In an exclusive interview, Rabbi Leibel Altein, founder of Heichal Menachem, which brings Chassidus to tens of thousands, speaks about Reb Yoel Kahn, his dedication, his style and his effect on students.
For years, Heichel Menachem has been working to make Chassidus accessible to the Yidden of Boro Park, and the entire world. R’ Yoel Kahn stood at the helm of their efforts, being mashpia and leading over 2,500 shiurim for the twenty-seven years since their establishment.
R’ Yoel’s dedication to Heichel Menachem was unique; his shiurim took precedence over other major endeavors in his life. His biurim of Chassidus generated much excitement toward the learning of Tanya, Maamarim, and Sichos, bringing hundreds of Yidden closer to the Rebbe’s Torah.
An exclusive interview with R’ Leibel Altein, the founder of Heichel Menachem, conducted by the Kfar Chabad Magazine, highlights R’ Yoel’s tremendous dedication to Heichel Menachem and the lasting, transformative impact that he had on its participants.
In the interview, R’ Leibel describes R’ Yoel’s ‘ibergegebenkeit‘ to Heichel Menachem:
“His mesiras nefesh for Heichel Menachem was tremendous. When Gimmel Tammuz fell out on Shabbos, R’ Yoel Kahn would come to Boro Park together with his wife, to teach a maamar before davening. On Shabbos afternoon, he would chazer a maamar by heart, and he would farbreng throughout the entire Shabbos. Certainly, it would have been meaningful for him to be at the Ohel or in 770 on Shabbos Gimmel Tammuz. However, he came to Boro Park, because to him, Hafatzas Hamayanos was the greatest thing. One could say that this was his main concern and chayus.”
R’ Leibel also gives a glimpse into R’ Yoel’s teaching style and how it transformed his students:
“When R’ Yoel spoke and farbrenged, people suddenly discovered a completely new understanding of emunah, Torah, Mitzvos, and what it means to be a Yid. He took simple ideas — the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit — and completely transformed them for his students.”
In the interview, he goes on to detail the lasting impact that R’ Yoel had on the Yidden of Boro Park:
“He simply transformed the lives of the people there. He didn’t just teach a maamar Chassidus; he didn’t just cause people to understand Chassidus well and ensure that Chassidus permeated everyone; he created new people entirely. He changed their lives. To the extent that in the middle of his levaya a young man from Boro Park called me and asked if he had to tear kriah.”
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Remembering The Rebbe’s Chozer
How did your relationship with R’ Yoel start?
My relationship with R’ Yoel began when I learned in the ‘Yeshivah Ketanah’ on Bedford Avenue, in the year תשכ”ו. He taught us Chassidus every evening.
Afterward, for the years תשכ”ז-כ”ח, I switched to the yeshiva in Newark, where my mashpia was R’ Meilech Zweibel, a”h.
In the year תשכ”ט I started learning in 770, and although during those years R’ Yoel was not the mashpia there (rather, he was the mashpia in the ‘Yeshiva Ketana’ on Bedford Avenue), he agreed to give a shiur to us once a week. And so, every Friday night we would learn Chassidus with him in the dining room of the yeshiva building.
In Nissan of תשכ”ט, I merited to travel as a “student-shliach” to the Yeshiva in Australia, where I stayed for two years.
During those two years, my classmates back in 770 were asked by the hanhala of the yeshiva to relocate their learning to the yeshiva on Ocean Parkway. They didn’t want to leave 770, so in order to convince them, the hanhala promised them that R’ Yoel would make a special trip to Ocean Parkway to give over a shiur Chassidus to them. My classmates readily agreed, and they enjoyed an extra class of Chassidus with R’ Yoel, while I was still out on shlichus.
In what manner did R’ Yoel have hashpaah on his students?
R’ Yoel educated us to understand Chassidus deeply, without minimizing any of the ideas. He trained us to reach the crux of every concept and to transcend the gashmiusdike hanachos that were so familiar to us and very much a part of who we were, and to remove ideas from their materialistic encasing.
