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A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Teves 5766 - January 4, 2006 | 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

Part II

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.

We are following the parallel development of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel and the US. It should be clear 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.

The first part described aspects of the scenes in both countries, where the Torah leaders in Eretz Yisroel worked to increase Torah learning, and in America the leaders worked to establish Shabbos observance.

The Vision

To speak of building the Torah world during those days of World War II sounded a bit peculiar and fantastic (in the sense of "fantasy"). Though German Field Marshal Rommel was poised at the gates of Eretz Yisroel, there was still talk about a huge Torah center in Bnei Brak while Yeshivas Hevron was rising up from its ruins in Hevron. Parts of the yeshiva moved to Tel Aviv for a certain period of time and other parts were scattered in various botei knesses in Jerusalem. In Petach Tikva, the chareidi sector was beginning to put down roots. Most youths were preoccupied by problems of day-to-day subsistence and confronting the attempts to persuade them to join militant underground movements.

With the US caught up in the World War and efforts to overpower Germany and Japan, nobody wanted to hear about putting the honor of Torah back on its pedestal. It was not on the agenda, since nobody was bothered by it. Yet a few people with great merit would not rest. They would prod the Jewish conscience, which had been awakened long ago at Har Sinai, and demand that Torah receive its due.

The Ponovezher Rov (in Israel) and HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz (in America) kept the Torch aflame until other meritorious individuals joined and together they raised the banner of Torah to its former glory and helped the vision become a reality.

Building Yeshivas from the Ruins: Eretz Yisroel

"Uvonu mimcho chorvos olom mosdei dor vodor tekomeim" (Yeshayohu 58:12). The yeshivas set up in Eretz Yisroel and in the vast expanse of the American continent as well were built out of the ruins of the holy yeshivas of Lithuania, Russia and Poland.

Many of the holy yeshivas bear the names of cities that were once home to illustrious kehillos such as Kovna, Slobodka, Ponovezh, Mir, Baranowitz and Vilkomir as well as Chassidic strongholds like Warsaw, Vishnitz, Belz and Lublin.

Yeshivat Hevron arrived from Kovna in 5680 (1920) following problems with the government authorities and religious persecution, thereby saving the majority of its students from the Holocaust. The yeshiva remained in the city of Hevron until the Hevron Riots of 5689 (1929), after which it reopened immediately in Jerusalem, where it has remained to the present day, perpetrating its Lithuanian origins and the path laid out by the geonei olom of yesteryear.

Yeshivas Ponovezh came to Eretz Yisroel at the beginning of 5701 (late 1940) when the Ponovezher Rav sensed the coming decree and tried to build the yeshiva's future in Eretz Yisroel. In a rare letter he sent to a friend of the yeshiva he writes, "I have been in Eretz Yisroel for months and now the moment has come, the plan to open a branch of Yeshivas Ponovezh in Eretz Yisroel, and this is the only hope that inspires me, giving me the strength of spirit and comfort to carry on during these difficult times.

"I would like to stress that, amazingly, Yeshivas Ponovezh is still alive inside Lithuania. According to the last reports we received from there, the yeshiva's Torah study continues with great hasmodoh. Thus we remain an eternal nation. Even during terrible times, there are a few survivors among us who carry with them Hashem's Aron from one exile to the next and from one generation to the next forever and ever."

Later in the letter, the Ponovezher Rav tells of his grand dream before the Holocaust years had reached the height of their fury and before the terrible tragedy that befell the yeshivas of Europe became known. He planned to continue building the Lithuanian yeshivas in Eretz Yisroel and to try to bring the yeshiva's students from Europe in order to perpetuate the glory of the yeshiva despite the difficult times European Jewry was facing.

A single urge underlay the Ponovezher Rav's desire to build the yeshiva: raising the banner of Torah! With great joy he helped all of the yeshivas grow and develop, often speaking at gatherings of other yeshivas and providing them other forms of help. To him, the success of his own yeshiva was not the supreme goal, but rather Torah study in general.

