It’s early morning at the Denver Community Kollel on Xavier Street. Men place their black hats on top of the coat rack inside the closet. Large Hebrew books line the shelves in the partially closed study area.
An ambience of serene activity permeates the place, even at this hour. Computers hum. Smart phones ring. Still, one suspects that amid the frenzy, Torah is the centerpiece.
Rabbi Mordechai Fleisher, who joined the Kollel in 2007, enters the busy room vigorously. His desk is occupied, so he grabs an available work spot.
The word kollel, he explains, literally means inclusive or inclusivity. “We are a group of people working as one unit toward greater spiritual heights, Torah study and spiritual growth.
“And we include any Jewish member of the community who wants to learn as well.”
Fleisher, recently promoted from director of education to director of operations, retains the title of senior educator for good reason. The 33-year-old scholar has garnered a reputation as a superlative teacher and thinker.
While he politely discounts the compliment, Fleisher will address “the teacher part.
“I do teach around town; to Kollel members; afternoon study sessions; women and men on the South and East sides of Denver; the monthly Torah for Tycoons session with Rabbi Aron Y. Schwab, co-dean of the Kollel.
“Tonight I’m teaching a women’s class on the South side about Olam Haba, the World to Come,” Fleisher adds. Noticing a glimmer of interest, he extends an invitation. He’s not nudging — well, maybe a little.
Fleischer adjusts course content to match individual levels of learning. “It’s not a matter of style,” he qualifies. “It’s about understanding where a person is.”
For instance, when he’s teaching Talmud scholars, he utilizes an academic shorthand. “You can say a lot more with fewer words.”
He reconstructs lessons to reach Jews who are less familiar with Judaism. “You have to provide the necessary background information,” he says, “because you never want to confuse the person.
“If you are missing an idea from the ground up, you could build a wonderful edifice in the talk — but if there is no foundation, it’s not going to get anywhere. You really have to start from the beginning.”
Those who are fluent in the most complex Jewish concepts “can digest a great deal of information. Someone unfamiliar with these concepts must digest each piece independently. You can’t throw everything at them, including the kitchen sink, in one class.
“Also, if I come in the classroom and say, ‘I am offering you the truth; this is how we do things,’ it’s not going to go over well. Students can’t internalize it. You must present it in a palatable way. You don’t want to bite off more than your students can chew.”
After Fleisher moves to his own desk, he is encouraged to simulate a one-on-one teaching encounter with this journalist, who is allowed to choose the subject matter.
She selects Numbers 19:1-22:1. Moses, ignoring G-d’s instructions, hits the rock instead of speaking to it. G-d punishes Moses by forbidding him to accompany the Israelites into the Promised Land.
The severity of the punishment has perplexed Jewish scholars and weekend Jews alike for generations. Fleisher ruminates for a second or two before offering an explanation.
“Say you have an American citizen who just got out of jail,” he begins. “He’s not your model citizen. He takes a trip to China. As he walks through passport control, officials give him a hard time. So he says a few ‘choice words’ about the Chinese people.
“This man would not make the headlines,” Fleisher says. “He’s very low on the totem pole. Now, suppose President Obama travels to China and the same thing happens. There would be a huge diplomatic row.”
The difference? Obama ranks incomparably higher in the scheme of things.
“For Moses, a man of profound spiritual awareness — the Torah says he was the greatest man who ever lived — even a slight error has vast ramifications,” Fleisher says. “The potential damage he can wreak is far greater than the average Yankel or Joe Schmo.
“With someone of Moses’ caliber, the slightest error, like hitting a rock instead of speaking to it, has severe consequences.”
But what about Moses himself, who will never see Israel after defending G-d to the Jewish people and vice versa for nearly 40 years?
“It’s a fair question that has been raised by a lot of people,” Fleisher concedes. “There is so much discussion about this one act. It was just an expression of Moses’ frustration. But even a single outward expression of anger can lead one to error.”
As far as G-d’s punishment is concerned, Fleisher waves his hand. “That’s another discussion,” he says. But the topic is too enticing to dismiss.
