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30 Tishrei 5766 - November 2, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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Kelm And Mir — A Single Approach to Torah Excellence and Mussar Training, as Demonstrated by the Gaon and Tzaddik HaRav Shmuel Halevi Shechter, zt'l

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Part Three

Handling the American Depression

YN: What kind of problems were brought to him?

Rav Shechter: I'll give you an example that actually happened. When we students from abroad came to yeshiva, aged seventeen or eighteen, after learning in American yeshivos, our level was such that only with difficulty could we get through a piece of gemora together with Rashi and easy Tosafos, no more than that. By contrast, the level of the scholarship in the yeshiva was at a peak. We Americans therefore had to hire tutors from among the older bochurim to be our first chavrusas of the day

I learned with Reb Yonah Minsker [zt'l, Hy'd, who was mentioned earlier], for two or three years — I can't remember how long. For the second seder I also took a chavrusa in exchange for payment. My father zt'l would send me fifty American dollars a month, out of which I paid Reb Yonah fifteen dollars and the other chavrusa ten dollars. The remaining twenty-five dollars was enough for me to live in Mir like a king. Over there it was considered a vast sum.

In my third or fourth year in the yeshiva there was a severe economic depression in America. They wrote to me from home saying that they had to cut down on expenses and that instead of fifty dollars I would be receiving only twenty-five. We foreign students didn't know what to do. On the one hand we needed to live. But on the other hand, how could we forgo our tutors, after having gotten used to a few years' of learning with such great people?

[We wrestled with the problem] until one of our group proposed an idea. Until then, each of us had been paying separately for his own tutor. From now on, we would take one tutor for five talmidim, each of whom would contribute five dollars. Our friends agreed to the idea — wonderful! It was decided that I would be the [group's] emissary to the Rosh Yeshiva, to put our plan to him.

I went in to the Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Leizer Yudel and of course he already knew all about the depression in America. But when he heard what I wanted to do, he immediately said, "It can't be! What you're thinking of is impossible! Absolutely no way!" — without explaining himself in the slightest.

I went back to my friends and told them, "Chevra, it's not going to work. The Rosh Yeshiva said, `No way!' "

"So go to the Mashgiach," they said to me but they told me what to say to him. "Tell the Mashgiach the whole story," they advised, "and tell him that you went to the Rosh Yeshiva and that he said, `No way' and that we're therefore considering transferring to another yeshiva. He's bound to ask you which yeshiva, so tell him to Telz . . . "

In short, I went in to the Mashgiach and as usual whenever I went to him, I was as pale as the whitewashed ceiling. The Mashgiach could see that I was upset and he made a joke to calm me down. The he said to me, "Nu, what's the matter?"

I told him the story and I barely managed to get the threat out, as though we were really thinking of changing yeshiva. Of course, he asked me to which yeshiva and I told him, "Telz!"

This was his reply. "Before you place your foot over the threshold of Telz, you'll have to vomit out all that you've attained here." In other words, in order to grasp the ideas and approach over there, you'll have to empty yourself of everything you gained here. Then, in conclusion he said that he'd speak the matter over with the Rosh Yeshiva.

Reb Yeruchom's comments demonstrate how attached they were in Mir to their mussar approach with its origins in Kelm, and how wide they judged the gulf between it and the approach of Telz.

The Mashgiach indeed spoke to Reb Leizer Yudel and together they decided that there was room for a compromise — they could take a tutor together but only an avreich, not a bochur. In fact, there was only one avreich in the yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Kovensprung, who had married the daughter of Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt'l. In other words, only five bochurim could avail themselves of this arrangement.

His reasoning was that since there were approximately a hundred overseas bochurim in the yeshiva and they were supporting roughly half the yeshiva, if all of them stopped [learning with their paid chavrusas] the enormous financial burden would fall onto the yeshiva. This way, the five of us transferred to learning with the avreich and all the others had to manage as before.

That was the kind of problem that the Mashgiach had to deal with and that was how he managed to settle it.

Letter to a Father Whose Son Desired to Learn

Another example — I had my own problem. When I left Canada after studying in high school and in Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon in New York I told my father that since I had been supposed to spend four years in high school and I'd managed to complete all the courses in three years, I had one year's credit. My father asked me, "Nu, what do you want to do? Take a year off?"

