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29 Kislev 5763 - December 4, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In Tempestuous Times: The Life And Achievements Of HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz, zt'l

by Rabbi A. Gefen

Rescue And Relief To the Last

Rav Kalmanovitz was constantly active. Even as he was aging, he made a second trip to Morocco in 5713 (1953) to try to help out the Otsar Hatorah educational system that he had founded only a few years earlier. Here are some incidents and details of that trip.

Memories of Rav Kalmanovitz on the Road

Rav Kalmanovitz himself wrote that because of the exertions of this trip, he fell ill. "And I am still busy with medicines and doctors, who found an ulcer in the intestines which comes as a result of great vexation and irritation. I am hoping for Hashem yisborach's kindness, for a complete recovery."

While convalescing, Rav Kalmanovitz spent several weeks as a guest in the home of HaRav Refoel Boruch Toledano, av beis din of Meknes. The memories of Rav Refoel Boruch's son, HaRav Yosef Toledano, of Rav Kalmanovitz are presumably from that visit.

He remembered their guest's beaming countenance, his tall stature and his comely face. "I accompanied Reb Avraham to the doctor on the yom tov of Shavuos. The doctor was Jewish and the rov told him that if he needed any medicine he would be glad to accept it but without chas vechalilah writing anything down."

HaRav Aharon Monsonego, chief rabbi of Morocco, also made his first personal acquaintance with Rav Kalmanovitz on this visit. In an interview with Yated, he described how he accompanied Rav Kalmanovitz as he travelled around the country.

"We travelled to all the cities, up hills and down valleys, a very difficult journey . . . he needed a shochet to provide him with food. Rav Avraham went to the faraway towns and places and he would only eat from shechitah that he himself had supervised. I joined him as a shochet. Everywhere [we went] I would slaughter a chicken for him to eat for his health. I also slaughtered calves for him and we visited all the institutions in the country. (Emotionally,) He was a great man. He spoke with a very fiery delivery."

YN: We heard that people didn't understand how he spoke.

Rav Monsonego: "It was difficult to understand his talks, true, but he didn't speak without an interpreter. At least that was how it was in all the places where I went with him. I would always translate the drashah for the congregation. Rav Moshe Lasry would also translate . . .

(Emotionally) "When the situation with Otsar Hatorah and its activities was difficult due to a number of different factors, Reb Avraham would repeat the words of the posuk about Dovid Hamelech o'h, in Shmuel (I 30:1- 6), in the episode of Tziklag. Dovid was in a very difficult position, `And Dovid and the people with him raised their voices and wept until they no longer had strength to weep.' The great problem was the fact that the people wanted to stone him, for they were very embittered. Referring to this, R' Avraham would tell me, `And then the novi says, "and Dovid strengthened himself in Hashem his G-d!" ' Dovid Hamelech fortified himself in Hashem, and thereafter the salvation came, as the pesukim there describe.

"Reb Avraham knew all of Tanach by heart. He always had a small volume of Tanach in his pocket and while travelling he would review it constantly. His whole style and manner of speaking was from Tanach. He would regularly adduce proofs from Tanach for every problem that arose (as befit his breadth of mind and his greatness in Torah and fear of Heaven), as in this example of Dovid in Tziklag, when he wanted me to draw strength from Hashem.

"In connection with his always carrying a Tanach, he once told me that he had learned this from his teacher the Chofetz Chaim, who kept a Tanach in his tefillin bag."

A unique talmud Torah opened in Casablanca for the school year that began at the end of 5712 (1952), in which one-and-a-half thousand pupils were taught in forty classes, an average of more than 37 children per class. In this institution, which replaced all the city's small chadorim, half the day was spent on limudei kodesh, while teachers from the Alliance taught limudei chol in the other half. Rav Monsonego was called back from Aix-les-Bains, where he had been learning under HaRav Yitzchok Chaikin zt'l, to head the talmud Torah. (The Brisker Rov zt'l, whom Rav Monsonego met in Switzerland, urged him to return to Morocco.) This was also Rabbi Dovid Turgeman's first teaching post with Otsar Hatorah. He recalls one incident from Rav Kalmanovitz's visit to the school:

"When he visited the classrooms, he paid a visit to the class of Rav Yitzchak Chazan zt'l, who taught Talmud in breadth and in great depth to one of the higher classes. Rav Kalmanovitz was very impressed by Rav Yitzchak and he asked him a hard question on the gemora with which great rabbanim had had difficulties. Rav Yitzchak showed him an answer in a Tosfot in a different masechet. Afterwards, Rav Kalmanovitz told the menahel, Rav Aharon Monsonego, that Rav Yitzchak was fit to head a yeshiva gedolah in Klal Yisroel, not just to be a regular teacher in a talmud Torah."

