Celebrating 7 Years Of Kollel Kol Shira
By Yochanan Gordon
The last mitzvah stated in the Torah is “And now you shall write for yourselves this shira (song) as a testimony to the Children of Israel,” which requires each of us to write a sefer Torah. Yet the Sefer Yetz-irah, a Kabbalistic text often attributed to Avraham Avinu, tells us, “G‑d created His universe with three books: b’sefer, b’sfar, b’sippur.” Torah is not just meant to be written and learned on an individual level, but to be passed down in the manner of a sippur.
Many are of the opinion that our mitzvah of learning Torah is fulfilled only when we have taught it to others. That is why we say in Shacharis, “Place in our hearts understanding to comprehend and know, to listen, to learn, and to teach.” There are those who spend their time learning Torah, while others learn and write in order to develop their own character. And then there are people like Rabbi Don Well of Cedarhurst, whom I had the great pleasure of talking to this past week, whose life is dedicated to learning and teaching Torah.
Kollel Kol Shira is not your ordinary kollel. As the rosh kollel, Rabbi Well founded it seven years ago in memory of his dear daughter Shira, who passed away at the age of 41, leaving behind her husband Avraham Aberman and four children living in Eretz Yisrael. So while the verse I opened this article with states that the Torah should be written as a shira, testimony to the Jewish people, Rabbi Well founded this kollel to perpetuate the legacy of his daughter Shira, whose life was defined by her love for Torah and teaching.
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Rabbi Well, who was born in Haifa, was educated in the Beis HaMidrash LaTorah, also known as the Hebrew Theological College, in Skokie, Illinois. Rabbi Well’s parents both descend from a long line of rabbanim and mechanchim; his paternal grandfather served in a prominent rabbinic position in the famous Chassidic city of Uman in the Ukraine, and his father held a number of rabbinic posts across the United States after emigrating from Israel. At the age of 13, Rabbi Well was sent by his parents, who then lived in Kansas City, Missouri, to the Skokie yeshiva, where his father had received rabbinic ordination.
Rabbi Well spent about a decade learning under some of the most prestigious Torah educators, whose skill in the field of chinuch, coupled with their depth and breadth of Torah knowledge and their dedication to Torah, avodah and yiras Shamayim, had set the stage for the burgeoning of Torah scholarship that we have experienced in our times. His rebbeim in Skokie included Rav Mendel Kaplan, Rav Mordechai Rogoff, Rav Chaim Zimmerman, and Reb Chaim Dovid Regensburg. If you have read Rabbi Berel Wein’s autobiography, “Teach Them Diligently (Veshinantam L’vanecha),” and recall some of these names, it is because Rabbis Well and Wein are near contemporaries, separated by just a few years.
After graduating from the Beis HaMidrash LaTorah in Skokie, Rabbi Well moved on to Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, where he studied under the tutelage of Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht and Rav Mordechai Breuer, who was undoubtedly the greatest Tanachist of our times. Rav Breuer is famous for his approach to limud haTanach and his philosophy of shitas ha’bechinos, or the aspect approach, which suggests that differing styles and internal tensions in the Biblical text represent different aspects of Torah which cannot be merged without losing their identity.
When I asked Rabbi Well whom he considered his rebbe muvhak, his primary teacher, he said it was Rav Moshe Hershler. Rav Hershler is famous for his five volumes on refuah and halachah as well as another 60 volumes of sefarim that he had authored in his life despite passing at the relatively early age of 71. In addition, Rabbi Hershler was an editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudis alongside Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin. Rabbi Well brought Rabbi Hershler to Beis HaMidrash LaTorah as rosh ha’yeshiva and thereafter forged a lifelong friendship with him, seeking his guidance in all matters. As Rabbi Well takes a moment to reflect on the greatness of his rebbe, he is at a loss to describe the profundity of Rabbi Hershler’s genius and how much more he could have accomplished given more time in this world. But while Rabbi Hershler was his rebbe in Torah, he attributes his approach in teaching to the analytical system of Rav Breuer.
After marrying, Rabbi Well, who earned a doctoral degree in educational administration and psychology at the University of Chicago, made aliyah. He spent five years teaching at Tel-Aviv University, where he founded the master’s program in educational administration. He also served in the Israeli army. Rabbi Well then moved back to the States and served as the president of Beis HaMidrash LaTorah.
A decade later, Rabbi Well was appointed dean of undergraduate Jewish Studies and director of the James Striar School and Isaac Breuer College at Yeshiva University. His professional eminence in Jewish education took him to the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York as executive vice-president.
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Given his upbringing and life experiences, it became clear to me that Rabbi Well is not simply a successful mechanech, but education is flowing through his veins. Indeed, the 25 or so regular attendees at his daily shiurim would attest that the manner in which his classes are developed and presented indicates that the Torah permeates his entire being.
