Thursday, June 27, 2013

RJJ Newsletter - July 2013

I have completed forty years as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. In 1973, we were in our death throes after nearly three-quarters of a century on the Lower East Side. From 1957 when I received smicha (ordination) until 1973, I had scant contact with the Yeshiva. Several twists of fate reconnected me with RJJ and forty years ago I acceded to the plea of Irving M. Bunim and the old board of directors that I become president, thinking at the time that this acceptance would fulfill the final request made of me by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, ztl, more than a decade earlier. Shortly before he died and shortly before I was married, he asked that I devote my life to assisting Torah institutions. In a way, I knew what I was getting into. The evidence of RJJ’s decline was everywhere, including a huge debt and few students. But as is true of nearly all relationships, until one is there it is difficult to grasp the total situation. There are always surprises and unanticipated challenges. With respect to RJJ, a number of the problems we faced were worse than I had anticipated. The greatest surprise concerned fundraising, meaning how difficult it turned out to be. I had had some experience fundraising on a voluntary basis and I had no problem asking people to contribute. I reckoned that I would be successful in my new responsibility, which then and now was voluntary, because RJJ had tons of alumni, many of them successful. The response, especially from younger alumni, was stunning. There was an avalanche of criticism of RJJ, the thrust being that few people I spoke to had fond recollections of their years at the Yeshiva. The constant refrain was that this rebbi or teacher did not treat a student properly or that, more generally, the school was not an outstanding educational institution. Of course, there were some who did appreciate what RJJ did for them, whether doing for them meant accepting the student irrespective of the family’s ability to pay little or no tuition or whether it meant appreciation of a good education. In my second year as president, we relocated to Staten Island and that engendered a new round of complaints which resonates to this day, the argument being that RJJ died when we left Henry Street and that retaining the name on Staten Island had no real meaning as anyone could construct and erect a sign. My response that in this dynamic world institutions move frequently and even change their mission scarcely served as an effective rejoinder. As all human experience is dialectical, there was a beneficial aspect to the difficulty I encountered because it bred a powerful incentive to establish an endowment. When we sold the Henry Street property for a shockingly low figure because there was no market for it and the buildings were being vandalized, I insisted that the proceeds be used to establish an endowment, this despite our still being heavily in debt. We later decided that bequests would not go toward the operating budget but would be added to the endowment. The income from this fund is a significant factor in our ability to meet our obligations. The negative feeling of some alumni, as well as others whom I approached for support, provided insight into how yeshivas and day schools are often perceived by those who attended them and, more broadly, by members of our community. There is a negativism toward these vital institutions that is at once undeserved and extremely harmful. To an extent, my reaction toward this negativism has informed my involvement in the Avi Chai Foundation which has accomplished much that is beneficial to the yeshiva and day school world. For all of the critical comments, there were persons who were willing to help, mostly through modest contributions that were often accompanied by words of encouragement. Few of the cadre of original contributors remain. Inevitably, the passage of many years has taken a toll. I can still see in the eye of my mind the faces of older alumni who were overjoyed by the knowledge that RJJ continued to live, that RJJ would once more make a significant contribution to religious Jewish life. There were, to be sure, difficulties during these forty years. There also has been great reward. On the cold winter night in February 1973 when I reconnected with RJJ – I became president several months later – I met Eli Feit, an alumnus who had recently graduated law school and joined a small well-respected firm. There were critical issues to be faced, some of a legal nature, and Eli quickly became the Yeshiva’s attorney, the understanding being that he would never be paid for his work. He still is our attorney and although he is now handling two major matters for us, the original arrangement remains in place. His contribution to what RJJ has achieved is enormous. Eli’s effectiveness as a lawyer is matched by his goodness, by his inherent modesty. As I reflect on these forty years, my gratitude towards Eli has no bounds. For more than a generation, Joseph Applebaum who graduated RJJ around 1920 provided substantial financial support. He was entirely responsible for our yearly effort to assist needy Jews before Pesach. Years before 1973, he and Leila and the children moved to Miami Beach. He continued to be a major contributor. However, he felt that RJJ’s stunning decline was a betrayal and, when I became president, he said he would no longer contribute. With much reluctance, he agreed to see me and so I met with him in Florida. He was adamant and added a new twist to his complaint: As a student, he had poor eyesight and therefore did not do well at school because the Yeshiva had never arranged for him to be tested and provided with eyeglasses. I said to him, “Mr. Applebaum, you are right. We failed you. Had we gotten you eyeglasses you would have been a terrific student and after you graduated you would have taken the test for the Post Office. Because you are smart, you would have scored high and become a postal employee and because you are diligent you would have risen in the ranks, doubtlessly becoming the local Postmaster. Mr. Applebaum, how much will you contribute to RJJ for rescuing you from a life in the Post Office?” He laughed and immediately wrote a check for $20,000 and then gave even more. He passed away too early. Leila Applebaum and her brother Warren A. Weiss, an eminent lawyer, have maintained Joe Applebaum’s noble legacy. There is, for me, the added bonus of Warren Weiss’s friendship. I have mentioned the Avi Chai Foundation which was established by Zalman Bernstein, of blessed memory, a remarkable man with a heart of gold that was the antithesis of his gruff exterior. He added RJJ to the long list of causes that he supported. When he passed away, his great charitable commitments became the responsibility primarily of Arthur W. Fried, a wonderful friend, who like Zalman had made Aliyah. Arthur directed that a significant gift be given to RJJ and this helped further build the endowment. First under Zalman and then through the leadership of Arthur and now Mem Bernstein, the Avi Chai Foundation has provided in many ways extraordinary assistance to the day school world, including via an interest-free loan program to facilitate day school construction. I play a key role in this project. Arthur’s friendship is a blessing, a gift that keeps on giving. I pray that he and Susan will be blessed with health and abundant simcha and nachas. The relationship that I have had with contributors means a great deal to them and to me. When acknowledging contributions, there is no form letter, but rather a personal acknowledgement of the gift. A contribution of $50 from a person of modest means is as deserving of an expression of gratitude as is a much larger gift coming from an affluent person. When a contribution comes from someone who has not been asked and did not contribute previously, my practice is to reach out to that person. About a decade ago, we received a nice contribution in memory of Irving M. Bunim. This gift has led to a relationship with Paul Isaac, a remarkably wise and good man who has become a friend and a person whom I turn to for guidance. His