DYNAMIC DUO OF TORAH LEADERSHIP
January 3, 2017
Nosson Avrohom in #1051, Feature

Both of them hold senior Torah positions in Chabad in Eretz Yisroel. Both undertook positions of great responsibility and initiated programs that have had far reaching impact beyond the mosdos they run. They are the brothers, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Chaim Aharon. * RMeir heads a kollel for dayanus, “Ohr YaakovOhr Zarua.’ His younger brother RChaim is rosh yeshiva of the Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim, Meor Menachem, in Rechovot. * We met with the brothers for a fascinating conversation on an array of subjects.

Photos by Meir AlfasiRabbi Meir Aharon heads a kollel for dayanus, “Ohr YaakovOhr Zarua.” The kollel enjoys a stellar reputation. Most of the young Chabad rabbanim who earned smicha in the past decade, and who serve in rabbinic positions, attended this institution. His younger brother, RChaim, is rosh yeshiva in the Chabad yeshiva in Rechovot, one of the established Chabad yeshivos and which has acquired an excellent reputation.

It was gratifying to hear them both sounding positive about the Torah revolution in Chabad in recent years. “Today there is more awareness of the value of Torah study, and there are more Lubavitcher yungerlait who are learning and being tested for rabbanus and dayanus than in previous years,” says R’ Meir Aharon. R’ Chaim adds, “A Tamim in our generation, despite the challenges posed by this decadent world, is more mekushar to the Rebbe than in previous times.”

OUR PARENTS WORRIED ABOUT OUR SPIRITUAL FUTURES

Their parents, Sholom and Galia Aharon, came from Yemen and settled in Kfar Saba. They had three sons. Their father worked very hard to support his family. “I remember my father working in the orchards from morning till night. Then he worked as a butcher and when he became weak, he got a job as a mashgiach,” says R’ Meir.

R’ Chaim: “I remember my father working very hard and coming home tired, and yet, we never lacked for anything. We got whatever we wanted according to the standards of what was available at the time.”

The first to go to the Chabad school in Kfar Saba was Meir, the oldest brother. “Our parents had to decide between sending us to Chabad which was on a higher spiritual level or to the religious Bar Ilan school which had co-ed classes. Of course, they chose Chabad.” Says R’ Meir, “I remember how every morning we would stand in a lineup and loudly say the Rebbe’s perek of T’hillim. The first one I remember is perek sixty-two. In the school there was a Torah track in which we learned Gemara. R’ Bentzion Lipsker would come once every two weeks to test us.”

Chaim, who went to the Chabad school eight years later, tells how impressed he was by the principal, R’ Moshe Slonim. “He had a strong, impressive presence. The children both feared and respected him. My brother mentioned choosing to send us to Chabad. For our parents it was a given. My father’s sole desire was that we turn out G-d fearing. At the same time, he did not pressure us when it came to Torah and mitzva observance. It was all done with a smile, but I remember that it was important to him that we get up early on Shabbos to daven, and we learned Chumash and Rashi, Mishna and Halacha with him.”

IN THE WORLD OF TOMCHEI T’MIMIM

When Meir finished school, he was sent – under the strong influence of R’ Lipsker – to Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lud. “I went to yeshiva along with two cousins. Not long after, neighbors and acquaintances convinced my parents to send me to high school. ‘Your son has a good head. Why should he sit there and warm the bench in yeshiva?’ My father, in his innocence, listened to them and put me in high school. My cousins followed me to the high school in Ramat Gan. This lasted a very short time. The uninspired spiritual atmosphere there sent the three of us back to the yeshiva in Lud,” R’ Meir recalls with a smile.

R’ Meir described their three years in Lud as a great experience. Each of the rabbanim there added something to his transformation into a Tamim. “I especially remember R’ Kaplan who was very mekarev me. I was the first son to dorm and my parents visited me often. The teachers always gave them a good feeling and spoke highly of me. Special mention should be made of R’ Munya Shneur a”h who was my maggid shiur in shiur gimmel, from whom I learned how to learn Gemara.” R’ Meir also favorably mentioned the roshei yeshiva, R’ Eliezer Horowitz and R’ Abrams, from whom he first understood the great importance of learning Chassidus.

