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Go West, Young Men

Eytan Kobre

Fifty years at the helm of Denver’s Yeshiva Toras Chaim hasn’t dimmed the spark of its indefatigable roshei yeshivah, Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan and Rav Yitzchok Wasserman

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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INDEFATIGABLE DUO They’re still at it after all these years. With over a thousand students since 1967, “Denver” may have had a lower profile than other Torah institutions on the East Coast, but its alumni have become the doers and leaders of their communities (Photos: Avital Rotbart, Yeshiva Archives)

I t was one of those unscripted moments. As I sat deep in conversation with Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan, longtime head of Yeshiva Toras Chaim on Denver’s West Side, his office phone rang. The news on the other end of the line wasn’t good: a Sephardi chacham, father of a former talmid of the yeshivah, had just passed away in Mexico City. A flurry of calls from and to the Rosh Yeshivah ensued, and within ten minutes he had worked out the logistics for a trip to Mexico the very next day to be menachem avel his bereaved student.

It was a display of decisiveness that would be impressive in a 40-year-old, let alone an elderly rosh yeshivah more than twice that age. As we return to our conversation, Rabbi Kagan mentions that his yeshivah has a sizable number of former talmidim in Mexico City, a community that has “more kollelim per square inch than in any place outside Bnei Brak,” he says, adding with obvious nachas that some of those institutions were started by graduates of Toras Chaim.

That’s how it is with this yeshivah known simply as “Denver.” Located far from the major East Coast centers of frum life, it has always had a lower profile than some other Torah institutions. But then one begins to notice how in one community after another, Denver alumni are invariably among the doers and leaders who form a shul or neighborhood’s backbone.

And that’s no accident. For many years, the yeshivah was, and somewhat still is, an address for kids from the West Coast whose communities weren’t classically “yeshivish,” or for boys from back East who were a bit rough-hewn, who perhaps had yet to taste success in Torah study, and needed the kind of warmth and personalized attention that continues to be the yeshivah’s trademark. The roshei yeshivah helped many of them redirect their energies and talents; and, now married and settled, these men — some already grandfathers — have assumed active lay and rabbinic roles in their respective communities. But however far back it was when they attended the yeshivah, and however far from it they now live, Denver’s alumni exhibit an unusually strong loyalty to the makom Torah that played such a formative role in who they are today.

Reb Yisroel Meir has been known to say at yeshivah dinners that he’s the “youngest person in the room,” but he’s got some stiff competition on that score in his partner, Rav Yitzchok Wasserman. This year marks a full half a century that the two have spent building and guiding Toras Chaim, and with it, the greater, now-thriving Denver frum community.

Chaveirim Forever

Together, Rabbis Wasserman and Kagan are among the longest-serving, most senior roshei yeshivah on America’s Torah landscape. A visitor entering the Denver beis medrash is likely to be met by a sight that’s rare in today’s American yeshivos: A rosh yeshivah well into the decade of life Chazal called gevuros, a talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler, sitting alongside teenagers puzzling over a Ketzos Hachoshen for the first time, and transmitting to them a bit of the thunder of Sinai he witnessed in Rav Aharon’s shiur. Gevuros, indeed.

Not only is the longevity of their tenure in Denver remarkable, but so is their close friendship through all the years in which they’ve shared the leadership of an institution that, like most, has seen both ups and downs. Rabbi Kagan observes that “it’s unfortunately a chiddush that two roshei yeshivah are still chaveirim after 50 years. In all honesty, we’ve had plenty of — how shall I say? — sharp discussions over the years, but we both knew that the overriding goal is the yeshivah’s benefit, so he swallowed his pride and I swallowed mine, which has enabled us to stay together.

Recruiting for a yeshivah that didn’t even exist yet — and in far-off Denver — was no simple matter. One Brooklyn boy they spoke with told them that when he mentioned the new yeshivah in Denver, his father retorted that “in Australia there’s also a yeshivah.” Yet perseverance won out

“It helped, of course, that we each had our own spheres of emphasis. Even during the 30 years when he said shiur, Reb Yitzchok was involved in the fundraising, which necessarily took him out of the beis medrash a lot. However, he was very good with both bochurim and balebatim. He’s a real ‘people person.’ ”

The duo’s friendship actually stretches back several decades prior to the yeshivah’s founding in 1967, to their time as pre-bar mitzvah classmates in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef, the legendary “RJJ,” on New York’s Lower East Side. The Kagans were Torah nobility: Yisroel Meir’s father, Rav Yudel, was a talmid of Mir in Europe and a nephew of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, an author of seforim and a rosh yeshivah at RJJ. The family lived on Henry Street, where RJJ was located, and which boasted no fewer than 11 shuls and the homes of such illustrious personalities as Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Kopycznitzer Rebbe up and down its length.

Just a few blocks away, on Attorney Street, lived Yitzchok Wasserman, whose father was a hosiery salesman, the sort of poshute Yid who, once you learned more about him, turned out not be very simple at all. His was the only store on busy Clinton Street that was closed on Shabbos. In 1934, as the full brunt of the Great Depression set in, he was forced to close up shop, and it would be five long years before he’d again open for business. His brother opened a store in Boro Park that was open on Shabbos because it was co-owned with a non-Jew, but Yitzchok’s father declined an offer to join him in the venture.

“But,” says Reb Yitzchok animatedly, “after all is said and done, the Eibeshter runs the show. My mother’s father, Zaide Yitzchok Kelman, was niftar in January 1934, just before I was born, and my bobbe moved in with us. Her son, Sam Kelman, who was still single and made a decent living selling suspenders, said to his sister, ‘You’re taking care of Mamma, so the least I can do is pay the bills.’ That kept us afloat until 1939, when my father was able to open up at 92 Orchard Street, where the busy day was Sunday and stores were closed on Shabbos. He told his brother, ‘Get out of Boro Park and come to me,’ not because he needed him, but because he wanted him to get out of the store that was open on Shabbos.”

Ask Reb Yitzchok about his best memories from those years, and he looks over at Reb Yisroel Meir, smiling broadly, and offers a one-phrase answer: “GRamercy 3-4253.” That was the Kagans’ phone number, and it’s etched in his memory because he’d call it nightly, arranging to meet his friend in the beis medrash.

Reb Yisroel Meir, for his part, recalls his boyhood pal as full of drive even then. “As teenagers we made our own minyan, in an old decrepit shul on Madison Street. Teens need to show rebellion and that’s how we showed it. As always, Reb Yitzchok was the leader — he was always a go-getter.”

When Yitzchok’s rebbi, Rav Shmuel Varshavchik, mentioned to him that it would be worthwhile for him to hear a shmuess from Rav Zeidel Epstein — a high school rebbe in RJJ and later, mashgiach in Rav Scheinberg’s yeshivah, Torah Ore — because he was a baal mussar, Yitzchok asked Rav Zeidel to say shmuessen for the entire class — why shouldn’t everyone benefit? And so he did, late on Shabbos after Seudah Shlishis, with the entire group returning to the Epstein home on Motzaei Shabbos to review the talk. On Sunday morning, Yitzchok would write it all down. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 660)

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