The Blazing Eyes Of The Rosh Yeshiva ztl
By Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum
In Honor Of the 50th Yahrtzeit of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l
An Interview with Reb Moshe Shimon Mendlowitz
Talmid of Rav Aharon at Bais Medrash Govoah from 1952 to 1960
Reb Moshe Shimon Mendlowitz of Monsey left Lakewood over 50 years ago, yet Lakewood has never left him. When one speaks to him, one might mistakenly think that Rav Aharon Kotler is sitting in the next room. He talks of Rav Aharon with such enthusiasm and with such frishkeit. He tells stories with such clarity and detail that you could think they transpired yesterday, not 50 and 60 years ago.
The Yated presents this perspective of a talmid who learned under Rav Aharon in Lakewood for more than ten years and who, whether he was involved in learning or in business, has kept before his own eyes the demus deyukno of his rebbi, the vision and the image of Rav Aharon, every day of his life.
Yated: Reb Moshe, when did you come to Lakewood? Why did you come to Lakewood?
Reb Moshe Mendlowitz: I came to Lakewood in 1952 and stayed until 1960. I was one of the youngest talmidim at the time, and the rosh yeshiva zt”l didn’t want to take in younger talmidim. The rosh yeshiva accepted me, however, because he felt hakoras hatov to my uncle, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz.
In truth, I was supposed to go to Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey, but at the time, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, had just suffered a stroke and could not say the shiur. I therefore chose to go to Lakewood. Similarly, some of my friends, including [Rav] Chaim Epstein and [Rav] Moshe Rubinstein, also came to Lakewood rather than going to Bais Medrash Elyon for the same reason.
What was Lakewood like when you arrived?
It was very different than it is today, that is certain. But you probably want to hear stories from me about the rosh yeshiva.
I will tell you a story that took place soon after I arrived in Lakewood. I had a chavrusah who had also come from the previous yeshiva where I had learned. This chavrusah was a yasom with very little money. What he did to support himself was work during the three weeks beginning right after Purim until just before Pesach for the well-known Barton’s Chocolate Company. Barton’s needed extra help during that hectic period of the year. The yeshiva where we had learned arranged for the bochur to take off the last three weeks of the z’man to work in Barton’s and earn the money he needed to live.
In Lakewood, we became chavrusos, and when it was nearing Purim, my chavrusah told me that his job was waiting for him in Barton’s, but he had a dilemma. How would he ask the rosh yeshiva for permission to leave three weeks before the end of the z’man? You see, you couldn’t just leave. You had to ask the rosh yeshiva and the rosh yeshiva was Rav Aharon!
For example, every six weeks a talmid was permitted to go home for Shabbos, but he still had to ask the rosh yeshiva for permission each time. My chavrusah told me that he was embarrassed to ask. I explained to him that he didn’t have a choice. “When the rosh yeshiva walks through the bais medrash and sees me learning alone, he will ask me about your absence. Anyway, why should you be embarrassed?” I asked him. “You are not going because you want to leave yeshiva. You are a yasom and you need the money. You really don’t have a choice.”
He replied, “Can you come with me? I am embarrassed to go by myself.”
So I accompanied him. He told his story to the rosh yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva’s eyes became soft and he exclaimed compassionately, “Why didn’t you tell me until now that you are a yasom? You probably need other things too aside from the money you earn at Barton’s!”
The rosh yeshiva then said, “Listen, you are in the yeshiva and therefore I am your father here. Three weeks before the end of the z’man?! I can’t let you go with three weeks left! How much do you earn at Barton’s?”
The rosh yeshiva opened his wallet and handed the bochur $25, a significant sum in those days. The rosh yeshiva continued, “Before you leave yeshiva for Pesach, please come to me again and I will give you more money.”
That was the rosh yeshiva. Three weeks of learning Torah was worth more than anything and certainly more than money!
What a tremendous lesson, indeed.
Money per se had no value to him. Clearly, he understood that it was an emtza’i, a vehicle, to facilitate Torah learning. But when the rosh yeshiva went fundraising, he would give the same brochah to a person who gave him $10 and the person who gave him $100.
At that time, Rav Aharon carried the financial responsibilities of the yeshiva on his shoulders, correct?
