Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Head in the Heavenly Domain and a Heart of Gold
Twenty Years from the Untimely Petiroh of HaRav Alter Yitzchok Dershowitz zt'l

written by B. Ram and C. Zilberman

Part I

How was it possible to educate children to Torah-observance in pre-World War I USA? Could someone possibly withstand the heavy social pressure of the constant race after comforts of life, pleasures, "keeping up with the Joneses" and social status?

Ordinarily this would have been an elusive accomplishment, and indeed, it was attained only through true mesiras nefesh. R' Zecharya and Leah Dershowitz, originally Ruzhiner chassidim, had immigrated to America in the 1880s from Galicia because they found it almost impossible to support themselves there. In America, the Goldene Medineh, Zecharya faced additional difficulties in supporting his family of seven children (some were born in the USA) because of employers' demands that he work on Shabbos also. His determination and mesirus nefesh won out, however, and, boruch Hashem, he managed to work without chillul Shabbos (a description of the conditions at the time for religious Jews who immigrated from Europe is depicted in Our Crowd—The Great Jewish Families of New York by Stephen Birmingham).

His oldest son, R' Yekusiel Yehuda (Leibish-Louis) zt'l, who ran a small printing shop, and his wife, Aidel (Ida), decided to move with their children (eventually seven boys and one girl, R' Yitzchok was one before the youngest) from the East Side to Williamsburg that was a more exclusive neighborhood. They were, however, concerned that their children would not be receiving a bona fide chinuch of Torah and yiras Shomayim. Together with his close acquaintance Mr. Binyomin Wilhelm, they came up with the idea of founding a yeshiva in Williamsburg.

Later they brought R' Zeev (Wolf) Gold and R' Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt'l into the picture and in 1918 the Yeshiva Torah Vodaas came into existence (see Reb Shraga Feivel by R' Yonoson Rosenblum, p. 68). Gradually, the yeshiva added grades and came to include a high school and beis midrash (mesivta). In Torah Vodaas, HaRav Alter Yitzchok zt'l, fondly called by his friends Itzie, received a sterling Jewish education and later became a true talmid chochom, yireh Shomayim, baal chessed and ardent warrior for Hashem.

In a house permeated with ahavas Torah R' Yitzchok absorbed an unrelenting drive for spiritual greatness. A product of such an atmosphere conducive to Torah study, R' Yitzchok attended Torah Vodaas with a burning desire to attain Torah wisdom. In the highest shiur at the Mesivta he studied under the famous gaon HaRav Shlomoh Heiman zt'l, who originally taught in the renowned Ramailles Yeshiva in Vilna, founded by Maran HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l. R' Yitzchok etched upon his heart the solid Torah yesodos and pure Torah-oriented outlooks taught by HaRav Shlomoh Heiman.

R' Yitzchok's heart of gold was evident even then. His sister Sylvia Fuchs a'h attested, "Whenever a boy at the Mesivta was ill, Itzie would come home and say, `Mom, I need some cooked cereal for a sick boy.' When HaRav Shlomoh Heiman was on his deathbed and racked with unbearable pain, Itzie took a turn during the night to care for him."

As was the custom at that time, Itzie left the yeshiva after graduating high school and worked during the daytime but participated in the shiur of HaRav Yaakov Shurkin ztvk'l in the evening. When the economic condition of the family improved and R' Yitzchok heard that the Lakewood Yeshiva — headed by Maran HaRav Aharon Kotler ztvk'l in which he could study Torah full time — opened, he stopped working and enrolled.

HaRav Kotler was extremely fond of R' Yitzchok and considered him among his loyal talmidim, and the mashgiach HaRav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel zt'l once remarked that R' Yitzchok was one of the pillars of the yeshiva. As a result of such chinuch, R' Yitzchok grew from day to day in his comprehensive knowledge of the gemora and capability to correctly analyze difficult sugyos under the tutelage of contemporary American geonim. He also elevated himself in mussar and tikkun hamiddos, and absorbed Torah-true hashkofos. He did not yield to the temptations of "making a living" and would tell everyone: "My tachlis in life is learning."

HaRav Elya Svei shlita, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, pointed out in his eulogy of R' Yitzchok, "It is not so simple even for a person who grew up with the hashkofoh that one should toil over Torah study his whole life. To succeed in doing so is actually a tremendous feat! For a person, however, raised according to another hashkofoh, one that postulates simultaneously concerning oneself with a material tachlis, to toil to build oneself spiritually, and also eventually become an eminent, respected inhabitant of Bnei Brak, he must posses herculean kochos hanefesh."

In addition, HaRav Elya commented: "We do not know what real emunoh is, but the Steipler Rov surely did know, and the Steipler Rov said that R' Yitzchok had real emunah."

