Hillel Newerstein (Hillel Meir ben Avraham Shlomo a”h) was one of the most special and remarkable people who made up our shul and community. But to me, he was a true friend. What I mean by a true friend is someone who not only can be relied on to be there whenever you need him, but someone who helps you become a better person. There is no question that Hillel especially helped me become a better person and a better Jew; he helped me grow in Torah in many ways. And I suspect that that was not only true for me, but for others as well.
Hillel was born on May 5, 1959. I met him 43 years ago, at Queens College, in 1978. I was trying to set up Torah classes at Queens College. Hillel came over and said to me, “I want to learn.” So we agreed to learn Mishnah together, and I would travel to Queens College once a week and we would learn. Over the years, Hillel would gradually tell me his background. He grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, a son of Holocaust survivors. They initially sent Hillel to public school, but Hillel had a special desire to learn Torah and thirsted for a Torah education. He asked his parents to send him to yeshivah many times over the years, but it was his brother-in-law who finally convinced Hillel’s father to send him to yeshivah. Hillel told me many times that his brother-in-law, who tragically passed away recently, has tremendous z’chus for enabling Hillel to lead a frum life and build his beautiful family. Hillel told me that he loved yeshivah and was extremely happy to attend yeshivah. He said his most fulfilling year was spending the year after high school devoted to learning in Israel.
Hillel told me a lot about himself because Hillel had an amazing memory. He could recall in detail almost anything anyone ever said to him, especially his teachers. Hillel told me that he became very close to Rabbi Yisroel Shurin a”h, a son-in-law of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l. Hillel told me many stories of how Rabbi Shurin became fond of him and brought Hillel with him on many of his rabbinical meetings with congregants and other rabbis. Hillel told me he learned a tremendous amount from Rabbi Shurin, including how to lein properly, how to properly blow the shofar, and most importantly midos tovos (ethical character traits) from the son-in-law of one of the g’dolei ha’dor. Hillel was also close to Rabbi Avner German a”h, the founder of Yeshiva Beer HaGolah, and Hillel would often walk from Canarsie to Rabbi German’s shul in Starrett City to help Rabbi German make a minyan.
I started learning with Rabbi Rosenblatt zt”l at Kesser Torah in 1982. Hillel walked into Kesser Torah in 1983, and later said that he experienced the best davening of his life that Rosh HaShanah. He loved the Rosh Yeshivah’s nigunim, and drashos, and I don’t believe he ever forgot any of them. He said that he decided that from that point on, he would not daven regularly anywhere else. I believe that he remained true to that for the rest of his life. Soon afterward, Hillel volunteered to lein for Rabbi Rosenblatt, and he continued to do so nearly every Shabbos and Yom Tov, year in and year out, until he first began battling his cancer a little over one year ago. Hillel was an excellent baal k’riah and remembered what he had learned from Rabbi Shurin. He was very careful about every aspect of reading the Torah, and especially liked to study the somewhat arcane and esoteric details of Hebrew dikduk (grammar) so that he could pronounce all the words, the accents on the syllables, and the trop properly. For nearly 40 years, he spent time each week preparing for each parshah’s leining on Shabbos. As far as I know, he never asked for payment. Besides leining each week, he also blew shofar for the shul for all those years. He was very careful about the details and halachos of t’kias shofar, and Rabbi Rosenblatt heavily relied on Hillel for his reliability and his halachic knowledge in those areas.
It was Rabbi Rosenblatt who made the “shidduch” and got us learning again every Sunday morning for at least 30 years. Over the years, we discussed many things, but Hillel would not hesitate to correct me or admonish me if I said anything that he felt was not consistent with Torah hashkafah. Hillel remembered a myriad of stories over the past 40 years that he either directly experienced or heard with Rabbi Shurin and other great rabbis or people that Hillel had known. We had some arguments, some of which went on for years, but through his advice to me, and recommendations on s’farim to read, he helped me refine my hashkafah, my midos, and my learning. Hillel read an immense amount of s’farim. He loved to purchase s’farim and could find little pleasure greater that going to Pinter’s bookstore in Borough Park and finding a $2 bargain on a book in the store. Even when he was sick this year, he found a new used bookstore in Woodmere and loved to hang out there looking for s’farim.
