In The Courtyard of the Rav

September 22, 2022

Inspiration for the Yamim Nora’im

A Conversation with the Rav of the Lakewood Courtyard Shul, Rabbi Eliezer Ralbag

Zev Kilstein

For many frum senior citizens, life has always revolved around shul, both spiritually and socially. With this understanding, at its inception around 15 years ago, the administration of the Lakewood Courtyard founded its shul, which not only provides minyanim for residents, but gives them the ability to preserve their way of life.

Between fulfilling his various responsibilities that ensure the Courtyard residents are thriving spiritually, the shul’s rav, Rabbi Eliezer Ralbag, graciously agreed to share some insights and inspiration for the Yamim Nora’im with TVOL readers.

A distinguished lineage

Fleeing the Turkish army’s draft in what was then called Palestine, Rabbi Ralbag’s great-grandfather Rav Aryeh Leib Ralbag came to America with his family in the 1920s. A descendant of the talmidei haGra who came to Yerushalayim in 1809, he was a scion of the Volozhin-Shapira family spanning 24 generations of rabbanim. In America, he became the rav of the Coney Island section of Brooklyn and built the first mikveh there.

In 1929, in preparation for a trip to New York, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz asked one of his talmidim where he could stay. The talmid, the Viskeh Iluy, otherwise known as Rav Yaakov “Safsal” because he would learn all week in shul and sleep only on a bench, replied that the only place he knew of where one could eat was R’ Aryeh Leib’s home because the shochtim wouldbring their knives to him for inspection.

At the time, many Yidden in Yerushalayim were dying from starvation, and R’ Aryeh Leib would send 90 percent of his salary to them. So urgent was the need that at one point during the Great Depression, when R’ Aryeh Leib’s shul stopped paying him his salary and he had no money for himself, he borrowed money so that he would have something to send. Eventually, he wanted to return to Eretz Yisrael, but Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld wrote him a letter instructing him to stay in America so that he could continue supporting the poor.

He sent his son Rav Chaim Yehosef Ralbag back to Eretz Yisrael to learn for many years under the tutelage of gedolei Yerushalayim, including Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, and the Tepliker Rav, a great dayan in Yerushalayim. Later, he became a rav in Manhattan for over 60 years and brought awareness to kashrus in America in the early years of hashgachos.

R’ Chaim Yehosef’s son Rav Aryeh Leib learned in the Chevron yeshivah and kollel for many years while Rav Yechezkel Sarna was there. When his son R’ Eliezer was a young child, his father was offered his first rabbinic position in Amsterdam, Holland. He was faced with a dilemma: Should he stay in kollel in Eretz Yisrael or move to Amsterdam? The community there was limited in terms of its yeshivah education, and he wanted to do what was best for his children.

At the time, R’ Aryeh Leib was learning with Rav Lazer Platinchsky, a talmid of the Brisker Rav. He told R’ Aryeh Leib, “I had two rebbe’im, the Brisker Rav and the Chazon Ish. In your situation, the Brisker Rav would have said, ‘Chayecha kodmim.Do what is best for your children. You cannot move to a place if you don’t know what will be with chinuch habanim.’ However, the Chazon Ishwould say, ‘If you are going somewhere for tzorchei haklal, for zikkuy harabbim, everything will come out good.’ These seem like two conflicting views, but in essence they are not. Since rabbanus is zikkuy harabbim,I advise you to go, as the Chazon Ish would have said. But when the children get older, take heed of what the Brisker Rav would have said.”

Following this directive, R’ Eliezer was initially raised in Amsterdam, but when he turned 10 years old, the family moved to America and settled in Flatbush, where he attended Yeshiva Torah Temimah. When he was older, he learned in the Chevron yeshivah, like his father did before him. There, he became very close with the rosh yeshivah Rav Simcha Zissel Broide. After subsequently learning in Brisk, he learned in Bais Medrash Govoha, where he was in kollel for 10 years. In 2005, he became the rav of the Lakewood Courtyard shul, and he has been there ever since.

Connecting to the community

The Lakewood Courtyard is situated in the heart of Lakewood, offering a rare opportunity to have the greater community become part of the shul. Such an arrangement benefits both the Courtyard residents and the neighborhood families. Indeed, over the years, Rabbi Ralbag has guided the shul to become a beautiful synthesis in which the young give to the elderly and the elderly give to the young. When senior citizens come into their shul on Shabbosmorning, they are able to daven alongside around 70 men with their children, 80 percent of whom are neighboring kollel yungerleit.

The shul has morphed into a vibrant neighborhoodshul with daily minyanim and shiurim, even boasting a pre-Shacharis kollel attended by many locals and a monthly Yom Kippur Kattan Minchahwhich is attended by many women as well.