support has been crucial to what we have achieved in recent years. I hope that I will be granted the opportunity to repay his many kindnesses. There are, of course, others who have helped in an important way. I hope that their omission by name from these reflections on my forty years as president will not be taken as an indication of a lack of gratitude. My RJJ responsibilities are as a lay person and therefore my role is limited. Much of what is of importance at our schools is off-limits to lay persons, including curriculum, hiring and retention of faculty and, more generally, how the schools are run on a daily basis. This is the way it should be. If I have one regret, however, about these forty years it is the severe limits that I have encountered, understandable as they may be, on my role in the admission, retention and disciplining of students. For all of what we can celebrate about Torah institutions and their centrality in building religious Jewish life in North America, as a rule they are enveloped in cultural norms that too often are too harsh toward children who, after all, come in different physical, intellectual, behavioral and emotional sizes. They aren’t perfect and some are far from perfect. What they share is that they deserve the opportunity to grow, to improve, and to make a useful contribution to Jewish continuity and to our society. Children need to be given a chance and after they have been given a chance they need to be given another chance and yet at least a third chance. Here is why I feel so strongly about this. My twin brother, Allen, and I were enrolled in RJJ in November 1943 in the third month of the school year. We were nine years and four months old, so that we were fourth graders. We had never been in a yeshiva, a circumstance arising from the sudden death in 1938 of our father, a synagogue rabbi in Manhattan. Our mother was left penniless and with four very young children. Allen and I were placed in an orphans home while our mother rebuilt her life and was able to provide for us. The family was fully united in November 1943 and we immediately came to RJJ where our older brother Arthur was already a student. Rabbi Hillel Weiss of blessed memory, RJJ’s menahel or principal, accepted us and placed us in the first grade for Judaic classes. There we were, two nine-year old boys in a classroom where all of the other students were three or four years younger. To add to our difficulty, we were difficult students. There were behavioral issues because Allen and I clung to each other for dear life. We endured in that first grade because of Rabbi Nachman Mandel of blessed memory, about whom I have written in this Newsletter. To this day, I can strongly sense his love, his patience, his caring for his students. We somehow made it. But if the attitude that has prevailed for far too long in too many yeshivas and day schools would have prevailed in Allen’s and my experience, we would not have made it. We would have been expelled and almost certainly we would have been lost to Jewish life and we would have been emotionally wounded. After more than sixty years of service to the world of Torah education, I am constantly saddened by the attitude of too many Torah educators toward “difficult” students. RJJ now has five schools. Geography has something to do with this, as we did not establish our Mesivta and Beth Medrash on Staten Island because we did not want to seem to compete with the fine yeshiva established on Staten Island by Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl. We therefore went to Edison, NJ, which inevitably meant that the separate schools would go on their separate ways and there would be little linkage, other than what I might provide. A second explanation is that our community is diverse. One size does not fit all and certainly not in Torah education. There are families that only want an intensive religious program, such as the one provided in Edison, and there are Orthodox families with a different orientation. Although we started out modestly on Staten Island with an elementary school level Boys Yeshiva, when the local Beth Jacob School for Girls was closed by its “owner” who looked at Torah education as a profit center, we stepped in and opened the Girls School. Later, when the Jewish Foundation School which actually had preceded RJJ on Staten Island was in a state of collapse, RJJ came to the rescue, despite JFS being a coeducational day school and we had never been a provider of coeducation. The continued existence of JFS is something that I am most proud of because it has meant a stronger Jewish future for many hundreds of its graduates. Our fifth school is the Staten Island Hebrew Academy which has just concluded its second year. Its mission is to educate second and third-generation Russian Jewish families that have relocated to Staten Island. Its Judaic curriculum is lighter than JFS’s, which adds to our diversity. I believe that SIHA will make a strong contribution to Jewish continuity. This multi-school arrangement is unique and certainly unprecedented in the American Jewish experience and perhaps unprecedented in Jewish history. I recognize that diversity does not sell everywhere within our community, that there are persons who do not contribute because they do not like the mission of this or that RJJ school or because they have a complaint about something that happened at one of our schools. I need to mention the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and express gratitude to Rabbi Avrohom Cohen, a close friend who has been its editor since its inception thirty-three years ago. The Journal has made a notable contribution to our religious life and although in common with many scholarly publications, the number of subscribers has declined because of the Internet, we are determined to continue this noteworthy project. I am uncertain whether this Newsletter which appears six times a year can be described as a publication. After all, it is xeroxed on very plain paper which makes it the antithesis to the glossy material routinely sent out by organizations and institutions. Its readership is small. Yet I am proud of the Newsletter and much effort goes into preparing each issue. It serves as an opportunity to discuss issues in Jewish life and education. These are my reflections on forty years as RJJ’s president. For all of the intensity of my commitment and for all that we may have achieved, this is a small canvas in the vast and rich unfolding of Jewish life. There are many who have served on a larger and probably more important stage and there have been times when I have wondered how all of this befell me. But I do feel grateful that I have been able to serve. I know that what RJJ has achieved during these forty years has made a difference, a difference in our community and a difference in many homes. The testimony is provided by more than five-thousand graduates during these forty years, many of whom have already made meaningful contributions to Jewish and American life. Without our presence, the Jewish community of Staten Island community would not be what it has become. This is not a small reward for the effort I have made. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School is not my only communal commitment. Communal activity has been central for more than sixty years. I do not know whether it is possible to have this commitment and yet adequately fulfill one’s family responsibilities. This is not for me to judge. I can judge the great fortune that I have in Malka and my children, the enormous pride I have in their commitments and all of the good they have achieved. Malka teaches twelfth grade English at the main Beth Jacob High School in Borough Park. Each year, she has more than one-hundred and twenty students, an extraordinary number for a teacher whose mission is to develop the writing skills of those who are in her charge. Her dedication is amazing and inspiring and yet it is matched by the skill that she brings to her important responsibilities. She is a blessing for me and all of our family.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Remembrances and Reflections – Number 11 - An Extraordinary Servant