Summit Meeting in Paris

Rav Kalmanovitz initiated a meeting with the heads of the Alliance in Paris, apparently following his visit to Morocco and as a direct consequence of what he had witnessed there. The meeting was to advance two objectives: first, to have the Alliance's influence removed from Otsar Hatorah schools, and second, to obtain their consent to introduce minimal Torah studies into their own schools.

Rav Kalmanovitz's escort and translator in France was Rav Yehuda Alkayam zt'l, who was then learning in a French yeshiva. As a result of this trip, a strong bond developed between them. Rav Alkayam gave the following description of the meeting:

"To start with, the leaders of the Alliance were not moved by the gaon's entreaties and they did not mean to accede to his requests. But then his emotions boiled over. Rav Kalmanovitz burst into stormy tears and said -- in a language that they did not understand at all -- ` "And their father Yaakov said to them, `You have bereaved me; Yosef has gone and Shimon has gone and [now] you would take Binyomin; all the losses are mine," (Bereishis 42:36). The dreadful Holocaust, when a million Jewish children were slaughtered and annihilated, was not enough. That was a physical holocaust. But now you are continuing with a spiritual holocaust of tens of thousands of Jewish children!' These words, emanating from his pure heart with hot tears, softened the icy hearts of the participants, who then agreed to part of his requests."

A protocol drawn up as a result of this meeting, which is dated the second of July 1953, concludes:

"Our opinion follows the various details of the agreement that have taken shape between us and various communal councils of Morocco. A working agreement such as the one we have discussed, between our organization and the Alliance, will be considered by us as affirmation of the effectiveness of the work that we have already been putting into it during six years of tremendous effort.

"In the mishnah in Pirkei Ovos Chazal say that the world stands upon three things: on Torah, on service and on doing kindness. Many projects of kindness have been carried out on Morocco. We aspire to provide what is lacking: Torah and serving Hashem."

A measure of Rav Kalmanovitz's greatness can be discerned in the following lines, which he wrote immediately after his return to the United States. "Boruch Hashem, I have already given a shiur on maseches Gittin here in the holy yeshiva (i.e. Mir). Although I have not yet fully regained my health, I wait to become stronger among the rest of Klal Yisroel's sick, in Hashem yisborach's kindness. Everyone is obligated to learn Torah though, even the aged and the sick, for `they are our lives and the length of our days.' "

A French Connection

In 5712 (1952) twelve thousand pupils were learning in Otsar Hatorah institutions. Further growth took place until 5723 (1963), when there was large scale Jewish emigration from Morocco. In 5716-7 (1956-7), against the background of the disturbances that preceded France's granting of independence to Morocco and unrest in Algeria, there was general violence as well as anti- Jewish rioting. Thousands of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan Jews fled to France, whose Jewish population doubled within a short time. The only religious group that was well-prepared to welcome the newcomers were the Christian missionaries. Rav Kalmanovitz sprang into action and set about organizing a religious day school, within the Otsar Hatorah system. Here is an account of that institution's precarious first steps, as recalled by Rav Tzvi Padida, upon whom Rav Kalmanovitz called to open and run it.

"The mission had representatives at every air and seaport, which extended material assistance to the destitute refugees. They transported them to out-of-the- way villages, where there was no Jewish population. I can personally testify about an entire family that was fully converted." (Rav Padida displays photographs showing the conversion ceremony and the family's ultimate return to their heritage under the influence of Rav Padida, who was a young avreich at the time.)

"We raised the alarm and our cry was picked up by the amazing radar of Rav Kalmanovitz, who took in the situation and immediately dispatched two emissaries, one from Mir and another from Lakewood. They came to look and their eyes were darkened by what they saw. In every city [where Jews lived] there was maybe a single beit haknesset. For example in Lyons, where I was active, there was just one kosher butcher, in whose shop both kosher and treif meat were sold. There were no kosher food products; the neglect was tremendous.

