Translated by Jerrold Landau
Minsk was considered to be second only to Vilna. It was a city filled with scholars, writers, splendid synagogues and Beis Midrashes, Yeshivas of Torah and schools, institutions of charity and benevolence, all in a large scale communal fashion. It was rich in distinguished families who were renowned for Torah, greatness and hereditary wisdom combined together. Wealthy businessmen would set times to study Torah with Torah giants and Beis Midrash students, as students before their teacher. These were communal leaders who were the first in any matter of charity of communal affairs, especially in the strengthening of Torah and Yeshivas in the Land of Israel.
Minsk was especially noted for its large number of Yeshivas which imparted Torah and fear of Heaven amongst the youth. As in Kovno, Minsk had a large group of young men who were training for the rabbinate. This was known as the group (kibbutz) of the Gadol (Great One) of Minsk. This important institution was supported by a special committee of wealthy people who valued Torah in Minsk, known as Tomchei Torah (Supporters of Torah). The heads of this committee emphasized to me more than once that the entire aim of the Tomchei Torah committee was to support those young students whose goal was to study Torah in order to serve in the rabbinate. The more of these students that serve in the rabbinate, the greater importance this institution attains. Therefore, they preferred young men who were familiar with the ways of the world along with their knowledge of Torah. This would better enable them to deal with the issues of the rabbinate, which in its essence was a form of communal service that required knowledge of the ways of the world and the wisdom of life. In order to be accepted to this group of students, one had to pass a test. To this end, one of the Torah greats was appointed to examine each young man who wished to enter this group, to see whether he was worthy based on his knowledge of Torah. During the time that I was in Minsk, the examiner was Rabbi Gershon Avraham Berger, an important resident of Minsk, a Gaon (genius) of Torah, and a wise and intelligent man. I visited him, and he discussed Torah thoughts with me at length. He immediately gave me a certificate stating that I was worthy of entering into the group of students. I chose my learning spot in the new Beis Midrash in the synagogue courtyard.
Immediately after my arrival in Minsk, I visited two of the important men of the community, Rabbi Dov Pines and Rabbi Dov Zeldovitch. The first was the head and treasurer of the Tomchei Torah institution. With him, I arranged my affairs with respect to the institution. The second was famous for the goodness of his heart and his generous distribution of charity to support the students of Torah. He was also one of the upholders of the aforementioned Torah kibbutz (group). When I visited him, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna was with him. His home was indeed an all-encompassing gathering place for scholars. We discussed mattes of the rabbinate, literature, and the like. During the conversation, he began to speak to me in French (my father-in-law the rabbi of blessed memory certainly wrote to him that I know seventy languages). In reality, I was not so fluent in that language to be able to speak it freely, but I did answer in French, although I had already forgotten some French words and the language was difficult for me. He was surprised and said, After all, you do speak it well. Apparently he was satisfied that at least
his attempt was not a complete failure. This was not the case with his second activity. He took out a sum of money from his pocket and wanted to give it to me. I categorically refused to accept it. He said that this was a token of appreciation to a young scholar with whom he was satisfied. I responded that I had refused because this was the first time in my life that anyone had given me money, and I did not want to go along this path. He did not know what to do, but he finally found a way out of his dilemma. As we were conversing, he realized that I did not yet have my own books. He went to the Naftali Maskil-Eitan bookstore which was opposite his house and purchased important books for me: the response of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the novellae of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, and the Iyun Tefilla Siddur (prayer book) of Rabbi Yaakov Meklenberg, which had been published by Applebaum.
