Rabbi Avi Wiesenfeld is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Beis Dovid in Yerushalayim, the author of the popular Kashrus in the Kitchen and Pocket Halacha series, and rav and posek of the Kav Halacha Beis Hora’ah. And yet, as a youngster he struggled in cheder and yeshivah because of his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
In this candid interview with Ami, Rabbi Wiesenfeld shares the fascinating story of how he overcame his childhood difficulties to become a renowned educator for bachurim who don’t fit in a “mainstream” yeshivah.
Your trajectory to becoming a respected mechaber sefer and rosh yeshivah is certainly atypical.
I’ll share a story that happened a few months ago. I was flying to New York, and on the plane was someone who lives near my aunt in Brooklyn and has known me since I was very young. He started up a conversation. “What was it,” he wanted to know, “that changed Avi Wiesenfeld into the person you are today?” I hadn’t even begun to formulate an answer when he answered the question himself. “You must have had an amazing rebbi.” When he said that, it hit home very hard. I think that’s a very big nekudah, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But I certainly realize now that I had several rebbeim who cared for me and showed me their love. That changed my life.
I gather you weren’t a studious child.
I most definitely wasn’t. I’m originally from Golders Green in London, where I was born and raised. I grew up in an easygoing, heimishe home and went to a typical cheder. But I wasn’t very serious about my limmudim. I had no interest in learning any of the subjects, and sitting in school was extremely hard for me. My rebbeim and teachers didn’t like me and would often send me out of the classroom. I was very hyperactive and probably had ADHD, although I was never officially diagnosed. My parents hired a tutor and my grandfather tried to learn with me, but I just didn’t have the zitzfleish.
By “a heimishe home” do you mean chasidish or yeshivish?
I grew up davening in Rav Chuna Halperin’s shul, which is chasidish. Right before my bar mitzvah my father switched to the Sadigerer shtiebel, where the rav in those days was the Rebbe who recently passed away. He was very makpid that there shouldn’t be any talking during davening, which my father liked. My grandparents all come from chasidishe backgrounds. My grandmother is descended from the gabbai of the Bnei Yissaschar, and my father’s father grew up near Rav Itzik’l of Pshevorsk.
Did you enjoy the chasidishe davening?
It’s actually very interesting that I connected to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening there when I was 15 or 16. I really loved it, which didn’t make sense because I had no shaychus to heavy Yiddishkeit. They had a wonderful chazan and everyone would sing together. I really enjoyed that and became very close to the rav.
But by the time I reached the age of going away to yeshivah, I was looking for a place that was chilled and didn’t have a strong learning agenda. I figured I would go to Eretz Yisrael for a few months because that’s what everyone else was doing and have a great time. By then I already had a business I’d set up when I was around 15, which was doing quite nicely. It was fun because it was hands-on and kept me very busy when I wasn’t in school. I remember laughing at my teacher in school who was teaching business studies while I was actually doing business. I also enjoyed cooking and worked in a few restaurants. I don’t think my parents were too happy about it or the company I used to hang out with, but they were supportive anyway. They were always very loving and caring. I never felt any distance between us because of that.
Around that time, I also produced a concert together with a friend. We brought Yeedle Werdyger, Mendy Wald and Shloimy Dachs, who were very popular at the time. At first they didn’t realize that we were the ones organizing the whole thing, and they wanted to speak to our fathers. We rented a huge hall for thousands of people, and we arranged all of the lighting and other technical aspects. It was an amazing event, and all the proceeds went to various tzedakah organizations.
In the end, I found a very laid-back yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael. I was the only English boy in a yeshivah full of Americans who had never met someone from England before. I was 18 years old and had no interest in learning or staying, but I somehow got into halachah a little bit.
Which yeshivah was this?
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