Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Ellul 5762 - August 21, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rabbi Nachman Bulman -- the Man Who Belonged to Everyone

by M. Samsonowitz

Part II

The first installment of this series described Rav Nachman Bulman's early years and achievements. Rabbi Bulman had become a recognized leader and speaker in the religious community in the United States. 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 instead he took a step that was highly unusual for an American rav of his stature.

Kiruv in Eretz Yisroel Beckons

Throughout his life, Rabbi Bulman had dreamed of settling in Eretz Yisroel. He had often spoken of this yearning in his speeches and classes. It was part of his spiritual inheritance from his Gerrer ancestry -- it was well known that the Imrei Emes had visited Eretz Yisroel many times and had planned to settle there. Rav Bulman used to lament that the religious community, due to its justified objections to the ideology of secular Zionism, had allowed its love for Eretz Yisroel to wane.

His lifelong ambition finally came to fruition. When his mother passed away in 1974. His daughter moved two years previusly with her husband to Eretz Yisroel. He followed them in 1975, moving to the neighborhood of Sanhedria Murchevet.

Rabbi Bulman's principal interest throughout his life had been to bring Jews back to their heritage. In the U.S., the primary way to accomplish this was through the rabbinate. But in the 1970s, a new profession had been created, that of the kiruv expert, who taught in special yeshivos catering to unaffiliated Jews. It was only natural for him to accept the job of mashgiach for Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, an outreach yeshiva.

In Ohr Somayach, he was one of the outstanding lecturers. He gave a series of 60 lectures on Tanach, and extensive shiurim on Jewish philosophy, drawing from the ideas of the Maharal, Kuzari, Nefesh HaChaim and others. HaRav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, whose writings had so influenced Rav Bulman's outlook at a young age, was frequently quoted. When teaching parshas hashovu'a, he quoted extensively from the Malbim, Netziv and Meshech Chochmoh. He often mentioned the Sfas Emes, the great writer of the Gerrer dynasty.

In later years, he drew heavily on the seven volumes of Nesivos Sholom, a manual of avoda and hashkofoh for the ben Torah (which he described as the "Michtav Mei'Eliyahu of chassidus") composed by the last Slonimer Rebbe. At one point, he was giving 20 shiurim a week in addition to other responsibilities in the yeshiva.

In addition to lecturing, Rabbi Bulman was available for the endless personal discussions which novices to Judaism frequently needed. He spoke to prospective students when they first entered the yeshiva. It was he who frequently persuaded reluctant young people to stay and learn about their own heritage. He could so impress a searching youth that sometimes one discussion with Rav Bulman was the decisive factor in a person deciding to become religious.

Rabbi Bulman was generally amiable and warm when first meeting young Jews with little background, but he could speak sharply when necessary. Once Rav Meir Shuster met an intellectual young man at the Kosel and offered to introduce him to "a wise man of Jerusalem." Apparently the fellow was not too impressed with his first sight of Rav Bulman, who looked like any other bearded rabbi, because he asked, with a touch of sarcasm, "Is this your wise man?"

Rav Bulman's response was immediate: "Listen, sonny, we can discuss any topic you like and I'll wipe the floor with you."

Rav Bulman was mochel on his own kovod numerous times, as many witnesses can testify, but in this case he saw that it would be a mitzva to knock the young man's arrogance out of him. The man later testified that Rav Bulman did wipe the floor with him. It proved to be the first step on a journey that ended with the student learning in the Mirrer yeshiva and forging a close bond with Rav Bulman. (One of Rav Bulman's sons, upon hearing this story, remarked, "It's a good thing he didn't ask Daddy to discuss sports.")

When Rabbi Bulman moved to Israel, he was sought out by well- known Israeli religious thinkers and rabbonim from the entire religious spectrum, from the Eida HaChareidis on the far right to the most modern religious Jews on the left. He earned the respect of rabbonim and representatives of major institutions and schools of every religious group in Eretz Yisroel.

Rabbi Moshe Akiva Druk, an editorial columnist for Hamodia and a neighbor in Sanhedria Murchevet, was enamored with Rabbi Bulman and tried to solicit his participation in the political activities of Agudas Yisroel in Israel. Rabbi Bulman did help the Aguda, serving as a spokesman at Aguda functions from time to time, but he was too much a man of truth to allow himself to be sucked into full-time politics.

