Ahavas Yisrael Redefined: A Life of Kiruv and Harbatzas HaTorah

Raised in Boro Park, Brooklyn, by Reb Aryeh Leib and Chana Berkovits, both Holocaust survivors, Rav Yitzchak Shmuel Halevi Berkovits is one of the most prominent rabbanim and marbitzei Torah in Yerushalayim today. A talmid muvhak of Rav Nochum Partzovitz of Mir, Rav Berkovits also received shimush from his great-uncle, the renowned rosh beis din of the Eidah Hachareidis Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss, the Minchas Yitzchak, as well as from Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher.
These days, Rav Berkovits serves in various positions, including as mara d’asra of Minyan Avreichim in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood as well as rosh kollel of the Jerusalem Kollel, which offers a three-year semichah program that he founded in 2001, with hundreds of its alumni filling prominent rabbinical positions around the globe. Rav Berkovits’ shiurim at the Jerusalem Kollel have continued unabated even during the coronavirus pandemic, albeit via Zoom.
Rav Berkovits was also recently appointed as the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Aish HaTorah. Having served for 16 years as its menahel ruchani (spiritual director) at the request of its renowned founder Rav Noach Weinberg, his recent appointment to stand at the helm of that important kiruv institution was a natural one. Recognized by many as the “unofficial posek” of the kiruv world, Rav Berkovits is also a leading authority on the laws of bein adam lachaveiro, the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal relationships.
I first met Rav Berkovits in his modest apartment in Sanhedria Murchevet and followed up with a phone conversation last week. Every utterance of his was brimming with wisdom, and each answer he provided contained nuggets of insight. He also shared his fascinating family history and personal life story. It is worthwhile to listen in.


In recent months, three major events occurred in your life. First, you became the rosh yeshivah of Aish HaTorah. At the same there was an outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which affected the entire world but has also closed down your kollel, forcing you to give shiurim via Zoom. The third was the passing of your father. Let’s start with Aish HaTorah. How has the experience in heading such an important institution been so far?
Exceptional. Kiruv is the practical outcome of a life’s path that understands that we aren’t here for ourselves. We are obligated to be concerned about the klal, and we have to be concerned about kevod shamayim (the honor of heaven). If Chazal tell us that everything the Ribbono Shel Olam made in this world is lichvodo, it’s not just for a shalosh seudos Torah; it’s very real, and that’s the way a Yid has to live. In this day and age, when we take a look at the matzav of where klal Yisrael is holding, I don’t really see an alternative. There’s a se’if in Shulchan Aruch that says that a person has to be concerned about the churban and kevod shamayim. It’s a halachah in Shulchan Aruch.
As the process began for me to join Aish HaTorah, I wanted to obtain statistics about Jews in America, so I asked Rabbi Steve Burg, the director general of Aish, to collect statistics for me. He’s very much part of a world that has been doing statistics for a very long time. He came back with devastating information: There are between four and eight million Jews in America. That means that we don’t know how many Jews there really are. And with intermarriage being over 70%, what’s going to happen to the next generation? This is our last chance to grab anyone in America who is willing to stand up and be called Jewish, and then we’ll have to find out if he really is Jewish.
One of the things I saw right away is that Aish HaTorah, and especially Steve Burg, are extremely well connected in the Jewish world without any boundaries whatsoever. The opportunities to really try to make a difference are there, and there are so many good people of all kinds who aren’t happy with the matzav of klal Yisrael and want to see improvements.

Are you referring to philanthropists?
I’m referring to all kinds of doers, from the traveling chasidim to Mark Levin to Aryeh Lightstone, the adviser to Ambassador Friedman, and Ambassador Friedman himself. I got to know people from all over America, from different walks of life and affiliations, including Hollywood producers, and they all understand that klal Yisrael is in bad shape and has to be saved. At the same time, I realize that there’s a need to develop within the yeshivah of Aish HaTorah the next generation that will make a difference. Baruch Hashem, there is a lot of idealism.
Aish HaTorah was a little dormant for years because there was a void, but there are talmidim there now with real idealism and talent. It’s going to be a matter of years, because we don’t want to send them out half-baked.

So there’s a will to be mashpia. But are there potential mushpa’im?
The impression I’m getting is that the answer is yes. The people making the noise out there aren’t interested, but a large percentage of American unaffiliated Jews aren’t really so liberal. So while liberalism does speak to people, there are many who realize that something is wrong and that it’s gone too far. However, these people aren’t vocal, and they don’t think they stand a chance to oppose that trend. I feel very strongly that we have to address that silent majority of people who aren’t diehard liberals and get them to understand that traditional values are the future of humanity.

