Recollections of Rabbi David Rotenberg

The Mishna in Avos tells us in Perek Aleph, Mishna Vav:

Yehoshua ben Prachia omer: Asei lecha rav, knei lecha chaver, v’hevi dan es kol ha’adam l’kaf zechus

 

Yehoshua ben Prachia says: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend, and judge all people favourably

 

Reflecting on these two relationships that the Mishna is advising us to establish, a teacher is something you are expected to make for yourself, perhaps to put in the work to build the trust and loyalty required for that relationship to work.  A friend, on the other hand, is something you must acquire, through your investment and your reciprocal contribution to the friendship.

 

Rabbi Yehuda Simes was both a teacher and a friend to many.

 

As a teacher, he was respected and beloved by his students and colleagues alike.  I remember when I was finishing learning for smicha in Toronto, and we heard of this new teacher at what was then Hillel Academy, who everyone loved, and who had kids loving learning.  I later had the opportunity to sub for him, to teach alongside him, and to get advice from him.  I even had the opportunity to replace him at Talmud Torah when he left to start Torah High, and later got to invite him back as a special guest speaker when I became principal.

 

Not enough can be said about Rabbi Simes as a teacher.  Yet, in an ironic twist of the Mishna’s lesson, to those who viewed him as a teacher, or who craved to learn from him, he was so accessible, warm, kind, personable…he couldn’t help but also become a friend.  Similarly, for those who enjoyed a friend-style relationship with him, he was such an incredible man with unshakeable emunah, finely tuned middos, an expertise in the classroom…you couldn’t help but learn from him.

 

Particularly importantly, this was the case with all kinds of people.  People of different backgrounds, ages, levels of observance, different personalities, etc.  All were equally embraced by Rabbi Simes.

 

However, while the Mishna provides verbs for establishing these relationships that suggest that effort is required, with Rabbi Simes it was extremely easy and natural.  Why?  How could one man be so impactful as a teacher, so beloved as a friend, so easy to connect with, and so universal in his care and love for others?  I believe that the answer is found in the last phrase of the same Mishna: Hevi dan es kol adam l’kaf zechus.  Rabbi Simes did not look for people’s faults, weaknesses, or the external trappings that made them different from him.  He was able to see beyond all of that, almost to see them as their neshama.  And it was his incredible neshama, shining through the surface more than for your regular person (both before, and even more so after his accident), that sought to connect to, and was so easy to bond with the neshama of every other person.

 

Over the years, I had the incredible pleasure and of calling Yehuda Simes my friend.  We davened together, we learned together, we watched Super Bowls, ate snacks, shmoozed about sports.  He was honoured with kriyas shem for our son, Simcha, and was sandak for our son, Nissim.  There are far too many anecdotes, memories, and lessons I would love to share, but realise that I can’t keep you here all day, so I have narrowed it down to the top few.

 

When Shmuly was graduating from OTI, and about to go to yeshiva in Vancouver, I remember Rabbi Simes asking me to come help him one day with his Tefillin.  I hadn’t even realised that Shmuly was helping him put them on each day, but was very happy (despite being somewhat anxious) about helping him to do this mitzvah.  The first time was a little bit awkward to figure out how to put Tefillin on another person, but we figured it out.  I had also had the brilliant idea that I should bring my own Tefillin, and we’d daven together.  It was a really nice idea until, part-way through, he needed help with something, and neither of us could speak.  It was a lot of “uh-uh-uh” back and forth until I figured out what he needed.

 

After helping him a few more times, he told me that when Shmuly goes off to beis medrash, he will need a quarterback to find some additional volunteers, and to manage their schedule so that he could be mekayem the mitzvah every day.  Over the following six years, we had at least 12 different gentlemen from the community take a weekly shift for an extended period…plus numerous backups, helpers, etc.  If someone would be out of town, whether for a day or even for months at a time, they would cover for each other.  If Rabbi Simes was in the hospital, they would go to help him there.  Some even kept their regular shift from the day I asked them until we lost Rabbi Simes last year.

 

While this admittedly sounds like more of a praise of the Tefillin team volunteers than it is of Rabbi Simes, I share it for two reasons: First, while I was only able to take my own shift for a couple of years, until I began teaching full-time, and then no longer had the daytime flexibility I needed to help, it was partially through spending this time with Rabbi Simes that I got to know him so much better, and that we grew as close as we did.  To see him daven, to set him up with his Chovos HaLevavos so he could learn when I needed to go.  Or just to show him highlights of Adrian Peterson on my phone or to tell him how the Twins were doing.  I am tremendously grateful for that opportunity.

 

Second, I believe that part of why the incredible team committed the time that they did, changed their schedules on short notice, inconvenienced themselves with no more than a single thought about it, says as much about who they were helping as it does about them.  Each one of us got so much out of that time with him and the zechus of helping him, that it was truly our privilege to be a part of it.

