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[Page 124]

The Telzer Yeshiva[1]

by The Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch zt”l[2]

Translated by Jonathan Boyarin[3]

The history of the Telzer Yeshiva is unique. Commonly in those days, Jews devoted to Torah were concerned with young men in their area who were eager to study, and organized lessons for them without having the least notion that they were beginning to build something that would last for generations. Over time, however, the institution came to be. Students arrived, and it seemed as though all by itself a lamp began to burn that brought the light of Torah to the wider Jewish world.

It also was not unusual for a leading scholar to sit alone in his study, while his name was well–known among learned people in surrounding towns. Students who were ambitious in their Torah studies would gather around him. He would realize his responsibility and teach them what they demanded to learn. And over time a great institution of Torah arose, growing famous and standing as a blessing for the Jewish people.

These two factors contributed to the creation of the famous Telzer Yeshiva, which introduced a new epoch in Torah study based on deep understanding and intense thought.

Several talented young men, who had recently married and were still supported by their in–laws, became the core of the new Telzer Yeshiva in 1875. Over time, these young men achieved worldwide fame for their scholarship. Among them were Hagaon Reb Meir Atlas, zt”l[4], who later became the rabbi of Shavel [Šiauliai]; Hagaon Reb Tzvi Yaakov Oppenheim, zt”l, who became the rabbi of Kelm [Kelmė]; and Hagaon Reb Zalmen Abel, zt”l, who died while still a young man. Their intention was not to create a big yeshiva. They simply gathered young men of pure character and studied Torah with them. Over the course of a few years their work developed, and they created a well–respected place for young men to study, a place where they could become familiar with its distinctive approach to Torah study, and to taste its distinctive wisdom.

At the same time that this seed was sprouting in Telz, Hagaon Reb Eliezer Gordon, zt”l, was a young man in Kovno [Kaunas], where he married the daughter of the Gaon and Tzaddik, Reb Avraham Yitzchok Nevyazher, z”l[5], who was a rabbinical judge there.

When the Gaon and Chasid Reb Yisroel Salanter ztsuk”l[6] left Kovno to spread the teachings of Torah and Mussar[7] throughout the world, he designated this young scholar [Rabbi Eliezer Gordon] as his replacement to give Torah lectures to the young men there who were his same age.

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A short time later the city of Kelm hired him as their rabbi. He had no plans to establish a yeshiva; nonetheless, talented and accomplished students flocked to study with him. The members of the yeshiva had no means of financial support, and they suffered bitter poverty. They received only a portion of their most urgent needs from the local townspeople.

Among the students who came to study Torah with Hagaon Reb Eliezer Gordon, zt”l, the youngest and yet most prominent was Hagaon Reb Yosef Leib Bloch, zt”l, who was later to shape the Telzer yeshiva's character and approach to Torah study.

Reb Yosef Leib spent five years studying with his teacher in Kelm. The two of them developed a close bond, and they decided together to commit themselves to spreading the new approach to study, which relied on clear thinking and logic.

In 1882, when the rabbinate in Telz was vacant, the representatives of the Jewish people, led by the young men who had created the new institution of Torah, selected the Gaon of Kelm as their rabbi. He arrived in Telz with a group of his students, and this became the foundation for the development of the great and world–renowned Telzer yeshiva.

That same year, several months later, Hagaon Mohari'l[8] [Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch] married [Chasya] the daughter of Hagaon Reb Eliezer [Gordon] zt”l, and joined him in the task of developing plans and making the new yeshiva a reality. In 1884 he [Rabbi Gordon] was officially named the rosh yeshiva.

By then the Telzer Yeshiva had already earned a shining reputation, and its numbers kept increasing. All of the greatest rabbis of that generation recognized the right of the yeshiva to send fundraisers everywhere there was a Jewish community.

In the year 1885 Hagaon Reb Shimon Shkop, zt”l, was named one of the leaders of the yeshiva in Telz, and, together with the aforementioned Gaonim [Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch], he helped articulate the distinctive Telzer approach to the study and analysis of Torah.

In 1895 the yeshiva building was erected. Until that point classes had been held in the town's large study hall.

