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December 21, 2014 / 29 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘Rav Miller’

Rav Avigdor Miller: The Later Years

Wednesday, August 4th, 2004
Editor’s Note: This is the third and concluding installment in a series of articles on the life of Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, the first of which appeared in the issue of April 30, the second on June 4.
From 1946 to 1975 Rav Miller was the rav of the Young Israel of Rugby in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In 1975 the shul relocated to Ocean Parkway near Avenue R and was subsequently called Bais Yisroel Torah Center. Rav Miller served as the rav there until his passing in 2001.

In the nineteen-forties the Young Israel of Rugby was a shul similar to most Young Israel synagogues of the time. Its members represented a spectrum of observance from shomrei Shabbos to those who were not observant and came to shul on the ‘High Holidays’ for yahrzeits and yizkor. Most of the congregants did not have an extensive Torah education. In 1946 Rav Miller was offered the position of rav. I doubt any of the congregants realized what they were getting when they hired him.

Rav Yisroel Salanter is purported to have said, “Any rav whom the ba’alei batim do not want to get rid of is not a real rav, and any rav whom the ba’alei batim do get rid of is not a mensch!” What he meant is that the job of a rav is to raise the level of his congregants. To do this, he has to make them feel uncomfortable, because someone who is comfortable with his way of life will see no reason to change. On the other hand, if the rav puts too much pressure on the people, they will rebel and fire him. I have a feeling Rav Miller had this in mind when he set about changing the lives of his congregants.

How does a rav uplift the level of Torah observance of his ba’alei batim? How does he take men and women with limited or in some cases virtually no background in learning and transform them into people who come regularly to shiurim?

Most rabbonim have taken the approach of being mekarav people by sugar-coating their words and refraining, at least publicly, from saying things that the congregants do not want to hear. Not so Rav Avigdor Miller. He felt it was his job to ‘tell it the way it is,’ even though this meant that some would be uncomfortable when they heard his words.

While it was by no means his intention to drive people away, if people left the shul because they did not like what he said, then so be it. More than once I heard him say something to the effect of, “This is the truth. You probably haven’t heard it anywhere else before. You may not like it, but, nonetheless, what you are hearing is the truth!”

Murray M. and his wife were newlyweds when they began davening in the Young Israel of Rugby in the late forties. Murray told me that the president would come to shul on Shabbos morning and then go play tennis in the afternoon. Rav Miller often spoke about the importance of keeping Shabbos. It did not take too long before this president left the shul. Others who behaved similarly did the same. Those who remained, however, became staunch followers of Rav Miller. They found their commitment to Shabbos and the observance of other mitzvos strengthened by his words.

One should not get the impression that Rav Miller was not attuned to the feelings and thoughts of his congregants. His words from the bimah where indeed hard hitting, but in his personal dealings with his congregants he always tried to draw them close to Torah observance through encouragement.

Murray told me that while he lived in East Flatbush there was a young couples group that met Friday evenings after the seudah. It is well known that Rav Miller jealously guarded his time and devoted as much of it as possible to Torah learning and teaching. Despite this, Rav Miller regularly attended these gatherings. Recalled Murray: “He would come, listen attentively, but never say a word. At the end he would leave, wishing each of us a ‘Good Shabbos.’ ”

Perhaps Rav Miller was ‘taking the pulse’ of the younger generation so that he would know how best to deal with them.

A Master Pedagogue

Rav Miller was known for his hasmoda. However, despite – or perhaps more correctly because of - his unbelievable commitment to his own Torah learning, he found time to constantly give shiurim and lectures on a wide variety of topics.

Initially Rav Miller gave shiurim in the Young Israel of Rugby on such topics as Mishna, Chayei Odom and Ein Yaakov. In 1967 a visiting gadol encouraged Rav Miller to set higher goals for his congregants and teach them ‘gantz shas.’ Hearing this, Rav Miller began to teach Gemara to a group of about fifteen men, many of whom had little or no yeshiva background. Little did they know they were embarking upon a journey that would change their lives.

Rav Miller always emphasized that one had to ‘get the language of the Gemara into one’s mouth.’ He urged those who came to his shiurim to repeat the Gemara over and over again. “Practice it until you can say the blat like you say Ashrei!” he often would say. More than once I heard him observe that ‘there are people who attend Gemara shiurim for years, and yet they cannot read a piece of Gemara fluently.’

He began teaching Shnayim Ochazim B’Talis and basically started with Aleph Bais. It took a year to cover three blatt of Gemara. Yet at the end of that year all of his talmidim knew it cold. One marvels at how a man who had studied in one of the finest yeshivas in the world found the patience to teach on this level. When one thinks of the self-control it must have taken, it becomes even more impressive.

From this humble beginning the group went on to greater achievements. Additional shiurim were added, and with each passing year more and more people attended them. Someone once commented, “Most rabbonim take bnei Torah and make balabatim out of them. Rav Miller takes balabatim and makes bnei Torah out of them.”

To what extent did Rav Miller raise the level of his congregants? Let me share with you an experience I had in 1973. Rav Miller was still in the ‘old’ neighborhood, and I spent a Shabbos at the Young Israel of Rugby that I will never forget. It was especially memorable because I had the privilege of eating the Friday evening seudah in his home.

On Shabbos afternoon, a little more than an hour before Mincha, Rav Miller and I and some others walked to shul where he gave an hour-long hashkafa shiur. We then davened Mincha and ate seuda shlishis. When bentching was concluded, there was still some time – about twenty minutes – until Maariv. Everyone went upstairs, took out a sefer and began to learn. I had never seen anything like this in any other place I had davened. No one was schmoozing. Instead, every man was engrossed in his learning.

Bais Yisroel Torah Center

In 1975 Rav Miller relocated his shul to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and renamed it Bais Yisroel Torah Center. Here he expanded the number of shiurim he gave to an average of three a day. There were also his Shabbos droshos, his weekly hourly talk before Mincha on Shabbos, his Chovos Halevavos classes on Friday evenings during the winter, the learning of halacha between Mincha and Maariv, his regular Thursday evening hashkafa shiurim, and much more. It is difficult to understand how he could maintain such a demanding schedule while devoting countless hours to his own private learning, but he did. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that each Gemara shiur he gave at a fixed time and day was devoted to either a different perek in the Gemara he was learning that year or to a different mesechta entirely.

Thursday Evening Hashkafa Shiurim

Rav Miller became famous for his Thursday evening lectures which dealt with a wide variety of topics. One never knew what he would start with and where he would end up during these talks. In addition, there was an open question and answer period at the end, and it is here that one got a taste for Rav Miller’s breadth of Torah and secular knowledge. Virtually anything could be asked, and it was. Amazingly, he always had a ready, well thought-out answer, no matter what the question.

Tapes of these talks were made available beginning in the early seventies at a nominal fee, and people from all over the world ordered them. Here was a man who sat in a small shul in Brooklyn whose Torah was heard worldwide. Through these tapes and his books he influenced countless individuals. There are even those who never met him who consider him their rebbe. Rav Miller understood the power of technology and utilized it to spread his Torah teachings far and wide.

Appropriating His Time

Rav Miller always guarded his time jealously and, whenever possible, used it for either teaching or learning. When asked to attend this or that simcha or other event, he would usually decline, saying, “I have to study for my final exam.” If the person to whom he was talking didn’t understand what he meant, he would explain that he was going to be examined in the World to Come and wanted to be prepared.

Sometime in the 1980′s he told me he once wanted to go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice on how he should spend his remaining years. “Should I stop giving shiurim and concentrate on clinching all of my learning” Or, perhaps I should give more shiurim and thus help others to a greater extent.?

He went on to relate that he had made an appointment to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “But when I heard you had to go at two in the morning, I canceled my appointment! I never go anywhere that late at night. I am always in bed by eleven-thirty at the latest.” I then asked how he had resolved his dilemma, and he replied, “By doing some of both, reviewing my learning as much as possible and giving shiurim.”

Straining the Emunah

Rav Miller was a ‘rationalist’ and would dismiss any story that smacked of the esoteric with a wave of his hand, saying, “We are not m’chuyev to believe such a story.” I once related to him a story that Rav Chaim Volozhin had written about the Vilna Gaon as part of the introduction to one of the Gaon’s seforim. Rav Chaim wanted to prove that the Gaon was an expert in Kabbalah and related an amazing story about the Gaon teaching his chiddushim in Kabbalah to the AriZal and Reb Shimon Bar Yochai.

Rav Miller waved away the story, despite the fact that it came from an impeccable source. I then asked why he always dismissed such stories out of hand. He replied, “Our emunah is strained enough by what we are required to believe. To add anything more is not wise.”

