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A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Kislev 5766 - December 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Vision and the Rescue Mission: A Historical Survey of Torah Development in Eretz Hakodesh and the US

by Rav Aryeh Gefen

In this article, we will survey the development of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel and the United States, from the period of spiritual desolation and great state of neglect through the transformation to today's Torah halls and citadels—the holy yeshivas.

As a preface, we would like to make a comparison between the Torah world and its development in Eretz Yisroel and the US. It should be clear to all that the various locations are fundamentally different and the central figures working in each location operate according to the dictates of the local needs and practices.

Both Eretz Yisroel and the US were scenes of spiritual desolation some 60 years ago, but for what could be described as opposite reasons: in Eretz Yisroel there was terrible, grinding poverty which stunted spiritual growth, and in America there was great wealth which also stunted spiritual growth. Nonetheless, in Eretz Yisroel there was a stronger tradition of gedolei Torah and true Torah life, while Torah had never really taken root in the US.

When HaRav Yitzchok Hutner zt"l (whose 25th yahrtzeit was 20 Kislev) arrived in the US, he asked HaRav Shlomo Heiman zt"l the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, about the spiritual state of US Jewry. "Boruch Hashem there is already Torah lishmoh here in the US, but what is still lacking is Torah shelo lishmoh."

"Then I promise to try and bring shelo lishmoh learning here," replied HaRav Hutner.

During this period, the only people who learned Torah did so out of a pure recognition of the profound value of Torah study. There was no established track leading people to the beis medrash, generation after generation—going to learn without question because that was what was expected of them by their families and their communities.


Two visions meet. To build the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel after the Holocaust required a revolutionary—even fanciful— vision. Only through such farfetched dreaming were new yeshivas set up in Eretz Yisroel after their sources became an extinct species in Europe. Ponovezh led the way under the leadership of HaRav Y.S. Kahaneman zt"l who pursued a vision of a great lighthouse of Torah until his vision was realized.

HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, a shlucho derabbonon, led the campaign to uphold the honor of Torah and to raise the banner of Torah and the bnei yeshivos in the US, stubbornly going against the flow, fighting his battle slowly and steadily until the US came to recognize the greatness and glory of the holy yeshivas and the purity radiating from the ben yeshiva who "killed himself in the tent of Torah."

The vision and the dream began to take shape, raising up the future of the Jewish people. The building of the holy yeshivas and their pure formulation, imported from the ruins of Lithuania, formed the foundation for the renaissance of the Torah world.

The Background

Europe had ended the First World War and was already headed toward the Second World War, which obliterated the Lithuanian yeshiva world and chopped the halls of Torah in Russia and Poland down to a stump. By the end of the Second World War, Europe lay in ruins. The Jewish people were dejected and brokenhearted and no future was visible on the Holocaust survivors' horizon.

Eretz Yisroel continued to survive in poverty and want. A small handful of Torah scholars continued to sacrifice themselves in the tent of Torah. The chareidi public was minute and scattered in several different religious communities. The challenges of day-to-day existence left them drained and nobody dreamed of building today's enormous Torah world.

America was up to its neck in materialism and the small numbers of bnei Torah trickling in from Europe and Russia were absorbed into the masses caught up in materialism. The honor of Torah and Torah scholars was at a low, keeping Shabbos and mitzvas was a low priority and the dangers of assimilation posed a threat to hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Desolation: Eretz Yisroel

In order to comprehend the Torah background of Jerusalem and of Eretz Yisroel in general, as well as the general attitude toward Torah study and Torah halls before the founding of the State at the beginning of the 5700s (i.e. the 1940s) we spoke with HaRav Yaakov Katzenelenbogen, the son of HaRav Refoel, about the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel at the beginning of the 1940s. (The Katzenelenbogens are a well- known rabbinical family from Jerusalem with deep roots in Eretz Yisroel.)

During this period, the majority of the chareidi public in Eretz Yisroel—which was still quite small—lived in Jerusalem, Petach Tikva and a handful of other small chareidi population centers including Bnei Brak.

Parents generally sent their sons to local talmudei Torah but an intermediate school — today's yeshiva ketanoh — was nonexistent back then. Young men either married at an early age or went to study at one of the renowned yeshivas until they found a shidduch.

