Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Av 5762 - July 24, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Returning Volozhin to its Former Glory

by Eliezer Rauchberger

"Within a year, be'ezras Hashem, we hope to hold a chanukas habayis for the reopening of Yeshivas Volozhin," announced Rosh Yeshivas Minsk Rav Sender Oritzky, formerly chief rabbi of Byelorussia. "Workers have already begun to repair the roof of the building and once all of the renovations are complete it will be possible to resume Torah study in the building of the celebrated Yeshivas Volozhin."

The very name Volozhin warms the heart of every ben Torah. This small town in Byelorussia was the cradle of the entire yeshiva world. Once the sound of Torah issuing from Volozhin was heard from one end of the earth to the other. The illustrious yeshiva founded by HaRav Chaim Volozhiner produced all of the gedolei Torah and the great roshei yeshivos of previous generations whose Torah illuminates the path we walk and fills the wellsprings from which we drink.

From this yeshiva emerged the Beis Halevi, Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Boruch Ber, Rav Chaim of Brisk, the Netziv (who served as rosh yeshiva there for forty years), Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Rav Zundel of Salant, Rav Nochum of Horodena (the Chofetz Chaim's rebbe), Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Chaim Ozer and other Torah greats zt'l.

Yeshivas Volozhin was set up 200 years ago, and at its height 500 talmidim studied there. In those days 500 bochurei yeshiva was a huge number and it was certainly unmatched anywhere in the Jewish world. Thousands of talmidim passed through the yeshiva over the years.

About 110 years ago, the Netziv of Volozhin, then serving as rosh yeshiva, closed the yeshiva when the authorities tried to introduce secular studies. Five years later the yeshiva reopened in all of its former splendor until 5701 (1941), when the Nazis decimated the Jews of Volozhin, including the yeshiva's talmidim. All told, the sound of Torah issued forth from the yeshiva for over 130 years.

The yeshiva building has stood desolate ever since the evil German ravager cast his dark shadow over Europe. Once a lighthouse of Torah sending its rays around the world, the building has even been vandalized since falling into disuse.

When the gates of the former Soviet Union opened, some visitors who recalled the yeshiva in its past glory laid their eyes on the painful sight of the now dilapidated building. The outer walls are peeling, the roof leaks and is about to cave in, and the heichal now lies in ruins.

The debasement of the heichal so tore at the hearts of the leaders of Byelorussia's Jewish community that they began a battle to regain control of the yeshiva building in order to renovate it and to restore it to at least a shadow of its former glory, for the sake of posterity.

Heading the fight to bring the facility into the hands of the Jewish community are Rav Sender Oritzky and Union of Jewish Religious Congregations Chairman Uri Doran, who has invested much of his time and energy into efforts to ignite the sparks of Jewish life in Byelorussia. After four-and-a-half years the battle was finally won a few weeks ago. The cost of the renovation project has been estimated at $300,000.

Congress for Strengthening Torah

Rav Oritzky issued his enthusiastic announcement that renovations of the yeshiva building are under way, during the Congress of Lithuanian Yeshivos in former Soviet Countries held three weeks ago in Minsk, capital of Byelorussia. At the congress were representatives from yeshivos in Kiev and Riga and from Rav Oritzky's yeshiva in Minsk; representatives from a yeshiva in Moscow were also scheduled to participate, but did not arrive.

The congress became a public event much talked of in Byelorussia. Even the local media took an interest and government officials took part. Dozens of talmidim and avreichim from the above yeshivas came to participate in the congress, proving that despite the destruction of European and Russian Jewry, the sound of Torah is still heard across these vast lands. Rabbonim and key activists dedicated to supporting Torah throughout these countries also took part, arriving from faraway locations such as Moscow.

The congress opened with an impressive speech by Rav Oritzky, who expressed his delight that several Lithuanian yeshivas have been set up in the former Soviet Union in recent years. He made note of the dire financial difficulties the yeshivas face as they try to rekindle the embers of Torah and Yiddishkeit lying among the ruins of Judaism in the former Soviet Union. He also mentioned the glorious past of Byelorussia, once the capital of Torah-based Judaism worldwide.

Lithuanian-born Rav Yehuda Gordon, who has been actively working to support yeshivas and to rejuvenate Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, arrived from his home in Israel to participate in the congress.

Rav Mordechai Reichenstein, rosh yeshivas Aish Hatorah in Kiev, spoke of Torah life in the Ukrainian capital, of the many shiurim given at the yeshiva both for talmidim and also for Jews who come in the evening to study Chumash, gemora and mussar. Yet because of severe financial circumstances he was forced to curtail the yeshiva's activities.

