Child Yeshivah

of the
Rav Aharon Kotler’s grandson and namesake – Beth Medrash Govoha’s CEO Rabbi Aaron Kotler -- took an unlikely path to the executive office. Having successfully weathered fiscal, political, and communal challenges from his position at the reins of America’s largest yeshivah, Reb Aaron is girded by his grandfather’s fire and his own tenacity
photos Meir Haltovsky

by Yisroel Besser

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It was the mid-1980s and the young student, new to all things Orthodox, made himself comfortable on the inter-Jerusalem city bus. An elderly, white-bearded American scholar boarded and took the seat next to him, and within minutes, the two English speakers struck up a cordial conversation. The student shared that he had left university two months before in order to learn at Aish HaTorah. The visiting rav politely asked who his rebbi was. “Rabbi Aaron Kotler,” said the young man. The rav, an early talmid of Beth Medrash Govoha, was overcome with reverential silence, transported to a different time. Finally, he spoke. “Your rebbi carries a great name.” Sitting in the home of the grandson and namesake of Rav Aharon Kotler, I attempt a psychoanalytical question: Were his years as a rebbi at Aish, perhaps the one yeshivah in the world where most new students weren’t aware of his yichus,

really an attempt to make it on his own? He shrugs. “When you’re young you don’t really think about these things.… Aish’s anonymity was not its draw — I was pulled there through remarkable siyata d’Shmaya. My name is a very special subtle backdrop to my life. However, gifts are no substitute for hard work.” The subsequent return of the young kiruv rebbi to Lakewood during the turmoil of the mid-’90s, his steady development, his impact on the yeshivah and his more recent influence on the greater yeshivah world, make for an intriguing story on their own. Few would have predicted that he would take this particular path, but none would deny that Rabbi Aaron Kotler is dedicated to his grandfather’s yeshivah. And anyone who remembers that difficult era can certainly appreciate the chain of events that led him home....

Anochi A’arvenu Reb Aaron couldn’t have come to Lakewood at a more opportune time. His elder brother, the eminent rosh yeshivah, Rav Malkiel, stood — together with his fellow roshei yeshivah, Rav Yeruchem Olshin, Rav Dovid Schustal, and Rav Yisroel Neuman — at the helm of one of the largest yeshivahs in Jewish history. They carried not just a vast spiritual responsibility, but also a daunting financial burden, and Rav Malkiel needed a yad yemin — a right-hand man to pull the yeshivah out of its financial quagmire. As Lakewood exploded in size and scope, it also faced the more mundane challenges experienced by the entire Torah

world — including a series of financial downturns, leaving the yeshivah ill-equipped to meet its obligations, with debt piling high as the blue water tower that dominates the Lakewood landscape. As the yeshivah grew, its facilities became increasingly crowded and in need of improvement. A growing stream of Torah scholars were seeking to join a yeshivah that, like numerous other yeshivahs at that time, was unable to pay staff and yungeleit on time. First his older brother Reb Shraga was brought in, and as enrollment skyrocketed, Reb Aaron joined as well. Seemingly without the appropriate skill sets, Reb Aaron stepped up and promised “Anochi a’arvenu,” forging a new and innovative role. Slowly, the offices around the brothers began to fill with a talented and dedicated team of askanim and administrators. Others of influence began to notice Rabbi Kotler and his team, and one by one, they lined up to join a newly expanded board of directors, providing the yeshivah with relationships that are among the most highly regarded in the Torah world. Meanwhile, the NASDAQ crashed America’s financial markets, infamous Black Monday destroyed stock and pension funds, and a real estate boom was followed closely by a full-blown recession — yet the group that gathered in support of the yeshivah consistently built new buildings, added more than a thousand yungeleit to a payroll that is kept current,

“The Zeideh envisioned a yeshivah that would be spacious and attractive, reflective of the Torah’s prestige.” Inside the beis medrash

He’s the son of rosh yeshivah Rav shneur Kotler ztz”l, yet he wears no frock. He carries the name of a leader of torah Jewry, yet he has become as financially literate as a mutual fund manager
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was to his talmidim, he was even closer, warmer, more caring and loving as a father. Anyone who ever met him will understand how we still miss him”
and created a widely-respected management team.

“As close and loving as he

Shraga went to Stolin in Brooklyn and Beis Dovid in Monsey before they turned ten. I had it easy, staying home until age 11, when I went to the mesivta in Staten Island, then to Adelphia, and eventually, at age 17, to England, to learn under the Manchester Rosh Yeshivah.”

