By Rabbi Yitzie Ross
“Is there a secret to raising children who love Yiddishkeit?” “How do you teach your child to be a mensch?” “What can I do to ensure my child is a ben Torah?” These are some of the more common questions I receive every week for my YidParenting newsletter.
Although I would not respond to these questions during a typical week, this week has been anything but typical. On erev Shabbos, we all lost a tzaddik and a leader in Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky, zt’l, affectionately known by many of us as the rosh yeshiva. When I was hired as a rebbe in the Yeshiva of South Shore over 20 years ago, the rosh yeshiva was one of my mentors. Therefore, I would like to answer some of the earlier questions based on my relationship with the rosh yeshiva, zt’l.
The first question was regarding the secret to raising children who love Yiddishkeit. Well, there is no secret. The rosh yeshiva, zt’l, had a method to make sure every child he came in contact with was happy. He smiled. All the time. Not one of those fake smiles—kids can spot those a mile away. The rosh yeshiva had a genuine smile that would light up the room.
Approximately nine years ago, my bechor, Binyamin Zev, was with me in the yeshiva early in the morning, and he was running down the hallway, as five-year-olds tend to do. Of course, he ran smack into the rosh yeshiva. I was mortified. The rosh yeshiva, zt’l, was not. He grasped Binyamin Zev’s hand warmly and said, “I love when yingerlach are happy!” I remember vividly as Binyamin Zev just stared at him in awe. The rosh yeshiva, zt’l, gave him a pat on the cheek and, with a huge smile, continued on his way.
Last summer, I brought my son Moshe to yeshiva to pick something up. The rosh yeshiva, zt’l, was there and my son was looking at him in awe. When the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, saw my Moshe looking, he quickly ran over and said to me, “Nuuu, take a picture!” He then put his arm around Moshe. It was pure love, and everyone felt it.
If we want our children to love Yiddishkeit, we have to genuinely love being Yidden. We have to be excited about every day. When the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, came to this area, it was spiritually empty and desolate. How did he raise a family that loved being Yidden when they were surrounded by so many challenges?
It seems that the rosh yeshiva and rebbetzin, z’l, loved being Yidden. They didn’t just survive day by day. They embraced being Jewish. They passed on that special Kamenetzky smile that melts away other people’s issues. We can do the same. If we show our children genuine love and happiness, they will soak it up. Smile at your kids and show them how much you love being a Yid. It worked for the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, and it’ll work for you.
The next question was how to teach your child to act like a mensch. Watching the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, it’s apparent that there is no way to teach this concept; it seems you have to live it. What’s a mensch? A mensch is someone who cares.
A few years back, one of the boys in the yeshiva ran into and broke the glass panel outside Mrs. Weinberg’s office. Mr. Vaiselberg put tape on it to make sure it wouldn’t get worse, and a replacement panel was ordered. Later that day, the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, came in with his driver, and, as he often did, stopped by to say hello.
I was there when he walked in and saw the broken glass. His smile disappeared and was replaced with a concerned look. “What happened?” he asked. “When will this be fixed?” Mrs. Weinberg told him it was being taken care of. It didn’t help. He walked to the other side and back, visibly worried. It was only when the menahel, Rabbi Herzberg, came out and reassured him that it was a priority that he settled down.
Don’t get me wrong. The rosh yeshiva, zt’l, had nerves of steel. You can’t create a community without being able to deal with seemingly insurmountable issues. However, broken glass can hurt someone. The rosh yeshiva, zt’l, was a mensch in the purest sense of the word. He cared too much to just ignore the danger.
When raising children, we need to lead by example. If a Hatzalah ambulance goes by, we need to stop and say a kapitel of Tehillim. Our children will take notice and it will become ingrained in their neshamos. We need to call up someone who is sick, and let our children see and hear us wish them a refuah sheleimah. Taking our kinderlach to a nursing home is a wonderful way to do this as well. Show them you care.
When I was 20 years old, I was already a seventh-grade rebbe in the yeshiva. Since I had no beard, I looked really young—actually I looked like one of the boys. Whenever I went to a bar mitzvah, and the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, was there, he would walk next to me and introduce me as “a star rebbe.” I realized right away he was trying to make sure that people didn’t think I was one of the bar mitzvah boys. It happened many times. Why did he do this? It’s because the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, cared. I taught a few of his grandchildren, and this special menschlichkeit was passed down to them as well. If we want our children to be menschen, we need to show them how it’s done.
The last question was about how to ensure our children are bnei Torah. Over the last 20 years, the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, would stop by many classrooms to watch the children learning. About 11 years ago, he asked my fourth-grade class a question. “Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur? Wouldn’t it be better if we first did teshuvah, and only then asked Hashem for a good year? Why would Hashem want to give us a good year if we’re full of aveiros?”
As is typical with fourth-graders, they all raised their hand with various answers. Some were on topic. Some were not. I’m not sure that all the boys even knew why they were raising their hands. Everyone else was, so why not? The rosh yeshiva had no problem with this. If the boy didn’t have a good answer, he would smile and say, “Close.” I was thinking, “Close? The boy made no sense!” The rosh yeshiva was unfazed.
After a few more tries, he told the boys, “Rosh Hashanah is when we acknowledge and crown Hashem as king! It’s not about asking for a great year; it’s telling Hashem, ‘I love you! You’re my king, and I need you!’” It wasn’t a dvar Torah—it was the rosh yeshiva’s way of living. His excitement was off the charts and the boys loved it. When he left the room, one of the boys said one word—“wow.”
That’s right. It was “Wow!” The love for Torah was obvious and contagious. We need to get excited about Torah, and that excitement will trickle down. The rosh yeshiva loved every second of learning, and it didn’t matter who was learning!
Even when the boys played outside, the rosh yeshiva considered it a part of Torah. He would stand outside with his trademark smile and watch for a minute. He didn’t have time to spare; every second was so important. However, watching Yiddishe kinderlach playing was pure nachas.
At my son’s bar mitzvah last year, he came in to dance. As the band played, he was having the best time. The funniest part is, as people were getting tired, they were leaving the dance floor. In his nineties, the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, outlasted most of them!
This is how you create bnei Torah. You fill them with excitement for Torah, mitzvos, and, yes, even dancing and ball-playing. Everything you do is with simcha and happiness. I never saw the rosh yeshiva wake up in the morning, but in my mind, he was the epitome of “yisgaber k’ari.” He came into every day as if it was the only day. If we have that mentality, our children will become bnei Torah as well.
Although the rosh yeshiva is not with us anymore, his lessons and attitude live on. We should be zocheh to raise ehrliche bnei Torah, with middos tovos and a love for Yiddishkeit. That’s what the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, would want.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser and the author of the YidParenting blog, newsletter, and 5TJT feature column. To sign up for the weekly e‑mails and read the comments, you can visit www.yidparenting.com.