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5 Cheshvan 5764 - October 20, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Eighty Years for Yeshivas Chevron

by M. Chevroni

Eighty years ago during Aseres Yemei Teshuva was the opening of Yeshivas Chevron in the City of the Patriarchs. The first Lithuanian yeshiva to be established in Israel, it created a revolution in the Torah world at large and in Eretz Yisroel in particular. Gedolei Olom who stood at the helm, imprinted their stamp upon this illustrious yeshiva in particular, and over Yiddishkeit in general.

The terrible massacre of TaRPaT (5689-1929) failed to extinguish the flame of Torah, and the yeshiva was relocated from the City of the Patriarchs to Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh. Yeshivas Chevron Knesses Yisroel continues in its full vigor and vitality.


Motzei Shabbos. Midnight. The yeshiva beis midrash begins filling up. From the floor below, from the libraries, from every side they converge -- close to a thousand students fill the hall. They say "Ashrei" and begin humming the tune of "Lishmo'a el horino."

Yeshivas Chevron, located on a campus in the Givat Mordechai section of Yerushalayim, is now eighty years old. Actually, we would find it to be older if we examined its `birth certificate,' but its life span here in Eretz Yisroel is now just eighty years.

Slobodka Instead of Volozhin

The seed of the gigantic beis medrash which is filled from wall to wall lies buried in Lithuania, in the village of Slobodka, a suburb of Kovna. Here lies the inception of the yeshiva which raised high the banner of Torah scholars.

The period of its founding was a bleak one; Yeshivas Volozhin, the very hub of Torah activity in all of Europe, had just been shut down. The year was 5642 (1882), a year in which the foundations for Yeshivas Chevron, which stepped in to fill the lacuna, were laid.

"After the closing of Volozhin by the wicked government of the Czar," wrote a student of the yeshiva, R' Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt'l, "Slobodka inherited the prime place and name in the Torah world. Henceforth, all of the iluyim in the Jewish world and all of the gifted scholars gathered in Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel. Maran the Alter of Slobodka ztvk'l, who was at the height of his powers, opened up the yeshiva doors wide to let in anyone who sought to enter, regardless of his being talented or only mediocre. All that was required was a fervent desire to study Torah."

They pushed their way in. Thus can we see the essence of the revolution that Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel effected, for to be a yeshiva student in the times before Slobodka was a difficult challenge. It was this selfsame yeshiva that undertook to establish the fact that Torah scholars constitute an elite corps, an aristocracy, and this was duly accomplished by Maran HaGaon Hatzaddik R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztvk'l.

Maran the Alter, disciple of R' Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, disseminated its teachings, but with his own slant, the Slobodka path, which raised the self-image of the yeshiva student up high. R' Nosson Tzvi aspired to establish a yeshiva that would express gadlus ho'odom, the vast potential of man. He aimed to create a mussar yeshiva that would combine scholastic study with a program of self-improvement, that is, work on one's middos.

At this pivotal time, Hashem opportunely provided two philanthropists to assist R' Nosson Tzvi: R' Ovadia Lachman, a Jew from Berlin, and R' Yaakov Eliezer Chavas. These men were instrumental in establishing the first kollel in Slobodka.

This was the core. After the kollel, a yeshiva ketanoh was established under the name "Ohr HaChaim." The alumni of this yeshiva founded, together with other young students who came from all over Lithuania, the main yeshiva, Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel, whose main heir today is what is known as Chevron Yeshiva. This took place in 1882 (5642). To this day, the yeshiva bears that name [though it has fallen somewhat into disuse], after the founder of the Mussar movement, HaRav Yisroel Salanter zt'l.

The degree that a yeshiva of this kind was lacking can be seen from the rapid pace at which it developed. The first stage produced gedolei Yisroel whose names have become famous, such as R' Eliezer Shulevitz, founder of Yeshivas Lomzha; R' Yitzchok Meltzen of Kelm, and famous Mussar exponents such as R' Itzele Blazer-Peterburger, R' Naftoli Amsterdam, R' Avrohom Sheinker -- all of them famous disciples of HaRav Yisroel Salanter.

