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6 Teves 5763 - December 11, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Mokom Torah In Switzerland -- Lucerne Yeshiva Celebrates Its Fiftieth Anniversary

by Rabbi R. Berlson

The Ingathering

"Sometimes reality exceeds all imagination," was how Reb Dovid Zaritsky z'l, summed up the existence of Lucerne Yeshiva almost forty years ago. Since then the dream has continued to flower, with thousands of talmidim passing through the yeshiva.

For the fiftieth anniversary celebrations on the fourteenth of Marcheshvon 5763, many of them converged on the yeshiva, from all corners of the globe. Approximately one hundred alumni arrived several days earlier, and spent Shabbos parshas Lech Lecho together with HaRav Yitzchok Dovid Koppelman, rosh yeshiva of Lucerne. It was a time for reminiscing and recalling stories, such as that of the lottery ticket that made the purchase of the yeshiva's building possible and the famous episode of Yossele Shuchmacher, which had such a profound effect on the yeshiva.

There are almost four thousand names on Lucerne Yeshiva's alumni list (in fact, approximately five thousand talmidim have learned there). The fiftieth anniversary was nonetheless celebrated relatively quietly, so as to avoid any unnecessary disruption in the yeshiva's timetable. Some of the alumni had not seen the yeshiva and its staff for several decades and their reunion generated much excitement and emotion.

Before the beginning of the celebratory gathering, an elderly talmid who lives in Bnei Brak approached the Rosh Yeshiva, who at first did not recognize him, because he had left the yeshiva beardless and now had a white beard.

When the talmid introduced himself, HaRav Koppelman burst into tears. They had not seen or spoken to each other for forty-eight years! The Rosh Yeshiva remembered him well as an energetic young fellow who had been appointed as holtz klapper, with responsibility to chop the wood needed for heating the mikveh. "If I wouldn't have seen you, I wouldn't have believed it", the Rosh Yeshiva told him emotionally.

Over here was a talmid who had come from Brazil, over there, one from Australia, and others from Los Angeles, Kiryat Sefer, Antwerp, Monsey, Paris and every other place where Jews live. Torah disseminators, rabbonim and dayonim alongside businessmen and professionals, they spoke a babble of different languages, English, Yiddish, Ivrit, Flemish, French and Swiss-Deutsch, forming a veritable mosaic of Klal Yisroel. "The ingathering of the exiles will look exactly like this," was how one alumnus summed up the event, "a Yid of yekkish extraction, next to an Algerian, a chossid, a Hungarian and a Litvak . . . "

A Place for Torah to Flourish

The yeshiva's establishment in Switzerland fifty years ago provided a powerful boost to the morale of the local Torah community. Reb Dovid Zaritsky wrote, "In the past, this was not even something that could be dreamed of. There was hardly a single Jew in the entire city of Lucerne who might dream of opening a yeshiva there, let alone transforming the place into a Torah center. The Chofetz Chaim made a famous comment on the words of the tanna, Rabbi Yosi ben Kismo (Ovos), who said that even if he were to be given millions of golden dinarim, he would only consent to live in a mokom Torah. [The Chofetz Chaim noted that] we see from here that it is impossible to create a mokom Torah with money alone.

"In order to transform an ordinary community into a Torah center, it is vital that there be an affinity for the ideals of the yeshiva in the place's atmosphere. The aspirations, both individual and collective, of the inhabitants must all focus on Torah. This was the wonder that took place before our very eyes in beautiful Lucerne, right in the heart of Switzerland. For many generations, nobody imagined that even a whiff of the particular ambience that a mokom Torah needs -- without which its maintenance is unthinkable -- was to be found there. Yet it is a fact that in our times, Lucerne has become a sterling example of a mokom Torah, in the fullest sense of the term."

Not only is it a mokom Torah -- the yeshiva is highly disciplined and insists on strict adherence to its timetable. One talmid succinctly summed up the spirit that permeates the yeshiva with the sentence, "To waste a single minute is the worst thing in the world."