For 17 years the Gaon Mohari'l [Rabbi Yosek Leib Bloch], ztsuk'l, worked with his father–in–law to expand and refine the yeshiva's operations. In 1902 he left Telz to become the rabbi of Vorne [Varniai], where he spent two and a half years. He then moved to Shadeve [Šeduva], where he served as rabbi for six years.

In Shadeve, too, students came to study with him, and a famous yeshiva was established there.

Later, Hagaon Reb Shimen Shkop, zt”l, left the yeshiva to take rabbinical posts, first in Maltsh [Malech / Малеч, today in Western Belarus] and then Bryansk. He also organized yeshivas in the cities where he served as rabbi. After the First World War he was chosen as the rosh yeshiva in Grodno, a position he held with success until the last day of his life, October 22, 1939.

In the year 1904 Hagaon Reb Chaim Rabinovitz, zt”l, who was famed for his extraordinarily penetrating analyses of Torah, was named rosh yeshiva.

In 1909 a great fire broke out in Telz, and most of the buildings, among them the yeshiva, were burnt down. Hagaon Reb Eliezer Gordon, who was a devoted father not only to his students but to the entire city, worked tirelessly to rebuild the city from the ashes, including the construction of a wonderful new building for the yeshiva.

[Page 126]

However, these undertakings left him deeply in debt, and in his old age he was forced to travel to London to seek assistance in repaying those debts.

His noble soul could not withstand this anxiety about money, and several days after his arrival in London, his holy spirit breathed its last on February 13, 1910.

Hagaon Reb Yosef Leib Bloch, zt”l, was summoned to Telz immediately after the death of his father–in–law to take the latter's place at the yeshiva and in the town. That marked a new epoch in the yeshiva. In addition to the distinctive approach to halachah that the founders of the yeshiva had introduced, there began a new era in religious and moral thought. This was linked to a profound, logical approach closely tied to the foundations of religious philosophy. In this respect the Gaon Mohari'l [Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch] was the wonderful master and outstanding pedagogue, who knew how to refine the young men's souls and elevate them in the worlds of wisdom and holiness.

In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Reb Yosef Leib Bloch and Reb Chaim Rabinovitz stayed in town rather than flee as refugees. Together with them there remained a large number of students, who continued their studies amidst the exploding bombs and the horror of war. A year later, when Vilna (Vilnius) was taken by the Germans, many of the students who had been driven to Russia returned to the yeshiva, and their number began to increase again.[9]

After the First World War the Telzer Yeshiva became a worldwide center. Students from all over Europe, South Africa, and North America came there en masse.

 

A party at the Yavneh Gymnasium with the students of the upper grades,
with Director Trachtenberg and the teachers

[Page 127]

The Gaon Mohari'l [Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch], zt”l, the great leader and popular educator, also taught his students the spirit of Mussar. During the period of Lithuanian independence, when all of the education institutions were reformed according to modern principles, the yeshiva expanded its scope to the education of younger students. The first task was the establishment of a preparatory school for the advanced yeshiva, where students were admitted who had some knowledge of Talmud, Rashi, and Tosafos. The course of study in the preparatory school lasted four and a half years, and included instruction in various subjects.

Elementary education was not neglected, either. Under the direction and guidance of the Gaon Mohari'l [Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch], the educators in the yeshiva devoted themselves to developing these grade levels in a manner fully consistent with Torah, fear of Heaven, and modern principles. Education in Telz served as a model for religious education throughout Lithuania.

The education of girls was also influenced by the yeshiva. The girls' gymnasium Yavne in Telz graduated Jewish girls who had knowledge of Torah as well as other subjects.[10]

The Yavne teachers' seminary, which was established in 1918 in Kovno, was transferred to Telz in 1924, so that it could benefit from the influence of the Gaon Mohari'l, zt”l, and from the tradition of the Telzer Yeshiva.

The most amazing thing was that these expanded spheres of activity in no way reduced the concentration on study of Torah, and the “voice of Torah” rang out day and night.

In 1921 the yeshiva established a rabbinical kollel, which provided its members advanced training in Torah and fear of God, and produced the greatest and most well–respected rabbis, who occupied leading positions.

