Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Cheshvan 5767 - November 1, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Fifty Years for Chinuch Atzmai — A Special Interview with Rav Henoch Cohen, director of Chinuch Atzmai in America for 50 years

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

Part I

It was quite by chance. A brief encounter which this writer had with Rav Henoch Cohen from America, led to a succession of meetings and riveting talks, in the course of which we were treated to a vast and comprehensive survey of the history of Chinuch Atzmai, and how the gedolei Yisroel, led by HaRav Aaron Kotler, joined the battle for the souls, faith and religiosity of the Jewish children in the Holy Land.

We listened to a series of enthralling stories about the painstaking efforts and labor that the gedolei Yisroel, who carried on their shoulders the immense responsibility of guarding the pure Yiddishe chinuch, invested in this sacred task.

Alongside these gedolim and tzaddikim, there was a long line of enthusiastic and dedicated activists who dedicated their lives for the community and for the individual. But without a doubt the central and dominant figure in this whole operation was and is Rav Henoch Cohen.

Before we bring in Reb Henoch's fascinating stories, let us quickly sum up the history of those years that led the gedolei Yisroel, those great and lofty personalities, establish, with so much sweat and toil, the glorious Torah education system in Eretz Yisroel known as Chinuch Atzmai.

Those were unbearably harsh and bitter years. Survivors of the Holocaust began arriving in Eretz Yisroel at the same time as the huge aliyahs from the Eastern countries began to come in, and it was obvious that there was a need to act quickly and with absolute determination to save their children for Torah and Judaism for on the other side, the secular parties were doing everything in their power to bring the children under their influence.

The first government crises all centered on one issue: education. Especially well-known are the appalling stories of the cutting off of the payos of those precious children. It was nothing less than a campaign to take away their Yiddishkeit. The Labor movement had basically imbibed all the influences of the Communist revolution, and consequently the Labor party was born, whose moves and actions all had their roots in that atheistic ideology.

The conditions for employment were: If you give your child to our education system you will get work. The battle was fierce, but the opportunities for rescue were also great. At this critical juncture, the Chinuch Atzmai came into being.

However, the struggle to get the funds to establish it and then to keep it going had started long before, during the period of the British Mandate. Even back then those who were involved had to battle for recognition and for funds for the chareidi institutions.

With the establishment of the State, the struggle continued with the goal of gaining recognition of the "fourth stream" of Agudas Yisroel. At first the education was organized in four separate educational "streams" that were each associated with a different political party. One was run by the Labor Movement, another by the General Zionist Stream (the right wing), a third by Mizrachi and the "fourth stream" was associated with Agudath Yisroel. After a relatively short time, the government decided to abolish the "stream-based" education system and institute a general government education system with religious and non-religious alternatives (mamalachti-dati and mamlachti). Chinuch Atzmai was an outgrowth of what had previously been the Fourth Stream.

A fascinating personality who worked with endless dedication during those years was HaRav Hillel Lieberman, who then served as managing director of the Chinuch Atzmai center. From the very first days of its inception, he was associated with the establishment of the largest and most significant center for Torah education in the Holy Land.

HaRav Lieberman also founded and established the central Bais Yaakov network, as well as the organization of Bnos Bais Yaakov-Batya. In a conversation we had with him a few years back, he told of the tremendous difficulties they encountered during those years in which he managed to maintain the chareidi schools only with the utmost hardship.

"Every first of the month [when it was time to pay the teacher and staff salaries] the Lutzker Rov, HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, would cry bitterly to HaRav Aharon Kotler over the phone, saying: `What do they all want from me? I am old and sick.' That was his maxim. Reb Aharon, who was dedicated heart and soul to Chinuch Atzmai, would raise the money in the Diaspora and send it over here so we could pay the salaries."

