June 13, 2024
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June 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l: Gadol, Posek, Rebbe, Neighbor, Friend

I heard the news while doing what I generally do Friday afternoons: squeezing in too many errands too close to Shabbos. I was at the ATM when the text pinged my phone. My legs went wobbly. I drove home dazed.

We had known the situation was dire. He had been very sick for several months, and requests for saying Tehillim kept pouring in that morning.

But losing him was unimaginable. Living without him was unimaginable.

Now that the initial shock has abated, I have come to recognize that the profound sadness I feel stems not simply from the communal grief of losing a Gadol and Posek Hador, nor is it the sorrow of losing a personal rebbe and mentor, but moreso the anguish of losing a dear friend and neighbor.

My father, a native Bostonian, always told me that his rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, had a special relationship with the local boys. Even at Yeshiva University, they were “his” Boston boys. In the same manner, to live in the Lower East side was to have a special relationship with Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l.

My first exposure to the Torah of Rav Dovid came through his sefer, Kol Dodi on the Haggadah. I was in my early twenties, learning in yeshiva, and preparing a shiur on the requirement to eat two kezeisim of matzah at the Pesach Seder. I was delighted to uncover a somewhat novel psak of his, which tied up the issue nicely.

Within a few years, I had moved to an apartment on Grand Street. This was the early 90’s and a renaissance was happening on the Lower East Side (and New York City generally). Young, frum couples were moving in and starting families. As a young single, and later as a newlywed, I would spend time learning in the beis medrash of MTJ and saw firsthand the casual atmosphere that pervaded this special yeshiva. People of all stripes would come in to learn, daven, schmooze, even nap. No one seemed to mind, or care, or even notice. Above all, there was no judgment.

At the helm was Rav Dovid Feinstein. Rav Dovid’s lack of—his utter disregard for—Rabbinic airs had the paradoxical effect of both disarming and impressing you. His office was a storage room adjacent to the beis medrash. The pay phones in the hall would ring, early and often, and it would be someone from halfway around the world desperately trying to reach the Rosh Yeshiva. He took the calls. You would see him sitting in the phone booth, listening intently.

My dear departed neighbor and friend, Leon Foont, an old-school East Sider, told me that the legendary Gadol, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, said about his son, “Dovid huht ah besser kop fun mir—Dovid has a better head than me.” The comment speaks volumes about the humility of both Gedolim and the pride of a father toward his son.

In a profile about, Rav Moshe, zt”l, written several years ago in Mishpachah Magazine, I was struck by Rav Dovid’s resolute refusal—despite the continued attempts by his interviewer to steer him in that direction—to discuss his father’s greatness in Torah study and Halachic decision making. He would elaborate only on his father’s great love for other Jews and the countless ways he performed chessed, deeds large and small, for every Jew with whom he came into contact.

Rav Dovid was no different. I was struck at the funeral by how very little was said about Rav Dovid’s diligence in Torah study, his brilliance, his handling of Halachic queries from all over the world. Instead, the maspidim spoke, almost exclusively, about the Rav Dovid that I knew. The neighbor and the friend. The person you could go to for advice and for guidance and for assistance.

Whenever I spoke with him, I always had the strange sensation of feeling simultaneously reverent and completely at ease.

His demeanor made it easy to forget who he truly was. After 9/11, a group of us were discussing some of the shailos that had come up as a result of that horrible day. I recall pressing him on one issue and noticed a pained look on his face. I realized that for me, these were academic questions, but for him they were real and still raw. He saw the faces of the widows and heard the voices of the orphans whose lives were impacted by rulings he had to make.

I never, thank God, needed to bring him life-and-death shailos. But his answers to my laundry list of queries over the years on matters of shalom bayis, taharas hamishpachah, chinuch, kashrus, Shabbos and berachos were the building blocks that shaped my life and set the spiritual trajectory of my family to this day. You knew that whatever psak you received was the gold standard. You didn’t need to question or second-guess it.

But that’s not where the memories were made.

The memories were made walking him home after Friday night davening at the yeshiva, where I helped make the minyan in the summer. Watching him, whiskey in hand, mingle with friends and guests at the kiddush for my newborn daughter. Sitting with him, on Yom Tov, in the communal sukkah off the FDR Drive, chatting and laughing with neighbors. Visiting the yeshiva with my wife to introduce our newborn son to him.

Just a couple of years ago, my eldest son, fresh from his year in Eretz Yisrael and eager to find a yeshiva in America to continue his learning, decided to revisit his roots. I drove him to MTJ (which he had previously attended as a child, from pre-school through the second grade) and we sat in on Rav Dovid’s Gemara shiur. The shiur was notable for its generational mix: there were students my son’s age, participants my age, and also those my father’s age. But in the shiur, those distinctions disappeared.

Last Chol Hamoed Sukkos, I took my kids to New York City, where our first stop would be the Lower East Side to visit the Rosh Yeshiva. We were shocked to discover that there was a line of people who had all had the same idea, and proceeded to wait awhile to spend a few private minutes with him. It was the last time we saw him, and I’m grateful that we made the trip.

More importantly, I’m grateful that I got to spend so much time with this great and holy man, and that my life remains immeasurably influenced and inspired by him.

By Srully Epstein

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