"No," I said, "I want to travel to Mir!" I also showed him that for fifty dollars a month multiplied by twelve months which is six hundred dollars, I could buy a return ticket and support myself for an entire year. We agreed between us that I would be there for a year.

The first year passed and I had no intention whatsoever about writing to say I was coming home. I stayed another year, during which my father didn't mention anything about returning. Towards the end of the year however, he wrote to me, "You asked for a year and I gave you two. Now it's time to think about tachlis."

You know what tachlis means in America, don't you? Earning a livelihood!

In short, I didn't know what to answer. In the end I responded, "Father, you're right but I beg you for just one more year; after that I promise that I'll come home."

At the end of the third year I received a letter that said, "Nu, when do I send you your return ticket? You promised . . ."

Then I went in to the Mashgiach and told him the story and said that I didn't know what to do now. He replied, "Leave me the letter and I'll reply to him."

And he indeed wrote to my father. At the time I didn't know what he'd written but after a while my father wrote to me, "I received a letter from the Mashgiach." That was all. He didn't ask anything else of me.

When I returned home I saw the actual letter. Even though I received a fine letter of semichoh from Reb Leizer Yudel, I prefer this letter and its contents to all my letters of semichoh.

At any rate, whatever the problem, in whatever area, the Mashgiach would solve it. Boruch Hashem we didn't have problems in the yeshiva. We were so firmly attached to the Mashgiach. (Here Reb Shmuel intones, with evident pleasure, the posuk's words, "And cleave to Him . . . " "And cleave to Him!" [Devorim 10:20]).

The letter's basic message was that just as people in every walk of life aim for perfection and try to excel, so it is with Torah. Someone who is occupied with Torah can study and become a scholar but he can also excel and do so in a particular direction so that he becomes an expert in his area. He added that it was possible that I would excel. (See accompanying box for the full text of the letter.)

When my father received this, he agreed with it and I stayed for a fourth year, at the end of which Reb Yeruchom passed away. Then Reb Nosson Wachtfogel and I, who were both from Canada, resolved together on our future paths. We were both from Montreal. He had traveled to Mir and I followed him. From then on we remained firmly together.

The Mashgiach was niftar on the eighteenth of Sivan. The sheloshim ended towards the end of Tammuz. We knew that a [new] mashgiach would definitely be arriving for Elul and we also knew that no matter who it was, we wouldn't be able to adjust to him for, having been attached to one mashgiach, we wouldn't be able to received [instruction] from another. We decided to return home and see whether we'd find a marriage partner there. If so, we planned on getting married and returning [to Europe,] to Kelm; if not, we would return to Kelm and arrange a shidduch there.

We returned to America and spent over a year there. With Heaven's help I merited finding my partner and actually, in the whole process, the first question was whether she would be prepared to travel to Kelm. She was aware of what Kelm was — that it wasn't at all like America. Boruch Hashem, she agreed immediately.

Reb Nosson didn't find his partner there but he found her later on in Kelm. Altogether we were in Kelm for two-and-a- half years; we studied there under Reb Doniel and Reb Gershon and we returned on motzei Succos 5701.

Reb Yeruchom's Magnetism

The name of Yeshivas Lomzha comes up in the course of our conversation. I asked Rav Shmuel, "Were you ever in Lomzha?"

"No," he replied. "While we were in Mir we didn't have the slightest inclination to go anywhere else! We were so attached to the learning and the shmuessen. How could one go away for a few days and miss a shmuess of the Mashgiach's or some of his Chumash shiurim? It never occurred to us.

"What about during Tammuz when the Mashgiach was away? We simply weren't curious. We were immersed in our avodoh. We only went to Vilna to visit the Chofetz Chaim and to see Reb Chaim Ozer, but no more. Whenever we went to Radin we would travel via Vilna, to which Radin was near.

"The second time I was in Radin was when we went to the levaya of the Chofetz Chaim. He was niftar on erev Shabbos and the levaya was held on Sunday. Many came to participate but it wasn't on today's scale. I reckon that about a hundred bochurim traveled from Mir and many more came from the other yeshivos. People from outside the yeshivos too; they came from wherever they could.

"We traveled from Mir to Urodjay, a three-hour ride by wagon and then a further seven hours on the train and another hour by wagon from Lida to Radin. We left on motzei Shabbos and arrived in the morning.