For two years HaRav Hillel kept the movement going. The majority of his work consisted of arranging the transfer of the schools that had been previously counted within the fourth stream (Agudas Yisroel) to the official and recognized status of Chinuch Atzmai schools, which was a far- from-easy matter.

The government put up enormous obstacles, including a complex bureaucracy, but Rebbe Hillel said that the great majority of schools (aside from two or three) that were in the fourth stream, eventually transferred to Chinuch Atzmai.

School Year 5714

The studies in the first school year of the founding of Chinuch Atzmai (at the close of the year 5713) began about a month after the opening of the school year, but even afterwards there was no shortage of difficulties. The director of the Ministry of Education in those days, Yaakov Sarid (the father of former MK Yossi Sarid), ordered five of the schools to close down and to merge with the State Religious schools, when the schools did not turn in their paperwork on time.

A few months beforehand, in the summer of 5713, a law was passed in the Knesset which abolished the different streams in education, and at that point the State Education system was instituted, with one of its branches being the State Religious education. The gedolim of the generation, within the context of Agudas Yisroel, vehemently objected to being included in the State Religious education, and decided to launch Chinuch Atzmai, and,with this goal in mind, prepared themselves for the coming year.

Most of the Agudas Yisroel teachers remained within this system, although they recognized the difficulties that they faced—problems with salaries, social stipulations, work conditions (study rooms, equipment), etc. — and joined Chinuch Atzmai. But there were also those who feared for their future, which was somewhat shaky in Chinuch Atzmai, and joined the State Religious education system. Some even transferred the schools that they headed.

The burden of founding Chinuch Atzmai fell on the shoulders of the Gaon, HaRav Aharon Kotler. It was he who had established the yoke of Torah in America on a large scale. He felt a tremendous sense of responsibility not only for what went on over there in America, but also for what was happening in Eretz Hakodesh. To this end, he enlisted the aid of the Kapishnitzer Rebbe, HaRav Moshe Feinstein, philanthropists, community activists, and anyone who was able to help, for this sacred task.

And he also brought in Rav Henoch Cohen.

He asked him to come and help out for a short time, but those few months turned out to be more than 50 years. "During that time he did everything. I only took him wherever he asked to go, and then all I had left to do was to collect the money and the checks, and transfer them to Israel," relates Reb Henoch.

In those days, Rav Cohen was a talmid at Yeshivas Torah Vodaas. The rosh yeshiva HaRav Gedaliah Shor begged R' Henoch to go to California with HaRav Simcha Wasserman, the son of HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, and establish a Torah center there. He chose ten bochurim, ten of his foremost talmidim, and sent them over there. Rav Henoch was asked by his rosh yeshiva to organize the opening of the mesivta (as the high school level education was commonly called in America).

That is how the yeshiva Or Elchonon was set up in California. "I was then still a bochur, though not that young actually. But when the Rosh Yeshiva decided to appoint me for that sacred mission, I took it upon myself. We opened the mesivta with 14 bar-mitzvah-age boys, and I taught them gemora. I was there for two and a half years, and it was just before Pesach when I came home to New York. My mother asked me to stay in town until Elul for shidduch purposes, because in those days the journey from New York to California was very long."

One week after Pesach—Rebbe Henoch recalls that it was the 27th of Nisan, 5715—he got a call from HaRav Aharon Kotler. "Rebbe Aharon had a talmid whose name was Yaakov Weisberg. He was his right-hand man. He was one of the founders of Pe'elim in America. He was also at Torah Umesora. Whatever good thing was going on in America at the time, he was involved in.

"He had known me from childhood, and he was the one who recommended to Reb Aharon that I be asked to join the Chinuch Atzmai operation. Reb Aharon followed his recommendation and telephoned me, saying that since he had heard that I was going to stay at least until Elul, and since they were planning to host the first dinner for Chinuch Atzmai, he would like me to join the operation for three months to help organize the dinner."