Rabbi Moshe Gleiberman, Reb Aaron’s right-hand man, still marvels at the sheer volume of requests for help
father. My father was grateful to Mr. Burack for raising the funds to get the electricity turned back on in yeshivah, after it was shut off due to unpaid bills.” It wasn’t just in yeshivah that money was scarce. “When I was a kid we never spent money on new clothing. We enjoyed browsing at our local store, ‘Peck and Peck’ — pekelach of used clothes that we eagerly received back then. Later, when I was an 11-year old in yeshivah in Staten Island, there was a fellow who owned a suit factory and he gave the bochurim free suits. That was probably my first fancy suit.” Sounds like a deprived childhood? “No, no ...” His smile comes suddenly, warm and genuine. “It was the opposite of deprived, even though we had no car and few possessions. We had something much richer, and that was a sense of mission, of achrayus, of concern for Klal Yisrael that filled my parents’ home. There was always someone speaking with my father or asking my mother for help with a medical referral or a shidduch. At the Shabbos table, there could be a Yerushalmi Yid who knew my father from Etz Chayim, seated with two college students visiting Lakewood, and any number of talmidim. “In fact, one of our bedrooms was called Rebbetzin Markel’s room; this almanah of a great talmid chacham stayed with us for months at a time. We were nine kids and various relatives growing up in a small house — but one bedroom was designated for an eishes chaver. Imagine what an impact that makes on a child.” While the Kotler name carries with it a glorious history, Reb Aaron is also a student of his mother, Rebbetzin Rischel, daughter of Rav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman Hy”d, who was killed in the Kovno Ghetto together with Rav Elchonon Wasserman. He has pored over historical accounts of life in Shanghai during the war to appreciate his mother’s deprivation and mesirus nefesh, which is so much a part of her persona. “My mother, may she be gezunt, knows what real hard times mean. We had a happy childhood.” Except that young Aaron’s time at home was cut short. “Lakewood had no official cheder in my day. There were only two yeshivah boys my age and then one moved to Los Angeles. Rav Malkiel and my brother Meir z”l [a promising talmid chacham who was tragically niftar at a young age] left home at ages six and eight to attend cheder in Boston by Rav Leib Heiman, and my other brothers Isser Zalman and

The Man But who, really, is Aaron Kotler?

He doesn’t neatly fit into any one box. He’s the son of rosh yeshivah Rav Shneur Kotler ztz”l, yet he wears no frock. He carries the name of a leader of Torah Jewry, yet he has become as financially literate as a mutual fund manager, articulate as a speech writer, versed in the ways of the world as a commentator. He lives in a world where Torah is the currency, and his team has a style and methods that are novel, innovative, and effective. Together with Reb Mordechai Herskowitz and Reb Mordechai Kirzner, he has gathered a group of dedicated and generous friends for the yeshivah, forming alliances in corporate offices, homes, and communities across America — at times even on camping trips. Yet the man whose name is so public is really a quiet presence, invisible to many of the yeshivah’s thousands of talmidim. I park in front of his house. Less than a minute off bustling Route 9, it’s on a tranquil dead-end street, the kind you pass without noticing it’s there, much like its occupant — never far from the action, but largely unseen. He greets me warmly, tie-less on this warm evening, white shirtsleeves rolled

up. It takes about two minutes to peg him as extremely good at what he does — which is essentially to articulate and communicate the yeshivah’s mission and position in American Jewish life. He exhibits a rare mix of extreme passion and eloquence; and here, in the comfort of his living room, the grandson, son, and sibling of roshei yeshivah speaks freely, forever a child of the yeshivah.

The Good Old Days “My parents’ first

apartment in Lakewood in 1947 was a tiny tworoom walk-up on top of a bar, where drunks blasted music until three in the morning,” he says. “People express nostalgia for simpler days, when the proverbial can of Coke cost a nickel, but back then most yeshivahleit couldn’t afford a can of soda. Old Lakewood was a pristine, rarefied Torah environment, but life was remarkably tough in every way. In our childhood we lived in a better home than that first apartment, but to walk the block from Fifth Street and Private Way to yeshivah often meant avoiding the local neighborhood toughs who wanted to beat us up.” Rav Shneur’s yeshivah lived hand to mouth. “We have a neighbor, a veteran Lakewood resident and sweet Yid named Lou Burack, who recently showed me a framed letter he got in 1970 from my

Nothing Like It When Aaron was 16, a visitor came to Lakewood. Rav Noach Weinberg was trying to round up soldiers in the fight against assimilation. He spoke in one of the yeshivah’s chaburah rooms. “The first night, the room was jammed. The second night he spoke, they opened an additional room, and for his third and final lecture, all three rooms were filled. It was a life-altering experience, those drashos, the recordings of which are still freely available. “It was a different form of avodah than that which I’d seen at home, but it had the same yesod, and that was achrayus for other Yidden.” Reb Aaron was just 18 when the Torah world lost one of its captains, the Lakewood rosh yeshivah … his father. “In a way, a person never really recovers from such a loss, because as close and loving as he was to his talmidim, he was even closer, warmer, more caring and loving as a father. Anyone who ever met him will understand how we still miss him — how he dealt with people and how he bore the pressures of the klal.” Aaron spent two years in South Fallsburg under Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, and then traveled to Eretz Yisrael, joining the relatively small yeshivah of Rav Yitzchak Soloveitchik. Rav Yitzchak’s brand of extremely analytical lomdus is considered advanced within the olam hayeshivos, and Aaron thrived under the original approach. He married Dina Eisenberger of Baltimore, and the young couple set off to Eretz Yisrael, where Reb Aaron joined Reb Yitzchak’s kollel. But there was going to be more.

