Stopler | Rabbi | Orthodox Judaism

the EmpowErEd Generation

In 1959, no one thought Jewish teens would give up social dancing, mixed swimming, or going to a synagogue without a mechitzah. Even the Orthodox congregations were resistant. But Rabbi Pinchas Stolper had a vision — and a core belief: that many battles for Torah could be won by sticking to one’s principles, being honest and consistent about them, and trusting the youth to follow their Jewish conscience
photos Meir Haltovsky

by Eytan Kobre

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After half a century of public service, one anecdote from his childhood pretty much sums up Rabbi Pinchas Stolper. As a young boy, he’d spend summers at his grandparents’ home in Brighton Beach, just a block from the ocean. The boardwalk, he recalls, “was filled with Jewish Communists, always arguing, as though they would save the world. Once, when I was 11, I was in shul on Tisha B’Av. I left shul and noticed that at the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Brighton Beach, the Communists had set up a sound track with music. I walked up to the sound track and yelled, ‘How dare you play music on Tisha B’Av, the greatest day of Jewish mourning?!’ Lo and behold, the music stopped.” Even at age 11, Rabbi Stolper stood up for the truth, and has spent the next seven decades helping others to see it too. “Pioneer of kiruv” is a term that’s bandied about quite a bit, but back in 1959, when Pinchas Stolper took over the reins of a moribund NCSY and began to water the spiritually arid American Jewish desert, he was as authentic a pioneer of kiruv as they come. It was he, in fact, who coined the now-ubiquitous term “teshuvah movement” in a 1963 article in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Life magazine, to describe the nascent success of NCSY. By 1977, when Rabbi Stolper stepped down after 18 years as national director of NCSY to take the position of executive vice president of its parent organization, the Orthodox Union, it had become the most vibrant Jewish youth group in the country, boasting nearly 19,000 members in 445 chapters. Today, those numbers are considerably larger, with 35,000 members in its ranks and 200 full-time professional staff. Just two of its plethora of programs: NCSY runs numerous programs each summer in

A

How to reach the masses who disparage historical veracity? In conference with former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau

“I saw an advertisement that Yeshiva University was opening a high school — Brooklyn torah academy — in Flatbush. So I tore out the ad, showed it to my father and said ‘here’s a school for me’ ”

the US, Israel, and Europe that draw close to 1,000 teens, and sponsors Jewish student clubs in 300 American public high schools. Before we begin to talk about his storied years in kiruv, Rabbi Stolper takes me on a whirlwind tour of what he’s been up to in the 15 years since he left the Orthodox Union. While he’s authored or edited some 40 publications over the years, there seems to be one ten-letter English word he just can’t grasp: “retirement.” More than a decade and a half after most people have gotten their gold watch and begun bringing their most active years in for a landing, Rabbi Stolper’s achievement-filled life is, if anything, shifting into higher gear. Included in his literary bounty are the first-ever renditions into English of the Torah of his revered rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l. The seforim Pachad Yitzchok, based on the legendary ma’amarim that the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin would deliver on each Yom Tov to a rapt audience of hundreds of disciples, are classics of Jewish thought. But their illuminating glow is only accessible to those who can penetrate their beautiful Hebrew prose, and Rabbi Stolper’s work has opened their riches to those unable to study them in the original. And for the past five years, he’s switched his focus to the history departments of Israeli

universities, which have an agenda of denying the historical veracity of much of our people’s early history. He teamed up with Rabbi Leibel Reznick, an expert in Jewish history and archaeology, translating his 400-page book into modern Hebrew under the title HaTanach min HaShetach. He also arranged for Dr. Yitzchok Meiteles, who teaches archaeology at Herzog Teacher’s College, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, to write a book entitled Lachpor et haTanach: Al Mikra v’Archeologia, which has just been published in English as Excavating the Bible: New Archaeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture. After publishing these volumes, Rabbi Stolper, ever the kiruv pro, thought to himself, How do I reach the wider world beyond academia, to get the message out that “Moshe Emes v’Soraso Emes?” “I decided that one way is to produce a novel for the broad public. I retained a wellrespected frum writer, Rabbi Yosef Reinman, to write The Bible Trial, the story of a black elementary school teacher who teaches Bible stories in class until one day, her principal tells her, ‘Stop, we don’t do that, it’s against the law to teach religion.’ She responds that it’s history, not religion. The case eventually goes to trial on the question of the Bible’s veracity, and what happens at that trial makes up the bulk of the book.” He’s hopeful it will

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make its literary debut under the imprint of a major publishing house sometime in 2013.

