For the past 70 years, the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, located at 6063 Drexel Road in the city’s Overbrook neighborhood, has been the prime destination for young bachurim looking to shteig. The mesivta and beis midrash buildings are right next to each other on this picturesque street. Noticing my unfamiliarity when I arrive, a kind bachur shows me to the Rosh Yeshivah’s office, which is on the second floor of the beis midrash building. My heart is pounding as I knock on the door. I am very nervous about meeting one of the biggest gedolim of our generation, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. At this moment, I question my decision to come here today.
Rav Shmuel opens the door himself. His warm handshake and smile immediately put me at ease. “You didn’t have to travel all the way from Brooklyn to see me,” he says simply.
The Rosh Yeshivah’s office is surprisingly small. His desk is tiny, and is covered with notes, sefarim and a telephone. There’s a small bookcase to his right and a larger one on the back wall. The room has a window overlooking the entrance to the building, and on the far side there’s another one with a view of the beis midrash.
Over the years, I had seen Rav Shmuel at various simchahs and functions but never had the honor to speak with him other than getting a brachah, Then six years ago, I had the zechus to meet him when he traveled to Switzerland to attend my sister’s wedding. She was marrying his talmid.
Rav Shmuel left a tremendous roshem on Zurich, conducting himself with humility and contesting any honor people wanted to bestow upon him. His hosts were stunned by the Rosh Yeshivah’s effusive display of gratitude. They felt uncomfortable serving him because he continuously rebuffed their attempts, saying, “Shoyn neintzig yohr ken Ich dos alein machen—I’ve been taking care of myself for 90 years.” What left the biggest impression on them was the comment he made right before leaving. Turning to his hostess, he pointed to a towel and said, “Rebbetzin, this towel wasn’t used. You don’t need to wash it.” He was sensitive about the tiniest detail, trying to make his stay as unobtrusive as possible.
“Vus macht Sruly?” the Rosh Yeshivah asks me. Rav Shmuel speaks with a slight Eastern European accent, somewhat mellowed by having lived in North America for over 80 years.
The Rosh Yeshivah is asking about a friend of mine who was his talmid. “He called me a few months ago with a question. How is he doing?” Rav Shmuel asks. I was surprised that he remembered the call, not only because of the Rosh Yeshivah’s age but because hundreds of people call him daily asking his sage advice on various topics.
And it’s not only former talmidim whose concerns the Rosh Yeshivah recalls. A few years ago, a girl from a broken home called Rav Shmuel for advice about an issue she was having. After speaking to him for a few minutes, she asked if she should travel to Philadelphia from Baltimore to meet with him in person. The Rosh Yeshivah told her it wasn’t necessary to make such a long trip. A few months later she received a call: “Hello, this is Shmuel Kamenetsky. I happen to be in Baltimore, and we could meet if you like.” It turned out that the Rosh Yeshivah was staying with his son-in-law, Rav Tzvi Berkowitz, for Pesach, and even after all these months, the conversation he’d had with her was still on his mind.
When I told a talmid of Rav Shmuel that I would be speaking to his rosh yeshivah, he mentioned that Rav Shmuel used to advise parents not to send their sons out of town until they were at least 16 years old. “A boy isn’t ready to leave home before then. Chinuch iz besser by di Mama when they’re younger.”
Somewhat brazenly, I attempt to steer the conversation by mentioning to the Rosh Yeshivah that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, the Rosh Yeshivah’s father, moved the family to Canada while Rav Shmuel and his older brother Rav Binyamin stayed in Europe.
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