Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Tishrei 5764 - October 8, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Bais Medrash Elyon Monsey - Bais Medrash Elyon Bnei Brak

by Elozor Halpert
(Based on an article by Rabbi Yerachmiel Censor)

The Beginning

Today, the Jewish community in Monsey, NY is a flourishing Torah metropolis which is known throughout the world. Boruch Hashem, its fertile soil has produced a bumper crop of yeshivas, botei medrash, kollelim, etc., as well as a burgeoning population, bli ayin hora, of Torah-true Yidden.

However, the Monsey of yesteryear was far different: a rural area consisting of farmland and forests, with no Jewish population. The remarkable transformation which the area has undergone can be traced back to an institution which is no less remarkable: Bais Medrash Elyon.

In order to appreciate the unique contributions of this citadel of Torah to Yiddishkeit in America, we need some background. Let us therefore travel back almost six decades in time, to the year 1945. The great Torah empire of Europe had been tragically consumed in a raging inferno, and the venerable institutions which had produced generations of gedolim had been mercilessly destroyed, together with many of their roshei yeshiva and talmidim.

In the United States, a few farsighted visionaries realized that the survival of Klal Yisroel was at stake, and they took upon themselves the awesome responsibility of nurturing Torah education there. They devoted a tremendous amount of effort to this task, in the hope of producing the scholars who would help recreate the atmosphere of old Europe, and restore the Jewish nation to a semblance of its former glory.

At that time, the leading yeshiva in the United States was Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. This great institution was headed by an outstanding leader and visionary pioneer, whose name has become synonymous with the development of Torah education in this country: Morenu Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt"l. Reb Shraga Feivel clearly understood that Yiddishkeit was at a crucial crossroads. The greatness of the past had been cruelly obliterated, and the future of Yiddishkeit depended more than ever upon the education of new doros in the magnificent spirit of previous generations.

Earlier, in 1935, Reb Shraga Feivel had brought the celebrated gaon Reb Shlomo Heiman zt"l from Europe upon the recommendation of the great leader of European Jewry, HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt"l. He designated Reb Shlomo as the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, a position he filled with great distinction for a decade. After Reb Shlomo's passing in 1945, Reb Shraga Feivel knew that it was essential to appoint a new rosh yeshiva as quickly as possible. Who would be able to fill this crucial role at such a critical time, with no less than the future of Yiddishkeit hanging in the balance?

The Arrival of Reb Reuven

Reb Shraga Feivel had his eye on an outstanding candidate for the position, one who was superbly qualified to lead the monumental effort of reconstructing on this continent the vanished grandeur of the European Torah world: HaRav Reuven Grozovsky zt"l. Reb Reuven was already acknowledged as one of the gedolei hador. He was celebrated as a brilliant Torah scholar and had been the beloved and inspiring rosh yeshiva of the renowned Kaminetzer Yeshiva in Europe.

Reb Shraga Feivel lost no time, and contacted Reb Reuven during the shloshim period of Rav Heiman. Reb Shraga Feivel was delighted when Reb Reuven accepted the prestigious position that was offered to him, and Reb Reuven was soon installed as the new rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas.

But Reb Shraga Feivel would not rest. He had greater ambitions for Reb Reuven, and for the future of Torah study in the United States. He realized that the level of limud HaTorah had flourished to the point where there were now bochurim who were quite advanced in their studies and were ready to progress to a higher level. What was urgently required for such students was a placid environment, away from the distractions and the tumult of the big city, a place where they could blossom and reach their full potential.

To translate his grand plans into reality, Reb Shraga Feivel needed a building in a suitable area, and a rosh yeshiva to lead the institution. He purchased an estate in Monsey (which was then part of Spring Valley) and asked Reb Reuven to take on the position of rosh yeshiva of the newly formed Bais Medrash Elyon, in addition to his role as rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas.

An Awesome Responsibility

This was no small undertaking. For one thing, it would mean that Reb Reuven would be the rosh yeshiva of two major mosdos simultaneously. This alone would be a challenging responsibility. Moreover, Reb Reuven was a giant in askonus, and devoted much time and energy to such organizations as the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, which he founded and led for decaded, and the Vaad Hatzoloh, which was responsible for rescuing and sustaining thousands of Jews during and after the Holocaust.

