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A True Jewish Leader

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Late the evening of August 16, the Jewish world became immeasurably poorer. Though most Jews may never have heard of Rabbi Avraham Pam, who returned his soul to his Creator that night, he was beloved and revered for decades throughout the Orthodox community as one of the truly great spiritual leaders of our generation.

The funeral, mere hours after "Rav Pam", as he was known, departed this world, drew thousands to Torah Vodaath, the yeshiva he led for over three decades in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. The building, where his body lay, was packed to overflowing, and the crowd spilled over into the streets below.

The powerful attendance - despite the fact that much of Brooklyn's Orthodox community summers in the Catskill Mountains, three to four hours' drive away - reflected the special nature of the man those who had gathered had come to honor.

The funeral was not lengthy; the deceased - not surprisingly to anyone who knew him - had left explicit orders that there be no eulogies. There was recitation of several Psalms, one of Rabbi Pam's sons said a few tearful words and the long funeral procession made its way to a Queens cemetery where the yeshiva dean and member of the Council of Torah Sages was laid to rest.

In times like ours, authority and importance are often measured in newspaper column-inches; success, in stock portfolios; and influence, by the phone numbers in one's electronic organizer. There are parallel universes, however, with very different laws of nature, and the Orthodox world is one.

Rav Pam lived humbly, both in demeanor and in trappings. He was a physically small man who lived in a small house and spoke in a small voice. Yet tens of thousands of Jews considered him a "godol" - literally, "large," a spiritual giant.

They regarded his words as gems to be gathered, even when his message consisted of criticism. For his listeners knew - from his reputation, his demeanor and the unmistakable pain on his face - that Rav Pam's exclusive motivations were fear of God and love for fellow Jews.

Five years ago, before thousands at an Agudath Israel convention, he movingly bemoaned what he perceived to be an erosion of "sholom bayis" - "peace in the home" - among Jewish families. Jewish children can only breathe and thrive, he said quietly, his heart in every word, in "an atmosphere of harmony and sweetness," and spouses must always show the deepest respect for one another.

"Where," he asked his listeners, "is the feeling for the mother of one's own children, for the father of one's own children?"

Honesty and integrity were also recurrent themes of Rav Pam's. Too ill to attend the most recent Agudath Israel national convention this past November, he nevertheless "addressed" the crowd in a pre-recorded video appearance on large screens positioned throughout the huge convention center.

While he cautioned against being judgmental of others and noted the extreme financial pressures that bear so heavily on many Orthodox families and institutions, he decried financial wrongdoings on the part of Orthodox Jews as a "desecration of G-d's name."

It makes no difference, he continued, whether one is acting as an individual or on behalf of an institution, or whether one is dealing with a fellow Jew, a non-Jew or a government. Meticulous honesty, he told the packed but hushed room, is the mandate of every Jew, and must be the hallmark of every one claiming to be observant.

He reminded his listeners that the Talmud teaches that the first question a Jew is asked in the World-to-Come is "Did you conduct your financial dealings with emunah [integrity]?" "Emunah," he went on to explain, also means "faith," alluding to the fact that faith in our Creator as the source of our daily bread is antithetical to acting dishonestly.

Rav Pam's deep concern for proper behavior encompassed the personal realm no less. Once, standing in his yeshiva's hallway, he seemed distraught. When asked what the matter was, he sadly recounted how he had just heard one of the boys say "shut up." And he wouldn't even pronounce the offensive phrase; he spelled it out, in a whisper.

Perhaps above all, he was powerfully dedicated to making authentic Jewish education available to all Jewish children - the "jewels in the crown" of the Almighty, as he once wrote. Thus he worked tirelessly on behalf of Jewish educational causes both in the United States and in Israel, prime among them an organization he personally founded, Shuvu. It provides young immigrants to Israel, largely from the former Soviet Union, with a comprehensive Jewish education in an open and loving environment, helping both the children and their parents reconnect with the Jewish religious heritage.

The guest of honor at Shuvu's 10th anniversary dinner mere months ago, Rav Pam was presented with a scroll that, when it was unfurled, stretched clear across the large banquet hall. It contained a paragraph of heartfelt appreciation for the rabbi - and the signatures of the 10,000 boys and girls enrolled in Shuvu schools in Israel.

A Jewish tradition has it that worthy individuals, even after their deaths, are able to intercede with G-d on behalf of the Jewish people. All Jews, whether they knew of Rav Pam during his life or not, would do well to recognize the profound loss to us all that his death represents. But all of us can take some comfort as well in the fact that he will surely be a meilitz yosher, an interceder of integrity on behalf of his people during these troubled and frightening Jewish times.


Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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