The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy



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To these Brooklyn streets after World War II came several thousand Hasidim, remnants of a widespread movement within Judaism that flourished in eastern Europe from the mid-1700s until--but only until--the Nazi catastrophe. The survivors arrived in America and Palestine with blue concentration camp numbers tattooed on their forearms, and the searing horror of Hitler's death camps branded on their souls. 7
Marshall Sklare in America's Jews (1971) has described the phenomenon whereby "Hasidism" came to America. He notes that while some of the earlier East European immigrants had come from families with a Hasidic tradition, Hasidic life was never established on American shores. "The courts of the rebbaim (plural of rebbe, Hasidic leader) remained in Eastern Europe. . . . The emergence of Hasidism during World War II and shortly thereafter was made possible by the arrival of a number of rebbaim, together with small circles of their followers." 8 Unfortunately this phenomenon has not received the attention and credit it deserves. Helmreich asserts that even though there are several works on the Hasidic communities of a sociological nature, "there is no study focusing on the history of the post-World War II immigrant generation in general and certainly none on the Orthodox community as a whole during this period . . . . This is unfortunate because it is a group whose impact has been considerable, especially on Jewish education." 9
Helmreich maintains that there has been no serious research on the "historical and sociological development of the Orthodox in America since world War II". Such a study must include the influence of the Hasidic communities, "such as Satmar, Ger, Belz, and Bobov, many of which came with their rebbes . . . . inasmuch as they demonstrated that right-wing Orthodoxy could be successfully transplanted to the treifene medinah (literally, nonkosher country)." Thus, maintains Helmreich, within the larger Orthodox community, the influence of the highly committed and visible Hasidim, especially the Satmarer, must be taken into account. "Their lifestyles and strict adherence to the letter of the law have probably made others more aware of previously neglected areas in religion." 10
Our thesis is an attempt to deal with the lack decried by Helmreich. We seek to look at the totality of the Orthodox world in America with the events of 1939-1945 as a turning point. We recognize the need to study the history of the rise of Hasidic configurations, for they represent the rebirth, and rise, of Orthodox Judaism after the war. Since then, the Hasidic leaders--the rebbes--and the communities--kehillahs- they have nurtured, have grown in size and influence. As an example, in December 1979, President Carter received a delegation of Hasidic leaders at the White House. A Jewish newspaper of the time, The World Jewish Tribune (Friday, December 28, 1979), reported that:
Sitting across from Mr. Carter during the 22-minute meeting last Monday afternoon were three of the most important leaders in the Jewish world: Rabbi Solomon Halberstam, The Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Sigeter and now Satmar Rebbe, and Rabbi Mordechai Hager, the Viznitzer Rebbe.
The three men represented 150,000 of their followers throughout the United States. 11
The pattern that has emerged shows the growth of confidence and influence of the various Hasidic communities in America. It shows how from the ashes of Auschwitz and in spite of Hitler's genocidal attacks, traditional Orthodox Jews were determined to rejuvenate Judaism in America. It shows too, that their growth and success rest on a viable configuration of Torah educators.
Hungarian Hasidim
Alvin I. Schiff, in The Jewish Day School in America (1966), has stated that the "relatively large influx of Hungarian Jewish immigrants immediately following World War II resulted in the founding of several yeshivot, particularly in New York." In retrospect that would appear to be an understatement. Schiff highlights the rise of the Hasidic configuration based on a kehillah structure:
At the end of the 1940s members of various Hungarian Hasidic sects arrived in this country. Each of these sects, deriving largely from the community in which its rebbe (religious leader) lived, formed a kehillah (community) whose focal point of activity was the rebbe's shtibel (house of prayer). In the various shtibels, schools were formed for the children of the rebbes' adherents. The schools grew rapidly. Residing, in the main, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the Hasidim bought old community centers, old public school buildings, business establishments and brownstone houses which they converted into yeshivot. 12
The zeal, industriousness, and single-mindedness of the various rebbes is remarkable. They came out of the hellish fires of war, with one aim: Survival. Not a cowering kind of survival, nor an escapist and iconoclastic survival denying the past, but one that strove for grandeur and majesty. For the Hungarian Jews, at the apex of this majesty there stood the person of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979).
