Although he was gravely ill for years and could no longer fulfill his leadership responsibilities, Rabbi Elya Svei continued to influence many of us who are involved in Torah education, whether as principals or teachers or lay leaders. For nearly a generation, he was without question the key figure in the spread of Torah chinuch in the United States, giving without personal regard of his endless commitment and remarkable insight into religious education at all levels. His passing last week leaves us with the feeling of loss and leaderlessness, of a void that makes the task of building and sustaining Torah even more difficult.
For all of his understanding of day school education in an environment that was far removed from the pre-Holocaust yeshiva world of Eastern Europe, in a curious way it was as if Rav Elya was of the generation of the transcendent Roshei Yeshiva who were educated in Slabodka, Mir and other outstanding Torah institutions. In this respect, he provided a contrast with his peers in the United States, the yeshiva deans who emerged as Torah leaders about a generation ago.
He came here with his parents and brothers as a young boy, studying briefly in elementary school at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and then, for high school, at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. His advanced yeshiva education was both in Israel and at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood where he emerged as an outstanding student of the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. In these years, he followed the extraordinary path of his beloved teacher, combining intensive Torah study with activism on behalf of the religious Jewish community, here and in Israel. I remember his vital role in the 1950s in the American Peylim, the effective advocacy group that did much to promote and protect religious life in Israel in the years after the establishment of the State.
This developmental period served as an apprenticeship as he worked under the tutelage of Torah leaders, earning their confidence and respect as they entrusted him with expanding responsibilities. It is a major deficit of the yeshiva world of today that the crucial process of shimush or apprenticeship has been neglected, a deficit that I fear will escalate in its untoward consequences in the coming years.
For all of his obedience to Torah leaders, Rav Elya had a strong independent streak, a quality that was evident in his establishment nearly fifty years ago of the major advanced yeshiva in Philadelphia where he was soon joined by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky. He eschewed the perhaps easier path of serving as a Rosh Yeshiva at the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, then headed by Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, his father-in-law. In Philadelphia, Rav Elya educated and influenced thousands of students, a great number of whom have had fruitful roles in our religious life.
With the passing of the Torah giants of the previous generation, Rav Elya was thrust into leadership, not as a result of any election or selection but simply through the recognition that he was, in effect, designated by his predecessors. This role was especially acknowledged by Israeli Torah leaders. In one of my few involvements with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv regarding an American religious issue, I was told that this preeminent Torah leader was interested in hearing the views of Rabbi Svei and no one else.
Although his influence extended across our religious life, Rav Elya’s impact was most strongly felt in the educational sphere where he worked without personal regard and often in a state of exhaustion, assisting yeshivas and day schools throughout North America. He had remarkable awareness and insight into the dynamics of day school education. For all of his Herculean and singular efforts, he was intensely modest, not once speaking of his own role.
Over the years, the circle that relied on his guidance grew, as was often apparent at weddings and dinners where there was constantly a line of educators and lay leaders seeking his counsel. For all of the public persona that emerged, he was a quiet and thoughtful man and I confess that, at times, I hoped that he would abjure public speaking altogether. He was a terrific listener, drawing out the salient points from those who sought his advice. He treated those who came to him with respect and he regarded each situation and institution as unique. There was no formulaic response to the questions that came to him. He was, at once, wise and fair. When years ago, the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School took the extraordinary step of ensuring the survival of the Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island, Rav Elya’s guidance was critical as we traversed difficult issues.
A man of total integrity, I doubt that he ever felt fully comfortable in the organizational world, even in situations where he was vested with authority. Organizations require a degree of loyalty that can compromise one’s commitment to integrity. He struggled with this dualism for years and the struggle constituted a painful chapter that cannot readily be discussed, at least not yet. When he decided to leave organizational life, many in his circle followed his example, not because he instructed them to do so but because they believed that it was the right thing to do.
In his deeply moving hesped or eulogy more than twenty-five years ago for Rabbi Shneuer Kotler in Lakewood, Rav Elya cried out, “You can now go to your father and say, ‘I have fulfilled your mission, I have fulfilled your mission.’” So, too, Rav Elya can now go to the great Rosh Yeshiva and say, “I have fulfilled your mission, I have fulfilled your mission.”