R’ Yoel’s shiurim were very abstract. His explanations were so lofty that they forced whoever came out of his shiur to sit and think, delve and explore, until he finally grasped the ideas that he was just taught.
One time, R’ Yoel was inside 770, farbrenging. He asked, “Do you think that tzimzum is k’peshuto?” He then delved into a lengthy explanation about the different levels of Elokus.
I don’t remember the whole explanation now, and the different levels that he spoke about, but he taught us that we should not just look at things superficially. Rather, we should delve into the depths of a subject matter and think about it until we connect with it and understand it on a deeper level.
This is what R’ Yoel did in his shiurim. He did explain well, but his explanations did not conform to the limitations of the listener, rather, they raised the listener to the loftiest source of the concepts.
R’ Yoel would describe “sovev kol almin” as it is understood by Chassidus. He explained that one should not mistake “sovev” to mean surrounding.
Rather, it means that Hashem is found in every creation. R’ Yoel would explain: “What is Chassidus trying to negate here? Would we think that “sovev” could mean surrounding?” He taught us that such a foolish premise — thinking that Elokus could be surrounding — doesn’t even need to be negated.
This is how he educated us to learn Chassidus – to understand the depth of every matter; to transcend our gashmiusdike perceptions and reach the essence of every concept.
From Student To Colleague
In a certain sense, you turned into a ‘chozer’ and you started to work on writing hanachos and Lekutei Sichos…
Sometime around י”א ניסן תשל”א I returned to 770 from shlichus in Australia, and starting from then, R’ Yoel asked me a couple of times to come to his house to join the chazara after the farbrengens. There were bochurim who would come consistently; I, however, would only come from time to time. I remember that on שבת חזון תשל”א , when the Rebbe said the maamar beginning ‘ איכה ישבה בדד ‘, R’ Yoel asked me to come to his house after the farbrengen to review the maamar and the sichos that were said during the farbrengen.
In the summer of תשל”ג I began to work on creating the hanachos of Lekutei Sichos. In those days, the members of Vaad L’Hafotzas Sichos were Rabbi Yehuda Leib Schapiro שיחי ’, Rabbi Nachman Schapiro שיחי ’, and Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan a”h, and they asked me to join them.
As part of my work, I was in touch with R’ Yoel whenever necessary, but I was mostly in touch with him when he himself was writing a sicha or a mammar. R’ Yoel used to have someone help him with the technical work when he was writing– to type for him, to find sources, and to bring him a sefer when needed. R’ Yoel would generally show his writing to another person to hear a second opinion. The notion that a young man should critique R’ Yoel on his writing, was absurd to me– but that’s what he wanted.
In the years of תשל”ד and תשל”ה , R’ Yoel asked me a number of times to sit with him while he was writing.
I remember he asked me to sit with him while he was working on writing the maamarim ‘אך בגורל’ and ‘ציון במשפט תפדה’, which the Rebbe said during the three weeks in .תשל”ה I really enjoyed the time that I spent working with Reb Yoel. I think I felt that there was a connection and closeness of minds between us.
What was R’ Yoel’s role in writing Lekutei Sichos during the years that you worked on them?
Whenever we had difficulty with understanding a concept, we would consult him. There were sichos for which he assisted with the writing, and then there were sichos that he himself wanted to write entirely on his own. For example, R’ Yoel had a big koch in the sichos about the Rebbe’s father’s explanations on Igeres Hateshuva, and when we decided to print a series of sichos on these explanations, R’ Yoel asked to work on them.
There were other sichos that he had a similar koch in, and asked to write them himself.
What can you tell us about the manner in which he worked on writing the maamarim and sichos?
Those who had the privilege of working with Reb Yoel quickly noticed one thing: he put a huge effort into his writing.
