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REB SHRAGA FEIVEL
The Life and Times of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz
ARTSCROLL HISTORY SERIES" REB SHRAGA FEIVEL
REB SHRAGA FEIVEL MENDLOWITZ LEFT THE SCENE IN 1948, more than half a century ago, at the fairly young age of 62. His career in Mesivta Torah Vodaath spanned only twenty-five years, yet virtually every major gadol of his era proclaimed him unreservedly as the premier architect of Torah in American history. As this magnificent biography shows, that appellation is not the least bit exaggerated.
He insisted on being addressed as "Mister" Mendlowitz, and those who had the temerity or foolishness to call him "Rabbi" a title he richly earned were either ignored or rebuked. But, as the Talmud says of such historic but untitled greats as Hillel and Shammai, their very names meant more than the loftiest titles. The same applies to Mister Mendlowitz; the name Reb Shraga Feivel is more august than pages of titles and superlatives. The burgeoning Torah world of today is his legacy, as this volume shows simply by relating the bare facts of his life, aspirations, and achievements. Our generation has much to learn from him. In his time, he fought hopelessness; in our time he would have fought complacency. His motif was that a Jew must always strive to increase the glory of Heaven, bring his fellow Jews close to Torah, never be content with his own accomplishments, infuse his life with joy in serving G-d, and try to find and blend the finest strands of the various Jewish communities and traditions. Those goals never change, although the challenges to them change from generation to generation. Every reader will find lessons for life in this book as well as a role model in how to fulfill them.
To chronicle and explain such a great man requires an outstanding biographer. The Jewish public is indebted, therefore, to rabbi yonoson rosenblum, whose biographies of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky and Elimelech (Mike) Tress have set a high standard a standard he maintains here in Reb Shraga Feivel. This is a book that can be read on more than one level. It is a biography, a textbook in allegiance to the Torah and its Giver, and a guidebook in how to educate a generation, as well as individual students.
We are grateful to Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz and Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman for choosing us to produce this book. Although it is based in great measure on the Hebrew Shelucha D'Rachmana, by the distinguished journalist and author Rabbi Aharon Sorasky, this biography is essentially a new work.
Many people contributed time and effort to help make this volume possible, some of whom Rabbi Rosenblum has mentioned in his own acknowledgments. We would be remiss, however, if we did not express our own appreciation to Rabbi Mendlowitz and Rabbi Freedman for their help and confidence. Rabbi Freedman has made it a primary mission of his life to bring the message of Reb Shraga Feivel to new generations; in his own person he embodies much of Rabbi Nesanel Quinn, himself one of the premier mechanchim in the history of American yeshivos, gave of himself unstintingly. iraciously and meticulously, he reviewed the manuscript several times, always adding valuable comments and observations. We are grateful to him beyond words. The source notes of the book indicate lie many talmidim of Reb Shraga Feivel who shared memories and insights with Rabbi Sorasky and Rabbi Rosenblum. Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, director of the Agudath Israel Archives, contributed his customary cooperation and vast erudition. We thank them all.
In particular we express our profound appreciation to Sidney Greenwald and Rabbi Mendel Rapaport, who wisely and patiently facilitated the publication of the book. We and the public are grateful to them both. In addition, Reb Sidney, as a close and still buoyant taltnid of Reb Shraga Feivel, added his personal insights to the book. Garry Torgow, too, expended time and effort to bring this work to fruition.
Finally, we are grateful to our staff members, whose skill and dedication are evident on every page, Eli Kroen sets a high standard of graphic excellence, Avraham Kay, mrs. Esty Frankel, and Esther Schwartz did the graphics and layout, and Mrs. Mindy Stern and Mrs. Faigie Weinbaum proofread. With his usual efficiency and devotion, Avrohom Biderman directed the process that turned manuscript, galleys, photos, and comments into a book.
Someone commented, "This is not a 'book; it's a 'sefer.'" True. We hope that this sefer acquaints a new generation and reminds an older generation of one of the greatest Torah figures of the 20th century, and thereby gives new impetus to his efforts to stamp the glory of Torah on the New World.
Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz / Rabbi Nosson Scherman
Sivan 5761 / June 2001
AS WE PREPARE TO GO TO PRESS WITH THIS BIOGRAPHY of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz z"l my primary emotion is a profound sense of sadness for the loss of two figures to whom this book would have meant so much and who did not live to see it in print: Rabbi Alexander Sender Linchner, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz's son-in-law; and Dr. Joseph Kaminetzky who was tapped by Reb Shraga Feivel to be the national director of Torah Umesorah, and who oversaw the flowering of the day-school movement in his nearly four decades heading the organization.
My only consolation is that both Rabbi Linchner and Dr. Kaminetsky reviewed the entire manuscript before their passings and expressed their warmest approval.
I first spent any substantial amount of time with Rabbi Linchner in the winter of 1995. He was already 86 years old and suffering from pneumonia. Neither of us had any idea whether he would survive the winter. But survive he did. Not only did he survive, he returned to running the vast Boys Town facility in Jerusalem, which he had built from scratch in fulfillment of Reb Shraga Feivel's deathbed injunction to "do something for Eretz Yisrael."
Over the next two years, Rabbi Linchner and I became extremely close, speaking on the phone almost every day. More than forty years is junior, I felt like an old man in his presence. He had more plans in a day than most people have in a lifetime. By the end of his morning swim, he had usually hatched four or five new initiatives. He wasan enthusiast to the end. I never came into his study without findnding a pile of heavily underlined books at his side. When a new biography of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch appeared, he sent the author, whom he did not know, his entire collection of Rabbi Hirsch's works in the original German as a token of his appreciation. Despite repeated trips to the hospital and frequently being in great pain during the two years I was privileged to know him, Rabbi Linchner remained, to the last, the most absolutely alive person I ever knew.
Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, more than any other person, made Reb Shraga Feivel's vision of a day school in every Jewish community a reality. Travel bag draped over his shoulder, he set off on journey after journey by bus or train across America. A fiery speaker capable infusing others with his enthusiasm, he had supreme confidence in the power of Torah unembellished and unadorned to sell itself, if children were only exposed to it.
I knew Dr. Kaminetsky only as an old man. It was hard for me to make the connection between the dynamic speaker on the old tapes with the elderly gentleman with a perpetual half-smile etched on his face, despite the pain that was his constant companion. Yet even in those years of physical decline, I witnessed a greatness that served as a lasting proof of his love of Torah and of the inspiration he had received from Reb Shraga Feivel.
Every morning, I watched him laboriously make his way from his ground floor apartment to be among the first to arrive at the shul ext door for the 6:30 a.m. minyan. No one who saw him struggling ... half an hour each way will ever be able to justify his own absence or lateness for minyan again. By 8:30 a.m. he was already on his way back to the kollel where he learned with men a half century or more younger than he. Even when his face was black and blue from another nocturnal fall, his constant refrain was, "I want to go learn." In the last week of his life, he was still being carried down the stairs to the kollel in a wheelchair.
But for Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman, neither this book nor the classic Hebrew biography of Reb Shraga Feivel, Shlucha D'Rachmana, would ever have been written. He secured the funding for the research and writing of both books, and was the driving force behind the project, never letting either author forget the supreme importance of bringing the image of Reb Shraga Feivel to life.
From the moment that Reb Shraga Feivel sent Rabbi Freedman and his close friend Rabbi Shalom Goldstein to Detroit as young men to spread Yiddishkeit, it is fair to say that Rabbi Freedman never stopped thinking about his revered rebbi and that his guide throughout life has been a single question: "What would my rebbi have done?" No obstacle or humiliation ever deterred Rabbi Freedman in his efforts to spread Torah, which continue unabated, well into his eighth decade. He had been given a mission by Reb Shraga Feivel and he would fulfill it. The cost to himself was irrelevant. For Rabbi Freedman, Reb Shraga Feivel was quite simply the greatest figure of this century, and no biography, this one included, could ever do him justice.
