By Rabbi Mordechai Machlis
As we reflect on the great loss that we suffered 27 years ago today, 21 Teves, our hearts are filled with bittersweet feelings. Sweet, because of the special privilege afforded us by Hashem to be the children of Rav Machlis, benefiting constantly from the myriad of educational models that he personalized through his teachings and deeds. But ever so bitter, because he is no longer here to actualize them on a day-to-day basis.
Abba was no ordinary father. He had a unique blend of impassioned love both for Klal Yisrael and for his family. He was dedicated with every fiber of his being to Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, which he led for 40 years. Hs entire day was involved with the yeshiva–from early morning before Shacharis, when he would learn in Ohel Moshe, until the wee hours of the next morning. He considered it his achrayus, his personal obligation, to see that every child under his tutelage in Ohel Moshe received a Torah education of maximum quality. He excelled at finding the means to bring his talmidim closer to Torah and to bring the Torah closer to them.
Rav Machlis often referred to his yeshiva as an elementary school for ba’alei teshuvah. He sensitively understood the nature and the needs of the young and tender–some as young as four years old–ba’alei teshuvah (yet so aware that they were not actually ba’alei teshuvah, for they were completely sinless). Whereas the well-known yeshivos for ba’alei teshuvah tend to cater to college-age students, Rav Machlis felt that there was no need to procrastinate. He searched for the proper ways to educate the unaffiliated as they first crossed the threshold of the educational system. And educate he did. The thousands of students who studied in Ohel Moshe serve as living testimonies to his success as an educator par excellence.
How can we describe the joy that Abba, zt’l, felt, how his face would shine, upon hearing that his eighth-graders (almost all from homes not yet Torah-observant) had all decided to continue their Torah studies in yeshiva high schools? He put so much effort into this project; it was one of his greatest sources of nachas. Abba felt the joy and contentment of an anxious father when he participated in the weddings of former students who, along with their mates, had chosen the path of Torah observance. He prided himself in the accomplishments of his students, whom he loved as his own children.
From the earliest days of his life as an ordained musmach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath until the day of his death, Abba was involved in genuine Torah education. (A few short hours before his petirah, Abba was discussing details of bar mitzvah arrangements for one of his newly arrived Russian students!) Whether in Cleveland, as the principal of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland elementary school; whether as the spirited mentor of the Talmud Torah program in East Flatbush; whether as rav of the only Orthodox shul on Staten Island at the time; or whether as rav and rosh ha’yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Rabbi Machlis lived and breathed Torah education. It was not surprising when a prominent yeshiva educator told us that Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt’l, the sainted head of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, referred his students to Rav Machlis to expose them to a living example of an accomplished yeshiva menahel.
At Ohel Moshe, Abba combined his service as menahel with his tireless efforts as mara d’asra of the yeshiva shul. Although it is difficult for any of us to fathom how Abba succeeded, he simultaneously served as full-time dean of the yeshiva and full-time rav of the yeshiva congregation. His stimulating daily shiurim between Minchah and Ma’ariv, together with his extensive list of study sessions on Shabbos (he taught chevra Shas class and Tanach shiur in his home on Friday night, a Chumash class on Shabbos afternoon–this is in addition to his derashah before Mussaf and his analytic divrei Torah at seudah shlishis) all brought much of the light of Torah idealism to the Bensonhurst community. Abba was a great talmid chacham, always seeking to add to his knowledge of the endless depths of Torah. The thousands of volumes of religious books with which he proudly adorned his home were in constant use. Abba studied them carefully, and through his sermons, lectures, and articles, he shared his understanding of their contents with many students.
However, Abba never limited his religious efforts to Yeshiva Ohel Moshe. During shivah, 24 years ago, we heard again and again the resounding message of how Rav Machlis was so conscientiously involved in work for the klal. We sat with amazement to hear the testimonies of those who knew him when he was instrumental in founding and presiding over the National Conference of Yeshiva Principals of Torah Umesorah and the Rabbinical Alliance of America (Igud Harabonim). Perhaps we should have recorded the heartfelt accounts of the many yeshiva principals who told us how they benefited from Abba’s presentations and chizuk messages at the national conferences. We were not fully aware of how much he meant to so many different types of people. His efforts on behalf of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Yeshivat Sha’alvim, Ezras Torah, Po’alei Agudas Yisroel, Vaad Harabonim of Bensonhurst, Lubavitch, and campaigns for Israel knew no limits.
To us, however, Abba’s greatest accomplishment was his amazing ability to succeed as a most warm, loving, caring, giving, and nurturing father. It is rare to find someone laden with public affairs who finds so much quality time for each of his children. We all felt an especially close relationship with him. He valued and cherished each of his children, children-in-law, and grandchildren. Up until his passing, Abba was actively involved in educating us and helping us educate our children. When we needed counsel, he was always there. He knew how to criticize us lovingly, in a way that would help us understand the position that he was defending.
He followed the minutest details of the family’s progress. Whether they were in Brooklyn, Lakewood, or Yerushalayim, Abba knew the inner mechanisms of his children and grandchildren. They loved him and he loved them. The great public figure aside, Abba knew how to find the time to study with us, to teach and guide us, to “farbreng” with us, and to lead us.
By his example, he taught us the principles of chesed and tzedakah–the foundations of the home which he and our distinguished and illustrious mother, Rebbetzin Sora Machlis, a’h, built. She understood more than anyone else the depth of Abba’s soul. She was a true “ezer” in all his accomplishments.
Abba taught us all a burning love for Eretz Yisrael. From our earliest childhood, Eretz Yisrael was part of our daily learnings, his daily teachings. When Abba spent each summer in Israel, studying and touring, he always returned–after having filled his lungs with the Jerusalem experience–with new vigor and dedication. Abba dreamed of moving to Israel, but, unfortunately, moved only after his petirah–to Har HaMenuchot.
His memory lives on in each of us. We feel the challenge to continue to appreciate the uniqueness of Abba.