Nominated and written by Willie Balk, NCSY Alumnus and Advisor
Hillel taught: “Be as the students of Aharon: Love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them closer to Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). These words of Hillel are more than just a nice idea put forward by one of our sages. Although Hillel was referring to Aharon, the saintly Kohel Gadol, whenever I learn this passage in Pirkei Avot, another Aharon HaKohen comes to mind- Aharon Halley z”l.
I first met Aharon in January 2007 at Central East’s Winter shabbaton in Cleveland. I was a senior in high school and Aharon was a junior. We were both staying at the same house. We introduced ourselves that thursday night and became fast friends. We spoke for hours about everything from sports to cars to girls. He was very easy to talk to and listened very intently. I thought he was just a regular guy like me. Yet, when the shabbaton really started the next night, I realized that my new friend Aharon was anything but. He was a rockstar. A legend. The older NCSYers wanted to be friends with. The older NCSYers wanted to be like him. The advisors wished they could be as captivating as this young man. The staff adored him and smiled every time Aharon would daven or give a dvar torah. He was truly larger than life. That shabbaton showed me that Aharon was no ordinary high schooler.
Aharon Simcha Halley z”l was a true emulation of the teaching of Hillel. He was a friend to all, very approachable and personable. He knew how to have a good time, and at the same time he knew how to buckle down and be serious. But most of all, like the talmidim of Aharon HaKohen, he brought people close to torah. During his illness, there were countless initiatives to “Learn for Aharon” where NCSYers dedicated their learning to his recovery. He would continually ask those around him for a torah thought for him to think about. But more than all of this is a story that is well known to those in Central East NCSY. At that winter shabbaton in Cleveland in 2007, Aharon got up in front of the entire group and spoke about a friend of his from Alderdice who watched him put on tefillen during a free period. This was Aharon’s time to daven during his hectic day, and rather than push the guy away, he brought him in and shared his tefillin with him. He went on about how this individual was making strides in his commitment to yiddishkeit and then, in front of everyone, he and regional director Rabbi Tzali Freedman presented this young man with his very own set of tefillin. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room:
It’s been six years since Hashem called our Aharon HaKohen to shamayim, but it feels like it was only yesterday that I was on the phone with him. I flip through my pictures from NCSY and I see him, the same happy guy that he always was. I go back and watch the video from the shabbaton, speaking in his raspy voice, inspiring everyone, and it still makes me tear up. I flip through my Facebook friends and there he is, looking as he always did. It’s been six years, and on September 27th, I still want to wish him a happy birthday. It’s been six years, but it doesn’t get any easier living without Aharon. It is my fervent hope that we be able to live as the students of Aharon HaKohen, and the way that Aharon Halley himself lived.