Rabbi Druk used to say he could not believe Rabbi Bulman had been born in the U.S. and had a college degree, since he was so permeated with authentic, old- style Yiddishkeit. Rav Heisler, the rov of Sanhedria Murchevet, was another good friend and admirer of Rav Bulman.

After he arrived in Israel, Rabbi Bulman was offered the position of rov of the Kehal Adas Yeshurun community in Washington Heights. It was a tribute to his multifaceted personality that this scion of a Gerrer chassidic home was being offered the most prestigious position that the modern German Jewish kehilla had to offer. However, by then he considered himself an "Eretz-Yisroeldik" Jew and wouldn't hear of returning to chutz la'aretz.

Rabbi Bulman retained his position in Ohr Somayach until 1979, when the struggles and problems of American Jews living in Israel prompted him to take a radically new direction.

A Rabbinate in the Israeli Backwaters

From the time he arrived in Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Bulman was deluged with religious American Jews seeking advice on how to integrate themselves in Israel financially, socially and emotionally. They were struggling with a different economy, mentality and system than what they were used to, and this in turn spawned further problems with their children and difficulties with domestic harmony.

Nowhere were the problems more severe than with baalei teshuva, who had to cope with the vast changes they had made in their lives in addition to the usual dilemmas of American olim. They needed a kind of "halfway house" where they could gently be absorbed into Israeli society at a pace they could live with.

Rabbi Bulman was particularly motivated to help them, since he felt a strong responsibility to people who had become frum because of him. No one has a right, he used to say, to take a person out of his world, make him frum, and then leave him without a full support system that will insure him housing, a profession and emotional stability.

Rabbi Bulman decided to found a kehilla where American couples would unite under the leadership of a rabbi who understood their needs. The kehilla would follow the Hirschian lines of Rabbi Yitzchok Breuer's "Nachliel" kehilla philosophy --unifying all elements of Klal Yisroel in its ranks. It would include kollel students together with wage- earners. The kehilla would provide a comprehensive solution for the needs of all its members. Rabbi Bulman was very happy when an opportunity arose to found his new community in Migdal Ha'emek.

Migdal Ha'emek was a sleepy immigrant town located in the north not far from Haifa. Its leading religious figure is Rabbi Dovid Grossman, who had already built up a campus of religious institutions which successfully did kiruv among Sephardim in the region. Rabbi Grossman was willing to sell them a shul and inexpensive apartments.

A pilot group of several families started the Kiryat Nachliel community in Migdal Ha'emek in 1979. Over the 14 years in which Rabbi Bulman lived in Migdal Ha'emek, many young English-speaking families settled in his community, the exact number varying from year to year. Others left. The largest number of "Anglo" families at any one time was about forty. Many Israeli Jews of Russian and Sephardic origin who were living in Migdal Ha'emek also participated in the tefillos and shiurim of the kehilla and came under Rav Bulman's influence. It was a valorous attempt on Rabbi Bulman's part to spearhead the kind of community so desperately needed by the chutznikim, but for reasons outside of Rav Bulman's control, it never fully achieved the lofty aims he had set out for it.

The community in Migdal Ha'emek struggled financially for most of its existence. Rabbi Bulman had to travel abroad frequently to meet the kehilla's needs. The heavy yoke of fundraising for an entire community, year after year, finally took its toll on him and he suffered his first serious illness during this period.

His frustration also sprang from the lack of assistance he was given by government and other institutional bodies. Despite promises that had been made to him -- by the Ministry of Absorption, the Municipality, religious Knesset members -- no one in fact assisted his community. Officials' attitude was either "Who needs them?" or "Let the Americans take care of themselves."

Despite the problems, for the families who lived in Kiryat Nachliel for varying periods of time, Rav Bulman and his Rebbetzin (tibodel lechaim) literally served as father and mother. Their years in Kiryat Nachliel provided a never- equalled opportunity for personal spiritual growth. One former resident, who was there for four years, describes his years there as the peak years of his life, "a utopia."

