Friday, January 21, 2011

Zechariah Fendel (1929-2011): A Remembrance

Arutz Sheva, the Israel National News service English language edition carried this brief obituary notice on Friday January 14th (9 Sh’vat 5771):

Rabbi Zechariah Fendel, prolific author and founding principal of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva High School in Forest Hills, New York, passed away last night at the age of 82.
He is survived by his wife Chava, 12 children, some 100 grandchildren, and brother Rabbi Meyer Fendel of Jerusalem. His funeral will be held in Flatbush, New York, at 10:30 Friday morning.
The late Rabbi Fendel authored some 15 books, as well as several other works, on Jewish thought, ethics, history, holidays, and more, many of them geared specifically to those who are taking their first steps in Judaism.
One Yeshiva head called him "the Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch of our generation.”

Twelve children, some 100 granchildren and 15 books, and before all that, he was my rebbe at Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva High School in Forest Hills, New York. The year was 1962, I remember because one Friday, erev Shabbos, I stared out the window, at Chofetz Chaim thinking, “Monday may not come.” On the previous Monday, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised speech announcing the crisis and the quarantine. By Friday, it was clear that we were at the brink of a nuclear war that would annihilate Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, along with everything else. It would be the end. Not the end of the United States, just the end, the end of everything for humanity. Monday might never come.

Jerry Hirsch (1923-2008) was my last great teacher, “a pioneer in the field of behavior genetics and crusader for social justice.” Rabbi Fendel was my first great teacher and between them were clusters of great teachers, but none touched me the way my rebbe did. Without him, I would not exist as I am today. Certainly, nothing of what is essential to my being is my own creation. Without my teachers, I would be a shell of human being without consciousness. My teachers awoke in me my consciousness and their character and integrity always drove me to feelings of shame and inadequacy. Twelve children and fifteen books! And what books, the scholarship, the command of the literature is astonishing, but what is breathtaking was his command of the moment. He created the Yeshiva that existed for a short moment in time. The Yeshiva High school he created no longer exists.

My father brought me to meet Rabbi Fendel for the first time to determine if I would be admitted to his Yeshiva. It was a very small school with only ten or fifteen boys in each grade. It was known for its intensive Talmudic training and its focus on mussar. His office was small and chaotic. We sat in two wooden chairs in front of a wooden desk. My father was explaining to Rabbi Fendel that my IQ scores were below normal and he was concerned that I might not be able to keep up, especially since I was inadequately prepared for Yeshiva High School. Most of the boys had come up through the Yeshiva system and were already proficient in Hebrew, Aramaic and Talmud study. I had only the pathetic synagogue after school training. I could barely read Hebrew.

My father had studied psychology and IQ testing with Edward L. Thorndike, one of the pioneers of the field, at Columbia University in the 1930s. I had been told that my IQ test scores said something about my abilities; limited what I could achieve. My older brother Marty called me a dummy and, in fact, I believed it was true. My older brother Edward was "quick" and I was "slow". But sitting with Rabbi Fendel and my Dad in his office that day I heard my dad explain my limited intellectual abilities to Rabbi Fendel who looked at me and then to my father and said, "Mr. Mehler, I do not believe in IQ. I believe in God." Rabbi Fendel lifted something from off my shoulders. He gave me faith to challenge the limitations of arbitrary definitions. And then he looked at me and asked me, directly, in a way no ever had before, “is this what you want, Binyamin? Do you want to study Torah all day long?”

That was it, that was all that mattered. If I wanted to study Torah all day long, then that was enough for Rabbi Fendel, who turned to my father and explained that only God knows the potential of any child and that it was faith and desire, not any fixed IQ or abilities that determined ones intellect. Intelligence and humanity are things inculcated. We are not born with the ability to think. We are not born with moral character. These are things we learn if we are lucky enough to have teachers. There is today a Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva High School. In fact, there are several of them, but the Yeshiva that was open to one such as I with no training and a father with no money, that Yeshiva no longer exists.

In his masterful book, The Ethical Personality (New York: Hashkafah,1986), he wrote an An Urgent Message for Our Times in which he spoke of “an insidious problem of great magnitude, which threatens to destroy the entire cohesive fabric of the Jewish community.” It was not the strife of factionalism, but a deeper underlying current that went beyond “religious and political differences.” There is, he said, an underlying current of sinat chinam - gratuitous hatred of Jew for Jew. That is, we do not hate because of ideological difference; we do not hate black people because they are lazy and criminal or Jews because they are the killers of Christ - hatred is a gratuitous gift - an expression of our own poverty and self-loathing. It was his hope that by “ethical sensitivity” we might replace this gratuitous hatred with peace, brotherhood and friendship. Furthermore, it is our lifelong responsibility “to engage actively in the quest for character improvement.” For Rabbi Fendel, Torah was essentially “a perpetual dynamic growth process, which makes no allowance for spiritual smugness or complacency, or for ethical or moral stagnation.” For Jerry Hirsch, the same could be said of science, the pursuit of truth. For Jerry Hirsch, the pursuit of science required the highest ethical standards.

In many ways my first great teacher and my last great teacher were similar. They were men of ethical sensitivity and integrity who believed that education could foster brotherhood and peace. Born during the Depression and raised during World War II, it is hard for me to understand where their faith came from.

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