If this book would not have been written but for Rabbi Freedman, it would never have been published but for Reb Sidney Greenwald. Only Reb Sidney himself will ever know the full extent of his contribution. The manuscript languished for nearly four years before Reb Sidney and a group of close talmidim of Reb Shraga Feivel decided that the lessons that Reb Shraga Feivel still has to teach our generation, more than half a century since his passing, were simply too important to allow any further delay.
RABBI AHARON SORASKY'S research for the Hebrew classic Shlucha D'Rachmana served as the basis for this volume as well. Though nearly fifty additional interviews were conducted in preparation for this English biography, Rabbi Sorasky's volume remains indispensable.
RABBI NESANEL QUINN, the long-time menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, was in Reb Shraga Feivel's first class in the Mesivta. First as a 'Talmid' and later as a member of the hanhalah, he was close to Reb Shraga eivel for the entirety of the latter's public career. He has reviewed the entire book at least three times, and his imprint both in terms of matterial that was included and what was left out. His imprint is felt on every page.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman, one of the premier writers in the Torah world today generously lent his talents to reviewing and editing the entire manuscript. His contribution to the final product cannot overstated.
Rabbi Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz are treasured mentors, dear friends, and esteemed colleagues. Over a decade ago, they welcomed me to the ArtScroll family, and since then everything I have achieved has been inextricably bound to their warm support; this book is a product of their friendship.
Everything that I write is a small repayment to my parents, Paul and Miriam Rosenblum whose boundless love and unstinting generosity has been the basic fact of my existence since I first gained consciousness. May they and my father-in-law, Mr. Rober Ock be granted many more years of health and happiness and be zocheh to see their children and grandchildren fully involved Torah and mitzvos.
My wife Judith is a full partner in everything that I do, and without her nothing would be possible. Truly "all that is mine is hers," above all, the wonderful children she has borne and for whom she serves as the best possible model of every middah tovah. As always, my final and deepest debt of gratitude is to the Rebono Shel Olam for having showered me with blessings without end and for having entrusted me to portray Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz to a generation that never knew him but which desperately needs to hear his message. In his vision, his insistence that the mechanech (educator) is a public servant, who must be above any personal interest, and in his resolve to arm his students with the greatest breadth of Torah thought in order that they be prepared to confront the challenges of modernity, Reb Shraga Feivel continues speak to us with astonishing contemporaneity.
He Let in the Light
SITTING ON THE GROUNDS OF BAIS MEDRASH ELYON IN Monsey one day, surrounded by his students, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz turned to one of them and asked him to lift up a nearby rock firmly embedded in the ground. Underneath was a swarm of insects suddenly exposed to the light of day. That sight provided Reb Shraga with a powerful metaphor to describe the mission he envisioned for himself and which he sought to pass on to his students:
Look at all these bugs. Until this moment, they knew only a dark and dreary world. By lifting up the rock, you have suddenly revealed to them a world filled with light and beauty. You've revealed to them the sun and the moon, the smell of fresh air and blue skies. That is our task as well: to roll the heavy stones off souls that are veiled from the spirituality that is present everywhere in the world. When we have removed the boulders, we can call upon all those dwelling in darkness, "Lift up your eyes to the Heavens, behold your Creator, know your Yiddishkeit."1
More than any other single person, Reb Shraga Feivel caused the light of Torah to shine in America. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, he was nothing less than "the father of all [American] bnei Torah in this generation and in all the generations to come."2 Echoing Reb Moshe's assessment, the Satmar Rebbe once commented, "Reb Shraga Feivel planted the first seed of Torah in America, and from that seed grew everything that followed."3
In a quarter-century, he built Mesivta Torah Vodaath, the first major yeshivah of its kind in America; almost single-handedly brought into existence the day school movement, in which nearly 200,000 Jewish children are presently enrolled; established Bais Medrash Elyon, which was in its time America's premier postgraduate yeshivah and kollel; founded the first summer learning camp for yeshivah students; and played a role in the formation of other major yeshivos in America. No wonder that Rabbi Aharon Kotler was heard to remark at his levayah (funeral), "It will take 1,000 communal workers to replace him."
But most important of all, he formed the souls of thousands of talmidim who passed through the portals of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in his lifetime. Of him it could truly be said that his sefarim were written on the hearts of his talmidim (students).4
(1. Rabbi Yitzchak Chinn, "Ohr Shraga The Light of Reb Shraga Feivel," Jewish Observer, September 1983, p. 4. [Hereinafter cited as Chinn, "Ohr Shraga."]
2. From a letter sent by Rabbi Feinstein to a twenty-fourth yahrzeit gathering of Reb Shraga Feivel's talmidim.
3. Yosef Binyamin Wulliger.
The Satmar Rebbe often said that his task of creating institutions in Williamsburg was made much easier by Reb Shraga Feivel's pioneering efforts in building Torah Vodaath. Sidney Greenwald.
4. When asked why he had never authored any sefarim (religious works), the Rizhiner Rebbe is said to have replied, "I do my writing on the hearts of my talmidim.")
The Talmud (Bava Basra 21a) says of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, who instituted, during the time of the Second Temple, the first system of public education, "Without him Torah would have been forgotten from Israel." In modern times, the same could be said of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who founded the first modern yeshivah, at a time when Torah learning in Lithuania was at a low ebb; of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who stemmed, if he could not completely stop, the flood tide toward Reform in Germany, with the development of the Torah im Derech Eretz concept and schools; and, in our own century, of Sarah Schenirer, the Cracow seamstress who founded the Bais Yaakov educational system for girls and thereby ensured that there would be new generations of Jewish women raised with traditional Torah values.
To this list must be added the name of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, who initiated advanced Torah learning in America at a time when even the most observant and learned Jews were convinced sadly, it is true that such an achievement was impossible in the "treifeh soil" of the New World.
MORE THAN FIVE MILLION JEWS WERE LIVING IN THE UNITED States when Reb Shraga Feivel first set foot on its shores in 1913. The ... those who had preceded him were many hundreds of talmidei chachamim and rabbis of stature, and hundreds of thousands of G-d-fearing Jews. Yet no one had succeeded in slowing the flood of assimilation of American Jewry. America remained "a land that devoured its inhabitants." The overriding concern of the devout Jews was to avoid sinking into the morass. But even if they saved themselves, pitifully few were able to save their own children.
Orthodox Jews then had none of their present self-confidence. Their heads were bare at work even if they owned their own businesses. "In those days, when you went to the doctor's office you took off your head-covering; when you went to the library, you took off your head-covering; when you went to college, you took off your head-covering," remembers Elias Karp.
Never had any Jewish community confronted such powerful assimilationist forces as those facing American Jewry Two and a half million Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived in America in the first cades of the 20th century, yet within two generations, Yiddish is dead as a spoken language outside of a few chassidic enclaves. Children of those immigrants saw no reason to preserve a language that separated them from other Americans, whose customs and observances they hoped to emulate.5 The demise of Yiddish is a fair assurance of how strong were the forces of assimilation that swept up first and second-generation Americans.
America presented an unprecedented puzzle that had to be solved if anything was to be saved of Judaism as it had existed in Europe. The materialism of American society, the relative ease with which newcomers integrated into a land of immigrants, the desire Jewish parents that nothing should stand in the way of their children's success in their adopted country were all pieces of the puzzle, cause the puzzle was new, so too would the solution have to be ... No European approach could be transplanted intact to America not that of Lithuania nor of Pressburg nor of Galicia or even of Frankfurt. A new formula drawing upon all the spiritual sources that had developed in Europe over nearly two millennia is needed.
