Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Adar II 5765 - March 30, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Torah's Sunrise in America: Remembering HaRav Reuvein Grozovsky Zt'l

Introduction: Recalling a Godol and a Friend

Our conversation with HaRav Dan Ungarischer, rosh yeshivas Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey recaptured the atmosphere of worlds that have long since passed. We met to discuss the life and heritage of HaRav Reuvein Grozovsky zt'l, who was the son-in-law to Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l, rosh yeshivas Kamenitz and father-in-law of ylct'a, HaRav Ungarischer. Drawing upon the rich resources of an elderly talmid chochom but with vitality and vigor that belie his years, Rav Dan consented to our request that he tell us something about his illustrious father-in-law, who was one of the leading Torah leaders and builders of Torah in postwar America.

Rav Dan first gave us some idea of the importance that he attaches to perpetuating Rav Grozovsky's heritage. When his family was preparing publication of Ba'ayos Hazman, a volume of Reb Reuvein's articles dealing with contemporary issues, they wanted to include an account of his life.

"It was suggested," Rav Dan related, "that we approach his friend and childhood companion, HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l, so that he could tell us some of his memories of my father-in-law. We called his home and after asking his pardon, told him what we wanted. As soon as he heard that it was about Reb Yaakov said emotionally, 'Come to my house right now; it's a huge obligation and a great mitzvah to tell the life story of the gaon Rav Reuvein zt'l!'

"When we arrived, he greeted us as though he'd just been sitting and waiting for us. Reb Yaakov's memory was virtually perfect. He was the source of much of what I am going to tell you now."

Mentor and Friend: Between Minsk and Slobodka

YN: What was Reb Reuvein's background?

Rav Ungarischer: My father-in-law was born in Minsk, the city where Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l, and many other gedolei Yisroel were also from. His father was Rav Shimshon, the dayan of Minsk, who was a very influential figure. He had a kloiz called Zivchei Tzedek, where the best bochurim in Minsk came to learn. Because he was the dayan's son and was also a bit older than the others, he was the leader of the group.

One of the group was a youngster named Aharon Kotler. He was a tremendous genius, who had lost both his parents. As a young bochur, my father-in-law worked on him to go and learn in Slobodka, where his abilities would find expression in gemora study. Due to his standing, his influence was effective and he saved Reb Aharon from taking a different path in life. Had things run their natural course without my father-in-law's intervention, we would have lost Reb Aharon the Torah sage. I heard this from Reb Aharon himself.

My father-in-law acted as a shield, protecting the other members of the group from the influences of the Bund and the Zionist movements by persuading them to travel to Slobodka as well. Many of them developed into gedolei Torah.

YN: And he didn't go himself?

Rav Ungarischer: In the end, when only a few bochurim were left, he accompanied them to Slobodka. But even while he was learning there, when he came home for Yomim Tovim, he would gather the youngsters and persuade them to come with him to Slobodka.

He had an extraordinary reputation among the Slobodka bochurim. The father of HaRav Aviezer Piltz relates that he was the leading bochur and the one whom all the others consulted. The bnei hayeshiva would cluster around him, wanting to speak with him in learning. This would go on until the small hours of the night. Rav Piltz was his roommate in their lodgings in the home of one of the local householders.

Reb Reuvein returned late at night from the yeshiva and they didn't want to disturb their host. They therefore arranged that each night when Reb Reuvein returned, Rav Piltz would get up to open the door for him, in return for which the next day, Reb Reuvein would repeat all the discussion that had taken place in the beis hamedrash the previous night. He was already a leader as a bochur in Slobodka.

Youthful Leader: Dispersal and Gathering

There followed a period when he had to bolster Yeshivas Mir. The Alter of Slobodka saw it was necessary to send a group of his finest bochurim to strengthen the yeshiva. Reb Reuvein was the leader of the group.

YN: How long was he in Mir?

Rav Ungarischer: They returned to Slobodka after a short while. Reb Yaakov told me that when the First World War broke out and signs of the fighting started showing themselves in Slobodka, a group of approximately fifty bochurim from Minsk, who were among the finest in the yeshiva, decided to return home for fear of the fighting. Reb Reuvein was one of the group.

Within a week of their arrival, a letter from the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt'l, arrived, addressed to Reb Reuvein, asking him to find somewhere in Minsk that would be suitable for delivering shiurim. Reb Reuvein immediately started talking to the Minsker baalei batim, who found him the Tatarishe Kloiz, that fit the purpose. Reb Moshe Mordechai paid Minsk a visit.

