I’ve been honored over the years to know, and have personal relationships with, prominent people, distinguished leaders and thinkers in various Jewish and secular fields. Not because of anything special about me. Rather, for reasons of family or Far Rockaway affiliations, educational or employment experiences, childhood or congregational connections — or simply luck — I’ve been able to establish my own individual link to them. Some were/are true friends, others less so (i.e., they’ll return a telephone call or read my emails instead of deleting). But the bonds to all are special to me.
Sadly (for me and not him), Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z”l was not among them. I did have the privilege of hearing him speak numerous times over the years, including drashot on Shabbat, his mesmerizing eulogy for the Rav (a copy of which sits on my coffee table), and other Torah talks and intellectual or communal presentations. And I not only read many of his articles and books, but also, for the past dozen or so years, religiously (in several senses) print out one of his drashot for shul reading every Shabbat or yom tov, which I always share with a good friend who grew up in Rabbi Lamm’s shul, the Jewish Center, and was privileged to have the relationship I didn’t. Equally important, through these drashot (which can be found online) I’ve introduced Rabbi Lamm to some of my younger friends, who didn’t have the opportunity to hear his mellifluous tones and brilliant oratory, so they can savor a small taste of how a truly outstanding darshan can, with carefully crafted language, excite and appeal to the intellect while touching a listener’s heart and soul.
But I had very few personal interactions with Rabbi Lamm.
I recently wrote up as a Facebook post the first half of one small memorable one, but as we approach Rabbi Lamm’s shloshim I’d like to tell the full tale here, together with another story I heard years later in which he played a critical role.
Many years ago, while living on the Upper West Side, I, along with other contemporaries, attended the investiture of a friend as rabbi of an out-of-town synagogue. Rabbi Lamm, then president of Yeshiva University, was the main speaker. At the end of the day, we all caught the last People’s Express flight back to New York, and Rabbi Lamm sat next to me. We chatted as we waited to take off, and Rabbi Lamm joined the conversation, showing interest in what we thought about various issues of the day. But once the plane began to taxi, he politely excused himself, opened his briefcase, and took out a mini Shas. And until we landed in LaGuardia, the plane became his beit midrash in the sky as he quietly learned.
I recently read a remembrance of Rabbi Lamm about a talk he gave to graduating YU seniors who were not continuing for smicha. He spoke about their need as future lay leaders to continue personal Torah learning. But those of us on that plane didn’t need a lecture. His personal dedication and demonstration were the perfect educational tools, and he was the model educator.
We landed quite late, and I still had to get home to the Upper West Side. This was not easy, since my friends were from the Five Towns, it was pre-Uber days, and cabs were scarce and expensive. But then it occurred to me that Rabbi Lamm lived on the UWS too and probably had a driver waiting. I confirmed that hunch with a quick look outside the terminal. Then, mustering my courage, I asked for a ride home, telling him where I lived — 88th Street and Riverside Dr. He lived, I knew, on Central Park West and 70th Street.
He immediately said yes and added: “I hope you’ll forgive me if I have my driver drop me off first before he takes you home. It’s quite late, and I have a very full schedule tomorrow.”
For those few of you who don’t know the map of New York City, the fastest route to the UWS from LaGuardia takes you over the Triborough (now RFK) Bridge, across 125th Street, and then down one of the avenues. Since 88th Street comes before 70th, Rabbi Lamm was apologizing because I would be taken out of my way before I arrived home.
Though I understood the geography, I was still perplexed. “Forgive me?” It would have been fine if he dropped me off at the 125th Street/Broadway IRT subway station. It would have been wonderful if he left me at 101 Central Park West where he lived — that was an easy cab ride home. Not only were those possibilities not on his radar — his driver left me at my door — but ever the consummate gentleman, Rabbi Lamm apologized for inconveniencing me. His politeness, thinking of the other, and basic mentschlichkeit bridged the chasm between university president and someone scrounging a ride. His kindness and thoughtfulness remain engraved in my memory.
And one last incident, which I know of only second hand. The late Herbert Tenzer, well known as a Jewish communal leader and philanthropist, former member of Congress, and prominent lawyer, was the name partner of a law firm where I practiced for part of my career. He also was chairman of the board of Yeshiva University during those dark days when YU almost went bankrupt. One afternoon in his office, HT (as he was known and called by all in the firm) told me the following story.
At the height of the crisis, Rabbi Lamm came to HT’s home one evening to discuss the situation. As they spoke, Rabbi Lamm opened his briefcase and took out — no, not a Shas — but a Voluntary Petition of Bankruptcy, which lacked only his signature. What happened next is blurred in my memory; I don’t recall if HT told me that Rabbi Lamm signed the petition, or if he only uncapped his pen and was prepared to sign it. It doesn’t matter for this story, though, because what he did next is the crucial point.
He cried. With pen in hand and the petition open before him, tears silently rolled down his cheeks.
Dickens called tears “rain upon the blinding dust of earth.” And Rabbi Lamm’s tears so touched HT that he said, either to himself or out loud: “We can’t let this happen.” (All statements in quotes from here on are my paraphrased recollection.) So he picked up the phone and called Hugh Carey, the then governor of New York. (HT was the type of person who would call, and then even governors themselves would get on the line.) He explained the situation and told Carey that or he had to help.
“But Herb,” Carey said, “what can I do?” “Hugh,” HT answered, “you’re a good Catholic, a man of faith. And I understand that the heads of the bank holding YU’s debt also are good Catholics. So as a man of faith you have to convince other men of faith, of your faith, to help Yeshiva University, an institution of faith, the same way you would if it were Notre Dame or St. John that was on the brink of disaster.”
HT and Governor Carey continued their conversation until they reached a tentative consensus on a bottom line payment number and deadline. It was a tough number and a difficult deadline for YU, and Carey, of course, had to still convince the bank, which he did. Then, under Rabbi Lamm’s sterling leadership, and with his tireless work, endless devotion, and consummate fund-raising skills, combined with the boundless generosity of YU’s funders, friends, and family, the threat of bankruptcy was overcome.
I wasn’t in the room when this transpired, and the three men who were there are no longer present to tell the tale. As a realist, I know there were numerous factors leading to YU’s salvation, and that many people played crucial roles. But as a dreamer and someone who has seen close and upfront the impact illustrious people have on our world, I like to think that in addition to Rabbi Lamm’s all-too-numerous-to-list talents and achievements, it was his silent shedding of a few tears, tears that laid bare the soul of the man, that helped change histo