I was a fish out of water. I came to the Novorodock kollel in Jerusalem in 1972 because I wanted to study musar, Jewish ethics. Little did I envision the culture shock. I knew nothing about haredi Jewish life as it was lived in Israel. In Novorodock I was the only American student. Culturally, I had nothing in common with the students there. Besides, my Hebrew was undeveloped. Aside from one student who befriended me, it was lonely.
But I stayed, never giving a second thought to transferring to some other institution. I stayed because I wanted to study with Rabbi Ben Zion Bruk, the dean of Novorodock, but little did I know the beauty of what Iwould gain. Before my wife and I left America for Jerusalem in 1972, I asked my friends in a Brooklyn musar yeshiva whom I should seek out in Israel. One name kept coming back: Rabbi Bruk.
I continued to study with him because I learned that what he had to teach extended far beyond the texts that he taught me. Begin with this:
The first day I walked into the Novorodock, I had no idea who Rabbi Bruk was. I asked and he was pointed out. I approached him and asked whether I could study with him. Remember, he did not know me from Adam. Our two-minute exchange went like this:
“Can I study musar with you?” I asked.
“Are you studying in a yeshiva?” he said.
“Where?” he asked.
I had been in Israel only a month. Where I studied wasn’t working out because it was so far from where we lived, and I wasn’t sure of its formal name anyway. Besides, my Hebrew was not so good.
So I was fumbling for an answer.
Rabbi Bruk, who was short, waited patiently, and then, when no clear answer from me was forthcoming, simply looked up at me and said: “Siman she-atah shaku’a ba-Torah.” Translation: The fact that you can’t answer is a sign that you’re so steeped in Torah study that you don’t remember such trivialities.
With that, he accepted me as his student.
What a welcoming embrace, such as I had never had before. Thus began my 13-year relationship with Rabbi Bruk (until he died), based on his sweetness and humanity.
There were other reasons I continued to study with him. He never ceased to surprise. A few examples:
The yeshiva, as is customary, had a break in the early afternoon. That was officially. Unofficially, Rabbi Bruk took no break. I spent a lot of time with him and noticed what he did during the break.
On many occasions, he would counsel elderly Sephardi women. Often the “counseling” was just to listen and lend an empathetic ear. This may not seem particularly noteworthy, but back in the 1970s the relations between Ashskenazi and Sephardi Jews were far from ideal. Many Ashkenazi Jews looked down on Sephardi Jews.
Not Rabbi Bruk. His was not only an internal attitude. Somehow, word got around. Sephardi women who might not feel comfortable pouring out their heart to anyone else felt comfortable doing so to Rabbi Bruk. In its time this was, alas, most unusual, but for Rabbi Bruk it was natural. When he spoke to someone, or listened to someone, equality reigned.
At other times in the afternoon Rabbi Bruk had a study partner, a chavrusa. This also may not seem particularly noteworthy, except that while Rabbi Bruk was decked out in his formal rabbinic garb, a long black frock and large yarmulke (a kind rarely seen in the US), his study partner was also decked out. He was a painter by profession, taking a break from work to study some Torah. His clothing consisted of long white overalls amply splattered with streaks of paint.
So here they were, these two study partners, the rabbi and the painter. Total equality reigned between them. What mattered was their exploration of the Torah, not their sartorial style.
With Rabbi Bruk, equality was not an abstraction.
In 1974, an outreach yeshiva split. One branch became known as Aish HaTorah and another as Or Sameach. Before the split, it was known as Shma Yisrael. That yeshiva met in Rabbi Bruk’s study hall.
Rabbi Bruk, even though he had no official role or responsibility in Shma Yisrael, took an interest in its students, all of whom were really raw in their Judaism. Many entered the building the same day that the late Rabbi Meir Shuster encountered them at the Western Wall and persuaded them to try a class in “Jewish philosophy.”
These wandering, searching college students were not committed to observant Judaism and few, if any, had any knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish sacred texts. Many of them left the yeshiva as quickly as they came. But some stayed. Some became serious students indeed.
One such individual was a kohen, a descendant of Aaron the High Priest of antiquity, and he, like all such descendants, was obligated to recite the “Blessing of the Kohanim” daily during the reader’s repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei. (This ritual in Ashkenazi circles in the Diaspora is performed only on the Jewish festivals; in Israel, it is done daily.)
This posed a technical problem, since this student was so new to Hebrew that he simply could not complete the Shemoneh Esrei by the time for the Kohanim blessing. As it was, Rabbi Bruk’s pious recitation of the Shemoneh Esrei took much longer than that of most people; even so, by the time Rabbi Bruk finished, and then, by the time the reader completed his repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei up to the Kohanim ritual, this student had rarely completed his own, private Shemoneh Esrei.
Which meant: Either he would just have to skip the Kohanim blessing until he could read Hebrew and pray at an average pace, or the reader would have to slow way down to give this student the chance to finish his private prayer and prepare himself for the public ritual.
For Rabbi Bruk, this was not even a choice. Of course the reader would slow down; of course everyone in the minyan would wait for this student to finish. Taking our lead from Rabbi Bruk, none of us minded.
This wasn’t just a technical solution to a technical problem. This was an opportunity. To this young novice Rabbi Bruk communicated the importance of exactitude in mitzvos. Rabbi Bruk perceived a chance to make a lifelong impact on a fledgling Jew. The rabbi relished the opportunity, just as he had welcomed me into his circle sight unseen. Indeed, Rabbi Bruk had a tremendous impact on that student, who developed a steely determination, characteristic of Rabbi Bruk himself, and eventually completed the entire Talmud!
A final example. I am not certain I can convey its full impact.
In our kollel, we were all in our twenties. Perhaps one or two were slightly older. But basically we were within the first few years of marriage dedicating them to Torah study.
There was one exception. This was an old man, with a long, flowing, yellowish white beard. He appeared very distinguished, but his life was anything but. He was alone. He had no family. He would arrive each morning approximately one-half hour late and open his Talmud, like the rest of us. But he never studied with anyone else. After 15 minutes or so he laid down his head on his book of Talmud and dozed off. He remained asleep for the rest of the morning, up to the time of the afternoon mincha prayer at 1 p.m.
Once a month Rabbi Bruk distributed the kollel checks. Unobtrusively and quietly, he approached this man and gave him a check. I shall never forget the slight nod of gratitude Rabbi Bruk received in return, nor the way Rabbi Bruk made no big deal out of this.
Rabbi Bruk never — ever — reminded this man of his intellectual responsibilities in the kollel. Rabbi Bruk, with that small gesture and monthly check, preserved that man’s dignity.
He had nothing. Not family. Not money. Not self-discipline. Rabbi Bruk made sure he was enrolled in his kollel rather than in a soup kitchen. That gesture — Rabbi Bruk quietly giving that monthly check — is why I stayed in the Novorodock yeshiva.
This was the musar, the Jewish ethics, the humanity, I had come to Israel to find.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News