By Rabbi Nachman Seltzer
The Torah world had been torn asunder by violent war across the European continent. Millions of Jews, among them thousands of tremendous talmidei chachamim, were cut down in the prime of youth. In the aftermath of the terrible destruction, the shattered and devastated Jewish nation began the unimaginable, laborious, and near-impossible project of rebuilding. In the blood-soaked lands of Europe few saw the ability to reestablish their lives. In places like Poland and much of central Europe, the killings continued even after the war was over, with pogroms continuing well into 1946 and 1947. In the lands occupied by Russia there was no hope for renewal, as Yiddishkeit was banned and a ruthless, ice-cold atheism was the official religion of the regime.
Desperate tear-filled eyes turned to Palestine and the United States, places of primary refuge for tens and hundreds of thousands, and slowly but inexorably, the postwar exoduses began. Amidst this landscape those Jews whose bitachon kept them anchored to Torah’s eternals ideals faced a despair of their own. In Palestine, secular Zionism was the rule of the day, and in the United States the general American attitude towards Torah study was mostly dismissive. Where would the great yeshivos rebuild? Would the words that we utter each day of “ki heim chayeinu—that Torah is our life” have a place in the new post-Holocaust world?
Public opinion was clear—Torah study had been fine for Europe, for those in the shtetl and in the dark cities of Europe. In America, people went to work and made money. They looked ahead and built a future for their children. Who had time for ancient books? Yes, there could a role for rabbis, teachers, shochtim, and a handful of scholars, but for the general community, Americanization called for “adapting to newer times”—and those times did not include Torah. Better to secure a good education, get a good job, adapt, and get by. The new age would be more accepting and the soil of America a hospitable one.
Rav Aharon, unimpressed with such sentiments, countered this attitude by building what would, many years after his passing, become the largest yeshiva on American soil—Beth Medrash Govoha, or, as it is popularly known around the world, “Lakewood.” Unfazed by opposition or lack of funds, Rav Aharon went about transforming a sleepy resort town into a true center for Torah, one that would serve as the heart for the entire U.S.A. And that should have been the end of the story.
Except that it wasn’t. His opening of a yeshiva was only the beginning.
• • •
As a venerated and accepted leader of American Jewry, Rav Aharon Kotler could have been forgiven for focusing on his yeshiva and perhaps devoting some time to the rest of American Jewry. But as the great manhig and gadol who was equally honored and revered on both sides of the ocean, he never even considered the possibility. Instead, the rosh yeshiva traveled to Eretz Yisrael and was constantly and consistently in the forefront of every important Israeli issue as well.
Here, too, there were priorities. And the slot of priority number one was occupied by a vital education network named Chinuch Atzmai. Who would educate the children of those refugees who struggled and managed to reach the Holy Land? Would their education be left to the hands and minds of secularists for whom Jewish nationalism was the sole answer and whose idea of religion left much to be desired?
Whereas the ben Torah in America had to struggle with a generation whose sole desire for their children was that they become doctors or other professionals, in Eretz Yisrael, the sheer animosity towards religion was extremely powerful and sinister (much more so than in the United States) and learning in a yeshiva meant fighting not only the establishment but the government as well. Many tears were shed over the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) and the Israeli government’s efforts to rush groups of religious young boys fresh off the plane from Yemen or Morocco to completely secular kibbutzim in the hope of turning them into secular members of Israeli society.
Chinuch Atzmai was founded to fight the trend and provide an alternative.
It did. And Rav Aharon took on this fight as his own—as if his own personal survival and health was as stake. He faced opposition not only from the left but also from the right. There were many who said, “We cannot create a Torah educational system that takes one penny from a treif ideology.” They proposed an approach that would entail no relationship with the government. To Rav Aharon this was the same hatzalas nefashos that he had just been engaged in during the Vaad Hatzolah years. Hundreds of thousands of young souls were once again at stake, and there was not a moment to waste; they needed the creation of a massive chinuch system. It was Rav Aharon who made the call that Chinuch Atzmai be established, and the result was that for the rest of his life he carried the responsibility for it as if it were his own.
• • •
Though having given all his energy towards saving Yidden during the war, the rosh yeshiva did not claim fatigue or the more than justified reward of retiring to Lakewood to deliver shiurim in a tranquil setting. There was no time for that. Another, equally important, war had to be fought.
