In 1929, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l and his son-in-law, Rav Reuven Grozovsky zt”l arrived in New York City to raise direly needed funds for the Kamenitz Yeshivah. On every occasion that Rav Boruch Ber spoke, he described the material poverty and contrasting spiritual riches of the yeshivah. But money was hard to come by; times were tough, and the language barrier made things all the more difficult. Fortunately, they found a native of Kamenitz who had lived in the United States for some time, Rav Yitzchok Tendler zt”l, rabbi of the Kamenitzer Shul in New York, and rosh yeshivah in Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, who volunteered to help them. His task was immense, bridging the gap between two spiritual giants and the land of materialism and secularism. To this, add fund-raising during the Depression. The results could not be very lucrative.
After weeks of making the rounds in New York, the three arrived in Baltimore, only to find that one of the biggest shuls in town had been placed under a prohibition by the local Vaad HaRabbanim. The congregants had moved the ladies down from the balcony onto the men’s level of worship. They had erected a small m’chitzah, but the local rabbis, under the leadership of Rav Avraham Nachman Schwartz zt”l, felt that this was a blatant breakdown of tz’nius in an Orthodox shul. Thus, the European visitors would not enter the building, but Rav Tendler felt that the need was great and, under the circumstances, a local prohibition need not apply to out-of-towners. He appealed to the Vaad HaRabbanim, and Rav Schwartz, with the approval of the rest of the rabbanim, agreed to waive the prohibition for Rav Tendler on the condition that he speak to the people about the importance of a m’chitzah. Rav Tendler kept his part of the bargain, speaking on the subject twice.
That Shabbos, his appeal for Kamenitz netted $2,400 in pledges, a fortune in those days. The shul president, visibly moved, announced that he would advance a personal check for the entire amount, so they could dispatch the money at once to the hungry students. On Shabbos afternoon, as Rav Tendler went back to the shul to speak about m’chitzos, the president of the shul drove up in a car and walked in, presenting a check of $2,400 to a shocked Rav Boruch Ber and his son-in-law.
The two were petrified. They had heard about chilul Shabbos in America, but this was their first personal encounter with it. Rav Boruch Ber said, “Chilul Shabbos money! That’s the result when one circumvents a prohibition of the rabbanim. Feh!”
The president, indignant and enraged, tore up the check in little pieces, stalked out, and slammed the door behind him.
When Rav Tendler returned after Maariv, Rav Reuven was waiting at the door. “My shver (father-in-law) is fuming. He did not realize that you were going to the prohibited shul, and now the president delivered a check on Shabbos!”
“But I only went because the rabbis permitted me to. The president’s conduct was totally out-of-order, but what has that to do with the shul congregants’ contributions?” Rav Reuven, however, insisted that his shver would accept no such donation.
Rav Tendler entered the room and said, “Gut voch, Rebbe.” Before Rav Boruch Ber had a chance to say a word, he said, “Rebbe, I’m calling you to a din Torah!” That was the second shock for the two g’dolim. “You came to me, telling me that the students in Kamenitz are starving. You have no money for expenses. So, I volunteered to help. I raised $2,400 and you refuse to think of accepting it. So, I’m calling you to a din Torah since I went to the shul with the approval of the rabbanim!”
Rav Boruch Ber turned to Rav Reuven. “When one is summoned to a din Torah, one must go. You will be my advocate.”
They decided to bring their case to Rav Schwartz, the chief rabbi of Baltimore. The rabbi gathered together a beis din of prominent rabbanim and the din Torah took place at the very same table where the president had placed his check. Rav Boruch Ber’s defense of the sanctity of Shabbos could have found no better spokesman than his son-in-law, and the needs of the yeshivah no more stirring an advocate than Rav Tendler. The decision was issued with speed and clarity. Rav Boruch Ber was right in his protest to the president, but the check had to be recovered for the sake of the b’nei Torah in Kamenitz.
During the conversation, one of the rabbis revealed that he knew of a local man who played cards with the very same president and would intercede on their behalf. They recovered $2,000, but the president refused to give $400, which represented his family’s donation.