I remember Reb Yaakov relating that the first time was Shabbos parshas Shofetim, when the words "Tzedek tzedek tirdof' are read. World renowned gedolim learned in that yeshiva, such as HaRav Avraham Grodzensky zt'l, Hy'd, and other gedolim who came to Minsk because of the war, such as Rav Chaim Brisker zt'l were also influential there.

YN: Was Minsk safe from the war?

Rav Ungarischer: This state of affairs continued for some time, until rumors started that the warring armies were approaching Minsk too. The bochurim of the Minsk yeshiva then split into two groups. One fled to Germany and the other, to Russia. My father-in-law didn't want to return to Czarist-Bolshevik Russia so he went to Germany.

Some time later, when the atmosphere was calmer, he received another letter from Reb Moshe Mordechai saying that since things were quieter, he wanted to reopen the yeshiva in Slobodka and have everyone gather there. Since Slobodka was still under German control though, the Rosh Yeshiva wanted Reb Reuvein to ask Rav Yosef Carlebach, who was on good terms with the German authorities, to intercede with the German general and obtain his permission to reopen the yeshiva in Slobodka.

Reb Reuvein did so. He asked Rav Carlebach to take action and he, in his great wisdom, obtained the desired permit. At first, he gathered the bochurim together in Kovno and later joined the Slobodka yeshiva, which had already reopened in the town of Kremenchug under Reb Moshe Mordechai's leadership. These were the two occasions when he had the opportunity of carrying out Reb Moshe Mordechai's wishes: when the yeshiva first convened in Minsk during the war and afterwards in Slobodka, when the war had died down.

With Rav Boruch Ber: Vilna and Kamenitz

YN: At what point did he become Reb Boruch Ber's son- in- law?

Rav Ungarischer: After the war, word went around the yeshiva that Reb Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l, who was living in Kremenchug, wanted to take Reb Reuvein as a husband for his daughter because of his reputation in understanding and toiling in Torah. An incident took place just before his wedding that illustrates his greatness.

Word suddenly arrived that his father, the dayan Rav Shimshon, had passed away. When the news reached the Alter of Slobodka he was afraid that it might lead Reb Reuvein to travel to Minsk, which would involve the loss of a great deal of his time from learning. The Alter gave instructions that Reb Reuvein not be told, so that he should not stop learning during the period of mourning. The Alter explained that the mourning consisted of saying Kaddish to elevate the soul of the deceased but, as he put it, "Reb Reuvein says Kaddish all day long." In other words, the power of the Torah that he learned and spent all day and night thinking about and the elevation that it brought his father's soul, was the equivalent of saying Kaddish numerous times.

YN: As far as is known, did Reb Reuvein deliver a shiur in Kamenitz?

Rav Ungarischer: Yes. Straight after his marriage, he became his father-in-law's right hand man. Reb Boruch Ber's admiration for his son-in-law was so great that he referred to him as "Der yunger Or Samei'ach (the junior Or Samei'ach)."

Some time afterwards, Reb Boruch Ber moved to Vilna to rebuild Yeshivas Knesses Beis Yitzchok that had disbanded during the war. This was after Lithuania's partition into three sections. Kremenchug was in the Russian sector and under no circumstances did Reb Boruch Ber want to remain in Russia, which was renowned for its cruelty and great wickedness.

In Vilna, my father-in-law served as a maggid shiur alongside Reb Boruch Ber who was the rosh yeshiva. Later, when the yeshiva moved to its premises in Kamenitz, my father- in-law was most involved in running the yeshiva. He accompanied Reb Boruch Ber on his famous trip to America to save the yeshiva. He himself once told me that there had been a time when everyone flocked to Reb Shimon Shkop's yeshiva in Grodno and that when Kamenitz grew stronger, it became a lodestone for hundreds of bochurim.

YN: How did he get to America?

Rav Ungarischer: After the Soviet authorities gained control of the Torah institutions, rabbonim and activists in America undertook to facilitate the emigration of rabbonim and gedolei Torah from Eastern Europe to the United States. That is how my father-in-law Reb Reuvein, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Mendel Zaks zt'l, and other talmidei chachomim found their way to the United States. It was Hashem's will that they should illuminate that continent with the light of their Torah.

They escaped from Russia via Japan. His devotion to rescue work was already apparent there. Upon arriving in Japan, depressed and broken both in health and spirit, the doctors immediately ordered him to force himself to rest but he didn't relax for a moment. He worked energetically to rescue bnei Torah from the Russian exile in any way possible.