You define liberalism as being anti-religion.
Yes. The current liberal view is not only anti-religious but also terribly fascist and anti-democratic and doesn’t believe in freedom of religion. Religion to them is bigotry, because of its rejection of various lifestyles and beliefs.
This really brings me to the coronavirus. It is a davar pashut that the world is deteriorating. I keep telling people that the Maharal says on the beginning of Parshas Noach that the reason gezel (robbery) and arayos (illicit relations) were the aveiros that caused the Mabul (Flood) was that they destroyed the seder ha’olam (normal order of the world). When the seder ha’olam is destroyed, the world can’t exist the way it is. The whole tzurah of a mishpachah (concept of the family) doesn’t exist anymore. Children are growing up not knowing what they are. The tzurah of society isn’t what it was. The structure of humanity is falling apart, so the Ribbono Shel Olam went and destroyed everything.

What has certainly been destroyed is our interaction with other people. I know that people make the connection to the Dor Hamabul, but to me it feels more like the Dor Hahaflagah (the generation of the Tower of Babel), because we can’t interact with each other.
People are still interacting through social media, but the problem is that most of that world wasn’t interacting personally anyway. There’s definitely that aspect, but the economies of the world are also down. Every social structure from entertainment to sports fell apart.

I guess your work at Aish HaTorah is on hold until things get back to normal and the airports reopen.
It’s not entirely on hold. It’s on hold in terms of bringing people to Eretz Yisrael, but in terms of the education we’ve learned to use technology, and the Internet in particular, in a way we’ve never done before. We’ve brought together the best rebbeim from around the world—this is all Steve Burg’s doing—and put together a daily schedule of online classes. We’re actually reaching many more people than before, although not on a personal basis. I think we’re going to have to start developing online relationships as well.

Do you think there’s a new thirst for Yiddishkeit?
I don’t know if it’s a thirst for Yiddishkeit, but I believe that a lot of people are stuck at home and all they have is the Internet, so they decide to check it out because of curiosity and l’maaseh they’re joining classes.

There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety due to all the besuros raos (bad news) as well as being locked in. Do you see spirituality as a counter to that?
The counter to that is definitely spirituality, but are there enough people out there who understand that, or are they too busy complaining? It’s hard to know.
My belief is that if we can get all the frum Yidden to radiate genuine ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisrael, we wouldn’t have to invest much into kiruv. The very image of a frum Yid would be enough to make people think twice and make them wonder, “What do they have that I don’t?” That’s the first thing. For the people working in kiruv, it isn’t a profession. Either you have a passion for it or you find something else to do.

The Belzer Rebbe once told me that it’s important to recruit volunteers for kiruv who have a heart for it. Not everyone does.
That’s definitely true. The fact is that when you look at the baalei teshuvah themselves you see how special they are, and that should be the number one motivation to do kiruv. They become frum with great mesiras nefesh and without any family support. They have to give up everything. These are accomplished people, but they willingly join a society in which they’re beginners. There are mature adults who know that they sound like five-year-olds. They understand that when they send their kids to cheder they’re going to surpass them by the time they’re seven or eight, yet they do it anyway. These are great people, and if no one did kiruv they would still be in the gutter.
People have complaints about sending a baal teshuvah to the amud with his Ivri (command of Hebrew). I’m not a chasidishe rebbe, but I have no doubt that the malachim rejoice and come to hear a baal teshuvah breaking his teeth on the words. The whole pamalya shel maalah is b’simchah (the heavenly angels are joyful). It’s more precious to them than anything else. I don’t have the slightest doubt about that. People have to recognize that.

Some people bring up the problem that baalei teshuvah sometimes bring in hashkafos from the outside and then become our madrichim, to a certain extent.
Unfortunately, our own people aren’t exactly sheltered. Is our street perfect? We’ve picked up a lot of habits that don’t belong in Yiddishkeit. We all need help. I think the important thing before having taanos against them is to hold their hands and teach them every step of the way. If we don’t have the time for that, where do we expect them to learn? Every frum community has to embrace and guide them. People should be “adopting” them. How can we have taanos? Did we ever teach them all the things we expect from them? There are so many things we know intuitively because we grew up with them. If we want them to be in tune with them, we have to make sure to expose them to these things by letting them into our homes. There are so many things that go unarticulated because we take them for granted, but they don’t have that. We have to give it to them.

Do you advocate the same kiruv approach for Sefardim as you do for Ashkenazim?
Kiruv for Sefardim in Eretz Yisrael means that you’re being mekarev people whose emunah is stronger than ours. They themselves think they’re not frum, and they look that way, but when you talk to them they have more emunah than we do. There’s no need to talk to them about emunah, and they’re not interested in proof. They know that there’s a Ribbono Shel Olam, but they think that they can’t live a religious lifestyle. All you have to do is prove to them that it’s a geshmake life. For Ashkenazim there are organizations like Arachim, where there’s a focus on refuting secularism. But in America Jews are simply indifferent and couldn’t care less about religion. They don’t care if it’s emes or not. The quest for truth is not on their agenda. All they’re interested in is making a living. Also, most people don’t spend too much time thinking about the important questions. Information is being flashed at them all the time. They’re not deep. If you say a word, right away they’ll respond that they heard it before.

