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22 Kislev 5763 - November 27, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In Tempestuous Times: The Life And Achievements Of HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz, zt'l

by Rabbi A. Gefen

New Frontiers, Old Challenges

Eight months after the arrival of the Mirrer yeshiva students from Shanghai in the U.S. after the end of the war, Rav Kalmanovitz opened a new chapter in his amazing career of hatzoloh. In the summer of 5707 (1947), he embarked on a trip that would introduce him to an entirely new field of endeavor, the ancient Jewish communities of Morocco.

HaRav Refoel Abu zt'l a great talmid chochom from Tiveria who was then in his thirties, was sent to help Rav Kalmanovitz in Morocco.

From Casablanca, Rav Abu sent Rav Kalmanovitz a comprehensive report of his discoveries and achievements in the course of his visit to Marrakesh and the surrounding Jewish villages (where he was accompanied by a devoted assistant, Mr. Yitzhak Almaliach) to set up Otzar Hatorah to save whatever possible of Moroccan Jewry.

In the last part we discussed the part of Rav Abu's letter that described his visit to Marrakesh and the surrounding villages.

Pursuing Every Opening

The last point in Rav Abu's letter concerns one other, pivotal aspect of Rav Kalmanovitz's Moroccan initiative. Typical of his breadth, which took in every facet of a situation, was Rav Kalmanovitz's decision to attempt to get the Alliance to introduce at least minimal Torah studies into their schools.

He did not rest in the knowledge that fine Torah schools were being set up, on a par with what the Alliance was offering. The fact that large numbers of innocent Yiddishe kinder would still be spending their formative years in an educational environment that was utterly divorced from Torah, made it imperative that something be attempted.

It is hard to judge whether, and if so to what extent, the Alliance was antagonistic to Jewish religion specifically. The organization's aim was to bring "enlightened" French (non- Jewish) culture to what they considered the "backward" Jewish communities of North Africa. To this end the pupils in its schools were taught to appear and to speak like cultured French gentiles. The leaders of the Alliance believed that this would be in their best interests.

There was probably no deliberate intention to obliterate all traces of their own ancestral faith, as the early Jewish Communists in Russia, for example, wanted to do.

The leaders of the Alliance were themselves assimilated Jews who had next-to-no acquaintance with their own Judaism, while being blinded by the dazzle of European culture. In contrast, the early Jewish Communists were rebels who turned in anger and hostility upon the world that had nurtured them and which they knew well. (See Rav David Ovadiah's view of the Alliance's agenda, in the accompanying box.) Though it is not always easy to distinguish indifference from hostility, there were certainly grounds for Rav Kalmanovitz's hope that some Jewish content might at least be introduced into the curriculum of the Alliance schools.

Rav Abu closed his report to Rav Kalmanovitz with the following information. "With regard to the Alliance school, we hope that there will be a change for the better. They are coming closer to us and at present they have given us two French teachers. Our hope is that little by little, Torah will spread through the Alliance, as Tajouri promised, even though there are no such signs there as of yet . . . "

As a result of Rav Kalmanovitz's pressure, some promise had evidently been won from one of the Alliance personnel that a few hours of Torah education would be introduced in their schools. When they failed to keep to their word, Rav Kalmanovitz decided to bypass them and to seek an audience with the King of Morocco in an effort to gain his support for the measure.

With Rabbi Moshe Lasry acting as his companion and translator, Rav Kalmanovitz met with the king. It is said that the king was very taken by his guest's demeanor and regal bearing, while for his part Rav Kalmanovitz conducted the meeting in Yiddish, tears and emotion. The king eventually said to Rav Lasry, "Tell him that he should do as he wishes -- his brothers are in his hand and he shall decide."

It proved far harder to implement this triumph than it had been to win it. For a time, the schools fulfilled their obligation under the royal order by teaching Ivrit, Zionism or Hebrew poetry, but even this did not last after Rav Kalmanovitz's departure.

Encountering the Torah World

Rav Kalmanovitz obtained both Moroccan exit visas and entry visas to the United States for a group of fifty bochurim. Entry visas were only issued by the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, so Rav Kalmanovitz argued that the United States' acceptance of Moroccan Jewish students would improve the status of Moroccan Jews in their native country.