"The Mashgiach also spoke in the yeshiva in Radin after the levaya, I think. The main point of his eulogy was that the Chofetz Chaim had been taken away because we no longer needed him. Had we needed him he would have remained, for the situation is that his influence is no longer necessary. I'm certain that the hesped was printed in one of the seforim that his son Reb Simchah Zissel published."

YN: Was there really a special desire to see the other gedolim?

Rav Shechter: Only the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer, no others.

Rav Shechter confirms that the overseas talmidim traveled more, whether because of the money that they had or because they had no way of encountering such great men back home. I wanted to hear about this type of "pilgrimage" and I asked, "What did you ask them for? A blessing?"

Rav Shechter: No, [we] just [wanted] to see them. Then, the Chofetz Chaim was at home all the time. He was already very old, [it was] about a year before his petiroh. At Reb Chaim Ozer's, as far as I remember, we just went in to greet him and to be greeted, not for any particular blessing. We wanted to see how he received people. Reb Chaim Ozer was truly something special. He was a true leader of the entire Diaspora.

He esteemed the Mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom, very, very highly indeed. He held him to be the godol hador of the yeshiva world, the most influential figure, to whose influence nothing compared. I heard that he remarked that he had magnetism . . .? Yes, yes, he did say more than that. I don't want to repeat exactly what he said. He held him to be the pillar of Torah in the yeshiva world.

YN: I urged Rav Shmuel to reveal the precise wording of Reb Chaim Ozer's comment about Reb Yeruchom but he refused. All he would give away was that Reb Chaim Ozer held him to be the greatest and most outstanding teacher in the yeshiva world. Despite the fact that there were highly influential figures in all the yeshivos, they didn't come close to the power of the Mashgiach.

The Lomzher Mashgiach

We returned to [the subject of] Lomzha, and Rav Shmuel again drew me into his analyses of the differences in ideas and approaches.

"There was a great yeshiva there and the roshei hayeshiva were gedolim but the approach of the mashgiach Reb Moshe [Rosenstein] was not exactly that of Kelm [although he himself was a product of Kelm].

Everything about his conduct reflected his own personal approach. He would fast and such-like. He was a person who had shaped himself according to his own approach, not according to what he'd received. For this reason he was a little unusual in the mussar world.

Rav Yechiel Michel Gordon's son-in-law was Reb Eizel Vilner! . . . In Yeshivas Mir he was known as Eizel Vilner! He belonged to the very top echelon of the yeshiva. There were approximately twenty bochurim who were already then great roshei yeshiva: Eizel Vilner, Eizel Charkover, Elya Chazan, Reb Yonah Minsker — they literally were greise (great) roshei yeshiva.

Reb Leib Malin was one level below them. He was in a class of his own because of his greatness in mussar as well. Reb Leib Malin's excellence lay in his being great in both learning and in mussar but he was on a level below the kind in the other group. He was younger than they! Their excellence was principally in learning, not in mussar.

Reb Leib had a brother called Reb Isser Malin, who was one of the closest to Reb Yeruchom. He was especially outstanding in mussar, while Reb Leib excelled in both together. After the Mashgiach's shmuess there were two or three bochurim who would repeat it; Reb Leib was one of them.

Die Greiser Talmud Torah

YN: Who instituted all the rules and arrangements in Kelm?

Rav Shechter: The Alter!

YN: And did they remain [in force right] up to the end, without any changes or additions after him?

Rav Shechter: Everything remained as it was without any change until the end.

YN: Did he give reasons for all the regulations?

Rav Shechter: There's a reason for everything. He was an educator — the educator of the generation and he had a certain philosophy in everything. Among the special points about Kelm, the cleaning arrangements are cited, for example.

The custom in Kelm was that we would do the cleaning ourselves. The floor was cleaned twice a week and they would also clean the benches and tables with rags. Once was on erev Shabbos — that was a more thorough cleaning. It was done in the time between the sedorim, according to a rota that included everyone, two bochurim at a time.

Before our time, the privilege of cleaning would be purchased and I think that it used to be sold on Simchas Torah for the entire year. In general, in Kelm they took great care over the place being tidy and clean.

YN: From where did Reb Doniel arrive in Kelm?

