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Institutions

 

Educational Institutions

by N. Chinitz

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Slutsk excelled in its scholars, as a place of Torah study, its hadarim (plural of heder = a school where little children learned Torah), where they taught the Pentateuch [Humash] with RASHI commentary, the Bible and Talmud. Even the very poor made every effort that Torah would not be forgotten in Slutsk. Some of the melamdim (teachers) were well dressed and “learned in the ways of the world” and their teaching rooms were clean and nice, but these were few. We should mention “R'Welvel Prizivitzer”, a handsome Jew, who treated his pupils softly, taught them the Bible (TANACH) and the first pages of the Talmud.

The heder of R'Shmuel-Yosef Regelson was modern for its time. R'Pesach Karon, a short Jew, with a warm and sensitive heart, was attracted to Eretz Israel. He had a large library and would lend books for a small fee. This Zionist man and his library were famous. His body was bent, and through his glasses one could see two dreaming and smiling eyes. His library and his room filled his heart with love.

 


The Rav R'Berl Griboshthcik, Head of the Yeshiva in the “Karnayim” synagogue.

 


R' Zalman Zitin, head of the Yeshiva in the Ironsmiths' synagogue, member of the religious Court in Slutsk.

 

Rav Goldberg is telling:
“I was in the heder of R'Pesach Ezra's, one of the best melamdim in town. The rabbi was a short man, his head sunken between his shoulders, his face, with a white beard, radiating nobility, his forehead wrinkled like an old yellow parchment, his eyes shining with love and his lips smiling.

The rabbi made me sit on a bench near a long table, where several children already sat, their books open. He opened a prayer book and showed me the large letters, saying: “This is 'alef' – alef, child, and so on.” As I was repeating the words, some copper coins fell on the table from above. “See, child” – he said – “the angels are sending you a present from Heaven.”

In R'Pesach Ezra's heder I learned siddur (prayer book) and the Hebrew language. R'Pesach Ezra's had a library of children's story books and every Shabat eve he would lend his pupils little books that would capture the hearts of the children by their beautiful legends and charming stories.

In the rabbi's courtyard several fruit trees grew – how good and pleasant it was to play in their shade! His wife would gather apples or pears that had fallen from the trees and give them to the children playing around, who would find in them the “taste of paradise.”

The little Yeshivas were well known: R'Nehemia's, in

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The Talmud Torah in Slutsk. Its pupils, melamdim and teachers.
In the 4th row, the second from right, is “Kadish the melamed.”

 

R'Iserke's synagogue, the lower and the higher class. Who didn't know R'Nehemia, with his sharp mind!

The spacious courtyard of the synagogues – “the Big Bet Hamidrash, the Cold Bet Hamidrash, the Taylors' Bet Hamidrash, the Kloiz and the synagogue Karnayim” – served as a formal meeting-place for the students of the “Little Yeshivot”. R'Yashe Tritzaner, a great scholar and a quiet person, was loved by his students. In the women's section of the Karnayim synagogue R'Beril Gribentchik was teaching. He “had” two tables, a long one and a smaller one. He was a tall Jew, skinny and with large protruding bones, yellowish hair, long sidelocks and a small beard. He was honest and straight, with an appearance of a monk or hermit. His father was making combs, and he himself was an ordained rabbi from the Volozhin Yeshiva, a friend of the writer Michah Yosef Berditchevski. He was complaining about the writer, sighing and coughing: “Such a great scholar, and lost his right path”….

In the Taylors' synagogue, the great Yeshiva Etz Hachayim [“The Tree of Life”] was situated, relocated from the synagogue on Ostrova Street. Here the Gaon (genius) R'Isser Zalman Meltzer would give his lesson. The yeshiva employed two supervisors [mashgichim], R'Pesach and R'Sheftil Kremer, and later it relocated to the special building at the end of Shkolania Street. The supervisor was the Rav R'Asher Sandomirski, who served until the Yeshiva was closed by the Soviets. Rabbis, teachers, authors have graduated from the Slutsk Yeshiva: I.D. Berkwitz, Rav Prof. S. Asaf z”l, Dr. Nathan Klotz, the poet Lisitzki, Prof. Meir Wachsman, Rav Rubinstein from Vilna, Chief Rabbi Katz of Petach Tikva, the son-in-law of R'Isser Zalman, the scholar Kotler and others. Another small Yeshiva was situated in the Blacksmiths' synagogue, and Rabbi Pesach Mamosh was teaching there. It is worthwhile to see what the poet A. A. Lissitzki said about him. Later, Rav R'Zalman, a merchant in coals, was teacher there, a short Jew, full of Torah. Most of his trading was done by his wife, a true “woman of valor” – sometimes he would help her. At the synagogue on Vilna Street the head of the Yeshiva was R'Yitzhak Leib Rabinowitz

The “Modern Heder” had a special place in the community. It brought a ray of light by the method of “Only Hebrew” [lit. Hebrew in Hebrew]. We remember with a blessing its first founders-teachers: Kagan, M. Hazanowitz, the well-known writer Avraham Epstein (Aba Aricha), Yarkoni, Berger, Gutzeit, Sweidel z”l and, may he be inscribed for a long life, the teacher S. Nachmani (Nachmanowitz), who is now in Eretz Israel and was one of the first founders of the “Modern Heder”.

