Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, zt”l: Mechanech

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The ArtScroll Gemara is known throughout the Torah world; far fewer know the name Torah Communications Network. The General Editors responsible for the creation the ArtScroll Gemara are household names; the name of the creator of the Torah Communications Network remains little known. In large part, the difference is a question of medium. Seforim are printed, and each sefer bears the name of those responsible for its production. Telephone shiurim, by contrast, bear no imprint nor is there any need to describe their provenance.

But Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, the one-man force behind the creation of Torah Communications Network, surely appreciated his relative anonymity. Fame and money were two things that never held any attraction for him.

Only with his sudden passing last week is Rabbi Teitelbaum’s full impact on Torah Jewry worldwide over the past fifty years coming to light. From an early age, he was fascinated by technology. As a young boy, he used to take apart ham radios to understand how they worked. His younger brother Rabbi Shlomo Teitelbaum described in Reb Eli’s hesped fascination with every new gizmo. When asked him why he was wasting his time on such things, his response was always that this technology would someday be harnessed in the service of Torah.

His first major effort in that direction was via radio. He bought up radio time for a show called Mishnayos-on-the-Air, featuring Rabbi Nosson Scherman, his close friend from their days together as co-head counselors at Camp Torah Vodaath. Rabbi Scherman’s mellifluous voice and precise explanations made the program an instant success. Ever the master mechanech, Rabbi Teitelbaum added an interactive element in the form of quizzes and prizes that held the young listeners’ interest.

The radio show was just the beginning. After the completion of the 8th cycle of Daf Yomi in 1981, and more than a full-cycle before the first volume of the monumental Schottenstein Gemara would come off the press, Rabbi Teitelbaum embarked on his most ambition effort to date to spread Torah through technology. His Boro Park neighbors were undoubtedly a bit curious, and perhaps not too pleased, when the telephone company began ripping up the sidewalk in front of his Boro Park house to run 200 phone lines to his basement. Each line was connected to a reel-to-reel tape player, which was timed to begin a daf yomi shiur on the hour.

At that time, the concept of hundreds of people listening to the same shiur on audio cassette represented a marvel of technology. But by today’s standards, the original Dial-a-Daf, with each shiur beginning on the hour, seems primitive. Due to advances in computer technology, one no longer needs to call in on the hour. Nor is the shiur du jour any longer confined to that day’s daf. One can call at any time one wants and listen to a shiur on any daf in Shas in Yiddish, Hebrew, or English. Modern computer technology allows the listener to fast forward to any place on the daf where he seeks further clarification, rewind to review any point that he did not fully grasp, and even to place a bookmark in the shiur at precisely the point he stopped listening so that he can resume listening at a later point.

Finally, the ability to store vast quantities of information in small spaces means that Torah Communications Network, sponsors of the original Dial-a-Daf, can ship its full library of shiurim to any other location in the world that wants to set up its own telephone library.

Once the technology was in place, the scope of the offerings began expanding far beyond the original daf hayomi. Today Torah Communications Network has shiurim available on every aspect of Torah – Chumash, Tanach, Midrash, Mishnayos, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, classic mussar works like Mesillas Yesharim, and Tefillah. Children can even call in to hear a Torah story. Every time Rabbi Teitelbaum heard of another set of top quality shiurim or of an inspirational speaker he immediately rushed to add them to his Torah Phone Library.

As a consequence of Torah Communications Network, Jews around the world have instant access to shiurim on every section of Torah from world’s greatest maggidei shiurim, such as Rabbi Mechel Silber, who has completed shiurim in Hebrew and Yiddish on all of Shas. The insights of some of the greatest speakers and teachers in recent memory who have passed on to the Olam Ha’emes are not lost due to the Torah Phone Library. One can hear, for instance, the great Jerusalem Maggid, Rabbi Shalom Schwadron on every parashah in Chumash.

TORAH COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK was Rabbi Teitelbaum’s most concrete achievement. Millions of blatt Gemara, mishnayos, and shiurim accompany him in the Olam HaEmes, and their number will continue to grow until bias Hagoel.

But his greatest impact arguably lies in the lives of thousands of talmidim and summer campers that he touched over a forty years as a mechanech. As a mechanech, he will have no replacement or imitators. His unique personality and incredibly wide-range of talents ensure that we will not again see his like. But nevertheless we can learn from him many valuable lessons that parents and mechanchim alike can apply to the transmission of Torah to the next generation.

His great love in life was teaching children. Reb Shlomo Eisen, his worked with him for 39 years in Camp Sde Chemed, a Israeli summer camp for American youngsters, recalls returning to their home base one night after nearly twelve hours of hiking. Everyone was bone-tired, eager to do nothing more than drag themselves to the dining hall and from there to bed. As they exited the bus, however, one of the campers approached Reb Eli and asked him, “Rebbe, can you learn with me now?” To Eisen’s amazement, Reb Eli immediately agreed and told the boy to bring two Gemaras.

