Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Ellul 5762 - August 14, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rabbi Nachman Bulman -- the Man Who Belonged to Everyone

by M. Samsonowitz

Part I

At Rabbi Bulman's passing on 26 Tammuz (July 6, 2002), thousands of people were thrown into shock and grief. The mourners were drawn from every echelon of Jewish society.

What had attracted everyone to Rav Bulman was his rare combination of mind, heart, talent, and perception. Rav Bulman was a man of all seasons, a man for any situation. He was a person in whom one could confide and whose advice one could rely on; a person who could launch into a deep exposition of any historical or philosophical issue; a person who realized you were in the grips of despair before you did; a person who had the answers to intellectual conundrums; a person who knew how to put you gently in your place; a person who was forever busy but always accessible.

When there was no one else to turn to, there was always Rabbi Bulman.

Early Years

Reb Meir and Ettel Bulman were Gerrer chassidim who had moved to the Lower East Side from Poland. Reb Meir had lost his first wife in childbirth and his second wife in a pogrom. He had also lost two children. Now in their 40s, the Bulmans beseeched the Imrei Emes of Ger for a brochoh for children. The result of that blessing was Nachman, who was born in New York on January 18, 1925.

Reb Meir was a learned, faithful Jew. He was one of the founders of the famous Lower East Side "Polishe shul" which for years he helped run. He celebrated a siyum on Shulchan Oruch Orach Chaim with the Mogen Avrohom every year, and taught a regular mishnayos class.

Young Nachman grew up in a home and society which radiated an intense, European-style Polish-Jewish atmosphere. Only at the age of six, when he began to attend public school, did he learn his first words of English.

The daily route to yeshiva took him past threatening hoodlums. As soon as his father could find an older boy to walk his son to school for protection, he transferred the boy out of public school and enrolled him in the Rabbi Jacob Joseph school. The public school teacher warned Reb Meir that, if he learned in a yeshiva, his son would never learn English. How ironic this threat proved to be, in light of the thousands of people who were inspired over the years by Rav Bulman's eloquence!

It was soon apparent that the Bulmans had been blessed with an unusually gifted son. Young Nachman was a voracious reader with a particular interest in history and philosophy. In a way, he never was a child; he had little interest in games or sports. His phenomenal mind retained everything he read. As a child he could recite the names of all the kings and queens of the major European dynasties, for example. Even his classmates looked up to him as something of a prodigy, more leader than peer.

For high school, Reb Nachman attended Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon and then studied in its rabbinical program. He received semichoh and a B.A. (in philosophy) from Yeshiva College.

Although he grew up in New York, the people who most influenced his life had their roots in prewar Jewish Europe. In yeshiva he was inspired with a love of Torah learning by Rav Polayeff, a great talmid chochom who had escaped from Europe. Other rebbeim with whom he studied Torah included HaRav Moshe Bick, the famous posek, and HaRav Dovid Lipschitz.

During the week, Reb Nachman learned Torah in the Litvishe yeshiva way. On Shabbos and Yom Tov he absorbed the atmosphere of his parents' Polishe shteibel, a place that resonated with love of Torah and chassidus. For years, he was also a frequent visitor at the tishin of the Modzitzer Rebbe, HaRav Shaul Yedidya Taub.

Rav Taub was a well-known chassidic leader. It is said that his appearance was like that of a mal'ach Elokim. The Modzitzer Rebbe was also known for his beautiful musical compositions and his rapturous singing. He was able to carry a crowd of thousands with his voice, filling them with feelings of deveikus. Reb Nachman, who had also been blessed with powerful musical talents, was profoundly moved by the Rebbe's niggunim. Later he inspired thousands of his own talmidim with his haunting renditions of the melodies of Modzitz.

By the time he was a teenager, young Nachman was a powerful, confident leader. He was highly esteemed for his impressive scholastic abilities; his language skills and delivery were exceptional; and his pleasant singing voice made him an outstanding baal tefillah. At the age of 14 he was already giving shiurim on Kuzari to his friends. His intellectual accomplishments were enhanced by an exceedingly soft heart and concern for his fellow Jew.

Even at a young age, his intellect, his eloquence and his compassion all came together. These went along with some daring and even impudence when it came to fighting for the underdog.

Once, for example, he saw a younger boy waiting on line in the school cafeteria for his lunch. The piece of meat the cook slopped on the boy's plate was pathetically small, but when the youngster dared to ask for more, he was rudely rebuffed. Outraged, Reb Nachman grabbed the skimpy piece of meat, stood up on a chair and brandished the offending object for all to see. Then he launched into his oration: "THIS they call a piece of meat?! This is supposed to sustain a student of this esteemed institution for an entire day?! For shame!"

