The Embrace of Generations
by Reuven Ungar
I The Remnant of the Sages- Pleitat Sofreihem
In his monumental eulogy for Rav Chaim Heller, Rav Soloveitchik relates to the phrase “Pleitat Sofreihem” in the Shemoneh Esreh. Why doesn’t “Sofreihem” suffice; what is the need to mention “Pleitat” as well? The Rov explains that even in the presence of abundant Torah Scholars a living link to the previous generations is necessary to properly convey the Mesorah. A remnant of a previous generation is a crucial element to serve as a bridge to the new generation. Case in point: Serach bat Asher merited a long life which extended to the era of Moshe Rabbeinu. Her personal connection to her grandfather, Yaakov Avinu, mandated her presence in the generation that exited Egypt and received the Torah. As the Rov remarks, the embrace of generations bestows upon future generations the spiritual wealth & strength of the great ancestors. This includes Torah knowledge, Middot Tovot and investing in family- all necessary components of our legacy.
“I have witnessed a built world, a destroyed world, and a built world- and my beard is not yet white”- Rav Yehuda Amital.
II The Chanukat HaBayit
On the 30th of Nissan in 1964 the Beth Medrash Gevoha (BMG) celebrated the inauguration of a new wing of the yeshiva in Lakewood. Less than two years after the passing of the founding Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler, his son and successor, Rav Shneur Kotler, presided over the proceedings. Guests at the Chanukat HaBayit included the posek Rav Moshe Feinstein, the rav of Elizabeth, Rav Pinchos Teitz, the young co-Rosh Yeshiva in Philadelphia Rav Elya Svei and Rav Mordechai Gifter of Telz. Representing the Chassidic movement was the Kapischnitzer Rebbe, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel.
Video footage of that moving & elevated day has recently surfaced. There is no sound. This allows us to conjecture what was said- and thought- on that elevated day in New Jersey nearly half a century ago.
III Reb Yaakov and Reb Dovid
Prominent amongst the speakers at the Chanukat HaBayit were Rosh Yeshiva in Torah Vodaath Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS, Rav Dovid Lifshitz. Reb Dovid and Reb Yaakov were older than Rav Shneur; (in fact, Reb Yaakov was a chaver of Rav Shneur’s father Rav Aharon going back to their early days in Slabodka). Both were alumni of Mussar yeshivot; Reb Yaakov of Slabodka, Reb Dovid of Grodna and Mir. They were disciples of the leading Roshei Yeshiva and Mashgichim of the era. Reb Dovid a talmid of Rav Shimon Shkop and Rav Yerucham Levovitz; Reb Yaakov of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and the Alter of Slabodka. Both served as rabbanim of communities in Lithuania. When the Hitlerian inferno raged in Europe Reb Yaakov had already moved to Toronto; Reb Dovid escaped and arrived in Chicago.
Both gedolim moved to New York to serve as Roshei Yeshiva in non-family yeshivot (Mr. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz brought Reb Yaakov to Torah Vodaath; Professor Belkin invited Reb Dovid to Yeshiva University). While free to teach Torah (=not responsible to raise funds) Reb Dovid and Reb Yaakov were involved in communal needs (Ezras Torah and Agudas Yisrael, respectively). On the personal front they demolished the “cold Litvak” stereotype. As has been conveyed in a previous article, the author of these lines personally witnessed and benefited from the amazing warmth of Reb Dovid. While I was not privileged to have met Reb Yaakov, the testimony of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein concerning the concern and genuine interest that Reb Yaakov felt and displayed for each Jew rings loud and clear. These gedolim mastered the art of balance. Despite their robust schedules of learning & teaching Torah, public service and blessing, counseling & guiding individuals, the family domain was tended to with care and dedication. Together with their rebbetzins they raised generations of loyal servants of Hashem with wisdom & warmth.
It should not be a surprise that Reb Yaakov and Reb Dovid were mechutanim; the sacred foundations of their respective homes invited the bonding of their families. Today, shared and non-shared descendants of these gedolim enlighten the Jewish world from Los Angeles to Connecticut, Philadelphia to Baltimore, Lakewood to New York, and of course in The Land of Israel- from Jerusalem to the Ayalon Valley, from Chashmonaim to Ramla, from Gush Etzion to Beit Shemesh. (Another mechutan of Reb Dovid was not present at the Chanukat HaBayit for an excellent reason. Former rav of Lakewood, Rav Nissan Waxman had successfully persuaded his chaver Rav Aharon Kotler to bring the yeshiva to Lakewood. By 1964 Rav Waxman had already made aliyah).