Rav Shechter: He was in Slobodka with Reb Aharon Kotler. They were the two prodigies of Slobodka in those days. They were very young — thirteen or fourteen years old — but they were the prodigies. When others had difficulties with a sugya they would come over to them and they would solve all the problems. He [Reb Doniel] arrived in Kelm when he was very young, because his father was a prime disciple of the Alter. He came to Kelm towards the end of Rav Hirsch's era.

Kelm was another world entirely. One could employ common terms to draw comparisons between other places — here it was better, or more comfortable, or more profound. But Kelm was in a completely different category. A different world, it was a world of its own. All the yeshivos recognized this.

YN: In what ways?

Rav Shechter: In every way. Some of them I've already mentioned and in other ways too. Kelm was known in the other yeshivos as Die greise Talmud Torah (the Great Talmud Torah School) in admiration and esteem. There was a Talmud Torah for children and there was Die greise Talmud Torah, to distinguish it, or it would be called Beis Hatalmud.

A Thought-Out Sigh

YN: How did they handle all the rules, such as the one that it was forbidden to look out of the window?

Rav Shechter: (Correcting and clarifying) It wasn't forbidden. It wasn't forbidden. It was all a matter of training. One didn't turn one's head without forethought. It wasn't forbidden. The training was such that everything one did had to be the product of thought. When I stood in front of Reb Doniel I never turned around. [But] not because it was forbidden! Everything was built on Orchos Chaim Lehorosh. The whole idea of curiosity [for its own sake] didn't exist in Kelm.

See the Rosh's words in sentence #108: "Don't burn with curiosity to know . . ." In my sefer I explain this to mean that you will be told all that you need to know.

And "what is concealed from you," you have no need to know. We find that Yaakov Ovinu did not know what was happening to Yosef and although Yitzchok knew he did not reveal it to him because if Heaven was not telling him, he didn't need to know.

YN: It is said in Rav Chatzkel Levenstein's name that in Kelm they were even careful about sighing and weighed whether or not an individual was truly on a level to sigh . . .

Rav Shechter: No, no! A sigh is usually not the product of thought. If one feels that one needs to sigh then it's okay to do so — if it's necessary. The main thing is that it has to be the result of thought.

Reb Chatzkel belonged to a later period, not the period of the Mashgiach. But Reb Chazkel was with Reb Hirsch. He came to Kelm through Reb Yeruchom. Reb Yeruchom was the mashgiach in Radin — for three years I think — and Reb Chatzkel was then learning in Radin with the Chofetz Chaim. He became close to the Mashgiach and when he saw that Reb Chatzkel had the power to influence others he sent him to Kelm, to Rav Hirsch.

Do you know what Rav Hirsch said about the Alter of Kelm? The Alter was niftar on erev Tisha B'Av and was buried on the same day. Rav Hirsch was the only one who eulogized him and time was very short indeed. He said, "We will be able to tell our offspring that we saw a `man'!"

The Mashgiach, zt'l used to mention that one of the gentiles' great scholars propounds a theory that men are descended from monkeys. He asked how one could possibly maintain that a person — "man in his glory" (Tehillim 49:21) — comes from a monkey. Monkeys might perhaps be descended from men but the opposite — that men are descended from monkeys — is impossible. How did it occur to him to say such a thing? Because he never saw a man. Had he ever seen genuine people, he wouldn't have said it.

It's known that the three greatest among Reb Yisroel's talmidim were Reb Itzele Peterburger, Reb Naftoli Amsterdam and the Alter of Kelm. He applied the posuk, "You are completely beautiful, my companion and there is no blemish in you" (Shir Hashirim 4:7) to them, pointing as he said the last words, "and there is no blemish in you" to the Alter of Kelm.

In Conclusion

This seems to be a fitting idea with which to conclude the final lines of my conversation with the tzaddik, HaRav Shmuel Shechter, zt'l. While sitting in his room in Yerushalayim, it felt as though we might be in the Kelm Talmud Torah or in the quarters of the Mirrer mashgiach.

Mir and Kelm found a home in the heart of this great and exalted man who was a true reflection of their teachings and approach — "You are completely beautiful, my companion and there is no blemish in you."

"He's A Baal Mussar from a Bygone Era!"