That same year Hagaon Reb Avrom Yitzchok Bloch, ztsk'l, may his blood be avenged, was named as one of the leaders of the yeshiva. With his great analytical and logical powers, he popularized the teachings of his father and master and implanted in the students the distinctive Telzer approach to learning and life, devoting himself body and soul.

In 1927 the rabbinical kollel moved into its own building, and in 1933 a fine building was erected to house the preparatory school.

The expansion and ramification of the work demanded effective, creative efforts. The Gaonim Reb Zalmen Bloch, Reb Eliyahu Meir Bloch, Reb Chaim Mordkhe Katz, and Reb Avner Oklyansky were named Roshei Yeshiva and directors.

The Gaon Mohari'l [Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch], ztsuk'l, died on November 9, 1929.[11] His last will to his children and students was that they should sanctify the Name of God in all of their deeds. He did not find it necessary to say any more, remarking that, thank God, he was leaving behind scholars who would know and understand what they had to do.

His son, Hagaon Reb Avrom Yitzkhok Bloch, was appointed as his successor, and together with him the students of the great master continued the path of Torah and faith that he had taught.

Hagaon Reb Chaim Rabinovitz died on October 30, 1930,[12] and his son, Hagaon Reb Azriel Rabinovitz, was named as his successor.

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A distinctive chapter of blessed work is the spreading of Torah that the students of the yeshiva undertook. A special “Council for the Diffusion of Torah” was created, in order to increase the study of Torah among the younger generation in the cities and towns of Lithuania. Students of the yeshiva were sent to various places to establish elementary yeshivas and teach the students there until they were ready to enter the advanced yeshiva. Each of these emissaries was sent for a year, after which others arrived to take their place. This model served as an example for other yeshivas, and did much to advance the spread of Torah in Lithuania.

In this fashion the Telzer yeshiva continued to grow, and its influence on the education of several generations continued to increase.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, and even under the Soviets, the yeshiva didn't interrupt its work[13]. But in the middle of Elul[14] an order was issued decreeing that, due to housing shortages, all the students of the yeshiva–over 500 all told–would be dispersed to five separate towns in Lithuania. After this dispersal the leaders of the yeshiva had to constantly travel from town to town in order to teach the students. The studies continued, and the students continued to exhibit enthusiasm and concentration. Thus it went until the beginning of the German occupation, on June 23, 1941.[15]

The leaders of the yeshiva, together with the rest of the Jews of Telz, were martyred at the hand of the murderous Nazis on July 15, 1941.[16]

That ended an era of over 70 years in the history of Jewish scholarship, which the Telzer Yeshiva had spread throughout the world.

The writer of these lines, together with his brother–in–law Reb Chaim–Mordkhe Katz, shlit”a,[17] left Telz on September 4, 1940, and after long journeys through Siberia, Japan, and the Pacific, they arrived in America in November of that year. For a year, until the war broke out between Germany and Russia [on June 22, 1941], they managed to save a group of ten students of the yeshiva who made their way to America via Siberia, Japan, and Australia. On October 28, 1941, the anniversary of the death of Hagaon, Our Master, Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, ztsuk'l, the Telzer yeshiva was opened in a small house in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

The Telshe Yeshiva in the year 1961 in Cleveland (United States) with Rabbis Eliahu Bloch and Motl Katz

[Page 129]

The yeshiva [in Cleveland] quickly began to grow, and students from all parts of the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, began to arrive. Many of these were young men who had planned to travel to Europe to continue their studies. The building was too small for the large number of students who wanted to enter the yeshiva, and the directors had to buy a large new building.

In the beginning of 1944 the yeshiva moved into the new building. From that point on, the yeshiva grew and regained its fame. Students from North and South America, Australia, South Africa, and even the Land of Israel and various European countries, come to the Telzer Yeshiva to be imbued with its spirit of Torah wisdom. The yeshiva includes a three–level preparatory section, where students who have some experience studying Talmud with Tosafos[18] enter and prepare themselves for the yeshiva.

The yeshiva also has a senior and junior high school, accredited by the Board of Education of the State of Ohio.

On September 7, 1943, a Hebrew elementary school, the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, was opened, starting with kindergarten and the lowest grades. Now there's a complete elementary school and the first year of high school, whose students are ready to enter the preparatory division of the advanced yeshiva.

