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8 Sivan 5761 - May 30, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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IN-DEPTH FEATURES
The Rov Who Turned Baalebatim Into Bnei Yeshiva

by M. Samsonowitz

Part I

Slated to Be a Rov

Since the age of 13, Avigdor Miller had decided that he wanted to be a rabbi heading a congregation. It was not a vaunted profession in the spiritually parched years of the 1920s in America, particularly outside of the New York Jewish community, but young Avigdor had always been attracted to religious life and Jewish learning. While he attended public school like all the other Jewish boys from religious homes, his true interests lay in his Jewish studies which he studied with his grandfather and other local rabbonim.

At the age of 14, he left to study at Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon, which at the time was the only Jewish high school offering high-level Jewish studies in the U.S. Over there, he became part of a distinguished group of rising American Torah scholars whose ranks included such well- known names as HaRav Nosson Wachtfogel, HaRav Yehuda Davis and HaRav Mordechai Gifter.

These young men, who would later become famous Torah educators and have a huge impact on the religious community in the U.S., met secretly in HaRav Miller's dormitory room in Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon to hear a clandestine shiur in Mesillas Yeshorim. The shiur was given by HaRav Yaakov Yosef Herman, a fiery Torah balabos.

Rav Miller had the vigor, delivery, single-mindedness and powerful rhetoric befitting a natural leader. When Avigdor was a mere 17 years old, he spoke in English before a crowd of 1000 worshipers before Kol Nidrei services, after the congregation's rov had spoken in Yiddish. He avidly attended and listened to the Yiddish droshos of the distinguished rabbonim in Baltimore.

In 1932, HaRav Aizik Sher zt'l, the rosh yeshiva of Slobodke, came to American to raise money for his yeshiva. When HaRav Sher came to Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon HaRav Miller became attached to him and followed him to Yeshivas Slobodke, arriving on erev Shavuos. Greeting him at the yeshiva was HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky zt'l, the mashgiach, who kissed him on the forehead and said, "You have come for kabolas haTorah." Later, recalling his trip, HaRav Sher said that he did not collect much silver (kesef) on that trip to America, but that he did bring back gold, in the form of HaRav Miller and others who came to Slobodke as a result of that trip.

Rav Gifter once told Rav Miller's son, "The zchus of my learning Torah is due to your father. It was he who encouraged me to go study in Europe."

The six years he spent in the Slobodke yeshiva were the turning point in his life. It was in these years that he internalized the Slobodke philosophy of gadlus ho'odom and tikkun hamidos which laid the groundwork for his Torah worldview and teachings.

His diligence in Torah study in the Slobodke yeshiva was legendary. He would sit and learn gemora for hours on end. His shirt sleeves were worn out from the many hours he pored over his studies at his shtender in the yeshiva. He also spent many hours avidly going over the Chovos Halevovos, the classic mussar text which was his lifelong companion.

In 1935 he married his life partner for sixty-four years, Ethel Lessin, the daughter of Rav Yaakov Moshe Lessin, rov of Neishtat and later the mashgiach ruchani of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon in New York.

Returning to the United States at the age of 30 in 1939, the young man would spend the following 62 years of his life refining his unique educational techniques and disseminating his views which emphasized unending Torah study, constant contemplation of Hashem and His works, and fierce dedication to a Torah way of life.

Rabbinical Appointment in Chelsea

The first rabbinical position which Rav Avigdor accepted was in an Orthodox synagogue in Chelsea, Massachusetts. This small Jewish community was in the same difficult situation as other American Jewish communities at that time: the younger generation was ignorant, disaffected and many of them were undergoing a process of rapid assimilation. Getting them interested in Judaism was not at all easy.

Rav Miller asked around: Is there anyone who wants to learn? He was introduced to a young Jewish man who was working as a butcher. Feeling the young man had potential, Rav Miller commenced studying Torah with him. After a while, the young man quit his job and came to study full-time with Rav Miller. With time, the young man married and became a Jewish teacher in the Chabad yeshiva in Boston.

