Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Forced Closing of the “Ivy League” Yeshiva

The idea of a school with a dual curriculum, teaching both Judaic and general subjects is not too farfetched. Dozens, if not hundreds, of such private schools can be found around the globe today. Mixing Judaic studies with a western civilization curriculum, however, was not always as popular as it is in contemporary times.

The Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) Yeshiva in Volozhin, Russia (located today in Belarus), founded by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon (the great sage of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), was established in 1806. Known as “the Mother of all Yeshivas,” Volozhin served as an incubator for elite students, serving, by some accounts, 500 young Torah scholars in its heyday, many of whom became great and influential rabbis. Rabbi Chaim died in 1821, and the yeshiva underwent several leadership changes. First Rav Chaim’s son Rabbi Isaac (known as Rav Itzeleh) took over, until eventually, Rav Itzeleh’s younger son-in-law, Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin led the yeshiva into its glory days, with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s great-grandson, as his assistant (not to be confused with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s great grandson of the same name, who is associated with Yeshiva University).

On March 1, 1887, Russian governmental authorities and rabbinic leaders, including Rabbi Berlin, agreed that in order to accommodate contemporary educational developments, yeshivas would need to hire special instructors to teach written and spoken Russian, with the rabbis approving the textbooks. At first, the students refused to attend, citing the secular studies as a diversion from their Torah studies. Rabbi Berlin begged them to attend, noting that the teacher was sitting in an empty room for half an hour.

In 1892, the government instituted further educational stipulations, which would effectively strip Volozhin of its identity. The new rules stipulated that all faculty were required to have earned college degrees; only secular studies could be taught between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm; no studies of any kind could take place at night, and the total amount of hours of study per day could not exceed 10. Rabbi Berlin reluctantly decided to close the yeshiva. The yeshiva closed for good on February 3, 1892, corresponding to the 4th of Shevat.

Rabbi Rafael Shapiro, Rabbi Berlin’s son-in-law, reopened a much scaled down version of the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1899, which also closed with the advent of World War II, and re-opened once again in Israel after the Holocaust. In 2007, the original site of the yeshiva was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus, but seven years later, the Belarus government threatened to repossess the building unless the Jewish community raised $20,000 for renovations. Agudath Israel of America raised the money, and the building was saved.

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