The first national Jewish organization to pioneer Jewish day schools in the US, at a time when European Jewry was facing the genocide of the Holocaust, was Torah Umesorah. It was founded by R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, who maintained that without Torah education there would be, within one generation, nothing left of Torah observance in America. Just as Bnei Yisrael were left to die in the desert after the sin of the meraglim and only their children were permitted to enter the Holy Land and continue the legacy of the Jewish people, American Jewry was now the largest Jewish community in the world, and for every Torah school in Europe that had been destroyed, he was determined to build a new one in America.
In an anonymous proclamation published in the Jewish Morning Journal on Rosh Chodesh Elul of 5705 (1945), R’ Shraga Feivel gave expression to the sense of desperation that was driving him. It consisted of his understanding of the situation with his fellow Jews. In large type at the top of the page was a pasuk from Yeshayahu: “My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, said Hashem.” R’ Shraga Feivel explicitly linked the overwhelming tragedy suffered by European Jewry with the demands of the hour. While it was too late to bring the millions of Jews slaughtered in Europe back to life, he acknowledged, it was still possible to create a vibrant Yiddishkeit in America. “Will we let the golden chain of Torah going all the way back to Sinai come to an end in this land of freedom!?” The future of Torah Jewry, he insisted, was in the hands of the Jews of America. Only at the bottom of the page, in very small print, did the words “Torah Umesorah” appear at all: “Talking to you is a Jew whose heart bleeds for the physical and spiritual devastation of our generation, and who hopes that Torah will be built in America in the spirit of Torah Umesorah (tradition).”
The early Torah Umesorah survived on idealism and little else. The founding of a day school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, provides an example of R’ Shraga Feivel’s inspirational role in the organization. The proclamation placed in the Jewish Morning Journal had caught the attention of a few Yiddish-speaking Jews from the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. Somehow, they had heard of Torah Umesorah and they wrote seeking assistance in creating a day school in St. Paul.
One cold wintry day in 1946, as R’ Shraga Feivel, accompanied by his talmid Bernard Goldenberg, walked from the Torah Umesorah office in lower Manhattan to the Williamsburg bus stop, R’ Shraga Feivel took the letter from Minnesota out of his pocket and showed it to Goldenberg. When Goldenberg had finished reading it, R’ Shraga Feivel suggested that he travel to Minnesota to get them started. To Goldenberg’s protest that he had no idea how to even get to Minnesota, R’ Shraga Feivel quipped, “Are you too lazy to find out?” And to his next plea that he had no clue as to how to begin a day school once he arrived, R’ Shraga Feivel simply suggested that he look up the Jew who had written the letter to Torah Umesorah.
Two buses to Williamsburg passed and Goldenberg was still not convinced. Finally, R’ Shraga Feivel smiled wearily at his talmid and expressed his hope that there would yet come a day when they would say about him what Yirmiyahu had said about klal Yisrael. His curiosity piqued, Goldenberg asked R’ Shraga Feivel to tell him what Yirmiyahu had said.
A big smile on his face, R’ Shraga Feivel replied, “Yirmiyahu said: ‘I recall for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.’” He repeated the last phrase, “b’eretz lo z’ruah, into an unsown land.” Placing his hand on Goldenberg’s shoulder, he said, in a play on words, “Go to Minnesota, go out to a land where the ‘lo’ (not) – the negativism, the disbelief – is sown (z’ruah). Go to that wilderness and start a school.”
R’ Shraga Feivel knew full well that it was deeply and firmly implanted in the consciousness of American Jews that Torah Judaism cannot be sown in America, but he would not accept such defeatism – and Bernie Goldenberg would not accept it either. The young man accepted his marching orders and the result was a day school in Minnesota that same year, the first of many schools to be founded by Rabbi Goldenberg all across the country.
(Adapted from: “A Land Not Sown” from Memorable Encounters by Dr. J. Kaminetzky)
By R’ Dovid Hoffman