Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

Communities

To be a Jew means being one with Jews everywhere. I have been privileged to visit a mass of Jewish communities in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia. My impressions of some of them are contained in this section. The fascinating lives and customs of some of these communities help enrich our own appreciation of our rich history. I hope this section will encourage my readers to continue my own search for our brethren in far-flung corners of the world and thereby strengthen our resolve—"Haverim kol Yisrael."

Williamsburg, 1940

Many people, when they hear the name "Williamsburg," think of the old colonial town in Virginia. Others may associate the name with the aircraft carrier of the same name. But to the rest of us, Williamsburg is that part of Brooklyn where over 50 years ago Jewish life started sprouting, with an influence of over several generations.

My own exposure to Williamsburg came shortly after I arrived in this country in May 1940. My old friend from our family's days in Hamburg, Rav Walter (Zeev) Gotthold, was in charge of finding a suitable yeshiva for me. He had first taken me to Yeshivat R. Yitzchak Elchanan, but for some reason the right "chemistry" was not there. My only knowledge of a yeshiva was what I had heard from my brothers Bert and Gabriel and from my teacher Rav Shlomo Wolbe, who had spent some years in the Mir Yeshiva in Poland and who gave me a picture—perhaps glorified—of what a yeshiva is like.

So my attention was diverted to the Mesivta Torah Vodaat which at that time was located at 515 Bedford Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. In those days Williamsburg had very few chasidim and few black hats. The Mesivta was under the influence of the Lithuanians. Even its leader, Mr. Feivel Mendlovitz, himself a Hungarian, chose Lithuanian teachers and roshei yeshiva.

The process of my acclimatization was not easy. My preparations for Gemara were limited, since in Sweden there was no Jewish education. I was placed in a class headed by Rav Pam, who was then a clean-shaven recent college graduate. My fellow students were all much younger than I. I took on a private tutor who helped me a great deal in advancing. My memories of Williamsburg relate more to Jewish life there as a whole than to my own education. The impact of the community on me was intense. I used every opportunity to visit great men, to participate in gatherings and to absorb the yeshiva spirit.

My activities were influenced by the tragic events in Europe. I tried to be helpful in hatzalah (rescue) work. Rav Abraham Kalmanowitz, called by some "The Last Shtadlan (intercessor)," was close to me. He helped set up a network of hatzalah linked to my father in Sweden. Rav Kalmanowitz was constantly working in Washington and New York to save as many yeshivot in Lithuania from destruction as possible. Much of the work took place in the offices of the Agudah, at 5 Beekman Street, from where I placed my calls to Sweden to transmit messages and arrange money transfers for food packages and other rescue operations, through my father in Stockholm.

But what impressed me enormously was that with all his weighty contacts in so many parts of the world, he did not stop being a rosh yeshiva. I remember well the shiurim (classes) he delivered before the whole student body of the Mesivta; he blended his shiurim with mussar (ethics). In this manner he helped to transmit to the United States the Lithuanian traditions which we all tried to salvage.

Being cut off from my family, I was fortunate that my grandmother, Mrs. Sophie Taub, and my brother, Bert, lived in Manhattan and offered me hospitality most Sabbaths. In the beginning I roomed in Washington Heights in Manhattan and traveled every day by subway (5 cents) and streetcar (2 cents) to Williamsburg.

After a while I took a room on Keap Street in Williamsburg to save traveling time. It allowed me more time to get acquainted with the many personalities at the yeshiva. My routine became standardized. To enter the classroom at the Mesivta, each student had to pass the scrutiny of Mr. Feivel Mendlovitz, who was a very strict taskmaster and did not tolerate lateness. There was also Dr. Lyman, head of the English department, who also checked on each student's studies and conduct.

Although I had sufficient credits from my Swedish school, I had to supplement them with English and civics courses. I had very fine fellow students. Among them were Louis Glick, with whom I have maintained a close friendship during all these years. He is a great supporter of Torah and enormously generous in his philanthropy. Another fellow student was Eliyah Schwei, today one of the great luminaries in the world of Torah. He heads the Philadelphia Yeshiva but exerts deep influence the world over. Some of the greatest Torah sages consult him.

The Mesivta at that time was a relatively small yeshiva. Rav Shlomo Heyman, its head, was a disciple of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik. Although at my level I had little contact with him, it was inspiring to watch him take walks with his "Beis Hamedrash" students. His excitement over every bit of Torah was contagious.

The other great men at the Mesivta at that time included R. Gedalia Shor, R. Dovid Bender, and Rav Quinn. As the war proceeded, some of the great men of Torah were able to venture across the ocean to America: Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevy Herzog came all the way from Yerushalyim and delivered a shiur in the Mesivta before an enthusiastic audience. Shortly before that, the Mesivta itself moved to a new location, on South Third Street. That move was a memorable manifestation, with Torah Scrolls being carried under canopies, singing and music. In the new building the Mesivta grew rapidly. A few years later it had to move again to Ocean Parkway.

One of the great personalities living in Williamsburg was the aged R. Simche Soloveitchik, the half brother of Reb Chaim. He was over 90 years of age when I at tended his Friday night talks. He always wore an impeccable black top hat, and his words of Torah remained in my memory.

One Sunday Mr. Mendlovitz invited me to join him in Spring Valley, N.Y., for a meeting about the establishment of a new organization: Torah Umesorah. Until this day I don't know why he singled me out to join in this meeting, which was to inaugurate the start of this enormously important educational organization. He explained to a few of us that since the European sources of Jewish education were being destroyed, they must be replaced with American resources. He expressed his enthusiasm for American yeshiva students, whom he considered superior even to the European ones.

Toward the end of the year, refugees from Europe began arriving. Of course they were pitifully few and the tragedy of the vanishing European Jews became distressingly clear. One family which arrived from Lithuania was the Leshinsky family. The mother, Mrs. Bas Sheva, was a legendary personality in the Mir. She was a real mashgiach (supervisor of students) with all the mussar qualifications. Yeshiva students would flock around her to hear her shmuessen (talks).

A special treat was in store for me when I changed rooms and moved closer to the apartment of the Moshitzer Rebbe, Rav Taub. This great composer of niggunim (chassidic melodies) and master in presenting his music had his apartment right across from my own. During the summer, through my open window, I used to listen to his Friday night gatherings. The rebbe divided his chasidim into sections, and like a conductor, he directed their singing in harmony.

Another interesting personality in Williamsburg was Dr. Fritz Neuberger, the favorite physician of the yeshiva world. A native of Germany, he and his family had settled on Bedford Avenue. Dr. Neuberger was a very erudite and learned person and impressed me a great deal.

After a year I decided to seek another location. Frankly, conditions in Williamsburg were so cramped—there was so little air and nature—that I felt choked. One day, in a small square near Bedford Avenue I spotted a tree that had a plate placed around it, saying simply, "Tree." That did it! Coming from the huge forests and natural resources of Sweden, I felt I had to find some location with more air, trees and flowers. Having partaken of the educational advantages of Williamsburg, I now gave preference to Baltimore after a visit there with Rav Gotthold, my mentor.

And so, in August 1941, I moved to Baltimore and enrolled in the Ner Israel Rabbinical College.

Williamsburg, like so many other sections of New York, has gone through several changes. After World War I it was known as a rather affluent German-Irish area. When Orthodox Jews moved in, there was a transition. Today, the chasidic element predominates. Satmar and other communities set the tone. The original yeshivot have moved out, but I am grateful that I participated in life in Williamsburg at a much earlier and quieter stage. No doubt Williamsburg will always remain an important source for Yiddishkeit in America.

 

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