Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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15 Kislev 5763 - November 20, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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

by Rabbi A. Gefen

Part Five: New Frontiers, Old Challenges

Introduction: The Forgotten Million

Eight months after the arrival of the Mirrer yeshiva students from Shanghai in the U.S. after the end of the war, Rav Kalmanovitz opened a new chapter in his amazing career of hatzoloh. In the summer of 5707 (1947), he embarked on a trip that would introduce him to an entirely new field of endeavor, the ancient Jewish communities of Morocco.

He could neither speak nor understand the Arabic dialects which Moroccan Jewry used, while the local Jews were unable to understand his Yiddish, or even the Loshon Hakodesh in which he tried to communicate with them. However, this did not prevent each side from recognizing the other's warm- hearted and straightforward manner, simple yet staunch faith in Hashem and determination to do everything possible to continue transmitting Torah to future generations, despite the formidable obstacles.

Indeed, there was much in the character of the Moroccan Jews, for example their warmth and spontaneity, which particularly endeared them to the Eastern European gedolim who built Torah in postwar Eretz Yisroel, America and Europe.

There are a number of different versions of what prompted Rav Kalmanovitz to reorient himself in this particular direction. Perhaps the most revealing are some comments that he himself made. While speaking in one of Moroccan botei knesses, he referred to Moroccan Jewry as "Noach's ark" that was spared during the flood i.e. the destruction that had engulfed European Jewry. He would also refer to the Moroccan community as "the forgotten million." Another visionary pioneer of Torah education in the Sephardi lands, Rav Yitzchok Meir Halevi zt'l (of whom more will be said later), once remarked to his son that Morocco had the potential to become a second Poland. This comment reveals much about the hopes of the rabbonim for the Moroccan communities and their sense of urgency in their work.

Sephardi Jewry at the Crossroads

What was the predicament of Sephardi Jewry? How had the situation arisen where they were in such dire need of assistance from their Ashkenazi brethren?

For centuries, the Sephardim had lived basically in peace among their gentile hosts. Religious persecutions by the Moslems had long since disappeared, while institutionalized antisemitism, such as the masses of Russian Jews suffered at the hands of their country's government, was unknown.

Neither, prior to the Second World War, had there been widespread poverty. The poverty that came in the wake of the war exacerbated existing problems but it was not the root of the trouble. The crisis was threatening the very foundations of Moroccan Jewry's spiritual, not its material, life.

The modernizing forces that swept eastward across Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bringing haskoloh and its evils to the Jewish communities of Europe, took somewhat longer to reach Northern Africa and Asia, the lands of the Sephardi Diaspora. As countries under predominantly French influence, Morocco and Persia attracted the interest of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (Kol Yisrael Chaverim) of France, an assimilationist Jewish organization. The Alliance undertook the education and "modernizing" of the large Moroccan communities, where Jewish life, even in the late nineteenth century, still followed the age old pattern.

The establishment of modern schools, staffed by irreligious young Jews and Jewesses and where French language and culture -- but no Torah whatsoever -- were purveyed, did not at first attract many. Generally, it was the wealthier, worldlier sliver of the communities that was attracted to these schools. However, with the passage of two generations, many native Moroccans became involved in the network, which greatly expanded in both size and influence as its graduates began to play roles in communal affairs.

A handful of the rabbonim opposed the Alliance's efforts within their communities with varying degrees of success, but many others were simply unaware of the implications of the new developments until it was too late. The old cheder system of Torah education dwindled to the point where its very existence was endangered in many parts of the country.

The roots of the crisis went deep. The Moroccan community had many virtues and had preserved its own distinctive character in may respects over the centuries but it did not have a broad tradition of serious Torah study for all levels of the population such as existed in many Jewish centers in central and eastern Europe. This greatly weakened the ability of the rank and file to identify and to resist the dangerous ideologies that the new times were bringing (of which the European culture of the Alliance was one example, while Zionism was another).

The implication of the comments quoted above, that the large Sephardic centers that had hitherto been ignored, had suddenly assumed new importance in the wake of the recent churban, is perhaps a little harsh. Even from the little that we know, it is hard to see how Rav Kalmanovitz, whose record in hatzoloh was unique in magnitude and scope and whose zeal and sense of mission were virtually unequaled, could have shouldered another major project during the war years. Others could perhaps have done more but the priority would still have been Europe.

