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When the Mountains Danced: Travels with HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita

Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman

Three small Jewish communities made headlines just a few weeks ago when Rav Steinman selected them as the chosen destinations for a chizuk mission. In this rare feature, Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman, a member of the trip’s organizing committee, shares some of the conversations, impressions, and lessons he gleaned from his unique vantage point beside the gadol hador, who has made it his personal crusade to share his vision of Torah with nascent and blossoming communities around the world

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

“Ich vil furen (I want to travel),” declared Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, the nonagenarian European-born gadol hador whose opinions are the guiding light for Eretz Yisrael’s Torah community.

“But Rebbi,” protested his talmidim, “the doctor won’t allow it! It’s too grueling.”

“It’s not up to the doctor,” replied Rav Steinman in his inimitable, soft-spoken yet iron-willed manner. “It’s up to the Ribono shel Olam!. If He wants us to go, nothing is too hard.”

Predictably enough, Professor Weinberger, the Rosh Yeshivah’s physician, was dubious. “But,” he sighed, “I know he won’t listen. Please, just ask him not to overdo it!”

Thus began the latest chapter in the amazing saga of Rav Steinman’s “retirement.” Defying conventional wisdom, the venerable sage has decided that his current mission in life includes arduous journeys during which he offers chizuk and inspiration to Torah communities worldwide. This unprecedented approach is based on an iconoclastic interpretation of a midrash, castigating our leaders of yore for not doing more to inspire Klal Yisrael. Great tragedies befell our nation, say Chazal , because our gedolim were not ready to take travel-staff in hand, and go from place to place to “teach the nation the proper ways of behavior.” Klal Yisrael’s leaders, says Rav Steinman, cannot afford to repeat this mistake. And so, as difficult and illogical as it may be, Rav Steinman has made it his mission to “go from place to place.”

A Calculated Vision

For much of the last decade, I have had the privilege of serving on a committee charged with planning the scheduling and logistics of these journeys. Past sojourns have been long and complex affairs, transporting Rav Steinman to major urban centers such as New York, Mexico City, and Paris; and vibrant Torah communities such as Monsey, Lakewood, and Gateshead. For Rav Steinman’s most recent trip, he decided to visit smaller communities and reach a totally different type of audience. From my unusually well-placed vantage point, I was privy to a rare behind-the-scenes view of Rav Steinman’s most recent historic odyssey, and an open window into the mind of a fascinating tzaddik and leader. 

In planning his journeys, Rav Steinman sets clear and spiritually sophisticated goals. Venues are chosen with extraordinary care and insight, although participants are not often privy to the full picture until it unfolds. For this trip, Rav Steinman requested a list of destinations with a distinct kiruv orientation. He then probed keenly to discern the potential inherent in each city. The three ultimately chosen — Odessa, Berlin, and Gibraltar — are on the surface totally dissimilar. Yet the Rosh Yeshivah saw a common denominator. 

He understood they all represented the triumph of bitachon over logic, and the outcome of a struggle against the forces of assimilation and destruction. More subtly, all three, he felt, were at a crucially sensitive point in the historical cycle of ruchniyus, and had the potential to make a spiritual quantum leap. In his quest to help them effectuate this potential, he brought along, in addition to his towering personal stature, his primary weapon: his unrelenting and uncompromising attitude that only Torah lishmah will ensure the survival of Klal Yisrael.

The Rosh Yeshivah laid down an ironclad rule: no advance publicity. He felt that publicity created a danger of ayin hara, which blocks efforts of kiddush Hashem. The local organizing committees were thus charged with the daunting challenge of preparing for an event of overwhelming importance under a virtual gag order. Understandably enough, they protested. The Rosh Yeshivah responded with a firm restatement of one of his basic credos: “Tell them that we are coming to create kiddush Hashem. If our intentions are pure, siyata d’Shmaya will overcome all. Attendance will not be negatively affected in any way.” 

As usual, he was right. 