He says a dramatic change has taken place in recent years among the Jews of Kiev and that some 100 people now live their lives around the yeshiva. "There are half a million Jews living in the Ukraine. In Kiev alone there are 70,000 Jews, and our yeshiva is almost the only place where yeshiva- style shiurei Torah are held. Last Shavuos we were the only place in Kiev where there was learning all night and in the morning we davened with netz hachomo with over 100 men."


Yeshivas Zichron Yitzchok in Riga is an interesting story in itself. It was set up 12 years ago by the late ger tzedek Rav Yitzchok Mitin, a talmid muvhok of Rav Yitzchok Zilber ylct'a.

Rav Zilber works to promote yeshivas and Torah life in the former Soviet Union with mesirus nefesh. He delivers shiurim via telephone at these yeshivas and offers the talmidim and rabbonim close guidance and direction every step of the way. Many talmidim and Jewish community members everywhere feel bound to him heart and soul.

During Rav Mitin's years as its head, the yeshiva flourished and many bochurim studied there under austere conditions with true mesirus nefesh. Today Rav Uri Geller heads the yeshiva and the former rosh yeshiva's widow, Rebbetzin Mitin, has undertaken the task of sustaining the yeshiva. Despite her prodigious efforts, it is in financial decline, barely able to support itself and the remaining seven bochurim who study with amazing mesirus nefesh.

One of these talmidim, Aharon Leviberg, told the congress that the yeshiva has already produced over 100 bnei Torah currently studying in top yeshivas in Israel and the United States. He described how the yeshiva has also saved Jews and Jewish youths from the clutches of missionary activities. Leviberg said there are 20,000 Jews throughout Latvia, and Yeshivas Zichron Yitzchok is the only place in the region where the sound of Torah study can be heard.

His amazing older brother Binyomin Leviberg also studies at the yeshiva. Binyomin is a tremendous masmid with a gemora in hand almost all hours of the night and day, including mealtimes. In addition to the masechtos studied at the yeshiva, he has already completed Bovo Kama, Brochos and Sanhedrin on his own, including the meforshim, Rishonim and Acharonim; he has also delved into halocho, attaining extensive knowledge of the Shulchan Oruch.

The guest of honor, Deputy Minister of Religion Vladimir Lamirkov (sent in place of the Minister at the last moment), emphasized the need to maintain good relations between the government of Byelorussia and the Jewish communities, particularly the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations with its 19 member communities.

Union Chairman Uri Doran proudly presented the historical key to the yeshiva building, which he received from government authorities. He spoke of the chain of contacts leading to the acquisition of the building and even recounted how bakery and pastry shops located in the building were relocated. He stressed the fact that the building had returned to Jewish hands, an event not only propitious for the Jews of Byelorussia but for Jews around the world, particularly for the Torah and yeshiva world.

He went on to speak of the 2,500 Jewish travelers who visited Jewish sites in Byelorussia last year, up from previous years. In closing he mentioned the dozens of other buildings throughout Byelorussia where the sound of Torah is heard night and day -- Yeshivas Mir, Yeshivas Radin, buildings in Brisk, Grodno and other towns, and said the Jewish community of Byelorussia plans to work to secure these buildings as well.

"This congress is entirely lesheim Shomayim," said Rav Oritzky in concluding the first part of the congress. "There is no Torah study lesheim Shomayim like here in such austere conditions and with such tremendous mesirus nefesh. Here no one is influenced by This World; we are completely detached from the surroundings, and study and perform mitzvos in total innocence. There is no chitzonius and nothing to disrupt us."

During the second part of the congress participants held working meetings to discuss ways to raise additional resources to strengthen the foundations of the yeshivas, the yeshivas' special needs and mutual assistance among the various yeshivas. They also discussed ways to increase and improve Torah learning and to open the hearts of more and more young Jewish men to encourage them to come to the yeshiva.

Another work group addressed the matter of construction of the yeshiva in Volozhin and what the building would be designated for once renovations are complete. The current plan is to develop a Torah center with a beis medrash, a kosher lemehadrin kitchen and restaurant, a conference hall and a guest house in order to accommodate yarchei kalla, yeshivas bein hazmanim, Judaism seminars, etc.

The Byelorussia of Yesteryear

The day after the conference the participants set out for a tour of Volozhin and as many other towns as time permitted. Grodno, Mir, Radin, Volozhin, Keltzk, Slutsk, Pinsk, Minsk, Novardok, Brisk and Bernovicz are all towns in Byelorussia where Jewish life once flourished. They had famous yeshivas that drew bnei Torah from far and wide.

Almost nothing remains of that past splendor and glory, except for a few shattered gravestones and deserted buildings.

First the group arrived in Volozhin. For most of those present, this was their first visit to the illustrious site, and they were visibly excited.