Once he recounted how the Chazon Ish zt"l came to visit him and told him HaRav Eizik Schorr had come to him inquiring whether it would bother the Ponovezher Rav if Yeshivas Slobodka opened in Bnei Brak. "I told him right away it would be wonderful if all of the yeshivas came to Bnei Brak," the Ponovezher Rav told the Chazon Ish, transforming the city into a place of Torah. The Chazon Ish smiled and said, "That's exactly what I told R' Eizik your reply would be."

A Remembrance of Lithuanian and Polish Jewry: America

In the annals of Torah-based education in the US are a handful of old yeshivas that stood like a ner tomid, burning bright in the dark, but they were not bright enough to light the entire horizon and to bring about the much- needed transformation.

Chroniclers note that Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in New York was the first yeshiva on the continent. Founded in 5646 (1886) by HaRav Yosef Stern, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, the original regulations state, "The yeshiva will be run only in accordance with the holy Torah and the customs of Poland and Russia followed by our fathers and our fathers' fathers." Eventually the yeshiva merged with Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon.

There were also a few other yeshivas, such as Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim which was founded in 5658 (1898), a talmud Torah founded in 5661 (1901) that later became Yeshivas Rabbenu Chaim Berlin, another talmud Torah that in 5668 (1908) became Yeshivas Tiferes Yerushalayim, Talmud Torah Rebbe Yisroel Salanter founded in 5671 (1911), and Yeshivas Rabbenu Shlomo Kluger.

But these institutions were mostly reminders of another form of Jewry that had faded from view across the Atlantic. These scattered pockets of Yiddishkeit in chareidi population centers lacked the power to bring the nearly one million Jews in the US closer to Torah, including thousands of graduates of chareidi yeshivas who still lacked the inspiration to raise up the banner of Torah proudly.

Today, after the great revolution that has taken place in Eretz Yisroel, North America and in many other parts of the world, high-caliber yeshivas and entire Chassidic courts have been rebuilt, giving rise to hopes of a better future for all of us.

Torah Scrolls are Burning but the Letters are Flying into the Air: Eretz Yisroel

The horrible rumors from Europe had already reached Eretz Yisroel, leaving a pall of despair everywhere, and in Jerusalem a chizuk and his'orerus gathering of roshei yeshivos and askonim was called to consider how to confront the situation and how to keep the existing institutions intact in the face of the difficult economic state. In the tradition of the sons of Yaakov Ovinu they raised up their voices in prayer and cried out to the Heavens.

Among those present at the emergency meeting were HaRav I. Z. Meltzer, HaRav Y. Sarna and HaRav Z. Sorotzkin. Some of them delivered talks about the severity of the situation at hand and the threat to the continued existence of the yeshivas. Great apprehensions regarding the future ate away at the hearts of all those in attendance.

The last of the speakers was a renowned guest, a talmid muvhok of the Chofetz Chaim, who had been called upon to participate in the emergency meeting. As he stepped up to speak his face burned bright and the vexed faces of the listeners began to show glimmers of hope.

"Morai verabbosai. I hear a voice of worry as to the fate of the yeshiva world. Danger? Fear? No! The Torah does not need to be guarded. The Torah itself does not need us. We have an eternal promise, `Ki lo sishochach mipi zar'o' (Devorim 31:21). The Torah's existence never conformed to the laws of nature. Only through a miracle did the Luchos stand."

As he raised his voice, the Ponovezher Rav continued to captivate his listeners, recalls one eyewitness. "The Torah scrolls are burning in fire, lomdei Torah and ameilei Torah are going up on the altar of Europe. Torah scrolls are burning but the letters are flying into the air. This is the time to have the merit to catch hold of the holy letters. Each of us, according to his own ability, can merit the Torah, its perpetuation and maintenance. The future is being built here and now. The tree will stand; the fruit will grow. He who waters it, tends to it and helps it will claim the merit."

The listeners were completely enthralled by the talk, recalls one of the people on hand, then a bochur at Yeshivas Hevron. His words made a tremendous impact and the gedolei Torah stayed there with the askonim to continue to formulate plans in a more positive light, based on the talk they had heard.

Although Rommel's army was just outside of Eretz Yisroel, HaRav Y. S. Kahaneman continued to weave his big plans for the construction of his yeshiva. "Ten days from now Rommel and his army will be banging on the gates of Eretz Yisroel and soon Eretz Yisroel will look like Europe, Rachmono litzlan. So why are you building a yeshiva?" they asked.

