By Shimmy Blum
“What is a kollel? The word kollel has, baruch Hashem, become so popular that the question sounds quite simple. However, it is only simple when you think of kollel’s superficial meaning, but underlying that is a definition that we can barely grasp.” (Rabbi Yosef Friedenson, Dos Yiddishe Vort, Teves 5723, in a special memorial tribute to Harav Aharon Kotler, zt’l.)
Perusing the lines of American charedi media of a half-century ago—black and white with practically no imagery or graphics—is probably the next best tool after a time machine to relive history.
What is most striking about the above quote from the legendary publication’s legendary editor is that it could just as well have been written today. Yet even during an era when the number of kollel yungeleit in America were few compared to today’s numbers, bli ayin ha’ra, our country’s frum community already felt that a meaningful revolution had taken place on our soil . . . thanks to the gadol hador and Lakewood rosh yeshiva, HaGaon HaRav Aharon Kotler, zt’l.
“When the rosh yeshiva wanted yungeleit in America to learn full time, even other gedolei Yisrael were convinced that ‘it won’t work in America,’” recounts Rabbi Boruch Ber Yoffe, shlita, rav of Congregation Sons of Israel-Park Avenue in Lakewood. The 6,500 talmidim currently in Lakewood’s Bais Medrash Govoha (BMG), and the thousands of kollel yungeleit in communities across America, symbolize the fruits of his determination to bring the highest caliber of Torah learning to America, perhaps the world’s most materialistic country.
Rav Aharon’s revolution hits very close to home with Rabbi Yoffe. His father, Rav Mordechai, zt’l, was raised in Baltimore as a good old American boy before journeying to Europe to learn in the prestigious yeshivos of Lomze, Mir, and Kaminetz. When Rav Mordechai returned as a yungerman to the States at the outbreak of World War II, he joined a group of eight American-born alumni of European yeshivos who sought to plant an uncompromising makom Torah on these shores.
The group spent time in several cities trying to establish a kollel, but failed to find a leader who would shepherd it to stability and growth until they interacted with Rav Aharon Kotler in White Plains, New York, in 1942—one year after the Slutzker Rosh Yeshiva arrived on our shores. Rav Aharon was keen on leading the small yet determined group into a trailblazing movement. “Torah has a future in America,” he stated upon arrival to the country.
Rav Aharon preferred not to settle these American Torah pioneers in New York, and settled instead on Lakewood as their new location. In 1943, Beth Medrash Govoha—the name that was used in White Plains—opened its doors to a new z’man in Lakewood and was joined by a group of ten prized talmidim of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas that was sent by Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt’l.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact that this occurrence has upon our world to this very day. More than a new premier yeshiva, it was a new concept—a new reality—that was born.
As Rabbi Friedenson explained so many decades ago: “What does it mean for a yungerman to live in big, rich, and luxurious America and be in kollel? To forfeit all the pleasures of this world that we pursue . . . But they do so happily and expect no recognition. They are ready to sacrifice for Torah because they love Torah.”
Living in a confusing world, with bachurim and yungeleit several generations past Rav Aharon filling the seats of our present-day yeshivos and kollelim, it can be difficult for us to fully grasp how we are fulfilling and living Rav Aharon’s dream with each holy word that comes out of our mouth, every time we exert ourselves to understand a Tosafos or Rambam instead of engaging in some other “necessary” activity.
In Mishnas Rav Aharon, the rosh yeshiva prided himself on the high-minded goals of his talmidim. “In our beis midrash, they toil in Torah day and night, but not, chas v’shalom, in the name of building a ‘career.’” Learning Torah for the sake of learning Torah only. Yes, that concept is all so “normal” and expected today, but no less lofty.
Building a society of Torah through building b’nei Torah. Fifty years after his petirah, the wisdom of this concept can be seen more clearly than ever before.