By Yisroel Besser, Mishpacha
Fair Lawn, NJ – Although he insists that a rabbi can’t take things personally and remain in rabbanus, if there’s one thing that typifies Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, it’s the personal touch. His four-decade career as the rabbi of Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah shul, as well as his regular shiurim given on the popular Nachum Segal radio show, are testimony to his ability to reach out to Jews from all walks of life and inspire each and every one of them to grow
Everything you need to know about Rabbi Benjamin Yudin can be learned simply by calling him and hearing his standard greeting. Where others say “Hello,” he says “Shaaalom.” And it gives you an immediate sense of, well, shalom. It tells you that he’s unhurried, open to listening, and that your question is important to him – that you’re important to him.
It’s that shalom that spawned a community, and that built the beautiful kehillah of Fair Lawn, New Jersey – where he serves as rabbi – one family at a time.
At first glance the town seems rather unremarkable; a quiet Jersey suburb close enough to “the city” that the Manhattan skyline is visible. It has the usual stores and the ubiquitous kosher Chinese restaurant, signs of a thriving Jewish neighborhood. Then I reach the shul, which sits just past the train station, as if symbolically announcing to weary travelers alighting in Fair Lawn that they’ve arrived.
I park and enter the attractive lobby. Again, it’s that shalom that welcomes me as I enter.
Where “Used” Means Good Meet enough rabbanim, visit enough shuls, and you develop a theory: the architecture and design of a shul are a reflection of the man who leads it. It’s true elsewhere, and it’s certainly true in Shomrei Torah. The main chapel is an attractive, spacious room – a
fusion of a traditional synagogue with a high ceiling and formal decor, a shtiebel with knotty wooden slats and paneling, and a New Age retreat with a generous glimpse of blue sky above.
When we are seated in the rabbi’s office, which is surprisingly small – and, not surprisingly, cluttered – I comment on the shul’s aesthetics. The rabbi looks at me.
“Listen carefully,” he says. “There is only one complimentary adjective for a shul: used.”
Shomrei Torah is used. When he came to Fair Lawn in 1969, it was a Shabbos minyan. Today it boasts three daily Shacharis minyanim, a morning learning program, daily Minchah-Maariv and daf yomi, and a full schedule of shiurim.
Yes, it’s used.
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, who was born and raised in the Crown Heights of the 1950s, credits many of the choices he’s made along the way – choices that have led to the success of his Fair Lawn kehillah – to that milieu.
“It was a place of concern for other Jews,” he reflects. “The Lubavitcher Chassidus was getting established on these shores, and there was a tremendous emphasis on outreach, on drawing unaffiliated Jews close, and their passion affected me.”
He attended the local day school, Crown Heights Yeshiva – “which was a very good school,” he says. “But then I spent a summer at the Lubavitcher sleepaway camp, Gan Israel, and they started to influence me to go to a real yeshivah. I wasn’t sure what to do. Ultimately, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that I should stay at the day school, but make myself comfortable in his beis medrash. So I started to go there and soak in the atmosphere.”
Although he attended high school at Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ) on the Lower East Side, he would learn his night seder at the Lubavitcher shul located at 770 Eastern Parkway. “They had an official Chassidus seder from nine thirty to ten, so my chavrusa and I would keep a Tanya near my Gemara in case the mashgiach would come check on us.”
The experience between those walls was enough to convince him that he wanted to dedicate his life to the Jewish People. “But in truth,” he adds, “even before kiruv was a term, my father was an ambassador for Hashem. He was an unassuming venetian blinds salesman, born in America, but he was remarkable in his sense of responsibility to other Jews. He would visit homes on sales calls, and if he saw a Jewish home with no mezuzah he would make it a point to ‘forget’ a tool. Then he would return, ostensibly to retrieve his forgotten object, and leave a mezuzah with the family.”
Rabbi Yudin at his shul in Fair Lawn, NJ. Photo: by Jessica Rinaldi
He shares another insight. “Rav Ahron Soloveichik explains that the bechor, the firstborn son, gets a double portion of his father’s inheritance, pi shnayim, since all the father’s unrealized hopes and ambitions are foisted upon him. If the father dreams of going to medical school but doesn’t have the money, he will push his oldest son in that direction, to compensate.
“My father learned in Torah Vodaath, but was forced to leave to help his family survive, so it meant a lot to him that we succeed in learning. He would wait to hear a dvar Torah at the Shabbos table. And interestingly, all my sisters married rabbanim.”
Another formative influence on young Benjamin Yudin was Rabbi Moshe Chait, who had a shul in Crown Heights, before eventually establishing and leading Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Yerushalayim.
“Rabbi Chait would deliver a Chumash shiur every Friday night, learning one pasuk each week for the full hour. One pasuk in an hour! He inspired a desire to know, to plumb the depths of a pasuk.