In Piety and Perseverance: Jews from the Carpathian Mountains (1981), Herman Dicker writes that in 1934, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum established himself in Szatm'ar (Satmar), in Northern Transylvania, then part of Roumania. This area was annexed by Hungary in 1940. On the nineteenth of March, 1944, Hungary was occupied by Germany, and deportations to Auschwitz began. Rabbi Teitelbaum tried to escape from Hungary, but was caught. He was kept in the ghetto of Cluj, and subsequently deported to Bergen-Belsen. There then occurred one of the most bizarre episodes of the war, which we have dealt with in an earlier chapter, (v. Chapter IV: 'Survival').
A prominent secular Jewish leader, Rudolf Kastner working as go-between between the Jewish Agency of Palestine and the Nazis, arranged for 1,368 Jews, Rabbi Teitelbaum included, to be transported to Switzerland. Raul Hilberg has written that there were 1,600, out of 750,000 doomed Hungarian Jews, whom Adolf Eichman had agreed to release. Why did Eichman allow Jews to escape? Hilberg quotes an interview with Eichman by Life (December 5, 1960, p. 146), Eichman's "memoirs", that Kastner "agreed to keep the Jews from resisting deportation--and even keep order in the camps--if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain." 13 We have previously noted other possible motives for Eichman's "magnanimity". For Kastner it was a bitter bargain struck with a latter-day Mephistopheles.
Ironically, it was the Nazis who objected to the Jewish leadership’s plans to select only children, which would be too noticeable. Only then, reports Hilberg, did the Jews proceed to compile a list of ten categories: "Orthodox Jews, Zionists, prominent Jews (Prominente), orphans, refugees, Revisionists, etc. One category consisted of 'paying persons'. The geographic distribution was a bit lopsided: 388 persons, including Kastner's father-in-law, came from the Transylvanian city of Cluj. 'Eichman knew', reports Kastner, 'that we had a special interest in Cluj' (dass Klausenburg uns besonders nahestand). The transport left, at the height of the deportations, for Bergen-Belsen. In the fall of 1944 some of the rescued Jews arrived in Switzerland." 14 And so it came to be that at the peak of the deportations, Rabbi Teitelbaum was taken out of detention in Bergen-Belsen and placed on that train to Switzerland.
It is a long way from Bergen-Belsen to Brooklyn, but in 1946 Rabbi Teitelbaum arrived in America determined to rebuild a kehillah. Herman Dicker observes that "had Rabbi Teitelbaum's attitude and struggle been merely one of being against something, in this case, Zionism, a historical reviewer could have found it easy to join those rejecting him and his philosophy. One, however, is forced by the facts to report the other side of the Satmar story, a side based on the very solid accomplishments of Rabbi Teitelbaum and his followers." 15 The success of Rabbi Teitelbaum and his followers was based on the unity of two themes: survival and reconstruction. Hasidic life was to be rebuilt through Jewish educational efforts. All parts of the configuration, be they parents, societies, or businesses, were to work for the rehabilitation of Hasidic life with the same educational goals. The unity of the themes of survival and the need to further Hasidic education was exemplified at the annual celebrations commemorating Rabbi Teitelbaum's release from Bergen-Belsen. One such celebration, and the nature of the event was described in 1975, four years before the Rebbe's death:
Now, through the loudspeakers, came the Rebbe's voice --the merest pin-scratch on a slate of silence. Yet that parchment-thin, otherworldly voice was instantly compelling. His disciples, many rocking and swaying as if in prayer, hung on each word as he thanked God for liberating him from the Nazis and for enabling him to be here with his beloved Hasidim. He spoke of the crucial importance of educating their children in Hasidic schools and reminded them that charity, which made such education possible, was one of the noblest of virtues. He then sat back, a benign expression lighting his face, and allowed his aides to take over the fund-raising activities. 16
The war in Europe, survival in America, and Jewish education blend into a unified and total experience. At the height of a celebration commemorating liberation, the appeal was for more and better Jewish education. The fall of Jewry in Europe becomes a prelude to the rise of Orthodoxy in America.
