Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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30 Tishrei 5762 - October 17, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rabbi Mordechai Miller: He Changed the Face of Torah Jewry

by M. Samsonowitz

Part I

This title will probably cause more than a few eyebrows to rise. Many of the readers are probably wondering, "Who is Rabbi Mordechai Miller who is being lauded in terms reserved for only a very few?" Other readers will protest, "Rabbi Miller was such a humble, self-effacing person, he would have cringed to have such a title written about him!"

But it was no less than HaRav Shach who once told Rabbi Miller, "You probably think your zechus is limited to teaching girls, but in fact you saved the yeshivos. Your merits are great!"

Rabbi Mordechai Miller, the principal of the Gateshead Seminary, passed away on 3 Cheshvan last year at the age of 79 after spending more than 50 years educating thousands of Jewish girls throughout the world. He was one of a handful of "Rabbi Chiyas" who arose after World War II of whom it could be said that Torah Jewry owes them its existence. He had a major share in the renaissance of Torah Jewry today.

Endless stories can be told about other baalei chesed and roshei yeshiva who had to deal with askonim and the public, and rabbis who held rabbinical positions. But about Rabbi Miller, it was just two long stories with innumerable steady installments that carried on until the last day of his life: educating Jewish girls and studying Torah. The impact of his life's work cannot be capsulated into a chesed organization or a flourishing community but the entire dynamic Jewish world that exists today.

Alone Among His Friends

Rabbi Miller was born in 1921 in Westcliffe, a small town near London, to a Lithuanian Jewish family. His grandparents were immigrants to England who claimed lineage from the Levush. They were warm Jews and baalei chesed who provided affidavits to allow Jews to immigrate to England during World War II.

He grew up in Stamford Hill in London and attended the local public school along with all the other Jewish children at the time. When he was 14 years old, his father approached HaRav Eliahu Eliezer Dessler, the rov of the Montague Road Synagogue in the East End, and asked him to teach his son gemora. Rav Dessler at first agreed to teach the young Mordechai once a week but after he saw that the youth was a promising student, he agreed to teach him every night.

From 1935 to the outbreak of World War II, the two studied together the entire Bovo Metzia. The at first casual study arrangement quickly blossomed into a long term relationship that gave the young man his direction for life.

Prewar England was extremely limited as far as Jewish studies were concerned, with the Jewish community gradually adopting the local culture -- as was happening in other western societies. If Jewish studies had not yet been completely relegated to the dustbin, it certainly tailed far behind a career, rugby and comfortable living. The mood was well expressed by a local citizen who had responded to the proposal of Reb Dovid Dryan (the Gateshead shochet, former talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, zt'l, and the moving force behind the establishment of the yeshiva in Gateshead) in the 1930s to found a yeshiva in Gateshead by saying, "A yeshiva can take root in England like hair can sprout on the palm of my hand."

The young Mordechai seemed to have a promising career ahead of him. His sharp intellect guaranteed him a prosperous profession and a distinguished position. But his life took a different turn after Rav Dessler entered the picture. At first the two simply learned gemora, but as their relationship continued, Rav Dessler taught him the principles of Jewish hashkofoh he had formulated over the years which form the basis of a Jew's approach to life.

Nothing could have been further from the materialistic approach of most of England's Jews, and the youth was electrified by the scintillating ideas. Despite the fact that Jewish studies ended for most English youths of that day when they reached the high teen years, Mordechai keenly felt his lack of Jewish knowledge and he resolved to learn more. He realized that pursuing this interest would consume his leisure time, but he didn't expect to be taunted by his Jewish classmates for having such archaic interests.

He was sure that Rav Dessler's towering personality would have a powerful impact on his classmates. After he had convinced them to meet his mentor, one youth challenged Rav Dessler, "What color is G-d?" His classmates were sure Rav Dessler would chase them away, and they were surprised when he calmly explained that the concept of color only can apply to material objects but not to an immaterial being such as Hashem. The young Mordechai commanded respect among his peers after that.

