Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Established in 1891 as a farming colony by members of Chovevei Zion, the Zionist group from Lithuania and Latvia, the city of Chadera, located in the Haifa District on the Mediterranean Sea coastal plain, is approximately midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The city today has a population of almost 95,000.
Although the land was of poor quality and mostly swampland, it was the largest single purchase of land in Palestine by a Zionist group. The first settlers lived in a house known as the Khan near Chadera’s main synagogue. Initially, Chadera was a lonely outpost of 10 families with 4 armed security guards. The swamps were drained with the aid of Egyptian laborers sent to them and paid by the legendary Zionist philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, z’l, (1845-1934). Old tombstones in the local cemetery reveal that out of a population of 540, 210 died of malaria.
Chadera’s population began to grow dramatically after Israeli independence in 1948, as immigrants flocked to the country. Chadera is the location of the world’s largest desalination plant, as well as Israel’s largest power station.
In 1986, Yeshiva Knesset Yitzchok was established in Bnei Brak by Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mann Shach, zt’l, (1894-2001), revered Ponovez rosh yeshiva in Bnei Brak and founder of the Degel HaTorah political party. Rabbi Shach was the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian Yeshivish community. Rabbi Gershon Ehrenberg was appointed rosh hayeshiva and Rabbi Ezra Novick, zt’l, was appointed mashgiach. The yeshiva began with 12 students and 3 kollel members. Rabbi Shach, then 92 years old, personally delivered the first shiur on the day the yeshiva opened.
At the direction of Rabbi Shach, the yeshiva moved to Chadera in the summer of 1989. Rabbi Novick wished to remain in Bnei Brak and his son, Rabbi Tovia, assumed the position of mashgiach. Upon the death of Rabbi Moshe Gefen, zt’l (1957-2011) in a tragic car accident, his son, Rabbi Raphael, succeeded him as a rosh yeshiva in the yeshiva. Rabbi Elazar Dovid Epstein is also a rosh yeshiva in the yeshiva.
Rabbi Epstein is a son-in-law of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky; son of Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, zt’l (1899-1985), Steipler Rav and revered author of Kehilas Yaakov. The Kehilas Yaakov was a brother-in-law of Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, zt’l (1878-1953), revered author of Chazon Ish and leader of the Lithuanian Yeshivish community.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is the son-in-law of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt’l (1910-2012), late leader of the Lithuanian Yeshivish community. Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, rosh yeshiva Gaon Yaakov in Bnei Brak, together lead the Degel HaTorah party which claims today’s Lithuanian Yeshiva leadership.
The yeshiva in Chadera developed into one of the leading Lithuanian yeshivas that follow the teachings of the Chazon Ish. At the beginning of this year’s Elul zman (school semester), the yeshiva had more than 600 students and 50 kollel members enrolled. The yeshiva is (or was?) greatly respected as a citadel of Torah scholarship.
Right before Chanukah, Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Shteinman declared that the Torah perspective and methodology of study at the yeshiva is defective because the Chadera roshei yeshiva are supporters of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, rosh yeshiva Maalot Hatorah in Jerusalem and leader of the B’nei Torah party, which is challenging the Degel HaTorah party for Lithuanian Yeshiva leadership. Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach is the son of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l (1919-1998), revered rosh yeshiva Kol Torah in Jerusalem. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman was greatly respected as a leading Posek and full partner of Rabbi Elyashiv in the guidance of Lithuanian Yeshiva leadership.
The main transgression, according to Rabbi Kanievsky and Rabbi Shteinman, was the specific recommendation by Rabbi Tovia Novick, yeshiva mashgiach, that eligible students cast their votes for the B’nei Torah party in recent elections. Though Rabbi Ehrenberg, the rosh yeshiva, did not make that recommendation, he did not verbally oppose it. The Degel HaTorah faction issued a call for students to leave the yeshiva. A new yeshiva was immediately established in Ashdod, less than one hour south of Chadera, called Torah Bitefarto.
The tearing apart of the Chadera Yeshiva has discomforted many roshei yeshiva in Israel. They have invested time and energy in trying to accomplish a compromise. Representatives of Rabbi Shteinman, however, inflexibly insist that all Chadera Yeshiva students must cancel their subscriptions to Hapeles, the B’nei Torah newspaper published in Israel.
The compromise attempts were unsuccessful. More than 100 students left the Chadera Yeshiva and joined the new Ashdod Yeshiva. They were accompanied by half of the Chadera Yeshiva’s staff, including roshei yeshiva Rabbi Elazar Dovid Epstein, Rabbi Ephraim Noach Rothcild, and Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Sokolovsky (a brother-in-law of Rabbi Novick); and Rabbi Raphael Gefen, mashgiach. Amongst the roshei yeshiva who have remained in Chadera are Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Ilan, Rabbi Yaakov Karp, and Rabbi Eliezer Gotsganda.
The machlokes (controversy) has spread to several other yeshivas in Israel. A rosh yeshiva in Tifrach, a follower of Rabbi Auerbach, received a letter denouncing him and declaring that students may not learn Torah from a teacher who is defective in his Torah perspective. As the machlokes spreads, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, rosh beth din of the Aidah Hacharedis of Yerushalayim who is decidedly non-political and anti-political, has issued a directive forbidding any student from leaving the Chadera Yeshiva. Doing so, Rabbi Shternbuch asserts, will destroy a Torah institution. In his letter, dated December 9, he equated damaging the yeshiva with burning a sefer Torah. The machlokes must be stopped, both in Eretz Yisrael as well as abroad. Leaving the yeshiva makes one a partner in destroying Torah.
Rabbi Meshulem Dovid Soloveitchik, Brisker rosh yeshiva and son of Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, zt’l (1886-1959), revered Brisker Rav, spoke to his students on Thursday, December 12, telling them that the Chadera Yeshiva is a holy citadel to which he has sent some of his grandsons. Rabbi Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, Brisker rosh yeshiva and grandson of the Brisker Rav, on December 11, in the middle of his shiur, called in his sons and all the yeshiva students and cried out loud that one must not destroy a yeshiva.
Rabbi Avrohom Yehoshua told of the time that Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, zt’l (1816-1893), Volozhiner rosh yeshiva known as the Netziv, faced the 1892 demand of the Russian government to have mandatory secular studies in the Yeshiva, then the largest in the world. The Netziv consulted with the Gedolim of the time and in tears decided to close the yeshiva. “Now we see the destruction of a yeshiva for the sake of cheap political victory, G-d forbid,” cried Rabbi Avrohom Yehoshua.
A meeting had been called for all Lithuanian roshei yeshiva to gather at the home of Rabbi Shteinman on Sunday, December 15, wherein two important problems were to be discussed: the problem of politics interfering in yeshivas, and the drafting of yeshiva students. Many denounce the equating of the two. Rabbi Shteinman has directed yeshiva students to respond to draft notices, but to not sign any forms. Rabbi Auerbach directs his students not to respond to draft notices at all. Rabbi Shteinman has stated that students who are not seriously learning Torah should join the Israeli Defense Forces, whereas Rabbi Auerbach is adamant in that no student should serve in the army.
The stated purpose of the meeting is to give support to Rabbi Shteinman and reinforce the call for students to leave the Chadera Yeshiva. The opposition avers that such an agenda undermines the unity of Torah Jews in the face of current serious challenges and leaves yeshiva students vulnerable to the campaign to draft them into the military. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.