By Yisroel Besser
Dinner journals usually don’t make for inspiring reading, unless you’re the guest of honor or the fundraiser. But when you read the 36th Anniversary Journal of K’hal Nachlas Yitzchok, you get a sense that there is a story here. The letters written by shul members have the nostalgia of a yearbook, the warmth of a letter home. The picture that emerges is that of a group of young families seeking to build a real kehillah, gathering around a young rav and saying, “Lift us up.”It’s a look back, thirty-six years later, at the path they’ve shared.
I had a bad accident and hurt my legs two days before Pesach. I needed to hear a siyum on Erev Pesach because I’m a bechor, so the Rav took the whole minyan into that small hallway (between the Rav’s house and the shul), where there was a phone, and made the siyum while holding the phone so I could hear it, writes one.
Another person remarks: Like myself, many of our members walk long distances to reach shul…. Neither July’s heat nor January’s blizzards holds us back. Our shul is a magnet that attracts a diverse crowd of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Americans, Iranians, Eastern Europeans, those educated in chassidishe yeshivos and those educated in public schools….
A third, adopting a slightly more humorous tone, writes: While it would be disrespectful to call Rabbi Oelbaum “my friend” in the American sense of the word (we have never even once, for example, gone bowling together), he is my yedid nefesh, my yo’eitz and my madrich.
When I mention to Yidden from Brooklyn, Monsey, or Lakewood that I live in Queens, I see their eyes glaze over and I get one of two reactions: either, “I didn’t know there are heimishe Yidden there,” or, more commonly, “I had to go there once for a vort, nichum aveilim, levayah, etc., and I got lost.”
However, all I have to do is mention that I daven in Rabbi Oelbaum’s shul and the paradigm shifts. A smile of recognition appears on their faces – “Wow, you’re so lucky,” followed by a recital of how much they enjoyed the shiur they heard from the Rav.
“Does he speak like that every week?” “Yes,” I answer, somewhat smugly, “and several times a week too.”
That last one says it all. His balabatim hold their heads a little higher by their association with him. And, interestingly enough, holding his own head a little higher was one of Rav Oelbaum’s first tasks as a rav.
Only through Learning If you’re a certain age, you may remember the short life of the Merkaz Harabbanim. The organization was established during a transitional period for the American rabbinate: the older generation of European-born and -trained rabbanim was fading, and a new generation – American-educated, fluent in English – was rising. But even though the American-born rabbanim were well suited for their positions, they weren’t able to command the same level of respect. The ideal of kavod harabbanus – so central throughout history – seemed in jeopardy.
A national conference was held to discuss ways to raise the institution of the rabbinate to its former glory: the time, back in Europe, when the rav was mesader kiddushin and sandak, and the one whom both the unlearned butchers and scholarly roshei yeshivah respected.
Among those addressing the conference was a relatively young man, Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum from Kew Garden Hills, Queens. His message was succinct. “If rabbanim want respect, they should learn and become real talmidei chachamim. They will feel a sense of fulfillment, and they’ll do their jobs better.”
Thirty-six years at the helm of the K’hal Nachlas Yitzchok d’Humna shul testify to the truth of Rav Oelbaum’s words. And it is against the backdrop of this milestone that I approach my meeting with the Rav, eager to hear his reflections on the journey and lessons learned along the way, messages for yet another generation of young rabbanim.
After a right turn off Kew Garden Hills’s bustling Main Street, I pull up in front of the beautiful shul. Next door is the Rav’s home, where he himself welcomes me and leads me into his seforim room and study.
I take a step back. This is a seforim room!
It’s the kind of place that a kollel yungerman can get lost in for a week: walls of red and brown and faded black bindings that rise up to the sky on all sides. Walk through another door and the walls close in on you, trapping you between a thousand more volumes. But you don’t feel claustrophobic. The opposite is true. The seforim seem to breathe, expanding the tight space.
After we’re seated comfortably at a small conference table, the Rav speaks. “My father came from Czechoslovakia,” he recounts. “He settled in Toronto and opened a shul in what is now called the ‘old neighborhood,’ since there aren’t too many Yidden left there anymore. I went to cheder at Shlomei Emunei Yisroel. It was led by the Tetcher Rav ztz”l. Later it became Yesodei HaTorah.”
For yeshivah, his father sent him to Nitra, the yeshivah farm settlement established by Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl in Westchester, New York. The hope was to create a shtetl with gainful employment for the community’s residents.
“The yeshivah succeeded; the farm settlement not as much, though when I came to learn there, you could still find chickens walking around.”
