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4 Sivan 5759 - May 19, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Rabbi Asher Yaacov Koppel Rosenberg, zt"l, Pioneer of the Ba'al Teshuvah Movement

by Rabbi Yonasan Rosenblum

One word comes to mind whenever one thinks of Rabbi Yaacov Rosenberg, zt'l, who passed away Shabbos Parshas Zochor: unique. Every Jew, of course, is unique -- born with certain kochos hanefesh that are his or hers alone and with a particular mission in life. Yet there are those who can be contemplated only in terms of themselves. They are incapable of being compared to anyone else, and remind one of no one else. Rabbi Rosenberg was such an individual.

As one of the founders of Ohr Somayach in the early '70s, Rabbi Rosenberg was present at the first flourishing of the modern ba'al teshuvah movement in Israel. Later he founded two more institutions: the summer Torah Institute in Moodus, Connecticut, soon to enter its twentieth summer, and Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem, now in its sixteenth year. Both reflect his unique approach to kiruv.

Beginning with Emunah

Rabbi Rosenberg believed that the greatest gift that one Jew can give another is to bring him to a connection with the Ribono Shel Olom. From his very first conversation with any prospective ba'al teshuvah, emunah was his subject - - not the joys of a Torah lifestyle, not even the intellectual excitement of Torah learning, but pure unadulterated emunah, the knowledge that there is a Ribono Shel Olom, Who determines everything that happens. Where others approach emunah only obliquely, Rabbi Rosenberg confronted it head on.

When he was asked by those involved in the kiruv field which seforim he recommended teaching, he replied that it did not matter as long as the teacher transmitted his own emunah. The essence of all kiruv was, in his view, conveying one's own emunah and the ahavas Yisroel that motivates one to want to share that emunah with other Jews.

He succeeded in instilling emunah in others because he was himself a very great ma'amin. Rabbi Aharon Feldman, who knew him for nearly half a century, remarked that his emunah was like that of earlier generations. It was not based on intellectual exercises but on a living relationship with Hashem.

Even in his last years, after one leg had been amputated and he suffered from a seemingly endless series of medical problems, he projected an awesome strength and confidence. His strength, one immediately realized, derived from his complete trust in Hashem.

Rabbi Rosenberg conveyed the sense of a man with no doubts. He was found of noting that Amolek is the gematria of sofek, doubt, and that doubt is always the entry point of the yetzer hora. It was his task to uproot those doubts. One of his constant injunctions to the teachers in Machon Shlomo and the Torah Institute was: Never be defensive or apologetic about any aspect of Yiddishkeit.

The source of his strength was his rootedness in a tradition that placed ultimate emphasis on the attainment of emunah peshuta. He was descended from generations of leading Hungarian rabbis going back to the closest talmidim of the Chasam Sofer. His father Rabbi Shlomo (Alexander) Rosenberg built the OU Kashrus Division and ran it for over thirty years.

The elder Rabbi Rosenberg had one simple answer for all those who came to him with one kind of proposal or another. After they had finished their pitch and explained how the proposal in question would redound to the greater glory of the O.U. and its head, he would invariably ask one question, "Und vos zugt G-tt -- And what does G-d say?"

His son followed in that tradition. He insisted on not just a purity of ends, but a purity of means, in kiruv work. He never let the quest for numbers tempt him into the use of means that were a falsification of G-d and His Torah.

Complete Focus on the Goal

Rabbi Rosenberg's possessed a remarkable clarity of vision. He was a completely focused person. Rabbi Reuven Drucker of Edison, New Jersey, applied the metaphor of a laser beam in describing him. Lasers contain no more energy than any other form of light; their unique power comes from the fact that all the light waves are moving synchronously. That was Rabbi Rosenberg. Prior to every conversation, every action, he said, one must know precisely what the tachlis (goal) is. Without that, one is just wasting one's time.

