In Koloshova, the family of R’ Binyomin Kamenetsky was not particularly distinguished. A Torah-observant home where the father worked and earned a respectable livelihood, things would have remained just the same had Heaven not ordained otherwise. In an interesting twist of fate, the father of Reb Binyomin, a timber-dealer and owner of a large flour mill, lost all his business in one night due to the decree of the Russian Tzar.
Thus, after the birth of their son Yaakov on 21 Adar, Reb Binyomin moved to a tiny hamlet by the name of Dolhinov. Reb Yaakov later pointed out that had it not been for this move, he would probably have grown up an ordinary businessman and would never have absorbed the unquenchable love of Torah that was prevalent in this small village.
His father would take him on Friday night at two in the morning to the beis medrash where the place hummed with learning as though it was midday. The hall was full of people studying Torah, each one according to his level: one learned a shiur on Alshich, another on gemora, and yet another a shiur iyun.
In the cheder of this village the hours were long, so long that Reb Yaakov’s mother would pack together with his lunch an oil lamp to be used when darkness fell and the boys continued learning.
At the age of eleven, he left home to learn in the yeshiva of Minsk. After he passed the entry exam of the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Shlomo Glovenchitz, the latter still doubted whether he should accept him, due to his youth. “You are not even bar mitzvah yet.”
With childish innocence, the young Yaakov replied, “Well, I came here to learn, not to be the tenth man of a minyan.”
After a time, the Kamenetsky household moved to Minsk where they hosted the friends of Reb Yaakov, amongst others the future Rav Grozovsky, zt”l, and the young Aaron Kotler, zt”l.
Shortly after Pesach in 5665 (1905), Reb Yaakov and Reb Aaron traveled to Slobodke to learn under the supervision of the Alter of Slobodke zt”l. Reb Yaakov also learned in the Yeshivos of Slutzk, Krinik and Moltsh.
During World War I he took refuge in Lomza in the yeshiva of Reb Yechiel Michel Gordon zt”l. On 22 Sivan, 5679 (1919), he married the Rebbetzin Ita Ettel, daughter of the Mashgiach Reb Ber Hirsch Heller, zt”l, known in Slobodke as “Der Yunger Mashgiach.”
From 5681 to 5686, he learned in a kollel in Slobodke that was known for its distinguished members and subsequently he took on the Rabbinate in various places.
On 11th Av 5697 (1937) he left for America. His plan was to collect money for the Slobodke Kollel and to cover the debts he incurred from his years as rov in Zitivian, but in fact his future lay in being the “manhig hador” and Hashgocho forced him to stay in America, where he was appointed rov in Toronto. In 5705 (1945), he accepted the request of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz, zt”l, that he take up the position of rosh yeshiva in Mesivta Torah Vodaas. From this standpoint he disseminated Torah for the rest of his life, standing as a sentry on duty for the Torah’s ideals.
Reb Yaakov merited to live a long life, his mind lucid and clear till the very end. His chidushim were printed in his seforim Emes LeYaakov, on Torah and on Shas.
On 29th Adar 5746 (1986), his pure soul left this world. As he requested, he was buried in Brooklyn, since he pointed out that most of his family live in America and would not always be able to travel to his kever in Eretz Yisroel. From this, his last request we learn yet another chapter of his feelings for others.
The words of Chazal in Pirkei Ovos “Ohev es habrios umekarvon laTorah” were the guides and practice of Reb Yaakov throughout his life. Not differentiating between young and old, elderly and even little children, or those who didn’t live according to the Torah way of life, Reb Yaakov loved them all.
“Loving your fellow Jew is a mitzvah in the Torah, and in addition it’s a segulah that if the love is given according to the Torah it will bring its recipients closer to Torah and to Hashem.” So said Reb Yaakov and so did he.
Reb Yaakov was once in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. Waiting together with him was a young Jewish boy from a totally nonobservant home. Reb Yaakov took a ball and began playing with the child. The talmid accompanying Reb Yaakov was astonished, and pointed out to Reb Yaakov his wonder at the Rov’s behavior. “This child will think that a religious rabbi sits and plays ball instead of learning — or at least he should talk to the boy, convince him to become a baal teshuvah.”
