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The Legacy Of Rav Aharon Kotler

Rav Aharon Kotler

Rav Aharon Kotler

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.

* * * * *

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.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.


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