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“He Planted Slabodka in Baltimore”

Eytan Kobre

He started out with four students and he barely spoke English, but Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman ztz”l had a vision. Who said Baltimore couldn’t be a worthy successor to Slabodka? Today, a quarter century after the Rosh Yeshivah’s passing, Ner Yisroel boasts the largest yeshivah campus in the world, and his disciples — grandfathers themselves — still feel their rebbi’s fatherly devotion.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

rav rudermanWhen the Torah sought to describe talmidim as seen through their rebbi’s eyes, it did so with one simple, yet deep, word — “sons.” Indeed, no other term could possibly better convey the relationship between the Alter of Slabodka and his prized talmid, the legendary Baltimore rosh yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman ztz”l. A quarter century has passed since Rav Ruderman took leave of his own spiritual offspring in Yeshiva Ner Yisroel and the world over, but their warm feelings and cherished memories haven’t dimmed.

With the approach of their great rebbi’s 25th yahrtzeit on 14 Tammuz, Mishpacha invited a threesome of Rav Ruderman’s senior talmidim to come together to share their still-vivid recollections of the man and the moments that shaped them for life. In New York, Rabbi Shmarya Shulman — a Ner Yisroel talmid beginning in 1939 and a retired rav and businessman whose first sefer, published in 1951, led the Rosh Yeshivah to confer on him the title of “the first American mechaber” — sits together with Reb Dovid Singer, a talmid from a later era and an accomplished professional who, answering the Rosh Yeshivah’s call to service, went on to become an important community askan.

The two were joined by Rabbi Nachman Klein via tele-hookup from the Ner Yisroel campus in Baltimore, Maryland. Rabbi Klein, a close talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah from the old days, always kept his family automotive enterprise secondary to his main business of learning; and now retired, he serves as rosh kollel ofBaltimore’s Senior Kollel.

It’s a bit of a reunion for the three, and once they begin to discuss their mentor, the floodgates of memory open freely. I ask about the Rosh Yeshivah’s parents, and Reb Dovid jumps in: “I’m the youngest here, but I did have the zchus, when he used to go to Agudah or Torah Umesorah conventions, and he had to walk for his health, his legs, I’d ask him for stories about gedolim, about the mishpachah. He told me his father [Rav Yehuda Leib Ruderman, a Gemara rebbi in Dolhinov in southern Russia, today Belarus], was a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rashab, and, in fact, he was first taken by his father to Lubavitch, not to Slabodka. But because he was an illuy, he couldn’t fit into the sidrei hayeshivah.  So the next stop was Slabodka. By that point, his father had learned with him two sedorim of Shas — and Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein put him on a seder different from the yeshivah, to learn masechta after masechtaYevamos, Kesubos, Nedorim, Nazir — one a week, with bechinos after each one.

“By the time he turned 14, he knew all of Shas with Rashi, and on Simchas Torah of that year, he accepted upon himself to chazer Shas between then and Pesach. But not long after, tragedy struck — his father passed away. Fearing the tragic news would affect his talmid’s ability to accomplish this major goal, the Alter [the “Alter of Slabodka,” Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel] withheld word of Reb Yehuda Leib’s petirah until his son had finished Shas shortly after Purim. Rav Ruderman once told me that the first time he sat a full shivah was for his rebbetzin, because his mother had passed away when he was an infant and for his father he only sat a short time because he only found out later.”

The irrepressible Rabbi Klein interjects: “But you missed an important point, which is that the family had sent a letter to Slabodka, informing him of the sad news and asking him to say Kaddish, but the Alter intercepted it and decided not to give it to him. I once saw it printed that the Alter himself said Kaddish for Reb Yehuda Leib, but I don’t believe it. In any event, after the Alter told him, he asked his rebbihayitachein? — How could it be you didn’t tell me?’ That’s when the Alter told him the story about Rav Chaim Volozhiner, who had similarly withheld letters sent to his prized talmid Rav Yossele Slutzker by Rav Yossele’s family requesting that he leave Volozhin after their store burned down and their father passed away. Only years later, after Rav Yossele had achieved his great Torah stature, did Rav Chaim show him the letters, exclaiming, ‘Der yetzer hara hut geharget ah mentch [the yetzer hara killed a man] just to take you away from learning, and I didn’t let him!’ ”

Rabbi Shulman puts the matter in perspective: “I’ll tell you the sod b’davar, the secret of all of this. It’s like what Rav Yankel Dovid Slutzker [the famed Ridbaz of Slutzk, Chicago, and Tzfas] told his children: they must learn a perek mishnayos or a blatt gemara on his yahrtzeit, and if not, they shouldn’t even bother saying Kaddish. From the midrash with Rabi Akiva we see how powerful Kaddish is, enabling a boy to schlep his father out of Gehinnom, but from this we see a blatt gemara is even more powerful.”


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