REVIVAL IN AMERICA
The Torah is yet destined to wander to America.
AMERICAN HAVEN FOR "YAVNEH AND ITS SAGES"
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The Key to Jewish Survival
The Talmud in Tractate Gittin (56a-b), relates that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai escaped from Jerusalem besieged by the Romans, (c.70 C.E.), he requested of Vespasian to spare the lives of leading Torah scholars in Yavneh in the Land of Israel. By saving a nucleus of sages, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai followed a time honoured principle of Jewish survival: No matter how great the extent of destruction, if Torah scholars can be saved, the Jewish people have hope of survival. The high level of Jewish learning attained by the scholars of Yavneh is attested to by the redaction of the Mishnah over a hundred years later, (c.200 C.E.), followed by the redaction of the Palestinian Talmud, (c.250 C.E.). When Jewish life diminished greatly in Palestine, the academies of Babylon ascended in scholarship, culminating with the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, (c.500 C.E.).
M. Friedlander, writing on "The Life of Moses Maimonides", (1881), described in classical terms the process whereby the flame of Jewish scholarship was transmitted from generation to generation, and from era to era. "Before the sun of Eli had set the sun of Samuel had risen." In retrospect, before the prophets had ceased to guide the people, the Talmudists commenced their labors. Before the academies of Sura and Pumbadisa in Babylon were closed, centers of Jewish thought and learning began to flourish in the West. Friedlander states that the circumstances which led to the transference of the headquarters of Jewish learning from East to West in the tenth century are narrated in the Sefer haKabbalah by Rabbi Avraham ben David:
After the death of Hezekiah, the head of the Academy and Prince of the Exile, the academies were closed and no new Geonim were appointed. . . . Heaven had also decreed that a ship sailing from Bari should be captured by Ibn Romahis, commander of the naval forces of Abd-er-rahman al-nasr. Four distinguished Rabbis were thus made prisoners--Rabbi Hushiel, father of Rabbi Hananel, Rabbi Moses, father of Rabbi Hanok, Rabbi Shemarjahu, son of Rabbi Elhanan, and a fourth whose name has not been recorded. They were engaged in a mission to collect subsidies in aid of the Academy in Sura. The captor sold them as slaves; . . . These slaves were ransomed by their brethren and were soon placed in important positions. When Rabbi Moses was brought to Cordova, it was supposed that he was uneducated. . . . Rabbi Nathan, renowned for his great piety, was the head of the congregation.
The members of the community used to hold meetings at which Talmud was read and discussed. One day when Rabbi Nathan was expounding the Talmud and was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of the passage under discussion, Rabbi Moses promptly removed the difficulty and at the same time answered several questions which were submitted to him. Thereupon Rabbi Nathan thus addressed the assembly: 'I am no longer your leader; that stranger in sackcloth shall henceforth be my teacher, and you shall appoint him to be your chief '.
Henceforth, continued Friedlander, the schools in the West asserted their independence and even surpassed the parent institutions:
The Caliphs, mostly opulent, gave every encouragement to philosophy and poetry; and, being generally liberal in sentiment, they entertained kindly feelings towards their Jewish subjects . . . . Ibn Gabirol, Ibn Hasdai, Judah ha-levi, Hananel, Alfasi, the Ibn Ezras, and others who flourished in that period were the ornament of their age, and the pride of the Jews at all times. The same favorable condition was maintained during the reign of the Omeyades; but when the Moravides and the Almohades came into power, the horizon darkened once more, and misfortunes threatened to destroy the fruit of several centuries. Admist this gloom there appeared a brilliant luminary which sent forth rays of light and comfort: this was Moses Maimonides. 1
At the time of Moses Maimonides (1134-1204), Central and Eastern Europe became centers of Jewish scholarship. This ascendancy was to last over a thousand years, ending with the period of the Third Reich. William B. Helmreich in The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry (1982), has written that the outbreak of the Second World War meant that one of the most productive eras in Jewish scholarship and leadership ended in the flames of Hitler's drive against the Jews. But, "the flight of the survivors and their determination to preserve their heritage meant that a long and ancient history of the yeshiva would continue in still another country." He furthermore affirms the foundations of our study, that:
The outbreak of World War II had a lasting impact on the development of Jewish education in America. With it, a thousand-year-old culture that had existed in Europe came to an abrupt and tragic end for its Jewish communities. Millions of Jews were slaughtered, especially in Eastern Europe, the home of the advanced yeshivas, and only those fortunate enough to have left in time, or lucky enough to have survived the Holocaust, remained. Among this group were the leaders of numerous European yeshivas, most of which were in Lithuania, who came to the United States and founded institutions or academies of higher learning modeled after their European predecessors.
These leaders, or rosh yeshivas, as they are commonly known, were successful beyond their wildest dreams . . . .
Today, thirty-five years later, advanced, "Lithuanian-style" yeshivas are solidly entrenched in America. . . . 2
Before the Second World War, a vast body of Jews had found a bastion of freedom in America. What was to become of that body? What style of life did it seek? What was its destiny? The historical and educational example of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai meant that for the body to continue defining itself as Jewish it must cling to the traditional educators. Jewish scholars and learning, meaning Jewish education as a totality, must be found at the heart of any attempt at Jewish survival.
The rise of Jewish education in America followed in the wake of the unsettlement of the world order. Nowhere is this clearer than in the period of the twentieth century. The unsettlement of Europe following the First World War re-defined the settled state of American life. The relative isolation of America and its unified land mass allowed for greater calm. Great projects could be carried out without the threat of cross-border conflict. Whilst Europe was in turmoil, at least nine major advanced Lithuanian-style yeshivahs were founded in America between 1926 and 1946. Looking closer, the years in which these yeshivahs were founded run parallel with the rise and fall of the Third Reich.