One success story in an entire Jewish community! Rav Miller knew that Torah study, and only Torah study, could maintain Judaism. It was necessary to found a Jewish school where children would be imbued with Judaism from their earliest years. He mounted a campaign to found a Jewish day school with the assistance of his father-in-law, HaRav Yaakov Moshe Lessin. The fierce opposition of the supporters of the afternoon talmud Torahs, who were afraid that the new school would detract from their institutions, had to be surmounted, but finally he succeeded. The school opened its doors and congregants began to send their children to it.

In the meantime, Rav Miller had the pressing problem of his own children's education. His oldest son had reached school age but, well aware of the immoral and irreligious atmosphere of the public schools, Rav Miller had procured for his son a special exemption from school. His son learned his English studies privately with a tutor and Rav Miller taught him his Jewish studies. The lad had to show up in the public schools twice a year to take evaluation tests. It was not a really good arrangement, and Rav Miller feared that what had happened to the children of other rabbonim would happen to his own children. He began to think seriously of moving to a larger Jewish population center.

The dedication ceremony of the school's new building was held in 1944. Rav Miller had decided to invite the distinguished rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbenu Chaim Berlin, HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, to speak at the event. HaRav Hutner had studied many years in Slobodke and was famous as a preeminent Slobodke graduate, even though the two had not studied in the yeshiva during the same period.

Before Rav Miller could call Rav Hutner, though, Rav Hutner called him. To his great surprise and joy, Rav Miller was offered a job as mashgiach of Chaim Berlin. This would give him the chance to move to New York where vibrant Jewish education was available for his children. He jumped at it.

The day following the school's dedication, Rav Miller told his baalebatim that he was leaving for New York. The disappointment was great, but no amount of pleading could get him to change his mind.

However, he did not leave the congregation without guidance. He called his earlier disciple, who was teaching in Boston, to take over the school. This man made it a great success, and used it as a springboard to engage in kiruv activities throughout the Jewish community. One or two bus loads of youths from Chelsea started coming to Camp Aguda on scholarship every summer. From that initial contact, many went on to Yeshivas Torah Vodaas and other yeshivos. The eventual result was that their entire families remained religious, faithful Jews. Today, these youths who remained religious due to Rav Miller's efforts in Chelsea have hundreds of descendants who are firmly a part of the religious world.

Rav Miller was later to say that if he had just remained in Chelsea and not gone to New York, that alone would have been his ticket to the World to Come.

A Rav in Young Israel

The Millers moved to East Flatbush and Rav Miller took his position in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin. Shortly after he arrived, he was invited by the Young Israel of Rugby to be their unofficial rov. The shul, located at East 49 street in Brooklyn, was a modest building. It had 150 seats for men and 70 for women.

Only in 1946-47 was Rav Miller given an official appointment. What attracted the congregants to him initially was that he was a learned scholar, he spoke English very well -- and he happened to be living right there.

Many members of Young Israel in those days were outstanding idealists who were true Torah heroes of their time. They unfortunately possessed only superficial Jewish education but what they knew and were aware of they attempted to fulfill with vigor and inspiration. It was these people who created the original religious centers in New York and out of town, and it was they who campaigned to influence Jewish store owners to close their shops on Shabbos, which was a formidable trial in those days.

One weak side of Young Israel was that some of its members didn't understand the importance of striving for a rising standard of Yiddishkeit. They resisted the influence of the Holocaust survivors who arrived in the 40s and 50s who brought with them a more intense practice of Judaism and far higher standards of Jewish scholarship. Their well- meaning but unlearned practice of Judaism prevented them from inspiring many of their children. However, their place of honor remains uncontested, since for many years, they were the only framework that appealed to the young Americanized Orthodox Jew. They offered a vibrant Jewish environment, social activities, spirited davening and youth groups for Jewish youths attending public schools and young adults in the work force.

The Young Israel of Rugby was known to be among the least religious of the Young Israels in New York before Rav Miller joined. It was moreover a shul that greatly supported religious Zionism. Rav Miller was able to accept the appointment to such a shul, because he knew how to elevate the congregation slowly and with tremendous insight and wisdom.

