Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Cheshvan 5767 - November 8, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








To be Ready for Mesiras Nefesh! Literally!

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

A special interview with HaRav Henoch Cohen, who has been director of Chinuch Atzmai in America for 50 years

Part 2

These two interviews cover the history of Chinuch Atzmai, and how the gedolei Yisroel, led by HaRav Aaron Kotler, joined the battle for the souls, faith and religiosity of the Jewish children in the Holy Land. Rav Henoch Cohen was the center of the American office of the Chinuch Atzmai from the start, and here he tells his stories.

HaRav Aharon Kotler: "We have no Beis Hamikdosh. We have no Temple Service. The only holy work that we have left today is to educate Jewish children to Torah and mitzvos. And when the government makes edicts and does everything in its power to prevent Jewish children from learning Torah, then we need to be ready for complete mesirus nefesh, literally."

The very first meeting when Chinuch Atzmai was officially launched as an organization was at the beginning of Sivan, 5713 (1953). The vast majority of teachers were fired from their official positions as teachers during the transition to the new framework from a government-supported "stream" of education to an independent organization, as the government took over all education as mamlachti. That summer HaRav Aharon Kotler was staying in Eretz Yisroel.

He called a meeting of all the principals who had previously worked in "the Fourth Stream." The meeting was held in Tel Aviv.

Reb Aharon delivered a fiery and emotional address. He brought down the gemora in maseches Taanis, that at the time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh, the kohanim and the leviim remained on duty at their sacred avodoh, even for the one extra moment, which meant that they died for the Sanctification of the Holy Name.

Asked Reb Aharon: "But are there not only three sins which a person has to die rather than transgress, and surely carrying out the avodoh in the Beis Hamikdosh was not one of them?"

He answered that since the work involved the Holy Service of Hashem (avodoh meleches Hashem) it was forbidden to lose even one more minute of that sacred work, since this was the end of the service because of the churban.

Mesirus Nefesh, Literally

Today, Reb Aharon continued, we have no Beis Hamikdosh. We have no avodoh. The only holy work that we have left today is to educate Jewish children to keep Torah and mitzvos. And when the government makes edicts and does everything in its power to prevent Jewish children from learning Torah, then we have to be ready for complete mesirus nefesh, literally.

Reb Aharon's powerful presentation was listened to most attentively by all principals and teachers of the chadorim and the schools, with the exception of one school in Beer Sheva. Therefore, "when my wife came back to Israel after she had completed her studies in Gateshead, she and two of her friends got to work to set up the Chinuch Atzmai school in Beer Sheva," said Reb Henoch Cohen.

That summer, Reb Aharon arrived at the home of the Brisker Rav, who called Rav Chaim Salomon the son-in-law of the Charkov Rov, and they took out a loan from him in the huge amount of eighty thousand lirot, opened a bank account and deposited the money — so that they would be able to pay the first of the teachers' salaries.

As soon as Reb Aharon arrived back in New York, he called an emergency meeting, which was held at the yeshiva Torah Vodaas building in Williamsburg. "Who do you think came to that meeting? Baalei batim? Rich Jews? Not at all! It was the alter Mir people who came, relatively recent refugees who were very poor, some of whom had positions in yeshivas and some of whom had not. But when Reb Aharon called a meeting about anything major that pertained to religious affairs in Eretz Yisroel, they all came.

"All those who were present undertook to pay or raise fifty dollars a month. They even signed a formal shtar chove.

"There was a bank manager, a chareidi Jew, who took all the promissory notes and swapped them for cash, and that is how the first ten thousand dollars was raised for Chinuch Atzmai.

"Reb Aharon had demanded mesirus nefesh from all the teachers in Israel, but he also left money behind him before he left for America. And as soon as he came back he demanded the same mesirus nefesh from the chareidi community over here. I will let you in on a secret: two years later, when I began working with Rebbe Aharon, all the loans had still not been paid back to Reb Chaim Solomon."

To Be Absolutely Independent

The issue of whether to create a link between Chinuch Atzmai and Agudas Yisroel had already come up on the agenda even in those early days. All the gedolim were of the opinion that there must be absolutely no partnership between the two, and that Chinuch Atzmai had to be entirely independent. Even with regard to the location of the Chinuch Atzmai office, there were those who wanted it to be incorporated within the Agudas Yisroel office in America, but the gedolim thought otherwise.

When R' Aharon Kotler asked me to open an office in New York for Chinuch Atzmai, there were 3 other offices already there, one in the office of the Agudas HaRabonnim, the second in the office of Va'ad HaYeshivos, and the third in Agudas Yisroel of Ameruca. I opened the independent office and within several months, Rav Aharon, zt"l, worked to close the other two offices. He did the same exact thing in Eretz Yisroel.

