I come from Windsor, a small town in southern Ontario, Canada. Everyday a group of us would board a school-bus or a taxi and across the border into the USA to go to Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit, MI. The semester after my Bar Mitzvah (1960) I chose to go to Yeshiva Torah Vodaas for grade 8 and high school. This was an amazing experience for me. Torah Vodaas was located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY and was in the midst of a very Chareidi enclave. Coming from a small Canadian town, I never saw anything like it. Chassidim and Misnagedim all over the place, strange clothes, Jewish shops and restaurants everywhere, for me, it was the beginning of an adventure that would continue my whole life.
The Yeshiva was located on So. Third St. with it’s the dormitory on So. Second and annex buildings on Wilson St. and Bedford Ave. Besides classes during the week, Shabbat and holidays gave me the opportunity to explore the various Chassidic communities. I spent a lot of Shabbatot among Stoliners, Satmars, Viznitzers and they and their culture opened my eyes to a whole new world. I started to learn and take on more rituals and practices and even started to change my garb so as to fit in with the others. In a nutshell, I got more and more Frum.
The Rosh HaYeshiva (dean) of the school was world renowned Reb Yankev Kamenetsky, a scholar of great magnitude and a very saintly individual. I would often watch him Daven (pray) with amazing intensity. He was totally focused on his prayers and the sing-song of his gravelly voice encouraged me to emulate him and learn how to pray better myself.
I arrived in Torah Vodaas in the fall of 1960 and was going to go home for the first time for Pesach in the spring of 1961. By then I was very devout and realized that I had a problem. Windsor had 2 synagogues; my family was members of the Sha’ar HaShamayim, a very large and ornate cathedral type of synagogue with a questionable Mechitzah (the barrier between the men and women). Then there was the Sha’arei Tzedek, it was not a fancy Shul but it filled all the requirements that a good Frum boy like me would need to pray properly. One night in our evening studies I told the older Bochur that I was studying with that I planned not to Daven with my family at “the Sha’ar” but go to the Sha’arei Tzedek where a Yeshiva Bochur could Daven properly. The older Bocher asked me if I spoke to the Rosh Yeshiva about my plans. I replied that I didn’t think it was necessary as I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I? He reiterated that before I go off and make a drastic change to my home life I should speak to the Rosh Yeshiva.
I made an appointment and prior to going into his office I reviewed what I would say to him. I felt good about it, he would be proud of me, a young boy who was doing the right thing.
I entered his study and he greeted me warmly and after questioning me about my studies and activities, he asked me how he could help me. I told him my plan and he sat behind his desk and paused for a few seconds – for me it was an eternity. Finally, he motioned for me to come around to his side of the desk and took both my hands in his and told me how proud he was of me that I cared so much to do the right thing and Daven in a proper Shul.
To my surprise though (and I never found out how he knew this), he told me that my father lost his family in the Churban – the destruction of European Jewry. He continued about how my father started all over again, meeting and marrying my mother in a DP camp and finally having a son and starting a family again. How my father came to Canada with nothing and raised his family as Jews and at great expense he sent his children daily to another country for their Jewish education. And now, his oldest son is in one of the most prestigious Yeshivas in the world, in faraway New York, and how he longs to see me again. Reb Yankev then dropped the bombshell. He asked me how could I not allow my father to have his Bechor – his oldest son sit next to him in Shul? How could I deprive him of the Naches – the happiness that comes when the community can see a child return to his home full of the spirit and the way of life that a great Yeshiva produces? Reb Yankev then offered me his solution (it was really an order). Get up every morning very early and Daven privately in your room. Go to Shul with your father, sit next to him and go through the motions of Davening. If I am called to the Torah, accept the honor and he would take the responsibility for my actions upon himself. Go home, make your father proud and come back after the break knowing that you made your father a very wealthy man.
Reb Yankev taught me a very important lesson; don’t act righteous at person’s expense. I had an opportunity to give back to my father the value of all the hardships that he and my mother endured to produce a Ben Torah – the child of the Torah. I will never forget it and I’ll never forget that private audience with greatness.