Chinuch Atzmai was established in 1951 and that brought about my relationship with Rav Aharon Kotler. Before 1948, there were four separate educational systems in what became Israel, each affiliated with a particular movement or ideology. Mizrachi had its schools, Labor Zionists had theirs and Agudah Israel had what was called Zerem Revii or the Fourth Stream. David Ben-Gurion allowed this arrangement to continue after Israel came into being. However, in 1951 he and his Labour Party dominated government in which Agudah participated decided to merge all basic education into a two-track system, with one of the tracks called Mamlachti Dati having something of a religious orientation.
Agudah protested, but to no avail. At the insistence of Rav Aharon, it left the government coalition. What then happened was remarkable. At the time, there were great Torah leaders in Israel, but overall in the aftermath of the European Churban which destroyed nearly every center of religious Jewish life in Europe, the Torah community was weak, a condition that is described in the Chazon Ish’s letters from this period that have been published. There was too little spirit left to counteract Ben-Gurion’s decree.
Nor was the Torah community sufficiently united on either hashkafa or strategy. The Brisker Rav was essentially aloof from governmental matters and public affairs. The Chazon Ish did not accept Klal responsibilities, a point made by Rav Aharon in his moving hesped or eulogy that has been published in the third volume of Mishnas Rav Aharon. Other Torah leaders were elderly or exhausted. The Israeli Agudah was badly divided at the time, reflecting disputes that had erupted in pre-Holocaust Europe, notably at the Knessiah Gedolah in Marienbad in 1937. There were what can be fairly called neo-Zionistic elements and although they were a fading minority, they controlled much of the party’s machinery.
In short, the Torah community did not have the unity or the will to mount a meaningful challenge to Ben-Gurion’s determination to permit the public education sector to have no more than a greatly diluted religious presence. There would be, of course, a handful of chassidic schools that would operate independently and this was also true of some institutions that had a yeshiva-world orientation and were grouped within an organization known as Tashbar. For the Israeli masses, there would be Mamlachti Dati and nothing more.
Rav Aharon did not accept this and thus Chinuch Atzmai, an independent network of Torah schools, came into being. He was joined in this monumental effort by Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, the Lutzker Rav who was the head of the Vaad Hayeshivos and one of the notable – and I believe insufficiently appreciated – Torah leaders in the middle third of the last century.
In three crucial respects, what Rav Aharon undertook and achieved was extraordinary. Each would have been sufficient reason not to go forward. He was already burdened by enormous communal responsibilities. There was his yeshiva, still young and always struggling to meet its financial obligations. Chinuch Atzmai would take much time and energy and it would result in the diversion of some contributions away from Lakewood. Rav Aharon was also the chairman of the Moetzes Gedolai Hatorah and there was a constant stream of issues arising in America, Israel and around the world that he had to deal with. After Rav Shraga Mendelowitz died in 1948, Rav Aharon became the rabbinic head of Torah Umesorah and this meant that he had to give counsel on difficult hashkafic and halachic affecting the emergent day school world.
He lived in a state of exhaustion. At times when I was with him it was evident that he was gasping for breath. In the years that he led Chinuch Atzmai, he was in his sixties and when he passed away in 1962 he was seventy-one or seventy-two. We have a good idea of the usual appearance of men in their sixties. When we look at Rav Aharon’s photographs from this period we see a man who seems to be close to one-hundred years old, a man enveloped in exhaustion with the fire of Sinai radiating from his face.
How could he undertake the additional burdensome responsibilities that Chinuch Atzmai entailed?
This question becomes more compelling when we consider that Chinuch Atzmai was entirely in Israel. How could he from a distance of six-thousand miles serve as its rabbinic leader? He wasn’t merely the titular head, leaving the hard work to others. He constantly raised money and responded to the flow of issues that inevitably came his way, as is clear from his correspondence with Rav Zalman Sorotzkin. He had resources of spiritual strength that triumphed over the limitations of time and physical strength. On the return from his funeral in Lakewood, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky who knew Rav Aharon from their boyhood days in Minsk remarked, “They said that Rav Aharon was physically weak. He was the strongest man in the world.”
Chinuch Atzmai schools were by and large not places of intensive Torah study, certainly not by the standards that prevailed in charedi schools. The school day was short, extending only into the early afternoon and the curriculum included secular subjects. What was this Torah giant who from before he was Bar Mitzvah was nurtured in Slabodka and who whether in Kletz or Lakewood insisted on the exclusivity of Torah study not diluted at all by outside subjects serving as the guiding spirit of Israeli schools that were a far cry from the standard that he insisted on? Why did he not restrict himself to Tashbar whose schools he did assist. They were purer in their approach to chinuch. Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky would from time to time make appeals on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai and invariably he would say, “Chinuch Atzmai is kadosh. Tashbar is kodshei kodshim.”
The explanation is the same as it is for his role in Torah Umesorah. Rav Aharon did not measure a yeshiva or day school simply by the hours devoted to a Judaic curriculum. He focused on its mission, on whether schools were determined to do all they could to see that the students in their charge would grow in their commitment to Torah study and to a religious life. If there were such a commitment, the reward would eventually come.
As is true of the day school movement in North America, the record of Chinuch Atzmai is not only of success and religious growth. There have been disappointments, both at the institutional and individual levels. Yet, the religious landscape in both Israel and here have been enormously improved because of the achievements of Chinuch Atzmai and Torah Umesorah. Thousands of lives have been transformed because the seeds planted decades ago have resulted in abundant good fruit.
There is a lesson in this for all of us, a lesson about our obligation to build and support basic Torah education. It isn’t sufficient to care about and to assist Torah learning at the beth medrash and kollel levels. That support is a sacred responsibility but it isn’t sufficient because as the Talmud teaches, “Im ein gadiyim, ein tayashim.” If there are no young goats, there will be no adult goats.
I have taken this lesson to heart, notably but not exclusively in the nearly four decades that I have served as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. Too many in our community believe that elementary school yeshivas and day schools and even mesivtas are a parental and not a communal responsibility. Too many in our community are not willing to accept and follow the example of Rav Aharon who as he tenaciously labored to build his great yeshiva in Lakewood had the spiritual strength and found the physical strength to work daily on behalf of basic Torah education.
As we near the fiftieth yahrzeit of this transcendent Torah leader, may be have the z’chus of following in his path and be more faithful to the lesson that he taught, the lesson that basic Torah chinuch also requires our assistance.