Tuesday, November 08, 2011

From the Coed Academy to the Mir – Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, ZTL

I awoke to some shocking news this morning. I note with great sorrow the passing of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem. He was 69 years old.

I just saw him on my last trip to Israel. I was in the Mir for Mincha during one of the Aseres Yemei Teshuva and wished him a G'mar Chasima Tova.

There will be much talk in the coming days and weeks about the greatness of this man… all of it surely deserved. But very little of it will reflect his background which I am convinced contributed to his greatness.

He had humble beginnings. His father operated a very successful catering business in Chicago in the sixties and seventies. When I moved to Chicago in the summer of 62, Finkel/Brody was one of the top caterers in town.

Rav Nosson Tzvi attended my alma mater, the Hebrew Theological College although we never crossed paths. He also attended the co-ed Chicago Jewish Academy (later to become the current Ida Crown Jewish Academy). That was because HTC had not yet opened its own secular studies department. All the high school boys attended the Academy in the afternoons for that.

His Mentchlichkeit was already apparent then. I was recently told by a female contemporary of his that R’ Nosson Tzvi once walked her home after getting off at the same bus stop. Frumkeit never got in the way of his Mentchlichkeit.

Rav Nosson Tzvi was a budding Talmid Chacham - highly motivated to learn as much Torah as he could. After high school he went to Israel to fulfill that ambition. But he never lost touch with his friends. I recall vividly one year when he came to Chicago on a fundraising trip. He told a group of us who met with him how much he enjoyed seeing the ‘old neighborhood’ where he used to live - and seeing so many of his old friends.

Many of those friends had become very wealthy and have contributed generously to his Yeshiva. I’m told that whenever he called upon them he always referred to himself as ‘Natie’ - the way they had known him back in his old Chicago days. He was a humble man - a true Anav.

He ultimately married ‘the boss’s daughter’. Rav Beinish Finkel was the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Mir when he was a student there. Rav Beinish who was a visionary had indicated that he wanted his son in law to succeed him after his passing. That happened in 1990. Rav Nosson Tzvi took over the helm of the Yeshiva. And it has since grown to be one of the largest and most prestigious Yeshivos in the world under his leadership – with a large campus, many new buildings and over 5000 students.

I first met him when I visited my son during his first year at the Mir in the winter of 93. When I identified myself, he immediately said, ‘You must be very proud of your son!’ I will never forget the pride I had in the fact that despite the great number of students in the Mir -he recognized my son’s achievements in Torah the very first year he was there.

That he was a mentch did not come as any surprise to me. I had known his younger brother Rav Gedalia Finkel (Gilly) who is a contemporary of mine – both of us learning in Skokie (HTC) during the sixties. I actually spent one Seder learning with him. He was as gracious and kind as could be. Although quite brilliant in his own right, he never wore that on his sleeve - always treating others as his equal and with great respect. I don’t think he ever saw any flaws in people. He only saw the good in them. I’m sure that’s still true today. And I’m sure his older brother - Rav Nosson Tzvi - saw people in exactly the same way.

Rav Nosson Tzvis’s greatness in Torah was acknowledged by all. But he was also a great leader with an ability to raise the funds needed to run a Yeshiva with an over 13 million dollar annual budget.

Legend has it that Rav Raphael, the son of R’ Chaim Shmulevitz, challenged him at the time of Rav Beinish’s passing. The story goes that they agreed to let Rav Shach decide who was the more legitimate heir. Rav Shach purportedly told Rav Raphael that as R' Chaim’s son - he too had a legitimate claim to the ledership of the Yeshiva. But he told him that being a Rosh HaYeshiva did not only mean having a lot of Torah knowledge. It meant he had to have the ability to raise funds. If he wanted the job he had to do that too. R’ Raphael said ‘No thanks!’ …and Rav Nosson Tzvi became the undisputed Rosh HaYeshiva there.

As an aside this demonstrates how major disputes like this should be settled. That is how honorable people do it. Compare that with some of the leadership conflicts going on in other circles after the passing of their former leader.

How successful was he in attracting money? I just heard a story about an incident that happened recently. He had mentioned to someone that he that he was going to have a big shortfall in his budget this year. A very wealthy friend of mine from Chicago who was in Israel at the time happened to be near him and overheard. He went over to him and without saying a word wrote him a check for $100,000!

His Methclichkeit can also be demonstrated by two events that come to mind. One is all those violent protests in Meah Shearim, the neighborhood that borders Beis Yisroel where his Yeshiva is located. He absolutely forbade his students from participating in any of them.

The other event that comes to mind is when Mir Yeshiva honored a gentile woman – the wife of Chiune Sugihara. Mr. Sugihara was a Japanese official in Lithuania during the Holocaust. He helped thousands of Jews escape the European inferno. Among them were the students and faculty of the Mir. He issued travel visas to them all and thus they were spared the fate of their brethren. Rav Nosson Tzvi was there to participate in honoring her. It was quite an emotional ceremony.

This is how a Rosh HaYeshiva should act. He was a role model for other Roshei Yeshiva. I can’t help but believe that his Mentchlichkeit was at least in part influenced by his humble beginnings in the Midwest. He was an American boy who did well.

These are just a few of my ‘spur of the moment’ personal reflections on the life of a great man. I’m sure I do not do him justice. My condolences to his family. HaMakom Yenachem Eschem B’Soch Shar Aveilei Tzion V'Yerushalayim.

* Picture courtesy of Menachem Lipkin