I remember being excited and nervous at the same time. Rabbi Moshe Shonek, a rebbe and a close friend, had set me up to be interviewed for an open rebbe position in the Yeshiva of South Shore. As I walked into the office of the menahel, I was in awe. There was an aura of power emanating from him, yet at the same time a smile was on his face. “Sit down,” he told me. I was sitting across from Rabbi Chanina Herzberg. He stared at me intently for a minute, searching my eyes. He was able to read anyone, and I was no exception.
“Why do you want to be a rebbe?” he asked gently as he leaned back in his chair. That was how the interview began. The next question he asked was, “Who is your role model?” When I told him that it was my neighbor, Rav Yechiel Perr, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, he seemed satisfied. A few days later, I signed a contract and began my career as a rebbe. I was now the seventh-grade rebbe in the Yeshiva of South Shore, working parallel to Rabbi Shmuel Judowitz.
The first day was terrifying. I was just turning twenty years old, and I was teaching boys who were 12 and 13 years old. The fact that I looked really young wasn’t helpful, and my stomach was on a roller-coaster ride. I sat in my chair, the rebbe’s chair, and looked at the clock. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet, and I was like a little kid waiting for school to start. I walked downstairs and strolled through the hallway. After a few minutes, I realized that the light was on inside Rabbi Herzberg’s office. I approached the office and saw the door was wide open. He looked up and motioned me inside.
It was my second time in the office, and I remember being scared. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but being in the menahel’s office was never a good thing for me. Rabbi Herzberg looked up at me and said, “You’re going to make a mistake today.” I froze. What mistake could I be making? I hadn’t started teaching yet!
“A good rebbe makes mistakes every day,” he continued. “A great rebbe makes new mistakes every day.” My mind was going a mile a minute. He continued, “Are you a good rebbe or a great rebbe?”
He went back to his sefer. His desk was an organized mess with sefarim, papers from Yeshiva, and pictures of his talmidim and family. Somehow, he knew where everything was. I left his office and walked back upstairs. He was 100 percent correct — I did make a mistake that day. However, I only made new mistakes.
A few days after Yeshiva began, I met Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky walking in the hallway. I decided to ask him if he had any advice for me, and he characteristically replied, “Listen to Rabbi Herzberg.”
So I did. I spent hours in his office every week after I finished teaching. I watched as rebbeim came and went, parents came and went, and, my favorite, the talmidim came and went. Unless the matter was private, he let me sit in, and I learned some amazing things. I saw a mother crying that her son wasn’t happy. He told me, “Any time a mother cries over her children, you need to take her seriously.”
A rebbe came in complaining that a boy in his class belonged in the other track. Rabbi Herzberg made the switch immediately. “Do you agree with me?” he asked afterwards. “Why not get the boy extra help before switching him?” I wondered. “The boy would have been fine in this class,” he replied. “However, the rebbe didn’t want him in the class, and it’s not good for a talmid to be in a class if the rebbe doesn’t want him.”
Monika’s notebook can bear witness to the sheer volume of calls and meetings he would have every day. However, if someone had a problem, he would always take the time to listen and discuss. His views were actually years ahead of his time. Twenty years ago, he would tell parents to focus on giving their children a love for Yiddishkeit and not worry about the grades. That wasn’t the going mentality back then.
He had tremendous respect for our rosh yeshiva, Rav Binyomin Kamenetzky, zt’l, and his son Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, shlita, our current rosh yeshiva. There was one time I was sitting with him and a rebbe walked in very frustrated. There was a new boy in his class who had a lot of issues, and the rebbe was really upset. The rebbe also complained about the fact that the rosh yeshiva accepted the boy in the first place. Rabbi Herzberg’s eyes narrowed, and he said to the rebbe, “Do you have a problem with how he runs the Yeshiva? What if this boy he accepted needs this yeshiva?” When the rebbe left, he tuned to me and said, “If they want to complain about me, that’s not a problem, but they’d better not complain about R’ Kamenetzky!”
On cold days, I would sometimes arrive in Yeshiva without a coat. He would walk over to me and loudly exclaim, “Where’s your coat?!” I tried explaining that I wasn’t cold, but he wouldn’t listen. “You’ll get sick without a coat!” He wasn’t joking. He didn’t want me to get sick. I remember that many years ago, the eighth grade was going on a graduation trip and the coach bus had arrived. The boys were all excited and lining up to get on the bus, and there was Rabbi Herzberg, examining the tires. When it came to the safety of others, there was no compromising.
