“Birshus HaRav.” With these two words, Rabbi Chaim Wasserman, zt”l, signaled to his synagogue and community the beginning of a new era for his kehilla. It was Parshas Re’eh in 2005, and I was sitting at a seudah shlishit during a “transition Shabbos” that celebrated the legacy of Rabbi Wasserman’s outgoing tenure, and also welcomed our young family into the rabbinic leadership role of the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton. That Shabbos was also the beginning of an 18 year relationship, in which Rabbi Wasserman served as a mentor, colleague and guide to my initial years in the rabbinate. Having been blessed with the privilege to steward the institution that Rabbi Wasserman built, I have a unique vantage point from which to reflect on his life and legacy.
Rabbi Wasserman came to the rabbinate with the energy and creativity of an outreach professional, having served as the associate national director of NCSY. In addition, Rabbi Wasserman’s Torah scholarship reflected a fascinating blend of influences ranging from Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, to his rebbe, Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rabbi Wasserman believed that everyone, even those with limited background, must be exposed to the texts which serve as the original sources for whatever subject he was teaching. Long before contemporary rabbanim had access to resources that collect sources on a topic, Rabbi Wasserman’s Torah packets provided a comprehensive mastery of whichever subject he was teaching. He shared with me that most of his summer months were spent in batei midrash and libraries, researching and collecting material for the shiurim of the coming year. He was an erudite scholar, who passionately conveyed the incredible substance of Torah.
Those who were privileged to hear Rabbi Wasserman’s sermons and shiurim were exposed to another dimension of his religious personality. Rabbi Wasserman projected deep and confident conviction. His worldview was not an amalgamation of ideas, brought together in a manner that would strive to cater to all ways of thinking. Rabbi Wasserman relayed his thoughts and opinions with certitude and confidence, independent of their popularity amongst the current religious trends. He was fearless and uncompromising in his quest to share his understanding of the Torah’s truth. His passion remained a signature element of his leadership and, when he deemed necessary, was directed confrontationally towards those he believed sought to discredit the veracity of his views. This was such a central aspect of Rabbi Wasserman’s leadership style that one would expect since his passing, many would come forward with stories and memories that manifest these attributes.
Yet, in my own experience, that was not the case. As passionate an ideologue as Rabbi Wasserman was, his lifetime of devotion to compassion and chesed emerged as the defining narrative of his life. I have been approached by countless individuals who have shared their experiences with Rabbi Wasserman’s kindness. A local store owner, who mentioned his impending grand opening to Rabbi Wasserman on the rabbi’s final day in Passaic before making aliyah, only to reencounter the rabbi two years later—with Rabbi Wasserman revealing a note from his pocket with the owner’s name that he was harboring for tefillah. Grandchildren who shared how he would remain awake at all hours of the night in Israel to assist them with their reports and homework, at times that were convenient for them. Countless rabbanim throughout the world, who benefited from his guidance and mentorship in how to engage congregants through learning, speaking and life cycle events with thoughtfulness, substance and dignity. Rabbi Wasserman’s chesed was creative and detailed. Among the many items he left me before making aliyah, was a box of electric candles, which he would provide to anyone staying in a hospital for Shabbos, ensuring that they could fulfill the mitzvah of hadlakas neiros.
The opportunity to assume the leadership of the Young Israel of Passaic Clifton at a young age, and lacking experience, was daunting. As a young rav, I heard from colleagues of their extremely challenging circumstances in navigating the rabbi emeritus/rabbi relationship. What would happen when I felt that something in the shul should evolve or change? What if the change was inconsistent with Rabbi Wasserman’s convictions related to aspects of synagogue life? How would those who had followed his leadership for over 36 years relate to new ideas in growing the shul within a shifting landscape in the broader Passaic Clifton community? It turned out that answers to these questions were to reveal an even deeper aspect of Rabbi Wasserman’s personality and leadership—one that I will forever cherish and strive to emulate.
Over the past years, I conferred with Rabbi Wasserman each and every time I wanted to introduce a significant change to the shul. We would speak by phone or at our annual lunch in Yerushalayim when I traveled to Israel on behalf of other institutions. Rabbi Wasserman categorically supported any change that I felt was appropriate for the growth of the shul. We held discussions regarding matters that I knew he felt strongly about and his absolute conviction was that independent of his personal positions, the shul must move forward within its current communal reality. His support was unwavering. I know with confidence that even when others would call him with concern related to some of these issues, he was adamant in his support of the shul’s evolution. It took me many years to appreciate the greatness of his approach. His kindness and support for my own rabbinate far exceeded his passion and conviction related to issues about which he felt so strong.
It is an honor to have had the opportunity to build upon the foundation that Rabbi Wasserman established at the YIPC. It is a privilege to advance an institution that is animated by many of the same values that he championed and embedded into its soul. Talmud Torah, chesed both within and beyond the Jewish community, support for Israel, an inclusive kehilla—all hallmarks of Rabbi Wasserman’s vision, and all continue to thrive within the incredible that we have today. It is a profound honor to perpetuate the memory and legacy, “birshus haRav,” of Rabbi Chaim Wasserman.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Passaic Clifton and regional director of New Jersey NCSY and the NSCY International Director of Education. He is also the David Mitzner dean of the Center for the Jewish Future and University Life at Yeshiva University.