Among the cultural institutions in Minsk, there was an organization called Netzach Yisrael whose purpose was to better the spirit of the youth through study and lectures on Sabbaths. The activities of this organization were particularly directed toward store workers and officials in business and banking. The program of study included: a) The weekly Torah portion based on its literal meaning, with the addition of words of morality and character traits that spring forth from the stories of the Torah and its commandments. Also included were words of wisdom about the places, mountains, names, etc. that are mentioned in the Torah. b) Lectures about Jewish history, era after era in chronological order, focusing especially on prominent Jewish people, their characters and activities. The purpose of these lectures was of course religious, moral and national education. The heads of this endeavor were Reb Zalman Pines the son of the aforementioned Rabbi Dov Pines, a young man who was great in Torah and wisdom; and Reb Aharon David Chorgal, who was great in Torah with a sharp mind. For several years, the lecturer of this institution was Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, who also studied in the kibbutz of the Great One of Minsk and had received his ordination. However, he moved to Bialystock after he was appointed as the secretary of matters pertaining to Chibbat Tzion to the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever. Then the activities of Netzach Yisrael were temporarily halted for lack of a replacement for Rabbi Nissenbaum. To fill this position, an observant man with great knowledge of Torah, experience in preaching, with wisdom of life was sought. The directors of this institution did not find such a person for three years after Rabbi Nissenbaum left Minsk. Once they heard that a person such as I had been accepted to the kibbutz, they came to me and recommended that I accept the position of lecturer of Netzach Yisrael. This was in the week of the Torah Portion of Vayera, 5658 (1898), and they gave me the topic of Education of Children and the Experience of the Binding of Isaac (Akeida) as my trial lecture. This meant that the story of the Binding of Isaac would serve as the basis for a lecture on education of children. For some reason the lecture was pushed off to the following week, the Torah Portion of Chayei Sarah, so I broadened the topic to Look upon Abraham your Forefather. The lecture was to present a complete picture of the life of Abraham our Forefather, his opinions, activities, recognition of the Creator, dedication, hosting of guests, pursuit of peace, and the experience of the Akeida. The lecture took place on Friday night. When I finished, the heads of the institution approached me and said, You are our brother. Then the Netzach Yisrael lectures resumed. In Netzach Yisrael there was not so much room for exegesis, for the audience included expert grammarians from amongst the teachers of Minsk who were aware that here Torah does not depart from its straightforward meaning. The human style with which this institute was created was not fond of exegesis. Rather, it focused on the straightforward meaning to present clear and straightforward issues about the commandments of the Torah and the character traits that spring forth from the stories of the Torah. And G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it leads to a lecture on the essence of the commandment of the Sabbath as a day of rest and holiness. Honor your father and your mother leads to a short lecture on honoring the parents. If your brother becomes poor and requires your support, you should strengthen him leads to clear words about
the value and essence of charitable deeds as a trademark of the Jewish people. All of the commandments of the Torah were treated similarly. The audience would sit in their places with chumashim in their hands, and the lecturer would stand on a podium in the center of the synagogue and review the weekly Torah portion. This lasted for approximately an hour and a half. Then the lecturer would spend about a half an hour orally discussing a historical topic, either about a specific era or a famous personality of Jewish history. Thus, a gigantic row of Jewish greats and heroes from all times and eras passed before the audience. A major feature of the lecture was the tendency toward enthusiasm for the pride of Israel, and the raising up of the spirit of the youths through the knowledge of the luminaries in the life of the Israelite people who dedicated their lives to the holiness of the nation and its Torah. The historical lectures were designed so that each time the lecture would present an entire topic, illustrating a concept from the living experience of the past that can be applied to the present and future.
I remained in Minsk for five years. Throughout this time, my activities with Netzach Yisrael did not cease. This activity only used up a small amount of my time about two hours every Sabbath. However, it was very productive. The lessons on the weekly Torah portion and the lectures on Jewish history, which in their essence were Torah and morality oriented lectures, greatly influenced the spirit of the young audience. With this knowledge, I had great satisfaction from my work. Of course, this work not only influenced the students, but also the rabbi. I reviewed all of the Torah portions five times, and I went through two cycles of all of the historical personalities and important events of Jewish history, from the return to Zion at the time of Ezra and Nechemia until the recent period of Chibbat Tzion and the founding of settlements in the Land of Israel.
For me, my work in Netzach Yisrael provided training in public speaking, proper expression and logical presentation to an audience.
In the synagogue where the Netzach Yisrael classes took place (the Painter's synagogue), I also taught a daily class in Gemara to the Chevra Shas organization.
At that time, the Zionist movement of Dr. Herzl with all its national work that came in its wake was starting up. This strong movement penetrated to all the strata of the nation and even inspired the vision of those segments of the nation that at that time were far from Judaism. Its center in White Russia was in the city of Minsk. The congress delegate to White Russia was the lawyer Shimshon Rosenbaum. From among the active Zionists in Minsk we should note the lawyer Mitzt, Dr. Kaminski, the dentist Chorgin, Yitzchak Berger, Yehuda Nofech, and many others. I, who had absorbed the spirit of Chibbat Tzion from my childhood in my hometown as if it was an integral part of my education, took hold of the Zionist idea with my entire essence with the deep recognition of its sublime value for the future of the nation that had been pillaged and trampled as dust in the lands of the Diaspora. Since the main part of communal work was the distribution of tasks among all of the communal workers, to each according to their power and talent my task was in the field of spiritual culture and national education through publicity lectures and disseminating the ancient literature in the Zionist spirit. When I started my work in Minsk there were already Zionist organizations, including an organization called Ahavat Zion. It was made up of members of the working class, and it founded its own synagogue for Sabbath services. In this organization, the Zionist center found fertile ground for my work. My lectures took place each Sabbath morning after services, when I spoke about the theme of the Haftarah (weekly prophetic portion). I also lectured about fundamentals of Torah morality to a group of older students from the public schools.
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