Yes, at that time, the entire budget was his responsibility. There was no such thing as sechar limud in those days. Parents didn’t pay for their sons to learn in the yeshiva. If they were people of means, they gave donations when they could. On the contrary, the rosh yeshiva gave money to every bochur. It was called chalukah. When I arrived in Lakewood, the chalukah was $5 a month. When the rosh yeshiva tried to give me chalukah, I told him that my father gives me more than enough to cover my needs. Nevertheless, the rosh yeshiva insisted that I accept, explaining, “If you take chalukah, you will feel a greater level of achrayus to the yeshiva.”
Only during the last several years did that stop, when they convinced the rosh yeshiva that the bochurim did not really need the $5.
You must understand that the only thing that interested Rav Aharon was the future of Torah, and to him that was the only purpose of money.
I heard the rosh yeshiva make many appeals for the yeshiva, but I don’t think I ever heard him asking for money for the yeshiva. He spoke only about Torah, not about the yeshiva.
I will tell you another story about his altruism and lack of personal negiah in the yeshiva. At my chasunah, my father gave the rosh yeshiva a $500 check for the Lakewood Yeshiva in honor of the simcha. The rosh yeshiva asked him for a favor: “Perhaps you can split up the donation into $250 for the yeshiva and $250 for Chinuch Atzmai.”
Chinuch Atzmai was Torah just like Lakewood was Torah!
My father gave him another $500 check - for Chinuch Atzmai! The main point, however, is that he had no concept of “my yeshiva.” Rather, his focus remained on Hashem and His Torah - nothing else!
Was Rav Aharon the architect of the concept of kollel in America?
There is a little known piece of history in which the rosh yeshiva was involved. The rosh yeshiva helped found the kollel of Bais Medrash Elyon of Monsey which had preceded Lakewood.
Rav Aharon, when he was still rosh yeshiva in Kletzk before the war, was in America collecting money for Kletzk. Before he returned, he approached my uncle, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, and said, “You must rateve (save) Torah in America. The only way to do that is to make a kollel.” My father-in-law, Mr. Louis Septimus, told me that Rav Shraga Feivel gave Rav Aharon a tekias kaf, a handshake, signifying his acceptance of the mission and thereby promising that he would open a kollel. The problem was that when the baalei batim of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas heard that Rav Shraga Feivel wanted to make a kollel, they were up in arms. They said, “We don’t even have enough to support the mesivta and you want to open a kollel?!”
That is really how the Aish Dos Teachers Training School in Monsey started. Rav Shraga Feivel really wanted that location for the kollel, which it ultimately became, but he first procured it for Aish Dos, something that many people identified with at the time.
It was thus Rav Aharon Kotler, who in his great concern for the future of Torah in America even in the 1930s, who was instrumental in establishing the ideal of kollel life in America.
So that is how Bais Medrash Elyon started?
Exactly. Rav Shraga Feivel asked Rav Reuvein Grozovsky to give up most of his duties as rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas and come to Monsey to become rosh yeshiva of the elite group of bnei Torah that comprised Bais Medrash Elyon. It started with Rav Reuvein saying shiur for 8-10 of the best bochurim from Torah Vodaas. Eventually, it became a kollel as well.
By the way, it was only because Rav Reuvein went to Monsey that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky became the rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas. In truth, Rav Yaakov was offered the position as rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas three times. Once was when Rav Shlomo Heiman was still alive, at which time he was offered to become rosh yeshiva and preside over the semichah program. He declined. Later, after Rav Shlomo was niftar, he was again invited. He again declined, because he felt that he might be infringing on Rav Reuvein’s position as rosh yeshiva. Only after Rav Reuvein moved to Bais Medrash Elyon did Rav Yaakov agree to come.
You were telling us before about how Rav Aharon never had the personal cheshbon of “his” yeshiva. Rather, he cared only about propagating Torah. Can you share some examples?
I will tell you an amazing story. There was a baal habayis, a feine Yid who lived in Lakewood during the period when I arrived there. His name was Menashe Rabinowitz. He was a friend of the yeshiva. In fact, his house, which was located near the lake, had a pool and he would let the bochurim swim there. Reb Menashe lost his wife and eventually remarried. His new wife was a sister-in-law of a certain fabulously wealthy man and a major contributor to Yeshiva University (YU).
