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A Heart Big Enough for Them All

Eytan Kobre

At Yeshiva Ohr Simcha in Englewood, New Jersey, a year after Rabbi Yossi Strassfeld’s passing, the love showered on every broken soul still endures

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

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Listen to a story about overwhelming love, and utter absence of ego, and a single-minded drive to help kids in need — and about what can be accomplished when they’re all combined in one very special individual (Photos Family archives)

I n a quiet corner at Yeshiva Ohr Simcha in Englewood, New Jersey, Rosh Mesivta Rabbi Eliyahu Dworetsky sits, as the sounds of boys’ lunchtime chatter filter faintly through the walls. An endless stream of memories of a beloved mentor, Rabbi Yosef Strassfeld, flood through his mind, almost one year since he — and we all — lost Reb Yossi, the yeshivah’s longtime menahel. As tears well just beneath the surface, Rabbi Dworetsky muses wistfully, “I mean, who gets emotional about his boss?”

If you don’t know the answer, it just means you didn’t have the opportunity to know Reb Yossi Strassfeld. So, ta shma, come and hear. Listen to a story about overwhelming love, and utter absence of ego, and a single-minded drive to help kids in need — and about what can be accomplished when they’re all combined in one very special individual.

A memory: “It was one of the last meetings we had together when he was already very sick,” says Rabbi Dworetsky. “There was a boy who wasn’t working out at the yeshivah, he was in big trouble, and Rabbi Strassfeld called down the parents. After a long meeting with them, it was time to call in the bochur. He comes into the room, tense as can be, and Rabbi Strassfeld says, ‘Okay, Shmuli, have a seat. We had a meeting, and we came to a unanimous decision — We all love you! We all want you to be successful and we all think you can be successful.’ That was the intro, and from there the discussion continued. The bochur did a one-eighty. There was a certain magic — ‘the Rabbi believes in me,’ and you just had to live up to it.”

Rabbi Strassfeld brought his dream to life, creating a place where young men are built, not demolished. And although kavod was the last thing he sought, gedolim knew this was an address for the generations.

“The Rabbi.” That’s what they called him. When Rabbi Dworetsky first arrived in Englewood and heard the kids calling him that it seemed strange, but after he’d been there only a month, it made perfect sense. “There was no other way to describe him, because he was just a unique personality. He wasn’t a rosh yeshivah or a rav. It didn’t fit. He was just ‘the Rabbi.’”

It’s what he was called by the boys who came back — they always did — to update him on their lives, to open their hearts to the one man they knew would really listen. And it’s how he was known by an Englewood bochur who went on to top yeshivos, but when asked by a prospective father-in-law where he had learned, said proudly, “Englewood.” This was a young man who had learned by Rav Meir Stern and Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, but that’s not what he chose to mention, because he felt that everything he had was because of Englewood.

Never a “They”

Reb Yossi’s script for creating a haven of surpassing warmth and caring in Englewood was first written four decades earlier, during a turbulent childhood in Brooklyn. His parents divorced when he was nine, at a time, says his sister, Mrs. Soshie Hirth, when “nobody’s parents got divorced. That moved my brother to develop deep empathy and a desire to help struggling kids who went through things like this.”

Yossi went on to learn in the Philadelphia Yeshiva, where the mashgiach, Rav Avrohom Golombeck, took the youngster under his wing as a literal ben bayis. The two were inseparable until Rav Golombeck’s untimely passing, and Rabbi Strassfeld readily attributed everything he’d later become to the Philadelphia mashgiach’s loving embrace. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 691)

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