.

Who is Rabbi Lish? How was he so comfortable speaking before such a mass gathering? Where did he develop such overwhelming passion?

And highly sensitive listeners had a more nuanced question. The opening sentence — “This is Rabbi Lish” — seemed a bit simplistic. Couldn’t he have begun with something more profound?

These are all good questions. And they all have excellent answers.

Forget Me Not

Rabbi Leibish Lish came as a highly recommended interviewee — he is a master mechanech with plenty of stories to share — but not too much time to talk. “We can speak on Thursday, while I’ll be driving,” he told me.

It was one of those times where you “chap” the interviewee before even having a formal conversation with him. A rebbi for 19 years, first in the fifth grade of the Stoliner cheder and now in Yeshivah Darchei Moshe, Rabbi Lish is a warm and outspoken fellow, far from shying away from an interview. But with a calendar jammed with speaking engagements, whether for parents, mechanchim, or children’s events, you’ll have to catch him on the road, when he’ll give you all the time you need, infused with the warmth and energy that has made him so popular.

He’s not much for formalities.

“I want to tell you a story,” he says, skipping the usual pleasantries. “Many years ago, I had a talmid — we’ll call him Yanky — who was going through a difficult time at home. I worked with Yanky, doing my best to help him through his struggles. After he left my class, his family moved to Eretz Yisrael, and I didn’t hear from him since.

“Ten years passed. One day, I got a call from a complete stranger.

“‘Is this Rabbi Lish?’ he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “With whom am I speaking?’”

The fellow on the other line gave Rabbi Lish his name and then explained that he lived in the same neighborhood as Yanky, his former student, who had just become a chassan.

“Yanky has no money,” the caller told Rabbi Lish. “He can’t even afford new clothing for his wedding. I’m trying to help him, and I asked him if there’s anyone he knows who would be able to raise money on his behalf. He told me that he had a rebbi in fifth grade — Rabbi Leibish Lish — who he still feels a close connection with. That’s why I’m calling you. Can you help your talmid? Can you think of anyone who would be able to contribute to this cause?”

“I was so touched I almost burst out crying,” says Rabbi Lish. “I immediately gave him my credit card number and told him to use up to $1,000.”

It’s a beautiful story on all accounts, but for Rabbi Lish it demonstrates the very paradigm of success. “I want to be a rebbi who will be remembered,” he says, “I want to be that rebbi who, ten years down the road, talmidim will be confident that ‘Rabbi Lish will remember me.’”

Rabbi Lish’s success at becoming indelibly etched in the minds of his talmidim is little more than fair reciprocation.

“I’ve had hundreds of talmidim, and I remember every one by his first name,” he says. “Years after leaving my class, many come by to visit, along with their families.”

But the skill at connecting with children is not just natural talent; it comes from a very deep, and very painful place. Many years ago, young Leibish Lish sat in the classroom, smiling outwardly but internally suffocating from the crushing loss of his beloved father, rosh yeshivah of the Skverer yeshivah of Boro Park, Rav Yisroel Ber Lish a”h .

“I was eight years old when my father passed away,” Rabbi Lish recounts. “In those days, you didn’t hear about such tragedies — I was the only yasom around. I would stay in shul during Yizkor — me and a group of Holocaust survivors.”

As a result of a childhood disrupted by grief, Leibish struggled in school.

“I had to switch yeshivos several times,” he says. “I would hear people whispering, ‘Leave him, let him be, he’s a yasom.’”

One’s mind travels to that impassioned speech given three years ago before a packed stadium plus tens of thousands of online viewers. “He never gave up! In the most difficult times… it was tough, it was hard….” There was so much feeling in those words, so much passion and… so much empathy.

Rabbi Leibish Lish understands pain.

And he acknowledges that those seminal moments indeed presented a critical personal closure.

“I began my speech by saying ‘This is Rabbi Lish.’ In my mind, I was talking to all those people who whispered, ‘Let him go, he’s a yasom’.

“‘Look at me now!’ I was saying to them, ‘This is Rabbi Lish. The yasom. The one who had no hope. The one who couldn’t succeed. Here I am, speaking to the whole world. This is Rabbi Lish.’”

He Was Like a Father

The year of the Siyum HaShas was actually Rabbi Lish’s final as a fifth grade rebbi. The following year, he changed tracks, and he now works with teenage bochurim in a Boro Park-based yeshivah called Darchei Moshe. The setting may have shifted, but it demands the same skill set — and Rabbi Lish has one person to thank for helping him realize that he was, in fact, blessed with the gift of chinuch:

Rav Mottel Zilber, widely revered as the Toldos Yehudah Stuchiner Rebbe.