The Moroccan boys were taught in a separate shiur until they became familiar with the language that was spoken in the yeshiva. In time, they were very successful in their learning and they raised fine families, some of them marrying into the finest American Torah homes. Rav Kalmanovitz was overjoyed with their progress.

When the Ponevezher Rov zt'l visited America, Rav Kalmanovitz hurried to ask him to come and test the Moroccan bochurim. The Rov was highly impressed, not only by their high standard and by the way they had developed in Torah and yiras Shomayim but by the very idea of setting up a framework in the yeshiva for these boys. Then and there, he decided to open a similar department in Ponevezh and he invited several bochurim from the Mirrer group to come to Bnei Brak to assist him in this endeavor.

Five of the finest talmidim were chosen. They flew out to Eretz Yisroel together with HaRav Eliyohu Dessler zt'l, who had spent some time in the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York and had taught the group for six months.

Another godol beTorah who followed this path was HaRav Zeidel Semiaticzki zt'l, who paid several visits to Morocco and took groups of bochurim back with him to London, to the yeshiva headed by his father-in-law, HaRav Moshe Schneider zt'l. Many of those talmidim went on to become prominent Torah disseminators.

One well-known incident in Morocco took place on a Shabbos. Rav Zeidel sent a car driven by a gentile to collect Yitzhak Almaliach to take him to get the young Avraham Badouch, who was with a Zionist Youth Aliya group that was about to leave for Eretz Yisroel where, in such a framework, the chances of him even remaining religious were negligible. Shabbos was the last chance that he could be saved. When Almaliach returned later in the day accompanied by Avraham Badouch, Reb Zeidel was sitting with an open Rambam in front of him and he explained why it was permitted and in fact obligatory to save the boy in this way on Shabbos!

Following Up

Even after he had returned from his visit to Morocco, Rav Kalmanovitz remained heavily involved in the affairs of Otsar Hatorah and in Torah life in Morocco in general. Already at the beginning of 5708 (1947), shortly after his visit, he wrote that he had opened fifteen yeshivos ketanos and gedolos with a total of four hundred talmidim, as well as talmudei Torah and chadorim whose combined enrollment was more than ten thousand.

As well as heading Yeshivas Mir in New York, he led numerous campaigns for both educational and Torah causes in Morocco. The Kalmanovitz family has hundreds of letters relating to the management of numerous issues affecting Jewish life in both Morocco and in Iran, where Rav Kalmanovitz maintained a regular correspondence with one of the leaders of the Jewish community.

In addition, throughout the years he became active on behalf of every case of a Jew or Jews in distress that came his way. The type of measures he took and the lengths to which he was willing to go might strike us at first as unusual and innovative. A little reflection shows that his path was usually the most direct and effective. What appears as unconventional was in fact inspired by his great love and sense of responsibility for each and every Jew. These showed him possibilities of helping which he always attempted, that simply went unperceived by most others.

This is demonstrated most effectively by the account of just one episode, which was related by Rav Tzvi Padida, who heard it from one of the parties involved. When the situation required it, Rav Kalmanovitz would even knock on people's doors late at night.

One night, a respectable New York Jew answered his door wearing night clothes and holding a newspaper, to find Rav Kalmanovitz standing there. Before they began discussing the issue concerning which Rav Kalmanovitz had called, the rov asked his host, "Nu, what is there in the paper today about the Jews?"

"There's nothing," replied the man.

"I don't believe that a newspaper lets a day go by without addressing the topic of the Jews. Take another look!"

The man searched and cried, "Here! I found something!"

It was a small item reporting that a Jew who had been arrested in Iraq and accused of spying was about to be executed.

"Is that so?! Rachmono litzlan a Jew is going to be executed. We have to do something," was Rav Kalmanovitz's reaction.

His host looked at him in amazement. "What can we do here in America, when he is in Iraq?"

"No!" cried Rav Kalmanovitz. "A Jew is going to be killed and you intend to sit by quietly? If it were your own son, would you stay here, in pajamas, with a coffee? Get up and do something! Come with me and we'll travel right away to Washington and go see the President . . . "

The man laughed at this bizarre idea -- but to no avail. Rav Kalmanovitz had him stand up and he took him out of his house and they went off together. In Washington, they managed to find a Jewish senator, who advised them to contact the Swedish Embassy, through whom they made contact with the Royal Palace in Sweden. (Rav Kalmanovitz had established a firm friendship with the King of Sweden during the Second World War.)

