Exclusive Interview with Rav Shmuel Stern

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Rav Shmuel Stern head of Nachalei Netzach institutions
Rav Shmuel Stern head of Nachalei Netzach institutions

Interview with Rav Shmuel Stern

Rabbi Shmuel Stern is one of Rabbi Berland’s most senior pupils, and the head of a burgeoning network of Torah institutions teaching Breslov Torah. We’re pleased to share translated excerpts of a recent interview that he gave to the Hitchadshut magazine.

Rabbi Stern learned in the Chorev Talmud Torah, before eventually ending up the Maharil Yeshiva in Jerusalem, under the auspices of Rabbi Refael Tikochinsky. “Rabbi Tikochinsk was a true genius,” explains Rabbi Stern. “I think he knew the entire Shas in depth. Every topic he knew completely clear.”

In the three years he spent there, Rabbi Stern got married, and then went to learn at Yeshiva Torah Ohr, with Rav Shainberg. “Afterwards, I started learning in the Kollel of Rav Zaks, and I also learnt by the Gaon Rav Sternbach and by Rabbi Shmuel Orbach.”

Rav Stern continued on to study Kabala with Rabbi Yaakov Hillel and Yeshiva Nahar Shalom, and then also studied by Rav Moshe Shpira for twelve years, but even so, he kept feeling something was lacking.

“I would go visit Tzaddikim and kabbalists, looking for someone who could guide me in service of Hashem,” he says.

“I prayed to Hashem to send me a Tzaddik to guide me in serving Hashem. And then, I met the Rav, shlita, who was sent to me like an Angel from Heaven.”

Rav Stern continues:

“I had moved from Kiryat Belz to Har Nof, and not long afterwards, Rav Berland moved to my building. The Rav lived in Har Nof for two years.

“It was the Fast of the tenth of Teves. There wasn’t any learning in the kollels in the afternoon on fast days. But I wanted to learn in a Kollel in an atmosphere of learning. People told me that in the Yeshiva Shuvu Bunim in the old city the learning is continued regularly on fast day in the afternoon. So, I went to learn there. While walking up the stairs I met Rav Refael Malkin.

“He welcomed me and asked me where I live. When I told him Har Nof he told me right away, “listen, the Rosh Yeshiva Harav Berland also lives there. Rav Berland will do anything asked of him by anybody. If a little boy will ask him to go somewhere with him, right away he will come. Go ask him to learn with you and he will!”

I was surprised to hear this, as I’d heard that he really was great in Torah.

I really wanted to study with him, but I didn’t know how to reach him. One Friday, I was sitting on my porch with my Gemara facing the Mikva and I saw the Rav come out. To my great surprise he entered into my building. I Jumped up, closed the Gemara and ran from my apartment on the third floor towards the elevator before he disappeared and I wouldn’t know where he actually lived.

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I arrived at the entrance to the building and I was so pleased to see that the Rav was still there. So I introduced myself and told him that I want to learn with him. He agreed right away and said we should meet Sunday morning at three in the morning on the ground floor.

A minute before 3 am, I was standing there waiting, and asking myself: “will he show up or not?” I remember that this minute felt like an eternity. Just then, the Rav appeared out of the elevator with his hands filled with books.”

And that was the beginning of a nightly learning session that took place every day at 3am, for the next two years.

Rav Stern continues:

“We had agreed to learn the book Eitz Chaim by the Arizal in depth. Learning in Yeshivas Ahavas Shalom and other places had prepared me to be able to learn with the Rav. But the Rav totally changed my approach to studying in depth. Even though we were learning the secrets of the Torah, the Rav really taught me a path of how to study all the different parts of the Torah in-depth.

“Every topic we studied, we would look it up inside all the sources that were quoted – and then all the questions would disappear. I would ask the Rav a question and right away he would open up to the sources that discussed the matter, leaving me with no more questions. The Rav one told me: “such is the way to learn”.

Rav Stern explained that the hours would fly by, and that they would often study five hours straight until 8am.

Rav Stern continues:

“I was very taken by the a Rav, who was clearly a genius in both the revealed and the hidden Torah. He clearly grasped the ways of the Tzaddikim, especially the Chassidic masters, and Breslov.”

At one point, Rabbi Berland asked Rav Stern to start giving Gemara classes at Shuvu Banim.  “It was important to the Rav to learn in depth Gemara in the Yeshiva., he says.” The Rav’s helper Rav Ben Tzion Saada would come to pick me up at 1 AM, bring me to Yeshiva and return me home close to 3 AM, for my learning with the Rav.”

Rav Stern recalled that: “Nothing disturbed the Rav’s learning. Not even the Gulf war. He always had a book in his hand. At that time, Rav Berel Hager was also living in Har Nof, and before he became the Savarna Rebbe, he would also study with the Rav. He held the Rav in very high esteem.”

But Rav Stern still wasn’t a ‘Breslover’, at that stage.

He continues: “The Rav dealt with me very wisely, he knew when and how to bring me to Breslov. He saw I still wasn’t ready for it. For example, the Rav would go out every night with the Breslevors to pray in the forest before we learned. Many times, I begged the Rav to take me with them, the but Rav wouldn’t agree.

