By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times
Rashi in Parshas VaYaitzei tells us that when a Tzaddik dwells in a town, he is its glory.. he is its beauty.. he is its grandeur.
Nafla ateres rosheinu – the crown of our heads has fallen. One of the tzaddikim of the Five Towns /Far Rockaway community, Rav Aharon Brafman zatzal, was definitely all of that and more. He was a Tzaddik in every sense of the word.
The Five Towns/ Far Rockaway community is now a different place now that he has passed away. It is a community that was visibly changed by his presence here for close to five decades.
He was one of those rare, rare individuals that combined profound erudition in his Torah knowledge, deep humility in his character and deportment, and a heart whose remarkable compassion for others knew no bounds.
Even as a young man, he had a warmth that was unbelievable. Reb Aharon would be welcoming to other young men – even as a student. Rav Yeruchem Olshin Shlita, one of the four Roshei Yeshiva of Beis Medrash Gavoah in Lakewood fondly remembers Rav Aharon being mekarev him at Yeshiva Torah VaDaas:
“Rav Aharon he was a special person. This is a tremendous loss. He had a ruach taharah. He was such a warm person. I was learning in a different Yeshiva in Boro Park and that Yeshiva unfortunately closed, so I transferred to yeshiva Torah VaDaas, and I knew no one. Rav Aharon befriended me and took very good care of me. Over the years I kept up with him. Rav Aharon was a tremendous talmid chochom was vast and broad yedios. He has a tairah mishpacha. I was zocheh to be the shadchan of one of his daughters. I am close with his son and his other aidim (sons-in-law).”
Rabbi Yechiel Perr, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Derech Ayson – Yeshiva of Far Rockaway spoke at the funeral in Eretz Yisroel. He spoke of Rabbi Brafman’s genuineness of character that he had no airs and no “shtik.”
“The fifty years that we have been together has been a great learning experience for me. There is a great void in my heart right now,” he said. “Not only will he be missed, but we will be lacking without him.”
Rav Perr also spoke of his care and concern for a giores who was converted with no support system. Rabbi Brafman would call her and give her chizuk.
“Go to the world of truth and hold out your badge, you have earned it,” Rav Perr lamented at the levaya.
Rav Brafman, as the Menahel, worked very closely with Rabbi Perr, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, for close to fifty years. He attended the shiurim and the shmuessim of the Rosh Yeshiva as a talmid. The manner in which they got along with each other was unprecedented. There was never a single machlokes. The parents, the Talmidim, the Baal HaBatim all witnessed this, and this was a reason for the Yeshiva’s tremendous success over the years.
LOVING PARENT TO ALL
Rabbi Brafman was an individual who, like a loving parent, would look out for people, and these people were aware of his constant love and concern for them. His ahavas yisroel was legendary.
When a bochur in Yeshiva told him that he had difficulty waking up in the morning, Rav Brafman would call him at home in the morning. Now this bochur wakes up early and arrives very early to Shacharis each morning.
Rabbi Brafman’s only brother, the well-known lawyer, Ben Brafman told this author during the shiva:
“My brother never told anyone in need, ‘No.’ Somehow, he always knew the people who had the parnassah issues, the health issues, serious family issues. but he always wanted to maintain the privacy and dignity of the people involved.
I once asked him, “How come these people always come to you with all this? He answered, “Because I just cannot say, ‘no.’
Sometimes he was up until 2 or 3 AM working with families trying to resolve matters. Others have off on Shabbos. He worked on Shabbos. He always knew what to do, who to call, how to solve the problem.”
Rav Yehoshua Kalish, a Rebbe in the Yeshiva, remarked,“The ikkur of Rav Brafman was his caring. He cared about everyone – from the top bochur to the struggling bachur, including all of Klal Yisroel –each and every member.”
At the funeral in America, Rabbi Nosson Sherman said that if Rabbi Brafman zt”l could be described in one word it would be, “tahor.” Rabbi Brafman exuded such purity it could be detected by anyone.
