Thursday, March 5, 2009

Elchonon Kramer, z'l (1988-2009) By Meir Fenster Published on Thursday, March 05, 2009

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Family, friends, rebbeim, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel, and the Flatbush community as a whole are mired in intense sorrow and mourning over the jarring loss of our 21-year-old dear friend, Elchonon Kramer, z’l. The quintessential mentsch, Elchonon was loved and cherished by everyone he met—even those with whom he had very limited interaction. Never satisfied with his naturally kind disposition, he was a paradigmatic ba’al mussar, always striving to improve his already charismatic personality. His chashivus haTorah and tremendous hasmadah were legendary as well; his tireless toiling on every step of shiur and shmuessen gradually propelled him to his rank as the top bachur in yeshiva. Because he was such a superior oveid Hashem, it is important and highly beneficial to reflect upon the factors that led to his success and the fine attributes that he possessed and constantly honed.

When thinking about Elchonon, the first thing that comes to mind is the way he exemplified the midah of sensitivity to others. Although he was clearly genetically predisposed to being a “nice guy,” he achieved levels in the area of bein adam lachaveiro that were only attainable via rigorous study of mussar concepts and the internalization thereof. Many people spoke of how their days were often brightened by an upbeat “good morning” or “hello” from Elchonon; even one of the yeshiva’s custodians paid a shivah visit to the Kramer family and vividly recounted how Elchonon greeted him warmly several times a day. A neighbor reported that one time, upon returning from a shopping spree with a car full of bags and a crying baby, she stepped out of the car as Elchonon happened to be passing by. Unprompted, Elchonon graciously brought in all her bags with a smile and even offered to put away the goods in their proper places, so that she could tend to her child.

Always looking to capitalize on an opportunity to be mashpia on a mesivta bachur, Elchonon had numerous Gemara and mussar sedarim with several high-school boys. His kesher with them extended far beyond the limud in which he and they were engaged, though; he took a genuine interest in each boy’s personal life and problems, and, on many occasions, even notified their rebbeim of pertinent issues that he felt the bachurim would feel uncomfortable disclosing on their own, but would want their rebbeim to know.

After a recent ski trip taken by a group of beis midrash and mesivta bachurim, a high-school talmid reported that he was duly impressed by how Elchonon said “thank you” to the lift operator every time up the mountain. Constant beneficiaries of Elchonon’s ceaseless kindness were his good friends and peers in the shiur. Whenever someone had difficulties grasping a step of shiur, Elchonon would graciously volunteer his time to help out his friend, never giving the person the impression that the person was imposing upon him. Elchonon’s tremendous chesed will be greatly missed.

Elchonon excelled in his shemiras ha’sedorim and seriousness toward davening and learning. Every day without fail, he was among the first talmidim to arrive at yeshiva for Shacharis, usually coming 10–15 minutes before minyan so that he could chap a brief seder and put on his tefillin before Pesukei D’zimra commenced. Watching him daven every tefillah with such immense kavanah was a special experience. When people commented to his mother at the shivah house on how unfortunate it was that she did not have the privilege to see him daven, she replied, “Yeah, but I saw him bentsch.”

Although Elchonon was very attentive to his physical fitness and he jogged daily, he did not allow his exercise regimen to interfere with the sedorim at yeshiva. His parents noted how he had his morning routine—eating breakfast, coming home, running on the treadmill, showering, and returning to yeshiva five minutes before morning seder—planned out to the minute. When recently given the choice between two dental procedures, he asked the dentist which one could be performed between 1:30 and 2:45, Elchonon’s midday break. Furthermore, notwithstanding his athletic prowess and enjoyment of playing basketball, he always left the Tuesday-night beis midrash basketball games early (despite pressure from the guys to stay), because he wanted to get to sleep on time and be alert the next day in shiur.

During seder, his time was well utilized; he scrutinized every point made in shiur and the shmuessen until he felt that he had clarity. A week and a half before his petirah, he passed up what would have been his last opportunity to hang out with a close friend—he opted to chazer the shmuess instead of going out for chulent with this friend at 11:30 on Thursday night.

The atmosphere in the beis midrash will never be the same without Elchonon.

Elchonon had the admirable ability to put his ego aside in his quest for emes. He was not at all reluctant to retract his p’shat in whatever he was learning when he felt that a friend had presented a compelling argument to the contrary. Furthermore, he happily accepted and acknowledged that his younger brother, Yitzy, was able to learn Gemara on a level comparable to his own, and he became Yitzy’s bekius chavrusa. Rabbi Sender Strassfeld, the assistant menahel in Mesivta Tiferes Yisroel and Elchonon’s ninth-grade rebbi, fondly remembered how “[Elchonon] wasn’t looking for recognition. He didn’t have to be the smartest guy in the class.” In a similar vein, Elchonon sometimes divulged to his close friends personal information concerning nisyonos with which he was presented, when he knew that the friend in whom he confided had experienced or was experiencing a similar situation and could be of assistance in Elchonon’s overcoming the nisayon. The extent of his t’shukas ha’emes was incredible and rare, and will undoubtedly live on in our memories forever.

The noble manner in which Elchonon handled his secular, post-high-school schooling was a testament to his extraordinary commitment to harbatzas haTorah and kibud av va’eim. After attending Touro College two nights a week for a few months, Elchonon assessed that his commitment to learning Torah was strong enough to warrant his dropping out of college in order to learn full-time in yeshiva and devote all his efforts toward his eventual goal of becoming a marbitz Torah.