“I had never forgotten Reb Noach’s lectures, and when I heard that Aish had bein hasdarim openings for mentors, I applied.” Rav Noach and an Aish rabbi named Rav Yosef Chaim Meyer took notice of the impassioned young man and recommended he start delivering a shiur, which quickly led to an exhaustive kiruv and teaching schedule.

The Fire of Aish “We were very happy in Eretz Yisrael,” he recalls of that peaceful time. “Our first two children were born in Yerushalayim and we had no plans to leave. We were unsure if we should keep one day Yom Tov or two, so I went to ask Dayan Weiss, the Minchas Yitzchak, for a psak. He told me to keep one day. I argued that perhaps we should keep two days as we could conceivably move back to the United States. The Dayan asked me what would bring us back to the States, and I responded, ‘Well, if our money runs out.…’ “The Dayan laughed off my argument. He said, ‘Fahr a gutte shtelle geit efsher drei fertel Yerushalayim mit eich — For a good job, perhaps three quarters of Yerushalayim would join you.’ ” At Aish HaTorah, Reb Aaron found a special energy, where “no one took anything in Yiddishkeit for granted.” And, I speculate, he must have preferred earning a position without protektzia, with no one pulling strings for him. He doesn’t disagree. “The seforim speak of ‘nahama dikisufa,’ the basic need to earn one’s own way. With all that, I felt very much a part of the chain of harbatzas Torah. “The Aish chevrah were not the traditional talmidim my father and zeideh had, but Torah is Torah, truth is truth. I actually had an unusual experience then that made me feel very connected to the Zeideh. I was always looking for special ways to present the fundamentals of emunah through teaching Chumash. My dear friend Rav Zecharia Greenwald owned a copy of an out-of-print sefer
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called Niflaos MiToras Hashem. You know how sometimes you discover a sefer and you feel like it was written just for you? I borrowed the sefer and lived from it for six months, basing my shiurim on the brilliance it contained. It had the most profound impact on the Aish talmidim. “From time to time, Zecharia would ask that I return the sefer, until finally, I had

no choice. I started a search for a copy of my own. No one had it, not the old seforim stores, not the new ones. My hunt took me to Tel Aviv, with no luck. The next time I was in America, I walked into a seforim store on 16th Avenue in Boro Park and right there, by the cash register, I saw a single ancient musty volume of the sefer. I could hardly believe it, and I immediately asked the proprietor how much it was.

“He said he’d been cleaning up his basement a few minutes before and he’d seen a dust-covered sefer wedged between the shelf and the wall and had just brought it upstairs. He said, ‘Here, it’s still marked five dollars from years ago, so that’s the price.’ I handed him the five dollars, and not a moment later, a fellow walked in and noticed this sefer in my hand. “‘Wow, Niflaos MiToras Hashem! I’m

looking everywhere for that sefer. Do you have another copy?’ The mocher seforim responded that this was the only one and that he had not seen a copy of it in many years. “Years later, I was reading a kuntres from the Zeideh entitled How to Teach Torah — about the proper way to teach Chumash. He writes that the proper way to give over the yesodos of emunah is through teaching

Chumash — and specifically by utilizing the sefer Niflaos MiToras Hashem and its method of revealing how the maasei avos directed and set the future path for the banim. That was a special moment for me. I felt as if the Zeideh had invisibly guided me to make this obscure sefer my own.’’

Nothing To Do Despite their earlier

conviction, the Kotlers eventually decided to

leave Eretz Yisrael. “I began to feel uncomfortable as the years were going by without my own masechtos in hand. We moved to South Fallsburg to join the kollel there, where there is nothing to do except learn.” Nothing for most people, perhaps. Reb Aaron found something. “Look, there are things to do everywhere. You stand on line at the grocery, you get a ticket from a police officer or bring your

OWN
WORDS
Rabbi Aaron Kotler on his grandfather’s legacy
Chazal state: “HaKadosh Baruch Hu makdim refuah l’makah” — in his love for Klal yisrael, hashem covertly arranges the cure before illness strikes. the Jews in Egypt were descending into the deepest despair. they began wishing for quick death in place of immeasurably painful lives (Ramban, Shemos 2:23). While they suffered, in faraway Midyan, a shepherd named Moshe quietly honed his leadership skills and his love for his flock. P’sikta Zutrati on Shemos explains that hashem was preparing Moshe, “refuah kodem l’makah.” Nine hundred fifty-seven years later, Achashveirosh was about to promote haman to viceroy over his 127 vassal states. Multilingual Mordechai overheard palace guards plotting, he revealed the scheme, and earned Achashveirosh’s