Odessa: Rising Sun in the Ukraine

The Torah community in Odessa is relatively young, in the incipient stages of growth. Nevertheless, it would be hard to imagine any place with more tales of salvation, both physical and spiritual. Odessa has a very rich Jewish history, but until recently it was primarily known for serving as a haven for maskilim. Rav Steinman was fully aware of the city’s checkered history. On the plane, he told us, “Jabotinsky was born here, Shalom Aleichem lived here.” 

He mentioned that when he was a yeshivah bochur, it was well known that even talmidim of the best yeshivos, seduced by the evils of the Haskalah, would seek refuge in Odessa. He thus appreciated the historical irony of watching swarms of bnei Torah come to the airport to greet us, demonstrating their reverence for Torah.

“Look what a little light of Torah can do,” he commented. “It can overcome centuries of the darkness of Haskalah and communism.” 

The crack of dawn brought a more complete look at the miracle that is Odessa.

“The kiruv work we do here is unique,” explained Rabbi Shlomo Baksht, rav of the kehillah. “We quite literally save lives, physically and spiritually.” 

That lifesaving work is carried out in a plethora of insitutions, including a kollel, outreach programs, and a unique frum university. One of the most important mosdos is the Tikva Children’s Home, which houses scores of orphans — who, while halachically Jewish, are functional “asufis,” children gathered from the street.

“In the impoverished Ukraine, it is not unusual for children to be abandoned by parents who simply cannot cope,” we were informed by Rabbi Refoel Kruskal, the executive director of Odessa’s mosdos. “We pick them up off the street, investigate their yichus thoroughly, and if they are indeed Jewish, rebuild their lives from scratch.” 

Many fine students have harrowing backgrounds. One student, whose father murdered his mother, is now on his way to yeshivah in Israel. We listened raptly to the gripping story of another young man who, though Jewish, was living a life of total dissolution and landed in prison. In the Ukraine, conditions are such that a prison sentence is often tantamount to a death sentence. Sure enough, after several months of living hell, Yuri decided his time was near. 

“I know I’m Jewish; why should I die like a goy?” he asked himself. 

He took a knife and proceeded to circumcise himself, only to begin bleeding profusely, lose concsciousness, and near death. Somehow, he was miraculously revived. Rabbi Baksht concluded dramatically by pointing to a neatly dressed young man with a black yarmulke. 

“There he is!” he exclaimed. “He attends our Jewish university and comes to learn every night in our kollel. We hope one day soon to send him to yeshivah!”

The complex nature of modern-day kiruv work raises very difficult halachic and hashkafah questions. In Odessa, Rav Steinman scheduled a private session to answer the questions of the kiruv rabbanim and yungeleit. A video hookup allowed the women to listen from the next room. (Rav Steinman makes a point of offering targeted chizuk to the women wherever he goes.) This session was a clear violation of Dr. Weinberger’s instructions limiting Rav Steinman to one public session a day. Gamely, I tried to point this out. 

“What can I do,” the Rosh Yeshivah sighed. “I’m a soft person and they need the chizuk. After all, they think their questions are unique.” 

In reality, Rav Steinman has heard variations of all the questions before, worldwide, in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Portugese. Many revolved around the issue of which compromises are proper in kiruv work. To all, Rav Steinman replied with his usual firm answer: “None!” 

Can one ask a beginner to keep Shabbos for a few hours, or start with easy prohibitions? “Absolutely not,” he answered. “There is no half-way shmiras Shabbos. How can you bring a person to Torah by having him violate it?” 

Can one host mixed gender events? “Not without a mechitzah.” 

To the claim, “But Rebbi, they won’t come!” he patiently explained his credo in relation to kiruv rechokim: “This work is meleches shamayim — holy work. As such, it requires siyata d’Shmaya. If the Ribono shel Olam wants you to succeed, all obstacles will be overcome. I promise you, the people will come!”

Sure enough, they came. At 4:30 a.m. the streets surrounding the shul were filled with streams of men, women, and children hurrying to participate in Shacharis k’vasikin. Said a veteran of Odessa, “This is unbelievable. No so long ago, we had trouble putting together a minyan!”