Rav Dessler dissuaded his parents from their plans to have their son become a minister in a synagogue (a position which rarely promoted personal growth in yiras Shomayim in that period) and recommended instead that the young man become a lawyer. When the war broke out, the family moved to Dublin, Ireland to escape the blitz, and Mordechai went to university to study law.

Life in Ireland

At this point, Mordechai was a 19-year-old serious lad who had behind him several intense years of learning the Desslerian thought system. He organized the local boys from religious homes and delivered a weekly hashkofoh shiur to them. Before delivering the shiurim he wrote them down, and sent them to Rav Dessler for his approval. He continued to correspond with Rav Dessler throughout the war.

Rav Dessler arranged for him to continue his gemora studies with Dayan Aloni, and Mordechai additionally undertook to keep a half-hour mussar seder every day. During this period he studied Mesilas Yeshorim and covered the margins of his book with private annotations.

Mordechai was also responsible for setting up a Tiferes Bochurim organization in Dublin which continued for a number of years afterward. The first and only time he took upon himself a "rabbinical mantle" was when he served as rov in the Tiferes Bochurim camp on the Isle of Man, where he was responsible for delivering shiurim. The youths found him a good speaker and charismatic, and he was well-liked in particular by university students who were thinkers. Here too the principal ideology he gave over was based on Rav Dessler's hashkofoh.

For his law degree thesis, he wrote a book called Jewish Law of Sale. This thesis was the fruit of two years study of Shulchan Oruch Choshen Mishpot and related sections in Even Ho'ezer. To write the thesis he had to plumb through Shaarei Yosher, Ketzos Hachoshen, and the Nesivos. Close to the end of the war he was awarded his M.A. and LL.B (law degree). In addition to his impressive scholastic record, he was versed in German, French, Yiddish and Hebrew.

By the end of the war, Mordechai had a number of plans. For one, he was thinking of moving to Israel and practicing law there. But this plan was quickly nipped in the bud when he asked the Chazon Ish if giving a paper to a judge in Eretz Yisroel is considered a mesayei'a le'arko'os. The Chazon Ish laughed and told him not to practice law in Israel or within a short time he wouldn't come to ask such questions.

Yeshiva Years

After giving up this idea, Rav Dessler suggested that before going into practice in England he should first spend some time in yeshiva. After six months in Schneider's yeshiva in London, Mordechai headed north for the Gateshead yeshiva in 1946. He spent a satisfying year immersed in Torah study. He was close with Rav Leib Lopian, the Gateshead rosh yeshiva, and even had a private seder with him. Nonetheless, it came as a total surprise to him when, at end of that year, Rav Dessler urged him to go into education.

Rabbi Miller started his official teaching career by saying a shiur in the Gateshead yeshiva for newcomers who hadn't previously learned in a yeshiva.

During this period, Rabbi Miller studied Yoreh Deah with HaRav Naftoli Shakovitzky, the previous Gateshead rov. At the end of a year's study, Rav Shakovitzky wrote a letter of recommendation for Rabbi Miller testifying that he knew the first part of Yoreh Deah by heart and was proficient in the Rema, Nosei Keilim and Pischei Teshuva. Rav Shakovitzky sent him to a former chavrusa of his from Slobodka who was then a rov in London to receive semicha. HaRav Shmuel Yosef Rabinov, called the "Divrei Shir" after his work whose title incorporated his initials, gave him semicha predicting that he would one day be a godol.

It was finally time to settle down. Rav Dessler suggested the young daughter of the Bindingers, a chassidic family who happened to live next door to Rabbi Miller in Gateshead. The Bindingers were Polish Jews who had lived some time in Germany but had escaped after Kristallnacht. The young lady had been attending classes in the new Gateshead Seminary which a German refugee named Mr. Avrohom Dov Kohn had opened with Rav Dessler's backing, and Rav Dessler had been duly impressed with her character. Since the young lady had imbibed Rav Dessler's teachings for some time, Rav Dessler was sure she would be a suitable wife for his star disciple.

Rabbi Miller's family was at first upset at the offer of a girl from a Polish family but Rav Dessler assured them: "The more slope a ladder has, the better it stands." He meant that the different backgrounds would make the shidduch even better. The young couple wed at the end of 1947.

