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Everyone’s Rabbi: Rabbi Benjamin Yudin

Yisroel Besser

Although he insists that a rabbi can’t take things personally and remain in rabbanus, if there’s one thing that typifies Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, it’s the personal touch. His four-decade career as the rabbi of Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah shul, as well as his regular shiurim given on the popular Nachum Segal radio show, are testimony to his ability to reach out to Jews from all walks of life and inspire each and every one of them to grow.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

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Meet enough rabbanim,
visit enough shuls, and you develop a theory: the architecture and design of a shul is a reflection of the man who leads it. It’s true elsewhere, and it’s certainly true in Shomrei Torah. The main chapel is an attractive, spacious room — a fusion of a traditional synagogue with a high ceiling and formal decor, a shtiebel with knotty wooden slats and paneling, and a New Age retreat with a generous glimpse of blue sky above.

When we are seated in the rabbi’s office, which is surprisingly small — and, not surprisingly, cluttered — I comment on the shul’s aesthetics. The rabbi looks at me.

“Listen carefully,” he says. “There is only one complimentary adjective for a shul: used.”

Shomrei Torah is used. When he came to Fair Lawn in 1969, it was a Shabbos minyan. Today it boasts three daily Shacharis minyanim, a morning learning program, daily Minchah-Maariv and daf yomi, and a full schedule of shiurim.

Yes, it’s used.

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, who was born and raised in the Crown Heights of the 1950s, credits many of the choices he’s made along the way — choices that have led to the success of his Fair Lawn kehillah — to that milieu.

“It was a place of concern for other Jews,” he reflects. “The Lubavitcher Chassidus was getting established on these shores, and there was a tremendous emphasis on outreach, on drawing unaffiliated Jews close, and their passion affected me.”

He attended the local day school, Crown Heights Yeshiva — “which was a very good school. But then I spent a summer at the Lubavitcher sleepaway camp, Gan Israel, and they started to influence me to go to a real yeshivah. I wasn’t sure what to do. Ultimately, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that I should stay at the day school, but make myself comfortable in his beis medrash. So I started to go there and soak in the atmosphere.”

Although he attended high school at Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ) on the Lower East Side, he would learn his night seder at the Lubavitcher shul located at 770 Eastern Parkway. “They had an official Chassidus seder from nine thirty to ten, so my chavrusa and I would keep a Tanya near my Gemara in case the mashgiach would come check on us.”

The experience between those walls was enough to convince him that he wanted to dedicate his life to the Jewish people. “But in truth,” he adds, “even before kiruv was a term, my father was an ambassador for Hashem. He was an unassuming Venetian blinds salesman, born in America, but he was remarkable in his sense of responsibility to other Jews. He would visit homes on sales calls, and if he saw a Jewish home with no mezuzah he would make it a point to ‘forget’ a tool. Then he would return, ostensibly to retrieve his forgotten object, and leave a mezuzah with the family.”

He shares another insight. “Rav Ahron Soloveichik explains that the bechor, the firstborn son, gets a double portion of his father’s inheritance, pi shnayim, since all the father’s unrealized hopes and ambitions are foisted upon him. If the father dreams of going to medical school but doesn’t have the money, he will push his oldest son in that direction, to compensate.

“My father learned in Torah Vodaath, but was forced to leave to help his family survive, so it meant a lot to him that we succeed in learning. He would wait to hear a dvar Torah at the Shabbos table. And interestingly, all my sisters married rabbanim.”

Another formative influence on young Benjamin Yudin was Rabbi Moshe Chait, who had a shul in Crown Heights, before eventually establishing and leading Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Yerushalayim. “Rabbi Chait would deliver a  humash shiur every Friday night, learning one pasuk each week for the full hour. One pasuk in an hour! He inspired a desire to know, to plumb the depths of a pasuk.

“A role model for me in rabbanus was the rabbi at the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, where my parents davened. His name was Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotopsky, and he taught me that rabbanus has to be learning-based; it has to be connecting through teaching and learning.”

Until today, Rabbi Yudin keeps a minhag from his old rav: he himself has prepared the traditional pshetel (bar mitzvah speech) with four decades of bar mitzvah boys.

“It’s an opportunity to get to know the boys, to forge a meaningful relationship with them. What can be better than to give a child his first taste of a gemara or a Rambam? It’s very gratifying. It’s hard to find time, but it’s worth it.  redit also must go to our congregants, who sit patiently for the seven or eight minutes it takes the boy to deliver the drashah. It isn’t always clear, but they listen. They also invest themselves in his future.”

When Benjamin completed high school he enrolled in YeshivaUniversity, already committed to becoming a rabbi. There, he developed new role models. He was a talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and developed a warm and close relationship with Rav Dovid Lifschitz.

“The rav was very introverted and withdrawn, while Reb Dovid was engaging. But each of these two mentors had a strong impact on me.” Benjamin Yudin became Rabbi Benjamin Yudin after earning his smichah. At the same  ime, he enriched his future rabbinate by marrying his rebbetzin, Shevi. “Her parents, the Werners, were close friends with my parents. We were both from Crown Heights and had been in kindergarten together. She is the single greatest asset to my rabbanus, the not-so-secret ingredient in whatever we’ve achieved here.”

 

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