The Boys Who Received a Second Chance

A short while before Shabbos descends upon Bnei Brak, the ring of the telephone disturbs the holy tranquility in the modest home on 5 Chazon Ish Street. On the line is Hagaon Harav Shmuel Kamenetzky, shlita, a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Philadelphia. He asks to speak with the Rosh Yeshivah, Hagaon Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l.

“They do not agree,” Rav Kamenetzky says quietly into the receiver. “They say the bachur is unsuited to the yeshivah from both a ruchniyus viewpoint and a learning viewpoint.” A long silence ensues on the transatlantic line between Overbrook and Bnei Brak. The same silence that has characterized Rav Shteinman throughout his life. A thoughtful silence.

Preceding this phone call, which took place at the tail end of Chodesh Av 5773/2013, was a different phone call between a woman in Miami, Florida, and Harav Yitzchak Blau, a marbitz Torah with years of experience educating Jewish youths.

The woman’s son had received a negative reply from the yeshivah he wished to attend, his mother related tearfully. Yes, she was aware of her son’s situation. He wasn’t the top lamdan in town. He was a little bit more “open” than most of his peers; their home was more open. And yet, her son wanted to attend a holy yeshivah. To their dismay, however, the yeshivah didn’t want him.

What was the alternative, Rav Blau asked the sobbing mother. “[Public] High school,” she replied. Sending a 15-year-old bachur to public high school is pretty dangerous, Rav Blau thought to himself as he deliberated what to do and how to do it.

Rav Blau hung up the phone, knowing he was in a race against time. The first day of Elul zman, when yeshivos would be opening their doors, was a mere three days away. He decided to go to Rav Shteinman and seek his advice.

It was Friday afternoon. Rav Shteinman listened attentively as Rav Blau explained the situation and then inquired what the time was in America. When he was told that it was seven a.m. in New York, he asked to speak with Hagaon Harav Shmuel Kamenetzky. Rav Shmuel was honored to accept the phone call, and Rav Shteinman asked him to find out why the yeshivah in Miami wouldn’t accept the bachur. Rav Shmuel promised to verify the matter and wished the Rosh Yeshivah a gut Shabbos.

But the Rosh Yeshivah did not agree. “We’ll probably still talk again before Shabbos,” he said. Rav Shmuel understood the urgency of the mission and hurried to look up the directors of the yeshivah. The facts they presented him with were tough. He hurried to call Maran the Rosh Yeshivah and update him before Shabbos was ushered in.

But the Rosh Yeshivah was not about to give up. “If this yeshivah isn’t suitable, a yeshivah must be opened for him and others like him. They need a solution, too.”

Open a yeshivah? Now? Rav Shmuel wondered wordlessly as he heard Rav Shteinman warmly wish him, “Hatzlachah, and gut Shabbos.” Rav Shmuel understood that he had just been charged with a not-so-simple mission three days before the new zman began.

At the beginning of Elul zman, a new yeshivah opened in a remote neighborhood in Miami with a student body of 10 boys who didn’t belong in any other yeshivah but whose souls thirsted for Torah. No one had given them hope, no one had believed in them or thought to concern himself with them. Only a 100-year-old Yid at the other end of the world had devoted thought to their welfare and concerned himself regarding their future.

Last week, Maran the Rosh Yeshivah, zt”l, was accompanied to his final resting place by hundreds of thousands of people. The most obvious stamp he left on Am Yisrael is his concern for the fate of each and every individual. In addition to being a leader of the klal, working tirelessly for the benefit of Klal Yisrael, he was also father to individuals, devoting days and nights to help individuals he’d never met in the remotest of locations. In the yeshivah in Miami, the kol Torah stopped for the first time as the more than 50 yeshivah students sat on the floor like mourners and bemoaned the loss of the man who had given them a second chance.