Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Eighth and final article of a series about the rise of Jewish and Torah education in America after the Holocaust

Part One: The Difficult Progress of Jewish Education in America Before the Holocaust

Part Two: How a Handful of American Rabbis and Activists Tried To Save Jews During the Holocaust

Part Three: The Holocaust and the Growth of Jewish Day Schools in America

Part Four: Post-Holocaust American Haven For Yavneh and Its Sages

Part Five: Mir and Telz, Two Yeshivas Renewed in America After The Holocaust

Part Six: How New York Was Renewed by Torah Judaism After the Holocaust

Part Seven: The Growth of Hasidism in America After the Holocaust

Difficulties in drawing conclusions, Lucy Davidowicz and Jacob Neusner as examples

Conclusions are never easy, but they are always satisfying. It is undeniable that the Second World War has a central place in the history of Jewish education in modern America. As satisfying as this conclusion may be, it is not easy to define and explain why that is true. What makes matters more complicated is that historians and educationists are generally rooted in one field and often cannot perceive the direct connection between history and its impact on educational policy. On the other hand, the Jewish scholars of the Talmud, then and now, did not treat history, education, and Judaism as diverse fields. For them the Torah encompassed everything. Thus, whereas the "Holocaust" has become a source of consternation and bitterness in the general world, Orthodox Jewry seems to have placed it in a perspective that has not caused alienation.

In a work, On Equal Terms: Jews in America 1881–l981, (1982), the Jewish historian Lucy S. Davidowicz (1915–1990) has written that "the soil out of which the new Orthodoxy grew had been brought from Eastern Europe after the Second World War by survivors of the Holocaust, mostly, though not exclusively, Hasidim. Having outlived the gas chambers of the Third Reich and the Gulag of the Soviet Union, they brought to the United States their traditions, their learning, and above all their passion for Judaism. They built yeshivot and day schools with sacrificial effort. They shamed the established American Orthodox and Conservative institutions by their passion and, by example, vitalized them."

What motivated the men who led the rise of the "new" --but very old-- Orthodox? How did they view a world of "gas chambers" and "gulags"? Where did they find the vision and sense of purpose to rebuild in America? And, how did they translate their view of events into meaningful educational policies?

These questions should surely bother the general observer, as well as the serious student of Jewish education. The facts are irrefutable but interpretations, as always, differ. The observer is obliged to reach into his own "world" and interpret things according to his own history and education. Often an observer in one discipline will simply lack the information that exists within another field that would allow for a fuller and more satisfying conclusion.

As an historian, Lucy S. Davidowicz points to some poignant results of the war and its significance for American Jewry. In On Equal Terms she writes that "as we look back over the span of the century, the mass migration of the East European Jews to America that began in 1881 signified a providential course for the later survival of Ashkenazic Jewry". It was the war and Germany's seizure of Europe that "shifted the center of Jewish institutional life from Europe to America".

Furthermore she points out that after the destruction of the East European Jews, America's Jews had to provide for themselves. She thus records the proliferation of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues and the number of families affiliated with each: "The synagogue became, as it had been through the Jewish millennial past, the prime vehicle of Jewish continuity." This was because of a "remarkable rise in religiosity" that "characterized postwar America, no doubt a consequence of the war experience."

The Arab-Israeli, Six-Day, War of June 1967 is seen by Davidowicz as changing the course of Jewish history. In response to greater international anti-Semitism there was a new assertiveness. It was in the post Six-Day War era that the extent of Orthodoxy's new-found life manifested itself: "Traditional Judaism--Orthodoxy--which for decades had been pronounced dying, if not dead, the possession only of the old and the alien, came alive, unpredictably, implausibly. In the decade after the Six-Day War Orthodoxy emerged youthful and vigorous to transform the landscape of American Judaism. (A similar phenomenon was evident also in Israel and, less visibly but nonetheless unmistakably, also in the countries of the English-speaking Diaspora.)"

