Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Elul 5763 - September 10, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In the Front Line of the Battle for Torah Chinuch in Eretz Yisroel and Brazil -- HaRav Zelig Privalsky zt'l, His Twenty-Fifth Yahrtzeit

by S. Israel

A Winning Manner and Pure Motivation

Among HaRav Zelig Privalsky's most distinctive traits were his grace and charm. These typified his speech, his deeds and his appearance, as well as his immense communal and educational endeavors, even as he grappled with the tremendous challenges of his time that this work entailed. This is how Rav Shlomo Lorincz recalls Reb Zelig, with whom he became closely acquainted sixty years ago through their joint educational work within the Zeirei Agudas Yisroel movement and in the chareidi educational system, to which Reb Zelig devoted himself, heart and soul.

"Owing to his wonderful pleasantness, the influence he wielded was powerful and highly beneficial. This was besides his other qualities, for he also possessed a keen and straight mind and was a genuine ben Torah. There was always a smile on his lips and an agreeableness and good cheer about everything that he did, which assured him success in carrying his point," Rav Lorincz remembers. "He was not one for noise or loud talk; his way was that of pleasantness and grace, as the posuk says about Noach: `And Noach found favor in Hashem's eyes' (Bereishis 6:8), which led to his being saved from the Flood.

"Finding favor in the eyes of our fellow men is a very special quality. Based on the posuk in Mishlei (3:4) we ask, `May we find favor and soundness of mind (i.e. acceptance) in the eyes of Hashem and man.' I can tell you," says Rav Lorincz, "that Rav Zelig Privalsky zt'l, merited finding favor in the eyes of other people, too. This was especially true with regard to his position as chairman of the Union of Teachers of Agudas Yisroel, a job that was extremely difficult to handle in the circumstances. His success was due to his endearing manner of speaking, his geniality and his broad, hearty smile.

"I would often meet him at the home of the Brisker Rov zt'l whom he would consult about every step that he took in life," Rav Lorincz notes. "The Rov befriended him because he knew that he accepted the advice he gave and that his motivation was one hundred percent pure.

"One of the most formidable dilemmas about which he consulted the Rov concerned the dire financial plight of the Agudah teachers. Their position was extremely precarious in those days because of the chronic delays in the payment of their salaries. When things became absolutely unbearable, the idea of declaring a teachers' strike was proposed. Rav Privalsky broached this question on one of his visits to the Rov. As far as I remember," Rav Lorincz says, "the Brisker Rov ruled that only if there was no other option and with great reluctance could a strike be held that would affect the general studies but under no circumstances might it affect the students' limudei kodesh."

The Battle Relocates

During the fateful years of the Second World War and the pre- State period immediately afterwards, Rav Zelig Privalsky was renowned as one of the foremost pioneers of Torah and chareidi education in Eretz Yisroel, as he had been known in Europe for a decade beforehand. He left a major imprint on the foundations that were then being laid for the chareidi community that would soon grow in Eretz Yisroel under the new conditions that were unfolding.

He belonged to a cadre of bnei Torah that first devoted years to learning Torah in yeshivos and kollelim and then became involved in Torah education. They had sharp minds and were keenly aware of the realities and the spiritual hazards of their time. This group formed the core around which chareidi communal life was beginning to take shape in what was dubbed `the new yishuv.' This name was given to the budding chareidi communities in the new cities to distinguish them from the yishuv hayoshon, the veteran `old yishuv' community in Yerushalayim, that had already accumulated much hard-won experience in preserving its integrity in the face of spiritually hostile onslaughts.

It is hard to properly evaluate Reb Zelig's contribution or that of his colleagues, without appreciating something of the volatility of the times and the crucial nature of the decisions that had to be taken and acted upon. Even in the most tranquil of times, Torah education is a holy mission that involves laying down foundations for generations to come. A talmid's character and aspirations are carefully shaped, to prepare him for a life of studying Torah and fulfilling mitzvos while he grapples with life's challenges. In those years, however, the training of talmidim whose main aim in life would be Torah study had significance beyond the realm of the individual. It involved the laying of foundations for a chareidi community that needed to be spiritually robust so that it would be able to maintain itself and survive far into the future.

