“The assistance that you gave us over the course of the Yom Tov enabled us to eat a bit more this past Pesach than the ha lach mah anya.”
These words, written by the wife of a distinguished kollel yungerman living in Bnei Brak, are from just one of the many letters received after every Yom Tov by Keren L’hachzokas Bnei Torah Birchas Shmuel, The American Israel Relief Fund.
The letters, full of gratitude and deep emotion, convey how the assistance changed people’s Yom Tov, brought simcha to families, and, most of all, how Klal Yisroel and especially the American Torah community have a special appreciation for the limud haTorah mitoch hadechak of talmidei chachomim in Eretz Yisroel.
Tonight, Keren L’hachzokas Bnei Torah Birchas Shmuel will be holding its annual Lakewood, NJ, event. This year, the event will also serve as an asifas zikaron in memory of the posek hador, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l. The Lakewood community will merit hearing words of, zikaron and chizuk from Rav Binyomin Rimmer, son-in-law of Rav Elyashiv and a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Kiryas Melech in Bnei Brak, and from Rav Yosef Efrati, Rav Elyashiv’s right hand who, in the past decades, was the closest talmid and confidant of the posek hador.
It is no coincidence that the Keren, which distributes millions of dollars yearly to needy bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel, is hosting a major asifas zikaron l’illui nishmas Rav Elyashiv, who so embodied and symbolized yegiah baTorah and hasmadah baTorah.
It is yungeleit from Eretz Yisroel who live their lives trying to emulate Rav Elyashiv, who learn Torah mitoch hadechak, who the Keren tries to help in a most extraordinary way. And it is yungeleit in Lakewood, who are themselves lomdei Torah, who truly appreciate the accomplishments of and role played by the lomdei Torah who learn with yegiah in Eretz Yisroel.
As Rav Dovid Schustal, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah of Lakewood and co-founder of the Keren, told this writer, “Lakewood and the lomdei Torah of Lakewood are like sister communities with the lomdei Torah in Eretz Yisroel. We have a tremendous appreciation for their unique role in Klal Yisroel.”
THE HISTORY OF THE KEREN: A KEREN ESTABLISHED AND LED BY GEDOLEI TORAH
How did the Keren start? How did it evolve into one of the most prominent organizations that distributes more than three and a half million dollars to needy bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel every year?
It all started about nine years ago after the Israeli government decided to place punitive sanctions on the Torah community of Eretz Yisroel. At that time, the government cut the child allowance bonus in half. This literally pushed thousands of kollel families into destitution.
Rav Dovid Schustal relates how, during that period, a young Russian ben Torah living in Lakewood came to him, alarmed. “They are making gezeiros on Torah in Eretz Yisroel!” the man said. “Torah families are suffering! We must do something!”
“That call,” the rosh yeshiva said, “rang in my head and pierced my heart. I realized that we just had to do something.”
The rosh yeshiva explained that another catalyst was the thought, “Why should the wonderful bnei Torah of Eretz Yisroel be at the mercy and whims of the Israeli government? We must do something to help them meet their expenses so that they can learn with menuchas hanefesh.”
The rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid, called a group of yungeleit to his office and asked that they embark on a powerful campaign to raise money for yungeleit in Eretz Yisroel. In that campaign, held during the days of Selichos nine years ago, more than $300,000 were raised and sent to Eretz Yisroel.
On Sukkos that year, in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum threw himself into the effort, holding a gathering in the sukkah of his daughter-in-law, the wife of his late son, Rav Leibel Berenbaum zt”l. Numerous senior gedolim attended that event. One philanthropist matched the $300,000 raised, and by the time the night was over, one million dollars had been raised for the new Keren.
Although it is well-known that Rav Shmuel was one of the masmidim of the generation to whom every second was precious and consecrated for limud haTorah, when it came to assisting distinguished yungeleit, Rav Shmuel threw himself into raising funds with the enthusiasm, passion and drive of a young bochur. He was literally moser nefesh to raise the requisite funds. (See our separate interview with Rav Shmuel’s son, Rav Avrohom Berenbaum.)
Thus, Keren L’hachzakas Bnei Torah was born.
One prominent askan related, “I was zocheh to be in the home of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum on Erev Yom Kippur. I heard him make phone call after phone call, urging people of means to assist bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel. From the importance that Rav Shmuel and the other gedolim attached to the Keren, I realized how crucial it was.”
