Molding Bnei Torah
December 21, 2023
Rav Gershon Neumann Zt”l,Rosh Yeshivas Zichron Leyma
A gadol in Torah and harbatzas haTorah
It’s not rare for roshei yeshivah to be selective when accepting new bachurim into their yeshivah. They know the level of the shiur they give and the ramah of the other bachurim, and they therefore choose bachurim who can easily conform. Doing so is not necessarily elitist; it’s standard, and it’s practical.
But there is another way—the way of Rav Gershon Neumann.
The words of his rebbi muvhak, Rav Elya Svei, describe R’ Gershon’s mehalach best. R’ Elya had pushed him to open the yeshivah, telling him, “Your yeshivah won’t be known by whom it takes in, but by whom it produces.”
It was a command, a mission statement; but more than that, it was Rav Elya’s keen understanding of the unique personality and ability of R’ Gershon. He wouldn’t need finished products in order to be mechanech bnei Torah; he would mold them himself.
They were raw, ba’alei kishron with strong potential and an equally strong desire to be molded, and that was his expertise: molding, building, guiding along the way to perfection.
He saw the bachurim for who they were and for what they could become, and he would be there to bring that to fruition.
And true to his rebbi’s words, he produced hundreds of bnei Torah, many of whom went on to become marbitzei Torah. They came from different backgrounds, but they all left with the Rosh Yeshivah’s unique imprint of ahavas haTorah, chavivus hamitzvos, and impeccable yashrus.
A gadol is born
R’ Gershon was born to R’ Mordechai and Feigel Malka Neumann in 1947, esteemed members of the the Viener kehillah. .
As a bachur, Gershon learned in the famed Viener yeshivah in Williamsburg, where he stood out for his hasmadah, as well as having a depth and breadth in Torah far beyond the others. When he reached beis midrash age, he applied to the Philadelphia yeshivah. Rav Elya Svei and ybl”ch Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky conducted the farher and were extremely impressed. After the meeting Rav Shmuel walked him all the way back to the train station as a show of esteem and affection.
Wherever he was, he always succeeded in catching his rebbe’im’s attention; they saw in him gadlus, pikchus, and the potential for a brilliant future. More than that, they saw in him a thirst to be mekabel, to learn and to grow.
R’ Elya in particular would spend each Shabbos afternoon learning with the young bachur, enjoying his company and cherishing the ability to mold this future talmid chacham and marbitz Torah. The bond between rebbi and talmid would last R’ Gershon’s entire life. He would always consult his rebbe’im on any question and follow their directives precisely.
After learning in Philadelphia, R’ Gershon joined Beis Medrash Govoha. He stood out as one of the metzuyanim and became a close talmid of Rav Shneur, who would turn to him for help in klal issues and even ask him for advice.
In 1971, R’ Gershon married the daughter of the legendary Rav Leyma Levin, one of the elite yungerleit of Yeshivas Mir. The rebbetzin stood by R’ Gershon’s side all his life, enabling him to learn without distraction and dedicate his life to harbatzas haTorah.
Spreading the light
After learning in kollel for 10 years, something uncommon in those days, R’ Gershon was offered a position as the second-year maggid shiur in Yeshivas Zichron Moshe South Fallsburg. The preparation for those shiurim was intense and would last deep into the night. Often, he would take walks with Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel in the freezing winter nights as they discussed the sugya.
As the Neumann children grew, the need for proper chinuch opportunities grew with them. The family moved to Boro Park, where R’ Gershon accepted the position of rosh yeshivah and rosh kollel of Spinka yeshivah and kollel. There, he was accepted by the chassidishe bachurim and yungerleit, who were impressed by his klahrkeit and aristocratic bearing.
He also served as the rav of K’hal Sharei Tefilla of Boro Park. The crowd was diverse, with many talmidei chachamim as well as laymen, but he managed to engage them all. He was a master orator and would give shiurim in Halachah each Shabbos, starting from the sugya and continuing until the final psak.
Building bnei Torah
In Elul 1998, R’ Gershon established Yeshivas Zichron Leyma together with his brother-in-law Rav Eliezer Ginsberg, naming the yeshivah after their father-in-law, Rav Leyma Levin.
The yeshivah was built with the mindset that every bachur can grow when given the right tools. The Rosh Yeshivah didn’t seek to impose on them, just to be at their sides as they became better people and dedicated bnei Torah.
The yeshivah was located in a shul in Brooklyn before moving to Linden, NJ, where it remained until seven years ago, when it moved into its new building in Union Township, NJ. Talmidim from early years reflect with awe on the Rosh Yeshivah’s ability to maintain his serenity in the face of the struggles the fledgling yeshivah underwent. Each Shabbos was another hassle—even the dormitory kept moving from one house to another—but the Rosh Yeshivah and his family took it all in stride.