The times were among the most tragic that our nation has known, both materially and spiritually. European Jewry had been all but wiped out, while in Eretz Yisroel the groundwork was being laid for the establishment of a state under secular leadership. Chareidi Jewry had to find a way to survive within this framework, without capitulating to the demands of those who had cut themselves off from their nation's past but in whose hands all the power and resources were concentrated.

The episode involving the Yaldei Teheran served as the first indication of the ultimate aims of the secular groups. This experience later repeated itself with the huge aliyot of Jewish communities from the Arab lands that took place in the State's early years. The fate of the Yaldei Teheran became a symbol of secular leadership's aim of tearing the young generation away from its heritage, shrinking from no means that was available to them in order to do so.

The Teheran Children were young Ashkenazic orphans who had been miraculously saved from extermination in Europe. A large majority of them were the offspring of devout, observant parents yet when they arrived in Eretz Yisroel they were forcibly sent to secular institutions affiliated with the Zionist Youth Aliya organization, or to irreligious kibbutzim, where they were compelled to adopt a secular way of life. All the pleas and entreaties of the religious groups that the children be allowed to continue living in the way that they had been raised in their parents' homes fell on the deaf ears of the irreligious functionaries who had been assigned to making provision for the children's futures. They faithfully implemented the program that the Jewish Agency and the yishuv's secular leaders had adopted.

Astride Two Worlds

This was the cauldron into which Reb Zelig was cast when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel as a twenty-year-old bochur, after having been saved himself from the European inferno. He was a native of Grodno, in Lithuanian Poland, where he had learned, first in cheder, then in mechinah and then in the renowned Yeshivas Shaar Hatorah led by the gaon HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l, whose talmid he became.

As an outstanding young ben Torah, his leanings toward communal involvement were already apparent in his chairmanship of the local Pirchei Agudas Yisroel. His wandering began when he was only eighteen, with the outbreak of the war. Reb Zelig was one of the thousands of bnei Torah who flocked to Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l in Vilna in the war's first months.

Thanks to the recommendation of Rav Yosef Shub zt'l Hy'd, the capable secretary of Vaad Hayeshivos, who achieved great things under Reb Chaim Ozer's stewardship, Reb Zelig received one of the only five certificates for aliyah to Eretz Yisroel that had been allotted to Agudas Yisroel. This saved him from Europe, though his wartime journey to Eretz Yisroel via Russia and Turkey was far from smooth.

Arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he returned to yeshiva, joining the Lomzhe Yeshiva in Petach Tikva where he applied himself to intensive learning. Shortly afterwards, he was among the seven talmidim with whom the Ponovezher Rov opened his new yeshiva in Bnei Brak. In later life, Reb Zelig would often speak about the powerful impressions his spiritual mentors had made upon him, amongst whom were HaRav Nochum Abba Grosbard zt'l, mashgiach in Lomzhe and Ponevezh, HaRav Eliyohu Dessler zt'l and HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein zt'l, mashgichim in Ponevezh.

After his marriage to his Rebbetzin, who was from a rabbinical family from Telz, he continued learning in Kollel Chazon Ish. At this time, he grew very close to the Chazon Ish, becoming greatly influenced by his approach to learning and by many of his other ideas.

At the same time, he also took an interest in the needs of the chareidi community, heightening his awareness of its problems and needs. He found broad scope for Torah and educational work in this area, working within the Zeirei Agudas Yisroel movement, among whose founders and policy shapers he is numbered. He engaged in this work together with several other talmidei chachomim, under the close guidance of the Chazon Ish.

A Gifted Educator

Once Reb Zelig had decided that at that time, the field of chinuch was the area that most needed Torah activism in order to stand firm in the face of the deluge of heresy that was incarnated in the State, with all the power and apparatus that it commanded, he threw himself wholly into this work. He was immediately recognized as a powerful force in education. He made full use of an array of talents in practical teaching that rendered him a superlative educator. He conveyed to his pupils the best of all that he had absorbed from his own great mentors.

One of Reb Zelig's talmidim, who learned with him in seventh grade in a talmud Torah in Tel Aviv, recalls that, "He was the best rebbe that I had. He had a wonderful gift for explanation, which provoked his students to fully utilize their own powers of comprehension, raising them to very high levels."

