Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Sivan 5764 - June 16, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
In `Camp' Together With Maran R' Yaakov Kamenetsky ztvk'l

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

These days, the slopes of the Catskill mountains are dotted with typical vacationing spots populated by the chareidi public. With hardly a pause America, and especially New York City, relocates itself from the "foothills" of skyscrapers to the pleasant shade of oaks and pines and fresh mountain air. One such place is Camp Ohr Shraga, the summer learning camp associated with Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. A unique atmosphere of harmony creates the perek shira of the Catskill Mountains in the land of creature comforts and materialism.

The magnificent mountain vista preserves the isolation of each recreational summer camp respectively, creating for each the sensation of escaping from everything and dissociation from the world and its driving busy-ness. This is the underlying but pronounced reality of a yeshiva camp. The purified, rarefied atmosphere wafts upon the very breath of those who veritably sacrifice themselves over the controversies of Abaye and Rovo. And this Torah study is accorded here a green canopy of marvelous dimension, ensconced among primeval mountains which surround and encircle protectively.

This is the backdrop of Camp Ohr Shraga which occupies a prestigious position as a camp for Torah study in an atmosphere of relaxation and recreation. Many dozens of yeshiva students gratefully dedicate themselves to undivided Torah study. Centrally located in this camp is the beis midrash which includes a hall for prayer and study, and a spacious veranda open to the invigorating mountain air where the yeshivishe daily study sessions are held. The yeshiva students find themselves studying in the proximity of such venerable figures as HaRav Zelig Epstein, one of the elder roshei yeshiva in America. The camp atmosphere creates a special closeness, an uplifting sensation that cannot be matched. Vacation according to the American formula, spreads itself over eight to ten weeks (late June through August), the duration of which is considered a learning zman in its own right.

In the pastoral pathways and under the soothing shade of giant oaks, gurgles a stream with small fish flitting to and fro. The silence is broken by the flowing water tripping over rocks and the chattering of squirrels, all of which is overpowered by the vibrant sound of Torah discussion. Pairs of yeshiva students treading the smooth pebbles explore the intricacies of various sugyos of study.

HaRav Meir Hershkowitz was one of the camp residents from childhood on. Among his impressive memories of camp life, most outstanding is the period in which HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztvk'l graced it with his presence. Well does he recall his glowing figure, his perennial position by his shtender, his compassionate look when you crossed his field of vision. "I remember," R' Hershkowitz reminisced once with nostalgia, "how I once passed near him with untied shoelaces. I was shocked when suddenly, the venerable R' Yaakov leaned over towards me and actually tied my laces and gave them a finishing touch.

"The entire camp would eagerly await R' Yaakov's arrival. When the car appeared at the far end of the camp, all of the residents were already there, waiting to greet him. As soon as he emerged, he would be accompanied by resounding song all the way to his quarters.

"R' Yaakov used to learn on the porch, steadily, without a break. Even during the afternoon rest period, he would remain there engrossed in study until his rebbetzin would come to remind him that it was time for a nap. I was once witness to an interesting scene, but I must first preface it with some background.

"R' Yaakov had a unique practice: Whenever he came to learn, he had the choice of climbing up a few steps or going a roundabout way which involved a whole flight of stairs. He invariably chose the detour so as not to disturb the boys engrossed in study by having them get up in deference to him.

"One afternoon, I saw him standing and talking with one of the Torah Vodaas ramim when I noticed the rebbetzin coming towards us around the bend. I inferred that she had come to remind him to take his afternoon nap and approached the Rosh Yeshiva to inform him of her imminent arrival. He waited a moment, considering what to do about the man with whom he had been talking in learning. Still being out of her line of vision, he said to me, `Go and tell her that I am in the middle of a cup of tea.' I did so, and she replied, `I just wanted to warn the Rosh Yeshiva not to go down the regular way since the steps are filled with leaves and he might slip.'

"I turned around and went to deliver her message to R' Yaakov but when I arrived, he was already halfway down the stairs. When he heard the message, he smiled and hugged me close to express his appreciation for my trouble."

