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Friday, October 18, 2019

Shevi Yudin checks her calendar. Sunday morning is out. A fundraising breakfast is scheduled for the Yudin home. Afterwards, she and the Rabbi have a wedding to attend, as they do on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Wednesday night also won’t work for the interview. They’ll be hosting a sheva brachot. Welcome to the world of Rabbi Benjamin and Shevi Yudin, who hit the ground running in Fair Lawn a half century ago and have yet to let up. Bump into an Orthodox Jew almost anywhere on the globe, say the words “Fair Lawn,” and more often than not the response will include a mention of Rabbi Yudin. The two have become synonymous.

It almost wasn’t that way.

Rabbi Yudin explained that during his last year of semicha at Yeshiva University, he was offered a full time job teaching at its high school, MTA. Soon after, he was told about a weekend rabbinical position in Fair Lawn, a town unknown to him. He was invited by the 17-family Jewish community for Lag B’Omer in 1969 but didn’t hear back from them until mid-summer when they asked him to come for a Shabbat. “The rest,” he added, “is history.”

Considering those five decades, Rabbi Yudin reflected, “A shul is like a family. You build it one step at a time. Just like a young couple goes through a series of events—their first apartment, first child, a move into a house—so too it was for Shevi and me in Fair Lawn.” He spoke slowly and deliberately, fondly recalling in great detail the events that shaped the building of his Shomrei Torah family.

He recalls driving around town on Fridays near sundown in his 1965 Plymouth, picking up people to ensure there would be a Friday night minyan, which was held in the Yudin’s basement. He employed a similar strategy to launch a daily Shacharit minyan in the early 1970s. A teacher at MTA at the time, four of the school’s students were living in Fair Lawn. Including himself, it meant he was already halfway there. He made the students an offer. If they’d agree to regularly attend minyan, Shevi would serve them breakfast afterwards, and he would then drive them to school. It worked.

Some of the stories he shared are wild, yet speak to the close bond that formed between the Yudins and the steadily growing membership. In one, which took place in the early to mid-’70s, the Yudin living room was converted into a kosher for passover supermarket. At the time, the fledgling Orthodox communities of Bergen County simply didn’t have the supplies. It was a team effort. One person lent them his furniture truck, another wrote and distributed order forms, and five members then picked up food supplies on the Lower East Side. Shopping carts were borrowed from Pathmark to complete the experience. In separate interviews, both the Rabbi and Shevi—it’s never Rebbetzin Yudin—pointed to a corner of the room where a fire door once existed, allowing for the traffic. This continued for several years.

Two major milestones clearly had an assist from above: the building of the permanent shul and construction of the mikvah. Around 1980, two adjacent houses across the street from the Yudins simultaneously came to market. It provided the opportunity to build a real shul. As Shevi later detailed, a meeting was held to discuss the viability of such a significant financial undertaking, since membership stood at a modest 60 families. As a debate ensued, a woman who was a respected member and a Holocaust survivor suddenly stood up and bellowed, “What’s wrong with you people?! God has given you a community. Of course He will make it happen. Build the shul.” Shevi called it one of her top ten “wow” moments.

As for the mikvah, after much anticipation, it was completed and set to open in advance of a three-day Shavuot Yom Tov. However, one problem stood in the way. It lacked the requisite amount of rain water. Things looked bleak as Shavuot fast approached. Suddenly, it began to rain. As Shevi recalled, it continued to rain for four straight days. As the various systems filled, all who were present were brought to tears.

One by one, more goals were set and met. As Rabbi Yudin put it, “We never had time to revel in any successes because there was always more to do.” A daily Mincha/Maariv minyan was established, an eruv was built, a Chevra Kadisha was formed, a Daf Yomi began, a morning breakfast shiur for retirees took root, and nightly shiurim fleshed out, followed by a new beit hamedrash program. Rabbi Yudin paused and reflected, “Seeing the wilderness blossom, it’s a gift from Hashem.”

He’s particularly proud of how the mini-kollel transformed the shul. As the average age of members increased, there was a sense of apprehension. A committee was formed and approached Yeshiva University leadership, requesting four families to form a kollel. “We’ll pay their rent. If they like it in Fair Lawn, all we ask is that they tell their friends.” Rabbi Yudin then added, “In the past 10-12 years, 80 young families have moved to Fair Lawn because of it.”