Even the veteran askanim were in awe.

“You don’t understand the implications of this visit,” said one senior talmid chacham, lowering his voice. “You think it’s wonderful for the Ukranian young people; it’s even more important for us. For years, those of us who toiled in kiruv in the frontier locations have had the feeling that the senior roshei yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael do not really appreciate what we do. They offer encouragement and answer questions, but we always felt we were an afterthought in the Torah hierarchy. We were never sure our challenges were understood, our sacrifices appreciated. Our wives who have to bring up children here have it even harder.”

“Just to watch my wife cry as our young son got a brachah was worth it all,” said a kollel fellow. “This one visit changed everything. Not just for Odessa, but also for Berlin, Kiev, Buenos Aires, and Marseille. We are now on the Torah map!”

I relayed the comments to the Rosh Yeshivah. He was visibly moved. “The brachah is greater on things that are hidden. They only need to be appreciated in Shamayim. Tell them that the more the struggle, the more the merit. The harder it is here, the bigger their portion in Gan Eden.” 

The crowd at the main community gathering, held at the incovenient hour of 9:30 a.m. on a work day, filled the shul and the surrounding streets. The Rosh Yeshivah’s message, delivered in Hebrew and translated into Russian, was simple.

“The world was created because of the Torah , and without it we have no purpose. When the Torah was given, say Chazal, the mountains danced! Have you ever seen mountains dance?” They danced, he explained, because at that moment, all of history changed forever. What had been a secular, meaningless world, now had a lofty higher purpose. Old men, veterans of Communist oppression, were visibly in tears, as their younger compatriots listened in rapt awe. He concluded, “Here in Odessa, we lost many generations to Torah. HaKadosh Baruch Hu has been waiting for you to return. You are the last dor before Mashiach; prepare yourselves to greet him.”

As always, the Rosh Yeshivah’s vision was farseeing and bold, even though it may not have been readily apparent.. In private conversation with the senior yungeleit, the Rosh Yeshivah revealed his true intention. 

“What you have done here is tov me’od, very nice,” he told them, “but you can’t stop at that. You must understand that Odessa’s frum university is only a hora’as sha’ah bidieved — a temporary stop-gap measure, to prevent assimilation. But in order for you to have a kiyum — a lasting effect — you need to go to the next stage. You need to establish a full-fledged yeshivah, al taharas hakodesh, free of any other influences.” 

The assembled listened intently. As in other places, in journeys past, they collectively decided that such a plan was not more improbable than an aged Talmudist traveling the world. If Rav Steinman can be moser nefesh, they said, so can we.

On the flight we expressed surprise about the audacious plan. The Rosh Yeshivah smiled in response, saying, “Maybe I’ll come back to speak in the yeshivah.”

Berlin: Learning “Hashoel” in the Shadow of the Berlin Wall

Jewish history has been writtten in blood. No place symbolizes this more starkly than Germany. Our plane rolled to a stop at Berlin’s Tegel Airport and I found myself face to face with a German policeman, dressed in a uniform eerily reminiscent of an earlier, very grim, era. He extended his hand with the terse request, “Papiere, bitte!” (Your papers, please!) 

Though it was expressed very politely, that curt phrase was fraught with chilling historical significance for a child of Holocaust survivors. As we waited for our passports to be stamped, I mentioned my emotional reaction to Rav Steinman. He nodded and said, “I understand; after all, this is not my first time in Berlin.” We all listened in amazement as the Rosh Yeshivah explained.

The year was 1937, a few weeks after Shavuos. Kristallnacht was still a year in the future, but it was already very hazardous for anyone visibly Jewish to travel in Berlin. Facing the threat of forced induction into the Polish army, young Aharon Leib Steinman and his close childhood friend, Moshe Soloveitchik (later to become the famous postwar gaon and spiritual leader of European Jewry) decided to flee Brisk. 