The Lakewood Yeshiva made a sheva brochos for Reb Menashe, and Rav Shmuel Shechter, a cousin of Reb Menashe, suggested that the yeshiva invite the wealthy relative. Perhaps they would be able to convince him to become a supporter. That is exactly what happened. The man came and was seated at the head table not far from the rosh yeshiva.
The rosh yeshiva spoke at the sheva brochos. A bit later, someone who knew that the rich relative liked to speak, asked the rosh yeshiva if perhaps they should honor the man with a speech. The rosh yeshiva acquiesced.
The wealthy philanthropist got up and explained that this was his first time in Lakewood. He stressed what an honor it was for him to meet the rosh yeshiva and how impressed he was with the sincerity of the bochurim. He expressed what a treat it was for him to see such nice boys becoming rabbis. Then, however, he dropped a bombshell. He said, “I am prepared to establish a fund so that the boys here will also be able to have a college and secular education and thus become well rounded and be able to contribute to the world too. You will be rabbis and be able to make a living.” He went on to say, “My father was a rabbi, my grandfather was a rabbi and they were both wrong! They couldn’t make a living and support their families!”
We were all dumbfounded, but we were unable to say anything, because the rosh yeshiva was sitting right there. The man finished his speech and sat down. That is when the rosh yeshiva sprung up from his seat and began to speak. He did not look at the rich man, but he pointed his finger towards him and exclaimed, “‘Roshoh mah hu omer? Mah ha’avodah hazos lochem?! Ve’amartem zevach Pesach.’ The Gaonasks, why do we say ‘ve’amartem zevach Pesach’? If you are addressing the roshoh, why don’t you answer him directly?The Gaon answers that it is because you don’t even look at the roshoh; you don’t look at him, you don’t talk to him. You talk to yourself. We had three avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. That is how the world was established. Not with foolish, empty speeches.”
The rosh yeshiva continued bombing away like this for about 15 minutes and then sat down.
We were amazed. Here was a person who they were hoping would donate big money to the yeshiva and, instead, the rosh yeshiva said, “Roshoh!”
I don’t believe there was anyone else at that time who would have reacted that way. For fifteen minutes, he spoke with fire flashing in his eyes.
After that, Rav Leibel Heyman zt”l, later rov of the Gra Shul in Bayit Vegan, who was a large fellow, went over to the wealthy man and said, “Mr. ____, I think you have to leave.” He helped the man out of his chair and led him to the door.
The fire of Torah burned in him, and when it came to principles, he made no cheshbonos about money, even alienating supporters.
I can share with you another story that I personally witnessed that offers insight into the rosh yeshiva’s mindset. I was once learning in the bais medrash during bein hasedorim after lunch. I was the youngest bochur in the yeshiva and, at that time, almost everyone learned until very late at night and would thus take naps during bein hasedorim. I did not and I was therefore practically alone in the bais medrash. Suddenly, a large imposing man loomed over my seat and said, “Mr. Hess would like to talk to the rabbi.”
I had no idea that Mr. Hess was one of the largest oil magnates in the country. I was merely a young yeshiva bochur and there were not yet any Hess gas stations around. I accompanied the driver outside and saw an old man in the car. Later, I heard that he was 93 years old. He spoke to me in Yiddish, requesting a meeting with the rosh yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva was in New York at the time, so I ran to call Rav Shneur. Rav Shneur came out to the car and Mr. Hess told Rav Shneur that he would like “to meet with the boss.” They scheduled an appointment for Friday morning, when Rav Aharon would be in town.
At the meeting, the two began to talk and Mr. Hess expressed his desire to help Rav Aharon build a big building for the yeshiva. During the course of their conversation, Mr. Hess told the rosh yeshiva that he did not understand what the point of korbanos in our times is. The rosh yeshiva became agitated. “Vos heist? Korbanos?!” He began to tell Mr. Hess what the different korbanos did for Klal Yisroel and how Hashem had imbued into the very creation that korbanos should have the power to atone for sins.
To make a long story short, Mr. Hess had grand plans and the rosh yeshiva wanted Irving Bunim, who was the president of the yeshiva, to be present at the next meeting. At that meeting, Mr. Hess brought an architectural sketch of the building. His vision, as reflected by the sketch, included a large steeple, as was customary for large college buildings. The rosh yeshiva, however, was very much against it and openly expressed his disapproval. Mr. Bunim, who was afraid of losing such a significant donation, whispered to the rosh yeshiva that it was not important, adding, “Later we can change it.” Rav Aharon countered, “Nein, nein. No, no. A yeshiva building should not look like a church!”