Hillel also taught shiurim at Kesser Torah and spent much of his spare time reading and learning s’farim and reviewing the Gemara that he had learned or taught during the prior week. But Hillel was also an ish tam – a special “pure” neshamah (soul). He told me many times that he could not understand how anyone could steal or cheat someone. To him, it did not seem possible. Hillel was not only honest about himself, he assumed everyone else was also honest, and gave the benefit of the doubt to everyone. When Hillel ran a business putting up people’s sukkos, he often did not ask for payment or was very reticent in doing so. He would say that perhaps the person did not have the money now and would pay him later. He was very careful about Torah hashkafah in his home, and until the COVID-19 pandemic, he refused to have the Internet in his home. Incredibly, Hillel was always there for you. If I needed help trimming a tree, Hillel would show up the next morning with his power saw. If Rabbi Rosenblatt needed Hillel to help with the sefer Torah or with something in the shul, Hillel would always be there.
Hillel was very close to his family. He stayed close to his sister Ellen over the more than 40 years that she lived in Tennessee. He was always very appreciative of his eishes chayil, Chaya, and would discuss his learning with her, valuing her insights. He was very proud of all his children, Aryeh, Shifra, Moshe Uri, and Yissochar, and always enjoyed relating to me a Torah insight that one of his children had told him. In addition, he loved when he could spend time with his grandchildren.
Hillel had a favorite story that Rabbi Rosenblatt used to tell, and I think I understand why it was his favorite:
There were once two kings. The first king called over his servant and told him the following: “I want you to get on your horse and ride over to my friend’s kingdom and stay there for a couple of weeks. But one thing I must tell you: Whatever you do, don’t make any bets.” So, the servant, being the loyal servant that he was, agreed, and reassured the king, saying, “I won’t make any bets.”
The next day, the servant mounted his horse and rode to the next kingdom. Astonishingly, the minute he got there, the servant from the other king came over to him and said: “How would you like to make a bet?” The servant of the first king said: “‘I can’t, my king gave me an order that I’m not allowed to make any bets.” The other servant persisted. “But this bet is so good that you can’t pass it up. And your king will forgive you.” At this point, the servant of the first king started to weaken. He asked, “Well, what’s the bet?” The other servant replied: “I bet you $10 million that you are a hunchback.” “What?” he replied. “I’m not a hunchback! Okay then, I’ll make the bet.” The servant thought to himself that his king will certainly forgive him for this one bet. He took off his shirt, showed the other servant that he was not a hunchback, whereupon the other servant said: “Poor me, I lost. Here’s the money.”
The servant of the first king was so happy at his good fortune that he rode back to his king as fast as he could, carried the sack of money up the steps to his king’s throne, and placed the bag with the money on the floor. The king eyed the package suspiciously. “What’s in the bag?” the king asked. “$10 million,” replied the servant. “And just how did you procure this money?” the king asked. “Well,” the servant said, “I know you told me not to make any bets, but this one was too good to pass up. He bet me $10 million that I was a hunchback! How could I possibly pass this up?” “FOOL!” the king exclaimed. “I bet the other king $20 million that he couldn’t get you to make a bet! Because of you, I lost $10 million!”
Of course, the king in the story characterizes Hashem. I think Hillel loved that story because it epitomizes his emunah, that if the King of Kings gives you an order, you do it and don’t question. We need to believe that Hashem always knows what is best for us. Hillel always tried to do what Hashem wanted, and to serve Him to the best of his abilities. We will miss him dearly. May he be a meilitz yosher for all of us.
By Rabbi Avraham Garber,
Rav of Yeshiva Kesser Torah