Jerusalem had only a handful of yeshivas, the most famous of which were Yeshivas Toras Chaim in the Old City, Yeshivas Chayei Olom, Yeshivas Meah Shearim and Yeshivas Eitz Chaim. Kollelim were almost nonexistent in Eretz Yisroel. A small number of extremely dedicated individuals kept at their learning even as they got older, investing all of their being in Torah and avodoh. This collection of extraordinary talmidei chachomim lived in extreme poverty and want, yet they grew in Torah and yir'oh, becoming gedolei Torah of world renown.

It was not uncommon to find a young man of 16 with hardly a trace of facial hair already married to a young lady his age and having to scratch out a living. Without kollelim and well-endowed individuals to support them, it was perfectly acceptable to go out to earn a living at a young age.

From our perspective, it may seem surprising that everyone could simply go off to work day in and day out, without ever having the opportunity to learn in a yeshiva under normal yeshiva conditions. But the way of life and the outlook on life was totally different back then, with little semblance to today's lifestyles.

Spiritual Neglect

The following document from 5703 (1943) provides an illustration of the spiritual desolation prevailing in Eretz Yisroel. In response to the weakening of Torah institutions in Eretz Yisroel as a result of World War II and various other challenges that generation faced, a gathering of the gedolim of Jerusalem was called in order to strengthen shiurim and religion in the city's chareidi neighborhoods.

The letter of invitation read as follows:

"B"H, Tammuz 5703, Jerusalem PIH"K TVBB"A.

"Following calls by gedolei Torah veyir'oh to strive during this period to increase harbotzas haTorah among youths, particularly those who have left the yeshiva halls, it has been decided to call a gathering of maggidei shiurim and anshei ma'aseh to forge a strategy to elevate the banner of the Torah. Toward this end, we hereby ask all those listed below to please attend the gathering to take place, be'ezras Hashem, this Motzei Shabbos, Parshas Mattos-Massei, at the Werner Beis Medrash adjacent to Meah Shearim at 1:30 Eretz Yisroel time.

"For the sake of kovod Hashem and His holy Torah."

Among the rabbonim signed on the invitation we find the gedolim and rabbonim of Jerusalem, the maggidei shiurim and anshei ma'aseh, and the prominent askonim and spiritual promoters of 60 years ago: HaRav Yitzchok Halevi Reisman, HaRav Moshe Yo'ir Weinstock, HaRav Mordechai Slonim, HaRav Alter Shiffman, HaRav Yaakov Katzenelenbogen, HaRav Avrohom Horowitz, HaRav Yaakov Meir Schechter, HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, HaRav Shlomo Sobol, HaRav Aharon Katzenelenbogen, HaRav Sholom Schwadron, HaRav Eliyohu Zlotnik, HaRav Zalman Brizel, HaRav Alter Yabrov, HaRav Tzvi Michel Heller, HaRav Avrohom HaKohen Rotha, HaRav Sholom Eisen, HaRav Boruch Weinstock, HaRav Yeshayohu Sheinberger and HaRav Yosef Rubin.

In the minutes of the gathering we are witness to the atmosphere of those difficult times of war and hunger, desolation and neglect prevailing in Eretz Yisroel. In the Beis Yisroel neighborhood, only a few young men attended shiurim and it was decided to bring in an urn of tea to the beis medrash in order to draw more young men.

At Botei Horenstein the shiur was slightly bigger with seven participants. Some 50 participants came to a shiur held at the Botei Ungarin Beis Medrash. To cover the costs of maggidei shiurim and other expenses, donation receipts labeled "Shaarei Yerushalayim" were printed and HaRav Yeshayohu Sheinberger gathered donations. Large posters were hung all around the city, reading, "Ein lonu shiyur rak HaTorah hazos," and at all of the city's botei knesses the rabbonim spoke of the obligation to set aside times for Torah study.

At the gathering, it was decided to set up beis knesses committees to fortify the shiurim, to raise money to cover all of the expense incurred until that point, to appoint a coordinator for the shiurim and to provide replacements when a maggid shiur was unable to come.