Rabbi Teitelbaum's achievements have amazed some observers. Dicker writes that it is amazing that Rabbi Teitelbaum managed to overcome the bitter experience of the Holocaust and rebuild a large following with "a wide ranging chain of religious, educational, and social institutions". Dicker states that Rabbi Teitelbaum's views on education did not change upon coming to America. "On the contrary, they became stronger in face of the ever present threat of assimilation." He reports that the Satmar private school system is described as the "largest in the world" educating about 7,000 students. Rabbi Teitelbaum was intimately involved in all the decision making processes of education. By the time of his death in 1979, it is estimated that he left 50,000 followers in the New York area, making it one of the largest Hasidic groups.
In discussing "The Educational Pattern", in Williamsburg: A Jewish Community in Transition (1961), George Kranzler characterizes the period 1949-1954 as evidencing a trend towards more and deeper Torah study, "as the masses of new immigrants from the camps settled in Williamsburg". He writes that though the general goals of established yeshivahs such as Torah Vodaath were "identical with theirs" (which is a debatable point), the new "Hungarian Yeshivoth" developed some essential differences of method and content. Namely:

1. A greater stress on the quantity of learning;

2. Greater stress of "practical topics and tractates";

3. Greater knowledge of "Shulchan Oruch", meaning halachah or law;

4. Instruction in Yiddish;

5. Early commencement of formal schooling.


Writing in 1961, Kranzler concluded:
It is important to note that both patterns of Williamsburg's intensive Jewish education have been exported to other Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of New York, and even beyond it to other cities where the day school movement has mushroomed . . . . The developments there are similar, and are worth watching for their influence on the future of the Jewish communities in America. In this respect Williamsburg may perhaps become the center of a renaissance of a well educated Jewish American community, whose sons, unlike the "lost generation" of their elders, have returned to the high level of Jewish scholarship that was typical for the immigrant generation, of the Old World, thanks to the work of the day schools. 17
Williamsburg in fact became the bastion of the Hungarian Hasidim, with Rabbi Teitelbaum at their helm. Their impact on the Orthodox world was great by dint of their large numbers and cohesion, as described by Kranzler. At its root lay the Satmar Rebbe's painstaking rehabilitation of thousands of fellow survivors and molding them into a kehillah. In The Torah Personality: A Treasury of Biographical Sketches (1980) it is recorded that at the time of his passing, the Rebbe presided over a tight-knit, highly disciplined community numbering in the thousands. The Satmar communities are all distinguished by a kehillah system that includes complete control of synagogue, kosher food supervision, education, and even social welfare. 18
Rabbi Teitelbaum's "personal warm concern" for each individual, was a key factor in the low drop-out rate among his kehillah's members. He was convinced that a viable community could only take shape if it was self-supporting on a level comparable to its surroundings. He encouraged his followers to donate generous sums of money. This aided the growth of the community's school system. Rabbi Teitelbaum founded the Yeshiva Yetev Lev and the Bais Rochel School for Girls, "both adhering to the syllabus of pre-World War II Satmar". As we have mentioned, their yeshivah emphasizes "a rapid pace of study, familiarity with a broad range of topics, and an eye on practical application, through halachah. The girls' school follows a strictly prescribed Hebrew curriculum." 19
Solomon Poll, in The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg: A Study in the Sociology of Religion (1962), analyses the complete gamut of units within the Williamsburg Hasidic configuration. He shows how the Hasidic family, social stratification, organization, social control, economic behavior, and occupational hierarchy, are all inherently inter-linked.

