Sunday, April 15, 2012

Remembrances and Reflections - III

In its early years, a major source of support for the Israel network of religious schools known as Chinuch Atzmai that was established by Rav Aharon Kotler came from a Borough Park minyan of about fifty young men who at the start of the 1950s were still in their teens and learning in yeshiva. The minyan was called Zeirei Agudah. Rav Aharon would leave Lakewood to make an annual appeal, most years on Shabbos Bereishis when it did not come immediately after Simchas Torah. When it did, the appeal was made on Parshas Noach, so that he would not be at the yeshiva for what was the start of the z’man for many students. There is no more telling indication of the importance he attached to this appeal.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, still in his early years as the transformative leader of Agudath Israel, would also speak and it was he who made the actual appeal. If my memory is not errant, Rabbi Sherer once gave a marvelous illustration from the parsha to explain why Rav Aharon refused to allow Chinuch Atzmai to be fully incorporated into the governmental education system, an arrangement that would have guaranteed complete financial support. Referring to the incident of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Rabbi Sherer asked, what curse was there in “upon your belly shall you crawl and dust shall you eat all the days of your life?” After all, the serpent was being guaranteed daily nourishment. He would not have to forage for food. How was this a curse?

He answered that a daily nourishment of dust is a curse. If Chinuch Atzmai was enveloped in the governmental system and thereby guaranteed its subsistence, its existence would be one of spiritual dust.

The yearly appeal brought in about $25,000, an impressive figure by today’s standards and an amazing achievement for a group of boys and young men in the 1950s. It was my responsibility to collect the pledges throughout the year. Many of the fellows would turn to family members and others for contributions.

During this period, Rav Aharon generally sent $15,000 a month to Israel to help cover Chinuch Atzmai’s budget, which may not seem like very much money but it was a challenge to him to put together the necessary funds each month. Most months, I would provide $3,000 toward this goal.

Throughout the 1950s, the minyan was known as Zeirei Agudah. We davened one flight up in the main Agudah building on Fourteenth Avenue and Forty-Fifth Street. There was tension in the relationship, especially after some of our members married and the folks downstairs thought that they should daven with them. We preferred our own space and ambience, except on Simchas Torah when the hakofos were in the main shul. They were led by Rabbi Joshua Silbermintz, the unforgettable leader of Pirchei Agudah whose goodness toward all was his hallmark. In the pre-Bobov days, the hakofos drew a huge crowd.

One year, Rav Aharon gave the Shabbos Hagadol drasha before Pesach in the Agudah. The topic was chadash or halachos relating to new produce. He asked whether I could provide him with a volume of the Minchas Chinuch, as he did not have the sefer in his Borough Park apartment. These days, of course, nearly all of us have well-stocked Torah libraries in our homes. Back then, far fewer seforim were available and most religious Jews could not afford to buy more than a very limited number of those that were available. As an aside, in 1959 I went to Israel, a trip that coincided with Rav Aharon’s visit. A new and attractive edition of Rambam had just been published. I bought twenty sets at twenty dollars each and had them shipped home, where they were eagerly purchased at cost by Zeirei members.

I borrowed the requested volume from Zeirei and gave it to the Rosh Yeshiva, but I did not retrieve it in a timely fashion. The Zeirei’s president at the time was Meir Stern, for decades, of course, the greatly respected Rosh Yeshiva in Passaic. His chavrusa at the time was Moshe Hillel Hirsch, for decades the eminent Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka. Reb Meir asked that I return the volume. I bought a set of Minchas Chinuch, had it gift- wrapped, brought it to Rav Aharon and told him that a lay person in the Agudah asked me to give it to him as a gift. A day or two later, Rav Shneuer Kotler came to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, fetched me out of the Beth Medrash and said that his father wants me to know that if I want to give him a present, that is no excuse to depart from the truth.

As the years went by, our Zeirei Agudah became the Young Agudah and then the Sixteenth Avenue Agudah. We recognized early on that we needed a Rav and turned to Rav Yisroel Perkowski, a Rosh Yeshiva in Beth Hatalmud who had davened with us in our early Zeirei years. Under his guidance, the minyan flourished and the members and their children grew into Bnei Torah. I shall always cherish my relationship with this elevated and extraordinary man.

In what may seem strange to many, Rav Aharon always referred to me as Marvin. My Hebrew name is Meir, yet the letter reproduced here demonstrates that Rav Aharon surmised that my Hebrew name had to be Moshe, perhaps because he believed that I was a close relative of the Maharam Schick. Many years later, when I mentioned this to Rav Yisroel Perkowski and then said that Rav Shneuer Kotler called me Meir and, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, Rav Malkiel Kotler calls me Reb Meir, he remarked in obvious jest that this was proof of “niskatnu hadoros,” the decline of the generations.

The Zeirei days are long gone. The ranks of the Sixteenth Avenue Agudah are depleted. Some members have passed away, others have moved away and still others are infirm and no longer come. This past Shabbos, we bid farewell to a member who joined fifty years ago, immediately after he married. He is moving to Lakewood, following an already well-trodden path for seniors whose children and grandchildren live there.

If there are feelings of sadness over the fate of our minyan, they are offset by what has been achieved over the past sixty years. The story of this minyan is of extraordinary service to Klal Yisroel. Its members have excelled in Torah, avodah and gemilas chassadim. We are all given a limited number of years. The challenge we face as religious Jews is to take the great heritage we have received and then nourish it and bequeath it to future generations. By this standard, we have fulfilled our mission.

Rav Aharon judged us well. We have lived up to his expectations.