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

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After his arrival in the United States, the Lubavitcher Rebbe established the Pidyon Shevuim Fund which was instrumental in rescuing hundreds of European yeshivah students during the war years. Among those rescued was a group of students who arrived in Montreal in the fall of 1941 after a long arduous journey through Siberia, Japan and China. These young refugees formed the nucleus of the Canadian branch of the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth. Both the New York and Montreal Schools have dormitory facilities for non-resident students. 35
A configuration of Lubavitch education that grew beyond formal education emerged quickly. Jewish children were urged to hold special Sabbath study groups by Rabbi J. I. Schneerson. He opened a publishing house to print works on halachah and Hasidism, as well as magazines and literature in English. Emphasis always fell on expanding the educational configuration of Lubavitch:
Graduates of his yeshivah assumed positions as rabbis of communities, as principals and teachers in Jewish schools, and other key positions in Jewish life in New York and many cities. Within three years, the Rebbe was able to announce to his Chassidim that "the American ice has finally been broken . . . " 36
Rabbi J. I. Schneerson saw himself as a "conqueror" of apathy amongst Jews, and not as a "refugee" fleeing persecution. There is a further dimension to the Lubavitch experience. As a number of Hasidic groups are prone to do, they see themselves as the sole authentic practitioners of Orthodox Judaism. However, Lubavitch Hasidism makes a point of carrying this opinion far and wide, beyond the confines of its own kehillah. In the case of Rabbi J. I. Schneerson, Lubavitch publications unabashedly claim that "he was the first to bring Jewish Pride to this land", and that "his arrival in New York in 1940, had brought the first hope that perhaps this country could somehow replace Eastern Europe as a great Torah-center." 37 The same writer credits Rabbi J. I. Schneerson with a string of "firsts" in fostering Jewish education in America 38 whilst ignoring the fact that the era was one of numerous "firsts" by a number of personalities.
Be that as it may, with the death of Rabbi J. I. Schneerson in 1950, and the formal accession a year later of his son-in-law, and cousin (hence the same family name), Rabbi M. M. Schneerson (b. 1902), a new phase of the Lubavitch experience commenced. The new Lubavitcher Rebbe sought to bring the message of Lubavitch to Jews no matter where they were found. Grasping the new mould of the world in the technological era as the "Global Village", he utilized all the new forces of communication and travel to expand the educational configuration of Lubavitch internationally. At the center stood "770" (Eastern Parkway--a street in Brooklyn), "World Headquarters" of Lubavitch, and by implication, world Judaism. Needless to say, it did not engender a spirit of sympathy and cooperation from other Orthodox groups. Yeshivah heads and Hasidic leaders were inclined to disregard the Lubavitch claim to supremacy.
In a Lubavitch publication, The Rebbe: Changing the Tide of Jewish Education (1982), Rabbi M. M. Schneerson's escape from Europe and his successes in America are described. In 1940 he found himself trapped in France, where he clandestinely organized observance of Judaism. When his father-in law arrived in America, visas were arranged, and in the spring of 1941 he arrived in New York with his wife:
Soon after his arrival, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (then in his fortieth year) was already entrusted by his father in-law with his share in the Rebbe's declared aim of "turning America into a place of Torah". The Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim, with its various branches out of town had been placed under the supervision of the Rebbe's elder son-in-law Rabbi Shemarya Gurary, under whose able care they remain today. The Rebbe now placed under the care of his second son-in-law the new organizations he was creating in America.