Only later, when I became familiar with the Shabbtai Tzvi movement and the outlandish things that people who lived at that time believed did I begin to appreciate the wisdom of his words. Rav Miller was an expert in history, and, of course, he knew what he was talking about.

The Sum of a Great Man

One cannot do justice to a man as great as Rav Miller in a few articles. The many things he did, his influence on others, his commitment to Yiddishkeit, his idealism, his hasmoda and so much more, cannot be easily summarized. Perhaps the words that appear on a plaque in his shul give some indication of the measure of the man. The plaque is dedicated to his memory, and the English part of it reads:

OUR BELOVED REBBE WHO LED AND GUIDED OUR KEHILLAH FOR 53 YEARS INSTRUCTED US IN TORAS HASHEM DAY AND NIGHT SHOWED US HOW TO RECOGNIZE HAKODOSH BORUCH HU THROUGH HIS GREATNESS TIRELESSLY AND ELOQUENTLY LED THE BATTLE FOR THE HONOR OF HASHEM AND THE TRUTH OF HIS TORAH INSPIRED US TO ACCOMPLISHMENT IN LIMUD HATORAH AND PERFECTION OF CHARACTER TRAINED US TO BE AWARE ALWAYS OF HASHEM YISBORACH, AND TO EXPRESS ENDLESS GRATITUDE TO THE BOREI OLOM FOR ALL THE DETAILS OF OUR LIVES AND TAUGHT US TO VIEW THE WORLD THROUGH THE HASHKOFOS HATORAH DEDICATED BY HIS TALMIDIM, WHO ARE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

On May 5, Dr. Levine gave a lecture at Congregation Talmud Torah in Flatbush entitled “An American Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Rav Avigdor Miller”. This talk may be heard at http://g2.stevens-tech.edu:7070/ramgen/llevine1/r_miller_5_05_04.rmj.

Rav Avigdor Miller: His Years as Mashgiach

Wednesday, July 28th, 2004
Editor’s Note: In a front-page essay in the April 30 issue of The Jewish Press, Dr. Levine traced the life of Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, from his youth in Baltimore until 1944 when he gave up his position as a rav in Chelsea, Mass., to become the mashgiach of Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn.

What follows below should be read in light of what Orthodoxy in the United States was during the forties, fifties and sixties. Orthodoxy certainly looked at least ‘externally’ different than it does today. In general, Orthodox Jews dressed in a fashion similar to their gentile neighbors. Most Orthodox men were clean shaven.

Rabbi Motel S., who came as a boy from a chassidic European environment to the United States before World War II, told me that when he went to Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin for an entrance interview, he was shocked that Rav Hutner, zt”l, the rosh yeshiva, did not have a beard and wore a ‘short’ jacket. At that time the yeshiva apparently did not even have an entire Shas readily available, because Rav Hutner could not locate the masechta that Reb Motel had been learning in Europe. He tested him from memory.

One rarely saw a man or a boy with a yarmulke in public. Caps and hats were the rule. Many women, even in what were considered ‘right wing’ circles, did not cover their hair except for the ‘mandatory’ hat that was worn to shul or at other public gatherings. Young men in beis medrash more often than not went to secular colleges a few evenings a week and ended up pursuing careers in the professions. Young unmarried men and women often interacted with each other socially, and most Orthodox people did not see anything wrong with this.

Mrs. C., who was born in the United States in the 1920′s, was raised in a strictly shomer Shabbos home. In 1945 she married a boy who learned in Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Rav Miller attended her wedding, and she has a picture of Rav Miller dancing with her husband. (By the way, the choson is wearing a top hat and tuxedo in the picture, something that was not uncommon in those days.) After chatting for awhile about what Orthodox Jewish life was like during the thirties, forties and fifties, she commented, “It was a different world then.” It most certainly was.

(It should be kept in mind that none of this is being written to disparage these people. Indeed, those who remained loyal to Yiddishkeit during those years often did this with firm commitment and courage. Their dedication to Judaism should in no way be minimized.)

It was this milieu that Rav Avigdor Miller faced in 1944 when he moved to New York and assumed the position of mashgiach.

Rav Miller’s background made him uniquely qualified to serve as a mashgiach and rav during those years. He had been raised in the American Jewish environment of the first half of the 20th century and then studied in one of the finest yeshivas in Europe. These experiences gave him a special perspective. He dealt with American Jews during the last of the war years and the two decades that followed in a manner that was designed to do more than help them maintain their level of observance. This was never enough for him. He always personally strove for higher levels of commitment to Hashem and was able to inspire those who fell under his influence to do the same.

Rav Miller served as the mashgiach of the beis medrash from 1944 until 1965. For almost all of this time he lived in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. When he moved there, he began davening in the Young Israel of Rugby. In 1946 he became the rav of this shul. Rav Miller fulfilled his duties as mashgiach and his responsibilities as rav in his own unique way.

(Note: In my first article I incorrectly wrote that Rav Miller left Chelsea, Mass., to become the mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. It has been pointed out to me that Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin was the name of an elementary school. The high school and beis medrash headed by Rav Hutner were called Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. The two institutions were, in fact, located in two different places. The name Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin is on the letterhead of the letter of recommendation referred to below that Rav Miller wrote for Rabbi K. in 1963.)

Being on Time

Rabbi N., who studied for many years in Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, recalled with admiration how Rav Miller ran the beis medrash with a strong hand. He was adamant that the boys be on time and not miss shiurim.

Rabbi N. related how as a student he arrived one morning at a bus stop on his way to yeshiva and found Rav Miller also waiting for the bus. They greeted each other and began to talk. The bus came along shortly thereafter; they boarded, sat next to each other and continued their discussions. They got off at their stop and headed to the yeshiva.

As they approached the door, Rabbi N. stepped back to allow Rav Miller to enter first. Rav Miller stepped ahead, turned around, faced Rabbi N. and took out his pocket watch. (I never saw Rav Miller wear a wrist watch. He invariably carried a pocket watch.) Looking at his watch, Rav Miller said, “You are late, go home!” Rabbi N. was astounded and replied, “Why didn’t you tell me this when we met at the bus stop?” Rav Miller replied, “You were not late then!”

When boys in the yeshiva committed an infraction, Rav Miller imposed a monetary fine on them. For example, the boys were supposed to be in the beis medrash learning by no later than 9:30 each morning. Every day shortly before 9:30 Rav Miller would get up from his shtender, walk across the beis medrash, and position himself at the entrance. Each boy who was late was queried as to why he had not come on time. After hearing a bochur’s excuse, Rav Miller would make an evaluation on the spot and often impose a fine. While the fine usually was not more than a quarter, its imposition made it clear to those who were tardy that they were expected to be at their shtenders learning each day by 9:30.

There were times when Rav Miller imposed steeper fines on the young men for more serious infractions. One fellow told me he missed a number of days of yeshiva because he had to study for his college finals. After he completed his exams he wanted to return to learning in the beis medrash. Rav Miller insisted that he pay a hefty fine before he permitted him to continue learning in the yeshiva. The young man had no choice but to sell some stock he owned to get the money required to pay the fine. He told me, “That stock really went up after I was forced to sell it. But, what could I do, I had to pay the fine. There was no other way to get back into the yeshiva.”

I once asked Rabbi N. what Rav Miller did with the money he collected as fines from the boys. He replied that at the end of a z’man Rav Miller would take a boy who he felt was having a very negative influence on the yeshiva and say to him, “I will give you such and such a sum of money, if you promise me you will leave the yeshiva and never return!”

Relationship With Those in the Yeshiva

One has to keep in mind that Rav Miller was an extremely strong personality who never sugarcoated his words or hesitated to speak his mind. To him the truth was the overriding guideline, and if the truth offended someone, so be it. As a result, there were those associated with Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin who were not his supporters.

In fact, according to Moshe Aryeh F., a talmid at the Mesivtha during the fifties, some of these individuals gave him more than his share of grief. At one point Moshe Aryeh became very upset with how some people in the yeshiva were treating Rav Miller and asked him how he was able to deal with what he felt were affronts. Rav Miller replied, in his typically unique fashion, “Moshe Aryeh, where else could I spend my entire day sitting and learning and also get a paycheck once in a while?”

Although Rav Miller spoke his mind, he was always careful to deal with any problem that a bochur had in as discreet a manner as possible. Steve K., a Chaim Berlin talmid in the late fifties, told me that Rav Miller never directly called over a bochur whom he wanted to chastise. Instead, he would say to another bochur, “Ask so-and-so to come over here and see me.” His goal was not to embarrass anyone in public if this could be avoided.