He succeeded in transmitting his own focus to others. He showed talmidim how to translate thought into action. Without the culmination in action and a real change in one's person, all the elevated ideas in the world were worthless in his eyes. Every visit to his office culminated with one question: How is the Torah acting in the world, how is it refining and changing you?

His passing on Shabbos Zochor was appropriate because his life was an ongoing battle against Amolek. (He was particularly found of martial metaphors in describing the war we must wage as individuals and as a community against every trace of Amolek.) Amolek is related to the language of melika, the complete severance of head from heart. It was precisely that lack of connection that he sought to restore.

A letter recently received from a student last summer in Moodus conveys something of the strength and determination he was able to pass on to talmidim. This particular student came to Moodus in the midst of his medical residency. He begins, "After Moodus, I knew I could become the type of person I always wanted and needed to be." The student then goes on to describe everything that he has done in the past six months on the checklist he worked out with Rabbi Rosenberg: (1) severing all personal relationships standing in the way of progress as a Jew; (2) moving to a religious community; and (3) maintaining a daily learning schedule, even during his residency, and regular davening so that almost every free moment is directed towards spiritual development.

Kiruv: All or Nothing

In kiruv work, Rabbi Rosenberg set himself the highest standard of success. Helping a person feel more positive about his Judaism or getting him to take on a few more mitzvos was, in his eyes, at best a chesed for another Jew, but it could not be described as successful kiruv. That meant nothing less that a total commitment to mitzvah observance. Without that commitment, there was no discovery of emes and the Ribono Shel Olom.

Rabbi Rosenberg could set himself such high goals in large part because of his own firm emunah. People fail in kiruv work, he said, because they do not believe sufficiently in the power of Torah. If they would just let the Torah speak and get out of the way, they would do much better. Talmidim, he said, must have the feeling that what they are hearing is not personal opinion, not even a personal understanding of the Torah, but the Torah itself.

Many in kiruv, he felt, also lacked belief in the power of bechira, in the capacity of every Jew to "acquire the world in a moment." He truly believed, said his son-in- law Rabbi Berl Gershenfeld, that every word, every conversation, carried within it the potential for a person to change his life completely. And he approached every meeting with a non-religious Jew in that vein.

That first conversation with Rabbi Rosenberg proved for many to be the most uncomfortable of their lives. He had, said Rabbi Tzvi Teitelbaum of Silver Spring, Maryland, an uncanny ability to make the comfortable feel uncomfortable (as well as the ability to make the uncomfortable feel comfortable). Those on their way to the pinnacle of success in the secular world would come to him and find themselves on trial.

Rabbi Rosenberg didn't talk much -- he didn't have to. He would ask a few questions, occasionally raise an eyebrow in response to something said but, in general, he let the interlocutee keep on speaking. And the more one spoke, the more felt oneself sinking into a hole of one's own words. As one described degrees, awards, successes, Rabbi Rosenberg let you know as economically as possible how little impression any of this made on him. (Perhaps it helped that he too had been a successful businessman before devoting himself to kiruv work.) When it was all over, one felt an overwhelming sense of having made a fool of oneself.

That opening conversation functioned on two levels. On one level, it was a test. Rabbi Rosenberg was conscious of himself as one person with limited resources, and he wanted to use those resources as efficiently as possible. "The whole world is drowning," he said, "and I'm just one man in a dinghy. If I try to pull everyone into the dinghy, it too will sink." He wanted to know whom to try to save first.

Rabbi Rosenberg was looking for those who were capable of stepping outside of themselves and reexamining the bases of their lives from the ground floor. He rejected the idea that anyone can "make" another Jew frum. At most one can determine whether someone is honest and open to change. He sought those with enough honesty to look at themselves through G-d's eyes not the world's. Someone capable of turning the searchlight on himself, he knew, was one who would ultimately be capable of living in accord with Truth and making a commitment.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt"l, Rabbi Rosenberg's father-in- law who spent thirteen summers together with him in Moodus, used to say that the term ba'alei teshuvah is inappropriate to describe those who have never known a Torah life. Rather they should be described as mevakshei emes, seekers of truth. And that is what Rabbi Rosenberg was testing for: the desire for emes.

