Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Halevi Ruderman zt”l, On His 22nd Yahrtzeit, Today, 14 Tammuz


Rav RudermanIt was in 1933 in Baltimore. The first few talmidim of Yeshiva Ner Yisroel had begun learning in a local shul. They had no idea that they were making Torah history on the American scene. Within a year the group had swelled to ten. Rabbi Moshe Lefkovitz, one of the yeshiva’s four founding talmidim, remembered how the bochurim would learn in one shul, sleep in different houses throughout the city and ate somewhere else. He approached the Rosh Yeshiva and said, “Rebbe, we are in different homes, we have to be mafsik so many times to go to the shul, back to the home, back to the shul, when are we going to have a dormitory and dining hall?” The Rosh Yeshiva was dressed as usual, wearing a frock coat, with a beautiful vest, and his wedding watch on a chain entangled in the loops of his vest. Slowly he started to take out his watch. “I did not know exactly what he was doing, until he finally got it untied. Taking the watch out of his pocket he handed it to me saying, ‘Ich geb eich a mashkin, I am giving you a security, that in two weeks you will have a dormitory and dining room.’ I replied, ‘Rebbe, I don’t need a mashkin from you. Your word to me is holy.’ And indeed, the words were said and done – in two weeks we all moved into the Yeshiva. We had a dormitory in the shul.”

Rabbi Lefkovitz followed the Rosh Yeshiva from Cleveland to Baltimore to be one of the first talmidim in the yeshiva. He recalls his trepidation from that first September in 1933 and his subsequent conversation with the Rosh Yeshiva: “We came into the yeshiva, which was actually the shul in which the Rosh Yeshiva was Rav and we learned there. Afterwards I expressed my disappointment to the Rosh Yeshiva. “Rebbe, for myself, I am not disappointed. I am only disappointed because I am afraid. I was always concerned about the future of Yiddishkeit and now that I am here I am even more concerned. I see only four boys forming a yeshiva in a building that is not their own and I wonder what is going to be the future of Yiddishkeit? Where are the boys?” the Rosh Yeshiva answered me with an answer he would repeat many times, “Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker – the Eternal of Israel does not say falsehood. Zurg zich nisht – don’t worry. That is the Ribbono Shel Olam’s concern, not yours.”

Indeed, with phenomenal siyata dishmaya and a sense of mission, Rav Ruderman helped plant Torah in Baltimore, throughout the entire United States and Canada in a manner and on a scale inconceivable to any Jew living in 1933. By the time he passed away in Tamuz of 5747 (1987), the Yeshiva had many hundreds of talmidim and many thousands of alumni who mourned their Rebbe muvhak.

Hallowed Beginnings

Rav Ruderman was born on Shushan Purim in 5660 (1900) in Dolhinov, a small shtetl near Vilna. He was born late in life to his parents, Reb Yehuda Leib and Sheina, the first son after six daughters. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Ruderman’s illustrious cousin who is named after the same person related a fascinating story about how Rav Ruderman got his name. A year before his birth, an elderly, childless Jew named Reb Yitzchok assured Reb Yehuda Leib that he would have a son and made him promise to name the child Yitzchok. Thinking that it was unlikely that he would have a son, Reb Yehuda Leib half jokingly agreed. A year later, when his son was born, his mother wanted to name him Yaakov after her father. A halachic shayla was asked and the psak was that he be given both names Yaakov Yitzchok.

One of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s early recollections was that of reciting krias Shema at his newborn cousin’s bedside. Thus began a friendship that would span eight decades.

Reb Yehuda Leib was a melamed. Rav Ruderman often stated that his father knew Shas with Tosafos well, but even though he may have eclipsed his father in learning, he did not even approach his level of avoda and yiras shamayim. Reb Yehuda Leib recognized his young son’s prodigious talents and encouraged him to learn. The child was awakened early to learn a blatt before davening and was rewarded for every Daf memorized. As a result he mastered Seder Nashim and Nezikin before his bar mitzva.

Threaded through every chapter of Rav Ruderman’s life are stories of his complete immersion in learning to the exclusion of all else. Once, a talmid was speaking with an elderly man, a native of Lithuania. Upon hearing the name of the Rosh Yeshiva, the man exclaimed, “Ruderman from Dolhinov? Can’t be! That’s extremely interesting. He was well known in the town, a ten year old boy who would walk down the main street talking to himself! He did this every day from morning until evening. And you say this boy became a Rosh Yeshiva?!”

Upon returning to Baltimore, the bochur reported this conversation to the Rosh Yeshiva, who confirmed it. “I would walk back and forth along the street, learning pages of Gemara by heart. In my pocket I kept a small Gemara and occasionally when I was afraid I hadn’t repeated what was written accurately enough, I would look into the Gemara and then continue.”