“I can testify to that purity. I was at his Bar Mitzvah 61 years ago. He was tahor then and was a tahor and a tsaddik for next six decades that I knew him,” said Rabbi Kalish.
It is remarkable that despite all he undertook for the community and his own great devotion to Torah, he never lost sight of the individual and always made time for others. This last sentence was actually written by Rav Brafman in his assessment of the Chazon Ish (See November 1970 Jewish Observer), but it very well applied to Rav Brafman as well.
A few months before he passed away, he convened a meeting in his home as to what could be done to help a particular Agunah who lived in the community.
This young woman relates: “As a terrified young mother in a difficult situation, we arrived in the community eight years ago… Rabbi Brafman took my son into his amazing camp right away, no questions asked, free of charge.. Rabbi Brafman was there by my baby’s upsherin giving brachos, cutting his first hairs, he was there by my eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah, dancing with him, gifting him with a special book about Gedolei Yisroel writing a beautiful inscription about his hopes for his bright future.
Rabbi Brafman was there.. trying so hard to get me a get.. And now we are orphaned of this great man. There is no one to take his place. I sit here and mourn for his family, for the community, for us.”
This was not just one case. There were many Agunos that he had helped. Rav Brafman felt that there was a great need for a global solution to the Agunah problem and was a strong supporter of Rav Perr’s idea that Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l had approved.
ALL COMMUNAL NEEDS
He was there for every communal need.
Rabbi Brafman ran a camp in the summer times which helped support him financially. And yet he would often take in young boys free of charge or at a deeply discounted rate. Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, head of the Davis Memorial Fund, remarked, “With Rabbi Brafman it was never a question of not taking in a child. His whole purpose was to meet the needs of kids who needed a wholesome Torah experience. Other camps used the camp, and justifiably so, to fund their Yeshivos or to make a living. Rabbi Brafman ran his camp in a manner that even the most kiruv oriented Yeshiva did not do. He and his wife ylct ran it with utter tzidkus.”
Rabbi Brafman’s assistance and help for those who were in a dysfunctional home atmosphere was remarkable. He was on top of dozens of situations and would call and demonstrate concern and action. “He didn’t just stop at showing concern. When there was a drug problem in one family – he was one of the few that took steps to help resolve it,” remarked one anonymous neighbor who knew what Rav Brafman had organized.
CONCERN FOR OTHERS
His care for all others was palpable. A student once came to Rabbi Brafman’s office to ask a hashkafa question about why the Yeshiva does not march in the Israeli Day Parade. When he came to ask the question, he encountered Rabbi Brafman sobbing in tears. The young man asked him what was wrong. Rav Brafman responded, “I just heard a report that an Israeli soldier was killed by a terrorist.” This created a very lasting impression upon the young student.
Just a few months ago, Rav Brafman ran a Shavuos hasmada program for the lower grades in the high school. He announced the winners of the grand prize of a raffle. And he announced the names of the three winners. The only problem was that he had made an error. There were only two grand prizes and only two winners. The third name was announced by mistake. Instead of back tracking, Rav Brafman immediately went out and purchased a brand new bicycle – out of his own funds. He would not have it any other way.
Dr. Moshe Katz teaches a holocaust class in the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway. He relates, “There was one young man who did not do well in class and at graduation he would not receive any awards.” Rabbi Brafman asked Dr. Katz if he could recommend him for excellence in his class. Dr. Katz agreed right away, and was visibly moved at how concerned Rabbi Brafman was for each and every bochur.
Another student relates:
“I remember as a 9th grader that, for some reason, Rabbi Brafman decided to ask me if I wanted to learn with him. As I look back on it now it showed tremendous anivus, that a talmid chacham of his caliber asks a 14 year old kid for a chavrusashaft., getting to see such a tzadik so up close, completely changed my life. I was zoche to learn with him for seven years.
When I left to eretz yisrael, I was not leaving without saying goodbye to Rebbe. Like a grandfather he gave me a kiss, shliach mitzvah money, and told me not to forget to call.
