Accommodating by nature, the father-in-law seemed hesitant. The son-in-law persisted, and the uncharacteristically determined shver finally felt compelled to share his reservations.
“Birkas HaTorah is a personal time. I daven not just for myself, but for my children and their children. It means a lot to me and can take quite some time.”
The tefillah was personal because Rav Zev Avrohom Binder didn’t just learn Torah, know Torah, or even live Torah. He loved the Torah. And with his sudden passing, it became evident – at the levayos in Montreal and Lakewood, at the shloshim in Montreal – just how beloved he was by the olam haTorah, and by the bnei hayeshivos and kollelim.
But not just them. The shiurim he gave in the Cote-St-Luc and Ville St Laurent neighborhoods drew listeners close to this talmid chochom with those same bonds of love. The chaburos he delivered in the Sephardic kollel earned him the respect of yet another sector of the community. And even those who knew too little to appreciate his scholarship and depth felt a connection with him. His ready smile, gentle humor and pleasant personality endeared him to all, for he embodied the chein of the Torahitself.
Perhaps his natural affinity for people and his tolerance for their limitations resulted from the fact that he never forgot his own beginnings. Even as he rose to the top of the yeshiva world – lehoshivi im nedivim – he never forgot those who had lifted him.
• • • • •
Born in Minneapolis of 1952, Rav Zev Avrohom Binder benefitted from a traditional day school education and saw firsthand what a single devoted rebbi could accomplish. Rabbi Meir Eisenman was that figure in his own life, inspiring him to continue learning post high-school in Eretz Yisroel. That year gave young Zev a taste of in-depth learning, but upon his return to Minneapolis, it seemed unlikely that he would veer from the path of his peers – perhaps medical school, maybe law school. He had the grades, intelligence and seriousness to succeed in whichever career he would choose to pursue.
But in Heaven, there were other plans for the young man. That summer, a group of young men arrived in Minneapolis on a Seed program, a chaburah that included elite talmidim of Chicago’s Telshe Yeshiva, including Rav Shmuel Yehuda Levin and Rav Ezriel Cziment.
It was then that Reb Zev first experienced in-depth, yeshiva-style learning. He would grasp it and never let go. He took his first steps gingerly. Like the very first father our people ever had, he saw a bigger picture, dimensions way broader than what was available in Minneapolis, and followed them back to Chicago, to Telshe.
Lacking in background, the twenty-two-year-old bochur was told that it would take a long time until he was ready for the high-level bais medrash shiurim, and he was sent toshiur with younger bochurim at first.
He defied every prediction. He embraced the humiliation, the toil, the exertion and, like one who discovers an oasis in the desert, he rejoiced in each drop. Within three months – twelve weeks of twenty-four hour days – he had risen to the shiur of the rosh yeshiva, who would become his rebbi muvhak, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin.
Genial and friendly as he was, Torah was life itself, and he wasn’t willing to forfeit a moment. Before he made the yeshiva his permanent home, a sign on his shtender read, “Please don’t talk to me. You can learn whenever you want. I don’t always have the chance.”
In 1977, his status as a ben Torah was cemented when he married Rebbetzin Rochel. A product of Torah royalty, she is a daughter of Reb Yitzchok Blachman, the family descended from thetzaddik of Lita, Rav Nochumke. He was ecstatic, sensing that with the rebbetzin at his side, his dreams of genuine devotion toTorah were within reach.
• • • • •
The next tekufah, his years in the Telshekollel, were among the happiest of his life. He learned and learned, even as his family and expenses grew. In later years, his talmidim would testify that they persevered through years in kollel, using the formula he had used. “At the beginning of each year,” he would tell them, “we would sit down and commit ourselves to just one more year, determined to push through.”
At theshloshim gathering held at the Montreal Community Kollel, Rav Binyomin Neuman of Chicago recalled: “I remember those years, the ameilus baTorah mitoch hadchak, the story of Reb Zev’s aliyah and growth…and it was a story of ‘chochmas noshim bonsah beisah.’ It was the rebbetzin – her support, her encouragement and pride in his accomplishments – who fueled his shteiging.”
Even as he developed as a respected talmid chochom, he never forgot his own beginnings, finding space in his heart for those who hadn’t started out in the yeshiva system. He and hisrebbetzin would spend their summers on Seed programs.
One summer in Kansas City, he met a young man with potential. Reb Zev drew him close. The fellow mentioned that he had a brother as well, but the brother wasn’t inclined to join a shiur.
Reb Zev asked to meet this brother, and he offered the young man – a proficient pool player – a challenge. They would play a game. If Reb Zev won, the young man would learn with him.
Sure enough, the kollel yungerman triumphed – and the young man kept his word. He came to learn once, twice, three times…and eventually went to yeshiva. Heshteiged, emerging as a serious talmid chochom. In time, he became a poseik and today serves on a prestigious bais din, a true triumph for Reb Zev. In time, another sibling would become frum as well and the family kept in touch with the Binder family throughout the years, never forgetting Reb Zev, his smile, his pool cue, and his confidence in the Torah’sability to change people.
