Lucky Shlomo

My host for Shabbos lunch on a recent trip to Baltimore told me a story that I have already repeated many times.

After high school, Shlomo learned for two years in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Eretz Yisrael. The normal trajectory from Kerem B’Yavneh was to Yeshiva University for college, and indeed that is where everyone, including his parents, expected Shlomo to go. But an older bochur he met in Kerem B’Yavneh convinced Shlomo to join him at Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore.

Shlomo stuck out a bit in the Ner Yisrael beis medrash upon his arrival: He was one of the few bochurim who wore a kippah seruga , not to mention blue jeans. Sometime in his first zman in the yeshiva, his friend managed to get him into one of the weekly vaadim given by the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l. Shlomo was enthralled by Rabbi Weinberg and made up his mind to ask the Rosh Yeshiva for a private chavrusah once a week.

During afternoon seder, Rabbi Weinberg learned at the front of the beis medrash, and one afternoon Shlomo approached his shtender to present his request for a chavrusah. As he drew nearer, he felt the beis medrash grow quiet and 300 pairs of eyes turn towards him. The silence grew thicker the closer he came to the Rosh Yeshiva, and he felt as if the stares were piercing through his back.

Shlomo stood before the Rosh Yeshiva, who sensed his presence and looked up from his Gemara.

“My name is Shlomo . . . .” he began.

“Nice to meet you, Shlomo,” Rabbi Weinberg replied.

“I’m in the Rosh Yeshiva’s Chovos Halevovos chabura.”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering if the Rosh Yeshiva has time for a private chavrusah with me once a week?”

“Well Shlomo, I have four vaadim to prepare for every week and a shiur klali. I’m afraid I really don’t have any time to learn with you.” With that Rabbi Weinberg smiled pleasantly to indicate the discussion was over, and returned to his Gemara.

Shlomo just stood there frozen in his place. Suddenly, he heard himself blurt out, “THE ROSH YESHIVA DOESN’T EVEN HAVE TEN MINUTES A WEEK TO LEARN WITH ME!”

Rabbi Weinberg’s head snapped up, and he looked at Shlomo. “Yes, Shlomo I suppose that I have ten minutes a week. Come to my office at 9:30 on Friday morning, and we’ll discuss what we should learn.”

Thus began a chavrusah that would last seventeen years, and in Shlomo’s words, completely transform his life and determine the person he is today.

There are many lessons to learn from this story. It is a perfect example of Chazal’s statement that a “bashful person cannot learn.” It could also serves as a perfect metaphor for another ma’amar Chazal: “All the gates of tefillah are locked, except the gate of tears.”

BUT LISTENING TO SHLOMO describe how his entire course in life changed as a result of his weekly chavrusah with his Rosh Yeshiva, I was saddened by the thought of how few yeshiva bochurim today are privileged to establish anything like such a close relationship over a period of years with a talmid chacham who knows them intimately.

In the largest yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, the entering cohort of talmidim each year can number above 150. Even if the shiur is divided into two shiurim, that still leaves 75 bochurim per shiur — a number far beyond the capacity of any maggid shiur to establish a close relationship with. And usually the bochurim only attend a daily shiur for their first two years in yeshiva. True, there are various levels of mashgichim and usually a number of mashivim with whom different bochurim can form a relationship. But the fact remains that many bochurim, even top learners, fall completely through the cracks, unless they are the type to aggressively pursue a relationship with an older authority figure competent to guide them.

Many yeshivos do not even have vaadim to prepare the bochurim for shidduchim or, even more importantly, for marriage. One major yeshiva recently started a special vaad on this subject for bochurim already in their mid-20s. One can only wonder what was available for them until then.

And the situation is hardly better in the largest yeshivos catering to bochurim from chutz l’aretz. The most sought after shiurim may have hundreds of talmidim – many of them forced to listen to shiur by some sort of audio hook-up. And when bochurim return to the United States after learning for several years in Eretz Israel in order to enter into shidduchim, they are likely to enter into a huge beis medrash where they are relative strangers. At precisely the period in life when he is most in need of advice from some one who knows him well, a bochur has to start forging new relationships with trusted older figures capable of guiding him. And the number of those figures is invariably inadequate to meet the demand.

Nor does the need for a close relationship with a ba’al eitzah end with marriage. At last year’s convention of Agudath Israel of America, one of the sessions was devoted to the relationship between baalebatim and the yeshivos. The most frequently heard complaint from the former was that their married sons, who have been learning in kollel for a number of years, have no rav with whom they are close who can guide them through the transition to life after kollel, whether in chinuch or business.

Those who are learning in kollel indefinitely also need guidance from a rav. One of the biggest challenges they face, apart from parnassah, is how to maintain their freshness in learning when the future looms before them as an endless expanse with no clear stages or demarcations of progress. They require someone who knows both their abilities in learning and their personalities to help them set concrete goals in learning. Without such goals, it is too easy to shrug off the failure to learn well one day with the promise to do better the next day or the one after that.