A Unique and Uplifting Weekend

Although the jubilee celebrations began with Shabbos, the yeshiva requested that alumni not arrive before one o'clock on Friday, so as not to disturb the morning seder. It is amazing to see the thought and effort that went into ensuring that the learning sedorim would not be disturbed. Visitors were housed in rooms outside the yeshiva dormitory in addition to which, twenty hotel rooms were taken. On motzei Shabbos, a central melave malkah was held that ended very late -- present talmidim were absent however, in consideration of the following morning's tefillah and sedorim.

The main event began on the evening of Sunday, the fourteenth of Marcheshvon. HaRav Koppelman delivered a profound shmuess on the essence of Yovel and its connection to the trait of gratitude. Those among the alumni who have the means, set a fine example of expressing this trait through generous pledges to the yeshiva. Fifteen thousand dollars, for example, were pledged for the honor of leading bircas hamozone.

The keynote speaker was HaRav Avrohom Gurwicz, the Gateshead rosh yeshiva, who held the audience rapt for the duration of his talk. Rav Mendel Shafran, an alumnus, also spoke, as did Rav Shlesinger of Monsey, who represented the talmidim. A video presentation chronicled the yeshiva's fifty years and another alumnus, Rabbi Michoel Streicher, delighted the gathering with his singing.

To commemorate the celebration, an impressive Jubilee Volume was prepared. The first section contains divrei Torah from the yeshiva's past and ylct'a present rabbonim. It is followed by greetings from supporters and well-wishers. After this there is a history of the yeshiva, written by the well- known chareidi author Rabbi Aharon Surasky, from which the following outline of the yeshiva's beginnings is drawn.

Breaking the Soil

On a visit to Switzerland in 5712 (1952), HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l, broached the subject of establishing a yeshiva to a group of "purely motivated communal workers." He would not let the matter rest until a decision had been taken to open a yeshiva in the beautiful town of Lugano. With HaRav Sarna's guidance, HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l was appointed as rosh yeshiva. The yeshiva's founders set a three- fold aim for the new institution:

-- to persuade parents to send their sons to yeshiva, instead of to a gymnasium

-- to train graduates of state high schools in the study of gemora according to the customary approach of the Lithuanian yeshivos, raising the level of their understanding to the point where they could experience the pleasure of learning gemora

-- to improve the talmid's image, inculcating a new respect for the yeshiva student on the part of the surrounding community, at a time when many viewed him simply as "a benk kvetcher (a bench warmer)."

The first group of talmidim, most of whom were Swiss born, gathered initially in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Lugano. In Iyar 5712, the yeshiva moved to Lucerne. The group that was working on the yeshiva's behalf, headed by Reb Wolff Rosengarten z'l, acquired a beautiful building that was known as "Bromberg's Castle" located at 20 Bromberg Strasse.

The money for the purchase was raised in a fascinating way. A member of the group, Reb Yaakov Goldman z'l, bought a raffle ticket and promised that if he won the first prize, he would donate all the money towards the purchase of a building for the yeshiva. He did win first prize and he kept his word. The Building Fund instantly grew by fifty thousand Swiss francs, enough for the major part of the costs.

The Swiss immigration authorities were continually making problems for the Rosh Yeshiva, due to his standing as a Polish refugee. Reb Moshe managed to continue leading the yeshiva, despite his having to leave the country occasionally, due to his "problematic" status. He had a special touch with the bochurim, most of whom came from homes where an extended stay in yeshiva was regarded very negatively. He guided and directed each boy lovingly and in a pleasant manner, according to his individual character and needs. Many are the circulating stories that illustrate Reb Moshe's tremendous patience.

With the growth of the student body, the Bromberg Castle became crowded. Shiurim had to be delivered in the dormitories. The noise of Torah study disturbed the gentile neighbors, who complained to the police regularly, with the result that the windows had to be kept closed at all times. This made the atmosphere inside extremely stuffy and uncomfortable.

