By Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
Rarely does a day go by without the words of Rabbi Yosef Tendler echoing through my mind. This is how great an impact one man was able to make upon me.
What are Rabbi Tendler’s word that echo in my mind and the mind of the thousands of other students who were fortunate to pass through “The Mechina”? The answer would be the same for each and every one of those people: “Don’t waste your life”. It’s a mantra and a mantra to live to by.
The eulogies for Rabbi Tendler ended just a little while ago. Two hours of speeches with which we try and encapsulate this giant of a man. At moments, the eulogies excelled. They moved us to tears as we had come to realize what we have lost. But no speech or set of speeches is sufficient to describe Rabbi Tendler. Nevertheless, it behooves us to make the effort. This is my effort.
Rabbi Tendler was different than any other rabbi or rebbe I have ever encountered.
He had the requisite Torah scholarship to impart its timeless wisdom to thousands of students. But he had so much more. He felt that each student’s success or failure was his responsibility. He wasn’t just a teacher. He was like a parent. He really, really cared.
Sometimes rabbis are excellent public figures but their personal lives suffer. Rabbi Tendler had a remarkable family who he loved. He wasn’t just preaching how to live a beautiful life, he was living it and it was working. Rabbi Tendler’s children and their spouses litter the Torah world as leaders, teachers and role models. All 13 of them.
Some rabbis concentrate most of their energy on their immediate responsibilities. They teach, they counsel, they advise. Rabbi Tendler did all that and he also took communal responsibility. Rabbi Tendler satisfied the thirst for Cholov Yisrael milk and milk products outside the NY metro area. He did so out of a sense of responsibility, not as a business opportunity. He butted heads with junior mafiosos when he tried to expand his market and bring his cheaper prices to established markets. It was a commitment that transcended business. Rabbi Tendler once told me that he went to the local Giant (supermarket chain in Baltimore) and saw they were selling his products at a huge markup. He asked to speak with manager and told the manager that the prices were too high. The manager laughed at him and said these are the prices people are willing to pay! That’s business! Rabbi Tendler informed him that it was his company and he would not be distributing to Giant unless the prices came down. He told the manager that he didn’t go through the trouble of producing Cholov Yisrael in order for people to get ripped off! The manager lowered the prices.
This was a man who was a Torah scholar, a teacher, a mentor, a father, a husband, a business man and he excelled at each of those pursuits.
Rabbi Tendler was the Mechina. His influence permeated the entire experience of a high school boy in Ner Israel. From his towering presence as he stood throughout davening, to his hasmada as he learned through the afternoon in a the quiet Beis Medrash. The Mechina was Rabbi Tendler. And so, it is even more remarkable that each rebbe and each class in the Mechina was so unique and individualized that they each felt like their own yeshiva. Rabbi Tendler encouraged the rebbeim to imprint their personalities upon their students. Yet, Rabbi Tendler’s own personality shined through it all.
Most people thought he was tough. I never saw him that way. He was mostly soft and gentle. He was tough when the situation required him to be tough. But a smile was never too far away, his lips were constantly in song, a loving arm always seemed to find your shoulder just when you needed it most. He doled out affection sparingly, making it cherished and most of all, making it effective. It’s not as if I was never in trouble with Rabbi Tendler. I was. It just never felt like trouble. It felt like love.
I was fortunate to have spent hundreds of hours learning with Rabbi Tendler one on one. For three years we learned at least once a week, sometimes twice a week for 30-40 minutes at a time. I cherish those sessions. I was treated to a front row seat to Rabbi Tendler’s wisdom and insight. We studied various books, but the conversations that ensued were magical. We talked about everything. Many of the anecdotes that have surfaced in print media or in Rabbi Tendler lore were heard by my ears during those sessions. Our discussions formed the basis for many of the ideas that I find myself applying to my personal life, communal life and family life. I heard about the early years of the Lakewood Yeshiva, I heard about the milk business, I heard about some of Rabbi Tendler’s house guests and tales of raising his wonderful children. These stories brought Rabbi Tendler’s lessons to life.
One thing that really sticks with me is how Rabbi Tendler lived a no-nonsense Judaism. It was simple. It was pleasant. It was beautiful. It was portable. It made sense. It was consistent. It was basic. There was no need to complicate things. Learn Torah, do Mitzvos, serve Hashem. It’s a formula that works for all people and all walks of life. It works for a Kollel fellow and it works just as well for a lawyer, doctor or architect. That made it perfect for the Mechina, a place where future Kollel fellows, lawyers, doctors and architects grew from boys to men.