Shlomo’s Guardian Angel caused him to cry out for what he needed. And he was answered. Ensuring that all our talmidim receive the guidance they need must be one of our top priorities.

This piece appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on Dec. 11, 2007

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14 comments to Lucky Shlomo

  • joel rich

    2 thoughts, not judging anyone’s actions:
    1.Fallacy of composition
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    A fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part). In Keynesian macroeconomics, the “paradox of thrift” illustrates this fallacy: increasing saving (or “thrift”) is obviously good for an individual, since it provides for retirement or a “rainy day,” but if everyone saves more, it may cause a recession by reducing consumer demand. So here is one explicit argument (selected from a number of possibilities arising from these facts) that commits the fallacy of composition:

    2.opportunity cost – example, if a city decides to build a hospital on vacant land it owns, the opportunity cost is the value of the benefits forgone of some other thing which might have been done with the land and construction funds instead.

    Certainly the need in this generation for “baalei eitzah” is pronounced due to supply and demand considerations which is a topic unto itself.

    KT

  • Dr. E

    One fundamental issue here is the transition of yeshiva bochurim to becoming functional and productive members of the broader community after their days in the institution have passed. Even if one has been privileged to have made a kesher with one or more Rabbeim, there have been multiple cohorts of other talmidim who have passed through those same yeshivos since who have made similar connections and are competing for those same limited opportunities.

    I have observed that some guys out there are fixated in their Yeshiva days. You see this in their mannerisms, routines, and the schedules that they like to keep. Consequently, even if they are married and no longer living in the Yeshiva, they have not outgrown this mindset. In too many instances, they do not appropriately try hard enough to develop mature relationships with a local Rav (who may or may not have studied in that same Yeshiva). Some delude themselves into believing that the old kesher that they had with their Rabbeim is more real than perceived, even when they find themselves geographically separated from them of the Rabbeim are otherwise no longer accessible. (And in some cases, the Rabbeim themselves objectively relate better to 19 and 20 year olds than they do with 30 year old graduates.) There is an entire subculture of “adult Yeshiva guys”, 25 years through middle age, who geographically live in communities, yet live on “the float”, davening in multiple shtiblach, basements, and shuls out of convenience, while not establishing roots in any one place. They delude themselves into believing that this is a functional existence that will carry them, their wives, and children through life and its hurdles. This mindset deprives them of developing a connection with any one Rav who can counsel them through mature life issues and challenges. While these individuals may be in touch with Yeshiva Rabbeim for occasional advice, this is no substitute for a relationship with someone who is not only accessible on a daily basis but also sensitive to the context of the community in which they reside.

    In the “Vaadim”, Rabbeim in Yeshivos should be stressing the importance of settling in a community, becoming productive members of it, and developing a relationship with an appropriate Rav. This requires some level of “letting go” by both parties. It also requires community Rabbanim who understand Yeshiva expatriots and can help them integrate with other members of the broader community who may not have attended the same yeshiva. There are certainly some opportunities to reunite with Rabbeim and the yeshivos in terms of being active in those organizations as alumni as well as attending Yarchai Kallah which maintain the intellectual and spiritual kesher. And in limited situations, there are individuals who are fortunate to have an ongoing personal connection with a Rebbe.

    To the extent that this successful transition can be encouraged and managed, the individuals (not to mention their families) and the communities will be better off.

  • Ori

    Note: I am writing this as an outsider who never studied in Yeshiva. I might be missing something blindly obvious – if so, please tell me.

    It seems to me that this is a resource problem. Too many Yeshiva students, competing with the attention of too few mature men who are in Yeshiva. Mature men with large families are expensive, and Yeshivas can’t keep too many of them around.

    Maybe the solution is for Ba’aley Batim, men who left the Yeshiva world and are raising their families, to learn in Chavruta with Yeshiva students. These are the role models for what most Yeshiva students will end up doing, and the Jewish community has no shortage of them. In return, the Ba’aley Batim get to learn with somebody who is excited about learning Torah and has different insights, being of a different generation and a full time learner.

  • cvmay

    This is a problem that is increasing on a monthly basis, solutions are needed. Rav M. Solomon has offered an eitzah to hire mashgichim mentors for every shiur and grade level, yeshiva personel that are on-board to schmooze, do active listening, offer advice, and truly be a friend. Is the underlying issue, only financial or is there a VOID within the ranks of Yeshivas to produce 21st Century mentoring individuals? I dare to suggest that the latter is the answer, can it be solved? OF COURSE…we must stand up to the challenge, ignore sterotypes and put kavod shem shamayim foremost.

  • Dan Weiss

    Thank you R’ Rosenblum for a keen precis of an essential issue. The observations you make about the mainstream yeshiva world are equally relevant for ba’alei teshuvah. Added to the upheaval of abandoning a purely secular life for a Torah one, the ba’al teshuva is thrown into a foreign universe of shidduchim and life-after-yeshiva.

    He needs the guidance of a rav to help him keep his head on his shoulders in shidduchim – to help him understand that our mission is to build relationships based on Torah principles, not to embody an image of what some of those relationships appear to be.