Reb Shraga Feivel never stopped reexamining the old and exploring the new, seeking better and better ways to recreate in America the vibrant Jewish life of Europe. He came closer and closer that goal, but he always wanted more. Asked whether he was satisfied with what he had achieved in America, he replied, "If I were the type of person to be satisfied, I would not have achieved even this much."
(Ruth Wisse, "Is Yiddish Back From the Dead?" New Republic, May 27, 1996, p. 17. Even the few Yiddish-speaking communities that exist today are not evidence of anter-assimilationist trends in the first half of the century. Those communities are nost exclusively a product of the immigration after World War II.)
But if the task was not his to complete, neither did he leave it for single moment. Rabbi Simchah Wasserman once used the comparison between Noach and Avraham to explain why Reb Shraga Feivel succeeded where so many others had failed, or were so sure of failure that they did not make the attempt.6 Even though Noach succeeded in preserving his own spirituality in a generation of ubiquitous depravity and moral degeneration, he did not save a single soul outside of his immediate family. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, spread knowledge of G-d wherever he was and brought many under the canopy of the Shechinah.
Noach viewed the generation of the Flood as impervious to rebuke or improvement; he could not envision a reality different from the one he saw before him. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, would not accept the existing situation as immutable. He set about to create an upheaval in human existence as it was then known.
American Jews at the time of Reb Shraga Feivel's arrival were in desperate need of another Avraham Avinu, of someone who refused to accept the status quo and who could envision and labor for a transformed America. Reb Shraga Feivel was that Avraham Avinu. As he told the Klausenburger Rebbe the first time they met, "Here [in America] you have to be a revolutionary and battle the status quo."
Through the sheer force of his determination and the power of his vision, he wrought a revolution in America. The Talmud's (Taanis 23a) description of Choni HaMe'agel applies to him as well: He brought light to a generation dwelling in darkness; he uplifted a generation sunk [in the mire]; he redeemed a generation bent under the weight of its own sins; he saved a contaminated generation. Reb Shraga Feivel proved that the materialism of America need not stand in the way of producing uncompromising Torah Jews and erudite, idealistic talmidei chachamim.
What was the essence of this man who inspired a Torah revolution?
(I am indebted to Rabbi Pesach Segal of Jerusalem for his transcription of Rabbi ierman's remarks at a yahrzeit gathering in honor of Reb Shraga Feivel, 3 Elul 5748)
WE ALL INSTINCTIVELY RECOGNIZE THAT SOME SOULS ARE ;reater than others, that they seem to be hewn from directly beneath the Divine throne, so to speak. But such truly great souls are rare indeed. As Rabbi Shimon barYochai said, "I have seen the bnei aliyah [illustrious personalities], and they are few" (Succah 45b).
Whoever met Reb Shraga Feivel recognized that he possessed a ublime soul. He was, said Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, "a gaon of the leshamah "a genius in matters of the soul.7 He was not only a brilliant scholar, he was creative in matters of the spirit. In fact, the piritual side of his existence completely dominated the physical.
The Ponevezher Rav hinted at the dominance of the hidden, spiritual side of Reb Shraga Feivel when, in a play on the latter's insistence that he be given no title other than "Mister," the Rav dubbed him "Nistar (the Hidden) Mendlowitz." The title was fitting, for his essence, his soul, remained masked and only slightly revealed in his actions. Even Reb Shraga Feivel's closest talmidim new that they were permitted to glimpse no more than a small fraction of his essence. "Your thoughts are private property," he told is students. "Do not make them public property."8
The pleasures of the physical world, whether money or honor, held no attraction for him. His pleasure was in intellectual and emotional holiness. His joy was to see the progressive advancement of Torah observance by the masses or even by a simple individual. His happiness did not depend on anything in the physical world. His poetic soul knew the joy of awareness of its Creator. He once conceded that although he suffered a variety of afflictions in his life, he could recall only one half-hour of depression. It happened in May 1933, when a doctor told him that he was infected with advanced tuberculosis and, since there was no medical cure for the malady, he had only five or six weeks to live. After half an hour of depression, he decided that there was much to be accomplished even in those few weeks, so there was no reason to dwell on his plight. He lived and accomplished for another twenty-five years. He was capable of the most intense joy: the joy of a soul aware of its Creator.
(Rabbi Alexander Gross and Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, "Shraga Mendlowitz," in Men of e Spirit, Leo Jung ed. [Kymson Publishing Co., New York, 1964], p. 553. [Hereinafter ted as Gross and Kaminetsky].
(Rabbi Elias Schwartz, V'shee-non-tom, Vol. II, p. 286.)
"Der grester glickfun leben iz leben alein" The greatest joy in life is life itself," he would say. After the sheer experience of existence itself, all else is anticlimactic.9 He loved life because it gave him the opportunity to serve G-d and appreciate His universe. His responsiveness to the world of nature revealed his constant awareness of G-d's presence everywhere and at all times. He was literally intoxicated with that awareness.
Hashem proclaims through the prophet, "I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (Yechezkel 36:26). In place of a stony heart, deaf to Hashem's call, we will receive a soft heart that erects no barriers between us and Him. Reb Shraga Feivel already possessed such a heart of flesh, one that always responded to the rush of emotions coursing through it. The emotions of his soul would not be constrained by social convention. He could not prevent himself from breaking down and sobbing before his students nor did he try.
At the intellectual level, we know that our love of Hashem must be qualitatively different and infinitely more powerful than our love for anything in the physical world. Yet we find that the first remains abstract, while love of our children and financial success, for instance, is the most concrete thing in our lives. With Reb Shraga Feivel it was not like that. The spiritual realm was as tangible and real for him as the physical world is for most people. He mourned the galus HaShechinah (the Exile of the Divine Presence caused by people's abandonment of faith) with the same intensity that others mourn a lost child.
(Gross and Kaminetsky, p. 569.
Introduction: He Let in the Light / 21)
His own children sensed that he loved his talmidim as much as he loved them, not because he loved his children less than other parents love theirs, but because his love of every Jewish soul was so great that there was no room for distinction. "A real rebbi has as much love for his talmidim as for his children," he once told his son.
Because the soul is above the dimensions of time and space that delineate the physical world, it is perpetually constrained by the limitations of the body. The greater the soul, the greater that sense of constraint." The mission of the soul in this world is to sublimate the body and thereby infuse the physical domain with Heavenliness. The restless energy that propelled Reb Shraga Feivel all his life was but one manifestation of a soul yearning to break free. No achievement ever satisfied him. And that dissatisfaction spurred him to yet greater action.
The extraordinary vision that allowed him to picture a Jewish world very different from the one before him is another aspect of his soul's struggle to break free of temporal reality. His soul soared above time. Someone who considered Reb Shraga Feivel an impractical dreamer once criticized him as not being a man of the 20th century. "You're right," replied Reb Shraga Feivel calmly. "I am a man of the 21st century."
(10. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz.
11. The description of the soul as constantly seeking to break free of bounds of space and time is drawn from Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner's Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, Maamar 1. Reb Shraga Feivel himself once wrote to a student whose wedding he was unable to attend because of illness, "My soul, unconstrained by distance and above all time and space, the true I, which is joined to you with all its might, will have a large share in your simchah (celebration).")
