In The Beginning: The View From Telz
In Telz, Lithuania, the night in the middle of the summer is very short. Havdalah is made at around midnight. One motzei Shabbos, Reb Simcha was together with a few other bochurim after Havdoloh, when they took a short walk outside the city. On that walk, he saw something that he never forgot.
In the North it was dark and the stars were out. In the West, the horizon was still red with the setting sun. The East was already pale from the faint light of sunrise.
"It's like our generation," he would later say. This event, taking place in his early youth, was perhaps a symbol foreshadowing his entire life to come: In one sky, you had the setting sun of the greatness of the yeshiva world before the war. In another sky there was the interim darkness of the bein ha shamoshos in the period after the war. And there was the dawn of the teshuva movement and the rebuilding of the great yeshivas. He himself saw, experienced and embraced all those worlds.
In The World Of The Setting Sun
Reb Simcha was the oldest son of the great Reb Elchonon Wasserman, zt'l, who was the rosh yeshiva of the Baranovitch Yeshiva and the main talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. The influence on him of his father and the other gedolei Yisroel who were an essential part of his early years, was clearly seen by those who knew Reb Simcha.
He first visited the Chofetz Chaim came at the age of 7. He would tell how he walked into the room that day and saw an ish kodosh, a man whose presence completely overwhelmed him. This great man seemed to him to be on fire. A little Yid was sitting on the side.
Reb Simcha remembered this scene vividly more than 80 years later, and he said, "The big man was truly on fire from his Torah. He was a great man. But he wasn't the Chofetz Chaim. He was his son-in-law. The Chofetz Chaim was the little Yid. Simplicity. He was great inside, but you didn't see anything outside."
He talked about the demeanor of his uncle, Reb Chaim Ozer.
"He dressed like everyone else. He used to joke a lot. He was full of jokes. People came in to see the great Reb Chaim Ozer and they were nervous. As soon as a person came in, he made a joke with him, to put him on the same level; to put him at ease. This was what was behind Reb Chaim Ozer's jokes."
One time, when Reb Simcha was telling this story, he was asked, "Is that where you learned to do that?"
He answered, "No. I'm not doing it for this. I just like a joke."
But his jokes had the same effect on people as Reb Chaim Ozer's jokes.
In addition to the influence of his father, and his many visits with the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer, the doors to the inner rooms of many gedolei Yisroel were open to him: Reb Moshe Landinsky, the retired rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva in Radin, in whose house he lived when he learned there; the Alter of Slobodke, with whom he used to talk every day when he was learning there; Reb Shimon Shkop; and on and on.
From the yeshiva in Novardok, which he attended for about 4 years after his bar mitzvah, he strengthened the qualities of self- sacrifice and dedication to others which he had seen in the gedolim who were a part of his earliest years. He was considered very capable and was of great value to the yeshiva. Under the guidance of the Alter of Novardok, he traveled from one place to another to teach students and to set up facilities for learning.
In those days, which included the period immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, traveling was very dangerous. One time he was caught and sentenced to a work camp where he had to cut and transport trees. On his second day there, he was beaten up by other prisoners. He woke up early every day to put on tefillin and to daven before going out to work, and he adhered to kashrus, eating only bread and water.
When Reb Simcha asked the commander for a day off on Shabbos, everyone laughed. But the commander gave it to him. He had seen how Reb Simcha was conducting himself and said, "I know that this boy is sincere."
The person who replaced him in his five-man work crew was shot by a guard for an infraction committed by one of the crew. Reb Simcha later said that since he was the Jewish boy there, undoubtedly he would have been the one shot, and he felt that Shabbos saved his life.
Traveling Instructions From The Chofetz Chaim
The last time that Reb Simcha saw the Chofetz Chaim was the last Yom Kippur of the Chofetz Chaim's life. He spent Yom Kippur in Radin and went in to say good-bye to the Chofetz Chaim on the next day.
"By that time," he explained, "the Chofetz Chaim was practically in the next world. In any case, even before this, he could look at a person's face and know everything about his past, present, and future."
The Chofetz Chaim called him back after they had said good-bye. He said to Reb Simcha, "You should know that when Moshiach comes, he's not going to forget anyone. Even if there is a Jew in the other end of the world, all by himself, Moshiach is not going to forget him."
Later, Reb Simcha most movingly told of the effect of this on him. "Somehow I felt that the Chofetz Chaim was giving me instructions. I knew then, that I was going to be traveling."