During the first year, he placed under Rabbi Menachem Mendel's supervision Machne Israel (the "umbrella" organization of Lubavitch concerned with general Jewish social and spiritual welfare), Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch (the central educational department of Lubavitch) and Kehot Publication Society (to publish educational and religious works). The following year he created a special arm of Kehot: Otzar HaChassidim, for publishing works on Chassidic philosophy by all the leaders of Chabad.
During this time the Rebbe told Rabbi Menachem Mendel to farbreng with the Chassidim on the last Shabbos of each month (Shabbos Mevorchim)--a tradition he has maintained ever since. In those early farbrengens, he would often explain the Halachic language of the Mishnah (basis of the Talmud) in terms of Chassidic philosophy. 39
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson's achievements were significant as he spearheaded a "deliberate systematic, and sustained effort" to transmit the Chabad brand of Hasidism to as many Jews as possible. He insisted upon strengthening the Lubavitch kehillah of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, as a bastion of Jewish life in spite of the socioeconomic decline of the neighborhood. Working from that epicentre he extended the Lubavitch configuration of institutions, headed by himself and his brother-in-law, by sending out emissaries, called shluchim. They established schools and "Chabad Houses", based on the "Y.M.H.A." models, for Jewish students throughout the United States, and the world. The "Chabad Houses" became a unique feature of the Lubavitch experience in America. They became the "local headquarters" of the Lubavitch emissaries, remaining in direct communication (via telephone, radio and even cable T.V.) with Lubavitch "World Headquarters" in Crown Heights. Thus, no matter where the emissaries found themselves, they were in reality part of an extended configuration centered in their Crown Heights kehillah, headed by the Rebbe.
The greatest part of this endeavor has been "kiruv rechokim"--bringing back to Orthodox Judaism those who were reared in non-Orthodox environments. William Helmreich has written that "notwithstanding the steps taken by the yeshivas, most of the 'reaching out' by Orthodox Jews in the United States is done by the Lubavitcher Hasidim. . . . They have also attracted countless individuals to Orthodoxy through their work in every part of the country." 40 It was Rabbi M. M. Schneerson's policy to constantly expand this undertaking by sending more and more shluchim to more and more Jewish communities. However, Helmreich's assertion that: "The collective efforts of the Lithuanian yeshivas pale by comparison although, considering their priorities, that is to be expected", should not be interpreted as a "weakness" compared to the "strength" of Lubavitch. Indeed, the entire question of "returnees" to Orthodoxy in the post-"Holocaust" era is a complicated one. Not only Lubavitch, but day schools, youth groups and yeshivahs of other Orthodox groups have achieved amazing success in this domain.
The educational orientation of Rabbi M.M. Schneerson's undertakings loom foremost in assessing his achievements as leader of Lubavitch. In America his concern for education reached a climax of sorts in l978 when a joint resolution of Congress, approved by President Carter, declared April 18, 1978, as "Education Day, U.S.A.". The day itself was Rabbi Schneerson's birthday, hence its choice. The Joint Resolution reads:
Whereas the Congress recognizes a need for the Nation to set aside on the calendar a day devoted to the importance of education to the lives of its citizens . . . and
Whereas the Lubavitch movement, which conducts educational activities at more than sixty centers in twenty-eight States, . . has proposed the establishment of an "Education Day, U.S.A."; and
Whereas world Jewry marked in 1977 the seventy-fifth birthday of . . . Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson . . . and
Whereas the seventy-sixth birthday of this celebrated spiritual leader will occur on April 18, 1978, thus concluding the year of Lubavitch Movement activities dedicated to the "Year of Education" Now therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation designating April 18, 1978, as "Education Day, U.S.A.".