Even after the war, the consensus among the broad spectrum of Torah leaders was that the prime objective had to be the reestablishment of vibrant Torah life and centers of learning to replace, to whatever degree possible, that which had been shattered in Europe. Nevertheless, it was typical of Rav Kalmanovitz that as soon as possible, side by side with doing just this -- leading the newly established Mirrer Yeshiva in New York -- he also betook himself to the relief of his brethren in distant lands.

Rav Kalmanovitz addressed a gathering of the leading Sephardi rabbonim in Eretz Yisroel, where he spent some time before travelling to Morocco. With tears in his eyes he spoke out on behalf of what at the time was one of the largest Jewish centers and certainly the largest Sephardi one in the world:

"I do not know the language, nor am I familiar with that holy community's customs [so] please, you send spiritual leaders urgently to repulse the destroyers, to restore the ruins and to build the wall of Jewry. Save Moroccan Jewry!"

The rabbonim chose Rav Refoel Abu zt'l a great talmid chochom from Tiveria who was then in his thirties, as a suitable travelling companion for Rav Kalmanovitz. Together, the two set out to visit Jewish communities throughout the country in order to gain impressions of their needs.

A Moroccan Childhood

A fascinating picture of the old style cheder education in Morocco is given by Rabbi David Turgeman, a native of Marrakesh who later became involved with Otzar Hatorah (the network of religious schools set up by Rav Kalmanovitz) and went on to represent Jewish education country-wide to the Moroccan government.

Rabbi Turgeman, who underwent his early schooling in the nineteen thirties, describes how, after learning alef beis in a class conducted in one of the rooms in a beit haknesses close to his parents' home, he went to learn, "with Rabbi Refoel Chaim Shoshana in Dar ben Morno, his private home on . . . Street. In this house, the Rabbi lived on the upper floor, while on the lower floor, there were three classrooms.

"In all the chadarim in Marrakesh, possibly throughout Morocco, they learned Tanach, translating each pasuk into classical Arabic, which for us was an obsolete language, like Targum Onkelos. With Rabbi Refoel Chaim . . . it was completely different. It was not a mechanical word-for- word translation but a comprehensive explanation, in colloquial Arabic, which meant that the students had a better understanding of what they learned. Every Wednesday, the rabbi would test us on what we had learned that week and for every mistake beyond the allowance that he set for us, he would hit us with a stick on our hands or on the soles of our feet. Like all the teachers, Rabbi Refoel Chaim received his monthly salary from each of the parents.

"Afterwards, we moved with Rabbi Chaim to learn in a large hall near the market . . . where conditions were difficult. In the hot Marrakesh summers, the temperature in the hall reached close to forty degrees. Then Rabbi Chaim suspended a large fan, shaped like a framed wicker mat, from two pillars, which we would take turns to wave using a rope attached to the bottom middle of the mat, in order to dissipate the terrible heat.

" . . . in his teaching, Rabbi Shoshana blended yirat Shamayim, the acquisition of good character traits and derech eretz, with uncompromising strictness, good heartedness and fatherly warmth. He taught with emotion and excitement. I remember that when he taught us Megillat Eichah during bein hametzarim, he would burst into tears. We, his students, literally saw Rabbi Chaim as Yirmiyohu Hanavi as he said, `Al eileh ani bochiya . . . eini eini, yordo mayim' -- over the destruction of Yerushalayim tbv'a.

"It once happened that a student did not attend the rabbi's lessons regularly during one month. At the end of the month, his father brought him to the cheder and gave Rabbi Chaim his wage. Rabbi Chaim took the money and threw it onto the roof of the cheder in disdain, saying to the father, `Is it the money I need, or that your son should attend regularly? If he does not come to the cheder regularly, I will not accept him!'

"Among the Jews of Marrakesh, it was rife that the teachers at the Alliance were freethinkers, who required their students to bare their heads. This rumor made for hesitation among parents at the idea of enrolling their children at the Alliance . . . They would speak to the pupils about `our forefathers the Gauls' and when they did agree to introduce Jewish studies, they brought in a teacher for Ivrit, just for the sake of appearance . . . [However,] conditions in the Alliance schools, the size of the classrooms, their cleanliness and furnishings, in contrast to the crowding, the dirt and the poverty in the talmudei Torah, enticed a considerable proportion of the parents and slowly, parents began to flow to the Alliance to register their children. Things reached the point where the heads of the Alliance had to implement a selection process, because demand overtook supply."

Founding Otzar Hatorah

In a letter dated, erev Shabbos kodesh leseder "Boruch Tihiyeh" (i.e. parshas Eikev, in the month of Av) 5707 (1947), Rav Kalmanovitz wrote, "In Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia, I found approximately sixty thousand children. Ten thousand of them have been taken away from us to the Alliance schools, which don't have [even] a whiff of Torah. Most of the remaining . . . are in chadorim or Talmudei Torah, while a few are completely neglected.

