Yeshiva World News reports on the death of Rav Nachman Mandel, of Los Angeles today.
Rav Nachman Mandel was my first grade Rebbe in HILI way back in 1975-76. It should be noted that while I went to a frum yeshiva, my family and I were not frum at the time. Even so, Rabbi Mandel treated me no different from any of the other children in the class. I was never singled out for my lack of Shabbos observance. He always took great care to see to it that my parents were never put down in front of me for their lack of being frum. In short, I learned chumash, halacha, etc. with the rest of the class. Did it cause some problems learning that watching TV was forbidden on Shabbos when it was done in the home? Yeah, it was a bit of a disconnect, but I managed to survive.
Rabbi Mandel was an influence on me for the remainder of my life. I only saw him once or twice after that first grade year (My family moved to New Jersey the following year), but yet, he still continued to exert a positive influence not only on me but also on my mother as well. She credits him as one of the reasons why she is frum today -- and me by extension.
It seems odd to reflect on the fact that 30 years ago, a frum yeshiva allowed a kid who was not Shomer Shabbos into the school. To my knowledge, none of my classmate's parents called the school to complain. I wasn't banned from playing with any of my classmates. I (and my family) were simply accepted as a part of the group. I don't know if Rabbi Mandel had any say about my being in his class, but if he did, then he was one who understood that in order to be m'karev people, you have to draw them close, not drive them away. He (and the yeshiva administration) saw the potential in our family, and chose to act kindly and mentchlichkeit. Rather than turn us away from the yeshiva, they opened their doors, and because of that decision, a child who wasn't frum in their first grade class is a Shomer Torah U'Mitzvos today.
(I find it interesting to contrast this with the treatment we received a mere five years later. Five years later, my parents were separated. My mother became a Shomeres Torah U'Mitzvos. My father remained [and remains to this day] not frum. Whereas five years earlier we were accepted in HILI even though we were not Shomer Shabbos at all, my mother faced great difficulties getting me into a yeshiva now that we were frum. In particular, one school would accept me only on condition that I had no contact with my father -- a condition that my mother turned down flat.)
I still, to this day, have many memories about Rabbi Mandel's class. To my knowledge, he never became angry at the children and tried to engage them at whatever level they were at. I remember one time, we were learning Chumash. Well, at least the class was -- I, on the other hand, wasn't paying much attention. My attention was captured by the chart above the blackboard listing all the parshiyos of the Torah. While my Hebrew reading skills were okay for a first grader, but there were still some words that stumped me. And so, right in the middle of chumash class, I raised my hand and asked the rebbe how to pronounce the second to last parsha in Sefer Sh'mos. Even though this clearly gave away the fact that I was not paying attention to the lesson, nonetheless, with love and calmness, he answered my question ("Vayakhel") without any trace of anger.
Rabbi Mandel was the first person who made me aware of tefillin. My father didn't even own a set of tefillin, so I had never seen one. Perhaps that's why one day he took off his jacket and showed the class the marks that were left behind on his arm by the leather straps. Thinking back on it, I'm almost certain that it was done mostly for my benefit -- I'm certain that just about the entire rest of the class had seen their fathers putting on tefillin.
Rabbi Mandel gave out stars as rewards for learning. I still remember with fondness the small oaktag squares with the stamped stars on them. Even rarer were the ones with a five on them, indicating that it was worth five stars. Every month, he would take out a bunch of toys and "sell" them to the boys in exchange for the stars. In addition, he also made sure that every boy in the class got *something*, even if they didn't have any stars that month.
Another fond memory of Rabbi Mandel was the fact that he always made sure to call me by both my Hebrew names. I asked him about this and he explained to me that my Hebrew names came from two different people. However, to call me by just one would be, in a way, showing disrespect to the person from whom my second name derives. In order to honor both people, he said, he called me by both names. That was a powerful lesson that stuck with me though the years. When my kids were younger I used to call them by their full names, specifically because I was taught to do so by Rabbi Mandel. While I can't say that I still do so 100% of the time, I still try to call them by their full names as often as possible.
Lastly, I remember that I once won a siddur as a prize in first grade. Rabbi Mandel decorated the inside of the cover with my name. I still have that siddur today, partly as a reminder of the kindness that Rabbi Mandel showed toward us.
The love and caring that Rabbi Mandel showed me has stayed with me for many years. It was his tolerance of a non-frum kid in his class, and his ability to look beyond that fact and still show love and caring that was a major factor in my being observant today. If more yeshivas would have the approach that Rabbi Mandel used thirty some odd years ago, there might be many more Jews who are Shomer Torah U'Mitzvos in the world today.
May his memory be blessed.
Baruch Dayan HaEmes.