IN HIS

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gratitude. Again Chazal say: “refuah kodem l’makah” (Megillah 13). A century ago, a great set of cataclysms began to form, destined to soon engulf our people. the United states, 1883. hebrew Union College provocatively serves a treif menu, with shrimp, for its first graduating class. this infamous “treifa banquet,” as it would be widely known, triggers a debate within Reform. by 1885 the debate is resolved, with the pittsburgh Conference deciding that halachah is optional, allowing each generation to choose its right and wrong. by 1886, a group within Reform establishes the Conservative Jewish theological seminary. these actions set foundations for the subsequent abandonment of traditional Judaism by millions of Jews who would shortly land on American shores. Victorian London,1883. A man named Karl Marx dies. his “heirs,” Vladimir Lenin, Leon trotsky, and Joseph stalin take up his banner. they murder 30 million people, including untold numbers of Jews. In time they destroy yiddishkeit in Russia, belarus, poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and more. Europe, 1892. Lenin turns 22 years old, stalin 14, trotsky 13. In Austria a demonic child named Adolf hitler turns three. the fires that would destroy European Jewry are gathering, about to burst in a trifecta of haskalah, Communism, and Nazis. America, streets calving gold, tefillin

strewn in New york harbor by newly arriving refugees, is no haven. As they say in yiddish, “a makah.” Chazal state: “Refuah kodem l’makah.” sislovich, White Russia ,1892. Aharon pinnes is born. At a tender age he departs for Minsk, narrowly avoiding recruitment by the Maskilim. Changing his name to Kotler to avoid a Russian draft, the young Aharon, orphaned of father and mother, immerses himself in the Gemara in Minsk’s Katzovisheh shul. outside, the streets rage in battle over the future of the Jewish people, with Minsk a hotbed for a “new” Jewish culture and for herzl’s Zionist movement. Minsk, 1902. Achad haAm, heir to herzl, addresses a huge conference, he speaks of the benefits of haskalah. the house is packed. Aharon pinnes/Kotler remains in the beis medrash. the fires erupt in a fury. haskalah ravages our devotion to our ancestral traditions. Zionism, formed in the crucible of Europe’s newly emerging nationalistic movements, looms large as a salvation for our people. World War I breaks out, the 1917 Russian Revolution brings the Communists to power, Lenin and stalin ban the teaching and practice of Judaism. War leads to war, the lethal soviet blow is quickly followed by hitler and Churban Europa. there is no hospitable shore for Jews — nor for Judaism. In the United states, shrimp is no longer a “debate.” In this new World, torah is unwelcome. “Refuah kodem l’makah.” Rav Aharon Kotler,

zeh l’emus zeh to Marx, Lenin, stalin, hitler, and to all those who would seek to abrogate our heritage, escapes to America, where he battles stephen Wise and the American Jewish establishment in an effort to save the remnants of European Jewry. And he proceeds to rebuild. In doing so, he sets a singular foundation for the renewal of Jewish life: torah. having seen the destruction of Klal yisrael, he concludes that the new world must be firmly set on lives filled with love for and utter devotion to torah, and to nothing else. We today are the beneficiaries of this “refuah.” our world, our communities, our neighborhoods, and our families thrive and flourish because we have torah to anchor our lives, our faith, and our religion. We have its beauty and warmth to envelop us daily with life and ruach. Fools seek to predict the future. We don’t. We know not what challenges lie ahead. We cannot foretell the nature, form, or character of the existential threats that will arise to threaten our people. We know they come. “B’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu,” we recite yearly at the pesach seder. And we know today, 120 years after the birth of Rav Aharon and 50 years after his passing, that his vision and fire — the light of torah — is what carries us and will carry us. We also know the doubts are many.
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Whispers. Does Klal Yisrael have too many bnei Torah? Can we afford to carry a tzibbur of ameilim b’Torah? Who will pay the price? What about jobs? Are the existence of bnei Torah the cause, chas v’shalom, of youth-at-risk? Is the presence of such a mass of bnei Torah unprecedented, perhaps unnecessary? We hear age-old hatreds that speak of bnei Torah as representing new forms of intolerance. Idolatrous sheitels from India? Bugs in New York City water? Who cares? “These people” never fail to find new chumros and problems! As in Minsk, whispers grow, oxygen provided by the pamphleteers and Samizdat of our day, allowing the masses to ‘twitter’ and laugh at the seeming shortcomings of those who choose torah over, what to them, is “living.” Amid these whispers we hear the steady voice of Rav Aharon, no less vibrant 50 years after his passing than when his clear eyes, his torah, and his presence and words guided us: “torah is our foundation. the world poses both dangers and glitter that can undermine our people. there is no ‘steady state universe. ” We hear his cry: “the challenges of Klal yisrael are that we have too few bnei Torah. And yes, torah requires dedication. Great sacrifice. Financial. Emotional. torah is acquired through yisurim. We need stronger foundations, not weaker one. We need more torah, not less.” We hear Rav Aharon speak. “yes, I was witness to a time when there were fewer bnei Torah. And I saw the wholesale abandonment of our