Going It Alone Both Pinchas Stolper and his father were

themselves baalei teshuvah of sorts. His maternal grandfather was a son of Chortkover chassidim who remained observant despite the overwhelming religious challenges of the early 1900s in America. At one particularly trying moment, he said to his wife, “Oib ich vet nisht arbeten oif Shabbos, vellen mir shtarben [If I don’t begin working on Shabbos, we’ll starve to death].” To which she responded, “Shtarben vellen mir shtarben, ober Shabbos vet bleiben Shabbos [Perhaps we’ll die, but Shabbos will remain Shabbos].” Rabbi Stolper’s paternal grandfather, on the other hand, came from Eisheshok, a famed Litvishe town near Radin; yet for reasons no one seemed to know, he abandoned observance, never entering a shul even on Yom Kippur. He sent his son Bernard to public elementary and high school on the Lower East Side of New York, but during his teen years, the young man was influenced by people in the Young Israel of Manhattan and the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School to take on mitzvah observance. Ultimately, Bernard Stolper trained for the rabbinate and after taking a position with a Conservative congregation in Montclair, New Jersey, left it for another one in East Flatbush so that his five-year-old Pinchas could attend Yeshivah of Flatbush elementary school. “My father was a firebrand, an ardent Zionist, and devoted Jew. His sermons were filled with excitement, idealism, and dedication. I don’t know who else was influenced, but I certainly was,” comments Rabbi Stolper, who says his most vivid childhood memory is that of his father sitting in front of the radio crying, as he listened to reports of what had befallen the Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. From a young age, Pinchas knew what it meant to go it alone religiously, which would later make him uniquely sensitive to the struggles of NCSYers becoming religious in often unsympathetic surroundings. “Growing up, we always lived in places where there were no other frum Jews; even when we lived in East Flatbush, we were the only shomer Shabbos people there. I remember in my father’s shul, there was a Boy Scout troop, which I joined. But the first program was a hike on Shabbos, so I went to my father and said, ‘How can I be a Boy Scout? It’ll be chillul Shabbos,’ and he said, ‘You’re right.’” In Flatbush, no more than a handful of his classmates were shomer Shabbos; on his eighth-grade graduation trip, almost the entire class lined up to purchase lunch at a treif hot dog stand. In any event, Flatbush didn’t yet have a high school and Pinchas was getting ready to go to Tilden High School. But then, “my grandfather had a copy of the Morgen Journal Yiddish newspaper and I saw an advertisement that Yeshiva University was opening a high school — Brooklyn Torah Academy (BTA) — in Flatbush. So I tore out the ad, showed it to my father and said ‘Here’s a school for me.’

We felt we were right — and everyone else was wrong. we were creating the Jewish state, fighting the British, promoting Aliyah Bet, training to be soldiers, teaching youth
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Mamash min haShamayim.” A further Providential event came at age 15, when, while walking on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, Pinchas was handed a magazine called Hadar. It was the organ of the American Betar, a youth organization affiliated with Zev Jabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement. He read it from cover to cover and was hooked. It was 1945, and with the leadership of Betar returning to civilian life from the American Army, the rebuilding of the organization was under way. The older leaders were articulate, idealistic people who were idolized by their much younger followers. Most of them were secular, or at best, traditional, but Betar’s general policy was to observe Jewish tradition in all of its functions so that everyone, including Orthodox Jews, would be able to participate. Before long, the group numbered several hundred members in ten chapters, mostly in the New York area. By age 16, Pinchas was the leader of the Crown Heights chapter, and within a year, he’d been appointed director of education. The natziv, or commander, of Betar was a brilliant and articulate fellow named Misha Ahrens, later to gain renown as Moshe Arens, who served as Israel’s foreign and defense minister and ambassador to the United States. When he decided to make aliyah, he asked Pinchas Stolper, then all of 18, to assume the role of overall leader of Betar. He did, but he had to run for election to the post, besting another candidate, a Yeshviah of Flatbush and BTA classmate named Meir Kahane, who then resigned from the group and later founded his own version of Betar.

