T he recent hurricanes created a need for heroes, and the worldwide frum community stood tall. From shuls and communities across the Jewish spectrum — chassidish to Modern Orthodox — crews were dispatched to Houston and Florida. Shul rabbis, doctors, and businessmen left offices and families and traveled, at their own expense, to unfamiliar communities where they got to work stripping drywall and filling garbage bags.


I say the following with all due respect, which is what people say when they’re about to make fun. (On a serious level, I write it with genuine awe at the mesirus nefesh and nesiah be'ol of those who traveled and that their families: This is written tongue-in-cheek.)

I admit to having a personal discomfort around supremely capable people, the ones who would know what to do after a hurricane. I definitely would not. (As an aside, this is a very difficult time of year for me. I start being nice to my handy brother-in-law just after Tishah B’Av because I’ll certainly need his help to put up my succah. When I was in shanah rishonah, my wife found it funny that I don’t really hold the chicken by kapparos. So you’ll forgive me for seizing the opportunity to poke fun at the handy, macho, I-put-up-my-succah-in-half-an-hour types. It’s revenge for the way they look at me.)

So here’s my proposal. The last month has shown us that everyone has the capacity to be a hero — if they get to be the hero, that is. Bathing a kid or doing car pool will never make a man’s eyes light up, because there’s no guts or glory involved. But other tasks, which might sound menial if they’re pitched the wrong way, can be repackaged to attract the bold, the fearless, the daring.

Let’s take an example that fits the season. Don’t make a tired gabbai klap on the bimah and call out, “Rabboisai, listen, we really need people to unload tables from the truck and schlep them into the shul to set up for Yom Tov,” thereby causing everyone to kvetch simultaneously about lower-back pain. Instead, shuls should send out a text saying, “Five units needed in shul: must be able to lift extreme weights, endure pain, agree to sign waiver.” Watch them come.

Deployment is another useful term. Wives should take note. Instead of mechanically repeating, “The lightbulb really needs to be changed, someone’s going to get hurt,” a woman who gets it has only to announce, “We need to deploy a small patrol to the basement. Flak jackets required.”

Like so much else, it’s a question of marketing, of finding the right words.

If your husband won’t take down the succah, tell him about the rapid-response-time challenge, and warn him about the dangers of working too quickly. Also, if he still has time, do me a favor and send him to take down my succah. I live in Montreal, and the climate is treacherous: Working outdoors is not for the faint of heart.

It would take a hero.

There’s a feature in this issue called “Letters to My Mentor,” in which various prominent community figures reflect on what they would say to the one who shaped them, inspired them, gave them that first break. 

The topic reminded me of an old hakaras hatov obligation to my “someone,” the one who changed the course of my life.

His name was Reb Meir, but he was called Bob. Bob Ament was of average height and build, in an average job — he worked as a salesman — but as children, we saw the director of Montreal’s Pirchei as larger than life, with his brilliant smile and exuberant voice. As we grew older — Pirchei members, then Pirchei leaders — we sort of took him for granted: He was the guy in the background worrying about the bus coming on time and making sure that the sodas were cold while we were the stars, out in front of the kids. We knew that the branch was (and still is) considered one of the most successful, with vibrant Shabbos groups, a thriving Avos U’banim and Mishnayos program, but we never gave it too much thought.

The Siyum Mishnayos was the highlight of the year, the culmination of months of learning, a gala Shabbos convention for Pirchei branches from other cities. As with so many of the chinuch lessons that Bob disguised as fun, he created a tradition in which each annual siyum was dedicated to the memory of a gadol b’Torah. In 1992, our rosh yeshivah, Rav Mottel Weinberg, was niftar, and of course the siyum was dedicated to his memory that year. A few weeks before the big event, there was a general staff meeting that included discussion about the video being prepared. Someone asked about appropriate music to accompany the visuals.

Different ideas for sad songs were kicked around. I don’t remember what I said, but it was something like, “How pathetic that we have to use someone else’s lyrics. We should write our own song about the Rosh Yeshivah.”

I don’t know if I offered, and if I did, it was a whisper, certainly not issued with any confidence.

At the end of the meeting, Bob gave a quick roundup. This person would arrange housing, and the other would be in charge of the waiters. “And Sruli’s writing a song.” He didn’t even look at me when he said it. He never asked me if I was sure I could, if I had experience, what else had I written.

It was done and he never looked back. The song was good, and it spawned other writing.

So here’s my letter:

Dear Bob,

You were niftar young, but so many think of you often, because their success as mechanchim, askanim, musicians, caterers, writers, as fathers and husbands, is due to having been exposed to someone like you at a critical juncture in life. You weren’t a mentor who imparted advice. You weren’t a mentor who shared information and techniques.

You were much more than that.

You were a mentor in the way you showed vulnerable, hesitant young men what they’re capable of. Your smile was stronger than their self-doubt, your confidence and certainty more powerful than teenage insecurities.

Meir. You illuminated the world with the thousands of Mishnayos you inspired, with your smile and voice, your programs and contests. You illuminated the world by showing what a “balabos” can accomplish, with little fanfare or noise. And Bob, you had a special gift of being able to find that point of light inside a person, the button that might never have been switched on if not for you. I ache for those who never had a Bob in their life and I’m grateful that we knew you.

And that you knew us. Really knew us.

Thank you, Bob. We remember. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 680. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at besser@mishpacha.com)