It was also decided to issue a call to the young, reading: "Chazal exhorted us to exert ourselves in Torah study, and if not everyone has the merit to be `Toroso umnoso' he is at least obligated to set aside a bit of time and devote it to Torah study. For setting aside time for Torah is a sacred obligation incumbent upon each and every individual and cannot be overlooked. To our great sorrow, there has been great neglect in Torah study and even those youths and avreichim who in early childhood toiled in Torah day and night, once they enter the job market they totally forget about eisek haTorah and `if you abandon me for a day or two, I will abandon you,' and they fail to notice their great loss. As is well known, one's Final Judgment begins with whether he set times for Torah study. Therefore we will now endeavor to stir the masses to return to our foundry and to our holy Torah—shehi chayeinu ve'orech yomeinu—and the soul of Klal Yisroel depends on it as well as the life of each and every Jew, both in ruchniyus and gashmiyus. And the rabbonim geonim will speak on this matter on Shabbos Kodesh."

The Spirit of Yiddishkeit Dried Up: America

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Jews were facing a very different set of trials.

Let us visit the America of one hundred years ago and we will quickly see to our dismay that the classic yeshiva bochur was almost nowhere to be found on the whole, vast continent.

Of the ten parts of gashmiyus imparted to the whole world, America, the symbol of abundance and freedom, took nine. Indeed the poor immigrants cast off the "fetters" of religion before they even got off the boat, for there the task was to make money and there was no time to spare for mitzvas. There were some Jews who made time to educate the young generation and made their living as melamdim, teaching their own children and the neighborhood children. But those few hours left only a slight imprint on the young generation.

At first it seemed that the materialism that ruled the land rejected any dedication to Torah, making it impossible to raise a generation of yeshivaleit who set aside all the vanities of This World and invested their whole being to the study of the Torah as it was given at Mt. Sinai. But the resolve shown by a few individuals led to the major transformation that churned out a whole generation of bnei Torah and bnei yeshiva who became lamdonim and great talmidei chachomim.

Small trickles of Jews had immigrated to America even in the days of the Spanish Inquisition and the period of the Marranos, Portuguese Jews, and immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe during the years 5575-5585 (1815-25). The Chidushei Rim once said that had a group of 80 young people of piety and upright ways, yirei Shomayim and learned in Torah, been sent, they could have saved American Jewry from assimilation.

But the 80 such Jews did not arrive. Other Jews arrived en masse to conquer the vast country, leaving behind their Jewishness. Many of them, who did not have deep enough roots in Yiddishkeit to stand by them in hard times, were in positions of great spiritual danger.

Compared to Spain and Russia, the US was a bastion of democracy and liberty and all who fled these dark regimes, the pogroms and the religious persecution, proclaimed themselves emancipated and made every effort to make new lives for themselves, free of fear and restriction. In their state of euphoria they took their newfound freedom one step too far, releasing themselves from the religion that still "shackled" them.

The Ridvaz of Slutsk visited the US during this period and he wrote a long letter painting a portrait of the wretched state of affairs there and the terrible religious disarray. In the Ridvaz' view, the problem originated in the compulsory education law that put Jews in coed schools along with non- Jews. The Jews then learned the ways of the goyim and when their fathers hired a private tutor it was only to teach them how to get through the tefilloh or to prepare them for their bar mitzvah and to help them prepare a bar mitzvah speech.

"Keeping Shabbos is also very difficult," the Ridvaz writes. "Particularly since businesses close on Sunday, so that keeping Shabbos entails not doing business for two days a week. Likewise, kashrus presents a formidable obstacle. Rabbonim and shochtim and bodkim don't know how to approach halochoh and lack an appreciation for Torah, whereas the true gedolei Torah are not held in high esteem by the public. Signs reading, `Kosher Meat' are displayed over so many stores that one gains the impression there is no treif meat to be found in the whole country. One way or another, the bellies of many Jews are contaminated with neveilos and treifos, Rachmono litzlan, and since these types of foods enter their bodies, the spirit of Yiddishkeit dries up and their lust for every type of abomination overcomes them."

Later in his letter, the Ridvaz writes that the only way to heal this spiritual ailing is to restore Torah-based education to its former pedestal, teaching Jews Torah according to the time-honored tradition and creating a new generation of bnei Torah with yiras Shomayim. "Who knows?" writes the Ridvaz. "Perhaps eventually the Torah will come here, through the Will of He Who Knows All Hidden Wonders, in this country!"

The First Battle in the Yeshiva World's War Against the Draft: Eretz Yisroel

During the rapid political upheavals throughout the Middle East before the founding of the State, the underground organizations working against the British rulers recruited many Jews, drawing them away from religious frameworks and from Torah institutions and yeshivas, ostensibly to defend the Land and to save the Jewish people from the Arab armies and the British Mandate.