ways by hundreds of thousands of our young. I myself was arrested by the Communists numerous times and threatened with death — for teaching torah. this was not 2,000 years ago — it was only 90 years ago. those who arrested me were not peasants turned Communists, they were former cheder yingelach, just like you and me. they were not from some distant land, they were from my town and my city. I saw the streets of sislovich, Minsk, slutzk, Kletzk, Kovno, slabodka, and Vilna, in which the Jewish bund, the Zionists, the yiddishists, and their fellow travelers battled for our neshamos. And I look down today and I see a new street forming, carrying the yetzer’s timeworn challenges in new guises.” And so our generation prepares our own refuah to reinforce our spirits and strengthen our lives — in advance of future waves. In devotion to our legacy, in our generation’s effort to fulfill our eternal destiny. We do so with a bulwark of torah, with a salve of legions of beautiful talmidei chachomim whose devotion to torah and Klal yisrael is our foundation and anchor. We do so with communities filled with balabatim and families, ohavei Torah, centered on yeshivos, kollelim, and the pursuit of torah. this is what we commemorate — and reinforce — 50 years after the passing of the great teacher, guide, master, builder, and leader of our world, Moreinu haGaon haRav Aharon Kotler ztz”l, zechuso yagein aleinu.
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“He gave Lakewood the largest aid increases in the state.” Reb Aaron and Rabbi Shmuel Blech meet with former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine
suit to the dry cleaners in the Catskills, and everyone you speak to turns out to be Jewish.” He heard that there were more than 10,000 Jews who lived year round in the Catskills, so he got to work. Under the guidance of the legendary Rabbi Hermann Eisner z”l of Ellenville and yblcht”a the beloved Rabbi Irving Goodman of Woodridge and with the partnership of the devoted Rabbi and Rebbetzin Boruch Lebowitz of Monticello, he began organizing shiurim and classes. Rav Abba Gorelick ztz”l, the rosh yeshivah in South Fallsburg, was a great source of encouragement. It was a simpler time. “Those were golden years, with Reb Abba ztz”l, whose guidance in everyday matters was brilliant, and the rosh yeshivah, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and the rosh kollel, Rav Dovid Breslauer, all freely available for us.’” As the family grew, Rabbi Kotler learned in kollel, delivered shiurim, and organized the framework of a kiruv organization. And in the remaining few minutes of the day, he expanded his horizons to fleetingly sample the world of commerce. “In the course of that effort I ended up meeting two prominent businessmen, Murray Huberfeld and David Bodner, when I sought their guidance on a business matter. We had several meetings and a nice relationship developed.” Unbeknownst to Reb Aaron, the two businessmen — both philanthropists and astute assessors of talent — had bigger plans for their new friend. They called the rosh yeshivah, Rav Malkiel, and suggested that his brother had the skills to stand at his side. Which just goes to show that you can’t run away from your destiny. “The very last thing I ever imagined doing was moving to Lakewood and assuming this role,” confides Reb Aaron. “But the arguments they presented were compelling. Bodner and Huberfeld are nearly impossible to argue with, and they also put together a group of balabatim who hammered away at me. One doesn’t say no to brothers, particularly brothers who carry the legacy of our great father and Zeideh. And so I yielded.” There must have been resentment, I speculate, at the entry of a new kid on the block, barely 30 years old. A Lakewood old-timer once told me that it wasn’t resentment, but confusion: “People expected Reb Aaron to take his place to the right of the aron kodesh and deliver shmuessen, like so many scions of roshei yeshivah who carry the financial burden of Torah institutions. But we had the wrong person. He was doing something totally different.” Rabbi Kotler is thoughtful. “In retrospect, I know that whatever adjustments

people had to go through were my responsibility, because I didn’t really know how to listen or communicate what we had to do and some of the painful decisions that we would have to make. People tend to accept a clear and articulate set of goals — and you also need to listen carefully and incorporate others and their input into your work.” His official title as a chief executive was something new for a yeshivah world heavy on administrators and executive directors. “All the good titles were already taken,” he jokes, but instantly turns serious. “It was important that my set of new responsibilities be clearly spelled out, and I knew that Rav Malkiel expected me to take achrayus, to be accountable and plan far ahead. With thousands of people depending on you, you can’t really afford to make any mistake more than once. Sometimes people open a small enterprise or institution and they succeed, yet due to the pressures of daily management they are simply unable to think through how to take it to the next level. Managing an institution requires a constant process of personal growth, learning, and adapting to new circumstances. And this yeshivah carries a rich history and a vital mission for the future. It just needed a slightly more organized front office and structure to properly serve the beis medrash, and with the help of the balabatim and the yeshivah team we were able to provide that.”