Evening after evening found a group of America’s pre-eminent gedolim, consisting of Rav Aharon, Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov, and the Kopyshnitzer and Novominsker Rebbes, going collecting door-to-door for Chinuch Atzmai. One would imagine that opening one’s front door to be greeted by the glowing visage of Rav Aharon or Rav Moshe would have been sufficient to convince people to contribute to the cause, but unfortunately this was not the case. The majority of America had never heard of Chinuch Atzmai and the contributions received were shockingly small.
The gedolim did not allow this setback to convince them to give up the plan. No, Chinuch Atzmai was too important. Instead they redoubled their efforts and fought for the Israeli institution as if it were their very own. Which, truth be told, it was.
Reb Yankel Weisberg once lamented that BMG was five months behind in its financial obligations because—and here I quote the rosh yeshiva, “What should I do? I feel that Chinuch Atzmai and its 40,000 students are more important for K’lal Yisrael than my own yeshiva.”
Not enough that Rav Aharon should be fighting the prevailing and accepted attitudes in America while creating a network of young learned men who would eventually take up the battle to stem the tide of assimilation all across the United States.
Not enough that the rosh yeshiva was delivering numerous shiurim and authoring chidushim while surviving without sleep for longer periods of time than most mortals are capable of.
Not enough that every important issue facing K’lal Yisrael came across Rav Aharon’s desk in his role as head of the Moetzes HaTorah, Agudas Yisroel, and Torah U’mesorah.
All this was not enough. The rosh yeshiva had to save the youth of Eretz Yisrael as well. The sole remnants of ancient and proud communities in Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, France, Italy, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, and more and more—these young shivrei Luchos needed Torah education. It Instead of merely serving as rosh yeshiva in Lakewood, Rav Aharon operated in the dual position of rosh yeshiva to both BMG and Chinuch Atzmai, many times going so far as to favor the younger son above the older one.
Lakewood was an army ready to be sent on missions and the rosh yeshiva didn’t hesitate to send them off with high expectations. Come bein hazemanim, Rav Aharon sent the boys out collecting—except instead of having them collect for BMG, he instructed them in a classic example of brothers assisting one another, to raise funds for Chinuch Atzmai!
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Rav Aharon had a unique ability to unite different elements with the power of his sincerity and truthful personality. Thus it would come as no surprise to anyone when Rav Soloveitchik of Yeshivas Rabeinu Yitzchok Elchonon served as keynote speaker at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner in the United States. While Rav Soleveitchik’s own inclination may have been to support the Mamlachti Dati stream of Israeli education, Rav Aharon recognized the critical importance of securing Rav Soloveitchik’s support for Chinuch Atzmai, and in this Rav Aharon was successful. There was but one issue here: to save the children of Eretz Yisrael. To teach them Torah. That was the important thing. Everything else was secondary and fell to the wayside.
Rav Aharon spent his life caring for Chinuch Atzmai like a devoted father, and his unwavering devotion lasted to the end of his life. While in the hospital for his final stay, Rav Aharon convinced Mr. Stephen Klein, who in 1946 Rav Aharon had sent to Europe to lead the Vaad Hatzolah post-war effort, to undertake the task of supporting Chinuch Atzmai, entreating him to “halt on dem Chinuch Atzmoi!” After Mr. Klein, moved by Rav Aharon’s inner strength, courage, and concern for Torah study, bade him farewell and left the room, Rav Aharon summoned him back and reminded him that the job of the baalebatim was to assist with the technical details—financial backing and organizational work, and that the chinuch issues were to be decided by the Gedolei HaTorah.
How ironic that the rosh yeshiva’s final moments should be occupied by Chinuch Atzmai—yet how appropriate as well.
• • •
The financial burden of running Chinuch Atzmai was so steep that there were times when even its undefeatable staff wanted to cut back. Once again, Rav Aharon, though standing at the helm of so many organizations and with such an incredible amount of responsibility on his shoulders, refused to even consider it. “Hashem has plenty of money,” he told the devoted staff of Chinuch Atzmai, “We need to work harder so we’ll be zoche to get it from Him.”
They worked harder. And Chinuch Atzmai succeeded and flourished while changing the face of Eretz Yisrael as its thousands of students grew up, married, and raised Torahdige homes around the country.
Chinuch Atzmai wasn’t his job, but the rosh yeshiva made it his job, his responsibility. Because, you see, he was a man of action—and that’s what men of action do. They act. v