Although his parents were satisfied with his preferred “career choice,” they initially had reservations about him stopping college, citing concerns that he have a feasible backup plan. However, when they saw his conviction—at the levayah, Yitzy quoted him as firmly asserting, “So, I won’t have a car”—and met with his rebbi, Rabbi Zvi Turk, their worries were assuaged and they acquiesced to Elchonon’s plans. Nevertheless, Elchonon sensed that his parents still might not have been completely comfortable with his decision, and therefore assured them that he would return to college at a moment’s notice if they were still troubled or would change their minds at any time in the future.

During shivah, after hearing all of the stories about Elchonon’s hasmadah rabbah and powerful hashpa’ah on so many of the talmidei ha’yeshiva, his parents said that in retrospect, they had absolutely nothing about which to be nervous; Elchonon definitely would have been a stellar marbitz Torah, and was already well on his way to becoming one.

His parents also regaled visitors at the shivah house with stories that demonstrated other ways in which Elchonon’s kibud av va’eim manifested itself. When Elchonon had vacation from yeshiva, he would often join his family on trips even if his friends were doing other activities that he enjoyed more, because he knew that his parents loved his company. For the aforementioned reason, he also regularly came home briefly for meals just to say “hello” to his parents and two younger sisters, Chani and Devori, and inquire about their daily lives. On erev Shabbos, although he would leave his house as early as possible to do extra learning in yeshiva before Minchah, he would always wait at home until his father arrived from work, so that Elchonon could say “hello” and wish his father a good Shabbos. Surely, all those who knew Elchonon took chizuk from observing his amazing kibud av va’eim and thirst for learning Torah and disseminating it.

Throughout his years in yeshiva, Elchonon cherished the kesharim he formed with many rebbeim. He was especially proud of his close rapport with Rabbi Turk, one of the roshei ha’yeshiva and Elchonon’s rebbi for the past two and a half years. Rabbi Turk spoke of how Elchonon discussed with him every important issue in Elchonon’s life. After davening on Shabbos mornings, Elchonon could always be seen asking Rabbi Turk questions on topics ranging from shiur to hashkafah. Although Rabbi Turk would purposely stay in yeshiva a few extra minutes while he conversed with Elchonon so as not to impose on Elchonon to walk Rabbi Turk home, inevitably Elchonon would happily escort him the six blocks between yeshiva and Rabbi Turk’s house before returning to yeshiva.

Elchonon would regularly ask Rabbi Turk questions on shiur and reflect on Rabbi Turk’s responses for hours, thoroughly dissecting the sugya. However, if before shiur Elchonon would approach Rabbi Turk to relate the product of Elchonon’s extensive thoughts, and Rabbi Turk would apologize to Elchonon and explain that other bachurim in the shiur needed help understanding more basic concepts, Elchonon, without a hint of resentment, would smile and return to his seat to resume learning. Furthermore, Elchonon would often take as a chavrusah a weaker bachur in need of help; in fact, Elchonon was so concerned with helping others that Rabbi Turk had to regularly urge him to learn with better chavrusas in order to boost Elchonon’s own growth.

Finally, Rabbi Turk exceedingly praised Elchonon’s healthy growth as a ben Torah: “Everything was a reflection of the Torah that he gained. Everything was so genuine…it was so real.” Elchonon’s refraining from jumping to levels of avodas Hashem for which he was not yet ready was a true rarity.

Other rebbeim also made laudatory remarks concerning Elchonon. Rabbi Hershel Welcher, Elchonon’s tenth-grade rebbi, complimented Elchonon’s midos: “The pervasive ne’imus, the finekeit, the eidelkeit, the ameilus baTorah.” In a va’ad at yeshiva, Rabbi Shalom Muskat, Elchonon’s eleventh-grade rebbi, implored the crowd to “remember [Elchonon’s] zeeseh countenance, his ehrlechkeit, his sweetness, his hasmadah, his dogged attempts to work on a shiur.” Rabbi Ben-Zion Krumbein, Elchonon’s Chumash rebbi in ninth and tenth grades, eloquently stated at the shivah house, “A good rebbi is conscious that his bachurim should feel good. It’s echad minei elef a bachur that’s trying to make a rebbi feel good.” When, in his hesped, Rabbi Yehuda Jacobson, the other rosh ha’yeshiva and Elchonon’s twelfth-grade rebbi, wailed, “Kashe alai p’reidaschem,” he was definitely speaking on behalf of everyone in the audience.

Obviously, Elchonon’s family played an integral role in Elchonon’s growth in ruchniyus. His parents, Sruli and Karen Kramer, instilled in Elchonon important values, such as becoming a ba’al derech eretz and eschewing overindulgence in materialistic pursuits, and they created an environment in their home that was perfectly suited for the upbringing of an adam ha’shaleim. Interestingly, Elchonon’s great-grandparents, Chaim and Miriam Braverman, were instrumental in raising funds for Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in its formative years, when it was based in Williamsburg. Perhaps it was in their z’chus that Elchonon had the opportunity to learn for seventeen and a half years at Chofetz Chaim’s Brooklyn affiliate.

A little over three years ago, the yeshiva brought in Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein as a guest speaker for a high-school and beis midrash Shabbaton. Among the pieces of sage advice on how to be happy that Rabbi Milstein imparted to the b’nei ha’yeshiva was to make a list of things for which to be thankful to Hashem and view it daily. Although most bachurim probably did not heed this ingenious suggestion, Elchonon, who already had enormous simchas ha’chayim, made the list, which his father found in Elchonon’s wallet after Elchonon’s passing. It was a typical example of how Elchonon was a remarkable ba’al aliyah.

I did not compile a list after that Shabbaton; however, if I were to form one today, an entry near the top of my list would be “The chance to have known Elchonon Kramer.”

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