Rescue and Relief: from the Far East to America

This continued after his arrival in the United States, when he began his work for Vaad Hatzolah, part of whose activities involved rescuing the bnei hayeshivos who were refugees still in Russia, or in Shanghai in China. Ignoring everything else, he traveled all over the United States in order to raise money and resources to save the Torah world. Many talmidim remember the letters of encouragement and the packages of food and clothes that he sent them to Siberia, which revived them and literally preserved their lives.

His communal work was carried out with great self-sacrifice. In later years he related that at that time he was offered a position at the head of a large mesivta in New York but as he put it, "I withstood the temptation."

He was not diverted for a moment from working for the rescue of the Torah world. He used to say that our outlook differs from that of the Jewish leaders who sit tranquilly in their ivory towers and feel "concerned" about the people's welfare. We maintain that there can be no peace of mind when engaging in communal work and that one ought to do so "dressed in shrouds" from the dread of carrying responsibility for a public and the consequences of "murder" [by neglect]. In fact, one should worry and feel the pain of the community to the point where it makes one ill.

In this connection, he would cite the incident with the Beis Halevi who, when the opinion he expressed at one of the rabbinical meetings in St. Petersburg was not accepted, actually became sick over it.

When my mother-in-law, the righteous rebbetzin and Rav Boruch Ber's daughter, passed away he could not be comforted. He mourned deeply and hardly spoke to the people who came to comfort him. However, when R' Dr. Yitzchok Lewin, the chairman of Agudas Yisroel's executive council, who had just returned from an important trip to Eretz Yisroel came in, Reb Reuvein listened carefully to every detail of the state of religious affairs in the Holy Land.

His role in the leadership of Vaad Hatzolah was also outstanding at this time. He took a stand against the Nazis' genocidal campaign, directing the rescue work from a Torah viewpoint and engaging in daring projects that displeased the (secular) Jewish political leaders. He used to say that communal affairs should be handled [with full concentration and deliberation,] in the same way that one learns a deep sugya in Shas. And in fact, he would adduce support from the rulings of Chazal and of the subsequent great poskim in arriving at decisions on the issues that cropped up.

Pioneer of Torah Outlook: Respected by All

YN: Did he have a particular approach to Torah outlook, that is apparent in Ba'ayos Hazman?

Rav Ungarischer: He fought Hashem's battles. He served as chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and under his leadership, the Agudah waged several campaigns. For example, they involved in the struggle against the forced apostasy in Eretz Yisroel of the Yaldei Teiman and the Yaldei Teheran. He was out in the front and all the others followed him.

At that time, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, was in the United States and it was decided that a delegation of Agudah leaders would pay him a visit in order to express their concern over the secular coercion in the Holy Land.

He fasted the day before the meeting and he spent the entire night before it discussing with each of the members of the delegation exactly what should be said there. After that, he recited Tehillim tearfully for several hours and then he prepared to go to the meeting after arranging for some bochurim to say Tehillim. He came to the meeting without having broken his fast.

Such was his dedication to communal work and at a time, too, when there were difficulties in his own home. He didn't pay them any attention but sacrificed himself for the communal good.

Once a large demonstration was held in America and the Satmar chassidim asked their Rebbe zt'l whether they should attend. The Rebbe told them, "When the gaon Rav Reuvein finishes speaking, leave."

Speaking to the talmidim of Torah Vodaas before the demonstration, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky first mentioned that they could attend and then remarked, "Now we're going to hear a shiur from the gaon Rav Reuvein."

On the same subject, Rabbi Lobenstein of Agudas Yisroel in London told me that the Agudah once discussed formulating a position paper regarding the State of Israel. One of the activists got up and said, "We already have a manifesto — Rav Reuvein Grozovsky's sefer, Ba'ayos Hazman." Someone else (who had compromising leanings) stood up and said, "It's already out of date." Now we can see just how relevant it is even today.

Builder of Torah: Between New York and Monsey

YN: Where did he serve as rosh yeshiva upon arriving in America?

Rav Ungarischer: Torah Vodaas was the only yeshiva in the United States at that time. At the suggestion of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz zt'l, brought my teacher and rebbe Rav Sholom Heiman zt'l, to serve as rosh yeshiva. He brought the light of Torah to America and breathed life into the spiritual desolation. He passed away towards the end of the World War and my father-in-law Reb Reuvein was asked to replace him as rosh yeshiva. At this point, the story of Beis Medrash Elyon of Monsey also started.

YN: What is the story of Beis Medrash Elyon?

Rav Ungarischer: Around that time, Rav Shraga Feivel had acquired an empty building in the town of Monsey, which was then an out-of-the-way townlet surrounded by virgin forest and without any Jews. He put together a group of the best students in Torah Vodaas and they formed the nucleus of Beis Medrash Elyon. The calm rural atmosphere helped them concentrate on their learning and develop in Torah, with Reb Reuvein presiding over them. He divided his time between the two yeshivos, spending the weekdays in Torah Vodaas and Shabbos in Monsey.