It was one of the most memorable speeches ever given in those august halls. (And the poor hungry boy whose cause he had championed was allowed more food.)

When Reb Nachman was 17, one of his professors ridiculed the idea of the resurrection of the dead. The young Nachman put all his considerable debating skills to use in disputing the professor's case. The professor grew increasingly frustrated as he realized he was losing the argument, even though he was certain he was right. Recounting this early escapade, Rav Bulman used to laugh when he recalled how the professor had become so vexed that he called out, "Hair will grow on the palm of my hand before there will be a resurrection of the dead!"

The young Nachman had unhesitatingly retorted, "That's not a rational argument!"

Unusual Study Program

Reb Nachman's immersion in his studies was total. During the years leading up to his marriage, he studied the major classics of world philosophy. He was well- read in world literature and had a general knowledge of the sciences. He also picked up a working knowledge of German and French.

In Jewish subjects Rav Bulman's knowledge was encyclopedic. He could read a book or a newspaper in English, Hebrew or Yiddish with amazing rapidity. He knew the major Jewish philosophic classics, like Kuzari and Nefesh HaChaim. He was a master of every period of Jewish history. He studied all the chassidic classics and was particularly attached to the writings of the Sfas Emes.

But undoubtedly the writer who had the greatest impact on his worldview was HaRav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, whose Nineteen Letters he had chanced upon as a teenager, and whose Torah philosophy illuminated Rav Bulman's path throughout his life.

Many of the attitudes and principles he upheld in the rabbinate came straight from Rav Hirsch's weltanschauung. Foremost among these was the idea of an independent kehilla: he had a vision of a community formed of both Zevuluns and Yissochors, all serving G-d with mutual love and respect.

From Hirsch he learned to insist on the total separation and independence of Orthodoxy from inauthentic Jewish groups, while working to attract irreligious Jews back to Torah with warmth and eloquence. Hirsch taught him the importance of da ma shetoshiv, "knowing what to answer" those whose views were not in accord with Torah. His standards of honesty, integrity, and truth, his idealism and his deference to all gedolei Torah, were strengthened by the Hirschian model that inspired him.

Rav Bulman loved seforim stores. Over the years, he accumulated a massive library of Judaica -- all of which he had avidly read. He was a meticulous librarian who systematically shelved all his books and knew exactly where each sefer was.

Early Speaking

Because of his exceptional abilities, Reb Nachman was tapped at an early age to speak at many yeshiva affairs where normally only the yeshiva rabbonim would be expected to speak. A contemporary of his recalls him as a "very religious and idealistic young man who stood out. He was a very inspired individual who was drawn to chassidic sources. He was a powerful speaker and very influential."

His voice was resonant and powerful. He never needed a microphone; his voice could project to an entire hall. Equally notable was his singing. He had a very beautiful tenor voice. When he led the prayers, the worshipers were often moved to tears.

Aware of his son's unusual talents and love for learning, Reb Meir Bulman pushed his son in the direction of the rabbinate.

Marriage and the Rabbinate

In 1950, the young Reb Nachman married Shaindel Freund. She was also from a warm, Polishe home. Very few Jewish girls at the time had the aspirations she did: she longed to marry a yeshiva bochur.

Rabbi Bulman's wife was to prove her exceptional resilience and devotion to the same ideals during the 52 years they spent together. She valiantly weathered the unending stream of visitors and students, the constraints on her husband's time, the many changes in location and her husband's frequent absences to give lectures all over the world.

In those days, a sincere, inspired yeshiva student suffered trials which are almost unimaginable today. Among Rav Nachman's contemporaries, many a young man completed his yeshiva studies and then assumed a position in a nominally Orthodox synagogue which did not have a mechitzah between men and women. Rav Nachman's convictions made this unthinkable.

Finally, he found a position in the town of Danville, Virginia, a small Orthodox community which consisted of about 30 families. Most of the families were not even religious, although they tentatively wanted to keep the shul Orthodox.

Life in Danville

On the eve of his first Rosh Hashanah with the community, Rav Bulman learned to his dismay that the women did not sit upstairs in the balcony on the holiday, but downstairs near the men. He instructed the gabbai to erect a mechitza, but arrived on Yom Tov to find that the man had done nothing more than hang up a sheet as a partition. It was kosher, but it looked awful.

Even worse were the looks in the eyes of the congregants. He could well imagine what was being said behind their prayer books. At home that night, he lamented, "I'll tell them what I have to say tomorrow -- but after that, I guess I'll have to leave and try my hand in business."

He had prepared a great droshoh for the next morning. But then he stood up. "Neither you nor I are ready for what I was planning to speak about."