R’ Chaim reminisces about the time he spent in the yeshiva in Lud. “The change was instantaneous. We had to dress in chassidic fashion and till today I remember going to buy a cap for seven liras. To wear a cap like that in Kfar Saba would have made people laugh, but in yeshiva that’s what everyone wore. In yeshivos today a great emphasis is placed on the dress code but in my time it wasn’t like that. There was no such thing as sending a boy home even if he misbehaved. We felt that they wanted us and were unwilling to give up on anyone. If someone crossed the line, he was invited for a talk.”

R’ Chaim enumerated those who had a great influence on him and supported his path to Lubavitch: “Along the way there were many who made an impression on me but there were two whose influence was especially powerful. The first was the mashpia, R’ Mendel Futerfas. It was enough just to look at him with his Chassidic look, his wrinkled forehead, and his advanced age, as he sat with the bachurim and asked how they were, speaking animatedly about the need to learn Tanya by heart; it made me melt. When I went on K’vutza in 5739, it was the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Mentlick, who made an impression on me.”

After finishing his studies in Lud, the older brother, R’ Meir, continued learning in the yeshiva in Kiryat Gat that was founded the year before.

“The first group was made up of talmidim who came from K’vutza. Among them were Zalman Gopin, Eliyahu Kook and Moshe Levitin. When they got married and left the yeshiva, they decided to send our class from Lud to strengthen the yeshiva.

“When we finished learning in Kiryat Gat in 5731, we went on K’vutza to 770. At that time, they went for a year, from Nissan to Nissan.”

THE REBBE SENT HIS WORK TO BE PUBLISHED

R’ Meir tells about many moments and answers from the Rebbe that he received over the years. Even before he arrived at 770, he received answers to questions he asked, but he describes his K’vutza year as the “final blow” in his hiskashrus to the Rebbe.

“That year, I had yechidus for four minutes and I witnessed the Rebbe’s ruach ha’kodesh. I had asked a certain question in a letter, but when the Rebbe got up to that question, I thought maybe I should contact my parents and reconsider the question again. As I thought this, the Rebbe said, ‘Since this does not pertain to here, when you get back to Eretz Yisroel, you will ask again.’ I was astounded.”

When he learned in the yeshiva in Kiryat Gat, he asked the Rebbe about changing his nusach ha’t’filla, since his father held a respected position in the neighborhood shul which davened Nusach Teiman, and he himself was sometimes asked to be the chazan and of course he davened in the shul’s nusach, but when he was in yeshiva, he davened Nusach Chabad. The Rebbe’s answer from 24 Teves 5727 was: Regarding your question about nusach ha’t’filla, change to Nusach Chabad only when you decide that it is permanent.

In the summer of that year, 13 Tammuz 5727, the secretary wrote him the following: About your question once again about nusach ha’t’filla, the Rebbe said to ask a rav mora horaa in your area.

***

I took the opportunity to ask R’ Meir about a story that was told regarding a long article that he authored, titled “Haaros B’Hilchos Sukka B’Shulchan Aruch Admur HaZakein,” and which was published in the eighth anthology of Yagdil Torah (pages 81-89) under the name, “HaRav Meir Eliyahu Aharon, B’nei Brak, Eretz Yisroel.” In footnote 38 it says, “This was sent to the Rebbe in honor of the special day 11 Nissan, and was submitted to us by the Rebbe shlita.”

What is the story behind this footnote?

In Iyar 5737, Yagdil Torah was published by the members of the kollel next to 770 and edited by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Levin. Before it came out, R’ Aharon sent a personal gift to the Rebbe for his 75th birthday, consisting of chiddushei Torah that he wrote on the Shulchan Aruch of the Alter Rebbe. Apparently the Rebbe himself wanted it published. This seems to be the only time throughout the years that Yagdil Torah was published, that something like this happened. R’ Aharon was surprised when he received a copy in the mail with his piece in it.

