As we commemorate the fiftieth yahrzeit this Friday, the second day of Kislev, of Rav Aaron Kotler – the greatest Jew, in the opinion of even many of his fellow Torah luminaries, ever to set foot on North American soil – we are obligated to reflect on his achievements and the lessons he taught.
This assessment of Rav Aharon isn’t hyperbole or the kind of excessive adulation that is often accorded to persons of significant achievement. How Rav Aharon was regarded by other great persons in his lifetime and what his legacy has been in Lakewood and elsewhere amply justify the view that he towered above everyone else in our community, including other Torah giants.
I knew him over the last eleven years of his life. Our first encounter was at the initial meeting he called to assist Chinuch Atzmai, the network of religious day schools he established in Israel. I had just become active in Zeirei Agudath Israel of Boro Park and attended the meeting that took place at the National Council of the Young Israel in Manhattan. As I lived a block away from his apartment in Boro Park, the driver who took him home allowed me to come as well.
Throughout the next decade, I raised money for Chinuch Atzmai on a voluntary basis. At times, I accompanied Rav Aharon when he raised funds for Chinuch Atzmai or for his yeshiva. At conventions of Agudath Israel and Zeirei he always ate privately and asked that I join with him.
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He came here seventy-one years ago, a man in his early 50s who scarcely spoke any English and yet who somehow was able to communicate with American-born youngsters who were far more proficient in baseball statistics than in Yiddish and with laypeople who were distinctly modern in their orientation.
He came here with a mission, namely to build Torah in America, having turned back in Japan from the remnants of the great pre-Holocaust European yeshivas that were headed toward safe haven in Shanghai. When he arrived in the United States he spoke immediately of this urgent mission, though his first task was hatzalah, or rescue, activity.
In 1943, Beth Medrash Govoha was established and opened with a handful of students.
At a young age in Europe he had earned a reputation as one of the preeminent Torah scholars of recent generations. His yeshiva in Kletzk, a small town in Poland not far from Slutzk across the Russian border where his father-in-law, the great gaon Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer, had headed a major yeshiva, was recognized as one of the outstanding advanced institutions of Talmudic study in the yeshiva world. In the 1920s, when a new building for the yeshiva was dedicated in Kletzk, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski referred to Rav Aharon as the “Rav Akiva Eger of this generation.”
There was more to Rav Aharon’s story during this phase of his exalted life. For all of his intensive immersion in Torah study, including giving shiurim, and the burden of sustaining the yeshiva, especially after the Great Depression of 1929, Rav Aharon never lost sight of his obligation to serve the larger community. He was an activist and his activity included Agudath Israel and many other communal causes. At one of the Agudah conventions in the 1950s, as we ate privately, he remarked about his activities in 1917 during the period between the first and second Russian revolutions that occurred that year.
The lesson he taught was of communal responsibility, of caring and working for the attainment of goals that extend far beyond a person’s ordinary four cubits of responsibility. For each of us, of course, this obligation is defined by the positions we hold, as well as by our capabilities. I have known persons whose devotion to the klal has been extraordinary. None reached the super-human level attained by Rav Aharon.
There is a collateral obligation arising from Rav Aharon’s communal activities. His yeshivas, Kletzk and Lakewood, obviously were institutions of advanced Torah study. They operated at the post-high school level and without a scintilla of secular education, even for livelihood purposes. Students could not attend the yeshiva and be enrolled at the same time in an academic program. This was not by chance but rather because Rav Aharon insisted on complete immersion in Torah study. He believed that Torah greatness could not be attained in North America unless there were students who devoted themselves entirely to its study.
Yet he also understood this pattern could not be the entire story of Torah chinuch, not in North America and not in Israel. He knew that for the advancement of religious life there would have to be other patterns of chinuch. In this he was not merely yielding reluctantly to reality, though he understood the realities of modernism. Had his acceptance of far less intense Torah study been begrudging, he would not have assumed rabbinic leadership of Torah Umesorah, the still young organization and movement that in his lifetime was comprised primarily of day schools operating only at the elementary school level, more than a few of them co-educational.
He was not only the primary religious leader of the emerging day school world, he was a doer and a “goer,” frequently traveling to communities throughout North America to encourage the establishment and support of day schools at the basic educational level. He recognized, as too few in our period understand, that these lower level schools are the building blocks for Torah in America. He did not leave the building to others. This was his challenge and his obligation, no matter how exhausted he was and no matter how time-consuming and energy-draining were his other major communal responsibilities.
If this was remarkable, even more so were his efforts on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai. By standards significantly lower than Rav Aharon’s, these were weak institutions. The school day ended early in the afternoon and there was an academic curriculum, the inescapable result being limited time for Torah study. Here, too, Rav Aharon saw the need and the opportunity and he seized it.
In the most remarkable example of Torah leadership that can be imagined and from a distance of six thousand miles away, he breathed life and purpose into these Israeli schools, constantly striving to raise the necessary funds and constantly giving guidance to those in Israel who were engaged in the administration of this network. I can personally testify that Rav Aharon’s dedication to Chinuch Atzmai directly resulted in a dimunition of the funds that he could raise for Beth Medrash Govoha.
He possessed spiritual strength to a degree not subject to ordinary understanding and this spiritual strength was the foundation for physical exertions that were also beyond understanding. I came back from the funeral in Lakewood with Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, who knew Rav Aharon very well from their boyhoods together in Minsk and then in Slabodka. In the car, Rav Yaakov remarked, “It is said that Rav Aharon was physically weak. He was the strongest man in the world.”