Is there any hope?
Of course there’s hope. Kiruv hit an all-time low, but it’s starting to build up again in America. While there are a lot of things that have to be experimented with, at the end of the day, the thing that’s mekarev people in America is a personal relationship with a frum Yid. They have never seen anyone who really cares about them like that. It’s a cold world out there, so the strongest thing we have to offer is that there’s someone who really cares about them. The joke these days is that the only way people communicate with their spouse is by phone. They can be in the same house, but they’re on the phone all the time. A personal relationship with a caring frum person will change their lives. They’ve never seen anything like our hasagos in chesed. It’s the responsibility of frum Yidden to reach out to people who live near them. And what you teach them is irrelevant; the most important thing is the personal relationship. The real question is how to get them to meet frum Yidden, especially those who live far away.

At Aish HaTorah, are you teaching real beginners?
Yes. For years the majority of its students were frum boys who went off the derech and were coming back, because kiruv was going down and the noshrim were growing. Now, baruch Hashem, they have been successfully recruiting non-frum boys—together with Olami—who are real beginners. The yeshivah is being rebuilt in that direction.

Maybe in order to reach them it’s more important to be mekarev with Jewish identity rather than Yiddishkeit.
Jewish identity has to be emunah; it can’t be anything else. It has to be with the recognition that there’s a Borei Olam, that Torah is Divine and that it’s relevant. If we don’t do that, we’re going to create another stream of Judaism. Hopefully, they’ll stay around for another generation and someone will get these principles across to them. Otherwise we’ll be left with somewhere between 10% and 20% of klal Yisrael.

So Aish HaTorah promotes Jewish identity and emunah as two sides of the same coin.
Yes. One of the things that’s being provided, and that people are clearly thirsty for, is help with relationships: with their children, with their spouses and with their business associates. In that respect, knowing that the rabbis have the answers and that the answers are age-old is certainly a way in. In other words, you don’t have to stop people on the street and get them to come learn about Hashem. When you offer classes on relationships, people are automatically interested. The advice is straight from Chazal. The way to bring people in is to let them know that the Torah has been around for a long time and it provides answers.

Are they practical answers or spiritual ones?
They’re practical, in the sense that if you want to get along with people you have to take responsibility for your own middos. You have to learn to be giving. You have to learn to be mevateir. You have to learn that life isn’t all about what everyone can do for you. You have to learn the joy of being there for others. You have to take responsibility for your anger. All of these things involve effort, because people aren’t necessarily that way.

So to you, “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, ani Hashem” (You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Hashem) means that you come to the acceptance of Hashem through “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.”
Yes. But it has to be directed. You can’t just teach “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” and expect that they’re going to automatically understand about Hashem. But it’s a very good way in. And it is an ikar in Yiddishkeit. Taking responsibility for your middos is very important.

Can we say that “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” or relationships, as you define it, is a new step in Aish’s mehalech?
I don’t know if it’s a new step, but it has certainly gone up a level. We see that there’s an interest and that people come back. Everything has gone up a level because all the classes are on the Internet now.

There are many ways to be mekarev. Can we say that there is one kiruv model that is the successful one that should be emulated?
There is no such thing. It’s clear that different things work for different people. The important thing is to understand what works for whom and why. Ultimately, if what you’re talking about is really making someone frum and he’s at a point where he can sit and learn a Tosafos, you’ve got him. There’s no question about it. The question is all the steps that came before that. How do you get him through the door? For that there are many approaches, and each one appeals to different people.

Does the Shulchan Aruch inform your approach to kiruv?
Yes. Shas and poskim give us guidelines on what you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do. Perhaps it’s a chiddush, but I think that people are more aware of that these days. We learn the halachos of kiruv in the same framework as other halachos: why halachah obligates kiruv, how to go about it, what’s muttar and assur, the difference between what’s muttar and assur to be mekarev and what’s muttar and assur when raising money for kiruv. There are a lot of things you’re not allowed to do.

Please give us an illustration.
For example, there’s a very big difference between inviting someone for Shabbos if you think it’s going to help him become frum and inviting someone for Shabbos because you think it’s going to make him give more money for kiruv. For the former there are guidelines, but it’s essentially muttar. But there’s no hetter for the latter.

What can every individual do to be mekarev other Yidden?
The first thing is for individuals to be mekarev individuals. If you sit next to a Yid on a plane, say something. We can’t be embarrassed of our Yiddishkeit. People work with non-frum Yidden all the time, and we can’t be afraid to open our mouths. What are you afraid of? Is what we have to sell so terrible? We have to believe in Torah and be proud of it. We’re light years ahead of the rest of the world, even in the things that others are interested in, such as the values of what a family should look like and what a mentch should look like. Of course, anyone who can be mashpia in a bigger way should do so, especially yeshivahleit.