R’ Chaim, the younger brother, went on K’vutza in 5739 and he also describes that year as a decisive one in his inner connection to the Rebbe and to Chassidus. “That was the first year that the K’vutza year began in Tishrei and ended in Tishrei. An entire year of being with the Rebbe every day, at t’fillos, farbrengens, seeing every detail of conduct. It’s a year of being completely with the Rebbe. You live with the sense that there is no world, there is only Rebbe. I had a yechidus of one minute and submitted a letter from the members of the hanhala as was customary at the time. Till today I have no idea what it said and what the Rebbe told me because I was so emotionally overcome and could not concentrate.”

R’ Chaim also has many letters from the Rebbe but we wanted to hear from him about an amazing miracle that happened in the early years of his marriage. “One year, my wife asked for a bracha for an easy birth. With the letter of blessing that the Rebbe sent, he added, ‘You should be particular about the kashrus of food and drink.’ Since we were careful about kashrus, I went to ask Rabbi Moshe Landau of B’nei Brak about this and he suggested we refrain from using a certain hechsher. A year later, my wife asked for a bracha again for an easy birth and once again we received an answer to check the kashrus of food and drink. We did not know what to do. What did this mean?

“I was learning at the time in the kollel in Kfar Chabad and I asked the mara d’asra of Kfar Chabad, Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi. He thought about it and then suggested that I be careful with washing my hands even after an afternoon nap. I did as he said but my wife wrote a third time about a bracha for something and to our dismay, once again, the Rebbe wrote the same thing, about being careful with kashrus.

“We did not know what to do. By the way, it’s interesting that in the letters the Rebbe sent to me, he did not mention this, only in the letters he sent to my wife.

“By Divine Providence, my wife went with my sister-in-law to buy a flour sifter and bought the regular type. My sister-in-law, my brother’s wife, was surprised. ‘Don’t you know to only buy a sifter made of silk cloth?’

“My wife, who was still a young woman, was unaware of this and she exchanged her sifter for one made from silk cloth. In a letter that we received afterward (I think it was a week later), the instruction to check the kashrus of food and drink no longer appeared.”

TEACHING TORAH

With the renewed Chabad settlement in Tzfas and the opening of the kollel by Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan a”h, R’ Meir Aharon began learning in this new kollel. At a later point, he settled in B’nei Brak and was the head of a kollel for the Sephardic communities.

Then he was offered a job of eighth grade rebbi in the school in Lud. “The one who made me the offer was R’ Binyamin Zev Segal. On the one hand, it was easier for me to remain at the kollel in B’nei Brak; on the other hand, I felt that they needed me in Lud and I was just sitting on the sidelines.

“I decided to write to the Rebbe and do as he said. It was a week and a half before the start of the school year. Some told me I couldn’t get an answer in such a short time, but I was determined, and that is what I told the principal, R’ Menasheh Haddad. Just a week later, I received a letter and the answer was short and to the point: to accept the offer to teach in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lud. I didn’t need more than that. I left the kollel and went to work at the school.”

Some years later, when he felt worn out from the job, he wrote to the Rebbe and the answer was, “do as friends advise.”

His friends advised him to look for a job working with adults. He went back to B’nei Brak where he headed a kollel started by R’ Sholom Ber Lifshitz, director of Yad L’Achim. When the kollel for dayanus, Ohr Yaakov-Ohr Zarua, opened in Rechovot in 5750 by the Mizrachi family, in memory of their father, R’ Yaakov Mizrachi a”h, he accepted an offer to head the kollel. Under his leadership the kollel quickly turned into a magnet for outstanding young men who loved learning Torah and wanted smicha for rabbanus.

R’ Chaim also found his way in the world of Torah and education.