The Rav’s son, Reb Moshe, who is a rav in Lakewood, joins us and the Rav instructs him to take down the sefer Birurei HaShitos. “Rav Binyomin Steiner, the sefer’s author, was my rebbi. So was the Zahav Sheva, Rav Dovid Gross ,” the Rav tells me. In this house it seems that people are identified by the seforim they authored, their Torah proof that they existed.
While learning in Nitra, Rav Oelbaum became a chassan to the daughter of Rav Alter Yitzchok Eizek Weinberger, the Turka Rav of Kew Gardens, and he completed the rigorous smichah program in time for the chasunah. The young couple settled in Williamsburg, where the Chasam Sofer kollel was located.
“It was a wonderful place. The old Mattersdorfer Rav led the kollel himself. I had an apartment that, interestingly enough, belonged to the previous Satmar Rebbe, the Beirach Moshe. He had moved to Boro Park to lead the Sigheter kehillah there, so we rented his apartment on top of the shul – eighty dollars a month for five rooms.” He laughs, and then adds, “The reiyach of the mikveh was included free of charge.”
A few years later the growing family moved to Kew Gardens. The young Rabbi Oelbaum began to deliver shiurim in his father-in-law’s beis medrash, gaining valuable experience. He also joined the local kollel led by Rav Shlomo Leifer.
Kew Garden Hills, just minutes from Kew Gardens, was then a neighborhood in transition, with young couples moving in daily. Reb Noach Isaac was a familiar figure – and an ideal choice to be a rav. In 1973, he was invited to lead a newly formed kehillah, and Nachlas Yitzchok was born.
You Have to Enjoy the Davening
From the very beginning the little minyan that began in the Rav’s study was unique. The Rav, who never lost sight of the type of shul he wanted, even while the shul was experiencing growing pains, refused to accept “that’s the way it is” as an explanation. If there’s a message he has for young rabbanim, it’s this: If you’re coming home from shul on Shabbos in a bad mood, feeling that the experience of tefillah has been frustrating, rather than pleasant and uplifting, something is wrong.
And so when the shul, which had outgrown its original quarters, was just a few years old, the Rav rose to address his tzibbur. The talking during davening, Chazaras HaShatz, and Kaddish had become a habit, and he no longer felt comfortable with the way things were going. He therefore was officially closing the shul; the next Shabbos the shul would be locked. He would reopen the shul the following Shabbos with whoever was interested in following a different path.
He smiles at the memory. “I didn’t tell my father what I’d done. I knew he would command me not to do it – that he would think it an idealistic but highly impractical solution.”
When the next Shabbos approached and the people realized that he was serious, the Rav started to get phone calls. “It was tough for them. They asked if I could unlock the shul on Erev Shabbos so they could borrow a sefer Torah to make a private minyan, so as not to undergo the humiliation of having to daven elsewhere and answer the inevitable questions.”
The Rav said no. “I wanted it to be serious. I wanted them to face difficult questions.” He laughs. “I went to Boro Park for Shabbos.”
It was his first challenge. By all accounts, he won.
When the shul reopened, it was filled with sympathetic outsiders who had suspected that there wouldn’t be enough people to make a minyan. But there was no reason to worry. The regulars returned, slightly humbled and ready to begin anew.
Looking back, the Rav comments, “A rav needs to enjoy davening in his own shul.” And even though many people thought that his solution was too drastic, the Rav did receive some encouragement. “Rav Avigdor Miller was fully supportive of the idea and said that he wished all rabbanim would do that. I also got a call from a gabbai of one of the most prominent kehillos in Brooklyn. He told me that he wished his rav would do something like that in their shul!”
But the story didn’t end there. “Not long after that incident the shul needed to expand again, and we needed funds. There was a wealthy fellow in the neighborhood who asked me how much we needed for the addition. I told him fifteen thousand dollars, a significant amount back then. He said he would write me out a check for a third of it, five thousand dollars, if I would learn to ‘keep my face to the mizrach and my back to the people’ – to stop mixing in with what was going on behind me. I said no thanks.
“The next day, someone else came over to me and told me he wanted to participate in the campaign. He handed me a check for five thousand dollars. The Eibeshter takes care.”
Sharing the Wealth
It was around this time that Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum formed his Torah Communications Network. He tapped the young rav, who was fluent in Yiddish and English, as a maggid shiur and set up a huge, old-fashioned tape recorder in Rav Oelbaum’s office. The Rav has been saying a daf yomi shiur ever since – not just once a day, but twice and sometimes three times a day.
Then came the next milestone: the seforim. The Rav’s Minchas Chein on Shas and Sh’eilos U’teshuvos cover the full length and breadth of sugyos, both in the yeshivishe style of lomdus and practical halachah.
