An estimated 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews crowded the streets of Jerusalem Tuesday for the funeral of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the head of the capital's Mir Yeshiva, which is considered the Harvard of the Haredi world. Most of the mourners probably did not know that in his early years the revered American-Israeli scholar regularly exchanged his skullcap with a baseball batting helmet.
Born in Chicago in 1943, Natie Finkel, as he was known as a child, attended the Modern Orthodox Chicago Jewish Academy (a co-ed school today called Ida Crown Jewish Academy), where he was the president of the student council and starting centerfielder for the baseball team.
"He grew up on baseball, American kosher hotdogs, apple pie and everything else that represents the American Jewish scene," Yair Hoffman wrote on the Haredi news website Vos Is Neias. "He transcended all - in order to develop into a personality that develops other personalities."
Finkel, whose father owned a successful catering business in Chicago, took the helm of the Mir Yeshiva in 1990 and with his warm manners and skilled fundraising was instrumental in making the nearly 200-year-old institution the largest yeshiva in the world.
Today, Mir Jerusalem has approximately 6,000 students, two other branches in Israel and one in New York. Most of the students in "the Mir," as they colloquially call the institution, hail from North America and Western Europe.
"One of the big messages that comes across from him is - anybody can do it," Stuart Schnee, a New Jersey native who studied at Mir and knew Finkel personally, told Anglo File. "He didn't come from a big yeshiva background. But he showed all of us that with hard work you could achieve a lot. You're not born into it. Torah knowledge and Torah ability is not passed down like DNA - you have to work, but you can succeed."
Finkel, who succumbed to a heart attack, suffered from a severe version of Parkinson's disease for 30 years. Former students recalled that although for the last few years he was constantly trembling and could hardly walk and talk, he refused to take any medication because he feared it would make him forget his Torah studies.
"In the yeshiva you have all these guys in their twenties, at the height of their physical ability, and who are they looking up to, who is their hero? This man who is crushed physically," said Schnee. "But spiritually and mentally, he was as strong as anything. How could any student say, 'I have a cold today, I'm not going to study'? His message was you can do it, don't let things get in the way."