HaRav Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, zt"l, was born on the third day of Chanukah 5686 (1925), in Chicago, to his parents Raphael Nisan Shlomo (Nathan) and Rachel (Rose). He was the oldest of four children and the only boy.
His parents had a business in Chicago, but when he was about ten years old, the Kulefsky family moved to St. Louis, where the financial prospects seemed better. When he was fifteen, his parents realized that their son needed a higher Torah education than was available at that time in St. Louis. In January 1940 they sent him back to Chicago to learn in Beis Medrash L'Torah under the leadership of Rav Dovid Lifshitz, zt"l.
Young Yaakov Moshe was immediately recognized for his great potential in Torah, and he enjoyed a close relationship with Rav Dovid. In Adar 5703 (February 1943) he traveled to New York to further his learning, entering Mesivta Torah V'Daas, where he became a close talmid of the Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Shlomo Heiman, zt"l. The influence of Reb Shlomo's shiurim and style of learning profoundly impacted and molded Rav Kulefsky for the rest of his life.
Reb Shlomo was known for his deep thoughts, clear presentation, and exciting (geshmak) approach to learning, which later became some of the famed hallmarks of Rav Kulefsky himself. On January 28, 1944, he received a draft notice from the United States Army. At that time, the height of World War II, anyone who was learning in a yeshiva (or any theological school) was usually granted a deferment from the draft. However, there was a backlash at that time against the yeshivos in America; people claimed that they were harboring many people who wanted register as students and thereby "dodge" the draft. This movement was led, unfortunately, by many secular Jews who disliked the notion of Torah Jewry and the yeshiva movement.
This led to the Selective Service specifically drafting a number of yeshiva students in an attempt to show that they were not really qualified to be studying in a yeshiva/rabbinical school. In this way, they would be able to do away with the deferment of yeshiva students. Among the students drafted at that time were Rav Kulefsky and a student from Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim named Moshe Isseroff. (Mr. Isseroff, lo"y, is in fact the source for much of this information, as Rav Kulefsky himself never spoke about this period of his life.) Rav Kulefsky immediately filed an appeal, on January 30th, requesting a deferment. His request was to be followed with a hearing in front of the Theological Appeal Panel, who would decide if he was indeed worthy of deferment.
On May 2, 1944, Rav Kulefsky stood in front of the Theological Appeal Panel and was questioned about his reasons for enrolling in a yeshiva. He stated unequivocally, and even provided documentation from many rebbeim attesting to the fact that he was indeed endeavoring to become a rabbi and was highly qualified to do so. The board however, wanting to show that yeshivos were harboring draft dodgers, denied his appeal on the grounds that they felt he was "not a serious student preparing in good faith for a career in the rabbinate" (actual quote from the court transcription).
On August 19, 1944, Rav Kulefsky was inducted into the Army. The day he was inducted was Shabbos, and therefore he walked from Williamsburg to Manhattan to the Upper Manhattan Army Induction Center. He was then stationed at Camp Upton in Long Island. The separation from his yeshiva made this an extremely difficult and painful period for Rav Kulefsky. Nevertheless, Rav Kulefsky kept a stack of sefarim next to his bed, and he would learn at every available moment. If he had a break during the day, he would be back with his sefarim. Late at night, when the lights in the barracks went out, Rav Kulefsky would sneak outside and learn by a light bulb that was hanging next to the water tank. Although it was illegal to be outside, no one ever bothered him, and he learned there for hours on end. He would also constantly encourage the other Jewish soldiers to learn with him.
Rav Kulefsky (and others) would do menial jobs during the week, for which the tradeoff was being granted a furlough for Shabbos. He would spend many Shabbasos at Torah V'daas where he delivered shiurim and chaburos to the other talmidim. By law, he was required to wear his army uniform at all times. His chaverim (friends) from that time period reported that it was a highly unusual sight, and also a tremendous chizuk (source of strength), to see Rav Kulefsky, in full uniform, delivering shiurim and learning in the bais medrash the entire Shabbos. They were amazed at how well he was able up keep up his level of learning despite being away all week. On the occasions that he needed to be on base for Shabbos, Rav Kulefsky would figure out ways to avoid any outright chilul (desecration of) Shabbos.
One time, in order to be able to get off for Rosh Hashanah, Rav Kulefsky and Moshe Isseroff volunteered to dig a ditch for a water line next to the firing range of the base. The exchange for this job was a two-day furlough that they would be able to use for Rosh Hashanah. It was in middle of August, and the temperature on Long Island was extremely hot. Nevertheless, they spent the entire day every day (except Shabbos) for three weeks digging the ditch. They finished a week before Rosh Hashanah and went to the base office to claim their passes. They were told that the rules had just been changed and they were not eligible for a furlough. On erev Rosh Hashanah, however, late in the afternoon, a soldier came in and presented them with two passes. They immediately ran to try and reach Williamsburg before sunset. They got as close as they could but then had to walk two or three hours to finally get there.
