Enduring Encounters

It was an encounter that lasted less than a minute, but it made an enduring impression. Although two decades have passed since then, I still remember where in the hallway on the second floor in Torah Vodaath I was walking when I met that young bachur and, more than anything else, the look of shock and bewilderment on his face.

Though I didn’t know the names or even recognize the faces of most of the talmidim in the mesivta (I was already learning in the kollel), I recognized him instantly as one of the bachurim who had the singular zechus of learning at the time with my Rebbi, Harav Nesanel Quinn, zt”l.

Following his retirement as Menahel of Yeshivah Torah Vodaath a number of years earlier, Rav Quinn kept a hectic schedule of avodas hakodesh. After Shacharis, he would give over divrei chizuk for several minutes to the bachurim in the mesivta. On Thursday evenings, he would give a shiur on sefer Mesillas Yesharim to a group of talmidim. The rest of his time, from early in the morning until well into the evening, would be spent learning with incredible hasmadah, with interruptions only to manage a tzedakah fund and help fundraise for the yeshivah.

Therefore, it came as somewhat of a surprise when we learned that Rav Quinn, who was at the time already in his mid-80s, had asked to teach bachurim who were struggling to keep up with their class, and after repeated requests, four bachurim were sent to him. It soon became apparent that teaching these bachurim was taking a toll on his health, yet Rav Quinn continued to do so with mesirus nefesh.

It was one of these bachurim I had met in the hallway. His face was pale, and he was clearly agitated about something. “What happened?” I asked, getting worried myself.

Rebbi told us this morning that because we were not learning properly he is fasting today! Imagine, at his age, he is fasting because of us!” the bachur told me breathlessly.

The very concept that someone cared so much about them gave these bachurim enormous inspiration to dedicate themselves to their studies. I later learned that Rav Quinn had fasted on behalf of his talmidim on many occasions.

***

This moving memory came to mind when I read last week’s stirring editorial in these pages which was signed by the publisher, in which the heartbreaking saga of “Moshe” was told.

While it is impossible to pass judgment in this specific case without listening to what the 8th-grade Rebbi-turned-Menahel has to say in his own defense, no matter what transpired, there is no doubt that this story depicts a devastating tragedy. Nor can we deny that over the years, some of the individuals who were entrusted to teach our children were extremely unsuited for this lofty task and dire results ensued. While in more recent times there has been a tremendous improvement in this regard, and the level of skills, as well as the selfless dedication of the overwhelming majority of Rebbeim, is outstanding, human error, both on the part of those who teach and those who hire them, still exists.

Stories like that of “Moshe” must be taken very seriously and serve as impetus for further improvement. But at the same time, as we shine the public flashlight on those areas where we have gone wrong, we should also focus on the many underpaid and underappreciated heroes who so selflessly give of themselves on behalf of our youth.

Rav Quinn, whose career in chinuch spanned nearly eight decades and whose legendary dedication to his talmidim lasted for many years after they left the Yeshivah, personified an extraordinary level of mesirus nefesh for his students. (My personal experiences testifying to this fact would fill many pages!)

Many other mechanchim serve as ideal role models in this area as well.

As I think back over my childhood years, memories of a master melamed come to mind. While I remember very little of experiences I had when I was considerably older, I vividly recall the incredible warmth and caring shown to me by my first-grade Rebbi, Harav Shia Heschel Eilenberg, z”l. The quintessential “chassidishe Yid,” Rav Eilenberg’s lofty level of yiras Shamayim and ahavas Yisrael left an enduring impact on his talmidim.

Despite the passage of years and the fact that I was only five years old when I sat in his class, I can still hear his voice telling us that we should walk on the street with our eyes to the ground so as not to see inappropriate sights — but with our heads held high, because we are Yidden. I can still see the image of this Rebbi walking towards me as I entered the building, and lovingly reaching out to help me carry my heavy lunch bag. But more than anything he said or did was his mastery of the language of the heart that children, even more than adults, truly understand.

A decade later, I merited to be taught by a Maggid Shiur who literally changed my life. Harav Shmuel Noach Mermelstein, shlita, taught us how to properly learn a blatt Gemara with Rashi and Tosafos, as well as a wealth of halachos and hashkafos that continue to guide me every day. But perhaps equally importantly, with keen insight, much sensitivity and great warmth, he did his utmost to give me the self-confidence to learn on my own. Every time I open a Gemara, in every article of chizuk I merit to write, Rav Merlmelstein’s influence plays a key role. My heart is filled with hakaras hatov to the Ribbono shel Olam for giving me the zechus to have such a Rebbi.

I know I write for many readers in expressing our deepest debt of gratitude to all the Rebbeim and teachers who have done so much to enhance and enrich the lives of their students. Words alone cannot suffice to express our thanks or describe the lives you touched. May Hashem reward you for all efforts on our behalf.