“People think that punishment is vindictive. We grew up in a society that sees punishment as ‘the wrath of G-d pouring down upon you,’ ” he says, feigning vengeance.
A more accurate metaphor, he suggests, “is when a loving, caring parent needs to discipline a child. Bad parenting is hitting a kid in anger. Good parenting is disciplining a child in the exact manner that will rectify the error.
“G-d, in his infinite wisdom, decided that the best way to rectify Moses’ mistake was to deny him the opportunity to go into the Land of Israel.
“Now, if you ask what I would have done?” He strokes his beard. “I don’t know. When I’m G-d, give me a call.”
Mordechai Fleisher was born into an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. All four of his grandparents are Holocaust survivors. “I grew up with the memory of what happened,” he says.
“My mother’s parents lived upstairs from us from the time I was three. They spoke about the Holocaust constantly: what they went through, how they rebuilt their lives, and their unshakable faith.”
For some, it’s easy to believe in a loving G-d only if things are going well, Fleisher says. But when push comes to shove, their confidence suffers.
“The real deal is the person who gets in a bind, has his mettle tested, and still believes,” he says.
“What I observed in my grandparents as a child was that their faith was still there. They never questioned G-d’s judgment.”
Fleisher’s grandfather, who survived the Holocaust, three triple bypass surgeries and a couple of heart attacks, died suddenly when he slipped on a patch of ice eight years ago.
“To go that way after all he’d been through . . . it was very difficult for my grandmother,” he says. “Still, she accepted it — not out of blind, silly acceptance, but because she felt that G-d had led her by the hand to this point, had seen her through terrible times and would continue to carry her through.
“Hard times are a means for growth and opportunity to perfect our lives,” he says. “We’re not here just to have it easy. My mother instilled this very strongly in us. I can’t say I always live it as resolutely as I can, but this was part and parcel of my upbringing.”
Fleisher studied for five years at Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, where he was ordained; Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem; Yeshiva Darchei Torah of Far Rockaway; and Yeshivas Rebbeinu Chaim Berlin.
Then Fleisher says something quite unexpected.
“Actually, I was not destined to become a rabbi at all,” he admits. “When I was 19 or 20, I planned to go to college and study Torah only part time.”
Fleisher had applied for the summer session at Touro College. His plans were progressing on schedule. Then Shavuot arrived, also on shedule, and rerouted his professional arc.
“Shavuot came late that year because it was a leap year,” he says. “There is a great focus on learning Torah on Shavuot. I think I slept a grand total of four hours. At some point I decided to change direction. I cancelled my application to Touro, went to summer camp and studied. This is the path I’ve been on ever since.”
Initially, Fleisher considered becoming a pulpit rabbi. “I looked for a position before I joined the Kollel,” he says. “But it was very hard to find anything.
“There were lots of people looking for positions and not many positions available — like the employment field in general.”
At Beth Medrash Govoha, Fleisher took the Ner L’elef outreach training course, a directional springboard for many rabbis. Near the end of that first year, the head of the program asked whether Fleishman was interesting in moving to Denver and joining the Kollel.
“It was a no-brainer. And here we are.”
He was introduced to his future wife Devorah when he was 22. The meeting was arranged through a shidduch, a traditional matchmaker — “and it worked,” Fleisher smiles. “The vast majority of Orthodox couples meet this way.”
A studious young man, he was already what he describes as a culturally aware American. Influenced by Disney, Fleisher believed that “if there aren’t ringing bells and fireworks at the beginning of a relationship, it’s not for me.
“People think marriage is all about falling head over heels in love,” he says.
“But after the hero and heroine ride off into the sunset, no one shows you what happens three years later, when it’s all about ‘who’s going to change the diaper at two in the morning.’ ”
Learning how to give to your spouse is the only way to build a lasting and authentic relationship, says Fleisher, who’s not referring to expensive trinkets or material possessions. It’s a conscious, soul-to-soul contract.
“I’ll tell you what marriage isn’t. It’s not about another person’s looks, or how talented he or she is, or how far he can throw a football or baseball or whatever. It’s about giving.
“On top of that, there must be a baseline appreciation of the other person. You must also share core values, because you will live in tandem with these core values for the rest of your life.”