Students streamed to the yeshiva from all corners of the world. From Lithuania, of course, but also from Galicia, Germany, Eretz Yisroel and even the United States.

The Alter of Slobodka stood at the helm of the yeshiva and guided it during its flourishing period. At his side served such Torah masters as HaRav Itzele Ponevezher who was a ram in the yeshiva for three years until he was appointed rabbi of Gorzed. At that time, two brothers-in-law entered to fill the gap: HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer and HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, zt'l. These two had been chosen by the wealthy talmid chochom R' Shraga Feivel Frank as sons-in-law, and they began delivering shiurim in the beginning of 5654 (1894).

The two jointly assumed the administration of the yeshiva until HaRav Yaakov Dovid, the Ridvaz, approached the Alter and asked for assistance. He said that he wished to found a yeshiva in his own city, Slutsk, and R' Isser Zalman Meltzer was chosen for the challenge at the head of a group of promising students which formed the core of this new yeshiva. R' Isser Zalman did not return to Slobodka, though his brother-in-law, R' Moshe Mordechai, remained in Slobodka as rosh yeshiva and later, in the city of Chevron, as the proponent of the teachings of his master, the Alter.

In time, the two were to become related through marriage: The daughter of R' Moshe Mordechai Epstein married the son of the Alter, R' Moshe Finkel.

When the World Shakes

HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein was of gigantic scholastic stature. He was a brilliant Torah scholar who also grappled with the impossible challenge of the upkeep of the yeshiva through various very trying periods. Indeed, many tribulations overtook the yeshiva in differing forms and it was his capable guidance which navigated it through treacherous waters and made a rich contribution to its growth.

Thus did Yeshivas Slobodka become a major Torah center in Lithuania, a yeshiva which every serious student with aspiration for true Torah greatness dreamed of attending.

The yeshiva hoped to continue in serenity but along came World War I to disrupt its smooth progress. Today, after having survived the Second World War which was devastating beyond compare, it is difficult to reconstruct the terrible difficulties that faced Jewry during that period.

War broke out in 5674 (1914) and caused a veritable earthquake amongst European Jewry. Great unrest, upheaval, distress, suffering, wandering. People who lived through that era, such as Maran HaRav Shach zt"l spoke of it as a watershed: life after the disruptions of that war never returned to the way it had been before. The yeshiva could no longer function in those wartime days, yet it was not dismantled.

It is difficult to describe the place of the yeshiva in the lives of those students of yore. It was their very family, since vast distances and poverty prevented many of the students from returning home for years on end, even during good times.

War had erupted? Chaos reigned in the world? One had to move on, everyone, together with the entire yeshiva. The first station was Minsk.

The yeshiva continued to operate for several years in Minsk but as the battle front drew nearer and nearer, they finally had to relocate. In 1916, the yeshiva moved to the Crimean peninsula.

Here, too, it resumed its full study regimen, but life was not easy. Hunger was a constant companion among the Jews, as well as epidemics and pogroms. One of these pogroms was vividly described by Rebbetzin Tzila Cohen, daughter of HaRav Moshe Mordechai. She told how the goyim rioted, storming from house to house, while the Jews barricaded themselves inside as best they could.

At this time, a small child became ill and required medicine urgently. But who would dare poke a head outside the house at such a treacherous time?

HaRav Moshe Mordechai chose his daughter, Tzila, who was a clever and very resourceful girl. She ventured forth and experienced a series of adventures before reaching the pharmacist, who was amazed to see her.

She obtained the medicine and started for home. Surely, her parental merit enabled her to reach it unscathed and the child's life was saved.

