A Conversation With Rabbi Yosef Tendler - Early Years and Recollections of Lakewood in the Time of Rav Aharon Kotler
By BaltimoreJewishLife.com/Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein
Rabbi Yosef Tendler is the Menahel (Principal) of Ner Israel’s High School and has had an impact on thousands of talmidim.
The following is his story, told in his words (the author has paraphrased a bit):
I was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as was my mother. She attended law school in the 1920s, certainly one of the few orthodox women to do so in those years. Her father was a shochet and a mohel who later went into business. When he could no longer shecht due to frailty, he stopped eating meat in America.
My father, Rabbi Isaac Tendler was a talmid of Radin in Europe. When he came to America, he learned in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, from which he received semicha. It was located at that time on the Lower East Side. near our home. He eventually took over as Rav of the Kaminetzer Shul, but did not take a salary for that position. This shul had been founded by people who came over from Kaminetz in Poland which was his hometown. He also gave shiurim for a group of young men who founded the Bachurei Chemed Shul.
When I was a young child, the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School was large and attracted boys from all over New York. I was a student at RJJ from first through 12th grades. In my days there were 1,300 students in the school. RJJ was located five blocks from our home. I walked to school from first grade on. Our schedule in first grade was, 9AM to 12 noon the first session of Hebrew Studies. Then we had an hour for lunch and recess. From 1 PM to 3 PM we continued our limudei kodesh. There was a one-hour break at 3PM. (During the 3PM break, mothers from the “Mother’s Club," of which my mother was the president, came and prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all the boys.) Then we commenced our English Studies from 4 to 7 PM.
When my older brother, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, was in 8th grade at RJJ, the rebbe of his class became ill. The principal of the school knew that my father gave Gemara shiurim at his Shul and asked that he temporarily take over the class as a substitute. He stayed for 43 years.
RJJ was a major institution in Jewish life. It also had a summer camp, Camp Deal. I remember that the fee was $12.50 a week and boys came for two-week sessions. There were no shiurim at Camp Deal. In those days, summer was for fun and the parents were just happy that their children identified themselves as Jews.
I asked Rabbi Tendler what has changed that today there is so much learning outside of school, including vacation time and in summer camps. He said that when the Holocaust survivors came to America, they brought with them a new attitude. He said, "I remember the Kamenitzer and Mirrer yungeleit who came from Shanghai who would come up to the mountains in the summer and were determined that no day should pass without a few hours of limudei kodesh. This was a chidush – a novelty – the idea that we have to learn Torah year round. It took a while for that to become the norm on the American scene. There was no chinuch for girls in those years. My sisters all attended Seward Park High School, as did the other girls from orthodox families."
After high school I went to Yeshiva University, which by that time had moved up to Washington Heights. I was placed in a level where one could aspire to enter the shiur of Rav J. B. Soloveitchik in the following year. In order to prepare myself I decided to do some “enrichment” during the summer. With two friends from YU, I went to learn in Lakewood. I had no intention of staying and, in fact had re-registered for the next term at YU.
When I came to take my leave of the Rosh Yeshiva at the end of the summer of 1950, Rav Aharon Kotler asked me to please come back to Lakewood for Simchas Torah, to which I agreed. I was so uplifted by the Ruach - spirit - of that Simchas Torah that I decided to stay for one year. I recall that, during the hakafos, Rav Elya Svei put me into a headlock and dragged me over to Rav Aharon. He asked the Rosh Yeshiva to tell me to remain in Lakewood.
(After my first year, a young man came over to me and asked mechila –forgiveness. I asked him why he was asking mechila and he told me that when he heard that Rav Aharon had accepted a bochur from YU into Lakewood, he went into the Rosh Yeshiva to protest. He asked forgiveness because he now realized that Rav Aharon had a better understanding than he.)
In 1950, Lakewood had approximately 40 bochurim, single students, and 20 yungeleit, married students. Many of the married ones were Europeans from Kletz. When I left Lakewood, eleven years later, there were approximately 60 bochurim and 40 yungeleit, many of whom were American born.
Rav Aharon Kotler was the founder and the major presence in the yeshiva. He also had an apartment in Boro Park and spent half the week in New York raising money and the other half in Lakewood teaching Torah. He was basically there from Thursday evening until Monday afternoon. He said a shiur either Shabbos afternoon or motzoei Shabbos, depending on the season. He gave another shiur on Monday afternoon and then he would return to New York. When I came to Lakewood, the shiur was one and a half hours long. The Rosh Yeshiva spoke rapidly and packed so much information into each shiur that some of the bochurim asked him to shorten the shiur to one hour, which he did.
Although the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon, spoke rapidly - Rabbi Tendler said that he had no problem understanding him while listening to the shiur. He does, sometimes, have difficulty, today, deciphering the shiur as recorded on tape.
Rabbi Tendler recalls, when I was in Lakewood, I would go back once a year to New York, to hear the shiur of Rabbi J.B.Soloveitchik, which he gave on the yahrtzeit of his father. These lectures lasted for four hours and were masterful. He devoted two hours to Halacha and two hours to Agadah, all dealing with a common topic. Everything was well organized and in great depth.