In that opening conversation, Rabbi Rosenberg also made clear that it was you, not he, and certainly not the Torah, that would have to change. The message was: You are on trial because I'm offering you something of infinite value, and I must first know that you are worthy of receiving it. Nothing made the Torah seem more dear than the emphasis at the beginning on the trials that it would require.

Working with Individuals

The Summer Torah Institute and Machon Shlomo were Rabbi Rosenberg's crowning achievements -- total reflections of his personality and approach to kiruv. Both were small institutions. Rabbi Rosenberg believed in working with individuals. He had no interest in heading an institution if he could not maintain an intimate relationship with every single man or woman in it.

His students were bnei beiso (members of his household). In Moodus, he created a dining room big enough for everyone to sit together with him. And there he showed those who had never experienced a Shabbos table what a Jewish home is like. In Jerusalem, he frequently taught in his home, and the entire yeshiva gathered in his home on Chanukah and other occasions.

One summer in Moodus, he called over Rabbi Reuven Drucker and told him, "Es kumt mir a mazel tov!" When Rabbi Drucker asked why, Rabbi Rosenberg told him that he had just been informed of the birth of his hundredth grandchild. Noticing the look of confusion on Rabbi Drucker's face, he hastened to add that he was referring to the hundredth grandchild via his talmidim. He counted each one as his own.

Rabbi Rosenberg was not a public speaker. The message he wanted to convey had to be tailored to each individual. His natural milieu was one-to-one conversation, whether under the tree by his office in Moodus or in his home in Jerusalem. There he would advise each student privately, helping him analyze each situation and challenge in light of Hashem's demands and those of the yetzer.

There was no one better at uncovering the wiles of the yetzer and helping others to recognize them as well. One student commented after his passing that even though Rabbi Rosenberg is no longer here his voice still rings in his ear. Confronted with any decision, he still hears Rabbi Rosenberg asking, "What does the yetzer hora want here?"

Even those who initially resisted his advice often found that his words had a way of niggling under the skin. Suddenly six months later, they would find themselves acknowledging, "Rabbi Rosenberg was right!"

He taught his talmidim that most questions beginning with "Why?" (unless they are in the form "Why does Rashi or Tosafos say this?") are more likely than not to be products of the yetzer designed to deflect from a full Torah commitment. In question and answer sessions, he refused to answer as many questions as he was asked. First the questioner had to acknowledge what was really bothering him and how the information sought was relevant to his life.

He was a master psychologist, who, on occasion, completely turned around lives in a single conversation. A young man came to Rabbi Rosenberg with hair half way done his back. Rabbi Rosenberg asked him why he wore such long hair, and the young man replied that he thought it was beautiful. "No it's not; it's ugly," Rabbi Rosenberg told him.

After a little more sparring, the young man confessed that his hair was a form of rebellion. "I'm also rebelling," Rabbi Rosenberg said. "I'm rebelling against a world of sheker and falsehood. Come with me, and I'll teach you how to rebel without long hair."

The young man did.

Rabbi Rosenberg was an ish emes. As Rabbi Nachman Bulman said in his hesped, "He never swerved from his emes, whether it was popular or not."

He once told a student undergoing a particular trying time in his own life, "Never take external opposition as a sign that Hashem does not want you to pursue a particular path. That may only be the nature of your test."

Only if one felt the opposition from within, should one desist.

He made his talmidim acutely sensitive to the nuances of falsehood all around him. A student once told him excitedly of a group of Jews so eager to make Kiddush Levana on a cloudy night that they had rented a helicopter to take them above the clouds. Rabbi Rosenberg did not share his enthusiasm. "Too bad they ruined such a beautiful mitzvah by telling someone," was his only comment.

