Part One: The Difficult Progress of Jewish Education in America Before the Holocaust
Part Two: How a Handful of American Rabbis and Activists Tried To Save Jews During the Holocaust
Part Three: The Holocaust and the Growth of Jewish Day Schools in America
Part Four: Post-Holocaust American Haven For Yavneh and Its Sages
Part Five: Mir and Telz, Two Yeshivas Renewed in America After The Holocaust
Post-Holocaust Orthodox Jewry In New York
In the year 1189 the Jews of York, in England, decided to take their own lives during the York Massacre 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 when he issued the Edict of Expulsion.
It was an irony of history that in the New World of America, the “new” York was to become a haven to the largest single concentration of Jews in the world after the Holocaust. When mass immigration was cut off by the U.S. government in 1924, 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-honored Jewish and Torah way of life.
The Holocaust also known as 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 renewed once more, along more very Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic lines. Jewish and Torah education in America was directly influenced by these trends. Rabbi Moshe Sherer (1921–1998), writing on “25 Years: A New Jewish World” (1979), remarks that the survivors who came to America, in spite of their physical scars, were nevertheless strong enough in spirit to revitalize other Jews.
Thus, maintains Rabbi 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 (1892–1962) 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 “extraterritorial” when it comes to Torah education and practice.
There was initial success, as recorded by several histories of Jewish education. For example, Lloyd Gartner in “Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History” (1969) writes that a significant feature of the Jewish/Hebrew day school movement was the rise of not only yeshiva high schools, but of yeshivas 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 yeshiva world’s regimen of Talmud study.
Not only were new institutions founded but existing institutions were subjected to change. One of the oldest yeshivas in New York was RIETS: The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary the yeshiva section of Yeshiva University. Rabbi A. R. Rothkoff, in “Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy” (1972), writes that as the Nazi menace grew, Rabbi Dov Revel (1885–1940) 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 Rabbi 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 yeshiva in Washington Heights, New York City…and Rabbi Mendel Zaks (1898–1974) who was the head of the Radin Yeshiva founded by his father-in law the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan 1838–1933).
The figure of Rabbi Joseph Breuer extended the notion of Jewish renewal in New York. He was not satisfied with renewing extant institutions. His notions of Jewish and Torah education were part of a broader notion of community, or kehilla, that had existed amongst Orthodox Jews in Germany. Ernst Bodenheimer in “The Torah World: A Treasury of Biographical Sketches” (1982) has written that Rabbi Breuer’s vision of kehilla required that it serve all the needs of its membership. “Synagogue, yeshiva, girl’s school…charity funds…adult education…general attitude toward life – everything was part of the classic kehilla (community) structure, so it had to be incorporated into K’hal Adas Yeshurun” established in Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York.
Other well known yeshivas in the New York area experienced renewed vitality during the war years. The Torah Vodaas Yeshiva extended an invitation to the newly arrived head of the Kamenitz Yeshiva, Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky (1886–1958), to become its own Rosh Yeshiva. From 1935 to 1944, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman (1892–1944) had served as head of Torah Vodaas. During these years the yeshiva “entered a period of significant growth and expansion”, notes the Jewish sociologist William Helmreich (1945–2020) Rabbi Heiman had served as head of the famous Baranowicz Yeshiva 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.” 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 (1862–1939). They had visited America in 1929 to collect funds for their yeshiva. 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 (1892–1962) and Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz (1887–1964) in rescue work through the Vaad Hatzolah (Rescue Committee) that had been set up by the Agudas Harabanim.
Rabbi Nisson Wolpin writing in the Jewish Observer, 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 Vodaas, from 1944 onwards, “a new generation of Torah scholars became exposed to his shiurim (lectures).” He infused the yeshiva with great life and enthusiasm. At the height of the war Torah education was witnessing renewal in America.
The influence of Rabbi Grozovsky extended beyond the yeshiva he headed. He was at the helm of the American Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei Yisroel) of the Agudas Yisroel of America, and chairman of the Torah Umesorah–National Society for Hebrew Day Schools’ Rabbinical Advisory Council. The efforts to renew Torah and Orthodox life in New York extended outwards, towards for example, the establishment of Jewish day schools all over North America.
At a founding ceremony of such a school in Providence, Rhode Island, he stated:
“What role does a Rosh Yeshiva 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.”
The same spirit of dynamism and sense of urgency was to be found in other established yeshivas in the New York area. The Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ) under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), and Yeshivah Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ), experienced an unusual surge in the desire for advanced Talmudical studies. William 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 yeshiva, producing hundreds of rabbis and community leaders. It was also an important feeder school for the Lakewood Yeshiva Bais Medrash Gevoha established by Rabbi Aharon Kotler in 1943.
Helmreich connects the rise of advanced Talmudic studies with the sense of vibrancy brought by those who rebuilt the yeshivas 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.”
The Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem was in operation as an advanced yeshiva by the early 1930s. In 1938 it appointed Rabbi Moshe Feinstein as its head, “who [was] probably the foremost halakhic (Jewish 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 American religious 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.”
Rav Moshe Feinstein zts”l (youtube)
In a tribute to Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Hutner (1906–1980), “HaGaon Rav Yitzchok Hutner” (1980/81), Rabbi Pinchos Stolper has written that as Torah institutions and communities in Europe went up in flames, Rabbi Hutner as head of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, 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.”
Rabbi 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 (great Torah 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.”
Thus, those Torah educators already in America, joined together with newly arrived rabbinic and lay personalities, to create a cadre of Jewish and Torah educators and leaders who would in turn transform the face of Orthodox Jewish life and education in America.
The Holocaust Brings Hasidim to Brooklyn
There are no exact figures available, but it is not unreasonable to assume that today there are at least half a million Jews, mostly Hasidic and Haredi Jews, living in the Jewish communities of Brooklyn (also officially known as Kings County, one of the five boros of New York City) such as in Boro Park and in neighboring Flatbush-Midwood, Brooklyn, New York. This is one of the largest concentrations of Jews in any city outside of Israel. (See Google).
The emergence of the Orthodox community of Boro Park in Brooklyn, has been labeled as both a “testimonial” and a memorial to what had been lost in the Nazi Holocaust, by Jewish sociologist Egon Mayer (1944 –2004) in his work “From Suburb to Shtetl: The Jews of Boro Park” (1979). Whereas pre-war Russian and Polish immigrants “had to make the most of their adjustments to modernity as immigrants”, those who came after World War II “were conscious of being the remnants of a group that had been nearly exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust”. Mayer reports that the community they formed was intended not so much as a testimonial to their own achievements in the new world, but rather as a memorial for what they had lost.
In the course of conducting his research, Mayer noted that the theme of the Holocaust emerged in nearly every interview he conducted. The Holocaust in particular served as an explanation for the need for a tight-knit and strong Jewish community like Boro Park in Brooklyn. Strange as it may sound, Mayer also found that this community is “simultaneously growing more ‘American’, more middle-class, and, religiously, more Orthodox.” This has run counter to the assumption amongst many social scientists that Orthodox Jewish life would inevitably disappear with the “Americanization” of the immigrants’ descendants.
The radical departure of the post-World War II immigrants from those who came before them, was marked by their strong adherence to Haredi and Hasidic Orthodoxy. This was directly related to their war-time experiences. Ironically, the war served to strengthen Orthodoxy in America. Boro Park became the “showcase” community in exemplifying the phenomenon of renewal. Mayer cites this as one of the reasons he chose to study the Jewish community of Boro Park: By the 1970s and 1980s it was the largest and most dynamic of all Orthodox Jewish communities in America. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century.
For example, forty years ago, The New York Times, in a 1982 report: “Housing Surge Alters Borough Park”, found that with the high birthrate and migrations from such areas as Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, and Crown Heights, the Jewish population of Boro Park had grown by about 25 percent since 1978. “It is now estimated at 65,000 in an area of 100,000 people.” Furthermore, the report found that spurring the activity is a steady expansion of Boro Park’s population of Orthodox Jews about half of whom are Hasidim. “They require large apartments for large families, and accommodations near synagogues and denominational schools.”
Forty years later, by the early twenty-first century the numbers of religious Jewish families have doubled or even quadrupled due to the traditionally high birth rate among religious Jews worldwide.
Mayer maintains that the renaissance of Orthodox Judaism can be best understood in microcosm, at the level where people actually live out such things in the community. His book aims to describe the social history and contemporary social profile of the Orthodox community in Boro Park. What emerges is an amalgam of kehillas (communities) with a vast array of educational “institutions” both formal and informal. In nature and goals, these institutions are similar to those of the Satmar Hasidim of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, sharing a similar history and a common destiny.
Immediately after the war and its devastating Holocaust, many Hasidic groups first established themselves in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. By the 1970s most had relocated themselves and their kehillas to Boro Park, Brooklyn. These included the lesser or greater parts of the Vizhnitzer, Satmar, Sigiter, Munkacher, Pupper, Krasner, Belzer, Bobover, Sanzer, Gerrer and other Hasidic groups each led by their own Rebbes or Hasidic rabbis or Dayanim (judges of Jewish law) deputized by the Rebbes who may be based in other places like in Israel such as the Gerrer and Belzer Hasidim who have huge numbers of their Hasidim and followings in Boro Park, Brooklyn.
Mayer notes that this group of people was composed largely of post-war immigrants who for a variety of reasons had chosen to remain in the “ambiance” of the Orthodox communities.
