Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Minyan on Sixteenth Avenue

In the early 1950s, about fifty-five years ago, a group of teenagers came together in what was known as the Zeirei Agudath Israel of Borough Park, the youth division of the local Agudah that had recently relocated to a two-story building on Fourteenth Avenue and 46th Street. The Agudah davened on the first floor and the Zeirei on the second floor. Nearly all of us were children of immigrants who were hard working parents and though some of us were born in pre-Holocaust Europe, we were essentially boys who liked baseball and other things American. For high school we went by subway to yeshivas in other neighborhoods.

The teens went by quickly and before long there were marriages and additional members, with the minyan growing to about seventy families and undergoing several name changes, including the "Young Agudah" and several locations, settling finally on a modest facility on Sixteenth Avenue where we remain. Our homes were also modest and that, too, remains. Before long, we came to realize that we needed a Rabbi, a man who would inspire and teach and elevate our families. At the time, yeshiva-world shuls, including those of the Agudah, generally functioned without a rabbi. We reached out to Rabbi Yisroel Perkowski, a scholar and refugee who had studied at the renowned Mir Yeshiva in Poland before the Holocaust. He had davened with us during our Zeirei days, before moving to East New York where he was a Rosh Yeshiva or dean at Beth Hatalmud, a top level talmudic seminary that for many years has been located in Bensonhurst. Rabbi Perkowski accepted our request, maintaining his important role at Beth Hatalmud.

Our choice was fortuitous. For about forty-five years our minyan was blessed by a man who forged with us and our families a powerful bond of love, respect and admiration. We responded eagerly to his teachings, his warmth and his ways. In truth, he came to a group that possessed the potential to accept what he offered us. As boys, we were a special group. Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Orthodox Jewish leader in the American Jewish experience and the founder of the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, had davened with us when he was in Borough Park for Shabbos. Each year, he and Rabbi Moshe Sherer made an appeal for Torah Schools for Israel, the network of religious schools that he established in Israel, and the fellows pledged $20,000 or more each year, an extraordinary sum for the 1950s and for a group that was so young.

Under our Rav's guidance, the minyan reached new heights in Torah study, communal service and charitable giving. It is not easy to describe his leadership style because it was enveloped in humility. There is an esoteric religious Jewish theological concept called "Hester Panim," which means that G-D's glory is hidden from us. In perhaps an allegorical sense, this can be understood as referring to how the glory of our religious life is hidden from view. We are ensnared by celebrityship, by what is trumpeted and noisy. We fail to see the grandeur and sanctity of the typical religious Jewish home where modesty and Torah observance and study are embedded, where despite the struggle to make ends meet, there is an abundance of caring about others. What was hidden in the life of our Rav was his wisdom and his stature as a scholar. Even in the yeshiva world, he was not a celebrity.

He would have it no other way. I know but one photograph of him prior to his coming to the United States. It is of the study hall of the Mir Yeshiva which had miraculously found refuge in Shanghai during the dark years of the Holocaust. Our Rav is seated near the rear and all the way on the side. He abhorred being front and center anywhere. About twenty years ago, a delegation of eminent rabbis came to ask that he become a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, Agudath Israel's prestigious Council of Torah Sages. They did not have a chance.

As much as his skin, humility was a part of his essence and no more than his skin could it be separated from him. He was entirely happy with what G-D had given him, including a wife of comparable sanctity and seven children. Even in his 90s, he would with a loving smile admonish those who attempted to help him, as when he was putting on his coat. He knew who he was and what he wanted to do. He had opinions and they were always expressed softly, as when he admonished us not to talk during davening, a lesson that we learned well. His speeches were masterly, invariably lasting fewer than ten minutes. He always began in a very low voice, barely above a whisper, for he was doubtful of the propriety of his speaking in a sanctified place.

I never heard him speak a word of English, yet he well understood the world in which we live. As the bond with him became as strong as steel, we knew that we were blessed with a rare treasure. This was a perfect relationship. When guests davened with us, they sensed our pride, but we never boasted because that would be unbecoming.

Over the years, our small group has become smaller. Some moved away and some passed away. Few of our children live in Borough Park because housing is expensive and maybe also because of the American Jewish imperative, "Thou shalt not live near your parents." On a typical Shabbos, the shul is half or more empty. We have now suffered our greatest loss, with the passing during the intermediate days of Sukkos, of our beloved Rav. He was buried twenty-two hours later in Israel and in accordance with his will, there will be no eulogies. If these lines are a violation of his wishes, it is the first time that I have transgressed against his instructions.

The pain of his loss will endure. The boys of the Zeirei are in their 70s and nearly all are grandfathers. More than a few are great-grandfathers. Our ranks will continue to diminish and perhaps one day this remarkable minyan will be no more. Whatever the future brings, we know that we were blessed.