In the end, Mr. Hess only gave $50,000, rather than the entire building.
Any other stories come to mind?
The following is possibly the most powerful of them all. I can never forget it and every detail remains etched in my mind exactly the way it happened.
When I was learning in Lakewood, it was a resort town with many hotels. One year, the RCA held its convention in the Brunswick Hotel in Lakewood. The RCA honored Rav Aharon with saying a shiur at the convention. The shiur was scheduled for bein hasedorim. Two of Rav Aharon’s prominent talmidim, Rav Yankel Gruman and Rav Leibel Rotkin, wanted to attend the shiur. I was one of the few bochurim who had a car, so they asked me to drive them. I took them and I went inside to listen to the shiur as well. After the shiur, before the rosh yeshiva stepped down, he said, “I would like to give an eitzah to the convention.”
(A little background is necessary to understand the rosh yeshiva’s eitzah. At that time, during the early years of the State of Israel, Agudas Yisroel realized that even the State of Israel’s religious school track could not be relied upon to impart Torah-true values to its talmidim. Accordingly, at the behest of the gedolei Yisroel of that time, Chinuch Atzmai [Independent Religious Educational Network] was established under the auspices of Agudas Yisroel. Rav Aharon was the driving force behind its establishment and efforts to keep the fledgling network solvent. The Mizrachi Party, the religious Zionists with whom the vast majority of the rabbis of the RCA identified, trusted that the government-operated religious track, Mamlachti Dati, would be a faithful conveyor of religious values in its state-run school system.)
Rav Aharon continued: “I know that the Mizrachi party does not accept Chinuch Atzmai and is relying on the government to provide religious education for its youth. My eitzah is that a fund be established and money should be collected to be placed in escrow in this fund. The money should be put away and allocated only in the event that the government does not live up to its end of the bargain of providing authentic religious education to its religious constituents.”
Rav Aharon explained that money in the account would serve as a deterrent to the government should it renege on its pledges to the Mizrachi party and, secondly, if it would renege, they would already have the seed money to initiate a new system, rather than be subject to blackmail at the hands of the government.
As Rav Aharon stepped down from the podium and walked down the long aisle to leave the hall, a senior head of the RCA at that time jumped up to the podium and, in Rav Aharon’s presence, audaciously exclaimed, “I want to address the convention and strike that which Rabbi Kotler said from the record. This issue was not on the agenda and therefore we are striking the words from the record.”
The rosh yeshiva, who was still in the hall about to exit when he heard the man’s words, abruptly stopped. I can still remember his blazing eyes as he turned around and retorted, “If a person is falling from a roof and even a small child can get up and give an eitzah on how to save him, you are halachically obligated to listen to that child.” The rosh yeshiva continued: “If this is how a leader can speak, if this is how a rabbi can speak, then he is nothing!”
The rosh yeshiva turned back around and stormed out. The RCA head ran up to the microphone again and said, “Rabbi Kotler, I am asking mechilah.”
The rosh yeshiva’s burning gaze bore into him. “I am not mochel you. I am not allowed to be mochel you,” he said.
I can never forget that story and those eyes.
Who would be able to do that today? The only one whom I could envision conducting himself in such a way was Rav Elya Svei, Rav Aharon’s talmid.
You mentioned the rosh yeshiva’s burning eyes.
Oy! The rosh yeshiva’s eyes! I will share an interesting story with you. One of my sons learned by Rav Dovid Soloveitchik in Eretz Yisroel. In those days, before he had the new building that he has today, there was a very small shiur room and new bochurim were not able to get into the shiur. When I spoke to my son during his first z’man there, I asked him how shiur was. He explained that he couldn’t really hear the shiur, because he was in the hallway and he heard the shiur repeated by a yungerman. When I heard this, I was upset. Is that why I sent him to learn by Rav Dovid? So he would hear the shiur in the hallway delivered by a yungerman?!
When I went to Eretz Yisroel, I asked my son to make me an appointment with Rav Dovid. I got an appointment at his house and I went there. We had a beautiful discussion about numerous things and, eventually, I brought up the subject of the shiur. I told him, “How can it be that my son is learning by the rosh yeshiva and has to hear the shiurim from others?”