APR 17 1978

Jimmy Carter 41
The ability of the Lubavitch organization to persuade others of the educational value of their activities could not have had a better climax. That the birthday of a Hasidic rebbe should have been chosen as "Education Day, U.S.A.", even if only for that year, is a great irony of history. Few would have imagined in 1941 that thirty-seven years later a little-known Hasidic refugee would receive such recognition. April 18, 1978, was yet another sign of the rise in confidence and influence of Jewish education in America.
"Out-of-Town" Kehillahs
Brooklyn has been home to flourishing Jewish communities but there have been other notable successes in outlying areas. "Out-of-town", often meaning places outside of Brooklyn, has been the refuge of a segment of the Second World War's survivors. Often it has been larger Brooklyn based kehillahs that created smaller semi-permanent summer communities, such as "bungalow colonies", where up to three months of the year are spent. Or, year-round retreats from city life have been established fostering kehillah life in "splendid isolation". Thus, for example, the Satmar community established itself in Monroe in upstate New York, as well as nurturing the growth of a sister-community in Montreal, Canada. Another example is Lubavitch, which has deliberately established miniature communities all over America.
There are several wholly autonomous out-of-town communities. Marshall Sklare has noted that some Hasidim believed that cultural transmission was impossible in the city. "Despite Brooklyn's thick Jewishness they feel that the integrity of their culture can only be preserved by geographic isolation." Sklare recounts that the Skvirer Hasidim viewed Brooklyn as part of an urban world in which social control cannot be effectively exercised. They therefore purchased a plot of land in Rockland County, New York, in 1954, where they succeeded in establishing their own community of "New Square". 42
Another Hasidic group, the Vizhnitzer, whose influence had extended to Jews in Hungary, Roumania, and Czechoslovakia, eventually established a branch in Monsey, in Rockland County, New York. "The Vishnitzer life style is characterized by an emphasis on love of God, love of Torah and love of Israel. A prolific family, it had many branches throughout the old country, most of them destroyed during the Holocaust", writes Herman Dicker in Piety and Perseverance (1981). Rabbi Chaim Meir Hager had managed to survive the war as leader of Vizhnitz. His son, Mordechai, decided in 1965 to take some of his Hasidim to Monsey, away from the "hustle and bustle" of the city. 43
The Satmar Hasidim successfully established the community of Kiryas Yoel ("Town of Yoel") in Monroe, Orange County, New York. Named for their late leader, who helped choose the location: "A grateful community built a magnificent synagogue with a seating capacity of several thousand to accommodate the many faithful who would visit the Satmar Rebbe on the High Holidays and other festive occasions. It reflected their devotion to the Rebbe and their ability to raise huge sums among his followers in all parts of the world. These contributions, amounting to millions of dollars, sustain a vast network of schools and Yeshivot in the United States and Israel.” 44
It was on August 19, 1979, that the Satmar Rebbe--Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum--passed away. On that same day he was buried at Kiryas Yoel in Monroe, New York State. The "out of town" community that bore his name, became his final resting place. His long life began in the small towns of the Carpathian Mountains of Europe and ended with his burial in the small towns of the Catskill Mountains of America. It was to Monroe that over one hundred thousand Orthodox Jews came to pay their last respects to a person who had symbolized the stubborn renewal of Torah life in the spiritual wastelands of America. The Catskills had been jokingly referred to as the "Borsht Belt", where Jews sought out light entertainment and escape from the city. The gathering of over a hundred thousand Orthodox Jews at the Satmar Rebbe’s funeral, proved that a new age had arrived in a relatively short period of time.
A symbolic microcosm of the transplantation of a kehillah together with a yeshivah from Europe to America was the community of Nitra. In The Unconquerable Spirit (1980), we are told that before the war, the town of Nitra in Slovakia had been a bastion of Jewish tradition and learning. "Its Yeshiva had a name throughout the world of Orthodox Jewry, drawing students from the Hasidic East as well as from the modern West." 45 At the head of the yeshivah and kehillah of Nitra had stood Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Ungar. In 1944, he fled to the woods to avoid deportation by the Nazis, and died of starvation in early 1945. "Even before coming to Nitra, Rabbi Ungar had been known as a great teacher and moralist far beyond the borders of Slovakia. Only two years before the outbreak of the war, he had been elected by the Agudath Israel. . ., to its supreme religious body, the Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah." 46 Thus, his death was a great loss for Torah life in all its facets.
However, Rabbi Ungar's son, Rabbi Solomon Ungar, and son-in-law, Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl, managed to survive the war, finding their way to America. They were determined to perpetuate the legacy of Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Ungar:
. . .With help from American Jews, including former students of the Yeshiva of Nitra, the two refugee scholars built up a new Nitra Yeshiva at Mount Kisco, amidst the hills of New York's Westchester County. Rabbi Weissmandl planned the new Yeshiva as an institution where, in addition to Talmudic training, the students would acquire skills in farm work and in such trades as printing. Unfortunately, it was not given to Rabbi Weissmandl to see the fulfillment of his dream. His health broken by the years of war and persecution, he died in 1958. 47
The yeshivah and community of Nitra grew slowly, and remained an embodiment of the renewal of life in America that its founders wanted it to be. Underlying Rabbi M. B. Weissmandl's efforts at rebuilding the Nitra Yeshiva in Mount Kisco was a deep and dark war-time experience. At the height of the war he had "opened possibilities to rescue hundreds of thousands of Jews", as Sigmund Forst has written in The Torah Personality, (1980). Rabbi M. B. Weissmandl was the one who:

1. Got into contact with two Slovakian Jews who escaped from Auschwitz and gave the first eyewitness description of the systematic extermination which was until then only a vague rumor and not really believed by anyone;

2. Sent a detailed map of the camp together with the sworn testimony of the two men to the outside world;

3. Probed the Nazi mind with a point blank offer of money. Nobody would have believed that for fifty thousand dollars, Wisliceny, Adolf Eichman's deputy, stopped the deportations for a long period of time;

