Featured Faculty: Rabbi Schemouel Penya
The scene was set for the holiest day of the Jewish year. The congregants had been abstaining from food and drink, dressed in white so as to embody the purity of angelic beings. They were a heterogeneous group, made up of Jews from both Sephardic and Ashkenazic backgrounds, college students and community members alike. The ancient melodies and chants were recited in a time-honed tradition, much the same way they had been done for thousands of years. Indeed our selichot (supplications) are something of a paradox to the casual observer; the melodious tunes and rhythms seem to be at odds with the solemn nature of our requests for divine forgiveness.
And yet, as he explained, the explanation lies within that very premise. The reason for the rejoicing was that if we collectively pour out our hearts and truly repent, we are certain to be forgiven. The jovial and merry atmosphere is an implicit celebration of the power of teshuva (repentance).
Days before the service, he painstakingly typed and printed on index cards each line of nearly all of the selichot. As we continued on with the hymns and supplications, he made sure that every person in the room, veteran and novice alike, had a portion to read, whether long or short. He did not have to say so, but his reasoning was clear: he wanted every person to feel involved and invested in the service.
By now you are probably wondering who this individual could possibly be. To properly introduce him, I must indulge the reader in some of my treasured memories of various encounters with the man. The first time I met Rabbi Schemouel Penya was during my time at Rabbi Ben-Haim’s shiur as a college student. I was awed by his knowledge of shas and poskim, but did not fully grasp how much he knew until much later. He recalled the sources of Talmudic writings and halakha with great ease, and incredible precision. I noticed that he did not speak very much; I later learned that he was often practicing ta'anit dibbur (abstinence from speech).
The following year, he decided he was ready to make himself available to the student populace. He tutored and mentored individual students in Torah learning and diligently worked with congregants who showed a desire to enhance their prayer. His impact on the Sephardic community was palpable. Our small beit midrash could barely fit all the congregants on a given morning, a far cry from the year before, when we had a daily struggle to make a minyan.
He would carry around different spices so that people could make the three different olfactory berachot (blessings) every day. Over Shabbat, he arranged for the leftover bread in the cafeteria to be collected, heeding the Talmud’s austere warning regarding disgracing bread. He spent hours upon hours guiding and teaching. He contrasted the phrase he popularized “Hashem Ozer 24/7,” or “God is helping,” with its contemporary “Hashem Ya'azor,” or “God will help,” claiming that the latter is incorrect as it fails to address the present moment, in which God’s providence is certainly active. He shared a comprehensive Microsoft Excel program he made with myself and others that he built to track virtually every type of income (even the interest received in checking accounts!) to determine how much should be given as ma'aser (tithe).
As I got to know him, I learned more about his remarkable scholarship and rabbinic lineage. The decade he spent at the renowned Yeshivat Kise Rahamin in Bnei Brak, where he learned under the luminaries Rabbi Meir Mazouz and Rabbi Moshe Levy of blessed memory. A scion of a great rabbinic family, he shunned publicity and attention. He is a dedicated student of Rabbi Shalom Arush, who, in his works, has focused on emunah (belief) and bitachon (trust) as principal methods of attaining happiness and clarity.
As our community got to know him, we realized he was exactly what our Sephardic Minyan at YU desperately needed, a de facto rabbinic figure that was approachable and available to students.
After some deliberation, we decided to seek out the “powers that be” and discuss an official role at Yeshiva University for this accomplished and capable individual. On a de facto basis, he had already been performing nearly all of the duties ascribed to the sganei mashgiach, and there had already been talks about recruiting a resident rabbinic figure for the Sephardic beit midrash.
We were energized by much of the support we received from different faculty and roshei yeshiva during this campaign, and we decided to send letters to the YU administration respectfully requesting that our candidate be considered for the opening. We learned in short order that the “Sephardic Studies Program” and “Sephardic Community Activities Program” at YU reported through the Vice President for University Affairs, Dr. Herbert C. Dobrinsky. Ostensibly, this matter fell under his jurisdiction, and we reached out to him in hopes of his considering our candidate.
At first we were ignored. Then, we decided to ask again. A prominent member of our community saw this particular vice president at a function and, with the utmost respect and politeness, asked him to consider our candidate. He replied curtly, saying something to the effect of, “we know what’s best for the students; don’t bother us with this again.” We were mystified by how he claimed to know what we needed better than we did. The regulars at our minyan had never even heard of him and certainly did not see him as capable of legitimately assessing our needs as a community within YU.
I have noticed that YU’s leadership is not so different from that of the world I have gotten to know as a practitioner in the realm of financial services. Those who make a tangible, thoughtful, impact on the stakeholders of our institution often live in anonymity, and politicians and salesman do exceptionally well.
On the surface level, there is a biting injustice present. Deeper, though, the mark of true greatness is in its purest form when a dedication to students comes when there is no monetary reward and recognition. Rabbi Penya’s impression was made through a selfless and passionate ideal; the ability to ignite and touch individuals through the truth and beauty of Torah Judaism. He taught us that one person can still make an impact and that they can do it with purity of heart and intention.