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Flowers In The Desert

Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky

Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky

It’s compellingly fascinating how small and seemingly innocuous events can lead to big things. And we never really know what will work out and what won’t. That you just never know is a vital lesson to keep in mind when you are undertaking a project or are on a mission—and that the most important thing is to carry on in a well-meaning and determined fashion and do your utmost.

This is what I was thinking as I sat down to talk with Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, shlita, of Yeshiva Toras Chaim, or the Yeshiva of South Shore, as the school season comes to an end and the institution embarks on what will be a momentous and watershed event in the yeshiva’s long history. This summer, Rabbi Kamenetzky will celebrate his 90th birthday, and while he is nowhere near anything resembling retirement, one of the objectives of this next year is to retire the yeshiva’s $4 million mortgage. It sounds to this writer like a nice birthday present.

So I thought that to mark this great occasion, after all these years of brief but pleasant exchanges with the senior rabbi, we would sit down across from one another at a time when neither of us was in a rush and Rabbi Kamenetzky would tell me the story of how he was led by a combination of interesting events to open a yeshiva and a shul in the Five Towns. That may not sound like such a big deal, considering how yeshivas and shuls seem to be opening in this area now on a regular basis. But this was some 58 years ago, in 1955.

Sitting with the rabbi on a rainy Friday morning recently, I quickly discover that I will not be able to grasp or transcribe the entire unfolding of these events in one session. The rabbi has a knack for graphic detail as he recounts events. I soon realize that he is not just taking me through a play-by-play of those days but is delving deeply into fascinating details in a way that feels he is reliving them moment by moment as we speak.

For his upcoming birthday, the yeshiva that he has built and led for many decades, Yeshiva of South Shore, will host a series of events marking this milestone over the coming summer. First there will be a special birthday celebration event and reception at the Tribeca Rooftop at the end of July. Then a few weeks later, in late August, but before this early school year begins, the yeshiva’s popular “Concert on the Lawn” summer series will be held at the Lawrence Country Club. This year’s program will feature a special and unique performance by one of the top names in contemporary Jewish music, which I have been requested not to disclose at this time.

Before we get to that, however, one has to wonder about the events and decisions that went into moving out to the Five Towns in the 1950s when it was not an easy or natural choice as it is today. As time marches on, the specific Divine intervention, or hashgachah pratis, becomes clearer, rather than receding into the haze of history.

The story of the prominent role in the evolution of Torah life in America played by Reb Binyamin and his parents and siblings dates back to the patriarch of the family, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt’l, and what his grandson, Rav Mordechai, has described as his problems with making a living in Europe and his decision to emigrate to the U.S. in 1937. Rav Yaakov first traveled to Seattle, where he secured a position as a substitute rav, replacing the rabbi who had taken a year off, and then a few years later he moved on to Toronto, where he was hired as the chief rabbi upon the passing of the previous one, Rav Graubart, before finally moving to New York about a decade later, where he would ultimately impact thousands of lives at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.

As a young married man in the mid 1950s, Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky was a rebbe at Yeshiva Toras Chaim in Brooklyn. “As yeshiva began, I was given a list of students in my class, but there were no addresses on the list,” the rabbi says. So he began to ask the boys where they lived, and one in particular said that he and his family resided in Cedarhurst. Where was that—or what was that—was part of the ensuing conversation. The yeshiva at the time was located in the East New York section of Brooklyn, and most of the students were from nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Rabbi Kamenetzky was intrigued and interested to find out where this Cedarhurst place was and what the nature of the community was out there somewhere in what he believed at the time to be the hinterlands of Long Island. So he spoke to the young man’s father, who invited the rabbi out for a visit. The trip from Brooklyn to Cedarhurst did not take place right away, as the rabbi explains that between his teaching obligations and the private lessons or tutoring he did for some of the students, there was just no time for the voyage to Cedarhurst before chol hamoed Sukkos.

The rabbi’s first impression, he says, was that he had never before seen such large homes. His student’s family lived on Peninsula Boulevard and Cedarhurst Avenue. In those days, he says, Peninsula was just two lanes and there was not much traffic. The shul everyone attended on Shabbos was quite a distance away and was described to him as being on the other side of the tracks—in this case, the Long Island Rail Road tracks.

The family and their neighbors took an immediate liking to Rabbi Kamenetzky, and over the short term tried to persuade him to open a shul in that area of the community. The rabbi says that he did not really want to move out here at the time, uprooting the lives and the lifestyle of his family in Brooklyn. He conferred with his father several times to discuss the matter, and Reb Binyamin says that Reb Yaakov told him, “Flowers in the desert can also grow.”

A short time later, a house was bought in the area that would house the new shul and the new yeshiva, with the assistance of the Lehmann, Kestenbaum, and other families. The rabbi recalls meeting the Jaffe family on Causeway in Lawrence where he said Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, would visit on his swing through the U.S. to help garner support for the new State of Israel.

Reb Binyamin recounts how he received a call from a man who said his name was Forrest asking the rabbi to come to his home because he had a sefer Torah to give him for his new Five Towns shul. It turns out that the man’s original name was Feuerstein—at least that was his parents’ name—and he had obviously Americanized it. Rabbi Kamenetzky came to the man’s home, where the host was dressed in shorts and a T‑shirt and beckoned the rabbi to follow him into a nearby den. It was there that he opened a drawer to show him where the Torah scroll was sitting. He lifted the scroll out of the dresser and placed it on a bed, opened it up, and proceeded to read from the Torah in a beautiful, melodious fashion.

It is now 58 years later and many thousands of young men have passed through the doors of the Yeshiva of South Shore. I asked Reb Binyamin what he attributes his success to, and he stopped to think for a moment and said, “Hashem gave me mazel.” He went on to explain that he has always felt that the success of a certain yeshiva cannot be attributed to the building or the classroom. “It is the rebbe that makes the yeshiva,” Rabbi Kamenetzky says. He marvels at the rebbes in the yeshiva and how they imbue their students with enthusiasm for the study of Torah. He noted particularly one rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Folman, who has been a rebbe at Yeshiva of South Shore for 51 years!

It’s getting late and I see that the story of how these great community institutions developed goes on and on, with each story reminding the rabbi about another related or similar event or experience. So I start to move around in my seat and begin to close my notebook so as to signal that I have to get moving. It didn’t take a second and Reb Binyamin says to me, “I see you have to go.” I told him that I realize that how this yeshiva came to be and how the Five Towns evolved into what it is today cannot be captured in one sitting. I promised that I would be back to hear him recount some of the stories that contributed in their own interesting and even uncanny way to the success of the yeshiva.

In the meantime, as the last few days of school wind down and a summer of momentous celebration is being prepared to mark Rabbi Kamenetzky’s 90th birthday, it becomes less of a mystery to figure out how we arrived at this point. The rabbi says that he has mazel and tremendous siyata d’Shmaya, and that is apparent. But I also see I am looking at the face of a man with a determined but pleasant disposition, with fire in his eyes accompanied by an ever-present soft smile, and I’m thinking about what he said a few moments ago. Yes, it is the rebbe that makes the yeshiva. I don’t believe that he was thinking about or referring to himself; of course not. But as I made my way to my car, it occurred to me that this was indeed the real story—that even unbeknownst to himself, it was Reb Binyamin Kamenetzky who made this great institution. v

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Posted by on June 20, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.