Steve also pointed out that Rav Miller had his own unique way of showing his disapproval of the actions of a talmid that he felt were inappropriate. One of the bochrim once came to the beis medrash dressed in jeans. As was his custom, Rav Miller asked another bochur to call this fellow over. The young man came over to him, and Rav Miller asked, “Did you park your horse near the yeshiva?” The boy, taken aback and not knowing what to say, replied, “No. I left him at home.” Without losing a beat Rav Miller quipped, “Well, when you go home at lunch time to feed your horse, make sure that you change your pants!”

A Letter of Recommendation

Over the more than twenty years that Rav Miller was the mashgiach of the beis medrash of Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, he forged lifelong bonds with many of the yeshiva’s students. Rabbi Sholom K. is one such person. Sholom studied in Chaim Berlin from 1960 to 1963. He came as a ninth grader, but since he was advanced in his learning, he studied in the beis medrash after his first year.

“I sat right in front of Rav Miller,” he told me. “I knew that he liked me. One of the reasons may have been because I traveled every day from the Bronx to the yeshiva by subway. It took me about two hours, but I was almost always on time. This Rav Miller liked.”

Sholom recalled that one day Rav Miller came over to him, put his hand on his shoulder and said, “K., do you have a dictionary?” Sholom was taken aback, but answered in the affirmative. Later, when Rav Miller’s first book, “Rejoice O Youth,” appeared in 1962, Sholom understood that Rav Miller must have needed the dictionary to assist him with his writing.

Sholom completed his secular high school studies in three years. In 1963 he decided he wanted to go to Yeshiva University after his graduation, and he asked Rav Miller for a letter of recommendation. Now it was well-known that Rav Miller was not in favor of boys going to YU. However, he did not try to dissuade Sholom. He inquired as to who Sholom?s rebbeim would be and then he said, “You will be all right there.” Shortly thereafter Rav Miller wrote a letter of recommendation, which Sholom still has in his possession. (It’s interesting to note that the heading on the stationery gives Rav Miller’s title as “Dean of Men.”)

Sholom studied at YU and received smicha there. He told me, “I encountered Rav Miller on Avenue J, not having seen him for about fifteen years. He remembered me right away and asked me about what I was doing.”

At one point in my discussions about Rav Miller with Sholom, he said, “I really loved that man!” and paused, overcome with emotion. “It is hard to describe how I feel about him,” he added.

True, it was hard for Sholom to describe his deep feelings for Rav Miller to me. However, the glow on his face when he expressed his love for Rav Miller said it all. This is the kind of devotion Rav Avigdor Miller elicited from talmidim whom he encountered at Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin during his years as mashgiach.

In this way Rav Miller helped prepare a generation of young men to function as observant Jews at a time when American Orthodoxy was still in its infant stages. Rav Miller helped lay the groundwork that enabled Orthodoxy to become the vibrant force it is today, and for that we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

On May 5, Dr. Levine gave a lecture at Congregation Talmud Torah in Flatbush entitled “An American Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Rav Avigdor Miller”. This talk may be heard at http://g2.stevens-tech.edu:7070/ramgen/llevine1/r_miller_5_05_04.rmj.

Rav Avigdor Miller: His Early Years

Wednesday, July 21st, 2004
The third yahrzeit of HaRav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, occurred a few weeks ago. I had the privilege of knowing him as a talmid and on a personal level for more than 30 years, from about 1970 until his passing in 2001.

During his lifetime Rav Miller was one of the foremost proponents of Orthodoxy in the United States. He devoted his life to spreading Torah and mussar. He affected the lives of thousands through his famous Thursday evening hashkafa talks, his books, his years dealing with talmidim who attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, the classes he taught in Bais Yaakov, and the many Gemara shiurim he gave each week.

As someone once observed, “Most rabbonim take b’nai Torah and make ba’alei batim out of them. Rav Miller takes ba’alei batim and makes b’nai Torah out of them!” He was known for his steadfast adherence to his Torah principles – no matter what.

Avigdor Miller was born to Yisroel and Hoda Riva Miller in Baltimore, Maryland, on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5668 (August 29, 1908). There were no yeshivas in those days, so he attended public school and went to an afternoon Talmud Torah. Once he had completed the regular Talmud Torah classes, the school arranged for him to learn privately with an old Lubavitcher chassid.

Rav Miller recalled more than once that he spent two years studying Gemara with this teacher. There was only one problem: the Talmud Torah ‘forgot’ to pay the gentleman. Rav Miller never forgot that this rabbi continued to teach him without being paid and spoke about him with warmth and gratitude.

In 1925, after graduating high school at age 17, Rav Miller enrolled in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, the only yeshiva in America at that time with a beis medrash. He was also an English major in Yeshiva College. While there, he studied under Rav Moshe Soleveitchik, zt”l.

In 1932, shortly before he was to graduate, Rabbi Miller met Rav Isaac Sher, rosh yeshiva of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, who was visiting the United States to raise funds for the yeshiva. Hearing Rav Sher speak a number of times, Rav Miller was so impressed that he decided to leave Yeshiva College before he graduated and study in Slabodka. This was a turning point for him, because the years he spent learning there were to set the course for the rest of his life.

Interestingly enough, Rav Miller was not the only young man to return with Rav Sher and study in Slabodka. When Rav Sher was asked if his American fund-raising efforts (which had been undertaken during the Great Depression) were successful, he is purported to have replied, “I did not raise much money, but I did bring back a number of ‘diamonds’ with me.”

Slabodka

Avigdor Miller arrived in Slabodka before Shavuos in 1932 and stayed there until 1938. He became known for his intense hasmoda, spending countless hours studying in the bais medrash. While in the yeshiva he endured intense poverty; he once said that his pants had so many patches on them that he often wore his overcoat to cover them. In 1935 he married Etel Lesin, daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lesin, zt”l. Rav Lesin, who had been a prize student of the Alter of Slabodka, was at that time serving as the rav of Neustadt-Zugind. He later served as mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan. (An acquaintance of mine who was a student at YU while Rav Lesin was mashgiach described him as follows: “He was always immaculately dressed and looked regal. He never walked too fast, and he never walked too slowly. He never smiled too little, and he never smiled too much. Every move, every action, was thought out in the light of Torah and mussar.”)

Rav Miller once told me how he was instrumental in helping Rav Elya Svei, rosh yeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, and his family come to the United States. Rav Svei’s father was already in America, and he wanted his wife and family to join him. However, Mrs. Svei could not get the necessary papers needed to immigrate. She knew that Rav Miller was an American, and begged him to go to the American consul in Kovno (Slabodka is near Kovno) and make a plea on her behalf. He agreed reluctantly, sure that his efforts would be fruitless.

Given his precarious financial situation, Rav Miller did not have a decent suit to wear for his upcoming meeting with the consul. “So I borrowed a suit from the yeshiva, because the yeshiva had a few decent suits for the bochurim to use when they needed them,” he told me. When he did get to meet the American consul, he discovered that he was also from Baltimore and that they had both attended the same high school, but at different times. Rav Miller told me, “He talked baseball with me for an hour or so. I really didn’t know much about baseball, but I listened patiently. In the end he issued the necessary papers and that is how Rav Svei came to America.”

Chelsea, Mass.

In 1938 the United States government advised all American citizens to leave Europe due to the increasing possibility of the outbreak of war. Rav Miller left with his wife and family and returned to Baltimore, where he began looking for a position as a rav. However, he refused to speak English when he went on interviews, despite the fact that he was American born and had almost completed an undergraduate degree in English literature at YU. Most shuls would not hire him because they wanted a rabbi who spoke the language of the younger generation. In addition, I am sure that he did not hide his steadfast commitment to Torah and his uncompromising approach to halacha. In 1939, after nine months of searching, he was appointed rav of the Agudas Achim shul – widely known as the Litvische shul – on Walnut Street in Chelsea, Mass.

Many people in Chelsea were involved in the rag business during the years that Rav Miller was there. In general, rags were not bought and sold on Saturday, which meant that it was relatively easy for one to be shomer Shabbos if he worked in this business. This meant that Chelsea had a disproportionately high number of shomrei Shabbos when compared with other similarly sized cities in the U.S. A good number of these people davened in the Litvische shul. However, as Rav Miller pointed out to me during one of the times that we reminisced about Chelsea, “There were often 100 old men in shul on Shabbos and no young people.”

Upon his arrival in Chelsea, Rav Miller announced that he would learn with any boy for free. A neighbor of mine, Dr. I., was one of those boys. He recalled that he went first to public high school, then to classes at the Boston Hebrew Teachers College, and on his way home he would go to Rav Miller?s house to learn Gemara. Once he came in with a book written by a ‘modern’ writer of whom Rav Miller did not approve. “Don’t put that book on the table with the Gemaras!” Rav Miller told him in no uncertain terms.

Dr. I. also remembered that when he once came to Rav Miller’s house, Rav Miller was speaking with a guest. Rav Miller turned to the guest and said in Yiddish, “He can speak Yiddish!” He then turned to Dr. I. and said, “Speak Yiddish! Speak Yiddish!”