In the final chapter he concludes:


. . . In the Hasidic community religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices exerts a cohesive integrating influence upon the actions and thoughts, both public and private, of its members. It creates a reciprocity between religion and all other community affairs. Religion determines the characteristic form of most activities, so much so that even secular activities have come to acquire a religious meaning. . . . The main object of the group's existence is the perpetuation of Yiddishkeit, traditional religious Judaism, through Hasidic behavior. 20
Poll explains how this came to be in the midst of twentieth century America. In the chapter "The Transplantation of Hasidic Culture" he states:
In 1943, the Jews were evacuated from the various Jewish communities in Hungary into German concentration camps. In the concentration camps they continued to adhere to traditional practices to the extent possible under the circumstances. Many suffered starvation and extreme maltreatment, and many died in the camps. When the war ended, some of the religious leaders went from one concentration camp to another to reorganize the group and to encourage their continued loyalty to the "tradition of their fathers". The younger element among the survivors of Nazi atrocities sought to migrate to the United States. Upon their arrival in the United States they settled in Williamsburg, which was already the center of the more religious Hungarian Jews in America. 21
It would be safe to conclude that without the upheaval of the Second World War, Hasidic life would never have appeared and flourished on the scale evident today. Kehillahs like those which arose in Williamsburg were deliberately reconstructed by those such as Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum to ensure the continuity of Judaism through Orthodox communal life. "I hope to establish a broad Klal Yisroel. I dare not sacrifice the average students for the sake of the isolated individual of rare promise", 22 said Rabbi Teitelbaum. The statement epitomizes the educational goal he pursued in order to achieve his aim of creating an independent, yet influential, kehillah.
Boro Park: An Inter-linking of Configurations
The emergence of the Orthodox community of Boro Park in Brooklyn, has been labeled as both a "testimonial" and a memorial to what had been lost in the Nazi Holocaust, in Egon Mayer's From Suburb to Shtetl: The Jews of Boro Park (1979). Whereas pre-war Russian and Polish immigrants "had to make the most of their adjustments to modernity as immigrants", those who came after World War II "were conscious of being the remnants of a group that had been nearly exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust". 23 Mayer reports that the community they formed was intended not so much as a testimonial to their own achievements in the new world, but rather as a memorial for what they had lost.
In the course of conducting his research, Mayer noted that the theme of the Holocaust emerged in nearly every interview he conducted. The Holocaust in particular served as an explanation for the need for a tight-knit and strong Jewish community like Boro Park in Brooklyn. Strange as it may sound, Mayer also found that this community is "simultaneously growing more 'American', more middle-class, and, religiously, more Orthodox." This has run counter to the assumption amongst many social scientists that Orthodox Jewish life would inevitably disappear with the "Americanization" of the immigrants' descendants. 24
The radical departure of the post-World War II immigrants from those who came before them, was marked by their strong adherence to Orthodoxy. This was directly related to their war-time experiences. Ironically, the war served to strengthen Orthodoxy in America. Boro Park became the "showcase" community in exemplifying the phenomenon of renewal. Mayer cites this as one of the reasons he chose to study the Jewish community of Boro Park: It is, in the 1970s, the largest and most dynamic of all Orthodox Jewish communities in America. This trend has continued into the 1980s.
The New York Times, in a May 1982 report: "Housing Surge Alters Borough Park", found that with the high birthrate and migrations from such areas as Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, and Crown Heights, the Jewish population of Boro Park had grown by about 25 percent since 1978. "It is now estimated at 65,000 in an area of 100,000 people." Furthermore, the report found, that spurring the activity is a steady expansion of Boro Park's population of Orthodox Jews about half of whom are Hasidim. "They require large apartments for large families, and accommodations near synagogues and denominational schools." 25
Mayer maintains that the renaissance of Orthodox Judaism can be best understood in microcosm, at the level where people actually live out such things in the community. His book aims to describe the social history and contemporary social profile of the Orthodox community in Boro Park. 26 What emerges is an amalgum of kehillahs with a vast array of educational "institutions" both formal and informal. In nature and goals, these institutions are similar to those of the Satmar Hasidim of Williamsburg, sharing a similar history and a common destiny.