Eventually, I returned from eretz yisrael to yeshiva and would begin shidduchim. He would pull me to the side and ask me how things were going. When I began dating my wife, Rabbi Brafman was obviously involved. Despite the toll his illness had taken on his body recently, he still greeted me with his warmth, a big smile and a kiss. The last time I saw him was two weeks ago at mincha. I told Rebbe that we were leaving New York to spend time with the in laws, he wished me a good trip and kissed me on the hand. Little did I know that this would be good bye.”
Ben Brafman related, “I have just heard in just one day – over 20 Rabbi Brafman stories. He never did anything for glory, or any type of reward or even for praise. There were so many issues he was involved in and very few people even knew he was involved.”
Reb Ben continued, “He advised people who had difficulties in their marriage. He actively made phone calls to help people find employment and would make sure that they had money to cover their expenses during their search.”
THE WAY IN WHICH HE DID IT
There was one out of town talmid, a grandchild of a local philanthropist, who applied to the Yeshiva but was rejected. The rejection was because even local children could not necessarily be accepted and to take someone from out of town would not be in line with the mission of the yeshiva.
Now, a few years later, this student took special care to hear the funeral held in Eretz Yisroel on line. When asked why he did so, in light of the fact that he was actually rejected by Rav Brafman, the young man, responded, “I have never had such a remarkable, respectful, loving rejection.”
Even Rav Brafman’s rejections built up a person’s self-esteem.
Rav Brafman would at times give mussar to others as well. The manner in which he delivered it, however, left the person with a sense of self-worth that was far greater than before the mussar was given.
Rav Brafman authored a number of articles in the pages of the Jewish Observer – espousing Torah true Hashkafos that were remarkably prescient. He foresaw trends and problems that became serious issues. Indeed, Professor Aharon Twerski once theorized that a malach Hashem had written them – they were so prescient!
In an October 1970 Jewish Observer article, he wrote of the need to implement a halacha and Chumash track in Mesivta High Schools along the lines of a survey program for those bochurim that don’t necessarily have the patience for full time Gemorah study. He advocated bochurim learning Rav Dessler, Rav Hirsch, the Maharal, and the ideas of Rav Yisroel Salanter. This was to keep them on the derech and to foster Torah true Hashkafos. He ended the article with the words, “We must make the Mesivta bochur feel that he can look to Torah for the answers to his problems. We must show him the wealth and depth of Torah. Then we can at least say that we tried.”
In a February 1973 Jewish Observer article, Rav Brafman proposed that Torah families begin to invite unaffiliated Jews to their homes for Shabbos. The article described the far reaching effects and the benefits to the host families as well. He gave instructions as to which organizations to reach out to in order to obtain such guests.
In a May 1976 JO article, Rav Brafman predicted that the trend in medicine was heading toward Living Wills and DNRs – based upon the subjective thinking of some that an elderly person’s life was no longer worth living. How right he was, for that is where we stand now.
In an April 1977 JO article, addressing the crisis in parent/ children relations he recommended a reboot in the apperception of Kivud Av v’Aim. He recommended that parents not overburden children with directives (and make sure that they make requests that will be listened to), and he also recommended that the Mitzvah of Kivud Av V’aim should become as Jewish an idea as Shabbos and Kashrus. In other words, it should not just be observed because we love our parents – it should be part of the obligations of Kashrus and Shabbos. He writes that imbuing our children with this attitude that it is not an intellectual idea, but rather a chok – just like kashrus would go a long way toward easing tensions in the teen and post teen years.
Rav Brafman addressed what he saw as an impending inner crisis that the Torah community would soon be facing in a December 1982 JO article. To address it he recommended teaching our children of their responsibility to Klal Yisroel and to Torah continuity. He urged families to emphasize the bain adam l’chaveiro aspects of Mitzvos and to shy away from materialism and consumerism. Other articles included Dealing With Doomsday (1984, shades of the North Korea crisis?); re-examing the nature of the yetzer Horah (1985); Understanding that we are still in Golus (1987); The Pursuit of Happiness and Social Decay (1989); Builders and Destroyers (1995); The Crisis is Now Part II (1997); Our Latest Encounters with Western Culture (1998); Freedoms Versus Limits (2000) and two more articles (2002, and 2003) dealing with how we are and should be different than the society around us.