Interestingly, it was these four years in the Crimea that were most productive for the yeshiva. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the trials of fear, hunger and tribulation, the studies flourished to great heights and are remembered to this day as a golden period of Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel.

In 1920, the yeshiva was permitted to return to Slobodka, after a six-year exile and wandering. In 1921, it returned to its mother city, during the Aseres Yemei Tshuva. R' Eliyohu Meir Feivelson zt'l described the atmosphere in the yeshiva that year. He, himself, spent the war years in the Ukraine and when he returned to Lithuania, he experienced a deep disappointment.

"It was not the Lithuania of before the war," he writes. "I was besides myself with anguish, to find myself amidst such ruins, and in such a time as this.

"Therefore, when I was forced to remain in Kovna for Yom Kippur, I sought to calm the upheaval in my heart by staying in the room I had occupied in my youth in Yeshivas Slobodka. And like Columbus, who saw only water and more water -- when he finally sighted land, exclaimed aloud, `Land! Land!' That is how I felt when I left behind the alien surroundings and crossed the bridge separating Kovna from Slobodka and entered the yeshiva. `Ahoy! Heaven! Heaven!'

"The pillar of avodoh," writes R' Feivelson, "was embedded in the ground of the yeshiva and its top reached the very heavens. At the end of the fast, about half an hour after ma'ariv, the beis medrash again filled with students who returned to resume their usual study, many of them remaining there that entire night."

Yeshivas Chevron

The yeshiva continued to flourish and develop in Slobodka. Some five hundred students filled it, a huge number for those days and under those conditions. Slobodka concentrated within its walls the cream of the students, the most capable, brilliant, promising students, and for three years, it kept on growing qualitatively.

At that time, the Lithuanian government made a critical decision: to draft yeshiva students. It was prepared to go halfway, it said, and give the students an exemption on condition that they take up secular studies in the yeshiva as well.

Neither of these two choices even came into question. What to do? Where to take the yeshiva now?

R' Moshe Mordechai was in the United States at the time of the announcement. R' Nosson Tzvi contacted him and asked his advice. What to do in the face of these decrees?

"I replied that in my opinion, it was time to establish a yeshiva in Eretz Hakodesh. There was hope that benevolent Jews in America would lend their hand to this project which really affected all of Jewry."

It was clear, and only natural, that if the yeshiva was destined to pick itself up and move once more, it should make its final stop in Eretz Yisroel. R' Moshe Mordechai's son-in-law, R' Yechezkel Sarna, was sent to Eretz Yisroel to scout out the possibilities and suggest the most suitable place for the yeshiva.

Meanwhile, in America, R' Moshe Mordechai was laying the groundwork for transferring the yeshiva to its new venue. He approached men of means, "the big guns," and they were able to raise the huge sum of $20,000 to cover the expenses of relocating the students from Slobodka to Chevron proper.

Chevron was the city chosen by R' Yechezkel Sarna as the most suitable, convenient place for the yeshiva transplanted from Lithuania.

The first guard sent there were those who had been served a draft notice. However by the time they reached Chevron, the decree in Slobodka had been annulled. R' Moshe Mordechai saw this as a sign that "Heaven willed that a new yeshiva be founded in Chevron, a central, prominent yeshiva that would attract all kinds of students to Eretz Yisroel, for `there is no Torah like that of Eretz Yisroel.' "

To transport a fully established and famous yeshiva like Knesses Yisroel to Eretz Yisroel was an astonishing decision which had no precedent whatsoever! Even the British High Commissioner of the British Mandate noted the event of the "emigration of the yeshiva from Slobodka to Palestine," in a report he sent to the Mandate committee.

The organization and preparation spread across the whole summer of 1924. The first wave was accompanied by the menahel ruchani, HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky Hy'd, who later returned to Kovno where he met his death in the Holocaust.

The first ten students reached Chevron in Elul, and for the Yomim Noraim of 5685 (1924) they already held services there.