With extraordinary bitachon he replied, "As you say, there are still another ten days left. That's a lot of time to continue building Torah. Im lo achshov eimosai?"

Mesivta Torah Vodaas: America

"A voice cries, `Prepare in the wilderness the way of Hashem, make straight in the desert a highway for our G-d" (Yeshayohu 40:3). These words echoed out from HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz in reaction to the terrible spiritual state of American Jewry.

HaRav Mendelowitz started out as a melamed at a talmud Torah where studies were generally held only in the afternoon and for just one hour per day in most places. The students would arrive tired and spent after finishing their daily studies at public school where they imbibed all of the contaminated teachings of the goyim.

Later, when he wanted to start a yeshiva, one of the kehilloh members nearly broke his will. "We're really surprised at you," they said. "How could it be that an intelligent person like you does not know that in America it's totally unrealistic to set up a real yeshiva?"

In newspaper articles and publicity gatherings, HaRav Mendelowitz roused the handful of rabbonim and public figures in each place to gather together and save the future of America and the young generation, which was completely assimilated into the tumoh of a foreign nation.

In 5683 (1923) HaRav Mendelowitz visited Yeshivas Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn. A typical American yeshiva, it was much like an elementary school with just a few hours left for limudei kodesh. Although the US Jewish population had already reached one million, there were only a handful of such institutions around the country and the spiritual level the youths attained was very weak and discouraging.

Delegates and fundraisers would come from around the world and managed to collect respectable sums from American Jews, who sought to assuage their conscience through generous donations. The spiritual neglect was hard to bear, since nobody took hold of the wheel to guide the ship through the turbid waves threatening to wash over America at the end of World War I.

HaRav Mendelowitz recalls how this upstanding Jew once asked, "Why are you always harping about a yeshiva. Can you show me one single person who would be willing to take his son out of public school and put him in a yeshiva?"

"You!" HaRav Mendelowitz replied. "You are going to be the first person to take his son out of school and bring him to me at the yeshiva. And I'll tell his mother that by me he won't turn into a chaniok but will be educated to find favor in the eyes of G-d and man."

In 5687 (1927) HaRav Mendelowitz founded Mesivta Torah Vodaas, a yeshiva for ages 13 and up. In his mind's eye was the image of the original Lithuanian yeshivas and he wanted to shape the new yeshiva's character according to this model, blazing a path for other holy yeshivas around the US that would save the young generation from abandoning the way of Torah and yir'oh.

This may have been the only case in history where a person built an institution without intentions of heading it, for as soon as it was started he brought in roshei yeshiva who faithfully carried out the task of educating the talmidim to labor at their Torah studies. One of them was HaRav Moshe Rosen, the author of Nezer Hakodesh, who had been close to many gedolei hador in Lithuania.

Working with him was R' Binyomin Wilhelm, a Jew with a warm heart and a desire to save Yiddishkeit. He set out determined to save the Torah world in the US and decided to do all he could to open a real yeshiva. Over the course of a single summer he convinced 54 parents to send their sons to the new talmud Torah and yeshiva he wanted to open.

Numerous delays were encountered. The Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh arrived and still nothing had gotten started, but R' Binyomin resolved to do everything in his power to open a yeshiva gedoloh right after Succos, a yeshiva gedoloh both in terms of quality and quantity.

That Yom Kippur he went to a vosikin minyan and spent the rest of the day walking from one shul to the next. At every stop along the way he would interrupt the tefilloh to ardently tell the kehilloh about his plans. He cried, shouted and pleaded with them to send their sons to the holy yeshiva.

By the end of the fast he was on the verge of collapse, but he had managed to enroll 90 new boys. At the founding conference he was able to make the happy announcement, "The yeshiva has opened." And that Yom Kippur became a gilded milestone along the way toward building yeshivas in the US.

Bringing Lithuania to Eretz Yisroel

The learning at the holy yeshivos gedolos of Eretz Yisroel was unlike today. The majority of renowned yeshivas and roshei yeshivos were in Lithuania where the yeshivashe style of learning developed under the influence of the talmidim of Rav Chaim of Volozhin and the geonim of Brisk. The light of Torah shone on the entire world from these two points.

But Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem had yet to become acquainted with the Lithuanian style of learning. When HaRav I. Z. Meltzer zt"l, was brought to Eretz Yisroel to transmit the style of learning at Lithuanian yeshivas, at the end of his first shiur one of the participants stood up to say "R' Chananya ben Akashyo omer . . . " and then proceeded to recite Kaddish Derabbonon.

A former Yeshivas Hevron student recalls studying at the yeshiva during the 5780s (1920s) while it was still located in Hevron. The yeshiva had a young student body consisting of some talmidim from Eretz Yisroel and others who had arrived along with the yeshiva. There were no daily shiurim, but only shiurim klolim given by the roshei yeshiva. The younger talmidim would receive guidance in their learning from older bochurim instead of today's practice in Eretz Yisroel and around the world of attending daily shiurim.

HaRav Y. T. Shteigel, a prominent marbitz Torah for decades, says he can still remember the early years after the founding of the State when young bochurim did not take part in shiurim at yeshivos gedolos and unlike at Lithuanian yeshivas, did not receive guidance in the form of shiurim teaching close analysis of the Rishonim and Acharonim. And with the exception of Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion in Bnei Brak and a handful of other yeshivas, there were no yeshivas for young bochurim.

As soon as his yeshiva was started, the founder of the Torah world, HaRav Y. S. Kahaneman, began to work toward setting up Yeshivas Ponovezh based on the original model in Lithuania. During their initial years of study, he decided, bochurim would attend daily shiurim delivered by the roshei yeshiva. At first this practice seemed somewhat bizarre in light of the general atmosphere prevailing in Eretz Yisroel, but over the years it gained acceptance and today it goes without saying that for several years bochurim—even at yeshivos gedolos—participate in daily shiurim that delve into the depths of the sugya.

According to HaRav Shteigel this definitely raised the level of learning and the caliber of the bochurim. During this period there were only a handful of extraordinarily talented Torah scholars who learned gemora be'iyun and were conversant in all four parts of the Shulchan Oruch with Rishonim and Acharonim, whereas the general public was unable to reach these heights in their Torah learning.

Today, besiyata deShmaya, times have changed. One need not be a genius to succeed in learning and with proper guidance by rabbonim found at almost every yeshiva ketanoh and yeshiva gedoloh average and even below average bochurim can make impressive achievements in their learning.

The Pure Yeshiva Prevails: America

HaRav Mendelowitz faced both financial difficulties that threatened to close his yeshiva on more than one occasion and major spiritual difficulties. During a certain period he tried to bring in HaRav Elchonon Wasserman of Baranowitz to serve as rosh yeshiva. Even HaRav Chaim Ozer, the author of Achiezer, was involved in the discreet selection process. The post was also offered to HaRav Reuven Katz of Petach Tikva.

Eventually HaRav Shlomo Heiman zt"l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Beis Medrash Elyon, which was founded in Monsey, New York, agreed to accept the job of rosh yeshiva and raised the yeshiva to new heights in ruchniyus until it earned a world-class reputation and became a model emulated at various other yeshivas that opened around the US. He was succeeded by HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky, who held the post for the next three decades.

These roshei yeshivos fought many battles against those who sought to mix yeshiva studies with secular studies at academic institutions. They eventually prevailed and the yeshiva retained its purity and sanctity.

HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l had already begun waging this holy war beforehand and he left his imprint, the seal of a Kohen godol in a state of purity, on the form of Torah study and the existence of holy yeshivas in the US. The first yeshiva, Torah Vodaas, was still battling for survival against attempts by various American figures to introduce secular studies because they had yet to adjust to the concept of a holy yeshiva.

The founding of the yeshiva led to the establishment of Bais Yaakov, whose early pioneers also included HaRav Shraga Feivel. To help wage the campaign to set up Bais Yaakov schools, he enlisted the help of public figures and righteous women who were the daughters of gedolei Yisroel.

He also set up camps and other summer programs for yeshiva students and started Torah U'Mesorah, an organization dedicated to founding kosher Jewish schooling throughout North America.

