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[Col. 65]

Those Who Glorified the Name of Our Town

A long line of those who came out of Svintsyan, who glorified its name in the world, because they were its spiritual core. They were the hidden treasures of the town; and when they left to go out into the wide world, they were the moving force behind [many] great accomplishments.

These are the ones who
glorified the name of our
city in the world

Avraham Solomyak

Avraham Solomyak
        Avraham Solomyak of Svintsyan was one of the most prominent figures in the first immigration to Israel. He studied in kheder and in the public school of our city and graduated from the Government Teachers' Institute in Vilna. The pogroms in Russia, which started in the 1880's, influenced him and transformed him from an extreme free thinker into an ardent Zionist. (This according to someone who graduated from the Teachers' Institute mentioned above.) He joined those in the first immigration and arrived in the land of Israel in 1885 together with Michael Halperin of Vilna, who even paid for his trip.
        When he arrived, he was one of the founders of Gedera, and tried very hard to get used to agricultural life. But despite his best efforts, he was unable to become a farmer. And when he saw that all of his efforts were in vain, he left Gedera and came to Jerusalem. There he at first worked as a translator/secretary in the Russian Consulate. While living in Jerusalem, he maintained his ties with the first immigrants and represented them in all the government institutions and consulates.
        Abraham Solomyak is mentioned in the memoirs of most Zionist leaders in connection with various Zionist activities.
        Dr. Theodore Herzl mentions in his diary an interesting conversation he had with Abraham Solomyak in the year 1898. While he [Dr. Herzl] was in Jerusalem, he met with him and had both long and short discussions about the life of Israel.
        Yitzhak Ben Tzvi (President of the State of Israel from 1952-63) wrote an article containing a few words about Abraham Solomyak in the book The Second Immigration. The article is entitled, “The Beginning: Poaley-Tzion* and Public Life”:
        So that I would be able to get the job as a teacher in Jerusalem in 1904, I received the recommendation of Ben Tzion Mosinzon to become a private tutor to the children of Abraham Solomyak, who was at that time the manager of the Russian post-office and chief translator in the Russian Consulate in Jerusalem (p. 593 ibid).
        At the end of the summer of 1908, a few community leaders came together who were not afraid of all the difficulties, and they came to the conclusion that a Hebrew high school should also be built in Jerusalem.
        In the beginning, we were 4 teachers: I, who taught Hebrew Language and Bible Studies; Rachel Yanait (wife of the President [of Israel]), who taught both Jewish History and World History; Mr. Hulevitch, who taught Mathematics and Sciences; Mrs. Solfian, who taught Painting. A committee of parents was formed to handle the finances; among them were: Yehoshua Barzilai, Dr. Vayts and his wife, Mr. Abraham Solomyak and other qualified people (p. 610 ibid).
        A. Solomyak was active in all aspects of public life. He was at the head of the committee against the British Mission. He was one of the founders and supporters of the high school mentioned above. He was one of the founders and supporters of the cultural center in Jerusalem. He was the chairman of the local committee of the Jewish United Fund.
        When Zev Jabotinsky called for volunteers to establish the Zionist Revisionist Party, Solomyak was one of the first to join this movement and establish the party in his house in Jerusalem. He was among his friends and supporters all of his life, but he never turned his back on the fund-raising activities of the Jewish United Fund.
        In those days, Mr. Solomyak was considered the unofficial representative of the new settlement and villages which consisted mostly of new Russian immigrants.
        Mr. Solomyak received many awards acknowledging his excellent service from Russians, Turkish, Serbians, and Greeks while he was chief inspector of postal services in the area of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. From the Russian representative, he received the title: “Eternal Honorary Citizen.”
        In his final years, the Zionist leadership awarded him a monthly salary for being one of the survivors of the first immigration, but he declined it. (He died in 1945).

More About the Great Torah Scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines, the Head of the Jewish Tribunal in Svintsyan

        Articles appeared in newspapers and magazines of the 1900's (HaMelitz, HaTzefira, History of the Commentators, and Kiriya Ne'emana ) which shed light on the activities of the immediate area of the town at that time. For example:

