Thursday, September 08, 2011

From Washington Avenue to Washington Street

One of the people on this earth for whom I both have a tremendous amount of respect and whose Hashkafos most closely resemble my own is Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet. It is uncanny just how close our views are. His views on mixed seating at weddings alone are enough to make me an admirer.

I was first introduced to this great Rosh Kollel and Rebbe when I encountered by chance his book on Dr. Bernard Revel in the Beis HaMedrash at Brisk Yeshiva in Chicago. I could not put it down. The same is true of two of his other books, one on Rav Eliezer Silver, and one on the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick. I highly recommend all three if one wants to get a true – non ArtScroll picture of those three Gedolim.

Rabbi Rakeffet has written an autobiography entitled ‘From Washington Avenue to Washington Street’ published by Gefen Publihing House and the OU Press - where it can be purchased. And as with the other three books I could hardly put it down.

As was the case with Dr. Revel and his era, Rabbi Rakeffet painted a picture of what it was like for Jews in his own era - growing up on Washington Avenue in the Bronx just prior to the Holocaust. To put it mildly mass Jewish education was in its infancy. He attended the Salanter Academy where many of his Gemarah teachers were barely observant and could better be termed Zionist Maskilim. The secular studies principal of Salanter at the time was Harry Sherer - who later went on to become a Reform Rabbi. He attended the Reform Seminary, Hebrew Union College, while still at Salanter. Harry Sherer was the brother of Rabbi Moshe Sherer of blessed memory.

This is what Jewish education was like even in a city like New York just before the Holocaust.

But all that changed when Salanter became the beneficiary of a few European trained Talmidei Chachamim. They had escaped the Holocaust via Mir Yeshiva’s passage through Shanghai - ultimately arriving in New York and finding work at Salanter. Imagine what it must have been like to go from Rebbeim who were Maskilim and barely frum (if at all) to the great Rabbinic minds and religious piety of those European trained Rabbanim!

Rabbi Rakeffet writes about the many people he met in his life that influenced him including those he met in elementary school, high school (TA which was located on the Yeshiva University campus) and RIETS (YU) for college where he eventually earned his Semicha and a PhD. He also describes what life was like for young religious Jews in his era and how his interests in things like baseball helped him better relate to the American students he had in Israel. He was a member of Bnei Akiva which was a co-ed type youth group that promoted Aliyah – immigration to Israel.

There is a rather humorous description of his attending the Tish of a Chasidic Rebbe one Motzoi Shabbos. A Tish (Yiddish for table) is a common event among Chasidim usually held on Shabbos. This one was at Shalosh Seudos the third and conclding meal of Shabbos. As is often the case a Tish will last long after the Shabbos is technically over. The Rebbe hands out Sherayim (portions of his food) to his Chasidim sitting at his large table; they sing Zemiros, and then listen with rapt attention to the words of their Rebbe as he speaks.

Rabbi Rakeffet and some boys and girls of his Bnei Akiva group knew that and decided one Motzie Shabbos to run over to Brooklyn and see if they could still catch that Rebbe’s Tish. They did. Rabbi Rakeffet describes how the boys left the girls outside – realizing that the Rebbe would never countenance the mixed group. But the girls didn’t mind waiting. They boys eventually realized that the girls were waiting outside and returned to them.

Rabbi Rakeffet describes his interactions with Chabad spending a Shabbos in their flagship Yeshiva at 770 Eastern Parkway, admiring the inclusive attitude that Chabad had toward all Jews.

He also reminisced in the fondest of ways about his experiences with Rav Aharon Kotler who had escaped the Holocaust and subsequently founded Beis HaMedrash Gavoha in Lakewood New Jersey.

Desirous of making Limud HaTorah a primary goal he was determined to spend time learning in Lakewood. Rav Aharon tested him and he passed with flying colors. He spent the summer between his junior and senior year in high school learning in Lakewood. There he experienced Shiurim by Rav Aharon that were of the same high caliber as those he gave in Kletzk when he was Rosh HaYeshiva there.

He also interacted with the great Rosh HaYeshiva in other ways and observed the ways of a true Gadol. Interestingly the Mashgiach of Lakewood at the time - Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel - found out that Rabbi Rakeffet was in TA high school on the YU campus and formed a bond of his own with him.

Rav Wachtfogel would reminisce about his time at YU speaking about his mentor, the Meitchter Illuy, Rav Solomon Poliachek. He also told him that he vividly recalled Dr. Samuel Belkin’s 1929 arrival as a young student in the school . They ended up being Chavrusos –study partners in Torah learning. Dr. Belkin went on to become the second president of YU succeeding Dr. Revel.

Although Rabbi Rakeffet loved learning in Lakewood and was urged by Rav Aharon to continue, he chose to go back to YU as he valued a secular education. Lakewood vehemently discouraged collegiate and university study. His parents encouraged him to give YU a try explaining that he could go back to Lakewood at any time. He never did. But Rav Aharon remembered Rabbi Rakeffet fondly.

His years in YU are described in great detail as is his relationship with some of the great Roshei Yeshiva there. Not the least of which was Rav Solovietchick who became his mentor. He also fondly remembers his relationships with some of his secular teachers as well - some of whom were religious and became role models for him.

The rest of his book goes on to tell about his transition from student, to Rabbi, to PhD, to taking pulpit Shuls, to becoming one of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva, to making Aliyah, to his trainig as an IDF soldier, to becoming involved with various Yeshivos and Michlala College for Women in Israel, to his present position teaching in the Gruss Kollel.

He describes how his books came about. And the various people he met along the way early in their careers, including Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, Rav Hershel Shachter, and Rabbi David Hartman all of whom were considered top Masmidim in YU.

Memorable as well is the description of his positive relationship with Rabbi Meir Kahane (before the latter made Aliyah) and his close friendship with Dr. David Applebaum, the great physician and humanitarian (and disciple of my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik) who was slaughtered in a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem - along with his daughter the night before she was to be married.

Most of the last few chapters describe his clandestine missions to the Soviet Union to help educate Jews who were’Prisoners of Zion’. They were also called Refusniks because they were denied exit visas by their government - so they could emigrate to Israel. Two of the more famous ones were Natan Sharansky and Ilya Essas.

The last portion of the final chapter deals with his post USSR activities in Israel involving Israeli MIAs.

Interestingly in seeking all the help he could get for the cause of Soviet Jewry he developed a close relationship with Agudah executive director Rabbi Moshe Sherer who had the best connections to government officials of any Orthodox Jew. At first Rabbi Sherer looked askance at Rabbi Rakeffet’s identification as a religious Zionist. Agudah is an opponent of religious Zionism.

But after mentioning that he knew Rabbi Sherer’s brother, Harry, from when he was his principal at Salanter, he got an immediate and knowing smile. The relationship became a very warm one. Rabbi Sherer thereafter did all he could with his contacts in Washington to help him in his activity on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

If anyone wants to know what a role model for Jewish leadership is and how at least one person achieved it, this is the book you want to read. I highly recommend it!