How is such a soul identified? Reb Shraga Feivel himself provided the clue with his interpretation of the verse, Let all the soul praise G-d" (Tehillim 150:6). This verse, he explained, can be interpreted in two ways. The word can mean that the entire soul will praise Hashem or that all the souls in the world will praise Him. Reb Shraga Feivel taught that both these explanations are really one. Anyone who serves and glorifies Hashem with the entirety of his soul will succeed in influencing others to do so, as well.
The key to this complete service of Hashem is selfless dedication to the service of G-d. The Tor ah describes Moshe Rabbeinu as the most humble man who ever lived. His humility consisted of the obliteration of his own ego, of any sense of personal interest apart from the interests of Hashem and His Torah. Because he had no sense of himself as an isolated individual, Moshe Rabbeinu was able to encompass within his soul the souls of all KM Yisrael.
A similar negation of self was, according to Rabbi Simchah Wasserman, at the heart of Reb Shraga Feivel's teaching. We find ourselves in a world of overwhelming beauty, he said, but too frequently our sense of ourselves looms so large that it blocks out the majesty of the world; when not self-centered, a person can see the world, but a selfish disposition impedes spiritual accomplishment. "Hashem," he once said, "creates something from nothing. Our task is to take something our sense of self and transform it into nothing."12
In all his endeavors for the glory of G-d, for the spread and intensification of Torah study, for helping individuals as well as the nation, there was a complete absence of self-interest. Even his own personal growth took second place to his duty to serve G-d and bring others closer to Him. After all his brilliant successes he remained the same humble Mr. Mendlowitz. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky said this of Reb Shraga Feivel:
(12. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowiz)
I have been privileged to know many great men in my life, but I never found another one like him, totally free of any personal negiah (self-interest) to the last degree ... Certainly, I knew others of whom there could be no thought of being influenced by honor, or money, or favors, but nevertheless there was perhaps a slight trace of being influenced by some personal spiritual consideration . . . With Reb Shraga Feivel there was not even that. Everything he did was for Hashem alone, free from any trace of even any spiritual negiah, no matter how slight.
When his own roshei yeshivah and board of directors pleaded with him to stop his practice of helping other yeshivos by sending them some of the best students of Torah Vodaath, Reb Shraga Feivel replied, "My purpose is to produce soldiers for the A-mighty. What do I care whether they are deployed to the East or the West."13
The expansiveness of his soul enabled him to communicate with Jews from every background. Speaking only Yiddish, he nevertheless became the primary influence on thousands of boys whose first language was English. A product of the most restrictive of Hungarian yeshivos, he somehow found a common language with American boys torn between the study of Torah and the lure of acceptance and prosperity. Just as Rabbi Yochanan transformed Reish Lakish from the head of brigands to the greatest of Torah scholars, so too could Reb Shraga Feivel influence a student to give up his reams of athletic fame, material success, or professonal recognition, and instead toil to become a rosh yeshivah.
(3. Gross and Kaminetsky, p. 568.
4. Sidney Greenwald)
He met his students in the realm of the soul, the place where all arriers between Jews break down, for the spiritual realm is characterized by unity. Reb Shraga Feivel lived as if there were no lines of demarcation between himself and others. The suffering of a fellow Jew was not a momentary pinprick; it affected him just as if it were his own. During the Holocaust, he lived in constant anguish. Of even rarer nobility was his capacity to share completely another Jew's joy.
He was alive to every facet of genuine Torah expression. "Some souls," he used to say, "drink from Tanya. Others from the Ramchal. Still others from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. I drink from all of them, though at any given time, I might drink from one in particular."15 He had the genius to draw from every strand of authentic Jewish thought, to place those various strands in relation to one another, and to see each of them as simply another path to knowledge and service of the Divine. Who else could have used the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to explain a difficult passage in a classic chassidic work such as Tanya, or vice versa.
"... The Tree of Life was in the center of the Garden" (Bereishis 2:9). "That means," Reb Shraga Feivel taught, "that no matter how far apart the various ideas you learn may seem to be, they are all different approaches to the Eitz HaChaim (the Tree of Life), different paths to reach the A-mighty. No one of them has an exclusive right to the A-mighty's favor."16 As long as the Tree is in the center, it can be approached from every direction. "Der sechel iz elastish The mind is elastic," he reminded his students. "It can be stretched from one extreme to another if you are intellectually honest with yourselves."17
But, though an openness of heart and mind toward finding a path to Divine service was a trademark of his talmidim, he was not content that his students remain merely eclectic. He insisted that the strands of their personal hashkafah (outlook) must be taken from authentic, traditional, classic sources. In the new world of America, where there was an ingathering of many Torah traditions, they could gather the best that had been produced in previous generations, and Reb Shraga Feivel encouraged his students to exercise that freedom. Never stop "gathering," he urged them.
(Rabbi Manes Mandel.
Gross and Kaminetsky, pp. 565-66.
' Chinn, "Ohr Shraga," p. 8.)
He himself had done the same thing. Though he was the student of some of the greatest Hungarian roshei yeshivah of his day, he was made in none of their images. From an early age, his intellectual searching took him far beyond the curriculum of his day a fact that landed him in trouble on more than one occasion. He fashioned his own views from the primary sources from Chovos HaLevavos and Kuzari, from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, from the Tanya, Reb Tzaddok of Lublin, and the Sfas Ernes.
He pressed his students to do the same. Not surprisingly, those students often seem very different from one another. It is said of the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov that each, as it were, took away a single spark given off by his pipe, and the same can be said of Reb Shraga Feivel's talmidim. His own breadth and the variety of the sparks he gave off are reflected in the differences of his talmidim one from another.
This, then, was Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Profound thinker, man of the spirit, lover of Hashem, His Torah and His people a man of whom Rabbi Meir Shapiro exclaimed, "Halevai, I should be seated next to him in Gan Eden." Dreamer, visionary, builder of Torah institutions and builder of souls, the one who, in the words of the Ponevezher Rav, "put Torah on its feet in all of America." What follows is his story.
REB SHRAGA FEIVEL MENDLOWITZ BEGAN LIFE HUMBLY enough in 1886 in the small Hungarian village of Vilag, near the present-day border between Hungary and Poland. His father Moshe was a Sanzer chassid, who earned his livelihood as a tanner. The Mendlowitz clan claimed no distinguished lineage on either side. Though the Mendlowitz household was marked by no signs of external distinction, Reb Moshe and his wife Sima Tcheba created within their home an atmosphere of simple faith and chesed. Once a group of visitors arrived unannounced in Vilag on Erev Shabbos, and all found lodging that night in the Mendlowitz's three-room home. The entire Mendlowitz family spent the night on the floor on makeshift bedding. On this and other such occasions, Reb Moshe would scold any child who was reluctant to relinquish his or her bed as lacking ahavas Yisrael, or love of Jews, and of ignoring the mitzvah of welcoming guests.1
(1- Rabbi Yisrael Spinner)
As a young boy, Shraga Feivel was the source of great concern to his parents because he did not utter a single word until he was 5. At that age, his mother's tears and prayers were finally answered, and he began to talk.2 As soon as he was able to speak, Reb Moshe took his son to the local melamed to learn the aleph-beis.3
It was soon clear that Shraga Feivel was blessed not only with a quick grasp but an unusually sensitive soul. As he herded the family geese through Vilag's unpaved streets, he would recite Tehillim (Psalms) by heart.4 His lively imagination was set aflame by his rebbi's stories. When he was 8 years old, his rebbi mentioned Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's statement that "if Klall Yisrael were to observe Shabbos two weeks in succession they would be redeemed immediately" (Shabbos 118b). He resolved that when he was old enough, he would rent a horse and wagon and convince all Jews to observe the same two Sabbaths. Such were the dreams of his childhood.5
Another time, his rebbi told the class that the ten tribes of Israel had been exiled to a place beyond the River Sambatyon and would return at the time of the Redemption. Again the young boy began hatching plans for organizing an expedition to locate the River Sambatyon and find the missing tribes of Israel.