A Challenge, Not a Fight The forma-

tion of the revitalized board of directors was one of the most critical steps in Reb Aaron’s work. “I learned to respect balabatim from my father, who cherished as his closest yedidim people like Irving and Amos Bunim; Martin, Eli, and Stephen Klein; Sheftal Beren; Shragy Newhouse; and yblcht”a Isaac Rokowsky, Asher Schonkopf, Dovid Sebbag, and many others. We were determined to have individuals of the same caliber. We reached out to all sorts of people from across the United States and Canada, representing diverse demographics

and businesses, realizing that a breadth of experience was invaluable. These people became my mentors and teachers. The most important lesson that they taught me was that our mandate was to argue and work through all issues and not ignore nor bury them. This did not mean to fight, rather to debate and challenge, just as good chavrusos do in the beis medrash. They helped us identify the yeshivah’s fiscal and structural problems and possible solutions, and slowly, things began to change. We started out quite anxious about the yeshivah’s future, but with time they helped us develop a toolbox of solutions and processes that strengthens us more and more each year.” He smiles wryly. “In the business world, board members are paid. Here, they are shutfim, and yet they pay us! That helps too.” He’s not talking just about financial contributions and advice, but a real shift, a subtle change in perspective. “Fifteen years ago, fewer people understood the Lakewood message. Since then, appreciation for Torah has grown tremendously and today, we are surrounded by an expanded group of friends, who consider themselves fortunate to share in the development of Torah.” While old-timers can be expected to grumble about new methods and rules, the young new menahel received support from another of his mentors. “Rabbi Osher Katz was a perfect executive and administrator, and he helped me a lot by giving constant encouragement. He once told me how he’d purchased an electric typewriter back in the 1950s when it was a new innovation and one of the yeshivah’s balabatim had come in to the office and noticed. He was annoyed. ‘I would never spend money on such technology for my own business. How can you justify it for the yeshivah?’ “Reb Osher himself learned to use Microsoft Excel when he was 80-plus years old, believing that every proper innovation should be harnessed in his holy work. Reb Osher not only encouraged me, but also helped develop our other outstanding leaders, such as Reb Mordechai Herskowitz. Rav Osher was a role model of utter devotion and he was a person who was never fazed by the challenges. Rav Eliezer Kuperman, too, is such a mentor — he has almost half a century of experience in how to run the yeshivah. You can’t amass such practical knowledge without decades of experience. “I want to tell you something else. There’s a myth that yeshivos should be unadorned and plain … and I used to hear some feedback that we build bataei medrash that are too nice.… The wood of the mizrach wall and the old aron kodesh that Zeideh ordered in 1962, which we recently restored, was imported from Italy. Zeideh’s vision was for a yeshivah that is spacious and attractive and reflective of kavod haTorah.” Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, first met Reb Aaron when Rabbi Weil brought a Lakewood kollel to his then-congregation, in the Pico Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. The relationship soon became a close friendship, one that the OU leader cherishes.

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“Whenever we have opportunity to sit together, I plumb Aaron for advice. We had him address the board of directors of our shul back in California in order to help them structure our organization. Until this day, he and his team give generously of their time and experience to help. Believe it or not, my organizational role models for the Orthodox Union are AIPAC ... and BMG.” From his father Rav Shneur Kotler, Reb Aaron inherited a sense of achrayus for all the students in the yeshivah. “If you have the word ‘executive’ in your title, then you don’t have the luxury of shaking off an issue, of saying it’s not your responsibility. That was my father’s approach, that every problem of an individual was also his problem. If the air conditioning isn’t working in one spot in the beis medrash, if you’re from overseas and having problems with your papers, it’s our problem. If you need a doctor or affordable housing or a kollel check, if you need to find a chavrusa or a chaburah or shadchan or posek or help with writing a sefer, it’s our responsibility to help. We certainly can’t solve everyone’s problems but they are all within our achrayus. My father was the greatest rebbi in how to listen and be accessible.” Rabbi Moshe Gleiberman is the softspoken chief executive’s right-hand man. An alumnus of the yeshivah, he was a rising star at a leading technology company when the call came from Lakewood to turn his many talents to the service of Torah. What makes his job unique, he says, is the sheer volume of requests for help. “At the end of the day, Reb Aaron views his job, our job, as being as accessible and available as humanly possible to anyone in this town who needs anything from the yeshivah.” Although he concedes that the pressure is great and the resources are never adequate, “we take our strength by focusing on the privilege of serving a makom Torah.”

We’re Here for Them One would have
to be living under a rock to have missed the upcoming 50th yahrtzeit of Rav Aharon Kotler.

