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Hidden In Public View: Reb Chaim Kaminetsky, zt’l

By Rabbi Aryeh Z. Ginzberg. Chofetz Chaim Torah Center

The late Gaon Rav Chaim Kreisworth, zt’l, once commented on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos that says that the world exists on three things, “al haTorah, va’al ha’avodah, va’al gemillus chassadim.” He noted that while today we don’t have the Torah of old, and we don’t have the avodah of old, we do have the gemillus chassadim of old—That is something we can still do.

What was Rav Kreisworth referring to when he said, “We still have the gemillus chassadim of old?” I believe he was referring to the Chazal that describes the uniqueness of the chesed of Avraham Avinu. Chazal compare Avraham Avinu’s level of hachnasas orchim to Iyov’s. Each welcomed their guest into their homes and catered to their every need. However Chazal teach us that Avraham’s hachnasas orchim far surpassed that of Iyov’s in a few ways. Iyov served water, while Avraham served them wine, and Iyov served his guest chicken, while Avrohom served them meat.

This Chazal is seemingly difficult to understand. Since when is the value of what one serves a guest the determining factor in measuring the significance of the act of chesed? After all, it would seem that a pauper sharing his last slice of bread with a guest is an act far greater than a wealthy person serving his guest filet mignon.

A noted talmid chacham once explained that there is a profound message in this Chazal as to what defines a greater act of chesed. Before Avraham Avinu welcomed his three guests into his home, the standard was to provide one’s guests with water and chicken. The “chesed of old,” the chesed of Avraham Avinu, is to be creative in thought and in deed and bring chesed to a new level not seen before. This was a greater act of chesed than that of Iyov.

Chaim Kaminetsky, zt’l, performed this type of “chesed of old.” He was incredibly creative in searching for new ways to do chesed and without any doubt, brought chesed to a new dimension.

My relationship with Reb Chaim began more than 25 years ago, and I can personally attest that he was a “nistar,” a giant in hidden acts of chesed. Most people knew the “public face” of Reb Chaim, the paragon ba’al chesed in his many public activities as one of the heads of Ohel, president of National Council of Young Israel, founder of at least two shuls, and the singular force behind the upkeep of many others.

Yet I contend that the real chesed of Reb Chaim was not in his public activities of chesed but rather in his private acts of chesed, hidden from even his own family at times, and always from the beneficiaries, spanning decades. It would be no understatement to describe Chaim as a “hidden ba’al chesed in the public view.” Those countless acts of hidden chesed, performed with creativity and originality in the very spirit of the chesed of Avraham Avinu, in this author’s opinion, clearly set Reb Chaim ahead of his peers as one of the most outstanding ba’alei chesed of our time.

In my capacity as rav in the shul that Reb Chaim and I founded together in Hillcrest, Queens in May 1987, called Ohr Moshe Torah Institute (that continues to thrive to this very day), I was privileged to witness firsthand some of those countless acts of hidden chesed. Without doubt, the majority of those acts of chesed will remain hidden from even the beneficiaries of that chesed—which is exactly the way that Reb Chaim wanted it.

A few examples:

More than a decade ago, upon the birth of one of our children, a medical complication arose that required a major surgery and several weeks of hospital care. While it was a difficult period for us, the burden was made a bit easier by the wonderful support from family and friends. And while we were the beneficiaries of much chesed in those days, Reb Chaim’s act of chesed to us personally was in a world all by itself.

After things were getting back to a routine, I mentioned in passing to Chaim in a brief phone conversation that I would be planning a quick trip to Eretz Yisrael to daven at the kivrei Avos and to ask Harav Elyashiv, zt’l, for a special berachah for our child’s complete recovery. The very next morning, as I was driving in my car, the phone in my car rang (before the age of cell phones). A travel agent named Suri said that she was working on getting me reservations to Eretz Yisrael and asked what days I would like to go. I just assumed that my wife, who arranges everything in my life, had contacted the travel agent to arrange my traveling schedule and had given her my car phone number. After we confirmed the dates and times, I asked her how much the ticket would cost. Her response caught me off guard. She answered, “That’s not important.” I was confused. I asked her, “How is the cost of the ticket that I have to pay for not important?” What kind of answer was that? She then explained that someone had asked her to call me and make the reservations, and he was taking care of all the expenses. In addition, she was not allowed to tell me who my secret benefactor was.