The Fleishers have four children, Leah, nine; Efraim, eight; Shua, five; and Chaim, three.
We didn’t ask who changes the diapers in the family.
Fleisher delights in the joyous, non-academic aspects of life. An intrepid fan of Shlomo Carlebach, he has a vast digitized collection of the singer-composer’s works, including hundreds of privately recorded concerts and relatively unknown songs.
He loves kumzitzes, literally “come sit” in Yiddish. Music is the primary focus of these jubilant gatherings, and Fleisher is never without his guitar.
Teaching non-Orthodox Jews has spurred his personal growth. “There’s a saying in Pirke Avot: ‘Who is wise? He who learns from all people.’ The Kollel allows us to do this.
“The Talmud says, ‘More than I have taught my students, my students have taught me,’ ” he continues. “A student who is less knowledgeable looks at things from a different angle; ask questions you never would have thought of. I’ve grown tremendously from these interactions.”
He mentions the “ah ha” moments that intrude while he’s studying a complex portion of Torah. “It’s a confusing part, with a lot of pieces you’re trying to put into place. Your mind is just swimming. You’re working at it for hours and hours and hours, banging your head against the wall.
“Then G-d suddenly has mercy on you and He puts a thought in your head. And with that thought, that piece, everything falls into place. You realize that everything fits into place perfectly.” He shakes his head.
“There are few things I’ve experienced in my life that rival the joy of that ‘ah ha’ moment. It’s indescribable.”
A Kollel rabbi can lead students, whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, to understand a multitude of mental puzzles and religious perplexities. But can he lead a person to faith?
Fleisher answers metaphorically, at first.
“It’s like someone who goes to a psychologist,” he says. “The psychologist can’t just snap his fingers and make everything all right. The best he can do is offer methods that guide a patient to a certain point.
“Faith is not something you can say” — he snaps his fingers — “ ‘here you go, I’ll sell it to you for $1,000 and it’s yours.’ Faith is something you have to work toward. No can just stuff it into your head.
“Judaism is not a religion of blind faith,” says Fleisher. “You can logically prove all the foundations. Once you have all the foundations in place, and you come across something that doesn’t fit into your logical scheme, you are confident the logic is in place. You still have faith.”
He compares the question of faith to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, where Abraham is willing to sacrifice his beloved son on G-d’s command. For many Jews, this is the most vexing episode in the entire Torah.
“G-d didn’t just show up and tell Abraham, ‘Kill him,’” Fleisher says. “At this point, Abraham has had a 137-year relationship with G-d. Then G-d says something that makes absolutely no sense.
“The challenge is taking 137 years of a relationship with G-d and saying, ‘Even though this makes no sense to me, I believe that G-d knows what He’s doing and has my interests at heart.’ ”
“I will sacrifice my intellect on the altar because G-d understands better than I do.”
He reiterates that Torah study is vital to the Kollel because nothing has the power to lift a person higher than its ideas and precepts.
“In outreach, that’s the first thing we focus on, because then you’re tapping into spiritual power. That in itself has an effect on each and every individual.”
Fleisher condenses his words.
“Prayer is mankind talking to G-d. Torah is G-d talking to us.”
Asked whether he has hope for the world, Fleisher again offers an atypical response.
“I’ll tell you something about the Messiah, a very important concept in Judaism,” he says. “The idea that the Messiah will come and fix all the boo-boos is inaccurate. G-d created the world and has a purpose for the world.
“The ultimate purpose of the world is for all mankind to accept that G-d knows what’s best for us in the world. It may look like a mess, but there’s really an order to it.
“Everything that is happening — even all the pain and suffering — is actually for the greater good of mankind. That’s the idea behind the arrival of the Messiah.
“G-d is waiting for us to open our eyes and see the bigger picture, not focus on the bad stuff.’ ”
The grandson of Holocaust survivors whose faith triumphed over hell notes that many Jews professed their belief in the Messiah on the way to the gas chambers.
“They sang ‘Ani Ma’amin’: ‘Even though He may delay, I still wait for him.’ This is our hope.”
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News