It was at the sheva b’rachos of his grandson that I truly learned of the greatness of Rabbi Mendel Kaufman. The hosts of the sheva brachos decided to play a game akin to the old television show, The Newlywed Game. However, instead of exclusively newlyweds, the contestants were the newly married couple, the parents, and the grandparents. The rest of us were spectators. It came to the question directed at the husbands: “Name something you own that your wife would want to get rid of.” Before anyone else was able to respond, Rabbi Kaufman answered simply: “Rabbi Kaufman.”
If you had ever spent any time with the Kaufman family, you would immediately understand how untrue that answer was. It wasn’t the humor that stayed with me all of these years, nor was the ability to laugh at oneself. But Rabbi Kaufman had this unique ability to always know what to say in any given situation. It wasn’t limited to the humor he often displayed in his speeches or the somberness he showed at funerals. Rabbi Kaufman knew how to inspire.
In my senior year in high school, I was having difficulty retaining a chavrusa. One left the school, and I fell short of the subsequent’s expectations. My mother suggested that I reach out to Rabbi Kaufman to see if he would learn with me during my afternoon seder twice a week. He of course immediately agreed, and I began my most productive stretch of learning of my life. I clearly recall that, one time, Rabbi Kaufman told me to write a note in my gemara. I responded that I didn’t have a pencil. He handed me his pen to make the note. I hesitated. When he asked what I was worried about, I responded that I don’t like writing in my gemara in pen because I feared making a mistake. His answer was simply, “When you are writing in the gemara, you are improving it. You shouldn’t be worried about a mistake.” I know how I learn. I worry about mistakes. Rabbi Kaufman didn’t worry about making mistakes. It was all part of the learning process. If you get something wrong, you know how to do it better the next time. It’s why he also did the crossword puzzle in pen – another marker that neither I nor most people can claim to be able to do with any confidence.
Most people reading this article may not even realize who Rabbi Kaufman was, or that the Young Israel of Briarwood even exists. I often wondered if Rabbi Kaufman never received the accolades he so richly deserved by spending decades as the rav of such a small k’hilah. After all, this was a man who not only received his s’michah from Rav Moshe Feinstein, but was also quoted by Rav Moshe in his t’shuvos. This was a man who was brilliant, not only in his Torah wisdom, but in his understanding of current events, history, and even pop culture. Rabbi Kaufman could have been recognized as one of the greatest minds of our generation, but he stayed in the Young Israel of Briarwood for 40+ years.
I asked this to his son-in-law, Shloime Zweig, at the shiv’ah this past week. He told me that being the Rabbi of a k’hilah is exactly what Rabbi Kaufman wanted. He never looked for extra kavod. He never required the accolades. His children didn’t even know how many times he was quoted by Rav Moshe Feinstein until friends kept pointing the quotes out. His ability to remain humble would have been shocking to those of us who knew his immense understanding of the world, except that we also knew his personality, and Rabbi Kaufman was simply incapable of arrogance.
At his l’vayah, his brother told everyone in attendance how heartbroken he was to have lost his younger brother. Rabbi Kaufman has been a presence at every single simchah of my family’s, and knowing that we won’t be able to celebrate another one with him leaves us all heartbroken, as well. I can only find solace in knowing that, somewhere, Rabbi Kaufman is balancing his hectic schedule that will include his chavrusa with Rav Moshe and his debates with politicians. And every once in a while, he can sneak away, pull out a pen, and do the crossword puzzle.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.