In 1914, a second Modern Heder was established in Slutsk by the teacher Yitzhak Katzenelson (Hazanowitz' brother-in-law) and Reuvke Altman,

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a great scholar, very knowledgeable in Hebrew Literature. Nahum Chinitz and Israel Aharon Sviranovski were also teachers in this Heder.

In Slutsk was known the “Old Talmud Torah,” where there was more shade than light, yet it educated an entire generation of poor people and laborers, who later headed several movements and institutions. Two of them I remember: Kadish the melamed with his thin beard, an honest and righteous man, who continued his holy work to the end of his days. He taught Talmud calmly and tried to make his pupils understand difficult passages. I shall mention also the director of the general studies Mishkovski, a Bund man, who opposed Hebrew and all that was connected with it. He was an honest man, was married to Klara Mironovna, a Zionist woman, who gave fiery speeches.

Another Jewish-Russian institution was the Jewish school “Evreiskvya Utchilishtza,” but this was a “Jewish School” only by name, since the instruction language was Russian, except very little “religion” and “Hebrew” and a few prayers. During vacation days and formal holidays, as the king's birthday and the like, the principal Levinsohn would appear in the synagogue with the School Choir and the officially appointed rabbi, Levinsohn would speak and the ceremony would end with the performance of the choir.

During WWI, as the flow of refugees grew, in 1914-1915 the Talmud Torah became full of children of refugees and a new branch of the local Talmud Torah was opened. The Rav R'Yosef Feimer introduced Hebrew and Bible [Tanach] as mandatory subjects of study. A girls' school, of four grades, also opened. The principal was Chaim Kagan, the language of instruction was Russian, but they taught the Yiddish and Hebrew languages as well. They also began to teach the girls Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Most of the teachers were members of the BUND and the Bundist spirit was beginning to rule, little by little.

The “Tarbut” School that opened at that time in Slutsk was soon closed by the Soviet regime, then was opened again during the Polish rule. Among its teachers were: Azriel Nakritz, Shemaryahu Barhon, N. Chinitz, Lipshitz and others. In the evenings they had “evening courses” in general education, Hebrew and various other subjects.

Slutsk had a wonderful Library, with books mostly in Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and some other languages. Annexed to the library were a reading room and a club. The library played a major role in the cultural development of the youth and the laborers. For the Yeshiva students, as well, the library was an important source of development; they drank with great thirst whatever they read.

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Among the Russian important institutions stood out the classical Russian High-School, of 8 grades. The graduates of this school were known for their extensive general knowledge. The school was known through Russia, and many students were “externs” (studying elsewhere) and came only to pass the exams and receive the matriculation diploma. Those who passed the exams were happy – many failed. Sometimes an anti-Semitic teacher would ask a non-relevant question, only to be able to give the grade “failed.” The historian and writer Saul Ginsburg wrote in his book “Historic Writings” about the school:

“In the Slutsk region lived many Polish Calvinist estate owners, people of culture, who were free of the Catholic fanaticism and treated the Jews with tolerance. The contact with them influenced the Jews culturally and enlarged their spiritual outlook. Moreover: among the enlightened estate owners were often people who openly assisted Jewish young people who aspired to a good education, while the environment was in total opposition. In Slutsk there was a large Polish Calvinist community. Two of them, noblemen of the House of Domanski had business relations with Kaplan Yakov of Minsk, and they suggested helping him enroll his son in the Slutsk High School. Indeed, in 1840 Meir Kaplan was accepted as a student in the school, in the 4th grade. Most of the teachers were Calvinists. It is worth mentioning, that one of them, Vanovski (the Vanovski who was later the Russian Minister of War was from the same family) studied Hebrew with Meir. The high school was impressive: a large two-story building, long and wide, with a large entrance, on the “Boulevard Street”.

The Boulevard was always full of students, wearing coats with shining buttons. The teachers were well dressed, walking around proudly as if saying: Here we are the rulers, and everything is in our hands – good or bad.

A high-school for girls, of seven grades, was also opened. There was also an elementary private school, of six grades, headed by Rav Ashman and a commerce school of 8 grades, situated in a large and beautiful building, on the road to the train station. The building was well planned and had laboratories, reading rooms and meeting halls. It was headed by Ivanov, a liberal and respected man. The commercial school had a norm of admission – for every 10 Cristian students one Jew was admitted, and the other school admitted 2 Jews to 10 Christians. The Jews covered the cost of managing the school; otherwise it would have ceased to function. The town maintained also a 2 grades school by the name of Smena, for girls of poor families, where they taught Russian and arithmetic and very few other subjects.