Rav Miller learned with a number of boys and was responsible for influencing some of them to go to New York and enroll in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. He knew the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, from the time they had both spent in Slabodka. He told me he would prepare the boys to say a d’var Torah based on something from the K’tzos HaChoshen. Once the boy was ready, he would send him to New York for an interview with Rav Hutner. These boys invariably were accepted into the yeshiva by Rav Hutner.

Rav Miller realized that many young people were not observant because they attended public school and were influenced by the non-Jews whom they encountered. Indeed, he would not send his oldest son to public school. Instead he engaged special tutors and rebbeim to teach his son. However, this was long before home-schooling was in vogue and recognized by the authorities. Every child was required to attend public school. To get around this requirement, Rav Miller got a politician whom he knew to introduce a special bill that exempted his son from attending public school.

Building a Day School

Rav Miller was well aware that the only antidote to the secularism that surrounded the Jews of Chelsea was to make sure that the children received a concentrated Jewish education in a Jewish environment. This meant starting a day school in Chelsea, and he undertook this with all the resources at his disposal. One has to realize that most Jewish parents in the 1940′s did not think it was necessary to send their children to a day school. Indeed, since many of the parents were European born, they felt that the best course for their children was the quality secular education the public schools offered at that time. This was the path to integrating into the American milieu, becoming a professional, and being economically upward-bound. Unfortunately, it also was often the path to giving up religious observance.

Rav Miller met considerable opposition when he proposed opening a day school in Chelsea. He told me that some people said to him, “If you want a day school, then move to New York. This is not the place for a day school.” There was also opposition from the supporters of the Chelsea Hebrew School. Many felt that the Jewish education the youngsters received there was sufficient. The community ended up being split between those who supported the idea of a day school and those who were opposed to it. There were some who secretly gave money to help found the day school, but only on condition that no one knew about it.

The feelings between the two groups were so strong that Rav Miller told me that on the day the building for the day school was purchased he had to ‘hide out’ in the home of a supporter. He felt that if the opposition would find him, they might force him to give back the deed! The end result was that a day school was founded in Chelsea, and it educated Jewish children for many years after Rav Miller left the city.

In 1944 Rav Miller received a call from Rav Yitzchok Hutner offering him the position of mashgiach at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Rav Miller would later quip, “I thought hard about the offer – for about thirty seconds – and then said yes!”

The truth is that Rav Miller already had decided he was going to leave Chelsea and move to New York. He was convinced that home-schooling was not sufficient for the proper education of his oldest son. What his son needed was a good yeshiva education, and this was not available to him in Chelsea, since he was too old for the new day school. As was typical of his steadfast adherence to his Torah principles ‘no matter what,’ Rav Miller had made the decision to leave Chelsea and move to New York despite the fact that he did not have a job there. Rav Hutner’s offer came along just at the right time. Rav Miller was sure that this was ‘no accident,’ and he left Chelsea in 1944, much to the sadness of his many supporters.

Rav Miller always remembered his years in Chelsea with fondness and nostalgia. Once he found out that I was a ‘Chelsea boy,’ he would at times reminisce with me about the years he lived there. ‘I felt I was leaving the front lines in the battle for Yiddishkeit when I moved. But what could I do? I had to give my son a proper yeshiva education.’

My mother, a”h, who was born in Chelsea, once sent me a newspaper article about a shul in Chelsea that had been designated a historic site. I brought the article to Rav Miller. As he read it, he said enthusiastically, “That’s my old shul! That’s my old shul! Can I keep this?” I told him he certainly could, whereupon he carefully folded the article and put it in his pocket.

When I was a young boy my family lived on Walnut Street in Chelsea. Rav Miller also lived on Walnut Street for part of the time that he resided in Chelsea. However, I was only four years old when Rav Miller left Chelsea, and therefore never met him while he was there. Years later, after I had begun attending Rav Miller’s shiurim, I asked my mother if she knew Rav Miller. She replied, “Oh, yes. He was rav of the Litvische shul, and we davened in the Russiche shul. We had nothing to do with them!” This was indeed unfortunate given all that Rav Miller had to offer to every Jew who resided in Chelsea while he was a rav there.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, May 5, at 8:15 p.m., Professor Levine will be giving a lecture entitled -An American Revolutionary: Rav Avigdor Miller, ZT”L, His Life and Times at Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush, 1305 Coney Island Avenue (between Avenues I and J) in Brooklyn. The lecture is open to the public and is provided by the Talmud Torah as a free public service to the community. For further information, please call 718-377-2528.

While the above essay recounts stories of Rav Miller from his birth until he left Chelsea, Mass., to become mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Dr. Levine’s lecture will deal with all of Rav Miller’s life.

Rav Avigdor Miller: His Years as Mashgiach

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

Editor’s Note: In a front-page essay in the April 30 issue of The Jewish Press, Dr. Levine traced the life of Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, from his youth in Baltimore until 1944 when he gave up his position as a rav in Chelsea, Mass., to become the mashgiach of Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn.

What follows below should be read in light of what Orthodoxy in the United States was during the forties, fifties and sixties. Orthodoxy certainly looked at least ‘externally’ different than it does today. In general, Orthodox Jews dressed in a fashion similar to their gentile neighbors. Most Orthodox men were clean shaven.

Rabbi Motel S., who came as a boy from a chassidic European environment to the United States before World War II, told me that when he went to Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin for an entrance interview, he was shocked that Rav Hutner, zt”l, the rosh yeshiva, did not have a beard and wore a ‘short’ jacket. At that time the yeshiva apparently did not even have an entire Shas readily available, because Rav Hutner could not locate the masechta that Reb Motel had been learning in Europe. He tested him from memory.

One rarely saw a man or a boy with a yarmulke in public. Caps and hats were the rule. Many women, even in what were considered ‘right wing’ circles, did not cover their hair except for the ‘mandatory’ hat that was worn to shul or at other public gatherings. Young men in beis medrash more often than not went to secular colleges a few evenings a week and ended up pursuing careers in the professions. Young unmarried men and women often interacted with each other socially, and most Orthodox people did not see anything wrong with this.

Mrs. C., who was born in the United States in the 1920?s, was raised in a strictly shomer Shabbos home. In 1945 she married a boy who learned in Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Rav Miller attended her wedding, and she has a picture of Rav Miller dancing with her husband. (By the way, the choson is wearing a top hat and tuxedo in the picture, something that was not uncommon in those days.) After chatting for awhile about what Orthodox Jewish life was like during the thirties, forties and fifties, she commented, “It was a different world then.” It most certainly was.

(It should be kept in mind that none of this is being written to disparage these people. Indeed, those who remained loyal to Yiddishkeit during those years often did this with firm commitment and courage. Their dedication to Judaism should in no way be minimized.)

It was this milieu that Rav Avigdor Miller faced in 1944 when he moved to New York and assumed the position of mashgiach.

Rav Miller’s background made him uniquely qualified to serve as a mashgiach and rav during those years. He had been raised in the American Jewish environment of the first half of the 20th century and then studied in one of the finest yeshivas in Europe. These experiences gave him a special perspective. He dealt with American Jews during the last of the war years and the two decades that followed in a manner that was designed to do more than help them maintain their level of observance. This was never enough for him. He always personally strove for higher levels of commitment to Hashem and was able to inspire those who fell under his influence to do the same.

Rav Miller served as the mashgiach of the beis medrash from 1944 until 1965. For almost all of this time he lived in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. When he moved there, he began davening in the Young Israel of Rugby. In 1946 he became the rav of this shul. Rav Miller fulfilled his duties as mashgiach and his responsibilities as rav in his own unique way.

(Note: In my first article I incorrectly wrote that Rav Miller left Chelsea, Mass., to become the mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. It has been pointed out to me that Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin was the name of an elementary school. The high school and beis medrash headed by Rav Hutner were called Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. The two institutions were, in fact, located in two different places. The name Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin is on the letterhead of the letter of recommendation referred to below that Rav Miller wrote for Rabbi K. in 1963.)

Being on Time

Rabbi N., who studied for many years in Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, recalled with admiration how Rav Miller ran the beis medrash with a strong hand. He was adamant that the boys be on time and not miss shiurim.

Rabbi N. related how as a student he arrived one morning at a bus stop on his way to yeshiva and found Rav Miller also waiting for the bus. They greeted each other and began to talk. The bus came along shortly thereafter; they boarded, sat next to each other and continued their discussions. They got off at their stop and headed to the yeshiva.