I realized at that moment that Reb Chaim set all this in motion. I thanked her and told her I would get back to her to confirm and immediately called Chaim. At first he tried to deny that it was him, but when he saw that I knew better, he made the following heartfelt statement: “Rabbi, you and your wife went through several difficult weeks with a child in the hospital. I’m not a doctor and really could not help you in any way. But now you are going to Rav Elyashiv to get a berachah for her, I can have a small part in helping you get there. Please let me do something.”

This was vintage Chaim Kaminetsky, always looking for creative opportunities to do chesed and most always hidden from the public eye to the best of his ability.

A talmid of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, once asked him whether he had any idea who any of the 36 hidden tzadikim (that exist in every generation) are. He immediately answered, “Yes, I know one.” The talmid’s curiosity was piqued, and he asked, “Rebbe, can you share the secret with me?” Reb Shlomo Zalman responded, “Of course, his name is Rav Shach (zt’l).” The talmid, now thoroughly confused asked, “But Rebbe, Rav Shach is the world’s most famous Gadol Hador! Every man, woman, and child has heard of him. How can he be one of the 36 hidden tzadikim?” Reb Shlomo Zalman responded, “There’s more hidden about Rav Shach’s true greatness than what is revealed to the world.”

Reb Chaim, the public figure, the renowned ba’al chesed, was truly a “nistar” in chesed, for more was done in privacy than what was done in the public arena.

There was a family in my old shul that was undergoing serious financial hardships. They could not keep up with their children’s yeshiva tuition payment schedule and it caused them great stress. I felt that I had to intervene and help them. I scheduled a meeting with their children’s yeshiva administrators to try to work something out for them. I called Chaim to consult (as I did often in my first years as a rav) as to what I should ask for and what I could realistically come up with to help them. After a brief discussion with Chaim, I had a game plan and went the next morning to the yeshiva to make the presentation. As I sat down with the administrators and explained why I was there and outlined my game plan to help alleviate this family’s plight, I was told that there was no longer any problem. Noticing my perplexed look, they explained that first thing that morning, someone delivered an envelope to the office. In the envelope was a bank check for the full tuition owed by that family and a handwritten note that accompanied the check instructing the yeshiva to call that family and tell them that a will was left to the yeshiva to cover tuition payments that were delinquent. And not only was their balance paid, but they are now paid up for the year. The check had no name and neither did the note attached to it.

As I stood up to leave, though I already knew the answer to my question, I asked the receptionist to describe the messenger who had dropped off the anonymous check that morning. Exactly as I expected, it perfectly described the person who drove Chaim’s car at that time. I never called Chaim to tell him that I knew what he did, as per his preference. I left it between him and the Ribbono Shel Olam.

There were so many of these type of stories, whether it was to help a woman receive her get, couples getting fertility treatments, therapy and counseling for troubled youth and estranged couples, for young teenagers in legal trouble, for children of Ohel, etc. the common denominator was that they all shared a secretive, private individual who helped them achieve their goals.

Chaim worked tirelessly to help keep couples from getting divorced, at times providing them with years of professional counseling, which he paid for, and at times inviting them to join his Pesach program free of charge with just a promise that they would try to work out their problems over yom tov.