Innovations in Avodas Hashem

Rav Miller's congregation soon discovered that their rabbi was unlike any other rabbi they had before. The first thing he demanded was complete decorum in shul. Chattering in shul was a plague of those times, and most people were laboring under the impression that a shul was supposed to double as a social hall -- at the same time.

Talking during prayers was not countenanced in Rav Miller's shul, period. Rav Miller's princely demeanor and piercing eye immediately conveyed to his congregants that there was no room for negotiating on this demand. In the Young Israel of Rugby, throughout chazoras hashatz and the Torah reading the only sound that could be heard in shul was an unsuppressable cough. If your eyes were closed, you could almost think no one was there.

After Rav Miller arrived, it also became clear that there was no need for a separate youth congregation. This was because the only youths who were allowed to come to shul were those who could sit next to their fathers and daven without disturbing others.

Non-congregation members who came to the shul to attend bar mitzvas quickly discovered that no one should dare tamper with the rules. Anyone who dared break the decorum was sent out of the shul.

Rav Miller's shul was one of the few shuls where there was no grogen or stamping of the feet during Megilla leining on Purim. Although this was a custom in most communities, the congregants accepted his decision.

"The rav told us that minhag turned around is Gehennom," recalls one of his congregants. "He told us that if you make noise and miss hearing even a word of the Megilla, you haven't fulfilled your obligation."

After Rav Miller took over, the Young Israel of Rugby became famous for its impressive attendance on Shabbos which was always full. Neither storm nor sleet could keep the congregants from attending shul.

"You put on your boots and raincoat and just came," recalls one congregant. "In other shuls, the congregants would go to the nearest shul to avoid the inclement weather. But in our shul, you came. There were no excuses."

Emphasis on Tefillah

The davening during the middle of week was run with clock-like precision. Since the congregants had to get to work, a time was set for all parts of the prayers. Pesukei dezimrah lasted exactly ten minutes. However, from Borchu until the end of Shemoneh Esrei, prayers were recited slowly. Anyone who was pressed for time, left early by himself.

Rav Miller himself never led the prayers because he was too busy with his own prayers. It was an inspiration to his congregants to see him daven. They felt he was talking to his Creator. He stood in his place in the center of the shul near the aron hakodesh, always looking into a siddur and moving only slightly. To his congregants, he looked like an angel.

There was no question that Rav Miller set the tone.

"You knew you were in Rav Miller's shul and that the rabbi's eyes were upon you," explains one of his congregants.

Raising Religious Standards

How does one take a group of ignorant Jews to whom keeping Shabbos, kashrus and going to shul was the ultimate in Yiddishkeit -- and make them into true bnei Torah? 99 percent of the pulpit rabbis in the U.S. threw in the towel, but Rav Miller carefully laid his plans.

First Rav Miller consolidated his position in the shul. Once he found a group of congregants in the shul who listened to him and appreciated his challenge to strive for higher spiritual achievements, he proceeded on to the next step.

He challenged them to fine-tune their observance of Judaism. He was instrumental in founding the mikveh in East Flatbush and convinced many families to start observing family purity laws. He helped found the Shemiras Shabbos organization to try and get Jews to close their stores on Shabbos.

He kept educating his congregants about the fine points of Jewish law. It was a revelation to most that they couldn't carry their house keys and handkerchiefs on Shabbos to shul. None of the women covered their hair and none of the men had beards. Slowly Rav Miller introduced the importance of these topics.

More than anything else, he spoke to his congregants about the importance of Torah study. He introduced Shabbos morning speeches before Musaf before they became popular in other shuls. He spoke about the Torah section of the week, the various mitzvos, how to conduct one's life and the importance of Torah. Not only did he speak about it but he prodded you to do something about it.

A Special Rov

One of Rav Miller's first and closest disciples recounts how he met Rav Miller as a young boy just after his bar mitzva. Mordechai's family had just moved to a new housing project between Crown Heights and East Flatbush- Rugby and he immediately set out to locate the nearest Young Israel branch.

