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Torah Triumphs in Passaic

Binyamin Rose, Passaic, New Jersey

Here, progress is measured by how its newcomers succeeded in winding the clock backward, all the way back to the turn of the 20th century

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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WELCOME BACK “Rather than describe Passaic-Clifton as a yeshivishe town, I would rather say it’s a Torah town. We brought a resurgence to an old community. Like Avraham Avinu, who always returned to any place that was an achsanyah [that hosted him], Torah has a life to it and it goes back to wherever it was once welcomed” (Photos: Amir Levy)

P rogress in Passaic can be measured by more than one yardstick.

As one who grew up in this northern New Jersey town, ten miles east of Manhattan, I have a vivid childhood memory of the day in 1963 when the entire city came to a standstill for an official ceremony, as the Erie Lackawanna Railway shut its iconic downtown railroad station. At the time, Passaic was tearing up the tracks to pave a parking lot to serve the downtown shopping district.

I’ll never forget that day because I was sick in bed with the measles — and missed the festivities.

Today, there is a measles vaccine. A new train station in Passaic Park serves New York commuters. Suburban shopping malls, to a large extent, supplanted and largely improved upon Passaic’s downtown retail outlets.

That’s one perspective on progress.

The more essential angle is Passaic’s spiritual renaissance. Here, progress is measured by how its newcomers succeeded in winding the clock backward, all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, when Orthodox retailers and textile merchants first moved in. Then, downtown Passaic had many thriving Orthodox shuls and the Torah community flourished.

“Torah machzeres al ha’achsanyah shelah [Torah returns to a place where it was formerly welcome],” says Rabbi Moshe Halberstadt, who himself moved to Passaic in 1979 to serve as menahel at the Yeshiva Gedola of Passaic and work as the right-hand man to its rosh yeshivah, Rav Meir Stern.

For veteran Passaic residents, who remember the community before the yeshivah came along, there is no question that the Yeshiva Gedola was a trailblazer, but Rabbi Halberstadt views matters through a wider prism. “Rather than describe Passaic-Clifton as a yeshivishe town, I would rather say it’s a Torah town. We brought a resurgence to an old community,” Rabbi Halberstadt said. “Like Avraham Avinu, who always returned to any place that was an achsanyah [that hosted him], Torah has a life to it and it goes back to wherever it was once welcomed.”

It’s lunchtime, but the bochurim are drawn to Rabbi Halberstadt’s presence, and lunch can wait while they grab a schmooze with him

To illustrate, Rabbi Halberstadt shares a story about a time when Rav Meir Stern took his son, just before he would become bar mitzvah, to Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l for a brachah. Rav Stern mentioned that they lived in Passaic, and he asked the rav if he was familiar with the town. “Passaic? Of course, I’ve heard of Passaic,” Rav Moshe said. “There was a Rav [Yosef] Rosen [a rosh kollel in the pre–World War II era] there, there was a Rav [Yaakov Mendel] Chapler there. These were gedolei Yisrael who held halachic discussions with me. Of course I know Passaic!”

However, by the late 1950s, the Passaic that Rav Moshe knew was in transition. I know from personal experience. When my family moved from Boro Park to Passaic so my father would have an easier commute to his job at a Defense Department contractor on Route 3 in Clifton, many downtown shuls had closed or were struggling to maintain a minyan. The younger generation with better financial means had already moved to Passaic’s nicer residential sections, known as Passaic Park.

The Jewish flavor of Passaic in the 1960s was kosher-style, not glatt kosher. Passaic Park’s three Orthodox shuls relied on traditionally observant congregants, some of whom drove to shul on Shabbos. There was just one shomer Shabbos butcher shop. Pizza and falafel were Sunday treats reserved for family visits to Boro Park. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 681)

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