The papers showed a determined Pinchas Stolper being hauled off to jail after welcoming a German soccer team … with rotten tomatoes

“The teenagers had won the day with their straight thinking.” Awards night at National Convention, with regional director Rabbi Louis Ginsburg, Rabbi Stolper, and associate national director Rabbi Chaim Wasserman (R)

Rotten Tomatotes Rabbi Stolper says his real education in organized Jewish life and leadership took place in Betar, “where I developed whatever latent talents I had. We felt we were right — and everyone else was wrong. We were creating the Jewish State, fighting the British, promoting Aliyah Bet, training to be soldiers, teaching youth. We created a camp — which we bought with my bar mitzvah money. If ever there was a school for public life — for youth work, for developing working with people, for fundraising, for long hours into the night, for doing what was necessary, Betar was it.” Most improbably, his involvement in Betar also led Rabbi Stolper to his rebbi, Rav Hutner — although it took him more than a half century to discover the connection. “When my father was in between rabbinic positions, we began davening in the Young Israel of Rugby, whose rabbi was Rav Avigdor Miller. One day, Rav Miller asked me offhandedly if I’d be interested in meeting Rav Yitzchok Hutner, rosh yeshivah of Chaim Berlin, where Rav Miller served as mashgiach ruchani. Without a second’s hesitation, I responded ‘Yes.’ A meeting with the Rosh Yeshivah was arranged and soon thereafter, I became a full-time student in Chaim Berlin. “But it was only 55 years later, in December 2005, that I learned from my old friend Rabbi Chaim Feuerman how Rabbi Miller’s seemingly out-of-the-blue offer for me to meet Rav Hutner came about. The Betar leadership had learned that the mayor of New York City, Vincent Impellitteri, would be hosting a German soccer team at City Hall. We decided

that such a reception, coming so soon after the Holocaust, would be an affront to New York’s large Jewish community, and we decided to disrupt it. On Friday morning, May 5, 1950, about a dozen of us carried a box of leaflets and a big box of rotten tomatoes to a strategic vantage point near the front of City Hall. As the mayor and his guests descended the steps of the building, we counted ‘achat, shtayim, shalosh,’ and let fly with our leaflets and spoiled, splattering projectiles, which scored direct hits. Pandemonium ensued, the police gave chase and I was arrested by a burly Irish cop. “This incident made the front page of every newspaper in New York and beyond, and someone brought the Daily News front page photo of me, wearing a suit and hat and being hauled off to jail, to the Rosh Yeshivah’s attention. He summoned Chaim Feuerman and asked, ‘Ver iz der Stolper? Der yungerman hut chutzpah und mir darfen ehm hoben [Who is this Stolper? This young man has chutzpah and we need to have him].’ It wasn’t long before Rav Miller proposed that I meet Rav Hutner.” A footnote to the story: It was Rabbi Stolper who, five years earlier, had helped bring Rav Miller to the Young Israel of Rugby. Walking one Shabbos in Flatbush, 14-year-old Pinchas asked Rav Miller if he would consider serving his shul, which was leaderless. When Rav Miller said he’d consider it, Pinchas, ever the man of action, told the shul president of his interest. Within two weeks, Rav Miller was the Young Israel’s new rabbi.