At another time, when telling over this experience, he said, "I can understand Moshe Rabbenu saying, `I was a stranger in a strange land.' "
From then on, he carried Radin with him wherever he went. HaRav Chodosh talked about the paradox of living in Los Angeles and Radin at the same time:
"A person who was close to HaRav Wasserman in Los Angeles said to me that HaRav Wasserman was like a mezuza on the door post of the house. Everyone passes by, continuing on their way, but it remains outside.
"In Los Angeles, he had a good relationship with all sectors of the community: with the Modern Orthodox, with those who barely kept mitzvos, with the baalei teshuva, etc. But he always remained a Jew of Radin. And he didn't separate himself from the community. He was right there in the middle. He had come there for the purpose of having an influence on the community. But his house remained just like in Radin, and he himself retained the same kind of purity, integrity and truth."
Soon after the last visit to the Chofetz Chaim, his traveling began.
His father sent him to Strassbourg, France, where he established the only yeshiva in France at that time, and which proved the seed for the flourishing Torah community in France today. He stayed there until 1938, when his father called him to come and assist him in America.
This became a pattern: In a number of cities, he was the pioneer who walked into a wilderness devoid of Torah. He took it upon himself to do the hard work of digging wells that slowly, slowly started to bring forth the water of Torah learning and Yiddishkeit. When everything was flowing strongly, he would leave the running of the institution to others, often hand-picked by him, and then quietly, unobtrusively, move on to another wilderness.
He established the first yeshiva in Washington Heights, the first full-time day school in Detroit, the first yeshiva in Los Angeles, and the first schooling for youngsters and adults in San Diego and Santa Barbara, California, which later provided the seed from which full-time day schools could spring forth there. All the time, he was searching, searching for more Jews to reach.
Reb Simcha told the story of a youngster he sent to Tucson, Arizona from California. He said to him, "Reuven, I would like you to go to Tucson. Canvass for some kids over there."
It was through this kind of canvassing on the part of three yeshiva students who went to Santa Barbara under his direction that the now-flourishing community began.
Special mention must be made of a period that Reb Simcha later called "one of the happiest in my life." In his first years in America, he became close to Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz, zt'l, the rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaas. The situation of the Jewish community, from a Torah viewpoint, was extremely low at that point. There was very little learning of Torah, and very little Torah-true leadership.
In 1941, Rav Mendelovitz decided to buy an estate — like a retreat — in Spring Valley near New York and to train thirty of his students to take over the responsibility for the Jewish community in America. He asked Reb Simcha to come with him and to take responsibility for their Talmud studies. They were there in Spring Valley for ten weeks in the summer. The name of the program was Aish Dos.
In addition to their Talmud studies, they would sit on the grass and have discussions about what could be done for the community. Almost everyone who was there decided to go into education, fired with the ideal that they had to do something to raise the community to a knowledgeable level. That summer, he gave shiurim on a high lomdishe level and also taught all of the subjects that would be necessary for educators to be able to influence students, parents and kehillos in America.
This group became the first group of principals and educators in yeshivas that began in places where it was thought impossible to establish places of learning. They were in the front line of an army spawned by a new organization that Rav Mendelovitz also founded, called Torah UMesorah, which began setting up day schools across the United States.
This thought, which Reb Simcha expressed a number of times, may have been something that he taught his students in Spring Valley.
We are on an island. The Torah is dwelling on an island. Klal Yisroel is so poor, that each and every one of us has to become wealthier in Torah. Then we have to do something with our lives. We cannot sit. We have to influence the nations of the world with "love your neighbor as yourself." But the Torah says we need to have "ahavas Yisroel." Then it means that this will make ahava in the world.
He was always very caring and with simcha, but in addition, when things were important, he was relentless. As the war in Europe broke out, all the representatives of the different yeshivas who were in America at the time joined together to work for the benefit of the yeshivas in Europe who were in such danger. The name of the new organization was Vaad Hatzalah, and it was Reb Simcha who worked out the status of the organization.
As it became clear that a holocaust had started, he became Rav Aharon Kotler's personal assistant and worked feverishly, round-the-clock, to convince U.S. Congressmen to pressure the American government to take some action. After seven months of hard work, the project abruptly ended. "Some politicians felt their influence in Washington was necessary for something else and they destroyed the whole project," explained Reb Simcha.
Soon after the end of the war, he volunteered to go to Europe as part of a delegation headed by HaRav Eliezer Silver under the auspices of the Vaad Hatzala. He worked in London, Warsaw, Prague, and Paris on behalf of the refugees. Characteristically, as soon as he accompanied a train of 400 orphaned children — collected from monasteries and convents — into Paris, he organized yeshiva bochurim to come to Paris to learn with the orphans.