    If he is going back to work he needs encouragement in learning, perhaps more so than the guy who grew up in yeshiva, since his independence in learning is less. He needs concrete goals as far as what to learn, and motivation to be kovei’a itim l’Torah in what will be shockingly restricted learning time compared to what he had in yeshiva.

    This is a short-list of the support a ba’al teshuva needs coming out of yeshiva, and I’ve only mentioned men in this comment, not women and their needs coming out of ba’al teshuva seminaries.

    My first halacha shiur in yeshiva (I was twenty-nine years old and illiterate) was given by a brilliant rav who somewhat humorously admonished us not to transgress the two commandments in the Torah most commonly abused by ba’alei teshuvah (according to him): be normal and don’t be stupid. Without careful and consistent guidance, ba’alei teshuva are in danger of either straying from the Torah path or, as Rabbi Tatz puts it, of becoming mindless groupies. God-willing we will all find the courage to be reasonably chutzpadik in our pursuit of close relationships with rabbonim.

  • Michoel

    R’ Rosenblum is addressing an extremely important topic. But it is not only bnei yeshivos and those on their way into the work world that need a rebbi. Regular Baalei batim might need one more. The bnei yeshiva’s world is much less complex than the baal habayis with kids in a few different schools, paranasa challenges, ones own growth challenges. I think a big part of the the solution is b’makom sh’ain anashim, hishtadel l’hiyos ish. Meaning, not only big maggidei shiur or Roshei Yeshivos and mashgichim should be providing guidance. Accomplished baalei batim that are talmidei chachamim to a degree, should step up to the plate and make themselves available.

  • joel rich

    Accomplished baalei batim that are talmidei chachamim to a degree, should step up to the plate and make themselves available.

    Comment by Michoel
    ================================

    Bingo, but in a culture that correlates knowledge, advice and sagacity with full-time employment in the rabbinical role, is this likely to be accepted? BTW, interesting that no one has mentioned parents in that role:-(

    KT

  • Chaim Wolfson

    “BTW, interesting that no one has mentioned parents in that role” (Comment by joel rich — December 13, 2007 @ 3:55 pm).

    Joel, maybe these are kids that “flipped out” :)

  • Toby Katz

    Aseh lecha rav. People just have to do it. I don’t know who should tell guys, but somebody should tell them, that everyone needs a rav. BTW girls and women also need mentors (the mentor could be a rav OR a rebetzin, someone with wisdom and life experience).

    Joel Rich mentioned “parents.” My father z’l was my daas Torah and I haven’t found anyone who can remotely replace him, but I try to ask shailos and not just muddle through on my own.

  • Yossi (Joe) Izrael

    Bingo!

    Finally someone talking about this super important topic. There is a huge lack of guidance in our day. Regardless of all other problems, what is sorely missing is guidance and personal relationship. Yeshivas need to speak, speak, speak, speak and speak to kids. Lots of shmuessen from different people – each person is drawn to different styles and different ideas/expressions thereof chatch his attention/interest.

    And yea, parents also should be involved. Unfortunately it’s not always so.

    All the best.

  • JosephW

    It seems to me that the average yeshiva guy in his post yeshiva days does not relate to his neighborhood Rav because he sees the Rav to be serving the baale batim – people who can be a generation older than him, and are generally not as learned as he is (or so he thinks). He therefore doesn’t get close to any Rav and tries (hopefully) to maintain his kesher with his yeshiva rebbe – usually unsuccesfully.

    The approach to deal with this is to create a shul for younger people where the Rav is specifically chosen based on the respect he can garner from yeshivaleit and the kesher he can create with them. (For example, such a shul was recently started in Baltimore around five years ago, which by now has a membership of over 300. The average age in the shul is thirty or lower thirties. The Rav who was hired is the sgan rosh kollel of the yeshiva.)

    (This would have to be done in such a way that the shul would not be seen as looking down on the rest of the community for not being as frum as they are.)

  • Bob Miller

    Last summer, we visited our daughter and her family in Baltimore, whose shul seems to match JosephW’s description above. Their Rav, the Shabbos morning attendees packing the house, and the services themselves really impressed me favorably.

  • Noam

    As noted above, the PARENTS have been totally left out of this article. Where is their role? Shouldn’t parents prepare their kids for marriage, shidduchim, and life in general?

    Also left out is the shul or community rov. not just of the community that the student moves into, but the one that he CAME from.

    The combined effect of ignoring parents and community is to maximize the influence of the yeshiva, and minimize the effect of family and community. Why is this neccessary or desireable? Why and how are the parents being ignored? That should be the first problem addressed. The issues addressed in this article are only the result of neglect of the parent/child and community/child relationship.

    And, by the way, it was a bit gratuitous to mention that Shlomo was on track to go to YU, but went to Ner instead.

  • BY girl

    To reiterate what Mrs. Katz said, girls / women need mentors as well!

    I would posit that once they graduate at 17-18, it is even more demanding for them to find one, as they don’t have any community framework of daily shul / bais medrash / shiur.