The yeshivah as a communal institution

The yeshivah as a communal institution

Contrary to popular belief, yeshivot as we know them were not always a feature of Jewish life.

Photo: Peter Haskin
Photo: Peter Haskin

THE recent dedication of the new wing of “YG”, Melbourne’s Yeshivah Gedolah – The Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand on Sunday, March 13, provides an opportunity to reflect on the background to yeshivot now commonplace in contemporary Jewish communities. In this regard I am referring not to schools that bear the name yeshivah but to institutions of full time advanced Jewish studies for boys aged in their teens and beyond.

As explained by historian Rabbi Berel Wein in his Triumph of Survival, The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era, the establishment of great houses of Jewish learning in 19th century eastern Europe was actually a revolutionary departure from tradition. For centuries until that time, the system of learning was not institutionalised but personalised. Boys went to cheder from about the time they turned three until about bar mitzvah. Some stopped at 11 or 12. Most young Jewish men were working by the time they were bar mitzvah. The elite, those who showed promise in their Talmudic studies, or who came from the upper classes, or from rabbinic homes, continued their education into their adolescent years and beyond, usually by studying with the rabbi of the town in which they lived. That was part of the task of the rabbi, to conduct the study sessions with whoever came to learn. If the young man showed particular promise, then he was sent out of town to the cities of noted rabbinical scholars, where he would learn with that rabbinic scholar for a period of time. Then, finally, when he attained sufficient knowledge he would be ordained.

The new concept, spearheaded by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, was a centralised place of learning, that today we would refer to as an institute of higher learning. The yeshivah he founded lasted through most of the 19th century until it closed owing to the pressure on the government by the maskilim who feared its impact that was opposed to their philosophy.

Another such 19th century institution was that created by the Chatam Sofer in Pressburg that has continued in various guises until today; its current location  being Yerushalayim. And of course particularly in Lithuania, many more such yeshivot would develop with the names of their locations such as Mir, Telshe and Ponevitz becoming household words across the religious Jewish world.

However the concept of a yeshivah as more than a centralised gathering place for learning but with modern concepts such as a dormitory and a quality building actually waited until introduced by Reb Meir Shapira in Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin during the interwar years of the 20th century.

Regarding Chabad, Mordechai Rubin has outlined the establishment of the earliest yeshivah by Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn (the Rashab) in 1897.

On Elul 15, two days after the wedding of his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak who is now referred to as the previous Rebbe, the Rashab convened a gathering of prominent rabbis and announced his intention “to inaugurate and establish a distinguished yeshivah for our young brethren, with proper and correct guidance”.

“It should be the will of God that all their labour be in Torah and Godly service. Their hearts and minds should be completely dedicated to their study and work.”

This yeshivah was not merely an additional yeshivah to add to the many that were already in existence. This yeshivah was unique. The Rashab felt that in the then climate, studying Chassidic texts was integral to the very survival of the Jewish people. It must be incorporated into the curriculum of the yeshivah and taught properly by dedicated faculty. Although there had been yeshivah students in Lubavitch before this time, generally, these were advanced students who would study independently without any formal structure or curriculum to support them.

Approximately a year after the establishment of the yeshivah, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was appointed dean. On the following Simchat Torah, during the last of the seven hakafot, the Rashab named the yeshivah, taking his cue from the text recited for the hakafot: “The yeshivah which was established with the kindness of God does not yet have a name. Now I am calling it ‘Tomchei Temimim’ (supporters of the complete). Indeed the purpose of the yeshivah is to ensure the completeness of the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah.”

Immediately upon the 1941 arrival in America of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, by then uprooted from Warsaw and Otwock in occupied Poland, was reestablished. It became the forerunner of the Chabad yeshivot bearing that name across the Western world.

1949 saw the arrival in Australia of six Lubavitch families. Taking their cue from the words of the then Rebbe that “America is no different”, Reb Zalman Serebryanski and Reb Abba Pliskin determined that no matter what, they would start a yeshivah. On Cheshvan 16, 5710/1949, in the little timber Shepparton shule, a yeshivah opened its doors as three students commenced their studies under their tutelage. It was a small start  but Lubavitch had arrived.

Fast forward over seven decades. In the interim the yeshivah had moved to Burwood and then East St Kilda, schools were established and in 1966 came the Yeshivah Gedolah – now known as the Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand. A fully residential institute of tertiary Jewish studies, it now caters for both Australian and international students. Its graduates are found in all areas of professions, industry and commerce, education, the rabbinate and outreach work, serving communities here, interstate and overseas. Yet in essence it is a direct successor to that yeshivah established in Shepparton 70 years earlier. Its first teacher was Reb Laizer Herzog who had been one of the first three students in Shepparton.

However though within a few years of its establishment the college came to occupy spacious premises in Alexandra Street, albeit grand they were old, and over decades lack of renovation funds had led to further decline. Given their heritage listing, replacement was not an option – hence the new Tatarka wing now open aside the existing building. Indeed its luxury is a far cry from Shepparton 1949. Or for that matter most yeshivot of the past.

May it continue to prosper and grow mechayil el chayil as it services and influences Jewish communities in Australia and abroad.

Shabbat shalom,

Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.

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