The following interview with Rav Yitzchok Scheiner, rosh yeshiva of the Kamenitzer Yeshiva of Yerushalayim, is presented here today, on the 75th yahrtzeit of the Kamenitzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. The interview with Rav Scheiner was conducted by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen.
Kamenitz Yeshiva is one of the great Eastern European Torah centers that reestablished itself in Eretz Yisroel. The surviving remnant of the yeshiva arrived straight after the demise of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
The yeshiva that was to continue the tradition of Kamenitz was opened in Yerushalayim in 5702 (1942) by Rav Boruch Ber’s son-in-law HaRav Moshe Bernstein zt’l, and his brother- in-law HaRav Yaakov Moshe Leibowitz zt’l, Rav Boruch Ber’s son. Today, over sixty years later, the yeshiva is led by grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Rav Boruch Ber ztvk’l, who strive to perpetuate the approach and the spiritual legacy of their illustrious ancestor, author of Bircas Shmuel on Shas and one of the foremost Torah disseminators of his time.
The Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Yitzchok Scheiner, son-in-law of HaRav Moshe Bernstein, agreed to spend some time discussing the unique Kamenitz approach with us, as it used to be and as it finds expression today, several decades and several generations on and to speak generally about the role of the contemporary ben Torah.
A Direct Link
YN: Is there a direct relationship between the Yeshivas Kamenitz that was wiped out in the Holocaust and Yeshivas Kamenitz in Eretz Yisroel today?
HaRav Scheiner: The connection is a very firm one. To begin with, the roshei hayeshiva in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Boruch Ber’s son HaRav Yaakov Moshe, had already been delivering shiurim in Kamenitz in Europe in his father’s lifetime, as had his son-in-law HaRav Moshe Bernstein. In addition, a handful of talmidim managed to flee Europe and they came to Eretz Yisroel, resuming their learning in the yeshiva that opened here.
Between them, then, the roshei yeshiva and the surviving talmidim carried Rav Boruch Ber’s approach to Eretz Yisroel. To this day, the family and the talmidim attempt to perpetuate his legacy and his method of Torah study while adhering to the ideal of learning Torah in pristine purity, without compromise and without submitting to any damaging contemporary pressures.
During its first years, survivors of the war arrived – talmidim who had escaped Europe with their lives. Together with an excellent group of students from Eretz Yisroel, they breathed new life into the spiritual atmosphere that prevailed then in Yerushalayim. The yeshiva relocated several times until it found permanent premises and it did not take long for it to gain its fine reputation that has spread far and wide.
The finest talmidei chachomim in Yerushalayim of those days learned in the yeshiva in its first period. There was also a distinguished kollel attached to the yeshiva, where an outstanding group of talmidei chachomim learned. In time, most of its members went on to disseminate Torah and yiras Shomayim throughout Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora.
YN: Who were the talmidim of Yeshivas Kamenitz that survived?
HaRav Scheiner: Many talmidim remained alive after the yeshiva in Europe closed; a few of them are still with us today – may they enjoy long and blessed years – such as the mashgiach HaRav Gedaliah Eisemann of Kol Torah, HaRav A. Dolinsky, whose home was in Kamenitz and others.
Among the talmidim of the yeshiva who settled in Eretz Yisroel and became renowned throughout the Torah world were HaRav Nochum Partzowitz zt’l, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Nochum Lasman zt’l, and the Gateshead mashgiach HaRav Moshe Schwab zt’l. There was also a group from Grodno Yeshiva that came to learn under Rav Boruch Ber. Among this group were HaRav Eliyahu Mishkovsky zt’l, HaRav Shraga Grosbard zt’l, and ylct’a HaRav Tzvi Markowitz.
Some of them related their own memories of times they spent with Rav Boruch Ber. For example, HaRav Aryeh Leib Grosnass zt’l, the London dayan who learned in Kamenitz, told me, “I was a young boy in Kamenitz Yeshiva and I was having problems with my passport because I had been born in Poland and had moved to Germany. During that time, when I was in constant fear of being conscripted into the army, even the sight of the shiny buttons on the uniform of a passing policeman would give me a terrible scare.
