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The Rosh Yeshivah’s Mandate

Yisroel Besser

As a youngster, Rav Henach Cohen thought he’d found his calling teaching Torah in Los Angeles. Then a phone call from Rav Aharon Kotler changed his life, and positioned him as one of the primary figures aiding the Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah in his passion of developing the Chinuch Atzmai system to a vibrant, burgeoning educational network. In honor of Rav Aharon’s yahrtzeit, he shares his memories of the challenges and triumphs along the way.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to the ideals I would discuss with Rabbi Henach Cohen — listening to, and appreciating gedolei Torah — than his reaction when I called to request an interview. He said no.

I suggested that perhaps the encounters and relationships he enjoyed with the great leaders of the Torah world, in his capacity of director of Chinuch Atzmai, could inspire others. He hesitated, then suggested, “I will call the rosh yeshivah and ask his opinion.”

“The rosh yeshivah” he refers to is Rav Malkiel Kotler shlita of Beth Medrash Govoha, grandson of Reb Aharon — whom a much-younger Henach Cohen was privileged to serve, acting as the Rosh Yeshivah ztz”l’s right arm in developing Chinuch Atzmai. Generations have come and gone, Rabbi Cohen has enjoyed a productive career — yet still, he asks.

Ultimately, he agreed to my request, but with a disclaimer.

“We are discussing the Rosh Yeshivah, not me: and before we begin to talk about Reb Aharon, you need to understand something. Chazal say, ‘im rishonim k’malachim — if the earlier generations were like angels …’ He was from a different world than us. Many gedolei Torah arrived here after the war and became roshei yeshivah, but he was a rosh yeshivah back there, while still in his twenties!

“Reb Aharon sat at a table with the Chofetz Chaim, absorbing his mesorah for dealing with Klal Yisrael, with communal issues. The Rosh Yeshivah arrived in America groomed and ready for leadership, already belonging to the nation, committed to its rebirth. He was on fire, burning with zeal, intent on serving, on giving, not on taking. He had no sense of self; nothing belonged to him.”

Reb Henach recalls the furniture in the Rosh Yeshivah’s apartment. “The chairs were mismatched. He had metal beds, like we had as little children. Materialism meant nothing to him.”

Rebbetzin Kotler once gave Reb Henach twenty-five dollars, and asked him to buy the Rosh Yeshivah a new hat, since he was going to Eretz Yisrael, where he would be meeting government leaders and activists.

In the car, Reb Aharon began to protest. “Please, Henach, twenty-five dollars can really help a family in Eretz Yisrael. I have a fine hat already, give me the money.”

But Reb Henach held firm. “The Rebbetzin gave me the money, and it’s a sh’eilah of kavod haTorah. I can’t get involved.”


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