Radical Changes

Pinchas Stolper’s

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upbringing had given him the idealism and drive to bring others back to Judaism, and his ten years in Betar gave him the leadership skills to do so, but one further experience served as the testing ground for the possibility of introducing Torah into a secular environment. In 1955, shortly after marrying his wife, Elaine, he became the director of the Long Island region of the Zionist youth group Young Judaea, which had chapters in scores of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities. Although this was not a kiruv position, Rabbi Stolper instituted two major, almost unthinkable, changes during his two-year tenure. The first was eliminating “social dancing.” Unable to talk halachah to his superiors, he talked Zionism and sociology. He argued that a Zionist youth group should have chalutz-style circle dancing, and that, besides, social dancing makes kids uncomfortable due to fear of rejection. The Youth Commission responded, “If you can make it work, do it.” And he did. The second radical innovation was to end the holding of regional events in non-Orthodox houses of worship. He argued that having an Orthodox or Conservative teen spend Shabbos in a Reform temple was unjustifiable, and the Youth Commission again accepted his argument. At one point, Young Judaea’s national director, a Reform clergyman, called Rabbi Stolper to complain that his region had sent hardly any kids to the group’s summer camp. Rabbi Stolper replied that he couldn’t do so in good conscience, since the kitchen was treif. The organization’s response wasn’t long in coming: It rebuilt the kitchen and hired all Orthodox kitchen staff. These experiences served to confirm Rabbi Stolper’s belief that many battles for Torah could be won simply by sticking to one’s principles and being honest and consistent about them. “When substituting for my father as the officiating rabbi at weddings or funerals, I learned the power you have when you’re not afraid to say what’s right. I would tell people, ‘This is the way the halachah says to do it, and that’s what I’m asking you to do.’ And the answer always was, ‘Rabbi, we’ll do whatever you say.’ ” In between Young Judaea and NCSY, Rabbi Stolper spent two years in a totally different position: as administrative dean of the Ponovezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak. One Shabbos morning in shul, Rav Avigdor Miller had introduced his illustrious guest, Rav Yosef Kahaneman — the Ponovezher Rav — and invited his congregants to a Melaveh Malkah that evening at his home in the Rav’s honor. Motzaei Shabbos arrived and the attendance was less than overwhelming — it consisted of Rav Miller, Rav Kahaneman, and Pinchas Stolper. After conversing for over an hour, the Rav turned to Rabbi Stolper and ventured, “Efsher vilst kumen tzu mir in yeshivah in Bnei Brak ? [Perhaps you want to come work

in my yeshivah in Bnei Brak?]” Rabbi Stolper discussed it with his wife and she agreed, and so off to Bnei Brak they went. “The Rav, who had lost ten sons in the Holocaust, was determined to rebuild the yeshivah he’d had back in Europe. I never worked with a person who was so devoted; every second was dedicated to Torah and to the yeshivah.” One day, the Ponovezher Rav was visited by a talented friend whom he hadn’t seen since the war, and invited Rabbi Stolper to join them. The friend was telling him about all the seforim he had written, and then asked, “Rav Yosef, vu zennen eiyre seforim? [Where are your seforim?]” According to Rabbi Stolper, he took his friend by the arm, to a spot that overlooked the enormous beis medrash. He stood there with this Jew, and with tears in his eyes pointed to the hundreds of talmidim engrossed in their learning and said “di, di, zennen meine seforim. [These, these are my seforim.]” In 1959, when Bernard Stolper took ill, the Stolpers returned to the States, where they would shortly embark on writing countless “seforim” of their own.

After Rav Avigdor Miller’s introduction, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l “became my rebbi.” Today Rabbi Stolper is making his wisdom accessible to the public