• • • • •
In 1987, Reb Zev was invited to serve as a maggid shiur in the mesivta of Yeshiva Gedolah of Montreal. The time had arrived for this quintessential talmid to become a marbitz Torah in his own right.
Talmidim of that first class – whom he often referred to as his “bechorim” – still recall the experience: not just what they learned, but how it was taught.
As the first mesivta rebbi, Reb Zev was charged with investing them with a sense of being bnei yeshiva. There was none more suited to the task, none more capable of transmitting the reverence for Torah, fortalmidei chachomim.
One of his first exchanges with his new talmidim was decisive. “What time does class start?” asked a talmid.
Without hesitating, therebbi replied, “Shiur begins at nine-thirty.”
They got the message.
At thelevayah in Lakewood, a talmid, Reb Naftali Chaim Posen, made a comment in his hesped:“If you’re not from Montreal, it would be hard for you to understand,” he said. The depth of his remark was that so much of what the rebbi taught wasn’t with words. He not only taught his talmidim their first “shvere Rambam,” he also let them know that they were being ushered into a new world, a dimension where shvere Rambams were as nourishing as food and as healing as sunlight.
He conveyed timeless truths without speaking, with nuances and expressions. The almost imperceptible way he straightened up when repeating Torah from gedolim, the way he fixed his tie when discussing his own rebbi, the rosh yeshiva of Telshe Chicago, the mix of concentration and pride as he listened to a question or answer from one of the talmidim.
His smile was unique, the sort that communicated understanding, love and warmth. It was a big part of the reason that talmidim long gone from his class kept up a vibrant shaychus, making it a point to greet him whenever they saw him.
He created a summer program for teenage bochurim. The name he selected for it speaks volumes: Ruach HaTorah. It was an opportunity for boys who had worked hard a whole year to relax and enjoy their vacation, but even vacation was colored with the spirit, the ruach of Torah.
Even as his day job kept him between the walls of the bais medrash, he never forgot those who didn’t merit a connection with the yeshiva, finding time to deliver a shiur in neighborhoods far from the yeshiva community, geographically and figuratively.
One evening, as he learned with talmidim in a large synagogue in a suburb of Montreal, a young, irreligious fellow happened in to the building. Reb Zev greeted him warmly, engaging him in conversation. They established a connection and they were soon learning together. Reb Zev convinced his new friend to come to yeshiva and raised the money for his tuition. In time, this talmid went to learn in Eretz Yisroel, where he married and is still learning, his mentor and patron having raised the money to help at each juncture.
Reb Zev’s deep connection with his own talmidim continued well after they graduated from his shiur. They knew that they would always find a listening ear, both to their personal issues and to their shticklach Torah. When he saw the need, he would become their friend, taking them out for cholent or just for a drive.
There were several who called him every Erev Shabbos and scores who called before Yom Tov or Rosh Hashanah.
He carried the names of his talmidim on his heart – and on index cards, including the names of their mothers, in his pocket – frequently davening for their success in learning. On the day of his daughter’s chasunah, he called her over. “I know that many gedolim suggest that the tefillos under your chupah are meant to be personal, for your own health, happiness and nachas, and that of your family, but I want to ask you a favor – to please add one name to your tefillos.” He then mentioned a talmid who was going through a difficult personal challenge.
He had an appreciation for the originality of every talmid, tolerating – even embracing – the distinct nature of each before the mainstream chinuch establishment began to address the concept. A jumpy young man spent much of his time in shiur doodling, covering his papers with drawings instead of taking notes.
One day, over twenty-five years ago, the rebbi looked over his shoulder and saw that the boy had drawn a cartoon revolving around the case of the Gemara in Chezkas Habatim, a comprehensive illustration of the exchange detailed inshiur. Reb Zev asked for the paper. Later on, he told the talmid that he’d brought the illustration to the roshei yeshiva and shown it to other rabbeim, evidence of how a creative bochur could use his original way of taking notes and relating to a Gemara.
The years passed. Thebochur became a kollel yungerman and then found his parnassah using his creativity and skill. Just a few years ago, Reb Zev told him, “I’m not giving back the paper, because I still use it to inspire talmidim and show them how every boy has his own way to connect with Torah.”
As histalmidim progressed through mesivta andbais medrash, they started to look to Reb Zev not just as the one who had unlocked the door of geshmak in learning to them, but also as a role model of constant aliyah.
A group of bochurim in the yeshiva’sbais medrash, formertalmidim, asked him to deliver a shmuess to them on Motzoei Shabbos. He turned them down. Surprised that their beloved rebbi wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to be mashpia on them, one of the bochurim wondered why Reb Zev had said no. He permitted a rare glimpse into his own growth.
“Do you think I’m a finished product, that I have no more work?” he said. “Motzoei Shabbos is my time for mussar, to sit with a Nefesh Hachaim and give dimensions to the whole week ahead. I need that time for myself. I’m so sorry.”