He had a deep suspicion of words and their power of deception. His own speech was exceedingly simple and direct. In the words of his son-in-law Rabbi Pinchos Auerbach, "He never spoke higher than himself."

Unless he was sure he understood something clearly, he would never mention it, and he often spoke derisively of those who became entranced with the "higher" aspects of Torah, of which they had little real grasp. He preferred to concentrate on a few messages, repeated frequently, that he knew were true.

Machon Shlomo

Machon Shlomo was deliberately structured as a two-year program, not a yeshiva devoted to producing talmidei chachomim. Many of the students are in their late twenties or early thirties and have taken off time from successful careers as brokers, businessmen, lawyers, screenwriters, or doctors. Rabbi Rosenberg did not consider it realistic for most of them to give up their careers for full-time learning. Rather than striving to be something they could never be, he showed each student how he could use his individual strengths and personal history for the service of Klal Yisroel. If you do not use your individual strengths and find the derech of avoda that is suited to you, he warned them, you will end up destroying yourself and all those around you.

His primary goal was that every student leave Machon Shlomo with the skills to make Torah learning a regular part of his future life and with the confidence in himself to raise a normal frum family. For Rabbi Rosenberg, the injunction of Pirkei Ovos "to raise up many talmidim," meant not only producing talmidim but literally standing them on their feet as self- sufficient frum baalebatim.

And he succeeded. Not only in producing solid baalebatim but in producing true bnei Torah. His talmidim did not simply return to the jobs and careers that they had left after a two-year hiatus. They came back transformed. Rabbi Rosenberg showed them how to continually develop their emunah even in the most high-pressured situations, where it is so easy to lose sight of anything besides the immediate task at hand.

Before taking any job, he counselled one student, figure out the nature of that job and what is required for success and then make sure to do just a little bit less. Leave some room for HaKodosh Boruch Hu so you do not forget that He is the source of your success, not you.

For all the financial success that many Machon Shlomo graduates have obtained, what marks them most is their modesty and how little importance they attach to these accomplishments. They continue to learn: at 5:00 a.m. every morning, for instance, several car-pools of Machon Shlomo graduates leave Passaic for New York City to learn and daven before heading to work. Machon Shlomo graduates honor talmidei chachomim to a degree sometimes missing even in graduates of leading yeshivos, ask shailos and seek rabbinic guidance in every aspect of their lives.

Of course, many Machon Shlomo graduates have continued on in full-time learning. And they too were a source of great pride to Rabbi Rosenberg. But those who did not, never felt that they had somehow failed.

Rabbi Rosenberg told his talmidim repeatedly that they were complete ignoramuses from a Torah perspective. He wanted them to understand clearly what a total shift of perspective was required to become a Torah Jew. But at the same time, he fervently insisted that each one of them had a crucial role to play within the Orthodox world, and that though they might not ever be talmidei chachomim, they were fully capable of greatness as Jews.

He often told the tutors in Moodus that they should view their students with awe. "Do you know what this person had to overcome to become frum?" he would marvel. In their mesiras nefesh, their quest for the truth, their sensitivity to the kiddush Hashem, he deeply believed that his talmidim, and others like them, had much to teach Klal Yisroel and would play crucial roles in the future of the Am HaTorah.

Twenty-one years ago, Rabbi Rosenberg underwent serious heart surgery from which he was given little chance of surviving. And in recent years, his doctors marveled as he fought back time and time again from the brink of death.

Yet he lived not only to see the granddaughter born shortly after the surgery, but also to serve as sandek at the bris of her first child (and his first great-grandchild) four days before his petirah. More, his greatest accomplishments -- Torah Institute and Machon Shlomo -- were the work of those last 21 years.

Those 21 years were not only a great gift of the Ribono Shel Olom to Rabbi Rosenberg personally, but to all of Klal Yisroel.

The author would like to thank Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan for his help in the preparation of this article.


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