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London Barriers Falling Down

Shoshana R. Meiri

Rabbi Yosef Grunfeld dispels fear — of beards, of religious fanatics, of commitment to a Torah way of life. For the past 30 years, the director of Seed in the UK has been charming and disarming audiences without compromising on his own principles.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Watching Rabbi Yosef Grunfeld in action means watching a master raconteur. He stands in the center of the dining hall during the first night’s supper at a Seed kiruv seminar, surrounded by wary adults. They laugh politely as he jokes, but they are clearly uneasy. He, by contrast, is relaxed, confident, warm, and disarmingly funny. Suddenly, he stops his introductions and peers around the hall.

“I know what you’re all scared of,” he says, and pauses for effect. He grips his beard and gives it a melodramatic tug. “It’s this, isn’t it? This is what you’re all scared of!” He stops and waits. Ripples of self-conscious laughter bubble around the hall.

“Well, let me tell you something. Beards are nothing to be scared of at all. We’re humans, we rabbis, and I promise you we don’t bite.”

He’s done it. He’s grabbed the elephant in the room by the scruff of its neck, hauled it aloft, and shaken it until its tusks rattle — and now his audience is climbing into his hand.

Reminded of the incident as he shares his experiences as national director of Project Seed in the UK, he laughs. “You break down barriers with warmth and humor,” he says. “I’ve watched people coming to seminars, and when they see our faces for the first time, they’re absolutely petrified. And I’ve overheard people saying they want to go straight home. But because they’ve traveled so far, they decide to stay — and see. By Friday night — our seminars start on Friday afternoon — they’re much calmer. They see that we’re normal, and the barriers have been broken, just by the singing, the dancing, the friendliness, the warmth. A woman got up at one seminar and said, ‘I never knew that rabbis were normal people.’ ”

Rabbi Grunfeld, 65, alumnus of Gateshead Kollel, is the founder as well as the national director of Seed, one of the foremost kiruv organizations in Europe today, reaching out to about 6,000 people a year.

Over 30 years ago, Rabbi Grunfeld was a serious kollel yungerman. The last ambition on his mind was entering the then-unfashionable world of kiruv. He chuckles as he remembers the strange way he was pulled into the field.

Rabbi Avi Shulman from Torah Umesorah visited England in 1979 to encourage the launch of a kiruv program similar to the Seed program he was running in the US, in which yeshivah bochurim traveled to cities across America during the summer to set up learning programs for local Jews.

Rabbi Shulman hoped to send bochurim to Birmingham — a large city in the center of England with a substantial Jewish population — to learn with men on a one-on-one basis during summer bein hazmanim. He needed someone local to direct the project, and sought a volunteer in Gateshead Kollel. But, with the exception of Chabad’s work, kiruv was unhip and little-known, and no one was interested. At the time, Rabbi Grunfeld was away in South Africa, fundraising for the kollel. Graciously, his fellow yungeleit nominated him.

Smiling at the irony, he describes his horror when he returned. “At first I thought, ‘Baruch Hashem, I wasn’t there! Hashem saved me from this meshugas.’ ” Thinking no more of it, he settled back into his learning ... until he received a phone call from Avi Shulman. He protested: this was not for him; his career path was in learning.

“Listen,” Rabbi Shulman said. “If you’ll agree to lead these bochurim, you can turn England upside down. If not, vet England shloffen noch a hundert yohr, England will sleep for another hundred years.”

Disconcerted, Rabbi Grunfeld consulted Rav Avrohom Gurwicz and Rav Mattisyahu Salomon shlita. They encouraged him to accept the challenge.

So, a two-week beis medrash-style program went ahead in Birmingham. Its success shook Rabbi Grunfeld, and when he returned to Gateshead, he found himself “completely disturbed. I wanted to stay in learning, but Avi Shulman, bless his cotton socks, planted the idea — maybe leave kollel, and start a new organization.”

Next, Rabbi Shulman invited Rabbi Grunfeld to share his Birmingham experiences with a thousand-strong audience at the annual Torah Umesorah Dinner. Rabbi Grunfeld’s face assumes a mock-wry expression.

“This was very frightening,” he recalls. “I’d never given a major speech in my life. It was his way of getting me on board, but I was worried I’d lose out on my learning. This was not a path I wanted to take.”

While in America, he consulted with Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l, who encouraged him to leave kollel, and with Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman ztz”l, Rosh Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore.

“So Rav Ruderman asked me, ‘And what about the Chasam Sofer?’ I said, ‘What about the Chasam Sofer?’ ” Rabbi Grunfeld removes his glasses, opens his eyes wide and leans forward. His voice rises as he replicates Rav Ruderman’s disbelief. “Rav Ruderman said, ‘You don’t know the Chasam Sofer?’ So he pulled out a Chasam Sofer very excitedly and he showed me the introduction to Yoreh Dei’ah. ‘HaKadosh Baruch Hu said: Hamechaseh Ani mei’Avraham — should I hide from Avraham [My plan to destroy Sdom]?’ Rav Ruderman went on, ‘Have you ever seen the Ribono shel Olam in doubt — should I, shouldn’t I reveal a nevuah? Do you ever find this by Yeshayah, or Yechezkel?’

“ ‘The Chasam Sofer says that Hashem expressed doubt, as it were, whether Avraham was really suited to receive nevuah. He was so osek in his hanefesh asher asah b’Charan — he made the first Seed program! — that he lost out on his own learning. But Hashem did give the nevuah. So you see, if you’re osek in kiruv,’ Rav Ruderman told me, ‘you won’t lose. You’ve got a promise from the Chasam Sofer. You go out there, and you won’t lose.’ ”

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