At the age of 10, Shraga Feivel suffered a terrible tragedy with the death of his mother in a fire that destroyed the family home on Yom Kippur.6 Shraga Feivel's father eventually took a second wife named Toibe, and moved his family from Vilag to Humenne. Shraga Feivel and his siblings were particularly fortunate in their father's choice of a second wife, as Toibe showered her husband's young children with love and raised them as if they were her own.
[. Mrs. Shulamis Schiff, Reb Shraga Feivel's daughter.
3. Reb Shraga Feivel always remained grateful to his first rebbi. Years later, an old man came into the beis medrash of Mesivta Tbrah Vodaath, and Reb Shraga Feivel hurried to honor him. "This is my first rebbi," he told his students, "he taught me aleph-beis, and thereby gave me the foundation stones for learning the entire Torah." Rabbi Alexander Sender Linchner, Reb Shraga Feivel's son-in-law.
4. Rabbi Yisrael Spinner.
5. Rabbi Nesanel Quinn.
6. Students in Torah Vodaath recall the feeling with which he would learn Mishnayos in the beis medrash on the evening of Yom Kippur for the benefit of his mother's ne-shamah (soul).]
WHEN SHRAGA FEIVEL WAS 12, THE CHEDER IN HUMENNE pronounced itself unable to teach him anything more, and his father sent him to Mez and Laboretz to study under Reb Aharon, the local dayan, who maintained a small yeshivah in his house. Shraga Feivel remained with Reb Aharon for three years. At that point, he embarked on sojourns through the leading yeshivos of Hungary. In succession he learned in Chust, under Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, author of Arugas HaBosem; in Unsdorf under Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg, author of Be'er Shmuel; and in Pressburg under Rabbi Simchah Bunim Schreiber, the grandson of the Chasam Sofer.
The first of Shraga Feivel's great rebbis was Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, the Arugas HaBosem. Until 1887, the Arugas HaBosem had served as rav and av beis din in Humenne, where he also maintained a small yeshivah. The awe with which the Jews of Humenne remembered their former rav was likely the major reason that Shraga Feivel chose to go to Chust to begin his advanced studies.
The Arugas HaBosem was one of a group of the leading students of the Ksav Sofer who had taken on chassidic ways, and the yeshivah in Chust in his day was steeped in Chassidus.8 Reb Shraga Feivel attributed the Chassidic varmkeit (warmth) he instilled in Torah Vodaath to his years in Chust. "If only you had been in Chust ..," he would say wistfully.9
The Arugas HaBosem stressed the importance of always striving to :ind "the truth of the Torah." In Hachanah D'Rabbah, a small volume written a few days before his passing, he set forth his philosophy of learning and expressed misgivings about the intricate pilpulim favored in some yeshivos. He acknowledged that pilpul can be a useful tool in clarifying the underlying logic of the halachah and allowing the advanced student to compare different situations to determine whether they are governed by the same halachic principles. Yet he advised extreme caution in the use of pilpul lest it lead to nothing more than exercises in mental gymnastics. He concluded his final epistle:
To those of my beloved students favored by Hashem to teach students [of their own], please do not waste too much time in [teaching them] pilpul, but rather strive to give them a wide knowledge of Torah and a breadth of concepts ... in the Gemara and poskim (halachic decisors) . . . Accustom yourselves to looking deeply into every subject and to acquiring a clear understanding of underlying principles of the halachah so that you can derive one halachah from another and compare one halachah to another in a true fashion.
(8. Reb Shraga Feivel said of the Arugas HaBosem, "Every day I saw a new person shteiging (advancing) in davening." Interestingly, Rabbi Yitzchak Schneider, the assistant menahel of the Mesivta in the '40s, once said the same of Reb Shraga Feivel. Asked to describe him, Rabbi Schneider replied, "How can you describe someone who is different every day?" Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman.
9. Rabbi Eliyahu Yehoshua Geldzhaler.)
Shraga Feivel soon acquired the title "Feivel Masmid (the diligent one)" among his fellow students. His own thirst for in-depth understanding found ready encouragement from the rosh yeshivah. The Arugas HaBosem numbered Shraga Feivel among his favorite talmidim and appointed him to tutor his son Levi Yitzchak. At the beginning of a shiur, the Arugas HaBosem would ask, "Is the bachur from Mezo-Laboretz here yet?"10
Each of the top students in the yeshivah was assigned a particular mitzvah in which he was to become expert, and to the surprise of all, the 16-year-old Shraga Feivel was assigned mikvaos (ritual baths), an extremely difficult topic. Shraga Feivel set out to acquire a thorough knowledge of this highly complex area, which requires knowledge not only of an intricate Mishnaic tractate and its laws, but a practical understanding of the engineering involved in the construction of mikvaos. When Rabbi Greenwald was preparing Arugas HaBosem for print, he gave Shraga Feivel a preliminary draft of the section on mikvaos and subsequently changed a number of passages because of Shraga Feivel's comments.11
THE NEXT STATION ON SHRAGA FEIVEL'S JOURNEY WAS UNSDORF, a picturesque village in the Carpathian Mountains. The 17-year-old II . Shraga Feivel had already completed most of Shas and was eager to hear the shiurim of Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg, who was known in the Hungarian yeshivah world as "the rebbi of the roshei yeshivah" and whose students included virtually every major teacher of Torah in the Hungarian yeshivah world of the following generation.
For the rest of his life Shraga Feivel considered the Unsdorfer Rav his rav muvhak (primary teacher). Many years after he left Unsdorf, Reb Shraga Feivel was walking deep in thought and stepped into the street. Suddenly his rebbi appeared to him and commanded him to stop. Startled by the vision, he stepped back and narrowly avoided being struck by a passing car. The miracle highlights the place the Unsdorfer Rav held in Reb Shraga Feivel's thoughts.12
(10. Reported by Rabbi Avraham Shalom Katz, the Riskaver Rav and author of Orchos Mishpatim, who was a fellow student in the shiur.
11. Rabbi Hershel Mashinsky.
12. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz.)
Rabbi Rosenberg's talmidim both loved and revered him. In the
Reb Shraga Feivel named his third son Shmuel after the Unsdorfer Rav.
In his introduction to his major work, Be'er Shmuel, he writes that only someone who combines the qualities of "the left hand pushes away while the right hand draws near" was qualified to be a rav and guide talmidim. Reb Shraga Feivel's talmidim, in later years, had no difficulty finding the parallels between his descriptions of his rav nuvhak and Reb Shraga Feivel himself. "Three things my master and teacher from Unsdorf despised money, honor, and excess indulgence in food," he said, and the same was true of him.13
The Unsdorfer Rav served as Reb Shraga Feivel's model for the devotion of a rebbi to his students. In his introduction to Be'er Shmuel, Rabbi Rosenberg wrote:
If the rav's primary purpose in teaching students is some form of personal fulfillment, there will be little benefit to the student. If, however, the rav gives no thought to himself, but only to forming his students ... from such a rav will the students have great benefit ...
Did I not learn with you many tractates that I myself had already learned countless times? For me personally, there are many new sugyos that I should have been learning in depth, as well as studying the works of the Arizal for the perfection of my soul. But I have ignored my own spiritual needs in order to learn with you those things that will be to your benefit.
(13. Rabbi Yisrael Spinner.
14. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz)
Reb Shraga Feivel told his own students many stories of the Be'er Shmuel's concern for his students. The first seder (study period) was from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., and the Rav tested the students every week. If dissatisfied with their progress, he cried out in grief, "Woe to me. I'm at fault ... for the students' desire is to learn."14 He was once overheard telling a talmid who was not concentrating on his studies, "What more can I do for you? Haven't I already fasted many times in order that Heaven should give you a desire to learn? Haven't I prayed at the graves of tzaddikim that your eyes be opened to Torah?" When Reb Shraga Feivel told these stories to his students, he would exclaim, "My master and teacher did all that was in his power for his talmidim, until the very limit of his strength, and I haven't done even this." His pain as he said these words, remembers Rabbi Yaakov Leshinsky, was worth more than ten mussar shmuessen (lectures on ethics).
In Unsdorf, every shiur began with ten minutes of study of the classic early mussar work, Chovos HaLevavos. It was not unusual, Reb Shraga Feivel would tell his students in later years, for the Unsdorfer Rav to bring him to tears during those ten minutes.15
Above all, Reb Shraga Feivel learned from his rebbi that a teacher must form bonds of love with his students. Referring to Chazal's dictum that a person learns best in the areas of the Torah to which his heart is drawn, the Unsdorfer Rav extended this to mean that one can learn best with a rebbi whom he loves. So strongly did he make the talmidim feel that he was a father to them that they also became like brothers to one another. Whenever Unsdorf students met, even after the passage of many years, those meetings were invariably marked by the hugging associated with family gatherings.16
Though both the Arugas HaBosem and the Be'er Shmuel were leading disciples of the Ksav Sofer, their approaches to learning and teaching were very different: The Arugas HaBosem was a majestic figure, while the Be'er Shmuel was the picture of humility. Nevertheless, Shraga Feivel was able to absorb and grow from contrasting styles in learning and avodas Hashem (Divine service). From an early age, receptivity to a broad range of influences was one of his outstanding traits.
(15. Gross and Kaminetsky, p. 556.
16. Avraham Fuchs, The Hungarian Yeshivos [Jerusalem, 1979], p. 116. !7. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz)
AT 18, SHRAGA FEIVEL RECEIVED SEMICHAH FROM THE BE'ER Shmuel. He had already covered most of the major topics in the Talmud, and was once again overcome with the desire to experience another approach to Torah.17 He traveled to Pressburg, where the Chasam Sofer had founded the mother of all Hungarian yeshivos, to hear shiurim from Rabbi Simchah Bunim Schreiber, author of the Shevet Sofer. Rabbi Schreiber was famed for his sharpness, and only the deepest of thinkers could penetrate his meaning.
In Pressburg too, Shraga Feivel's depth in learning was soon noted. According to his childhood friend Rabbi Binyamin Felsenberg, who studied with him in Chust, Unsdorf, and Pressburg, Reb Shraga Feivel was viewed in each of these yeshivos as one of the leading lamdanim (profound scholars), and it was assumed that he would one day be recognized as a gaon (Torah genius).18
Little is known of Reb Shraga's time in Pressburg; he talked about that period far less than about the years in Unsdorf and Chust. Two stories, however, have come down to us, and both foreshadow the man to come. One day two brothers, who were descendants of the Chasam Sofer, arrived in Pressburg, dressed and coiffed in the modern style. The Shevet Sofer was anxious to accept them in the yeshivah, but he could not admit them looking as they did. He entrusted them to Reb Shraga Feivel's care. From morning until night, Reb Shraga Feivel discussed with them all aspects of Jewish faith. After two weeks, these talks had the desired effect, and the two brothers had removed their pompadours. More importantly, they began to learn in earnest.19
(18. After their years learning together, Rabbi Felsenberg and Reb Shraga Feivel lost touch with one another. Somehow, however, Reb Shraga Feivel learned that Rabbi Felsenberg, by then a respected talmid chacham, was living in Vienna. When the Nazis entered Vienna, he immediately wrote Rabbi Felsenberg, urging him to bring his family to America, and offering to do everything possible to secure the necessary papers.
In his reply to his old friend, Rabbi Felsenberg expressed his joy upon receiving Reb Shraga Feivel's letter, because he had been told that same day that there was little chance for him to secure the necessary visas since he had no friends or relatives in America.
19. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz)
On another occasion, Reb Shraga Feivel found himself the object of criticism when he was seen studying Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's works. Because Rabbi Hirsch wrote in the German vernacular, his works still occasioned suspicion within the deeply conservative Hungarian yeshivah world of the day. Reb Shraga Feivel was summoned to appear before the yeshivah administration. At his "trial," he enlisted the assistance of an old Jew living in Pressburg, who testified that thirty years earlier, when his first wife's mental disability forced him to seek permission from one hundred rabbis to take a second wife, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz had advised him to travel to Frankfurt-am-Main to obtain the signature of Rabbi Hirsch, telling him, "What I am to Galicia, he is to Germany."20
The reading of Hirsch was just one more example of an independent streak that had already embroiled Reb Shraga Feivel in controversy. One bein hazemanim (intersession), when he was in Humenne, his practice of learning Nach created something of a local controversy.21 He was also criticized for teaching Torah to his younger sister.22
There was a public outcry against Shraga Feivel. As a consequence, when a leading rebbe visited the town, Reb Moshe Mendlowitz was subjected to intense pressure to take his son to the rebbe for his opinion. Reb Moshe succumbed to the pressure. After a conversation of more than an hour, the rebbe pronounced his verdict: "Reb Moshe, your son is an adam gadol (literally: a great man), an adam shalem (literally: an all-around man), to whom you should give every honor, including standing up when he enters the room."23
(20. Berl Belsky.
21. The study of Tanach was then frowned upon by Hungarian chassidim since Tanach had long since become the favorite text of maskilim, the so-called "enlightened ones," to the exclusion of the Talmud. The Unsdorfer Rav, however, did not entertain these suspicions about Tanach, and always made a point of quoting the full chapter whenever a verse from Nach appeared in the Gemara under study. He thus demonstrated that the study of Nach was worthy of serious study.
22. Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman.
23- This story was related in a letter to the editor to The Jewish Observer, March 1984, p. 40. The writer heard it personally from Reb Shraga Feivel's younger half-sister, Freidel Kaufman.)
An Eye to the Future
THE 22-YEAR-OLD SHRAGA FEIVEL MARRIED BLUMA Rachel Shaller, his stepmother Toibe's younger sister, on Rosh Chodesh Elul 5669 (1909). Over their thirty-nine years of marriage, Bluma Rachel was her husband's closest friend. She supported all his undertakings, even when these resulted in greatly increased strains on her and on the family's always meager budget.
Only because of her complete dedication to the household was Reb Shraga Feivel able to immerse himself in his various endeavors. In their early years of marriage, she supported the family by running a small clothing store, and later she was left alone to care for two small children for more than six years, while he was in the United States. He went originally to see if it was possible for him to bring Torah to the American wasteland, but while he was there, World War I broke out and he was stranded for four years, unable to return to his family. Yet no matter how strained the family's circumstances, she bore it all stoically and was always able to findsomething to give to those less fortunate than herself.
The young couple was married in the bride's hometown of Riminov. There Reb Shraga Feivel once again found himself at the center of controversy. There was general tumult at the wedding when the groom steadfastly refused to wear a shtreimel, despite his father-in-law's request that he do so and the pressure of local chassidim. "I will not put it on and then remove it," he insisted, "and I am not yet ready to wear one always."1 Already then, he had the ambition to bring Torah to America, and he was convinced that he would be more successful if he wore modern attire.
