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Reflections

Hagaon Harav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz ztz”l

Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz ztz”l was one of the founders of the modern Torah world in the United States and was instrumental in bringing about a revolution in Yiddishkeit on the American continent

M/ Shurak 23/08/2009 14:00
His youth

Rebi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz was born in the town of Vilag near the border between Poland and Hungary (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in the year 5646 to his father Harav Moshe Mendelovitz z”l. Rabbi Moshe was a well-known machnis orech, and there were times when up to thirty people could be found staying with him. At such times, his children would give up their beds for their guests.

In his early childhood, he appeared slow to develop the power of speech, and it seemed as if the words were stuck in his throat and could not be uttered. But then, at age four, to the astonishment of all, he suddenly began to speak, and his first words were “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe…” as if to indicate that in the future he would take upon himself the task of transmitting the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu and passing it to the next generation as their rightful inheritance…

He was an exceptional masmid with superior intelligence. When he was nine years old, he was already learning Shulchan Aruch, the laws of melichah. When his teacher realised the extent of his capabilities, he visited his father and informed him with sadness that he was inadequate to the task of instructing his son, the genius, and that a new framework of study must be created for him.

At the age of twelve his mother was niftar and the family moved to Mazlovor, where he learned in the local cheder.
Several years afterwards, the young Rabbi Shraga Feivel travelled to the yeshivah of Hagaon Rabbi Moshe Greenwald ztz”l, the rav of the town of Chust and the mechaber of the sefer Arugas haBosem. His new teacher developed a warm relationship with him and drew him close with great affection. When Harav Greenwald composed his sefer Mekor Taharah, he requested of his student Rabbi Shraga Feivel that he look over the work and give him his comments. Rabbi Shraga Feivel did as he was asked, and when he returned the work with his corrections and annotations, the Chuster Rav amended his manuscript accordingly.

At the age of seventeen Rabbi Shraga Feivel was already fluent in Shas, and received semichah from Hagaon Rebi Shmuel Rozenberg ztz”l, the Be’er Shmuel and rav of Unsdorf, under whom he learned for several years. Harav Rozenberg regarded Rabbi Shraga Feivel as one of his most prized talmidim.

Rabbi Shraga Feivel then married at the age of twenty-two.

The move to the United States

In the year 5673 (1913), one year before the outbreak of the First World War, the scent of battle was already in the air, and the atmosphere was charged with belligerence. Rabbi Shraga Feivel informed his townspeople of Himna that he was considering moving to the United States. His friends refused to accept his decision, and even turned to the local dayan, with the argument that ‘Shraga Feivel will be ruined there’, but the dayan, who was already aware of Rabbi Shraga Feivel’s plans, reassured them, saying that they had no need to worry – Rabbi Shraga Feivel was travelling in order to raise the banner of Torah, not to destroy it, chalila.

At this stage, his wife and two eldest sons remained in Poland, since Rabbi Shraga first had to find a suitable place to live before bringing them over. But the war broke out just a year after he arrived in the United States, before he had a chance to bring his family over, and so they were forced to remain in Europe for seven additional years, separated from him.

When Rabbi Shraga first arrived in the United States, he headed for the town of Scranton where a close friend of his, Rabbi Dovid Eizenberg lived. Many Jews of Hungarian origin had already settled there, and they davened in the ‘Beis Knesses haAdom’ (the red synagogue.) Community life was beginning to flourish, and Rabbi Shraga was hired by the local Talmud Torah as a melamed. This cheder operated only in the afternoon hours, since the children attended public school in the morning.

As soon as Rabbi Shraga had the opportunity to bring his family to the States, he moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where he had been approached with the offer of becoming the principal of Yeshivas Torah Vodaas.

Yeshivas Torah Vodaas had in fact begun as a Talmud Torah. It had been established in the year 5678 by Rabbi Binyomin Wilhelm, and he was the one to appoint Rabbi Shraga as principal. The two of them would traipse on foot from house to house, trying to persuade parents to send their children to study in the new yeshivah. In the year 5685, when they realised that when the boys completed their years of study in the cheder, all the efforts expended on them would go to waste when they left for foreign pastures, the decision was made to open a yeshivah ketanah for the bochurim, so that they could remain in a framework guided by Torah and kedushah. However, it proved extremely difficult to recruit bochurim to study further at the yeshivah, since most boys after bar mitzvah preferred to gain a more general and practical education in order to learn a trade or profession and be able to support themselves later in life.

Only after extensive efforts did the administration finally succeed in planting the first seeds of the Torah Vodaas yeshivah, which over the years was to become a large and flourishing institution. As rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Shraga appointed Hagaon Harav Gedaliah Shorr ztz”l.

