Several hundred people turned out Sunday in Boro Park to pay their respects to Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, who as the founder of ArtScroll publications transformed the landscape of Jewish literature with a library of sefarim and books that brought Torah to the masses in an unparalleled way.
Rabbi Zlotowitz passed away on Shabbos at the age of 73.
The son of Rabbi Aron Zlotowitz, rav of Congregation Etz Chaim Anshei Lubin in Flatbush and executive director of the Board of Orthodox Rabbis of Brooklyn, Meir Zlotowitz attended Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and continued his education under the guidance of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem.
The energy and enthusiasm that made the ArtScroll brand a household name were evident to all from Rabbi Zlotowitz’s earliest days. Rabbi Edgar Gluck, whose grew up together with Rabbi Zlotowitz in Brooklyn, said the two shared many wonderful moments together back in Camp Agudah, a friendship that lasted well over six decades.
“We were always very, very close, like brothers,” Rabbi Gluck told VIN News. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Rabbi Michel Chill recalled his own days in Camp Munk with Rabbi Zlotowitz.
“He was always so talented and very involved in color war and in the artwork, but there was a special ruchniyus to him as well,” said Rabbi Chill. “Even then he was already looking for ways to be able to contribute to Klal Yisrael.”
Rabbi Zlotowitz parlayed his artistic talents into a flourishing graphics business called ArtScroll Studios. Rabbi Sheah Brander, ArtScrolls’s longtime designer and an extremely close friend, said that Rabbi Zlotowitz had a keen eye for graphics, creating original calligraphic fonts by hand and setting the standard in the Jewish invitation business.
After the untimely death of his good friend Rabbi Meir Fogel in 1975, Rabbi Zlotowitz began a project that would forever alter the course of Jewish publishing, creating an all new edition of Megillas Esther with a contemporary English translation and commentary as a one-time only foray into the world of Jewish books.
According to Mishpacha magazine, after compiling a commentary on the megillah on his own, Rabbi Zlotowitz was hoping to show his work to someone else for further critique. Recalling an article he had enjoyed two years earlier authored by Rabbi Nosson Scherman on the Chofetz Chaim’s visit to the 1923 Knessiah Gedola in Vienna, Rabbi Zlotowitz reached out to Rabbi Scherman for his input. The two collaborated on the Megillas Esther project, not knowing that they were about to embark on a much larger journey that would span decades and have a global reach.
In his preface to Megillas Esther, Rabbi Zlotowitz wrote of the mixed emotions he felt as the sefer was released to the public.
“I wanted desperately to perpetuate [Rabbi Fogel’s] noble memory in some meaningful form, and, on the night following his funeral, I undertook to compile this anthology of commentaries on Megillas Esther,” wrote Rabbi Zlotowitz. “My hope was to embark on a work which could be completed within the ‘sheloshim,’ and at the same time make a serious and needed contribution to the Torah public. There was absolutely nothing of this scope available on the Book of Esther for the tradition-seeking reader.”
Rabbi Zlotowitz and Rabbi Scherman joined forces with Rabbi Brander, with the trio throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the Jewish publishing business after being urged by Rabbi Mordechai Gifter to continue the ArtScroll model set by Megillas Esther with additional sefarim.
Months later ArtScroll’s Megillas Rus hits store shelves with an approbation written by Rabbi Feinstein describing Rabbi Zlotowitz as one of the most respected students of his yeshiva. Rabbi Feinstein praised Rabbi Zlotowitz for creating an English translation that would bring others to a higher level of spirituality by enhancing their love of Torah and their belief in Hashem while also elevating their performance of mitzvos.
Rabbi Zlotowitz articulated his own mission for ArtScroll as a vehicle to reach the Jewish public at large in his introductory remarks to Megillas Rus.
“I again end with a prayer that the work be received by the Torah world as a tool toward understanding and appreciating yet another one of the Sacred Books of the Bible as our Sages wanted us to understand and appreciate it; without recourse to so called scientific or other untraditional sources, so that the hidden depths of the Torah will become the possession also of non-Hebrew reading Jews – too many of whom have been condemned to varying degrees of spiritual pauperdom – so that ‘their souls will be drawn to Hashem and His Torah.’ ”
As the years passed, ArtScroll produced volume after volume, opening up the depths of Tanach, the Mishnah, the Gemara, the Midrash, and more to the world. Rabbi Zlotowitz’s warmth, people skills, perseverance, and drive to continue contributing to Klal Yisrael propelled the publishing house toward even more ambitious goals, despite the inherent difficulties that can accompany the start of any business.
“He had an extremely positive outlook and was able to guide us through financial hardships,” recalled Rabbi Brander. “He was always able to manage people and get them to give their all, and even though he set goals that were sometimes not attainable, under his direction they became attainable.”
