There are two photos on my iPhone that I am careful never to delete: one is Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s high school graduation photo. Rabbi Finkel, zt”l, known as “Nate” in his youth, was an all-American, baseball-loving teen who graduated from Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Chicago. The second is a photo of Rabbi Finkel when he was the venerated rosh yeshivah of Mir in Yerushalayim, a yeshivah that today boasts some 7,000 students.
How does a graduate of a coed day school become rosh yeshivah of one of the largest and most impressive Torah institutions of our day? This is the question I pose to my grandchildren when I show them the two photos. I wait for them to come up with an answer. And then I tell them my own answer: “Gedolim are made, not born. You too can become a gadol one day.”
This truism also encapsulates the life of Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Belsky, who served as one of the pillars of OU Kosher for almost three decades. Rabbi Belsky grew up at a time when young American Orthodox boys, assuming they were lucky enough to attend yeshivah, did not spend their post high school years studying Torah. They went off to pursue careers, attend university and live the American dream. Rabbi Belsky, blessed with an extraordinary mind, loved music and, in his youth, aspired to be a musician. In truth, he could have easily chosen any number of careers in which he would have certainly excelled. Instead, he chose to devote his life to Torah study. He chose greatness.
In this special tribute issue, we tried to capture Rabbi Belsky’s multi-faceted, tremendously broad and fascinating personality. Working on this tribute issue has been a true honor for me. I learned so much about Rabbi Belsky—not only about his brilliance as a posek, but about his humility, his warmth and his kindness, the qualities that made him a true gadol B’Yisrael.
Of course, not everyone is destined to be a Rabbi Finkel or a Rabbi Belsky. But greatness, I have learned, comes in many different forms. At my stage in life, I unfortunately have to attend a lot of levayas. And time and time again, I have seen how seemingly ordinary Jews have achieved extraordinary things. Let me give you two examples: This past month, my friend, Herb Scheer, from West Hempstead, New York, passed away after a brief but terrible illness. Herb was neither a well-known rabbi nor a famous Torah scholar—but whoever knew Herb knew you could count on him to be in shul five or ten minutes before the start of the minyan. He wanted to make sure his tefillin were on properly. He wanted the time to make his tefillah real. He didn’t want to feel rushed in shul. And so for more than sixty years, he came to shul not just on time, but early. Amazing.
As Herb’s son mentioned at the levaya, “My father never stood out, but for that particular reason he stood out.” In his low-key, unassuming way, Herb, who had been an accountant, was known for his exceptional integrity. Despite the corruption that permeates contemporary society, Herb was extraordinarily honest—so honest in fact, that he was unanimously elected to serve as treasurer of Anshe Chesed of Boynton Beach, Florida, where he had moved to in his later years.
And then there’s my late friend Charles Goldfarb, originally from Woodmere, New York, who had also recently migrated to Boynton Beach. Few knew that Charles, a lawyer who handled multi-million dollar estates, managed over the years to encourage many of his clients who were unsure how to distribute their assets to leave significant bequests to worthy causes. Many Jewish organizations benefited immensely from Charles’ discreet, behind-the-scenes work.
Herb and Charles were seemingly “ordinary” Jews; but of course, they were anything but. So tell me, am I right when I tell my grandchildren that great people are made, not born?
In addition to the tribute to Rabbi Belsky, this wide-ranging issue also includes a special feature on women leadership in the Orthodox community. Women in various fields, ranging from education to media, discuss the challenges, the struggles but also the immense satisfaction and fulfillment they experience as leaders in the Jewish community. The section also includes an in-depth analysis of an Orthodox woman leader whose eightieth yahrtzeit was recently celebrated by Orthodox women across the country: Sarah Schenirer. As author Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein states, one of the most important lessons we can learn from the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement is how to “successfully and appropriately balance tradition and innovation . . . Schenirer did not believe tradition and innovation were mutually exclusive. [To Schenirer,] You could be a traditional revolutionary—which is exactly what she was.” Finally, with reading high on everyone’s summer list, I suggest you check out our book reviews, and especially Rabbi Gil Student’s always enlightening “Reviews in Brief” along with the many other thoughtful articles on halachah, traveling in Israel, recipes and more. Wishing all of you a healthy and happy summer.
Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee and vice chairman of the OU Board of Governors.