Even in a backwater like Migdal Ha'emek, it was impossible for Rabbi Bulman to avoid attracting attention. He was soon being sought out by educators, administrators and mevakshei Hashem throughout the north.

He was invited to speak at the local Air Force base. But his speeches had such a powerful impact on the irreligious soldiers that the commanders stopped inviting him. They wanted him to inspire the soldiers and lift their morale, but they didn't want the soldiers and officers to be so inspired that they dropped out of the army and joined yeshivas!

The Gerrer community in Haifa also called on him to speak to them. When Rav Yoel Kluft, a rov in Haifa, was niftar, Rabbi Bulman was called upon to give the leading eulogy.

In any event where an impressive personality and speaker was required, Rabbi Bulman was summoned. Principals of religious elementary and high schools came to him with their myriad problems.

A Wide Sphere of Influence

An Israeli writer and a rosh yeshiva who lived in Rechasim used to travel to Rabbi Bulman to study Nefesh HaChaim with him. The writer recounts, "When my mentor Rav Kluft passed away, I searched for a broad-minded, wise person like him. I found Rabbi Bulman. We formed a very close personal connection. I spoke to him about my work in kiruv. I took advice from him in many things -- education, Torah, hashkofo, human relations, Jewish philosophy. He was very original and fresh. His heart was so pure."

An Israeli trouble-shooter who was hired by Rav Bulman to help him navigate Israeli bureaucracy, was immediately enchanted with the American rabbi who had gone into a development town to help his fellow Americans. Reb Asher Fuchs recalls, "When I first met him, [even though I was hired to work for him,] I felt he was a warm person who was more interested in my life and problems than in how I could help him. I immediately felt that I wanted to work with him. All his time was taken up with the community's problems, but he always had time to help me with my personal problems. A Jew with a problem was the most important thing to him, before his kehilla and his own problems."

Reb Asher has many memorable recollections from this period. One family from a different town came to spend a Shabbos in Migdal Ha'emek. Rabbi Bulman perceived that the husband was an abusive type. He took the husband aside and spoke to him privately. He also alerted the rabbonim in his home community to get involved and not to close their eyes. Rabbi Bulman spent many days helping the couple.

The community hired a handyman to make renovations in the shul. His work was very poor, and Reb Asher threatened time and again not to pay him until he had done the repairs properly. But each time he went to Rabbi Bulman and begged for his wage, and Rabbi Bulman insisted that he be paid. Finally Reb Asher hit the roof. "Enough is enough!" he bellowed in exasperation. "Not another penny until he does a decent job!"

Rabbi Bulman called Reb Asher in for a private talk. He told him, "You think I don't see what you see? I know what work this man does. The difference between us is this: You see a crook who's a nebich. I see a nebich who's a crook. The question is, where is the stress. This man must be helped."

After struggling to base his community for 14 years, Rabbi Bulman began to suffer from a heart condition and had a bypass operation, which left him greatly weakened. He realized that he could not continue carrying the huge burden. When he left the community and returned to Jerusalem, he sold his house and the neighboring home of his in-laws, and used most of the proceeds plus his savings to cover the community's debts in full. He was left penniless and had to live in an apartment set aside for him by Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.

Reb Asher recalls, "He gave money to anyone in need -- even when he didn't have. He was always the last on the list to get. He didn't want anyone to suffer from the debts left behind, so he ended up with nothing."

As with other institutions he had built, Rabbi Bulman gave his Migdal Ha'emek project over to other people to run. He never was into building his own "empires" because in his view, everything was Hakodosh Boruch Hu's and he was just a temporary messenger sent to lay the groundwork for another place of Torah.

Back to Kiruv in Jerusalem

While serving as rav in Migdal Ha'emek, Rav Bulman had continued to commute to Yerushalayim to teach in Ohr Somayach on a part-time basis. In 1993, Rabbi Bulman resumed his role as a full-time mashgiach in Ohr Somayach.

Once again, he taught and influenced hundreds of young Jews to return to Judaism, and was available to the many hundreds of families who sought his assistance and help.

While living in Maalot Dafna near the yeshiva, he sought to be in touch with his chassidic roots and began to daven in the Modzitz shteibel near his home. The Israeli chassidim were delighted to learn from him niggunim and Torah vertelach of the previous Modzitz rebbe which they themselves didn't know. They entreated him to be their rav. While he would deliver divrei Torah during sholosh seudos, he refused to assume an official position. He felt committed to helping the American families in Jerusalem.

