Hundreds gathered on Sunday, November 4, at Belfer Hall on the Weissberg Commons of Yeshiva University, to pay tribute to their rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Meir Fulda, zt”l. Throughout his 77-year affiliation with YU, Rabbi Fulda touched the lives of his thousands of students, men and women, both academically and personally. Rabbi Fulda was niftar on Shabbat afternoon, July 28, at the age of 89.
Born on December 25, 1928, in Fulda, Germany, Rabbi Fulda was an eyewitness to the pogrom that sparked the flames for the horrific Holocaust to follow. On the night of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, Fulda and his siblings were alone in their apartment when they heard the footsteps of Nazi soldiers inside their building. Miraculously, a young German neighbor who was close to the Fuldas donned his Nazi uniform and ran toward the approaching Gestapo, assuring them that the building was “free of Jewish swine,” thus preventing the impending dire consequences for the children. After his father’s release from Buchenwald, Fulda’s heroic mother bribed an American consular official for visas to the U.S., where they fortuitously arrived later in 1938. The family settled into the Breuer community in Washington Heights where they have resided until the present.
Fulda’s affiliation with YU began with his attendance at YU’s High School for Boys and then YU College. After graduating as valedictorian from both he received his semicha from YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and earned a PhD in Talmudic Jurisprudence from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.
For the next 62 years he served as a rebbe and instructor within the walls of YU. He served as a rebbe at RIETS, the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies (JSS), the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC), as well as at the Teachers Institute for Women and the Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies at Stern College. He served his students as an instructor of Torah and a role model of the quintessential Torah Jew.
Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of RIETS, introduced the featured speakers at the event. Rabbi Elchanan Adler, a rebbe at YU, introduced Rabbi Fulda as first and foremost a model of yashrut and ehrlichkeit, a sincere follower of Rav Breuer’s credo “Glatt Kosher = Glatt Yosher.” He brought Torah to life for his students through text and stories. He considered Rav Soloveitchik his rebbe muvhak, and as recently as April 2018 he spoke lovingly of the rav at the 12th yahrzeit gathering. Like the rav, he considered himself primarily a melamed. Rav Adler mentioned a powerful teshuva by Rabbi Fulda from 1995 in which he asserted that the shortcoming of the world prior to the Shoah was not affording sufficient opportunities to learn to those on the peripheries of the Jewish community. Hence his life’s goal was to offer learning opportunities to everyone within the community, which he accomplished with great success.
Rabbi Yehoshua Fulda, nephew of Rabbi Fulda, offered insights into his uncle’s life. He told the oft-cited anecdote that Rabbi Fulda was so proud of sharing about his father taking him to the train station to greet the sainted Chofetz Chaim as he was passing through Fulda. The gadol blessed the young Fulda, saying, “Zeh hakatan gadol yi’heye,” this young one will be great. “The prophetic words of the sage rang so true throughout the life of my uncle in so many spheres,” shared nephew Rabbi Fulda.
In addition to the repeated testimonies offered by former students attesting that “Rabbi Fulda was the best teacher they ever had,” Rabbi Fulda reiterated his uncle’s love for his talmidim and talmidot. He would travel by subway to attend their weddings, early morning brisim and even family levayas. As a show of overwhelming gratitude, his students collected a great sum of money to send Rabbi Fulda and his wife on their first trip to Israel.
Rabbi Benjamin Bleich, professor of Talmud at YU, credited Rabbi Fulda with creating a new generation of students of Torah. In this merit, every time we recite the Kaddish in his memory we are hastening the coming of Moshiach. Through the words of the Kaddish, “yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabba, may the name of the Holy One be strengthened and glorified,” we are helping to fill in the missing aleph in the word kes, seat, in the pasuk referring to Hashem’s war against the vicious forces of Amalek in every generation. “How vital is this prayer, as we witnessed so recently in the Shabbat massacre in Pittsburgh.”
In a video tribute to Rabbi Fulda, Rabbi Paul Glasser, vice president of institutional advancement at Touro College, and his wife, Rachel, paid tribute to Rabbi Fulda on a personal level. They recalled his coming to be menachem aveil to Rabbi Glasser after the loss of his father during his first semester as a student of Rav Fulda, and his attending their son’s bar mitzvah in California years later. Rachel Glasser recalls his connection to his thousands of female students and his endearment to them, which virtually changed their lives.
Representing his female students was Rebbetzin Rookie Billet, principal of the Shulamis High School for Girls in the Five Towns. Billet recalled clearly his booming voice and fiery reception as he welcomed the young students to YU’s High School for Girls where he served as principal for two years. She remembered vividly his shiur on the meaning of the word chet, in which he defined the word as not “sin” but rather “missing the mark,” as when an arrow misses its target. “He never spoke of black and white, but rather on setting the tone for us in keeping the mitzvot, which for many of us shaped our religious observance.” Billet recalled his encouragement of the girls to pursue chesed activities from their modest headquarters in a closet they numbered Room 613. He was passionate in urging the young ladies to continue their Jewish studies after high school or else they would remain “17-year-old Jewish students forever.”
New York State Supreme Court Judge Mark Schulman represented Rabbi Fulda’s male students. “I knew from the outset that he would become my rav. He always factored in our hishtadlut, attempts, not just our accomplishments. He expected us to sanctify the name of Hashem every waking minute of our lives.” Shulman shared, “He personified menschlichkeit for us in the way he treated others, as when he thanked the MTA workers for serving on New Year’s Day or the workers at Ground Zero after 9/11. He brought a kiddush Hashem to the Jewish community when he gave his MetroCard to a young Muslim woman entering the subway. His kindness was conveyed to her Imam who shared it in his mosque.”
Over the years, Rabbi Fulda became an honorary member of the Shulman family. He attended the simchat bat of the Shulman girls as well as many Purim seudot. He was present when Shulman was appointed civil court judge in 1994 and again 24 years later when he was the first speaker at Shulman’s oath of office ceremony upon becoming New York Supreme Court judge in 2004. Shulman concluded, “He represented a stirring manifestation of compassion and consideration. I feel his loss as deeply as the loss of my parents.”
Rabbi Penner invited the attendees to join the Rabbi Dr. Fulda zt”l Legacy Committee in formation, or to share photos, stories or memories of Rabbi Fulda, by contacting Rabbi David Eckstein at [email protected].
By Pearl Markovitz