Rav Aharon, on the other hand, spoke for one hour, but in that hour, the Rosh Yeshiva said so much that we had to review it and strive to comprehend the full depth of his shiur.
A few hours before the shiur, he would prepare the shiur with five or six selected talmidim. Immediately after the shiur; all of us would break up into groups to review the shiur while the Rosh Yeshiva was still in the Bais Hamedrash.
Rabbi Tendler recalls that some of the other Lakewood talmidim in his time included: Rabbi Meir Herskowitz of Stamford, Rabbi Chaim Epstein of Zichron Meilech, Rabbi Yankel Schiff, the son in law of the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan and Rabbi Yitzchok Wasserman of Denver, Rabbi Yaakov Schnaidman and Rabbi Chaim Bressler of Scranton and Rabbi Yechiel Perr of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, Rabbi Meir Stern of Passaic and Rabbi Moshe Hirsch of Slabodka and Rabbi Yitzchok Feigelstock of Long Beach
After my second year in Lakewood, I went to the Rosh Yeshiva to discuss leaving the yeshiva. I wanted to return to Yeshiva University to get a secular degree. It was simply unheard of in those days not to get a college degree for reasons of parnassa – earning a living. Rav Aharon told me the following and it made a deep impression on me. He said to me “How can you rely on the sechel of a teenager to decide your future. I am older and have more experience in life, rely on me,” and I stayed on.
There were two boys there in my time who some would label “bums.” There were other students who felt these two didn’t belong in Lakewood and they went to Rav Aharon to ask him to send them away. The Rosh Yeshiva replied that anybody who wants to be in a yeshiva such as Lakewood in that generation must have something in him or he wouldn’t stay. Therefore, we have no right to expel them unless they are harming other students. One of these two eventually became a Rosh Yeshiva.
Now, we moved on to the shidduch scene in Lakewood back in the days when Rabbi Tendler was a bochur. He related that, at least in his circles, the boys and girls would socialize either at the local Mizrachi or at the Young Israel. The foundations for many marriages started there. Shadchonus (matchmaking), in my circles, was practically unheard of. When my relatives and the members of my father’s Shul heard that I decided to learn in Lakewood, they asked me in all honesty, how would I ever find a shidduch? Who would want to marry someone who didn’t go to college? The common perception in those days was that anyone who learned in Lakewood was not a candidate for marriage. I responded that I hope to find a girl like the kollel wives in Lakewood.
Rav Aharon was my shadchan. One day, I was sitting and learning in the Beis Hamedrash and I noticed a gentleman looking at me. This guest was walking around, but I sensed that he was observing me. That was my future father in law, Rabbi Menachem Perr, who was friendly with Rav Aharon and Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky from their days in Slabodka.
When he came to America, he continued learning in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon on the Lower East Side under the Maiseter Illuy.
Kollel life in Lakewood was a little different than it is today, but then, it was a different world. The women had jobs teaching; there was the Bezalel Hebrew Day School and Afternoon Hebrew Schools. We were paid $40 a week and that would not have been a bad amount if we actually had received the check every week. The joke was that we received $40 a week, every four weeks. When I later left Lakewood, they were 16 weeks behind, but eventually I received all the checks. The Rosh Yeshiva was meticulous in keeping the yeshiva’s commitment to its talmidim. Rent was $80 a month, so a kollel check paid your rent and you had an equal amount left over for other expenses.
When I was in Lakewood, the yeshiva served regular milk and Breakstone sour cream. There was no cholov Yisroel. Recently, one of my grandsons was sitting in class in a school in Lakewood and the teacher was talking about Rav Aharon. My grandson raised his hand and said, “My grandfather says that Rav Aharon allowed non cholov Yisroel to be served in the yeshiva dining room.” The rebbe said, “Rav Aharon would never allow such a thing”. Evidently, that rebbe looks at Lakewood then as it is now.
Another difference is even more pronounced. When some of the yungeleit decided that they no longer wanted to send their children to the local community day school they founded their own Cheder that was run by Rabbi Leib Rotkin zt”l. In the early years there were very few students and Rav Aharon allowed the school to be co-ed in the lower grades.
At that time it was not that typical to spend many years in Kollel. I left Kollel after less than four years because I ran out of money. I went to the Rosh Yeshiva and he told me that I should apply to teach the 5th grade at Bezalel Hebrew Day School and that, if I were hired, I should still come learn in the yeshiva in the afternoon and receive the $40 Kollel check. I applied but someone else was hired.
Then, Rav Aharon sent me to apply for a 6th grade position in Asbury Park with the same stipulation that I could continue in Kollel while teaching in the morning. That also didn’t work out and I returned home and told my wife: I did my hishtadlus, I made the effort. Now I am sitting down to learn. A couple of days later Rav Dov Schwartzman, Rav Aharon’s son in law at the time, came to me and said that he had gotten a call from Rav Yaakov Weinberg that Ner Yisroel was interested in a rebbe to teach 12th grade.
