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The Rabbi Who Hears Me

Eytan Kobre

Nearly a decade ago, Rabbi Yisroel Grossberg became the menahel of BCA — a Brooklyn high school for girls closed out of every other option

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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IN PLACE In Rabbi Grossberg’s experience, when everything else in a girl’s life is in place, the Yiddishkeit falls into place of its own accord, “because they want it. Who doesn’t want it? It’s beautiful. We just have to set the stage for it” (Photos: Amir Levy)

I t was late on a Tishah B’Av morning when a call came in to the cell phone of Rabbi Yisroel Grossberg, principal of Bnot Chaya Academy (BCA), the alternative Brooklyn high school for girls for whom there is no alternative. On the other end was a student of his with an urgent inquiry. “Rabbi, what time is Tishah B’Av over?” He gave her the break-fast time and then asked if she was indeed keeping the fast, to which she replied, “Yeah, we’re all here on the beach, not swimming, just talking, and we’re all fasting.”

The next day she called again, this time to tell her principal how much it had meant to her that she could call with her question, explaining that she and her friends had been sitting around on California’s Venice Beach when they decided to “do Tishah B’Av.” The problem was none of them had any idea when it ended — and no one had anyone in the world they felt they could call to ask, not parents, not anybody. Then this girl had spoken up: “I have a rabbi I can call.”

That fall, at the first staff meeting of the new school year, Rabbi Grossberg retold the story of the Tishah B’Av phone call from the beach, adding, “What’s our job? To be that person on the other end of the line.”

For Reb Yisroel, the phrase “24/6 availability” isn’t a cliché but a reality, and there are all kinds of calls: “A girl called me late one night and said, ‘Rabbi, I have good news and bad news. The good news is I feel literally like you’re my father. The bad news is the cops said to call my father, so I’m calling you…’ ” There are the 3 a.m. calls about family fights and shoplifting and drug overdoses, which he describes in his understated way as “not pretty.”

I arrive at the school, which is in a large shul building just off the busy Coney Island Avenue thoroughfare in Flatbush, Brooklyn. If you expected Rabbi Grossberg to fit your mental image of the head of a school like this one: youngish, smooth-talking, on the cool side — you might want to file those preconceptions away.

ON CALL For Reb Yisroel, the phrase “24/6 availability” isn’t a cliché but a reality

A talmid of Mir and Lakewood and a longtime yeshivah rebbi and menahel who counts the legendary mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, as his primary influence in chinuch, the 48-year-old Reb Yisroel might not fit the image of a compelling, with-it kiruv rabbi. But the gifts he brings to this most difficult of jobs are immediately apparent: a calm, down-to-earth demeanor, a mix of genuine warmth for and appropriate distance from his charges, and an unshakeable belief that nothing makes one happier and emotionally healthier than living Jewishly. 

He doesn’t claim to have all the answers or a ready supply of sharp one-liners; he often says that “if any of these gurus tell you, ‘this is the answer,’ run away from them.” But what I learn on my visit to BCA is that the girls who come here don’t want or need pat answers, anyway. Instead, they’re seeking an open atmosphere in which they can be honest about their struggles, a place where, for perhaps the first time in their lives, they know the people here care more about them and their success than about what their behavior or appearance says about the school. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 705)

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