Since he was one of the gedolei hador, Reb Reuven's advice was frequently needed on the important issues of the day. His profound and insightful thoughts on such topics as chinuch, Eretz Yisroel, the ideals and objectives of Agudas Yisroel, and many more issues were eagerly sought after. His writings on these topics were later collected and published by his sons in a sefer entitled Ba'ayot Hazman (The Problems of the Time), a work which provides the Torah perspective on some of the major issues and events which impact Torah Jewry.

All these activities were very strenuous and time-consuming. However, Reb Reuven fully understood that Bais Medrash Elyon represented an important step in the development of Torah in America. Therefore, he enthusiastically undertook the awesome responsibility that the illustrious leader of Torah Vodaas had offered him.

Reb Shraga Feivel was ecstatic as he saw his fervent dream starting to take shape. Jubilantly, he came to his best bochurim and announced, "Boruch Hashem, I bought a building in Spring Valley, NY. [as the area was known in those days] and I got a world- famous rosh yeshiva!" Before long, the young scholars were transplanted to Monsey and they began studying in their new location. Thus was born a great Torah institution and, in its wake, a great Torah community. In these isolated surroundings, a glorious and exciting chapter in the history of limud HaTorah in the USA was beginning.

A Tranquil Environment

The Yeshiva's surroundings were indeed isolated! The bustling community which surrounds Bais Medrash Elyon today did not exist then. The vast forest which surrounded the Yeshiva was shared only by several modest bungalows. In these tranquil surroundings, the bochurim felt utterly at peace and were able to immerse themselves in their limudim without distraction.

During the week, Reb Reuven delivered shiurim in Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn. Thursday afternoon, he would arrive in Monsey where he would give a shiur in the sugya which was being studied. On Shabbos, he would give a mussar shmuess.

Reb Reuven would also go on long walks with the bochurim covering two or three miles, and engage the students in a Torah discussion the entire time. So unpopulated was the area at the time that not a single car would pass them during their walk!

There was a deep significance to these lengthy excursions. As Chazal relate, Avrohom Ovinu was told by Hashem to walk the length and the breadth of Eretz Yisroel in order to make it easier for his children to capture it. Similarly, in the zchus of those long walks which Reb Reuven and his students took through the heart of Monsey while deeply engrossed in Torah, the area subsequently developed into a major Torah community.

A Community Takes Root

Indeed, the word began to spread among religious families that in the middle of a forest in upstate New York, a world famous godol hador was teaching Torah on an advanced level to select bochurim in a brand new yeshiva. Frum mishpochos began moving to the area, attracted by the exciting opportunity to be a part of this promising new development. Steadily their numbers increased, as one person told another about the new community that was beginning to take shape in the wilderness.

But the bochurim who were the nucleus of Bais Medrash Elyon and the surrounding communities were not thinking about, and probably could not envision, the dynamic, vibrant town that would spring up around them. Their thoughts and their aspirations were focused on growing in Torah.

Reb Reuven's Greatness

Indeed, their beloved Rebbe was famed not only for the vast treasury of Torah knowledge which he possessed, but also for his brilliant ability to analyze a sugyoh and explain it in a way that was at once crystal clear and at the same time innovative and inspiring. His mussar lectures were also known for the novel concepts they introduced, and earned Reb Reuven fame as an extraordinary baal machshovoh. (In fact, a collection of Reb Reuven's shmuessen is now being prepared for print.) The students were thus able to gain profound insights, and acquired from their revered teacher a derech halimud which would stand them in good stead throughout their lives.

In fact, many of these students went on to become celebrated gedolim and roshei yeshiva, who in turn taught and inspired many other students. Such respected rabbonim as HaRav Moshe Bick zt"l expressed admiration for the quality and quantity of lomdim produced by Bais Medrash Elyon. In Rav Bick's words, "No other yeshiva has produced lomdim the way Bais Medrash Elyon has."

A vital lesson which Reb Reuven's talmidim absorbed is the importance of hasmodoh. Sheer talent is insufficient to turn a student into a Torah scholar. He must be diligent and devote himself to his studies with his entire heart and soul. Reb Reuven himself was a role model in whom his students witnessed this trait of diligence and mesiras nefesh for Torah vividly illustrated.

The Yeshiva's cook would relate how he would arise in the morning to prepare breakfast, and find Reb Reuven absorbed in his studies. It was not simply that the Rosh Yeshiva was up early -- he had not gone to sleep the night before! It was only before Shacharis that he would pause for a brief, much-needed rest.