Many know all about Chaim’s famous Pesach extravagances called “Pesach with the Chevra,” where the highest level of service and ambiance was featured along with a “who’s who” of prominent speakers and personalities. Each year was more creative than the previous one. People were not aware (not even members of his own family) that the program was just a “front” to perform myriad acts of chesed by inviting single parent families, people out of work, singles having difficulties with shidduchim, etc. all to come free of charge to help rebuild their lives. Only in Shamayim is there a complete accounting of how many shattered lives were rebuilt at those Pesach programs over the years. I was zocheh to have been a partner with Chaim all of these years in selecting the families that would most benefit from such an opportunity. Never once did I recommend a family that Chaim did not accept fully and wholeheartedly. The only rule of our partnership was never to reveal it to anyone (and I never did, until now.)

Several months after our shul opened its doors in the basement of my home, Chaim called me on a Tuesday to come to his office at his nursing home on Jamaica Avenue to discuss planning our first community melavah malkah. I protested that the shul was only six months old and it was too soon. He disagreed. We made up that I would think about it and talk again on Thursday. On Thursday when I came to meet with him and tell him that I was prepared to proceed, he showed me on his desk a box of printed invitations all ready to be mailed with a confirmed date, place, and program all arranged. He arranged everything, even personally catering the dinner for the first few years of the shul until we were firmly established. He did these types of things all the time.

After davening together for 14 years, I made a personal and difficult decision to move on to a different community. The community had not grown in years and we were invited to relocate to a community that was experiencing explosive growth. It was an extremely difficult decision as we had developed so many close personal relationships during our years there (which we proudly maintain until today). It would be difficult to separate from such dear friends. As we shared the news of our departure with our friends, the reactions were mixed. Most were gracious and wished us well; a few felt betrayed at our leaving and cut all ties. Chaim, who had been there for us every step of the way, not only expressed his best wishes for us, but pulled another “vintage Chaim.” On Erev Shabbos Chanukah 2001, the day we were finally opening up our new shul after much effort and work, the bell rang at our home. I opened the door and it was a FedEx envelope for me. Inside, I found a brief note wishing us much hatzlachah on our new shul and a membership check for the new shul signed by (of course) Chaim Kaminetsky. It was his way of sending me a personalized message saying, “I’ll always be there for you.” Truth be told, he was.

Even when we disagreed and stood on opposite sides of an issue, and he was passionate for his cause, sometimes even forceful, never did Chaim let it turn personal. Chaim always took the side of the underdog. Once, years ago, that position put him at odds with a large number of rabbanim. But he stood his ground. He called me to help make his case, but I told him I was familiar with the two sides and felt he was wrong on this issue. We had a friendly debate for a while and when we finished we couldn’t budge each other and I felt that he was angry at me. Three days later was Shavuos and the largest and most beautiful bouquet of flowers that I have ever seen was delivered to our home with a brief handwritten note that simply said, “With all my love, Chaim K.” That was vintage Chaim—you can disagree, but a friend of Chaim was a friend for life.

At the large levayah, his old Y.U. classmates sat next to people from his old neighborhood of Pelham Parkway; friends of his children who had long married and established their own families, friends, and neighbors from Hillcrest sat near friends from Ohel and National Council, etc. All were witness to the fact that once you entered into “Chaim’s orbit” you never left.

The great Chassidic Rebbe, Rev Moshele of Pshevorsk once invited a guest into his home, and after preparing a full meal for him, proceeded to make up his bed for him to sleep in. The guest was embarrassed and protested, “Please Rebbe, you do not have to spend your valuable time in preparing my bed.” And Rav Moshele responded, “I am not preparing your bed; I am preparing my bed.”

Reb Chaim Kaminetsky spent much of his life in what seemed like preparing beds of others (whether Ohel children, troubled youth, childless couples, single parent families, couples with marital problems, Yidden in Eretz Yisrael, friends and neighbors in Hillcrest and the Bronx, etc.) In truth, he was busy day and night for so many decades preparing his own bed, the bed to be used for his eternal reward in the Olam Ha’Emes. As to what that bed must look like after such a productive and chesed-filled life, we have no idea. Without doubt, it probably is located close to the bed of Avraham Avinu himself.

Yehi zichro berachah. v

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Posted by on January 17, 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.