This year marks the tenth yahrtzeit of my seminary co-Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Chaim Flom, zt”l. While there have been tributes and memorials to him already published, I feel that my own recollections should be shared.
I first met Rabbi Flom when I was in high school. He would traverse the globe in search of the annual new crop of students for his fledgling yeshivah. Well before the current array of choices was available, Rabbi Flom chose to create a yeshivah specifically for young men who did not fit the cookie-cutter yeshivah mold. Still in his late twenties, he partnered with Rabbi Yosef Granofsky, amush, to launch this idea and bring it to fruition. Working closely with their Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz , zt”l, they developed a system of learning which includes the study of Chumash, Nach, Hashkafa, Halacha, Jewish History, and even tours to historical sites in Israel. It was named Ohr David, in honor of Rav Henoch’s father, Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz zt”l, who founded RSA/Chafetz Chaim.
I was fortunate to attend there for two years, from 1983 until 1985. During my first year we shared space with Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Jerusalem, and had the benefit of living and learning in a “real” beis medrash. In my second year we moved to our own quarters in Ramot Gimel, which at the time was a new neighborhood. Those years were a special time in my life which allowed me to become independent and to focus on choosing a direction for what I wanted to do with my life. I am convinced I would not be the same person I am today if I had not taken out two years post high school to learn in Israel at YOD.
I was in eleventh grade when I first met Rabbi Flom, My first impression was that he was very upbeat, even a bit quirky. I asked about the daily schedule, and was concerned to discover that there was a shiur before breakfast. When I asked him why, he said, “We want you to get a bit of Torah in your belly before you eat.” I had never heard that idea expressed that way, nor have I heard it since then. His favorite tune was “Tov L’Hodos L’Hashem” – it is good to give praise to G-d. This was surprising coming from a man who had lost an eye as a child. He was not into material wealth at all, except as it could be used to help others. He told us a story from when he was younger, that he and a friend were driving a beat up jalopy. They were stopped at a red light when a limousine pulled up next to them. The driver rolled down his window and spit in disgust. Rabbi Flom pointed out that the limo did not even belong to the driver, therefore he had no basis to feel so haughty. It was laughable. He gave so many rides to random people with his aging Subaru that he became known for it. In fact, one time someone borrowed his car and was flagged down for rides by total strangers.
His warmth and personal concern for every student was legendary. Boys who had never felt successful in learning became instant fans. We were not necessarily “at risk” – that term had yet to be coined. It was more about wanting to receive a broader appreciation for what yiddishkeit is all about. Rabbi Flom was more than a rebbi, more than a mentor. He made you feel like you were the most important person because to him, you were. That said, he would not stand for any nonsense. If you slept late and failed to come to his shiur, he would halt the class to come find you, often with the rest of the students in tow, right into your dorm room. (Please do not ask how I know that, but I assure you it did not happen to anyone more than once.) He had a way of getting along with everyone, without surrendering his own principles. I feel privileged to have known him, and to have received such inspiration and love from this amazing man. Yehi Zichro Baruch.