On November 8, 1923, at the Burgerbrau-Keller in Munich, Hitler began the abortive putsch which propelled him to "fame": "The National Revolution", he shouted, "has begun." At the end of 1926 the second part of Mein Kampf was published, 3 wherein the "national revolutionary" openly presented his future plans for the solution of the Jewish question. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Brooklyn, New York, the Yeshivah Torah Vodaath decided to open an advanced division in 1926. Founded as an elementary school in 1917, it appointed Rabbi S. F. Mendlowitz as its principal in 1921. The restrictive immigration laws of America from 1921 to 1925 reduced the inflow of immigrant scholars from "a trickle into almost nothing". 4 The emergency nature of the situation convinced Rabbi Mendlowitz to found a yeshivah high-school, at the very time when Germany was getting its first taste of National Socialism.
In 1933, Hitler became the Reich Chancellor of Germany, beginning the twelve-year Third Reich. In that same year, in Baltimore, Md., the Ner Israel Rabbinical Academy was founded; and in Queens, N.Y., the Rabbinical Seminary of America was established. Great barriers stood in the way of Rabbi Y. Y. Ruderman as he fought to establish his yeshivah in Baltimore. He has described to Helmreich the skepticism that greeted his efforts to recreate a yeshivah modeled after those in Lithuania:
When I first came to Baltimore in the early thirties, many non-observant Jews didn't know what a yeshiva was. They (the Jewish community) didn't believe it could be built. After all, people came here to learn English, not to attend a yeshiva.
When asked what he felt were the implications of the Holocaust, Rabbi Ruderman replied:
People think the Holocaust made the world feel sympathy for the Jews but it really didn't result in sympathy. It just showed that it could be done. There is more anti-Semitism than ever before. 5
Those who strove to rebuild in America, had clear and deeply-held views about the nature of the evil that Jewry faced. This is evident from Rabbi Ruderman's words.
The year 1939 marked the outbreak of war, but also saw the establishment of an advanced division at the Yeshivah Rabbi Chaim Berlin, with Rabbi Isaac Hutner as its Rosh Yeshivah. He too had firm beliefs about the causes of anti-Semitism, and what it entailed for Jewry. "On the subject of a Memorial to the Martyrs of the European Destruction" in The Jewish Observer (December 1981), he revealed deep-felt views on how Jews should view the history of the period:
. . . We believe with full faith that the inner source of genocide directed against Jews, the murder and the destruction, is, in the final analysis, the principle of ". . . for your sake we are killed all day long, we are considered as sheep for the slaughter" (Tehillim 4 4 : 2 3) .
Wherever a Jew is found, can be found testimony to Hashem. . . .
Wherever a faithful Jewish congregation is found, there can be found Divine inspiration (Sanhedrin 39b). The evil among the nations understand and feel this, and in pursuing their illusory goal to uproot every testimony to Hashem, they kill, they burn, they annihilate Jews . . . . 6
Helmreich describes Rabbi Hutner as "one of the most brilliant and dynamic figures ever to head an American yeshiva . . . . To the extent that successful movements often have great leadership, Rabbi Hutner exemplified this requirement." 7 Rabbi Hutner understood the nature of European, and international, anti-Semitism. He embodies the proper Jewish response: The pursuit of intense and advanced Torah education which ensured Jewish survival in the face of intense anti-Semitism.
1941 saw the establishment of the Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Beth Joseph Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was also the year Hitler declared: "I am convinced that 1941 will be the crucial year of a great New Order in Europe. The world shall open up for everyone. Privileges of individuals, the tyranny of certain nations and their financial rulers shall fall . . . . When the other world has been delivered from the Jews, Judaism will have ceased to play a part in Europe." This was in preparation for his Russian campaign: "When 'Barbarossa' begins, the world will hold its breath and make no comment." 8 The world held its breath, and America sought to sit on the sidelines. Pearl Harbor came in 1941, and America could no longer hold back its breath and refrain from commenting: It too became embroiled in the Second World War.
1943 was a year of Axis defeats in North Africa, Europe, and the Far East. But it was also the culmination of the European Jewish Tragedy. It was also the year in which Rabbi Aharon Kotler established what was to become perhaps the largest single advanced yeshivah in modern times, in Lakewood,.N.J. 1944 saw the war drag on as the Nazis resisted the Allied onslaught. In America, Orthodox Jews were already planning for the aftermath. In June 1944, the organization fostering the growth of Hebrew all-day schools in America--Torah Umesorah--was born. It was also the year that the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva founded an advanced division for Talmudic education. Thus as European Jewry succumbed to genocide, there were clear signs of revival in America.
In reviewing the literature of the war years, we find rabbinic leaders talking in the very terms of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. One example is that of Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, Rabbi of Telz and head of its Yeshivah. In acknowledging efforts in America to rescue the yeshivah from Europe and transfer it to America he wrote to Rabbi Bernard Revel, himself a graduate of Telz, that: "I rejoiced to hear that you are attempting to transfer our yeshiva to the United States. This act resembles the deed of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai at the time of the Temple's destruction." 9 Rabbi Avrohom Bloch died, together with his yeshivah, at the hands of the Nazis. But, his brother, and brother-in-law, escaped via Siberia to America. In Cleveland, Ohio, the two "sages of Yavneh" re-established and rebuilt Telz, making it into one of the premier Talmudical Academies. It was a pattern and formula that was repeated all over America.
has written that the year 1941 was marked by several developments
which were to have "a profound impact upon the future of
advanced yeshivas in America". These were: (i) Rabbi J. B.