Apart from Schick’s Bakery, my first job was at Barton’s Candy. The bakery should not count because it obviously was a family arrangement and what I did there probably should not be called a job. There are credible claims by people who were there who say that my “work” consisted primarily of ringing up “No Sale” on the cash register and taking out money to buy snacks. Since I was nine when my mother of blessed memory opened the bakery on Sixteenth Avenue in Borough Park, had I been working she might have been in violation of the Child Labor Law. As for Bartons, Rav Aharon Kotler was, in a way, responsible for the connection. I was involved in Chinuch Atzmai from day one, immediately after its establishment by the great Rosh Yeshiva. Stephen Klein, Barton’s founder and president, became active in Chinuch Atzmai a year or two later, serving as its chairman until his passing in 1978. He was, in my judgment, the outstanding Orthodox lay leader in the post-Holocaust years, a period when our community was fortunate to have an impressive array of lay people who were successful in their careers and devoted to communal service. There were men who were better known, yet he stood out, demonstrating especially in his Chinuch Atzmai activity that subservience to Daas Torah and being a leader are compatible statuses. Stephen Klein was a successful businessman whose creative mind and instinct for service forged an uncommonly close link between the world of commerce and Klal activity. The most remarkable example, I believe by any standard including what occurs in the larger society, was the stroke of genius that gave birth to a major advertising campaign in the mid-1950s sponsored by Barton’s. Full-page ads were placed in the New York Times and other important publications promoting religious awareness and observance among American Jews. Working with Bill Birnbach who with his firm, Doyle, Dane & Birnbach, rose to fame and prestige in the advertising world around the globe, he conceived a series of ads that promoted vital aspects of our religious life, including the Holy Days, Shabbos and much more. What Mr. Klein apparently did not foresee was the reaction to this campaign. Barton’s was inundated by an avalanche of requests for full-page reprints. They came from synagogues and schools, organizations and a remarkable number of Jews, as well, I believe, from persons who were not Jewish. The ads were converted into attractive posters and, about then, Mr. Klein hired me to direct the mailing to those who made the request. Millions of posters were sent out, with Barton’s footing the bill. There has never been a religious outreach project like this one. I worked at Barton’s for about six months, until the campaign ran its course. My office was near Mr. Klein’s, in the front executive section of the large Barton’s facility on Dekalb Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. A substantial proportion of the workforce of about five-hundred were Holocaust survivors. The work, which I enjoyed, exposed what may be described as a culture gap. Without giving it a second thought, I wore a yarmulke on the job. Not long after I began, Mr. Klein told me that he preferred that I wear a golf cap and he handed me one, asking that I use it. This was the preferred sartorial mode of head covering among Barton’s male employees who worked in production and who fulfilled the religious obligation to keep their heads covered. Nowadays, that’s also my preference during the week and that’s been the case since I saw photos of the Chafetz Chaim that invariably show him wearing a Polish peasant cap. But in 1955 or so, I wanted to keep my yarmulke on and did not accept Mr. Klein’s suggestion. About two months after I began, I realized that I had not been paid and asked Mr. Klein about this. He inquired and came back with the explanation that all Barton employees were required to punch a time clock when they arrived and left and since I had not done that, there was no way that I could be paid. I imagine that most of us would regard this policy as reasonable but I told Mr. Klein that as a boy I had decided that I would never punch a time clock and would not do so at Barton’s. He smiled and relented, making an exception for me, perhaps because he liked me, which he did, or because he recognized that I march to my own drummer. I was paid. His devotion to Chinuch Atzmai knew no bounds. What he did exceeded what we ordinarily would characterize as super-generosity, particularly when we realize that it was a struggle to maintain Barton’s. This was a successful business, but not a lucrative one. Twice a year, before Rosh Hashanah and Purim, Barton’s mailed out small packets of candy that came with a fundraising letter on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai, to about ten-thousand recipients. Barton’s bore the entire expense. I know of no comparable situation. For all of Stephen Klein’s dedication to Chinuch Atzmai, initially as a partner with Rav Aharon Kotler and then after Rav Aharon died working together with other Gedolai Torah, this was not his finest hour. That designation goes to his earlier activity on behalf of Vaad Hatzala, the Orthodox rescue and relief organization, first during the years of the Churban then in the vital rescue work for the She’arit Ha-Plaitah. Here was a man who fled Vienna in 1938, barely escaping the Nazi death machine, coming here after several months of wandering in Europe with his wife and three young children and with responsibility for his extended family of siblings and others. He had no money and initially lived in a small apartment, determined to establish the business that became Barton’s. He was in a new country that he had not been in previously. What was not new was his elevated sense of responsibility to Klal Yisroel, as was also demonstrated by his brothers, Martin and Eli. Amazingly, before long he was active in Vaad Hatzala, working together with Rabbi Eliezer Silver and Rav Aharon Kotler. There was work to be done and there were people who volunteered. This is what Stephen Klein did: As chairman of Vaad Hatzala’s Immigration Committee, he volunteered in early 1946 to go to Europe under the auspices of UNRRA, the United Refugee and Rescue Administration, leaving his wife and small children. He spent six months in Europe, going to displaced persons camps, helping to open yeshivas and Jewish schools and arranging visas for thousands of Jewish refugees that allowed them to come into the United States. For all of this successful activity, he always felt that he had not done enough and he was certainly disappointed that others who were involved in the United States in rescue work had not done enough. I once read letters that he wrote while in Europe describing the desperate situation of many survivors and pleading for help. When he returned to the U.S., there was a trace of anger and bitterness. In one letter, after describing the conditions in displaced persons camps, he wrote: “Do we wait again until it is too late and have more innocent lives on our conscience? Perhaps it is already too late.” Stephen Klein made several other rescue trips to Europe. When Vaad Hatzala ceased operating in the late 1940s, he turned his attention to Torah education, assisting a number of schools and becoming involved in Torah Umesorah. Then came Chinuch Atzmai. He never stopped working for the Klal. This commitment was in his blood, as much a part of his makeup as the need to sleep. One of his final acts, as he was weakened by illness, was an effort to assist R’tzaad, an old Flatbush day school that had taken on a kiruv orientation and was struggling to survive. He made a significant personal contribution and implored others to help. How do I know? Not long before he died, he called and asked for my assistance. It was not hyperbole when at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the esteemed Rosh Yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, said of Stephen Klein, “He is a Torah giant.” Indeed, he was.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Remembrances and Reflections IX - A Shabbos in Jerusalem

