Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

Last and First Gemara Shiurim

More as a result of happenstance and certainly through no merit of my own, I’ve had the privilege over the years of interacting, and in some cases establishing relationships, with prominent leaders of the Orthodox community. For example, as a teenager I attended a youth group led by R. Emanuel Rackman, which set the stage for my lifetime of learning from him. (Becoming mishpocha by marrying his wife’s first cousin’s daughter — figure it out — sealed the deal in a new way.)

There are others. My first congregational rabbi after marriage was R. Shlomo (then Steven) Riskin, who still inspires; the tall, lanky rabbi whom I met when he married my Far Rockaway babysitter turned out, together with his wife, to be the Modern Orthodox power couple R. Yitz and Blu Greenberg; the parents of one of my oldest daughter’s school friends were R. Saul and Shellee Berman, whose friendship we cherish and who, like R. Rackman, have become life-long teachers; Richard Joel, the immediate past president of YU, has been a buddy since he was the youth director in my cousin’s shul; I continue to be in touch with my elementary school classmate, Deborah Lipstadt, who put her career on the line to defend the memory and history of the Shoah; as a result of my parents’ close friendship with the Ehrenfeld family, I was able to directly call R. Akiva Ehrenfeld z”l, the prior leader of Kiryat Mattersdorf in Jerusalem, to arrange for some of my daughters to spend Shabbat at his house during their gap year in Israel; and Rav Moshe Tendler and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l were among my high school and college rebbeim.

And speaking of rebbeim, my last gemara shiur in RIETS when I was a senior at YU was taught by Rav Herschel Schachter, a renowned talmid chacham and Modern Orthodox and YU leader and posek. I thought of this recently when I went down a YouTube rabbit hole which began, innocently enough, when I clicked on a clip of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, giving a 10-minute talk on the avodah (Temple service) on Yom Kippur. One clip led to another and then another, which led to clips about YU, until I landed, about two hours later, on a 15-minute video commemorating Rav Schachter’s fiftieth anniversary of being a rebbe at RIETS.

I watched the entire video which covered his life from the time he was a young boy studying gemara with his father, R. Melech Schachter, a well-known pulpit rabbi, teacher, posek, and talmid chacham, until the present. But there was a lacuna. Although it was, in a real sense, a celebration of the anniversary of his giving his first shiur as a rebbe at RIETS, nothing about that shiur was mentioned. So let me fill in a small part of that missing history.

I had spent my junior year in a gemara class that was taught in Yiddish, a language I didn’t speak and understood only minimally. This wasn’t unusual; many RIETS shiurim, especially at the junior and senior levels, were given in Yiddish, although many students weren’t Yiddish literate. So an entire group of soon-to-be-seniors all had the same dilemma: how to ensure that our opportunity to participate in five-day-a-week high-level gemara study — for many the last such opportunity — wouldn’t slip away by our being relegated to a class given in, essentially, a foreign language.

There was, however, one senior class given in Hebrew by an Israeli rebbe, Rav Moshe Hershler. While I was far from fluent in Hebrew, my decent enough understanding of that language made it a much better option than Yiddish. So we took the necessary steps to be placed in Rav Hershler’s class.

Problem averted.

Or so we thought. Rav Hershler went home to Israel for the summer and decided, at the last minute, not to return to RIETS, leaving a vacant position that had to be filled quickly. Rav Schachter, having just completed a number of years giving a review class to students in the Rav’s shiur, was poised to begin giving his own regular gemara class in YU’s high school. Quick change of plans, and the administration assigned him to ours.

Again, problem averted.

Or so we thought (again). That appointment, officially temporary, made Rav Schachter, at age 26, the youngest RIETS rebbe. It was therefore not surprising that older and more experienced rebbeim teaching lower level shiurim, in Yiddish, to sophomores and juniors thought they should be promoted to the more prestigious senior shiur, and were lobbying to make that happen. All our carefully thought out plans, buttressed by Rav Schachter’s availability, were thus placed in jeopardy.

What to do? We decided to skip the chain of command and go to the top. YU’s then president, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, also head of RIETS, recently had given a speech in which he said that if any of us ever had a problem connected to RIETS we should feel free to ask for his personal help. So David Ribner, the senior class president and still a very close friend, and I decided to do just that.

What could go wrong? We’d go to his office, make an appointment, and return at the appointed hour shaven and dressed properly for a meeting with the president (which is not how we assumed we’d look when we went to make the appointment). We then would have the opportunity to make our pitch to keep Rav Schachter — hopefully successfully. So off to the president’s suite we went.

It didn’t go well initially. Dr. Belkin’s English-accented secretary looked at us strangely when we entered, and even more strangely when we asked to make an appointment with Rabbi Belkin. (In this conversation we always referred to him as rabbi, while she just as consistently used doctor.) When we told her that we wanted to discuss a problem we had concerning our Talmud class, she noted that the president was a very busy man and there were others to help us. We replied that Rabbi Belkin specifically said that his office door was always open to students for such reasons, and we pressed for an appointment. The discussion went back and forth to no avail.

Our voices must have risen a bit, because suddenly the door to the president’s inner office opened, R. Belkin peeked out, and he asked what the problem was. His secretary answered, in a puzzled voice, that “these boys want to schedule an appointment to tell you about a problem with their Talmud class.” R. Belkin immediately opened his door wider, and with a smile, he ushered us in. So, unshaven and without the jackets and ties we had planned on wearing to the actual meeting (our parents brought us up right), we crossed the threshold of the president’s office and had a discussion with YU’s president for the first time in our college careers. We explained the issue to him, he listened carefully and graciously and said he would look into it, adding presciently: “Boys, we see Rav Schachter as one of the leading Talmudic scholars in the coming years.”

That five-minute meeting was the first and only time either of us ever spoke personally to R. Belkin or took any action with respect to this issue. But a short time later our shiur was advised that Rav Schacter would continue to be our rebbe until the end of the spring semester.

The rest, of course, is history.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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