It is here that she notes that the "soil out of which the new Orthodoxy grew had been brought from Eastern Europe after the Second World War by survivors of the Holocaust". The focus of our thesis has been on the "soil" mentioned by Davidowicz. It was not only a matter of "soil", but of "planters" and "seeds of growth". Thus it is not the Six Day War that is the matrix, but a period before it.

Davidowicz does not deal with the men and their ideals that produced the success evident in later years. She notes a unique feature of the times, but as a historian she lacks the ability to totally understand it:

"The baal teshuvah, the returner to Judaism or to a more intense observance of it, became a commonplace phenomenon. No single factor explains how, suddenly it seemed, the return to Judaism had become not just an individual phenomenon but a social one...The returnees were of all ages and all kinds of backgrounds, but the most spectacular were those who returned from the brink, as it were...Statistics are lacking, but the right-wing Orthodox and the sectarians rescued and recruited thousands. Their active presence and their confidence in their faith disturbed the self-content of the secularists."

An important phenomenon is thus noted. Its origins and attractiveness are vague, begging explanation and even modest interpretation that would get to the "soul of the matter". What role did the Second World War play in bringing about a phenomenon of "returnees" to Judaism? The difficulties inherent in interpreting cataclysmic events are evident when we examine, for example, the views of Jacob Neusner (1932–2016), a university scholar of Judaic Studies at Brown University. In his work, Stranger at Home: "The Holocaust", Zionism, and American Judaism (1981), he deals with two events which have become the "twin pillars" upon which the world view of most American Jews is based: The murder of six million Jews between 1933 and 1945, and, the subsequent creation of the State of Israel.

Concerning the former he asks: "What then are the implications of the Holocaust?" And answers:

"In one sense, I claim there is no implication--none for Judaic theology, none for Jewish community life--which was not present before 1933...one who did not believe in God before knowing about the Holocaust is not going to be persuaded to believe in Him on its account...The currently fashionable 'Jewish assertion' draws on the Holocaust, to be sure, as a source of evocative slogans, but it is rooted in America and in the 1970s, not in Poland and in the 1940s...Proof of its shallowness and rootlessness derives from its mindless appropriation of the horrors of another time and place as a rationale for 'Jewish assertion'--that, and its incapacity to say more, in the end, than 'Woe, woe.'"

Whilst Neusner's observation that the Holocaust as a single, isolated event cannot serve as the sole foundation for a Jewish philosophy of life makes sense, his views on Jewish theology are not "neutral". He writes from a secular Judaic position, one closely akin to a haskalah perspective based on knowledge of Judaic literature and secular philosophy. He poses as an heir to the traditions of Jewish thinking but distances himself from Orthodoxy. He is prone to statements that reveal his distance from the time-honored Jewish perspective of the traditional Jewish scholars.

Thus, for Neusner, "the issue of the destruction of European Jewry is not theological but psychological and social". Neusner appears to have strong views concerning "Orthodox leadership in Eastern Europe and the U.S.A." and "their repulsive continuators." Whatever his reasons may be, to write of "Orthodox leadership" as having "repulsive continuators" definitely reveals that he has subjective opinions regarding Orthodoxy.

Indeed, in his essay on "Zionism and 'The Jewish Problem' ", he writes: "There is no 'Jewish way' of organizing experience and interpreting reality, although there was and is a Judaic way. There is no single Jewish ideology, indeed no single, unitary Jewish history, although there once was a cogent Judaic theology and a Judaic view of a unitary and meaningful progression of events to be called 'Jewish history'...There once was such a system, but in the secular revolution it has collapsed. It is indeed, the secular revolution that has imposed on Jewry a lingering crisis of identity...Lacking a common language and culture, even a common religion, the Jews do not have what they once had. Today Jewish identity so greatly varies that we need to reconsider the viability of the very concept of Jewishness as a universal attribute for today Jewishness cannot be defined in neutral, cultural terms."