"But the chadorim and talmudei Torah themselves are very neglected. There are no seforim, no qualified teachers and no capacity for absorption. I found a hundred and twenty children in one small, narrow room, sitting on the floor, with just two Chumoshim for all of them. They were very crowded. There was no cleanliness and no light, with one teacher for a hundred and twenty children. In the communal talmud Torah too, there were a hundred children in one class, with a single teacher and melamed."

When Rav Kalmanovitz left for Morocco, he had the financial backing of Mr. Yitzchak Shalom z'l, a Syrian Jew who had settled in the United States and prospered enormously. Mr. Shalom promised to lend his support to any new institutions that would open as a result of Rav Kalmanovitz' trip. He and another Sephardi Jew, Mr. Joseph Shamah z'l who resided in Yerushalayim, founded and supported the Otzar Hatorah organization, whose institutions Rav Kalmanovitz established in Morocco.

Rav Shraga Moshe Kalmanovitz described his father's initial efforts. When Rav Kalmanovitz arrived in Casablanca, whose Jewish community numbered one hundred and twenty thousand souls, he gathered the communal leaders, who were already estranged from Torah, and called upon them to establish a Torah institution for boys. Until the age of eight, only limudei kodesh would be taught and afterwards, a majority of the program would still be devoted to limudei kodesh.

"The men were totally disinterested in this plea. Rav Kalmanovitz did not know what it was to give up. At the end of the proceedings, he invited those attending to a second meeting that would be held the very next evening.

"Later that night, Rav Kalmanovitz went knocking on the doors of the homes of these same communal leaders and met with each of them privately. He cried and begged and, with a Torah giant's excitement, he explained their responsibility and the eternal merit that would be theirs if they opened a Torah school. Individually, each of them understood and agreed with him.

"The next evening, at the second meeting, when they all gathered once again Rav Kalmanovitz succeeded in obtaining their agreement. A decision was arrived at to open Otzar Hatorah's first cheder. Otzar Hatorah's first headquarters was thus established in Casablanca."

Rav Kalmanovitz then travelled to the small towns, where the influence of the Alliance was weaker and traditional life had been less affected, but where impoverished general conditions made the future of Torah education very precarious. If, in the large modern city of Casablanca, the wealthy leaders who are far from Torah, agreed to establish Torah education, he reasoned with the townsfolk, you who are still close to Torah's path, certainly have an obligation to do so.

Thus, in the time that Rav Kalmanovitz spent in Morocco, he set up a network of Talmudei Torah, chadorim and yeshivos. Another purpose of the trip was to seek older talmidim who could be taken to learn in the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York. While there was much that could be done in Morocco for the cause of elementary Torah education, there were no yeshivos suitable for capable older bochurim , where they could develop into the religious leaders that their communities needed.

Eight years later, in 5715 (1955), Rav Kalmanovitz wrote, "Boruch Hashem, it is our students, whom we saved, that are filling the halls of all the yeshivos of Europe and Eretz Yisroel, in Paris, London, Gateshead and Aix-les-Bains. A large majority of them [hailing from the Sephardic lands] are exclusively our talmidim. In Eretz Yisroel and America too, there is not a single yeshiva without Moroccan talmidim and they are our students. Already a number of them are bnei Torah, rabbonim, teachers and spiritual guides. There is a large group of scholars who are baalei teshuvoh in France, who are Moroccan talmidim, doctors and professors, who sanctify Heaven's Name."

Emulating Rabbi Chiya's Deeds

Rav Kalmanovitz departed after his mission in Morocco was completed, leaving Rav Abu behind to continue visiting small communities across the country and then to travel on to Algiers and Tunisia. Instead of returning to America though, Rav Kalmanovitz travelled to Germany to make arrangements for the printing of tens of thousands of sifrei kodesh for the Moroccan talmidim. He had already presided over an earlier project to print copies of Shas in Germany after the war, for the use of the many refugees who were living in the DP camps. Now, at the end of 5707, he wrote, "At present, we are busy printing Chumoshim and nevi'im in Germany, which will be cheap -- 8-10 cents for each Chumash. This summer, I put enormous effort into [the project] because here, the price is 55 cents and twenty thousand copies of Chumash Bereishis with Rashi and Targum are required, as well as Shemos, Vayikro, Bamidbor, Devorim and the nevi'im, Yehoshua, Shofetim etc. -- two hundred thousand volumes in all. And, as is well known, there is nobody, neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi, who will take an interest in this holy matter besides . . . "

