April 9, 2024
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My First Rabbi: An Appreciation of Rabbi Zevulun Charlop Through the Eyes of a Child

Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, zt’l, was my first rabbi.

My tenure as his congregant at the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway concluded in the summer of 1988, almost four years after it began, when our family left the Bronx for Teaneck, and yet, his persona was so powerful that it left an indelible impression upon me. To this day, the entire mode in which I aspire to relate to the children of our kehila is based largely on the memory of how Rabbi Charlop made us feel.

The halachos of what is permissible, or not, in a shul, are essentially an aggregate of two dialectical motifs which are inherent in a Beis Ha-Knesses. On the one hand, the shul is imbued with a fundamental and distinctive sanctity as a mikdash me’at (Rambam Hilchos Tefilah 11:10), rendering activities inconsistent with this sanctity fundamentally prohibited in a shul. On the other hand, Chazal liken a shul to a personal home (Berachos 63a, Rambam Hilchos Tefillah 11:10), and as such, activities that might otherwise have been construed as incongruous in a shul are actually permissible.

This duality renders the place of children in shul particularly nuanced. On the one hand, children are, in many respects, the central focus of the home, and the success of a home can be measured by the extent to which it serves as a vehicle for the spiritual nourishment of children. Moreover, Tosafos (Chagiga 3a) legitimize the presence of children in shul on the basis of their presence at hakhel.

On the other hand, to the extent that a shul is a mikdash me’at, the presence of children, especially when disruptive, can be antithetical to the sanctity of a shul and the intensive focus of davening which must take place there.

In Rabbi Charlop, this duality, potentially fraught with tension, was reconciled. In his presence, even the youngest of children could sense the awe and majesty of the beis ha-knesses, the full measure of u’mikdashi tira’u.

And yet, at the same time, when my parents would rush my brother and I out of shul if we became in any way disruptive, Rabbi Charlop would always remind my parents that the disturbance was not bereft of a certain benefit. After all, Rabbi Charlop noted, simply by making our presence felt, we had brought comfort to the aging Holocaust survivors who populated Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway in the mid-1980’s, for whom the sound of Jewish children would never be taken for granted. In this comment, which brought my parents’ much solace in these moments, and which we would discuss as a family for decades thereafter, Rabbi Chalop’s profound humanity, wisdom and compassion was revealed.

In those years, a frequent Shabbos guest of ours was a beloved cousin, then single, who was taking his doctorate in European intellectual history at Columbia. While the figures that he read were basically unknown and even inscrutable to those not in the specific academic field, there was one exception: Rabbi Charlop. Inevitably, there was no member of the Hapsburg or Hohenzollern dynasties too obscure for our rabbi. It was only decades later that I even realized that Rabbi Charlop’s speciality was actually American, not European, history:

When I came to Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchonon, I took my entrance bechinah, like all of my peers, with Rabbi Charlop. It had been nearly two decades since I had spoken with Rabbi Charlop. After a lengthy and unforgettable discussion regarding the view of R. Yehuda that bi’ur chametz must be accomplished through burning, and the relationship of issur chametz and issur nosar, I took out the becher that Rabbi and Rebbetzin Charlop had given me for my bris, personally inscribed, and which I had continued to use every Shabbos.

Before my eyes, Rabbi Charlop was transformed from the imposing and august Talmid Chochom presiding over the Yeshiva, back into the rabbi of my earliest childhood.

With great interest, he inquired after my family’s intervening years in Teaneck, the birth of my two younger siblings in suburbia and my parents’ medical careers. He informed me of the passing of his Rebbetzin a number of years earlier and became emotional. While I felt badly, and still do, that I caused Rabbi Charlop this pain by bringing the becher, I can never think of Chazal’s statement, אין אשה מתה אלא לבעלה, a wife’s death is uniquely felt by her husband, without thinking of that moment. It was a testament to the incredible profundity of their bond.

My time in yeshiva was greatly enhanced by being able to reconnect with the beloved Rabbi of my earliest youth. Two memories in particular stand out as revealing of Rabbi Charlop’s singular persona.

In those years, semicha students had courses on Erev Shabbos known by the acronym SR, for supplemental rabbinics. Prior to beginning the mandatory first year course, Rabbi Chalop addressed all of us on the first Erev Shabbos of the yeshiva zman. He came straight to the point, telling us that all success in rabbanus would be a product of main factors: siyata d’shemaya, but no less, our own sense of conviction in the service of Hashem’s people. “You have to believe in it in every fiber of your being,” he exhorted his young charges. I doubt very much that a single talmid in the room could doubt, in that moment, how deeply true that was of the great Rabbi who was addressing them. For all of his capacious intellect, he was, at his core, a ma’amin of the first order.

The second memory emerged from the release of a biographical movie, “Lonely Man of Faith”, regarding one of the great figures in Rabbi Charlop’s life, the Rov, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The movie was screened in Lamport auditorium to hundreds, if not thousands of people, in the very space where the Rov had said so many of his seminal yahrzeit derashos to similarly sized crowds.

After the presentation, Rabbi Charlop was called upon to address the crowd. He noted that even though he had seen the film at a prior occasion at a private screening, he “wept unabashedly” at the depiction of his great rebbe. He cited the pasuk at the beginning of this week’s sedra, noting that it was Moshe Rabbenu who carried the atzmos Yosef, the bones of Joseph, likening the film to this Biblical act perpetuating the life of this towering figure. And then, Rabbi Charlop cited the beautiful gemara (Sotah 13a-13b) noting that when people wondered about the proximity of Yosef’s aron with that carrying the luchos, Moshe Rabbenu would answer, קיים זה כל מה שכתוב בזה, he (Yosef) guarded all that was written in the Torah itself. As he cited these words, applying them to the Rov, his voice both thundered and quivered, with the purest emotion.

In that instance, even though decades had passed since Rabbi Charlop had interacted with the Rov, the intensity of the bond, the depth of the reverence, the yearning for his great rebbe, was so intensely palpable. In my view, it brought at least as much kavod to the Rov as the entire movie had, and profoundly impacted my sense of the importance of deepening my own personal bond with my rebbeim.

Chaval al d’avdin u’dl’lo mishtakchin, woe for we have lost one who truly is irreplaceable. Rabbi Zevulun Charlop was a singular Talmid Chacham, a great family man, a fearless manhig, a man of vast and profound erudition, whose great knowledge was surpassed by both his fear of heaven and human wisdom.

And yet, to me, he was my first rabbi, whose sheer presence was sufficient to fill even the youngest of children with a love of shul and a conviction that no calling could be more noble than striving to serve Hashem’s people.

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