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The Life and Lessons of Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner

Highlighting: “Rav Yitzchok Scheiner: The Life and Leadership of the Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshivah” by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer. Artscroll Mesorah. 2022. Hardcover.
392 pages. ISBN-19: 9781422630990

(Courtesy of Artscroll) He was a gadol who lived and breathed Torah learning. A member of Eretz Yisrael’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. A master educator who influenced literally thousands of talmidim, from preschoolers to respected mechanchim. He was a close confidante of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and part of a family that included some of the greatest names in pre-war Europe.

And it all started in a public school in Pittsburgh.

Rav Yitzchak Scheiner’s journey from a Pittsburgh high school to his simple Yerushalmi home and the hallowed halls of Kamenitz Yeshivah is a story of breathtaking Hashgachah Pratis. It is a story, also, of the dedicated people who enabled the budding math and Latin scholar to become a gadol b’Torah. His parents, who defied the odds and lived a Torah observant life in a time and place where that was exceptionally rare. The meshulach who visited the Scheiner home and told his astonished parents that yes, there were yeshivas even in America. His rabbeim: Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, Rav Shlomo Heiman, and Rav Reuven Grozovsky. And the rebbe he never met but learned so much from: Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, “der zeide,” whose granddaughter he married, and whose illustrious legacy he carried on for almost eighty years.

Based on dozens of interviews with talmidim, mechanchim and family members, Rabbi Nachman Seltzer paints a vivid and absorbing portrait of Rav Scheiner as an incomparable mechanech, a loving father to his own children and his talmidim, a man of incredible sensitivity and integrity.

Through his teachings and personal example, Rav Yitzchok Scheiner influenced many thousands. Now, with the publication of this biography, he continues to teach—and inspire—all of us with his shining example of gadlus.

• • •

Rav Scheiner was taken from Klal Yisrael on the eighteenth of Shevat 5781 (January 31, 2021). While there are many, many people who were close to Rav Yitzchok and spoke about him for this brand new biography—some for hours—the book actually starts by quoting the words of the rosh yeshivah himself from a speech he gave for the Dirshu-Acheinu conference in 5771. These remarks are enlightening and inspiring, and provide a window into the formative years of this gadol baTorah.

I was brought up in America, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It had a population of about sixty thousand Jews. Most of them were originally ehrliche and sincere Yidden from Europe. When I grew up and went to school, there were no yeshivos, there were no Talmud Torahs. In New York, there was a smattering, a beginning, something. There were a few “strange” people—people who were looked at as strange by everybody, who were involved with the beginning of yeshivos. One of them was my rebbi, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. A dreamer. Many looked upon him as not a realistic person. And the truth is, he was not realistic. He created “yesh mei’ayin” (something from nothing) together with Rav Binyomin Wilhelm, who was his partner.

So you had Rav Binyomin Wilhelm and Rav Shraga Feivel in New York creating something from nothing. But in Pittsburgh, there was really nothing.

I went to public school. Rogers Elementary School on Black Street. You don’t forget girsa d’yankusa (the study of your youth, a term usually used in reference to the Torah one studies as a child), and that was my girsa d’yankusa. Rogers Elementary School on Black Street up on the hill. When I finished eight years of elementary school, I went to high school like everybody in America. Peabody High School. On the other side of Negley Avenue, for whoever knows Pittsburgh. It was a public high school, and that includes everything that going to a public high school entails.

Most of my friends—a lot of them were Jews. In my neighborhood there were a lot of Jewish people. There were plenty of non-Jews too, but most of them were Jews. Very, very few—you can count them on one hand—remained frum. That’s what happens when you go to public school.

Why do I tell all this to you, fellow Americans, now? Why is this important to know today?

We have a Father upstairs. He runs the show—that’s pretty obvious—and sometimes it’s hard to understand why He does certain things. But some of the things we see teach us an important lesson: that nothing, but nothing, happens by happenstance. There is no such thing as happenstance. Everything is Hashgachah Pratis. Hashem Yisbarach is running the show.

If every one of us is here now, at this moment, in this room, it didn’t just happen that way for no reason. HaKadosh Baruch Hu made it that way for a purpose.

Probably every one of us could write a novel. If a person is talented enough, he could write it himself, and if he isn’t talented enough, then a talented novelist could write it about him. I don’t know too much about other people’s novels—I just know my novel, the unwritten novel. I want to relate a few sketches from my novel. It’s an interesting story—one that could be titled “An American from Rogers and Peabody.”

• • •

The trajectory of my life was changed by three people. I’ll mention their names. It’s no secret. One was Rav Avrohom Bender, the grandfather of the rosh yeshivah of Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. He was a meshulach (fundraiser) and he was in Pittsburgh to raise money for a yeshiva. Usually he didn’t come to the East End, focusing on the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, but once, he decided that he wanted to come to the East End too, and since our family was one of the very few families that ate kosher, he stayed with us. There are those who thought that this just happened. But the truth is—HaKadosh Baruch Hu set it up.

What do most meshulachim do? They have a place to eat, they show a little interest in the children…

Rav Bender was different.

He saw a big boy of sixteen.

“What are you doing? Where are you learning?”

I told him that I had just finished high school at Peabody and was already registered for Pitt—the University of Pittsburgh. I was a math major. I was very good at math and at Latin, and my teachers thought I was going to become a big scholar in those subjects.

Rav Bender took an interest in a sixteen-year-old kid and he asked my parents, “Where is he going to study? You’re going to send him to the University of Pittsburgh?! A kosher-eating

family, a frum family? Why don’t you send him to New York, to a yeshivah?”

“A yeshivah?” my parents replied. “What yeshivah?”

My parents were very frum, they were shomer Shabbos, they ate kosher—maybe they had read in a history book about yeshivos—but they had no inkling that there were yeshivos in America.