After a year on K’vutza that was packed with “giluyim,” he returned to Eretz Yisroel and looked for a shlichus position. Unlike today, in Eretz Yisroel at that time there were no shlichus programs for those returning from 770, so R’ Chaim joined another two friends, R’ Moshe Weiner and R’ Eliyahu Asoulin, as shluchim at the Sephardic yeshiva that opened in Beer Sheva. The rosh yeshiva, who was a mekurav to Chabad, looked for T’mimim to come and strengthen the yeshiva that was just starting out.

“We learned among ourselves in the morning. In the afternoon and evening we learned with soldiers and university students who came to learn in the yeshiva. There are some wonderful products from those activities, including a father of a family in Kfar Chabad.”

Later, R’ Chaim became a maggid shiur in the yeshiva in Kiryat Gat and after he married he learned in the kollel in Kfar Chabad for three years.

He got an offer in 5755 to head the yeshiva k’tana (mesivta), Meor Menachem, in Rechovot. “The truth is that they went to my brother Meir and tried to hire him, but he recommended me. The community in Rechovot grew and there was a need for such a school. I met with Rabbi Gluckowsky, the rav of the community, and the askanim, R’ Elimelech Shachar and R’ Erez Karelenstein. They described their vision in general terms and we started on a difficult journey, but we were determined to make a go of it.”

The yeshiva started with 24 students, R’ Chaim Aharon and three other staff members: R’ Zev Mintzberg, R’ Daniel Aharon, and R’ Gideon Kaye. The beginning was quite challenging but with the Rebbe’s brachos, the yeshiva grew and is now one of the best Chabad yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel.

AND FROM MY STUDENTS MORE THAN ANYONE

What is the biggest challenge in the position of Rosh Kollel?

“We are very particular that time not be wasted. I never allow just dragging out the time. There are goals and tests every two weeks and the young men have to keep pace. I remember when we first started and I established this rule, one of the talmidim, someone who sat and learned diligently, came to me and complained that he doesn’t have time to learn for the test. I asked him how much ground he had covered since the beginning of the year, and if he had ever covered that much material when he was in yeshiva. He admitted that he had not. This is the approach that I established in the kollel right away.

“I accept anyone who wants to come and learn but I can readily send someone away if I see that sitting in kollel is a waste of time for him. I don’t check whether the people coming to me were in yeshivos previously or are new baalei t’shuva; the main thing is serious learning and mastering the material. There was a bachur who complained about not being able to absorb so much material, and I suggested that he answer fewer questions on the test but give full answers. From then on, the bachur got nearly 100 on every test.”

What challenges do you have, R’ Chaim, as rosh yeshiva of a yeshiva k’tana (mesivta)?

“In order to succeed in yeshiva, there need to be two guiding principles. Number one is clear rules. A talmid needs to know what the demands are of a bachur in Tomchei T’mimim. In addition to educational rules, the educational demands need to be clear with specific targets and the dates for tests known ahead of time. All this, of course, along with the full involvement of the staff. We challenge the boys with learning contests and learning programs that are suitable not only for the outstanding boys but also for those having a harder time. That is why, in addition to marking for mastering the material, we also give points for effort and diligence in learning. Number two, no less important and maybe the foundation, is creating a sense of belonging between the talmid and the yeshiva.”

How do you create a feeling of belonging?

“This is something we think about all the time and it varies from student to student. One of the important components in creating a feeling of belonging is personal conversations. When you speak with a talmid, and sincerely ask how he feels and what’s going on with him, you got him. He feels that he is not invisible; that we see him. The talmidim-shluchim and all of the staff help us with this.

“There is another important thing, which is to connect the talmidim to the Rebbe. Before every shiur in Nigleh, I read a letter from the Rebbe which often pertains to the plight of one of the bachurim in the Yeshiva.

“The message that I convey to the talmidim is that all of them have difficult issues they are going through, and the chochma is to talk about and deal with them. You don’t need to finish the job, nobody is perfect, and every problem has a solution, just don’t fall into inaction. Inaction is one of the diseases of our generation and it leads to deterioration.”