He did not rest with this but became one of the shapers of the emerging Agudah educational system. He formed the Union of Agudas Yisroel Teachers so that the teachers would not have to be subservient to other, secular professional organizations, and served as its chairman for a number of years. With the Chazon Ish's encouragement, he took part in the founding of Chinuch Atzmai in Eretz Yisroel and worked untiringly to ensure that Torah institutions in settlements all over the country joined the organization.

During Reb Zelig's chairmanship, the union of Agudah teachers went through one of its most difficult periods with regard to wages and elementary workers' rights. Payment of the teachers' monthly salaries could not be taken for granted. It happened more than once that salaries were not paid for several months at a time. While the teachers in the Chinuch Atzmai and Bais Yaakov schools were very highly motivated and saw their calling as a sacred trust, they needed their salary to support their own families. On the other hand, it was hard to point the finger of blame anywhere, due to the nature of the country's educational system.

Sacrifice for Torah Chinuch

Chinuch Atzmai was an outgrowth of what had been known as `the Fourth Stream.' This was closed down when the government decided to abolish the old system wherein the major political- religious groupings controlled their own educational institutions, and introduce a unified educational system under government control. The educational "streams" run by the Labor Movement, the General Zionist Stream and the "independent" Mizrachi and Agudah streams, ceased to exist.

Gedolei Yisroel shrank at the prospect of becoming part of the governmental educational system as though from fire. They also unequivocally rejected the solution that the Mizrachi adopted, of joining the general system (as "mamlachti dati") under the auspices of a Department of Religious Education, whose structure and educational programs were controlled by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The Torah leaders then decided that an independent educational system, outside the government structure, would have to be established. Only sixty percent of the budget would be covered by the State. The rest of the money would have to be raised through private means, by appealing to donors in Eretz Yisroel and abroad. In practice, the amount that needed to be raised exceeded forty percent, because the government's contribution was based on the expenses of the standard State education. Chinuch Atzmai on the other hand, had special needs owing for example, to the separation between boys and girls and to the imperative of maintaining Torah schools in rural areas and far off settlements, even though the number of students did not meet the legal minimum.

This soon became a chronic problem. Teachers would leave for work each morning, some of them making exhausting trips to teach in distant locations, while Chinuch Atzmai's bank account was empty. HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin zt'l and the other gedolim who led Chinuch Atzmai, made valiant efforts to bridge the gap. Urgent telegrams would be despatched to gedolei Yisroel overseas, who undertook the necessary but tiring fundraising work. At the end of the day though, there still remained a shortfall.

At the helm of the Union of Agudah Teachers stood Reb Zelig, who, while he was every inch a ben Torah and faithful to gedolei Yisroel, was utterly torn by the situation. On the one hand, there could be no compromise in the struggle to provide authentic Torah education for all who desired it, while on the other, the cries of the teachers that they should at least receive their meager salaries, were understandable and wholly justified.

This was the background to the aforementioned proposal to hold a teachers' strike, in the hope that this would make the necessary impression on the community at large and engender broader financial support for Chinuch Atzmai. When Reb Zelig put this proposal to him however, the Brisker Rov ruled that it was out of the question for limudei kodesh to be interrupted by a strike. It was Reb Zelig's task to tell the teachers that they had to continue working. With his refinement and his powers of persuasion, he somehow succeeded in calming everyone's spirits and the idea was dropped.

The Future Beckons

The next challenge that Reb Zelig took up was also in the field of education but in a distant and unexpected arena -- Sao Paolo, Brazil -- that came as a surprise even to him. Here though, he was revealed in his full stature as a visionary and a leader. Having settled in Eretz Yisroel, he had never dreamed of leaving for no matter how sublime a calling. However, Hashgochoh willed otherwise.

At the fourth Knessia Gedolah that was held in Yerushalayim in the summer of 5714 (1954), several of the delegates from Brazil raised a hue and cry about the dismal state of Jewish education in their country. They begged for suitable personnel to be sent to them, to attempt to salvage whatever could still be saved from the crumbling Jewish educational system there.

Two years later, concrete steps were afoot to make this happen. One of the leaders of the chareidi community in Brazil, the well-known activist and donor, R' Binyamin Citron z'l, personally appealed to Reb Zelig and asked him to undertake the mission. Reb Zelig tried to put him off but R' Citron and his colleagues maintained their pressure on him. Ultimately, Reb Zelig resolved that the Brisker Rov, whose advice he had always followed unquestioningly, should have the final say on the matter.