Yeshivas Torah Vodaas was in fact the blueprint and forerunner for many other yeshivos that would later be founded in the United States. Rabbi Shraga Feivel would send many of his talmidim to establish or strengthen new yeshivos that were founded over time. The best of his talmidim he sent to the Lakewood Yeshivah, or to Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, which was then headed by Hagaon Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner ztz”l. In addition, Rabbi Shraga refused to accept bochurim to his own yeshivah who lived in its vicinity, with the argument that this could cause overcrowding. Thus in his merit, the benches were filled in many other institutions, to their delight.

The residents of Williamsburg, however, were sometimes less than pleased with this policy, and they argued that Rabbi Shraga was destroying the yeshivah by sending local bochurim to learn in other yeshivos. But Rabbi Shraga Feivel was undeterred and informed them in no uncertain terms that; “the bochurim are not mine – they belong to the Ribbono shel olam, and they must go and learn in the place best suited for them…”

In addition, he would concern himself with the general upkeep and support of other institutions as well as his own. One story circulated about Rabbi Shraga illustrates this, and also reveals his personal greatness:

“It was in the year 5687 that Harav Meir Shapiro ztz”l was engaged in the gathering of funds to establish Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Finding it impossible to collect sufficient money in Europe alone, Harav Meir travelled to America in the hope that the Jews there would be sympathetic to his cause and donate generously. Rabbi Shraga Feivel attended one of the fundraising meetings held, and although he already headed Yeshivas Torah Vodaas at this time, his appearance was not widely recognised and his name was not yet familiar in the yeshivah world.

“Harav Meir, however, did know Rabbi Shraga Feivel, and when he caught sight of him he called out; ‘Rabbi Shraga Feivel, come, please sit here next to me!’ R’ Shraga Feivel did not refuse, and he came to sit next to Harav Meir as he had been requested, to the surprise of all those present, who were astonished at the affection Harav Meir displayed to Rabbi Shraga, and also at Rabbi Shraga’s uncharacteristic behaviour, since he was known as always fleeing from honour and from actions designed only to increase personal prestige.

“One of the local Jews at the meeting gathered up his courage and asked Harav Meir; ‘Please, if Rabbeinu would be so kind as to explain to those present why he has chosen to display such honour and affection to Rabbi Shraga Feivel?’

“And Harav Meir answered; ‘Let me enlighten you all. I am, as you already know, engaged in the building of a yeshivah in Poland. However, it is not a ‘kunst’ (no great feat) to build a new yeshivah in a Torah metropolis. Here in the United States, on the other hand, where spirituality is being trampled into the ground on every side, it is indeed a great feat to establish a yeshivah, as Rabbi Shraga Feivel has done.’ And then Harav Meir continued, in a voice full of emotion; ‘If only my portion in the World of Truth would be as great as his, and I would merit sitting at his side…’

Rabbi Shraga Feivel also had many other great undertakings to his merit:

In the field of girls’ education – he founded ‘Bais Yaakov’ for girls in the United States.

Summer camps for youth, whose goal was to provide a structure for yeshivah bochurim during the summer months.
The founding of the chareidi newsletter ‘Dos Yiddishe Licht’ – which was set up as an alternative to the secular Jewish publications of the day which had a wide circulation in the United States. It also provided a forum for chareidim to present their hashkafos on the issues of the day. Rebi Shraga personally wrote many of the articles printed, which explained the opposition of the frum community to many of the breaches then being made in the Torah world and in the wider Jewish community in the United States.

Also in this vein, Rabbi Shraga worked hard during the Holocaust years for the rescue of European Jewry.

In his final years, he was also instrumental in the establishment of the organisation ‘Torah uMesorah’ in America, which provided a supportive framework for melamdim and teachers in the chareidi educational system in the United States.
Hagaon Rebi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz was niftar on the 3rd of Ellul in the year 5708. Two years later his body was brought to Eretz Yisrael for reburial.

Rabbi Pinchas Mandel z”l, who was one of those involved in the reinterment, related that when they came to transfer his body into a different casket, they found the body intact despite the fact that two years had elapsed since his passing. He was reburied in the ‘Shomrei Shabbos’ section of the beis hachaim in Bnei Brak. At that time, the section was still empty, but later on, many gedolei Yisrael were buried at his side, such as Harav Segal ztz”l of Manchester, Harav Dessler ztz”l, and others.

The Sanzer Rebbe the Shefa Chaim of Klausenburg zy”a once said; “For all coming generations American Jewry will remain indebted to Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz.”