Attempts to mobilize yeshiva students for "national service" and, after the founding of the State, to draft them into the army, further ate away at the ranks of yeshiva students. Roshei yeshivos and gedolei Torah saw this as a genuine threat to the Torah halls and the scattered remnants of faithful Jews after the European Holocaust.

With the benefit of decades of hindsight we can trace the historical processes taking place back then. A high-ranking decision was made even before the founding of the State— probably with Ben Gurion's approval—not to draft the yeshiva students.

Prof. M. Friedman provides some background on the historic decision not to require them to enlist. "It must be remembered that every attempt to forcefully impose military conscription on them would have led to unrest among an important segment of the population, based on the fact the leading rabbonim, and not just those close to Neturei Karta, issued halachic rulings instructing yeshiva students not to get inducted, and based on the political sensitivity regarding the status of [Jerusalem]. According to the decision on the division of Jerusalem, the Yishuv institutions and the Government of Israel felt committed to at the time, Jerusalem was supposed to be under international administration with the consulates of the major Western nations actively involved in relations between the various population groups in the city.

"There was a crucial interest in not provoking a confrontation with the chareidi population and its leaders, the gedolei Torah and roshei yeshivos. It could have been highly embarrassing had the heads of the Haganah tried to coercively induct the yeshiva students who objected [to military service] and to try the elderly rabbonim who backed them."

But the matter was not so simple. Despite the many promises not to draft them, at the height of the War of Independence in 5708 (1948) the fighting got bloody and as the Jordanians approached the city's Jewish neighborhoods, many yeshiva students were forced to help fortify the forward positions as part of the Tuvia Battalion — The Yeshiva Students' Battalion.

"Several soldiers with drawn pistols came to the yeshiva in Geula and ordered everyone there at the time to join them and fortify forward positions in certain places in Jerusalem that seemed about to fall, chas vesholom, into Jordanian hands," recalls HaRav Avrohom Salomon, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Hevron-Knesses Yisroel. "We yeshiva students went near the line of fire, which was very close to the Jewish homes, risking our lives to fortify the positions, at times imperiling ourselves more than the soldiers returning fire from fortified, protected positions."

The War for Shabbos: America

New York, 1930. Immediately after Musaf on Shabbos Kodesh a large number of mispallelim began to stream out, each wearing Shabbos clothes and holding a tallis under his arm. Even from a distance a troubled look could be discerned on their faces. Most of them hurried off and did not head home to make Kiddush, but—believe it or not—went to open their stores.

Angry whispers of criticism could be heard if the tefilloh took too long, which could mean losing customers. And naturally they blamed Shabbos and the long Shabbos tefilloh for the loss of income.

Materialism was all-consuming in the US during this period and to persuade business owners to close their stores on Shabbos was a formidable undertaking since it meant not doing business from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. This nisoyon was too great for many to bear, especially in New York which was not a place of ideological battling or serious discussions penetrating to the roots of matters. In New York there was no time for such things.

The Orthodox Jewish Sabbath Alliance set a goal for itself: to induce the storekeepers of New York City to keep Shabbos down to the last detail. Gradually a group of chareidi store owners began to form. They decided to sacrifice their businesses on the altar of Shabbos. The heads of the association, HaRav Shlomo Zalman Reichman and Attorney Isaac Allen decided to launch an uncompromising battle for the rights of Shabbos observers to rest on Shabbos rather than Sunday.

The war was waged from without and from within. Not all Jews had passed the test of Shabbos and these "Sunday observers" fought against the new initiative in various ways. Meanwhile legislation had to be passed in the City Council to give business owners the option of which day — Saturday or Sunday — to choose as their day of rest. At times the elected councilmen didn't really understand what all the fuss was about.

From the beginning of the campaign, the heads of the Alliance decided to provide voluntary legal and material assistance to chareidim who decided to close their stores on Shabbos and to open on Sunday. The campaign was conducted on two fronts: closing the stores on Shabbos and opening illegally on Sunday.

The battle was not easy. Inspectors and policemen began to issue fines and even made arrests and put some violators on trial. From a technical standpoint, the heads of the organization used every form of media to convey the message of Shabbos and its kedushoh throughout the US. Every week, long reports about trials and fines were published and the heavy fines nearly crushed the sanctity of Shabbos.

End of Part I


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