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The Tenth Man

Dov Haller

Tzali didn’t want more than ten yungeleit. Enough for a minyan, small enough for a tight chaburah. Keep it exclusive, he believed. He’d worked long and hard choosing the first eight, he was number nine. The tenth was a bit of a surprise.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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“Trust me, every kollel needs one Panzer,” he patiently explained to Dina. “You know, the guy who knows those halachos that no one else does, who will stick around to roll up the sefer Torah. And besides,” he added nobly, “he’s a good guy. He deserves a break like this. Cortina Kollel. It’ll look good on his résumé one day.”

Cortina. Dina liked the way it sounded, like it was some exotic location in Mexico or Spain, even though it was in New Jersey and there was a Bed Bath & Beyond three minutes away.

It would be their city, Tzali kept saying. They were going to put it on the map. Tzali’s kollel would be the breeding ground for the future roshei yeshivah of Klal Yisrael. The askanim who’d come to her apartment last week — when she’d listed off the names to her father his eyes had opened wide — were confident that once the kollel was up and running, others would move there as well. Houses were affordable and it wasn’t that far from Lakewood or the city. There were astute businesspeople only too happy to invest the money Tzali needed to assemble his all-star kollel; they would make it back when the town took off and people scrambled to buy houses.

Some nights Tzali came home for supper feigning annoyance about how the best yungeleit in yeshiva were pleading for a chance. Dina knew it was true because well-known roshei yeshivah called the house trying to push talmidim.

Cortina. Tzali had taken her there a few times already, showing her where the townhouses were going to be, updating her about how the mayor had already committed funding to upgrade the nearby park. They’d been married for nine years, and never once had Tzali taken her to Manhattan, but last month, he’d asked her to join him. Mark Halb was taking him out and Tzali needed her there. Mark’s wife Nancy came too and it was, Dina later confided in her sisters, kind of awkward. “I mean, they’re barely frum, and she’s telling me how her zaide was also a rabbi. And she does aerobics, like, five hours a day. Senior aerobics are her thing, she told me. And she paints. I felt stupid. But the food was amazing, the gnocchi — however you pronounce that — was heaven… and it felt good, you know, to be Tzali’s wife, the rabbi’s wife. They look at him like a savior, so that was nice.”

On the way home from Manhattan, Tzali reminded her again that her newfound prestige came with responsibilities. She would have to help the other kollel wives, make sure they felt welcome and all that. Yes, she said, she was ready. *

The lights in the empty conference room didn’t work so they held the meeting in the old social hall downstairs. Robert Bork was there, Shelly Flaksbrun, David Brander, and of course, Mark Halb. He was the hero, the one who’d conceived the solution they’d all been hoping for.

They were the most recent group of trustees of the last Orthodox shul in Cortina, Beth Jacob Agudath Achim Bikur Cholim — a name with more words, Brander liked to joke, than the shul had members.

Orthodox life in Cortina had peaked in the 1960s, and it had been in steady decline ever since. After 2000, the shul stopped having a formal rabbi. They would get students to come speak on the major Yamim Tovim and Rabbi Spigelman from Cherry Hill came in for funerals.

The ones who were still alive had moved away, either to Florida or closer to their children. Even the men now sitting around the table in the wood-paneled social hall didn’t really live there. Bork had moved to an assisted-living facility in Haddonfield after his wife passed away, the Flaksbruns went to their children in Woodmere every Shabbos, and Brander spent the winter in Israel. Halb had never really been a local, even in the good days; he and his brothers had property across the country and they were always on the move. Cortina was more about nostalgia for him than anything else.

Halb was excited about this neat little solution. The shul wouldn’t become a church, G-d forbid, or be razed to make way for a CVS. It would stay a shul. The nice people from Lakewood, Tzali and his friends, had agreed to call their new yeshivah, or whatever, in memory of Rabbi Glick, the last great rabbi in Cortina. Mark Halb was certain that the few members would agree when the plan was presented to them.

He spread the plans out on the table for the others to admire. “Look, they want to extend the shul this way,” he touched the paper with his finger, “then build their townhouses out back. We need a few things to happen. We’ll have to tear down the old annex, we’ll need Schleifer and Greenman to sell their houses right here,” he tapped again. “They’ll do it in a flash, I’m sure. The yeshivah is offering fair prices, way more than they’ll get on the open market.”

“There is no open market,” Brander pointed out. “No one is buying houses in Cortina right now. It’s a dead city.”

“Right. Greenman doesn’t need the money, but for Schleifer it’s a godsend. He’ll get to escape his ratty little house. Maybe he’ll go to Florida, maybe he’ll move to a facility around here, who knows? But it will give him some peace of mind, L-rd knows he deserves it.”

The other men nodded along. Yes, Schleifer deserved a break.

“Nothing like a few smackers in the pocket,” Flaksbrun reflected. *

Tzali didn’t want more than ten yungeleit. Enough for a minyan, small enough for a tight chaburah. Keep it exclusive, he believed. He’d worked long and hard choosing the first eight, he was number nine. The tenth was a bit of a surprise.

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