It’s obvious that the seforim are special to him. His son removes an old Shas whose margins are filled with a flowing script that became the first volumes of Minchas Chein. The Rav grips it with the expression that an elderly man celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary might have when looking at his wedding album: remember the days …
He shares a story dating back to his first sefer. “I wanted to bring Minchas Chein to the Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoel. It was already after the stroke, when he was sick and weak, and it was sometimes difficult to understand him. He accepted the sefer and, turning to his gabbai, he said clearly, ‘Breng gelt.’ Bring money.
“He watched how much the gabbai counted, telling him to keep adding until the sum reached one hundred dollars. When I protested that it was too much, the Rebbe said, ‘A mechaber darf men mechazek zein.’ One has to encourage an author.”
Another seforim story involves Rav Elya Boruch Finkel, with whom both the Rav and his sons were quite close. “One day a balabos from Queens, the father of a talmid, came to speak with Reb Elya Boruch. He wanted his son, who was learning in Eretz Yisrael, to come home and start college. Reb Elya Boruch worked hard to convince him that his son had the potential to be a real talmid chacham, and so it would be best to leave the boy in yeshivah a little longer.
“Later in the conversation this fellow noticed that Reb Elya Boruch had the sefer Minchas Chein on his table, and he used the opportunity to tell Reb Elya Boruch that he had a grievance against me. ‘I gave Rabbi Oelbaum money for a dedication in the sefer,’ he said, ‘and he placed the dedication page at the end of the sefer, not the beginning.’
“Reb Elya Boruch thought for a moment and then he laughed. ‘Rabbi Oelbaum is a wise man,’ he said. ‘He knows that you’re a “college man” and so for you it’s more important to read left to right, like a textbook, than right to left, like a Gemara. So he put your dedication in what is, for you, the front.’ ”
From Psak to Pulpit in a Changing World The “college man” story leads naturally to the next topic in our conversation: the evolution of rabbanus and paskening sh’eilos in an ever-changing world. The standard teshuvah seforim deal with concepts and terms relevant to their times, but it’s a challenge to adapt them to the realities of a world that seems to move faster every day.
“Right,” says the Rav. He then expands on my question, hammering home the point by smilingly asking, “Are you allowed to steal wi-fi?”
He credits his Toronto upbringing with having equipped him to deal with the wide range of halachic queries he faces. His newest sefer, for instance, is a comprehensive treatise on issues pertaining to infertility, and it requires more than a layman’s familiarity with medical science.
“There is no question that it helps to be fluent in English and able to read medical articles and journals. Some of the chassidishe poskim are at somewhat of a disadvantage, because a lack of English makes it much harder to be fully acquainted with the subject matter.”
Of course, he has an appropriate story to make his point. “There is a teshuvah from the Debreciner Rav about using a plunger on Shabbos; he argues with another prominent posek, who renders it assur, forbidden. The Debreciner Rav writes: ‘The difference between me and you is that before I wrote my teshuvah, I spoke with a plumber!'”
But in addition to knowing how to speak with a plumber, a rav often has to know how to speak to all the people in his kehillah, including those who come from different backgrounds and places. What advice, experience, and perspective can he share with the rabbanim of today?
“There is a perception out there that today’s balabatim aren’t the same mevakshim that they once were, that people are on a lower level and the rav has to adjust. It isn’t true. The rav should have expectations from them, he should raise their level of learning, challenge them to keep rising.
“Shul isn’t Verizon; it’s not a service provider where the rav has to try to make sure the balabatim are happy. In shul, each and every individual mispallel should feel like he’s giving – that he has something to offer – and that he has an achrayus, a responsibility, to contribute.
“The rav has to realize that speaking honestly and making demands from his balabatim isn’t insulting them. It’s a compliment. It means he respects them enough to care.”
Another piece of advice: “The shul should be a family affair.”
He then explains that Nachlas Yitzchok has a weekly hashkafah shiur on Monday nights and the ezras nashim is open. There is a tisch every leil Shabbos mevorchim, but once in a while the rav will decide that the event is for bochurim only; their parents aren’t invited.
“Dealing with bochurim might just be the hardest sugya we face. It’s a tightrope. If everything is assur, if everything is ‘yehareg v’al ya’avor – to give his life and not transgress,’ then as soon as a kid stumbles, he feels like he’s lost his Olam HaBa anyhow, so what’s the difference? We have to be so careful to find substitutes for anything we ban, to work with seichel to meet their needs.
“It’s true that technology poses a new danger, but we’re equipped to deal with it. I remember that when I started saying shiurim for Dial-A-Shiur, an older rav asked me how I could join with a force that would ultimately ruin our shuls. I asked him what he meant and he said, ‘If people can sit in their comfortable homes and listen to shiurim, they won’t come to shul to listen to a rav’s shiurim again.’ It didn’t happen. Although technology is threatening, we can’t lose faith in a Yid’s essential desire to grow, to learn.