The dinner was supposed to take place a few days after Succos, but in the end it was delayed and was held in Teves, 5716. But for Rebbe Henoch, the "delay" went on for a good many years more — which turned into a yovel! From then until this day, Reb Henoch Cohen has borne the massive burden of responsibility as director and representative of Chinuch Atzmai in America, a role he has filled with great dedication as well as with enormous success.

From that first dinner, the system of collecting donations for Chinuch Atzmai moved into high gear. According to Rav Henoch, whereas in those days they might send ten thousand dollars a month (in the terms of those days it was about 40,000 lirot, with the remainder of the monthly budget being 60,000 lirot from government funding), to enable the teachers and rebbes to be paid, it was not long before the scope of the aid and donations took on very significant proportions. Indeed, a sizable portion of the budget for Chinuch Atzmai now comes from donations from American philanthropists.

"The entire burden of raising those ten thousand dollars that were sent to Israel every month was on Reb Aharon's shoulders," relates R' Henoch. "I was just his emissary, that's all. I remember how, when I first started working with him, he enlisted the aid of philanthropist Rabbi Binyomin Citron from Brazil who agreed to transfer ten thousand dollars annually. One day Reb Aharon heard that he was staying at his brother's home in New York. He phoned me and said: `Reb Binyomin is here. We have to go to him immediately.' "

At the time, Reb Aharon was spending about half the week in New York. On Thursdays he would travel to Lakewood and stay until motzei Shabbos. There, he would deliver his famous shiur. By Monday morning he was back in New York.

Reb Aharon asked R' Henoch to call up the Kapishnitzer Rebbe so he could come to the meeting too. "Reb Aharon never went to those meetings alone. He always asked one of the other gedolim to go with him. He told me: `He is now at his brother's office in Manhattan. I will take the Borough Park subway to Manhattan. Make sure the Kapishnitzer Rebbe gets there too.' "

Reb Aharon quickly boarded the subway, while R' Henoch hurried to the Kapishnitzer Rebbe's home and the two of them took the bus to the office building where Reb Binyomin Citron was visiting. Reb Aharon arrived there at the same time, and all three went upstairs to the meeting, at the end of which Reb Aharon was given his ten thousand dollar donation.

At the end of the meeting, Reb Henoch aimed to order a taxi to take the Kapishnitzer Rebbe back to his home. "The price of a taxi was no more than two dollars. But the Rebbe would not agree. `Do you know what a person could do with two dollars?' he said. `There are Jews who could live for a whole Shabbos on that amount.' I thought of ordering a taxi to take Reb Aharon back, but he would not hear of it either: `I am going back on the subway. But you, Henoch, run to the bank right now and transfer the money to Israel, then send a telegram that the money has been sent over,' he said."

R' Henoch then recalled an appendix to this wonderful story: "This is a story that has to be written about, so that people will see how the gedolim related to every dollar. And every cent."

It was erev Yom Kippur of that same year. Succos was coming up and in Eretz Yisroel the teachers still had not been paid. That forty thousand lirot that they had promised to transfer had still not been sent over.

"The Kapishnitzer Rebbe phoned me and said, that Reb Aharon had come to him and requested that he take a loan of five thousand dollars. He would take care to get the second half of the amount from the people who were helping him. That way the money to pay the salaries could be transferred. He asked me to come over, and I quickly made my way to his home in Manhattan.

"When I got there, he told me that around Shavuos time, Reb Aharon had come to him when he did not have the funds he needed to send to Israel and consequently he had taken a loan from one of his friends then. `That loan I have still not paid back. If I take another loan now, I am worried that I would not be able to pay it back. I am very afraid of taking another loan.'

"As I said, it all took place on erev Yom Kippur. Lying on the Rebbe's table was a pile of kvittlach, money and checks. You could say that for him, the pile contained an amount large enough to support his household for at least six months, and that was what it was earmarked to do.