Shortly before his bar mitzvah, Reb Yehuda Leib took him for a bracha to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Shalom Ber, zt”l. The Rebbe was so impressed that he blessed the boy that he should grow to be an “adam gadol.” The Rebbe wanted the youth to learn in Lubavitch, but Reb Yehuda Leib chose instead to send him to Slonim.

The young ilui from Dolhinov soon developed a remarkable reputation. At that time it was customary for Slabodka talmidim to seek exceptional bochurim to join Slabodka. The future Chevron Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yechezkel Sarna, zt”l, who was already one of the Alter of Slabodka’s closest talmidim, convinced the young genius to join Slabodka. That decision was undoubtedly a watershed in his life.

It was in the middle of World War I when Rav Ruderman joined Slabodka when it was in the city of Minsk after it had fled eastward, away from the approaching German Army. In Minsk, he merited to meet the revered gadol hador, Rav Chaim Brisker. It seems that Rav Chaim discerned tremendous potential in the young ilui and realized that he would need special care to withstand wartime difficulties. Towards that end, unbeknown to Rav Ruderman, Rav Chaim arranged for a certain wealthy Yid to provide him with extra money so that his learning would not be adversely affected by hunger. Only after Rav Chaim’s passing in 1918 when the support ceased did Rav Ruderman become aware of Rav Chaim’s role in caring for him.

The Alter also displayed an enormous amount of affection towards the youngster. He assigned Rav Yechezkel Sarna to serve as his ‘eltere bochur.’

Rav Ruderman learned with tremendous hasmada, but he was completely unable to keep to sedorim of the Yeshiva. The Alter gave him latitude to learn in his own way as long as he achieved the pre-set goals. It was decided that he attempt to complete Shas that winter. Rav Ruderman would take long walks during which he would review Gemaros and Sedarim by heart. He was well along the way to reaching his goal when the Alter received a telegram shortly after Sukkos advising of the petira of Reb Yehuda Leib. Not wishing to interfere with his talmid’s learning regimen, the Alter chose not to tell him the terrible news. Only after Pesach when he had achieved his goal, was he informed of his father’s passing. The Alter remarked that the completion of Shas would be a far greater zechus for his fathers neshama, than all the recitations of kaddish that he missed.

Rav Ruderman was well aware of the special treatment afforded him and the enormous responsibility to succeed that came with it. The special treatment also made him realize how much he had to learn from his Rebbi, clearly a master mechanech and how important it was to observe the Alter’s manner of dealing with others and way of reacting to various situations.

One of the most extraordinary stories depicting the treatment afforded him by the Alter, occurred through his desire to leave Slabodka with a group of iluim to learn with Rav Itzale Ponovizher, zt”l, renown for having one of the most phenomenal minds of that time. When Rav Ruderman disclosed his plan to the Alter, the Alter took him to a window and showing him a nearby river suggested, ‘Throw yourself into the river here. Why bother traveling elsewhere to drown?” It was only a matter of time before the Alter’s prophetic insight was confirmed. Most of that group did not remain attached to Torah.

It once happened that a visiting rabbinical dignitary was given an aliya while in Slabodka and enunciated the bracha with unusual feeling. Impressed, the young Yaakov Yitzchok shared his awe with the Alter who responded, “Yes, very admirable – if he also says it that way every morning during the birchos hashachar…”

In many ways, Rav Ruderman followed in his Rebbi’s footsteps. For example he constantly observed and heard from the Alter that the Alter consulted gedolim with questions regarding the yeshiva. In particular he would turn to Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Meir Simcha and Rav Chaim Ozer. Similarly, in the initial years, Rav Ruderman corresponded with Rav Chaim Ozer and later, he consulted Rav Yechezkel Abramsky for advice. A case in point was when Ner Yisroel was slated to move from the city to the new campus. A Baptist group offered to purchase the existing building for more than four hundred thousand dollars above any other offer. The Rosh Yeshiva, besides being aware of the chilul Hashem that might result from selling a Yeshiva to a Baptist school, was afraid to refuse such a huge sum of community funds without asking a shaila. Rav Abramsky considered the matter for a short period before agreeing with that the Rosh Yeshiva should forgo the extra money.

His talmidim in Baltimore understand their great zechus to have had a Rebbi whose every action was a reflection of the Alter. On the Alter’s 50th yahrtzeit, Rav Ruderman and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky were invited to Lakewood to speak. Rav Schneur Kotler related that when Rav Yaakov was unable to attend he stated that “The Baltimore Rosh Yeshiva is the most reflective personality of the Alter in our generation.”