“Also, the fact that many Jewish communities and neighborhoods are sprouting up – the developments in Lakewood and other growing communities – is good for young rabbanim. And we need young rabbanim. Today is an eis ratzon for young people who are willing to work hard and dedicate themselves to the klal. The workload will never change, but someone who understands the unique challenges of today’s generation, and also the opportunities, can be an asset to Klal Yisrael.”
Since the conversation has turned to the topic of young rabbanim, it seems like a good time to ask if the Rav, who is known for his drashos, has any advice for those who are new to the world of oratory.
“Yes,” he is quick to reply. “Don’t start reading the Gemara half a page earlier. Say what you need to say and move on. Reb Berel Soloveitchik once commented to a bochur who was reciting his shtickel Torah and hoping for acceptance to the yeshivah, ‘If it’s a good piece, a short delivery is fine. And if it’s a lousy piece then short is even better.’ ”
Focused on the Goal
Rav Oelbaum is known for being able to get along with all sorts of Jews and to move seamlessly between different demographic groups, an ability that he attributes to growing up in Toronto, where there were all sorts of Jews. His education, which combined a chassidishe, old-world focus with three hours a day of English and general studies, also contributed to the Rav’s breadth, enabling him to both address tens of thousands chassidim in Yiddish and speak at various OU functions and shuls in a flawless English.
“If you’re exposed to other paths, you learn to respect them. I was once speaking to the Toldos Aharon Rebbe about something, and he remarked, ‘What would the gedolim of old say about this? How would the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Elchonon react?’
“Later, I thought about his choice of gedolim, the names he used to make his point. Sure, he’s far from a Litvak, but he learned in a litvishe kollel in Monsey for many years with Rav Hershel Waxman, so he grew to appreciate these figures. It was an important lesson.”
It was also a lesson that the Rav apparently mastered, since he is known as a being a bridge-builder. His Shabbos morning shiur, given from 8:10 until 9:00, is an in-depth study of the parshah that draws listeners from many of the local shuls – and even from some not-so-local shuls in Kew Gardens and Forest Hills.
Rabbi Marty Katz is a prominent local resident who, though not a mispallel at Nachlas Yitzchok, is one of the many people drawn to “the shiur,” explaining, “The Rav has an ability to draw the ‘arba kanfos’ of Orthodox Judaism because he has a common language with each group. The seforim he quotes and the message he presents resonates with all of them.”
Bernie Shafran, the president of Nachlas Yitzchok, provides another perspective. “It’s a large shul, baruch Hashem, but the Rav only sees individuals, yechidim. In addition to giving a psak, the Rav is a baal eitzah, a guide in every aspect of our lives. The light in his study is on late into the night, and not just for people from this kehillah. He’s available to people from outside the kehillah as well.”
Mr. Shafran recalls a defining moment in the shul’s development that occurred about fifteen years ago. At that point the shul already had more than two hundred seats, but there was talk of expanding it to accommodate even more people. The Rav, however, felt it unnecessary, saying, “If the shul gets too big for us to know every single person, to know each of their children by name, then it’s defeating its purpose. Better keep the shul as it is.”
But while the shul’s size has remained the same, what about the shul’s rav? Over the years there have been many rumors about delegations from various prominent kehillos and mosdos that have come to Queens to ask the Rav to lead them. Some reportedly came with the written ksav rabbanus in their hands.
The Rav shrugs off the question, neither confirming nor denying it. But he does share a personal story.
“I was in Yerushalayim for Shabbos the very first week after the Gaavad, Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, accepted his new position as head of the beis din of Eidah HaChareidis. I ate the seudah at the home of Reb Elya Boruch Finkel, and he suggested that we walk over to the tisch, which was held in the Arzei HaBirah neighborhood.
“We came in and they sat us next to the new Gaavad, who asked my name. When I told him, he asked me why I hadn’t considered accepting the rabbanus in his former hometown of Antwerp. I told him that had I accepted such a position, I would have no time to open a sefer. He looked at me and said, ‘I know. I wonder what will be with me in this job. How will I learn?’
“Later, he met me and said, ‘Baruch Hashem for Rav David Soloveitchik’s advice. He told me the only way I can keep the job and not fall apart is if I insist on learning half a day in kollel, no matter what – no meetings, no conferences, nothing. If someone wants me to serve as sandak, it needs to be early in the morning, because between eight and one o’clock I’m not available.'”
In other words, whether he’s the head of a major city’s beis din or leading a brand new shul in an up-and-coming kehillah, the message is the same: A rav needs to learn.