This week we lost a beloved friend of many years, Rabbi Philip Russ, R' Ahron Feivel ben Yaakov Moshe a'h. The levaya was a big one, a kavod gadol, befitting a great and humble Jew.
Rabbi Russ was a man among men, a very special individual. He was a principal at Yeshivah of Flatbush, JEC of Elizabeth, and Magen David Yeshivah. But he was far more than just a principal, he built those schools, those communities by recognizing the value of the klal and the prat, the big picture, and the value of each person, students, parents, teachers and even the custodial staff. He demanded high standards and didn't take excuses. But his demands were 'tocho ratzuf ahavah' built on a foundation of love and high standards. He was very tough on teachers, to help them perfect their precious craft and he was very tough on behalf of his teachers representing them to the board, to make sure they earned a living wage.
In Elizabeth, he became close to Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, zt'l, who was a godol b'Yisrael, and often shared many memories from that period with me. Magen David, a Sefardic Yeshiva in Brooklyn recruited him from JEC. They needed someone to 'turn the school around' and bring discipline and raise the standards of education there. He did just that. In addition, he raised the level of the parents and teachers spiritually, halachically, and they still express tremendos hakaras hatov to him to this day. He knew his people, and there were many of them, personally, he knew their families, he knew what they were about. He mentioned to me many times that he would marvel at their penchant for tzedakah every time he reached out to them for support.
Rabbi Russ was a big believer in living a moral and ethical life. He would say to his children you have to be the voice of the poor and weak, you have to stick up for them. Indeed, this is one of the overwhelming messages of the Torah, especially in the sifrei haneveim. One example: When the new Syrian refugees came to his school, they were sitting side by side in the ragged clothes with kids from rich families; so he gave them money from his tzedakah fund to buy respectable clothes. In Magen David he received many expensive gifts (really expensive!) He put them on a shelf; he never used them; and he left them there when he retired. He never wanted to feel obligated to the rich, staying far from any 'bribe'.
Rabbi Russ was a formidable talmid chacham. Learning was his life. Always surrounded by sefarim, always interested in talking in learning. He was a follower of gedolim, Rav Scheinberg, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Soloveichik, & yibadel l'chaim Rav Schechter. Every time I shared a Dvar Torah with him, he gave me back more sources than I quoted to him, or he added a sharp ma'aseh from some recollection he had. He was a treasure trove of Torah knowledge. And he continued learning as long as he possibly could. He personified 'Talmud Torah k'neged kulam'
At the levaya, his children & grandchildren read some very good 'dear Daddy and dear zeidy' letters. They remembered how, although very busy and very much under pressure, he always prioritized family. He took trips, he took them to ball games, he shared his passions & many Jewish & wordly interests with them. One of his daughters said at the shiva, All my friends would go to the movies on Sundays, we were going to protests for Soviet jewry!! He managed to inculcate his life force, his values into his children in a beautiful way. A great lesson about family and of course about educating our children.
It was noted at the funeral, that Rabbi Russ was a man who reflected on his outside what he held on the inside. The opposite of a hypocrite. He practiced what he taught others, he maintained the same standards in his own life that he demanded from those around him. This is a rare quality nowadays. People love to talk about their opinions, following through is a different matter. In Hebrew we say 'Tocho k'boro'-the inside is like the outside. In the days of the Mishnah, a conflict arose, and Rabban Gamliel vanquished Rebbe Yehoshua (so to speak, and eventually he reversed his position) And when Raban Gamliel took over the Yeshivah, he put guards at the door to keep out anybody who was not at this truly high standard of 'Tocho k'boro' (the same on the inside as the outside-I always wondered how the guards could know that...?) The student body fell dramatically. Until Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah took over and removed the guards and let everyone in again. We might speculate that Rabbi Russ could have gained entry to the yeshivah even when the guards were there! Indeed, he was a role model for us in practicing what you preach, and keeping personal standards at the same level that you expect from other people.
Rabbi Russ did not materialize from nowhere. His parents were very ehrlicheh yidden, and very poor. They were moser nefesh to keep Shabbos, and his father would get fired every Friday. They couldn't afford tuition in yeshiva, but enrolled him in the Ohel Moshe Yeshivah of Bensonhurst anyway. His father was nifter when he was just 14 years old, and Rabbi Elias Schwartz, zt'l became not only his rebbe, but also a close father figure to him for the rest of his life. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see where the values of sacrifice, sticking up for the weak, being fatherly and total dedication to the service of Hashem & Klal Yisrael developed within Rabbi Russ at a young age.
I remember a few times he mentioned to me, that he once walked out of the hashkama minyan with Anshel Tessler. a'h and he mentioned that it was a cold morning. Anshel said back, you think this is cold? It is nothing compared to Bergen Belsen. Those types of moments stuck with Rabbi Russ. He had a big heart, and also a wise heart. In many ways he reminded me of my father, a'h.
He had a unique blend of high Torah knowledge and also worldly knowledge of history, politics, of the arts & philosophy. In a way, emulating Rav Soloveitchik, zt'l whom he admired so much.
And, like the great Tzadikim taught: that a person needs to know the balance in life- when to be bold and be the leader and the teacher and also to know when to be the student, to be humble, how to be the sympathetic listener. He also knew a thing or two about generosity ((I can tell you about that) He had these 2 extremes very nicely balanced. He was a humble giant of yid. He was very honorable per the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos: Eizehu hu mechubad, hamechabed es acheirim (whois honorable? He who honors ohers)
Rabbi Russ was super proud of his eishes chayil, our dear friend Sharron for all that she stands for and all that she has accomplished. They shared a life of avodas hakodesh.
I want to mention the respect & friendship he received. and especially from a few individuals in the congregation in particular, but we will allow them anonymity. I want to mention how our friend Mr. Paul Wallace was a good friend to him, & did many things for him with love.
Rabbi Russ was our teacher, a terrific role model and inspiration, and a dear & truly beloved friend. Without intending to be cliche-always in our hearts, always in my heart. May his neshamah have an aliya, may he have a lichtegeh gan eden, and may he be a meilitz yosher for all.