The Rosh Yeshiva endeared himself to many gedolim whom he had been privileged to meet in his youth and particularly those whom he had met in a resort area where he would frequently spend his summer bein hazemanim. There he would take walks with the Telzer Rav, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, and would talk in learning for hours with Rav Chaim Telzer. It was there that he also developed a very close relationship with one of the great elder Rabbonim of Lita, Rav Leib Vilkomirer, the father-in-law of the Ponovizher Rav. One evening, Rav Leib was talking with him in learning and the Rosh Yeshiva asked a question after which he went to sleep. Very early the next morning he was awoken by the elderly gadol with an answer to his kushya. Rav Ruderman would often cite this story as an example of pure ahavas haTorah of that generation.

On his rare visits to Vilna, the Rosh Yeshiva would spend the bulk of his time in the home of Rav Chaim Ozer who would devote much attention to him. The Rosh Yeshiva recalled once when he had not been to see Rav Chaim Ozer for more than five years, he walked into the house assuming he would have to reintroduce himself. Much to his surprise as he entered, Rav Chaim Ozer exclaimed, “The Dolhinover is here.” Rav Chaim Ozer then dropped what he was doing to devote himself to Rav Ruderman.

In addition, he was privileged to share a special relationship with the Kovner Rav, Rav Avrohom Kahana Shapiro, author of Dvar Avrohom. It was the Dvar Avrohom who not only urged the Rosh yeshiva to write his sefer Avodas Levi, but even reviewed several simanim and praised even more than the content, the clarity with which it was written.

One thing in which Rav Ruderman particularly took pride was the fact that he merited to receive smicha from Rav Meir Atlas, the revered father-in-law of Rav Elchonon Wasserman. This smicha traced back to the Vilna Gaon as Rav Meir Atlas had received smicha from Rav Eizele Charif, who was in turn a musmach of Rav Abbale Peslover who had received smicha directly from the Gaon, thus Rav Ruderman was a direct link in this chain of the mesora back to the Vilan Gaon.

Building Torah in America

In 5684 (1924), Rav Ruderman married the daughter of Rav Sheftel Kramer, a son-in-law of Rav Shraga Feivel Frank and brother-in-law of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Baruch Horowitz.

The Rebbetzin was his partner and help mate in all of his undertakings on behalf of Yiddishkeit. Not only did she free him from the yoke of responsibility in the material aspects of the house, but she was also instrumental in helping him achieve lofty spiritual pursuits. Later, when they moved to America and Rav Ruderman sought to build a yeshiva in a country that had no understanding of the concept, it was the Rebbetzin who constantly encouraged him to persevere rather than be deterred by the numerous stumbling blocks placed in his way. It was the Rebbetzin who organized fundraisers and donations of staples for the yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva was eternally grateful for all that she had done and, many decades later, upon her passing several years before his petira, the Rosh Yeshiva was simply inconsolable.

During the first years after their marriage the Rosh Yeshiva devoted himself to complete immersion in learning. In 1931, the Rosh Yeshiva, Rebbetzin and their baby daughter immigrated to the United States. Rav Ruderman joined his father-in-law, Rav Sheftel Kramer in the yeshiva of New Haven that had re-located to Cleveland where the latter served as Menahel Ruchani.

In 1933, Rav Ruderman decided to accept a position as Rav of the Tiferes Yisroel Shul in Baltimore with the understanding that he could use the facilities for a Yeshiva. His father-in-law convinced four bochurim to travel with him to Baltimore. Rav Moshe Lefkovitz, one of the members of that group of boys, recalls the clear sense of mission with which his Rebbi was endowed. “It was only after we arrived in Baltimore that I realized that not only did the Rebbi have a tremendous mind, a tremendous knowledge, but he had an even stronger conviction. He was convinced that ultimately yeshivos will flourish in America like they flourished in Europe. This was at a time when there was minimal Yiddishkeit in America. All Yiddishkeit was in Europe. If one needed a Rebbi, a melamed, a baal koreh, one went to Europe. Nevertheless Rav Ruderman would say that yeshivos would eventually flourish in this country, even more than in Europe. Another thing he would say to me was, “Do you think that Hashem created you, an American, any different than He created a European boy?! No! If a boy in Europe was created so that he could become a gadol in America, you can become the same gadol as you could have become in Europe. Don’t worry!” He reiterated this countless times until it became stuck in our minds. I was so encouraged by his words that even though there were only four of us with no dormitory and no facility, we sat down and learned with great hasmada. We learned to such an extent that the baalei batim of the shul began to complain that the electric lights were burning too late. We learned so well that our reputation spread. Soon boys came from Baltimore, Toronto, Cleveland and New York. Soon we counted ten, maybe even more than ten…”

The following story often related by the Rosh Yeshiva provides a window into the sense of haplessness with regard to the flourishing of Torah that existed among American Jews – even among the religious Jews and Rabbanim – during the Rosh Yeshiva’s first two decades in America. In the early 1940s, Rav Aharon Kotler came to Baltimore to raise funds for his fledgling yeshiva in Lakewood. Rav Ruderman brought Rav Aharon to a distinguished wealthy Jew and after explaining that Rav Aharon was founding a new yeshiva, the Jew asked Rav Ruderman if he could speak with him privately. He then asked him, “Rebbi, why are you permitting Rav Aharon to undergo the indignities of collecting for a yeshiva? Yeshivos won’t grow here! I will get Rav Aharon a job as a shochet in a local slaughter house and this way he will at least be able to sustain himself with honor.”