The beginning was not easy, but the yeshiva was welcomed cordially and joyfully. "The poor city simply came to life," says Rebbetzin Rochel Chevroni, daughter of R' Moshe Mordechai Epstein. "Trade began to develop and the whole city experienced a renaissance, thanks to the yeshiva. The Arab dignitaries of the city even hosted welcoming ceremonies and declared forthwith that they would pray for the welfare of the yeshiva. One time, when a rumor began spreading that the yeshiva was thinking of moving, a special delegation was formed which officially came and requested that the Rosh Yeshiva change his mind and remain in Chevron."

"Who Allocated of His Wisdom..."

The Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein ztvk'l, joined the yeshiva in the winter of 5685.

He received a royal welcome. In Jerusalem, where he first arrived, some five thousand residents, headed by revered rabbis, came to pay him their respects at the train station. They lined up in two long rows, esteemed rabbis and scholars, between which walked R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, chief rabbi of Jerusalem, to be the first to give him his hand in welcome.

With full pomp and ceremony, he uttered the blessing, saying Hashem's name, declaring "Shecholak michochmoso . . . -- Who allocated of His wisdom to those who fear Him." And the entire assemblage thundered a rousing "Amen."

On the following day, R' Moshe Mordechai continued on to Chevron, with many accompanying him all the way to Chevron. The entourage stopped at Kever Rochel, where they all prayed amidst tears and great devotion.

At the outskirts of Chevron, an impressive Gateway of Honor had been erected and all the Jews of the city, Ashkenazic and Sephardic alike, turned out to show him a grand welcome.

Maran the Alter of Slobodka only came in the ensuing summer and was accorded a similar show of effusive respect and welcome. A year later, HaRav Yehuda Leib Chasman immigrated as well. He served in the capacity of the yeshiva's menahel mussar. The yeshiva, so it seemed, was becoming firmly established and ready to continue flourishing.

Then the yeshiva suffered a drastic setback. Its founder and head, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, suddenly passed away. R' Moshe Mordechai, who was again raising funds in America on behalf of the yeshiva, was heartbroken. He sent a most moving letter to the yeshiva bewailing the terrible and painful loss. "My spirit is dulled, my hands are weak."

Nonetheless, HaRav Moshe Mordechai conveyed a very clear message. Unnatural reasons had brought the yeshiva to Chevron, he writes, "It is clear to me that Divine Providence willed a Torah center to be established in the Holy Land, to raise the banner of Torah and yir'oh, to demonstrate before all of Israel that only Torah and its designated leaders can build up the Land and its people."

Yeshivas Chevron experienced five years of growth in Chevron, up till 5689 (TaRPaT-1929). The date will go down in history as an infamous one: The eighteenth of Av, which fell on a Shabbos. The day of the brutal massacre, so typical of the barbaric Arabs. Dozens of yeshiva students were slaughtered in cold blood on that ignominious day. The pogrom came to a final halt only at the very doorstep of HaRav Moshe Mordechai.

This was the end of the yeshiva in Chevron and the beginning of its years in Jerusalem. Since then, Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel has been known to one and all as Yeshivas Chevron, or simply, "Chevron," with the accent on the first syllable [contrary to proper Hebrew pronunciation], though its full official name is "Yeshivas Chevron Knesses Yisroel."

Destiny could have easily positioned the yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The mayor then, R' Yitzchok Gerstenkorn, approached the rosh yeshiva R' Moshe Mordechai, to relocate the yeshiva there and even sent him a Writ of Rabbinate, offering him the official position of Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak. Why the rosh yeshiva declined the offer, no one really knows.

The yeshiva had suffered a terrible blow, almost a critical, mortal one. Just like that, in the very midst of its productive expansion and development, without any forewarning, this devastating stroke. It now had to lift itself up from the ruins and begin all over again to rebuild and reestablish itself with renewed vigor and effort.