Rabbi Tendler was a great Torah scholar. He loved to learn new things and frequently quoted his most recent additions to his arsenal of Torah knowledge. Not being a Ner Israel product himself, he went out of his way to become a student of Rav Yaakov Weinberg. He wuoted R’ Weinberg many times. They were almost peers. But Rabbi Tendler view Rav Weinberg as a rebbe. This speaks to his greatness. When I was in the Mechina, Rabbi Tendler would visit his family in Israel for part of the summer. While he was there he would study at Aish HaTorah. Rabbi Tendler attended the classes of R’ Noach Weinberg. Here was a giant Torah scholar, the leader of a huge yeshiva, volunteering to attend kiruv style classes! Rabbi Tendler told me that he love his time at Aish. It was time that helped him appreciate Judaism and Hashem. Hearing that, made me appreciate Rabbi Tendler. He spent all his spare time learning but most people did not know of this. On Purim, I was a little tipsy and I snuck into his study. There were hundreds of Composition notebooks, filled with original Torah thoughts. I grabbed a stack of notebooks, I started jumping up and down and yelling to Rabbi Tendler that he needed to publish his chidushim so that people would know how great a scholar he truly was! He would have none of it. The notebooks were for his own records. They were not for self aggrandizement. But thqere are shelves full of Rabbi Tendler’s Torah thoughts. Hopefully someone will publish them one day. Hopefully his 12th grade Chumash class will also be transcribed and published. That was another magical journey with Rabbi Tendler.
The Mechina is a unique place. It is the fulfillment of Rabbi Tendler’s vision. Admission was open to boys who demonstrated the ability necessary to survive advanced Talmud study and who would not negatively influence the other boys. It was that simple. The Mechina did not try to make itself an exclusive place with a specific kind of student. It was diverse and the boys were all from different backgrounds. This is because Rabbi Tendler was not interested in taking the best boys, he was interested in making the best boys. HIs philosophy, based on the teachings of The Steipler Gaon, was that yeshiva is like a hospital. You don’t refuse to admit someone into a hospital if they are sick. Similarly, you don’t refuse to admit a boy because he needs a yeshiva to grow. If someone is contagious they may need to be quarantined. If that doesn’t work then you need to send the patient home or in the case of a yeshiva, send the boy home. He cared about the boys and simply wanted them to succeed. The Mechina is not an exclusive club that requires perfection for admission. Rabbi Tendler believed he was doing something special for the bochurim. He wasn’t in it to make a name for himself or his yeshiva. He was in it to make a difference. And he did.
Rabbi Tendler will always be remembered for his tried and true message: “Don’t waste your life”. He delivered this message every single Friday morning. Somehow the parsha and current events managed to come together to teach that same message week in and week out. It worked. Those Friday mornings had the power to transform you. They helped you set priorities and establish a sound outlook on life. It was during those speeches that we sometimes got a glimpse at Rabbi Tendler’s tender side. Those who knew him well, knew that every time he cleared his throat in his inimitable way, he was really choking up. He really cared about us and he really cared that we get the message. He got emotional very often. It was just well concealed. You listen to his Friday morning speeches for four years. For two years you listen with skepticism. For the next two years you listen because you trust and believe in Rabbi Tendler. For the rest of your life, you hear his voice in your head urging you, begging you, not to waste your life.
I planned on calling Rabbi Tendler throughout his illness. I wanted him to know that I and thousands of others were pulling for him and we appreciated his dedication to us and to the Jewish people. I pushed it off until it was too late. I hope that I can be forgiven for this slight. But I hear his voice all the time. Sometimes its his mantra, other times its other life lessons. I traveled across the country to pay respect to one of the most influential people in my life, in person. I hope and pray that I can live up to at least a fraction of his lofty expectations. I hope that his influence will not wane. It seems impossible that he is gone from this world. He lives on inside each of his students. A group that I feel privileged to belong.
For almost 50 years Rabbi Tendler directed the Mechina. He literally affected thousands of young men. He helped guide these thousands for the rest of their lives. I am forever indebted to Rabbi Tendler. He gave me hours of his own time because he believed in me, He believed in all of us. We were fortunate to have learned from him. Let us live up to Rabbi Tendler’s mantra. “Do not waste your life.”