"These avreichim visited the yeshiva in Aix-les- Bains and told HaRav Chaikin about their mission from America and about the bad conditions that they had witnessed. They asked him if one of his talmidim could accompany them to see what could be done. It thus came about that they asked me to join them, but I refused because I was too young. When they completed their work, the two returned to America and delivered a precise and exhaustive report. Rav Kalmanovitz issued a heart-rending circular declaring France a `meis mitzvah', for which even a cohein godol may become tomei.

"The avreichim mentioned my name to Rav Kalmanovitz and we started to correspond, until the point where two more emissaries were sent from the American Pe'ilim and Rav Avraham's urging pushed me to accompany them . . . and it was resolved that the first priority was to start doing something. The gedolei Yisroel decided that a talmud Torah should be opened in Lyons. The task was entrusted to me, when I was just nineteen years old, after pressure from HaRav Chaikin, HaRav Aharon Kotler and HaRav Kalmanovitz zt'l, who gave me no peace. (Once he called in the middle of the night and cried, `A Yid is still asleep? Get up!')

"Rav Avraham obtained funding for the talmud Torah through Yitzchak Shalom, who supported the Otsar Hatorah institutions in Morocco. He was a wealthy man, from the Syrian community, who lived in America. They called him `king of the scarves' because of his worldwide business in the manufacture and marketing of scarves. This was the beginning of an interesting episode of ups and downs in the progress of pure Torah outlook."

An Entire World!

With the implementation of the infamous Zionist Aliyat Hanoar program (which arguably played a greater role in tearing Sephardic youth away from their religious heritage than even a century of the Alliance's influence had done) Torah institutions in Morocco began closing. The accounts by Rav Padida which follow, of Rav Kalmanovitz's handling of some of the crises that beset his work, are every bit as instructive as they are startling.

"Rav Kalmanovitz told Yitzchak Shalom that he should direct resources instead to Lyons. Thus, the talmud Torah in Lyons was established at the end of 5723 (1963) with a single pupil. People told me that under such circumstances there was no call for opening a talmud Torah -- a school with just one pupil has no right to exist [they said]. I insisted on hearing Rav Avraham's opinion. He responded, `You have an entire world [there]. For him [alone], you must run everything normally. Bring a principal and teachers, studies, recesses, games and even a bell to ring.'

"I followed his instructions and that was what we did with our `entire world.' In the evenings I would go out and make the rounds of people's homes together with the child to enroll more pupils in the talmud Torah. Jews heard that the school was actually operating and, after a time, and with special effort, there were sixty talmidim.

" . . . Rav Avraham pressured me both verbally and in writing to reach an enrollment of a hundred! And indeed, when we sent notice to America that we had one hundred-and-twenty pupils, the gaon was overcome by tears and said, `What joy there is in the heavenly entourage! If Rav Tzvi Padida were here, I would go into the streets with him to dance!'

"With our expansion and the opening of a branch in Marseille, the Torah department of the Jewish Agency decided that it was time to put their hands on these holy endeavors. They worked in several different ways, the main one being to pressure Yitzchak Shalom [who supported Torah causes warm-heartedly, both earning and providing others with many merits, but whose own understanding of Torah was such that he could be swayed] to discontinue his support. This would have brought them into the picture to give financial assistance and would have handed them control of the tinokos shel beis rabbon.

"Messengers from the Jewish Agency also persuaded Yitzchak Shalom that I was a young bochur who lacked experience and that I had no `right' to be running such an enterprise without them. What's more, they told him, `You cooperate with us in many places; how come you don't afford us any entry over here?' One way or another, I eventually realized that the money was taking a while to arrive.

"Rav Avraham investigated and discovered that the irreligious folk from the Agency were behind the problems. He wrote to me, to strengthen me and to encourage me not to let them gain a foothold under any circumstances: ` "A person who aspires to purify himself is assisted." A person is granted Heavenly assistance according to the way in which he orients himself. If you dedicate yourself to safeguarding the purity of the flask of oil, you will be assisted and all the future products in generations to come will be to your credit.