Rabbi Lish is a Stuchiner chassid and the Rebbe’s gabbai. It was way back in 2004, and Rabbi Lish was learning full-time in kollel. One day, the Rebbe called him into his office. “He told me that we needed more melamdim and that I should pursue a career in chinuch. He said that he saw potential in me.

“The next year, I began doing some subbing. Pretty soon, I got a job as a full-time rebbi. I owe everything to the Rebbe. He told me clearly what my tafkid was.”

That short directive put Rabbi Lish on the path that ultimately led to the resounding address in Metlife Stadium.

But the truth is, the Rebbe had foreseen his protégé’s destiny decades earlier.

“Many times, people have asked me how I managed to succeed, given all the challenges I had during my childhood,” says Rabbi Lish. “I tell them that I took the advice of Rabi Yehoshua ben Prachyah. In Pirkei Avos, Rabi Yehoshua ben Prachyah says, ‘Aseh lecha rav — make for yourself a rebbi.’ I owe all of my success to my rebbe.”

And he explains. “My mother comes from a family of Stuchiner chassidim. When my father died, I began going to Stuchin to daven, together with my uncle. The Rebbe became like more than a father to me. He would talk to me, give me chizuk, learn with me. When I turned 13 and had been going through a very hard time in school, I was sent to learn in Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe would write letters to me.”

It’s the sort of chesed that comes with the territory of great tzaddikim, but perhaps there was an additional motive to the Rebbe’s personal interest in the young orphan.

“My father passed away on the fifth of Adar,” Rabbi Lish shares. “We got up from shivah just days before Purim. On Purim, I was in my uncle’s house when the Rebbe came in. He was in a very uplifted state. At one point, he looked at me and said, ‘Der velt veht nuch heren fuhn dich — the world will yet hear from you.’ ”

“Every year, on Purim, I bring the Rebbe shalach manos, and every year, he says, ‘Remember what I told you when you were eight years old and had just gotten up from shivah?’”

Rabbi Lish remembers. “The world will yet hear from you,” the Rebbe had said, “Der velt veht nuch heren fuhn dich.”

And when he stood tall and proud in MetLife stadium, perfectly at ease even as tens of thousands of eyes bore into him, he knew he was simply fulfilling his rebbi’s promise.

The world was hearing from him.


According to His Way

Rabbi Lish is a master storyteller who has published eight books and produced over 600 tapes for children. He shares a story, which he says is the most important one for a mechanech to know.

“Reb Levi Rabinowitz was the father of the great mashpia and mekubal, Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz,” he begins. “Reb Levi was known for his tremendous love for children, and he was once asked about this.

“‘Why is it?’ someone asked him, ‘that you become so overwhelmed when you see Yiddishe children?’

“Reb Levi explained. He shared that when he was eight years old, he came home one day to see his mother being taken away in an ambulance. He rushed to the hospital to be with her, but by the time he arrived, she had passed away.

“He was sent to an orphanage called Beis Yesomim Diskin. They were very nice to him there, but at night, he would cry himself to sleep, feeling so alone.

“He grew older, got married, and had many children. The years passed and his children had children, and then their children had children. By the time Reb Levi reached his older years he had over 1,000 descendants.

“‘When I look at a young child,’ Reb Levi would say, ‘I don’t see a young child. I see thousands of neshamos.’”

That story, says Rabbi Lish, is one that every mechanech must know. Regardless of the number of names appearing on a rebbi’s class list, the reality is that thousands of students cram into your classroom every single day. Each child is a thousand neshamos, eager and waiting for your wisdom, direction, and unconditional love.

Metaphysical numbers notwithstanding, Rabbi Lish doesn’t see his students in cumulative figures; to him, a classroom is a collection of “ones.”

“I tell my talmidim,” he says, “that I am not a rebbi of 25 talmidim. I’m a menahel of 25 classrooms.” Each student is treated with a tailor-made set of expectations and a bespoke gradient for success.

“Shlomo Hamelech was the wisest of all men,” he points out, “and he said, ‘Chanoch l’naar al pi darko — One must raise his child according to his way.’ ”

This isn’t just philosophy; Rabbi Lish implements this directly into his teaching methodology.

“When I grade a test, I will give one boy a hundred and the other a fifty, even if their performance was exactly the same,” he explains. “One boy’s hundred is another boy’s fifty. It all depends on where they are holding.”

A good rebbi, says Rabbi Lish, is one who is connected to his talmidim’s neshamos. “Once, in the middle of class, I turned to a talmid and said ‘Mendel, you don’t look okay.’ Mendel shrugged, ‘Rebbi, I feel fine,’ he said.