He later told friends that he was sure that the Rov, whose views on chutz la'aretz were well known, would encourage him to remain in Eretz Yisroel. However, he received a very different response. The Rov gave him his blessing to go and wished him success.

This was not enough for Reb Zelig. He imagined that the answer he had received might not have been so clear after all. He therefore asked the Rov's son to put his question to his father once again. Should he travel to Brazil to set chareidi education there on its feet again, or should he stay in Eretz Yisroel and continue his holy work for Torah education? The Rov repeated his positive response to the proposal that he leave and again added his blessings for success.

Reb Zelig wanted to hear what Reb Chatzkel Levenstein had to say on the subject and he received a further surprise when the Mashgiach gave his blessings and even added two pieces of advice. First, he told him to start looking for a replacement immediately upon arriving in Brazil so that he would be able to return to Eretz Yisroel quickly and second, he recommended that the family not alter the standard of living to which they had become accustomed in Bnei Brak.

Torah Revolution in Brazil

Once it was apparent that Heaven intended him to go to Brazil, Reb Zelig accepted the offer, took his family and a team of veteran teachers from Agudah schools and set out for Sao Paolo. Upon their arrival, they could immediately see the urgency of the situation. They found the educational institution -- Beis Chinuch -- that had been operating until then, in a sorry state spiritually. Several hundred boys and girls learned in mixed classes, taught by teachers whose own Yiddishkeit was very weak.

Reb Zelig and his team embarked on a thorough reorganization of the place, which was henceforth known as Mercaz Hachinuch Hachareidi. They restructured the institution and divided it into several departments. There was a general Talmud Torah for boys, named Beis Chinuch; a religious high school named Yavneh; a yeshiva ketanoh for the sons of the chareidi families, named Chofetz Chaim; a Bais Yaakov seminary; and kindergartens for the young children.

Within a short time, the Jewish community of Sao Paolo felt that there had been a tremendous spiritual turnabout. The results were colossal and can still be felt today, even after the passage of twenty-five years. Despite the fact that eighty-five percent of the parents of the students were irreligious, the institutions turned out class after class of boys and girls with profound awareness of Judaism and of Torah, who aspired to live fully Jewish lives. Many of them also brought about revolutionary changes in the lifestyles of their parents, most of whom were survivors of the war, who had been completely uprooted from both their physical and spiritual roots. As a result of Reb Zelig's influence, many of the graduates decided to travel to yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel or America and many of the girls also left to continue learning in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Eretz Yisroel or America. These young people went on to establish fine Torah homes.

After ten years of fruitful work, the Mercaz was hit by a crisis. R' Binyomin Citron passed away and control of the institutions passed into different hands, leading to a change in the general atmosphere. Although this was an extremely difficult period for Reb Zelig, his sterling character was most apparent in his handling of the new situation. It was quite clear to him that with the shift away from the ideology charted by gedolei Yisroel, this was no longer the place for him. With his typical nobility of bearing however, he refrained from making any public comment or reaction but immediately resigned his position and source of livelihood, without being overly concerned about the consequences for his and his family's future.

The Brazilian chareidim were not so willing to let him go, however. On the initiative of the honorable R' Feish Moskowitz z'l, and owing to his generosity and that of other members of the chareidi community, the Bais Yaakov seminary was reinforced. It grew in both quality and quantity, to become one of the finest institutions in South America. Some time later, Reb Zelig also took charge of the Bais Yaakov elementary school, which his rebbetzin tlct'a, ran. Owing to the reputation that Reb Zelig enjoyed among the community at large, girls from every type of background came to learn in the seminary, from both Sephardi and Ashkenazi homes, from chassidishe circles to the modern orthodox groups. Students of the seminary were renowned for their exemplary conduct, their yiras Shomayim, their modesty, their broad Jewish knowledge and their fine character.

Source of Inspiration and Instruction

The educational work over which Reb Zelig presided literally amounted to "making neshomos" and his influence was evident in its every facet. Even when thrust headlong into the turbulent waters of educational and communal affairs, he remained a consummate talmid chochom and an outstanding mussar personality. He put constant effort into directing his thoughts Heavenwards in all that he did. He always remembered the Rambam's words in Hilchos Teshuvoh, that every good deed has the power to tip the balance upon which the entire world hangs, to the side of merit.