“A role model for me in rabbanus was the rabbi at the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, where my parents davened. His name was Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotopsky , and he taught me that rabbanus has to be learning-based; it has to be connecting through teaching and learning.”
Until today, Rabbi Yudin keeps a minhag from his old rav: he himself has prepared the traditional pshetel (bar mitzvah speech) with four decades of bar mitzvah boys.
“It’s an opportunity to get to know the boys, to forge a meaningful relationship with them. What can be better than to give a child his first taste of a gemara or a Rambam? It’s very gratifying. It’s hard to find time, but it’s worth it. Credit also must go to our congregants, who sit patiently for the seven or eight minutes it takes the boy to deliver the drashah. It isn’t always clear, but they listen. They also invest themselves in his future.”
When Benjamin completed high school he enrolled in Yeshiva University, already committed to becoming a rabbi. There, he developed new role models. He was a talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and developed a warm and close relationship with Rav Dovid Lifschitz .
“The Rav was very introverted and withdrawn, while Reb Dovid was engaging. But each of these two mentors had a strong impact on me.”
Benjamin Yudin became Rabbi Benjamin Yudin after earning his smichah. At the same time, he enriched his future rabbinate by marrying his rebbetzin, Shevi. “Her parents, the Werners, were close friends with my parents. We were both from Crown Heights and had been in kindergarten together. She is the
single greatest asset to my rabbanus, the not-so-secret ingredient in whatever we’ve achieved here.”
The Secret Is in the Cholent In the late 1960s, Fair Lawn had only a Conservative temple. When Orthodox Jews from nearby Paterson, which had a flourishing Jewish population, began to move into Fair Lawn, YU helped a group of families establish an Orthodox shul. The newcomers gathered for an Orthodox Shabbos minyan at the Jewish War Veterans building. There was an opening for a rabbi, and young Benjamin Yudin got the job.
The shul members purchased a small home. Downstairs was a room where they could daven. Upstairs was an apartment for the rabbi and his wife. Living upstairs from the shul meant that the Yudin home was always open to the shul’s members, from the first day. Little has changed in forty years. People come in at all hours, and there are people who have visited for hours, others who have stayed for weeks, and, in some cases, years.
Communal meals are often held at the home of the Yudins, who still live in the very same house, albeit without a shul in the basement. They have never bothered furnishing the living room, since on a regular Shabbos, it’s filled with tables and folding chairs for guests.
The rabbi remembers how important this open-door policy was early on. There were seventeen member families in Shomrei Torah at its inception. It was only a Shabbos day minyan and it was up to Rabbi Yudin to take it to the next level.
“On Fridays, close to sunset, I would drive around in my car trying to get people to come join us for minyan. We never missed one. One Shabbos day there was a fierce snowstorm, but we eventually had a minyan, at ten thirty. On Shabbos Mevorchim my wife would make a cholent, and that worked wonders. I always say that even if the drashah isn’t good, the cholent always is.”
The little shul in Fair Lawn slowly began to attract new members. The rabbi started a local program for high school students, which met in the basement of the shul.
“I’m no Shlomo Carlebach, but I had a fellow there playing guitar, and I made sure that the atmosphere was pleasant. There was no agenda except to schmooze with the rabbi. I wanted them to have a good feeling about the shul, about the rabbi. At the end of the year we would go on a ‘class trip’ to New Square. I wanted to expose them to all sorts of Jews.”
He pauses, shifting his gaze beyond me. “We were recently in Eretz Yisrael, visiting my son in Ramat Beit Shemesh. A local woman asked my wife if she was a Yudin from New Jersey. It turned out that this lady, a mother of a wonderful frum family, used to participate in our coffeehouse programs.
“You never know how things will turn out. We just have to do our part. Shlach lachmecha, cast your bread upon the waters …”
At the same time the shul was earning a reputation as a serious place, a makom tefillah. “One of our founding members, Mr. Malinowitz, served as baal korei. He would stop the leining if there was talking. It was good that I didn’t have to be the ‘sheigetz’ telling them to keep quiet.”
During this time Rabbi Yudin also was teaching every day at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys – MTA in Manhattan. “I had a carpool of local boys that I drove to the city each morning, and that’s how we started the daily minyan. My wife made them breakfast, and so they showed up a little earlier. For the minyan there were several boys, a few balabatim and one rabbi – ten.”
Another innovation, also involving food, was the Friday night Chumash shiur. Each week, the rabbi would deliver his weekly Chumash shiur in a different home, for a different group. He would ask them to invite their own neighbors. “I would bring fresh cake. Fair Lawn didn’t have a kosher bakery, but I would come back from the city with a car laden with baked goods.”
He shares a piece of rabbinic wisdom: “A rabbi shouldn’t be overly concerned with what is ‘l’fi kvodo’ and what is beneath him. He should do what he needs to do to reach the people.”