It's worthwhile retelling the story of how Rav Feivel purchased the building that was originally built by a wealthy gentile, the owner of a large estate. He had wanted to build himself a beautiful palace, for which purpose he chose the highest hill in the area where the air was pleasant and the view breathtaking. When he grew old and felt that he was approaching the end of his life, he grew concerned over the building's fate after him. No ordinary person would buy themselves a house so far from human habitation. He imagined that it would probably be turned into a hotel and that the guests would probably be "wealthy American Jews." That was something that he didn't want under any circumstances. He therefore drew up a legally binding will that specified that the building was to be used solely as a school.

YN: He never imagined that it would be used as a Torah school!

Rav Ungarischer: In fact, during the War the house was used by a military academy for soldiers. It was vacated when the war ended and it stood empty for a long time. Reb Feivel somehow found out about the building that was for sale and managed to purchase it for use as a Torah school. When the sons of the original owner found this out, they opposed the sale on the grounds that it contradicted "the spirit of the will" but Reb Feivel's position was stronger.

The posuk, "Many are the thoughts in a man's heart but Hashem's counsel prevails" (Mishlei 19:21) was thus fulfilled and the place became a great Torah center. The best talmidim in Torah Vodaas would come to Beis Medrash Elyon and there the place had a tremendous atmosphere of progress and elevation in Torah. It was a real sight to see the Rosh Yeshiva arrive at the week's end, walking along the forested path at the edge of the yeshiva building, engaged in a heated discussion of a sugya. It was also his habit to convey mussar instruction and the talmidim who listened to him gained fine reputations.

Rav Moshe Bick zt'l once remarked that he knew of no other place that taught Torah and yirah to equal Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey. Devout Jews began settling in the yeshiva's vicinity and the town's reputation spread far and wide.

My teacher and father-in-law, our master Rav Reuvein was thus one of the foundation stones of spiritual rebirth in America and Beis Medrash Elyon was one of the foundations of the building of communities of Torah and yirah in America.

Beis Medrash Elyon of Monsey

The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Dan, has been carrying the burden of the yeshiva's support ever since his father-in-law fell ill. He then acceded to Reb Reuvein's request that he take his place in delivering shiurim and directing the yeshiva. Since then, hundreds of talmidim have passed through the yeshiva, having been trained in comprehending Torah.

Reb Reuvein attended the first shiur that Rav Dan delivered in the yeshiva as a mark of his esteem. In his writings he also discussed his son-in-law's ideas. Reb Reuvein spent the last years of his life as a guest in the home of the son-in-law to whom he was so close.

Besides running the yeshiva, Rav Dan has also worked to publish Rav Reuvein's Torah writings and works. These have appeared in the three volumes of Chiddushei Rebbi Reuvein, which have found their place in botei medrash everywhere.

Adjacent to the old yeshiva building (the story of whose purchase is told at the end of this interview) a fine new building has been erected. The renovation and redecoration of the old building has also been completed, adding to the splendor of this great Torah edifice

Beis Medrash Elyon of Eretz Yisroel

At the celebrations marking the laying of the cornerstone for Beis Medrash Elyon's yeshiva building in Bnei Brak, Rav Dan Ungarischer observed that it represented putting down roots in Eretz Yisroel. The yeshiva, which is headed by his son Rav Yerachmiel Ungarischer, already has a reputation for its superlative chinuch in Torah and yiras Shomayim. There is also an element of something having come full circle. The sacrifice of Reb Reuvein, who founded the yeshiva in America, on behalf of the Torah world in general and for the Torah community in Eretz Yisroel in particular, truly represents the seed from which the yeshiva in Bnei Brak has developed.

Something that Rev Reuvein himself said at the reception that was held for Yeshivas Kamenitz in Rasein can be applied to the more recent event: " `And all who seek Hashem' (Shemos 33:7) — these are the talmidei chachomim who go from town to town and from place to place (Brochos 63). About them it is said, `and I shall make a place for My people Yisroel and I shall plant them' — all the nations are planted in their lands and we are planted in Hashem and in His Torah, in every place."

Ba'ayos Hazman: Formulating Our Stand

"Your prophets, Yisroel, were like foxes among the ruins [that run away as soon as anyone approaches]. You did not go up to stand in the breaches and repair the fence around Beis Yisroel [to enable them] to stand up in battle . . ." (Yechezkel 1:4-5).