At the time, it was very difficult to legally escape Poland. Instead of hazarding an escape, some bochurim tried to obtain the status of “expelled citizens.” However, in order to do so, one needed proper papers from an admitting country. The best the pair could do was to secure temporary student visas from Switzerland. Under normal circumstances, the virulent anti-Semitic Polish authorities would never have granted them the necessary status. In fact, Moshe Soloveitchik was prevented from leaving for several days for that reason. Miraculously, in young Aharon Leib’s case, the officials overlooked the problem and he was allowed to leave to his destination of Montreaux, Switzerland. 

Chillingly, the only route to Switzerland was through the lion’s den of Berlin. Left with no alternative, young Aharon Leib boarded the Berlin-bound train, which terminated at the main train station. This necessitated a taxi ride to another station serving Basel, Lausanne, and Montreaux. The inexperienced Rav Steinman hailed a taxi, whose evil driver then proceeded to turn a short trip into an hour-long tour of the swastika-draped city. 

“Not only was I in constant fear, but the driver took all the money I had!” Rav Steinman reminisced. “At the time, I was very upset to lose my money. Only later, did I understand it was a very cheap kapparah to pay to escape, b’chasdei Hashem, the ‘gey hahariga’ (the jaws of death). That was my previous experience in Berlin; I never expected that I’d return here.” 

In a sense, no one expected to return to Berlin. Who would have dared dream that, a short distance from the Fuehrer’s bunker, yeshivah bochurim would delve into the intricacies of the Ketzos HaChoshen. But as Rabbi Joshua Spinner, the executive director of Lauder Yeshurun, which includes a range of Torah mosdos, explained, “The Ribono shel Olam has His own agenda. We are just gratified it included creating a visible miracle here.” 

A tome could not do justice to the incredible rebirth of Yiddishkeit in Berlin. What most people don’t know is that Rav Steinman foresaw that miracle, and understood the role Berlin would play in Germany’s emerging Torah renaissance. Rabbi Spinner showed me a letter written to him by Rav Steinman six years ago, when the Berlin effort was still in its relative infancy: 

“We have been told of a small corner in a large country where to our sorrow the blood of our brothers was spilled like water… we hope that here too the Torah will return to its former home… and in this desolate place will be built a place of Torah and Yiddishkeit and yiras Shamayim … for all those who seek this.“ 

The Rosh Yeshivah’s brachah has indeed taken hold, with ever-accelerating momentum.

“Why indeed were the Berlin efforts so successful?” I asked Rav Steinman. 

Softly but firmly he replied, “Because they have a yeshivah.” 

Those five words summarized his credo: only authentic high-level Torah learning leads to lasting success. Indeed, when I inquired of Rabbi Yoel Rose, the Berlin  rosh yeshivah, as to his activities, he answered simply, “We are learning Hashoel (the eighth chapter of Bava Metzia)!” No doubt he could have regaled me with glittering outreach statistics, and the nachas of siddur kiddushin for newly frum families, or the number of kosher establishments in Berlin. Instead, his emphasis was on the high level of Torah learning. 

“My goal,” says Rabbi Spinner, “is to establish a chareidi community centered around the bnei Torah of the yeshivah, which is indistinguishable from Monsey, Brooklyn, or even Lakewood. It will take time and effort, but with Hashem’s help, we will do it.”

Indeed, Rav Steinman was gratified to hear that Berlin had already produced its own offshoot in the German city of Leipzig. 

“A makom Torah has ‘arrived,’$$$SEPARATE QUOTES$$$” he told us, “when it produces peiros of its own. We need more Leipzigs!”

Amazingly enough, all this was precisely presaged in Rav Steinman’s letter of 5764. There, he emphasized his hope that the young Berlin Torah Center would “grow into a pure place of Torah and yiras Shamayim, without any mixture of forces antithetical to Torah.” This is the very definition of a yeshivah, and seventy-three years after Rav Steinman left Nazi Berlin, we were witness to his brachah unfolding before our very eyes.