R’ Meir, if you were asked what is the guiding principle of the kollel, what makes you stand out, what would you say?

“I am a big believer in people. To me, every Jew is presumed good and it makes no difference how he dresses or what it says on his kippa. I will accept anyone who wants to learn. I recently accepted a bachur who had just become a baal t’shuva. There was someone in the kollel who was bothered by this, and was worried it would impact our reputation. He came over to me and asked why we accepted this young man. It so happened that this fellow, when he came to us a few years ago, looked similar to the one he was complaining about and I said, ‘I want him to achieve at least as much as you have.’

“At the same time, I tell the avreichim in the Kollel, ‘I can send people away just as easily as I accept them.’ We strive for the utmost with each one. We were the first to create a formal program geared to taking the official ordainment tests of the Chief Rabbinate, tests which are on a high scholastic level. There were Chabad rabbanim who at first did not understand this approach. Later on, we expanded into dayanus and now there are other kollelim that imitated us and do the same thing. A Lubavitcher young man doesn’t come to pass the time in kollel; he comes to learn and to achieve.

“There was a man from the kollel who went to 770 and stayed with a family where the host learned by us for a few months. He told him, ‘During those months that I learned in the kollel in Rechovot, I learned as I hadn’t learned in my entire life.’”

R’ Chaim, what is your guiding light in your yeshiva?

“In addition to the learning program, we stress the personal touch. Whether it’s the talmidim who find it hard or the talmidim who are excellent students, we talk to them and follow their spiritual and Chassidishe progress. Nobody is off our radar screens. We are particular about having regular farbrengens and give them a lot of warmth and love, and make an effort to listen to them. You cannot just focus on demands. In order for the demands to be fulfilled, you must get the talmid to have faith in the system and give him the feeling that he belongs.

“I still feel on a high from the farbrengen we made in yeshiva for the talmidim in shiur alef with the mashpia, Rabbi Katorza. That was a farbrengen that served to transition them from elementary school to mesivta. I am also a big believer in speaking about practical matters. We require the talmidim to have chavrusos. When I talk about this, I explain the significance of a chavrusa. We shouldn’t speak in lofty terms and about high demands that they don’t understand.”

THE KOLLEL HALACHA THAT IS MAKING A REVOLUTION IN CHABAD

One of the big revolutions of the Ohr Zarua kollel is a Beis Horaa that provides halachic rulings to the masses. Every day, the kollel receives questions from all over the world on numerous topics and the talmidim of the kollel discuss them and respond with practical rulings. Sometimes, the Beis Horaa hosts professionals in different fields who contribute a professional perspective to the halachic conclusions. The rulings are publicized anonymously on an Internet site.

“No answer leaves the Beis Horaa without my reviewing it,” says R’ Meir. “I don’t like yes/no answers, or prohibited/permitted.

“The responses are structured so that you see the final p’sak right away and then you have the sources which the p’sak is based on so if someone wants to delve into it he can. And the most important thing is that the questioner understands that the p’sak wasn’t arrived at in an authoritarian manner but is well sourced. In this regard, the Beis Horaa is making a revolution in Chabad because we never had anything like this before.”

Do you think that by allowing people to electronically send in their questions without having to personally go to a rav, the halachic process is cheapened?

“That’s an excellent question. We do not respond to every question. We answer questions in Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deia but not on Choshen Mishpat. That is because I don’t know who I’m talking to and why he needs an answer. In addition, I tell the person who receives the question to find out more details that can give us a better understanding of the situation. A rav learns to deal not only with the halachos that he learned on paper; he also knows how to apply them to the varied life questions that come up.”

What do people involved in halacha, outside of Chabad, think of this?

“The zilzul (disparaging attitude) that previously existed toward Chabad when it came to learning, has disappeared, I think. Whoever knows about the kollel in Rechovot, knows that in Chabad we learn seriously and Chabad today is producing giants in halacha.

