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Learning and Leading in Queens

Yisroel Besser

“If rabbanim want respect, they should learn and become real talmidei chachamim.” Those words were spoken more than three decades ago, by Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, who is celebrating thirty-six years at the helm of the Khal Nachlas Yitzchok shul in Kew Garden Hills. But even as Rav Oelbaum looks back upon a long and distinguished career in rabbanus, his eye is firmly fixed on the present — and, as usual, he has some sage words of advice for a new generation of rabbanim concerning the challenges they face.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dinner journals usually don’t make for inspiring reading, unless you’re the guest of honor or the fundraiser. But when you read the 36th Anniversary Journal of K’hal Nachalas Yitzchok, you get a sense that there is a story here. The letters written by shul members have the nostalgia of a yearbook, the warmth of a letter home. The picture that emerges is that of a group of young families seeking to build a real kehillah, gathering around a young rav and saying “lift us up.”

It’s a look back, thirty-six years later, at the path they’ve shared.

I had a bad accident and hurt my legs two days before Pesach. I needed to hear a siyum on Erev Pesach because I’m a bechor, so the Rav took the whole minyan into that small hallway (between the Rav’s house and the shul) where there was a phone and made the siyum while holding the phone so I could hear it, writes one.

Another person remarks: Like myself, many of our members walk long distances to reach shul.... Neither July’s heat nor January’s blizzards holds us back. Our shul is a magnet that attracts a diverse crowd of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Americans, Iranians, Eastern Europeans, those educated in chassidishe yeshivos and those educated in public schools....

A third, adopting a slightly more humorous tone, writes: While it would be disrespectful to call Rabbi Oelbaum “my friend” in the American sense of the word (we have never even once, for example, gone bowling together), he is my yedid nefesh, my yo’eitz and my madrich.

When I mention to Yidden from Brooklyn, Monsey, or Lakewood that I live in Queens, I see their eyes glaze over and I get one of two reactions: either, “I didn’t know there are heimishe Yidden there,” or, more commonly, “I had to go there once for a vort, nichum aveilim, levayah, etc. and I got lost.”

However, all I have to do is mention that I daven in Rabbi Oelbaum’s shul and the paradigm shifts. A smile of recognition appears on their faces, “Wow, you’re so lucky,” followed by a recital of how much they enjoyed the shiur they heard from the Rav.

“Does he speak like that every week?” “Yes,” I answer, somewhat smugly, “and several times a week too.”

That last one says it all. His balabatim hold their heads a little higher by their association with him. And, interestingly enough, holding his own head a little higher was one of Rav Oelbaum’s first tasks as a rav



If you’re a certain age, you may remember the short life of the Merkaz Harabbanim. The organization was established during a transitional period for the American rabbinate: the older generation of European-born and trained rabbanim was fading and a new generation — American educated, fluent in English — was rising. But even though the American-born rabbanim were well suited for their positions they weren’t able to command the same level of respect. The ideal of kavod harabbanus — so central throughout history — seemed in jeopardy.

A national conference was held to discuss ways to raise the institution of the rabbinate to its former glory: the time, back in Europe, when it was the rav who was mesader kiddushin and sandak, and the one whom both the unlearned butchers and scholarly roshei yeshivah respected.

Among those addressing the conference was a relatively young man, Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum from Kew Garden Hills, Queens. His message was succinct. “If rabbanim want respect, they should learn and become real talmidei chachamim. They will feel a sense of fulfillment, and they’ll do their jobs better.”

Thirty-six years at the helm of the Nachlas Yitzchok d’Humna shul testify to the truth of Rav Oelbaum’s words. And it is against the backdrop of this milestone that I approach my meeting with the Rav, eager to hear his reflections on the journey and lessons learned along the way, messages for yet another generation of young rabbanim.

After a right turn off Kew Garden Hills’s bustling Main Street, I pull up in front of the beautiful shul. Next door is the Rav’s home, where he himself welcomes me and leads me into his seforim room and study.

I take a step back.

This is a seforim room!

It’s the kind of place that a kollel yungerman can get lost in for a week: walls of red and brown and faded black bindings that rise up to the sky on all sides. Walk through another door and the walls close in on you, trapping you between a thousand more volumes. But you don’t feel claustrophobic. The opposite is true. The seforim seem to breathe, expanding the tight space.

After we’re seated comfortably at a small conference table, the Rav speaks: “My father came from Czechoslovakia. He settled in Toronto and opened a shul in what is now called the ‘old’ neighborhood, since there aren’t too many Yidden left there anymore. I went to cheder at Shlomei Emunei Yisroel. It was led by the Tetcher Rav ztz”l. Later it became Yesodei HaTorah.”

For yeshivah, his father sent him to Nitra, the yeshivah farm settlement established by Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl in Westchester, New York. The hope was to create a shtetl with gainful employment for the community’s residents.

“The yeshivah succeeded; the farm settlement not as much. Though when I came to learn there, you could still find chickens walking around.”

The Rav’s son, Reb Moshe, who is a rav in Lakewood, joins us and the Rav instructs him to take down the sefer Birurei HaShitos. “Rav Binyomin Steiner, the sefer’s author, was my rebbi. So was the Zahav Sheva, Rav Dovid Gross,” the Rav tells me. In this house it seems that people are identified by the seforim they authored, their Torah proof that they existed.

While learning in Nitra, the Rav became a chassan to the daughter of Rav Alter Yitzchok Eizek Weinberger, the Turka Rav of Kew Gardens, and he completed the rigorous smichah program in time for the chasunah. The young couple settled in Williamsburg, where the Chasan Sofer kollel was located.

“It was a wonderful place. The old Mattersdorfer Rav led the kollel himself. I had an apartment that, interestingly enough, belonged to the previous Satmar Rebbe, the Beirach Moshe. He had moved to Boro Park to lead the Sigheter kehillah there, so we rented his apartment on top of the shul — eighty dollars a month for five rooms.” He laughs, and then adds, “The ‘reiyach’ of the mikveh was included free of charge.”

A few years later the growing family moved to Kew Gardens. The young Rabbi Oelbaum began to deliver shiurim in his father-in-law’s beis medrash, gaining valuable experience. He also joined the local kollel led by Rav Shlomo Leifer.

Kew Garden Hills, just minutes from Kew Gardens, was then a neighborhood in transition, with young couples moving in daily. Reb Noach Isaac was a familiar figure — and an ideal choice to be a rav. In 1973, he was invited to lead a newly formed kehillah and Nachlas Yitzchok was born.


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