In traditional circles, leading rabbinic personalities are often referred to as gedolim, which can best be translated as “great ones.” Those who acquire this title are usually renowned not only for their scholarship and their ability to render Jewish legal decisions, but often for their piety and angelic character traits as well.
Due to historical circumstances, a not insignificant number of these gedolim resided in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Among these individuals, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky stood out as a person of outstanding personal character. There are hundreds of stories of how “Reb Yaakov,” as he was called, went out of his way to not only respect other people’s time and needs, but to make certain that they always felt respected. Stories range from instances when an elderly Reb Yaakov played ball with a young boy in a doctor’s waiting room, to how a nun visited Reb Yaakov’s children while they were sitting shiva for their father because, on his daily walks, he always made certain to greet her pleasantly.
Reb Yaakov was born and raised in Lithuania. He attended several well-known yeshivot, spending the majority of his student years at the renowned Slabodka yeshiva. His first rabbinic position, which he held for eleven years, was in the town of Zitavian, Lithuania. In 1937, Reb Yaakov emigrated to the United States due to the challenges of life under Communist rule. He went first to Seattle, Washington, and later accepted a rabbinic position in Toronto, Canada.
The position from which Reb Yaakov had the greatest influence on American Jewish life was when he served as the head of Mesivta Torah VaDaas, one of the few yeshiva high schools in America at the time, and later the Yeshiva Gedolah. He succeeded the legendary Rabbi Shrage Feivel Mendlowitz and remained in that position for 20 years. In 1968, Reb Yaakov retired to Monsey, NY, where he continued to teach Talmud, counsel petitioners, and write for Jewish publications until his death is 1986. His name is often grouped together with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Aharon Kotleras the triumvirate of “great ones” of that generation.