Despite all the scoffers, the yeshiva in Baltimore grew steadily but slowly, with Rav Ruderman totally committed to his dream that here would rise a great Torah center. Rav Shimon Schwab recalled an occasion when Rav Ruderman pointed out a large, multi-story apartment house as being suitable for the yeshiva. In reply to Rav Schwab’s amused and surprised expression, the Rosh Yeshiva exclaimed, “Do you doubt that will have a yeshiva the size of Slabodka here?”

The yeshiva’s early growth intensified through the recognition and support of prominent Rabbanim. Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, Menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaas and unquestionably one of the most important figures in the development of Torah in America, sent bochurim from New York whom he thought would benefit. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky sent his children from Toronto which in those days was a major distance away. Rav Yehoshua Klavan, one of the foremost talmidim of Rav Baruch Ber and the Rav of Washington, D.C. was among the staunchest supporters of the Yeshiva. He not only sent a son to learn in the Yeshiva, he even raised funds for the upkeep and growth of the Yeshiva. Furthermore, during the winter months when Rav Ruderman would occasionally suffer from laryngitis, Rav Klavan would come from Washington to deliver the daily shiur. Rav Naftoli Zvi Yehuda Riff, a grandson of the Netziv and the Rov of Camden, New Jersey was also extremely helpful.

Total Immersion in Torah

Without a doubt, it was the power of the Rosh Yeshiva’s total immersion in Torah; his contagious ahavas Torah and his complete belief in the eternity of Torah that enabled him to become the quintessential Rosh Yeshiva and Torah builder. His love of Torah was such that it overcame even the most natural human limitations. Once, during the early years of the Yeshiva at its current campus, a fire broke out in the building where the Rosh Yeshiva lived. Everyone immediately evacuated the building. Suddenly Rav Ruderman ran back into the burning building exclaiming, “I forgot an absolutely irreplaceable item!” What was the item for which he risked his life? His very rare copy of the sefer Nesivos Hamishpat on Rabbeinu Yeruchem.

His dedication to learning knew no bounds. His encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim, Poskim, Acharonim and teshuvos set a lofty standard for which to strive. The Rosh Yeshiva stimulated lively discussions thereby deepening interest and broadening horizons, by challenging his students to bring proof from one Gemara to a seemingly unrelated issue.

He constantly focused the attention of his talmidim and their awareness to the breadth and inter-relationship of all of Torah. He was always involved in a kushya. In fact, he would say that he used questions as memory keys with which to remember the Gemara. Therefore, he was always ready with a penetrating query or comment that would lend insight to whatever Gemara one mentioned. He lived with his questions and was constantly seen with his lips moving as he was totally and consistently absorbed in learning.

Rarely was his sleep at night not disturbed by the kushya with which he went to bed. This total involvement was transmitted to his talmidim.

On par with his love for Torah, was the Rosh Yeshiva’s love for his students. If ever a talmid asked him a good question or related a nice sevora his face would radiate delight. When one of the talmidim had the good fortune to ask or say something that was new to him, he would be ecstatic. Many talmidim had the fortune to be embarrassed by the Rosh Yeshiva when they would be reminded years later of an insightful Torah thought that they themselves had long since forgotten.

A revealing incident occurred when he was learning in Slabodka and a visitor arrived bearing a copy of the newly published sefer Ohr Same’ach. The young bochur asked to borrow the sefer but was refused permission as the man planned to continue his journey the following day. Rav Ruderman was undaunted. He borrowed the sefer for one night promising to return it in the morning. Over night he went through and mastered the sefer in its entirety!

On another occasion, the Rosh Yeshiva was once undergoing a lengthy medical procedure. The doctor, wishing to distract the Rosh Yeshiva from the pain and unpleasantness, engaged him in small talk. Throughout the procedure the Rosh Yeshiva continuously nodded his head in agreement. After leaving the clinic, he explained to the talmid accompanying him wonderful approach to the sugya that had occurred to him in the midst of the procedure. He then suddenly interrupted himself, “By the way, perhaps you heard what the doctor was saying to me? I nodded to him out of respect, but what did he want?”

The Rosh Yeshiva once complained to his talmid, Rav Yisroel Dov Kaplan, today Rosh Kollel in Bayit Vegan, “Nowadays, people do not learn. When I was fifteen, learning in Slabodka we would get up at five in the morning and go to sleep after midnight. We learnt fifty blatt a day, every day!”