He was in between two Young Israel branches. The Eastern Parkway branch was in a big building, with a large, vibrant congregation, and in the opposite direction was another branch, the Young Israel of Rugby. Mordechai borrowed a bike and made a pilot trip to the area described as the location of the Rugby Park shul, but couldn't find it anywhere. Finally, after making several trips, he noticed a small, inconspicuous structure which was not at all typical of a Young Israel.

To his disappointment, the Shabbos davening lacked the cheery Young Israel spirit. There was hardly any congregational singing and no youth groups. Sharing his disappointment with one of the congregants, Mordechai was dryly told that if he was seeking a regular Young Israel, this was not the place.

Mordechai felt immensely frustrated. Eastern Parkway was too far away to make a serious commitment, while Rugby was both far and too dry. He was just then undergoing a trying period and was struggling with some basic Torah issues. He felt helpless at not having a mentor with whom to discuss these matters.

Then his older sister, who had started her studies at Brooklyn College that year, came home beaming. She had met someone in college who told her that the rabbi of a local shul was a special man. Mordechai's sister claimed that he sounded like someone Mordechai could really benefit from, and she urged him to go and meet the rabbi himself.

"What shul is he in?" Mordechai asked.

"Young Israel of Rugby," she said.

The next time Mordechai went to the shul, he went with an open eye. Rather than try to evaluate how much it compared to other Young Israels, he opened his ears and heart to hear the rabbi.

"After hearing Rav Miller speak for 20 minutes," Mordechai recalls, "I felt like I was being introduced to the Ribono Shel Olom for the first time in my life." After many years under Rav Miller's tutelage, Mordechai eventually made aliya and is today a prominent mashgiach in an Israeli yeshiva.

Those of Rav Miller's congregants who wanted to grow under the rov's care, rallied around him and accepted his direction unquestioningly and devotedly. Other members were not as enthusiastic, but they had high regard for Rav Miller's position in the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva and they respected him. Those who preferred to remain in spiritual hibernation and mothball their Yiddishkeit were made to feel increasingly uncomfortable until they drew their own conclusions and left.

Rav Miller was unrelenting regarding those members who, he felt, were holding up the progress of the rest. Such members would often ridicule or disparage the increase in religiosity of the other members. When new members turned out to be troublemakers, he implemented what he wryly called "a membership drive" -- a campaign to drive out members who were detrimental to the others.

He would tell them unmincingly, "If you don't learn, you're not a good Jew." He would hammer away at them. "The best thing you can do for your kids is learn. If you don't open a sefer in your house, you're not a good Jew."

This was not a popular stance in those days, and Orthodox Jews easily took umbrage at it. Since there were 20-30 other synagogues in the vicinity where the congregants didn't get this kind of censure, these recalcitrant members left, and the devoted followers of the rov remained the element in the shul with the upper hand.

Although the Young Israel of Rugby was gradually becoming the most religious shul in the neighborhood, only Rebbetzin Miller and one other lady at first wore a sheitel. But within five years of Rav Miller being there, at least half, if not more, of the women were wearing sheitlach. He hammered away at how a Jewish woman has to dress modestly. Although beards were looked down upon at the time, and some of his congregants ran their own businesses or had other visible high positions, many began to grow beards because of the rov's influence.

One Sukkos Rav Miller stood up right before Hallel and taught everyone how to shake a lulav and esrog. He went up to each congregant and made sure he knew how to do it. He also explained why they have to take the arba minim, and why they turn to four corners.

To get the congregants to build their own succah, Rav Miller announced that he would personally visit anyone who put up a succah. Within two years he had to retract that promise because there were too many succahs to visit.

When the Six Day War broke out, a huge quarrel broke out in the shul. Some of the members wanted to collect money and send it to Israel to help support the struggling state. Rav Miller, though, said they should send the money to yeshivos since the huge sums of money being spent for the war effort will reduce the money going to yeshivos. This fierce shul battle resulted in one of the largest membership "drives" that had ever taken place in the shul, but the rov won out. The shul ended up sending large donations to the biggest Israeli yeshivas such as Ponevezh and Mir. Significant sums of money were also set aside for the poor of Israel.