Rav Brafman was a hashkafah giant and was able to powerfully convey, in a modern intellectual lingua franca, the haskafic ideals of the Gedolim of yesterday. This was all aside from his love of people and his profound grasp of Torah.
THE MAKING OF A TZADDIK
But how is it that such neshamos come about?
In his formative years at Yeshiva Torah V’Daas – he became close – very close to his Rebbeim – Rebbeim who were not only Talmudic geniuses, but geniuses of character and of Ahavas Yisroel.
Rav Brafman was very close with Rav Eliyahu Moshe Shisgal zt”l, Rav Moshe Feinstein’s son-in-law, Rav Gedaliah Schorr zt”l, Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l. These Rebbeim had a profound influence upon him.
But there was more as well.
His brother Ben explains: “When he was born, my father was drafted in the Philippines as a staff seargent. Aharon was raised by my grandfather – Reb Avrohom Boruch Brafman who had a tremendous influence upon him. He had tremendous yiras shamayim and he would always see him learning. Aharon saw this and picked it all up from his zayde. And Aharon too loved Torah – he loved to teach Torah. He really had nachas when he saw progress. His talmidim would tell you that he knew everything about them. He had a sixth sense about him that allowed him to take a personal interest in every one of the talmidim that he had.. When you hear all this it is really quite remarkable.”
When he came directly out of Kollel, Rav Brafman was given an eleventh grade Gemorah shiur – of the more difficult shiurim. It was right after the Six Day War. Reb Isser Kaplan was in that first class. “We did forty blatt in Meseches Kiddushin. He succeeded enormously. He always related what the Torah had to say to current events. Here was a man who grew up in America and knew the struggles that American youth had faced, had overcame many of them himself, and served as a beacon of Torah and what could be achieved. He kept a relationship with us for years to come.”
Reb Isser continued, “He showed us that it was Toras Chaim. It was the first time that I saw the Torah was relevant.”
“As a youth he was a serious student,” continued Ben Brafman. “Not many people knew that he had a degree in history and that he had perfect grades. He could have done anything and would have been very successful at it – and he chose teaching Torah.”
Rav Nosson Sherman remarked, “He was interested in machshava, mussar, and hashkafa.”
“His study and knowledge of history, however, gave him a historical perspective about Klal Yisroel’s role in the world and what needed to be done in order to perfect the world. He saw events from the perspective of history. How do events in Israel fit into the role of Jewish tradition historically – he looked at things that way.
We spoke frequently. We didn’t cross paths in Torah V’Daas. We became close in Rav Bick’s shul in Boro Park. He was close to Rav Gedaliah Shorr. They both lived in Crown Heights. And he would spend time with him.
He was quite a tolerant person – much more than is common. That helped frame his relationship with talmidim. There was no such thing as, ‘he’s bad let’s get rid of him. When there was no choice he always tried setting them up someplace else.”
His wife was a very important factor in his relationship with others. She is idealistic like him.”
He loved Sfas Emes. He was also familiar with Nesivos Shalom, Rav Dessler, Mesilas Yesharim, Shaarei teshuvah. He inspired others with his quotes of these famous seforim, with his davening and even with his blowing of the shofar which he did every yomim norim in yeshiva for close to five decades.”
His brother Ben Brafman added, “He had the right sense of balance. He knew what kids were supposed to be like and he also knew about individualism. He would tell people to do math when there was math class. Recess for recess and lunch was for lunch. There is an internist who learns five hours each day – because of his influence. He was a real, real, honest to G-d, pure, rebbe whose primary concerns were his talmidim, his family, Klal Yisroel, and eretz yisroel. He helped me realize my achrayus to use my advocacy skills toward Eretz Yisroel.”
Chillul Hashem hurt him deeply. He was emotional when even people who meant well violated Chillul Hashem.
Reb Menachem Leff attended his chaburah at night. He treated us all like peers and like part of the Yeshiva. We were not second class citizens at all. They actually tried to build our ruchniyus. We were the Yeshiva.”
