Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elul Thoughts #4

This is the time of year when I remember a very remarkable person, someone who unfortunately is not with us anymore. I was told that he was learning "Shmiras HaLoshon" with one of his children, when his soul, without prior warning, departed from him, and he fell from his chair. The person's name was Menachem "Kenny" Herman.

It was a few years back as I was preparing for the Seudah HaMafseket, the final meal before the Yom Kippur fast, I received a telephone call. On the other end of the line a mutual friend, who was clearly upset. In tears, he told me the bad news: Menachem was niftar!

I was shocked. How could somebody, who was so full of life, die so young? How could God take away such a tzaddik, someone who did so much for so many? "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD (Isaiah 55:8)." I cannot be God's accountant. What's more, He doesn't need one. It's His world and He manages it as He sees fit.

I got to know Menachem in the early 1980s, when we both learned at Rutgers College in New Brunswick, N.J. The college was about 30% Jewish at the time, but you wouldn't know that from strolling down College Avenue. Most of the Jews learning there were busy melting in the Melting Pot. Very few were involved in anything Jewish, whether it be the Hillel inconveniently located on the edge of Cook Campus or the Chabad House which then was still in its diapers. A Jewish student wearing a yarmulke was a very rare sight back then.

"Kenny" was weird in my eyes. This guy was walking around campus with a kippah on his head and tzitzit (fringes) dangling from his shirt. "Excuse me, are you Jewish?" he would ask anyone that he suspected was from the tribe. If the reply was yes immediately came the follow-up question: "Perhaps you would like to spend a Shabbos meal with a family in Highland Park? What's your phone number? Just let me know and I will arrange it for you."

As I mentioned most of the Jews on campus were firmly on the road to assimilation. Some Jews, when confronted with Kenny's "Excuse me, are you Jewish?", would lie and say no. For them Kenny was somewhat of a nuisance. He however knew where they were coming from. He himself had grown up in suburban New Jersey of the 1960s and 1970s, very full of "Temples" but very much lacking in Yiddishkeit. "Kenny" however, had found "the derech". After taking a year off to learn in a Yeshiva in Israel he returned to campus determined to bring as many Jews as he could closer to their Father in Heaven. I personally owe him a lot for not giving up on me. In the end he dragged me into the Chabad House. (Although I didn't become a Chabadnik, I owe Chabad a lot as well.) Who knows how many people this "weird" guy saved from assimilation?

After college we both worked in Newark, N.J. Menachem would use his lunch hour on Friday to visit the few Jewish patients that were sick in local hospital, to wish them a "Sei Gesund" and a "Gut Shabbos". That's just an example of how he would spend his time to help and bring cheer to others.

After working for a while his love of Torah overwhelmed him and he decided to devote himself purely to learning. He went to Monsey, N.Y. where he learned in the "Kol Yaakov" yeshiva. We kept in touch. Sometimes he would spend a Shabbat in my apartment. Sometimes I would visit him in the Yeshiva. Wherever he was there was happiness, song, learning, and most of all action. Menachem did not sit idly. "The day is short, and there is much work (to be done)... (Avot 2:18)" . Menachem ran from one mitzvah to the next.

Our ways parted when I made aliyah. I got married and built my home here in Jerusalem. He got married and built his home somewhere in Rockland County, N.Y. Unfortunately, we did not keep in touch. These were the days when trans-Atlantic calls were expensive, and when a letter sent from Israel arrived in America two weeks later. I heard that he learned a lot of Torah, and ascended the levels of chassidus. Did he know how short his day really was? Does anyone?

This post does not due justice to that very special Jew, Menachem "Kenny" Herman. It's a drop in the bucket, based on old but fond memories. These memories of this tremendous Ba'al Teshuvah come to my mind during this period of Teshuvah. May his memory be a blessing.

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