Tu B’Shevat is the 25th yahrtzeit of Rav Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik zt”l, a charismatic Torah luminary who exuded scintillating warmth. Evoking no less than the sentiment of “nosi Elokim besocheinu,” the ambassador of Hashem is amongst us, he was a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef for three decades. He transferred to America and conferred upon American talmidim the majesty of Torah.
A measure of greatness of a rosh yeshiva is the quality of the relationship he establishes with his talmidim. Rabbi Warshavchik cherished every talmid, and that initial encounter in the bais medrash was only the beginning of a lifelong relationship of warmth and closeness.
His singular mission in life was to fashion talmidim. Many would have given him the highest praise for producing baalei batim who would be shomrei Torah umitzvos, but he often said, “My goal is nothing less than to produce roshei yeshivos.” Not all of his talmidim became roshei yeshivos, although many did, but for many talmidim, he managed to implant in them a yearning to aspire for greatness in Torah, to make Torah the central part of their lives, and to be supporters of Torah.
He was sent away from home before his bar mitzvah to learn in the Litvishe yeshivos even though his father was a Gerrer chossid. He was a talmid muvhak of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l, from whom he received one of his semichos. He learned in Kamenitz and Mir, and, during World War II, fled with the Mirrer Yeshiva to Japan and China. He arrived in San Francisco by boat via the Pacific Ocean during the summer of 1946 and then traveled to New York. The morning after his arrival in New York, he was told that Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef was looking for a rosh yeshiva. When the legendary menahel, Rabbi Hillel Weiss zt”l, first set eyes on Rav Warshavchik, his immediate and spontaneous reaction was to make a Shehecheyanu, b’Sheim uMalchus, and exclaim, “El hana’ar ha’zeh hispalalti.” Thus began a thirty-year tenure in the famous “Mamma Yeshiva,” Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef.
In 1946, it was a challenge to transform an American boy into a ben Torah. Learning was not in style, and it was a lifestyle that was denigrated by American baalei batim. Rav Warshavchik’s pedagogical style, dignity and princely bearing brought the royalty of Torah of the European roshei yeshivos to life in the classroom. When he gave shiur every day for over two hours, it was obvious that he saw his rebbi, Rav Boruch Ber, in front of his eyes. He imparted the love, respect and grandeur of Torah to his many talmidim with the brilliance of his shiurim and the warmth of his personality.
At the time, the young BMG was struggling. People were generally opposed to the idea of kollel, which many of them had not yet heard of. Rav Warshavchik convinced his best talmidim to go to the yeshiva of Rav Aharon Kotler. It was no small feat. Yet, gradually, the beauty of Torah study took root in the young American talmidim and the majesty of Torah began to blossom in America.
Among Rav Warshavchik’s talmidim are many of the eminent current roshei yeshivos in America and Eretz Yisrael. He took great pride in all his talmidim, many of whom are prominent rabbonim, marbitzei Torah, askonim, heads of leading Jewish organizations, businessmen and professionals, all supporters of Torah. Some have reached the height of their profession, and many now, upon retirement, are learning all day.
Among his talmidim is also the co-winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics, Professor Yisrael Aumann. When interviewed after winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Aumann said, “The teacher who influenced me most was Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik. He attracted me to the beauty of Talmudic study and the beauty of religious observance. Rav Warshavchik’s enthusiasm and intensity – the fire in his eyes – lit a fire in me also.”
Upon his arrival in Eretz Yisrael in 1978, where he was a beloved rosh yeshiva in Knesset Chizkiya in Kefar Chassidim for the last ten years of his life, Dr. Aumann’s son requested to meet Rav Warshavchik and learn with the “rebbi shel Abba.”
When Rabbi Aaron Levine zt”l, Rav Warshavchik’s son-in-law, was niftar in April 2011, a talmid of Rav Warshavchik, Dr. Shmuel Dworetsky, came from Monsey to pay a shivah call. Rabbi Levine’s family had last seen Dr. Dworetsky 23 years earlier, when he had eulogized his rosh yeshiva, Rav Warshavchik, at the shloshim. Upon entering the shivah house, the talmid proclaimed loudly over and over, “I’m here for rebbi. I’m here for rebbi,” a testament to the strong bond and lifelong relationship the rebbi had with his talmidim.
Rav Warshavchik had two prominent sons-in-law, each a scion of a great rabbinic dynasty. The late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine zt”l was a grandson of the Reisha Rov, descendent of the Bais Yitzchok, and Rabbi Eliyahu Soloveitchik shlit”a is a great-grandson of Rav Chaim Brisker.
Rav Warshavchik was a rosh yeshiva and a prince, and, for many, the rebbi shel Abba and the rebbi shel Sabba. He was a link to the majesty of the Torah world of yesteryear. He left an indelible mark on his talmidim that still evokes many years later the response, “I’m here for rebbi.”
Yehi zichro boruch.