As they approached the door, Rabbi N. stepped back to allow Rav Miller to enter first. Rav Miller stepped ahead, turned around, faced Rabbi N. and took out his pocket watch. (I never saw Rav Miller wear a wrist watch. He invariably carried a pocket watch.) Looking at his watch, Rav Miller said, “You are late, go home!” Rabbi N. was astounded and replied, “Why didn’t you tell me this when we met at the bus stop?” Rav Miller replied, “You were not late then!”

When boys in the yeshiva committed an infraction, Rav Miller imposed a monetary fine on them. For example, the boys were supposed to be in the beis medrash learning by no later than 9:30 each morning. Every day shortly before 9:30 Rav Miller would get up from his shtender, walk across the beis medrash, and position himself at the entrance. Each boy who was late was queried as to why he had not come on time. After hearing a bochur’s excuse, Rav Miller would make an evaluation on the spot and often impose a fine. While the fine usually was not more than a quarter, its imposition made it clear to those who were tardy that they were expected to be at their shtenders learning each day by 9:30.

There were times when Rav Miller imposed steeper fines on the young men for more serious infractions. One fellow told me he missed a number of days of yeshiva because he had to study for his college finals. After he completed his exams he wanted to return to learning in the beis medrash. Rav Miller insisted that he pay a hefty fine before he permitted him to continue learning in the yeshiva. The young man had no choice but to sell some stock he owned to get the money required to pay the fine. He told me, “That stock really went up after I was forced to sell it. But, what could I do, I had to pay the fine. There was no other way to get back into the yeshiva.”

I once asked Rabbi N. what Rav Miller did with the money he collected as fines from the boys. He replied that at the end of a z’man Rav Miller would take a boy who he felt was having a very negative influence on the yeshiva and say to him, “I will give you such and such a sum of money, if you promise me you will leave the yeshiva and never return!”

Relationship With Those in the Yeshiva

One has to keep in mind that Rav Miller was an extremely strong personality who never sugarcoated his words or hesitated to speak his mind. To him the truth was the overriding guideline, and if the truth offended someone, so be it. As a result, there were those associated with Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin who were not his supporters.

In fact, according to Moshe Aryeh F., a talmid at the Mesivtha during the fifties, some of these individuals gave him more than his share of grief. At one point Moshe Aryeh became very upset with how some people in the yeshiva were treating Rav Miller and asked him how he was able to deal with what he felt were affronts. Rav Miller replied, in his typically unique fashion, “Moshe Aryeh, where else could I spend my entire day sitting and learning and also get a paycheck once in a while?”

Although Rav Miller spoke his mind, he was always careful to deal with any problem that a bochur had in as discreet a manner as possible. Steve K., a Chaim Berlin talmid in the late fifties, told me that Rav Miller never directly called over a bochur whom he wanted to chastise. Instead, he would say to another bochur, “Ask so-and-so to come over here and see me.” His goal was not to embarrass anyone in public if this could be avoided.

Steve also pointed out that Rav Miller had his own unique way of showing his disapproval of the actions of a talmid that he felt were inappropriate. One of the bochrim once came to the beis medrash dressed in jeans. As was his custom, Rav Miller asked another bochur to call this fellow over. The young man came over to him, and Rav Miller asked, “Did you park your horse near the yeshiva?” The boy, taken aback and not knowing what to say, replied, “No. I left him at home.” Without losing a beat Rav Miller quipped, “Well, when you go home at lunch time to feed your horse, make sure that you change your pants!”

A Letter of Recommendation

Over the more than twenty years that Rav Miller was the mashgiach of the beis medrash of Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, he forged lifelong bonds with many of the yeshiva’s students. Rabbi Sholom K. is one such person. Sholom studied in Chaim Berlin from 1960 to 1963. He came as a ninth grader, but since he was advanced in his learning, he studied in the beis medrash after his first year.

“I sat right in front of Rav Miller,” he told me. “I knew that he liked me. One of the reasons may have been because I traveled every day from the Bronx to the yeshiva by subway. It took me about two hours, but I was almost always on time. This Rav Miller liked.”

Sholom recalled that one day Rav Miller came over to him, put his hand on his shoulder and said, “K., do you have a dictionary?” Sholom was taken aback, but answered in the affirmative. Later, when Rav Miller’s first book, “Rejoice O Youth,” appeared in 1962, Sholom understood that Rav Miller must have needed the dictionary to assist him with his writing.

Sholom completed his secular high school studies in three years. In 1963 he decided he wanted to go to Yeshiva University after his graduation, and he asked Rav Miller for a letter of recommendation. Now it was well-known that Rav Miller was not in favor of boys going to YU. However, he did not try to dissuade Sholom. He inquired as to who Sholom’s rebbeim would be and then he said, “You will be all right there.” Shortly thereafter Rav Miller wrote a letter of recommendation, which Sholom still has in his possession. (It’s interesting to note that the heading on the stationery gives Rav Miller’s title as “Dean of Men.”)

Sholom studied at YU and received smicha there. He told me, “I encountered Rav Miller on Avenue J, not having seen him for about fifteen years. He remembered me right away and asked me about what I was doing.”

At one point in my discussions about Rav Miller with Sholom, he said, “I really loved that man!” and paused, overcome with emotion. “It is hard to describe how I feel about him,” he added.

True, it was hard for Sholom to describe his deep feelings for Rav Miller to me. However, the glow on his face when he expressed his love for Rav Miller said it all. This is the kind of devotion Rav Avigdor Miller elicited from talmidim whom he encountered at Mesivtha Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin during his years as mashgiach.

In this way Rav Miller helped prepare a generation of young men to function as observant Jews at a time when American Orthodoxy was still in its infant stages. Rav Miller helped lay the groundwork that enabled Orthodoxy to become the vibrant force it is today, and for that we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

On May 5, Dr. Levine gave a lecture at Congregation Talmud Torah in Flatbush entitled “An American Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Rav Avigdor Miller”. This talk may be heard at
http://g2.stevens-tech.edu:7070/ramgen/llevine1/r_miller_5_05_04.rmj.



Letters To The Editor

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2004

Mario’s Mush

This retired firefighter has a question for Mario Cuomo, who, as the Media Monitor reported, stated that the U.S. should tell Israel, “Up until now it was just you and the Palestinians killing one another – now you are killing us. Now there are people out there who are taking Israel as the provocation to terrorize us all over the globe – in the United States and elsewhere? (Jewish Press, April 30).

Do you, Mr. Cuomo, take Israel “as the provocation to terrorize us all over the globe?” Remove Israel, G-d forbid, and the beat goes on. The aggressive Muslims want the world, not just Israel. What happened when they dominated parts of lower Europe hundreds of years ago, when Israel did not exist?

Mr. Cuomo, facts must be verified, and only then can a difference of opinion be stated. The fact is that Israel is not a pertinent factor in the desire of aggressive Muslims to dominate the world.

Norman Hauptman
(Via E-Mail)


Inspired By Rav Miller

Thank you to The Jewish Press and Dr. Yitzchok Levine for such a warm and inspiring article on Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l (“Rav Avigdor Miller: His Early Years,” front-page essay, April 30).

I was a typically assimilated Jew from a Reform background when a neighbor gave me a few of Rav Miller’s tapes back in the mid-1970′s. I was hooked from the start, and immediately went out and purchased all the books Rav Miller had written up to that time. (I still take out my favorite, Rejoice O Youth, to reread at least once a year.)

It was Rav Miller who made me the frum Jew I am today, even though, living in the Seattle area, I never had the opportunity to meet the man or attend any of his shiurim. My four yeshiva-educated children are, in a very real sense, Rav Miller’s children as well, for
without his influence on their father’s life they would be living in a totally non-observant home, attending public schools and very likely hurtling toward intermarriage and estrangement from the Jewish community.

Gershon Alexander
(Via E-Mail)


Rare Rabbi

Reading Dr. Levine’s wonderful account of Rav Miller’s early years truly made my Shabbos. Although we as a people have been blessed with many great rabbis, Rav Miller was rare in that he was able to distill the truths of the Torah in a manner that gave spiritual sustenance to scholars and laymen alike.

I hope there are plans for Dr. Levine to continue the story from where he left off.

Raizy Jacobowitz
Brooklyn, NY



Anti-Israel Event At Queens College

In the midst of the present epidemic of anti-Israel rhetoric on American college campuses, it is necessary for the local Jewish community to concentrate on events not only at regional and
national universities - Rutgers, Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, etc. – but also at Queens College.

On April 26, Memorial Day in Israel, Queens College screened “The Killing Zone,” a blatantly one-sided BBC documentary that supposedly details daily life in Gaza. The screening was one of a series of presentations offered during the current semester labeled the “Peace and Justice” series.

“The Killing Zone” paints the IDF as a group of murderous oppressors who needlessly attack crowds of civilians, with special attention given children. Arabs are portrayed as utterly victimized, terrified, and grief stricken. The film even sympathetically portrays the death of International Solidarity Movement protester Rachel Corrie, who thrust herself in front of IDF demolition vehicles last year.