"Then he took a large shopping bag and swept the whole pile inside the basket with his hand, and he said: `Henoch, make a list of how much money you have here, and send the money immediately to Israel. Don't worry about me. I will have enough to eat for Yom Tov. I will get through the Yom Tov, with Hashem's help. But you be quick now and send that money over so that they can pay the teachers' salaries.'

I stood there in a state of complete shock. It was impossible to believe what he had just done. Later on, when I went over the checks, it came to almost exactly the right amount of that five thousand dollars that Reb Aharon had asked him to take as a loan."

That episode affected me like an electric shock, seeing how a person could give away what he had to live on for the next six months. But since Jewish children were learning Torah and their rebbes needed money for the chagim and for their parnossoh he put aside all his personal considerations and needs!"

We asked Rav Henoch whether this money was in the category of a loan, or was it money given as a donation?

"It definitely was not a loan. He never once asked us to give it back," relates Reb Henoch. "Everything that was beneficial and that was important, every action for Torah, chinuch and chessed, he was a part of. It is impossible to describe the extent to which he stood behind Chinuch Atzmai during those years."

Asking for a Brochoh

He also told another wonderful story which illustrates more than anything else the unique character of the Kapishnitzer Rebbe.

"That year Reb Aharon needed to travel to a special meeting which was held in Montreal for the Lakewood Yeshiva. He did not travel around by plane; rather he used trains. Only when he went to Israel did he travel by plane. He was worried about the danger involved and therefore would never agree to fly within the United States.

"By evening he was already supposed to be at the train station, and I went in to see him only a very short time before his departure. He asked me to phone the Kapishnitzer Rebbe. When I got through to him, he took the telephone and told the Rebbe that he was going to a meeting for the yeshiva, and he asked him for a brochoh. I stared at him in astonishment.

"Reb Aharon noticed my surprise and remarked: `You only know the Kapishnitzer Rebbe in matters connected with Chinuch Atzmai. Just for what he does for Chinuch Atzmai alone it is worth asking for a brochoh from him, but I know him from other standpoints too. His brochoh is important and very effective.' "

HaRav Aharon's Dedication to Chinuch Atzmai

Did you ever hear Reb Aharon say why he was so completely dedicated to Chinuch Atzmai?

Reb Henoch: "I heard that he once replied to someone from whom he had asked for help for Chinuch Atzmai, who had asked him why he was so devoted to this cause, like this: `The shver (HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer) told me that the entire future of Torah and Jewish life in Eretz Yisroel depend on the success of Chinuch Atzmai.'

"In the minutes of the first meeting that was held for the launching of Chinuch Atzmai led by HaRav Isser Zalman, there was some discussion over how the administration was to be constituted, and he persisted in his stance that all trends in chareidi Judaism had to collaborate, since he saw it as an issue for Klal Yisroel. Reb Aharon told me to follow suit when I organized the Chinuch Atzmai administration in the United States."

Reb Henoch has at the tip of his tongue a multitude of stories about the incredible dedication of Reb Aharon to Chinuch Atzmai.

"For the first nine years that I was involved in it, I was just completely working around the clock. All day and all night — for Reb Aharon worked at it day and night without a break. He did not let me rest one minute. Let me tell you how far this went.

"I have an aunt who lives in Detroit. When her first child was born, my late father very much wanted to go to the bris, but he did not travel on airplanes. The bris was supposed to take place on Shabbos, and he asked me to go in his stead. I approached Reb Aharon and told him that I had been asked to fly to Detroit, and would need to be absent from the city, since it was an issue of kibbud av. One member of the family had to go to the bris, at least.

"Reb Aharon began to extend his warmest brochos to the family and the newborn baby. `But we have a tremendous amount of work over here. You have to be here.' Then he thought a little and said: `Oh, but on Sunday there is supposed to be a meeting at the yeshiva in Cleveland for Chinuch Atzmai. Can you make it afterwards to Cleveland from Detroit? Well if you are going for Chinuch Atzmai as well, then certainly you can go!' That was Reb Aharon!"