Anyone who has spent more than a Shabbat or two at Shomrei Torah has likely been treated to some of Rabbi Yudin’s catchphrases. When something very special or memorable takes place, he beams ear to ear, referring to it as a “Shabbos Kodak moment.” More often, though, it’s “Fasten your seat belts,” “We (Judaism) had it first,” or “It’s worth buying the whole set just for this one thought.” And, of course, there’s his trademark “How many extra words are there in the Torah?” which is usually followed by “Oh yeah, I just found one (or two or five).”

These devices, of course, are meant to generate interest and excitement in his drasha. Nothing is more satisfying to Rabbi Yudin than having an opportunity to share divrei Torah. He maintained that it’s so important because many working people don’t have time to learn. “I look at myself as a teacher and use the drasha as an opportunity.”

Along with the need to share Torah thoughts, one of Rabbi Yudin’s bedrock beliefs is that every Jewish child should be given the opportunity to have a Torah education. He calls it his hobby. His reputation for leaving no stone unturned in this regard is legendary. Nearly two decades ago, he raised the bar. There were two yeshiva elementary schools serving the Fair Lawn community at the time. Each had essentially maxed out at over 800 students. This meant that a number of students, particularly those from Russian and Israeli families, found themselves without a school willing to embrace them. With that backdrop, Rabbi Yudin worked with others to create another option; Yeshivat Noam, which first opened its doors in 2001, now itself has over 800 students.

To Rabbi Yudin, there’s no such thing as a non-observant Jew. There is, however, a not-yet-observant Jew. A trip to the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s profoundly affected him in this regard. Both knowledge and practice of Judaism were nearly non-existent there, yet he marveled at “the intelligence of the people and their thirst for Torah.” He said he spoke divrei Torah uninterrupted for two and a half hours, then stopped, exhausted. The response was a look that asked, “That’s it?” That alone probably endeared them to him. Over the years, Shomrei Torah has had a strong Russian presence, and Rabbi Yudin has formed close bonds with many from the former Soviet Union.

Outreach for Rabbi Yudin also includes a weekly parsha talk on JM in the AM. From a one-time guest speaker, he became a Friday morning fixture for 38 years. Since the coverage area includes individuals with very different levels of Torah knowledge, he said his challenge is to be relevant to them all. He proudly stated that he’s never missed a week, “even when it meant calling in from a bris in Brooklyn, a store in Staten Island or a gas station in Israel near an Arab village, before the days of pre-recordings.”

Over the years, Rabbi Yudin has had a tradition of learning with most of the shul’s boys and girls in preparation for their bar/bat mitzvah addresses, a practice he adopted from his own rabbi at the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway. He has one rule. “They can choose any topic they’d like, but it must be halachic, not philosophic, to expose them to sources they have not yet encountered.” Afterwards, his warmth and excitement will be readily apparent as he stands with the young man in front of the aron kodesh, arm around his shoulder. Sometimes he’ll comment, “That wasn’t good,” and, after a slight pause, “It was very good.” He has a rule for his own drashas as well. He rarely ventures into political commentary. “I leave that to God, who directs history.”

While Rabbi Yudin frequently travels to Israel, Shevi shared that his first visit wasn’t until 1979. He said that a highlight of that trip was meeting the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi who he secretly hoped would tell him he must stay. Instead, the directive given was to go back and “encourage the youth of your community to study and live here.” Rabbi Yudin added, “I’ve tried over the years to generate a great sense of excitement, love and appreciation for Eretz Yisrael.” He has clearly succeeded.

Then there’s Shevi.

I asked a friend who has been particularly close to the Yudins for many years how he’d describe Shevi to an outsider. In part, he wrote: “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who are her closest friends. She raises ahavat chinam to new heights.” He’s not being hyperbolic. Throughout the interviews, Shevi exuded special warmth that’s hard to put into words. Stories, memories and wisdom poured out of her. She shared from her heart, warts and all, with the occasional disclaimer: “You can’t include that; don’t write that down.”

Shevi explained that shortly after moving to Fair Lawn she knew she would have an open-door policy in lieu of privacy. With the shul initially in her basement and later across the street, it was inevitable. Stories of the Yudins’ hospitality, of an open home flowing with traffic at all hours, are very well known. The Rabbi has joked that he’s probably the only one who knocks on the front door.