Rav Dovid tried to explain that there was no room and the like. I responded, “I learned in Lakewood and my rebbi was Rav Aharon Kotler. I was not zocheh to remain in chinuch and I am a businessman. I do a lot of traveling for my business and there are always nisyonos, especially when traveling. What do I do? Unfortunately, the shiurim of the rosh yeshiva I have forgotten. The shmuessen? There are parts that I remember and parts that I do not remember. There is one thing that I can never forget and that remain with me until this day, and that is the fiery, heilige oigen, the blazing eyes of the rosh yeshiva. Whenever I have a nisayon, I think of those holy eyes and that holds me back from anything.
“I don’t know what my son will do later in life,” I continued. “I hope that he will stay in Torah, in chinuch, but who knows where life will take him? I want him to be able to see the rosh yeshiva while he gives shiur. I want him to see the rosh yeshiva’s eyes and engrave the image of those eyes on his mind so that it will always remain with him.”
Rav Dovid heard what I said and became so emotional that he rose and gave me a hug and a kiss.
Did your son get into the shiur?
Yes! But how he did is a story for a different time.
Was the rosh yeshiva able to relate to American born and raised talmidim?
One Friday, I was playing handball with three other chaveirim behind the high grass of what was then the Irvington Hotel. It was a hot day, so we were playing in our undershirts. Another bochur saw us and went to tell the rosh yeshiva that we were playing in our undershirts.
I was the youngest, so the rosh yeshiva summoned me. He told me that he had heard that we were playing in our undershirts. He explained that there are halachos of tzniyus for a talmid chochom. “A talmid chochom should go with his elbows covered,” he said. “Truthfully, bizman hazeh, in our times, there is no din talmid chochom; no one is classified as a true talmid chochom. But you should feel like a talmid chochom, strive to be one, and conduct yourself like one even if you are not one…”
Once we are speaking about the din of a talmid chochom, I will tell you that the rosh yeshiva would get upset when he was called a gaon. He would not tolerate it and would protest against it.
Can you leave us with a final thought?
Let me leave you with this story. After the rosh yeshiva’s accident, the yeshiva was in a terrible financial crisis.
The rosh yeshiva’s accident?
Yes. The rosh yeshiva was being driven to New York, and the bochur who was driving was going too fast. By the Freehold circle, they crashed. The rosh yeshiva fell out of the car, broke his collar bone, and had to be hospitalized. In those days, if the rosh yeshiva didn’t raise money, there was no money. Therefore, while he was in the hospital, the yeshiva was in terrible financial straits. I remember the rosh yeshiva asking me to drive Rav Shneur to Cold Chester, Conn., home to Pop - I don’t remember his real first name - Levin, a former Kletzker talmid. Pop Levin held the rosh yeshiva to be a malach Elokim and he gave us a large donation.
The rosh yeshiva also asked us to meet with Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, who might help us make an appeal in Boston. I called Rav Yoshe Ber’s secretary and told him that Rav Shneur had asked that I make an appointment with Rav Yoshe Ber. The secretary told me that Rav Yoshe Ber would meet us when he would come to New York to deliver his shiur. He instructed us to be at the YU library at 9 a.m. We came early and Rav Yoshe Ber arrived at about 8:50.
Rav Yoshe Ber hugged and kissed Rav Shneur and invited us to sit down. Suddenly, while we were sitting there, I noticed Rav Yoshe Ber lower his head for a few minutes. When he raised his head, he had tears in his eyes. Looking at Rav Shneur, he exclaimed, “When I look at your father, I see my zaida [Rav Chaim Brisker]. I am mekaneh your father, because he has talmidim!”
Years later, I asked one of Rav Soloveitchik’s really prominent talmidim to explain what Rav Soloveitchik had meant about having talmidim. He explained, “You are a talmid of Rav Aharon. In Lakewood, you had a rebbi-talmid relationship. Rav Aharon ate in the yeshiva, slept in the yeshiva, and no one moved without asking him everything.
“We,” he continued, “had the best shiur in the world. Every shiur was delivered to us on a silver platter. Rav Yoshe Ber said the shiur from 9:30 to 2 p.m. and then returned to Boston. We did not have the same constant interaction with him that you had with Rav Aharon in Lakewood. That is why so many people quote different things in his name. We simply didn’t have the same type of relationship.”
Thank you so much for your time and for sharing so many memories with us.