That was in 1961. The Mechina had been founded in 1957 and there had been a turnover of menahelim – principals - every year. After teaching 12th grade for one year, I was asked to teach the first shiur in the yeshiva. At that time, Rabbi Weinberg asked me to suggest someone to teach my 12th grade shiur. I called one of my chavrusas in Lakewood, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann. He told me that he had enough money to last one more year in Kollel and felt that he had no right to leave Lakewood, where he was gaining so much Consequently I called another of my chaveirim in Lakewood, Rabbi Nosson Nussbaum and proposed that he come to teach the 12th grade in the Ner Israel Mechina. He came for a “probeh” and was given the position.
During the two years that I was saying shiurim in the Bais Medrash, I told Rabbi Weinberg that I preferred dealing with a younger age group. In 1964, having gone through seven menahelim (principals) from 1957 to 1964, Rabbi Weinberg, with the haskama of the Rosh Hayeshiva of Ner Yisroel, Rav Ruderman,zt”l acquiesced and asked me to become the Menahel of the Mechina and also to teach one of the 12th grade shiurim .
At that time, we needed to find someone to replace me in my position of saying the first year shiur in the Bais Medrash. Rabbi Ruderman asked Rabbi Nussbaum to give the shiur and this opened up a vacancy for the 12th grade. I then called Rabbi Heinemann and he told me, “I ran out of money and am now ready to come.” He came down for a “probeh” and the Rosh Hayeshiva offered him the position.
Although Rav Aharon Kotler was very warm, he was not someone who would call over a bochur for a shmooz. However if a talmid sought to have a relationship, he was there for him. Rav Ruderman used to tell me that even after I came to Baltimore, Rav Aharon was concerned about my welfare and always inquired about me.
Rav Aharon Kotler wanted America to produce devoted bnai torah that was his goal. He felt that American Judaism was watered down Yiddishkeit. In my youth, aspiring to know Shas was as strange and unimaginable as wanting to speak Chinese. Rav Aharon and the other European rabbis who came over changed the aspirations of their talmidim.
Today, Lakewood has thousands of bnai Torah. There are yeshivos all over that instill the aspirations that Rav Aharon taught us. His talmidim have talmidim and there are doros yeshorim who have come from the devoted few who clustered around Rav Aharon back in those early days.
About Rabbi Tendler's Father in Law, Rabbi Menachem Perr
Rabbi Tendler also talked to the author about his esteemed father in law:
My “shver” father in law, Rabbi Menachem Perr, was a rabbi in South Ozone Park, near Kennedy Airport. He was in a non-frum community and he operated an afternoon Hebrew School in the shul where he had a positive influence on the children. Presently, there are very prominent talmidei chachomim and even a Rosh Yeshiva who attended my shver’s Hebrew School in Queens. Many of these youngsters spent shabbosim in his home and he was totally devoted to them.
In addition to opening his home to these youngsters for meals, he also instituted a game room in the Shul. By playing in the game room, they could have fun on Shabbos and not be tempted to watch television, attend movies or go on family trips on Shabbos. He also influenced the parents to send many of these children to excellent yeshivos ketanos (as Day Schools were called at that time). Many of them grew up to become frum baalebatim.
My father in law once bemoaned the fact that one of the rabbeim in the yeshiva ketana, who did not understand the reason for the game room, scolded one of the boys for playing ping pong on Shabbos afternoon. It bothered him very much that this rebbe did not understand what the situation was in that boy’s home and community.
As soon as his members would become frum, he would advise them to move to a frum neighborhood.
When my son, Aharon, was born, the bris was going to be on Shabbos. I spoke with my father in law and assumed that he would certainly not miss the bris. He said that he could not come because he could not leave his Shul. At that time, the neighborhood had changed and he no longer had a minyan on shabbos. He usually had three Jews and one black fellow who wanted to convert. I said to him, who are you kidding, you have three Jews and they aren’t even frum. His answer was that as long as he is there and they are sitting in shul listening to him daven out loud and hear him read the parsha from the Torah without Bircas Hatorah then they are not violating Shabbos. “For three hours they are not mechalel shabbos.”
When Rabbi Perr passed away, there was a shloshim gathering addressed by Rav Henoch Lebovit zt”l. When he finished, a woman arose in the balcony and said that she wanted to say something. She recalled that Rabbi Perr would go around on Rockaway Boulevard on Erev Shabbos and try to persuade people to close their stores and to come to Shul. The people who came did so only out of respect for the rabbi. Her relative refused to close his store on Shabbos. Rabbi Perr asked him to at least agree not to smoke on Shabbos and he complied. He did not smoke on Shabbos, out of respect for the rabbi, for the rest of his life. Because of the rabbi, he remembered that there is such a thing as Shabbos, this woman concluded.
It’s all a matter of perspective. We need to gain some understanding of the world that existed in America before today’s renaissance. It was not ideal but we need to appreciate those who did not succumb. In reality, they laid down the foundation for the Yiddishkeit that we enjoy today. They fought for Shabbos, Kashrus, Chinuch, things we take for granted today.