Ben Brafman continued, “He was so disturbed and distressed by the intellectual dishonesty when the media distorted news about eretz Yisroel.
He was a Smart, savvy man.. He got it – very quickly. He understood important issues facing klal yisroel.. He was distressed that people turned their kids to public school rather than yeshiva tuitions. He was afraid for future generations.
There are thousands who owe their commitment to eretz yisroel and yiddishkeit to Aharon Brafman. They are frum, they are honest, running all types of businesses according to halacha.. My brother’s passing has created a void that the yeshiva will be hard pressed to fill. His absence is still a shock to a lot of people. It will hit home even more as soon as the new zman begins.
My brother’s son in law is a sofer. I commissioned him to start writing a sefer torah in his name.. whether it will end up here in Yeshiva of Far Rockaway or in the cheder that my son is building in eretz yisroel. The point is that we will have a Torah written in his name.
Ben Brafman continues, “He helped out all sorts of people – kallahs in need of assistance, Unemployed people in need of chizuk and advice, and so many more. His hand reached in so many places and his knowledge of everything that was going on was almost omniscient.”
Rav Brafman came to the Far Rockaway community in 1970, when he accepted an invitation by Rav Yechiel Perr to serve as the assistant Menahel of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway. Within two years he became the menahel and he impacted the lives of the Talmidim and the Baal HaBattim.
Rav Brafman would give shiurim in many areas in Shas and halacha. He would give Vaadim in one of his favorite Seforim, the Nefesh haChaim of Rav Chaim Volozhin. He was fully versed in the most esoteric parts of it, and knew this sefer through and through – including the more kabbalistic elements of it. He not only knew the sefer, he had a full grasp of its internal structure as well. He also wrote passionate articles about matters that he felt endangered the community.
At the shiva, Dr. Freddie Martin remarked, “Every single person present at the levaya on Erev Shabbos in the yeshiva could have delivered a hesped and a powerful one at that.” Rabbi Brafman was so involved with people, with the community, that everyone is aware of stories and incidents that are deeply inspiring.
“He was a very big Talmid Chochom. He would finish mesechtah after mesechta – and would learn them in depth. He was a kol bo who knew shas, tosfosim, mussar and even chassidus,” Rav Kalish continued.
Rabbi Brafman is survived by his wife, Rebbetzin Susie Brafman; his brother, Mr. Benjamin Brafman; his sisters, Mrs. Malky Aaron and Mrs. Shevy Cooperberg; his son, Rabbi Avrohom Boruch Brafman; and his daughters, Mrs. Naomi Ullman, Mrs. Esther Braun, Mrs. Sima Rottenberg, Mrs. Rina Bloch, Mrs. Aviva Guzik, Mrs. Shoshana Friedman and Mrs. Batsheva Feldman.
“I am proud to be his brother,” Ben Brafman continued. “I am certain to see that his legacy will live on even more in the years to come. I met a father at the funeral in eretz yisroel He has two sons and two grandchildren that my son is running in Ramat Eshkol in yerushalayim. He proudly identifies himself as a student of my brother and his sons and now his grandchildren.”
Rabbi Brafman zt”l’s children follow in his footsteps in their sense of communal responsibility. They take in guests, advise others, and show heartfelt concern for others.
Rav brafman zt”l was dedicated heart and soul to the Yeshiva and to the growth of its Talmidim. Indeed, as of this writing, this writer just received a text message that the talmidim are trying to organize a siyum hashas for the shloshim of their beloved menahel. And that everyone who learned by him should take on something – even if it is just one blatt in his memory.
Having Talmidim of such a caliber, is one of the most beautiful legacies that a Rebbe can leave. The greatest legacy, however, is the vivid example of genuine, unadulterated ahavas yisroel. As his son mentioned at the levaya in America, Chazal tell us that at a person’s petira (passing) the midos that he valued and exemplified for others are there for the taking. This is something that we all should and can aspire to possess. Yehe zichro boruch.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.