When he was working on writing a maamar, he worked around the clock. His head was working, and he completely ignored his body. He would work on a maamar for tens of hours at a time.
At a certain stage, the relationship between the two of you branched out into another dimension: Hafatzos Hamayanos Chutzah, can you describe it?
Chassidus Via Telephone was established around the time of Lag Baomer תשמ”ד, and I was on the leadership committee of the moisad. R’ Yoel would teach shiurim of Tanya in-depth, on this platform, and he really invested himself into this initiative. I was also involved and I would give over sichos on the Yomim Tovim and the weekly Parshah.
In the summer of תשנ”ב, a close friend of mine who worked in computers, explained to me that nowadays you can do everything much more easily on computers. This would attract a significantly broader audience for the shiurim, and they would be enhanced with much better sound quality. When we moved to this platform, it was like a brand new institution. It went live י”ט כסלו תשנ”ג, and it grew tremendously since then.
How did this turn into the moisad Heichel Menachem?
As I recall, it was after כ”ז אדר תשנ”ב, that I was approached by the generous R’ Yosef Yitzchok Gutnick. He told me that they already established libraries called “Heichel Menachem” in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak, which were spreading Chassidus to a wide audience.
He wanted to establish one such institution in New York, in the place with the most concentrated number of Jews, Boro Park.
As I recall, he wrote to the Rebbe before כ”ז אדר about the idea and he received a written haskama from the Rebbe.
However, he only suggested the idea to me after כ”ז אדר. I subsequently wrote about it to the Rebbe, and when the secretary, R’ Binyamin Klein, brought the note in to the Rebbe, he told me that the Rebbe had nodded his holy head in the affirmative.
That’s when the moisad came into existence. We found a place, we facilitated renovations, and we set up a large Chassidus library. The first farbrengen at the new location was on ח”י אלול תשנ”ד. R’ Yoel came, and even though the space wasn’t very large, about six-hundred Yidden attended the farbrengen. This was the first time that R’ Yoel came, and from then on he felt that this was his place.
R’ Yoel had already come to give shiurei Chassidus years before this (starting in the late ’ לs). He already had many students in Boro Park, but after Heichel Menachem was established, he transferred his shiurim there. In the beginning, he gave a shiur in Tanya every Motzei Shabbos. Later on, he added another shiur on Thursday nights, where he would teach a select few maamarim.
For him, the shiurim were like ” חוק ולא יעבור “; he came consistently (until the outbreak of Covid-19), despite the fact that he was already elderly and giving the shiur required a lot of energy. His dedication and commitment to giving over the shiurim were unique.
During the International Kinus HaShluchim, there was always a big melave malka for all the Shluchim. R’ Yoel would always go there to chazer the sichos that the Rebbe had said at the farbrengen of that Shabbos. Even after Gimmel Taamuz, he continued to go and chazer sichos that the Rebbe said to Shluchim.
However, once his Motzei Shabbos shiur started, R’ Yoel told the coordinators of the melave malka that they would have to schedule his speech for after the time of his set shiur in Boro Park. The shiur took precedence over everything, even speaking to the Shluchim – which was something that he held very dear.
R’ Yoel felt that ‘Heichel Menachem’ was his calling.
His whole life was concerned with one thing: that a Jew should learn Chassidus, and understand a vort of Chassidus. This was his life, and he dedicated himself to it in every way. First and foremost, he was a mashpia in the yeshiva, and it was very important to him that the bochurim should learn and understand Chassidus.
To R’ Yoel, learning Chassidus with a Jew in Boro Park was no less precious– if not more precious– than learning with the bochurim in 770.
His mesiras nefesh for Heichel Menachem was tremendous.
When Gimmel Tammuz fell out on Shabbos, R’ Yoel Kahn would come to Boro Park together with his wife, to teach a maamar before davening. On Shabbos afternoon, he would chazer a maamar by heart, and he would farbreng throughout the entire Shabbos. Certainly, it would have been meaningful for him to be at the Ohel or in 770 on Shabbos Gimmel Tammuz. However, he came to Boro Park, because to him, Hafatzas Hamayanos was the greatest thing. One could say that this was his main concern and chayus.