A royal order was soon conveyed to the Swedish ambassador in Iraq to go and visit the imprisoned Jew and to grant him diplomatic immunity. Ultimately, the Jew received a Swedish passport which enabled him to leave Iraq safely and to arrive in the United States.

He remained grateful to Rav Kalmanovitz and observed Torah and mitzvos wholeheartedly but of course it goes without saying that Rav Kalmanovitz knew nothing of this in advance. All his family are sincere and pious religious Jews.

This alacrity to help and the setting aside of all personal or other reckoning in order to try to rescue a fellow Jew from either material or spiritual danger, is the hallmark of all great heroes of hatzoloh. In Rav Kalmanovitz's case, it extends, like a golden thread, from his early days as a young rov, through the maelstrom of both the First and the Second World Wars, right to the very end of his life.

Ongoing Involvement in Morocco

Despite Otsar Hatorah's lofty aims, the ambitions of its institutions' heads to see it lead to a broad revitalizing of Torah life and the feasibility of its having a solid financial basis, in time it became generally felt that the organization fell far short of its potential.

In one case, Rav Kalmanovitz vehemently protested changes that would change the whole character of the schools, which he had worked to resist. He wrote in great distress to Morocco, "I was shocked to hear Mr. X. 's announcement . . . in your name . . . that you agreed to cut down the hours of limudei kodesh in the Talmud Torah at the request of the irreligious. Did you not agree with me that it should also be written in your name that under no circumstances would we agree to reduce, not even by a moment, four hours of Torah daily?

"This is unforgivable, for it affects future generations. It will alter the entire image of the Talmud Torah, making the mundane the main thing and Torah secondary, chas vesholom . . . Harming tinokos shel beis rabbon is like harming the apple of Klal Yisroel's eye and its eternal continuity . . . Was it for this that I have toiled and sacrificed myself for several years, placing myself in real danger in order to print one-hundred-and-sixty-five thousand Chumoshim, nevi'im and siddurim for Otsar Hatorah, so that a lawless crowd should come and profane and destroy everything, chas vesholom?"

When, in 5711 (1951), the hours of general studies were increased, going beyond that which the Torah authorities had sanctioned for Otsar Hatorah, Rav Kalmanovitz wrote to Rav David Ovadiah, rov of Safro, "Please reply, letting me know about all of Otsar Hatorah's work throughout the country, [the organization] that I merited to set up with my toil and with the blood of my heart and soul, for which I sacrificed myself and which has now become greatly weakened, in our many sins.

"The reason [for this] is the absence of a man great in Torah and in fear of Heaven and who understands education to head the organization and to coordinate its work. Then [were there such a man heading Otsar Hatorah] the rest of the organization would be dragged after the head. I am amazed at his honor's unwillingness to accept the post of Chief Director. For this position alone it would have been worthwhile to come into this world. Chazal said, `There are those who acquire their portion in the world to come in one moment,' about precisely such a situation."

Despite Rav Ovadiah's refusal to accept the position (apparently due to his own community's unwillingness to part with him), Rav Kalmanovitz continued trying to influence him. He wrote, "They write to me that the spiritual situation gets worse every day, that the pupils are becoming fewer and that an irreligious administrator has arrived to teach French and that he is secular and spoils everything and that nobody takes any notice. My heart goes out to the remaining survivors of our precious life that are going lost. In our many sins, all the lands of Europe have been destroyed: `Yosef has gone and Shimon has gone and [now] you would take Binyomin; all the losses are mine,' (Bereishis 42:36) . . . There is no great man to stand at the movement's head, to work with integrity and faith, with love of Torah and fear of Heaven. Therefore, Otsar Hatorah's entire existence in Morocco is in danger . . . "

One of Rav Kalmanovitz's plans involved Rav Gershon Leibman's coming to Morocco for a period of time with, "a group of thirty adult Sephardi talmidim, themselves filled with Torah and mussar, to open a yeshiva" (Rav Leibman's words), joining Otsar Hatorah and becoming active locally. This plan never came to fruition, and neither did another one under which an odom godol (possibly Rav Zeidel Semiaticzki zt'l) who lived in London with his family would have come out to Morocco to supervise. However, Rav Ovadia was instrumental in having Rav Aharon Monsonego eventually appointed as head of Otsar Hatorah. Rav Monsonego serves as Chief Rabbi of Morocco to this day.