So you think everyone is capable of speaking to a non-believer?
People are usually afraid of being asked philosophical questions, but no one asks them. There are no philosophers out there anymore. Before I started teaching the beginners in Aish HaTorah I read up on all the philosophy and kefirah. But after I started teaching, I found out that I was the only one who knew it—I was teaching them the kefirah! So I stopped. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You have to be kind and accepting and not give tochachah on every little thing. Teach them what we have before you talk about yirah. You have to show respect for people and care about them. They’re good people, they just nebach don’t know.

Your headquarters are right across from the Kosel. Once they’re at the Kosel on Friday night and dancing with excitement, Aish HaTorah has to be the next step.
The building and its location is our number one asset in that respect. The question is what we’re going to be bringing them to. We’re working on something that we’re hoping will be part of what happens every time a Yid comes to the Kosel.

The modern term is “kiruv,” and today there are “kiruv professionals.” But in the past it was referred to as “v’rabbim heishiv mei’avon” (and many were brought back from transgression), something that was inscribed on the matzeivos of many gedolim. There was no discussion about whether a person was a kiruv professional or not; it was the tafkid of a gutte Yid. The Rambam says that it’s part of ahavas Hashem.
Absolutely. Ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisrael go hand in hand. If you love the Ribbono Shel Olam then you love His children. You have to care about their gashmiyus and their ruchniyus. That’s the bottom line.

We published an interview with a chareidi professor who lives in Telz-Stone and teaches chasidus. She told us that people don’t realize that when the Sfas Emes spoke about Shabbos he was often talking to people who were mechallelei Shabbos. That really opened my eyes to something new about the Sfas Emes and about kiruv. There was already a lot of chillul Shabbos in those days, and he was talking about Shabbos to be mekareiv them to Yiddishkeit.
That’s very insightful and meaningful. The Sfas Emes always talks about how Shabbos is mekasher with the shoresh. They say that Warsaw was split into thirds; one third was chasidim, one third was Tziyonim, and one third was socialists.


Some years ago you left Aish HaTorah—which you have now rejoined—and opened a kollel.
I was at Aish HaTorah for years and developed a seven-year learning program that culminated in an intense halachah curriculum. We called it a semichah program so that its graduates left as musmachim with credentials. That seven-year program took them from alef-beis to horaah. My partner here in the kollel was also my partner then, Rav Yaakov Blackman, and he developed it with me. His understanding of chinuch is very special. I taught the semichah program back-to-back with a philosophy class that was for real beginners who weren’t necessarily frum yet. I used to tell myself that the guy with the ponytail who was arguing with me that there is no Ribbono Shel Olam would be arguing with me in a couple of years and telling me that I didn’t understand pshat in the Shach, and it often happened. It was amazing. We got them to know how to learn, have an appreciation for it and to know a lot. So I figured that if we could do that with beginners and teach them how to do kiruv as well, why shouldn’t we do it with yeshivahleit who had been learning for years and were now in their last years of learning?

I knew it was just a matter of time before they would go into business and get themselves a profession, so why shouldn’t I try to influence them to work for klal Yisrael? There is so much talent, ehrlichkeit and a real desire to do something that can be utilized. Furthermore, why shouldn’t the non-frum people see what a real ben Torah looks like?
I decided to give it a try and put together a three-year program that was halachah-based. I wanted to ensure that whoever came wouldn’t be someone who was going to be in the kollel system for the rest of his life and was just sitting and learning through sugyos of what they call Torah lishmah, which is something else. Rather, it would be someone who was looking for something different and for tachlis, as it’s called. I really don’t like using such expressions, as if the other one isn’t tachlis. But I smelled out guys who wouldn’t be staying. The day before I opened I went to Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, for a brachah. We were very close. I was in his very first Gemara chaburah. I said, “This is necessary, and I’m not coming to ask a sh’eilah as to whether I should do it or not. I’m coming to ask for a brachah.” He gave me a nice brachah, but he said it was on the condition that I wouldn’t pull anyone out of full-time learning too early. I’ve been very careful with that. I have to know that his rebbeim agree that this is what he should be doing.
The tachlis should also be that after three years of learning l’halachah I want them to take a rabbanus in a shvache community that they’re going to build up, or work for a kiruv organization or do kiruv on their own.

You only accept people on that condition?
No. We don’t make conditions, but that’s the intent. We don’t make anyone sign that he’s going to do kiruv. We have to feel that a person is an idealist and that there’s someone to work with, and hope that after three years he’ll be ready to go out and do it. Every day there’s an iyun halachah shiur, a bekius halachah shiur and a hashkafah shiur. Hopefully by the end of three years no one has to push them, and that has been our experience. We’ve sent out more than 200 families all over the world.

Are there kiruv peiros as well?
Baruch Hashem. We also have chavrusos where one works for one organization and the other works for another organization, and they’re still best friends. A lot of the walls are coming down and the organizations are working together, because our chevreh are on both sides. We have them in every major kiruv organization in the world, and in some of the smaller ones too.

You said that in addition to halachah you also taught hashkafah and philosophy. Do you do that in the kollel as well?
It’s different, because in the kollel it’s for yeshivahleit. I don’t have to start from scratch. But we do learn emunah.