Perhaps one can imagine what these gedolim said and thought. They had witnessed and experienced the greatness of pre-WWII Lithuania; Reb Dovid and Reb Yaakov merited to survive and thrive in a new land and environment. By force of personality they forged ahead in teaching Torah and inspiring generations. Yes, their beards were already white in 1964- but they had certainly witnessed and participated in the creation of a new built world.
The presence of Reb Dovid and Reb Yaakov did not merely enhance the Chanukat HaBayit. It was necessary as they constituted “Pleitat Sofreihem”. The generations embraced.
IV Father and Son; Uncle and Nephew
Younger than Reb Yaakov and Reb Dovid, Rav Shneur Kotler and Rav Mordechai Gifter were contemporaries. Born 3 years apart, they both studied Torah with the giants of Lithuania (in Europe and elsewhere). Rav Shneur learned by his father, Rav Aharon, Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, his grandfather, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and from Rav Soloveitchik. Subsequent to studying with Rav Moshe Aharon Poleyoff and Rav Moshe Soloveitchik in RIETS, Rav Mordechai Gifter embarked to Lithuania to learn by his Rebbe Muvhak, Rav Avrahom Yitzchak Bloch, Rosh Yeshiva and rav of Telz.
Neither Rav Shneur nor Rav Gifter held a rabbinic position in Europe; yet they merited to drink deeply from the old built world, prior to its destruction. They would embark on building a new world as Roshei Yeshiva.
Let us delve into the Torah monarchies of Kletsk and Telz.
BMG in Lakewood stems from the yeshiva in Slutsk led by Rav Isser Zalman, who served as rav of that city. After suffering persecution by the Bolsheviks for several years, the yeshiva moved to Kletsk in Poland. Rav Isser Zalman ultimately made aliyah and became the Rosh Yeshiva of Etz Chaim in Jerusalem. The yeshiva In Kletsk was led by his son in law, Rav Aharon Kotler. The leadership of the yeshiva survived; the majority of the students of the yeshiva did not. Following the Shoah, in addition to BMG in Lakewood, a branch of Kletsk existed in Israel, eventually becoming Yeshivat HaDarom in Rechovot. Its faculty included Rav Zvi Yehuda Meltzer (son of Rav Isser Zalman) and his son in law, Rav Yehuda Amital.
Rav Aharon was a larger than life figure- in Europe before the Churban, and in the United States afterwards. He combined genius with elevated character traits. My rebbe, Rav Aharon Rakeffet tells of an incident that transpired in Lakewood when he studied in BMG. One Shabbat (which the Rosh Yeshiva spent in New York) a yeshiva employee was responsible for not enabling the students to maximize their time learning Torah. The bochrim exercised self-restraint; instead of protesting they organized a delegation to meet on Sunday with Rav Aharon to convey what happened. Upon hearing the story, Rav Aharon (who zealously learned at every available opportunity) remarked “You are correct, what she did was improper. But there is nothing that I can say or do; she is a widow”.
Upon the passing of his father, Rav Shneur assumed the leadership of Kletsk/BMG (yes, that includes fundraising). His beard was not yet white and he forged ahead in preserving and enlarging the sacred trust that he had inherited.
Succeeding his father in law Rav Eliezer Gordon, Rav Yosef Yehudah Bloch (author of “Shiurei Da’at”) served as Rosh Yeshiva and rav of Telz. A master pedagogue, Rav Bloch’s educational vision inclulded focused education for teenagers and young adults, men and women (=Yavneh). His family followed in his footsteps- in times of tranquility and in horror.
Upon the passing of Rav Bloch it was understood that his oldest son, Rav Zalman, would become the Rosh Yeshiva and rav. In an awesome display of humility and greatness, Rav Zalman announced that his brother Rav Avraham Yitzchak would become the Rosh Yeshiva and rav; while he would serve as Mashgiach in yeshiva and dayan of the city. Brother Rav Elya Meir and brother in law Rav Chaim Mordechai (“Mottel”) Katz assisted in the operation of the various branches of this educational empire.
Rav Baruch Sorotzkin (already a member of the family- his mother was a daughter of Rav Gordon) married Rochel, the daughter of Rav Avraham Yitzchak. Rav Gifter became engaged to Shoshana, daughter of Rav Zalman. Miraculously getting out in time, they were married in the United States.