The main event in Berlin was planned for early evening, to allow the scores of people who gathered from all across Germany time to return home. Rav Steinman’s message was essentially the same as in Odessa — the primacy of the Torah in its pristine form. In both places, the mountains danced with joy. 

Still, I couldn’t help but notice the subtle variations, tailored specifically to the audience. Rav Steinman understood that the Russian yekkes of Berlin are different from the Ukrainian survivors of Odessa, and required a more measured presentation. He stressed the need to reach for ever higher goals.As the audience was primarily English-speaking, I was given the privilege of translating his message. 

Afterwards, a member of our party reproached me, saying, “You didn’t do his drashah justice. When it came to asking, ‘Can a mountain dance?’ you should have shouted!” 

Surprised, I protested, “But the Rosh Yeshivah never shouts; he’s barely audible.” 

“True,” came the response, “but his heart shouts!”

Gibraltar:  I See it Rock-like

At first glance, Gibraltar was an unlikely candidate for inclusion on Rav Steinman’s tightly packed itinerary. It has a small community numbering 700 souls and comcomittantly small Torah institutions. Yet, Rav Steinman, as is his wont, eschewed superficial facts and subjected the destination to his unique brand of critical Torah analysis. 

“The Rosh Yeshivah wants to go to Gibraltar,” said his grandson, Rav Dovid Shapiro. 

“Why?” I asked. 

“Lo barur li (I’m not sure),” came the response. “I’m sure you will ask him.” 

“Why are we going there?” I queried the Rosh Yeshivah. 

With his usual brevity, Rav Steinman answered, “They can no longer rely on their isolation to protect them. They need chizuk in Torah.” 

As usual, the full import of his reasoning became clear only later. 

The peninsula of Gibraltar seems frozen in time. In addition to the famous Rock of Gibraltar, there are various other tourist attractions. Interestingly enough, there is one unique to hilchos brachos. Chazal tell us that upon seeing the yam hagadol (the Great Sea), one makes a special blessing. There is a dispute among the poskim as to precisely which sea Chazal referred to: the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediteranean Sea. As such, there is an inherent sofek brachah issue. There is only one place in the world where one can see both seas simultaneously and thus make the brachah without any doubt. That place, high on the Rock, overlooks the Straits of Gibraltar.

In preparation for this unique opportunity, I copied the relevant sections from the Shulchan Aruch, and asked our pilots to make sure we approached in a way that would allow us to see the two seas at once. After consulting the radar map, the pilot said, “Look out the right window and you’ll see it.”

We all busily prepared ourselves to make this once in a lifetime brachah. Yet Rav Steinman, engrossed in his Gemara, was oblivious. I showed him the Shulchan Aruch. He perused it, shrugged and said, “Tzu a blatt gemara kumt es nisht (but it’s not as good as a page of Gemara).” 

“But, Rebbi,” we protested, “it’s a brachah nadirah — a rare mitzvah!” 

He answered, “Who says one has to look for rare brachos? Better to learn.” 

This lesson was clear: No exciting gimmicks or frills are necessary. Just do the basics correctly, for that’s what the Ribono shel Olam wants.

After making our brachah semi-surreptitiously, we landed and were greeted by Rabbi Chasid, the chief rabbi; the rosh hakahal, Chaim Levy, Esq.; and the bnei Torah of Gibraltar. We arrived in town to find that the entire kehillah of Gibraltar had declared a virtual holiday, a Yom Tov. All Jewish businesses closed down, as the entire community, from cheder children and up, came to honor the Torah. The son of the former chief rabbi said, “My father came here after the war and had to struggle to ensure everyone kept the unique mesorah indigenous to Gibraltar. Now we have a kollel! This visit is the crowning glory of our efforts.” 

Indeed, the Rosh Yeshivah understood the challenge facing Gibraltar. The physical isolation and the strong Sephardic mesorah had served to protect the kehillah for centuries from destructive outside forces. 