And also “da mah shetashiv l’epikoros” (know what to answer a heretic)?
We do teach that, but the main hashkafah in my view is building the person, building a Yid. You have to take achrayus for your middos, your yiras shamayim and your ahavas Yisrael; it doesn’t happen on its own. We’re in this world to become all of these things, but it requires effort. Even in learning, where it says, “Hamaor shebah yachazirenu l’mutav,” Rav Yisrael Salanter said that if you don’t learn those parts of Torah that have to do with middos it won’t happen automatically. Yes, the Torah is what does it, but Rav Yisrael said that we have a ruchniyusdike pegam as well, and the way to correct it is by also involving ourselves in the concepts of middos and hashkafah. We won’t automatically become big baalei middos just by learning Nashim, Nezikin and Kodashim.

As a talmid of Mir, what motivated you to abandon the yeshivishe mehalech, so to speak, and establish a kollel in which avreichim learn halachah?
I always had a netiyah to halachah; it’s been in the family for many generations. I learned in Mir for ten years. I was there for Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz’s last three years, but the main person who taught us was Rav Nochum Partzowitz. Rav Nochum taught us how to read. When I got to Rav Nochum, I learned how to daven again, and I also learned Mesillas Yesharim again. At the end of the ten years I used to say halachah chaburos. I developed a passion for getting people to understand halachah. I always had a feeling that yeshivahleit might be able to learn an entire sugya in great depth and it’s gevaldik, but halachah is usually kept on the level of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. That doesn’t make sense. Something isn’t right about that. You have to be able to learn a sugya l’halachah on the same level as a sugya in Nashim or Nezikin—not that they aren’t also halachah. Of course, every part of Torah has a different kind of lomdus and a different way of learning. For example, everyone knew that if you wanted to learn Moed properly you had to go to the Sochatchover Gaon. So there are different approaches, but it’s all the same basic idea with amkus and yesodos, and everything has to be understood.

So you start from the Gemara and go all the way through to Shulchan Aruch?
Yes, although I have a way to make it quicker. I give them very pointed marei mekomos. Some go for it and some don’t.

You started at Aish HaTorah, founded the kollel, and now you are giving shiurim in both places. As Rav Hutner once said, “It isn’t a double life, it’s a broad life.”
Absolutely. But it’s the same idea. The only difference is the population.

So you certainly don’t view it as a double mission.
Not at all, and the same applies to my kehillah. I don’t send everyone out to chutz laaretz, but the importance of developing a real relationship with the Ribbono Shel Olam, caring about klal Yisrael and really living for the sake of doing for klal Yisrael is something I impart to everyone in the kehillah as well. All three aspects of my life really reflect the same basic idea, although they’re for three slightly different populations.

Is your beis midrash still on lockdown?
It is. We’re considering starting something small while keeping to the rules and not allowing anyone else to join. We’re even going to be more machmir than required and keep a greater distance between people, aside from having everyone wear masks. For Krias HaTorah the oleh would have to lein himself. But we’re being very careful. My oilam is very eager to reopen the shul so they can come back and daven, but I made it very clear that unless it’s going to be done according to the most stringent rules we can’t allow it. It would have to be a smaller oilam and it couldn’t be inside the shul; it would to have to be in the playground of a cheder that’s not currently in use. We’re still working on it. It would be nice, but we won’t do it if it isn’t perfect.

You’re also continuing the shiurim in the kollel.
The kollel is continuing as before via Zoom. As a matter of fact, I’m on Zoom for most of the day now. Between shiurim and meetings for Aish, shiurim for the kollel—even kabbalas kahal is now on Zoom, because there’s no choice—I’m on Zoom all the time. It’s absolutely exhausting, and it’s missing the neshamah element, because even if you see a face it’s still electronic. I’m looking forward to the day when we’ll be able to interact in person.


You’re an aveil, and I’m assuming that you haven’t davened for the amud during this time.
I haven’t, but I’ve been able to say Kaddish on and off depending on whether there was a porch minyan. What can I say? It’s an understatement to say that my whole family loved my father, and not being able to say Kaddish for him is terrible. On the other hand, there are so many other things that can be done for him. There were a lot of minyanim around that weren’t keeping to the rules as they were supposed to, and I came out strongly against them and refused to attend them. I felt that that was also a big zechus l’iluy nishmaso to really be mashpia on the American tzibbur here and get them to take it seriously. A lot of people are davening biyechidus so as not to be part of a minyan where people don’t keep the rules. I keep telling people that it isn’t about our own health, it’s so that we shouldn’t chalilah infect someone else. To infect someone else, especially someone who is at high risk, is very wrong. It’s an issue of responsibility. Rotzei’ach and shemiras hanefesh go together in halachah…

We haven’t spoken much about your father yet.
My father didn’t like when I spoke about him, and when I brought him to Aish for my hachtarah he was beaming, but he still felt uncomfortable being in the public eye. But he was still the gabbai of every shul he davened in, including the retirement home where he lived. He always fought for shalom as much as possible and for being mekarev people. I didn’t speak that much about him when he was alive, and then he slipped away when we couldn’t have a proper levayah. We had a minyan metzumtzam for the kevurah.