Soloveitchik was elevated to the post of rosh yeshivah at RIETS;
(ii) Leaders of an important European yeshivah, Telz, came to
America and re-established the school in Cleveland; (iii) Rabbi
Aharon Kotler, head of the yeshivah in Kletsk, Poland, was among
several scholars who arrived in America. "He was destined to
transform higher Jewish learning in America." The
"monumental task" of rebuilding the yeshivahs in
America, "demanded men of exceptional talents and energies.
That such individuals came to the fore at this time is one of the
most important factors in the growth of yeshivas in America . . .
. The most prominent of these extraordinary men was Rabbi Aharon
Great individuals, institutions with ancient histories, time-honoured traditions of communal life, and the sweep of world events contributed to a more confident definition of Orthodox Jewish education in the post-war years. An enormous undertaking with major implications for the future of Jewish education and survival in America came into full swing.
Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Lakewood
On April 10, 1941, Rabbi Aharon Kotler (1891-1962) arrived in San Francisco, California, with the assistance of the Vaad Hatzola organization. On July 7, 1940, Rabbi Kotler had written to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, President of Vaad Hatzola: "We rejoiced to learn of the noble idea to transfer the sanctuaries of the Torah, the sacred yeshivot, to the United States. These holy intentions can be compared to the deeds of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai at the time of the Temple's destruction." 11 Finally finding refuge in America, Rabbi Kotler emulated the example of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai almost two thousand years later.
The need to rescue those trapped in Europe became Rabbi Kotler's overriding concern. Twenty days following his arrival in America, we find him addressing the convention of the Agudas Harabonim, the rabbinical association. His plea was urgent: "With all due gratitude to the Agudat Harabanim and the Vaad Hatzala for the past, not enough has been done. Little time is left and we must immediately act. Everyone must volunteer for this sacred task." 12 At that convention of those who aided his own rescue, he berated his listeners for not doing more. He was only an individual, what of the others who cried out for salvation? Having come out of the furnace he was alarmed at the complacency of American Jewry. His attitude did not change when meeting with the highest U.S. government officials. In a meeting with Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, he vociferously declared that the Secretary's position (in Washington, D.C.) is not worth a single Jewish life. 13 The effectiveness of Rabbi Kotler's tactics was testified to upon his death, when Rabbi Silver declared in a eulogy: "During the Holocaust, we accomplished much through the Vaad Hatzala. I wish to testify that the maximum was attained when we followed the viewpoint of the gaon, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. He was the dynamic spirit behind all our endeavors." 14
During the war, Rabbi Kotler had a far-flung student body to tend to. A printed letter-head, on which he wrote, in 1945 reads:
RABBINICAL COLLEGE OF
Now in Siberia and Shanghai
BRANCH OF YESHIVAH
In Pardess-Hanna, Palestine
RABBI A. KOTLER, Dean
43 West 93RD STREET
NEW YORK 25, N.Y. 15
Kletsk, in Europe, Siberia and Shanghai in the Far East, Palestine, and America were the havens where his students were either based or had found refuge. In America he was the center of gravity for all efforts to save the remnants of these students.
Writing on "Orthodoxy After the War", Rothkoff states that when Rabbi Kotler concluded his initial work with the Vaad Hatzola, he reopened his yeshivah in the "quiescent location" of Lakewood, a small town in New Jersey. Commencing with a nucleus of fifteen students, he continued the role he cherished most: Torah scholar and Rosh Yeshivah. Given his stature as Talmudic teacher and his powerful personality, he soon attracted larger numbers of students. To them he was known as "the Rosh Yeshivah" par excellence. "Totally committed to the Lithuanian tradition of Talmudic study exclusively, the 'Rosh Yeshivah' refused to allow his disciples to pursue collegiate studies. His influence rapidly spread beyond Lakewood, and students in many American yeshivot considered Rav Aharon their mentor. Both his erudition and ethical perfection were widely admired." 16
An Agudath Israel publication, The Struggle and the Splendor (1982), claims that more than any other person, Rabbi Aharon Kotler was responsible for the dynamic growth of Torah consciousness and yeshivah education in post-war America. "Genius, sage, and tzaddik, his dedication and self sacrifice were boundless." He "laid the groundwork for an explosion of higher Torah education." Thus, the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood was "his own institution". But, the thousands of Torah scholars and kollel, post-graduate, fellows in America at the present time are his "lasting monument". In addition, he headed other educational organization, such as Torah Umesorah in America, and Chinuch Atzmai in Israel. 17
Rabbi Kotler was therefore viewed as an embodiment of the flame of Jewish learning as it came over from Europe to America, and beyond, back to its original starting-point: the Land of Israel. It is reported that in 1940 as Torah Jewry was emitting its last "dying breath" on the European continent, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, the leader of Orthodox Jewry in Europe, told Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman: "Reb Aharon (Kotler) will build Torah in America." 18
In America, Rabbi Kotler represented an ideal in Jewish education. He maintained that only by strictly adhering to a curriculum which remained faithful to traditional Jewish education could Judaism survive. He represented it in its purest unsynthesised form. For a complacent American Jewry this was a "revolutionary" approach to Judaism. No yeshivah could have survived without acknowledging the need of its students to study secular subjects. Rabbi Kotler openly scorned this mentality viewing it as a danger to Jewish studies. In the climate that existed in the post-war era, he nurtured his yeshivah dedicated to Torah learning to the exclusion of all other secular studies be they on the secondary or tertiary level.