When he took the money that the Brisker Rav got for Chinuch Atzmai as a loan, he opened an account for Chinuch Atzmai with the Lutzker Rav, the Beis Yisroel, R' Yechezkel Sarna and R' Yechezkel Abramsky as the authorized signatories to insure Chinuch Atzmai independence.

As Reb Henoch told us in the first part, during the initial period of his work for Chinuch Atzmai in America, he was in Israel for several weeks during bein hazmanim. One erev Shabbos, Rebbe Aharon phoned him, and it was clear from the conversation that he was extremely agitated.


"He told me, that he had heard that at the Sinai school in Tel Aviv the spirit had changed somewhat, and they were planning to open a 9th grade class, as the beginning of a high school [with secular subjects]. `That is not what we are working for! That is not why we set up Chinuch Atzmai! No, this will never be! Reb Henoch, go into the Gerrer Rebbe, to the Lutzker Rov, to the rosh yeshiva of Chevron, to HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky, and tell them what I think.'

"I said to him: `I see that this matter is very important to you. But who am I, a young bochur, that I should presume to the gedolim and speak to them about this matter?'

"He answered me like this: `I have already sent a letter to the Lutzker Rov about this. I told him you are coming to Israel, and I told him what your role is, and that I have given you the authority to take care of this matter on my behalf.'

"I have been looking for that letter for fifty years. I went to Rebbe Elchonon Sorotzkin (the son of the Lutzker Rov) for it, but the letter was not there. But recently his son R' Ben Zion brought me the letter. He told me that there are many letters that the Lutzker Rov kept hidden away, because he was afraid of the government finding them."

Reb Henoch indeed went in to see the gedolim, and he had a particular comment to make on his visit to the Gerrer Rebbe. "His perspective on Chinuch Atzmai was exactly on a par with Rebbe Aharon's. Both had the same desire and ambition for Chinuch Atzmai to be entirely independent. And both shared the same opinion on the opening of high schools. Both objected with the same fierce determination to that dreadful notion."

The Vishnitzer Rebbe, the author of Imrei Chaim, also developed a special relationship with Chinuch Atzmai. He called on his main followers to fully support Chinuch Atzmai.

Reb Henoch recalls a meeting that was held at the home of the well-known diamond merchant Reb Shlomo Goldfinger, which was attended by both the Gerrer Rebbe and the Vishnitzer Rebbe.

A Uniquely Warm Relationship

"It was right after Rebbe Aharon passed away that HaRav Shraga Grossbard was brought in to run Chinuch Atzmai. The Vishnitzer Rebbe committed himself to raising twenty-five thousand dollars. A few of my friends who are Vishnitzer Chassidim told me: `We are helping you because we have instructions from the Rebbe. He told us to help you out and give a donation to Chinuch Atzmai.'"

In the shtieblach of the Gerrer Chassidim as well, appeals were held for Chinuch Atzmai under orders from the Rebbe, the author of the Beis Yisroel.

Reb Henoch also described the special warm treatment he was given by all the gedolim and Chassidic rebbes in America, whenever it came to any matter that concerned Chinuch Atzmai. That was how it was with the Boyaner Rebbe zt"l, for instance, who undertook an annual donation to Chinuch Atzmai.

Reb Henoch felt quite uncomfortable going to him and asking for the money, but then the Rebbe called Rebbe Aharon to ask why no one had come to pick up the money. "When I went to him, he greeted me with a smile and a special warmth."

On one of his first trips to Israel, Reb Henoch made a stopover in London and stayed for Shabbos. When he heard that HaRav Abramsky was there, he rushed over to see him to report what was being done for Chinuch Atzmai. There too he was also treated to an extremely warm and special welcome. "It was the first time that I had gone in to him," relates Reb Henoch, "And I saw right off how devoted he was to that matter."

Reb Henoch has a photocopy of the post office check that the Belzer Rebbe gave him right after Chinuch Atzmai came into being. "At the time we went to him to get his signature for the Chinuch Atzmai Kol Korei, but he signed and said, `A person cannot discharge his obligation with just a signature.' Then he took out that post office check, his contribution to the enormous educational system that had been built in Eretz Yisroel."

In the Middle of the Fast

After Reb Aharon passed away, who undertook the responsibility to support Chinuch Atzmai?

Reb Henoch: "There is no doubt that without Reb Aharon, Chinuch Atzmai would not have come into being. But he paved the way for us. He showed everyone what had to be done, and how it should be done. And there are people who give money to Chinuch Atzmai to this day because of Rebbe Aharon's influence. And not just them, but also the children of people who had been told by Rebbe Aharon about the tremendous significance of Chinuch Atzmai, still give money for this cause.