Did he pass away from the coronavirus?
Not directly. He didn’t have the virus, but he had been getting weaker; he was 98 years old. What he thrived on was the regular visits from my children and grandchildren. He always had people there, and he loved them and they loved him. But on the night of Purim they locked the door and said there couldn’t be any visitors anymore. I spoke to him by the door a few days later, and he said that he felt like he was in prison and that he was deteriorating.
In the meantime, the doctor who worked in the retirement home was quarantined because she was exposed to the virus. So for two whole weeks his doctor wasn’t there, and in the interim he developed a bedsore and his body was full of toxins. When she came back she sent him to the hospital, but when he got there they said that his lungs were filling with carbon dioxide. He fell into a coma and then woke up, but he said that he was going, and he dictated a tzavaah to my wife for an hour and a half and said Viduy. After that, the situation went up and down. Erev Shabbos Hagadol he was doing a lot better, but then he went on Shabbos in the middle of the night.
On Motzaei Shabbos there was a whole balagan because of the coronavirus. I had to go to Har Hazeisim to show the Arabs where to dig. I was there for an hour and a half, standing over them while they were digging. I came back at midnight, and the levayah was held at 12:30. Nichum aveilim was on the phone.

You had a short shivah because of Pesach.
Yes. I got up from shivah on Erev Pesach at chatzos. But even though it was a short shivah, I’ve been talking about him the whole time. I learned so much of my bein adam lachaveiro from him, and his avdus to klal Yisrael.

Where did your father hail from?
My father grew up in Grosswardein. He was the only one from his immediate family who survived the war. He was the youngest of seven, and five of his siblings were already married and had children when the war broke out. Some Poilishe cousins came to their house and told them what was happening, so my father ran off with them to unoccupied Romania and spent the war in Bucharest. The Nazis, yimach shemam, had divided Romania into two parts: one part they gave to Hungary and the other part they left alone. My great-grandfather and the rest of the family were sent to Auschwitz, and none of them came back.

Was your grandfather active in Jewish life in Grosswardein?
Yes. He was the mazkir of the kehillah. He basically ran it, taking care of the kashrus, the eiruv and the mikvah. It was a very big community; it was the second-largest Jewish city in Transylvania after Budapest. Most of its residents were Ashkenazim but not chasidim, and they had a school system with limmudei chol. They even had a gymnasium.
My great-grandfather was a chasidishe Yid. After WWI, the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz came to Grosswardein, and my father’s family became Vizhnitzer chasidim. They were very close with the Rebbe. My father remembered the Ahavas Yisrael, and Vizhnitzer chasidim used to come to him to hear stories. He traveled with his great-grandfather and met all the gedolim, and he remembered everything. He could tell you exactly who sat where at the Ahavas Yisrael’s tish.
I was brought up on the concept of ahavas Yisrael and a feeling of responsibility to the kahal and caring about every Yid. My father cared about everyone. We would come home from shul very late because everyone came to him with their chiddushim—both in learning and with their ideas for new inventions—as well as their tzaros and shalom bayis problems. My father always had a listening ear and an open heart. I learned from him how to deal with people. He always ran from machlokes and loved shalom.

Did your father maintain a relationship with the Vizhnitzer Rebbeim after the war?
Sporadically. When the Imrei Chaim came to America he went to see him, and then when my parents came to Eretz Yisrael for a visit he went to him again. During another visit my father went to the Yeshuos Moshe, who was his childhood friend. Before my chasunah I went with my father to the Rebbe for a brachah, and they spoke to each other like friends.

What was your great-grandfather’s name?
On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was Rav Pinchas Zimetbaum, who was the father-in-law of the Minchas Yitzchak. He was the closest talmid of the Shinever Rebbe. From the age of 17 he was known as a baki in Shas and poskim. He was the son-in-law of the Krenitzer Rav, Rav Aryeh Leib Bronfeld. He became a dayan of Klausenberg, and then he became the raavad of the Ashkenazi community in Grosswardein. He was a chasidishe Yid, but the Ashkenazim took him. My father always said that it showed how big he was: they were ready to take a Yid with a shtreimel! He remained in that position until the Holocaust. They say that my great-grandfather was related to the Beis Halevi’s third wife, but I don’t know exactly how, and the Beis Halevi gave him semichah. He was also very close with Rav Chaim Brisker. He printed some of his teshuvos in a sefer called Divrei Pinchas, and he had a haskamah from Rav Chaim, in which Rav Chaim referred to him as “yedidi hamefursam.” They were very close. The Yidden of Transylvania had no connection to the Litvishe world, but he connected them to it, as well as to the chasidishe world.
So the Minchas Yitzchak was your great-uncle.
Yes, and when I came to Eretz Yisrael I was a ben bayis by him and ate there on Shabbos. It was very interesting, because when I learned in Mir I also went very often to Rav Elyashiv and to Rav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher. The derech halimmud and derech hapsak that I knew was in my family for generations and the one I learned from them were very different; I was trained in both sides and understood how the two could work together. What I got from Rav Elyashiv and Rav Fisher was how to understand how everything comes from Shas and poskim, and what I got from the Minchas Yitzchak was that there’s a limit to what you can be mechadeish. You have to reckon with the mesorah.

