I was there! I was in Bnei Brak. Not on Thursday evening, not at the raucous, red-shirted, “progressive” women’s demonstration. I was in Bnei Brak on the Sunday before, on Gimmel Elul, at the old Zichron Meir cemetery where my uncle, aunt, and beloved cousin are buried.
It was the 75th yortzeit of my uncle, R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, or, as the recent four-page article in Mishpacha Magazine referred to him, the “Father of America’s Yeshivos.” For the first time in my 63 years living in Israel I had an opportunity to pray at the family gravesite with my daughter and her Bnei Brak son. Tiptoeing between narrow rows of gravestones in the sprawling cemetery seeking my uncle and aunt was an experience. My uncle is buried in the front rows, or perhaps now they are considered the last rows of the cemetery, alongside famous Torah giants, Rav Eliyahu Dessler and Rav Isaac Sher, zt”l.
The stories of the accomplishments of Rav Shraga Feivel (or as he insisted on being called, “Mr. Mendlowitz”) in building Torah in America are vast, and numerous books and articles have been written about him in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, that he established and headed for over 25 years, from the 1920’s through 1948, was his vision of the flagship yeshiva for the purpose of producing Torah-observant students who would become the teachers, principals, rabbis, and supporters of Orthodox Jewish day schools across America. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement was the founding of Torah Umesorah, the organization responsible for Jewish day schools and yeshivot throughout the United States.
“Mr. Mendlowitz” was known for his personal connection with and admiration for the many Chassidic rabbis in Williamsburg, as well as his admiration for the great Lithuanian Roshei Yeshivot whom he hired to teach in the Mesivta. He raised funds for anyone who was prepared to open a new yeshiva, and in addition to the generous funds he raised for them, he gave the rabbis some of his best students to head start their yeshivot.
But there was another side to the man who devoted the best years of his life to educating Torah-observant Jewish youngsters and preparing them for the future. That was his love, his dream, and his deep desire to enter the land of Israel.
Rabbi Yitzchok Gerstenkorn, the founder, builder, and first mayor of Bnei Brak, came to the United States to raise funds for the agricultural settlement on the sand dunes near Tel Aviv, the settlement that he envisioned as the city of Bnei Brak, the city where the great rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva and his students, studied Torah. Rabbi Gerstenkorn had difficulty raising funds, until he met “Mr. Mendlowitz,” Rav Shraga Feivel, whom he befriended, and who helped him raise the necessary funds to begin building Bnei Brak.
My uncle perceived the creation of the State of Israel on Heh Iyar, as a positive act, worthy of thanksgiving, but the pain that followed, the knowledge that Jews were once again under fire, under the threat of annihilation, at war fighting five Arab armies, was unbearable. Heartsick, he passed away on Gimmel Elul, in August 1948, three months after the State was declared, on the same day as the yohrtzeit of Rav Kook, the former Chief Rabbi of mandatory Palestine, whom he greatly admired.
With Israel at war, Rav Shraga could not be flown for burial to Eretz Yisroel as he wished. He was buried al-tnai in America and, after the war when air travel to Israel was resumed, his son-in-law, Rabbi Alexander Linchner, brought him for reinternment to Israel, to Bnei Brak, where Mayor Gerstenkorn had a plot prepared in the new Bnei Brak cemetery.
Leaving the cemetery on Sunday afternoon, we stopped at my grandson’s home in Bnei Brak where I enjoyed a short visit with delightful great-grandchildren. My daughter and I changed and dressed to attend the Chupa of grandchildren of dear friends, held on the rooftop of an old small building. Participating at the marriage of another young couple about to build a Jewish home in Israel, surrounded by new high-rise buildings so tall I had difficulty seeing the tops of the skyscrapers, I felt the incredible growth in and around Bnei Brak.
Listening to the horrific yelling and drumming at the “progressive” women’s demonstration at the entrance to Bnei Brak on Thursday evening, I wondered how the “progressive” women demonstrating their concern for “women’s rights” would feel if tens of thousands of self-fulfilled Bnei Brak women and children would turn out to demonstrate their demand that progressive liberal women in Haifa and Tel Aviv should be educated to live Torah-observant lives.
I recall a radio interview I heard many years ago on a cold, rainy Jerusalem morning.
At the time, Arik Sharon had taken part in the Likud campaign for the election of Netanyahu and he was appointed to manage the Haredi sector for the election campaign. Sharon had arranged to meet with the Gerrer Rebbe at 9 a.m. After he emerged from his appointment he was accosted by a reporter who asked Sharon what he was doing in the Gerrer courtyard on a miserable winter morning surrounded by aimless young chassidim drifting around the compound.
I nearly dropped the tray of cupcakes I was about to place in the oven when I heard Sharon’s startling answer. He was proud of his own sons who woke at 4 a.m. and made their way in the pouring rain to their army base; nevertheless, he rationalized, the future of Am Yisrael was to be found among the young men in the Rebbe’s courtyard.
Unlike the chutzpa of the “progressive” and anti-religious, feminist demonstrators on Thursday night, Arik Sharon understood that the future of the Jewish state of Israel was on the rise, demographically and spiritually.
The seeds of Torah in America that my uncle planted have sprouted and spread across oceans that can be seen from his Bnei Brak cemetery plot. Just so, the religious wedding ceremonies held daily in Bnei Brak and throughout Israel, in a landscape altered by all the new high-rise skyscrapers, demonstrate how greatly Jewish life has developed from the early days, in the once-upon-a-time agricultural settlement on the sand dunes near Tel Aviv.