“One day, several Polish policemen appeared in the beis hamedrash. Without hesitation, I jumped straight out of the window and ran to shelter in a hiding place. For some reason, my jumping out of the window had many repercussions in and around the yeshiva. In my distress, I went to my teacher and rebbe, Rav Boruch Ber, to ask him what I ought to do.
“I went into the Rebbe’s room and told him the whole story of my problem with the passport, asking for his advice. Rav Boruch Ber sat there, tears streaming from his eyes. He said, ‘Forgive me, my dear son. You’ve been telling me your problems for a quarter of an hour – but what can I do? My mind is completely taken up at the moment by a difficult Rashba. I didn’t hear a single word that you said, but I understand that you are in trouble. I can’t help you. Go to my son-in-law Reb Reuven. He, in his great wisdom, will give you good advice.’ And that is what happened.”
What does being immersed in a difficult Rashba entail?
Rav Boruch Ber demonstrated that it means that one’s mind isn’t at leisure to see or to understand anything besides the Rashba! The mind is shut off to anything else and can take nothing else in. Yet the heart still grasps that there is a young boy here with a serious problem.
The heart responds in its own way even while the mind, which is absorbed elsewhere can’t grasp what the pain is about and what the problem is. The heart still understands its own language and can arouse tears.
YN: What does the name Kamenitz represent?
HaRav Scheiner: ‘Kamenitz’ means sacrificing oneself for Torah. It means having the example of Rav Boruch Ber’s love of Torah before one’s eyes, seeing his tremendous devotion and application, and living with the awareness that without Torah there is no life.
The story is told that once at a meeting, Rav Boruch Ber heard one of the speakers describe Torah as oxygen and air to breathe. He got up straight away and silenced the speaker. “No, no, Torah isn’t air to breathe. Torah is life itself! Without Torah there’s no life. And Torah itself is a potion of death for whoever doesn’t merit it.”
On another occasion he commented after someone had spoken in terms of two paths: the Torah path which leads a person to everything good and the non-Torah path which leads to sorrow and grief.
The Rosh Yeshiva said that portraying things in that way is a distortion. For example he said, if there is a normal, flat road that leads into a city and there is another parallel road that is overgrown with thorns and briars that leads into an abyss adjacent to the city – can it be said that there are two roads into the city? There’s only one road that leads into the city. It is a delusion to imagine that the other one is a road or that it leads to the city.
“Once the wicked empire decreed that Yisroel should not occupy themselves with Torah. Pappus ben Yehuda came and found that Rabbi Akiva was forming crowds in public and engaging in Torah. He asked him, ‘Akiva, aren’t you afraid of the authorities?’
“He replied, ‘I’ll draw you a parable, to which you can liken our situation. A fox was walking along a river bank and saw a shoal of fish moving from place to place.’
“He asked them, ‘From what are you trying to escape?’
“They told him, ‘From the nets that humans spread to trap us.’
“He said to them, ‘If you like, come up onto the dry land and we’ll live together like my ancestors used to live with yours.’
“They replied, ‘Are you supposed to be the shrewdest of animals? You aren’t clever; you’re a fool. If we are afraid while we are in the medium upon which our lives depend, how much more will we have to fear if we go to a place where we will die.’
“So it is with us. If this is what happens when we sit and occupy ourselves with Torah, which the posuk says, “is your life and the length of your days,” (Devorim 30:20) were we to neglect Torah, how much greater would our troubles be!’ ” (Brochos 61)
Rav Boruch Ber once asked the following question on this Gemora: There is only an obligation to sacrifice one’s life to avoid transgressing the three stringent aveiros – idolatry, immorality and murder. Moreover, one may not give up one’s life for other mitzvos, because of the command to ‘live by them’ (Vayikra 18:5). How then, was Rabbi Akiva permitted to endanger his life and to gather crowds of people together for Torah study?