That comes from the Hungarian side, because the Litvishe are more comfortable with chiddushim.
Yes. I was once by Rav Elyashiv and mentioned that I wear Arizal tefillin because I come from chasidim. He said, “You know, it’s a sh’eilah if you’re yotzei b’dieved. Do you want to take a chance on being a karkafta d’lo manach tefillin?” I was a bit shaken and decided to go to my uncle and ask him, but I couldn’t just blurt out the question, so I started talking to him about safrus. I told him that I had learned hilchos stam and wanted to make a new pair of tefillin, and I was thinking about what’s takeh with the tzaddik hafuch. There’s the Arizal’s pshat, but the Chazon Ish argues… He realized right away where I was going, and he snapped at me and asked rhetorically, “Did your great-grandfather never wear tefillin?”

That type of consideration wasn’t as important in the Litvivishe world.
Right, but for the Minchas Yitzchak you see that as much as one is mechadeish you have to make sure that it isn’t going outside the mesorah. It’s not that they couldn’t be mechadeish or didn’t know how; it was a certain yiras shamayim that didn’t allow them to go further.

But you cannot merge all these different approaches.
You can’t. I learned in the Mir, where we were taught that you learn through Gemara and Rishonim, and that you have to be medayeik in every Rishon until you’re so sure that that’s pshat that when it comes to halachah you go by that as well. Rav Elyashiv’s mehalech was also very similar, although he would never go against the gedolei haAcharonim or even against someone like Rav Yitzchak Elchanan. By the way, everyone knew about his bekius in Shas and Rishonim, but his bekius in the gedolei haAcharonim was phenomenal.

The Hungarians had problems with Rav Moshe because of his willingness to go straight to Shas and Rishonim.
Of course. For Rav Moshe it was always Shas and Rishonim. I remember that I would come to the Minchas Yitzchak with a sh’eilah, and he would tell me to climb up—he had sefarim piled up to the ceiling—and there would be an unbound sefer with crumbling pages. “Er redt shoin vegen dem (he already spoke about this),” he would say. “You can’t come to me with a diyuk in a Rambam and tell me a chiddush when this-and-this rav already spoke about it.”

Did your father meet up with his uncle, the Minchas Yitzchak, after the war?
At the end of the war he got involved with the Agudah, which was sending people to Palestine. He got word that his uncle was hiding in the attic of a soap factory together with his wife and his only son, Berish. My father got tickets to Palestine for all of them, and they were supposed to immigrate together. For some reason they were delayed, and it became clear that the Minchas Yitzchak was going to miss the boat.
At the time, the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz was in Bucharest, and when he heard that the Minchas Yitzchak got stuck he told my father, “You’re also not going.” My father really wanted to leave Europe, but the Imrei Chaim told him that he couldn’t go alone. So my father gave his ticket and passport to someone else who asked him for them. That was one of the ships that was blown up by the Nazis and there were no survivors. Meanwhile, my father was left without papers and without a legal name. The name Berkovits was acquired after the war.

And he never wanted to change it back?
In America my father was told that if he changed it back it meant that he had immigrated with a false name and he would be deported. The greenhorns were always being made fun of, and they scared him. When my parents moved to Eretz Yisrael 45 years ago, my father found someone who remembered him from cheder and testified in court about his name and real age, so he later went by both names.

Where was your mother from?
My mother’s father was the brother of the Chimper Rav, Rav Moshe Dovid Ostreicher. My parents were already mechutanim, because the Chimper Rav’s son was married to my father’s sister. After the war, my father had nowhere to go. The closest person he could go to was the Chimper Rav, so that’s where he went. When my mother came back from Auschwitz she also went to the Chimper Rav. So they met in the Chimper Rav’s house in Arad, Romania.

And from there they came to America?
My mother’s father had gone to America right before the war to try to get the family out, but he was unsuccessful. After the war, my mother managed to wire him that she and one sister had survived and that they wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael, so he told her that he wanted to be by her chasunah. She told him that she already had a chasan; she was already engaged to my father. He replied, “Come here and then we’ll see.” My mother said, “Either you take us both or we’re going to get married here by the Chimper Rav and we’re going to Eretz Yisrael.” My grandfather purchased the name Berkovits for my father and got him out of Europe.

