Monday, June 13, 2011

All for the Boys

If one reads my bio at the top of this blog one will note that I mention some of the great people I was privileged to have as my Rebbeim at one time or another. Included are two Rebbeim that I had in elementary school.

One might ask, how on earth does one include elementary school Rebbeim alongside such greats as Rav Ahron Soloveitchik and Rav Mordechai Rogov? The answer is that they were (and still are) giants in their fields, pioneers of modern American Torah Chinuch. They deserved to be singled out.

Last week the Yated Ne’eman had a feature article about one of those two giants, Rabbi Shmuel Kaufman (pictured at his Sheva Brachos in 1960 - as I remember him). When I heard that he was featured I sought out and was able to obtain a copy of that article (I do not subscribe to - or often buy the Yated.)

It was a beautiful article about a beautiful man. He claimed that his drive to serve Klal Yisroel via Chincuh came through the merit of his maternal grandfather, Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman. Rav Herman was himself a Torah pioneer in America. His inspiring story is told by his daughter Ruchama Shain in her book, ‘All for the Boss’.

The article was in the form of an interview. His responses to questions were not in any way surprising to me. I don’t know if those who read the article could sense it but Rabbi Kaufman was a man who thought out of the box. He selflessly gave of himself to the student and spent many hours not only formally teaching them in the classroom but befriending them outside of it - much like an older brother.

It was 1956. My 5th grade class in Yeshiva Beth Yehuda in Detroit was his first boys class. (He briefly taught a girls class just before that.) It was an experience I will never forget. His constant warmth and and sense of humor were unique. He felt close to every single one of us. We all felt it. I was in special need of that because I was already living away from home during weekdays – only able to see my parents who lived in Toledo (60 miles away) on weekends. That part of my educational journey began in 4th grade at age 8. I was always homesick. But Rabbi Kaufman made me forget about that homesickness.

As Rabbi Kaufman points out in the Yated article, most of the Yeshiva’s students back then came from non Frum homes. But none of us necessarily knew that or cared. We were all one – a unified body of boys in a yeshiva. There was never any discussion about who our friends should or shouldn’t be. There was never any discussion about whose home was Shomer Shabbos and whose wasn’t. It didn’t matter. We were all friends during, before, and after class.

That’s because the yeshiva treated us that way. From those boys have come some pretty big Talmidei Chachamim and lay leaders today. The vast majority of them are competely Shomer Shabbos and span the spectrum of Orthodoxy – from Agudah to Mizrachi; from Charedi to modern Orthodox.

These are the boys that Agudah Moetzes member, Rav Avraham Chaim Levine, referenced at a speech during an Agudah (or perhaps it was a Torah U’Mesorah) convention a few years ago when he correctly complained about the state of Charedi education in America. He said they religious schools have become overly competitive and elitist to the point where they were creating an educational crisis.

Good students were being rejected because they were not the ‘geniuses’ that school administrators were looking for in the highly competitive environment of today. And that was putting far too many kids at risk. Rav Levine made the point that if his hometown of Detroit had done that many of the big Talmidei Chachamim who were sitting in the front rows of that convention would not be Frum today.These are the boys that Rabbi Kaufman taught.

What the Yated article did not mention was some of the ‘out of the box’ ways in which he related to the boys. He was very innovative. It was Rabbi Kaufman who made Thursday nights in Beis Yehuda - Mishmor Night. Although it was optional many of us went to learn voluntarily. That’s because after Mishmar he took us all bowling for free. 2 games. He also picked us all up and took us all home. He also used to pull some great shtick with the boys which of course we all loved. I particularly recall the following.

As the Yated article pointed out, he would often take trips with as many boys as he could convince to Telshe, Cleveland, his alma mater. He wanted them to see what a Yeshiva Gedolah was like. On the way back he once stopped off in Toledo to visit me and my parents. Those young boys never heard of Toledo. As he was getting close to my house he told the boys that if they needed to go to the bathroom when they got there, that Toledo only had outhouses. They believed him. When they got there, they asked my father where the outhouse was. You can just imagine my father’s puzzled look when he told them that he had indoor plumbing. I saw Rabbi Kaufman grinning ear to ear.

There are many stories about his out of the box Chinuch methods. Some would not be tolerated by today’s standards. But suffice it to say he was a beloved figure. In some ways he was a role model for me. I used some of his disciplinary methods on my own children. That he was in Chinuch for over 55 years gives testament to his success and to how beloved he was. Imagine a man in his 70s teaching elementary school children and being able to relate to them on their own level. This is Rabbi Kaufman.

Fast forward to today. I am happy to report that I just returned from a kindergarten graduation ceremony at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School. Two of my grandchildren ‘graduated’. While Arie Crown does not have Rabbi Kaufman there, I can happily say that it operates in his spirit of all inclusiveness.

The parents there were from the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy. Some children had had Kipot Seruga some wore velvet yarmulkes; some had peyos, but most did not. Some wore their Tzitzis out and others did not.

There were parents that were former Avreichim at the Lakewood Kollel and parents who are card carrying religious Zionists. Most of the mothers there covered their hair, but some did not. There may have been some parents there who were not even Shomer Shabbos. This is what Beis Yehuda was like when I went there.

I was also happy to see that the national anthem was sung as was Hatikvah. It was nice to see one of the children on the stage holding a drawing of the Israeli flag. But even as there are differences between the Hashkafos there so too was there a sense of Achdus. Arie Crown’s acronym ACHDS in fact almost spells that out.

It almost gives me hope that the kind of Achdus that I saw today could actually exist among all of us. While not a religious Zionist, I think Rabbi Kaufman would have been proud to be there.