"After Reb Aharon passed away, I went to HaRav Moshe Feinstein, who immediately took the responsibility upon himself. He did many things in fulfillment of this obligation that were not in his nature to do. He called certain wealthy Jews to come to his home, and authorized me to speak on his behalf. He appealed to people he would otherwise never have applied to for funds. He turned to all kinds of people, whether they were close or far, to whomever he possibly could.

"I remember once that R' Fishel Gelernter came to America. It was on Asoro BeTeves, right in the middle of the fast. It was during a heavy snowfall too. Reb Moshe came with us, together with HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky and the Kapishnitzer Rebbe, to meet three wealthy Jews. It was no simple task for them. All three were of an advanced age. Yet they went out in the freezing cold with enormous dedication, and on a fast day, to do all they could for Chinuch Atzmai.

"During the final days of the Kapishnitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel zt"l, I did not want to disturb him anymore. He suffered a lot from heart disease. But one of his sons, Rebbe Zussia, phoned and said to me, `My father is extremely upset about your not calling him, and not coming round to take him to the baalei batim to ask them for donations. He is still living! He is still here! And he wants to keep working and doing! Why do you not come around anymore? He really does not live for himself. He lives for others.'

"It is rare to see that kind of dedication."

A Question of Kovod HaTorah

Reb Henoch relates that for years he observed that same type of behavior in Reb Aharon. "On one occasion, when Reb Aharon was about to leave for Eretz Yisroel, his Rebbetzin asked me if I would buy him a hat and gave me twenty-five dollars for it. Reb Aharon heard about this and told me: `What is wrong with the hat I have now? Twenty-five dollars! That is enough to support one Jew for a whole week. And we should put out that amount now to buy a hat?'

"I answered him like this: `The Rebbetzin thinks that if the Rosh Yeshiva arrives in Eretz Yisroel with this hat, then there is an issue that involves kovod haTorah. If there is a question of kovod haTorah, then it would seem that the rosh yeshiva should go with an appropriate hat. I cannot give a psak on this matter, but if the Rebbetzin thinks that, then she is probably right.' Reb Aharon listened and gave his consent, and then I brought him the new hat."

One day Reb Henoch went with Reb Aharon to Manhattan to get measured for a new suit. "He asked me not to tell anybody, for he was really embarrassed about having to waste half-an- hour getting measured for a suit. The thing is, he was about to travel to Eretz Yisroel, and he had been told that it was extremely hot there and that it was not a good idea for him to wear his usual suit. `If I have to do it, I will do it. But I ask you to make sure that no one knows about it. I am really embarrassed about having to waste time on such a thing.' "

Reb Henoch relates that even before he took on the job, one of Rebbe Aharon's talmidim, Rebbe Shmerel Shulman, used to accompany him everywhere during the three days that he was in New York City. "He told me that at every conference that Reb Aharon attended, even if the meeting had been called for other purposes, he would unfailingly bring up the subject of Chinuch Atzmai.

"Whether it was a conference of Agudas Yisroel, or Torah Umesora, or whatever it was, the main thing was that Chinuch Atzmai should be on the agenda. Everywhere he went he talked about Chinuch Atzmai. And all this was because his father-in- law HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer had told him that the entire future of Eretz Yisroel depended on it."

A Special Director is Needed

When Chinuch Atzmai was founded, Rebbe Hillel Lieberman zt"l undertook to run the organization. It was not because he desired the position, since he was also at the same time responsible for the administration of the Bais Yaakov Seminary. It was just that since no full-time director had been found to run the Chinuch Atzmai system, Rav Lieberman had to run it.

"Reb Aharon always said that Chinuch Atzmai needed a director of its own, and therefore HaRav Pinchas Dovid Freudiger, the son-in-law of the Pressburg Rav, was appointed. Reb Aharon also brought in Rabbi Menachem Porush to raise funds for Chinuch Atzmai, as well as to help develop the institution and open up new schools. Both sat together in one room—Rav Freudiger, who was in charge of the administrative system as a whole, and Rabbi Porush beside him.

"The first year that I started working for Chinuch Atzmai, I heard Reb Aharon express a desire to place one of the Agudas Yisroel Knesset members in charge of government lobbying on behalf of anything that concerned Chinuch Atzmai. He said: `Chinuch Atzmai is large enough and significant enough to justify having a Knesset member working for it on a steady basis.' For that same reason, after Rav Freudiger, Reb Aharon brought in Reb Yitzchok Meir (who later served as mayor of Bnei Brak) to direct Chinuch Atzmai. He said that he had the clout to help Chinuch Atzmai as a result of his government connections.

