Not many of us will ever be described as "passionate in our love of Hashem, His Torah, and His people," or as a "pure, fiery soul, without any trace of self-interest" in our Divine service. But we all sense when we are in the presence of such a person and are uplifted and transformed by the connection. Rabbi Zechariah Fendel, zt"l, was such a pure soul, and he left an indelible imprint through his teaching and seforim on thousands of Jewish lives.
From an early age, he was clearly destined to leave his mark on Jewish souls. As head lifeguard at Camp Agudah in the early 50s, Reb Zechariah was a hero in the eyes of the campers, many of whom had weak Torah backgrounds. At the end of every season, he devoted hours to convincing campers to come to study in a yeshiva.
While studying for semicha at Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, he served as a director of the Inter-Yeshiva Council, an organization devoted to convincing young boys in religious elementary schools to continue in yeshiva high schools. Once he arranged to meet a boy in a Queens shul on Shabbos afternoon to discuss continuing on to a yeshiva high school. Somehow, the meeting slipped his mind, and he returned home to Crown Heights for Shabbos. When he remembered the meeting, however, he insisted on making the very long walk back to Queens.
In 1952, Reb Zechariah visited Israel for the first time with his older brother, Rabbi Meyer Fendel. They went to visit the Chazon Ish. Something about the young man captured the Chazon Ish, and the two went on a walk around the block. In the course of their talk, the Chazon Ish asked him what he was working on. He replied that he was planning a series of essays to answer the questions in emunah being asked by contemporary youth. "If that is the case," the Chazon Ish replied, "then you are certainly doing Moshiach's work," and he gave Reb Zechariah a berachah to which he attributed all his subsequent success. On that same trip, his cousin Rabbi Yitzchok Dershowitz took him to visit Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. In the course of the visit, he asked Rav Isser Zalman about an apparent contradiction in the Rambam. His resolution so impressed Rav Isser Zalman that the latter immediately wrote him an effusive, and totally unsolicited, semicha.
Rabbi Fendel received semicha – Yoreh-Yoreh and Yadin-Yadin – from Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in 1955. In Chofetz Chaim, he developed a lifelong closeness to Rabbi Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg. One of Rabbi Scheinberg's daughters wrote during the shiva, "In my father's eyes, on a scale of 1-100, Rav Zechariah was a 200 – such genius, combined with such humility and tzidkus. I know my father's eyes, and they don't sparkle for just anybody."
Soon after receiving semicha, Rabbi Fendel was appointed the founding principal of Yeshiva Preparatory High School in Queens in 1956, by Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, Rosh Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. It was the first yeshiva high school under the Chofetz Chaim aegis. Though still less than thirty when he founded the school, he left a lifelong impression on his students.
At the shiva, those talmidim of a half century and more ago – a very high percentage themselves educators today -- stayed for a long time sharing memories of their "first great teacher," "the first really important influence of my life." One letter writer attributed his entire attachment to Yiddishkeit to Rabbi Fendel's "selfless devotion to the welfare and development of every talmid . . . and his unwavering kindness and concern for me as an individual."
Another remembered sitting in Rabbi Fendel's office, as his father wondered whether his son, who in the father's words had a below average IQ and who could barely read Hebrew, could handle the school. Rabbi Fendel responded forcefully, "I don't believe in IQ, I believe in God." Then he looked at the boy directly, "as no one ever had before," and asked, "Is this what you want, Chaim? Do you want to study Torah all day?" The boy – today a university history professor – felt a weight "lifted off [his] shoulders" and in its place the "faith to challenge arbitrary definitions."