Days of Hunger and Want

Gloomy days descended upon the yeshiva in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that it had no permanent quarters, the sound of Torah did not cease. The yeshiva was first located in the Achva shul in Geula and the students studied there, hoping for better times around the corner. But these were delayed. The Chevron massacre had claimed an additional toll: the Rosh Yeshiva, R' Moshe Mordechai, was so devastated that he was unable to rally. His heart broke and he fell ill.

With the situation being as tenuous as it was, the Rosh Yeshiva was unable to go abroad to raise funds. But he sent his son-in-law, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, in his stead. R' Sarna stayed in the U.S. for a full year, with nothing to show for his efforts. A very serious blow was the passing of R' Moshe Mordechai on the tenth of Kislev, 5694 (1933).

Without a captain, without a ship, in surroundings that looked upon the yeshiva students as invaders, the yeshiva struggled dearly for its existence. The residents of the Old Yishuv, a different breed altogether, looked askance at the yeshiva boys who dressed like Europeans and were very particular about an immaculate, groomed appearance.

It was HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, meticulous as he was about traditional garb, who broke the ice. He showed great deference towards the yeshiva and its heads and made it possible for the students to become accepted in the Jerusalemite Torah society on an equal footing.

After the passing of the Rosh Yeshiva, R' Sarna took over. The leadership of the yeshiva was also shared by the other sons-in-law, namely, R' Moshe Chevroni and R' Aharon Cohen ztvk'l. Bogged down deeply in debt, the yeshiva succeeded, somehow, in surviving. It had, as in the past, a great measure of Heavenly assistance.

A place was soon found: the old building on Rechov Chagai (now known as "Chevron-Geula"). On both sides were buildings that housed the yeshiva office and the residences of the roshei yeshiva and their families but the lot between was, as yet, unbuilt. The construction was undertaken by the Weizman brothers, owners of the Nur match factory, who had formed an attachment to the Rosh Yeshiva.

In 5699 (1939), ten years after the Chevron massacre, Knesset Yisroel celebrated the dedication of the beis medrash, dining room, kitchen and dormitory. And from thereon in, things were much brighter for Yeshivas Chevron, except for another shaking event, the demise of the mashgiach, HaRav Leib Chasman zt'l. HaRav Meir Chodosh zt"l was appointed in his place.

The yeshiva was in dire financial straits at this point. The Second World War was raging at the time. Both daughters of R' Moshe Mordechai Epstein and their families in Europe were killed. The financial and defense situation in Eretz Yisroel was very shaky as well, and the yeshiva teetered at the brink of collapse.

It seemed as if every single day was a new struggle for mere survival. Numerous times, R' Yechezkel was served an order of confiscation and even orders of imprisonment for not paying the yeshiva's growing debts. "Only one whose sleep evades him at night for worry of what the yeshiva students will eat on the morrow is worthy of the title `Rosh Yeshiva,' " he once noted.

Every penny that came in was earmarked for food. The Rosh Yeshiva himself, and his family, were lowest on the scale of priorities. It's said that R' Moshe Chevroni would sit and study in those difficult times without budging from his seat, and sometimes he did not even taste as much as a kezayis in twenty-four hours.

Whoever was then in the yeshiva on Rechov Chagai cannot help remembering R' Shleime most fondly. R' Shleime was the Geula grocer, a most righteous Jew, who lent his shoulder to the suffering of the yeshiva and its survival.

The students would come to his store with the strangest means of payment: promissory notes from the yeshiva. R' Shleime would give them bread and half or a quarter of a margarine. Didn't he know that those notes were worthless, without any backing? Surely he knew. But he was also well aware for what purpose he was providing the bread, and what he was getting in return. "Can I possibly bear the responsibility of denying them and stilling the voice of Torah?" he once said.

The one who prevented the total collapse of the yeshiva for a long time was this local grocer, a unique tzaddik. Sadly, he was forced to close down his store in the end.