In the 1950s, Rav Aharon Kotler generally went to Israel every several years, invariably during the Bein Hazmanim period when yeshiva was off. These trips were intended to encourage the charedi world still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of the European Churban and also to speak and even campaign on behalf of Agudath Israel. After his father-in-law, Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer, died in 1953, he assumed to an extent the position of Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem and gave shiurim there during his visits.

At the time, I did not reflect on Rav Aharon’s role as a campaigner for Agudah. He was, after all, an ardent Agudist and since the electoral outcome impacted on the status of religion in Israel, I assumed that it was natural for him to do all that he could to assist the movement that he believed in. What he did was, in fact, extraordinary, meaning that no other Torah leader followed the same path. Gedolei Torah did not in this period speak at what were essentially political rallies. Much later, of course, Rav Schach did, but in the 1950s, Rav Aharon was unique in this regard. Indeed, it was Rav Aharon who urged Rav Schach to become more involved in klal activities.

Another remarkable factor is that Rav Aharon came from the United States for the purpose of getting out the vote for the Agudah, although he could not vote in the election. Furthermore, he spoke in Yiddish, although even then among charedim Hebrew had become or was in the process of becoming the dominant language.

Except for his summer 1959 trip, I was never with Rav Aharon in Israel. Even on that trip, I did not go or return with him and we were together only infrequently. Rabbi Avraham Stefansky, a talmid in Lakewood who was close to the Rosh Yeshiva, accompanied him on a regular basis. Rabbi Stefansky who has lived in Israel for perhaps forty years and is a top administrator at Neve Yerushalayim, the excellent multi-faceted kiruv and chinuch institution for girls located in Har Nof that was established by Rabbi Dovid Refson, should consider writing his zichronos.

I did speak to Rav Aharon before I left on my trip to Israel and carried out several small errands at his request. The highlight of the trip was a Shabbos in Jerusalem when I ate the meals at what was once the home of Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer and was now the home of Rav Yitzchak Meir Ben-Menachem, his other son-in-law. Rav Ben-Menachem was a member of the Beth Din Hagadol, a state sponsored body that has served as a sort of Supreme Court for the Israeli beth din system operated under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. To the consternation of kanaim, eminent Gedolei Torah have served on this top rabbinic court.

Rav Ben-Menachem’s family included his wife, Rebbitzin Kotler’s sister who had more than a touch of her sister’s sanctity, and their two children, Efrat and Menachem, who were then about 10-12 years old. Rav Aharon loved these children. They obviously spoke Hebrew and, at least then, scarcely understood any Yiddish. During one of the meals, Rav Aharon attempted to make the case that the Ashkenazic and not the Sephardic havara or mode of pronunciation is correct. Subsequently, Efrat married Rav Eliezer Piltz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the highly regarded yeshiva in Tifrach, where Rav Menachem Ben-Menachem is also a Rosh Yeshiva.

Avraham Stefansky was also there for Shabbos, as was Rav Yaakov Schiff, Rav Aharon’s outstanding American talmid who came to Israel to be married not long thereafter to a daughter of the Brisker Rav who was seriously ill at the time and who passed away several months later.

Late on Shabbos morning and during the meal, Rabbi Wohlgelernter, who was an official at the Chief Rabbinate, came to tell Rav Ben-Menachem that Rav Yitzchak Herzog, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, had died during the night and that there would be a meeting of the Beth Din Hagadol after Shabbos to determine the details of the funeral. Rav Aharon spoke highly of Rav Herzog, adding that he hoped to be one of the maspidim. Rav Yaakov Schiff’s protest that Rav Herzog was a Mizrachist who had not opposed the draft of girls into military service was brushed off by Rav Aharon who noted that Rav Iser Zalman had eulogized Rav Kook. As an aside, there is hanging on the wall in my Jerusalem apartment a poster announcing the public hesped for Rav Kook at the Churva Shul, with Rav Iser Zalman listed as the first speaker.

Rav Aharon also noted that Rav Herzog was a Talmid Chachom who had done much to assist Jews during the European Churban and that Rav Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman, Rav Herzog’s father-in-law who had been a member of the London Beth Din, was an outstanding Torah scholar.

The Motzoei Shabbos meeting was quick and Rav Aharon was asked to be one of the speakers, I imagine at the suggestion of Rav Ben-Menachem. Also scheduled to speak were Rav Yitzchak Nissan, the Rishon L’Tzion or Sephardic Chief Rabbi, and Rav Shlomo Zevin, the prolific and highly respected author of the multi-volume “Ha-Moadim B’Halacha” and many other sefarim. There was at least one other speaker whose name I do not recall. Rav Aharon was strongly inclined to accept, noting that it was important for the public to hear the message that he wanted to deliver and also to hear a Yiddish speaker. There was, however, a hitch. The levaya was to be at Heichal Shlomo on King George Street, the seat of the Chief Rabbinate that had opened about a year before. The Brisker Rav had proscribed entering the building because Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, a key Mizrachi leader, had suggested that it become the seat of a new “Sanhedrin” that would examine and, when necessary, restate the halacha in light of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Rav Schiff argued that it would be inappropriate for Rav Aharon to enter Heichal Shlomo in defiance of the Brisker Rav’s edict, which he would be required to do if he did speak. He then suggested, “Der Brisker Rav is der Rav fun der shtadt. Der Rosh Yeshiva zol fregen der Brisker Rav.” (The Brisker Rav is the rabbinic authority in Jerusalem. The Rosh Yeshiva should ask him whether it is appropriate to speak from Heichal Shlomo.) Rav Aharon did not take kindly to this suggestion. I will omit certain details, except to note that Rav Aharon exclaimed in anger, “Ich ken alain paskanim a shailah.” (I am competent to decide an halachic issue.)

Yet, at the end of the day, Rav Schiff’s words had an impact and Rav Aharon decided not to speak at Heichal Shlomo. As many of Israel’s leading rabbis were gathering before the levaya at the Herzog home on Ibn Ezer Street, Rav Aharon sent an intermediary to Rebbitzin Sarah Herzog to ask whether he could speak there before the funeral. She acceded to this request but, as was reported in the newspapers, Rav Nissan strongly objected because if Rav Aharon spoke at the home, it would mean that there would be a speaker before him and this would be an affront to his dignity.

Rav Aharon spoke at the cemetery in Sanhedria where Rav Herzog is buried. His eulogy was warm and contained much praise of Rav Herzog. Although the text of the eulogy is available, for whatever reasons, it has not been included among the hespedim published in “Mishnas Rav Aharon.”

Remembrances and Reflections VIII - Rav Aharon and the Rav

As I was standing outside the home of Rav Shneuer Kotler during shiva on a brutally hot early July night in Lakewood, a car pulled up and two men got out. They opened the back door and virtually carried Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik into the house. He was extremely frail and in declining health. I went inside and heard him say to Rav Malkiel Kotler, “I was a friend of your grandfather, I was a friend of your father and, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will be your friend.”