Next Year by You If you men-
tion the Jewish community in Fair Lawn today, the response is invariably, “Isn’t that Rabbi Yudin’s place?” And the answer, my friends, is a resounding yes.
“Rabbi Joseph Lookstein once said something in his rabbinic class that has remained with me. He said that the ideal rabbi becomes a family member to each member of his community. I subsequently learned that sometimes the people will do more for the rabbi than they will for the Shulchan Aruch. A lot of the rabbi’s success will depend on his relationship with his people.”
He gives an example. On Succos he would invite the shul’s members to his succah, where he would wish them, “Next year I’m coming to make a brachah in your succah.”
“It was a big nachas when each year more and more succahs were built, even though I had to go make a l’chayim and eat something at each one. That’s a lot of ‘leshev basuccah’ brachos to make.”
Rabbi Berel Leiner, who lives in Brooklyn but has served as baal Musaf in Fair Lawn on the Yamim Noraim for over thirty years, provides another insight on the remarkable spiritual growth of this kehillah.
“It’s always been a wonderful opportunity for my family to spend Rosh HaShanah at the rabbi’s table and see the warmth and acceptance of all Jews,” says Rabbi Leiner. “My children would watch the guests and then see them a year later. Those guests were completely different people from what they had been the previous Rosh HaShanah. It was as if they had been reinvented over the past twelve months.”
Rabbi and Mrs. Yudin also try to make a sheva brachos for each chassan or kallah from the shul. Today that’s a very ambitious undertaking, since the community numbers hundreds of local families, as well as many Israelis and Russians. How have the locals taken to the influx of newcomers?
“Our people are very welcoming. They like Jews. It doesn’t scare them if people are from other countries or if they speak other languages. At present about thirty percent of the women in this shul cover their hair, yet there’s no sense of looking down at the ones who aren’t yet there – only unity.
“I am inspired by the newcomers from the former Soviet Union, who are so committed. I discovered this for myself when I went there in 1988 to give shiurim and bring much-needed supplies. One day I spoke for two and a half hours and then I stopped, exhausted. They looked at me in surprise: That’s it? They were so thirsty for Torah. So when some of these families arrived in this country, and the opportunity to ‘adopt’ some of them presented itself, we were thrilled. Their acclimation, as well as the response of our regulars, is nachas.”
In front of the shul stands a little post, indicating “stroller parking.” It’s something I’ve never seen before, and it’s surely the sign of a young shul, an observation that Rabbi Yudin corroborates. “The young families here are fantastic. They’re very committed and involved. We actually started a young families’ minyan in the basement, so that they could daven in a way that they’re used to.”
Growth, both in terms of numbers and commitment, is very gratifying. But it can sometimes be a two-edged sword, such as when success leads to breakaway minyanim. That, however, isn’t a problem in Fair Lawn, says Rabbi Yudin.
“We have no competition. Sure, there are other shuls, but we are happy to work with them. Chabad has come to Fair Lawn. Some members of the Conservative temple wanted to start an Orthodox minyan back in 1981, and so we lent them a Sefer Torah and portable mechitzos. Other minyanim have opened closer to home, more recently. But I don’t take it personally. Everyone has their own derech.
“Mordechai HaTzaddik was ‘ratzui l’rov echav’ – good with most people – so I hope you don’t expect more from Benjamin Yudin. If I took things personally, I wouldn’t survive in this business.”
Good Morning, Nachum – and Everyone Rabbi Yudin might just have the largest pulpit in the world, since his weekly dvar Torah on the Nachum Segal radio show has made him a household name. It’s a mandate that he takes very seriously.
“Thirty years ago one of our members, Norman Laster, was involved with a local school called Upsala College. They had their own radio station, and he said to me, ‘Rabbi, why not say a dvar Torah? There are so many Jews out there listening. Let them hear a good word.'”
When Nachum Segal took over the program and turned it into a popular Jewish music show, Rabbi Yudin stayed on. “My mother passed away earlier this year. The radio show was the pinnacle of nachas for her. She would listen enthusiastically and proudly each week.
“But it’s a challenge. For many listeners this is their taste of Shabbos. Yet because the show is also popular in Monsey and Lakewood, I can’t say ‘Moses,’ for example. If I do, they’ll turn off the radio. I need to say ‘Moshe Rabbeinu,’ but I also have to bear in mind the listeners in Franklin Lakes who need the term translated.
“I always begin by saying, ‘Tomorrow we have the privilege of reading Parshas Balak,’ or Pinchas, et cetera. That way, even if the listener tunes out, he or she at least will know that it’s a privilege to read the parshah!”
Suddenly there is a knock on the door of the rabbi’s office and a young Israeli fellow comes in to bid the rabbi farewell, since he’s traveling home for the summer. Their conversation is short, but their embrace speaks for itself.