Rav Oritzky told the story of the Netziv, who walked into the heichal of his yeshiva late one night and found Shimon Shkop, who would later become the great Rosh Yeshiva of Grodno, crying. He knew the boy came from a very poor family and assumed he was crying because he lacked something. In reply to the Rosh Yeshiva's inquiry, young Shimon said he was crying because he had tried time after time to understand a Rashbo on Bovo Basra and had been unsuccessful. The Netziv told him that he, too, had been unable to understand that Rashbo. Then he went to the nearby grave of Rav Chaim of Volozhin and prayed to Hashem for help with the difficult passage. Later he came back and explained to the boy the new understanding he had gained following his prayers at the gravesite.

The delegates then walked to the cemetery to pray for the salvation of Am Yisroel at the holy grave of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, founder of Yeshivas Volozhin and talmid muvhok of the Vilna Gaon.

The cemetery is mostly destroyed. Most of the gravestones are no longer intact. Near Rav Chaim's kever is the grave of his son, Rav Itzeleh of Volozhin, who succeeded his father as rosh yeshiva.

As they left the cemetery, the delegates came upon a number of elderly ladies who still recall the yeshiva in operation and the talmidim waking down the paths of the town until 1941, when the Germans led all of the remaining talmidim and the other Jews in town to their deaths.


Then the delegation headed for Radin, where the Chofetz Chaim lived and now lies buried.

Radin today has a population of no more than 2,000 people. Poverty and negligence can be seen everywhere. The bus parked at the center of town and a two-minute walk brought the visitors to the house where the Chofetz Chaim once lived (see sidebar). A few dozen yards further stands the Yeshivas Radin building. Unlike Volozhin, here the building is preserved and well-kept. A community club used the building until recently and now the building is on sale for $85,000.

When the delegation returned to the bus for the ride to the cemetery, an old man stepped up to the bus, claiming to be a Jew and saying he remembers the Chofetz Chaim from his youth.

The visit to the Radin Cemetery was a memorable experience in itself. In awe and reverence the delegation approached the newly renovated grave of the Chofetz Chaim, opening sifrei Tehillim and lifting up their prayers to the Borei Olom to take pity on His nation. A special prayer was offered in light of the difficult situation Am Yisroel is facing in the Holy Land, and tears flowed down many cheeks when "Acheinu kol Beis Yisroel" was recited.

Later the delegation set out for the town of Novardok and then on to Mir, where they visited the grave of the mashgiach, HaRav Yeruchom Lebovitz, and offered further prayers and supplications to HaKodosh Boruch Hu, pleading with Him to take pity on Am Yisroel in this hour of need.

Chofetz Chaim's Home Transported to the U.S.

One month ago a large truck entered the town of Radin, drove to the end of the main street and turned right. It stopped beside a small house on the right which the Chofetz Chaim called home for several decades. Workers climbed down from the truck and began disassembling the house. Within a matter of hours the entire house lay in pieces and was loaded onto the truck, which then made its way straight for Minsk's international airport, a drive of several hours.

Within 24 hours the house had arrived in Monsey, New York, completing the first phase of the operation. The next phase will be to reassemble it in Monsey just as it stood in Radin for over 200 years.

The project was organized by the Chofetz Chaim's grandsons and great-grandsons, the Zaks Family of New York, who purchased the house from the City of Radin for $9,000. They plan to set up a monument and museum in the house as a memorial to the legacy of Am Yisroel's great rov who once lived there.

Until the house was purchased it was shared by a Gypsy family and an elderly Byelorussian woman. The lot now stands empty, but the city of Radin, aware of the tremendous potential for tourism the site offers, announced plans to build a monument at the site to mark the spot where the Chofetz Chaim once lived.

The Flames of Torah Flicker Once Again in Minsk

Minsk was once a leading city in Israel, but when the ravager of European Jewry rose to power, he decimated the Jews of Minsk, leaving no trace of the splendor and glory that once graced the city and all of Byelorussia.

In recent years the spark of Torah has been rekindled here. In a five-story building at 13b Dowman Street local Jews have set up a Jewish community center. The building houses a beis knesses, a soup kitchen, a youth organization, offices for the Union of Religious Communities and a monthly Jewish publication, a lecture hall and the crowning jewel -- the Yeshiva Gedola DeMinsk. Soon construction of a mikveh will also be complete.

Inside the beis medrash, yeshiva bochurim with tzitzis showing can be found alongside elderly Minsk Jews as late as 11:00 p.m. as if in broad daylight. Here bochurim sit and learn gemora, Mishna and Chumash with extraordinary hasmodoh.

The rov and rosh yeshiva -- and in fact the spiritual leader of this entire enterprise -- is Rav Sender Oritzky. For six years he was denied permission to emigrate to Israel. Finally in 5749 he was granted an exit visa via Riga. He made his way to Yeshivas Or Somayach in Jerusalem, where he grew and grew in Torah. Eventually he was called on to run and head a branch of Yeshivas Shevus Ami and later headed a unique yeshiva high school in Beitar.