“ ‘No, Mendel,’ I insisted, ‘Something’s wrong. Go to the office and call your father. You need to go home.’ ”

Mendel’s father picked him up, though he wasn’t sure why.

“About three hours later, I got a phone call. It was Mendel’s father, calling to tell me his son had suffered an appendicitis attack. Because Mendel was home when it happened, his father was able to immediately call Hatzalah, who came within minutes, allowing Mendel to be operated upon in time.

“I don’t know how I knew it,” Rabbi Lish reflects, “but I was somehow able to sense that something was wrong.”


Learning It and Living It

If Rabbi Lish remembers his talmidim for years to come, it may well be because while they were in his classroom, they were forever present in his mind.

“A good rebbi thinks about his talmidim 24/7,” he says. “Wherever the rebbi goes, his classroom should be on his mind.” Again, he shares a story.

“I once flew to Eretz Yisrael with Turkish Airlines. Each passenger was given an amenity kit filled with various items, such as earplugs, breathable socks, eye masks, and the like. I asked the flight attendant for a large bag. She said ‘sure,’ and came back with a garbage bag. I then walked up and down the aisle asking people if they would be willing to donate their amenity kits for my students. I collected about fifty kits. When I returned home, I brought them to my class and gave each student his own kit!”

It was his way of informing his students that even while airborne and on vacation, they were uppermost on his mind.

But it isn’t just about souvenirs. Constant mindfulness of his students enhances Rabbi Lish’s teaching on a practical level as well.

“Sometimes I’ll pass a garbage can and see some disposed item sticking out of it. I’ll say to myself ‘Hey! This will help explain the gemara!’ and I’ll pull it out and bring it to class the next day.”

This leads to another one of Rabbi Lish’s central philosophies. “I work very hard to make the lessons visual,” he says. “When I taught parshas Terumah in my class, it took us a few months. I bought arts and crafts materials, and we made each of the keilim in the Mishkan. In parshas Tetzaveh, we made each of the Bigdei Kehunah. I want the talmidim to see the Torah come alive.”

Through visual aids, Rabbi Lish makes Torah come alive in his classroom. Yet other initiatives strive to implement Torah ideals into relevant practice.

When Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was in prison, he knew he could expect a weekly letter from a fifth-grade class in Boro Park’s Stoliner cheder.

“We would write to him each week with questions on the parshah and he would send us his response. He would update us on how he was doing and what concepts in avodas Hashem he was learning from his experience.” These correspondences were compiled into a sefer written in Yiddish called Kol Sholom Mordechai and thousands of copies have been sold.

Rabbi Lish would also take his talmidim on trips to Otisville to visit Reb Sholom Mordechai in person.

It’s no wonder that after Reb Sholom Mordechai was released on Zos Chanukah of 2017, the first place he visited was Rabbi Lish’s classroom.

Feeling another Yid’s pain is a critical feature in Rabbi Lish’s educational model. He shares another example of how he allowed his class the opportunity to practice this ideal in real time. “I have a cousin who is a rebbi in Ashdod,” he says. “About eight years ago, Chanukah time, there were rockets raining down on the southern border, and the schools in Ashdod were closed. But my cousin, a Belzer chassid, would gather the children of his building together and learn with them. Whenever the sirens would go off, he would race together with them to the shelter where they would continue learning.”

Rabbi Lish learned about this and called up his cousin. “Listen,” he said, “next time you run into the shelter, call me. You’ll put your phone on speaker, and the kids in Ashdod will get to hear how the kids in Boro Park daven for them.”

And that is what they did. Through the fear and the terror, children in Ashdod drew comfort from the knowledge that the fifth-grade class in the Stoliner cheder was davening on their behalf.

Torah comes alive in the classroom of Rabbi Lish, and each new milestone is met with a fresh blast of energy.

“I taught fifth grade, when the boys begin learning Gemara,” he says. “Each year, I would take my class to a gadol who would hand out the new Gemaras to the boys. It used to be Reb Yosef Rosenblum ztz”l, rosh yeshivah of Shaarei Yosher. After he was niftar, we would go to the Karlsburger Rav, Reb Chatzkel Roth. Then he passed away. The final year of my teaching fifth grade, we went to Rav Don Segal shlita.”

Rabbi Lish would take a picture of each talmid standing next to the gadol which he would then have placed in 8 x 10 frames. These would be distributed to the talmidim at the end of the year.

“A mother once sent me a picture of the wall in her home,” Rabbi Lish recounts. “It had pictures of her five sons who had learned in my class, each standing beside the gadol of that year.”

Over the course of close to two decades, Rabbi Lish has seen shifts in his students’ receptiveness to his lessons, and he has adapted his methodology to work with contemporary realities.