Reb Shlomo asked him, “Can’t you learn with him tomorrow?” Reb Eli replied, “A rebbe is a teacher. The minute a child asks you to learn and you refuse, you are not a rebbe.” If you were talking to him in his basement about the next year in camp, and a talmid called up, Reb Shlomo Eisen remembers, “he was gone – completely gone. Everything was focused entirely on that talmid.” And he was never off duty. Talmidim came regularly to visit him on Shabbos, and he kept up with hundreds of former talmidim and campers from Sde Chemed.

Rabbi Teitelbaum taught fourth-grade in Yeshivas Torah Temima for forty years. In some ways, he was uniquely suited to young children. Even as he neared seventy, he maintained a child-like enthusiasm for life and a wonderment at the niflaos haborei. He saw Hashem’s world as a place of constant marvels, and explored it as fully as possible. He embodied, “Bechol darcheicha daei’hu – In all your ways know Him,”

I cannot remember a single conversation that I ever had with Reb Eli in which he was not excited about something – usually a new project or something wonderful he had seen, but often some form of wrongdoing that he was determined to uproot. He never lost the boundless energy of youth. “In all the years I knew him,” says Reb Shlomo Eisen, “I never saw him just sitting doing nothing. He was always busy.”

Children dream of the glorious future, and so did he. Someone once told Reb Shraga Feivel, the builder of Torah Vodaath, that he was a hopeless dreamer, whose vision of a vibrant Torah education for tens of thousands of Jewish children had no place in the 20th century. Reb Shraga Feivel replied, “You are right. I’m not a man of the 20th century; I’m a man of the 21st century.” Reb Eli had that same determination and belief in his ability to turn dreams into reality. “When people laugh at me,” he said, “I know I’m going to be successful.”

As a mechanech, he was always looking for “high-impact” educational tools, ones that would engage all the child’s senses. To that end, he employed an unparalleled wealth of artistic and musical talents. He drew beautifully. Even as a camper, his Color War banners drew admirers from far around. He not only played the clarinet, but taught many other aspiring musicians to play. On camp trips his clarinet was never far from his side.

One of his specialties as a rebbe was teaching his young students about the Bais HaMikdash. He drew elaborate pictures from different perspectives of the Bais HaMikdash and its vessels and constructed models. One rosh kollel in Jerusalem told me, he can still remember mixing the flour and dough for the “menachos” offerings in Rabbi Teitelbaum’s class.

In some sense Camp Sde Chemed was the ultimate “high-impact” educational experience. Reb Eli fervently believed that every healthy, kosher activity could be used as a means of drawing boys closer to Torah, whether it be sports, music, or art. Nearly fifty years ago, he taught the first separate lifesaving and first aid courses for frum young men.

I once heard a famous educator in Bnei Brak say, “One is koneh (acquires) their children in bein hazemanim.” Reb Eli fully subscribed to that theory. He saw the summer as an opportunity to draw close even those boys who had not fully connected to Torah texts. In Camp Sde Chemed, there was horseback riding, swimming, many hikes and tours, on which Reb Eli shared his boundless love for Eretz Yisrael, and endless singing – in the dining hall, on the buses, at a Melava Malkah late into the night. Many of the today’s most popular musicians and composers got their start in Camp Sde Chemed – Rabbi Baruch Chait, Rabbi Suki Berry, Moshe Lauffer, and Yisrael Lamm. Rabbi Teitelbaum put out the first Pirchei tapes and later pioneered the use of “mitzvah tapes.”

Nor was formal Torah learning ignored. Camp Sde Chemed had twice-a-day learning sedarim – one of today’s leading Mashgichim was one of the first learning rebbes – and dozens of impromptu Torah lessons were offered on bus rides, in the dining hall, over a kumsitz.

REB ELI POSSESSED A CHILD’S STRONG SENSE OF RIGHT AND WRONG. He could not bear any wrongdoing to another, and when heard of some avla, he made the matter his business. If a rebbe complained to him, for instance, that he had not been paid on time, Reb Eli would move heaven and earth until the situation was rectified.

Once he came upon a talmid in Torah Temimah crying because his bicycle had been stolen. Reb Eli, who, in addition to everything else, held a black-belt in judo, set off in search of the bicycle, including entering many buildings that anyone else would have steered far clear of. His fearlessness in charging into any battle made him a hero in the eyes of his young talmidim.

Physically confronting those who threatened Jews, despite his relatively small stature, was only one of the ways in which he faced down wrongdoers. In recent years, he devoted great energy to exposing various scams preying of the credulity of the frum community. (Writing was another one of his many talents.) He investigated and publicized the fraud behind every form of Ponzi scheme, every promise of returns “too good to be true” because they were, in fact, too good to be true. Many of the perpetrators of such schemes were not to pleased with his efforts, and let him know it, but he was undeterred.

