On December 11, over 400 people braved the snow to come out and honor the 50 years of dedicated service of Rabbi Shlomo & Rebbetzin Ita Singer, the founders of the Yeshiva Ner Boruch, The Passaic Torah Institution, PTI.
Men shook snow off their coats and women swiped their shoes against the mats at the door. The elderly came too, despite the real risk of a fall, holding three-pronged canes and shuffling their way into Ohel Rivka’s banquet hall to acknowledge the couple that had done so much for them.
Rabbi Singer greeted his friends and admirers with a hugs and kisses. A rav known for his ahavas Yisroel was being recognized and the sentiment towards him was palpable, almost visceral. People love Rabbi Singer. Because Rabosay (a word the rav uses often), he loves them.
As a child Rabbi Singer lived on the Lower East Side. He grew up diagonally across the street from Rav Moshe Feinstein. His childhood playmate and chavrusa was Rav Moshe’s son, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein. How many people can boast they had sleepovers at the Feinstein home? When he came of age he was already a talmid of Rav Moshe. Later, he introduced himself to Rav Aaron Kotler and soon went to learn in his little-known yeshiva in Lakewood, NJ. Rabbi Singer was one of 58 students learning in Bais Medrash Govoha at that time.
It is said that we like people not because of what they say, but because of the way they make us feel. In Rabbi Singer’s presence people are made to feel grand, as if they could tackle the world. It’s no wonder that PTI has outgrown the two buildings it has been in so far.
Rabbi Singer did not start his career as a rabbi; in fact, he didn’t even want to teach. Like his father, Rabbi Singer, as it happens, is a singer. With approval and a bracha from Rav Moshe Feinstein, he started his Passaic career as the chazzan of Congregation Adas Israel, where he stayed until he “retired” in 1995.
Much like Rav Kotler who started BMG in Lakewood at age 52, Rabbi Singer was 62 when he started to envision his second career. Rabbi Singer’s signature motto is “Every Jew belongs in yeshiva.” With this five-word sentence emanating from his heart, he embarked on his next journey, to start the Passaic Torah Institute.
The rav is very quick to correct any misunderstandings. PTI is not a shul or an institution, it is a yeshiva. A yeshiva for all, especially the working man.
PTI was started in the Singers’ home, at their conference-like dining room table. When that became too small, they moved to the front of the basement. Eventually the tables were elongated to reach the breadth of the basement. When they outgrew that space, and the backyard didn’t seem like a viable option, they moved to 441 Passaic Avenue. That is where the overflowing yeshiva still resides.
At the dinner, new plans were revealed showing a model of the new building they intend to construct. The keynote speaker for the evening, Rabbi Paysach Krohn, assured the audience that the new building will go up: “You know how that building is going to get built, because Rabbi Singer is going to lead all of us with his great desire, dedication, drive and determination.” Later Rabbi Krohn said, “We’re going to believe in it and we’re going to do it. And it’s a million dollars. Who has a million dollars? But you’ll see. Once you have a million, you’re going to need a second million, and you’ll come up with a second million. That’s how it is, you just go step by step by step.”
The rabbi’s son-in-law, Associate Rosh Yeshiva of PTI Rabbi Boruch Bodenheim, said of his beloved shver, “Rabbi Singer’s signature is Lomdus—in-depth learning. That is chochmah, that true level of the depth of Torah is only acquired in a yeshiva through learning with a chavrusa and listening to a rebbe giving over the transmission of the depth of Torah from Har Sinai. If one learns Torah properly it energizes you. The more Torah the more life! The more Torah we learn the more alive we are. Just look at the vitality and life that Rabbi Singer radiates from all his Torah learning.”
And it’s true that, at 83, Rabbi Singer’s vision couldn’t be more crystalline. Mrs. Singer is also in her early 70s and looks and acts more like a woman in her early 60s. What is their secret?
By way of explanation, the rav shared some personal thoughts with the audience. Through tears of joy, he said, “So many words and thoughts come to mind. I’m overwhelmed by all your love and support. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Ha-kodosh Boruch Hu. And I wouldn’t be able to do it without my rebbetzin. I couldn’t do anything without her.” The audience applauded. “When you learn the oral law,” he continued, “you’re being hugged by God.”
When the rav finished speaking the whole room broke out into a spontaneous exuberant round of simin tov u-mazel tov and the men began to dance, making circles and figure eights around the room, with the rabbi at the center of it all.
Rebbetzen Singer later explained, “My husband never speaks a negative word in the house.” By this she means the rav won’t even say a word with a negative connotation. He prefers to use more positive terms, not to mask what is negative, but to change what is negative.
Shakespeare said, “Nothing is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Rabbi Singer thinks good and it is good. There’s a reality and a lesson within his nature, one that has been overwhelmingly adopted by his bursting community.
On the ride home the guests were met by the freshly fallen snow that blanketed the yards in Passaic, snow that, like the Singers, has often been described as driven, constant and pure.
The “Singers” have been sharing their songs—their shiurim—with the residents of Passaic for over 50 years. The community looks forward to being serenaded for many more.
By Alissa Joseph