In general, R’ Gershon was always a beacon of tranquility; people who came in contact with him would immediately find themselves at ease. He had a radiant smile and a warmth that enveloped even strangers. Whenever he needed to speak with local officials about issues regarding the yeshivah building, the secretaries would perk up as soon as his tall frame appeared before them, eager to help. He carried himself with regal dignity and had a way with words that made everyone comfortable. When around him, the lowliest non-Jew would suddenly find themselves speaking in a refined manner.
Even when the yeshivah finally moved to Linden, the accommodations were far from optimal for the Rosh Yeshivah and his family. He would remain in yeshivah throughout the day, returning home late at night. On Shabbos, the family would move into the yeshivah, and the Rosh Yeshivah himself didn’t even have a bed to sleep in. But he was always upbeat and cheerful. Bachurim having a hard day would enter his office just to speak to him for a few minutes, with the knowledge that they would inevitably walk out in happy spirits.
He was an expert at understanding human nature and diffusing difficult situations.
One of the Neumann boys came home from cheder complaining that his rebbi was ignoring his questions. Rav Gershon picked up the phone and called the rebbi.
“I wanted to compliment you on the way you teach. You explain everything so well that my son is able to be machaven to amazing questions! Yesterday he asked the Rashba’s kashya; today he thought of the Rav Akiva Eiger’s kashya… Thank you!”
A guest once started speaking lashon hara in the house.
“Eli* is makpid on lashon hara,” R’ Gershon said, almost apologetically, referring to one of his children.
The conversation ended immediately, and the guest’s face was saved.
All for his boys
There was nothing he wouldn’t do for his talmidim. He loved them, and they in turn did all they could to live up to his expectations.
One talmid asked him quite persistently for permission to go to college.
“I don’t let you go, but if you do decide to go, you can still come back to me for help in 10 years,” R’ Gershon responded.
His son-in-law Rav Eliyahu Yaged, rosh yeshivas Keren HaTorah, related at the levayah that a talmid once had a difficult and sensitive question that R’ Gershon felt could only be answered by Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He booked tickets for two; he wanted to go along to be sure that the question was presented correctly and that they understood the answer fully.
A very smart boy who knew how to learn well struggled with kriah. The Rosh Yeshivah approached him and said, “I have a few cholim that I daven for, and I need your help. For every page of Tehillim you say for them during bein hasdarim, I’ll pay you.”
After a few months, the bachur was reading beautifully.
He had an endless amount of patience and did whatever necessary to help his bachurim. When it became clear that a boy in yeshivah was missing the basic chinuch to learn Gemara, the Rosh Yeshivah took it upon himself to learn with him each day, until he was able to learn a Gemara on his own. Today, he is a respected marbitz Torah.
Moreover, he had an extremely positive outlook and saw only the true potential of the talmidim.
One bachur acted in a way that made R’ Gershon consider expelling him from the yeshivah. But he needed to ask da’as Torah first. When he went to Eretz Yisrael he went to speak to Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman.
He began by saying that he had a bachur in yeshivah who was a big ba’al kishron, who wanted to do good and had good middos… But he couldn’t get himself to speak bad about his talmid.
R’ Ahron Leib looked up and asked, “Uber…—But…?”
What was the issue?
But R’ Gershon could not say anything. He ended up leaving without getting permission to expel the boy.
The joy and the geshmak
R’ Gershon put in tremendous effort into the shiurim he gave in yeshivah. He was a phenomenal talmid chacham and ba’al mechadesh, but his goal wasn’t to impress, it was to help his boys grow. He knew how to engage the biggest ba’al kishron and the weakest talmid at the same time, while delivering his shiur with passion and joy. He taught them how to learn and how geshmak it is to learn.
He loved to teach, but he loved to learn even more. He would arise early each morning to learn, no matter what time he had made it to bed the night before. During bein hazmanim, he would daven vasikin and sit down to learn until 1 p.m.
In the last few months, as his health declined, his chiyus came only from the shiur. He was once sleeping when he suddenly awoke and exclaimed, “That’s a geshmake Steipler! It’s great for the bachurim!”
The day before he was niftar, he was so weak that he every move was a struggle. But he found in his deep reservoirs of ahavas Torah the strength to write down the shiur for the next day—a shiur that unfortunately was not given in this world.
Every mitzvah was done with simchah and a bren. He would arise early on the first day of Sukkos to take the dalet minim at netz hachamah. Just seeing a brand-new tallis was enough to brighten his mood. He cherished every minhag, every bit of mesorah he had gotten from his parents.
But there was one thing that mattered most: being ehrlich. He could not handle anything that had a whiff of falsehood or was not 100 percent yashrus. “When you do the right thing, Hashem takes care of you,” he would often say.
The ultimate teacher
His talmidim saw it all and learned to live their lives accordingly.
It is not a secret that a talmid of Zichron Leyma can be detected by the ehrlichkeit of his conduct and by his attachment to Torah.
The talmidim may not be known for what they were when they entered yeshivah, but the impression their beloved rosh yeshivah made on them is clearly evident.
Just as Rav Elya had predicted.
*Name has been changed