A personal recollection. It was the second night of Rosh Hashonoh, 5761. After the meal we felt like taking a short walk — the first time we'd ever done so on this special night. After walking a few hundred meters along the virtually deserted streets we found ourselves going in the direction of Yerushalayim's Rechov Shamgar where the Beis Levayos of the main chevra kadisha is located. We noticed a funeral just starting to leave.

It was an unusual sight for a Yom Tov night, Yom Hadin. It was a small funeral; there were only a handful of participants. While I was trying to take it in and to identify the deceased based on who was there, my friend Rabbi Eliyahu Dunner approached me and told me, "Grandfather, Reb Shmuel passed away. You were fortunate to have known him well and have memories of him. See how Hashgochoh brought you here precisely at this moment!"

But that was hardly all. The niftar had left strict and unusual instructions thirty years earlier: "My passing should not be publicized through any announcement or poster or by any other method." How could such a drastic request be honored without causing pain to friends and acquaintances?

Ultimately, Heaven honored the tzaddik's wishes by arranging for his burial on the only day in the year when a funeral can take place in Eretz Yisroel without there being any possibility of it being publicized "through any announcement or poster or by any other method."

Rav Shmuel Shechter was indeed a tzaddik and a great man, who attained wondrous heights as a result of leaving his birthplace, Leshin, near Montreal, Canada for Yeshivas Mir in Poland. He learned there, far from his home and family, for four years and only when his mentor Reb Yeruchom was niftar did he return home to marry and then travel back, this time to Kelm.

In America he was introduced to a daughter of the distinguished Gordon family, all of whose sons went to learn in the Torah centers of Mir and Kamenitz. The first question, upon which the match depended, was whether the young lady would agree to spend several years in Kelm; the answer was in the affirmative.

As a sincere yirei Shomayim, Rav Shechter established a precedent with his American wedding, which he insisted should conform with yeshivishe standards, though it was held in the city of Jamaica in Queens, far from even the relatively religious center of New York. He absolutely ruled out a proposal to hold the wedding in Mir or in Kelm.

On his return to Europe immediately after his wedding, he stopped over briefly in Slobodka and the roshei yeshiva there had a chance to make his acquaintance. The Mashgiach, HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky, urged him to stay and learn in Slobodka and the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Isaac Sher, excitedly introduced their visitor to his rebbetzin as, "A baal mussar from a bygone era! (Ehr iz einer fun die amolikeh mussarniks!)"

In Kelm, Rav Shechter and his childhood friend Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, who later became mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshiva, attached themselves to Rav Doniel Mowshowitz, becoming Kelm talmidim in every sense. He felt the link between Mir and Kelm to be a natural one, which hinged on the personality of the Mirrer Mashgiach Reb Yeruchom, who himself was a product of Kelm.

Wherever he went in later life, Rav Shechter brought some of the authentic atmosphere of Kelm with him. He served Hashem with a fiery zeal — but at the same time, in concealment and with humility. He taught Torah and mussar for over fifty years, both to groups that were close to observance and those that were not, to Bais Yaakov students and bnei yeshiva in New York and Monsey, in Yerushalayim and Haifa. In his presence one could sense the sublime yet subtle spirit of Kelm hovering in the air.

Ten years have now passed since our main meeting, which took place at the beginning of Av, shortly before the day that is commemorated as the memorial day for the martyrs of Kelm who were murdered in the Holocaust. The tension in the atmosphere was palpable.

Rav Shmuel referred me to the introduction of his sefer on Orchos Chaim Lehorosh and, in a quavering voice, began reading the horrifying eyewitness account of Reb Doniel's martyrdom:

"When the Jews of Kelm were standing by the pits, opposite the barrels of the machine guns, Reb Doniel Mowshowitz asked the German in charge to allow him to say a few words to his flock. The German allowed him to do so briefly. Calmly and peacefully, as though he was lecturing his talmidim in ordinary times, the rov started to speak about sanctifying Hashem's Name. When his talk went on the German yelled at him to finish.

"Then he turned to the Jews standing at the pits' edge and said, `Here we are now in the situation that I spoke about a moment ago, meaning, kiddush Hashem. Therefore, don't panic; we must accept the decree calmly.'

"To the German Reb Doniel said, `I have finished — you can begin.' "

 

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