For Neusner, the system that "once was" is gone for evermore, swept away by the "secular revolution". There is a "crisis of identity" which is both solved and complicated by Zionism, maintains Neusner: "Zionism provides a reconstruction of Jewish identity for it reaffirms the nationhood of Israel in the face of the disintegration of the religious bases of Jewish peoplehood...with the end of a singularly religious self-consciousness, the people lost its understanding of itself."

Incredibly, whilst admitting to the significance of past "religious bases of Jewish peoplehood" Neusner casts aside those who still adhere to the system that "once was". Neusner has been swept away by the "secular revolution" and is thus able to refer to "Orthodox leadership" in "repulsive" terms. For Neusner there is no longer a "common religion" for Jews. For him the effects of the "Holocaust" must be reconciled with a consistent view of Zionism. The entire question of what uniquely occurred in America stemming from Orthodox roots is at best overlooked.

On the other hand, Davidowicz gives Orthodoxy a greater position. She concludes: "The vigor of the new Orthodoxy spread throughout Judaism. It marked a new departure for American Jews in their relation to American society. The new Orthodox were not self-conscious about publicly demonstrating their Jewishness . . . They chose to be Jews on their terms and they were asking America to accept them on those terms."

However, Davidowicz's position has its own set of problems. As the title of her work implies, On Equal Terms, and as evident from the way she characterizes the "new" Orthodox, an impression is gained of an over-confident group of people striving for recognition.

The Rosh Yeshiva of the Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg (1923–1999), in "Experiencing Golus in a Free Society--Can it be Achieved?: The Awareness Imperative" (writing in The Jewish Observer, 1978), stated that Orthodoxy requires that Jews be aware that they are in the Exile (golus), even as members of the "free society". This calls for "an awareness that our current status is not representative of our optimum way of life", and that "there is an 'otherness' to us, a gulf of strangeness that cannot be bridged, separating us from our compatriots."

Furthermore, both Davidowicz as a Jewish historian and Neusner as a secular Judaic scholar face unique dilemmas and challenges. Davidowicz grapples with the puzzle of "returnees" to Judaism and Neusner ostracizes Orthodoxy. Davidowicz does not explain the essence of Orthodox leadership, whilst Neusner reduces the "Holocaust" to "psychological and social" dimensions.

Are there only historical and philosophical causes underlying the growth of Orthodox yeshivas, kehillas (communities), and Jewish day schools? Dare one look for "religious" explanations for the war, the "returnees", and the rise of Orthodox Jewish education? To obtain a fuller perspective, and even greater objectivity, one must at least take note of some conclusions expressed by those who stood at the heart of the movement.

Torah conclusions, Rav Yitzchok Hutner as an example

In his classic study, The World of the Yeshiva (1982), the Jewish sociologist William Helmreich (1945–2020) states that "to the extent that successful movements often have great leadership, Rabbi [Yitschok] Hutner exemplified this requirement". Rabbi Isaac (Yitzchok) Hutner (1906–1980) was "one of the most brilliant and dynamic figures ever to head an American yeshiva."

In response to the rise of interest in "Holocaust Studies", a group of about one hundred principals and rosh yeshivas of day schools and yeshivahs posed the following questions to Rabbi Hutner: Should the "Holocaust" be taught as a separate subject in Jewish History? Where indeed does the Holocaust "fit in" with the rest of Jewish history?

As recorded in an article 'Holocaust'--A Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe (published in the Jewish Observer, 1977), Rabbi Hutner "focused on significant aspects of the Churban (Holocaust) that were hitherto either little known or studiously avoided. " The response revealed an insight into the world of yeshivah leaders as they viewed the war and its significance for Jewish life and Jewish education.

Rabbi Hutner states: "By placing the Holocaust in its historical perspective, we shall uncover two new directions in recent Jewish history with reference to the gentile persecution of Jews." What is of interest to us is the statement that: "The first of these epochal changes involves the shift from generations of gentile mistreatment of Jews, which, if unwelcome, was nevertheless expected and indeed announced by our oppressors--to an era where promises of equality were made and then broken, rights were granted and then revoked, benevolence was anticipated, only to be crushed by cruel malevolence."

