April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Rabbi Neil Fleischmann: The Gluten-Free Rebbe

In high school, friends at Frisch would rave about their unique Chumash teacher. “Rabbi Fleischmann has insane rapping skills. He’s so funny and down to earth. I could just walk into his office and tell him anything.” Intrigued by the hype, I hoped to one day meet Rabbi Neil Fleischmann. During my senior year at YU, this hope would become a reality.

On a fall Shabbat in 2019, Frisch graduate Max Gruber brought me to Rabbi Fleischmann’s for lunch. Pumped for the meal, Max and I showed up early to knock on the door of Apartment 8. Within seconds, a 5-foot-9-inch middle aged male answered the door and announced, “Come in.” Upon entering the apartment, I noticed a few things. The living room contained 10 wooden bookshelves filled with a variety of Jewish and secular books. This collection included books by Rabbi Sacks, Dr. Twerski, Mister Rogers, Rashi and the Shulchan Aruch, and every Torah, Mishnah and Gemara imaginable. The dining room table held plates and cutlery for three. Rabbi sat at the head, Max left, me right.

For the meal, Rabbi Fleischmann served salmon, gluten-free cholent, vegetables and Key Foods’ famous sweet noodle kugel. While eating, the rabbi and I exchanged information about our hometowns and religious upbringings. At dessert time, the rabbi shared a short dvar Torah from the Netivot Shalom.

Following this encounter, I considered Rabbi Fleischmann a nice guy, but couldn’t understand why people at Frisch went nuts about him.

Eleven months later, I celebrated Sukkot in Washington Heights. Unable to build a sukkah, I relied on YU’s sukkah to eat my mezonot and hamotzi Chol HaMoed meals. One night, around 9 p.m., I brought some grilled chicken inside the YU sukkah. Unexpectedly, a familiar man entered the sukkah at the same time. The same man famous for making gluten-free cholent! The same man I hadn’t seen in 11 months.

Suddenly, I heard, “Chag sameach.” While attempting to chew grilled chicken, I responded, “Chag sameach, Rabbi.” Following a few small-talk questions, I asked Rabbi Fleischmann for teaching advice. “Rabbi, I started teaching at a school and it’s tough. I prepare and plan to give a specific lesson, and nobody wants to listen. It feels like I’m just failing at the job. I want the students to be challenged and rigorously educated, but they’re not letting me.”

Cool and collected, Rabbi Fleischmann stroked his clean-shaven face and offered a memorable reply. “Yosef? I taught at Frisch for 25 years. The students that liked me the most didn’t like me because I was an intellectual. They didn’t like me because I was cool or funny. They liked me because I cared about them. If you care about a student, they’ll care about you and your lesson.”

To lighten the mood, I asked the rabbi a silly follow-up question. “What’s the worst thing a student can do to you when you’re teaching?” Without pausing, Rabbi Fleischmann replied, “I don’t know why, but it just hurts me whenever students ask me how much longer the class is. Maybe it’s just me. But that question stings.”

After this random sukkah chill, I asked Rabbi Fleischmann to study Pirkei Avot with me on Shabbat afternoons. Often, students ask their mentors to have a chavruta with them. Although mentors would love to learn with their pupils, not everyone has the time. People like Rabbi Fleischmann already give shiurim at shuls, and learn with friends and former students on Zoom. People like Rabbi Fleischmann keep a rigid daily learning schedule. Learning with me would mean Rabbi Fleischmann would take on something extra. It’s not easy for people to break routine.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Fleischmann agreed on the spot. “Sure. Give me a time that works for you.” These actions echo my father George Silfen’s indirect teaching. “Don’t just learn Torah on your own. Spread your Torah to anyone and everyone.”

Each week, the rabbi and I completed one Mishna of Pirkei Avot. To make the learning more exciting, we discussed our thoughts and ideas about every Mishna. At first, I considered this style of learning a failure. How could I learn for 30 minutes and only conquer five lines of text? Isn’t that the opposite of progress? However, after spending a few weeks learning with the Gluten-Free Rebbe, I have grown to appreciate our slow learning style.

Two years ago, YU Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dovid Hirsch endorsed this style to YU students. “Learning Torah is not about finishing this and that. It’s about learning slowly and enjoying the process. If you go at your own pace, you’ll enjoy it and want to pick up from where you left off.”

After a chavruta with Rabbi Fleischmann, I want to continue learning on my own.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states, “Amdu Talmidim Harbeh—Stand up many students.” Rabbi Fleischmann offers a unique interpretation to this Mishna. “‘Stand up many students’ means. ‘Make your students feel valuable.’” During our learning, Rabbi Fleischmann stands me up. If I offer a simple or foolish comment, he will find a way to deem my input valuable. If I spaz out and miss a key point, the rabbi has no issue repeating it over twice or three times.

This encouraging and nonjudgmental approach to teaching inspires students like me to share comments without fear of negative feedback. Often, nonintellectual students have lots to say about a topic, but fear they might sound stupid to others. Around Rabbi Fleischmann, everyone can say anything Torah- or life-related without any fear of negative judgment or coming off looking dumb. All teachers should foster a classroom like Rabbi Fleischmann’s.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, “Aseh Lecha Rav, Kena lecha Chaver. Make yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend.” This Mishna compels people to find a rabbi that could also be their friend. I consider Rabbi Fleischmann my rabbi and my friend. On the one hand, we learn Torah together. On the other hand, we share laughs and life schmoozes.

Like most guy-schmoozes, ours take place right after davening. To lead off, I sometimes ask the rabbi about getting back into teaching at schools. “Rabbi, when are you gonna get back out there?” Sometimes, the rabbi gives me this response: “If the right opportunity presents itself. But I’m not looking for a job, I’m looking for a dream.” Sometimes, the rabbi will lead off and ask me dating questions: “How’s dating? Are you still seeing that girl? You know, Babe Ruth retired with the all-time record in home runs. But he also retired with the all time record in strikeouts.”

To attain personal growth, everyone should find a spiritual mentor to have religious and personal conversations with.

In Pirkei Avot it says, “Say a little, do a lot.” This line defines Rabbi Fleischmann’s life. He changes the world, but never discusses nor flaunts his achievements. Therefore, I am about to spill the beans. Besides teaching and learning, the rabbi performs standup comedy at New York City venues. Ten years ago, he won New York’s Funniest Rabbi Award. For Shabbat meals, Rabbi Fleischmann graciously hosts students of mine who have developmental disabilities. During the week, the rabbi gives free Torah lessons to several affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Each of the rabbi’s low-key contributions brings a tremendous positive impact to the world.

Although Rabbi Fleischmann left formal education, he continues to inspire Jews of all religious levels. Quietly, one person at a time, Rabbi Fleischmann makes his impact. Nobody may see or hear about it, but that’s OK. The great ones prefer to remain hidden.

To quote Avrumi Conen: “Everyone needs a mentor. And it can’t be your parent.”

To quote Charlie Harary: “Nobody has time! You make time.”

To quote Rabbi Fleischmann: “It’s OK just to be a rock along the river stream.”

If you would like to convince Rabbi Fleischmann to teach formally again, feel free to email me, and I can pass on any information. [email protected].

By Yosef Silfen


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