Teaching at the Seminary

When Rav Dessler moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1947, he arranged for Rabbi Miller to take over his lectures at the Seminary. Rav Dessler felt it imperative to found a girls' school because he saw that no kolel could maintain itself unless the students had wives who shared their goals and were willing to sacrifice for it. This is why he himself taught hashkofoh lessons to the handful of girls in the first years of the Seminary's existence -- even though several of his distinguished colleagues tried to convince him it was beneath his dignity. This is also why he pushed one of his best pupils to take over his classes when he left for Eretz Yisroel.

The Gateshead Seminary was founded in 1945 with a handful of girls. The founder and main teacher was Mr. Kohn, a German refugee who had been brought to Gateshead to manage the afternoon cheder studies for the local boys. Shocked at how Jewishly illiterate the local girls were, Mr. Kohn had set up an evening education program for post-high school girls that featured various teachers from the local community including Rav Dessler. The girls worked in the military industry factories during the day and received a dose of spirituality at night.

Rav Dessler was keenly aware of the conflagration consuming Europe. After divine Providence arranged that his wife and children were stranded in far-off Australia, he threw all his energy into educating promising students who he hoped would be the leaders of a new English Torah community. He established the Kolel in Gateshead which absorbed elite Torah scholars who had been stranded on the British isle before the war, and was deeply involved in the yeshiva and Seminary. He traveled throughout England throughout the week visiting and teaching small select groups of scholars and promising youths. His efforts were not limited to teaching, and a large part of his time was spent on fundraising to keep all these institutions afloat.

During those years, appreciation for Torah in England was low. Only a few boys were willing to answer the clarion call to spend years of their lives and give up a comfortable career for the sake of Torah study. It was even harder to find girls who were willing to give up career training to study Torah and ten times harder to find girls who would accept upon themselves the life of privation involved in marrying a Torah scholar.

The very idea of a seminary sounded strange in those days. A whole year to be spent on Jewish education? What is this -- a yeshiva for girls? Since when do girls have to be versed in Jewish studies? All a fine Jewish girl needs to know she can pick up right in her own home. And who needs women teachers? Only boys go to afternoon chadorim, and all the teachers are men. There was something eccentric in all this talk of educating women to be teachers.

When the Gateshead Seminary was founded, some of Gateshead's most religious community members hotly opposed it. It was therefore not surprising that families who were considered the cream of religious Jewry in England refused to send their daughters to the new school. In the early years of the Gateshead Seminary, recruiting girls proved to be a far harder task than fundraising. During the first decade of the school, most of the students were German refugees who were used to the idea of women receiving a thorough Jewish education, and French Jewish women from traditional homes who were searching for meaning in the wake of the Holocaust.

As discomfiting as it was to study in such an institution, it was even more difficult to teach in it. It was only due to Rav Dessler's urging that Rabbi Miller found himself standing in Mr. Kohn's living room teaching a handful of girls. Many expressed shock that a talented person like Rabbi Miller would agree to such a low-prestige job.

Years later, after Rabbi Miller had become the vice principal of the school, he realized that all along Rav Dessler had been grooming him for a career in education. It took only a few short years before he understood that the seminary would be his life undertaking.

He was followed several years later by Rav Dov Sternbuch, a Kolel member from an illustrious London family. It was this team of three -- Mr. Kohn, Rabbi Miller and Rabbi Sternbuch -- who constituted the core of the Gateshead Seminary staff which navigated it through its difficult beginning years into becoming the illustrious, world renowned seminary that it is today.

For 40 years, one could not invoke the name of the Gateshead Seminary without conjuring up a vision of these three personalities. Mr. Kohn was the father who was personally involved with the girls, and tended to their day-to-day concerns. Rabbi Miller was the main teacher who imbued the girls with Torah hashkofoh and wisdom and provided many with crystal clear advice. Rabbi Sternbuch was the tzadik whose tzidkus and yiras Shomayim awed the girls, and whose lectures inspired them.