The yahrtzeit events are meant to reinforce the vision and siyata d’Shmaya merited by the great tzaddik who worked alone and undaunted, resiliently planting seeds of Torah. Yet from the vantage point of a halfcentury, there are some who are unsure as to what future path the Torah world should take. Some wonder if America has too many yungeleit, or if a yeshivah like Lakewood is too big. Reb Aaron’s eyes flash fire. “Let’s explore this. The average dedicated talmid is perhaps around 20 years old when he’s considered proficient in learning, able to really understand, analyze, and retain a sugya. “A bochur starts at 20 and he learns in the independent way that is the hallmark of Lakewood, where talmidim learn on their own in a chaburah and not through a daily shiur. He undertakes the traditional seven-year cycle of core masechtos, completing them b’iyun and bekiyus. He’s now 27 years old. He wants to become a classic talmid chacham, but he still needs a ‘kinyan’ in Shabbos, chullin, eiruvin, muktzeh, niddah, and so much more. Acquiring these on an accelerated path could take six years, so now he’s 33 years old, and he’s quite accomplished, though not yet proficient in the entire Shas and poskim. It is this drive and devotion to Torah which we’re here to support. “Klal Yisrael needs them. They need time to do it right and we are not here to rush them out the door. There is no possible way to shortcut the process. The alternative is to say ‘No, Klal Yisrael can’t afford to have talmidei chachamim and only a small tiny elite deserve to become serious bnei Torah.’ ” The yeshivah’s loose structure is carefully designed, and Reb Aaron says it’s the real secret at the heart of Lakewood’s attraction. There’s freedom to develop in your learning, encouraged and guided by the hanhalah and 240 roshei chaburah, yet generated by the yungeleit themselves who form a bulwark for Torah. “As my father would say, a tzibbur of bnei Torah

Reb Aaron reflects on his grandfather’s legacy. Are we living up to his vision?

has the status of a gadol hador.” As to the assertion that such a large number of yungeleit may be a historical anomaly, and that European Jewry had far fewer bnei Torah, Reb Aaron responds, “Let’s not forget that those eras were ones in which Klal Yisrael also saw the near complete abandonment of Yiddishkeit among the youth. While poverty and persecution may have played a role, the historical outcome is only too well known. In fact, the Zeideh stated this specifically in the famous drashah he gave at the original groundbreaking for the yeshivah. The Zeideh said that ‘When our intensive and complete devotion to Torah study is dimmed, our spiritual pipeline to life begins to dry up. As a result our fulfillment of the mitzvos becomes watered down, causing a further weakening in our connection to our life-source, and this leads to total assimilation.’ ” In short, Reb Aaron posits: “Klal Yisrael doesn’t suffer from a surplus of Torah, it suffers from a shortage of Torah and inadequate numbers of genuine talmidei chachamim. And the presence of difficulty, deprivation, and pain is not an iota of an argument against long-term learning, just as the history of persecution against the Jewish people is no indictment against Klal Yisrael.”

Growing Pains In more than 15 years

Reb Aaron has seen the town around the yeshiva explode — a blessing, but not one without challenges, especially when various interests in town appear to clash. “In Lakewood, many choose to live with great sacrifice. Even those who are in business and successful are mistapek b’muat — they give away huge amounts of tzedakah, and they too spend hours learning each day. And the mesirus nefesh of the kollel wives — carrying households and in many cases, a portion of parnassah — is unprecedented. Yet the achdus here is unbelievable and something that others often say they would like to emulate. This doesn’t mean that everyone here agrees on every issue, but it does mean that while people here may argue in politics, they agree on the underlying values, and on the principles that are important to the town.” He enumerates those principles, explaining that at their heart lies the creation of a town that is hospitable and appropriate for Torah families of all ages — and particularly for young families with children. “This means standards of conduct, moderately priced housing, an affordable standard of living, support for the 100-plus mosdos that serve our children, and a strong safety net of social services that is sympathetic and not hostile to large families. It means jobs and

healthy economic growth. Sometimes these priorities clash, where one candidate for office has been outstanding in some areas, while a contender promises better results in another.” I ask if the highly publicized 2009 gubernatorial election between Jon Corzine and Chris Christie is an example. He responds, “Exactly. Corzine specifically amended the New Jersey Family Care rules for the benefit of Lakewood’s citizens, enabling 11,000 more individuals in Lakewood — one out of four frum Lakewood residents — to get health care coverage. With market-rate health plans costing between $15,000 and $22,000, the value of this to Lakewood — to yungeleit, to rebbeim in the mosdos, and to young working families with children — was huge. At the same time we also leaned hard on Corzine to provide more state aid to the town, so as to help reduce taxes. Corzine did so, giving Lakewood the largest aid increases in the state, year after year. He delivered more than any other governor had done on real estate taxes, and helped make health care affordable. Yet he was a terribly weak choice for business and the state budget. Hakaras hatov, specifically and clearly defined both by the Zeideh and my father, dictated to vote for someone like

him, yet that didn’t make him the better candidate and certainly not the popular one.” And the relationship with Governor Christie? “Christie has a real appreciation for what we are doing here, and the warmth that he has shown to us has been extraordinary,” Reb Aaron confirms. “His door has been kept open for us, and he is a careful listener who follows through on what he says. He’s a person you can rely on and while he makes political engagement and debate fun and exciting, his administration is the most serious and effective one that we have ever seen. “I was fortunate to spend some time with him and Lakewood’s mayor, Reb Menashe Miller, in Eretz Yisrael this past spring, and you could see how he was connecting the dots between the ancient history of Eretz Yisrael and the yeshivah. In our meetings with the highest Israeli officials he consistently expressed his pride in Lakewood and in us — the frum members of his delegation. This was ironic, as some of the officials were secular Israelis; here was this non-Jewish, very popular governor, directly telling the Israelis how proud he was to be not only governor of New Jersey but ‘governor of the greatest yeshivah in the world.’”