Quite unlike the stereotypical image of a mussar personality as somber and anxious, Reb Zev, he of the steady smile and quip, lived in the world of cheshbon hanefesh. He kept a notebook where he detailed his own spiritual triumphs and failings. When he accidentally tore letters on a food package one Shabbos, he asked his daughter to remind him after Shabbos so that he could write this misdeed in his notebook and do teshuvah.
• • • • •
Never was this drive to keep growing greater than when his teaching career ended. After twenty-five years in the classroom, Reb Zev retired. His first order of business was to create a program to finish Shas. He was brimming with the energy and vibrancy of a young man as he set out to tackle this goal.
He was asked to start delivering chaburos at the Sephardic Kollel Avreichim and to serve as a shoel umeishiv, a role he embraced. He had more time to write, and he left behind copious notes on various parts of Shas, halachah and aggadah.
He didn’t take it easy in retirement, actually adding chavrusos, feeling that since he wasn’t teaching, he could afford to wake up earlier and go to sleep later at night.
Several years ago, when Rav Yehoshua Chaim Rubanowitz, presently rosh yeshiva in Washington Heights, moved to Montreal to serve as a rosh kollel, Reb Zev heard that the new arrival was known as a unique lamdan. Eager to be koneh his mehalech in learning as well, Reb Zev – with the prescience an investor might show towards the stock market – immediately formed a chavrusashaft with the much younger rosh kollel. They learned together second seder throughout the years, Reb Zev incorporating this new method into his arsenal, yet another means of growth for this mevakeish.
At the shloshim, one of Reb Zev’s sons’ quoted the Vilna Gaon, who says that there are three components in serving Hashem: Bein adam laMakom, as represented by tefillah; bein adam lachaveiro, as represented by chesed;and bein adam le’atzmo, asrepresented by ameilus baTorah, since Torah uplifts and elevates a person to new plateaus, constantly changing his essence. This defined Reb Zev, whose unassuming nature concealed a burning drive to keep learning. He once arrived in New York well past midnight, after a long and exhausting drive from Montreal. “I haven’t yet learned today,” he exclaimed, waiting for the opportunity to sit down with his Gemara.
After his sudden petirah, a young grandson offered a telling remark. “I miss Zaidy. He was always learning in his study or playing soccer with me,” said the child, unwittingly encompassing the greatness of Reb Zev, the sophisticated ambitions fused with entirely normal behavior.
If there was a singlemidda that was a constant through all Reb Zev’s actions, it was that of pride, of ga’avah d’kedushah. He was proud to be a ben Torah. Proud to be a talmid of Telshe. Proud that he had the zechus to teachTorah. Proud of his talmidim.
But he reserved a special pride for his beautiful mishpachah. When people would compliment the classes and shiurim of hisrebbetzin, he would glow with satisfaction at her accomplishments, at the respect she’d earned in the halls of Bais Yaakov.
He merited raising sons who stand tall in the bais medrash, inklal work, and inchessed, as well as chasnin rabbonon, sons-in-law who gave him tremendous joy and nachas. He reveled in their accomplishments, constantly expressing his gratitude to the Ribbono Shel Olam, who allowed him such satisfaction, never taking any of the credit for himself.
• • • • •
He was niftar during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, suddenly. The Shaarei Teshuvah was still open in his study, at the top of a pile of seforim, enduring testimony to the mountain he never stopped climbing. Just days before he left this world, he spoke to his son in Lakewood, at whose home he was planning to spend Yom Tov. His son had purchased a beautifulesrog for him and wanted to buy a lulav as well.
“No,” Reb Zev insisted, “I didn’t build asukkah this year and didn’t even get to choose my own esrog. At least leave me this zechus, this mitzvah of working to find the right lulav…”
It wasn’t meant to be. He didn’t choose. Instead, he was chosen.
A man with so many dreams, so many hopes, so much to accomplish, taken back home just before Yom Kippur. No doubt, inShomayim,this child of Minneapolis, who rose to such heights, was greeted with joy. No doubt, generations of ancestors came to shep nachas, taking pride in a neshamah that exuded pride.
Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin uttered a single sentence of hesped: “I feel like I lost a son,” the rosh yeshiva said.
Reb Zev Avrohom ben Yosef Sholom left us and plunged a community into mourning, a numbness from which they have yet to recover. He is remembered in the great works of his choshuve wife, Rebbetzin Rochel, and their children, Reb Nochum Tzvi of Lakewood, Reb Motchy of Monsey, Reb Yaakov Boruch of Toronto, Mrs. Shani Rosenbaum of Lakewood, Mrs. Shevy Rothschild of Yerushalayim, Sora’le Binder and Chumi Binder, and between the walls of the many mekomos haTorah across Montreal where he had an impact.
But most of all, he is remembered by generations of talmidim who, every time theyhoreve over a Rambam, delight in a Rashba, or jump up with a kushya, are walking through a shaar that he opened, the gate of mesikus haTorah, the world of the ben Torah.
The world in which he lived and the world from which he slipped away, so suddenly.
Yehi zichro boruch.
Due to the short shivah, the family would be grateful if those with memories of Reb Zev would share them via email at email@example.com or via mail at 45 Rockefeller Drive, Lakewood, NJ, 08701.