Yet all this was not enough for more than a million Jews then living in the US, including thousands of chareidi yeshiva alumni, who had yet to merit Divine inspiration to proudly raise aloft the banner of Torah.

Rescuing Torah Study

Today, besiyata deShmaya, the sound of Torah reverberates around the world. In tens of thousands of homes, after graduating from elementary school or high school boys, are expected to attend one of the holy yeshivas. Not long ago, this was not the case at all.

The "jar of pure oil" continues to keep the torch of Torah alight, through the guidance of our generation's geonim, who pass it on in holiness and purity, resisting renewed attempts to mix together tumoh and taharoh. HaRav Aharon Kotler will forever have the merit of introducing into an America steeped in materialism the holiness of unadulterated Torah, and defending the citadels of Torah from all of its attackers to the present day.

Almost all of the major Torah institutions in Russia, Poland and other parts of Europe were revived in Eretz Yisroel and the US. One or two generations later, almost anywhere in the world one can find bnei Torah and bnei yeshiva engrossed in Torah study and sending forth the light of Torah with pride and dignity.

Today Torah centers have been resuscitated in the wastelands of postwar Europe and even in Russia itself they have risen up from the ruins of communist rule, for Am Yisroel is eternal and hope lives on. The Torah seeks out its original domain—mechazeres al achsaniyoh sheloh—and will never be forgotten—ki lo sishochach mipi zar'o.

The chain continues through the generations as tens of thousands of bnei Torah and bnei yeshiva carry on the miraculous rescue of Torah learning, and their very existence is an expression of the grassroots revolution that has led to high regard for the Torah world, Torah scholars and Torah supporters.

Kach Hi Darkoh Shel Torah

At the main beis knesses in Vilna in 5682 (1924), the Chofetz Chaim opened the aron kodesh and cried out to those gathered: "Let's renew the Kingship. Let's make a new commitment to naaseh venishmoh to sustain and save the Torah." Thus Vaad Hamerkazi Lehatzolas Hayeshivos was founded.

The yeshivas and yeshiva students were in bad shape during this period. Many yeshivas were struggling for survival. In many places talmidei yeshivos often had to skip meals and make do with their Torah learning to help them forget their physical hunger.

Unlike today, many yeshivas were unable to meet the basic needs of their students, who had to wander among the local residents, knocking on doors in search of a place to eat. This arrangement came to be known as "teig."

"There were days when the meager fare a ben yeshiva typically received, plain bread and water, was unavailable," recalled HaRav Sholom Noach Barzovsky, the late Admor of Slonim and the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Beis Avrohom in Jerusalem. "Talmidim would return from the soup kitchen to the yeshiva without having tasted a morsel of food. These days were nicknamed `Tzom Gedaliah' because the person in charge of the yeshiva kitchen was named R' Gedaliah.

"Housing was an even bigger problem. Back then there was no such thing as a proper dormitory. The whole matter of housing involved great suffering and humiliation. The same regarding clothing. Most bnei yeshiva wore very shabby attire."

Yet the privation and want actually fostered greater hasmodoh and shekidoh. Though viewed as charity cases, bochurim cast off their pride in order to study Torah in depth from the great roshei yeshivos and baalei mussar.

What was it the yeshivas and yeshiva life had to offer that drew gifted young men throughout the generations? Why did the best of the young generation give up creature comforts, economic advancement, money, abundance and status?

Go ask those who went off to yeshiva for various reasons. See how their yearning pulled at their heartstrings. This is not mere nostalgia preserved like an archive document, but something far more profound.

— The shtender! The shtender on which they swayed for hours on end, day in and day out. The ben yeshiva was stirred and prodded along by questions such as "What exactly was the Ramban's kashye?" "What is the Baal Hamaor's dechiyoh?" "What did the Tosafos mean by adding an extra two words to its terutz?"

— The bench! The seat of those who "annihilated" themselves in the tents of Torah, the place where budding Torah scholars shaped their character, forming a dough that rose on its own, elevating the soul and the spirit to great heights. It was the source of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, gratification and craving—the real source of life.

— The beis medrash! Nothing is like the ohel shel Torah. The toil, the long hours, the constant review — are all engraved on its walls like decorative drawings.


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