Instead, he began to speak from the heart about the importance of adhering to halacha. At the end of the speech, there was a hush. After davening was over, the congregants approached him with bowed heads, and wished him a "Good Yom Tov." Not a word was ever again mentioned about the mechitza.

Throughout the years, Rabbi Bulman suffered non-stop from stubborn synagogue board heads, being voted out and talked down by disgruntled congregants. Yet with his great wisdom, he eventually won most of them over.

Danville had its own in-house apikores, a self- proclaimed heretic who actually did have a PhD in philosophy. Although he felt it was beneath him to show up in shul to pray, the man liked to show up at the Sunday morning shul breakfast so he could spar with Rabbi Bulman on issues of Jewish philosophy. The other congregants were very proud that this PhD scholar could never best Rabbi Bulman.

The doctor in philosophy suffered from ambivalent stirrings that were common to other formerly religious Jews who had fallen under the spell of secular western values. He would come to shul for Ne'ila and ostentatiously read a newspaper; then, behind the paper, tears would flow down his face. Before leaving, he would give a sigh and tell Rabbi Bulman, "That old-fashioned davening is so tear- jerking. I believe they have something similar to this by the goyim."

Still, Rav Bulman obviously found a way to his heart despite his intellectual leanings. Years later when the Bulmans left for Israel, the man bought Rav Bulman a sefer as a good- bye present.

During the three years that he served as rabbi of the community, Rabbi Bulman turned it around. Despite his huge intellect, he himself taught the young children in the shul. A number of Danville families became fully Torah observant and, due to his influence, many of their children went on to study in yeshivos and became bnei Torah.

When the community eventually closed its doors two decades ago, the remaining congregants preferred to raze the shul building rather than sell it to a church. They donated their sefer Torah to the community then headed by Rabbi Bulman in Migdal Ha'emek, in northern Israel. Although he only remained in Danville for three years, many of his congregants continued to revere him and kept in touch with him over the next 50 years.

From 1953-1954, Rabbi Bulman served as mashgiach in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon. He was once again pulled to the world of rabbonus when he became rov in South Fallsburg, N.Y., in 1954.

During this time, he founded the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth division of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the OU), together with Rabbis Weitman, Goodman, and Chait. He was the keynote speaker at the first NCSY convention, held in the Catskills, and at many of the yearly conventions held after that. He realized that an inspiring organization like NCSY would be able to keep many Jewish youths committed to Torah and it could also bring thousands of wavering teenagers back. Many former NCSY'ers still remember how their lives were transformed by Rav Bulman's electrifying speeches.

His next position was as head of Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Newport News, Virginia, beginning in 1957. This city was a port city to which Jews had first moved in the 1880s. When Rabbi Bulman arrived, there was no Jewish education other than Sunday school and an afternoon Hebrew school. There wasn't even a minyan of shomer Shabbos Jews. There were only three succos built in town every year - - one in the rabbi's house, one in the home of the shammash, and one in the shul.

The shul remained Orthodox only because the older congregants still had clout, but the future looked bleak. There were fiery discussions about whether to keep the mechitza up; an Orthodox shul in an adjacent city had already taken theirs down.

When he left five years later, Rabbi Bulman had built a new shul with a new mikveh, he had a shomer Shabbos minyan going every day, he had established a day school with close to 70 students and he had begun sending graduates of the day school to the Ner Yisroel yeshiva and Bais Yaakov in Baltimore. The year he left, 23 succos were built in the town! The Virginia region of NCSY was very strong due to Rabbi Bulman's efforts, and many youngsters became frum through it.

It was necessary to send the young people away if they were to get a strong Jewish education. Many of those whose lives were touched by Rabbi Bulman moved to the major religious communities in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta, Miami, or Israel. The kehilla in Newport News eventually faded away. However, the Newport News youngsters whom he influenced -- people now in their 50s and 60s -- are today Torah Jews, they and their hundreds of children and grandchildren.

One former congregant who now lives in Israel recalls that she was an impressionable 13-year-old when Rabbi Bulman moved in to their community. "I had no interest in religion and all my thoughts revolved around having fun with my social circle. Anyone who knows what the atmosphere was like in the southern U.S. knows exactly what I mean. But Rabbi Bulman knew how to reach our Sunday afternoon class, and we Southern belles related to him like a good friend."

When the new shul was completed, the board of directors decided to hold a gala social event to raise money to defray the construction costs. They decided upon a big dance for all the Jewish teenagers in town, replete with a rock band. Rabbi Bulman protested mightily, but he was overwhelmingly outvoted.

"As a young teenager, I myself was surprised at how wild the event got. I even thought, `This isn't right for a shul.' So in the middle of the affair, my girl friend and I walked over to Rabbi Bulman's house, very glum. He looked at us and asked, `What are you doing here?'