In the late 90s, he was intimately involved in helping several American communities in Jerusalem that were dealing with absorption and family stresses. Finally, in 2000, he became the rav of the American community in Neveh Yaakov, where his youngest son lived. Even before he moved into Neveh Yaakov, he began to give a large range of shiurim to English-speaking men, women and adolescents in the neighborhood.

The community had a severe problem with disaffected youths, but under Rabbi Bulman's guidance, special classes were given for these young people and he was able to reclaim many of them. Several institutions were founded by his congregants to help such youths, who had been rejected by the mainstream religious school systems, including a school for young American girls that provided them with an American high school diploma.

Once again, he was involved hours every day in handling sholom bayis and chinuch bonim issues, and giving guidance to bochurim, educators and principals.

Although he was in his mid-70s, Rabbi Bulman still had grand plans. Despite suffering from the illnesses of old age, he retained the idealism and enthusiasm of a young man. He helped found a shul in Neveh Yaakov, called Bais Medrash Nachliel, which he planned to pattern after his kehilla in Migdal Ha'emek. A drive was started to build a large building that could house the growing congregation.

Failing Health and Last Days

But his great heart which had absorbed so much suffering of others was finally giving out. Rabbi Bulman suffered a series of medical crises, and had to be hospitalized a number of times. Even during these periods of severe physical suffering, he was still sought-after by the crowds. He could never bring himself to tell a person not to come.

The last Yom Kippur was a rallying experience for him. He was, at that point, already very sick. When he was halachically required to eat, he felt that he was "completely cast aside by Hashem." But when he was able to go to shul for Neila, and suddenly felt a surge of strength during Ovinu Malkeinu, he felt as if the gates of heaven had opened up and Hashem had found him acceptable again. Even during this period of waning and suffering, Hashem's Presence and personal Hashgochoh loomed tangible and alive to him.

The series of mini-strokes which he suffered had had an indelible effect on him. His physical sufferings had disarmed the sharp-spoken side of Rav Bulman, completely unmasking the warm, gentle, loving interior that was his true self. Love and warmth emanated from him and he overflowed with blessings for every person he met. Later, at the shiva, many adult baalei teshuva who had never been bentched by their own fathers recalled that the only fatherly blessings they had ever received were the ones bestowed by Rav Bulman.

A month before his death, he had to be hospitalized several times and was hooked up to oxygen. When he came home, he was at times too weak to talk.

Two weeks before his passing, a young couple whose shidduch he had made asked if they could bring their son to him for an upsharin. He was terribly weak, but nodded that they should come. Although he was too weak to say any more than the whispered words, "Mazel tov," they were thrilled that he took the scissors and cut a lock of the child's hair.

He expressed fear in his last days, seeming to be worried about whether he had fulfilled his purpose on earth. His children tried to allay his fears by telling him, "Thousands of people are keeping the Torah because of you -- and they and their children and grandchildren will keep making `deposits' in your account for years to come."

His former colleague in Ohr Somayach, HaRav Mendel Weinbach, came to visit a few days before his passing. He gave Rabbi Bulman words of chizuk concerning his many accomplishments. He told him in Yiddish of the many great things he had done for Klal Yisroel. Rabbi Bulman listened, nodded and then told him, "You can go."

One of his last visitors was an elderly woman in her 80s, one of his congregants from Danville who had become a faithful Jew because of him. The Rov's daughter entered his bedroom, and asked him, "Daddy, do you remember L. K.?" He nodded yes.

"She's here to visit you. Can she come in?" Again he nodded.

The elderly lady entered, holding on to her cane and, in her lilting, soft Southern drawl began, "Rabbi, I want you to know that you changed my life and the lives of so many people. You taught us to love the Torah. You taught us that there is a G-d and that He always takes care of us, and we don't have to be afraid of anything. Rabbi, I love you and I will never forget you."

Rabbi Bulman's two children from North America had flown over to spend time with him, and they were scheduled to go back after Shabbos. Rav Bulman was nearing the end of his life, but at his request he was cared for at home instead of being hospitalized.