As I reflect on these lessons, there is gladness in my heart that Rav Aharon’s vision and mesiras nefesh have been validated. We are witness to the fruit of his extraordinary dedication and the flowering of Torah on these shores, in a land that many thought was alien to elevated Torah study. Fifty years after his passing, he remains vitally alive in our hearts and minds.
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Rav Aharon’s fidelity to emes, to truth, was ironclad. When writing about the lessons he taught we are compelled to abide by the same standard and this obligates us to consider whether over the past half-century we have been sufficiently faithful to his teachings and example. We have heeded, of course, his call for intensive Torah study, including by lay people who are in business or have jobs that occupy the lion’s share of their available time.
His yeshiva has developed into one of the great institutions of Torah learning in the entire history of our people. Lakewood as a community has expanded to an extent that defies ordinary demographic calculations. Everywhere in North America there are kollelim wherever there is even a modest number of Jews. In short, we are witness to the validation of Rav Aharon’s vision.
There is, however, another aspect, one that is touched upon far too infrequently. We have been selective in learning from his example, ignoring what he taught and demonstrated through personal sacrifice about the obligation to sustain Torah chinuch at the most basic educational level. Day schools and elementary school yeshivas are too often the victims of neglect, not only by Federations or philanthropists who do not want to support Torah institutions. They are often the victims of neglect by people who are totally committed to Torah chinuch. Too many in the fervently Orthodox community accept and even proclaim the message that our schools are a parental obligation rather than a communal responsibility. Parents must be pressured to pay and there is a diminished obligation for the community to sustain these institutions.
Not long ago I received an e-mail from a man who has helped the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School with great generosity, a man who though not of our community understands better than many within the community the ideal of communal responsibility for basic Torah education. He wrote, “It simply amazes me that the Orthodox world, which has grown materially in numbers over the past two generations and which has produced a large number of successful business people, has difficulty replacing [the previous generation’s] much smaller demographic cohort of donors.”
This is the point: In the early years of the day school movement and continuing after Rav Aharon’s death, yeshivas relied substantially on voluntary contributions from affluent persons who were not parents. Parents were asked to pay a fair tuition by the standard of those times; if they could not, their children were accepted and not turned away. To be sure, yeshivas struggled to meet their obligations, faculty and staff were woefully underpaid and often paid late, and there were other difficulties. But at least our schools kept their doors open and they kept them open to students from marginally religious homes whose parents perhaps could pay tuition but would not.
As those donors passed from the scene and as the Orthodox community developed its own cadre of affluent people, there was a critical change in attitude. As I have often written, parents were now regarded as consumers of a service and, as is true generally of consumers, they were expected to pay for the services that were being provided. Torah education was like a bottle of milk purchased at a grocery store. Rich and poor customers alike are required to pay for the product.
The consequence is that over the years, in most day schools and many yeshivas, parents were required to pay an ever-increasing share of the costs, with contributions constituting a declining share of the budget. By the 1980s, this attitude had become dominant in many schools.
In the late 1980s there was a financial crisis in Torah education in Los Angeles, centered particularly at the largest yeshiva in that generally affluent community. This school and several others were behind in payroll and increased pressure was put on parents. The suggestion was made that kollel wives should pawn their wedding rings and that families that receive scholarship assistance be required to take out additional mortgages on their homes or agree to have a lien placed on their homes equal to the amount of scholarship assistance that had been provided. If the homes were sold, the institutions would recoup the scholarship assistance provided years before. This unprecedented approach received rabbinical approval. I strongly protested to the roshei yeshiva of Torah Umesorah, pleading that what Rav Aharon had taught us was being betrayed.
I was not successful.
The damage was done and a new attitude took root in too many communities and too many schools. What happened was dynamic, meaning that this departure from previous approaches inevitably expanded in its untoward consequences. In truth, chassidic schools in the main have a more caring or benevolent approach to scholarship assistance, as they rely substantially on fundraising, primarily within the groups sponsoring the schools. There are yeshiva-world schools that remain faithful to the standard set by Rav Aharon. Regrettably, however, there are many yeshivas and day schools that have embraced harsh policies.
Even greater damage has been inflicted on outreach schools and, more generally, on the kiruv movement. The abandonment of basic Torah education has inevitably encompassed those schools that reach out to and educate children from homes that are not Orthodox. What I constantly hear from those who struggle to maintain kiruv schools is that “no one cares.”
We need just reflect on what happens each September at many yeshivas and day schools as a new school year opens. Children who are eager to join their classmates are not admitted. At many schools there is the egregious wrong, even cruelty, of withholding report cards because parents are behind in tuition payments.
I do not come here to defend the parents. I write to express caring about the children who are always innocent. They are to suffer? How can this square with what Rav Aharon taught us? How can it square with our values and teachings as a religious people? Hurting children is not what Rav Aharon taught us. I recognize from an abundance of experience that schools are confronted by harsh economic realities. Whatever they are, children must not be made the victim.
We are at the fiftieth yahrzeit of this towering man. It is appropriate to commemorate the occasion, to speak about his genius and his accomplishments. But this is an occasion that should also challenge us and impel us to strive for more. We must reflect on whether we are sufficiently faithful to his example, the example being our obligation to support basic Torah chinuch. This obligation inherently means that Torah chinuch at any level is never a consumer product. It is always a communal responsibility.
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