As If He Left Mitzrayim

March 30, 2023

Rabbi Yitzchak Finkel Brings the Past to Life

M. Brejt

The knock on the door was startling. Deep in the middle of their Seder, the Finkels glanced at each other. Who could be at their door on Leil Pesach?

“Is it Eliyahu Hanavi?” one of the children asked, wide-eyed.

Their neighbor stood there. “Is Rabbi Finkel here?”

Long-time menahel Rabbi Yitzchak Finkel welcomed him into the house and offered him a seat by the table.

“I’m sorry for bothering you,” the neighbor said, “but my son asked me a question I couldn’t answer. He wanted to know how it’s possible that he can feel like he came out of Mitzrayim when in fact, he did not. He’s a good boy, takes his learning seriously, has derech eretz. And he lives comfortably in a nice house with all his needs taken care of. How can he feel k’ilu yatza m’Mitzrayim?”

And who would be better to make the past come alive than Rabbi Finkel?

The past comes to life

Speaking to Rabbi Finkel doesn’t just give you a picture of the past and doesn’t only make it come alive before your eyes. Instead, he shortens the span of history, allowing the stories he so vividly describes to transform from ancient history to the very recent past. The names he causally drops during our conversation are those of pillars of the frum world who built up Yiddishkeit in America, but Rabbi Finkel’s depiction of them makes their choices and struggles relatable—and real.

Early years

Rabbi Yitzchak Finkel was born in Germany in the 1930s. The tension in Germany made living there for a frum Yid unbearable, and Max Finkel, his father, picked up and moved the family to Holland six months later. It was a decision that would save his life and the lives of his family.

“My father led the Pirchei there. I went to school in Holland,” Rabbi Finkel shares. “We had to go to school on Shabbos, but I never wrote anything. Eventually, my father got permission for us not to go.

“We went to talmud Torah in the afternoon and were also part of the Pirchei groups. One of the groups taught me woodworking.” He smiles. “I used this skill in later years to create and engrave jewelry. I did silver engraving even after I became a rebbi. And then I became a principal and my wife said ‘ad kan!’”

“When the Germans came to get us and take us to the concentration camp, they told us to take a blanket and pillow and a small suitcase and come. Our house key was given over to the gestapo.”

The entire family miraculously survived two different camps. Initially, they were sent to a small transfer camp in Holland called Westerbork. A year and a half later, they were transferred to Bergen-Belsen. However, thanks to South American papers that their grandmother had sent them, they were fortunate to be in a relatively better section of the camp.

Pesach in the Barracks

“When we were taken off to the concentration camps, all we got was one small suitcase,” Rabbi Finkel relates. “My mother packed candles.”

With the tremendous foresight of an eishes chayil, she understood that what she really wanted to take along with her was the mitzvah of hadlakas neiros. The 400 candles she packed amazingly lasted her all through those dark years.

Pesach was coming, and Max Finkel, who had always been involved in chinuch, was determined to do something for the children even under the inhumane conditions they were enduring. On Leil Pesach, a group of people gathered around him, and despite the pain and lack of necessities, they conducted a Seder.

“There was one boy who was appointed to say the Mah Nishtanah, but we didn’t have marror, didn’t have matzah, didn’t have anything to dip with. Instead of saying ‘kulo matzah’ and‘kulo marror,’ he said ‘b’makom matzah’ and‘b’makom marror.’ The boy did just fine until he reached the last question. We couldn’t recline in the barracks. We couldn’t even stand up straight. Instead of saying ‘b’makom,’ the boy broke down. He couldn’t get the words out.”

Max Finkel, who had a beautiful voice, started to sing “V’hi She’amdah,” and the sense of depression that had settled on the group dissipated as they all joined in the song of hope.

The kapo came in just a few minutes later and the Seder broke up, but that memory stayed with Rabbi Finkel. It is that ability to find faith in the darkness, to view the world with positivity and simchah, that beautifully characterizes Rabbi Finkel until today.


Against all odds, the family survived.

But the miracles were not finished.

Rabbi Finkel pulls an old menorah off the shelf and unscrews the decoration on top.

“A few months after the war, when we got back to Holland, a huge goy knocked on the door holding the top piece of the menorah,” Rabbi Finkel relates.

“Do you recognize this?” he asked Max Finkel.

At his dumfounded nod, the stranger handed him the menorah.

“Where are you from, and how do you have this?” Finkel asked.

The man smiled sadly. “I was the one in charge of bringing your family to the concentration camp. I spotted this item on the shelves, and I knew it must be valuable.” Afraid it would be looted by the gestapo, the officer crept back into the house and took the menorah, which he hid in his own home for three years.

“Your family is so beautiful. I knew you would survive,” he told the openmouthed Max Finkel. “And so, for the last three months since liberation, I checked the newspapers every day until I saw your name, so I could return it to you.”

Lakewood of old

Rabbi Finkel pulls out an old photo album and starts flipping through it. Photos of gedolim line the pages, including a few of Rabbi Finkel’s brother-in-law Rav Chaim Epstein.

“You were in Lakewood? Did you know Rav Aharon personally?”

“Did I know R’ Aharon? Of course!”