After the marriage, Reb Shraga Feivel and his new bride moved to Humenne. There the first two Mendlowitz children, Moshe Yitzchak and Bas Sheva, were born. (Another five were subsequently born in America.2) In Humenne, Reb Shraga Feivel learned all day long; the family's meager income came exclusively from Bluma Rachel's small clothing store.
(1. Gross and Kaminetsky p. 556.
Some have seen in Reb Shraga Feivel's words a premonition that his future lay far away from Hungary, in a place where the wearing of a shtreimel was then almost unknown and might have hindered his work.
Moshe Yitzchak b"\ married Dina Friedman n"v and Bas Sheva married Rabbi Alexander Sender Linchner the founder of Boys Town in Jerusalem. The Mendlowitz children born in America were: Rivkah b"1, who married Rabbi Yitzchak Karpf, a rosh yeshivah in Torah Vodaath and Bais Shraga; Channah, whose husband Rabbi Berel
reaibaumyi, was the principal of Yeshivah of Spring Valley for many years; Avraham Shfounder and menahel of Yeshivas Bais Shraga in Monsey; and
Shulamis, the wife of Rabbi Yehoshua Schiff, rosh yeshivah of, Mesifta Bais Shraga.)
WHILE MOST OF REB SHRAGA FEIVEL'S DAY WAS DEVOTED TO THE study of Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, there is much to suggest an emerging sense of his life's task of drawing young Jews close to their faith and Torah. During this period, he began to delve deeply into both classic and contemporary works of Jewish thought. Much of his vast knowledge of classical Jewish thought had its roots in his four years in Humenne. Indicative of the breadth of his reading is that he spent one-third of his dowry to purchase Zev Yavetz's Toldos Am Yisrael, the first comprehensive Jewish history in harmony with our mesorah.3
Having concluded that a comprehensive grounding in traditional Jewish thought was an indispensable weapon in his upcoming battle, Reb Shraga Feivel did not study the classic texts in isolation. His analytic mind probed the differences in terminology and presentation between the various presentations of Torah Judaism, which sometimes obscured the much larger areas of agreement.
For the impending battle, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch became the model. Rabbi Hirsch's success in arresting the rush to Reform in Germany served as an example of what one man could do. Rabbi Hirsch's ability to speak the language of modern man the product af the Enlightenment and the scientific worldview while remaining entirely rooted in classic Jewish sources and thought, was something Reb Shraga Feivel explicitly sought to emulate. Rabbi Hirsch had not been intimidated by 19th-century thought or the rapid advance of science in his day, and neither would Reb Shraga Feivel shy away from the challenges of the 20th century. Having identified Rabbi Hirsch as one of the exemplars of what he hoped to achieve in life, Reb Shraga Feivel pored over his vast corpus of writings.
(3. When Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi's Doros HaRishonim, a detailed refutation of the works of secular Jewish historians, subsequently appeared, Reb Shraga Feivel was thrilled with excitement. He profoundly identified with the viewpoint of Rabbi Halevi considered his works crucial for a pure Torah hashkafah.)
Reb Shraga Feivel frequently told his wife that every person in this world senses an obligation to fulfill the specific task for which he was :reated. That sense of calling may have no logical explanation and is incapable of verbal expression, but it nevertheless gives a person no rest. Just as the animals instinctively do that for which they were created, even though they have no appreciation of the consequences of their actions, so too, man is instinctively driven to fulfill his task. It happens in history that a person without any great intrinsic merit of his own is nevertheless chosen as Hashem's instrument for revolutionary change. That being the case, there is no reason for pride, even if one is summoned by Providence for a crucial task.4
One of his favorite Midrashim expressed this sense that every person has a specific mission from Hashem, which he is not free to shirk: "And G-d declared to the prophets: 'Do not delude yourselves that should you refuse to do My bidding . . . there is no one else. I will fulfill My purpose in Creation even if it must be accomplished by a mere gnat, a lowly snake, or a croaking frog!'"5
In years to come, he would tell his students, "Make no mistake about me. What am I and what is distinctive about me? But sometimes HaKadosh Baruch Hu uses a frog, or even a gnat, as his agent. So assume that I am no more than a frog or a gnat; nevertheless it is incumbent upon you to listen to me as an agent of HaKadosh Baruch Hu."6 In spite of his genuine humility, when the occasion demanded it, he rose up forcefully to advance the cause of Torah and faith in the A-mighty.
The first concrete outgrowth of the years of preparation in Humenne was a plan to open a yeshivah for younger boys in Germany. Reb Shraga Feivel was eager to see whether the fire of Chassidus could be wedded to the discipline and self-restraint that distinguish German Jews.
The plan was never realized. He proceeded so far as to travel to a major German city either Hamburg or Frankfurt-am-Main. Soon after his arrival, he was approached in shul by the gabbai and offered a contribution from the community's charity fund.
(4- Gross and Kaminetsky, p. 559. 5. Ibid.
6- Rabbi Moshe Yechezkel Samuels.
Chapter Two : An Eye to the Future / 39)
Reb Shraga Feivel rejected the offer, to which the gabbai remarked mockingly, "Can it be? An Ostjude (Eastern European Jew) who does not accept handouts?"' In the course of his travels in Germany, Reb Shraga Feivel decided that although he could have established a yeshivah there, to do so in the United States was a more important goal.8
(7. Rabbi Eliyahu Yehoshua Geldzahler.
8. Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman)
REB SHRAGA FEIVEL'S PLAN TO EVENTUALLY ESTABLISH a yeshivah in the United States was accelerated by the imminent threat of conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, which, for a chassidic Jew, would have meant severe privation or worse. The Great War that would cost millions of young men their lives was less than a year away. In 1913, at the age of 27, he left for America. The haste with which he was forced to depart gave Reb Shraga Feivel no chance to take his wife and two young children with him, and the family parted with the idea that they would soon be reunited in America. Had he determined that there was a good chance to found a yeshivah, he would have sent for them immediately. In reality, however, the separation was to last six years, for most of which time communications between the United States and Hungary were severed because of the war.
Reb Shraga Feivel chose to go to America as a continuation of his initial plan to establish a yeshivah, but in America rather than Germany. His dream was to plant Torah in the United States and then go on to Eretz Yisrael, the land of his longing. An old friend from his days in Humenne asked him shortly before his departure, "How could someone of whom Reb Aharon [the dayan in Humenne] always said, 'Feivel, du bist a gaon Feivel, you are a genius,' go to America?" Reb Shraga Feivel replied cryptically that he was going to America to look for Torah, a response that provoked derisive laughter from his friend.1
Before he left Hungary, he visited Rebbe Yeshayeleh of Keristier to receive his blessing. After blessing him, Rebbe Yeshayaleh made a number of predictions about what Providence had in store for him in America. Each one of these predictions, Reb Shraga Feivel said later, came true.2
In September 1913, Reb Shraga Feivel's ship docked in Philadelphia harbor, and he set foot on American soil. The most immediate problem confronting him was how to earn a livelihood. Before leaving Hungary, he had learned shechitah (ritual slaughter) and received a kabbalah (certification), but his first job as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) on the Lower East Side lasted less than an hour. After slaughtering his first seventeen chickens, he realized that he was unsuited to being a shochet, and he put down his chalaf(kniie for ritual slaughter) forever. His mission in life was to give life rather than take it.3
1: This story was related by Y.M. Moskowitz in a letter to the Jewish Morning Journal shortly after Reb Shraga Feivel's petirah. The writer was a close relative of the friend in the story. 2. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz.