One year, before Pesach, Rav Kulefsky was able to secure permission to use the chaplain's office to make the sedarim. The Jewish Welfare Board had sent him food, but he wanted an enclosed area that he could clean and use to store the food and to make his own sedarim. Rav Kulefsky and Moshe Isseroff made both sedarim there together. On the second day of Yom Tov, the military police came in to where Rav Kulefsky and Moshe Isseroff were resting and arrested them on charges of destroying government property. Apparently, one of the other Jewish soldiers, who was jealous of their shmiras hamitzvos (Jewish observance), had ransacked the chaplain's office, poured wine all over the room, and made a destructive mess, which was blamed on Rav Kulefsky and Moshe Isseroff because they had used the room last. They were put under house arrest for a week until it was cleared up and the real culprit was found. All this time, though, and throughout his entire ordeal in the army, Mr. Isseroff reported, Rav Kulefsky's avoda never wavered. He constantly found time to daven and learn, and he encouraged and helped others do the same.
In an amazing display of hashgacha pratis, it was his time in the Army that enabled him to find his shidduch. Many times, while off base, Rav Kulefsky would frequent sefarim stores to peruse sefarim that were not otherwise available to him. One of the stores he would frequent was Goldman's Otzar HaSefarim on the Lower East Side. Rav Elazar Gartenhouse, zt"l, the Pruchniker Rav, was also a frequent customer, and he began to notice an unusual sight - a soldier in full uniform looking through sefarim on complex areas of Torah. He subsequently approached the soldier to "talk in learning" and see if he was indeed learning from those sefarim. Needless to say, he was quite impressed, and this led Rav Gartenhouse to offer his daughter to Rav Kulefsky as a wife.
On June 18, 1947 (Rosh Chodesh Tamuz 5707) Rav Kulefsky married his wife Rebbetzin Sarah, a"h, who would be his life partner for the next 53 years. (Rebbetzin Kulefsky passed away in 2010, on 5 Tishrei). After serving 18 months in the army, Rav Kulefsky was finally able to win an appeal on his induction, and was discharged on February 8, 1946. He immediately returned to yeshiva, this time under Rav Reuvain Grozovsky, zt"l (Reb Shlomo had been niftar in 1945.) He began in Torah V'daas and then in Bais Medrash Elyon, in Monsey, where he learned for the next eight years. Here, too, Rav Kulefsky was deeply influenced and molded by his rebbe and mentor. Reb Reuvain was known for his amazing hasmada and energy and the incredible amount of time he would put into preparing his shiurim. These later became well known hallmarks of Rav Kulefsky as well.
In 1954 Rav Kulefsky was introduced to Rav Ruderman, zt"l, by his cousin, Rav Naftali Kaplan, shlit"a, who was then a talmid in Ner Yisrael, and was subsequently hired to say a shiur. This began what can be called the "golden years" of his life. Nothing mattered more to Rav Kulefsky than being able to learn and teach Torah to his talmidim. His love for Torah knew no bounds. I was once standing with some talmidim talking to Rav Kulefsky, and someone asked him how he was able to remember so many details that were involved in many of his shiurim. He answered emphatically, "Do you remember how many children you have? Do you remember their names?" Indeed, Rav Kulefsky loved the Torah as if it were his own child. His power of concentration was remarkable. Many times, as he walked home after delivering his shiur, accompanied by talmidim, he would be talking to them and answering their questions about the shiur. The short distance to his house would take him almost an hour. Even when it was inclement weather, he barely noticed that he had forgotten to open his umbrella and that it was raining or that it was freezing cold, because he was in the middle of learning.
Once, when the Yeshiva was learning the tenth perek of Nedarim, Rav Kulefsky was talking to his son-in-law, Rav Dovid Rosenbaum, shlit"a, during second seder about a difficulty he had for many years with a particular sugya. A short while later, Rav Rosenbaum received an urgent message that Rav Kulefsky had suffered a heart attack and was being rushed to the hospital. When Rav Rosenbaum entered Rav Kulefsky's room in the ICU, Rav Kulefsky lifted the oxygen mask from his face and said, "Dovid, I thought of an answer!" Somehow, in middle of having a heart attack, Rav Kulefsky was able to think of an answer to the question that had bothered him for many years. Rav Kulefsky was an expert in all areas of Torah and was not limited to the areas in which he said shiur. He served as the bochen for semicha in Ner Yisrael, as a dayan on the bais din, and was a renowned expert on mikvaos.