Once on a long trip, the Rosh Yeshiva was accompanied by two bochurim from the yeshiva who decided to utilize the duration of the journey to go over several pages of Maseches Brachos which they had committed to memory. The Rosh Yeshiva was seated right in front of them and they noticed that he was shifting about in his seat uncomfortably. From time to time he walked around and fixed them with a piercing look. “What kind of Gemara are you using over there, is it a different girsa?” he asked. Scarcely concealing their pride, the bochurim replied, “We don’t have a Gemara, we’re going over what we learnt by heart!”

The Rosh Yeshiva, with a smile on his face, proceeded to quote the exact language of the gemara.

When he was already in his 80s, a talmid relates, “I went to daven Mincha with the Rosh Yeshiva and he complained that the strong medicines he was taking for his numerous ailments caused him to forget. The talmid asked, “Has the Rosh Yeshiva forgotten any Tosafos in Shas?” Immediately the Rosh Yeshiva banged his cane and forcefully said, ‘No! No! No Tosafos. I mean a chiddush in a difficult Rambam that I once said – I have trouble remembering in its entirety.” The talmid related that the way in which he could not even contemplate the horror of forgetting a Tosafos was an indication of ahavas Torah and devotion to Torah that remained with him for ever.

Transmitting Torah

Rav Ruderman would show talmidim a letter that he received from the Steipler Gaon in 5719 (1959). The Steipler sent him a letter requesting financial assistance for printing the first volume of his magnum opus Kehillas Yaakov. In the letter the Steipler wrote that he had seen and learned Rav Ruderman’s sefer Avodas Halevi that he had written in his youth and it features, “wonderful chiddushim on the most difficult areas of the order of Kodshim.” In the letter the Steipler encourages Rav Ruderman to write more such sefarim. After showing the letter to the talmid, Rav Ruderman said, “I have enough chiddushim to write ten more volumes of Avodas Halevi, but I am now writing lebidige sefarim, living sefarim, my talmidim.”

The Rosh Yeshiva continued, “Teaching takes full concentration as the Gemara teaches that only if a Rebbi is similar to a malach should one seek to learn Torah from him. We know that a malach cannot do more than one shelichus, one job at a time. Teaching talmidim preoccupies me so completely that I cannot sit and write sefarim.” Indeed, the Rosh Yeshiva invested tremendous effort into teaching and shaping each talmid.

Even after his talmidim left the yeshiva, whenever he would speak with them the Rosh Yeshiva displayed his great love for Torah and stressed the centrality of Torah in their lives. Every talmid knew that the first question they would be asked was “Nu, vos lernstu – so what are you learning?” The Rosh Yeshiva felt that no matter what a talmid was doing in his life Torah learning was absolutely essential and he demanded their commitment to Torah. He would therefore not continue with a conversation until he was updated on what the talmid was learning. His greatest nachas was derived when he would hear that his talmidim were all involved in learning.

The Rosh Yeshiva was a man who without exaggeration was kulo Torah. The fact that he was able to adapt his methods and teaching in such a way as to touch the hearts and minds of American youth is remarkable. That he was able to do so and yet remain firmly and uncompromisingly a Lithuanian type gadol is simply phenomenal.

Rabbi Moshe Lefkovitz, a member of the first group of talmidim to receive smicha from Rav Ruderman recounts the Rosh Yeshiva’s reaction to his refusal to be called Rabbi after having received the smicha. “One Shabbos, about a year or two after I received my smicha, the Rosh Yeshiva happened to be davening in the same shul as I was, the Shomer Shabbos Shul. They called me up for an aliya using the title “Reb”. They did not call me up as Rav as per my expressed wish. The Rosh Yeshiva got so agitated that he jumped out of his chair exclaiming, “kavod haTorah, bizayon haTorah!” The congregants did not really know what he was talking about. He was aggravated because they did not call me Rav Moshe. When I explained that it was not their fault, that they acted in accordance with my wishes, he begged me and made me give him my word that I would henceforth call myself Rav, which I did from then on. The Rosh Yeshiva was shrewd. He recognized that if I would call myself Rav, I would want to live up to the title. Even though I was gainfully employed all day long, I managed to get a group together, the same group from Young Israel which my father had started and every morning before davening I taught Mishnayos, every night after Maariv I taught more and every Shabbos I became the Maggid Shiur in a shul which I continued for fifty years – all because of that Shabbos when the Rosh Yeshiva insisted I call myself ‘Rabbi’.”

The Rosh Yeshiva established thousands of talmidim. Among them hundreds became gedolei Torah and marbitzei Torah who continue his legacy and illuminate the Torah world with their shiurim and chiddushei Torah. Although of course, there was a special focus on establishing talmidim who would become Torah giants in their own right, the Rosh Yeshiva understood the individual character of each talmid and encouraged them, each in their own way, to make Torah a central part of their lives.