As compensation, the yeshiva staff would take the talmidim on occasional trips in the peaceful countryside around the town. With his keen perception and inventiveness, Reb Moshe managed to turn these trips into highly useful educational experiences.

In Search of a Safe Haven

Around that time, a young Jewish boy with pure, innocent eyes, arrived in the yeshiva. Despite his young age -- he was all of nine years old -- he managed to find himself a niche in the yeshiva. His guilelessness captured the students' hearts and they all pitied the little homeless orphan. One fine day however, the child disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived and he was not seen in the yeshiva again.

The next stage in the drama took place at some later date, when F.B.I. agents burst into a Jewish home on Penn Street, Williamsburg, New York, one motzei Shabbos. A few minutes later, they left the house, bearing their prize -- the famous Yossele Shuchmacher. The mistress of the house somehow managed to stuff a sefer Tehillim into the child's hand and tell him, "Dos vet dir hitten! (This will protect you!)" The F.B.I. had actually known where Yossele was before Shabbos ended but they had received orders not to shatter the calm of the day in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.

When the Israeli Mossad completed its investigation and had discovered that the child had spent time in the Lucerne yeshiva, the Swiss authorities were apprised of the information. They took a very serious view of the Rosh Yeshiva's responsibility and Reb Moshe was ordered to leave Lucerne for good.

He moved to Zurich, where his reputation and influence steadily grew and he eventually became one of the foremost leaders of the generation. At the time however, the slander against the Rosh Yeshiva and his decree of banishment took the yeshiva completely by surprise. A Torah figure of senior standing was urgently needed to step into the vacant place of leadership.

From Grodno to Siberia to Lucerne

The man of the hour was found in the person of HaRav Yitzchok Dovid Koppelman, one of the foremost talmidim of HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l, who managed to rescue Reb Shimon's chiddushim from oblivion during the war. Although we were unable to hear HaRav Koppelman's own memories of his great teacher, two of his talmidim shared anecdotes that they had heard from him about Reb Shimon.

HaRav Dov Gartner of Yeshivas Shaarei Yosher, New York, related that during the war, HaRav Koppelman reached the Soviet Union. When he attempted to smuggle Reb Shimon's manuscripts out of the country, they were discovered by Russian soldiers, with the result that HaRav Koppelman was exiled to Siberia. "I heard from . . . the Rosh Yeshiva . . . " said HaRav Gartner, "that despite the crushing labor that he was forced to do (working in a coal mine!), he still felt greater freedom than that enjoyed by an American businessman."

He explained that, "In Siberia, we were exploited to the highest degree possible but we still had a few free minutes each day. A businessman in America doesn't even have that. He is constantly harried and preoccupied with his business . . ." On another occasion I heard him say that Reb Shimon's Principles of Migo are a kleinekeit (a miniscule fraction) of what Reb Shimon said."

HaRav Yonah Rechnitzer, a talmid of HaRav Koppelman's from Lucerne, told us, "He was once staying with Reb Shimon in the resort town of Otvotck while members of the Gerrer Rebbe's family were also staying there. One day, they approached Reb Shimon with a somewhat unorthodox request: `We would like to have shirayim [leftovers; the holiness of those from a great man's table is thought by some to be akin to that of the edible portion of a sacrifice] from your meal." Reb Shimon smiled at this wish and he distributed shirayim.

"Then he said to HaRav Koppelman, `If it makes them happy, why should it bother me?' "

Prior to taking up the position in Lucerne, HaRav Koppelman had headed the Kappeln Yeshiva in Belgium, and Yeshivas Shaarei Yosher of New York. Alumni of both these yeshivos also participated in the Lucerne Yeshiva's jubilee event.

The Search for Larger Premises

When the Ponovezher Rov zt'l paid a visit to Lucerne, he examined the walls of the beis hamedrash and exclaimed with feeling, "Mir darf shtupen die vent! (The walls need to be pushed outwards -- i.e. the yeshiva needs larger premises)." HaRav Koppelman encouraged the yeshiva's committee to undertake this project. After a lengthy search, they succeeded in finding a large site on the side of a mountain that rises from the beautiful garden suburb of Kriens on the outskirts of Lucerne, far from the tumult of the city center.