“Place Your Trust in Me” During the 1950s, the American Orthodox landscape was dotted with examples of dissolution and decline. Hundreds of Orthodox synagogues closed, unable to keep their youth involved. Much of the Conservative movement’s success during this era could be attributed to its professionally run youth organization, USY. Reform also had a flourishing youth group, and there were successful non-denominational groups like BBYO and Young Judaea; only the Orthodox community did not have a viable youth movement of its own. A brilliant attorney and Orthodox communal activist named Harold Boxer first conceived of a National Conference of Synagogue Youth in 1954, but it limped along until its parent organization, the Orthodox Union, decided to disband it after the 1958 National Convention of NCSY ended in shambles. But Boxer, who was never blessed with children
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of his own, insisted over and over again that the effort to create a viable Orthodox youth movement be given one more chance to succeed. He prevailed, and in September 1959, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper became director of the Orthodox Union’s Youth Division at an annual salary of $7,500, but with no staff or budget to speak of. Apart from Boxer and the OU’s executive vice president, Rabbi Dr. Samson R. Weiss, no one believed he could possibly succeed in creating an organization faithful to halachah that would attract nonobservant kids. Rabbi Stolper recalls that “it was only after I read the letters I found hidden in a file that I began to understand why no one wanted to help me or have anything to do with NCSY; they said things like ‘you will last a few months and will soon be gone, just like the others’ and ‘NCSY and the Orthodox Union have no credible formula, no budget, no staff and no notion as to how to reach its goal.’” Yet Rabbi Stolper hit the ground running, and in 1960, NCSY held about three dozen successful regional events, which became 60 in 1962, and 80 in 1964, with thousands of new members participating. He decided to resurrect the idea of a National Convention, which in later years was to become the powerful focal point of the year’s activities, sending kids back home to their respective regions energized by the high-octane spirituality they imbibed there and spurring the opening of many more local chapters. As he retells the story of the 1960 Convention, he is back there in that all-critical moment in time: “About 90 teens showed up at the Monsey Park Hotel in the Catskills, accompanied by shul youth directors from Savannah, Charleston, West Virginia, and Peoria. On Thursday evening, I assembled the leaders to discuss my plan of action. All went well until I mentioned that we would have separate swimming and separate circle dancing. ‘The kids will rebel.’ ‘It’s crazy.’ ‘You’ll alienate the kids, the parents, and the synagogues.’ And then, the coup de grâce, ‘We’re taking our kids home now!’ “When the noise died down, I said, ‘It really is too late to make it home before Shabbos. If

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The Empowered Generation

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Chaim, and Tiferes Jerusalem. “The real key to NCSY’s success was the 18- and 19-year-old advisors who created real bonds of friendship with 15- and 16-year-olds.” Rav Hutner once told Rabbi Stolper that “Mashiach doesn’t come on his own; we must bring him — with chutzpah, holy chutzpah.” And it was, indeed, with some chutzpah, and a great deal of caring and sacrifice, that Rabbi Stolper sparked a religious revolution that continues to this day. “To exist on $7,500 for starters, I had to go to the bank for loans, something I did continuously for 25 years.” Few people at the OU understood the magnitude of what was being accomplished. Every step forward, a secretary, a regional director, required a campaign, as financial crises at the OU were a regular occurrence. “Most of the time, I didn’t take vacations, and the few times I did, I was on the phone or at my desk almost the whole time. What wife would allow her husband to be away six Shabbosos in a row, or allow her husband to come home at 11 p.m. day after day, only to go back the next morning? But my wife did.” Looking back on the special energy of those days, Rabbi Stolper has a parting story: “One year when I was directing the NCSY Israel summer program I got a call from an irate father in New York. ‘You kidnapped my daughter, I want her back! No more of this religion stuff!’ I calmly reminded him that he signed the application and paid the fee, but agreed that if he’d send a ticket, we would get her to the airport. ‘But she’s a wonderful girl,’ I continued, ‘having the time of her life — why destroy the best summer she’s ever had? And please remember, at this point we can’t give you a refund.’ He slammed down the phone. Six months later, I met this gentleman in a bakery on Coney Island Avenue, buying challah and cake on Erev Shabbos. His daughter was in Stern College; he was wearing a yarmulke and sporting a small beard.” The Navi says that children returning the hearts of fathers to their shared Father is a telltale sign that Mashiach is approaching. The holy chutzpah of Rabbi Pinchas Stolper is still paying dividends. —