        The Great Torah Scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines, was appointed head of the Jewish tribunal in the city of Svintsyan even before he reached the age of 30. Svintsyan was always important in the rabbinic world. In 1869, Rabbi Reines replaced the great and brilliant Torah scholar Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel, whose nickname was “Iron Head.” He was the epitome of a great man. (According to the “History of the Commentators,” he was in the same category as the great scholar, the author of “ Shulkhan Shlomo ” [Shlomo's Table] and going back to the later writers of the Talmud, Rabbi Yokhanan Hasandlar, and even going back further to King David, may he rest in peace.) While still young, Rabbi Y. Y. Reines sympathized with the plight of the Hebrew teenager and devoted himself to the question of education and enlightenment in a revolutionary way. He was not afraid of tackling the problem of Jewish teenagers in the city who wanted a secular education.
        In 1881, against the will and traditional approach of the ultra-Orthodox factions, Rabbi Y. Y. Reines established the great progressive yeshiva in Svintsyan. There the yeshiva students studied secular subjects in a way that was not antithetical to Torah, so that they would remain devoted to G-d and His Torah while at the same time getting the educational tools to live in the modern world.
        Although he himself was a G-d fearing person, Rabbi Reines was the target of the rabbis because of his innovative educational ideas and activities, which became widespread and caused great conflict among members of the Jewish community, which was still loyal to the restricted kheder and to its tradition, which might as well have been surrounded by the Great Wall of China. Most of them [in the Jewish community] looked at these innovations with angry eyes.
        In the book The History of the Mizrakhi Movement , Rabbi Y. L. Hacohen-Maymon (Fishman) wrote the following:
It is hard to describe all of the problems that he went through because of this yeshiva. He had to overcome many obstacles to achieve his goal. . . . His opponents gave him no rest and in the end, despite all of his efforts, he was forced to close the yeshiva, which had been his dream, after only 4 years. When he moved to the city of Lida located near Vilna, Rabbi Reines had to be satisfied with a smaller yeshiva on a more simple scale. He was caught between an exciting vision and hard, cold reality.
        But this was not the end of all the accomplishments of the Head of the Judicial Tribunal of our city, Rabbi Y. Y. Reines, of blessed memory:
His historical mission did not release its hold on him. In this era, there arose a very strong desire for enlightenment, freedom, Socialism and so forth on the part of the general public in Russia. And along with this there came great disappointment in the government of the Czar. So we see our teacher and rabbi as a typical revolutionary man, who started a parallel movement among the Jews with calls for their return to Zion. He used his position in Svinstyan to stay in constant touch with the leaders of the international movement, “Love of Zion” and with the people of the first settlements in Israel (see the History of Mizrakhi mentioned above). His advice and plans for establishing the settlements were well received and his idea for preparing before immigrating to Israel was also adopted in this place. The young people of Svintsyan were involved in all the movements--“The First Immigration,” “Redeeming of the Land,” [for example] and they were continually immigrating.
        Rabbi Reines was among those people who laid the foundation of Zionism and helped found the Orthodox Zionist Organization called “Mizrakhi.” As the head of this branch of the Zionist Movement, he gained power and raised the flag of revolt in order to change the teaching methods in Hebrew education, and in the year 1904, Rabbi Reines again opened a large, magnificent yeshiva in which the teaching was according to his original methods. This was a continuation of the historical yeshiva that had been in the city of Svintsyan. The secular curriculum met the needs of the times and the demands of the government.

The Road from Svintsyan to Vilna

The Road from Svintsyan to Vilna

Professor Mordecai Menahem Kaplan

Professor Mordecai Menahem Kaplan

        Professor Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (born in the year 1881 in Svintsyan) was a rabbi and philosopher in the school of pragmatism outstanding in the following: as a rabbi, a teacher, an organizer, a writer, and a theologian. His books include: Judaism as Civilization (1934) and The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937). His knowledge found significant expression in the Reconstructionist Movement, an organization that he established to advance Judaism.
        His major philosophy: Religion is basically social form that contains the step-by-step development of the religion of the Jewish people. The ceremonies of the religion constantly require a new approach in keeping with the highest values of the culture of our time.
        His knowledge found ways to influence the views of rabbis, educators, and ordinary intelligent people who were not professionals in Jewish fields or in institutes of organized Jewish life. He was not satisfied with conservativism and he led the people of our city down the road of liberalism to Judaism, drawing sustenance from Jewish tradition, from human nature, the modern world, and new discoveries which humanity needs so much.
        The way he thought was important and necessary so that the Jews who believed in Socialism and progress would be able to stay with Judaism without feeling an inner conflict.
        M. M. Kaplan was and still is [*] one of the most prominent intellectual and spiritual leaders in American Judaism and one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people in our generation.
Close to the time of the publication of this memorial book of Svintsyan, we received a letter from the charming, honorable, elderly Mr. Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, may he have a long life, who was 84 years old. It is quoted below:

This wonderful city is still in my memory even though I left it when I was 8 years old in 1889.
My parents, may they rest in peace, imbued my blood and my memory with their stories about the community, the culture, and the exceptionally high spiritual level [of the city], etc.
        My father told me that he himself was a student and friend of Rabbi Y. Y. Reines, (the great Torah scholar mentioned above, may his righteous and holy memory be a blessing), who founded, in our home town of Svintsyan, his famous modern yeshiva for whose sake he fought using his pioneer spirit in order to give the people the education that the times demanded [Torah and (secular) knowledge].
        In these times, my father had the courage to send his daughter (my sister) to study in the school with boys. This was a rare occurrence in this era. This gives us a picture of the life of this community, a unique picture. This sister of mine read Hebrew books by one of the scholars of our city ( I don't remember which clearly) practically every day after her studies.
        When I met Rabbi Reines in 1908 in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany in order to get a teaching certificate, Rabbi Reines remembered Svintsyan and asked me if my mother still remembered the Gemara that his students (the yeshiva boys) learned and repeated. [He said,] “She always remembered the melodies.” (She was very happy when I repeated the words of the rabbi to her.)
        Among other things that I told him was that I remember that on our way to America my father brought me to the city of Kovno, so that the great rabbi and Torah scholar Rabbi Yitskhok Elkhanan could bless me. And my father now holds the position of Judge in the Jewish Tribunal of New York under the Head Rabbi of the community, Rabbi Yaakov-Yosef.

* Kaplan was still alive at the time this was written. Trans. Back

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