When the Rosh Yeshiva was already 84 years old and infirm he decided that he wanted to travel to the chasuna of a bochur who had once learned in the yeshiva but had left to pursue a parnassa. Despite having left the yeshiva, the bochur made sure to unfailingly devote a portion of his day to a serious learning seder. At his advanced age, it was very difficult for Rav Ruderman to travel, to embark and disembark from the airplane. By the time he arrived at the chasuna he was utterly exhausted. When he saw the bochur he told him that, “Even though it was extremely difficult for me to travel, I made the special effort because I have heard that since you left the yeshiva you are kovea ittim l’Torah each day.” These words so uplifted the chosson that even today, twenty years later, he is seriously devoted to his learning seder and has grown in Torah commensurately.

Individualized Chinuch

One of the prime lessons learned by Rav Ruderman from his Rebbi, the Alter of Slabodka, was the challenging imperative of reaching each student on his own particular level and caring for each student as if he was his very own son. Rav Ruderman recounted one occasion when he was engaged in discussion with the Alter. “There was a sudden knock on the door and the Alter’s son, entered, having just returned from yeshiva. At that time, it was the norm for a bochur to spend long periods away from home in yeshiva because often the journey to and from yeshiva involved much hardship, difficulty and expense. For this reason when a bochur returned home after a long absence, he would usually be given a warm, joyous welcome.”

“Upon seeing his son, the Alter greeted him with a short, curt ‘Sholom!” and then continued with our discussion as if nothing unusual had happened. When the Rebbetzin saw this, she complained, ‘Didn’t you notice? Your son has returned!'”

“To this the Alter replied, ‘I noticed, but so what? He is my son and the Dolhinover is also my son. Why should I interrupt my talk with one son in order to greet another?'”

Talmidim of Ner Yisroel felt that the Rosh Yeshiva loved them as a father loves his son. He took an active interest in their needs, listened to their problems and shared their burdens. They in turn, became greatly attached to him. His relationship with his talmidim was very much predicated on an explanation of the Chazal on the posuk, “and you shall teach them to your sons.” Chazal say that sons is referring to talmidim. “Why then,” the Rosh Yeshiva asked, “did the posuk not write and “and you shall teach them to your pupils?”

“In order to teach us,” he explained, “that talmidim are akin to sons. Just as a son never stops being a son, neither does a talmid stop being a talmid. A Rebbe must never imagine that his talmid is beloved to him only when he is under his tutelage, receiving his guidance and instruction and that when this period comes to an end, so does the special relationship. The truth goes far beyond this for upon becoming a talmid he becomes a son of his Rebbe. Even when he embarks on his own path, he should remain a son, the bond should not weaken.” This is the way in which the Rosh Yeshiva interacted with his talmidim. Talmidim who visited him after intervals of ten years or more still felt the same warm relationship they remembered from their years in yeshiva.

His emulation of the Alter was not simply in treating his students as children rather it was in all facets of chinuch. He would try to handle each of his talmidim in a manner suited to that individual. When it came to delivering rebuke, Rav Ruderman would explain that if he would dare speak to his students in the way the Alter rebuked even the greatest gedolei baalei Mussar publicly, they would have fled the yeshiva instantaneously. In fact, when the Rosh Yeshiva would find it necessary to rebuke the whole yeshiva, he would speak very positively even while calling the talmidim to task.

The Rosh Yeshiva learned from the Alter not to be overly impressed with appearances as they may be superficial. He gave an example of a certain bochur who left Slabodka for Novardok. When he left he was not particularly ‘frum’ but when he came back he had changed completely. When the young Rav Ruderman expressed his amazement to the Alter, the Alter told him not to be fooled. The appearance was only skin deep and would not last. Unfortunately, the Alter was proven correct. Rav Ruderman himself developed an uncanny ability to see through the external and touch the core of the individual. He was therefore rarely fooled by those who were less than genuine.

While the Alter clearly understood the innermost workings of each of his talmidim, he was extremely loath to expel a talmid. It once happened that Rav Ruderman was rooming with a bochur who was influencing him negatively. The Alter moved Rav Ruderman into his own home and allowed the roommate to remain in the yeshiva.

This attitude was clearly a strong priority governing the way Rav Ruderman dealt with his own talmidim. He often cautioned that dealing with bochurim is dinei nefashos, a matter of spiritual life and death and cannot be taken lightly. There were instances when members of the Yeshiva’s hanhalla thought that a specific bochur should be expelled. The Rosh Yeshiva consistently held firm to his convictions, explaining that one never knows what the future holds for such a talmid, perhaps with a bit more patience he would develop properly. By and large, he lived to see his position vindicated.