Immediately after the war, many Hasidic groups first established themselves in Williamsburg. By the 1970s most had relocated themselves and their kehillahs in Boro Park. These included the Vizhnitzer, Sigiter, Pupper, Krasner, Belzer, Bobover, Sanzer Hasidic groups each led by their own Rebbes. Mayer notes that this group of people was composed largely of post-war immigrants who for a variety of reasons had chosen to remain in the "ambiance" of the Orthodox communities. 27
One of the leading figures in the growth of Boro Park's Hasidic life was Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, leader of the Bobover Hasidim. Following in the footsteps of his father, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, he rebuilt a Hasidic kehillah after a world war. Just as his father had established a large chain of yeshivahs for thousands of students all over Galicia in Europe, Rabbi Halberstam established a network of schools for boys and girls in Boro Park. Following the First World War, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam saw the yeshivahs as the only secure means of spreading Judaism and Hasidic life among the Jews of Galicia. He used all his talents, strength of character, and personal charm, to captivate and take hold of students. They viewed him as their "father" because of the intense personal interest he took in each of them, "it is therefore no wonder, that the students of Bobov clung to their rebbe and loved him with all the fibres of their souls". The yeshivah of Bobov achieved literal wonders. Even the most light-hearted of students learnt the meaning of Judaism with its stress on Torah study. 28 This remarkable educational undertaking was brought to an end in Europe when the Nazis and their cohorts invaded Eastern Europe.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the Rebbe of Bobov, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, and his family, fled to Lvov in the Russian sector. All contact was cut off between him and the thousands of his followers caught in the German sector. In the United States there were some who knew of his high standing in Jewish life, and sought to bring him to America. This was not to be, for when the Nazis finally attacked Soviet Russia, entering Lvov in July, 1941, they burst into Jewish homes, deporting thousands of Jews:
Amongst those who were caught on that day were also the Rebbe Ben Zion Halberstam, his youngest son Moshe Aaron, and his three sons-in-law. . . . This occurred on the Sabbath eve before sunset. An eye-witness saw from his window how the Rebbe, dressed in his Sabbath clothing, was attacked by the soldiers. The cruel Ukranians beat him on his head with their rifle-butts and his skullcap fell to the ground. From time to time the Rebbe bent over and stooped to pick it up, and they beat him even more. His pure soul went up to Heaven, together with his sons and sons-in-law, on the fourth of Menahem-Av 5701. (1941) 29
Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam was a son who survived, and upon coming to America after the war, set out to complete his father's work in Jewish life, this time in America. He sought out many of his father's followers who had survived the concentration camps, but whose faith had begun to wane. Using all the considerable personal traits that had distinguished his father, he won them over. They contributed to his charitable and educational undertakings whilst sending their children to the newly-founded Bobov institutions in America. Centered primarily in Boro Park, these educational institutions cater to several thousand students ranging in age from kindergarten children to post-graduate Talmudic scholars.
Thus, as Mayer shows in his work, the impact of the new arrivals in Boro Park was great indeed. He emphasizes that the most significant way in which this community differed from previous immigrant Jewish communities was that the first generation immigrants who settled in Boro Park entered the United States after the war. Given its diversity, Mayer asks, what are the "core elements" of the community, and how do they "cement" the community? The answers he provides give credence to Cremin's notion of a "configuration of educators". 30 There is a blending and interplay between "Holocaust"--Survival--The American Experience--and, Configurations of Education: Refugees from war-ravaged Europe, headed by dynamic and resourceful rabbis and laymen, rebuild Orthodox Jewish kehillahs and "life" in America.