One of the leading figures in the growth of Boro Park’s Hasidic life was Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam (1908–2000), leader of the Bobover Hasidim. Following in the footsteps of his martyred father, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam (1874–1941), he rebuilt a Hasidic kehilla (community) after a world war. Just as his father had established a large chain of yeshivas for thousands of students all over Galicia in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Halberstam established a network of schools for boys and girls in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Following the First World War, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam saw the yeshivas as the only secure means of spreading Judaism and Hasidic life among the Jews of Galicia. He used all his talents, strength of character, and personal charm, to captivate and take hold of students. They viewed him as their “father” because of the intense personal interest he took in each of them, “it is therefore no wonder, that the students of Bobov clung to their rebbe and loved him with all the fibres of their souls”.
The yeshiva of Bobov achieved literal wonders. Even the most light-hearted of students learnt the meaning of Judaism with its stress on Torah study. This remarkable educational undertaking was brought to an end in Europe when the Nazis and their cohorts invaded Eastern Europe.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the Rebbe of Bobov, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, and his family, fled to Lvov in the Russian sector. All contact was cut off between him and the thousands of his followers caught in the German sector. In the United States there were some who knew of his high standing in Jewish life, and sought to bring him to America. This was not to be, for when the Nazis finally attacked Soviet Russia, entering Lvov in July, 1941, they burst into Jewish homes, deporting thousands of Jews:
“Amongst those who were caught on that day were also the Rebbe Ben Zion Halberstam, his youngest son Moshe Aaron, and his three sons-in-law…This occurred on the Sabbath eve before sunset. An eye-witness saw from his window how the Rebbe, dressed in his Sabbath clothing, was attacked by the soldiers. The cruel Ukranians beat him on his head with their rifle-butts and his skullcap fell to the ground. From time to time the Rebbe bent over and stooped to pick it up, and they beat him even more. His pure soul went up to Heaven, together with his sons and sons-in-law, on the fourth of Menahem-Av 5701. (1941)” (N. Emberg. From “Eila Ezkera” Edited by Isaac Lewin).
Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam was a son who survived the Holocaust, and upon coming to America after the war, set out to complete his father’s work in Jewish life, this time in America. He sought out many of his father’s followers who had survived the concentration camps, but whose faith had begun to wane. Using all the considerable personal traits that had distinguished his father, he won them over. They contributed to his charitable and educational undertakings whilst sending their children to the newly-founded Bobov institutions in America. Centered primarily in Boro Park, these educational institutions now cater to tens of thousands of Hasidic students ranging in age from kindergarten children to post-graduate Talmudic scholars.
Thus, as Mayer shows in his work, the impact of the new arrivals in Boro Park was great indeed. He emphasizes that the most significant way in which this community differed from previous immigrant Jewish communities was that the first generation immigrants who settled in Boro Park entered the United States after the war. Given its diversity, Mayer asks, what are the “core elements” of the community, and how do they “cement” the community? The answers he provides give credence to the notion of the noted education philosopher Lawrence Cremin (1925–1990) of a “configuration of educators”. There is a blending and interplay between “Holocaust”–Survival–The American Experience–and, Configurations of Education: Refugees from war-ravaged Europe, headed by dynamic and resourceful rabbis and laymen, rebuild Orthodox Jewish kehillas and “life” in America.
The elements of this inter-linking of configurations is sketched by Mayer. In “Ingredients of Holiness”, dealing with “The Social Construction of Religious Life in Secular Society”, he observes that it is “more or less” common knowledge that the Jewish people are often called the “Chosen People”. But, it is less commonly known that “in the Old Testament they are frequently referred to as a Holy People or a Holy Community”. The “ramparts” of this “holiness” are given as: 1. Family 2. Yeshiva 3. Synagogues 4. Youth organizations 5. Self-help organizations plus others. Each element of the configuration complements the others for the purpose of maintaining the pre-eminence of the notion of a “Holy Community”.
Its apparent success, concludes Mayer, was because “the immigrants who revitalized the acculturating and assimilating Jewish communities in the United States after World War II were sadder, but a great deal wiser about both the ways of the world and the possibilities of sustaining an exclusive and isolated Jewish community in the host society.”
The growth of the kehillas (the various Hasidic communities) within Boro Park, Brooklyn were not separate from the growth of the other Lithuanian-style yeshivas in Flatbush, Midwood, Brooklyn and beyond. The latter drew the bulk of their students from kehillas such as those that existed in Boro Park. Whereas Williamsburg in Brooklyn was associated with the Satmar, and Crown Heights with Lubavitch, Boro Park catered to more diverse groupings. As Boro Park expanded, it reached into the adjacent Flatbush section of Brooklyn, home to three of the best known Lithuanian style yeshivas: Torah Vodaas, Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, and the Mirrer Yeshiva.
Thus there was a very real “overlap” in all senses of the word between the growth of the new kehillas and the revitalized yeshivas, forming an even larger inter-linked configuration of Jewish education going into an ever-growing future.
Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers College–Columbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach – Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim’s Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 1988–1995, a Trustee of AJOP 1994–1997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 1995–2015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.
He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.
Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at [email protected]