The beauty of the shul is its diverse makeup, which can be observed in the shiurim schedule, which includes a range of classes from a parshah class for women to a lomdishe Friday-night Halachah shiur. One longtime mispallel shared with Rabbi Ralbag why he chose to daven at the Courtyard: Most of the shuls in Lakewood are comprised of mainly yungerleit or adults and do not include many elderly Yidden, and he wants to give his children the valuable shul experience that he grew up with, in which elderly Yidden can be found. His children should have the opportunity to stand for an eltere Yid and bring him a Chumash. As well, if a child is misbehaving in shul, it’s a good thing for an eltere Yid to give him a look of disapproval—that’s also part of chinuch!

Rabbi Ralbag describes the shul as a real-life mussar lesson. Some of us take getting dressed in the morning for granted, but at the Courtyard, there are elderly residents that require two hours to get ready for Shacharis—and they are the first ones who arrive for davening. These people continue to live a life of minyanim and shiurim, and they inspire us along the way.

In addition, talmidei chachamim from the previous generation have lived in the Lakewood Courtyard, including one of the longtime maggidei shiur of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, Rav Tzvi Levenberg, who was a close talmid of Rav Yitzchak Hutner. One of the leading American rabbanim in the ’40s and ’50s, Rav Shmaryahu Shulman, previously resided there as well. Knowing that R’ Shmaryahu was an iluy in the olam hayeshivos, Rabbi Ralbag asked him to deliver a weekly Chumash shiur. When he would refer to the Meshech Chochmah, he would quote it by heart; Rabbi Ralbag once had a Meshech Chochmah open during the shiur and watched as R’ Shmaryahu quoted two paragraphs verbatim!

Currently, a maggid shiur at the Philadelphia Yeshiva for around 60 years is a member of the minyan; he was also the chozer for Rav Aharon Kotler’s shiur klali. These and other great residents have drawn some of our city’s greatest rabbanim, such as Rav Gershon Ribner, to hear their shiurim.

Of course, even those who can no longer impart what they have learned still deserve the same kavod haTorah, as Chazal say, “Shivrei luchos munachim baAron.”

Focus on the Yamim Nora’im

“I davened in yeshivos on the Yamim Nora’imfor many years,” Rabbi Ralbag shares. “I heard baalei tefillah such as Rav Shalom Schwadron, Rav Yerachmiel Toker, and Rav Chaim Ginsberg. The nusach and mesorah of their tefillos became a staple for what the Yamim Nora’imshould be, so when I became a rav and needed to arrange the tefillos for the Yamim Nora’imat the Courtyard shul, I wanted to bring that here.”

Indeed, Rabbi Ralbag has been successful. For example, he used to daven in the same row as Rav Ahron Taplin in the Yoshon beis medrash. He noticed how Rav Taplin knew the nusach hatefillah so well, including each k’neitch. Around 15 years ago, Rabbi Ralbag offered Rav Taplin the position of ba’al Mussaf, and, to the benefit of the mispalellim, Rav Taplin has been the shaliach tzibbur since.

There was a well-known, very special Yid who lived in the Courtyard; everyone called him, “Chazzan Antman.” He was close to 100 years old and had numbers from Auschwitz printed on his arm. He used to say, “I bury the Germans yemach shemam every day with my tefillin over their numbers.” Chazzan Antman would lead the tzibbur in the kabbalas ohl malchus Shamayim at the end of Ne’ilah. Whoever was not stirred from Elul through Ne’ilah was affected in those moments; there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Chazzan Antman would also recite the Rosh Chodesh bentching every month. Even one of the roshei yeshivah from Bais Medrash Govoha would come on occasion to hear him. When Chazzan Antman would reach the words “chaim aruchim,” he would stretch out “aruchim” to stress that we should be zocheh to arichus yamim.

Rabbi Ralbag notes that beyond davening, the Yamim Nora’im are a time to strengthen ourselves in bein adam l’chaveiro as well as limud Torah and yiras Shamayim.

When Rabbi Ralbag’s father was learning in the Chevron yeshivah, he occasionally heard schmuessen from Rav Chaim Shmulewitz, rosh yeshivah of Mir Yeshiva. During one schmuess, R’ Chaim relayed that a yungeman asked him if he should daven during the Yamim Nora’imat the yeshivah and his wife would miss davening in shul,or if it was better for him to daven at a fast-paced local shuland his wife would be able to go to another minyan after he came home. R’ Chaim said he should daven at the local shulbecause this way his wife would have the opportunity to daven in shul during the Yamim Nora’im and she would not feel sad and hurt that she missed out. R’ Chaim made it clear that if someone does something even with a cheshbon l’Sheim Shamayim, but while doing so he causes someone else tza’ar, it is treif. He brought a proof from Chanah and Peninah that one cannot cause tza’ar to someone else even if their intentions are for noble reasons and l’Sheim Shamayim.