His most important goal however, was to impart to his talmidim the sweetness of Torah - for if they taste the sweetness and enjoy it, they will always want more. When people asked him for brachos (blessings) for themselves or their children that they should be talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), he would answer that being a talmid chacham is up to each individual. But he would always offer to give them a bracha that they should have "a geshmak in learning," for that is the key to success. He would stay up until the wee hours of the morning preparing his shiurim, going over them again and again, working out exactly how to say it in the most understandable and clear way, so the talmidim would be able to appreciate it and taste the "geshmak" and sweetness of Torah. Each shiur, besides being a masterpiece of Torah content, was a masterpiece in its delivery. Carefully crafted and deliberately planned, each point was said in an amazingly clear and precise manner.
In his later years, Rav Kulefsky suffered from a severe eye impairment which greatly diminished his vision. However, he refused to slow down. He acquired special lights, machines, and glasses that magnified images, which enabled him to learn but at the same time made it a painstaking task to read through even a small portion of gemara. Yet, he would sit for hours upon hours, reading word by word, learning and preparing his shiur. Preparing his daily shiur was a seemingly hard enough task, but when he was appointed Rosh Yeshiva after the passing of Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l, he even increased his workload, adding a weekly shiur klali and shmoozen to his already difficult schedule.
Anyone who was privileged to witness the sight of Rav Kulefsky preparing or delivering a shiur in his later years couldn't help but be awestruck by the incredible amount of ameilus (toil) and mesiras nefesh (sacrifice) for Torah. Davening, too, presented an extreme challenge. Yet he would be careful to say every word of every tefila, even parts of davening that he did not know by heart, like tachanun, selichos, and kinos on Tisha b'Av. He would have the pages of the siddur enlarged to three 11x14 pieces of paper attached together, and he would stand in the bais medrash under a powerful lamp, slowly reading every word. His love for his talmidim was profound. Rav Kulefsky was the originator of the now common minhag (practice) for talmidim to visit their rebbeim's houses on Friday night. This allowed the talmidim to build an extremely close and lasting relationship with him. But his warmth was particularly pronounced towards talmidim who came from difficult situations, most notably the Iranian talmidim who had no parents to look after them. Rav Kulefsky became almost like a surrogate parent to them. He established a fund and spent much time and expended much energy looking after the Iranian talmidim to make sure they were taken care of in all areas of their lives. But as much as he was the esteemed Magid Shiur and Rosh Yeshiva, his humbleness was remarkable. He loved children and would take time and talk to any child whom he happened across. He would ask them what they learned that day in school, and if they replied, he rewarded them with a candy.
On Chanukah, he would light his menorah in the hallway outside his apartment. Every night, the children in the building would gather around him and watch him light the neiros and then he would sing and dance with them. He would even give out chocolate Chanukah coins and candy. Rav Kulefsky was an extremely loving father and zayde. He loved playing with his younger grandchildren and especially learning with the older ones. Each grandchild would have their own opportunity to learn with him. Towards the end of his life, he was once in the hospital and was very weak. I went with some of his grandchildren to visit him and we asked him how he was feeling. He was so weak he could barely answer. Then a grandchild told him of a question he had asked his rebbe in school that day. Immediately, his eyes lit up and he asked "Nu, so what did your rebbe say?" The grandchild answered, "He said that the Maharsha asks it." Rav Kulefsky lifted his hands in the air and exclaimed with unexplainable energy, "Now I feel better!"
He was a living example of how one is supposed to serve Hashem besimcha (with happiness) despite suffering. He used to say many times the gemara in Yuma that even a poor person is required to learn Torah. The proof the gemara brings is from the great Tanna Hillel. Rav Kulefsky asked, "How is it possible to use the great Hillel as a proof? He was a Tanna - we are nowhere near his level of greatness?" He answered that the gemara is teaching us that, no matter what circumstances a person finds himself in, it is always possible to learn and grow closer to Hashem - everyone of their own level, but it is humanly possible. If Hillel, who was human, could do it, then we can do it also. This message was indeed the life and is the legacy of Rav Kulefsky. May his memory be a source of chizuk for all of us. TNZB"H.
[ED. Note: Click here for a shtikel Torah from Moreinu HaRosh HaYeshiva HaRav Yaakov Kulefsky, zt"l, sent out on Nov. 15 from Ner Yisrael]
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