Rav Wolff Rosengarten described some of the difficulties that were involved: "We immediately took a liking to this site. However, the sum that we needed to find in order to purchase it in the space of a few weeks was greater than we could manage and no progress was made. At that time, I received a visit from a childhood friend who lived in Africa. When he heard the story, he was very keen on us buying the site. When we showed it to him, he was extremely enthusiastic and he promised us the loan of a large sum, interest free, for several years. We went ahead with the deal on the basis of this promise. Immediately afterwards, we discovered that we would not be able to receive the money from Africa due to the currency regulations there. If I relate everything that happened to us then, until we saw the building completed boruch Hashem -- even if I talk until tomorrow -- I wouldn't finish."

On Sunday the nineteenth of Marcheshvon 5726 (1965), the foundation laying for the new yeshiva building was held in Kriens. Crowds attended, despite the season's bitter cold. The climax of that event was the address that a very excited HaRav Koppelman delivered. When mentioning the destruction that had befallen our nation twenty years earlier, his voice choked with tears and many of those present wept with him.

Two years later, on the sixth of Teves 5728 (1967), the dedication of the present premises, which cost more than three million Swiss francs to build, was held. HaRav Yitzchok Silberstein, who served as a maggid shiur in Lucerne, noted however that, "the . . . Yeshiva was established neither with money, nor with buildings but through the power of the burning love of Torah and those who study it, of a handful of special, noble souls, like Reb Wolff Rosengarten z'l and his friends, as the posuk says in Shir Hashirim (3:10), `He made its pillars of silver, its couch of gold . . . its interior was paved with love, of the daughters of Yerushalayim.' "

The dedication ceremony was attended by representatives of the authorities, members of the government, correspondents of the major newspapers and the media, who noted that "no educational institution in the entire canton of Lucerne is built as magnificently as the yeshiva." Immediately following the dedication, the yeshiva smoothly returned to its regular schedule.

Thought and Planning

Order and discipline are among the fundamentals of the yeshiva's approach. For example, during rest hours bochurim are not allowed to enter any dormitory room other than their own. In his shmuessen, the Rosh Yeshiva addresses every aspect of conduct and bearing of a ben Torah. Once, in mid flow, HaRav Koppelman took a few bars of airline soap from his pocket and cried, "How did these soaps find their way to the yeshiva? Who permitted stealing from a gentile? Aren't you concerned about the profanation of Hashem's Name? The airline companies have noticed that on the Tel Aviv-Zurich route, all the cupboards get emptied out!"

An article that was once published about the yeshiva noted, interestingly, that, "In Jewish history, there have been small communities that have won eternal praise thanks to the holy yeshivos that resided in this or that townlet. Sometimes the [reputation of a] name is inversely proportional to the size of the town and the number of Jews residing there."

Lucerne certainly belongs to this category. The local community is minute, lacking even a minyan for prayer. In order to have a minyan, two avreichim from Zurich were invited to move permanently to Lucerne. During the day they learn in the yeshiva and for the tefillos, they go to the beis haknesses. They are the only two avreichim that learn in the yeshiva.

Another fascinating aspect of the yeshiva is the dovetailing of the different approaches of bochurim from misnagdische and chasidische homes. The learning follows the approach of Reb Shimon's beis hamedrash: penetrating analysis of the underlying concepts and precise definitions that explain away difficulties without there being a need to resort to contrived solutions. At the same time, the yeshiva is also richly imbued with chasidische overtones and its approach to serving Hashem. The tefillos on Shabbos have a chasidische ambience, with enchanting melodies.

The yeshiva is particularly insistent that bochurim not change their family customs. A misnagdische talmid who starts wearing a gartel, or a chossid who cuts his long payos short, will earn himself a reprimand.


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