LINK Kollel Hosts 28th Yahrzeit Commemoration of Rav Simcha Wasserman, ZT”L
Rabbi Eli Stern
The LINK Kollel of Los Angeles hosted a special yahrzeit commemoration for one of L.A.’s most prominent gedolim, Rav Simcha Wasserman, ZT”L, on the evening of 2 Cheshvan (October 19th). The program was held outdoors in LINK’s courtyard because of COVID restrictions and live streamed via Zoom to many other viewers.
Rav Simcha (as he was universally known) was the son of HaGaon Rav Elchonon Wasserman, HY”D, and a gadol b’Torah in his own right. After escaping Europe at the outbreak of the War, he first came to Detroit to build up Torah, and then, in the early 1950s, he came to Los Angeles—at the time, veritable desert of Yiddishkeit. He had the audacious vision to build a traditional yeshiva, a high school and bais medresh, in what seemed to be inhospitable soil. In addition, he labored for many years in the then unheard-of field of kiruv rechokim, reaching out to secular youth and adults, teaching them the beauty of Torah. He left L.A. in 1978 to found Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon in Yerushalayim, where he was niftar at the age of 92 in 1992.
Two talmidim of his from his sojourn in L.A. gave vivid recollections of their memories of Rav Simcha. Mr. Hershey Zisblatt learned in the high school division of the Yeshiva in the early 1970s. He began with the striking observation that Reb Simcha could have been the Rosh HaYeshiva of one of the greatest yeshivos of America but chose instead to work with boys coming from irreligious or marginally religious backgrounds to plant seeds for the future. He recalled how Rav Simcha would often answer the boys’ questions by nonchalantly opening a Gemara to the exact spot that referenced their inquiries. In his great humility, he would bring the food needed for the boys’ breakfasts every morning in his car to the Yeshiva. He was very warm to every student and encouraged them in their learning.
Mr. Zisblatt told a poignant story of a new high school student who did not have a religious upbringing who met Rav Simcha upon exiting the bathroom in the dormitory. When Rav Simcha realized that the 14-year-old student did not know of the brachah of asher yotzar, he lovingly took him by the hand, brought him into the bais medresh, and showed him exactly where in the siddur he could find the blessing. The bochur never ceased making that brachah ever since.
The other speaker was Mr. Mark Abraham, who began to learn with Rav Simcha in the late 1970s as a young man becoming observant. He recalled how Rav Simcha would lovingly repeat each piece of gemara four times to the adult students while tape-recording his words. He told them to play it back until they had perfected the meaning and cadence of the Aramaic words. He averred that Rav Simcha had the uncanny gift of being able to make the most complicated gemara understood with a clarity that even a beginner could comprehend.
After he moved to Eretz Yisrael, Rav Simcha would often return to L.A. and visit the nascent baal teshuva community in the Venice neighborhood. Once, at the Abrahams’ house, Mrs. Abraham offered Rav Simcha a cup of tea, which he graciously accepted. When she subsequently made another cup for her husband, Rav Simcha smiled broadly and exclaimed, “What chessed!” The Abrahams were awed by Rav Simcha’s discerning observation.
Mr. Abraham recounted several memorable divrei Torah that Rav Simcha would say over. One was in reference to ahavas Yisrael. He said that the true source for this was the well-known Rashi in Parshas Yisro commenting on the unique unity of Klal Yisrael as they encamped at Har Sinai. Rashi uses the famous terminology “k’ish echad b’lev echad”—“like one person with one heart.” This teaches us that true love for one’s fellow Jew encompasses the desire to see him succeed as much as oneself.
Another favorite teaching of his was about Parshas Noach, where Noah tragically “defiles” himself by beginning the post-diluvium world by planting a vineyard (which leads to his utter debasement). Asks Rav Simcha, what exactly was Noah’s flaw? As a survivor of the greatest destruction that the world has ever known, Noah did not have the luxury to wallow in self-pity (the comfort of the wine). Rather, exclaimed Rav Simcha, his first task was to build a new world (symbolized by planting wheat). Concluded Mr. Abraham, that lesson is what animated Rav Simcha in his “planting” seeds of Torah in America after the Churban in Europe. We are all in his debt today.