In Elul of 1947[19] a kollel was established, where outstanding students of the yeshiva could continue their studies, in order to enrich their knowledge of Torah and faith, thus becoming imbued with the fullest perspective of the Telzer Yeshiva.

In November 1948 a teachers' seminary was established.

Thus was rescued a great treasure for world Jewry–the Torah center known as the Telzer Yeshiva.

Footnotes:

  1. Reprinted from the [yizkor] book Lite, Volume I, [pages 623–630], edited by M. Surasky (New York [1951]). Return
  2. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The honorific term “rav” is given to a rabbi whose opinions on Jewish law are considered authoritative. The author was the grandchild, son, and brother of a succession of prominent leaders of the Telshe yeshiva. Rabbi Eliezer Gordon (1841–1910), was the rosh yeshiva (yeshiva director) of the Telshe Yeshiva from 1884 until 1910. In 1881, Rabbi Gordon's oldest daughter, Chasya, married Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch (1860–1929), who became the rosh yeshiva upon Rabbi Gordon's death. Rabbi Y.L. Bloch and his wife Chasya had eight children, including: (a) Rabbi Shmuel Zalman Bloch (1886–July 1941); (b) Miriam Okliansky (1886–July 1941); (c) Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Bloch (1891– July 1941), who was the last rosh yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva; (d) Shoshana Vesler (1894–June 26, 1941); (e) Rabbi Eliahu Meir Bloch (1894 –1955); and (f) Perel Leah Katz (1899–1930). The Soviets seized control of Lithuania in June 1940 and soon closed the Telshe yeshiva building. In the Fall of 1940, the author of this article, Rabbi Eliahu Meir Bloch, and his brother–in–law, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz (the widower of Perel Leah), made a long journey across Siberia and the Pacific Ocean to the United States, where they founded the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Telz and other provincial towns were immediately taken over by armed Lithuanian nationalists. Shoshana was murdered in June 1941 in Plunge. All of the men of Telz, including Rabbis Shmuel Zalman and Avraham Yitzchok Bloch, were shot to death on July 15 and 16, 1941, after two weeks of torture. All but 500 of the women were murdered on August 30, 1941. Most of the remaining women, including the wife of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Bloch, were killed in late December 1941. Return
  3. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The English translator, Professor Jonathan Boyarin, Ph.D., J.D., is the grandson of Yeshaya Kravitz (later known as Cyrus Weltman) (1887–1965). When Yeshaya Kravitz was young, his father died and his mother, Miriam Zuckerman, married Reb Yosef Leib Bloch, whose wife Chasya had died. Thus, the translator's grandfather was the step–brother of the author of this article. Return
  4. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The Hebrew word “ha” means “the” and the Hebrew word “ga'on” means “genius.” The term “Hagaon,” which literally means “the genius,” is an honorific that is given as a mark of respect for great scholarship in the field of Torah learning. The English acronym zt”l corresponds to the Hebrew acronym for the term “may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” Return
  5. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] (a) The honorific term “tsaddik” means “righteous;” (b) The term “Nevyazher” probably is a reference to someone who lived near the Nevėžis River, which flows from northern Lithuania southward into the Neiman / Nemunas River and is the basis of the place–name Ponevizh / Panevėžys, which means “by the Nevėžis River;” (c) The English acronym z”l corresponds to the Hebrew acronym for the term “may his memory be a blessing.” Return
  6. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] (a) “Chasid” is an honorific term given to a person who is “pious.” Although this term was borrowed by the Chassidic Movement, it should be understood that the Telshe Yeshiva followed the educational and moral philosophy of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797), who strongly opposed the Chassidic Movement, which arose in the 18th Century. (b) The English acronym ztsuk”l corresponds to the Hebrew acronym for the term “may the memory of the righteous and holy be a blessing.” Return
  7. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] Mussar (מוּסַר) is a Hebrew word from the Book of Proverbs, 1:2, and refers to a body of literature that describes moral conduct and discipline in all aspects of life. In the first known Mussar book, Duties of the Heart, which was written in Eleventh Century Spain, Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda explained that it was just as important to fulfill the spirit of a commandment as to fulfill it literally. Rabbi Israel Salanter transformed this process for personal improvement into a movement adopted by many Jews. Return