Rabbi Kotler stated his educational principles, as reported by Helmreich quoting from the 1977-1978 Bulletin of Beth Medrash Govoha, as follows:
The perpetuation of Jewish peoplehood depends on the development and growth of authentic Torah scholars. . . . In the absence of Torah scholars, Jewry lacks the great teachers who are the links in the great chain of Tradition, spanning the ages. It lacks the educators to instruct the coming generations in the purity, wholeness and perfection of Judaism. And it lacks those who can intuitively articulate the unique wisdom and insights of Torah and make them relevant and available to Jewish youth. 19
When Rabbi Kotler spoke out, few in the world of American Orthodoxy defied him. Even when many did not share his particular views they would not openly defy his leadership. Wherein lay his power? What was the "secret" of his success? S. Kagan, in "From Kletzk to Lakewood, U.S.A." has written that Rabbi Kotler's strength as a teacher was the living example he provided of Torah rooted in his every fiber. When he taught he became completely immersed in the subject: "His face earnest and strained . . . . The fires, burning in his soul, mirrored in his eyes--those brilliant, piercing blue eyes that were a study in themselves--glowing like embers. The movements of his hands following the flow of his words--his words like hammer blows, . . . questioning, explaining, expounding in a mounting crescendo. . . . exclaiming, exulting in the eternal fulfillment of Torah. Kagan asserts that Rabbi Kotler's success in transplanting Torah "from one set of conditions to another more difficult one", was an achievement that goes beyond greatness, for he became a living link in the chain of Tradition "stretching from Moshe to Moshiach, achieving immortality within his own lifetime." 20
William B. Helmreich has written that it was not easy for Rabbi Kotler to explain and popularize his approach to Talmudic education in the United States, "for the Orthodox community was quite Americanized." He points out that even the "right-wing" yeshivahs, such as Torah Vodaath, had adopted to some extent the utilitarian view that Talmud study should be oriented toward producing rabbis and teachers. "While well aware of the tradition of European yeshivas, they had accommodated themselves in certain areas to life in America and the values of the new American Orthodox communities." The problems facing Rabbi Aharon Kotler with respect to education in America were articulated to Helmreich in an interview with Rabbi Kotler's son, and successor, Rabbi Shneur Kotler (1918-1982):
The main difficulty was that the level of learning wasn't that high and our desire was to develop a generation of gedolei Torah (giants in Torah knowledge) who were American-trained products.
The second obstacle was that my father, may he rest in peace, felt that there should be Torah lishmo (for a higher, spiritual purpose) and that all practical benefits would come from it anyway. He felt that Torah lishmo tremendously raises the general level of the Jewish community. People asked: What's the tachlis (purpose) of studying Torah? What can be gained from it? This was the attitude. It was hard to explain that sometimes the most lasting things seem to come out from things which seem to have no purpose.
Yet, concludes Helmreich, aided by a cadre of people,whose loyalty was total, and unquestioning, "Rabbi Kotler's dream eventually became the central approach to Talmud study in the yeshiva world." 21
What transpired during Rabbi Aharon Kotler's lifetime was only part of the story. In 1962 it was Rabbi Shneur Kotler who took over as Rosh Yeshivah of Lakewood upon his father's passing away. Whereas his father had actively restricted enrollment to a relatively select group, Rabbi Shneur Kotler opened the gates to a broader range of students and post-graduate fellows. From a group of approximately 150 students, the yeshivah grew to almost a thousand students in 1981. What the father had planted, the son reaped, with manifold returns. Since "Lakewood" represented a clear-cut approach, not confusing the prospective student about what it stood for as a yeshivah, it became even more appealing. As more students enrolled, the scope of study broadened to the point where a student could join any number of groups studying all the tractates of the Talmud.
Overseeing this massive expansion was Rabbi Shneur Kotler (d. 1982). He was of the same historical and educational mould as his father, and was the literal heir to his father's educational legacy. In "Remembering Reb Shneur Kotler" (1982), Y. Y. Reinman writes that the roots of Rabbi Shneur Kotler's greatness and the leadership role he acquired reach back to the earlier generations of his family. Born in 1918 to Rabbi Aharon Kotler in Slutzk, where his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer was the Rosh Yeshivah and Rabbi, and, who subsequently moved to Jerusalem. In 1940 Rabbi Shneur Kotler escaped to Palestine where he continued to study with the leading scholars of Jerusalem. In 1947 he came to America to be with his father.
When "Reb Shneur" took over the yeshivah in 1962, "he found a world that was ripe for Torah expansion". His style though, differed from that of his father's. Whereas his father challenged, he acted as conciliator. "Under Reb Shneur, Bais Medrash Govoha developed into more than just a yeshivah. It became a center of learning such as the world perhaps has not known since the days of the yeshiva in Pumbadissa in Bavel." Reinman adds that Rabbi Shneur Kotler was like his father: "Driven by a boundless sense of responsibility for the furtherance of Torah everywhere. Using the Yeshiva as a base, he spread Torah in countless communities." 22
With Rabbi Shneur Kotler's passing in 1982, his son Rabbi Malkiel Kotler took over the leadership of the yeshivah, assisted by three other grandchildren of Rabbi Aharon Kotler. The death of "Reb Shneur" signalled the end of part two of the role of the Lakewood Yeshivah in the revival of Jewish education in America. The third stage represents the potential of ever-widening opportunities. Whether it be through training Torah teachers, establishing new educational institutions, or pursuing the pure Jewish scholarship of Torah lishmo, the saga has yet to be completed.
