Baltimore Half a Century Ago
I ended my column last week, titled "Williamsburg, 1940," with my move from Mesivta Torah Vodaat in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to Ner Israel Rabbinical College (NIRC) in Baltimore. During the year I spent at Torah Vodaat, I had advanced from Rav Pam's class, the lowest class in the Mesivta, quite a few ranks higher in the Mesivta hierarchy. I would have entered the beth hamedrash if I had stayed on.
My initial impression of Baltimore was that the NIRC was a much smaller and more compact Yeshiva than the Mesivta was, so the learning would benefit. At that time there were basically only two classes in Baltimore: the beth hamedrash under the rosh yeshiva, Rav Jacob Ruderman, and the lower class, under the mashgiach, Rav Yitzchok Boruchson. During my first two years in Baltimore I attended Rav Boruchson's shier which pleased me to no end. (Thereafter I was promoted to the beth hamedrash.) Only two years previously Rav Boruchson had visited my father in Stockholm on behalf of the Slobodka Yeshiva. I have retained a very vivid memory of his unusually friendly, almost shining face, which radiated all the warm qualities of mussar. And now I was a disciple in his shiur. I also shared my meals with Rav Boruchson, which placed me very near this great baal mussar.
As the years passed, Rav Boruchson, cut off from his family back in Slobodka, asked me often to go to New York for him and try to send food packages to his hometown. There were German organizations that claimed they could make such deliveries through enemy lines and war fronts. Although certificates came back after months of waiting, claiming to be receipts for Rav Boruchson, I could easily see that they were forgeries to entice him to send more packages. I could not bring myself to tell my teacher of this observation, for it was his last hope of being in contact with his wife and children. (After the war, when I met his surviving children, they denied having ever received any packages.)
The Yeshiva was housed in a very primitive wood building on Forest Park Avenue. Yet in later years the students would agree that the learning was more intensive when sitting on a hard wooden bench than it was in more comfortable facilities. In fact, Rav Boruchson admonished his students not to sit on comfortable chairs or sofas during davening but to move to bare wooden benches. He told us that the feeling physically comfortable was an impediment to having true religious feelings.
Baltimore was the scene where important Torah scholars came to visit. Among them was Rav Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, who would don a black top hat before delivering a shiur in our Yeshiva. Others were Rav Rif of Camden, N. J., and Rav Sheftel Kramer, the father of Rebbetzin Ruderman. Rav Ruderman himself was exemplary in his modesty. He was not ashamed to confide to his students that he considered a great Torah sage in Baltimore, Rav Forschlager, his true teacher and mentor. On some occasions Rav Ruderman would walk for more than an hour to visit his great teacher. This happened especially on Sukkot, as Rav Forschlager had the only esrog from the Holy Land.
The Beth Hamedrash in Baltimore was made up of outstanding students. Among them was Rav Moshe Sherer, brother-in-law of the legendary Michael Tress. After the latter's death, Rav Sherer has become the shining example of a shtadlan (public servant) concerned with the fate of every Jew. The work started by Mike Tress during the war—when rescue work was so essential for the survival of Jewry, especially Torah Jewry—and continued to this day by Rav Moshe Sherer, is of historic proportions.
In those days, rescue work was not institutionalized by professionals as it is today, but was entirely based on individual efforts, in the old shtadlan tradition. Yet Rav Ruderman considered it the duty of yeshiva students to apply themselves to learning only rather than going out in the world to do rescue work. He believed that such intensive learning was doing more to save European Jewry. Fortunately for me, I had before me the examples of the giants in rescue work and was personally involved with them, so I could judge how important their work was.
Rav Ruderman, the great rosh yeshiva and talmid chacham, was a bit of an enigma when it came to secular studies. In my own case, he approved of my attending classes at Johns Hopkins University under the world-famous Bible scholar Professor William Foxwell Albright, even though Bible criticism was part of the curriculum. On the other hand, I remember that he refused to examine the just-published essay by Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, "Ish haHalachah," because he had spotted a footnote quoting Soeren Kierkegaard, the Christian Danish theologian.
Among the personalities I remember from those days in Baltimore was Rav Shimon Schwab, who headed a German congregation and also occasionally gave classes in the Yeshiva. Another was my teacher in Arabic and Jewish philosophy at Johns Hopkins, Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt, son of the famous Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Dr. Bernard Lander, today a tremendous force throughout the world in establishing institutions of Jewish learning, back in 1941 headed a small synagogue in the Park Heights section of Baltimore.