HaRav Shlomoh Brevda shlita, a world-famous baal mussar and darshan, paid public tribute to R' Yitzchok by saying that he grew in ruchniyus because he implanted within himself the middoh of emes. R' Yitzchok never looked for kovod and always attended instructions by gedolei Torah in halochoh or other matters.

The Chareidi Stowaway

There was a time when R' Yitzchok did not yet dream of actually moving to Eretz Yisroel. However, it so happened that he accompanied his dear friend HaRav Dov Shwartzman shlita, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Beis HaTalmud of Yerushalayim, to the ship in which he was about to sail to Eretz Yisroel. Before the gangplank was pulled up, R' Yitzchok reached the conclusion that his friend was a hundred percent right: Since Chazal (Vayikra Rabba 13:5) teach us, "No Torah can be compared to that studied in Eretz Yisroel," obviously one must learn Torah in the Holy Land. Therefore he remained on deck and did not get off. He sailed on that ship without any tallis, without tefillin (left in a locker at Grand Central Station), without a passport, without a ticket, and without even taking leave of his family and friends.

The ship first anchored in Greece. However R' Yitzchok could not disembark there since he did not have a passport. But he arranged for someone to send a letter with the key to the locker to his parents telling about his spur-of-the-moment decision. After some difficulty, the American Consul legalized R' Yitzchok's stay and issued a passport to him. (See Williamsburg Recollections written by Gershon Kranzler pp. 55-59 for the full story of R' Yitzchok's journey.)

R' Yitzchok had not left as a stowaway to Eretz Yisroel with the aim of staying there for good. Once on the holy soil, however, he started contemplating settling there. This gave rise to the question whether he should keep one or two days of Yom Tov and he put this question to the two gedolei hador: the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov. Each of them asked him what his intentions were and to both he answered that he did not know. The Chazon Ish surmised from this answer that he would probably decide to remain, whereas the Brisker Rov felt that he would probably want to return to America. The Chazon Ish, of course, surmised correctly.

At that time he enrolled in Yeshivas Chevron (Knesses Yisroel) of Yerushalayim where he continued his rapid growth in Torah and eventually was considered one of its prominent talmidim. But R' Yitzchok was not content with studying Torah solely for his personal advancement. He always remembered that Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha'arei Teshuvoh 3:13) teaches, "A person is obliged to make a constant effort to rectify others."

Simultaneously with his own studies he made efforts to help others. Together with other friends, R' Yitzchok engaged in activities to rescue the spiritually poor and the maliciously deprived of Torah and mitzvos. With steadfast resolution and fearlessness, mindless of the many dangers in his way, R' Yitzchok would wander from one immigrant camp to the other and persuade parents to send their children to Torah elementary and high schools and yeshivos kedoshos.

Once R' Yitzchok heard from someone about a boy from a religious family who was coerced into studying in a secular school. On the fast of Shiva Ossor BeTammuz, in the midst of a sweltering heat wave, he traveled with friends to Acre (in northern Israel) in order to save the boy.

In the middle of the way his car broke down. His friends, who were worn down by the fast, the weather and other troubles they encountered while driving to their destination, wanted to return home. R' Yitzchok, however, sharply disagreed. He did not give up. Out there was a Jewish boy calling for help and he could not forsake him! His enthusiasm was contagious, and his friends continued on with him.

During this period, R' Yitzchok would both devote himself to Torah study and trying to save our brethren from spiritual destruction, to the best of his ability. Not only did he study profoundly the chiddushei Torah of the roshei yeshivos of Yeshivas Chevron, he also heard the shiurim of Maran Rebbe Isser Zalman Meltzer ztvk'l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim. R' Isser Zalman was particularly fond of R' Yitzchok and R' Yitzchok was often invited as a guest at his house. R' Yitzchok sat at the Even HoEzel's table even on the Seder night.

R' Yitzchok studied in Yeshivas Chevron for one and a half years and afterward flew back to the USA, where he remained for about a year. While in the USA, he helped found Pe'ilim, a dynamic outreach organization dedicated to strengthening Torah observance in all ways: guaranteeing Torah education for all those who wish (it engaged in this in spite of the anti-religious coercion that prevailed after the establishment of the State of Israel), supporting students needing moral and material encouragement, and fighting against Christian missionary activities.

After that R' Yitzchok returned to Eretz Yisroel and studied in HaRav Shabsai Yogel zt'l's Yeshiva of Ramat Gan while still maintaining strong ties with Yeshivas Chevron in Yerushalayim and its roshei yeshivos and mashgiach.