In addition to his duties as principal, which included recruiting and fundraising, Rabbi Fendel taught the highest shiur. His ability to completely cut himself off from all outside pressures when learning provided a lifetime model for the talmidim. One former talmid, today a rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, recalls his students' astonishment at the way he fairly trembled with intensity as he learned; another "the pure, unadulterated joy when he said a sevora, or distinguished between two cases." On leil Shabbos, the boys living in the dormitory would crowd into his small living room, teeming with young children, and learn with him a piece of Shev Shmaytsa. A later talmid from Yeshiva Ohr Meir in New Rochelle describes how he would patiently lead the class through a Maharsha on Tosofos, in a clear, step-by-step fashion, until you could "almost visualize" the Maharsha.
What left the deepest impression, however, was not his brilliance, but his sincerity and passion. Yet for all that passion, he was never heard to raise his voice to a student. In the words, of one former talmid, "He literally transformed us from living an American dream, to living the dream of Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Tosofos, Rav Yisroel Salanter, and the Alter of Slabodka." A boy could enter his office or go for a ride in his "Mussar mobile" a lo yitzlach (a failure), and emerge two hours later a committed future ben Torah, with a Gemara in hand, headed to the beis medrash.
The highlight of the year was the Purim seudah in the Fendel home: "The Rebbi would say some dvar Torah, with which he would get all excited and worked up, and then came the event. He would start singing the Niggun, and we would all sing along, again and again and again, His face was a flaming beat red, sweat dripping from his forehead, with his quivering and booming voice, with one or two children on his lap. He was banging away on the table with all his might [singing], 'Amar Rebbe Akiva, Ashreichem, ashreichem Yisroel. . . Ma mikveh metaher es ha'tema'im af HaKadosh Baruch Hu metaher es Yisroel.'"
IN 1977, THE WORK HE HAD DESCRIBED TO THE CHAZON ISH, Anvil of Sinai, was published. Patterned on Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch's classic The Nineteen Letters, he sought to address the basic questions of faith of any searching young person. As a teacher, he had kept a box in which students could place any question they had, and when he felt the need, he devoted an entire class to haskafah issues. Now he sought to answer the questions of an entire generation.
Over the next three decades, there poured forth a profusion of works, nearly twenty in all – six volumes on the mesorah (transmission) of Torah, works aimed at providing an entire Torah world view, books on mussar and ethics, on the Chagim, on Chumash. Written in clear, crisp English, meticulously researched, these volumes marked Rabbi Fendel, along with Rabbi Avigdor Miller, as a pioneer in high quality, Torah literature in English. Each work was a collaborative effort with his wife Chava, who transcribed his hand-written pages into type. Together they edited, produced, and distributed each new volume. Over 100,000 copies have been sold to date.
Every middah he described in his writing, he exemplified, which no doubt explains the impact of the works. A talmid describes the way "he reacted with an exhilarated joy that I have never experienced from anyone else," every time he called to inform him of simcha.
Once his brother, Reb Meyer, asked him whether he had included the striking chiddush he had just said in one of his book. No, he answered, only that for which he had solid sources ever went in one of his seforim. No taint of self-aggrandizement was allowed.
His sincerity and passion came through in print as well. One reader wrote to him, "The Ethical Personality has changed my life. I have read it cover to cover four times – and not for the last time. Things are now clear to me. I have a long way to go, but at least I see the path. . . ." A young couple whom he did not know called to invite him to a bris. Not long before they had been on the brink of divorce. In the midst of a particularly bitter altercation, the husband had seen one of Rabbi Fendel's books on the table and started to read it. He called his wife over, and together they stayed up the entire night reading together, before resolving to try again to work things out.
A New York City public school teacher decided to use Rabbi Fendel's From Dusk to Dawn to teach the Holocaust to a class drawn from 25 different nations around the globe. Despite the book's "Jewish, G-d-centered point of view, unapologetic to a hostile world," the students read the book "with passion and heart. . . the words of a rabbi resonat[ing] like the word of G-d he truly represented to them."
Beyond his hundreds of talmidim and their talmidim, and his tens of thousands of readers, Rabbi Fendel's deepest imprint was that on his many children, each one of whom has similarly dedicated his or her life to transmitting the mesorah to future generations with the fire of Sinai.