It would be remiss not to mention the total harmony that existed among the members of the Seminary staff. The mutual respect and admiration which Mr. Kohn and Rabbi Miller held for each other despite their very different backgrounds was apparent to all. They were able to work together for 40 years in total harmony because neither of them was working for himself. Their mutual goal was to achieve what Klal Yisroel needed.

Mr. Kohn's son reports that his father did not hesitate to take advice from Rabbi Miller and he implemented his advice almost every time. When the staff appeared together on special occasions, such as siyumim or Shavuos meals, the girls were invariably treated to an amusing scene since each rabbi refused to go first and insisted that his colleagues enter or sit before him.

The mutual respect between the heads of the institution continued after Mr. Kohn passed away and his son Rabbi Kohn inherited his position. Rabbi Kohn gave Rabbi Miller so much respect that it left a deep impression on the girls. One girl explains, "Rabbi Kohn was the one in charge of day-to-day affairs, but he honored Rabbi Miller so much that you felt you had to honor Rabbi Miller even more."

Temptations Arise

As noted above, Rabbi Miller's position in the early Seminary entailed no small personal sacrifice on his part. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Seminary had several dozen students from Europe and England. To keep the school afloat, Mr. Kohn and Rabbi Miller had to fundraise throughout England. One can imagine the difficulty this entailed in those years just after the Holocaust. Whereas Jews were half- heartedly willing to donate a few sterling for a yeshiva, no one understood why a "yeshiva for girls" should be supported.

Several times during his life Rabbi Miller was offered far more prestigious positions. Among the positions he was offered was that of mashgiach in the Gateshead yeshiva and mashgiach in a distinguished yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel. But Rabbi Miller saw his work with the Seminary as a shlichus given to him by Rav Dessler which had to be faithfully upheld.

However, one time in his life, in the early decades of the Seminary, he received an extremely tempting offer -- and it was no less a Torah scholar than Dayan Abramsky who pressed him to take the new position.

When Dayan Swift left a large synagogue in London for South Africa, Rabbi Miller was offered his position, which included becoming the registrar of the London Beis Din. Dayan Abramsky was eager that Rabbi Miller take this appointment because he wanted rabbonim who respected gedolei Torah in this key position. Dayan Abramsky felt it was vital for Anglo- Jewry that Rabbi Miller undertake the job and he even promised Rabbi Miller to learn regularly with him.

On top of the attractions of the offer itself, Rabbi Miller was experiencing family pressure too. His family was upset that he had turned down a job with the prestigious Teff & Teff law firm, and they felt that at the least, he should take this distinguished rabbinical position. His father chided him, "If you won't be a lawyer, at least be a prestigious rabbi! Anything but a teacher to a handful of girls without money or fame!"

When Rabbi Miller went for an interview with the synagogue's Board of Governors, he saw many of the board members sitting without head-covering. He heard that he would have to wear canonicals (black robes) for the job. He instinctively felt this was not a place for a ben Torah. The Board gave him seven days to think it over.

Rabbi Miller sent a telegram to Rav Dessler who was then in Israel. Although Rav Dessler immediately prepared a reply, the messenger which he asked to go to the post office forgot to attend to it. When no answer arrived from Israel, Rabbi Miller took that as a sign from Heaven and gave a negative answer to the Board of Governors. Rav Dessler's answer came the next day: No. The Seminary would accomplish more for Hashem and Torah than would the rabbinical position.

Rabbi Miller's family was not thrilled when he told them that "he had decided to exchange the laws of profits for the laws of prophets," but Rabbi Miller never regretted his decision. Towards the end of his life, Rabbi Miller once commented that he suffered from so many medical conditions that he felt certain Heaven had left intact his mind and his power of speech because he was a faithful shaliach to his mentor and remained teaching at the Seminary.

In retrospect, the fame that he gave up by turning down prominent rabbinical and yeshiva appointments pursued him anyway. But at that time he made the difficult decisions, and he had done it completely lishmoh. No one believed that the Gateshead seminary and one of its main teachers would ever achieve such scope and fame.