What was the relationship between Rav Aharon Kotler and Rav Soloveitchik? It often is difficult to pin down what is meant by friendship. In part, it is an expression of feelings and, in part, it arises from personal contacts. Among the Gedolei Torah who are overwhelmed by their communal responsibilities, what ordinarily is referred to as friendship is largely absent from their lives. There is too little time for indulgence in social transactions, such as casual visits, that exist among friends. This was certainly true of Rav Aharon whose crushing daily schedule included learning and shiurim, fundraising and an avalanche of klal commitments. Rav Soloveitchik was an essentially private, even reserved, person who in addition to his significant role at Yeshiva University had much on his plate in Boston. There also were the major lectures and writings that he crafted with much care.

Of course, Rav Aharon would find time to relax and reminisce about what had transpired in pre-Churban Europe, as when he ate with talmidim on Shabbos in the yeshiva and, as I witnessed, at Agudah conventions. I imagine that Rav Soloveitchik also had such moments of relaxation. Overall, these were men who eschewed the relationships that we commonly describe as friendship. Accordingly, when we speak of their friendship or relationship, what we essentially mean is that their relationship was one of personal respect and not that they had much ongoing and direct contact.

It is known that Rav Aharon did not have a favorable view of Yeshiva University. I was told that in his 1930s fundraising trip here, he gave shiurim at Yeshiva and was not happy about what he saw. Other eminent European Roshei Yeshiva also gave shiurim there during their trips to the United States, most notably Rav Shimon Shkopf, the Grodna Rosh Yeshiva. He was at Yeshiva for an extended period and entertained the notion of accepting a permanent position, but decided to return at the behest of the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski.

Rav Aharon’s objections to Yeshiva University also arose from his insistence that the primacy of Torah study requires the total exclusion, at least at the Beth Medrash level, of any secular study. Without going into the full history which has been recounted elsewhere, shortly after the Second World War a serious effort was made by officials at Torah Vodaath and Chaim Berlin to establish a joint university-level academic program that would take place in a yeshiva setting, the intent being to deter their students from attending Brooklyn College in the evening after the mandatory two sedarim in the Beth Medrash. When Rav Aharon heard of this initiative, he immediately instructed that it be abandoned and it was abandoned.

As I have noted, prior to Rav Aharon’s arrival, the American Agudah was a far cry from what it became later on. The core of the organization was the Zeirei Agudah. Rav Soloveitchik at that point identified with the Agudah. Indeed, when news came in 1941 that Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski had died, he gave the principal hesped on behalf of the American Agudah.

More well known, of course, is his subsequent embrace of Mizrachi and Religious Zionism, a conscious choice that he described in emotional and, at times, poetic language in “Chamesh Drashos” (Five Lectures), a revelatory work that is a key to understanding Rav Soloveitchik. As he wrote, he left the house of Brisk for whom Mizrachi was anathema. Rav Soloveitchik was immensely affected by the Holocaust and then the establishment of the State of Israel. Of historical interest, as he moved from Agudah to Mizrachi, there were notable Roshei Yeshiva who were taking the reverse course, moving from Mizrachi to Agudah, largely because of Rav Aharon’s influence.

Rav Soloveitchik’s active identification with Mizrachi – and it must be underscored that he played a major role in the movement – did not serve as an absolute barrier to a relationship with Rav Aharon. However, it was always Rav Aharon who reached out to Rav Soloveitchik, in much the same way that he reached out to countless others across the spectrum of Orthodox life. My assessment is that because they were in separate hashkafic camps, their interaction and cooperation were limited.

During the fervid 1953 battle over the draft of girls into military service in Israel, Rav Aharon reached out to Rav Soloveitchik, hoping that he would come out publicly against Ben-Gurion’s decree. There was a meeting at Rav Mendel Zaks’ apartment in Manhattan. Rabbi Dov Ber Weinberger drove Rav Aharon to the meeting and he was witness to what happened. This report, never before published, was told by him to me many years ago and was recently confirmed by him.

In line with their usual mode of address, Rav Zaks was referred to as the Radiner Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Aharon as the Kletsker Rosh Yeshiva and Rav Soloveitchik as the Bostoner Rav. After more than a half hour of futile effort to get Rav Soloveitchik to publicly oppose gius banos, Rav Aharon came up with the following brilliancy, of course in Yiddish. He said, Bostoner Rav, imagine that instead of the three of us discussing this issue, there were another three who were judging the appropriateness of drafting girls into military service. Instead of the Bostoner Rav, there was your zeyde, Reb Chaim. Instead of the Radiner Rosh Yeshiva, there was your father-in-law, the Chafetz Chaim. Instead of me, there was my father-in-law, Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer. Bostoner Rav, what would your zeyde have said?

This masterstroke did not result in a shift in Rav Soloveitchik’s position. He got up and said that he had to leave, “Kletsker Rosh Yeshiva and Radiner Rosh Yeshiva, a gutten tag” and left. He never opposed giyus banos or, for that matter, publicly the Mizrachi on any major hashkafic issue.

Yet, not long after this incident, in 1954 or 1955, Rav Aharon reached out again to him and enlisted him in efforts to raise funds for Chinuch Atzmai. The high point came at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner where Rav Soloveitchik made the most remarkable speech I have ever heard. Rabbi Henoch Cohen who has served Chinuch Atzmai for nearly sixty years with great devotion and who, please G-D, is about to make aliyah with his wife Chana, has a disc of this memorable speech.

After explaining why though he is a Mizrachist he is helping Chinuch Atzmai, Rav Soloveitchik spoke warmly about Stephen Klein, Chinuch Atzmai’s chairman and the president of Barton’s Candy. He then lavished praise on Rav Aharon, comparing him in elaborate language, first to the Vilna Gaon, then to Rav Akiva Eger and finally to his zeide, Rav Chaim. I was standing directly behind Rav Aharon as Rav Soloveitchik spoke and as each of these comparisons were made, Rav Aharon tugged at Rav Soloveitchik’s jacket with one hand and implored him to stop and with the other hand he pounded on the table and intoned repeatedly, “Das iz nisht emes, das iz nisht emes.” As I looked more closely at Rav Aharon, I saw that he was crying.

In subsequent years, Rav Soloveitchik’s involvement with Chinuch Atzmai was intermittent, invariably after Rav Aharon asked for his help. Rabbi Cohen tells me that there were occasions after Rav Aharon passed away when Rav Soloveitchik assisted Chinuch Atzmai.