The majority of Telz- citizens in the town, students of the yeshiva and its faculty (including wives and children) died al Kiddush Hashem. May Hashem avenge their blood.
Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz survived. Before they even knew the fate of their families they rebuilt Telz in Cleveland. Upon receiving the bitter truth of the deaths of their families they forged ahead in spreading Torah. Adhering to the tradition of Telz, the Roshei Yeshiva tended to communal matters as well.
The family front was not neglected. In order to find a proper match for his orphaned niece, Naomi (sister of Rebbetzin Shoshana Gifter), Rav Katz traveled to New York to meet with the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz (father in law of Rav Elya Svei). His mission was successful as a shidduch was made with Rav Pesach Stein.
Following the passing of Rav Bloch in 1955; Rav Katz served as sole Rosh Yeshiva. The 1964 Chanukat HaBayit in Lakewood transpired a few months prior to his passing. At that point Rav Gifter, together with his cousin in law Rav Boruch Sorotzkin assumed the leadership of the yeshiva.The faculty of the yeshiva included Rav Pesach Stein and alumni of Telz in Europe, Rav Chaim Stein (a mechutan of Rav Dovid Lifshitz) and Rav Aizik Ausband (who married Chaya, the daughter of Rav Avraham Yitzchak). The sisters Rebbetzin Rochel Sorotzkin and Rebbezin Chaya Ausband educated generations of young women at Yavneh in Cleveland.
Similar to Kletsk/BMG, the Telz yeshiva was replanted on American soil. In the face of tremendous tragedy both yeshivot grew and continued in their sacred missions. With beards not yet white, Rav Shneur and Rav Gifter continued the work of their respective father and uncle, Rav Aharon and Rav Mottel; Pleitat Sofreihem.
V Rebbe and Talmid
A prominent faculty member of Kletsk in Europe and Israel must be mentioned. Rav Elazar Menachem Shach married the niece of Rav Isser Zalman, becoming a cousin of Rav Aharon. If anyone qualifies as a remant of the sages, it is he. Rav Shach merited to spend time with the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. In fact, as the sun set on European Jewry in 1940, Rav Shach and his rebbetzin lost a child while residing in Vilna. Rav Chaim Ozer babysat their young son Ephraim when the parents were in the cemetery. The Gadol HaDor held the child on his lap, telling him that soon his father and mother would come home.
Rav Shach made aliya, and taught in several yeshivot-including Kletsk in Rechovot. Ultimately he joined the faculty at Ponovez in Bnei Brak, serving as Rosh Yeshiva together with Rav Dovid Povarsky and Rav Shmuel Rozovsky. In addition to teaching Torah, he assumed the leadership of the Lithuanian Chareidi world. Similar to Rav Katz, he cared for his extended family. My Rebbe, Rav Yoel Amital, recalls that Rav Shach was unable to attend his Shabbat bar mitzvah in Rechovot. On a weekday Rav Shach took a bus from Bnei Brak to personally wish the young man (a great-grandson of Rav Isser Zalman) a mazal tov.
The elevated character traits of Rav Aharon found expression in Rav Shach. While already at an advanced age, Rav Shach felt the need to rebuke a talmid chacham concerning an educational matter. He traveled with his driver to the north where the talmid chacham was vacationing. The wife of the talmid chacham answered the door when Rav Shach arrived. She was overjoyed that the Ponovezher Rosh Yeshiva had honored them with his presence. Refreshements were offered, Divrei Torah and gedolim stories were told. The atmosphere was quite festive. In a quiet moment on the side the driver remarked to Rav Shach that the purpose of the trip was to rebuke….Rav Shach responded that he is not able to rebuke someone in the presence of his wife.
The lifelong passion of Rav Shach was learning & teaching Torah. In the Rosh Yeshiva’s final years of teaching, an especially close talmid was a young man from overseas. His wedding in Israel was attended by Rav Gifter. This dynamic talmid chacham (whose beard is still black), serves as Rosh Yeshiva in Rishon LeZion at Yeshivat Ateret Shlomo. His name is Rav Chaim Mordechai Ausband, grandson of the Rosh Yeshiva and rav of Telz, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch. He was born not long after the Chanukat HaBayit in Lakewood, and the passing of his great-uncle, Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz.
And the generations embraced….
Reuven Ungar studied in MTA and is the Director of Alumni Relations of Yeshivat Sha’alvim. He resides with his family in Talmon.