Rabbi Ralbag shares the following story which he heard from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and his son Rav Shmuel Auerbach, pertaining to his great-great grandfather and namesake Rav Eliezer Don Ralbag. (R’ Lazer Don, as he was known, was one of the leaders of the Prushim community in Yerushalayim. He was appointed as the first rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim by Rav Shmuel Salant shortly after its founding in 1841.) One of the gedolei Yerushalayim, Rav Yitzchak Cheshin, saw one Yom Kippur as Ne’ilah was nearing its end that the Brisker Rav, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, had fainted. People attempted to revive him, even with medical assistance, but he would not awaken. Then, R’ Lazer Don, who was Rav Diskin’s relative and talmid-chaver, turned to R’ Yehoshua Leib and asked him a kasha on a Tosafos in Bava Kama, Perek Merubah. Immediately, R’ Yehoshua Leib jumped up and said, “Dos iz a kasha, dos iz a kasha —That’s a [good] question; that’s a [good] question.” R’ Shmuel Auerbach commented that from here we see what it means that the Torah is meshivas nafesh, revives a person. When doctors could not wake him, the kasha did!

Year-round inspiration

Throughout the year, a unique and beautiful atmosphere permeates the walls of the shul at the Lakewood Courtyard.

A couple of years ago, a man considering moving to the Courtyard inquired if there was a daf yomi shiur. He was told that Rabbi Ralbag had been giving one since the time the shul was founded. Satisfied, he explained that he had been learning daf yomi since the end of the first cycle when Rav Meir Shapiro started the daf yomi program, around 75 years ago. He’d been doing it all these years and was not about to give it up!

In the past, a number of Yidden who went through the Holocaust resided at the Lakewood Courtyard. Currently, there are a few female survivors who are part of the shul. They are a source of inspiration to their many visitors from the Lakewood community.

Another resident was an olderYid who used to get a monthly check of reparations money that the German government distributes to victims of the Holocaust. That check was a significant source of income for him; he did not have much else. Like many shuls in Lakewood, the Courtyard shulis part of the Adopt A Kollel program. One year, when the gabba’im were doing the yearly appeal for the Adopt A Kollel program, he announced, “I’m donating reparations money to Adopt A Kollel!”

Parting words

After I ask him what kabbalos the community should consider for the coming year, Rabbi Ralbag replies that he is not the person to tell everyone what to work on. Still, to placate me, he repeats what Chazalsay, “Kol hameracheim al habrios, merachamin alav min haShamayim. Kol hama’avir al middosov ma’avirin mimenu kol pesha’av”—if we are kind to others, if we empathize with one another, if we are not exacting with others, Hashem will deal with us in the same way. As we enter the Yamim Nora’imand daven to be granted a good year, this lesson is especially relevant.

Rabbi Ralbag adds that often, people don’t recognize their inner kochos—what talents they possess and what they can accomplish. We tend to go through life on autopilot, and in many cases, we don’t realize what our actions and words can do for another person. We have to know that we can become great even by performing “small” acts, like going over to an eltere Yid and being mechazek him. That Yidwillfeel on top of the world! If you haven’t seen a friend in a while, call them up and ask them how they’re doing. Say a kind word, give a smile, help someone with their tefillin, explain a Torah concept to someone in the beis medrash, or visit a friend. We can become so much greater through making a difference in other people’s lives.

Rabbi Ralbag recently saw a yungerman with his wife and children as they were pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. The yungerman explained that this woman likes to go to Sons of Israel on Shabbos Mevarchim, so he decided to make that a reality for her. He davens with his kids at a vasikin minyan in order to come over with his whole family and bring her there on time! This is a fulfillment of gemillas chessed b’gufo!This is called utilizing one’s inner kochos.

But the real way to know if we are using our abilities is by observing how we are with our family. It’s a lot easier to be kind to someone whom we see occasionally, and whether we are consistently kind to those around us is the true challenge and litmus test.

Rabbi Ralbag relates that he used to walk Rav Simcha Zissel Broidefrom his house to the yeshivah on his way to give shiur klali. Once, R’ Simcha Zissel said, “Oh! I have to go back,” and they walked back to his home. Why? He had forgotten to say goodbye to his wife. Despite the fact that he was in his 80s and it was a five- to-10-minute walk, he had to go back.

We should all be zocheh to take these messages to heart and be gebentched with a kesivah v’chasimah tovah.