Soon after I came to Baltimore, the Yeshiva made plans to acquire a new building on Garrison Boulevard. There were some seventy students when I arrived. At that time there were no black hats, not even beards, nor any chasidim, among the students. The Lithuanian influence, especially by the mussar teachings of the Mir Yeshiva, dictated that any outer demonstrations of frumkeit (piety)—like black clothes, peyes, etc.—were signs of gayve (haughtiness) and had to be shunned. Hence the emphasis on light-colored suits and hats and clean-shaven faces—even among the oldest talmidim. All that has changed dramatically.
The power behind the growth of NIRC was Rav Naftoli Neuberger, a dynamic and brilliant executive director. His amazing connections in Washington enabled him to win for the Yeshiva grants and funds otherwise hardly known to Orthodox institutions. Rabbi Neuberger had studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe at the time my brothers Bert and Gabriel studied there, so I have followed his career for over 60 years. Fortunately, his talents and genius have spilled over to his sons, who are active in the support of the Yeshiva.
Soon the stone-laying of the new building took place. I remember vividly how Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin—the mayor of Baltimore and later governor of Maryland—made a speech there, in which he used the only "Jewish" passage he could quote, namely Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want..." with a thick Irish brogue.
I used Baltimore's proximity to Washington often for visits to the various government war offices, as I tried everything to alleviate the plight of my parents, who were trapped in "neutral" Sweden. Sweden miraculously escaped being touched by Hitler and played an important role in rescuing hundreds of yeshiva students, who were first taken to Japan and later to Australia and the United States. Washington in wartime was certainly a different place than today. Foreign officers—Russian, Chinese, British, French—in their colorful uniforms were seen everywhere. Temporary, prefabricated buildings filled every open space in Washington to house the growing bureaucracy.
Baltimore, more provincial than New York, had only limited cosmopolitan cultural life. Some of the old Jewish families were of German origin, such as the Adler, Ney and Strauss families. They were Orthodox and supported Rav Ruderman. I was intrigued to discover that the Peabody Musical Institute, the oldest academy of its kind in Baltimore, was founded in the 1860s by a fellow Scandinavian, a Danish Jewish composer by the name of Emmerich. I started working on his biography and still hope to complete it one day. Emmerich is the name of a well-known Danish-German-Dutch rabbinical family.
I recently acquired a historical document that shows how Sir Moses Montefiore was part of the growth of the Jewish community in Baltimore. The letter, signed by the great British-Jewish benefactor, is dated 1872 and is a receipt for donations to the collection fund of R. Shmuel Salant, the leading Ashkenazic rabbi in Jerusalem. The donors are the following Baltimore congregations: Shevet Achim; Chevrat Aron Yisrael; Chizzuk Emunah; and Sheerith Yisrael. Of these, two congregations still exist. The money was earmarked for distribution among "the poor who live in our Holy Land." Thus the well-known Baltimore tradition of tzedaka is documented from the earliest times and makes the community exemplary until this day.
The first Baltimore Jews benefited from the liberal rule instituted by Lord Baltimore, the colonial governor in the British colony of Maryland. They were Sefardic and German Jews who brought Reform Judaism with them. As more waves of immigrants arrived, Orthodoxy gained an important foothold. A few of the old synagogues, which were congregated around East Baltimore Street downtown, can still be seen, but most have moved uptown and beyond where beautiful residential areas exist, including some fine parks—which made Baltimore very attractive to me.
Since Baltimore has a very humid climate during the summer, I would take the opportunity to go north, where I visited Boston and took courses at Harvard University. My trips to Boston afforded me the opportunity of spending much time with Rabbi J. B. Soleveitchik, who has remained an inspiration throughout my life. When I first met him he was a 37-year-old scholar who had recently come from Berlin. He loved the German language and preferred to converse with me in German.
Thinking back half-a-century, I am struck at how the Jewish community, and especially the Yeshiva, made newcomers feel at home. I am grateful that I benefited from this warm and friendly atmosphere. It alleviated somewhat the fright and worry that the horrible war years brought with them. And it offered a calm background for intensive studies, whether in the yeshiva or in the university, and I made the best of both worlds.
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