“We believe,” said Chaim Levy, “that we are the only diaspora kehillah in the world where everyone is shomer Shabbat.” 

However, in the new information age, where geographic barriers cannot block outside influences, Rav Steinman felt that it is crucial to create more secure measures of protection. That level of assurance can only come from an unswerving comittment to Torah and its values. 

The kehillah had scheduled a private Minchah in the home of Pinchas Netzer, z”l, as a zchus for the neshamah of a young talmid chacham and community leader who had passed away tragically at a young age. As it was Erev Rosh Chodesh, the Rosh Yeshivah added the extensive Yom Kippur Katan tefillah. Unexpectedly, the large room filled to capacity with yungeleit seeking the opportunity to daven with Rav Steinman. Their tefillos reverberated almost palpably.

The Rosh Yeshivah then prepared to address the entire community in the magnificent ornate surroundings of the seventeenth-century Shaarei Shamayim Synagogue. We entered to find ourselves part of an elaborate and moving welcoming ceremony, replete with the mass singing of special piyutim, recitation of mizmorei Tehillim and kabbalat Malchut Shamayim. 

Intrigued, I asked, “Do you do this before every drashah?” 

Explained Rav Chasid, “This is the program for a hachnassah, the installation of a sefer Torah. We decided that a living Torah should be afforded the same kavod!”

(As an aside, when I related this to the Rosh Yeshivah, he smiled. Ever the Talmudist, he replied, “Very nice, but shtimt nisht, not consistent with the the Gemara in Kiddushin [33B], which says a sefer Torah is on a higher level than a talmid chacham.”)

One last time, the Rosh Yeshivah sang his heartfelt paean to the glory of the Torah. O=nce again the hills danced at Matan Torah; yet, as always, I marveled at his intellectual subtlety. If in Berlin the message was to strengthen and expand an existing yeshivah, in Gibraltar the missive was more nuanced. His intent was to reinforce a growing trend of Gibraltarians dispatching children to yeshivot gedolot in Europe and Eretz Yisrael. These young talmidei chachomim return armed with the requisite tools to ensure the perpetuity of the mesorah. 

Accordingly, Rav Steinman made sure to laud the dedication and importance of bnei Torah. This time, while translating, I made sure to shout, “The mountains danced!” 

The message hit home. As we exited the Shaarei Shamayim Synagogue, people came over to thank us, saying,“Our bnei Torah can be proud, and we’re proud of them!”

“It’s Always Good”

The jet lifted swiftly off the runway in a determined effort to beat the rising sun in Eretz Yisrael. After all, for the Rosh Yeshivah, tefillah k’vasikin is a necessity even if it means flying all night. As we hurriedly strapped our seatbelts,we noticed Rav Steinman’s seat was not aligned comfortably. Several of us jumped up to adjust the seat. 

“Is it good now?“ we asked. 

Surprised, the Rosh Yeshivah answered, “Good? It was good before. It’s always good.” 

As I bade him farewell, he asked,“You’re going back to America?” Sadly, I nodded in assent. “It’s not so bad, “ he consoled me. “Do you ever wonder why America, alone among the great powers of history, has never suffered a significant foreign invasion? It’s because America is a malchus shel chesed, a nation whose essence is chesed. If they wish to be further protected from Chevlei Mashiach, it is incumbent upon the Jews of America to be in the forefront of chesed. They must make sure to continue supporting Torah and charitable activities. This is their only shield.”

As always, the full impact of these journeys is only evident after the fact. Nevertheless, having watched similar scenes unfold, we were confident that the Ribono shel Olam would ensure that the mesirus nefesh of the elderly gadol would yield tangible returns. Odessa, Berlin, and Gibraltar would be different places because they had been injected with a booster shot of ruchniyus. With his usual humility, Rav Steinman concluded his trip with the question, “Were we successful?” 

“Very much so,” we assured him. 

He turned to his ever-present Tehillim and said, “Now we need to be mispallel for siyata d’Shmaya.”

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