In the early years of Kollel Kol Shira, the classes were held Monday through Friday at Congregation Bais Medrash, also known as the Shtiebel, on West Broadway in Cedarhurst under the auspices of Rav Dovid Spiegel. Four years ago, the kollel moved to the Young Israel of Woodmere, which has become a co-sponsor of the daily shiurim. Rabbi Well is extremely grateful to Rabbi Hershel Billet for the hospitality that has been extended to him, giving him the ability to do what he loves most and to honor the memory of his late daughter Shira in the most fitting manner.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, the two-hour morning kollel consists of classes on the Torah and sifrei machshavah. The shiurim on Tuesdays and Thursdays focus on Navi and halachah. The weekly schedule concludes on Friday with a shiur on parashas ha’shavua and insights into tefillah. The Chumash shiurim include insights by the masters of p’shat and careful analysis of pesukim as highlighted in sourcessuch as Sefer HaK’sav v’HaKabbalah, Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman, and the Malbim. The discussion also includes less well-known commentators, such as Professor Umberto Cassuto, who served in the early 20th century as chief rabbi of Florence as well as the chair of Hebrew language at the University of Rome. He later moved to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was noted for developing a well-supported system of Bible analysis.
Among the sifrei machshavah, the shiur has spent a significant amount of time going through the Sefer Kuzari by Rav Yehudah HaLevi and the Sefer HaIkkarim authored in the 15th century by HaRav Yosef Albo, and is now journeying its way through the more contemporary Michtav Me’Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the famed mashgiach of Gateshead and, later, the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The shiur often employs extensive source sheets to engender proficiency with the various texts. The Navi shiurim proceed at a solid pace in order to give students a full familiarity with and appreciation of Nach. For those interested in learning Nach in depth, Rabbi Well also gives a Nach shiur on Sundays at the Shtiebel that focuses on a pasuk or two during each shiur.
The kollel is set apart in numerous ways from the traditional kollel system designed for those learning full-time after marriage. The members of these shiurim vary in background and age but are united around the subject matter and their affection for Rabbi Well. He involves everyone and gives all participants equal opportunity and encouragement to ask questions and challenge the rosh kollel. On Fridays, some students give their own presentations pertaining to the parashah. Most of all, there is a feeling of kinship that has been developed over the years that brings the group together at various times, whether to celebrate a siyum or in fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum to visit one’s rebbe during the yamim tovim.
Perhaps the most notable aspect is the enrollment at the kollel, consisting primarily of ba’alei batim at various stations in life who are looking to learn and internalize the lessons of the Torah and make it a part of their everyday lives. The mishnah in Avos states, “Torah that is not accompanied by work will ultimately become void.” Although there is a lofty pursuit in living a lifestyle where Torah is one’s main occupation, following the school of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, and those of his stature, still, the Gemara attests, “many strove to attain the level of Rebbe Shimon and did not succeed.” The bulk of the Jewish people should learn how to live everyday life according to the Torah, leaving the metzuyanim to attempt to fill the role of Rebbe Shimon in each generation.
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Rabbi Well has not been alone in bringing the kollel to where it is today. Aside from the shuls and rabbanim that have hosted the kollel, two notable people deserve special mention.
Two years ago, Rabbi Well’s home was one of those damaged by Hurricane Sandy. A significant part of the rabbi’s Judaic library—over one thousand volumes—was destroyed as well, much of it irreplaceable. It was a trying time for the rabbi, as it was for many in this community. Not wishing to suspend the learning, he looked for someone to sit in for him while he was getting his life back in order. Rabbi Matis Friedman of Woodmere rose to the occasion, alleviating the rabbi’s worries that the Torah of his devoted students might be impacted.
When we talk about a celebrated Torah scholar and teacher, we usually focus on him and on the people who have benefited from his sagacity. However, we see that Rebbe Akiva, who amassed 24,000 students, exhorted his students to attribute his and their Torah knowledge to one person—his wife, Rochel, saying to them, “All that is mine and yours is due to her.” As my conversation with Rabbi Well was concluding, he asked me to express a large sentiment of gratitude to his wife, without whose support none of this would have been possible.
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Chazal state, “If you do not perceive your rav as an angel of G‑d, do not request Torah from his mouth.” Generally, when we hear the description that so-and-so is a malach, we think of him as a holy person. But there is more to it than that. An angel has no wants or desires of his own. The angels in G‑d’s kingdom carry out His will to perfection. When Chazal say that one should view his rav as an angel of G‑d, they are saying that a rav’s dedication—to the Torah and to his students—should be like that of the angels. Rabbi Don Well is completely devoted to his students and he cares about each of them individually. And if you spend some time talking to Rabbi Well in Torah you get that feeling that he is giving it over in the way it was given to us at Sinai.
This Purim will mark the seventh anniversary of the establishment of Kollel Kol Shira, since which time Rabbi Well has diligently been teaching Torah to anyone interested in learning from him—free of charge. May the many hours of preparation and the presentations cause Shira’s soul to be elevated throughout the Heavenly ranks and stand in good stead for the rabbi, his rebbetzin, and their children and grandchildren. v