One particular Thursday, when he had already returned to Lakewood, he asked me to come over because he needed to send telegrams to Israel and he wanted to make sure that they would arrive in Israel before Shabbos. In those telegrams, he requested that Rabbi Menachem Porush be placed on the Agudas Yisroel list for the Knesset. There were candidates representing all the various circles, and Reb Aharon was always pushing for Rabbi Porush to be an MK so that he would always be available to act for Chinuch Atzmai. He also felt that, as a member of the Knesset Rabbi Porush could raise more funds from donors."

Two Apples in His Pocket

Here it should be noted that Rabbi Porush would go overseas every year to raise funds. He would go right after Chanukah, and come back erev Pesach. "I remember that he would take two apples in his pocket when he went back, one for his father and one for the Brisker Rov, so they would have something to make charoses out of," relates Reb Henoch.

"The first time I went to Eretz Yisroel, Reb Aharon told me that in addition to the gedolim, with whom I was supposed to meet, I should go and see three other people, for he said that those people would carry a tremendous responsibility in the next generation: HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l, HaRav Shraga Grossbard zt"l and HaRav Chaim Shaul Karelitz zt"l. Even when he was alive, Reb Aharon would speak of Rebbe Shraga whom he insisted must be appointed as the director of Chinuch Atzmai."

After the passing of HaRav Aharon and of the Lutzker Rov, Chinuch Atzmai's situation became critical. "I went to Israel with a large delegation headed by the American gedolim, HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky, HaRav Schneur Kotler, and HaRav Yaakov Ruderman, who came to meet with the Israeli gedolim, to see how Chinuch Atzmai could be sustained from this point on. HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky arranged a special welcome for the delegation.

Reb Yaakov and Reb Schneur went to see the Ponovezher Rov and begged him to allow Reb Shraga Grossbard to leave the yeshiva and run Chinuch Atzmai. Anyone who was aware of the powerful bond between them, knew that it was far from simple to get his consent for this. However, as I noted earlier, even when Reb Aharon was alive, he had spoken of how crucial it was to get Reb Shraga to come in and run the institution."

Rebbe Henoch has some remarkable stories to tell, of how the gedolim and rosh yeshivos in America grasped right away how great a personality Reb Shraga was, and what a great talmid chochom he was, and they would frequently get together with him just for the pleasure of speaking with him in learning. That was another reason why they went out of their way to support him and accompany him on his visits to various philanthropists. As a case in point, whenever Reb Shraga arrived in New York, Reb Boruch Sorotzkin would quickly rush over to stay with him for two days, and accompany him to every possible place.

The Talmidos Collected Money

R' Henoch goes on to tell us an interesting story which further illustrates the immense significance which Reb Aharon Kotler attached to Chinuch Atzmai, and how he placed this subject at the head of his list of priorities.

"We began to regularly organize appeals in the schools here in America, and Reb Aharon even asked that the girls themselves go out collecting money for Chinuch Atzmai. He said that there was no greater chinuch for them than that: getting them to feel a responsibility for, and have a share in, the pure chinuch of Jewish children, and it would surely penetrate them deeply as well.

"On one particular day I wanted to organize an appeal at the Rambam school in Brooklyn. Then suddenly I was called in to a din Torah by HaRav Moshe Feinstein. The Pe'elim had summoned me to a din Torah, claiming that I had taken over the appeal that they were to make at that school. The hearing was arranged for Tuesday at ten in the morning. The night before, when Reb Aharon returned home from Lakewood to Borough Park, I went over to his house and told him about the din Torah. Reb Aharon said to me: `Henoch, do not go. Wait.'

"At ten o'clock the next day, Reb Aharon asked me to phone Reb Moshe. When he answered, Reb Aharon took the phone and told Reb Moshe: `I heard that Pe'elim have called Henoch to a din Torah. But actually they should have called me and not him. Perhaps you reckoned that, since I am the party concerned in Chinuch Atzmai, I cannot give a ruling in this matter. Therefore, I suggest that we sit down together and make the psak.'

"In the end I did organize the appeal, for that is how Rebbe Aharon wanted to show everyone, as he had always done, that Chinuch Atzmai was the foremost priority, and only when that was taken care of, could other causes be helped. For as long as there are the chareidi schools of Chinuch Atzmai, Pe'elim will be able to be active and have a place to send children to learn. But if no schools exist, there is nothing to do."

On Rebbe Aharon Kotler's final visit to Eretz Yisroel, he went to speak to HaRav Eliezer Menachem Shach. It was during the summer, few months before Reb Aharon became ill and passed away.

"He begged HaRav Shach to join the Chinuch Atzmai hanholoh. He did and from that time on, HaRav Shach did not miss a single meeting of Chinuch Atzmai. Beyond the fact that they were related, there was a very special bond between them. It was Reb Aharon who also asked HaRav Shach to join the Moetzes Gedolei Torah. Up till that point HaRav Shach had never been involved in public affairs, and only after Rebbe Aharon's passing did he get into the thick of public affairs."


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