This past Shabbat marked the last time Rabbi Benjamin Yudin would serve in his capacity as congregational leader of Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, as he is now transitioning to emeritus status. Months ago he had announced that he would be stepping down from this role after 50 years. The operative word, though, is “transitioning,” the same one used by Rabbi Yudin during seudah shelishit, since if you know anything about the Yudins, the word “retire” is not and never will be in their vocabulary. He will remain very active, continuing to deliver shiurim throughout the week and making himself available as a sounding board for Rabbi Andrew Markowitz,
who has moved from being the associate rabbi for the past eight years into the leadership role beginning on September 1.
Such an auspicious occasion demanded that events and services for this particular Shabbat, which was also Rosh Chodesh Elul, be taken up a few notches, and they were. As synagogue president Jeff Cohen explained afterward, “The mission was simple: pack the shul and create a meaningful davening experience.”
Helping enhance the experience was the booking of Ari Greene and the Barock Orchestra, whose singing on Friday night can best be described as “Carlbach on steroids.” It served to spiritually uplift the congregation, and was followed by a special Friday night meal in the ballroom, attended by over 250 shul members and friends. Throughout the evening and following day, members of the Yudin family, both children and grandchildren, addressed the congregation and shared intimate and life-shaping memories and lessons, some quite amusing, about growing up with the Rabbi and Shevi.
Among the Friday night family members addressing those gathered were Yudin daughters Chaviva and Penina, grandchildren Talia and Alex, representing oldest son Netanel (Gotch) who was at home in Israel, and Shlomo Hirschey, son of Joel and Susan Hirschey. Speakers related their unique experiences, confirming what many already knew about the Yudins, but also revealing some surprising tidbits. Presentation styles ran the gamut. For instance, Alex read a speech written by his father, which was almost totally humorous in nature, while Chaviva Rothwachs, wife of Beth Aaron Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, listed the top ten lessons she had learned from her parents, noting that she could have shared so many more.
Perhaps the one memory that best represented what has made the Yudins so special was told by their granddaughter, Talia. She spoke of the years she stayed at the Yudin home, attending school in New York while her parents and siblings lived in Israel. One evening, as she stood outside the house, a young couple made their way over, carrying several loaves of bread. They explained that it was their last night of sheva brachot and they were hoping to find 10 men so they could have a minyan for the meal. Rabbi Yudin was apprised of the situation, and, a bit taken aback that all they had with them were those loaves of bread, he invited them inside and then sprung into action. He instructed Talia to call all the boys she knew to help make a minyan, then asked Shevi to warm up whatever food she could find in the freezer. What began as a simple request by this couple turned into a full-fledged festive sheva brachot meal. As the women and men danced in separate rooms in celebration, the new bride began to cry. Rabbi Yudin went over to her, concerned. “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?” She explained that both her and her husband were from France and had decided they wanted to live a religiously observant life, despite strong objections from both sets of parents. She shared that the path hadn’t been easy, and they were ready to give up that very day, thinking, “Maybe we made a mistake and this whole religion thing isn’t for us.” She then added, “But if this is what religious Jews are all about, doing what you did, then we want in.”
The following morning’s Shacharit saw a much larger-than-normal attendance. When Rabbi Yudin stood up to give a dvar Torah before Musaf, he asked rhetorically, “So how long did it take to write today’s drasha?” His answer was: “Fifty years.” He added, “What I have to say can be summed up in three words, ‘Thank you, Hashem,’ and then I can sit down.” After a pause, he added, “But I won’t.” He then launched into memories of what made his time at Shomrei Torah so special, and thanked the membership, his late parents and Shevi, adding that he couldn’t have done any of this without her by his side. He added that he can honestly say he hasn’t “worked” one day during those 50 years. At one point he took out a copy of a speech he had written in September 1969, his first one delivered to the congregation. It expressed his aspirations and his hopes of being able to work as a team with members of the shul. He ended his talk where he began, thanking Hashem for having been given the opportunity to serve all these years.
Before saying Kiddush for the shul, Rabbi Yudin explained that he would be doing it a bit differently this time, reciting three brachot instead of one. He related that he would have really liked to have said the bracha Shehecheyanu for having arrived at this point, but knew it wasn’t halachically permissible. Instead, he produced several obscure nuts that he explained he hadn’t eaten in over a year. He said Kiddush, Borei Pri Ha’etz, and then an emotional Shehecheyanu on the new fruit. It was followed by a hearty amen from the congregation.
The pre-mincha shiur was given by Rabbi Yudin’s son-in-law, Larry Rothwachs, who had walked the two-hour+ trek from Teaneck for this special occasion. He made the most of it, weaving a compelling dvar Torah about why Jerusalem isn’t mentioned in the Torah with memories of growing up in Fair Lawn in Rabbi Yudin’s shul.
At seudah shlishit it was the turn of Rabbi Yudin’s youngest son, Aryeh, who emotionally recalled one memory after another of growing up in the Yudin home.
Shabbat was capped off with a very special musical Havdalah, complete with guitar, performed by the guest singers. As it commenced, members of the Yudin family, mainly grandsons, instinctively went up to be beside the Rabbi, arms over shoulders, swaying back and forth to the music and brachot. It was a poignant, magical ending to a beautiful Shabbat and a memorable 50 years. Rabbi Yudin could not be in a more cherished environment—side-by-side with family, in front of his congregation, listening to brachas recited for Hashem above.
The evening before, Talia had noted that what she really liked about spending time in the Yudin home away from her parents was that as grandparents they would spoil her the way her parents never would. “That’s just the way it is,” she said matter-of-factly. Her advice to congregants was to view Rabbi Yudin as someone transitioning from the role of father of shul members to that of grandfather. “As such,” she added, “take advantage of it and let him spoil you.”
By Robert Isler
Robert Isler is a freelance writer who lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He can be reached at [email protected]