One of the projects of Heichel Menachem is the publishing of “Chassidus Mivueres” on Maamarim and the Tanya. Was R’ Yoel involved in this as well?
Sometimes, when there was a difficulty in understanding the maamar, they asked him.
But this wasn’t a consistent thing. Obviously, he was very connected to writing explanations on Chassidus– we ourselves based our explanations on his “Sefer Ha’arachim”, as well as the hanachos that he wrote from the maamarim and farbrengens of the Rebbe.
But aside from ‘Chassidus Mevueres’, R’ Yoel published, under ‘Heichel Menachem’, his own Sefer called “The Essence of the Jews”. This was a Sefer that was written personally by R’ Yoel and he instructed Heichel Menachem to facilitate the publishing process.
The beginning of the Sefer discussed the shiurim that R’ Yoel gave over the phone. R’ Yoel would give these shiurim on several topics, and the first series was about ישראל, אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא’. He chose to write this himself afterward, and publish it in his Sefer.
What were the results of R’ Yoel’s shiurim in Boro Park?
He simply transformed the lives of the people there. He didn’t just teach a maamar Chassidus; he didn’t just cause people to understand Chassidus well and ensure that Chassidus permeated everyone; he created new people entirely. He changed their lives. To the extent that in the middle of his levaya a young man from Boro Park called me and asked if he had to tear kriah.
When R’ Yoel spoke and farbrenged, people suddenly discovered a completely new understanding of emunah, Torah, Mitzvos, and what it means to be a Yid. He took simple ideas — the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit — and completely transformed them for his students.
I heard from a young man who became close to Chassidus through R’ Yoel, how, during the era of the Gulf War (in the year תנש”א) the Rebbe constantly said that Eretz Yisroel is the safest place and Yidden would not be harmed there. One Friday night, R’ Yoel arrived in Boro Park for his weekly shiur, and the participants told him that it was reported on the radio that Scud missiles had landed in Eretz Yisroel. Without missing a beat, R’ Yoel said: “This is impossible. The Rebbe said that Yidden will not be harmed — so they won’t be harmed. Certainly, tomorrow it will be discovered that this was a mistake.” The next day, it was indeed discovered that not one person was hit by the missiles.
That same student said that when they all saw R’ Yoel’s pure faith in the Rebbe, it completely changed their outlook on everything. With the pure G-dly hanachos that he expressed, R’ Yoel influenced his students very deeply, in a way that changed their lives.
Today, we are planning to establish a new building in memory of R’ Yoel, which will be named for him — ‘Beis R’ Yoel’. One of his Talmidim, who became close to Chassidus through R’ Yoel, heard about the plans for this building and immediately wrote a check for $10,000. Why? Because R’ Yoel had transformed his life.
What kind of center do you plan to establish?
As I said, “Heichel Menachem” was near and dear to R’ Yoel; it was the essence of his life. Because of this, the leaders of Heichel Menachem feel that there is no organization more fitting than Heichel Menachem, to build an institution in his name.
We are planning to build a new center in which we will set up a new library, which will serve as a space for people to learn Chassidus. The name of the building will be ‘Beis R’ Yoel’, and it will be a beautiful center of Chassidus in the heart of Boro Park.
In addition, all activities of Hafatzas HaChassidus will take place in this space: the editing of Chassidus Mivueres, the systems of shiurei Chassidus on the phone, and all other activities. It will be a center where the essence of יפוצו מעיינותיך חוצה’ ‘ will take place on a huge scale.
Nowadays, סדנא דארעא חד הוא, meaning something that happens in one place has a strong impact far away, so even though the Heichel Menachem center is physically located in Boro Park, its influence reaches far beyond the borders of this neighborhood, and its activities bring Chassidus to the entire world.