4. Suggested a bold proposition, the so-called "Europa Plan" which sought to bring to a halt all deportations from all of Europe for the payment of a huge sum of money. 48
Forst writes that Rabbi M. B. Weissmandl was convinced that responsibility for the failure of negotiations to save Slovakian and Hungarian Jewry "rested upon the assimilated Jews in the West who contented themselves with public speeches and demonstrations. He recalled that after such a demonstration in New York, Wisliceny told him that Hitler was incensed and determined to intensify the persecution." 49 Forst's description points to a serious failure. However, it should be remembered that American Jewry made an enormous contribution to the war effort against the Axis in terms of manpower and organization even though it committed serious blunders in the realm of home-front responses to Hitler.
Of particular significance to us is Forst's statement that:
We have to put Rabbi Weissmandl against the background of the catastrophic years 1941-1945, as this was the turning point in his life, and regard his remaining years in the U.S.A. as the framework of his reaction to the war experience. The personality of Rabbi Weissmandl as he emerged after the war, appears under a twofold aspect. One is the aspect of his personal tragedy which he shared with many who suffered as he had. The second aspect is the collective tragedy which was emphatically pronounced by his total personality, an aspect which he shared with nobody. He could not forget. 50
Indeed, Rabbi Weissmandl described his experiences in his book Min Ha Maitzar ("From the Depths"), published posthumously by the Nitra Yeshiva. In the Introduction, he wrote:
Thirteen years have passed since the offering of the sacrifice--and from then until now a silence has come down upon the world with no one to cry out against it-and the way of the evil has succeeded in silencing the entire world about the murder committed by their hands-and not only this, but they have succeeded in causing the Jewish people themselves to forget--and not a simple forgetfulness, but a deceitful and deep forgetfulness . . that proceeds and grows even stronger with each day-and it would not be a wonder that within this lifetime our sons and grandsons will forget everything that is before us . . . 51
Rabbi Weissmandl’s efforts on behalf of the Nitra Yeshiva in America showed that he was determined not to forget, by raising a living memorial that would itself ensure survival. He therefore saw fit to establish a Jewish house of learning that bespoke his love of life.
1 Cremin, American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876, p. ix..

2 Lawrence A. Cremin, Public Education (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 29.

3 Cremin, Traditions of American Education, p. 142.

4 Ibid., pp. 143-144.

5 Ibid., pp. 114-118.

6 Cremin, Public Education, pp. 30-31.

7 Harvey Arden, "The Pious Ones: Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews", National Geographic, August 1975, pp. 276-279.

8 Sklare, America's Jews, p. 24.

9 Helmreich, World of the Yeshiva, pp. 45-46.

10 Ibid., pp. 360; 304; 318.

11 Yaakov Rodan, "The Rabbis and the President: History is Made at the White House", The World Jewish Tribune, Friday, December 28, 1979, p. 13.

12 Alvin Irwin Schiff, The Jewish Day School in America. (New York: Jewish Education Committee Press, 1966), p. 77.

13 Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, p. 543.

14 Ibid., pp. 543-544.

15 Dicker, Piety and Perseverance, pp. 112-113.

16 Arden, "The Pious Ones", p. 285.

17 George Kranzler, Williamsburg, A Jewish Community in Transition (New York: Philipp Feldheim, 1961), pp. 145-153.

18 Nisson Wolpin, ed., "My Neighbour, My Father, The Rebbe", in The Torah Personality (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1980), pp. 198-199.

19 Ibid., pp. 204-205.

20 Solomon Poll, The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg: A Study in the Sociology of Religion (New York: Schocken Books 1969), pp. 248-249.

21 Ibid., p. 29.

22 Wolpin, "My Neighbor, My Father, The Rebbe", p. 205.

23 Egon Mayer, From Suburb to Shtetl: The Jews of Boro Park (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), pp. 55-56.

24 Ibid., pp. 170; 7.

25 The New York Times, Friday, May 21, 1982, p. B1.

26 Mayer, From Suburb to Shtetl, p. 19.

27 Ibid., p. 35.

28 Naftoli Ernberg, "Horav R. Ben Tzion Halberstam: Admor M'Bobov", Yiddish original, Eilah Azkerah ("These Will I Remember!") V. 1, Lewin, I., ed., pp. 136-137.