Citing historical examples, Rabbi Hutner shows that France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and England with its Balfour Declaration of 1917, held out the hope to Jews that their plight was finally being addressed, only to end in disappointment. "Although these reversals are dramatic and telling enough of themselves, they pale in the face of the retractions and total turnabouts made by the Germans in the 1920's and 30's."

Thus it came to be that following a period of trust, the culmination of this historical period was "the Holocaust, the largest scale annihilation of a people in history, yet resulting not from lawless hordes but flowing directly from legalized and formal governmental edicts."

What did this do to Jews? The conclusion of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg (1926–2007) in his classic work The Destruction of the European Jews (1973) is that: "The effect of the German destruction process on the position of Jewry within Christianity has been twofold: the Jews have been forced into a reappraisal of the past, and they have simultaneously developed apprehensions about the future. "

Rabbi Hutner's conclusion is similar, but writing from within the world of Torah Judaism and Orthodoxy, he begins to reach out towards specific conclusions: "The end-result of this period for the Jewish psyche was a significant--indeed, crucial--one. From trust in the gentile world, the Jewish nation was cruelly brought to a repudiation of that trust. In a relatively short historical period, disappointment in the non-Jewish world was deeply imprinted upon the Jewish soul."

Rabbi Hutner goes a step further: "Our new understanding of the essence of our era allows us some comprehension of the phenomenon of our 'age of baalei-teshuva' ", literally, "age of 'returnees' ". Davidowicz has noted that this phenomenon "became a commonplace phenomenon", and that when the "counterculture began to seduce young Jews, the Habad movement of the Lubavitch Hasidim undertook to save their souls. Other sectarian Orthodox groups followed suit. They..tempted them with authenticity, with a return to wholeness by way of their own tradition and a community of love among their own people."

Rabbi Hutner emphasizes, that it is not a single movement or group of movements that have created this state of "return", but the mark of an era or epoch: "It has oft been noted that teshuva seems to 'be in the air', and indeed the many movements currently succeeding to an unprecedented degree in bringing Jews closer to Judaism are but a reflection of the fact that the very climate is permeated with a kind of teshuva-readiness. This climate is the result of the disappointment in gentiles which demolished the first stumbling-block to teshuva, and forced the recognition that "it is because my God has not been in my midst" that the awesome events of recent times have occurred."

The second of the two new directions in Jewish history in relation to gentile persecutions, according to Rabbi Hutner, has to do with the meeting of "East" and "West" in seeking the downfall of Jews. Beginning with the Mufti's close relationship with Hitler, a new trend emerges whereby "the nations of the Occident join forces with those of the East for the purpose of destroying Jews." This served to increase the sense of betrayal, and enhanced the prospects of Jews"'returning" to their traditional cultural and religious heritage.

Two important points are thus clarified: The Holocaust was a culmination of an identifiable pattern in modern Jewish history. It was also remarkable in that it induced a "change of heart" in.the Jewish people. It is therefore "an integral part of our history and we dare not isolate and deprive it of the monumental significance it has for us." That is why the mere label "The Holocaust" is not acceptable if it is taken to mean an isolated catastrophe disembodied from the rest of Jewish history.

What then are the implications of this era for the teaching of Jewish history and Jewish education in general? In the light of events, important criteria emerge for Jewish educators: "Much of our education has been permeated with the 'sunny side of Judaism', resulting from a cowardice and failure of will to deal with the misfortunes of Klal Yisroel at our peril, we ignore the fact that there are three different portions of...rebuke in the Torah." As a first step, the advice to all Jewish educators is that: "We must learn these parts of the Torah with our children as well as the "sunnier" portions. These portions must become as much a part of the Jewish psyche as the mitzvos we strain so hard to imbue. Thus, when a Jewish-child--or indeed, adult--hears for the first time of Yiddishe tzaros--the sufferings of Jewish people--he will not be shocked by a contradiction to what he has learned, but will see the living proof of the Torah he has absorbed."