Mir to New York Via Shanghai
David Kranzler, in the Introduction to his epic Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938-1945, (1976), writes that Holocaust studies have thus far focused primarily on the catastrophic fate of the Jews on the European continent. In contrast, he seeks to shift the focus from how Jews died, to how they survived in the Far East where thousands of potential victims built a new life and successfully, transplanted their communal institutions. This mirrors our own aim, but the general area of focus is the American mainland. It is an illustration of how at the height of the war, the Jewish people held on firmly to the key of survival. The Jewish sense of survival demanded the establishment of a traditional communal structure with educational institutions playing key roles. The Shanghai community was a "half-way station" to America for a relatively small, yet nevertheless significant, group of Jewish pioneers and survivalists.
Kranzler writes that while the Nazis were carrying out their "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem, about 18,000 Jewish refugees found a haven in the only place in the world whose doors were open without a visa: the International Settlement of Shanghai. This is related to what he calls one of the central themes of his work: "An extraordinary and ironic twist of fate, or Hashgocho Protis (Divine Providence),.. ..the incredible role of Japan, in actually making possible the survival of 18,000 Jews." Amongst this group we find "the gripping saga of the Mirrer Yeshiva from its first refuge in Kovno to Shanghai through Siberia and Japan." 23 The ultimate destination of this yeshivah was to be Brooklyn, N.Y., where it arrived almost intact in February 1947.
The odyssey of the Mirrer Yeshiva is a blend of high drama, power politics, international relations, and above all, the commitment of a yeshivah in exile to the highest ideals of Jewish learning and educational life. With its 250 students and faculty it was one of the oldest of Europe's yeshivahs. "It had made its way from the little town of Mir in Poland . . . . across Lithuania, through Russia to Siberia, and then to Kobe, and ended its odyssey in Shanghai." Combined with other individual Talmudic students, the Orthodox group of over 400 students of Talmud "comprised an elite of East European Jewry in all its partisan divisions." 24 At the war's end, they were to bring a passionate approach to Talmudic learning in America.
In August 1941, on the eve of the High Holy Days, almost the entire Mirrer Yeshiva arrived in Shanghai. It so happened to be that in the 1930s an assimilated Jewish magnate of Sephardic origins had built a beautiful, and sturdy synagogue called 'Beth Aharon'. It was not used since 1937 when as a result of hostilities, many Jews moved to other parts of Shanghai. The Mirrer Yeshiva viewed this as another act of Divine Providence: "Since the seating capacity of the synagogue was exactly the same as the number of students, and the building had been used relatively infrequently in recent years, the students felt the synagogue was now fulfilling its true destiny." 25
The yeshivah's president, Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz (1891-1965), had found his way to America, and devised means to channel financial support to his institution in the Far East. This was no easy task after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Shapiro has written that the American people were bitter against the Japanese, as thousands of Americans were dying in battle against them. It was in this "negative climate of opinion" that the elderly Rabbi Kalmanowitz searched for avenues to send large sums of money to his yeshivah surrounded by Japanese controlled terrain. He arranged to see Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and a curious dilemma presented itself: How could an old rabbi with a limited English vocabulary explain to an assimilated Jew that he too suffered a "Pearl Harbor", that his "children", the Torah scholars of Mir, were starving and endangered in Japanese captivity? While presenting his case, Rabbi Kalmanowitz fainted. That "broke the ice", a rapport was established, and eventually Morgenthau found the means to allow the funds out of America. 26 Kranzler records, that a steady subsidy was sent to the Mir and other yeshivahs and rabbinical groups, by Rabbi Kalmanowitz and the Vaad Hatzolah via neutral Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden, Argentina, and Uruguay, despite "many" obstacles. 27
What is of importance to our thesis is the spirit and quality of Jewish scholarship that the Mirrer Yeshiva eventually brought to America. The zeal for Torah learning that was enhanced by the Shanghai interlude was an inspiration for those who witnessed the yeshivah's arrival in New York. In Shanghai the yeshivah remained loyal to a major goal of Jewish education: deepening involvement with the original sources. Kranzler writes that in Shanghai, the yeshivah quietly continued its uninterrupted schedule of study of fourteen to twenty hours a day. Adversity had strengthened their resolve:
In the face of, or perhaps to some extent because of, discomfort and sickness and an alien environment, they delved all the more deeply into the "Sea of the Talmud" and its commentaries, which became a substitute for their lost families and homes. Study of the Torah also became their sole source of hope for the future. . . .
Their unflagging spirit and enthusiasm became a source of awe and wonder to all who saw the Yeshiva at study. Their faith in eventual redemption was perhaps best illustrated by the words of a Niggun (melody), sung hours on end during one Simhat Torah (festival). While dancing with the Torah scrolls in-their hands, they sang in Yiddish:..... (here we are driven out; And there we may not enter; Tell us, dear Father . . . How long can this go on?) 28
It went on for several years, and the yeshivah had to rely on its own resources and creative spirit to exist. For example, in the face of the shortage of texts, the yeshivah resorted to printing Rabbinic works. Close to one hundred titles in Rabbinic scholarship were reprinted in Shanghai. The printing of one Talmudic tractate was followed by the entire Talmud (except for one title), Bible and commentaries, Maimonides' works, and classics of Jewish ethics and philosophy:
The first offset volume was the Tractate Gittin, a run of 250 copies being made during May 1942. The completion of this first Tractate, marking a milestone in the history of Jewish printing in the Far East, became a cause of public celebration in the Russian-Jewish Club, which was attended by dignitaries of the Ashkenazi community. Such an event would hardly have been dreamed of even a year before. One Polish non-observant journalist who witnessed this scene, remarked that one who did not witness the Amshenover Rebbe and Yeshiva students dance at receiving this marvelous gift, has never seen true Jewish joy and felt the secret of the Jew's eternity. 29
The striving to remain eternal, given even only a modicum of freedom, soon came to the surface wherever Jewish communities dedicated to the higher ideals of Jewish education were found. So too, a nucleus of individuals became a source of wonderment as they followed their destiny from Lithuania to America, via China. The uniqueness of the Mirrer Yeshiva is that while individual leaders in America gave direction to groups of followers that arose, it served as an example of an entire "community of scholars" who had continued to study during the war years. They provided a model for others to emulate, and even envy. When the yeshivah reestablished itself as a unit in Brooklyn:
The sight of men in their thirties and forties studying full time was an inspiration for younger students, who viewed them as culture heroes from a world known to them only from stories told by their teachers or parents. 30
Rabbi Shraga Moshe Kalmanowitz, son of Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, and an heir to his father's position, has given Helmreich a "vivid portrayal" of how the yeshivah was set up in America:
Today people have contact with the outside world. In China we were isolated and this was good because it strengthened our commitment. As a result we were able to preserve our ruach (spirit). Since we were many, American boys had to adapt to us and little by little they did. You know, of course, that it was unheard of in America that boys learned after marriage. But we did it, as did others. Those who came had real dedication. 31
The Mirrer Yeshiva's contribution to Torah learning whilst Europe burned remains incalculable. Its ardent pursuit of the most intense form of Jewish education in a world at war remains a key to understanding the great expansion of Orthodox education in America in the post-1945 era.