The printing in Germany was subject to the limitations imposed by the American army of occupation and permits had to be obtained from its governing branch. In a letter from Marienbad, dated "Bein Hametzorim 5707," Rav Kalmanovitz described his efforts at finding alternative ways to print the Shas, such as conducting the printing in the zone of French occupation where it might be easier to receive permits and to subsequently transport the seforim to French Morocco. He employed extraordinary terms in describing the importance of the project; the dearth of sifrei kodesh was one of the fundamental problems facing Moroccan Jewry in those days.

From a letter written a year later (at the end of 5708), it is apparent that the problem had not yet been completely solved. "As you know, " Rav Kalmanovitz wrote, "we are in dire need of Chumoshim with Rashi and nevi'im with Rashi, for the talmidim in the schools and talmudei Torah in France and Morocco, and there is a shortage in Germany too. In my humble opinion, it is worthwhile working with genuine sacrifice in order to bring this project to fruition, as I did last summer . . . I am sure that you will exert yourself devotedly, for this great and holy cause, for the sake of the tinokos shel beis rabbon, who are the world's foundation and means of its survival".

From Despair to Hope

From Casablanca, Rav Abu sent Rav Kalmanovitz a comprehensive report of his discoveries and achievements in the course of his visit to Marrakesh and the surrounding Jewish villages (where he was accompanied by a devoted assistant, Mr. Yitzchak Almaliach). Here is part of the report, which is eloquent testimony to the urgency and the supreme importance of the work that Otzar Hatorah was undertaking:

"We visited the yeshiva of Marrakesh, where sixty-five talmidim learn in four classes. The staff and pupils joined in demanding that I fulfill our promises to test the students, who had made tremendous efforts to learn in order to be tested and do well. I agreed and in the presence of the city's rabbonim, the president . . . and the dignitaries, I began the examination. I gave it all my strength, for it went on for virtually three days, day and night. My pleasure was immense, for our enterprise has achieved something great, which nothing else approaches. Even the youngest knew between six and seven pages [of gemora] by heart, with Tosfot, explained nicely and was able to answer difficult questions. It was a great kiddush Hashem. The assembled were grateful and full of praises . . . There was genuine light and rejoicing, because at this juncture, many of the talmidim had begun to understand gemora and Tosfot by themselves . . .

"With great joy, Mr. Almaliach distributed prizes whose value added up to 32,000 francs, for that was the calculation according to the number of pages. The prizes have such a powerful effect; they were an immense help in bolstering the yeshivot and in inculcating a desire to learn . . .

"From there we travelled to the village of Hamdanah, a poor hamlet where the Jews dwell in clay houses and sit on mats. There were twenty-six neglected talmidim there. The teacher teaches for an hour a day and then goes off to earn a living. The children were forsaken, with disheveled hair -- some of them had not had their hair cut for two years. I literally wept. I gathered the community and told them of our wish to take their sons to learn with Rabbi David Halevi and they agreed, for they love Torah with all their soul. We chose seventeen talmidim and took them to Rabbi David.

"We visited a village called Tidil, where there are twenty talmidim, a little better behaved but forsaken, for there is no one to teach them . . . There too, our eyes darkened at the sight of the prevailing poverty and the forsaken talmidim . . . We took those whom we knew could be saved, ten of them, and we came to Rabbi David Halevi . . . altogether, [there were] fifty-two talmidim. It was a dreadful and an upsetting sight when we brought a barber and he began to shave the talmidim, over whose heads no blade had passed. Many [of those who were present both] wept and rejoiced that we had saved them. We -- Almaliach, who did superhuman work and myself -- began to arrange their accommodations . . .

"We appointed two respectable, Heaven-fearing, young teachers as their leaders, to attend to their studies and education. We arranged for a man to wash them and supervise their cleanliness and for three women to cook, bake and do their laundry -- and they set to work. Although plentiful funds are needed, we are hopeful that assistance will be forthcoming from all sides . . . We departed, encouraged by the hope that this place would turn out very well; it is impossible to do justice in writing, to the talmidim's desire for Torah. We brought workers, who began working on a building for the talmud Torah and yeshiva . . . "

Towards the end of his letter Rav Abu writes, "I am sending you the names of the talmidim who are candidates for Yeshivat Mir, as you requested. Please attend to this quickly, for you will be achieving a great thing."


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