This is part of the "formula" whereby Orthodox Jewry places the events of 1939-1945 in a perspective that does not lead to alienation. We see too that in America of the 1970s, Rabbi Hutner was stressing the same principles stressed by Rabbi E. B. Wasserman (1874-1941) in the 1930s: "...It becomes apparent in the final analysis, that the reason for our present plight, unparalleled in Jewish history, must be attributed to the abandonment of the study of Torah."

On the positive side, "the Renaissance of Torah must start with the small child, for youth is the foundation of a nation, particularly in these days, when parents are influenced by their children ...We are witness to the fact that in homes where there is a son who is a Torah student, a beneficial influence is wrought upon the parents to mould their lives in accordance with Torah, and vice versa." From this it is again clear that no matter how great the tragedy that befalls the Jewish people, its traditional teachers always extracted the "lesson to be learnt" and applied themselves accordingly.

Since it is the Jewish educator who carries the primary responsibility of ensuring that the events that befell Jewry during the Second World War be translated into effective Jewish educational practice, his position and role require clarification. Within the framework of Torah Orthodoxy the teacher of Torah has a unique position. In a talk at a special study session for Jewish day school teachers in 1959, subsequently published as "A Shiur in Hilchos Chinuch" (1959), being a "Discourse in the Laws of Education--Clarifying Some Basic Torah Concepts in the Rearing of Jewish School Children", Rabbi Hutner stated: "It has become a universally accepted notion, recurrently expressed in refrain-like fashion by writers of the history of education, to note with pride the fact that in the time of Yehoshua ben Gamla there already existed amongst Jews zwang-schule, a law of compulsory education or compulsory schooling. We should like to state clearly and openly that this entire notion is false and misleading."

What then transpired in the times of Yehoshua ben Gamla (c.60 C.E.)? Approximately nineteen hundred years ago, the "spiritual structure" of the Jewish home suffered deterioration. "The father's house somehow lost its fundamental power of effective vitality in bringing up Jewish children." It was then that Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted the system of child-schooling. "That is, he transformed the pattern of Jewish upbringing from tinokos shel beis-avhan to tinokos shel beis-rabban--from that of the father's home-house to the Rebbi's school-house." It is stressed that for Jews, it remained no more than a necessary adjustment to adverse circumstances.

The upshot for the Jewish melamed (teacher), is that he should "never fall prey to the self-imposed predisposition of considering himself a 'professional', because deep within his soul he feels that he is no more than a 'stand-in' for the child's father; rabban--the child's Rebbi--in place of avhan--his 'daddy'. And one cannot be a father by profession! " There is a "specifically unique excellence" that can be attributed to the Jewish teachers (melamdim) of our day, greater than in past history. "For, that which was at all other times a special case amongst melamdim has become today the usual day-to-day occurrence. The melamdim of today must be prepared to bridge the gaps of many 'missing links'."

This small sample of thought reflects the deep commitment to Jewish education by those who stood at the head of the traditional Jewish schools. We see that in spite of the catastrophes brought about by the war, there was a redoubling of effort to regain that which was lost. The overriding conclusion must be that at the center of the rise of Orthodoxy in America there stood a nucleus of outstanding educators. They came to America as Europe sank into the darkness of war and genocide. Some saw the darkness descend and realized that since America was a refuge, Orthodoxy would find its niche there too, and, find room to grow. Others were forcibly thrust across the oceans onto the American scene as they fled Europe at the height of the war.

These extraordinary personalities lived with a dual vision of what had once been, and what should ideally be. Their actions on behalf of Jewish education in the present grew out of this dual vision, based on the teachings of the Jewish sages, chazal. They sought to re-establish and secure the link between the generations of the past and of the future.

The rise of Orthodoxy in America after the Second World War attests to the efficacy and viability of unspoiled and undiluted Jewish and Torah tradition in the most modern, and perhaps, darkest of times. In spite of obstacles and barriers, the pattern of growth continues. Those who helped this growth, lived with the knowledge that the Torah is compared to light, and that "a little light dispels much darkness". It remains to be seen to what extent that "light" will shine in America and the world.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.

He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy. Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]