His next stop was Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he was a melamed (teacher) for a short time. He often spoke fondly of his time in Bridgeport and the satisfaction he had in the progress of his young students, but for reasons not altogether clear, that stop, too, was a short one. One probable reason is that he saw no possibility of building a yeshivah in Bridgeport.4
In Scranton, he rented a room with a Jewish family, with whom he also ate. Because of his concerns about kashrus, his diet was extremely limited. The limited diet and the undercooked fare he was regularly served permanently robbed him of his previous good health and strength, and he developed ulcers that plagued him for the rest of his life.6 So severe was the pain that, as he taught, he had to keep in front of him two prohibitions: "Do not become angry" and "Do not strike a fellow Jew," lest his suffering cause him to lose patience and hit a student.7
In Scranton, Reb Shraga Feivel never mentioned his semichah from the Unsdorfer Rav. Just before his first Pesach there, however, his hostess was cleaning his room and discovered it. When Reb Shraga Feivel found out what had happened, he promptly tore up his semichah. Later, concerned that someone might find the pieces and tape them together, he retrieved them and burned them.8 For the rest of his life, he refused to answer to any form of address other than "Mister." If addressed as "rabbi" or "rav," he did not respond; and when responding to a telephone caller, he would say, "No one lives here by the name of Rav Mendlowitz."9
(3. Rabbi Nesanel Quinn.
5. Rabbi Hershel Mashinsky.
6- Mrs. Bas Sheva Linchner, Reb Shraga Feivel's daughter.
7- Rabbi Moshe Wolfson.)
There are many explanations for his insistence on the title "Mister." No doubt his own natural modesty and the awe with which he viewed his own teachers made him reluctant to appropriate the title "rav" for himself. But equally important, he was a caustic critic of much of the American rabbinate of his day, increasingly so the longer he remained in America, and for him the title "rabbi" had a largely irreverent connotation.10 Finally, he felt that he would have more influence among American youth without the title rabbi attached to his name."
(8. Heard from Avrohom Gross by his nephew Rabbi Yehoshua Leiman.
9. On one of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sher's visits to America on behalf of Slabodka Yeshivah, Reb Shraga Feivel went to hear a mussar shmuess from Rabbi Sher. After the shmuess, the two men were introduced, and Rabbi Sher commented excitedly, "You are Rav Mendlowitz about whom I have heard so much?" Reb Shraga Feivel immediately replied, "You're mistaken, I'm only Mister Mendlowitz."
Rabbi Sher was not fazed, however, and told Reb Shraga Feivel, "Be 'Mister,' if you wish, but I have heard that you have done more to ensure that Torah will not be forgotten than many great rabbis." Gross and Kaminetsky, p. 558.
10. Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern.
11. Rabbi Nesanel Quinn)
Reb Shraga Feivel used the years in Scranton to deepen his own Torah knowledge. Often learning through the night, he went through tractate after tractate of Gemara. Free time during the day was often spent pondering the deepest works of Jewish thought. On a visit to Scranton many years later, he pointed out a majestic oak tree on the outskirts of town to a group of his students and told them, "In the shade of that tree, I spent many, many days going through the entirety of Tanya." He used to say that the mark of a thinker was not the ability to think about ten things in an hour, but the ability to think about one thing for ten hours,12 and Scranton provided an opportunity for him to spend many such hours deep in thought.
One day Reb Shraga Feivel came up with a stratagem. He invited four of the class ringleaders to talk with him privately. What he said to them is unknown, but from that day on his relationship with the four ringleaders changed completely. They were so impressed with him that they turned serious about learning and the rest of the class followed their lead. After that, Reb Shraga Feivel's teaching proceeded smoothly and effectively and the students enjoyed it.
Soon the boys were coming to class eager to listen and learn, despite their fatigue from the school day. Even at that early stage in his career as a mechanech (educator), Reb Shraga Feivel was blessed with the ability to explain the material with remarkable clarity.
12. Yonah Zev Herskowitz
What he taught remained with his students not as mere information but as part of their being. By nature he was introverted and quiet, but when he started teaching, a sudden transformation came over him, and he spoke with great animation and passion. Many of his students in Scranton attested years later that much of what they heard from him remained as clearly etched in their minds as on the day they heard it.13
A student from Scranton once told Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz, "I had many great teachers in my life, including famous professors, but I never had another one who had your father's ability to arouse a class emotionally. He had the ability to inflame a class . . . Our classes in Tanach were something alive ... All the Yiddishkeit that remains with me today, I owe to him."14
(13. Gross and Kaminetsky, p. 558.
14. Chinn, "Ohr Shraga," p. 5.
A student from those years, who afterward lost contact with Reb Shraga Feivel for many years, recalls that the day before his wedding Reb Shraga Feivel paid him a surprise visit and spoke to him at length about the importance of taharas hamishpachah (the laws of family purity) and shemiras Shabbos. Reb Shraga Feivel did not leave until he had extracted from his former student a promise to observe both these mitzvos. In subsequent years, the student found Shabbos a severe test since Saturday was his most profitable business day. Nevertheless, whenever he felt that the temptation to remain open on Shabbos was too great to withstand, he would remember his promise to Reb Shraga Feivel.
15. Rabbi Eisenberger was, like Rabbi Shraga Feivel, a native of Hungary. Before emigrating to the United States, he took the precaution of learning shechitah in order to have food in his own home that he felt comfortable eating. In Scranton, he tutored boys privately in his house, and on Thursdays he would drive around to the various little towns near Scranton to slaughter chickens for the Jews living there.)
Sample book chapters online - The above are the beginning chapters from
REB SHRAGA FEIVEL
Following are some essential teachings of Reb Shraga Feivel in relation to Torah and the secular world (from an article that he wrote) as they are explained in the book:
"One of Reb Shraga Feivel's first efforts contrasting Torah hashkafah and modern thought was "Hellenism and Judaism."8 He began the article with a series of dichotomies between Greek and Jewish thought: Judaism stresses the soul, while Greek thought places the highest value on the intellect; in Jewish thought the perfection of one's middos is the ultimate test of a man, in Greek thought it is the development of his mind; Judaism's primary concern is with the person's conduct, Greece's with the person's thought; Judaism emphasizes purity, Greece beauty regardless of its vulgarity; Jewish culture arouses man to holiness, Greek culture to self-gratification; Judaism is derived from a Divine Torah given at Sinai to the entire Jewish people, while Greek culture is the product of human intelligence.
7- Ibid., Issue 4, p. 4.
8- Ibid., Issue 18, p. 2.
"At root these two worldviews are irreconcilable, Reb Shraga Feivel wrote. All efforts to harmonize them from Philo of Alexandria to the Rambam have ended in failure. The first confrontation between these two cultures took place more than 2,000 years ago when the Chashmonaim revolted against Antiochus and his Seleucid dynasty. "Where will we find today," Reb Shraga Feivel asked, "such great men of spirit who will use all their abilities to once again cast out the idols as our ancestors did? What is lacking today," he charged, "is the burning fire which formerly characterized our people."
"In the words of Rabbi Leo Jung, Greece taught the holiness of beauty; Jews taught the beauty of holiness.
"In the second installment of the article, Reb Shraga Feivel turned to the contrast between the Greek emphasis on external form and beauty and Judaism's focus on the internal spirit that is hidden from view. The Greek stress on external form, he noted, had entered into the study houses and synagogues of America. This occasionally shows itself in a stress on decorum during prayer, at the expense of the feeling and cleaving to Hashem that was formerly the hallmark of Jewish prayer. While our Sages had found a place for the "beauty of Yefes" within the "tents of Shem," they had never permitted that pursuit of beauty to become more important than holiness.9"
(9. Yefes is the son of Noach from whom Greece descends. The name itself implies beauty. The Jewish people, whose destiny is to dwell in the tents of Torah, are the descendants of Noach's son Shem)
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