What is evident is that he had enormous respect for Rav Aharon. He came to the funeral at the Pike Street Synagogue, apparently with a hesped written out, but sadly and mistakenly, he was not given the opportunity to speak. When Rav Soloveitchik passed away, Lakewood was not represented at the funeral in Boston, although I suggested that the Yeshiva be represented. For all of Rav Aharon’s misgivings about Yeshiva University and Mizrachi, he respected Rav Soloveitchik, not because of his lineage and not only because from time to time he assisted Chinuch Atzmai, but because he regarded Rav Soloveitchik as a man of stature as a Torah scholar.

These feelings of mutual respect did not bridge their differences. As was often apparent in this period that now recedes from memory into history, intra-Orthodox differences did not serve as insurmountable barriers to cooperation or, for that matter, to civility and respect.

Remembrances and Reflections VII - Rabbis and Deans

For nearly all of the first half of the last century, Orthodox leaders in North America were, in the main, congregational rabbis. These were men of talent and often of considerable learning who in their personal lives were certainly committed to religious observance. What they were lacking is vision, the ability to see our religious life not as it was in this Goldene Medinah which was also a treife medinah, but as it could become.

The situation in this period that saw wholesale Judaic abandonment as hundreds of thousands of once observant Jews cast away religious practices is captured in the final Mishnah in Sotah, as interpreted by Rav Aharon Kotler, an interpretation that has also been attributed to Rav Elchanan Wasserman and others. I heard the following from Rav Aharon: The Mishnah elaborates the frightening curses that will befall our people prior to the coming of the Moshiach. There will be an increase in insolence, the meeting place of scholars will be used for harlotry and their wisdom will decay, those who dread sin will be despised, truth will vanish, the young will publicly shame their elders and much else, including pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog.

After all of the horrifying details, the Mishnah adds, “Upon whom may we rely? Upon our Father in Heaven.” This is ordinarily interpreted to mean that because we will be in such an extreme state of degradation, our only hope will be to rely on Hakadosh Baruch-Hu. Rav Aharon said that this attitude was the greatest curse of all because it is an expression of yi-ush, of abandoning any hope in our capacity to challenge and reverse the situation we are in.

There were rabbanim who were great Torah scholars who looked at the American scene, at the steady and often rapid decline in observance, and then despaired about the future. They retired to their sefarim and writings. Others thought that they were witness to the flowering of a new Orthodox Jewry, an American brand that although different from what had existed in Europe would still be faithful to our heritage. These were mostly rabbis whose shuls were filled on Shabbos, men who honed their sermonic skills. Their congregations had Talmud Torahs with large enrollments. In their state of self-delusion, they scarcely paused to recognize that there was no Talmud and very little Torah.

These after-school programs were the handmaiden of massive religious loss. Sadly, few congregational rabbis saw the need for day schools. They bought unthinkingly into the dominant American Jewish ethos that yeshivas were an anachronism and not suitable in this land of freedom and opportunity. This helps us to understand why with few exceptions, Rav Aharon had little to do with congregational rabbis, this despite his being a remarkable people person who interacted with an astounding number of religious Jews, to an extent not approached by any other Torah leader.

When Rav Aharon came here in the late 1930s to raise funds for Kletsk, the invitation to a Manhattan reception in his honor included the names of New York’s most prominent rabbis and described him in exceptional language. When he settled here a few years later, however, his involvement with congregational rabbis was curtailed, especially after the early Vaad Hatzala activity. In the more than a decade that I knew him, he had little to do with the Agudas Harrabanim or congregational rabbis.

The flip side of the prominence of congregational rabbis in the first decades of the twentieth century was the limited role in Orthodox life of Roshei Yeshiva. Their ranks were small and they were primarily confined to the four cubits of the institutions where they taught. To my knowledge, there was no Moetzes Gedolei Torah or any similar body. Torah Umesorah was established in 1943 and Agudath Israel was years away from being the key organization that it ultimately became.

Rav Aharon’s arrival triggered a role reversal, not immediately or dramatically, but incrementally. Ultimately, Roshei Yeshiva became a vital force in our religious life. Paralleling this development was the decline, not rapid but in stages, in the position and authority of congregational rabbis. When Rav Aharon passed away in 1962, the reversal was just about complete and the landscape of American Orthodoxy had been transformed.

This development, out of which so much that is praiseworthy subsequently emerged, was not universally welcomed within Orthodox life. There was discontent among the Modern Orthodox, notably in the rabbinate. Was the decline of the rabbinate caused by the ascendency of Roshei Yeshiva who deliberately undermined the rabbinate, as was claimed, or were these two parallel but separate developments, meaning that the rabbinic decline occurred for reasons not directly related to the expanding influence of Roshei Yeshiva?

This issue was the subject of much discussion in the 1960s and I participated in the debate. In a 1966 essay called “Rabbis and Deans” that was published in Tradition, then and still the excellent journal sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits launched a severe attack against Roshei Yeshiva. Later, of course, Rabbi Jakobovits served with great distinction as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. At the time, he was Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. In a follow-up to his original piece, Rabbi Jakobovits summarized his principal criticism of Roshei Yeshiva as follows:
1. The denigration and usurpation of the role of practicing rabbis by yeshivah deans had virtually eliminated the traditional place and functions of the rabbinate in the spiritual government of the religious community, resulting in the disappearance of the public Torah image in the community at large.

2. The transfer of rabbinic jurisdiction from communal rabbis to academic scholars confined to yeshivot had severely limited the scope of contemporary Halakhah and caused substantial deviations from the traditional pattern in the methods used to determine Jewish law.

3. These unprecedented developments had led to the displacement by yeshivot of kehillot as the institutional center of gravity in Jewish religious life.

4. The yeshivot’s discouragement of rabbinical careers was directly responsible for the spread of mediocrity in the rabbinate and the growing scarcity of candidates for leading rabbinical positions.

5. Yeshivot, by tending to stifle rather than to promote a sense of commitment to the wider community, had been equally unsuccessful in raising a community-minded laity, so that public Jewish life became increasingly drained of rabbinical and lay leaders alike.

I responded in a long letter that Tradition published in its entirety. Reading it for the first time in many years and after the passage of nearly a half-century is a strange, even eerie, experience. I believe that I was respectful to Rabbi Jakobovits, although in his rejoinder he accused me of “some quite unworthy imputations.” In brief, I wrote that “the Roshei Yeshiva have filled a vacuum and are contributing mightily, and at great sacrifice, to the development of a viable Orthodoxy… and to the possible evolution of a more functional rabbinate.” As for the claim of usurpation of rabbinic authority, I regarded this as astonishing “when we recall that a charge leveled against Roshei Yeshiva, most often from the Orthodox left, is that they restrict themselves too much to the yeshivot and do not vigorously lead the Orthodox community at a time when there is a paucity of leaders.”