One could discern his constant awareness of the Nefesh Hachaim's remarks about the power of people's thoughts, speech and deeds to have profound and far-reaching effects in the Upper Worlds. He was proof that it was not only possible to live on this level while one remained within the walls of the beis hamedrash. It could be done even while involved with the tumult and clamor of everyday life and even in a land like Brazil, that was far from being a mokom Torah.

This was an eye-opener for many people. Even here, one could encounter a Yid whose heart beat to the rhythm of the teachings of Mesillas Yeshorim and Rabbenu Yonah. At his table one could hear the words of the great contemporary mussar teachers repeated and his every movement and utterance were expressions of mussar wisdom. Every word was measured. Despite being a gifted orator, he would keep public addresses brief. His letters to family members never contained trivialities. They would always contain divrei Torah, messages of encouragement and pure- hearted personal blessings.

He embodied spirituality. He showed how every facet of life could be dedicated to Hashem's service. This was the inspiration that one took from seeing him pray. There was no such thing as a routine prayer. He uttered the words calmly and measuredly, with feeling and awareness but without storming, in keeping with the training he had received from his teachers. It was instructive just to watch him. One could feel that he was standing before his Creator as a servant stands before his master. Yom Kippur was the exception -- on reaching the piyut Eileh Ezkeroh describing the deaths ten martyred sages, his pure spirit burst forth in all its depth and beauty, in an outpouring of tears, moans and cries.

Haven of Hospitality

Another respect in which Reb Zelig and his Rebbetzin tlct'a, excelled was their tzedokoh and their kindness and hospitality towards others. Following their marriage they occupied a one-and-a- half room apartment with wooden crates serving as their furniture but they still hosted guests to the best of their ability.

This practice continued even when their children were born. The place was never too small for a guest. The children would sleep on the floor temporarily, so that there would be enough beds for the visitors. Their home was always a haven where troubled souls could find help and advice. It was the address from which fundraising drives for all manner of public needs, for support of yeshivos and kollelim and for other worthy causes, were organized. More than a few chassonim left for their chuppos from the Privalskys' home and many more individuals who frequented their house felt themselves akin to family.

Privacy was Reb Zelig's watchword in the assistance that he extended to others. Nobody knew to whom he had lent money or for whom he had acted as guarantor. On those occasions when a borrower came to him to apologize for tardiness in repaying a loan, Reb Zelig would simply respond, "It's quite alright. I'll let you know when I need it!"

A Living Spirit

Sadly, Reb Zelig passed away in the prime of his life following a serious illness, on the twentieth of Menachem Av 5738 (1978) when he was just fifty-five years old. Throughout his twenty-two years in Brazil, he retained his ties to Eretz Yisroel. He visited frequently, utilizing his trips for conducting important missions and also as a means of being of assistance to others.

His profound impact is attested to by the fact that even today, twenty-five years after his petiroh, his name is still highly revered among Brazilian Jewry. In the words of Rav Eliyohu Boruch Waldt, rov of Sao Paolo: "Although it is decreed that the memory of the deceased shall fade, this is only said of a person who did not achieve anything in his lifetime and did not leave any memorial behind. It is different in the case of a person who was active and who accomplished things, who built and who elevated [in the course of his involvement] with Torah and the education of Jewish children.

"He sacrificed himself for spreading Torah and yiras Shomayim throughout his life, both in Eretz Yisroel and during the years of his exile when he came here to Brazil on the instructions of gedolei Yisroel. It is impossible to say that he has been forgotten. Chazal's statement that, `Tzadikim [even] in their deaths, are referred to as living' applies to him."

Rav Waldt writes further, "To this day, one meets avreichim, worthy householders [and] communal leaders, who say that they still remember the good old days when they received an elementary education that was rooted in love, affection and selflessness. In the first perek of Ovos, the mishnah tells us that, `Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua . . .' Moshe Rabbenu knew the great secret of chinuch - - Torah and yiras Shomayim cannot be `given' to someone else. They have to be transmitted selflessly on the part of the transmitter. Reb Zelig z'l, was such a person."


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