These were days of outright hunger. The menu of the main meal at the yeshiva was no more than one slice of bread with a bit of orange marmalade. From where did they obtain such a luxury item as marmalade? From orange peels that were cooked up in the yeshiva kitchen!

Post War

The Second World War was over by 1945. Refugees began coming to Eretz Yisroel, which did not improve the general economic situation at all. Food was scarce, and with new mouths to feed at the yeshiva from the influx of refugee students, the debts kept on mounting.

The War of Independence was also brewing. The British Mandate still ruled Palestine, imposing a curfew upon the streets. To go forth into the Jerusalem streets spelled danger, but the hunger was so stark and rampant that there was no choice.

R' Avrohom Moshe, the Rosh Yeshiva, great masmid that he was, was forced to travel to the U.S. to try to find some source of income to keep the yeshiva going.

Leaving the country also entailed danger. One first had to arrange for a visa at the U.S. consulate, on Rechov Mamila, which can only be compared today to a stroll in the Arab quarter in Hebron or Shechem. R' Moshe was accompanied by the one who would later be the administrative head of the yeshiva, R' Avi Zeloshinsky, who spoke English. They had to walk clandestinely, hugging the houses, walking down narrow alleys, hiding as best they could until they reached their destination and, fortunately, they arrived home safely, mission accomplished.

R' Moshe traveled to the U.S., leaving his family behind in wartime, with Jerusalem under heavy and continuous shelling. Alone and unprotected.

In the U.S., however, he was received warmly by yeshiva alumni. The Rosh Yeshiva, so removed from worldly things, found himself in the fleshpots of America -- but he succeeded admirably. There was something about his stature and demeanor that opened up and softened hardened hearts. He drove himself tirelessly and traveled from city to city, going from door to door.

True, he received much assistance from friends but it was not his `style' to descend to the common level. A Torah scholar through and through, this is what he remained throughout. And as incredible as it sounds, his solid stance found its way to the hearts of wealthy American businessmen. They recognized the truth which he represented. He enjoyed a great measure of siyata deShmaya and succeeded in this first trip to mobilize a huge sum of money. He was thus able to establish a solid economic basis for the yeshiva.


There is much more that could be told along these lines but we will concentrate upon the bottom line: Yeshivas Chevron today is flourishing and expanding upon its own territory.

Many yeshivos were founded as offshoots of Yeshivas Chevron, and with its outright help. Many gedolei Torah were produced from the small building in Geula, which it eventually outgrew by far. And so the time for the yeshiva to begin preparing for the big move to its new spacious quarters in Givat Mordechai, in southern Jerusalem. Geula had become too central, too busy and distracting a place for a yeshiva.

Certain changes were to take place before they reached their new domain. R' Aharon Cohen, the great tzaddik, passed away first of the three brothers-in-law. Afterwards, R' Yechezkel was summoned by Heaven to join him. R' Moshe stood at the helm of the yeshiva for six years but just half a year short of the major move he, too, passed away.

Then, simultaneously, two great geonim served in tandem: R' Simcha Zissel Broide zt'l and R' Avrohom Yehuda Farbstein zt'l.

The Unique Ones of the Yeshiva

They like to boast that Yeshivas Chevron had some very special people upon whom the yeshiva virtually stood. To whom were they referring? To all kinds of hidden figures whose very home was the yeshiva.

Take, for example, R' Moshe Mesh. R' Moshe was one of the original students of the yeshiva founded in Chevron. During the disastrous pogrom, he vowed that if he survived, he would dedicate his life to the yeshiva without receiving any recompense.

He was spared and he fulfilled his vow. R' Moshe, a Jew of small stature, served the yeshiva in every capacity he could, doing whatever was needed. He and his wife lived only to do good for others. They were not blessed with children and truly, the yeshiva was their very home.

When R' Moshe passed away, very quietly, in the same humble way as he had lived, something very significant disappeared from the yeshiva scene.


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