Four years ago he was asked to work as an activist in Minsk after a shaliach from Yeshivas Aish Hatorah, Rav Yonoson Dotman, a Karliner chossid, decided to discontinue his work in the field. Local Jews soon recognized Rav Oritzky's special attributes and appointed him Chief Rabbi of the Union of Religious Communities in Byelorussia. Since his appointment Rav Oritzky has devoted his entire being to the task.

Once every six months the administration of the Union of Communities meets to discuss the needs of local Jews in their communities and ways of improving Torah life and infrastructure for Jews throughout Byelorussia. Next Chanukah, the Union will celebrate 10 years since the founding and its heads are planning a major event to boost Torah Judaism throughout the country.

Approximately 1,500 Minsk Jews are associated with the kehilloh. Truly observant Jews number no more than 25- 30 out of the city's total Jewish population of 13,000. In all of Byelorussia there are currently at least 50,000 Jews. Last Pesach there were five sedorim in Minsk, accommodating nearly 2,000 people.

On Monday morning a few weeks ago 50 people were present for Shacharis. Even the ezras noshim was full, although it was a regular weekday. People arrived from distant locations, some traveling 30 miles by train. Eighty- nine-year-old Avrohom Yaakov bar Shlomo Meir Brachfund was chosen to lead the services. He recited the tefilloh with a distinct Lithuanian pronunciation although there has been no beis knesses near his home for many years. Long ago his father was the baal tefilloh in Minsk. Avrohom Yaakov was born in Radoshkovicz, a town located not far from the city, and he is now the last Jew left there. He has clear recollections of the cheder he attended over 80 years ago as well as the melamed and many of the 300 chadorim operating in Minsk back then, compared to the 30 Christian schools. Since his youth he has made his living working as a tailor.

One of his contemporaries, Dovid Gershon Gelcholtz, also 89, displays the medals he received while serving in the Russian army. He also spent a period of time fighting with the Partisans. Gelcholtz, like Brachfund, says he remained in Minsk for personal reasons and now feels it is too late to move to Israel.

To illustrate the great mesirus nefesh for Torah in Minsk, take the case of Dovid Walkov, who has a Masters degree in economics. He dropped everything because of his yearning to learn Torah. According to Rav Oritzky, today more and more Jews want to return to their roots. Aliya has decreased dramatically due to the security situation in Israel, giving more importance to the task of building the foundations of Torah life in Minsk and its environs.

A tour of the city of Minsk is a very depressing experience. A vast world of vibrant Jewish life vanished as if it had never existed. Before World War II half of the 500,000 people living in Minsk were Jewish. Most of the 800,000 Jews throughout Byelorussia were annihilated.

Once there were several botei knesses on almost every street. Today no sign of them remains. Some of the buildings still stand, but there is no indication they once housed a beis knesses or yeshiva. The tour guide points to one building, saying the Rav used to live there. A short time ago a mezuzoh still hung on the door post, but it was removed recently during renovations.

We continue onward and the guide shows us the building that once housed the yeshiva of the Shaagas Aryeh. Called Blumkes Klaus, it was named after Mrs. Bluma who funded the construction of the yeshiva after the previous building was completely destroyed in a fire. Today the building serves as a youth club. According to local tradition the site was also once used for the Chevras Tiferes Bochurim, a sort of afternoon and evening yeshiva for baalei batim.

A large beis knesses once stood at 3 Dimitriov, in the heart of the former Jewish ghetto. Despite outspoken protest by the Jewish community, the building was recently demolished along with other old buildings to make room for a new construction project. On the other side of the street a dilapidated two-story building on the verge of collapse once contained the home of the Maggid of Minsk, Rav Binyomin Shakovitzky.

Not far away, on Namiga Street, were no less than 120 botei knesses and botei medrash! One building, formerly a large beis knesses, is now a nature exhibition and another beis knesses with seating for 1,000 people has been converted into a theater.

The Jewish cemetery in Minsk also lies in ruins, except for a few scattered stones. Some 10,000 graves lie here and nothing remains of them. The gravestones were used 40-50 years ago for housing construction.

In a corner of the cemetery is a large mass grave. According to conjecture, thousands of Jews were killed there. In another part of the cemetery, called Coropti, an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed. At yet another place of destruction called Yama lie a monument and a black tombstone with an inscription informing visitors that on this site Jews were killed by the Nazis. Long- time Minsk residents know the Germans killed more than 6,000 Jews there within two days' time.

Not far from Minsk is a site called Trostneitzt. According to estimates nearly one million Jews annihilated by the Germans throughout Byelorussia and neighboring countries were brought there.


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