Arab violence and terror toward Israelis were never mentioned prior to or during the film. It is necessary to note that not only did this event occur at Queens College, but students who attended were offered a credit toward a school requirement that new students attend six extracurricular activities, a device used by event coordinators to ensure attendance.

This event was not an isolated incident, but is part of a concerted effort by many American academics to conduct a full-fledged smear campaign against Israel. We mustn’t be complacent. The struggle for the survival of Israel and the Jewish people is not confined to Israel or “other” places in the U.S., as this recent development reminds us. We must be vigilant and respond to the danger emerging close to home.

David Greenberg
Aylana Meisel
(Via E-Mail)


Brenner Vs. Plaut: One More Round On Capital Punishment

Steven Plaut’s response to my argument against capital punishment (Letters, April 30) can be boiled down to two main points. The first is that the views of legal scholars on the death penalty, including those who have performed empirical studies, are irrelevant because, according to him, legal scholars are incapable of empirical analysis. The second is that I am simply unhappy with the decisions made by sentencing judges.

There are at least three major problems with Mr. Plaut’s response. The first is that the school of economic analysis of the death penalty he cites, fathered by economist Isaac Ehrlich in 1975, has not held up over time and has been widely criticized for faulty statistical analysis. (See http://www.justiceblind.com/death/sorensen.html) No one appears to question the viability of Ehrlich’s methods, but as the Sorensen article makes clear, Ehrlich’s conclusions have not held up and are not, at any rate, widely accepted. Mr. Plaut’s claim that the evidence is overwhelming thus remains unproven.

Deterrence is difficult to analyze because so many other factors have to be isolated. Crime is
cyclical; the homicide rate rises and falls for many reasons. Indeed, the fact that there is no death penalty in Europe, where the homicide rate is a small fraction of the U.S. homicide rate, strongly supports the theory that the death penalty makes little if any difference. And as I pointed out in my last letter, most legal scholars believe that the deterrence argument is unproven, which is why death penalty advocates have turned to moral arguments.

Whether the death penalty is or is not a deterrent is not the only question a death penalty
advocate must answer. The real question is not how many lives the death penalty saves, but how many more lives it saves than life imprisonment and whether there are other ways of reducing homicides without resorting to the death penalty. Plaut must additionally prove that it is a better deterrent than the alternatives, such as life imprisonment. And on top of that, given the great cost of trying death penalty cases (and that cost will be high whether there are extensive appeals or not), he must prove that the cost of bringing these cases does not wipe out any deterrent effect the death penalty might have by diverting resources that might be better used elsewhere. These questions are all apropos because the death penalty is irreversible and has a tainted past here in the U.S., which is why we must examine it with
such close scrutiny.

Deterrence proponents argue that not executing inmates is tantamount to condemning future victims to death. This is misleading and, to my mind, immoral. We do not punish criminals to
prevent a hypothetical future crime. We punish criminals because they are guilty. Taken to its
logical conclusion, deterrence theory suggests that we ought to punish innocent people if it can be proven that such punishment deters later crimes and saves more lives. It’s the old torture-a-child question: Would you torture an innocent child to save the world? Deterrence absolutists would answer affirmatively. Would the wise rebbeim of the Talmud? I think the answer is no.

Plaut himself shows a brazen willingness to punish or kill innocents if it will deter criminals, as
he makes clear by arguing that families of suicide bombers should be jailed or executed if it will help stop suicide bombings. Is the imagination of death penalty advocates so limited that they assume that the eight or so murders purportedly deterred by a state homicide (as the death penalty is officially called on a death certificate) cannot be avoided in any other way? How about better police work or reducing poverty or a better system of public education? All of these correlate with reduced homicide rates. Yet I suspect Mr. Plaut is not about to call for them before and after he flips the switch.

Mr. Plaut argues that the fact that people on death row have been exonerated proves the
American system works and that my argument is based solely on my personal opinion of judicial rulings. Neither argument holds water. Mr. Plaut, like many of his allies in the law and economics movement, has criticized the long appeals process that is often a part of American application of the death penalty. He cannot now argue in favor of it as proof that the American system works. And he again refuses to draw the rational and logical conclusion, which is that if DNA evidence (evidence which has come to light largely through the work of non-governmental organizations like Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project, and not the judicial system) has resulted in the exoneration of so many defendants, there are doubtless many others innocents who were killed in pre-DNA era.

Ethel Rosenberg’s case is an example of the due process violations which befall those
disadvantaged in society. I could just as well have used Ruben Carter, the boxer who was exonerated after being on death row for triple homicide. (Mr. Plaut ignored my other example of Sacco and Vanzetti, which is applicable both as an example of killing the innocent and a conviction based on political association and national origin.) The generally accepted view is that Ethel Rosenberg was at most an unwitting accomplice, certainly not deserving of the death penalty. And anyone who knows anything about the case knows it was a travesty, presided over by a cowardly judge who was more concerned with proving his patriotism than in conducting a fair trial and prosecutors who broke rule after rule. The Rosenbergs’ trial was
more about the Rosenbergs’ Judaism and affiliation with the Communist Party than about
whether they had committed any crime. That pernicious attitudes toward blacks and Hispanics
influence some verdicts today is undeniable. All of this is to bring out a simple point: even the best justice system is human and fallible. In every instance besides the death penalty, these mistakes can be remedied. With the death penalty, however, there is no going back.

One final, but very important point: Plaut’s reference to Falluja is a very dangerous one. The
death penalty is a criminal justice concept, not a military concept. I cannot stress enough the
importance of keeping war and criminal justice separate. It is important for our sanity and
extraordinarily important for Israel’s hasbara. The killings of Yassin, Rantisi, and other terrorists are legally and morally defensible only on grounds that they were combatants in war, and indeed, I and much more learned people such as Alan Dershowitz have gone to considerable lengths in other fora to defend them on that basis. In war, many things, including the unintentional killing of civilians, are permitted that we would not countenance as part of a just criminal system.

Michael Brenner
New York, NY


(Editor’s Note: Mr. Brenner is a graduating Fordham Law student currently looking for a job. He can be reached at mbrenner@fordham.edu.)



Steven Plaut Responds:

1. If capital punishment could save a thousand innocent lives through deterring murder
in exchange for every innocent man mistakenly sent to execution, Mr. Brenner would oppose capital punishment and condemn those one thousand innocent people to death. In fact, of course, there is no evidence at all that even one innocent person is executed for every thousand innocent people saved through deterring their murderers.

There are some people who were convicted in the U.S. and sent to death row who were later exonerated on technicalities or because courts ruled that prosecutors had failed to make air-tight cases, but that is not quite the same as arguing that innocent people are executed. And even if such people should be regarded as truly “innocent”, their
exoneration before they were executed shows, if anything, that the system of capital punishment in those states that have it works quite well. Brenner insists it is immoral to have executions that “prevent a hypothetical future crime”, but thinks it is fine and dandy to ban them in order to save hypothetical future innocents wrongly convicted.

2. I am at a loss to understand why Mr. Brenner, who thinks that imaginary risks of
executing an innocent person should necessitate eliminating capital punishment, does not also insist that the risk of condemning an innocent man to life in prison should not rule out all imprisonment. After all, the years of life an innocent person loses in prison are as irreplaceable and their loss as irreversible as under the death penalty itself.

I am also at a loss to understand why Mr. Brenner thinks that an imaginary risk of executing an innocent person through error or mistake is any worse than the real risk of producing real deaths of real innocent people through the government’s operating of turnpikes and mail trucks or its approving risky medicines or operating air traffic
controls. Why not rule all those things out because innocent people are inadvertently killed as a direct result of their operations?

3. Mr. Brenner dismisses mountains of actual statistical evidence from social science that the death penalty indeed deters murder on the basis of an article by Jon Sorensen, whose pedigree is that he teaches at Fitchburg State College. The Ehrlich piece cited by Mr. Brenner is 30 years old. The more recent evidence is unambiguously in favor of capital punishment’s deterrence value. I got my statistical training as a PhD student at Princeton and have published many scholarly articles using statistics and developing new statistical methodologies. What sort of statistical training does Mr. Brenner have?

4. Mr. Brenner notes correctly that murder rates vary for many reasons. Legal scholars have no idea what those reasons are, and social science criminologists have only a very limited idea. If Europe indeed has less violent crime than does the U.S., it is not because it has foresworn the death penalty but because it has fewer violent criminals. None of this changes the fact that capital punishment does deter and is moral.

5. Mr. Brenner should evaluate Ruben Carter’s “innocence” based on what the jury of his peers found once he got his retrial and not on a Bob Dylan song. There is no evidence that the Rosenbergs were convicted because they were Jews. They were convicted because they were guilty.