From the manner in which the Alter cared for Rav Ruderman’s every need, he learned that it is every Rosh Yeshiva’s obligation to deal with every aspect of his talmid’s life, spiritual and material. The talmidim of Ner Yisroel all attest to their Rebbe’s exceptional care and concern for them. He served as a source of strength, inspiration and advice when they were beset with problems. Regardless of the difficulty or complexity of a situation, the Rosh Yeshiva could always be relied on for the requisite counsel and comfort. Throughout the years there were many bochurim who came to the yeshiva as refugees or from homeless and troubled backgrounds. They found a home in the yeshiva and a father in the Rosh Yeshiva.

There were countless talmidim who wished to completely devote their lives to learning and had to face stiff opposition from their parents. They knew that they could count on the Rosh Yeshiva to intercede on their behalf and to provide the necessary encouragement and support. Today there are many prominent maggidei shiur who waged that battle and prevailed thanks to the inspiration and help provided by the Rosh Yeshiva.

Another pivotal lesson which Rav Ruderman inculcated in his talmidim by example was a sense of responsibility for the Klal. During the war, the yeshiva saved as many people as they could by providing affidavits.

In addition the Rosh Yeshiva served for many years as the yoshev Rosh of the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah and as a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He urged his students to become involved in Klal work and to assume responsibilities within their communities. Talmidim of the Rosh Yeshiva, whether in Rabbanus, chinuch, lay leadership, or professional Klal work, are well represented in key positions of influence and importance. Rav Ruderman endeavored to teach his students a sense of priorities and relative values. He felt that one should not view everything in absolute terms, but rather be able to discern the positives as well as the negatives of any given issue. Thus the talmidim were shown that one can maintain some measure of flexibility within the framework of total commitment to Torah ideals and traditions. Indeed, Rav Naftoli Kaplan a talmid who is today a prominent Mashgiach in distinguished Yeshivos related that he feels therein lies the reason that most of the early pioneers of the teshuva movement who began work a number of decades ago, were Baltimore alumni. The basis for successful outreach work is dedication to others, understanding them, listening and empathizing with endless patience as they describe their thoughts and feelings. “This,” maintains Rav Kaplan, “is the training that talmidim of Ner Yisroel received from their Rebbe, who received it from his own Rebbe, the Alter.”

The Rosh Yeshiva succeeded in promoting the spirit of living for the community at large. Practically nothing could keep the Rosh Yeshiva away from a Torah gathering which required his presence. Those attending the annual Torah Umesorah convention could not help but marvel at the sight of the elderly Rav Ruderman’s drive. In the last few years of his life, he almost hobbled to the convention as if to say, “I must go because I am needed.” Thousands were infected with his idealism to keep the Torah flame burning ever more brightly.

In addition, Rav Ruderman loved his talmidim and took great pride in those talmidim who entered the great profession of m’lamdei Torah. The clearest proof to this love and pride was his almost regular referral to the verse in Daniel (12:3), “V’hamaskilim yazhiru k’zohar ha’roki’a, u’matz’dikei ha’rabim k’kochovim l’olom vo’ed.” Rav Ruderman would cite the comment of the Maharsha that says, “just as the stars and moon are in the sky throughout the day, even though they are not seen, so too the teacher remembers and ponders his students even years later.”

The Beauty of Middos

Rav Ruderman’s middos, his sensitivity to others and feelings of another’s pain, were legendary. These middos were the product of a lifetime of avodas Hashem. A talmid relates, how, in 1982 he came to the Rosh Yeshiva’s house to walk him to Mincha. When he greeted the Rosh Yeshiva he noticed a broken hearted expression on his face. The Rosh Yeshiva said, “I just heard that Rav Schneur Kotler is very sick. The Gemara says,”‘ continued Rav Ruderman, “that if a talmid chochom is sick one must beg Hashem for his recovery to the extent that one must ‘become sick over his plight.'” Right then and there, the Rosh Yeshiva burst into bitter tears. Only after somewhat composing himself did he go to Mincha.

For the next two days the Rosh Yeshiva was unwell and unable to emerge from bed. Dr. Jakobovitz, the resident Yeshiva Lane physician came to check him and could not find anything wrong. “I, however,” explained the talmid, “knew what had happened. The Rosh Yeshiva had davened with such effort that he became sick over Rav Schneur’s plight just as the Gemara dictates.”

Rav Ruderman was a treasure trove of stories, many of which provided his talmidim with insight and understanding of his own behavior. The special care and deference that he exhibited towards his Rebbetzin, had its source in a story he had heard from the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim once happened to be with Rav Nochum of Horodna on Chanuka evening. It was several hours into the night and still, Rav Nochum had not lit the candles. Finally, very late at night, long after the streets had emptied of people, Rav Nochum’s wife returned home. Only then did Rav Nochum light the menorah, long after the time proscribed by halacha. Unable to contain his curiosity, the Chofetz Chaim asked Rav Nochum for an explanation. Rav Nochum answered, “The halacha dictates that if one only has enough money for ner Shabbos or ner Chanuka, ner Shabbos takes precedence because of its shalom bayis component. My wife,” continued Rav Nochum, “is moser nefesh to ensure that I devote my life to Torah and avodas Hashem. She enjoys being present for lighting the Chanuka menorah and that makes it my responsibility to wait for her and forgo lighting at the proper time.”