The secret of Rav Miller's success in his shul was that he made his baalebatim into his students. Once Rav Miller became their "rebbe," he never had a problem. He spared himself the situation of the congregation rabbi who has to face synagogue directors under the impression that the rabbi is their marionette.

When Rav Miller established a 3-man presidium composed of his close followers who ran the shul contingent upon his approval, all controversy in the shul came to an end. The shul members did not hold meetings since everyone accepted the authority and decisions of the rov. When he wanted to raise the mechitza in his shul, Rav Miller simply told the president, and the next week it was done. When the presidium decided on a certain measure, they first sought the rov's approval and then went about implementing it.

Disliked Money

The congregants accepted the rav's autocratic rule because they knew everything he did was for the sake of Heaven, and all of his decision emanated from selfless considerations.

This was most evident in how Rav Miller related to money. He refused to take a penny from anyone. Any money which was forced on him he gave to charity.

The shul only charged a $36 membership fee and $25 for seats during the High Holidays. These ridiculously low fees of course couldn't cover more than a minimal amount for the rabbi's salary, but Rav Miller refused to take more. He claimed that his salary covered his needs. The membership funds basically went for the upkeep of the shul and for advertising the rav's shiurim. Every time a new shiur opened, the shul advertised it in the Jewish papers which reached New York.

When the shul moved to its new location, Rav Miller lived in the apartment on the floor above the shul. Since the shul was paying for his phone, gas, repairs and other sundry expenses, he didn't want to hear about a salary raise. To the contrary, he insisted on deducting $50 from his monthly salary since the shul had just undertaken heavy expenses and he didn't want to add to the burden. Once the shul was on more solid footing, however, he refused to accept the money he had foregone. He even refused to take money for selling chometz, which was typically considered one of the fees which every rabbi charges. When people would press him to accept money, he would tell them to give it to the shul.

Although membership fees were very low, the congregants gave lavishly to support Torah causes. The shul had a pushka where many congregants dropped some money before they began praying. One day after praying, Rav Miller went to the bimah, placed his hand on the pushka and said, "This pushka pumps blood into the veins of the Jewish nation."

After that dramatic declaration, the money began to pour in. Four times a year the proceeds were collected and sent to four large yeshivos in Israel - - Mir, Slobodke, Ponevezh and Chevron.

The rav had his own fund for poor kollel families in Eretz Yisroel, and the shul also held appeals during the year for American yeshivos. Funds were not collected for any other institutions, because he felt all the other shuls give to them and the yeshivos were not sufficiently supported.

The Groundbreaking Gemora Shiur

The year 1967 was a turning point in the shul. After speaking years on end about the importance of Torah study, Rav Miller finally convinced 13 of his congregants to start a class in beginning gemora one night a week. They chose the chapter of Shnayim Ochazim. The most you could say about those first 13 students was that they could daven from a Hebrew siddur without stuttering.

Since they were unacquainted with Talmudic study, Rav Miller made them write down the lines of the gemora in a notebook, leaving spaces to fill in the explanation of the gemora in the future. Rav Miller read the text correctly to the students, while they filled in the vowels. The students had to review the Hebrew text tens of times until they knew it as fluently as Ashrei. Then Rav Miller explained the meaning of each word and phrase and the students had to write the explanations in between the lines of the gemora. The students then had to repeat the explanation until they knew it perfectly.

In this way Rav Miller painstakingly advanced with his students, learning a few lines of gemora at a time until, by the end of the year, his students knew a small quantity of gemora perfectly. During this time, the students hadn't even used a gemora and were relying completely on their notebooks.

It was painstaking, tedious work. Most of the students were in their 40s and one man was even 65. It was no small accomplishment to break into gemora study at this age, with all the new concepts and difficult language it involved. However, at the end of that year, the 13 men were proficient in the material that had been taught.

At the end of the year, Rav Miller gave a farher to each student. Each student came to Rav Miller's home and Rav Miller tested him on the entire year's material. Rav Miller pulled out his own gemora and asked the student to explain passages. You weren't allowed to bring your own notes.

