Last Wednesday evening, a beloved Rebbe of mine passed away. Rabbi Shmuel Kaufman was my 5th and 6th grade Rebbe at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit. Which was one of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz’s pioneering day schools outside of New York. It was established and led by three of his top Talmidim, Rabbi Joseph Elias, (principal) and 2 vice principals: Rabbis Avraham Abba Friedman and Sholom Goldstein. They in turn recruited some really top talent as Rebbeim. One of whom was Rabbi Kaufman. A pioneering Mechanech!
Rabbi Kaufman had a profound influence on me. I was one lonely outsider that was constantly homesick. Living in Toledo, I commuted to Detroit every week beginning in 4thgrade at age 8. Before that, my father saw the handwriting on the wall as I was slowly rejecting my Judaism. By attending public school I was influenced by my many non Jewish friends. For example I hated wearing a Kipa since I was the only one doing it. And I hated things like not being able to eat the birthday cake at a friend’s birthday party. So my father made a hard decision to send me to the closest Jewish day school. Which was in Detroit 60 miles away from Toledo. This way my influences would change and lead me in the right direction.
That was a wise decision. Had it not been for that, I would probably not be religious today. But it was a difficult time for me since I was always homesick – going home only for weekends. I stayed by some very nice families over the 5 years I was there. But I was not happy. Except when I was around my 5th grade Rebbe, Rabbi Kaufman. He made me forget my homesickness by making learning interesting. I used to love his ‘Jewish history’ lessons from Tanach. He was a master storyteller. Hearing him tell the stories of Tanach was better than watching a good movie. It stoked my imagination. Tanach became alive for me.
He was not one for following the strict protocols of teaching. He was kind of a rebel that way. Which helped endear him to us. But he was a rebel with an eye toward serving God. And his goal was to get us on that same page.
His unorthodox teaching methods inspired his students to work hard towards achieving their potential. He was a real motivator by being ‘one of us’. One of the things he did was encourage his students to attend a Thursday night Mishmor. That was a weekly night time Torah study session with a Chavrusa (study partner) in the Yeshiva Beis HaMedrash. The reward for that was a free game (or 2) of bowling at the local bowling alley after the Mishmar. For 9 and 10 year olds, that was quite the treat back then. (Detroit was a big bowling town back then. I don’t know if it still is.)
He used to pick us up in his old car… packing 6, 7, or 8 of us into a six passenger vehicle. We had a blast during that ride. (This was in the 1950s pre seat belt era. He would never get away with that today.)
He was a fun Rebbe but also a tough disciplinarian. That did not, however, diminish our love for him. It only increased our respect for him. If we were disciplined by him, we knew we deserved it. I attribute my own parenting style to this. He was tough but loving. I told my children that I learned my disciplinary methods from him. And they turned out pretty good.
When I was informed of his death, I felt like a part of me died. He will forever be a lasting role model of Chinuch for me. What a loss to the world of Torah. They just don’t make ‘em like Shmuel Kaufman any more. How I loved that man. Baruch Dayan HaEmes.