Practically speaking, what can we do in memory of and to follow in the path of R’ Yoel?
I suggest that we focus on two things, body and soul: Firstly, to help with the building of Heichel Menachem’s center, which will be named for R’ Yoel. Establishing a center that is a place that is conducive to expanding one’s mind, a place where many Yidden will be able to come and learn Chassidus, which comes along with an enormous expense.
The second way that one can honor Reb Yoel’s legacy is that every person, wherever he may be, should get involved in spreading Chassidus. We can’t be passive. Just like when we see a Yid who hasn’t put on Tefillin, we’re unable to remain silent and it is our duty to help him put on Tefillin, when we see a Yid who has not yet learned Chassidus, it is our duty to inspire him to learn Chassidus or to join a shiur Chassidus.
This is the obligation of every individual. It needs to concern everyone on a soul level that there be no Yid who hasn’t learned Chassidus. It should be constantly nagging at one’s mind and soul that if there is a Yid who hasn’t yet learned Tanya, it is his obligation to inspire him to do so.
Nowadays, there is an abundance of Shiurei Chassidus that can be heard over the phone, and myriads of Sefarim with biurim on Chassidus, making it quite easy to bring Chassidus to all Yidden.
Yidden are thirsty for it. I remember that when we organized the first Yud Tes Kislev farbrengen in Boro Park we rented a big hall that could contain a thousand people.
People said to us: “What are you going to do if only twenty people come? It’ll be an embarrassment!” They recommended that we get a partition so that, should only twenty people show up, we could close off one of the corners of the hall and sit there.
However, when Motzei Shabbos came, the hall was filled from wall to wall, literally.
Already at our first farbrengen, more than a thousand people came and filled the hall. This was a farbrengen where nothing but words of Chassidus were spoken, and still, people who had not previously learned Chassidus were drawn to the farbrengen.
The spirit of Chassidus was blowing through Boro Park and drawing thousands of Yidden.
There is a huge demand for Chassidus in the world, and the responsibility is on our shoulders, to be concerned that not only should Yidden want Chassidus, but that they should receive Chassidus.
They should actually know what Chassidus is and they should learn it.
At the farbrengen of י’ שבט תשי”א, the Rebbe said that the pnimiyus of every kind of shlichus that the Frierdiker Rebbe mandated regarding Hafatzas Hayehadus and strengthening frumkeit was ultimately that, ‘Yafutzu Mayanosecha Chutza’.
The Rebbe said that there are those to whom the Frierdiker Rebbe gave orders in regards to gashmius— to get involved in business matters and the like, but as a chitzoniyus task; the main intention was for matters of Torah and Mitzvos.
And then there were those to whom, in a revealed and open sense, the orders that the Frierdiker Rebbe gave were regarding ruchniyusdike matters– to get involved in Chinuch, strengthening Torah-learning, spreading Yiddishkeit, and even teaching children Alef-Beis.
But just like those who received orders to get involved in gashmiyusdike matters knew that this was only a chitzoniyusdike task, and that the main intention was for Torah and Mitzvos, so too those who received orders to get involved in ruchniyusdike matters need to know that this is just a chitzoniyusdike order, relative to the main intention behind it.
And what is the main intention behind it? What does the Rebbe want from those who are already involved in spreading Yiddishkeit? To know that the point of their shlichus of spreading Yiddishkeit is: to spread Toras HaChassidus.
As the Frierdiker Rebbe said, “The Alter Rebbe did not intend to make the Chassidim separate from everyone else; rather the intention was that Toras HaChassidus is relevant to and intended for all Yidden”.
In whatever shlichus we may find ourselves, we have to seek out every Jew, ensuring that the light of Chassidus reaches them. This is the Avodah that is demanded of us, in order to bring Moshiach.
For a print version of the interview, click here: Life of R’ Yoel Kahn