About another year and a half later he became engaged to Shoshanah Akker from Holland who worked at that time as a counselor in the Beis Esther Institution of Yerushalayim. (After the wedding she worked as a social worker to help support the family). HaRav Meir Chodosh ztvk'l, the mashgiach of Chevron Yeshiva, and his Rebbetzin invited Shoshanah many times over to their house and made her feel at home. When it was necessary to attest to Shoshanah being religious in order to be exempted from the IDF, it was HaRav Meir Chodosh who went over to the Yerushalayim recruiting center. It was also the Mashgiach and his Rebbetzin who suggested her match with R' Yitzchok Dershowitz, who had once studied in the yeshiva and excelled there, and later even held a sheva brochos for them in their apartment. (see Mashgiach R' Meir, pg. 344- 346)

Their festive engagement party was held at the house of the well-known posek HaRav Shroyah Devlitzky shlita, where the couple was honored by the presence of HaRav E. E. Dessler, the mashgiach of Ponovezh yeshiva, (incidentally that was the last public affair in which HaRav Dessler participated before his petiroh).

At his "famous" wedding, which occurred in 1954 in the courtyard of the old Bnos Yerushalayim located just at the border of the divided Yerushalayim near the Mandelbaum Gate in the Musrarah neighborhood, Maran Rebbe Aharon Kotler, the rosh yeshiva of Lakewood Yeshiva who was at the time in Eretz Yisroel to attend the Agudath Yisroel Knessiah Gedolah, was honored with siddur kiddushin. The wedding was additionally attended by: Maran R' Yechezkel Sarna ztvk'l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, HaRav Eliezer Silver ztvk'l, eminent rabbinical authority and the Chief Rabbi of Cincinnati, Ohio, HaRav Shabsai Yogel ztvk'l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ramat Gan, HaRav Yechiel Michel Feinstein ztvk'l, at the time the head of the Brisker Kollel in the Tel Aviv area, and others who all came to take part in the simchah of HaRav Alter Yitzchok.

Not long after the chuppah, when R' Yitzchok and Shoshanah were in the yichud room, the Jordanians, perhaps thinking that some enormous public affair was taking place, started shelling the area. (Sporadic shooting occurred throughout that period.) Maran R' Aharon Kotler ztvk'l ran to find cover underneath a table and cried out: "Tatteh! I want to keep on serving You." (This is the version of what R' Aharon said that was transmitted by HaRav Ezra Novick of Bnei Brak, R' Yitzchok's friend, who attended the wedding.)

The young chosson heard about what R' Aharon had said and understood that what R' Aharon said was intended for him too: He also wanted to serve Hashem as much as he could, and he too had plenty to accomplish in life for Yiddishkeit. This became the slogan of the new house that was then established.

House of Torah

"Hospitality is more important than greeting the Shechinah" (Shabbos 127a). R' Yitzchok rarely sat down to eat on Shabbos alone with his wife. It almost never happened that they didn't have at least one guest. Everyone from chutz la'aretz who came to Bnei Brak and needed a place to sleep could find it in R' Yitzchok's house. In addition, numerous times his house served as a makeshift banquet hall for newlyweds who did not have someone to arrange their sheva brochos.

Also Torah study found a "roof over its head" in R' Yitzchok's house. One could always hear R' Yitzchok — the eternal masmid, engaged in Torah study.

The family lived at 10 Rashbam St. in Bnei Brak, which was also the residence of the renowned HaRav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky ztvk'l, the Steipler Rov. The relationship between R' Yitzchok and the Steipler Rov was very close and R' Yitzchok would often ask for his prudent advice and brochoh. When the Steipler came to R' Yitzchok's house, he would rely on his hafroshas ma'asros. It was very rare that the Steipler relied upon someone else's hafroshoh.

Once he did not have enough money to travel to Tel Aviv to the kollel in the Gevuras Yisroel shul of the dayan HaRav Y. Nesher zt'l that he helped set up. Lack of money, however, did not stop him. It did not even reduce for one minute his menuchas hanefesh and simchah. He simply took all the empty bottles that he had at home, brought them to the grocery store, and with that money took the bus to his kollel in Tel Aviv.

R' Yitzchok was the mashgiach in the kollel, making him responsible for the attendance and diligence of the kollel's talmidim, but he never acted like a policeman. He would treat the yungerleit as equals and, in his modesty, he thought that this was indeed so. On no occasion would he directly rebuke any kollel student and he always found some roundabout way to spur them on to improved hasmodoh.

Many times he would simply approach that yungerman and start raising some interesting points in a sugya in the gemora with him. After analyzing the sugya in depth and feeling a rischa deOraisa, that person continued his study without anymore interruptions.

He never saw himself as being more than an average kollel talmid. The statement on the posters pasted throughout Bnei Brak announcing his levaya that R' Yitzchok was shaiyif ayil veshaiyif nofik velo hichzik tivusah lenafsheih (he would enter and leave humbly and did not seek credit for his accomplishments) was acknowledged by all who knew him.