Reb Yaakov explained, “I saw that with this boy, it is impossible to talk about Yiddishkeit or mitzvos. He comes from a family so far removed from anything Jewish. I just wanted that his picture of a frum Jew should remain one of a pleasant person, so I played ball with him. Who knows, perhaps this impression will one day have an effect on him and he will come closer to Torah and mitzvos.”
“Once, after my regular study session in my father’s home,” recounted his son Reb Avrohom, “my father told me that a man and his daughter would soon be coming and requested that I remain in the room when he received the guests. Naturally, I fulfilled his request, but I was quite surprised, for usually when people came to my father I would leave the room and allow them to discuss matters in privacy. When the two of them entered, Reb Yaakov chatted with them, enquiring as to their welfare, occupation, where the father works, which school the daughter goes to, what she learns and more general questions. During the conversation, my father patted me affectionately on the shoulder, and introduced me. `This is my little baby Avrohom,’ and continued the conversation. A few minutes later the visit was over and the two of them left the house.”
Reb Avrohom continued his story, “I was incredulous, wondering what this was all about. I was at the time nearing the end of my 40s and never had I heard my father referring to me as `my little baby.’ My father turned to me and explained, `Listen, my son, to what took place here. This father and his daughter, who is the youngest of the family, had a wonderful relationship. He brought her up and educated her in the Torah way, and she accepted and absorbed everything he taught. All was fine, until one day, the father introduced her to a friend of his, saying, `And this is my little baby.’ Feeling humiliated by the expression, the daughter was deeply hurt and refused to talk to her father. The latter was broken, since he had not meant to degrade her and his expression was just one of affection for his youngest daughter. She, however, would not be reconciled, and slowly began to cut off all contact with her father.’
“Near despair, the father turned to Reb Yaakov knowing that he was the one to turn to. Indeed, Reb Yaakov felt the father’s pain, fearing that the girl may perhaps even rebel against her father and her Torah upbringing, chas vesholom, and advised him to bring his daughter to his house on Wednesday. `For that is when I have a shiur with my youngest son, Avrohom. Tell your daughter you have an appointment with me and, if she likes, she may join you.’ The daughter was delighted at the privilege of being allowed to go to Reb Yaakov and she arrived together with her father. Some time later, the father contacted Reb Yaakov, thanking him profusely for his wise help and told him that as they left the Rabbi’s house, the girl turned to her father. `I see Daddy, that even Reb Yaakov called his son his baby even in front of strangers although he is already a grandfather. Apparently, it’s an expression of love of a father to his child,’ she enthused. Peace had returned to the household of the man.”
Engraved on the heart of all his young students are the words spoken by Reb Yaakov at the end of the summer holidays. During the long vacation, Reb Yaakov would travel to Camp Ohr Shraga and learn with the young bochurim as chavrusos. During these sessions of learning in partnership he would not allow any disturbance although his “chavrusoh” was many years younger, so that the young boy would not be hurt.
When the summer days were over, Reb Yaakov would turn to his “chavrusos” and say, “Yom Kippur is soon upon us and it’s time to make a reckoning. When two people learn together it is very possible that one can unintentionally not treat the other with due respect. I therefore beg your mechiloh in case I slighted you at all in any way.”
One of his talmidim retells that he was present when Reb Yaakov was writing a letter in the name of the gedolim of America to Reb Yechezkel Abramsky concerning the problem of autopsies. For five long minutes, Reb Yaakov sat, pondering how to acknowledge Reb Yechezkel’s Rebbetzin in the letter, who had been the widow of R’ Yechiel Michel Gordon, since this was not a private letter, but represented many gedolim and roshei yeshivos. After considerable thought he was pleased to find the right phrase “and we send our brochoh to all who are present in the shadow of Rabbeinu and his Torah,” implying the talmidim as well as the Rebbetzin.
Reb Yaakov was relieved by this flash of inspiration as he turned to his talmid, “when the letter arrives, R’ Yechezkel will probably call his Rebbetzin and show her that she is still remembered in America, thus we will have the mitzvoh of gladdening the heart of an almonoh.”