A Second Visit To the Mahgreb

Circumstances forced the aging Rav Kalmanovitz to gird himself and return to Morocco for a second visit in 5713 (1953). At the root of the problems was the fact that the influence of the general Jewish "street" was allowed to gain a foothold in the affairs of Otsar Hatorah and once inside, it was very hard to fight it effectively.

As far as the situation can be judged from our present distance in time and space, the Alliance's main power over Otsar Hatorah stemmed from the fact that the latter organization was not granted its own license to teach general studies. While the Moroccan government gave such a permit to the Alliance, Otsar Hatorah had no independence in this respect and thus all the funding and administration of the general studies passed through Alliance and was subject to its control.

The heads of the Alliance used this power to keep down the standards of the general studies in Otsar Hatorah. Then they would periodically raise a hue and cry about the poor level of performance in the Otsar's schools and use the pressure that this would generate to force the principals to agree to longer hours for general studies. This much is apparent from our examination of Otsar Hatorah's archives.

Those who worked for the schools begged Rav Kalmanovitz to come to Morocco and have a meeting at the royal palace in order to secure Otsar Hatorah's full independence. (It is very possible that Rav Kalmanovitz's and Rabbi Moshe Lasry's audience with the king described in the previous article actually took place during this second trip.)

That same year, a number of rabbonim arrived in Morocco, whose presence brought about a change for the better in Otsar Hatorah's situation: Rabbi Moshe Lasry, Rabbi Moshe Reichmann and Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Halevi zt'l. Rabbi Reichmann came at great personal sacrifice, with the encouragement and as a result of the decision of the Chazon Ish zt'l.

Rav Yitzchok Meir Halevi zt'l was a Polish talmid chochom who had earlier been despatched by Vaad Hatzoloh to Iran in order to supply food parcels to Jewish refugees in Siberia. After the war, Rav Halevi remained in Iran to work on behalf of Torah education there. For four years, from 5713 to 5717 (1953-7), he headed Otsar Hatorah in Morocco, following which he returned to his work in Teheran.

He was one of the handful of leaders within whose hearts there burned a sense of responsibility towards the neglected Jewish communities. In a letter to Rav Kalmanovitz from Teheran in the winter of 5708, Rav Halevi described the abysmal state of Jewish knowledge among Persian Jewry at large, and then observed:

"How is it their fault? Who is guilty for this if not us, the rabbonim, who were on the other side and failed to interest ourselves in the fate of our Jewish brethren in other places, everyone remaining in his own daled amos instead. Who knows whether the great churban of the Jewish world that has befallen us was not for this great sin? May Hashem have mercy and repair our breaches and build His house.

"Even today, people are only active within their own space. Where are the nation's leaders, its geonim and sages? Why aren't they organizing all their resources . . . and going out from home to home, from city to city and from country to country, to save whatever can be saved, spreading Torah, mitzvos and religion among all strata of the holy nation, who are ready to receive, to listen, to learn, to teach, to keep and to observe everything that is written in the holy Torah. For the past two years, I have been crying out for help and no one has taken notice . . . "

The Bitter Truth is Sweeter than the Honey of Flattery - - Marking the Alliance's First Century

Rav David Ovadiah served as rov of the Moroccan town of Safro. He was one of Rav Kalmanovitz's staunchest allies in the battle to save Moroccan Jewry. There was little for Otsar Hatorah to do in his community. The rov himself supported a talmud Torah, a yeshiva and a kollel with funds he received from the Yidden in Eastern Europe to whom he appealed. For years, Rav Ovadiah worked to contain the influence of the Alliance and to further Torah education.

In 5720 (1960), the Alliance celebrated its centenary with a week of festivities held in Paris. Towards the week's end, a colleague expressed his amazement to Rav Ovadiah over his decision not to attend, since it would have been an ideal opportunity for revealing the truth about the effects of the organization's work.

Rav Ovadiah agreed. Though it was too late to travel, Rav Ovadiah decided to draft a speech and have it sent to Paris and read out in his name. He completed the draft at three the following morning and took it himself to the airport. He got a member of the crew of a flight leaving that day to Paris, to agree to transfer the letter immediately upon their arrival to one of the Moroccan rabbonim who was in Paris. Here, slightly edited, is the speech (prepared from a Hebrew translation of the French original), which was read out at the beginning of the closing session, provoking a stormy debate:

We have all gathered here to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Kol Yisrael Chaverim (Alliance Israelite Universelle) organization. We shall not stint on praises for the great and glorious work that has been carried out for a hundred years . . . I have come from Morocco, the country that has received the greatest benefit from the work of the Alliance and I will not withhold praise.