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The Head of the Yeshiva

by Rav Yosef Eliahu Henkin

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

The great scholar R'Isser Zalman Melamed z”l – all days of his life were one long chain of learning, teaching and acitivity. The days of his study in Volozhin were the days of the hunger for “enlightenment”; many of the students were attracted, but not this student. He continued studying Torah and was a good friend of the Rav, teacher in the Yeshiva, R'Chaim Soloveitchik z”l. When Volozhin was closed, he went to Radin.

After he married the daughter of R'Feivel Frank z”l from Kovno, his wife took upon herself the duty of providing sustenance, so that he could continue studying. He and his brother-in-law R'Epstein z”l were appointed heads of the Slobodka Yeshiva, without a salary.

At the time, the Sloboda Yeshiva was supported by the well-known donor R'Ovadia Lachman. During the great controversy concerning the study of “Morals” at the Yeshivas, according to the method of R'Salanter, the Kovno and Slobodka Yeshiva Heads were part of the opposition.

After arguments and changes, R'Isser Zalman had to decide whether to return to Slobodka or to settle in Slutsk. He was also busy at the time with taking to print his work on the Jerusalem Talmud.

After many hesitations, he decided to go with his family to Slutsk. Yet, the arguments between the rabbis in Slutsk deterred him from stabilizing the situation of the Yeshiva; therefore he took upon himself to take care of the ordinary physical needs of the Yeshiva as well – and he did both things with great success.

His lessons were liked and appreciated more than the lessons of the other teachers in the Yeshivas, and his talks on the subject of Morals made a huge impression, and I remember some of the talks he gave between the afternoon and evening prayers [between Mincha and Ma'ariv], which filled our hearts with the fear of God, in particular during the month of Elul and the “Ten days of repentance,” as he would often burst in tears. From 1897 to 1904 he served as teacher. He was also Head of the Religious Court in Slutsk, and was busy publishing his writings, as well.

After that, they appointed R'Isser Zalman Rabbi and Head of the Religious Court and the other rabbi remained only in the yeshiva in Zaretse Street and surroundings.

Since then, the Yeshiva developed more and more, until finally it built its own fine building, after having wandered from the synagogue on Zaretse, to Ostrover, to the Taylors, to the Kloiz, all in parallel to the well-known “exiles” of the Sanhedrin. Hundreds of students flowed to the Yeshiva of Slutsk and its name became famous. One of its branches became the Yeshiva of Shklow, as the scholar Fruskin z”l was sent there to serve as teacher. The Slutsk students opened a Yeshiva in Stołpce as well, with the help of the Head of the Religious Court there.

At the time the yeshiva was located in the Ostrova Bet Midrash, the “enlightenment” movement and secular studies spread among the students. The Yeshiva immediately prohibited secular studies and reading newspapers. Some of the students left and opened a new yeshiva. Rabbi Isser Zalman, firm and stubborn, fought against any deviation from the accepted ways of the yeshivas – only our holy Torah and its commentaries should be the guides of Judaism.

The Odessa Yeshiva was different from the others: its leaders introduced Torah and general Education together and it became known as a shelter for those who left Torah, and the name “Yeshiva” was kept only as a cover.

At that time, however, the Rav Reines z”l founded a yeshiva in Lydda, for the study of Torah and other studies, but his hopes that its level of Torah study would be high were not fulfilled and the students' bags were full of books by the new Hebrew writers and writers in other languages. The same was the fate of other yeshivas, founded next to older yeshivas, as that of Slutsk and some others. However, the Etz-Chaim Yeshiva, under the directorship of Rabbi Isser Zalman, grew, and hundreds of students from near and far came to study. During WWI, the worries of the Head of the Yeshiva were great: he had to watch and make sure that the students should not be mobilized and sent to battle and he was concerned with the city matters as well, as the chief rabbi: refugees from Poland and Lithuania filled the town and he had to take care of their needs. Epidemics erupted, and the rabbi fought like a hero to keep everything in order.

During the days of the Revolution and the victory of the Bolsheviks, he made every effort to keep the yeshiva and the Talmud Torah functioning and he was arrested and saved by the fact that he was liked and respected by the leftists for his deep devotion to the poor and the oppressed. Finally he was forced to escape to Kletsk, which belonged to Poland, and remained there several years; after his son-in-law the scholar Rabbi Kotler became the Head of the yeshiva, he made Aliya to the Holy Land.

In addition to his holy work at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem,

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and printing his writings, he became the main authority in all religious matters and was a great help to his fellows. I shall not exaggerate if I say that thousands of letters asking for help for individuals and institutions were received from him in New York, most of them in his own handwriting. Only during the last year of his life somebody wrote the letters for him and he would sign them. Some of the letters reached our office after his death.

Here are described some of the ways of the scholar, who brought light to the children of Israel by his study, his deeds and his merits. He was the father of his students and the teachers who worked with him.

He supported me personally as well and helped me establish the yeshiva in Stołpce and sent me students from Slutsk.

May he rest in peace and may his eternal rest be of honor.

(From his book that appeared in New York 1951)

 

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