Rav Reuvein quotes these pesukim in his essay about the duties of rabbonim. He had their message in mind when attempting to repair some of the breaches in the wall protecting Torah Jewry by clarifying Torah outlook and explaining the battle being fought against the betrayers of our nation's mission. The result is this collection of articles about our times and their problems that are set out, as Rav Reuvein put it, "like an orderly sugya dealing with communal issues."

Different Times, Different Places

He sees our generation's central issue as the battle over "public life" that has been waged against traitorous elements since the days of the Haskalah, centering upon the question of who will hold the reins of leadership. "Satan modifies his ways according to the time and the place. In Russia [his tactic was] by bearing slander to the Czar; in Hungary [he acted] through ministers and elected representatives; in the Eastern lands through sending money to the masses; in America through either democracy or bureaucracy, for where the Torah observant are concerned, all the fundamental rules are forgotten."

Heretical ideologies also shift and change 'like the hyena that becomes a bat after seven years, then a vampire, then a thistle, then a thorn" (Bava Kama 16). Enlightenment begat assimilation, which was followed by nationalism and socialism and finally Zionism. Gedolei Yisroel opposed this last one because "they saw it as outdoing even Reform, with its assertion that we are not a people of the Torah but a national entity." The main aim was to instate the leaders of the secular national idea as the nation's leaders. The Torah leaders foresaw that with the establishment of a state governed by deniers of G-d, they would certainly force all those under their control to abandon religion, especially those whose livelihoods and living conditions they controlled.

Rev Reuvein mocked the State's achievements with regard to national security since "we could have attained material wellbeing through denying Hashem in most of the lands of our exile and even in the [time and] lands of the Inquisition."

After noting the battle over public leadership, Reb Reuvein makes a compelling case for the establishment of Agudas Yisroel in general and in America in particular. He lists six organizational aims that the Agudah ought to set itself, all of which arise from the stated objective of "trying to put those who uphold Torah in control."

To Join or Not to Join?

In the chapter dealing with the de facto establishment of the State of Israel and its governing institutions, he presents the differing viewpoints, knowingly passing over the shailah of whether to say Hallel or Selichos (as he puts it) over its establishment. After presenting the two views in amazing detail, he directs some open criticism to our own camp, not to turn these differences of opinion into an internal fight. "Now is not the time to conduct arguments among those who believe in Hashem and His Torah, when all of us are under attack from those who hate Hashem."

This zealous spokesman for Hashem's word then sums up: "Of those whose only conflict is over how to understand the situation, it is certainly said, `They loved the truth and the peace' (Zecharya 8:19). However, even when we suspect a person of not acting from pure motivation and of veering from Torah's path, though we are obliged to rebuke him our words should be spoken gently, so that he accepts them from us!"

Reb Reuvein's discussion of the topic of allying oneself with evildoers is arranged with the penetrating halachic analysis of a shiur. What is the difference between joining together with evildoers and engaging in outreach, even to evildoers? "Rav Moshe Almosnino writes in Medrash Shmuel perek 1 that the prohibition is for a good person to join an evil one. If however, the evildoer is secondary and it is he who aligns himself with the good person, then it is correct to accept him in case he returns to the path of good."

Regarding love for other members of Klal Yisroel, Chazal's advice to "love all men and hate heretics" is known. Although a heretic is a full Jew with regard to marriage and divorce, the Tur (Yoreh Dei'ah siman 268) distinguishes between the laws that determine others' obligation to keep away from him and his own obligations towards himself.

The truth is "that my teacher and father-in-law . . . Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz said that the great hatred borne towards an evildoer stems from great love for, and brotherhood with, him and from great distress over the fact that a brother Jew is defiling his soul."

After discussing the severity of the prohibition against joining forces with evildoers, he raises the issue of participation in the Israeli government on the tactical basis of "gifts and battle" [as Yaakov Ovinu did when he prepared to meet Eisov]. He finds this sufficient grounds to permit it but with the precondition that it is done "out of utter compulsion, so as not to derive benefit from something forbidden, like Yael and Queen Esther in their day."

At the end of the chapter he returns to the two approaches one of ruling out and the other of allowing participation in the government. He discusses how the campaign against those who betray our heritage ought to be waged jointly, rather than conducting an internal conflict (noting inter alia that, "comparing one issue to another is a type of halachic ruling that is the province of the Sages" — which has obvious ramifications).

Although these demarcation lines were drawn up decades ago, they continue to radiate light in our own times. Other essays in the collection deal with Keeping Shabbos, The Laws of Chinuch, Torah Study, the obligation of Modesty and other points of outlook. They are all outstanding for their analysis.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.