He explained that in Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, Torah’s survival would come about through learning it with crowds in public. There was no other way to continue life. This was the way to ensure Torah’s continuity at that time. Torah would only be saved, in Rabbi Akiva’s view, by making the sacrifice to learn with talmidim. Since Torah’s survival depended upon this, he sacrificed himself for Torah’s sake.
Changing Times, Unchanging Ideals
YN: How does our world differ from Rav Boruch Ber’s?
HaRav Scheiner: The Holocaust left Klal Yisroel bereft of its gedolim. Beforehand, there were many great Torah scholars; those who mercifully remained to lead the coming generations were the ones whom Divine providence had selected to guard the path of Torah that has been transmitted from generation to generation and pass it on in all its pristine purity.
Those gedolim, who are no longer with us, lived and learned in a different world. They were the products of generations that toiled mightily in Torah. The environment used to be such as gave rise to such truly great figures.
That kind of stature no longer exists; everything must be built up from scratch. The degree of application to learning that once existed also differed fundamentally from that of nowadays. One of the reasons for this is that there used to be nothing besides Torah with which to be occupied. Many diversions beckon today; there is even an array of religious newspapers. Easy possibilities exist for emerging from single- minded immersion in the tent of Torah.
We have been promised that Torah “will not go forgotten from the mouths of their descendants” (Devorim 31:21) and within the Torah world there is great love of Torah that is still in the process of unfolding. Boruch Hashem, there are tens of thousands sitting at their shtenders, applying themselves to in-depth learning. Torah and the Torah way of life are their main interest. They are like a wall of rock, withstanding all the trials and temptations that are so close to us nowadays.
Esteem of the ben Torah and of the yeshiva has greatly increased over the past generation. Whereas it once used to be no great honor to be numbered among the bnei yeshiva – to the point where it was said that a young woman with a blemish would become the wife of a ben yeshiva – today, interest in a serious, scholarly, ben Torah is very respectable. A fine bochur raises the status of his entire family.
Yet neither should we forget that Rav Boruch Ber had colleagues who left the Torah path, because of the accursed Enlightenment and its goals, people like Bialik and his friends who learned together with him, in the same period, in Volozhin Yeshiva.
Each period’s trials are matched to the generation’s strengths. Perhaps that is the very reason why those who clung to the Tree of Life attained such tremendously high levels of Torah.
Another profound difference between the generations is the comfort and the abundance that exist in our time, as opposed to the terrible poverty and the tremendous want that used to be the lot of bnei Torah and of the yeshivos. Apparently, Torah that is learned in difficult circumstances endows one with wonderful attributes that confer Torah greatness. I think that in those places where there isn’t such abundance and economic ease, such as in the places where true bnei Torah live, there is more Torah than in other places.
It should also be noted that Rav Boruch Ber’s righteousness and piety and the beauty of his character were beyond our comprehension. Members of his family relate stories of his acts of kindness and his boundless giving to others. He was always devising ways to avoid causing any pain or anguish to others and ways to help others, as far as was possible.
A Builder Of Torah
YN: Where did the Rosh Yeshiva learn in his youth?
HaRav Scheiner: I learned in the United States, in Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, from Rav Reuven Grozovsky zt’l, Rav Boruch Ber’s son-in-law and from Rav Shlomo Heiman zt’l. There was a group of students who would go to Lakewood to hear Rav Aharon Kotler’s shiurim and I sometimes joined them. Some of them stayed on afterwards to learn there permanently, among them HaRav Elya Svei. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, made my shidduch.
Eventually, when I came to Eretz Yisroel, I learned with my father-in-law, HaRav Moshe Bernstein who taught all who saw him what love of Torah is and how one should be immersed in Torah study at all times. HaRav Yisroel Grossman, one of the yeshiva’s finest products, related that in his youth there was terrible poverty in his home and it was suggested that he go to work at diamond polishing in order to provide support. Rav Moshe Bernstein heard about this and accepted him into the yeshiva immediately and, moreover, gave him a stipend to sustain him.