Rabbi Stolper remembers the opposition from those who said, “raBBi, this is des moines! this isn’t Brooklyn! You can’t get away with these strange ideas!” But, he says, “i would answer, ‘why not let the teens decide?’ ”
you leave now, you’ll foreclose the possibility of ever seeing the creation of an Orthodox synagogue youth movement in North America. I plead with you; place your trust in me, just this one time. Just try it. If it doesn’t work, we can always meet again on Shabbos or Sunday and reassess what we should be doing.’ They had little choice but to allow me to try, but they had one major question remaining: ‘What will you tell the kids?’ I said, ‘Look, I have experience in this area. Why don’t you be positive and give me a chance?’ “The next morning after breakfast, I assembled the teenagers in the lobby. I stood on a chair and said, ‘I would like to give you an idea of our program for today. This morning at 10 o’clock, the boys will go swimming and the girls will play volleyball. After lunch, the girls will swim and the boys will play baseball. Any questions?’ To the utter amazement of all the adults present, there was total, eerie, holy silence. Not a sound, not a murmur. No one said anything. I hesitated for a moment, and then, as though nothing important had happened, casually said, ‘Great, let’s proceed to our first activity.’ It was in those crucial moments that NCSY as we know it today was born. It was the teenagers who had won the day. They had no problem with the new rules.” Rabbi Stolper had perceived a deep truth, on which all of the ensuing success of NCSY would be based — that these youngsters could be trusted to think straight and to choose for themselves an honest, coherent, and inspired path of Orthodoxy — with all of its rules — over the inconsistent, compromised, and bland Judaism that was the norm even in the Orthodox synagogues of the time. Unlike the rabbis, youth directors, and parents who thought all their kids wanted was social dancing, ice skating, and hayrides, Reb Pinchas believed in the maturity and spiritual aspirations of his young charges, and they richly rewarded his trust. The critical issue in those days was mixed (or what was called “social”) dancing. Many rabbis, while acknowledging it was halachically indefensible, felt powerless to stop it; there was even a minority that felt it had a positive effect, drawing kids to the youth group and synagogue and thereby preventing intermarriages. Even into the 1960s, many Young Israel synagogues still sponsored dinner dances. They would use the slogan “You can be a good American in every way and be Orthodox at the same time,” and in that era, social dancing was a quintessentially “American” pastime. Rabbi Stolper remembers well the opposition he faced from people who said, “Rabbi, this is Des Moines! This isn’t Brooklyn; you can’t get away with these strange ideas!” But, he says, “I would answer, ‘Why not let the teens decide? Let them vote.’ And with the teens, we always won. Once the youngsters had bought into the NCSY concept, they remained loyal, even if they didn’t fully understand the logic of what I was requesting.” He also helped his cause by cleverly couching his requests, whether to have separate dancing and swimming or to hold Shabbatons only in shuls with a mechitzah or the wearing of yarmulkes at all times, not in terms of halachic requirements but rather because this was “the policy of the National Joint Youth Commission of the Orthodox Union.” After all, a 29-year-old New York upstart couldn’t very well come into a town and take the local rabbi on in matters of halachah, but the need to uphold organizational policy was a different matter.… The successes of NCSY brought about changes in Orthodox synagogues as well, in part due to the infusion of young people passionate about their Judaism. While today, an Orthodox shul without a mechitzah is an extinct species, back then it was the norm. The older generation of European-born Jews argued for abandoning the mechitzah “in order to attract the youth.” Imagine their shock, then, when an NCSY regional event came to town, requiring the installation of a temporary mechitzah, and all of a sudden, the shul filled with hundreds of enthusiastic young people, most of whom weren’t even Orthodox.

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Holy Chutzpah Two factors were crucial to NCSY’s rapid growth: One was that teens felt genuine ownership of the organization; NCSY was theirs. Rabbi Stolper explains: “Officers on the chapter, regional, and national levels were given assignments and responsibilities, and maturity and idealism blossomed as a result. Young people began to battle with their friends, siblings, parents, the rabbi, and even the synagogue board to defend or enact the successful standards they witnessed at NCSY programs. Our kids also felt treated as adults when we’d invite top rabbis and thinkers — people like Rav Simcha Wasserman, Rav Mordechai Gifter, Rav Nachman Bulman, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rav Henoch Leibowitz and Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik — to participate in national and regional events.” In addition, he recruited advisors from yeshivos across the country, from YU, Torah Vodaath, Chaim Berlin, Ner Israel, Chofetz

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