So Rav Bender said, “I’ll take him. I’ll take him along.”

And he took me.

• • •

In the end, it took me six months to leave, because the Satan doesn’t give in so easily. One day before I was set to leave, I was running for a bus and I slipped and fell. The ground was icy and I tore a ligament. It was worse than a sprained ankle, and I was in a cast for three months. I couldn’t go to New York. I had to make regular visits to the doctor. With no choice, I went to Pitt for one semester.

But that wasn’t the end. I did go to yeshivah. You see, my mother, aleha hashalom, shed rivers of tears when she lit the Shabbos candles on Friday night. And the Chazon Ish was once asked how it was possible that people who grew up in kibbutzim where there was not even a ray of Torah become baalei teshuvah. How does it happen? “A mother’s tears are never in vain,” the Chazon Ish replied. “A mother’s tears bore through steel mountains until they arrive at the Kisei HaKavod. Sometimes it takes them a year, and sometimes it takes them a generation, and sometimes it takes them three generations, but they always arrive in the end. And when they arrive, HaKadosh Baruch Hu answers the prayers of the mother or the bubbe…”

I’m a ben yachid, an only son. My mother saw what was going on all around us. The boys didn’t say Kaddish anymore. They stopped going to shul. If you don’t go to shul, you can’t say Kaddish, and if you marry a non-Jew, then you won’t say Kaddish. So my mother shed rivers of tears and pleaded with HaKadosh Baruch Hu: “Ribbono shel Olam, helf mir mein kind zol bleiben a Yid!—Please help that my child should remain a Jew!”

My mother’s prayers eventually reached the right place, and after one semester at Pitt, Rav Bender took me with him to New York to learn.

• • •

There were two other people I met who showed me the way. HaKadosh Baruch Hu has His ways, and I ended up at Camp Mesivta. Hashem makes you sick, He makes you healthy, He breaks your ankle, but He accomplishes what He wants. So Hashem made me sick, and I had a cough and had to go enjoy the air of the Catskills. The only Jewish camp that existed at the time was Camp Mesivta. And there I met the two other people who changed my life. At camp, I played a lot of baseball with Moshe Yecheskel Samuels. He was maybe a year younger than I. I also came to know Yitzchok Karp, Rav Shraga Feivel’s son-n-law. So Moshe Yecheskel played baseball with me, and Yitzchok took me for long walks, telling me divrei Torah from my future rebbi, Rav Shlomo [Heiman].

After camp, I planned to continue with what I was doing at the time, but Yitzchok said no. Yitzchok said, “You’re not going back there [to the yeshivah you are in]. You’re going to Rav Shlomo’s shiur!”

And he shlepped me.

He shlepped me to Rav Shraga Feivel, and he shlepped me to Rav Shlomo, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

It was these three people who get the credit for what my life became.

If I hadn’t been in New York, I would have never made it to the Catskills, so Rav Avrohom Bender gets the first commendation. Yitzchok Karp and Moshe Yecheskel Samuels get the next two. These three people sent me on my life’s mission, and that’s why I’m here…

• • •

I merited learning with der rebbi Rav Shlomo—Rav Shlomo Heiman—for years, and then with der rebbi Rav Reuven for years. Rav Reuven—Rav Reuven Grozovsky—was my shadchan. He made my shidduch with his niece, a granddaughter of Rav Baruch Ber [Leibowitz]. When my wife was born, a bas kol rang out: “Bas ploni l’ploni. Esther Leah bas Rav Moshe, the einikel of Rav Baruch Ber, is going to marry Yitzchok Aryeh ben Rav Dov.”

Where was Yitzchok Aryeh at that time?

At that time, Yitzchok Aryeh ben Rav Dov was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was three years old when my wife was born in Vilna in 1925.

How does such a match come about? There are so many reasons this shidduch could never happen! First of all, she was in Vilna and I was in Pittsburgh. You know how far Vilna is from Pittsburgh? It’s 5,690 miles away. How does such a shidduch happen? More than that, this Yitzchok Aryeh had barely looked at a Gemara. How was he going to marry a grandchild of Rav Baruch Ber?

We don’t understand the ways of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, but He knows how to make things happen. This is a fact.

• • •

The idea of bas ploni l’ploni explains why I threw myself into learning after going to Peabody High School and one semester in Pitt. But the trajectory of my life is due to the maasim tovim of three people.

And the truth is, every one of us has such an opportunity. To save children for HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Just like Rav Bender, Yitzchok Karp, and Moshe Yecheskel Samuels saved me.

• • •

There you have it. The words of the rosh yeshiva of Kamenitz. The words of a person who would stand at the helm of an illustrious Torah institution for decades yet manage to retain the unassuming warmth of an American out-of-towner. The words of the man who was sent by his rebbe, Rav Reuven, to marry the granddaughter of Rav Baruch Ber.

There is no question that the rosh yeshiva would want us to glean something from this new book about his life. He would want us to internalize the idea that you can do the same thing he did. If you were talking to him, he would make a point of saying, “Look, I was just like you. No, that’s not true. I wasn’t even like you, because I didn’t go to yeshivah as a kid. I went to Rogers. I went to Peabody. I played ball and chess. And look at what I managed to achieve. And so can you.”

The more you read this fascinating book, the more you’ll understand that Rav Yitzchok Scheiner is correct. You’ll grasp that you can become great and follow in his footsteps—the footsteps of an American bachur who married the granddaughter of a Lithuanian gaon, became a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and stood at the helm of a Yerushalmi yeshivah—all with the dedication and incredible amounts of wisdom he received from his rebbeim, der rebbe

Rav Shlomo, der rebbe Rav Reuven, and the legacy of his zeide, Rav Baruch Ber.

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