Also in the night Kollel that he set up in Bnei Brak in the Halperin Kollel building of the Zichron Meir neighborhood, R' Yitzchok never felt he was running it but was only a part of it. This was the first night kollel in Bnei Brak and thrives even today under the name Zecher Yitzchok in his memory.

This kollel was sustained in great measure by donations raised by his brother HaRav Menasheh Dershowitz zt'l who served in a number of rabbinical positions in the USA. This brother who, like R' Yitzchok, was a true ohev Torah, made extensive efforts to solicit contributions for the Kollel, and also raised money for his own Bikur Cholim Society that paid transportation for visitors to sick people hospitalized out-of-town.

A known Torah scholar of Bnei Brak who once studied in that kollel remarked that he fondly remembers when before the Pesach intersession, R' Yitzchok went over to him and handed him an additional stipend. He did not stipulate that the avreich should buy the bare necessities for the Yom Tov with it, but told him with his whole heart that the avreich should take the money and use it so that he can take out his wife and children somewhere during chol hamoed so they can have a good time and enjoy themselves. R' Yitzchok's heart of gold understood the nefesh of the kollel students.

End of Part I

!!!! BOX

Interview with HaRav Ezra Novick

(formerly a maggid shiur in the Yeshiva of Ramat Hasharon)

Yated: Were you a close friend of HaRav Alter Yitzchok Dershowitz zt'l from the time that he lived in the USA?

HaRav Novick: I was well acquainted with him ever since he studied in the Beis Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, New Jersey, when Maran HaRav Aharon Kotler ztvk'l was its rosh yeshiva. R' Yitzchok was also a good friend of HaRav Yaakov Weisburg, the rosh yeshiva's right-hand man, and HaRav Elya Svei, the rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva in Philadelphia, both of whom then studied in Lakewood.

It wasn't at all easy to understand the Rosh Yeshiva's complicated, razor-sharp and fast-moving shiurim that were delivered every Shabbos. I remember that on one occasion after the shiur, R' Yitzchok came over to HaRav Zeev Huberman shlita and me, and asked us to clarify one of the points raised in the shiur. HaRav Zeev replied, with common sense, to his request: "Don't feel bad about not understanding something said in the shiur. We don't catch everything either."

One person, however, remembered R' Aharon's shiurim exactly like a tape recorder and that was HaRav Maslovaty. His memory was simply astonishing and when he would repeat the shiur he would even cough where the Rosh Yeshiva coughed!

Y: Do you remember the time when R' Yitzchok became a stowaway in a ship to Eretz Yisroel?

N: Of course I do. The whole yeshiva was at the pier to see off HaRav Dov Shwartzman, the Rosh Yeshiva's son-in- law, as he was leaving to Eretz Yisroel. R' Yitzchok, who was constantly engaged in Torah and chesed, had been staying at a farm in New Jersey for the last few days, taking care of a bochur from the yeshiva who was very sick. R' Yitzchok went on board to say a final good-bye, and it was HaRav Yaakov Shiff, the son-in-law of the Brisker Rov, who urged him to remain on the ship.

He stayed, although he hadn't yet paid for the trip, or even had a passport and his tefillin were left in a locker. The vessel sounded its horn that was a signal for all visitors to disembark, and began to move on its long journey, but the dauntless R' Yitzchok remained!

Y: What was it like in the kollel of HaRav Yitzchok Nesher zt'l in Tel Aviv?

N: At that time R' Yitzchok Dershowitz and the others, who once were talmidim of Lakewood, in addition to learning in HaRav Nesher's kollel, helped raise enough money to pay for the monthly stipend to its group of choice kollel members. I myself took care of the technical side of dealing with the various governmental offices. At that time HaRav Noach Krull (the son in law of old Rabbi Landau and the rosh yeshiva of Chemed) who excelled in chesed, and also HaRav Sholom Ber Lipshitz who later became the head of Yad L'Achim, were learning there.

R' Yitzchok later founded a night kollel together with HaRav Mordechai Cohen, a rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Slobodka. I was personally instrumental in bringing them together for this purpose. This kollel, boruch Hashem, thrives to this very day, and on the night of R' Yitzchok's yahrtzeit an annual his'orerus gathering takes place with mussar droshos from HaRav Shlomoh Brevda, HaRav Chizkiyohu Mishkovsky, and sometimes HaRav Yisroel Eliyahu Weintraub, which is widely attended by bnei Torah.

Y: What type of a person was R' Yitzchok?

N: He was a person who was tocho keboro, a truthful person, who did whatever he thought was right. R' Yitzchok was someone to whom the middas ho'emmes was the metzi'us. He didn't harbor any pretensions and totally disregarded his personal kovod. Undoubtedly he was someone who truly strived for elevating himself in all types of ruchniyus.


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