During his last Shabbos in his earthly home, he was in great pain and his children did what they could to ease things for him. He found it difficult to sleep. Finally he succeeded in falling asleep at three in the morning.

Several hours later, at seven o'clock on Shabbos morning, his son went in to check on him. Rabbi Bulman was silent. He had stopped breathing. The son went out and notified the family that he was gone. It was 26 Tammuz.

The Levaya and Shiva

In keeping with the sanctity of Shabbos, the family did not relate the news to the public although they consulted with the local rov concerning their halachic status. He advised the family to bring Rav Bulman to kevura on Har Hamenuchos instead of the Beit Shemesh cemetery where he had bought a plot, out of deference to the many mourners who would want to accompany him to his grave late at night on motzei Shabbos.

After Shabbos, his other children were notified and the news spread through Jerusalem.

Rav Bulman had passed away on the last possible day that all his children would still be in Yerushalayim, that all of them could be at his levaya and that they could all sit shiva for him together with their mother. The two who were visiting from chutz la'aretz, and who were scheduled to leave already, extended their tickets immediately after Shabbos so they could stay another week.

In keeping with minhag Yerushalayim, the funeral was arranged immediately for that night rather than waiting for the next morning. Because of the haste and the lateness of the hour -- the levaya was called for 1:30 A.M. -- the family assumed that the turnout would be small.

Despite the late hour, the news spread quickly. Hundreds of mourners converged on Ohr Somayach and soon both the beis hamedrash and the ezras noshim were overflowing. Crowds of people stood outside the building, some putting their ears to the windows so they could hear the hespedim.

The crowd of mourners came in every style imaginable. Standing in reverence were people spanning the five decades Rav Bulman had spent in public service: Danville, Newport News, Far Rockaway, Migdal Ha'emek, Ohr Somayach and Neveh Yaakov -- and from every station and period of his life. And this was only a small fraction of those who would have come to the funeral if it had taken place in the day.

Many saw friends and acquaintances whom they hadn't known were tied in any way to Rav Bulman. Many people who had enjoyed close personal relationships with Rav Bulman had no idea before his levaya of the influence he had wielded among thousands, and to what degree large parts of the American community had looked up to him as the one to go to when no one else would do. Friends hugged each other in commiseration and said, "We all lost a father."

Hespedim were said by Rav Heisler, the rov of Sanhedria Murchevet, Rav Daniel Belsky, Rav Bulman's son-in- law, and his son Heshy Bulman of Toronto. Because of the late hour, the eulogies were kept brief.

Rav Heisler said, in Hebrew, that Rav Bulman's home had been "reshut horabim" -- a public domain, open to everyone. Rav Belsky summed it up when he mentioned that Rabbi Bulman was like Esther Hamalka: just as every nation claimed Queen Esther as one of its own, so every group and every sector in the religious Jewish world looked up to Rav Bulman as one of its own. His heart and his mind encompassed them all.

Rav Bulman's son noted that it was fitting that his father had passed away during the Three Weeks, because it was a time of mourning for all of Klal Yisroel.

Rav Nachman Bulman was buried in the proximity of the famed Rav Meir Shapiro of the Lubliner yeshiva, whose majesty he had often described with much excitement, and whom he had personally looked up to. His resting place was also near the grave of his intimate friend, Rav Eliyahu Kitov, whose books he had translated.

During the shiva, over a thousand visitors, spanning four generations, came to comfort family members. It was a grand demonstration of what immense fruits he had planted and reaped over the course of his 77 years. Sometimes, grandparents, children and grandchildren all appeared together. These were no mere courtesy calls. Each person had a heartfelt story of what Rabbi Bulman had done for him or her, sometimes so moving that it couldn't be related. Many who came were too choked up even to speak.

The Modzitz Beis Hamedrash published a notice mourning the passing of "their" rov. Every community he had touched mourned the loss of "their" leader.

"Knowing Rabbi Bulman wasn't an `experience,' " one of his "children" from Newport News summed it up. "It was transformational. You were a different person afterwards. He was always the address for me and my husband for the past 35 years. We always brought everything of importance for his final decision. Today I feel rudderless."


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