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Monday, April 27, 2009

What Makes a Makom Torah?

Azaleas are in bloom this week.

Native Norfolkians claim that our city is uniquely suited for Azaleas. I haven’t found any scientific confirmation, but it has something to do with the cold winds from the north converging with the warmer southern wind off the bay. About fifty years ago Fred Heutte put some money together to plant the 250,000 strong Azalea Gardens which spawned the Azalea Celebration and the annual Azalea Festival
in honor of NATO.

While there are arguments as to the exact secret of azalean fertility in Norfolk, everyone agrees that it is no fluke. Whether it is the wind, the soils or the magnetic aura, there must be some explanation for our two weeks of annual Azalean bliss.

The same applies in all areas of agriculture: If trees flourish particularly well in one region, we can safely assume that there is something conducive about that region’s soil, atmosphere and sunlight. The best farmer in the world will not be able to plant if the environment is not suited to her needs.

The same applies to Torah. Pirkei Avos often mentions the idea of a Makom Torah – a place of Torah. What does this mean? The Mishna sometimes references an “Ir Gedola” - a big city and the Talmud explains, “What is a big city? One in which there are ten people who devote their days to the study of Torah”. A Makom Torah may include Ir Gedola qualifications, but I believe that a Makom TOrah in the true sense is so much more.

When we see Torah flourishing in Bnei Brak or in Yerushayim or in Lakewood or Brooklyn, we can assume (just as we do in gardening) that there is something special about that area, that neighborhood and that city. It was that “something special” that allowed those cities to become the Torah cities that they are. It may be in the water it may be in the air, it may in the people. It doesn’t matter. The point is that in order to succeed, a city needs to have a very specific quality - it must be a “Makom Torah” a place that is conducive to growth in Torah. Throughout history there have been hundreds of Mekomos Hatorah: places where Torah is able to flourish. Lublin, Vilna, Cracow and Warsaw are all examples of places that were right for Torah growth. Before that Nahardaah and Pumbedisah in Iraq and Alexandria in Egypt were flourishing Torah communities.  All of these locations had “good soil”. Other communities throughout history did not meet with the same success. They did not have the special quality of a Makom Torah.

Camden, Maine and Lakewood, NJ might have the same “Makom Torah” rating. We do not know because no one (to my knowledge) has ever tried to build Torah in Camden, Maine.

Throughout the world there exist untapped Mekomos Hatorah. Like fertile land that has never been planted, these places are perfect settings for Torah growth. Men like Reb Aharon Kotler and the Ponevizher Rav used their superior dowsing capabilities to expertly identify Lakewood and Bnei Brak as fertile land. They invested their lives and their strength into farming these cities and watched them bloom into beautiful orchards.

A place that is full of Torah does not become a Makom Torah; being a Makom Torah is a prerequisite for growth in Torah.

I heard this idea from Reb Mordechai Berkowitz at my goodbye party when I left Lakewood. He was quoting his grandfather, one of leading Roshei Yeshiva in America, Reb Shmuel Kamenetzky in an attempt to explain why I was leaving New Jersey for Virginia.

Several years later, Reb Shmuel came to Norfolk. We gave him a tour of the area showing him the Shul, Torah Day School, the Yeshiva, the Kollel, and the mikva. That night I was honored to join Reb Shmuel and the Gibbers for an intimate dinner where Reb Shmuel told us about his own experiences living ‘out of town’ in Toronto, LA, and Philadelphia. I asked him if it was true that the Makom Torah moniker refers to a propitious place for Torah growth rather than too an area wigh a highly frumly population one. He said, “yes, I have said that” and asked me where I had heard it.

I took a deep breath and followed up with an extremely loaded question: “Is Norfolk, VA a Makom Torah?” Reb Shmuel thought for a few moments before opining: “Judging from the growth of the community and the shul and the kollel and the day school and the Yeshiva, I would say that Norfolk definitely does fall into the category of a makom Torah. None of these organizations could have flourished otherwise”. I quoted the words of Reb Yosi Ben Kisma that a person should be willing to forgo all the money in the world to live in a makom Torah. “Would Norfolk work for Reb Yosi ben Kisma?” Reb Shmuel said yes.

In the Aish Kodesh journal Reb Shmuel writes that upon visiting Norfolk with its’ enthusiastic student body and devoted baalei Baatim, “I was certain that Norfolk will become a Makom Torah”.

Many communities have tried to build Torah but were unsuccessful (Reb Shmuel hinted to one or two). Only some cities have the special nature and the special charm of a Makom Torah, a place where Torah can grow.

The Torah compares a Tzadik to a tree. In the Shir Shel Yom for Shabbos we talk about a Tzadik sprouting like a palm tree and growing like a Cedar in Lebanon. Those that are planted in the house of Hashem will blossom in the courtyards of Hashem. Rabbi Nosson Scherman (in his poular Siddur) quotes the Radak who explains that the quality of a tree is only half the formula for success; for maximum benefit a tree must be planted in luxurious soil.

In life we often find ourselves wondering how we will overcome troubles and tests that scare us. If we plant ourselves and are firmly rooted in a Makom Torah and as a Makom Torah, we have a promise that we will succeed. “We will continue to be fruitful in our old age, vigorous and fresh we will be. To prove once again that Hashem is just. He is our G-d and he will never let us down”.


Posted on 04/27 at 03:41 AM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at