Once, Rav Grossman came to the Rosh Yeshiva’s home and delivered an original chaburah of his own. The Rosh Yeshiva enjoyed his Torah greatly and took out his wallet and took a handful of coins out of it which he gave to Rav Grossman without even counting. “That’s for the Torah, not for your regular stipend,” he told him. Rav Grossman adds, “The yeshiva’s circumstances were strained at the time, yet seeing what true love of Torah is greatly encouraged me.”
HaRav Boruch Dov Lichtenstein, a great grandson of Rav Boruch Ber, related, “I was once in a cab being driven by Yaakov Maman, a very elderly Sephardi who arrived in Eretz Yisroel as an only child, through the Jewish Agency. His mother insisted that he not go to learn in an irreligious institution. When Rav Moshe Bernstein found out about this, he placed the boy in a religious school and even gave him a room to sleep in, in the yeshiva. He took the mother in to work as a cook in the yeshiva’s kitchen. With tears in his eyes, Yaakov Maman told me, “The Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Moshe, was your grandfather, but he was my father.”
After the yeshiva opened it was situated in the Knesset neighborhood. At night, the Rosh Yeshiva himself would clean up. He wanted nothing for himself – he wore patched clothes – – but he wanted the best for others. His family still recalls his learning tune – an enchanting, moving melody. Apart from that, because of fear of an audience he didn’t sing in public.
His mind was continually occupied with Torah study and he would discuss Torah with whomever he met. On his trips abroad, he would immerse himself in learning at every spare moment, to the point where he sometimes forgot why he’d gone abroad.
Preserving A Heritage
YN: What is unique about Yeshivas Kamenitz in Yerushalayim?
HaRav Scheiner: Over the decades that I’ve been in the yeshiva, I don’t recall a single instance of a bochur going off the tracks! There is a tremendous force of Torah studied in all its purity here, without any modernity or compromise. On the whole, our students come from families of avreichim and bnei Torah; some are very distinguished Yerushalmi families, where the head of the family serves as a rosh yeshiva or maggid shiur etc. This affects the atmosphere in the entire yeshiva.
One of the roshei hayeshiva, HaRav Chaim Shlomo Leibovitz, a grandson of Rav Boruch Ber, has been delivering regular shiurim in the yeshiva for many years and has trained many talmidim. He has a widespread reputation as the transmitter of his grandfather’s approach, and bochurim come from other yeshivos to hear his Torah and to consult him.
Another figure who determined the yeshiva’s style for many years was my late brother-in-law HaRav Osher Lichtenstein zt’l, who led the yeshiva for decades. With his pleasant ways and character, he conveyed the ben Torah’s unique image, in immersion in in-depth learning.
Rav Osher learned from HaRav Shach zt’l in the yeshiva in Lunenitz and then he went to learn in yeshivas Mir, where he absorbed the learning approach of the rosh yeshiva and became close to the Mashgiach HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein, zt’l. There are letters that the Mashgiach wrote to Rav Osher expressing his great esteem for him.
When he arrived in Eretz Yisroel, the rosh yeshiva of Mir, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt’l, invited him to deliver a shiur in his yeshiva. Since Rav Osher’s petiroh, his son Rav Boruch Dov has succeeded him as rosh yeshiva.
There are over a thousand talmidim, kein yirbu, learning today in all the Kamenitz Institutions. There are kindergartens and a fine talmud Torah, in Rechov David in the Bukharian neighborhood, adjacent to Geula. There are also a yeshiva ketanoh, a yeshiva gedolah and a kollel for outstanding avreichim, all learning in the traditional way, in complete purity, without any compromise or admixture of modernity or innovation.
We could have spent many more hours with the Rosh Yeshiva but there was a light knock at the door. It was the Rebbetzin, a granddaughter of Rav Boruch Ber, who, as a girl, was fortunate to have seen her grandfather in her home immersed in learning and to have been acquainted with his luminous, warm personality.
“Your chavrusa is waiting” she said, and then added, “It’s all very nice, but there’s no substitute for Torah itself.”