In time ArtScroll went on to create the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, a charitable foundation that would enable the company to fund the scholarship that was the heart and soul of every ArtScroll publication. Because the company was already a known quantity, people were willing to invest in the foundation.
When it came time to find a sponsor for the ArtScroll Shas, a project that ultimately spanned 73 volumes, Rabbi Zlotowitz pitched the project to a potential donor, hoping he would buy the naming rights for the entire series. Although that effort failed, Jerome Schottenstein stepped up to fund the project. Years later Rabbi Zlotowitz revealed that the original person he approached considered his decision to pass up the opportunity the greatest philanthropic mistake he’d ever made.
In a 2012 interview with Chananya Kramer of Kolrom Multimedia, Rabbi Zlotowitz credited ArtScroll’s success to Hashem and the efforts of many talented people who worked on every volume, whose combined efforts yielded books with universal appeal.
“A good example of that is our Chumash, which has nuggets of wisdom that the scholar relates to and [by which] the newcomer who is perhaps visiting a shul for the first time since his own bar mitzvah gains a new respect for Torah and understands that there is a tradition behind it and that things are finally made accessible to him by removing the language barrier so he can study it the way his grandfather studied it,” said Rabbi Zlotowitz.
While being able to make words of Torah accessible to a wider audience was extremely rewarding, Rabbi Zlotowitz said that seeing luminaries of the Torah world using ArtScroll publications was a truly exhilarating experience.
“Perhaps one of the most warming things is to go to Eretz Yisrael, visit people of the stature of Rav Elyashiv or Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman…and to see them studying from our various editions of the Talmud, in Hebrew of course, and you know you’ve done it right.”
Passion for excellence is one of the driving forces behind every ArtScroll publication, explained Rabbi Zlotowitz, who noted that his contributors make sure every facet of every volume is letter-perfect.
“They can spend days sometimes on trying to pick just that right word that will try to encompass what the Talmud or the Midrash or any of the other volumes are trying to teach us in a way that is multi-nuanced,” said Rabbi Zlotowitz. “If you don’t do that all you are doing is taking a phrase from one language to another and preserving the ambiguity. Here, precision is the goal.”
Rabbi Zlotowitz likened the story of ArtScroll to watching an oak tree grow out of a small acorn, ultimately sprouting into something with immeasurable impact.
“There are very few things that one can do today that will still be here and vibrant and in libraries in three, four, five hundred years from now,” said Rabbi Zlotowitz. “It is not limited to any geographic entity. It’s not limited to any time entity. Books are truly timeless and affect eternity in different ways.”
The most recent Siyum Hashas was another remarkable experience for Rabbi Zlotowitz, seeing 90,000 people celebrate the cycle of learning, many of whom made their way through the Daf Yomi cycle with the help of ArtScroll publications.
“Rabbi Meir Shapiro created Daf Yomi but Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz took it to a new level,” said Rabbi Zvi Gluck, director of Amudim, who visited with Rabbi Zlotowitz just two days before his passing.
“I can tell you that both he and Rabbi Scherman are responsible for Torah in the world today.”
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said Daf Yomi was just one of the many Torah learning programs that have flourished through ArtScroll’s efforts.
“The limud haTorah that was instigated by accessibility, which is what ArtScroll did, has really taken the idea of the masses having the access to Torah and every Jew finding his place in Torah to new heights,” said Rabbi Zwiebel.
More than just the spark behind ArtScroll, Rabbi Zlotowitz was a man who exuded warmth and charm.
“People felt honored that he was their friend,” said Rabbi Brander. “I would spend many hours with him at simchas and everyone would come over just to say hello to him. People are talking about his harbatzas Torah but he was just a phenomenal human being.”
Rabbi Zwiebel was one of the last people to speak with Rabbi Zlotowitz, having spent Shabbos visiting a relative at the Boro Park Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, where Rabbi Zlotowitz spent his final days.
“Layl Shabbos I went downstairs to daven and he was there and we engaged in conversation and later we went to visit him in his room,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “He was a prince of a person and a giant in middos. He understood people so well. It is an enormous loss.”
Rabbi Zlotowitz is survived by his wife, Rochel, eight children, and more than fifty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was eulogized by his sons Gedaliah, Yisroel, Boruch, and Chaim, and sons-in-law Rabbi Asher Dicker, Duvi Morgenstern, and Yehuda Munk.
“The most important thing for everyone to realize is that my dad started out as a regular man who through his life reached biblical heights,” Yisroel Zlotowitz told the standing room only crowd that packed Shomrei Hadas Chapels for the levayah. “He changed Yiddishkeit, plain and simple.”
Rabbi Zlotowitz was laid to rest on Monday in Beit Shemesh.