Did you know the Chimper Rav?
I was very young when he was niftar, but I knew the Rebbetzin. He was already elderly when he came to the United States, and he also didn’t eat anything because of his concerns about kashrus. The Satmar Rav would try to convince him to eat, but he wouldn’t. He had his own pot in his own house. The Rebbetzin told a story that one day she used the wrong pot, but she decided not to tell him because she knew that it was kosher anyway. He smelled the food and said, “S’shmekt mir nisht,” and he didn’t eat it. He didn’t even know where he lived. They once brought him back after a melaveh malkah without walking him to the door, and he didn’t know where to go. He stood there and learned the whole night until someone found him.
What did your father do in the United States?
He came with nothing, so he went to work. He looked for a place where he wouldn’t have to worry about Shabbos. He had some experience cutting fabric for his brother, who had some sort of business in Grosswardein, so he said that he worked in clothing, like everyone else. He went to the union and told them he needed a place where he could keep Shabbos, so they sent him to New Jersey.
He started off spreading out the fabric, but then they saw that he was very talented and knew how to pin the pockets on to match the material. The problem was that the pinners worked on Shabbos, and they told him that he had to work when they worked. My father barely spoke English, but all these people spoke Yiddish. So he spoke to each of them individually and told them that the boss was willing to have them come in on Sunday instead of Shabbos, and he ended up convincing all of them. The whole floor stopped working on Shabbos.
But there was another problem. It was freezing cold in the winter, and an Italian used to come to shovel the coal to power the furnace, but he didn’t want to come in on Sunday. These Yiddelach refused to work in the cold, so my father said that he would shovel the coal. My father told me that it was terribly hard work. Every Sunday he would shovel the coal and say, “L’kuvid Shabbos kodesh.” He worked his way up and went to night school until he got the highest job in the industry, which is making the patterns from the design.
At that point my mother decided that she wanted to move to Eretz Yisrael, so they made plans to leave. The night before their departure they went to a chasunah where someone introduced them to a Yid who had a contract to make the uniforms for the New York City Police Department. He was a frum Yid, and he had an idea. The Yidden in Yerushalayim were living in poverty, he said, so he wanted to open a factory where they could send their daughters to work sewing the uniform shirts. He was looking for someone who knew the business and could run it, but it had to be someone who would get a hechsher from the Eidah Hachareidis. “I heard you’re moving to Eretz Yisrael; maybe you can help me,” he told him. My father said that he was the first person to ever get a hechsher from the Badatz. They opened the factory and employed the daughters of all of the finest families in Yerushalayim.

You were already there by then?
Yes. I had already been learning in yeshivah for over a year. My mother always wanted to live in Eretz Yisrael and my father wanted to live here in theory, but he didn’t know how to go about it. The business went well for a good couple of years and it was such a beautiful thing. The girls didn’t work on Rosh Chodesh, they had to be given time off for bentching, and they said the yom of Tehillim every morning before they started. For my father it was a mechayeh—that’s what he’d come to Eretz Yisrael for. But eventually the business failed and he got a job with a Yerushalayimer Yid who made children’s clothing.
My father was always oseik b’tzorchei tzibbur. My mother was also very outspoken. She also got someone she worked with to keep Shabbos. I grew up with that. They always spoke about emunah in our house.

Your father seems to have been a vibrant person.
He wasn’t physically healthy for a long time, and he suffered from heart trouble and kidney problems. We’re going through the apartment now, and there are piles and piles of medical records, some of them going back many years. His lungs were scarred because he had pneumonia as a kid before there were antibiotics. But he still lived to the age of 98. How did he manage to do that? It was his simchas hachaim. With all of his tzaros and struggles for parnasah he was always happy until the very end. It’s amazing that he was completely there until his final days.

Do you attribute that to his emunah as well?
It was definitely both attributes. My mother was his only family, and she wasn’t just his wife, she was everything to him. After she passed away, my father turned to me at the end of shivah and said, “You know, if I wanted to be miserable, I could be.” That summed it up. He understood that circumstances don’t determine whether or not you’re happy. Simchas hachaim is something you can choose. If you want to be happy, there is so much to be happy about.

How long was he an alman?
Almost eight years. My mother was 90 years old when she passed away; she was a few months older than my father. My father was niftar at 98, but during his last years people would come to talk to him and hear his zichronos. He was always busy with his zichronos and with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Is there a common denominator between all these influences in your life: your rebbeim in Mir, your great-uncle, the Minchas Yitzchak, and from Vizhnitz through your father?
The stories I grew up on were always about ahavas Yisrael and doing things for klal Yisrael. Then I was in the Mir in the days of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, and Rav Chaim’s bein adam lachaveiro was unique. So ahavas Yisrael is the common denominator, which goes back to my father’s hashpaah.

Let’s conclude with a thought about Mattan Torah.
Everyone always speaks about the Torah, but Mattan Torah is what really “made” klal Yisrael. That was when we became the am segulah, the mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh that is supposed to bring the purpose and tzurah of life to the world. That’s what Mattan Torah did for us, and we cannot forget it.

That’s a global mission, not just for other Yidden. Now you’re broadening the kiruv.
Yes. The Torah does that. l

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