After learning in Rav Koppelman’s yeshivah in Belgium for two years, Rabbi Finkel came to America in 1947 and attended Toras Emes in Boro Park before going to the Mir. Then, at 20 years old, he made the then-unusual decision to attend Bais Medrash Govoha.

“I was the thirty-third bachur to join Lakewood,” Rabbi Finkel relates. “We were small, but R’ Aharon didn’t care as long as we were learning.”

He laughs. “I remember that when the plans for the Yoshon were drawn up, R’ Aharon said it was too big! He said the bachurim would hide—he wouldn’t be able to see if they’re there or not if it’s such a big room!” Rabbi Finkel shakes his head. “If only he could see it now!”

Despite the yeshivah’s small size, R’ Aharon had big expectations of his bachurim.

“R’ Aharon wanted the beis medrash—the learning, the mussar, and the schedule—to be like in Kletzk.”

The schedule for bachurim in Kletzk was intense, with an extra-long second seder culminating in a mussar seder and supper offered only afterward. For many American bachurim, this setup was difficult.

“One bachur finally got the courage to go to R’ Aharon and say, ‘This isn’t Kletzk! We’re Americanisher bachurim; we need a different schedule!”

R’ Aharon was clearly distraught. “Da is Kletzk—This is Kletzk!” he exclaimed.

Rav Nosson Wachtfogel stepped in and amended the request. “No, no, the bachurim understand that it is Kletzk,” he assured R’ Aharon, “but even in Kletzk, we can change the schedule.”

It wasn’t just a rephrase. Rather, it clarified the aspiration of the yeshivah. The yeshivah wasn’t changing its focus to cater to the whims of American bachurim. Some details might need to be modified, but the overall, R’ Aharon’s objective—to replant the Torah of Kletzk in America—would continue.

And Rabbi Finkel was part of it. Today’s classic pattern of bachurim attending BMG after beis medrash and staying on for a few years in kollel was brand-new in his time, and he was one of the first to attempt it.

Giving it over

After several years in Lakewood, Rabbi Finkel moved back to Brooklyn and became a Halachah rebbi in Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov.

“I was only a few years older than the girls, but they still respected me,” he says with a grin. “I enjoyed the experience.”

And then Rabbi Margulies of Torah Temimah, to use Rabbi Finkel’s own words, “caught” him.

“I started off teaching seventh grade, but I didn’t want to teach the upcoming class the next year, so I switched to eighth. The next year I went back to seventh. This happened three times. I taught the same class in seventh and eighth grade. They don’t do it today though… Each year, they said they liked me better in eighth!”

When he was offered the job of assistant principal, he was initially reluctant.

“I didn’t want to do it. I liked teaching.”

Rabbi Finkel was zocheh to have a close relationship with Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and it was to him that he brought his dilemma.

“R’ Yaakov told me something that I’ve never forgotten and that I’ve repeated to many rebbe’im when they told me they didn’t want to be principal. R’ Yaakov said, ‘If I ask you what you like better, you’ll say you like teaching better, but what if I ask you what the Eibershter likes better? There are very few principals. The Eibershter would be happier if you became a principal.’”

Rabbi Finkel, for whom making the Eibershter happy is the only priority, took the job and remained as principal in Torah Temimah for the next 40-plus years.

Even once he moved to Lakewood, Rabbi Finkel’s chinuch career didn’t end. Not one to sit back and enjoy his retirement, he helped found Talmud Torah of Lakewood.

“I learned in yeshivah under Rav Avraham Kalmonowitz, and his great-grandson approached me and told me he wanted to start a school.”

Rabbi Finkel asked him, “What experience do you have? What’s your exposure?”

“My five-year-old son,” was the answer.

Most people would have walked away, but Rabbi Finkel saw potential, and with his classic positivity and warmth he told him, “I’ll help you!”

“What will your role be in the school?” Rabbi Kalmanowitz asked.

“I’ll speak at different events, I’ll be there at meetings with the parents, I’ll tell stories to the boys. I’ll call myself the zeidy of the school.”

Rabbi Finkel is reluctant to share his role in the success of the cheder, but it’s clear that he has an excellent relationship with the talmidim.

“The boys all know me. They were all here on Purim, just a few weeks ago. I go into the classroom and share stories. I recently walked in and asked them if they remembered if I’d told them a specific story. The boys said, ‘We remember every story you told us since second grade. But it’s okay, we want to hear it again!’”

The mesorah lives on

“Do you tell your family your stories about the war?”

Rabbi Finkel looks thoughtful. “Most people who went through the war didn’t like to share their experiences. It’s rare that people did. Maybe I did because I was more easygoing or because I was young. I don’t know.”

I have my own suspicions. His glowing, cheerful countenance and unshaken trust in Hashem’s goodness might have something to do with it.

But the stories need to be shared.

“When this man and his son knocked on my door Pesach night and joined our Seder, I told them some of these stories of nissim, of my experiences. Children think that hardships are a thing of the past. At the Seder, the parents might dramatize the stories, make them exciting, but that doesn’t help make them real. They’re not personal.”

Back on that Seder night, Rabbi Finkel had looked at the boy and said, “You need to understand that the bondage, the nissim—it happened to you.”