I had the z’chus of being his chauffeur quite a few times. We drove to many bar mitzvahs together, to a graduation trip, and even to Yeshiva on some occasions. Our conversations consisted of stories about his rebbe, R’ Freifeld, sharing advice on chinuch, and explaining the proper way to treat people. I always enjoyed these drives, but after we got out of the car he would always turn and say, “Thank you.” It wasn’t a simple gesture; he wholeheartedly meant it.
Anyone who knew Rabbi Herzberg could tell you that his hakaras ha’tov was second to none. No matter what you did for him, he would always thank you. At the South Shore dinner many years ago, the bus that was taking the choir to the dinner didn’t show up. I arranged transportation with a different company and it all worked out. The next day I got a message to go to his office. Of course, I began thinking what I did wrong over the past week, but when I came in he simply said, “Thank you for last night.” I can’t remember doing any favor for him and not getting thanked. It wasn’t just words; it was genuine hakaras ha’tov. He understood and appreciated everything that was done for him.
His advice on marriage was simple yet powerful. He would look at me and say, “Listen to your wife.” That was all. He followed the same rule. When his cellphone would ring (not a smartphone) while talking with someone, he would flip it open and say hello. Almost always, he would listen for a second, and then say, “I’m with someone; please call me back later.” However, if it was his wife, he would motion to whoever was there to wait a minute and he would listen to what she was saying.
Rabbi Herzberg loved the music from years back and would frequently stop by our classroom to join in as we sang after davening. Many of my talmidim will remember affectionately that he would join us for the high part of “Bi’l’vavi.” His powerful voice would take over and he would become completely engrossed in the song. The boys would just stare at him as he sang along.
When his youngest son Yudi was in my seventh-grade class, the class decided to join together to buy me a present. They ended up buying me a silver Kiddush cup. Rabbi Herzberg called me in and told me that he and his wife had been involved in choosing it for me, and he told me to use it on Friday night. “Using a gift from your class is a constant reminder of the effect you’ve had on your talmidim.” I still use that Kiddush cup every Friday night.
For years I would call Rabbi Herzberg whenever I had a chinuch question, and he would discuss it with me in detail. When I told him a few years ago that I was starting a parenting advice column, he was very excited for me. He did point out with a smile that the ones who truly need the advice are not the ones who would read it.
He also had a great sense of humor. Many years ago, there was a father who would come to the Yeshiva and complain about everything. Rabbi Herzberg would listen patiently and let him rant. One Sunday morning, when the man finished complaining, Rabbi Herzberg turned to me and asked with a chuckle, “Why do you think he keeps complaining?” I decided to play the psychologist and responded, “Perhaps his mother didn’t hug him enough?” He laughed for a very long time, and said to me, “Why don’t you give him a hug and see how that works out?”
There were a few things that really made him laugh. When boys were sent out of class years back, they were sent to his office. He loved talking with these boys and hearing their perspective on life. One time a third-grader came to his office, and Rabbi Herzberg asked him, “What did you do?” The boy responded, “Nothing yet — I just came to visit!” Rabbi Herzberg was laughing so hard there were tears running down his cheek. A little over a year ago I told him about a mother who was walking with her child on Central Avenue. She bumped into a telephone pole and said “excuse me” to the pole. He laughed for a minute but then told me, “Now I’m laughing. Tonight, I’ll be crying for these poor children.”
I cherished the years we spent together when I was younger, and I know that a large part of my philosophy on parenting and teaching is based on his methodology. I wish that all of the newer rebbeim in the Yeshiva could have seen him twenty years ago. If they only knew the power that radiated from him when he walked into a room! He would take one look at a situation and figure out what to do and when to do it. Over the last few years, he would stay “achorai ha’pargud,” behind the curtains, as he told me, letting others take the lead as he watched carefully.
When a rebbe once left the Yeshiva, I told him that this rebbe was irreplaceable. He turned to me and said, “Everyone who’s irreplaceable gets replaced. Remember that!” It made sense at the time, but we all know the truth. The position he held will be replaced, and the Yeshiva of South Shore will continue to be a makom Torah where thousands of kinderlach will develop a love of Torah and middos tovos. But Rabbi Herzberg will never be replaced.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.