Wrongs to others gave him no peace, but he cared not a wit about his own money or kavod. He once told his friend Shlomo Eisen that he got much more interest on his money than Reb Shlomo did because he always put his money into gemachim. In their nearly forty years as partners, says Eisen, they never had a dispute about so much as a nickel. Nor was that equanimity confined to money matters. Rabbi Baruch Chait, the first head counselor of Camp Sde Chemed, told me that he cannot remember a single disagreement with Reb Eli over eight years of working closely together.

He was able to reach many youngsters who others saw primarily as troublemakers. In their wildness, he perhaps saw something of his own passionate nature, and he could appreciate their creativity where others saw only disruptions. His own strong emotions gave him a common speech with teenagers torn in many directions by their own tumultuous feelings. And he had at his disposal a seemingly endless array of tools to reach them.

AMONG Reb Eli’s many talents he was an excellent photographer and videographer. The camera was just one more technological tool he employed for the celebration of Hashem and his Torah. He made many of the videos for Keren HaShviis and wrote the narrations.

He took videos at conventions of Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah for decades. During Rabbi Moshe Sherer’s final hospital stay, Reb Eli went to visit with him. He had put together a video of highlights of nearly forty years of Rabbi Sherer’s convention addresses. As they watched the video together, Reb Eli said to Rabbi Sherer, “See, Reb Moshe you didn’t change. Keep it up.” Sherer family members attest to how much that video lifted Rabbi Sherer’s spirits.

It would have taken another Rabbi Chaim Eliyahu Teitelbaum to make the video collage of his incredibly rich and colorful life. Unfortunately, there is no other.

Chaval al ma d’avdin v’lo mishtakin

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6 Responses

  1. Asher Heber says:

    Kudos to Jonathon Rosenblum for the short but well written biography of Eli Teitelbaum.Having been a close friend of Eli during our Yeshiva years together and working as asst.head counsellors under Zisha Heshel Z”L in camp Gan Israel NY during the early 60’s,I can attest to the fact that he was a multi talented and fantastic individual.
    What struck me however,was the glaring omission of two very important facts.One,the Yeshiva he attended and was a Musmach of,The Lubavutcher Yeshiva.Two, the fact that he was an ardent chosid of the The Lubavitcher Rebbi ZT”L.
    I hope that this was a simple oversight by the author,even though these are two central facts about Eli’s back round,rather then revisionist history that has been cropping up at an alarming rate in Anglo-Jewish publications in recent years.

  2. ploni b almoni says:

    I was in the hospital and unable to attend the Levaya. I worked for Rabbi Teitelbaum for several summers in Camp S’Dei Chemed. Then I checked the Yeshivaworld website – and lo and behold – they posted a teleconf # to dial up and hear the hespedim live. What a fitting tribute to this giant of harnassing technology for Torah causes!

  3. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Reb Yonasan,
    Thank you for a beautiful post that captured the essence of Rabbi Teitelbaum. Because I knew him (not well, but the frum world being small as it is, our paths did cross on several occasions), I was both laughing and crying as I read it. You mentioned the Pirchei tapes he helped produce, but you forgot the “Sdei Chemed” tapes. Many of those songs became instant classics. [His “al kein tzion” is still my favorite song.]

    One enduring memory I have of Rabbi Teitelblum is of participitating in a matzah baking “chaburah” as a “bochur” studying in Eretz Yisrael some twenty years ago. In the midst of the controlled (?) chaos taking place in the bakery, who should walk in but Eli Teitelbaum, with a very large, professional quality video camera on his shoulder. He didn’t know anyone in the “chaburah”, but he wanted to video matzah baking in Yerushalayim. Knowing him, I’m sure he put the video to good use.

  4. lacosta says:

    the fact that this tzaddik recently risked condemnation for deriding widespread banning as talibanizing judaism–for that ish haemes element alone he is kone olama. yehi zichro baruch

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    This brief comment is noted as I am in the middle of my second cycle of Daf Yomi, which I commenced in the late summer of 2005, after the Siyum in February or March of that year. I first visited the TCN’s headquarters in Boro Park when I thought of starting Daf Yomi in the mid 1980s. I was blown away by the entire operation. I then commenced and finished much of Shas thanks to a then existing tape library in KGH. For this cycle, I have been using an Ipod which has “Gantz Shas” and a small Gemara in which I underline and make references to mareh mkomos, etc.

    A number of years, I was learning on a train proceeding from Brooklyn to Manhattan and a Charedi family commented that I appeared to be using their zaideh’s tapes. Anyone who learns Daf Yomi today is greatly indebted to the efforts of R Teitelbaum ZTL.

    While R Teitelbaum ZTL did not circulate tapes of shiurim of RYBS, I would be remiss in noting that a wonderful person in KGH, R M Nordlicht sells and distributes tapes of shiurim from RYBS, RHS and many other Gdolim via his website and home.

  6. Yisroel Moshe says:

    Baruch Dayan Emes.

    I went to S’dei Chemed many years ago. I was amazed to meet a rabbi who was a black belt in Karate. Just one of the things that made him unique.

    He will be missed.