"We told him frowning, `We left the dance.' As usual, he was in the middle of reading a book. He read us a mussar story from it. All of a sudden I realized what was bothering me. `Rabbi Bulman! What's going on in the shul -- it looks like when Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw them dancing around the Calf! It's absolutely horrible there!'

"Rabbi Bulman sighed. `Yes, it will take a little longer,' he told us, `but Moses will still bring the Torah down.'

"He could have spilled out all the anguish he felt. No doubt he felt betrayed about the dance after having built the shul, insisting on the mechitza and building the mikveh. But the shul never again had another dance, even after he left. After the event was over, everyone realized that it wasn't right."

Midnight Visit on a Ship

At Newport News, Rabbi Bulman was forced to contend with several strange events which required quick thinking and mesirus nefesh. One Shabbos he was in shul for Sholosh Seudos when a sailor knocked on the door and handed him a note. A desperate call for help was written on it.

An Israeli seaman had joined a Swedish merchant ship without realizing that the captain was a drunken antisemite. After suffering abuse at the captain's hand, the man wanted desperately to leave. Some of his shipmates had been allowed to go visit the nearby port of Newport News, and he begged them to hand his note to a rabbi in a shul.

Rabbi Bulman quickly finished Sholosh Seudos and davened ma'ariv. Then he rushed to the port police and showed them the note. The police captain explained that he had no jurisdiction on a boat three miles out, but at Rabbi Bulman's urging, the police captain agreed to accompany Rabbi Bulman and his school's principal to the Swedish ship.

The police cruiser reached the lonely merchant ship late at night, when all was silent besides the rhythmic waves lapping against the sides. Still dressed in his Shabbos finery and fedora, Rabbi Bulman found himself clambering up the rope ladder behind the police captain into the Swedish ship. Confronted by the stern police captain, and too drunk to realize he had no jurisdiction, the Swedish captain gave up the Jewish seaman.

In another story from those times, one of Rabbi Bulman's young congregants was a worker at a navy shipyard, building a submarine. One Friday afternoon, he called the rav in desperation. "I worked all week on a submarine and now we are up to the testing stage. The testing will run into Shabbos. What should I do?"

Rabbi Bulman quickly asked him questions concerning how the testing would be done. Then he carefully instructed him concerning which things he could and could not do. He concluded his instructions with an order: "As soon as you finish, walk to our home. We're waiting for you."

The young man finally staggered in at three in the morning, in a state of total exhaustion. The Bulmans gave him fish and fruit and then, warning their children not to make noise, put up a bed for him in the living room. The man slept 24 hours straight.

Educational Work in High Gear

Rabbi Bulman then returned to his position as mashgiach in Yeshiva University from 1962-1963, and then worked for Torah Umesorah from 1963-1967, directing their teacher training programs in yeshivos. This involved observing, lecturing and serving as a trouble-shooter.

Throughout this time, he continued to be a keynote speaker at Agudas Yisroel and OU conventions, maintained his involvement in NCSY, and engaged in prolific writing and reviewing for the Jewish Observer, which he had helped found in 1963. He often wrote the "Second Looks" column that appeared at the back.

In 1967, he took his next rabbinical position as the rav of the Young Israel of Far Rockaway. During this time, he founded Sarah Schenirer High School and Seminary in 1968, and the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway (Yeshivas Derech Eison), and he taught in both places. He taught a heavy schedule of classes between 4 and 6 days a week in the seminary.

The balabatim battles continued here too, but as in Newport News, he gradually won the congregants' respect and admiration. By the time he left in 1975, he had attracted a large following of local bnei Torah who avidly attended his Friday night discourses on Kuzari, his Shabbos afternoon shiurim on Shir Hashirim, and the many other shiurim he gave.

When Rabbi Bulman spoke, the shul was packed to the rafters with his congregants and outsiders. Many of his balabatim had changed from opposing his "fanatic" views to becoming his devoted followers. His greatest nachas was pointing out a ben Torah who had returned home for vacation and saying, "Look at this ben Torah! What problems his father gave me before he agreed to send him to yeshiva!"

Rabbi Bulman reached a high point in his career during the Madison Square Garden rally in 1971 on behalf of Russian Jewry. He was chosen to be the speaker who read the letter of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah to the Soviet government. While Rav Hutner wrote the letter, Rabbi Bulman was present during its formulation and became close to him from that and similar encounters.

At this point, Rabbi Bulman was a recognized leader and speaker in the religious community. He had won the implicit trust of gedolei Torah, and he had taken several moribund or sleepy communities and turned them into Torah powerhouses. At this point, the most prestigious and attractive rabbinical positions awaited him. But he took a step that no one expected.

Next week: The move to Eretz Yisroel


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