Once he told his son, "I have to teach in Sem because this is a job no one else could do." He remained at the helm of the Seminary although he would have been no less successful had he had joined the staff of a yeshiva.

Semicha from HaRav Shmuel Yosef Rabinow, zt"l

" . . . I have found that he is overflowing in the above sections (first section of Yoreh Deah) in astounding bekius and tremendous understanding, he also has much knowledge in Shas and poskim, and is tremendously talented in all subjects. Not only this, but it is evident that he fears G-d, has extremely noble character attributes, is polite and his derech eretz precedes his Torah learning. He is worthy of the rabbinical mantle of Yoreh Yoreh. I am sure that with the help of G-d, he will exalt himself to become a godol beYisroel for he is a worthy vessel to receive purity and fear of G-d like one of the gedolim.

I hereby sign on [Tuesday], the Torah seder of "I will come to you and bless you" [Yisro], 5707 [1947]

Personal letter from HaRav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler on the birth of Rav Miller's first son (translated):

Parshas Terumah, 1953, Bnei Brak

To my yedid nefesh, my beloved and precious son, who dwells in the hidden spots of my heart, Mordechai, may Hashem protect him, and his distinguished and estimable wife Gita, minoshim bo'ohel tisborech, and their precious and beloved children, my beloved ones and my darlings, may Hashem watch over them:

Mazel tov to you, mazel tov. Happiness and joy filled all the chambers of my heart and a light of joy filled every corner in the house when I heard the wonderful news of the birth of your precious, sweet son. I sent you a telegram expressing my heart's feeling, but what can a paper hold -- and all the more so a telegram which must be short. Even so, I sat down to write you as much as my talent suffices to completely express the ruminations of my heart. Perhaps you will have the talent to read what wasn't written, perhaps by telepathy to see straight from one heart to another. At any event, my heart prays that you will merit to raise him for much Torah and immense yiras Shomayim, and may it be His Will that he will grow great in Israel in his mind, heart and actions, omen kein yehi rotzon.

Write me details, my dear Mordechai, my beloved, may Hashem protect him, if the birth was easy, how much the child weighed, how the bris milah went, etc. etc. everything that I will find interesting and absorbing. Also, please tell a warm, heartfelt mazel tov blessing to the grandparents. May it be Hashem's Will that they receive much nachas from this grandson and from all their children and grandchildren, may Hashem protect them.

Please tell me which name you will call the sweet child?

Shabbos is drawing near and I must be short. May it be Hashem's Will that Hashem will always give you all kinds of happiness.

Your friend who loves you and sends regards,


Letter Sent to the Family during the Shiva

It's almost impossible for me to adequately describe to you the immense sorrow and shock that I felt last Wednesday. It took a number of hours before I could stop crying . . .

We, the students of your father, have lost a teacher who molded our whole thinking process. He filled our mind with knowledge on countless different subjects and showed us a depth in hashkofas haTorah that we never knew existed and so he opened our hearts to a quest for avodas Hashem.

Every question he asked us was challenging, every answer he provided was brilliant and satisfying, and every Shabbos shiur we heard from him was enthralling . . .

It slowly made its way into our thought process showing us that only Torah and avodas Hashem is more precious than pearls and all else is an exercise in futility.

For all his brilliance he was the image of self-effacing humility and simplicity. Which other teacher can make jokes on his own account simply to put his pupils at ease? Even when he would telephone me to ask about prospective applicants to the Seminary, a joke would always be forthcoming just to put me at ease and make sure I was not too overawed.

A short while ago, I was faced with a question in my classroom that I could not answer. I phoned your father for advice and he answered with his characteristic clarity of thought and patience and kindness.

His method of educating was so different from the method of education today. He opened our minds with new ideas, and our hearts to new hashkofos without being claustrophobic. He never confined us with "nitty-gritty" but shared with us the clarity of the idea he was teaching us and then trusted us to think about it and internalize the lesson by ourselves. He invited us to a "shulchan oruch" but allowed us to digest the delicacies ourselves. One almost doesn't find girls' education that way anymore.


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