By MIRIAM GOTTLIEB
Change, especially drastic change, sometimes emerges from a clearly identifiable epiphany or watershed moment, causing a “wow” effect and, of course, making for a great story. But then there’s a different kind of change — a transformation whose seeds are planted and hidden well beneath the veneer of the everyday, deeply embedded in the makeup of a person’s psyche, until an ambiguous force is cause for its sudden emergence and revelation.
The following story is told by Rabbi Avraham Colman, director of the Shivti Program, a division of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood.
“Last year, the BMG office received a phone call from Mr. Bernie Gold* of New York,” Rabbi Colman begins, “with the fairly typical request for pictures of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l.” The call was directed to Rabbi Colman, who is part of the team that maintains the yeshivah’s archives, and thus began a fascinating exchange that would last for over a year.
Mr. Gold began by sharing that over 60 years ago, as a young yeshivah bachur learning in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey, he had the unique opportunity to learn with Rav Aharon, zt”l, while staying at the famed Lederer Hotel in the Catskills. “He recounted that every encounter with Rav Aharon, even the seemingly mundane ones, were as unforgettable as Rav Aharon’s penetrating eyes and his larger-than-life persona,” Rabbi Colman relates. He also described the Rosh Yeshivah’s powerful personality that at once made those around him shudder in awe and draw close in kinship.
As they discussed the reason for his call, the conversation turned to the Shivti program and Mr. Gold asked to be added to its list of email recipients. For the next year, he was in constant touch with Rabbi Colman, often sharing vignettes of Rav Aharon and snippets of his Torah, which Mr. Gold considered “payment” for the pictures he received and cherished.
His involvement with Shivti became increasingly more ardent, beginning with the email and then the purchase of several kuntresim, and even sponsoring the publication of a special choveres that the Shivti program organizes for Shavuos night. Eventually, Mr. Gold requested that his brother, Reb Moshe Gold*, be added to the email list as well, as he wanted to spread the wonderful resource he had discovered.
This mutually enjoyable relationship continued for a while — and then stopped abruptly. The calls stopped coming, and Mr. Gold’s email address was unsubscribed from the Shivti list. The explanation was not long in coming; Reb Moshe Gold informed the Shivti staff that his brother had passed away. He also revealed fascinating background information about his brother that completely changed Rabbi Colman’s view of their contact.
Mr. Gold was, in fact, not an observant Jew at all! Almost 60 years before, after his stint in Bais Medrash Elyon, he left Yiddishkeit and maintained very little contact with his family. “Reb Moshe was shocked that we at BMG had no idea about his brother’s religious status,” Rabbi Colman shares. “But how could we have even thought of him as irreligious when every one of our conversations conjured up a ben Torah who sought to both share and hear divrei Torah?”
The stories he shared of a bygone era bespoke a reverence for talmidei chachamim, and his feedback about the Shivti sugyos could rival that of any other of its participants. He would even share a vort about an upcoming Yom Tov.
Reb Moshe Gold recalls, “My brother was an iluy, a genius, who would learn all year and work in the Catskills in the summer. He even had the zechus of driving Rav Aharon, zt”l, around in the mountains.”
When he left the fold, the brothers were separated for almost 60 years. “But recently, my sister called me and requested that I reach out to him and renew the bond.” Amazingly, Bernie was thrilled to reunite with his long-lost siblings.
“Since then, we spoke ten times a day. Actually, most of what we’d speak was Torah, Torah, Torah.”
When Mr. Gold was niftar just two and a half months later, Reb Moshe thought he’d arrange for an inexpensive plot out in Long Island. But at the last minute, someone suggested the Vizhnitzer beis hachaim in Monsey, and with the help of Hashem the Golds were able to arrange a respectable group for the levayah and kevurah. Reb Moshe told Rabbi Colman that had they not gotten in touch, his brother may have been cremated upon his death. Now, Reb Moshe’s children in Monsey are able to visit the kever and daven on behalf of their uncle, who had been a wandering soul.
A Yiddishe neshamah, even one far removed from Torah for many years, was brought closer and merited proper kavod acharon because of the impact that engaging in limud Torah had on him. His encounters with a Gadol Hador and the time they spent conversing in learning made an impact that, though difficult to quantify, was revived many years later with the same timeless limudim. May his neshamah merit an aliyah.
Names have been changed.