"On the other hand, if you let them gain the slightest entry, you can't be considered as aspiring to purity and they will take ever bigger strides and will wreak destruction . . . '

"And indeed, boruch Hashem [we have continued] as we started. Today there is a network with over ten thousand children run according to pure Torah outlook, under Heaven- fearing Orthodox Jews . . . Rav Avraham betook himself to bold action and he also went to Yitzchak Shalom's home. The magnate apologized to him: `I cooperate with the Agency in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Turkey and in other places? How could I not listen to them here?'

"Rav Avraham trembled and raised his voice in pain, `Do you wish to close the school that I, together with the gedolei hador, worked so hard for?' -- and he let himself fall to the floor as if in a faint.

"In alarm, Yitzchak Shalom cried, `Ambulance! Quickly, an ambulance!' but the distraught Rav Avraham opened his eyes and said, `Not an ambulance -- a check for Padida!'

"From the floor he continued, `Listen Mr. Yitzchak Shalom. I don't know what is in store for me in the near future [this meeting took place only a few months before Rav Kalmanovitz actually passed away] but if I arrive in the World of Truth, I will stand at the gate to Gan Eden and I won't let you inside! Everything you've done for Otsar Hatorah and all the charity you've given won't help you. The way something ends up reveals the nature of its beginning. If you want to close the Torah institution in Lyons -- you will have no share in the World to Come!'

"The magnate said, `Get up and take a check.' Rav Avraham asked that the check be sent to the school's account and added, `I won't come to give you my blessings until Rav Padida informs me that he has received the money and until you promise not to withhold money again.' And so it was.

A Fateful Moment

"The Agency did not rest, however. They continued their campaign, pressuring him constantly to get me to bring in at least one other person, `to help me.' Things reached the point where they managed to instigate a meeting between myself, the heads and workers of the Agency and Mr. Yitzchak Shalom. The meeting was arranged after conducting all kinds of visits and wielding pressures and influences . . . until it was resolved that a meeting would be held in a luxurious Paris hotel.

"There were important people present, as well as a number of Jews who were termed `talmidei chachamim' who had been brought along by the Agency on purpose, in order to show me that they too, cooperated with them, so why was I being so stubborn? Rav Avraham found out about this and he called HaRav Gershon Leibman zy'a and agitatedly asked him to go along and encourage Rav Padida, who would have to face a whole crowd of people on his own. `He mustn't be left alone!' he cried at them into the telephone.

"They managed to arrive several minutes before the meeting was due to start -- HaRav Leibman and several others -- and they said, `Just a moment, we have a message for you from Rav Kalmanovitz.'

" `Rav Avraham wanted us to tell you the following: "We, here in America, feel the tremendous pressure which you are under, several fold. Normally, it is extremely difficult to resist such pressure and even if you fail, we will understand you. But be aware of one thing: the moment you enter that meeting, you are like the Cohein Godol entering the Kodesh Hakodoshim . . . a single unfit thought was enough to cause his death. So! If you so much as entertain a thought of cooperating with them in any substantial way, or even if you agree that they should come and visit every month, or participate as guests in any of the talmud Torah's events, these too, are forbidden [for you to agree to,] with no compromises. Be strong!" '

"Rav Gershon continued, `We will stay here and, as Rav Avraham asked us to, will wait for you however long the meeting lasts, until you come out and tell us the verdict: guilty or innocent, dead or alive. And we shall immediately report to Rav Kalmanovitz.'

"Baruch Hashem I was adamant in maintaining my position, rejecting their involvement in the institution that I myself had established and [repudiating] their right to join me on my own turf. Yitzchak Shalom was convinced by my address and by the justice of my arguments and he called me aside and said, `My eyes saw [even] more than my ears heard. From now on, don't worry. I will continue sending money and will increase my support so that you won't need to solicit funds elsewhere.' Thus, we progressed and developed, with great success."

In Midstream

Rav Padida never got to meet Rav Kalmanovitz personally. The bond between them developed over the years in the course of the many letters and phone calls that they exchanged. Rav Kalmanovitz invited Rav Padida to the United States in 5724 (1964) to raise funds in order to establish a solid financial basis for the Torah institutions in France. He placed a large notice in the local Jewish press, welcoming Rav Padida in the name of all the American Jewish organizations -- even the Mizrachi (so that later, they would at least not hinder the drive) -- but sadly, several days after Rav Padida's arrival, before they had had a chance to meet, Rav Kalmanovitz was called to the yeshiva shel ma'aloh.