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Child of the Yeshivah

Far from the political front, there is another more painful problem: a town with more school-age children than spots in the classroom. He drops the numbers with an ease that suggests familiarity with their ramifications. “There are, bli ayin hara, over 4,000 births a year in Lakewood — 84 children a week, or the equivalent of three new classrooms full of children every single week. This is an unbelievable brachah and a nachas, yet imagine the pressures of having to open a new school again and again for another 366 kids. We need to do that in Lakewood every single month.” He pauses to let the number sink in. “That means buildings, teachers, people with initiative, finances. We are fortunate to have seen such incredible talent step up to the plate, young yungeleit who have opened new mosdos year after year, but the job is nowhere near done. “Of course we feel for the families who are left out until the last day before school starts and sometimes into the school year. The first time Rav Steinman came to Lakewood, Rav Malkiel asked him to address this painful topic and to speak to the roshei hamosdos. He directly instructed them to form a committee that would make sure that every child has a placement before the schools open. Twice the mosdos collectively took the drastic step of not opening, as some children were not in yet. That was contentious and difficult and yet the kehillah stood together, keeping the schools closed for more than a week until every last kid was placed. Since then it’s been slightly better, and yet this area still needs a real tikkun — it’s something that weighs heavily on us.”

Beyond the Yeshivah Today, Rabbi

Kotler has been thrust into another role on the wider Orthodox stage, returning the favors and guidance he received from yeshivah activists like Rabbi Naftali Neuberger and yblcht”a Rabbi Avrohom Fruchthandler by making time to share his approaches with

young administrators and board members of all sorts of institutions. In an increasingly troublesome economy, the feasibility of continuing to build and expand Torah institutions isn’t simple. “Let’s not forget that the Zeideh built Torah continuously through the Great Depression, the Soviet Revolution of the 1920s, the churban of Europe, and recession after recession. If there is one lesson from him, it’s the difference between a pure constant and the noise and hype of the surrounding environment.” He says it’s vital to remember the importance of the goal and take pride in it. This is especially true when accessing assistance that might be available. “Remember, overall frum Torah communities are a huge net benefit to the economy. We are good citizens, paying an inordinate share of taxes, carrying the full brunt of public school districts we don’t utilize, and paying for things that are of no interest to us. The Zeideh encouraged Torah communities to seek available funding, so long as it was done in a legitimate and proper manner. He did so both here and in Eretz Yisrael, and he trained many of the young askanim who would later rise to great prominence in this area. His disciples Rabbi Yankel Weisberg and Rabbi Moshe Sherer were pioneers in this arena.” The chiddush of Rabbi Aaron Kotler, at least according to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Karmel, national director of P’eylim/Lev L’Achim, isn’t about making a good sales pitch, but about making Torah learning inspiring and relevant to donors. “The growth of the Torah world has increased the pressure on the small number of wealthy bnei Torah,” Rabbi Karmel explains. “And as much as they understand and accept their responsibility, the situation had reached the point where they cringe when they are told Rabbi So-and-So is calling. They can’t bear hearing about another missed payroll and another overcrowded building that needs to be renovated.” What Rabbi Aaron Kotler has created at BMG is “insider” help, where balabatim

are willing to share the burdens because they truly are sharing the nachas. Reb Aaron is a bit philosophical about all this. “There are two components to selling a product or concept: the item, and your relationship. If you sell a bad product, you may be able to get one or two people who are really close to you to buy, because you have the special relationship. But you won’t find any other customers, because you don’t have a good product. If you have great products but don’t know anyone, you will be equally doomed, because you have no relationships. The way I see it, Torah is the most valuable merchandise on earth. We need not ‘sell’ it; our job is simply to strengthen and expand the relationships.”

Fifty Years On the eve of the yahrtzeit

commemoration, people like to analyze Rav Aharon Kotler’s legacy, looking toward the future and asking what work still needs to be done. “The Zeideh championed the concept of Torah l’sheim Torah in America, not to be a rabbi or a teacher, but to be a ben Torah whose life is steeped in Torah. Now, 50 years after his petirah, we see the gift he gave all of us, how from this little beis medrash with 13 talmidim came forth the fabric of American Torah Judaism, with communities and neighborhoods centered around yeshivahs; how from this beis medrash came the kollel movement that is the anchor of North American Jewish cities, spawning chadarim, mesivtas, Bais Yaakovs, and countless Torah-oriented balabatim — and we are seeing giants in Torah who toil, in relative obscurity, in every corner of this city. That is his legacy, and our job is to help ensure that all of Klal Yisrael can appreciate it and partake in it.” When all is said and done, does he believe that the Zeideh, who chose Lakewood because it was far from New York and envisioned a spartan, simple life for yeshivahleit, is proud of the yeshivah of 2012 and the booming community it’s spawned? “Well, I think we have a long way to go to live up to his lofty ideals, but I firmly believe we are on the right path.” —

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