I invite readers to revisit this discussion because it sheds important light on what American Orthodoxy was like nearly two generations ago and the transformations that have occurred since. Of note, neither Rabbi Jakobovits nor I made any mention of Rav Aharon Kotler, although it was certain that at issue was the pivotal role that he played in the changed character of American Orthodoxy.

From the perspective of nearly half a century, we can see how the rabbinate has been transformed and how congregational rabbis, including among the Modern Orthodox, have become involved in yeshivas and day schools and have encouraged their members to devote significant time to Torah study. This is confirmation that Rav Aharon’s vision has been fulfilled and that, as a consequence, when we now write about rabbis and deans, the reference is not to warring camps within Orthodox life but to a relationship that is generally respectful and cooperative.

Remembrances and Reflections VI

Fifteen years after he came to live in the United States and set out to build Torah in this land in fulfillment of the vision of Rav Chaim Volozhin, Rav Aharon Kotler and ten other eminent Torah leaders issued their historic ruling forbidding Orthodox membership in rabbinical and congregational bodies with the Reform and Conservative.

In a popular book on Rav Aharon that devotes one page to this epic event, the author writes that Rav Aharon “wasted no opportunity to demonstrate how Orthodoxy undermines its very essence by extending religious status to the Reform through an organizational association with them within a religious framework.” That certainly was his position, yet it remains that he came here in 1941 and the psak was issued in 1956. Why the delay in declaring “that it is forbidden by the law of our sacred Torah to participate with [them] either as an individual or as an organized communal body.”?

I believe that Rav Aharon did not focus on this issue because for him there was no issue. Whatever their titles or affiliations, the Reform and Conservative were entirely without legitimacy. Their clergy were not rabbis and their congregations were not synagogues. This was self-evident and no elaboration was needed.

Although he had ongoing and, at times, extensive contact with lay persons from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, specifically including many who were quite modern in their outlook and even behavior, in an intriguing way his involvement with rabbinical figures was limited. After his first years here which entailed Vaad Hatzala activity, he had little to do with the Agudas Harrabanim, this despite that organization being comprised of Yiddish-speaking rabbis, many of whom came from Lithuania or nearby places in Eastern Europe. I hope to deal with this issue in a subsequent column.

There is a collateral point that merits attention. Rav Aharon was a person of intensive activity who toiled in a state of constant exhaustion as he labored to sustain his yeshiva through shiurim, contacts with students and fundraising and, as has been described previously, to create and nurture both financially and spiritually Chinuch Atzmai in Israel and the emerging day school movement in North America. This was his life. Although there are those who out of ignorance or malice have accused him of routinely issuing issurim or prohibitions, in truth that was not his style.

Thus, in his leadership role at Torah Umesorah which at the time encompassed more than a handful of co-educational schools, he tacitly accepted an arrangement that he did not approve of because he understood that through diligent efforts, ultimately these schools would transform the religious Jewish landscape in North America. In fact, as is evident in passages published in Mishnas Rav Aharon, he believed that co-education is absolutely forbidden at the high school level and, at best, problematic at the upper elementary school grades. Yet, there was no public prohibition. There is a lesson in this, which is that the primary path to expanding Torah living is by showing how it is life-giving.

The prohibition against the Board of Rabbis and Synagogue Council of America (SCA) membership begins “We have been asked by a number of rabbis,” and by others, whether “it is permissible to participate.” The clear indication is that the ensuing ruling is a response to an issue that was presented to the Gedolai Torah. My recollection is that the key person was Rabbi David B. Hollander who had previously served as president of the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA), which was comprised primarily of Yeshiva University rabbinical alumni and which together with the Orthodox Union was a member of the Synagogue Council. Rabbi Chaim U. Lipschitz who was involved in the Iggud Harrabanim which at the time consisted mainly of Torah Vodaath musmachim also played an important role.

As significant as the issur was in the delegitimation of boards of rabbis and the Synagogue Council, its immediate – and even short-term – impact was in practical terms limited. Few members of the Rabbinical Council resigned from that group and the RCA remained in the Synagogue Council, as did the Orthodox Union, this despite unceasing efforts in which I was involved to get the Orthodox Union in particular to abide by the prohibition. In communities across America outside of the New York area, local arrangements that accepted joint membership generally remained in place and these arrangements often included local day school principals, as well. In many localities it was accepted that it was preferable to maintain a semblance of unity rather than to envelop the community and its day schools in conflict that would occur if rabbis resigned from joint bodies.

Over time, the message that was sent in 1956 took strong root. The ties between Orthodox rabbis and organizations and boards of rabbis, as well as the Synagogue Council, grew constantly weaker. Ultimately, the Orthodox Union withdrew from the Synagogue Council and that organization collapsed. It hasn’t been missed. About five years ago, I spoke at a Rabbinical Council event. It was remarkable to see how the organization’s composition and orientation had changed, how a significant proportion of its membership now came from yeshiva-world institutions.

Paradoxically, the changed character of the Rabbinical Council has undermined the distinctive mission of the Iggud Harrabanim, which a half-century earlier had been pivotal in the prohibition issued by Rav Aharon and the other Gedolai Torah.

There is an additional paradox. For all of the conflict, even contentiousness, within Orthodoxy over membership with the non-Orthodox, that critical issue did not serve as a barrier to intra-Orthodox cooperation on a host of public issues. Amazingly, in the 1960s and 1970s and during the heat over the Synagogue Council issue, every major Orthodox group joined within the framework of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) to advocate for government aid to parochial schools and to further the rights of religious persons in the workplace and elsewhere. I was intimately involved in these efforts as COLPA’s first president. Intra-Orthodox cooperation brought about abundant beneficial fruit.

Throughout this period, I was active in both Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union, both on a voluntary basis. Gedolai Torah authorized my Orthodox Union activity. However, I was not allowed to become an officer of the organization because it was a member of the Synagogue Council. In this activity, I believe that I was faithful to the lessons that Rav Aharon taught about Orthodox unity and the instructions that he had given me.

