The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy

НазваниеThe Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy
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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 f 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":

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