One of Rabbi Zvi Aryeh Rosenfeld’s Talmud Torah students, whom we’ll call “Kohn,” lived next-door to the Rosenfeld family. One Friday night, Rabbi Rosenfeld’s four-year-old son opened his bedroom window before going to sleep and heard Kohn singing zemirot.
He went to tell his father. Rabbi Rosenfeld came into the room, sat on his son’s bed, and listened intently. His son wanted to go to sleep, but he wanted to continue listening. He sat there, bent forward, straining to catch every note. After about half an hour, Kohn finished singing. Rabbi Rosenfeld wished his son a “Gut Shabbos” and left the room.
Rabbi Rosenfeld had been concerned about Kohn’s religious observance, and was afraid that he might even remove his yarmulke. That evening, when he heard Kohn singing zemirot with such kavanah (devotion), a small hope burgeoned within him that Kohn would be all right. But shortly afterward, Kohn did remove his yarmulke and stopped observing mitzvot.
Rabbi Rosenfeld was terribly hurt when Kohn and another of his promising students stopped keeping mitzvot. He wrote to Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz in Israel and told him that he was considering leaving the kiruv (outreach) field.
This happened in 1953. When he visited Jerusalem that summer, Rabbi Rosenfeld entered the Breslov synagogue in Katamon after Maariv, when the Chassidim were in the midst of their traditional rikud, a short dance after prayers. Rabbi Sternhartz danced past Rabbi Rosenfeld without acknowledging him. Rabbi Rosenfeld thought that Rabbi Sternhartz was angry with him for planning to leave kiruv. The truth was that the Breslov elder had simply failed to notice him.
The second time Rabbi Sternhartz danced past Rabbi Rosenfeld, he finally noticed him and raised his arms as if to embrace him from afar. Rabbi Rosenfeld cut through the line of men to speak with him directly. “I feel so out of place here,” he told him. “I’m clean-shaven, wearing a suit, and living of outside Eretz Yisrael.”
Rabbi Sternhartz replied, “Having a beard is great! Wearing Chassidic clothes is great! Living in Eretz Yisrael is great! But nothing compares to bringing one soul back to Torah!”
Rabbi Rosenfeld had his answer. He remained in the United States, continued working in kiruv, and did not grow a beard. And he never looked back.
From an upcoming biography of Rabbi Zvi Aryeh Rosenfeld