Later, I also meet Janusz, a Polish gentleman who came to the shul as a custodian two decades ago. The rabbi noticed early on that the custodian liked cholent, but he also noticed that Janusz seemed drawn to the teachings, since the newcomer from Poland would linger in the shul during lectures. In time, Janusz learned what Yiddishkeit was all about and pleaded to join the Jewish People.
“We lost our Shabbos goy,” says Rabbi Yudin, “but we gained a precious new member.”
Rabbi Berel Leiner adds that he recalls a moving comment that Janusz once made. “He said that he remembered that when he was a child the Jews constantly visited the site of the Rema’s kever. Now he davens at the kever when he goes back.”
A Model Role Model When asked if the role of today’s rabbi is more spiritual shepherd or halachic arbiter, Rabbi Yudin considers the question and remarks that even though a rabbi has to first be a spiritual shepherd, the happy result of being a successful shepherd is the increase in halachic interest.
“The life cycle itself carries within it so much of both. When a couple gets married, for example, a rabbi shouldn’t just meet them under the chuppah. There should be a few in-depth sessions where all the particulars, halachic and otherwise, will be discussed and explained.
“If the rabbi is committed to ensuring that there will be a vibrant future for his kehillah, he has got to make sure that the children are all in yeshivos. He needs to negotiate with the parents and the schools, working with them to create a workable financial solution. He also often has to raise the remaining funds himself. That takes time too.”
Rabbi Yudin has written some landmark essays on the subject of tefillah, which are included in ArtScroll’s popular transliterated siddur. It’s only natural, therefore, to seize this opportunity and ask a few questions about prayer, such as: How can we instill within our children the serenity and correct frame of mind needed for tefillah in such a fast-paced world?
“You can write essays from today till tomorrow about tefillah, but the only real way to inspire your children is through davening yourself. They see where you sit, how you sit. My own father was a minyan person. He took it seriously. The fact that going to shul was such a big part of our lives made it real to us kids.”
Yet it’s not just children who need to daven with kavanah and enthusiasm. The rabbi also has to approach each tefillah with a fresh eye. Rabbi Yudin has been a pulpit rabbi for forty years, bli ayin hara. How does he manage to avoid job burnout?
“There is only one way for a rav to stay fresh, and that’s through learning. When I started this job, I also started teaching in MTA. Later I also taught in the JSS [James Striar School of General Jewish Studies], which is YU’s school for baalei teshuvah. I drew much of my energy from there. You can’t imagine what it’s like to teach these boys. They arrive knowing nothing and within weeks they’re on fire with learning. That job made every day a new experience; it was instant gratification. It’s very different from interacting with balabatim, where growth is a slower process.”
Today, the rabbi has created a “mini-kollel” in his own shul, succeeding in implementing his vision of having a learned congregation.
“I always felt that a rabbi’s job is not just to sit at meetings and worry about politics or the budget, but to raise the level of learning in his people. One of our members retired at a fairly young age and said, ‘Rabbi, we need a learning program for adults.’ And he was so right.
“We started a Tuesday morning shiur, learning in depth, which we called ‘Turn Tuesday Morning into Torah Morning.’ We then did the same thing on Mondays and Thursdays. We would do Wednesdays, too, but that morning is already spoken for; we have the women’s Sefer HaChinuch shiur.”
Since there are night classes and daf yomi shiurim as well, how does Rabbi Yudin keep up with the pace?
“Baruch Hashem, I’ve got a very capable assistant rabbi, Avrohom Markowitz, who is a big help. I’m also fortunate to be able to contact world-class talmidei chachamim when I have questions. I see Rav Hershel Schachter almost every day and ask him whatever is bothering me, which is a privilege.”
Another relationship he cherishes is the one he has with Rav Elya Chaim Swerdloff, a rosh yeshivah in nearby Paterson. Rabbi Yudin can be found, with notebook and pen in hand, at the Rosh Yeshivah’s Elul shmuessen and the two men converse often. “Wherever I’m holding in learning, I can call Reb Elya Chaim and he’s holding there too!”
I close our conversation with an observation: Often the rabbinate can seem like a business, where positions are seen as springboards to larger, more prestigious pulpits. Rabbi Yudin is clearly content with his people and his place. Why?
“As I mentioned earlier, I always had sipuk, fulfillment, from the two jobs – the teaching and the rabbinate. Each day became its own fresh start. Looking back, I can see that it was a gift, because I so appreciate the opportunity to have grown along with the congregation. Also, staying in one place gave our children stability and a positive perspective on rabbanus.
“But who says I’m staying?” he says with a mischievous smile. “It’s no secret that I plan to make aliyah, and that my congregants won’t try to stop me. You know why? Because I’m taking them along!” –