The talmidim witnessed many occasions wherein the Rosh Yeshiva patterned his actions on the lessons of this story. A case in point was at the Agudah convention. One of the highlights of the convention was Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky’s address after shalosh seudos. The audience would sit in rapt attention listening until long after Shabbos was over. Invariably, Rav Ruderman would leave in the middle to call his Rebbetzin. He would always apologize to Rav Yaakov and they would remind one another of the story of Rav Nochum.

One poignant incident made a tremendous impact on the Rosh Yeshiva and was a clear depiction of how a Rebbe’s actions influence his talmidim. A group of women, wives of talmidim of the Rosh Yeshiva who live in Eretz Yisroel, asked for an audience with the Rosh Yeshiva when he attended the last Knessia Gedola in 5740/1980. After inquiring after their families, the Rosh Yeshiva questioned why they had requested this meeting. They replied that they wished to express their hakaras hatov; they felt that their husbands treated them with greater respect and deference because they had seen how the Rebbe treated his Rebbetzin.

The Rosh Yeshiva taught many lessons in consideration for others by personal example. A talmid recounts that before joining the yeshiva, he came to the Rosh Yeshiva’s house to be tested. In mid-conversation, he suddenly pushed over an inkwell, leaving what would become a permanent stain on the sofa. The talmid was in a quandary, but the Rosh Yeshiva continued speaking as though nothing had happened while simultaneously attempting to cover the stain to ease the bochur’s anguish. When he saw that his attempts were not helping, he began to reassure the talmid that “nothing happened!”

True, words alone are often somewhat of a cliché and the expression on a host’s face usually reveal a true picture of his feelings. “In this case,” the talmid related, “the Rosh Yeshiva was able to genuinely persuade me, with his great wisdom that nothing had happened.” Any damage to the sofa paled into insignificance compared to the suffering of a human being.

The same talmid paid the Rosh Yeshiva a visit more than three decades later. Drinks were served and another accident occurred. This time, a cup of cream spilled, not on the sofa but on the Rosh Yeshiva’s pants. The reaction was identical. The conversation continued as if nothing had happened. The Rosh Yeshiva shifted his legs under the table and once again managed to convince the talmid that “nothing happened!”

Another talmid recalled an incident when he was out walking with the Rosh Yeshiva on Shabbos and realized that he was carrying a small object. Being that there was no eruv in the area, carrying was forbidden. He related, “After I put the object down, the Rosh Yeshiva noticed my discomfort. He then lectured to me for a long time on the halachos of Shabbos, quoting various opinions according to which I had either done nothing wrong, or at any rate, had only transgressed a slight transgression.”

Hakaras hatov was another hallmark of the Rosh Yeshiva’s middos. Even the smallest favor was acknowledged with a profound sense of gratitude.

The Rosh Yeshiva and Rebbetzin had one child, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg. His son-in-law, Rav Yaakov Weinberg succeeded him as Rosh Yeshiva until his passing twelve years later. They were blessed with six grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren who were privileged to surround the Rosh Yeshiva during his last days. After the petirah of the Rebbetzin, their grandchildren, The Yeshiva’s Menahel Ruchni, Rav Beryl and Mrs. Aviva Weisbord moved with their children into the Rosh Yeshiva’s home to care for him. The beauty and grace with which they discharged their obligation helped the Rosh Yeshiva cope with the loss of his Rebbetzin and added immeasurably to the quality of his later years. The Rosh Yeshiva was constantly grateful and continuously expressed his tremendous hakaras hatov to the Weisbords.

The Rosh Yeshiva’s entire 87 years comprised one long song of Torah, limud haTorah, teaching Torah, living with the middos dictated by the Torah and giving kavod haTorah. On 14 Tamuz, 5747 (1987), the Rosh Yeshiva passed on to join his exalted Rebbeim, the Alter of Slabodka and the giants of the era who pre-deceased him. His levaya in Baltimore was one last manifestation of kavod haTorah as thousands flocked to Ner Yisroel to bid farewell to the last link to the greatness of Slabodka in our times.

{This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman and ElmoraHillsMinyan.org.}

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  1. how do you comment on a gadol b’torah b’midos tovos mamash a mushlam he donated himself to his talmidim and klal yisroel azoy vi a korban nedovo he existed strictly for others i observed everything there is to learn about being an oved H’from rav Ruderman ZT’L

  2. how I wish we have Rosh Hayeshiva,like Rav Ruderman,Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov.The european rosh hayeshiva’s knew how to relate to americans bochurim


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