An illustration of Rav Shmuel’s devotion can be gleaned from a story about a prominent baal habayis in Flatbush who used to fly to Eretz Yisroel for Sukkos. Rav Shmuel also flew to Eretz Yisroel, and the baal habayis, on his own volition, upgraded Rav Shmuel from economy to first class. Rav Shmuel thanked him and then asked him, “How much does the upgrade cost?” When he was informed of the sum, he told the baal habayis, “I will sit in economy and you take that amount of money and give it to yungeleit.” This was in addition to the amount that he had already given to the Keren. Every year, from then on, Rav Shmuel would call up that person and ask him to give the difference between an economy ticket and a first class ticket to poor yungeleit.
CREATING AN INFRASTRUCTURE
How do you create an infrastructure for a Keren whose whole purpose is to assist yungeleit in Eretz Yisroel at the most difficult financial times of the year, the Yomim Tovim?
The gedolim along with the supporters of the fund in America, who included Reb Rubin Schron, Reb Yaakov Rajchenbach, Reb Raphael Herzka and Reb Yosef Tabak, realized that an infrastructure had to be created in Eretz Yisroel to oversee the distribution of funds and to make sure that there was virtually no overhead, so that every penny raised could go directly to the yungeleit.
That is how the well-known gaon, Rav Sholom Schechter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ner Moshe, joined.
According to Reb Avi Motechin, who runs the Keren’s affairs in America and works tirelessly to ensure that the Keren succeeds, “We needed someone in Eretz Yisroel, a gadol baTorah, who would ensure that the money was going to the most needy talmidei chachomim, and who would help set policy and oversee every aspect of the Keren’s operations in Eretz Yisroel. Rav Sholom, together with four prominent gabba’ei tzedakah in Eretz Yisroel, devised a distribution system, whereby more than 700 roshei kollel submit names of yungeleit in great need. They also instituted biennial spot checks and other checks and balances to ensure that the money is spent responsibly and wisely. In addition, all administrative costs are underwritten by a devoted donor, so that literally every penny given to the Keren goes to the yungeleit.”
RAV SHALOM SCHECHTER: “A TZEDAKAH NEKIAH AL TAHARAS HAKODESH”
In a letter sent to his talmidim in advance of the upcoming Lakewood asifa, Rav Schechter wrote, “The Yemei Hadin are almost upon us. During these times, the Rambam tells us, we are accustomed to increase our tzedakah and good deeds even more than is usual during the rest of the year…
“It is superfluous to speak about the qualities of the Keren that assists bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel founded by Hagaon Harav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l. It is a tzedakah nekiah al taharas hakodesh, a pure tzedakah that supports over 5,000 thousand families of yungeleit, who are the most exemplary and best among bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel. In advance of the Yomim Tovim in Tishrei and Nissan, the Keren distributes vast sums of money that add up to three and a half million dollars per year…”
That money is given by caring Yidden who value the role that bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel play in sustaining Klal Yisroel. Generous sums have been raised from Keren supporters in Lakewood, Flatbush, Chicago, Los Angeles and many other communities across the United States and Canada. The grassroots assistance from Jews from all walks of life attests to the special way that the Keren’s mission resonates with people and communities spanning the entire cross-section of Klal Yisroel.
Reb Rubin Schron put it most succinctly when he said, “The average family helped by the Keren has 6-8 children plus two parents. The Keren gives to over 5,000 families. Think about how many people are being afforded simchas Yom Tov, every Yom Tov. It’s close to 50,000 people! It’s mind boggling.”
THE KEREN AND RAV ELYASHIV
This year, the fact that the event for the Keren will be held in conjunction with a massive asifas zikaron in memory of Rav Elyashiv zt”l adds extra chashivus to the Keren. There is no one who appreciated Torah and lomdei Torah like Rav Elyashiv.
They live in poverty, yet they learn with simcha and sippuk hanefesh. They are literally mekayeim the world. They are the gedolei Torah and poskim of the next generation. They give so much more to us, to Klal Yisroel, than we give to them. The least we can do is ensure that their children will be able to have a much-needed pair of shoes for Yom Tov and an extra piece of chicken on the table lekavod Yom Tov.
It is a zechus to give to them. Yes, we are helping to make a difference, but, certainly, in the long run, we are receiving far more than we are giving.