  8. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The English acronym Mohari”l corresponds to the Hebrew acronym for the term “our teacher, Rabbi Yosef Leib.” Return
  9. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] In August 1914, soon after the First World War erupted, two czarist Russian armies invaded East Prussia and were defeated. As the war front moved north and east, the Russian authorities accused Jews living near the front of being responsible for the Russian losses. On April 25, the Germans seized the Baltic port of Libau / Liepaja and the Russian military expelled Jews living in the western part of the Kurland Gubernya. Then, from May 3 to 5, 1915, the military ordered all Jews living west of a line from Bauska to Ukmergė (Vilkomir) to Kaunas (Kovno) expelled to the interior of Russia on 24 hours' notice. Some Jews living in the Grodna and Vilna provinces were also ordered expelled. Vilna, which was a major transportation center, was flooded with 200,000 refugees. About 3,500 managed to remain in the city. On September 18 the Russian troops withdrew and the Germans occupied the city. At this point, rabbis and students of the Telshe Yeshiva who were in Vilna would have been able to return to Telz. Return
  10. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The Yavne girls' school was a unique institution that educated girls both in the area of Orthodox Jewish studies and in a wide variety of advanced secular studies. Return
  11. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The original Yiddish text gives a Hebrew date of 7 Cheshvan 5680, which corresponded to November 9, 1929. Immediately after the Hebrew date the original text states the civil–calendar year of 1930. The records of the Lithuanian State Historical Archives, LVIA/1817/1/290, however, confirm that Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch died on November 9, 1929. Return
  12. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The original Yiddish text gives a Hebrew date of 8 Cheshvan 5681, which corresponded to October 30, 1930. Immediately after the Hebrew date the original text states the civil–calendar year of 1931. The records of the Lithuanian State Historical Archives, LVIA/1817/1/86, however, confirm that the Rabbi Rabinovitz died on October 30, 1930. Return
  13. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The yeshiva tried as long as possible to continue its educational mission even as the effects of the war grew closer. The Second World War began on September 1, 1939, when western Poland was invaded by the Nazis. Their ally, the Soviet Union, invaded eastern Poland on September 17, 1939. At the time, Lithuania was still a neutral state. In October 1939, Lithuania entered into an agreement with Stalin under which the Vilna / Vilnius area, which had been in eastern Poland, was transferred to Lithuania and, in return, Lithuania allowed the Soviets to garrison 25,000 soldiers on its soil. In June 1940, those soldiers became an occupying force and Lithuania was rapidly transformed into a Soviet republic. Among other things, Hebrew and religious schools were closed and Zionist and most other Jewish organizations were disbanded. The Soviets seized the building of the Telshe Yeshiva and converted it into a barracks for their troops. Return
  14. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] On the Hebrew calendar, the date of 14 Elul 5701 corresponded to September 6, 1941. Return
  15. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The invasion began in the early morning of June 22, 1941. The Germans bombed Telšiai on June 23, 1941. Return
  16. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] In the years following the death of the author in 1955, and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many more details about the massacres have come to light. Early in 1939 there were 2,800 Jews living in Telšiai. This number increased after March 1939, when Lithuania transferred the nearby Klaipėda / Memel region to Germany and Jews in that region fled to Lithuania. The Jewish men of Telšiai were shot to death by a Lithuanian “police” force on July 15 and 16, 1941. The Jewish women and children were confined in barracks near the village of Geruliai. On August 30, 1941, all but between 500 and 600 were shot to death in the Geruliai forest. Those who were not killed at that time were confined for several months in an old part of Telšiai along the shore of Lake Mastis. During this time, several dozen escaped. The remaining captives were murdered in the last week of December 30 1941. Return
  17. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The English acronym shlit”a corresponds to the Hebrew acronym for “May he live a good long life, Amen.” Return
  18. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] The Hebrew term Tosafos literally means “additions” and refers to medieval commentaries on the Talmud. Return
  19. [Footnote added by the editors of the English translation:] In 1947, the month of Elul [5707] fell between August 17 and September 14. Return

 

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