 

If speaking about my relationship with Rabbi Simes, the one thing that I could not possibly omit is his love of and endless wonder over my card tricks.  When we first got to know the Simes, and had the pleasure of sharing occasional Shabbos meals together, it somehow came up that I did card magic.  At the time, the kids were quite young, and yet, even though they were excited to see some tricks, their reaction came nowhere close to the absolute glee exhibited by their father.  He would often keep his cool during the trick, but as soon as I found his card, or made the other ones turn blank, or whatever that day’s effect was, he would lose his mind with bewilderment.  Soon, he started yelling “mechashef!” any time I finished a trick, which I took as a particularly hilarious backhanded compliment, to think he was so impressed by my sleight of hand that he would accuse me of performing some sort of forbidden dark magic.  In later years, I knew that – if I was coming to visit after not hanging out for a while, and especially if he was in the hospital, I needed to be prepared with at least one good trick.

 

I remember one day when Rabbi Simes was at the Queensway Carleton, and I was coming to help with Tefillin.  I arrived outside of ICU visiting hours, so I played the clergy card.  “Yes, I’m here to visit with Rabbi Yehuda Simes,” I told them, “I’m also a rabbi, and I need to assist him with his prayers.”  Well, when I got into his room, he was extremely happy to see me, but admitted that he just wasn’t up to putting on Tefillin at that time.  He did, however, beckon me closer to surreptitiously ask if I could show him a card trick.  I then drew the curtain for some privacy while we did our “super spiritual rabbi stuff,” worried the entire time that a nurse would come in and discover that I had snuck into the ICU outside of visiting hours, claiming to be a rabbi, just to show my friend a magic trick.

 

Although there are a number of special memories I have of my friendship with Rabbi Simes, perhaps the one that I’m most proud of is of the time that we went to the Senators game against the Minnesota Wild.  I honestly don’t remember how it came up, but somehow we got it in our minds that we wanted to go to a hockey game together.  Obviously, it was the first time since the accident that he would be doing anything at all like that, but we were determined to make it happen.  Although I knew that the arena was wheelchair accessible, he wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t be sitting in what he called, “the corral”.  So I called the arena, and after speaking with a few people, I figured out an alternate spot for us to get accessible seats.  I also checked the schedule, and discovered that his hometown Wild were coming to town on a weekday night in November.  After confirming the date together, I bought us the tickets…and also made a couple of special arrangements.

 

In the weeks leading up to the game, any time we saw each other or corresponded by email, he would make sure to trash talk me about how the Wild were going to win.  In the days before the game, I came over to learn how to get him in and out of his special van.  The Friday night before, the Sadinskys were over for Shabbos.  When they found out about the plan, on Sunday, they immediately tracked down and bought him a Minnesota Wild jersey to wear to the game.  Having split allegiance between the Wild and Senators, he also wore a Sens cap a cousin had given me, and I had given to him.  The days before the game, our wives spoke about what his favourite treats were, and mine went and bought all sorts of snacks to assemble us each a take-out container packed with candy.  He could barely stop eating Tootsie Rolls the entire game.  By luck, a group from Machzikei happened to be at the game the same night, and when people heard that we were there, several members of the Jewish community swung by to say hi and to hang out with us either during the game or on intermission.

 

During the game, he seemed to be having the time of his life, and whenever the Wild scored, cheered heartily and talked trash.  It was also his first chance seeing the new “hybrid icing” rule that the league had just adopted that year, which was designed to reduce the number of dangerous collisions with players slamming into the boards trying to chase the puck behind the net.  When I had to explain it to him, he just said, “sounds like a wimpy rule to me!”  At the start of the third period, I revealed the biggest surprise of the night.  I told him, “I hope you don’t have plans on rushing home at the end of the game.”  Thanks to a contact of Raviv Gailor’s, we were going to get to go to meet a couple of the players.  He couldn’t believe it.  After the game, which the Wild won, we got escorted down to the players’ family and friends meet and greet area, and we met a few players, took some pictures, and got some autographs.  It was amazing.

 

While he was at the game – and I experienced this with him on a number of other occasions – he was so present in the moment, just enjoying himself, and just wanting to be “one of the guys”.Afterward, he wrote a whole post on his blog about the fun time he had…but he was also able to turn his experience into an entire lesson on what life is really all about.  I suppose that that was part of his gadlus, and it is something that I try to emulate.  He went to that game because he wanted to.  It was fun.  He was never “above it”.  He enjoyed it in every way.  But afterward, he didn’t just reflect on the entertainment factor; he made sure that he could use his experience as a way of inspiring or teaching others.

 

While I could likely tell more stories that would keep us here all afternoon, I will share one final quick thought in closing.  Several years ago, my father very suddenly became quite ill.  He spent two weeks in the ICU, and although he had an incredible turnaround, he did need a fair amount of time to return to full health.  One morning, a while later, while I was visiting with Rabbi Simes to help him with Tefillin and davening, he asked me how my father was doing.  It seems that he wanted to know whether my father’s name should be on his list of cholim for whom he davened every morning.  I had helped him numerous times to get that list out so he could keep those people in mind while davening, but it hit me particularly hard that morning.  Everyone around Rabbi Simes cared so much for him, and we were all davening for him.  And yet, without us knowing, he was davening for all of us.

 

So too, as we gather here today to remember him, and to daven, to learn, and to commit to doing mitzvos in the zechus for an aliyas neshama for our dear friend, HaRav Yehuda Pinchas ben Yitzchak Isaac zatz”al, he no doubt is, and will continue to be a meilitz yosher for all of us.

 

Thank you.

 

One comment

  1. Esther Hertz · · Reply

    Thank you for the special stories.

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