There no longer is conflict within Orthodoxy over membership in joint bodies. As noted, the Synagogue Council is gone. The New York Board of Rabbis apparently exists, serving as another example that many organizations continue to operate even after they have died. This should be a glorious time in Orthodox life, a period of constant cooperation to achieve mutual goals. There is much to be proud of in fulfillment of Rav Aharon’s vision. Unfortunately, because the major Orthodox organizations do not cooperate, there have been scant advances over what was achieved a generation ago regarding the rights of religious persons and government aid to our schools, when despite tension and conflict our organizations put aside their differences and knew how to cooperate.

Remembrances and Reflections V - The Battle Over Women’s Draft in Israel

As the 1950s opened, Agudath Israel was in an accommodationist mode in Israel, serving in the government and accepting the notion that Israel was fully a Jewish state. Even Rav Aharon Kotler seemed to retreat from the position that Rav Elchanan Wasserman and he had taken at the 1937 Knessiah Gedolah in Marienbad where they sharply rejected the neo-Zionist views regarding the anticipated Jewish state espoused by Dr. Isaac Breuer and other major Agudath leaders.

Within Orthodox life in North America, there was general acceptance of a modernist outlook on public issues, including on separation of church and state. There was, at most, a whiff of militancy and separatist sentiment within what was then the yeshiva world. Two epic events, one in Israel that also had a strong impact here, and the second entirely on these shores profoundly changed the relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and reversed the appearance of intra-Orthodox unity.

The first event was the conflict in Israel over the draft of girls who had just graduated high school into the Israeli army. The second, which I will discuss in a subsequent article, concerned Orthodox participation with the non-Orthodox in rabbinic and congregational organizations.

For all of David Ben-Gurion’s and the Mapai’s (Labour Party) strong secular orientation and hostility toward religion, in the first years after Israel’s establishment, their attitude was to accommodate the Orthodox. This approach was articulated in the famous 1947 agreement between the Jewish Agency which Ben-Gurion headed and the Agudah – later, as well, with the Mizrachi – accepting the religious character of the state. Shabbos was recognized and there would be no public transportation on that day. Kashruth would be maintained in the army and in other public places. Most critically, in matters of personal status such as marriage and divorce, halachic processes and standards would prevail.

After the state was established, Ben-Gurion accepted the exemption from military service for yeshiva advanced students, perhaps because, as has been claimed, there were relatively few of them, although I believe that he sincerely felt that Israel needed to have some young men study Torah full-time.

There were, of course, divisive issues in the initial years, notably over basic education, as I have discussed in a previous article on Chinuch Atzmai. Even then, Ben-Gurion refrained from taking a coercive position, as he accepted the creation and independence of Chinuch Atzmai.

At the time, as well, within the yeshiva world and a number of chassidic groups, there was a measure of acceptance, perhaps begrudging, of Israel. There was pride in Israel. We weren’t Zionists in hashkafa or affiliation, yet most of us were somehow zionist in our identity with Israel. We cleaved to the radio as the United Nations voted for partition and a Jewish state in November 1947 and again the following May when Israel came into being. Whenever we felt that Israel was endangered, we once more were emotionally enveloped in our concern for the Jewish state. We did not – and still do not – say the tefila for the Medinah, but prayers for Israel are always in our hearts.

In 1953, Ben-Gurion decreed that girls would be required to do military service after they graduated from high school. This triggered an immediate explosion of protests from Gedolai Torah, including the Chazon Ish who by and large had stayed away from public issues. They ruled that army service for girls was absolutely forbidden as a form of arayos or illicit behavior that fell under the halachic requirement of “yaharog v’al ya-avor.” In the course of the ensuing struggle, first the Chazon Ish and then thirty days later Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer died. These terrible losses shocked the yeshiva world. Etched in my mind is the grief that was evident at the hespedim for these Torah giants at the Pike Street (Kalvirer) Shul on the Lower East Side. Rav Aharon was the principal speaker. A dramatic moment occurred when Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz of Mir opened the Aron Kodesh and cried out in Yiddish, “Der Chazon Ish iz nisht dor, Rav Iser Zalman iz nisht dor, un ich bin an alter Yed” and then collapsed.

As the battle raged in Israel, Rav Aharon called for a mass protest at the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan. Yeshivas emptied out and many Chassidim, including Satmar and the Rebbe, joined in what still remains the largest demonstration ever in North America against the Israeli government. As invariably happens at such occasions, in the name of crowd control the police roughed up some protestors. There was extensive media coverage and shock and anger among American Jews. A line had been crossed, it being sharp criticism by Jews of Israel.

The strongest criticism of the demonstration probably came from the Modern Orthodox, with the Rabbinical Council of America which was largely comprised of rabbis ordained at Yeshiva University leading the way. The RCA asked its members to denounce Rav Aharon and the demonstration from the pulpit and many did. We of the Borough Park Zeirei were determined to respond and so on the Shabbos that was appointed for rabbinical censure of the protest, we completed davening a bit earlier than usual, divided our members into several groups and went to the large shuls where we were certain that the rabbis would speak out against Rav Aharon and the demonstration. When they did, we protested verbally and vehemently. To put it mildly, we were not welcomed.

Ben-Gurion, surprised I believe by the fury unleashed by his action, backed down a bit, so that the high school graduates could choose national service, such as in schools or a social service project, rather than being in the army. As a practical matter, charedi girls were exempt. As has been widely reported, the arrangement has broken down over the years. Nowadays, thousands of girls from secular homes claim the religious exemption.

The battle over Giyus Banot or military service for girls and also Sh’erit Leumi or national service took a huge toll. Ben-Gurion’s concession did not change the reality that over the years probably hundreds of thousands of girls, more than a few from religious homes, have served in the army and that this service has been a powerful factor in the erosion of Israel’s moral fabric.

The willingness of Mizrachi leaders, in Israel and here, to acquiesce to an arrangement that was totally antithetical to Torah standards and to do so despite being implored by Rav Aharon to reverse their position has contributed significantly to that movement’s steady decline. Sadly, over the years whenever push came to shove over religious issues in Israel, Mizrachi invariably chose political expediency over halacha.

For Rav Aharon Kotler, there was also a cost. He had tirelessly reached out across the Orthodox spectrum and specifically over the years to the Modern Orthodox and now he was being denounced. He would continue to reach out, yet the truth is that support for Lakewood suffered as a result of his principled stand. He believed, of course, that this was a small price to pay for promoting and protecting Torah values. He would not contemplate accepting financial gain for his yeshiva at the cost of sacrificing Torah values.