The demise of Telz and its yeshivah in Lithuania is recorded by Isaac Lewin in "These Will I Remember!": Biographies of Leaders of Religious Jewry in Europe who Perished During the Years 1939-1945, Volume 1, (1956). The entry of the Germans into Lithuania, following their attack on their erstwhile allies the Soviets in June 1941, unleashed a torrent of savage anti-Semitism. In the latter half of 1941, local residents attacked the Jews of Telz. The Lithuanian anti-Semites need not have feared any rebuke from the Nazis. They wrecked and destroyed Jewish property and slaughtered many Jews.
The worst day was the killing on the twentieth of Tamuz 5741 (1941), when with exceeding cruelty all the Jews of Telz were savagely killed with indescribable afflictions and tortures. Amongst the killed was the Rabbi of the town who was also the Rosh Hayeshivah, Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, together with the members of his family and students. The only members of the Rabbi's family who survived were his brother, Rabbi Eliahu Meir Bloch (1895-1955), and his brother-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, who had left Lithuania almost a year earlier. After wandering across Russia and Japan, they reached secure shores in America. On 28 October, 1941, together with a nucleus of their students and several other young men, they established the Telshe Yeshiva of Cleveland. This school of Jewish learning was to become one of the largest Torah institutions in America. 32
The opening of the Telz, or Telshe, Yeshiva of Cleveland by Rabbis E. M. Bloch and C. M. Katz, was part of a repeated pattern, notes Rothkoff. Yeshivahs conducted in the traditional fashion were opened by those who reached America's shores. In Cleveland, Telz under the tutelage of Rabbis Bloch and Katz retained the "Telz method" of Talmudical analysis, stressing "precise inductive reasoning". Rabbi Eliezer Silver was soon traveling to raise funds for Telz. After a visit to the Telz Yeshiva in 1946, Rabbi Silver published a statement of support revealing his happiness that at last America was home to "Yavneh and its sages":
My soul rejoices and my heart is elated every time I visit the holy Telz Yeshivah in Cleveland. It is rapidly becoming one of the leading American yeshivot, by virtue of both its large student body and the high level of its curriculum. The illustrious name of Telz has been restored on these shores. From day to day the school grows stronger to the joy of all those who esteem Torah and "fear of the Lord". 33
The men who
"engineered" the remarkable transplantation of Telz
from Lithuania to America were a rare breed. In 1940, when the
Russians occupied Lithuania, the Telz Yeshiva was subjected to
relentless persecution. The yeshivah was forced to close, and
Rabbis E. M. Bloch and Katz set out to find a new sanctuary for Telz. By
the time the Nazis moved into Lithuania, the two rabbis were well
on their way to America, crossing the Pacific. They had come to
realize that to bring their yeshivah over from Europe had become
impossible. They would have to start from the beginning all over
again. Keller, in "He Brought Telshe to Cleveland",
describes this realization: "From that time on, they acted
as men possessed. Although they had no idea of the fate of their
own families (Reb Elya Meir's wife and four children, Reb
Mottel's wife and ten children), their working hours were devoted
exclusively to reestablishing the yeshivah." 34
A location far from New York was deliberately chosen. Rabbi Bloch announced that the yeshivah would relocate in a Jewish community which needed strengthening, and which suited the "spirit of the yeshivah" better than metropolitan New York. When objections were raised, Rabbi Bloch is reported to have replied: "When one recognizes God's 'hashgachah (Providence) in all that occurs, he realizes that when people are impelled to leave a place because of impending danger, this is not flight but a signal of a mission on which they are being dispatched. We are not only refugees! We were sent by the Almighty to replant the Yeshivah of Telshe in America." In the span of forty years the yeshivah grew to become one of the world's "great Torah centers and stands as a living monument to the dedication and vision" of Rabbi E. M. Bloch and Rabbi C. M. Katz. 35
A first-hand account of the impact Telz had on American-born youth is recounted by Rabbi Dov Keller, Rosh Yeshivah of a Telz "branch" in Chicago.. He recalls that the original student body consisted of a few students that had escaped from Europe and some Americans sent from Baltimore. "The Americans had no idea of what Telshe signified. They were even novices in the learning of Gemara and the two Roshei Yeshiva had to literally introduce them to advanced Torah study." The rabbis lived and ate in the yeshivah, educating their students in the broadest possible manner. This was in spite of the personal losses they had suffered.
