Thursday, May 23, 2019 -
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Where heroes are still alluring

My Dad never retired, my Mom isn’t retired, and I don’t want to retire, so take this with a grain of salt: When I retire, I want to be a  kindergarten teacher.

The joy. The smiles. The innocence. What could be better? A recent visit to Hillel Academy put flesh on the abstraction.

I was invited to visit a fair put on by the Hillel girls, grades 4 to 8. Something about “gedolim” (great rabbinic leaders). I really didn’t know what to expect.

I certainly didn’t expect Chaya Krausz to attach a picture of the late Rabbi Mordechai Gifter to a small laminated poster in the shape of an automobile, with the Traveler’s Prayer (tefillat ha-derech) on the back. This was a favor at her large exhibit on Rabbi Gifter, capturing a biographical quirk: Not too many rabbinic leaders — in fact, none, save Rabbi Gifter — hailed from Virginia. As a young man Rabbi Gifter had to travel to yeshiva and, no doubt, recited the Traveler’s Prayer.

Other favors:

Ahuva Wasserman made a mirror with a superimposed saying, “Your smiling goes a long way,” to typify Rabbi Shlomo Z. Auerbach.

Chaya Kleg drew a neat little color card with people heading toward a red-roofed house, titled “Welcoming guests.” That, Rabbi Yaakov Herman certainly did at the beginning of the 20th century on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Use this pencil to write Torah like R’ Moshe.” Malka Feldheim wrapped a green tag around a #2 pencil to illustrate the late author of The Letters of Moses [Feinstein].

A small note attached to a Chanukah candle: “Rav [Simcha] Wasserman brought light to the world, just like this candle.” (Anyone who ever saw his face knows that Hillel student Hannah Griego picked up his essence.)

Roiza Summers’ display on Rabbi Avigdor Miller had a tape recorder. Hundreds of his inimitable tapes are available. A prolific author, his truest means of teaching remained the spoken word.

Kids tend to see the world inductively, for example, via favors. In my new pedagogical mental retirement mode, I first picked up on the favors — not a fair description of this Torah Fair, for the favors came within a thorough framework, indeed.

The goal of this Torah fair is to instill respect for and knowledge of rabbinic leaders and of their contributions to Jewish scholarship.

Standing in the center of the display hall is a large table holding three boards in triangular fashion. Pictures of about eight rabbinic leaders grace each board. At the base of the boards, resting on the table, is a copy of the major works of scholarship these leaders wrote.

Surrounding the center table were many smaller tables, each holding a two- or three-panel display of pictures and text depicting a major rabbinic leader.

Some of the pictures were stirring. Real pictures of the legendry sage, author and pietist, the “Chofetz Chaim,” for example, are extremely rare. One such picture shows a semi-profile of a very old man, seated. The picture that Hillel student Gavriella Krausz located showed the whole scene — the context — not just the seated sage, but also the people standing around, the respect they showed the Chofetz Chaim and, tellingly, the house of the sage.

Today, we would see it as sign of poverty.

Once, the Chofetz Chaim — whose renown pervaded Eastern European Jewry — was visited by a man who was taken aback at the sage’s living conditions.

He asked: “This is the great Chofetz Chaim? Where is his furniture?”

The sage answered: “Where is your furniture.”

“Me?” said the man, “I have no furniture! I’m only passing through!”

“So am I,” said the Chofetz Chaim. 

To their credit, the written student presentations on these leaders did not focus on stories and anecdotes. They were solidly researched and written biographical and character sketches.

Each student chose her own rabbinic leader, based on a list prepared by the school.

Needless to say, I was attracted to Adina Makowitz’s display on the Vilna Gaon, the “Genius of Vilna” (1720-1797). I spent six years unraveling a very small part of his elliptical writings.

Two displays, one by Leah Major and one by Chasya Joseph, each focused on Rabbi Yisrael Kanievsky, even rounding up a cover page of his little known, initial literary foray, Gates of Understanding.

Aviva Perkins chose another one of my favorites, the late Rabbi Elya Lopian, who lived to 98 and was productive in Lithuania, England and Israel, up to age 96.

And why did Chaya Wasserman, choose to study Rabbi Aharon Kotler. “My father [Rabbi Aharon Wasserman] is named after him!”

Nechama Zakroff wrote on Rabbi Eliezer M. M. Schach because “he was a humble giant who made himself available to his students and anyone who needed his advice.”

I was particularly impressed by Esther Schiermeyer’s display on Rabbi Isaac Hutner for the simple reason that probably less is written about him than about all the rabbinic leaders in the fair. And she managed to capture his essence as a bridge figure between the chasidic and non-chasidic paths.

Chana Crystal’s choice was unique — her mother’s father, Rabbi Meir Cohen.

Tamar Wilen focused on the “tzaddik of Jerusalem,” Rabbi Aryeh Levine.

Chaya Engel chose Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson, “the great kabbalist and father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessing memory”; and Rachel Kashuk chose Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson.

Batya Azoulay wrote on the first chief rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk.

Speaking of countries, the Torah fair divided its rabbinic leaders by continent: European, American and Israeli leaders. The obviously sacred studies character of the project was co-planned by the secular department, which taught the Hillel girls cartography and yielded three very large, sophisticated maps of Europe, America and Israel. Pictures of the various leaders were connected to their respective locations on each continent.

All of the leaders were alternatively presented on a separate timeline, color-coded per continent.

“The girls wait for the Torah fair all year long,” explained fourth-grade teacher Esther Feldheim. “Such joy and love, such chiyyus (vitality), they put into it.”

Other teachers include Tzipporah Freedman, grade 5; Miriam Nussbaum (6), Basya Rothstein (7) and Chaya Abrams (8).

Judging by the looks on the students’ faces, my theoretical retirement plans might not be such a bad idea. But if you disagree, I see your point, since the parents and grandparents visiting the fair were “kvelling,” too. A few cases in point: Raeann Lampert, Naomi Erlanger, Esti Schwab, Ruthie Krausz, Neil and Vicki Olesky.

Oh, and don’t forget Hillel great-grandparent Lucie Prenzlau, who was taking in the exhibit of more than one great-granddaughter. Lucie Prenzlau didn’t even need to retire! She’s got kids surrounding her all the time.

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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