6. Mr. Brenner seems to think that the “due process rights” of the followers of Shiekh Yassin and Rantisi should come ahead of the rights of my children to ride buses without being mass murdered. This from someone who would not torture a single child to prevent a Holocaust.

7. In his earlier letter, Mr. Brenner recalled the Talmud declaration that a Sanhedrin that executes one person every 70 years is called a “cruel Sanhedrin.” If we adjust for the differences in population size, I am not sure that the rate of executions in the U.S. is much higher than that noted for 4th century rural Israel. Be that as it may, the Sanhedrin courts were adjudicating Jewish farmers and not Islamofascist terrorists or mass murderers or street gangbangers with automatic assault weapons. Perhaps what the world can really use now are a lot more “cruel Sanhedrins.”

8. Mr. Brenner keeps declaring “Mr. Plaut must prove…”. Well, Mr. Plaut need not prove anything. All that is needed is to allow voters, in either the U.S. or Israel, to have their own say on the question and we shall see how unpersuasive Mr. Brenner’s arguments are.




Anger Over Defense Of Neturei Karta


Aiding Terrorism

I found Rabbi Shiah T. Director’s comments about Neturei Karta (Letters, April 30) both
comical and sickening.

Responding to Steven Plaut’s op-ed “Open Letter to Neturei Karta” (Jewish Press, April 23),
Rabbi Director stated that “no Jew in the universe aids terrorists.” Oh, really? I quote from the
Neturei Karta website (www.nkusa.org) the comments by “Rabbi” Yisroel Dovid Weiss at a
memorial service for Sheikh Yassin on March 23, 2004, hosted by the Arab Muslim American Federation:

“We mourn together with our Palestinian cousins, the murder of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin… And so we are reminded of one of the exceptional attributes of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. How he
constantly drew a clear distinction between true Judaism and Zionism… May G-d help that our hope and dream come to fruition … that Arab and Jew can once again live side by side under Palestinian rule…”

They pray that Eretz Yisrael will come under Palestinian rule. Does Weiss truly believe that
such a tragedy would ever occur without the deaths of hundreds of thousands – and possibly millions – of Jews? Does Weiss think that the Jews of Israel are just going to pack their bags and move to the North Pole? Does he really feel that the Jews who reside in Meah She’arim will be safe under Palestinian rule? They will be murdered as surely as the Jews of Tel Aviv and Haifa will be murdered.

So I would ask Rabbi Director this: Is supporting terrorism not the same as aiding terrorism? Of course it is. Rabbi Director asked Mr. Plaut to retract his “absurd” comments, as they
“slander” other Jews. G-d forbid. Everything Mr. Plaut wrote about Neturei Karta is the absolute truth, so there is no slander involved.

I applaud and say “yasher koach” to Mr. Plaut for having the guts to stand up to these vile human beings who may look like Orthodox Jews but most definitely are not.

Barry J. Koppel
Kew Gardens Hills, NY



Arafat And Neturei Karta: Perfect Together

Where has Rabbi Director been living? Does he have access to the same information that the
rest of us do? Unless one prefers to live in an alternative universe built on self-delusion, it is
impossible not to come to the conclusion that Neturei Karta is indeed one of the most dangerous, self-hating Jewish sects existing today.

Consider the following: On December 17, 2001, Rabbi Moshe Hirsch of Neturei Karta met
and gleefully shook hands with Arafat in Ramallah to lend unequivocal support to the Palestinian cause. As recently as several months ago, Neturei Karta was exposed for having contributed thousands of dollars to Arafat’s murderous coffers. Neturei Karta is listed prominently on nearly every anti-Semitic website as a prominent example of Jews who support the obliteration of the state of Israel.

Whether or not Neturei Karta actually wants Jews to die, the group effectively aids, abets and
whets the appetites of murderous anti-Semites.

Adina Kutnicki
(Via E-Mail)


Don’t Whitewash Neturei Karta

Rabbi Director, I read your letter to the editor last week and was astonished that you took a
position in defense of Neturei Karta. You wrote, “Neturei Karta’s position that the Zionist state must cease to exist is only a concept, not an actuality.”

I really would like to understand – if it is only a concept and not an actuality, why do they
protest in front of the White House instead of staying home? I also don’t understand why, if
members of Neturei Karta do not support terror but are just expressing their opposition to the
Zionist state, do they protest hand in hand with Arabs? As the Munkatcher Rebbe has said, “The Arabs are the Jewish nation’s oldest enemy. In fact the Torah calls them pere adam. What do we have in common that they protest with them?”

I suggest, Rabbi Director, that you channel your ahavat Yisrael where it is most needed. The
Jews of Israel sure could use some of it. The world should not be given the excuse that Jews
themselves are divided about Israel’s right to exist. In fact, some politicians in Europe are using that excuse already. They say anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

I beg you, Rabbi Director, not to whitewash those who have my brothers? blood on their hands.

Rabbi Simcha Friedman
Brooklyn NY



Tears For Yassin, But Not For Jews

Don’t those pathetic Neturei Karta marchers realize that those Arabs whom they so proudly
support would, without a moment’s hesitation, shoot them in their empty heads just as certainly
as their compatriots shot dead a pregnant Jewish woman and her four beautiful young daughters last Sunday?

Speaking of the latter atrocity, why hasn’t Neturei Karta issued a public statement deploring
such wanton, animalistic behavior on the part of their Palestinian pals? They sat shiva for Sheikh Yassin, but for a Jewish mother and her children they have nothing to say. They are the lowest of the low, and please don’t anyone write in criticizing me for saying such things about “fellow Jews.”

I’ll tell you who my fellow Jew is: Pastor Jim Vineyard of Oklahoma City, who recently
purchased 100 subscriptions to The Jewish Press for his church and who wrote so movingly in two letters to The Jewish Press of his love for Jews and Israel, is my fellow Jew. Those who follow the path of Neturei Karta may be Arafat’s fellow Palestinians, but they’re nobody’s fellow Jews.

Geoffrey Lazaraus
London, UK


Marching Against Israel In Tallis And Shtreimel

I don’t know where Rabbi Director get his facts, but I would like to remind him that Zionists
are Jews too, and he is himself slandering other Jews.

When the State of Israel was established in May 1948 and the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria,
Lebanon and Iraq invaded, the Jews, including recent Holocaust survivors, had to defend
themselves. Most of the Arabs left on their own because they believed the Arab radio broadcasts that told them to do so in order to make it easier for their armies to throw all the Jews - including Neturei Karta – into the sea.

I’ve seen the photos of Neturei Karta members, each of them wearing a tallis and a shtreimel, marching together with Arabs on Shabbos. What an enormous chillul Hashem. Perhaps they do not favor killing Jews, but they are helping those who do.

Sarah Rosenfeld
Brooklyn NY

Rav Avigdor Miller: His Early Years

Wednesday, May 26th, 2004

The third yahrzeit of HaRav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, occurred a few weeks ago. I had the privilege of knowing him as a talmid and on a personal level for more than 30 years, from about 1970 until his passing in 2001.

During his lifetime Rav Miller was one of the foremost proponents of Orthodoxy in the United States. He devoted his life to spreading Torah and mussar. He affected the lives of thousands through his famous Thursday evening hashkafa talks, his books, his years dealing with talmidim who attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, the classes he taught in Bais Yaakov, and the many Gemara shiurim he gave each week.

As someone once observed, “Most rabbonim take b’nai Torah and make ba’alei batim out of them. Rav Miller takes ba’alei batim and makes b’nai Torah out of them!” He was known for his steadfast adherence to his Torah principles – no matter what.

Avigdor Miller was born to Yisroel and Hoda Riva Miller in Baltimore, Maryland, on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5668 (August 29, 1908). There were no yeshivas in those days, so he attended public school and went to an afternoon Talmud Torah. Once he had completed the regular Talmud Torah classes, the school arranged for him to learn privately with an old Lubavitcher chassid.

Rav Miller recalled more than once that he spent two years studying Gemara with this teacher. There was only one problem: the Talmud Torah “forgot” to pay the gentleman. Rav Miller never forgot that this rabbi continued to teach him without being paid and spoke about him with warmth and gratitude.

In 1925, after graduating high school at age 17, Rav Miller enrolled in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, the only yeshiva in America at that time with a beis medrash. He was also an English major in Yeshiva College. While there, he studied under Rav Moshe Soleveitchik, zt”l.

In 1932, shortly before he was to graduate, Rabbi Miller met Rav Isaac Sher, rosh yeshiva of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, who was visiting the United States to raise funds for the yeshiva. Hearing Rav Sher speak a number of times, Rav Miller was so impressed that he decided to leave Yeshiva College before he graduated and study in Slabodka. This was a turning point for him, because the years he spent learning there were to set the course for the rest of his life.