R' Yaakov was a man of action. Every movement of his was completely thought-out according to halochoh. He was the address for every question that cropped up during the course of the camp. When he was approached, his decision would be forthcoming on the spot.

R' Yaakov uttered every word of study out loud. It was his method of employing the segulah for memory brought in Eruvin 54 which states that a person should enunciate each word aloud in order to engrave it upon his memory. It was amazing to see that even when he was old and weak, R' Yaakov persevered in this practice, not only when he studied gemora but even when he delved into an acharon commentary, he would read in a very audible voice.

Some of the most memorable moments took place at seuda shlishis on Shabbos. All of the bnei yeshiva would gather around the mizrach head table from whose center he held court. There would be singing of slow soul melodies, songs of the spirit, of regesh, and when that died down, R' Yaakov would give a mussar shmuess. As was his wont, he would intertwine spiritual guidance to the yeshiva students.

HaRav Zalman Pinchos Quinn recalls two particular talks: In one of them, R' Yaakov spoke about the approaching Elul period. He opened with a question: As is commonly known, the month of Elul is dedicated to self-introspection and one would imagine that yeshiva students and Torah scholars would be more complacent about the upcoming judgment than regular laymen who are involved in everyday activities with the general public. However, he would remark, there is one aspect that applies more directly and specifically to bnei Torah and that is the matter of chillul Hashem.

We find in Yoma 86 a differentiation in atonement or blameworthiness for various instances. One of these is chillul Hashem. In what way? Whoever is involved in constant Torah study and who is occupied in attending Torah scholars, by necessity has very little to do with the general public, certainly not in any business capacity or commercial exchange with others, even on a simple level. He simply lacks contact with non-scholars. And what might people say of him? `Alas for that person who is immersed in Torah. Woe unto his father for having taught him the [limiting, isolationist] way of Torah etc. Just look at so-and-so. How unseemly are his deeds and how ugly his path...'

"So we see that a Torah scholar has a special obligation which is not found by a layman. The more he is distinguished and exalted, the more he must be careful to project the proper image to his fellow man in the world at large.

"In a different talk, he again touched upon this subject, but from a different approach. He presented the question of kiruv and how every Torah scholar is obligated to engage in it, even without making a special concrete effort. He brought for an example the gemora there which states that if a Torah scholar does come in contact with ordinary folk and makes a good impression upon them, they say of him, `Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah; fortunate is his master who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah -- how perfected are his ways." This is sanctifying Hashem's Name but even more -- it is also a direct, literal manner of engaging in kiruv rechokim. He quoted the example of Ruth who clung to Naomi because she was so impressed by her refined, exemplary ways.

"I remember," says R' Quinn, "that on that very motzei Shabbos following this talk, R' Yaakov attended a rally for kiruv at which he was scheduled to speak. I was certain that he would repeat what he had said to us that day, but to my surprise, he gave an entirely different address. On our way home, I asked him why he had made no mention of the thoughts he had expressed on Shabbos which happened to be relevant to the occasion. He replied that the audience was `not holding by that.' They were not at such an advanced stage that the message would be meaningful to them.

"R' Yaakov," our interviewee stresses, "was one of the founders of the camp and invested a great deal of effort and interest in it. Just to show how highly he regarded it can be learned from the fact that when he was about to marry his second wife, he discovered among the terms of the kesuba the fact that he was expected to accompany her to her parents' home in Canada for vacation time. When he read this, he objected and said that the rebbetzin would have to forego this stipulation since he already had a standing obligation with Camp Ohr Shraga. The rebbetzin reconsidered and agreed to his request."

All the while that R' Quinn was telling this, Torah life was teeming about, outside the window of the bungalow in Camp Ohr Shraga. This was in-between the regular study sessions that began much before shacharis which was at 7:30, and ended at ten p.m.

During such an interval, the campers and residents might have the honor of a brief visit from deer, who appeared to give a concrete example of "swift as a deer" to do the will of our Father in Heaven. In this setting, a special harmony expressed itself in a silent Song of Praise unto Hashem, the Perek Shira of the Catskill Mountains, in the very land of creature comforts and materialism.

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.