“Today,” he says, “it’s no longer about making a kid want to learn. You need to make him love to learn.” This, he says, should be done through incentive programs. Also, says Rabbi Lish, an important part of chinuch today is to include storytelling.

“A rebbi should tell stories of yiras Shamayim and mesirus nefesh. A rebbi also has to make Yiddishkeit into something geshmak.

To that end, Rabbi Lish would work on booklets and teach the talmidim niggunim for upcoming Yamim Tovim. He also stresses that along with showing the students the joys of Judaism, it’s crucial to reveal the emptiness of the alternatives. As an increasingly vocal society seeks to shove its depraved envelope beneath our doors, he says, it becomes the rebbi’s job to call its bluff.

“‘Leitzanusa d’avodah zarah’ is very important today,” Rabbi Lish asserts. “Our talmidim need to understand that all the entertainment out there is really so silly.

“But not just what we see in the outside world,” Rabbi Lish qualifies, “even the materialism in our own community. We have to teach our talmidim that this is not what Yiddishkeit stands for.

“When Rubashkin came to my class, I told him, ‘Talk about your mesirus nefesh while in prison. Talk about how geshmak it is to be a Yid.’”

When Rabbi Lish says the word “mesirus nefesh,” it brings to mind another line that reverberated during his impassioned speech at the Siyum HaShas. Turning toward Shimon Yehuda, he shouted, “This is not just another siyum! This is a siyum of a masechta learned with mesirus nefesh!

The young orphan who desperately tried to survive his schooling may have become a master mechanech bringing joy to thousands of children, but he still knows what mesirus nefesh means.

It means giving one’s heart, it means giving one’s soul.

And that, says Rabbi Lish, is the key to chinuch.


Ten Chinuch Tips from Rabbi Lish

For Parents

If a child is making trouble at home, a parent should never respond by saying, “If you don’t stop, I will tell your rebbi.”

Some children, for whatever reason, tend to be rebellious at home, while in school, they thrive. If a parent threatens to inform the school of the child’s “at-home” behavior, the child will lose that sense of security he has in school. Such threats don’t produce better performance at home, they produce worse performance in school.

Some rebbeim will send the students home on Friday with a checklist for the parents to check off. The items on the note will include things like “saying over the devar Torah,” “singing zemiros,” and the like. A parent should always take the time to add something personal about his child’s behavior to that note. The child will see this and realize that his performance actually means something to his parents.

If, lo aleinu, there is something challenging going on at home, it’s natural to try to keep this a secret from others. But while this is fine when it comes to friends and neighbors, it’s not fine when it comes to rebbeim. A rebbi needs to know if there’s something going on at home. Inevitably, it will affect the child’s behavior, and if the rebbi is unaware, he will not be able to deliver the proper response.

It’s always nice to send a gift to your child’s rebbi at the end of the year, along with a thank-you note. Many parents do this and it’s much appreciated. But it is very important that the note should not just be a generic “thank you.” A rebbi invests an entire year into building your child — take the time to write a few specific areas in which your child has grown and developed. This is truly meaningful to a rebbi.

When you see your child’s rebbi at a kiddush, or in the grocery, that is not the time to say, “Oh, how is my son doing?” If you really care about your child’s performance, pick up the phone, call the rebbi, and ask if he has the time to speak to you. When you meet a rebbi someplace, feel free to give him a compliment, but it’s not the time for PTA.


For Rebbeim

A rebbi should say to himself every morning: “I am doing an avodas hakodesh of which no one can understand the kochos I have invested. The only one who understands is the Ribbono shel Olam. He is the Melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael and my sechar will come from Him. No person can give me my true reward because no one can appreciate what I’m doing. Only He can.”

If you had a tough day in school, don’t come home thinking you’re a failure. There are good days and there are bad days. If you had trouble with your class, come home thinking, “Tomorrow will be a better day.”

You never lose by helping other rebbeim. If you have a new idea or a new method that you’ve found to be successful, sharing it with fellow rebbeim won’t make you smaller. It will make you bigger and stronger.

Chiddushim are wonderful and should be encouraged, but at the same time, a rebbi must always be consistent. Children do not respond well to inconsistency. If a rebbi gives homework every day, don’t miss a day. The style of learning, the day’s structure, all of that should be consistent.

If a rebbi must punish a student, don’t do it at the end of the day. A child should always go home with a smile. A punishment, if necessary, should happen earlier in the day, with enough time for the rebbi to make up with the child before he goes home. If the child misbehaved toward the day’s end, wait until the next day to punish him. If a child misbehaves toward the end of a Friday, wait until Sunday.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 988)

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