I have come however, to express a great cry of misfortune over the future of two hundred thousand of our brethren: I am worried and anxious, day and night.

How can it be otherwise, when I see how very precarious the spiritual future of our Moroccan brethren is? A population that has been released -- by the Alliance -- from the obscurity of its ignorance, has been abandoned at a crossroads, without guidance or direction. Yes! The Alliance freed us, lehavdil, like Moshe in his day but it has left us in the middle of the desert. Now we await the revelation of the Shechinah at Har Sinai -- but there is nothing. [The reference to Moshe Rabbeinu alluded to a eulogy that had been given for the founder of the Alliance, in which the speaker compared him to Moshe Rabbeinu, who redeemed Israel from persecution.]

If that was the Alliance's [only] aim, it has completed its task and it should now stand aside, feeling all the satisfaction of a job well done. It has educated the masses, has liberated them and has trained a certain elite. For generations, it disseminated French culture . . . However, if the Alliance limited its aspirations to the mere training of cultured folk, it would be contradicting its raison d'etre, because any secular organization could have done just as good a job . . .

The call of the Alliance's founders, in June 1860, echoes in my ears: "Jews! Scattered throughout the world and mingled with the nations, you continue your heart's attachment to the ancient religion of your forefathers." The signatories of that declaration acknowledged the link to an ancient religion. The Alliance was founded in order to liberate the Jews politically, legislatively and materially but not in order to lead them to assimilate or, in other words, to betray their own identities as Jews . . . Their liberation was indeed a battle against patterns of living and of thinking that had led to their inferiority. But at the same time, there was an enormous risk that we would see them discarding the content and the structure... together with the internal life, the religion.

[And] isn't this what happened? Not only did the Alliance fail to maintain the Jews' connection with their ancient religion, even where they [i.e. the Moroccan Jews] preserved it with collections of customs that had passed down the generations, it came and severed the link, without showing them the true face of their religion. The Alliance's culpability over Moroccan Jewry is terrifying. It has a large share in the formation of a vacuum in our brothers' spiritual lives. Tomorrow, it may bear responsibility for the assimilation and destruction of the largest Jewish community in the Islamic lands.

It is with pain and anguish that I say here, that a majority of the elite trained by the Alliance has moved far away from the Torah's spirit, from Jewish ideas and from observing the mitzvot. I know that it was not the Alliance's intention to distance Jews from their law, but to our chagrin, the facts are there before our eyes. The process was a simple one: the holy was profaned and in the guise of fighting mannerisms alone, the respect which they bore towards religion was also destroyed.

A few examples will confirm this much better than a long speech: the Alliance teachers forced their pupils to sit in class bareheaded. There are also teachers who changed their pupils' authentic Hebrew names into gentile ones. Are they ashamed of the names that their ancestors used for generations? In class, they told the children about Noel [Xmas] and taught them how to draw fir trees. What's more, they forgot to tell them about Chanukah: what is this, if not scorning Jewish values?

Religious study occupied a very small place on the syllabus and therefore, it was not noted on the report given on progressing from class to class . . . it is not assigned any value. It is easy to imagine the impression this leaves upon a child's soul. On the one hand, the little Judaism that the child picked up in his parents' home is ruined, while on the other, he is not compensated with something better . . .

With the completion of the Alliance's first century, it can record the success of its project of emancipation. A magnificent objective awaits it in its second century though: to return Jews to their ancestral faith . . .

I know that my voice, my shout, is blighting the joyous chorus of paeans, coming from all sides in praise of the Alliance; [I know] that "this is not the place" and that "now is not the time" to hurl harsh truths. But I also know that the bitterness of the unvarnished truth is ultimately sweeter than the honey of flattery.

I shall end with wishes for the Alliance's future: [that] when our descendants gather a century from now to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary, the organization will be deserving of Hashem's praise of Avraham Ovinu; Hakodosh Boruch Hu did not praise his fine character traits, his hospitality or his sacrifices for others. He said, "For I know him, because he instructs his children and household after him, and they guard Hashem's path . . . " (Bereishis 18:19).


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