The word legend has several definitions. In its noun form, it is used either to relate a story, portrays an extraordinarily famous individual or detail an inscription, especially on a coin or medal. As an adjective, legend describes someone well-known. Rarely, though, can one find a person or entity that would deserve the title “legend” for all of these definitions. However, I can attest having known only a single person thus far in life who richly deserves such a title: Rabbi Dovid Kaminetsky, z”l.
One cannot simply throw a few descriptions, kind words and generous gestures together to pay tribute to a man who was the face of formal and informal Jewish education for generations. One cannot simply toss a few thoughts together in an attempt to properly chronicle a lifetime of compassion, dedication and utter selflessness to scores of children. It is, indeed, impossible to fully encapsulate what Rabbi K meant to me nor the limitless people he encountered or countless lives he touched. But yet, his life of devotion demands an attempt nonetheless. For his sake, for his merit, I will try.
The Mesillas Yesharim opens his epic work as follows: “I have composed this work not to teach people what they do not know but to remind them of what they already know and which is very familiar to them.” I firmly believe that these words also illustrate Rabbi Kaminetsky, z”l, perfectly. We all had the same impression of him; nothing deviates from the simple truth that was Rabbi Kaminetsky, z”l. And perhaps, that is the best description of him: simple.
His simple smile. His simple words of kindness and interest in the lives of others. His simple style of education based on the foundations Chazal had taught us for ages—love for children.
Isaac Newton once reflected, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” In an age of complexity, endless immersion in nonstop engagement and unrelenting stimulation in our ever-expanding digital lives, Rabbi Kaminetsky, z”l, was the face of simplicity. Or as da Vinci stated, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. In that case, Rabbi K was the ultimate sophisticate. His simplicity characterized the way in which he spoke, the way in which he interacted with others, and the way in which he taught. He simply led by example.
His simple style was a method not easily developed and is one that is surely not easily replicated. He spoke from the heart and felt the pain of others. A tear for a tragedy. A tear for the plight of another. But this simplicity enabled him to feel the joy for others. His simple dance at each and every bar mitzvah, hands and feet rising with fervor. His simple words of appreciation and praise. “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity,” Henry Longfellow wrote. In character, in manner, in style, in all things, Rabbi Kaminetsky’s simplicity was excellence.
Over the past few days, moving past Rabbi Kaminetsky’s tragic loss has been difficult. When I hear steps outside my office, I raise my head expecting to see him. When I walk past his office, I turn expecting to see my friend’s face. There is a void, one that is not limited to the hallways of RYNJ, not limited to Jewish education but to the Jewish world in general. Perhaps, though, his passing implores us to recognize the loss of his simplicity, and learn to emulate his ways by simplifying our educational styles and our interactions with others. If there is something I have learned from my dear friend over these past few years, it is to live life more simply. One mustn’t become overwhelmed by passing frustrations, rather learn to understand the frustrations of others. Simply help everyone you can, and simply love anyone you think you can’t. Anything less is to simply miss the remarkable message of this legend in our lifetime.
Moving on without him will not be simple at all.
My friend, we all terribly miss you.
By Rabbi Avi Bernstein
Rabbi Avi Bernstein is the RYNJ middle school dean of students.