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Remembering a Multi-Faceted Mentor of Generations

Tears filled the room. A man was speaking. This man was not actually in the room, but all those at hand felt his presence. This man was Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik ZT”L.

On April 14, The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Yeshiva University, with the support of the Max N. Schreier family, hosted a program to commemorate the 20th yartziet (anniversary of the death) of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Around 9am on this pleasantly breezy Sunday morning, people began to arrive for this daylong event dedicated to learning about the life and legacy of “The Rav” (as Rabbi Soloveitchik has reverently come to be called). In total, over 1,500 hundred people attended in person, with another 3,000 people around the world watching the event’s online stream. They came to celebrate the life and work of the most influential individual in a century of Modern Orthodoxy.

“I came to express gratitude to the Gadol Hador,” Rabbi Steven Wiel, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, told The Commentator. Gabriel Weinberg, president of SOY-JSC told The Commentator that he came because he was “interested in hearing new perspectives of The Rav, especially in a formal setting.”  Josh Botwinick, a senior in Yeshiva College was “amazed to see so many different people—peers, former teachers, members of his community”—at the event.

The program’s morning session began with introductory remarks by RIETS Board of Trustees Chairman Joel Schreiber, President Richard Joel, and Chairman Emeritus of the RIETS Board, Rabbi Julius Berman. Addressing a full Lamport Auditorium and overflow participants seated in Weissberg commons (where the program was simulcast), all three spoke of the profound impact The Rav had on YU and the orthodox community and how that community still feels his absence. Rabbi Berman specifically mentioned how the passage of time had not made The Rav’s departure any less significant and painful.  He asked the audience to think of how much more good could be done, how much more could they could learn, if they could only speak to The Rav today for as short as 15 minutes.

The main part of the session consisted of an all-star lineup of speakers, each of whom presented a perspective of The Rav they uniquely experienced.  After prefatory remarks by RIETS Dean Rabbi Yonah Reiss, Dr. Atarah Twersky, the former Chair of School Committee at Maimonodies School and the daughter of The Rav, defined her father as a “ba’al emunah”, a man of faith and belief.  She recounted how The Rav came to Boston in the 1930s (a Jewish community which she described as a “midbar”, a desert) and endeavored to build an observant Jewish community and day school there.  The Rav wasn’t always “The Rav”, she reminded the audience, and although it was an illogical decision, one that met with opposition from every segment of the community, he nonetheless toiled in order to see Maimonides School succeed.  She spoke of The Rav’s ability to appreciate a situation “merachok,” from a distance; to ascertain what needed to be done, and then to accomplish those goals.  “A person of faith becomes a person of emunah,” she concluded, “by translating faith into action.”

Dr. Twersky’s son and The Rav’s grandson, Rosh Yeshiva Rav Mayer Twersky, focused on The Rav’s massive corpus of knowledge and how this knowledge, both Jewish and secular, enabled The Rav to experience and teach Torah holistically.  Rav Twersky claimed that The Rav never engaged in apologetics or thought that any part of Torah needed to be reconciled with western thought.  He contened that when it came to Torah matters, The Rav the never bent or engaged in compromise in the face of external pressures.  For anyone to think otherwise, in Rav Twersky’s view, “would be to miss everything the man stood for.”

The other Rosh Yeshiva to present during this session was Rav Hershel Schachter, a prominent student of The Rav.  He spoke of the excitement that came along with all The Rav’s shiurim, lectures, and how, although The Rav knew he was successful in communicating much Torah knowledge, he sometimes lamented the he had not been able to transmit to the correct “attitudes” to his students.  As he left the podium, Rav Schacter bemoaned the fact that there was so much more to say about his rebbe but that time did not allow it.  He requested that, during the upcoming month, other Roshei Yeshiva set aside time in their shiurim to speak about The Rav’s Torah and legacy.

Dr. David Shatz and Rabbi Kenneth Brander concluded the morning plenary sessions.  Dr. Shatz, a student of The Rav and a professor of philosophy at Stern College, reminisced on how The Rav taught his students—and the Modern Orthodox community at large—to not escape from reality, but rather to embrace it. “The Rav,” said Dr. Shatz, “recognized the existence of human frailty and failure but was nonetheless optimistic about every human potential and victory.”  Rabbi Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF and former personal assistant to The Rav, presented The Rav as “melamed,” a teacher and an “Ish Chessed,” a man of kindness.  The Rav, he said, truly loved teaching his students and had an unbridled generosity of spirit.

The morning concluded with a recording of a speech given by The Rav at a pidyon haben in 1974. The audience heard The Rav describe his experience when giving shiur; when giving shiur, The Rav felt as though all the commentators he was quoting were walking into the room. For many of those attending, the short film brought up memories and, for some, tears. As far as they were concerned, The Rav, too, had just entered the auditorium.

The session was a success. Chatter and smiles filled the room as the program broke for lunch. Daniella Grodko (SCW ’15) especially enjoyed the audio segment of The Rav’s speech.  “I have read so much of his work and now, finally, I am able to put a voice to his words,” she said.  Perhaps Yitzchak Schechter, a Monsey resident and YC alumnus, best summed up the success of the program. “It was fantastic, majestic—befitting of The Rav.”

After lunch, participants were able to choose from a variety of breakout sessions, which addressed diverse aspects of The Rav’s teachings. Various scholars gave presentations on the importance of The Rav’s teachings on Modern society, his Derech Halimmud (educational philosophy), and his thoughts on prayer, inter-faith dialogue, and inter-denominational relations.

In the recording played earlier in the day, The Rav exclaimed that, when teaching Torah, he felt as if he was defeating old age. On April 14, 2013, 20 years after The Rav’s passing, it became clear that, through his profound work and teaching, The Rav had also transcended death.