In those days, no proper office had yet been set up for Chinuch Atzmai in America. The person who set himself to that task was the famous community leader, Rabbi Zeev Wolfson, and Rav Henoch worked from his office.

After a few weeks, Rav Zeev went up to Reb Aharon and told him: "Rav Henoch is not forceful enough in asking for donations. He has to be more aggressive. Stronger."

Reb Aharon reassured him: "He will get into the job, and when the responsibility is on his shoulders, don't worry, then he will demand. And aggressively."

"Reb Aharon always gave me his full backing if anybody had any complaints. It is only natural that people would have their complaints here and there — especially when you are dealing with baalei batim and public activists. But he always took the responsibility upon himself throughout the nine years that I worked with him, and that was a period of intensive, nonstop work. But I cannot begin to describe his calmness and his tranquility.

"When I traveled to Eretz Yisroel for shidduch purposes, he told me: `If you find a shidduch there do not worry about anything. Just stay there until after the wedding and then come back and we will see to it that you have a parnossoh as well.'

"And that is what in fact happened. I called him up and asked him what to do, and he told me to stay. When I came back, he insisted that I receive a salary that would be enough for me to live on and support a family.

"As a bochur I had received around one hundred dollars a month. After the wedding he told me, `Now you need money for rent too,' which was then just over a hundred dollars by itself."

Reb Aharon went to members of the administration and ordered them to pay Rav Henoch another one hundred and thirty five dollars a month. After the birth of his first son, R' Aharon applied to activists at one of the meetings of the administration and told them: "Pay him a salary of one hundred and seventy five dollars from now on. He really needs it for the expenses of his child." He added, "He is so dedicated to his work. When a person is really dedicated, it is worth it, no matter what he is paid."

Rav Henoch witnessed countless situations when Reb Aharon showed a great deal more concern and dedication to Chinuch Atzmai than to his own yeshiva. Thus, it happened that when many wealthy people came to Lakewood and its suburbs during the summer to escape the blazing hot New York City summers, they would pour in with money for the yeshiva. But Reb Aharon would urge Rav Henoch to get those Jews to give to Chinuch Atzmai. He did the same when special meetings were arranged to raise money for the yeshiva.

"I still remember the hesped that the Lutzker Rov, HaRav Z. Sorotzkin, gave after Reb Aharon's passing. He said: `The world thinks that we run Chinuch Atzmai.' The administration was at the time HaRav Zalman, HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, the Beis Yisroel. `But it is not us. It was all him!'

Letter to HaRav Z. Sorotzkin on Chinuch Atzmai and against secular studies, and explaining the danger of secular studies.

I am deeply distressed about all the turmoil which has come about over the problems with the ninth grade class. It is justified, because there is a real danger that it will be difficult for them to continue on to the real yeshivas, for they have preparation for regular high school, and it looks as if they have the haskomoh of the gedolim who are the leaders [of Chinuch Atzmai].

Certainly, there would be no danger involved if it were all just the beginning of yeshiva ketanoh, that is, without secular studies. However, it seems that it is impossible to arrange things in any other way, since they get help from the government—and perhaps that is the way they want it.

My advice is that your honor and HaRav Sarna and their friends stop it, because besides the fact of the great loss to Torah, it entails a loss to the Chinuch [Atzmai] since those who oppose it in Torah circles will resign from the Education Committee.

Aside from this, it gives an opening to those who oppose the Chinuch [Atzmai] because it is well known that they like to attack the Chinuch and its leaders. They do it now, as it is, with lies and untrue claims, but this will give them a good claim.

Perhaps you could influence the administration of Sinai [school] to stop this move, and please make every effort to ensure that no new members leave the Education Committee— those from last year— for it will pose a danger to all the Chinuch and the other members. One can use the help of these groups to improve the spiritual supervision of all the places.


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