“I am also the rav of a Yemenite shul in Rechovot. Among the people at the shul are some who work in Litvishe schools as teachers or in other positions. I get questions from them about Chabad and I answer them. One time, someone came to me with a question and I answered him. I also told him that the one who sent him would answer differently because he only learned Gemara and therefore, he was mistaken.

“He came back the next day in amazement. He asked me how I knew the other person would answer that way. I knew because someone who does not learn halacha would answer that way. In general, rabbanim today, not from Chabad, who come and visit our kollel, or who meet our graduates and students, are very impressed.”

TO UPLIFT THE STUDENTS

R’ Chaim, I am sure that many parents of young bachurim who will read this interview would be happy to get a tip on how to help with their teenager’s chinuch.

“I could provide many tips but the most important tip is being a role model. When you demand a certain thing of a talmid and you do it yourself, it makes an impact. If you do the opposite of what you demand, it creates havoc.

“Another important thing is to give your children compliments for good behavior, either directly or indirectly, but if indirectly, in a way that you know he will hear about it. Sometimes, the latter way is even more powerful. A compliment is worth more than any prize. In our yeshiva we call parents of talmidim and report to them even when their son’s behavior is good and everything is fine. I recall a phone conversation that I had with a parent. I happily informed him that I was amazed to see his son’s davening. Every time I give him a compliment about his son, he says, ‘Where’s the “but” …’ He thinks the compliment is just the introduction before the bad news. So I tell him from the outset, ‘I called just to tell you good news.’”

R’ Meir, do the kollel students also need this kind of treatment?

“Of course! In one of the first years of the kollel there was a talmid who was absent for a few days who did not inform us why he was out. When he showed up, I had a choice to rebuke him or to find out first why he had been absent. He had problems at home and he was really disappointed to have missed out on days of learning. I told him to stay home that day too because he still needed another day. The next day he returned feeling energized. He benefited from my giving him that consideration, and I benefited by having this talmid becoming re-energized. If I would have rebuked him, nothing good would have resulted.”

LOVE AND FORBEARANCE

The conversation with the Aharon brothers took place late at night after a full day of learning and harbatzas Torah, one of them with young bachurim in yeshiva and the other in kollel with young married men. If you know them, you know how difficult it was to convince them to sit down for this interview.

What made them agree was when we told them that this interview could get other young men to join the Torah revolution in Chabad that they are leading.

Throughout our conversation, the love and great respect that the brothers have for one another, was apparent. R’ Chaim considers his older brother, R’ Meir, his guide, the one whom he followed to Chabad and the world of in depth Torah study.

“As a little boy, I would come home and always see my brother sitting and learning. He was always holding a seifer. He did not waste time. He learned Torah in every free moment,” says R’ Chaim.

Said R’ Meir, “My brother Chaim was gifted with a lot of wisdom and insight. He has a sharp mind and a quick grasp. Someone who learned with him told me that every time he was asked a question he would immerse himself in the Gemara until he found the answer, and then he would answer clearly and beautifully. We also see that he is gifted with terrific interpersonal skills. He knows how to lead properly, not in an authoritarian fashion, but with closeness and warmth.”

Your parents merited sons like you who love Torah and teach Torah with love and head educational institutions that teach love for Torah. How do you raise a child to be connected to Torah and love learning Torah so much?

“The truth is, it’s all from the home. We saw our father learning every free moment,” recalled R’ Meir. “We always saw him with a seifer. He worked very hard to support us but still, every night he sat and learned. In the shul near our home in Kfar Saba, he was the Moreh Horaa and they would go to him with questions which he would answer with his vast knowledge.”

R’ Chaim chimed in, also saying that the house was the number one educational factor. “I will never forget that picture, of our father coming home exhausted, my mother serving him a modest repast at the table, and him sitting and learning with great pleasure, disconnected from the world and using every free moment for Torah study. I also saw my brother Meir who is a model of someone who loves Torah. In retrospect I know that this had a great influence on me.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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