29 Ibid., p.141.

30 Mayer, From Suburb to Shtetl, pp. 55; 58.

31 Ibid., pp. 59-134.

32 Daniel Goldberg, "The Late Lubavitcher Rebbe", in The Torah World, ed. Nisson Wolpin, pp. 91-92.

33 Ibid., p. 83

34 Challenge: An Encounter with Lubavitch--Chabad (London: Lubavitch Foundation of Great Britain, 1970), pp. 53-54.

35 Schiff, The Jewish Day School, pp. 59-60.

36 Goldberg, "The Late Lubavitcher Rebbe", pp. 93-94.

37 Daniel Goldberg, "The Lubavitcher Rebbe Shlita: 30 Years of Leadership", in The Uforatzto Journal, ed. Mayer S. Rivkin, Spring 1980, p. 35

38 Goldberg, "The Late Lubavitcher Rebbe", pp. 93-94.

39 Mayer S. Rivkin and Daniel Goldberg, eds., The Rebbe: Changing the Tide of Education (Brooklyn, N.Y.- Lubavitch Youth Organization, 1982), pp. 28-29.

40 Helmreich, World of the Yeshiva, p. 288.

41 Rivkin and Goldberg, The Rebbe, p. 88.

42 Sklare, America's Jews, pp. 49-50.

43 Dicker, Piety and Perseverance, pp. 120-121.

44 Ibid., pp. 115-117.

45 Zuker, The Unconquerable Spirit, p. 73.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., p. 76.

48 Sigmund Forst, "Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl", in The Torah Personality, ed., Nisson Wolpin, p. 162, and in Zuker, The Unconquerable Spirit, pp. 75-76.

49 Ibid., pp. 162-163.

50 Ibid., p. 166.

51 Michael Ber Weissmandl, Min HaMeitzar, Hebrew Original. No date or place of publication given. Reportedly published by the Nitra Yeshiva, Mount Kisco, New York.


Topics of Interest
The Tradition of Jewish Education

The Second World War and the Growth of the Day Schools

Resistance to Total Jewish Education: Dissonant Configurations

The Influence and Contribution of Orthodox Education

The Tradition of Jewish Education
The term "Jewish Education" means different things to different people. Likewise, "Orthodox Jewish Education" has a perplexing array of connotations. The two most popular and fastest growing Jewish educational institutions in America since the Second World War (1939-1945) have been the Hebrew day school and the traditional yeshivah (or "Talmudical Academy", as it is often referred to). The two share similar functions: to impart a Jewish education and ensure Jewish survival. Superficially, the two often share the same name and labels, and often appear to have similar curricula and purposes. Searching a little deeper, there are significant and fundamental differences in emphasis, approach, aims and results.
What is a "yeshivah" supposed to be? Literally, in Hebrew, the word "yeshivah" means "sitting", or "rest", denoting a school, academy, or council. "Me zitst un lernt" is an oft-used Yiddish expression meaning "one sits and learns", referring to the activity in the yeshivah. William B. Helmreich in a much acclaimed work: The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry (1982), has provided a look into the workings of the yeshivahs in America. In chapters such as "Yeshiva Students: Who Are They and Why Do They Go?", "A Self-Enclosed World: Life in the Yeshiva", "Making It in the Yeshiva", and "Preparing for Life Outside the Yeshiva", he provides information based on interviews and observations. He writes primarily from the perspective of a sociologist, albeit one sensitive to the subtleties of the yeshivah phenomenon. His "portrait" is rich in detail and goes a long way towards filling the gap in the history of the yeshivahs in modern America.
Helmreich provides a brief history of traditional yeshivah education in his Preface, and in the chapters: "From Jacob's Tents to America's Cities", "An Ancient Tradition in a New Land", and "Why Has the Yeshiva Survived?". He does not deal deeply with the historical and political events of the war and how they in turn changed Jewish education. He focuses mainly on the yeshivah itself as it grew in America. He does not deal with the cultural apathy, political cynicism, the horrors of war and the notion of "kiddush ha-shem", the callous "stabs in the back" of European Jewry, and the sheer miraculous nature of the yeshivah leaders' and Hasidic rebbes' survival on the same scale as we have dealt with in this thesis. He avoids much of the "dark side" of reality that contributed, in the strangest of ways, to the rise of Orthodoxy and the growth of Jewish education in America.
However, Helmreich's references to the war years in his work are worth scrutiny. He writes of the centrality of the Second World War in the history of Jewish education in America, and gives it a context. Helmreich states that the fact that yeshivahs have been in existence for centuries would probably be enough to justify studying them. "How many social institutions can lay claim to having survived for 2000 years?" he asks, and says that : "It was not always so. Until World War II, advanced yeshivas were few in number." It was the outbreak of World War II that had "a lasting impact on the development of Jewish education in America". Thus, "new yeshiva day schools were begun to meet the needs" of the post-war generation now inundated with European survivors:
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