The Old Yeshiva
Last week’s column, mostly pictures, on the rededication of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, could only partially describe the joyous event. The historic yeshiva building is once again in the hands of the Jewish community, and the sounds of Torah are heard in its halls.
To fully understand the significance of the building and the institution it once housed, we have to go back close to eighty years, when the venerable Rabbi Meir Shapiro decided to build a yeshiva that would set an example for all other houses of higher Torah learning.
Rabbi Shapiro dreamt of a yeshiva that would cater to the most talented Torah scholars. At the first Agudah Convention, he proposed to build the yeshiva. This was the very same convention, at which he broached the inception of the now-famous Daf Yomi.
To do this he set about creating an atmosphere in which the students would be able to have all their needs, spiritual and physical, taken care of. They had the best teachers to challenge them intellectually and for the first time a campus able to house and feed them adequately.
During the laying of the corner stone, 20,000 people came from all over to celebrate the inauguration of the yeshiva. These included dozens of renowned rabbis, representatives of the local and federal governments and numerous journalists and donors.
Unveiling the Facade Of The Restored Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin
The building, most modern of its time in Lublin, was built by funds that Rabbi Shapiro gathered on trips abroad. He traveled all over Europe as well as the U.S. where he spent 15 months visiting over 200 locales. Even with all the money he collected, the building fund had a substantial deficit and Rabbi Shapiro had to take out a major loan to cover the gap. This debt curtailed many planned projects.
Rabbi Shapiro insisted that if they were going to teach the top students, they had to provide them with the best. During his trips to collect money, he also collected books and manuscripts that would eventually fill the library off the main study hall. There was also a separate room that held a model of the Beit HaMikdash so the students studying the laws of the Temple could visualize what they were learning.
The yeshiva opened on June 23 1930, to much fanfare. The mezuzah on the front door was affixed, in the presence of thousands, by Rabbi Yisrael Friedman, the Chortkover Rebbe. A large banner was unfurled, depicting a Torah Scroll being held up by the hands of Yissaschar, while the hands of Zevulun placed a crown of glory on top, against a background of the Polish national flag.
While many invitations went out from the office of the yeshiva to officials and dignitaries, Rabbi Shapiro felt he owed a debt of gratitude to the former great leaders of the Jewish community in Lublin.
In an article in Der Jud of June 24 1924, which covered the laying of the cornerstone ceremony, Shmuel Rothstein wrote, “No pen is able to describe what we felt at that particular moment.
“The enthusiasm was genuine, for everybody sensed that something of historic significance, an epoch-making event, was taking place. No wonder, then, that all those gathered were deeply moved when the initiator of the future academy, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, started his address:
‘”Today we pay tribute to Polish Jewry, to their former splendor and glory. While my friends were inviting representatives of the government and various organizations to our ceremony, I went to the old cemetery to invite the immortal Talmudic Sages of old Lublin. Their mortal remains rest in the old cemetery, but their radiant spirit is alive with us'”
Rabbi Shapiro passed away in 1933, just three years after the opening of the yeshiva. As he lay dying he asked to be taken into the study hall to be surrounded by his beloved students. When they started to cry, he insisted that they sing and dance for he was going to his reward. Over 30,000 people attended his funeral accompanying his body to the new cemetery. He was later re-interred in Israel.
The Yeshiva continued under the leadership of Rabbi Shlomo Eiger until the German invasion of Lublin in 1939. The Germans occupied the building, burnt the majority of the library and murdered most of the students and faculty. After the war the building was turned into a medical college.
(Next week: The Restoration And Plans For The Yeshiva Building)
Shmuel Ben Eliezer