Cleveland was a new world, yet Rav Chaim Stein was able to reach out across decades and continents and touch the majesty of Telshe of old. In time, the ninety-nine-year-old saintly figure in the middle of the beis medrash was the lone link, bringing students eighty years his junior into the world he’d seen destroyed.
by Yisroel Besser
In Wickliffe, at the top of a hill, stands a yeshivah.
It’s 3:15 p.m., and afternoon seder is beginning.
In the middle of the spacious beis medrash is the bimah. There he stands, silently ushering in hundreds of bochurim.
It’s the mid-1960s and the talmidim belong to a new world, to casual, easygoing America. Yet when they enter this room, fill the space created by Rav Chaim Stein and others like him, they are able to reach out across decades, across continents, and touch the majesty of Telshe. They know to walk with dignity, to talk with respect, to learn as if the world depends on it.
Because it does.
They file up to him, over the course of the afternoon, this one with a question on the yeshivah’s masechta, Bava Kama, and another with a complicated halachic sh’eilah. A member of the Kodashim kollel waits his turn patiently, and behind him, another who wishes to request permission to travel to New York.
The would-be traveler needs permission from Reb Chaim, but not just because of his administrative role: it’s because with his blessing, the trip will be easy and smooth. If not, he knows from experience — in fact, they all know — that the trip will be interrupted by inclement weather, traffic, car trouble … so it is when Reb Chaim says not to go.
Because at the top of the hill, in the yeshivah, stood a man at the bimah with the mind of a gaon, the heart of a baal mussar, and the strength of woodchopper, his presence a comforting constant — a rebbi, rebbe, and ever-so-approachable — a sweet, genuine friend.
As the years went by, bochurim left, and new ones came to take their place. The caliber of the American ben Torah developed, the questions becoming more sophisticated, but the challenges grew as well, the need for chizuk ever greater.
The ninety-nine-year-old saintly figure in the middle of the beis medrash never really moved, though. In time, it was he alone who carried the legacy of old-world Telshe, becoming rosh yeshivah and bringing talmidim eighty years his junior into the world he’d seen, telling about the hamlet of Telshe, of Rav Yosef Leib Bloch and his great sons, as he shared the Torah of destroyed Lita.
Over time, the masses from beyond the hill began to search him out: broken souls in need of a listening ear, thirsty for the words of comfort and hope; sincere Jews in need of guidance; and always, talmidei chachamim looking for pshat.
Reb Chaim was a leader of the bochurim in Telshe of old, then a rebbi to talmidim in the rebuilt Telshe, and finally, a gadol and tzaddik who belonged to a nation until his petirah this week.
Brushing the heavens There was always something extraordinary about him. Chaim Yaakov Stein was born in the Lithuanian hamlet of Skudvil, in 1913. As a bochur in Telshe d’Lita, young Chaim Stein was the chosen chavrusa of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, the Telsher Rav, for five years. He was unique among bochurim, instructed by the roshei hayeshivah to sit on the mizrach wall. He remained in Telshe until the outbreak of World War II, and when the sky turned dark and the Nazi beast closed in on the country and town, he emerged as a leader, gathering a group of bochurim around him and proceeding to march across Russia, through Siberia and the Far East to eventual survival. He reached the shores of America at the time that Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz — who providentially arrived in the US to fundraise for the yeshivah before the outbreak of the war — were working to reestablish the Telshe yeshivah in Cleveland.
The aura of the miraculous seemed to hover around him in those difficult war years, although later, he would refer to the events as the zchus of the mitzvah, rather than his own zchus.
One of the more well-known stories of his escape took place in a train compartment during Chanukah, as he traveled with a group of bochurim that included his lifelong friend Reb Meir Zelig Mann. Eager to fulfill the mitzvah of hadlakas neiros, the group climbed under the train every night to collect grease off its wheels for Chanukah-candle use. Their plan worked until the fifth night of Chanukah, when they were unable to obtain the coveted oil because of inclement weather. The group was devastated, and as midnight approached, they agreed that there was simply no way to fulfill the mitzvah.
“Oness Rachmana patrei,” said one, trying to lighten their mood by reminding them they were halachically absolved from the mitzvah. Reb Chaim, in response, said that being unable to fulfill the mitzvah didn’t absolve them from connecting with it through its Torah. Many of the bochurim dropped off to sleep, but he and some friends remained awake, immersing themselves in the halachic minutiae of neiros Chanukah.
Until late … very late, when a peddler entered the compartment — selling candles!
Decades later, surrounded by his beloved talmidim on Simchas Torah, he retold the story, describing their deep longing for dvarim shebikdushah. He concluded with the unexpected arrival of the candle salesman, commenting, “Uhn efshar, maybe, it was Eliyahu HaNavi.”
Rosh Yeshivah Rav Mordechai Gifter interrupted at that point. “Efshar?” he demanded. “Zicher, it was certainly Eliyahu HaNavi!”
But therein lies the chiddush of Reb Chaim. Klal Yisrael has always had its “giluy Eliyahu Yidden” — great, lofty souls who rose above time and place and seemed to touch Heaven. Reb Chaim, however, was bound to time, fiercely dedicated to maintaining his schedule, day in, day out, seder after seder, tefillah after tefillah, never faltering.
An angel, yet entirely predictable.
When Rosh HaShanah came to the Siberian wasteland, Reb Chaim and his friends toiled mightily to obtain a shofar, learning the halachos all the while. Days before Yom Tov, they found a peasant who was carrying, of all things, the head of a ram. They begged him to sell it, and they removed the horns, which met the minimum halachic shiur for a shofar. Overjoyed, they began to work on the horns, and with minutes left to shkiyah, they had succeeded: they would have a kosher shofar!
Their excitement, borne of an insatiable longing for the mitzvah and the remarkable Divine intervention, made the tkiyas shofar that year a surreal experience.
Yet year after year, in surroundings vastly more mundane, the same excitement was evident. For Reb Chaim, the mitzvos themselves were the reason for the joy, not the events surrounding them.
To his talmidim he said, “The teshukah for a mitzvah was great: ess hut mamesh ungegangen in lebben – as if our lives depended on it!”
Just a few years ago, a bochur from Cleveland was learning in Eretz Yisrael and, as he was going home for Succos, was asked to take along an esrog for the Rosh Yeshivah. When he arrived home, the Rosh Yeshivah called asking if he had the esrog, and then called again to know when he would come.
The bochur hurried over to yeshivah where Reb Chaim — who no doubt had several other esrogim — stood outside his home, waiting impatiently to hold the esrog. Once he had it, his joy was obvious, and he showered the messenger with brachos, the happiest man in the world.
Just like back in Siberia, his joy stemmed from the mitzvah itself. “Ungegangen in lebben.”
Reb Chaim was a man of emotion, who valued song and dance as tools of avodah, yet on Succos night in yeshivah, when the bochurim began to dance after davening, he took issue. “We have a succah to go to,” he said. “Why delay?”
That was his dance. (Full story will appear in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine).
A true symbol of the untainted Torah Jew. May Hashem grant us the wisdom to fully comprehend OUR loss and give us the strength to follow in his mighty footsteps.
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