The spirit of that time is captured in the lecture notes of Rabbi Bloch, when upon receiving confirmation of the fate of Telz in Lithuania, he wrote in 1945:
I am not able to concentrate (on this writing) as I should, for that which I feared has reached me--the terrible news of the death of..... at the hands of the cursed German murderers.......... I feel that I can never come to peace (with myself) without the toil of Torah... without fulfilling the sacred duty which now falls upon the survivors. Having learned of my awful tragedy, my first call of duty must be laboring in Torah. I am indentured in the service of my people . . . of what importance are the woes of the individual when compared to the duties of the Klal (Community)? 36
The spirit contained in Rabbi Bloch's words was carried forth into the future and touched all elements of the Orthodox educational configuration in America. An example of this direct inter-action is the influence of the yeshivah leaders on the day school movement. The later Rosh Yeshivah of Telz, Rabbi M. Gifter addressed a Torah Umesorah National Planning Conference on the function of Torah education (chinuch) in modern times, reported in June, 1964. Rabbi Gifter typifies the zeal of the yeshivah founders when he declares that: "The function of Torah chinuch is the creation of a society where Torah will not merely be one of a vast number of human interests but rather a society where all human interest, all human endeavor centers in and emanates from Torah. 37
Rabbi Gifter stresses that in an age of specialization there is a need to implant into the young minds and hearts of Day School children the dream of becoming a "Torah specialist". He asks: "How many of them dream of becoming a Chofetz Chaim, a Reb Chaim Brisker, a Reb Mayer Simchah, a Chazon Ish?" All these were illustrious sages of recent times whose rise to prominence was in great part due to their "laboring" in Torah studies. He concludes:
Much indeed has been achieved. . . . But with the great change that has been wrought we have not yet brought this generation to Sinai. . . .
The challenge of Torah chinuch (education) is that "we come close to the mountain" and that we take our children with us to see and hear what our forefathers saw and heard. We must become witness to the great Reality of Emunah (faith), with renewed intensive efforts in consolidating positions already won, and in the continued conquest of new horizons for Torah. 38
Thus, the challenges that the survivors of Lithuanian Telz, who were also the founders of American Telz, presented to American Jewry were thrust forward into the broader arenas of Jewish education. From its "fall" in Europe, it demanded a "rise" in America. The efforts to revive Torah education amongst the masses of American Jewry became the powerful and broad challenge of a handful of survivors. They demanded that their survival create a better and broader Jewish education in America.
New York Re-Newed
In 1189 the Jews of York, in England, decided to take their own lives rather than submit to the frenzied mobs of the Third Crusade. The cry of the Jew-killers was "Kill a Jew and save your soul!" The Jews of York preferred to suffer salvation on their own terms. One hundred years later, in the autumn of 1290, the Jews of England were expelled by King Edward I. 39
It was an irony of history that in the New World, the "new" York was to become haven to the largest single concentration of Jews in the world. When mass immigration was cut off by the U.S. government in 1925, over 4,500,000 Jews were already resident in America. New York was the first port of entry for most, and the majority settled in the metropolitan area of New York City. They struggled to re-new their lives, often at the expense of their commitment to Jewish education and hence to Judaism. America was different, they claimed; tradition was part of the Old World. This type of "renewal" was in fact a calamitous "fall" for and from the time-honoured Jewish way of life.
The "Most Savage Crusade" of modern history, from 1939 to 1945, came as a horrible shock to American Jewry. The vulnerability of Jews to destruction brought the realization that ultimately no Jews were safe anywhere in the world. The new wave of refugees who came to America after the war brought not only concentration-camp numbers tattooed on their skin, but a will to re-new their lives. Many tragically forsook their faith saying: "There is no God." Others were determined to re-new the ways they had known in Europe. New York's Jewish life was to be re-newed once more, along more Orthodox lines. Jewish education in America was directly influenced by these trends. M. Sherer, writing on "25 Years: A New Jewish World" (1979), remarks that the survivors that came to America, in spite of their physical scars, were nevertheless strong enough in spirit to revitalize other Jews.