When his questions had been answered to his satisfaction, Rav Miller congratulated the students. The thirteen men surged with the thrill of accomplishment! To their astonishment, they suddenly realized that they knew the material as well as a yeshiva bochur studying in yeshiva!

When that year ended, Rav Miller announced that the coming year, the group would learn a whole chapter of gemora -- perek Hamafkid! However, to do so successfully, it would be necessary to meet two nights a week.

Feeling a rush of confidence and achievement, the men acquiesced to the new arrangement. Again the Rav had his students write the text out and vowelize it, and then he explained the meaning meticulously. Then the students had to practice reading the text again and again until they had it perfect. Then they had to explain the meaning to each other chavrusa-style. The process involved continuous review until every student knew it almost by heart.

Newfangled Tape Machine

The tape recorder had just been invented and it was drafted to help in the project. Rav Miller installed outlets all around the shiur room so his students could plug in their tape recorders, record the shiur, and then go home and review it some more. It gave each man the opportunity to hear the shiur again as if Rav Miller was his private chavrusa. The students glowed with their newfound literacy.

"We knew the perek perfectly," says one of these students. "We could explain it as well as a bochur in a yeshiva."

When the students' ability to absorb his instruction had increased, Rav Miller increased the night shiur from one hour to an hour and a half. At one point, when Rav Miller became ill, someone suggested that they cut the shiur back to an hour. But Rav Miller said, "Retreat? Never!"

In addition to the study itself, the unvarying themes which he continued to pound into his congregants were the importance of Torah study and the respect due to Torah scholars. Derogatory terms and attitudes that had unwittingly seeped into their consciousness referring to Torah students as "bench-kvetchers" were eradicated at their root.

Mission Impossible: An Entire Masechta

The students were jolted again when in the third year of their study group, the rav insisted that they would learn an entire masechta! However, to do this, they would have to meet three nights a week -- and as if this wasn't enough, Sunday morning too. Rav Miller instituted a Sunday morning breakfast in shul so the men wouldn't have to go home from breakfast and face distractions that would prevent their return for the shiur.

Sunday afternoon was needed to review the material with chavrusas. From the gemora shiur being an interesting avocation, the students suddenly found themselves studying it as seriously as if it were a college course needed for their livelihood. Because an entire group of congregants was involved, each one reinforced the other's resolve to carry on. They joined each other in reviewing the material through the week.

An enormous amount of discipline was required not to let go and to let numerous distractions interfere. But the group felt richly rewarded when at the end of that year they had finished their first masechta.

Although it was becoming popular for religious families to go to the mountains in the summer, this was rare among the students of Rav Miller's gemora shiur. How could one leave the gemora shiur just to get away from the city heat and get fresh mountain air? After all, the rov said that the gemora shiur was more life-giving.

One student remembers studying Chulin one summer. "We sweated through Ho'or veharotev and Eilu Treifos," he fondly remembers. "And later when he did perek Cheilek in depth, he invited the ladies to join us for the shiur."

Sometimes Rav Miller explained a complicated topic and, to be sure the students knew it, he would call on them to explain it. If a man would hesitate, the rov would tell him, "You have a good head and I know you can grasp this. Apparently, I didn't explain it well enough." He would then start again from beginning.

Besides explaining the meaning of the gemora itself, he utilized the study to convey important lessons in hashkofo and mussar. On one page of masechta Shabbos, the gemora asks, "What is Chanukah?"

Instead of proceeding to explain the story of Mattisyahu's rebellion against the Greeks, the next word in the gemora is "Tonu rabbonon" -- "The rabbis learned." Rav Miller told his students, "The gemora is telling us -- if you want to know what life is all about, find out what the rabbis learned! Don't look up to anyone else."

From the text of the gemora he built up in his students a firm, solid belief that all is from Hashem and a Jew humbly accepts His direction and instructions. The gemora shiur was really a mussar, hashkofoh and gemora shiur rolled into one.

"Rabbi Miller was so dynamic," explained Mr. S. "His enthusiasm was infectious. At first, we decided to join the gemora shiur more for him than for ourselves. It took a lot of time from the family, and we had to give up many other things for it."

End of Part I

 

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