The elements of this inter-linking of configurations is sketched by Mayer. In "Ingredients of Holiness", dealing with "The Social Construction of Religious Life in Secular Society", he observes that it is "more or less" common knowledge that the Jewish people are often called the "Chosen People". But, it is less commonly known that "in the Old Testament they are frequently referred to as a Holy People or a Holy Community". The "ramparts" of this "holiness" are given as: 1. Family; 2. Yeshivah; 3. Synagogues; 4. Youth organizations; 5. Self-help organizations; plus others. Each element of the configuration complements the others for the purpose of maintaining the pre-eminence of the notion of a "Holy Community". Its apparent success, concludes Mayer, was because "the immigrants who revitalized the acculturating and assimilating Jewish communities in the United States after World War II were sadder, but a great deal wiser about both the ways of the world and the possibilities of sustaining an exclusive and isolated Jewish community in the host society." 31
The growth of the kehillahs within Boro Park were not separate from the growth of the other Lithuanian-style yeshivahs. The latter drew the bulk of their students from kehillahs such as existed in Boro Park. Whereas Williamsburg was associated with the Satmar, and Crown Heights with Lubavitch, Boro Park however catered for more diverse groupings. As Boro Park expanded, it reached into the adjacent Flatbush section of Brooklyn, home to three of the best known Lithuanian style yeshivahs: Torah Vodaath, Yeshivah Rabbi Chaim Berlin, and the Mirrer Yeshivah. Thus there was a very real "overlap" in all senses of the word between the growth of the new kehillahs and the revitalized yeshivahs, forming an even larger inter-linked configuration of Jewish education.
The Lubavitch Experience
The arrival in America of the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes, was a consequence of the Second World War. On March 19, 1940, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson (1880-1950) arrived in New York from war-torn Warsaw. In the late spring of 1941, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson arrived in New York from Marseilles in occupied France. Both Rebbes were not newcomers to the challenges of modernity, having had firsthand encounters with the protagonists of haskalah in Europe.
In 1929, Rabbi J. I. Schneerson was released from prison by the Soviet authorities, after having been tortured and abused. He traveled abroad, visited America, was received by President Hoover, and attracted large crowds at various places. D. Goldberg writes that the visit left a profound impression upon Rabbi Schneerson: "Though certain facets of the American scene he found distinctly distasteful.. . , he did later tell how impressed he was with the simple sincerity of the American Jewish youth. . . . He almost decided to make America his permanent home, but eventually chose to return to Europe." 32 The impressions gained of American life, were soon to stand him in good stead.
In 1934 he established himself in Warsaw, continuing his drive to establish yeshivahs and communities based on the tenets of Chabad Hasidism. At this time, his son-in-law and heir-to-be, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, traveled to Heidelburg, Berlin, and the Sorbonne for university studies. The Lubavitch movement prided itself with being the "intellectual branch" of Hasidism founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). It was in this spirit that the Lubavitchers established the Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, with Rabbi J. I. Schneerson as its first dean. It was "a daring innovation to counteract the winds of secularism. . . . by establishing the first formal Chassidic yeshivah for teenaged young men where study of Chabad philosophy was incorporated as an integral third of the daily curriculum." 33 Thus Hasidic education lay at the basis of Rabbi Schneerson's notion of counter-acting secularism.
In a Lubavitch publication: Challenge: An Encounter with Lubavitch--Chabad (1970), we are told that at the outbreak of war in September 1939, Rabbi J. I. Schneerson refused every opportunity to leave the inferno of Warsaw until he had taken care of his yeshivahs: "He remained there throughout the terrible siege and bombardment of Warsaw and its final capitulation to the Nazi invaders". It was with the "co-operation of the Department of State in Washington", and with friends of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who worked behind the scenes, that his journey from Warsaw to New York was arranged. 34 Rabbi Schneerson saw his mission as one of rebuilding Jewish life in America in the vision and mould of Chabad Hasidism.
The growth of Lubavitch educational institutions in America following Rabbi J. I. Schneerson's arrival is noted by Alvin I. Schiff in The Jewish Day School in America (1966). In March 1940, the same month Rabbi J. I. Schneerson arrived, the Central Lubavitcher Yeshivah was established in Brooklyn. Called Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, it was the beginning of a network of elementary schools. By 1963, there were over twenty yeshivahs for boys, and a Beth Rivka School for girls under the sponsorship of Lubavitch. A high school was organized in 1943 as well as a Rabbinic Seminary. In 1941, a branch was established in Montreal, Canada. Schiff writes that the events leading to the establishment of this school are worth noting:
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