Thus, maintains Sherer, two factors were the chief causes that brought about the much desired "spiritual revolution" in America: Firstly, the saving of a number of great Torah scholars; and secondly, the arrival of the survivors from the enormous destruction in Europe. In 1941, upon his arrival in New York, Rabbi Aharon Kotler declared "Torah has a future in America". Together with other leading scholars who had found refuge in America during that period, a message came forth: America is not "extra-territorial" when it comes to Torah education and practice. 40
There was initial success, as recorded by several histories of Jewish education. For example, Gartner writes that a significant feature of the day school movement was the rise of not only yeshivah high schools, but of yeshivahs for advanced students. "Most of them were founded by refugee rabbinic scholars during and after World War II. The curriculum was exclusively talmudic, and the general outlook was transplanted from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe." Thousands of young men "mostly of American birth" entered into the yeshivah world's regimen of Talmud study. 41
Not only were new institutions founded but existing institutions were subjected to change. One of the oldest yeshivahs in New York was the yeshivah section of Yeshiva University. Rothkoff, in Bernard Revel (1972), writes that as the Nazi menace grew, Revel realized that Yeshiva University's responsibilities to European Jewry were increasing. "The school now had to be prepared to accept refugee students and faculty." By 1939, time was running out as Revel frantically sought to bring as many survivors to America. Among those aided by Revel were Rabbis Joseph Arnest and Samuel Volk, both of whom assumed leading positions at Yeshiva University in 1939. Other famous rabbinical leaders who were brought to America with Revel's aid were Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer (1882-1980), who subsequently founded his own yeshivah in Washington Heights, N.Y.C.,. and Rabbi Mendel Zaks, who was the head of the Radin Yeshiva founded by his father-in law the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan). 42
The figure of Rabbi Joseph Breuer extended the notion of renewal. He was not satisfied with renewing extant institutions. His notions of Jewish education were part of a broader notion of community, or kehillah, that had existed amongst Orthodox Jews in Germany. Bodenheimer has written that Rabbi Breuer's vision of kehillah required that it serve all the needs of its membership. "Synagogue, yeshivah, girl's school, . . . charity funds . . . . adult education, . . . general attitude toward life--everything was part of the classic kehillah structure, so it had to be incorporated into K'hal Adas Yeshurun" established in Washington Heights, Manhattan. 43
Other well known yeshivahs in the New York area experienced renewed vitality during the war years. The Mesivta Torah Vodaath Yeshiva extended an invitation to the newly arrived head of the Kamenitz Yeshivah, Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky (1896-1958), to become its own Rosh Yeshivah. From 1935 to 1944, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman had served as head of Torah Vodaath. During these years the yeshivah "entered a period of significant growth and expansion", notes Helmreich. Rabbi Heiman had served as head of the famous Baranowicz Yeshivah in Poland. In America, he attempted to maintain the high standards of Baranowicz. "His goal was to elevate the American yeshiva bochur (student) to the point where he was a serious student of the Talmud, not simply a young man acquiring a basic education." Thus, many graduates entered the rabbinate and careers in Jewish education, "but an even greater number became lay leaders of the Jewish community, professionals in other areas, and businessmen." 44 The void left by Rabbi Heiman's death in 1944, was filled by Rabbi Grozovsky's arrival.
Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky was the son-in-law of the famous Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz (1870-1941). They had visited America in 1929 to collect funds for their yeshivah. It was a difficult mission, and the challenge of American life was not an unknown factor to Rabbi Grozovsky when he came to America in 1941. Following the outbreak of the war Rabbi Grozovsky eluded both Nazi and communist forces, following the trusted route across the Pacific to raise funds and secure affidavits for his students. He landed in Seattle, Washington on May 2, 1941, and proceeded quickly to New York, joining Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz in rescue work through the Vaad Hatzolah (Rescue Committee). Wolpin reports that it was an ongoing struggle which involved fund-raising, lobbying, and clandestine transferring of funds. In addition, Rabbi Grozovsky managed to save some 110 members of the Kamenitz Yeshivah community. At Torah Vodaath, from 1944 onwards, "a new generation of Torah scholars became exposed to his shiurim (lectures)." 45 He infused the yeshivah with great life and enthusiasm. At the height of the war Torah education was witnessing renewal.
The influence of Rabbi Grozovsky extended beyond the yeshivah he headed. He was at the helm of the American Council of Torah Sages of the Agudath Israel, and chairman of Torah Umesorah's Rabbinical Advisory Council. The efforts to renew Orthodox life in New York extended outwards, towards for example, the establishment of day schools. At a founding ceremony of such a school in Providence, Rhode Island, he stated:
What role does a Rosh Yeshivah have at the establishment of a kindergarten? Doesn't he have other things on his mind? But that isn't the case. There's a longstanding rule in the Torah, that saving lives assumes a higher priority over everything else. Without Torah study, the children of this community are being buried alive. . . . Thus, the item of foremost priority on my agenda is to be here and ascertain that these children will indeed live. 46
The same spirit of dynamism and sense of urgency was to be found in other established yeshivahs in the New York area. The Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ) and Yeshivah Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ), experienced an unusual surge in the desire for advanced Talmudical studies. Helmreich records that RJJ had in fact had an elementary school since 1899. It was only in the late 1940s and early 1950s that it developed into an important advanced yeshivah, producing hundreds of rabbis and community leaders. It was also an important feeder school for the Lakewood Yeshivah established by Rabbi Kotler in 1943. Helmreich connects the rise of advanced studies with the sense of vibrancy brought by those who rebuilt the yeshivahs in America. It was a "Weltanschauung that challenged and ultimately overcame the prevailing trend toward compromise with secular American values that existed in the Orthodox camp." 47
The Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem was in operation as an advanced yeshivah by the early 1930s. In 1938 it appointed Rabbi Moses Feinstein as its head, "who is probably the foremost halachic (legal) authority" of recent times, "and whose decisions are crucial for hundreds of thousands of Jews". When asked about the significance of the post-war period in Jewish education, Rabbi Feinstein observed: "When the great people started arriving . . . the people began to see that there was a different type of learning, not the sort they had thought of earlier. . . . They began to see that one can become great from such study." 48
In a tribute to Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Hutner (1904 - 1980), "HaGaon Rav Yitzchok Hutner" (1980/81), Pinchos Stolper has written that as Torah institutions and communities in Europe went up in flames, Rabbi Hutner as head of the Yeshivah Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York, realized that Jewish survival was dependent upon the creation of American born Torah personalities. "To accomplish this required a force that could motivate young students to make a qualitative jump in their commitment and lifestyle in a relatively short period of time." Stolper concludes that Rabbi Hutner succeeded to influence his students by concentrating all his talents on the students' talents. "The key to this success was the intensive relationship he developed with individuals and his 'campaign' to convince as many students as possible that they could indeed become Gedolei Yisrael (scholars). The number of individuals with whom he developed and retained a close and intimate relationship is astounding. Each of these diverse individuals felt that he was a ben yochid, the only son of the Rosh Yeshiva. 49
Thus, those Torah educators already in America, joined together with newly arrived personalities, to create a cadre of Jewish educators and leaders who would in turn transform the face of Orthodox Jewish life and education in America.
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