Crowds came to hear the hesped delivered by the visiting French bochur, in the course of which Rav Padida read out the last letter that Rav Kalmanovitz had written him. It was filled with encouragement, with strategies for rescuing and protecting Torah and with the pure Torah outlook that passes from one generation to the next. By the time of his petiroh, Rav Kalmanovitz too, whose tutelage in self-sacrifice for the klal had included witnessing the conduct of the Chofetz Chaim, Reb Chaim Brisker and Reb Chaim Ozer zt'l, had trained, also by personal example, a new generation of men who were selflessly dedicated to preserving and furthering Torah.

In Conclusion

In being maspid his father, HaRav Shraga Moshe Kalmanovitz asserted, "Maybe the reason that my father zt'l, merited playing a part in the rescue of virtually all the gedolei Torah who were saved, from the gaon HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l and HaRav Reuven Grozovsky zt'l, to the Rebbe of Satmar (zt'l), was that his self-sacrifice was of a very special type, as I heard from him in his last address.

"He asked a question on Chazal's statement that Chanania, Mishoel and Azariyoh adduced a kal vochomer from the conduct of the frogs in Egypt, and reasoned that they too, should certainly agree to be thrown into the furnace (Pesochim 53). Why couldn't they have learned from Avrohom Ovinu, who sacrificed himself in the same way in Ur Casdim?

"He answered that Chananya, Mishoel and Azariyoh were not being asked to actually serve an idol. They were only obligated to sacrifice themselves so that there would at least be some individuals who refused to bow to the idol, so as to lessen the chilul Hashem. This obligation did not devolve on any particular individual. Such was the self- sacrifice of Chananya, Mishoel and Azariyoh -- to decide that `I will be that individual' -- and this could only be learned from the frogs, whom Moshe only generally said would be `in your ovens' (Shemos 7:28), without specifying any particular individuals.

"My father zt'l, practiced this special kind of self- sacrifice that did not acknowledge the idea of `let someone else do it.' On the contrary -- [he held] `Let me be the one to do it!' Even if the work played havoc with every aspect of his life, even if all norms and standards dictated that others ought already to be doing it, he did not excuse himself from aspiring to, `Let it be done by me!' That is why he merited what he did -- to have a portion in virtually all the Torah existing in the world. Happy is his lot."

Many photographs depict Rav Kalmanovitz involved in this or that project, at many different times and at many different locations around the globe. If one wanted to pick out a single, symbolic image to sum up his life, it would be none of these however. The most evocative scene would be the one described by Chaim Shapiro z"l who knew a young Rav Kalmanovitz as rov of his childhood town, Tiktin, when a fire broke out there one motzei Shabbos:

"Soon the Rov appeared on the roof of a house near the blaze, his imposing figure illuminated by the leaping flames. Up there, it appeared, not only did he get a better view of the rescue operations, but by the flow of his tzitzis and his kapote he could judge the direction of the wind.

"Like a field marshal on a battlefield, he stood erect in his kneehigh boots. . . . His high velvet yarmulke was tilted to one side and his hands were moving frantically. With a single command . . . he took personal charge. His orders were obeyed to the letter by Jew and Pole alike.

"Amidst the panic and commotion, the Rov stood out like a tower of calm stability and authority."


In Rakov, Tikitn and Vilna, in America, Germany and Morocco, his feet were rooted on the ground but because he stood higher than most, he had a clearer and sharper view of the flames that licked at his nation's body and soul. With an unflagging sense of urgency he assumed responsibility and, revered and heeded by Jews and gentiles alike, he worked unceasingly to salvage and nurture the remnant that was spared from the fire and to rebuild Torah.

Note: It should be pointed out that in focusing on the broad themes of Rav Kalmanovitz's hatzoloh work, these articles have not dwelled on his role as Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva and his work within the yeshiva which was also extensive. And even with all that has been written, the full extent of his hatzoloh activities has still not been revealed. An account of the many other rescue projects that he carried out worldwide, on behalf of both individuals and entire communities, could easily fill another article, while one can only guess at the extent of that part of his work that did not go on record.


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