Given the greatness of the Rosh Yeshiva and the high caliber of the talmidim, it is no wonder that the Yeshiva soon began attracting the most outstanding students of Torah Vodaas and other yeshivas around the country. To be close to one of the gedolei hador and to hear his dazzling and insightful shiurim, to benefit from the company of some of the most exceptional and gifted young scholars anywhere, to enjoy the serenity and freshness of the rural atmosphere, which was unpolluted in all senses of the word --- this was an exciting opportunity that proved irresistible to many outstanding students from all parts of the nation, and the world.

Bais Medrash Elyon Today

One of the most exceptional talmidim among the original group was a brilliant young man who eventually became the rosh hayeshiva of Bais Medrash Elyon --- HaRav Don Ungarischer, under whose dynamic and farsighted leadership the institution has grown and flourished. Reb Don was a talmid muvhak of Reb Shlomo Heiman, and after Reb Shlomo's passing, he became a talmid muvhak of Reb Reuven. From these illustrious mentors, he acquired a derech halimud that emphasizes the importance of comprehending, articulating and elucidating the basic principles underlying a sugyoh. He also absorbed from his revered teachers a capacity for labor-intensive study, and a willingness to spend countless hours toiling away, immersed in his studies with single-minded dedication. Upon the advice of Reb Shlomo, Reb Reuven took Reb Don as his son- in-law.

As Chazal tell us, godol shimushoh yoser milimudoh. Consequently, his new closeness to his mentor allowed Reb Don to ascend to an even higher spiritual plane. Reb Reuven, recognizing in Reb Don a golden link in the chain of the mesorah that Reb Reuven had inherited from his own revered teachers, designated his son-in-law to deliver shiurim in the Yeshiva. As a special mark of honor, Reb Reuven even attended Reb Don's first shiur. In this manner, Reb Don was being prepared for his ultimate role as rosh hayeshiva, a position which has enabled him to transmit Torah to hundreds of talmidim, in accord with the derech which he had learned from his illustrious father- in-law.

It has been many, many years since Reb Don delivered his first shiur. Hundreds upon hundreds of talmidim have passed through his loving hands, and have benefited from the crystal-clear explanations with which he clarifies topics which might otherwise remain obscure and incomprehensible. He exemplifies utter dedication to Torah, and is a living illustration of the maamar Chazal, "Happy is the one who toils in the Torah, and gives pleasure to his Creator."

A visitor to the Yeshiva can witness the bochurim delving into the shiur that they heard from the Rosh Hayeshiva, and applying themselves diligently so that they fully comprehend and appreciate every nuance and every wrinkle. This represents an authentic continuation of the classic European yeshivas, in the venerable tradition of the Vilna Gaon and his great disciple, HaRav Chaim Volozhiner zt"l.

HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt"l was a great admirer of Reb Don, as can be seen from the following episode. Thirty- five years ago, when a group of students approached Reb Yaakov for advice about where to continue their studies after Torah Vodaas, he replied, "A rosh yeshiva such as Reb Don you will not find in all of America!"

Reb Don has transmitted Reb Reuven's legacy not only in his derech halimud and his ameilus baTorah, but in another way as well. Although Reb Reuven is no longer with us, he left the Torah world a precious treasure -- his extensive writings, in which he elucidated various sugyos in Shas. Reb Don invested many years of intense toil, editing and arranging these manuscripts and, after much effort, he succeeded in publishing them as the three volume work Chiddushei Reb Reuven.

This masterpiece quickly became a popular classic and an indispensable aid to roshei yeshiva, yungeleit and bochurim seeking an understanding of various difficult Talmudic topics. With the help of Reb Reuven's enlightening insights and illuminating explanations, those who toil in Torah can achieve understanding.

Meeting a Pressing Need

The Rosh Hayeshiva realized that the physical as well as the spiritual aspects of the Yeshiva must be attended to. The Yeshiva was still housed in the same building it was born in, which Reb Shraga Feivel had acquired in the mid 1940s, and the ensuing decades had taken their toll on the aging structure. A new building was desperately needed!

The Rosh Hayeshiva initiated an ambitious building campaign with the goal of erecting a structure which would house a new bais medrash and dormitory. During every phase of this monumental undertaking, he was given a tremendous amount of assistance and encouragement by Rabbi and Mrs. Menachem Weldler a"h and their children, yl"ch. The latter are to this day an integral part of the Yeshiva, and have been aptly described as its supporting pillars. They carry on the noble tradition which began with the inspired vision, boundless courage and zealous toil of their revered zeide, Reb Shraga Feivel and which continued with the great devotion of their dear parents.