Shevi strongly believes in being inclusive. Given that the congregation has grown to 275 families, things tend to be done on a grand scale. Weddings of their children have often been massive affairs; the annual Simchat Torah kiddush/lunch that she and the Rabbi sponsor is a culinary spectacular, as dozens of women pitch in to help with the mostly homemade fare; and countless mishloach manot baskets are prepared for the Fair Lawn community and beyond, separate from the standard shul distribution. The Yudins’ living room has never been furnished due to an ongoing practical need to set up tables and folding chairs for the myriad sheva brachot they’ve hosted over the years.

Visitors to the house include shul members who stop by to strategize for upcoming simchas, quietly reveal their challenges, ask the Rabbi or Shevi for advice—halachic or otherwise—or simply offer their help for some of the many chesed projects that emanate from the Yudin home and often require a small army of volunteers.

Then there are visitors who are complete strangers, who suddenly appear at the door unannounced. They either find their way there because it’s across the street from the shul or because they are informed by those from outside the community of the Yudins’ reputation for chesed. Many come to collect for tzedakah or to seek immediate help about a pressing issue, then leave. However, over the years, for various reasons, there are those who have stayed for days, weeks, months or even longer and have invariably been welcomed as part of the family.

Shevi shared that some in the community who have seen what appears to be nothing short of an onslaught have bluntly asked, “Isn’t it horrible to live across the street from the shul?” A housekeeper once remarked, “Don’t you get tired of these invaders?” Shevi doesn’t see it that way at all. “Each ‘invader’ has made our lives special,” she stated emphatically. She offered an example of one that is off-the-charts for longevity, but not an isolated case.

Maggie was a young teenage girl from a traditional Jewish family in Mexico. Her parents brought her along to the US when they planned to get involved in a business venture with a relative. While here, Maggie found NCSY, became friends with the Yudin’s daughter Chaviva, and grew comfortable with her new lifestyle. The business venture didn’t pan out, so after a few months, her parents decided to return to Mexico. Maggie was torn, so Shevi offered to have her stay with them for a while. A while turned into eight years and included Maggie’s attendance at both Frisch High School and Stern College. She eventually returned to Mexico, got married, and then went on aliyah with her husband, where her family fully embraces religious life.

Shevi commented, “For us, it’s amazing to watch someone grow in Yiddishkeit by osmosis. We didn’t do anything.” She’s quick to point out that not all the stories had happy endings, and of course, there are some who stay for a while then move on, never to be heard from again. Shevi is fine with that, citing a concept from Pirkei Avot: “You don’t have to finish every job you start.” As for the osmosis, apparently it’s not limited to Jews where the Yudins are concerned. Janusz was a math teacher from Poland who came to the US 30 years ago. He took on the job as shul custodian. Over time, he was drawn more and more to the warm atmosphere and teachings of the Rabbi. Although Rabbi Yudin tried to dissuade him again and again, eventually Janusz converted and has become an integral and beloved member of Shomrei Torah.

Then there are the somber situations. Shevi spoke of one such example that occurred when she and the Rabbi were just in their 30s. It was a Friday afternoon. She came home to find a chasidic lady and her child at their doorstep. The woman explained that she was from Brooklyn, her husband had been beating her, and that she was told this would be a good place to hide. She was terrified. It was unsettling for Shevi and the Rabbi. They sought advice from professionals. The woman stayed a month but refused to go outside the entire time. The Yudin home became her safe-house. This and similar revelations led Shevi, along with several others, to become founding members of Project SARAH for battered women.

On a more upbeat note, Shevi observed that “chesed is a boomerang,” praising the community for all the times it has been there for her. She remembered one occasion that was particularly difficult. “It was Eruv Yom Tov, the kids were little, but we had two funerals that day that I was committed to attend.” She returned home later in the day to learn that various families had taken each of her children, given them baths and prepared them for Yom Tov. Similarly, over the years there were times when the Rabbi and she had to attend to a crisis situation but were concerned about their children being exposed to undo stress. Invariably, community members would come to the rescue.

Shevi reflected on how fortunate she’s been to have spent 50 years serving the same congregation. Not only did it offer stability for her children, but also the opportunity for her and Rabbi Yudin to become a part of the lives of so many families. She noted that the Rabbi recently officiated at a bris, after having previously married off both the infant’s father and grandfather. “That’s the beautiful part of it all, watching the history of families play out. We had that and want to continue being witness to it.”

For those who would like to give kavod to this very special couple for their lifetime of commitment, a gala dinner honoring them will take place at the Atrium in Monsey on Sunday, April 7. It promises to be a Kodak moment.

By Robert Isler


For information, visit www.yudintribute.org,  or call 201-791-7910.

Robert Isler can be reached at [email protected]