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.
Dear Rabbi Ross. My son’s Rebbe called me up regarding an issue with my 5th grade son. Apparently, the Rebbe believes that my son has been taking some prizes from his desk without permission, and although he has no proof, he’s “confident” it was my son. My son told me that the Rebbe yelled at the class while staring directly at him. I don’t think my son steals, and he’s adamant that he’s innocent. What do you think? Name Redacted.
What do I think? I don’t know your son. Here’s what I can tell you. While learning *L’chanech B’Simcha with R’ Meir Yaakov Ackerman, an exceptional Rebbe in the Yeshiva of South Shore, we came across a similar question. The response given was in the form of a story.
Many years ago, while officiating at a wedding, HaRav Avraham Pam zt”l saw that the Chosson was crying, and these tears didn’t seem to be tears of happiness. Rav Pam pulled him over and asked why he was crying. The following was his response:
“Many years ago, when I was a young boy, a boy in my class brought in a small toy that I really liked. When no one was looking, I took the toy for myself. A short while later, the boy noticed the toy was missing, and told the Rebbe. Immediately, the Rebbe called the boys in and asked if anyone took the toy. I wasn’t going to admit what I did in front of everyone, so I was quiet.
My Rebbe then told us he was going to search our knapsacks. While everyone was distracted, I took the toy and slipped it into a different boy’s knapsack. When the Rebbe found it, the boy insisted that he had not taken the toy, and he didn’t know how it got in his knapsack. The Rebbe called him a thief and a liar and sent him home. His parents were equally dismayed and told him that he was ruining the family name. One thing led to another, and this boy ended up developing serious issues. He ended up doing many things wrong (I will not list them in this article).”
The Chosson then turned to Rav Pam and said, “How can I start my married life knowing that I ruined someone else’s life?” Rav Pam replied, “What you did was wrong, but you’ve done Teshuva. However, the blame for this boy’s downfall lies solely on the Rebbe. He is the one who caused it to happen and he needs to rectify this situation.”
Rav Pam was one of the Gedolai Hador and was known to be an advocate for Rebbeim. Additionally, he believed that being a Rebbe required a certain sensitivity and he could not comprehend how a Rebbe could treat a Talmid like this.
I would like to take this a step further. I understand that, unfortunately, there are certain Rebbeim that should not be in a classroom. Baruch Hashem, in our generation, behaviors like this are not tolerated and the Yeshivos understand that Rebbeim need to teach with love. Years ago, the Rebbeim were a bit harsher. I personally had some Rebbeim that, to put it mildly, I was not very fond of.
What I can’t understand about the above story, is the reaction of this boy’s parents. Surely, they must have known their child’s personality. How could they not defend their son? Yes, the Rebbe was completely wrong, but he obviously did not love his Talmidim. What the parents did, however, was inexcusable.
Getting back to your question, there is no way I can offer an opinion. He’s your son. Children are fond of saying to their parents, “You don’t understand me!” It’s not true. Parents understand their children better than anyone else. If your son has never taken something that doesn’t belong to him, and is generally honest, you need to defend him. Tell the Rebbe, “Unless you have any proof, please don’t accuse our son. If you do have any proof, we would certainly be willing to give him a serious consequence.” On the other hand, if your son does have a history of saying things that aren’t true, you need to have a talk with your son. “The issue we have, is that you haven’t always been truthful. Therefore, we don’t really know what to believe.”
There are two other small points I would like to make.
*This Sefer has many questions that were submitted to HaRav Yitzchok Zilberstein Shlita, with his responses. I highly recommend it for every Rebbe.
Dear Rabbi Ross. My son is currently in eighth grade and he’s dealing with something that my eleventh-grader dealt with. It’s called a yearbook. My older son was made fun of non-stop in his yearbook, and he’s so embarrassed that he won’t even read it. I’ll elaborate. There is a section in many yearbooks called the humor section. This is where the popular kids embarrass the quieter kids and put material in that can be very hurtful. Please read the quotes about my son and tell me if I’m being overly sensitive? Should the Yeshivas finally put a stop to this practice? Cheryl – Brooklyn
I was not aware that there were jokes that crossed the line in yearbooks. The above e-mail was sent with some pictures of the yearbook in question. I will not show the pictures online, but I’ll include some of the quotes that were written in the humor section. (I’ll use the name Eli instead of the real name.) “In the year 2040, Eli is most likely to be still whining”. Under the Quotable Quotes section for Eli was - “Can everyone just go away!”
I really don’t think these are that horrible. In my 8th grade yearbook, there were some jokes about me and some of the other boys that weren’t so nice. They weren’t intentionally mean, but some of the quotes were a little harsh. I know that my parents read it, and although I’m sure they weren’t pleased, they didn’t give it much thought.
I spoke with a few Menahalim, and it seems that there is a much more intense vetting process nowadays then there was years ago. One principal told me in confidence that the reason that the humor pages aren’t funny these days, is because parents can’t take a joke anymore. It’s interesting that he said parents, and not kids. I don’t think many children care, I think their parents make it a big issue.
It reminds me of a funny story that happened a few years ago. There is a local baseball league that I’m involved with that had a team who lost the first four games of the season. A mother came over to me crying. I want to reiterate that she wasn’t just sad, she was actually crying! There were other people standing around as she said to me, “My son has such a hard time when he loses! It really ruins his entire week!” While she was standing there, her ten-year-old child mumbled pretty loudly, “It doesn’t ruin my week, it ruins her week.”
You need to take a step back and ask yourself the following. Are your children the ones upset about the yearbook, or is it really you? I couldn’t tell from the email that you sent. It’s not OK for children to make fun of others, but there’s a difference between making fun and joking around. I’m sure that this isn’t the politically correct answer you want to hear, but it’s the truth. You can’t raise your children to be super sensitive, since it eventually backfires. They’ll be insulted all the time by silly comments and won’t be able to deal with opposing viewpoints.
There are two ways that children become super sensitive. The first is if parents keep coddling them and protecting them from any insult. Parents like this watch over their child’s every move to help them. I saw a mother holding her three-year-old’s hand as he went down the slide. By all accounts he seemed to be a typical child, but she refused to let him go himself. The term used to describe this is called “Helicopter Parenting”. The second way to have children become super sensitive, is to act super sensitive in front of them. If you are constantly complaining about what other people said or did and how it makes you feel, your kids might pick this up.
The fact is, children are much more resilient than we like to think. Although it’s never okay to make fun of someone, much less a child, it’s a yearbook we’re talking about. It’s not even a high-school yearbook, it’s an 8th grade yearbook. My opinion is that you should leave this alone. Tell your son in 8th grade, that it’s all OK, and there’s nothing wrong with yearbook jokes. Let the boys in the class enjoy their yearbooks and let the Menahel or principal do his job in editing.
I want to end with one interesting thought. Having a sensitive child isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The goal should be to focus those sensitivities towards others. In other words, if your child is worried that a different child might be offended, that's fantastic.
Have a wonderful week!
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.