“After I kept begging over and over again, he finally took me to the forest, and I saw there how well the Rav knew me better than myself. After ten minutes of personal prayer I felt I had nothing more to say, I felt I was wasting my time, I took out a book and learned with my flashlight the rest of the time. For a half a year I didn’t want to go back.

“Thank G-d, I now know that personal prayer is at the center of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings, but it took me years to realize that.”

But Rav Stern was also deeply impressed by Rabbi Berland’s other students at the Shuvu Banim yeshiva, too.

“When I tought Gemara in Shuvu Banim, I thought I was coming to teach, but I was really coming to learn. I saw the students of the Rav, and the humility they had, and I really connected to them and started learning from them, too.”

Slowly, Rav Stern become more and more connected to Rebbe Nachman’s Torah and advice. “When we finished studying, we would get up to dance. Sometimes I would use my flute and the Rav would sing. There were times where we also learned Breslov Torah. In one night, we learnt most of the book Sichot Haran. I was increasingly drawn to the taste of Breslov, and I felt that everything I needed was here.”

By this point, Rav Stern had moved to Ramat Shlomo, and had a growing family.

He continues:

“One time I asked the Rav how I could bring my children closer to the path of Breslov. I told him “my kids are not Breslov, what should I do?” The Rav told me to move close to the Yeshiva on HaHoma Hashlishit (the street where Rabbi Berland himself lives, in Jerusalem).

“I didn’t understand how moving there was connected to my question, so I delayed fulfilling the words of the Rav. After a few months I approached the Rav again, and again asked him what I should do.  “My son is almost Bar Mitzva and he’s still not Breslov!”

“The Rav told me: ‘Move here, even if it’s going to cost you $2000.’ When I heard that, right away I searched for an apartment and I found an apartment in the neighborhood for $1000. But since my contract on the previous apartment wasn’t up, I still had to pay that month’s rent, too – and it came to exactly $2000!

“Another time, in Elul 1991 about two weeks before Rosh Hashana, the Rav told me to go to Uman with my son Mordechai since he was before the age of seven.[1] I responded that I didn’t have any money to fly. So, the Rav said he would pay, and when I heard that I got so excited I almost cried. What a merit to go to Uman with my son, and with the Rav! That was just the first of many years that the Rav paןd for me and my children to fly to Uman before they reached the age of 7. I remember when I got to Uman, I prostrated myself on the grave of Rabbi Nachman, and I just started to cry and cry. Rivers of tears poured from my eyes. I don’t even have an explanation for why that happened, but that is just how it is by the “Doctor of the Soul.”

As the years progressed, Rav Stern started to wonder if he should expand his outreach work by opening a Yeshiva.

He asked Rabbi Berland about it, and the Rav put him off, saying that it would distract him from his learning. Some time later, the Mutditzer Rebbe (who Rav Stern was connected to via his uncle) offered him a synagogue that could be turned into a Yeshiva, and so Rav Stern broached the question again.

“I asked the Rav if I should leave Kollel in the afternoons for the sake of bringing more people closer, and this time the Rav responded in the affirmative. So that’s what I did. One time I asked the Rav, ‘How can I influence people and bring them close to Judaism?’  The Rav answered: “Through music! Take a guitar and play, that how you can influence with your words.” With Hashem’s help, we’ve been giving classes – accompanied with music – all over Israel for decades now, opening up more hearts and bringing more souls closer.”

By this point, Rav Stern had a core group of about 50 students who were regularly attending the yeshiva in Mekor Chaim, and he asked Rabbi Berland to come and give a class there. To his surprise, the Rav repeatedly refused.

Rav Stern continues:

“I didn’t understand why. So I kept pressuring over and over again until the Rav finally agreed. As soon as people heard that the Rav was supposed to come, they flocked to hear him and the place was packed. The Rav gave over an amazing class, but at the end he said that from now on, the men in the Yeshiva would need to pray using the Sfard siddur, since the yeshiva was an extension of the Breslov Shul.

“This didn’t go over so well with a part of the group who were Sfardim  – and so the Yeshiva fell apart. That’s when I understood why the Rav had refused to come and give a class. The Rav can’t bend the truth, and if something is true he’s going to say it, and since the Rav knew how this would be received and the results of saying what he did, he didn’t want to come.”

However, there were still many students who were happy to change their style of prayer.

A little later on, this group moved with Rav Stern to come and live in the Shivtei Yisrael area of Jerusalem. “After we moved to Shivtei Yisrael, the students themselves decided to start wearing Chassidic clothing,” he says. “I saw what the Rav meant, that a change in place really changes a person.”

Today, Rav Stern is the head of many Torah institutions including a yeshiva in Meah Shearim, and also a seminary for girls called “Ohr Hachama”. Both places are currently accepting new pupils.

Rav Stern concludes:

“Throughout all the years, none of the thousands of decisions was made in the Yeshiva without the Rav. He is guiding and leading every step. I feel that the Rav is continuing to guide me according to the path he received from his teacher, HaGaon Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender.”

[1] There is a Breslov custom to bring a male child to Uman before they are seven years old at least once, to give them extra spiritual protection as they grow up.

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