This project has been a resounding success, Boruch Hashem, and the beautiful new edifice which stands on the Yeshiva campus has evoked the admiration of all who have seen it. The handsome exterior is matched by the beauty of the interior, and in particular, the magnificent new Aron Hakodesh is a masterpiece.

All in all, the building is a fitting monument to one of the world's foremost Torah institutions. It is also a tribute to the great generosity of Reb Yaakov and Mrs. Ilana Melohn, who are justly celebrated for their magnanimous and warm-hearted support of Torah all over the world. The building is dedicated to the memory of Reb Yosef Melohn, the beloved and esteemed father of Reb Yaakov, and bears the names of the Melohn family.

After the success of this undertaking, the Rosh Hayeshiva embarked on the second phase of the building project -- the complete reconstruction and renovation of the original home of the Yeshiva. Boruch Hashem, this project is also nearing completion, and the refurbished building now houses a beis medrash koton, a large, brand-new dining room, a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and offices. When the structure is entirely revamped, it will also contain beautiful new dormitory rooms.

This dramatic reconstruction has been made possible by the munificence of Reb Hershel and Mrs. Raizy Friedman of Montreal, who are well known all over the globe for the numerous worthy projects which they support on a grand scale. The renovated building carries the names of this highly esteemed couple.

The rebuilt structure is connected to the newer building, and the resulting edifice is indeed magnificent. Even the local building inspector, who has surely seen his share of structures in the county, has pronounced it the nicest building in Rockland!

Bais Medrash Elyon in Eretz Yisroel

The most recent chapter in the history of Bais Medrash Elyon, which is unfolding in Bnei Brak, actually represents the fruition of a long-cherished dream. Many years ago, Reb Shraga Feivel longed to establish a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Although he was not able to carry out that plan, the Rosh Hayeshiva has now made that dream a reality.

On the outskirts of Bnei Brak there is a flourishing religious neighborhood which is now known as Kehilot Yaakov. However, it was originally called Kiryat Baalei Melochoh and was populated principally by non-religious, working families. When frum people began moving there, the Rosh Hayeshiva immediately purchased a building in the neighborhood at Kushnir 17, and asked his son HaRav Yerachmiel to move his kollel there. This further encouraged the area's transformation.

It was now time for the next step. Five years ago, on the yahrtzeit of Reb Reuven, the Rosh Hayeshiva flew to Eretz Yisroel. He approached HaRav Michel Yehuda Lipkowitz, one of today's gedolei hador and a fellow talmid of HaRav Shlomo Heiman (from Europe), to solicit his help in establishing a yeshiva for Israeli bochurim.

Rav Lipkowitz was enthusiastic about the idea and declared that Bnei Brak needed such a yeshiva. He insisted that the yeshiva accept only advanced students, those who have demonstrated excellence in their studies, and suggested, as sources of talmidim for the new yeshiva, a number of yeshivas which produced students of the requisite caliber. A yeshiva gedola was established and was unified with the existing kollel, with HaRav Yerachmiel Ungarischer as rosh yeshiva. The yeshiva is under the direct guidance of Rav Lipkowitz, who is considered the driving force behind the institution.

Starting with a nucleus of excellent bochurim, the Yeshiva rapidly expanded. So dramatic was its growth, Boruch Hashem, that the original building had to be enlarged six times! The Yeshiva today has close to 250 talmidim, representing the cream of Eretz Yisroel. For the upcoming zman, hundreds of bochurim, all from the leading yeshivas in the Holy Land, are vying for a spot in the yeshiva.

Recent Groundbreaking in Eretz Yisroel

The esteemed outgoing mayor of Bnei Brak, Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, was extremely helpful in facilitating the enhancements to the Yeshiva building. He understood and appreciated the Yeshiva's role in transforming the area into a mokom Torah. In fact, the mayor recently granted the Yeshiva a large parcel of land in the adjacent Nevei Achiezer neighborhood (named in memory of Reb Chaim Ozer zt"l), so that it could accommodate the needs of its ever- growing student body with a new beis medrash and dormitory. The ground breaking has taken place just recently, with the participation of the gedolei hador, and construction in the area is moving forward. The new building will iy"H contain six stories.

The Yeshiva's presence in this neighborhood promises to bring about a positive transformation, much as it did in Kiryat Baalei Melochoh, continuing the pattern that began in Monsey, more than half a century ago. Thus, Bais Medrash Elyon, while remaining loyal to the traditions of the past, is creating new hope for the future.


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