Interestingly enough, Rav Miller was not the only young man to return with Rav Sher and study in Slabodka. When Rav Sher was asked if his American fund-raising efforts (which had been undertaken during the Great Depression) were successful, he is purported to have replied, “I did not raise much money, but I did bring back a number of “diamonds” with me.”

Slabodka

Avigdor Miller arrived in Slabodka before Shavuos in 1932 and stayed there until 1938. He became known for his intense hasmoda, spending countless hours studying in the bais medrash. While in the yeshiva he endured intense poverty; he once said that his pants had so many patches on them that he often wore his overcoat to cover them. In 1935 he married Etel Lesin, daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lesin, zt”l. Rav Lesin, who had been a prize student of the Alter of Slabodka, was at that time serving as the rav of Neustadt-Zugind. He later served as mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan. (An acquaintance of mine who was a student at YU while Rav Lesin was mashgiach described him as follows: “He was always immaculately dressed and looked regal. He never walked too fast, and he never walked too slowly. He never smiled too little, and he never smiled too much. Every move, every action, was thought out in the light of Torah and mussar.”)

Rav Miller once told me how he was instrumental in helping Rav Elya Svei, rosh yeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, and his family come to the United States. Rav Svei’s father was already in America, and he wanted his wife and family to join him. However, Mrs. Svei could not get the necessary papers needed to immigrate. She knew that Rav Miller was an American, and begged him to go to the American consul in Kovno (Slabodka is near Kovno) and make a plea on her behalf. He agreed reluctantly, sure that his efforts would be fruitless.

Given his precarious financial situation, Rav Miller did not have a decent suit to wear for his upcoming meeting with the consul. “So I borrowed a suit from the yeshiva, because the yeshiva had a few decent suits for the bochurim to use when they needed them,” he told me. When he did get to meet the American consul, he discovered that he was also from Baltimore and that they had both attended the same high school, but at different times. Rav Miller told me, “He talked baseball with me for an hour or so. I really didn’t know much about baseball, but I listened patiently. In the end he issued the necessary papers and that is how Rav Svei came to America.”

Chelsea, Mass.

In 1938 the United States government advised all American citizens to leave Europe due to the increasing possibility of the outbreak of war. Rav Miller left with his wife and family and returned to Baltimore, where he began looking for a position as a rav. However, he refused to speak English when he went on interviews, despite the fact that he was American born and had almost completed an undergraduate degree in English literature at YU. Most shuls would not hire him because they wanted a rabbi who spoke the language of the younger generation. In addition, I am sure that he did not hide his steadfast commitment to Torah and his uncompromising approach to halacha. In 1939, after nine months of searching, he was appointed rav of the Agudas Achim shul - widely known as the Litvische shul – on Walnut Street in Chelsea, Mass.

Many people in Chelsea were involved in the rag business during the years that Rav Miller was there. In general, rags were not bought and sold on Saturday, which meant that it was relatively easy for one to be shomer Shabbos if he worked in this business. This meant that Chelsea had a disproportionately high number of shomrei Shabbos when compared with other similarly sized cities in the U.S. A good number of these people davened in the Litvische shul. However, as Rav Miller pointed out to me during one of the times that we reminisced about Chelsea, “There were often 100 old men in shul on Shabbos and no young people.”

Upon his arrival in Chelsea, Rav Miller announced that he would learn with any boy for free. A neighbor of mine, Dr. I., was one of those boys. He recalled that he went first to public high school, then to classes at the Boston Hebrew Teachers College, and on his way home he would go to Rav Miller’s house to learn Gemara. Once he came in with a book written by a “modern” writer of whom Rav Miller did not approve. “Don’t put that book on the table with the Gemaras!” Rav Miller told him in no uncertain terms.

Dr. I. also remembered that when he once came to Rav Miller’s house, Rav Miller was speaking with a guest. Rav Miller turned to the guest and said in Yiddish, “He can speak Yiddish!” He then turned to Dr. I. and said, “Speak Yiddish! Speak Yiddish!”

Rav Miller learned with a number of boys and was responsible for influencing some of them to go to New York and enroll in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. He knew the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, from the time they had both spent in Slabodka. He told me he would prepare the boys to say a d’var Torah based on something from the K’tzos HaChoshen. Once the boy was ready, he would send him to New York for an interview with Rav Hutner. These boys invariably were accepted into the yeshiva by Rav Hutner.

Rav Miller realized that many young people were not observant because they attended public school and were influenced by the non-Jews whom they encountered. Indeed, he would not send his oldest son to public school. Instead he engaged special tutors and rebbeim to teach his son. However, this was long before home-schooling was in vogue and recognized by the authorities. Every child was required to attend public school. To get around this requirement, Rav Miller got a politician whom he knew to introduce a special bill that exempted his son from attending public school.

Building a Day School

Rav Miller was well aware that the only antidote to the secularism that surrounded the Jews of Chelsea was to make sure that the children received a concentrated Jewish education in a Jewish environment. This meant starting a day school in Chelsea, and he undertook this with all the resources at his disposal. One has to realize that most Jewish parents in the 1940′s did not think it was necessary to send their children to a day school. Indeed, since many of the parents were European born, they felt that the best course for their children was the quality secular education the public schools offered at that time. This was the path to integrating into the American milieu, becoming a professional, and being economically upward-bound. Unfortunately, it also was often the path to giving up religious observance.

Rav Miller met considerable opposition when he proposed opening a day school in Chelsea. He told me that some people said to him, “If you want a day school, then move to New York. This is not the place for a day school.” There was also opposition from the supporters of the Chelsea Hebrew School. Many felt that the Jewish education the youngsters received there was sufficient. The community ended up being split between those who supported the idea of a day school and those who were opposed to it. There were some who secretly gave money to help found the day school, but only on condition that no one knew about it.

The feelings between the two groups were so strong that Rav Miller told me that on the day the building for the day school was purchased he had to “hide out” in the home of a supporter. He felt that if the opposition would find him, they might force him to give back the deed! The end result was that a day school was founded in Chelsea, and it educated Jewish children for many years after Rav Miller left the city.

In 1944 Rav Miller received a call from Rav Yitzchok Hutner offering him the position of mashgiach at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Rav Miller would later quip, “I thought hard about the offer – for about thirty seconds – and then said yes!”

The truth is that Rav Miller already had decided he was going to leave Chelsea and move to New York. He was convinced that home-schooling was not sufficient for the proper education of his oldest son. What his son needed was a good yeshiva education, and this was not available to him in Chelsea, since he was too old for the new day school. As was typical of his steadfast adherence to his Torah principles “no matter what,” Rav Miller had made the decision to leave Chelsea and move to New York despite the fact that he did not have a job there. Rav Hutner’s offer came along just at the right time. Rav Miller was sure that this was “no accident,” and he left Chelsea in 1944, much to the sadness of his many supporters.

Rav Miller always remembered his years in Chelsea with fondness and nostalgia. Once he found out that I was a “Chelsea boy,” he would at times reminisce with me about the years he lived there. “I felt I was leaving the front lines in the battle for Yiddishkeit when I moved. But what could I do? I had to give my son a proper yeshiva education.”

My mother, a”h, who was born in Chelsea, once sent me a newspaper article about a shul in Chelsea that had been designated a historic site. I brought the article to Rav Miller. As he read it, he said enthusiastically, “That’s my old shul! That’s my old shul! Can I keep this?” I told him he certainly could, whereupon he carefully folded the article and put it in his pocket.

When I was a young boy my family lived on Walnut Street in Chelsea. Rav Miller also lived on Walnut Street for part of the time that he resided in Chelsea. However, I was only four years old when Rav Miller left Chelsea, and therefore never met him while he was there. Years later, after I had begun attending Rav Miller’s shiurim, I asked my mother if she knew Rav Miller. She replied, “Oh, yes. He was rav of the Litvische shul, and we davened in the Russiche shul. We had nothing to do with them!” This was indeed unfortunate given all that Rav Miller had to offer to every Jew who resided in Chelsea while he was a rav there.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, May 5, at 8:15 p.m., Professor Levine will be giving a lecture entitled “An American Revolutionary: Rav Avigdor Miller, ZT”L, His Life and Times” at Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush, 1305 Coney Island Avenue (between Avenues I and J) in Brooklyn. The lecture is open to the public and is provided by the Talmud Torah as a free public service to the community. For further information, please call 718-377-2528.

While the above essay recounts stories of Rav Miller from his birth until he left Chelsea, Mass., to become mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Dr. Levine?s lecture will deal with all of Rav Miller’s life.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/rav-avigdor-miller-his-early-years-2/2004/05/26/

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