That comment perhaps, is worth more than another thousand words in expressing the original and authentic Kamenitz spirit.
The History of Yeshivas Kamenitz
When HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor zt’l, the rov of Kovno, passed away in 5657 (1897), his son HaRav Tzvi Hirsch zt’l, who served as rov in several places, decided to establish a yeshiva in his father’s memory. The rov of Slobodka, HaRav Moshe Danishevsky zt’l, assisted Rav Tzvi Hirsch in opening the yeshiva, which was named Knesses Beis Yitzchok. HaRav Chaim Rabinovitz zt’l of Shad (who later became known as Reb Chaim Telzer) was chosen by the founders as the first rosh yeshiva.
After several years, the need arose to bring in an inspiring and charismatic maggid shiur to bring the yeshiva to the forefront of the great yeshivos that were then growing and developing. In 5664 (1904), on the recommendation of HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik zt’l, his foremost talmid HaRav Boruch Ber Leibovitz zt’l was chosen for the position.
There were two major yeshivos in Slobodka: Knesses Beis Yisroel and Knesses Beis Yitzchok. The first moved to Eretz Yisroel in 5686 (1926), settling in Chevron, but later moving to Yerushalayim after the bloody pogrom of 5689 (1929). In Knesses Beis Yitzchok, Rav Boruch Ber’s saintly personality served as a living mussar work, exemplifying the sublime character traits of a Torah giant.
Knesses Beis Yitzchok too, knew its share of suffering. During the First World War, when the Jews of Kovno and the surrounding area were sent into exile by order of Czar Nicholas, the yeshiva moved to Minsk, in White Russia. It was not there for long however before having to move again, finding temporary asylum in the town of Kremenchug. Even at this time, with death and suffering hovering over them, Rav Boruch Ber continued delivering his shiurim to the bnei hayeshiva from an underground cellar. Here, he managed to clarify several difficult topics and would often say later, “I developed my most profound chiddushim during that dreadful period in Kremenchug in 5678 (1917- 8).”
After much wandering and tribulation, the yeshiva arrived in one of the suburbs of Vilna, where HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt’l undertook its maintenance until the troubles subsided. The yeshiva remained in Vilna for five years. Then, upon the advice of the Chofetz Chaim zt’l, it reestablished itself in the town of Kamenitz, which is near Brisk.
In Elul 5686 (1926), the yeshiva in its entirety moved to Kamenitz and settled there. This was the beginning of the yeshiva’s most fruitful period. In 5699 (1939), there were 306 talmidim learning in the yeshiva itself, another fifty in the yeshiva ketanoh, a further fifty in the mechinah leyeshiva as well as seven fine avreichim in the kollel. All in all, there were 413 talmidim in the yeshiva’s institutions.
Rav Boruch Ber appointed his sons-in-law, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and Rav Moshe Bernstein, and his son Rav Yaakov Moshe as maggidei shiur in the yeshiva and they shared the heavy financial burden with him, as well as delivering shiurim to the many talmidim.
When the Second World War broke out, the Germans overran Poland and the tragic consequences are well known. The yeshiva’s leaders and the talmidim fled to Vilna, which teemed with refugees, among them numerous rabbonim and talmidei yeshiva who sought shelter with Rav Chaim Ozer.
The wanderings and the worrying took their toll on Rav Boruch Ber, robbing him of his health and bringing on an illness from which he never recovered. With a heart full of pain and anguish, he sensed the cataclysmic Holocaust that was about to cut off a sizable portion of the Jewish People, his finest talmidim and bnei yeshiva among them. On yom chamishi at night, the fifth of Kislev 5700, his heart could no longer hold out and his soul ascended heavenward. He was seventy years old when he died. The rabbonim of Vilna and the thousands of refugees in the city accompanied him to his final resting place.
Most of the talmidim of the yeshiva perished in the Holocaust. Rav Boruch Ber’s sons and sons-in-law assumed leadership of the remnant of the yeshiva, traveling with them through Japan and China until they arrived in Eretz Yisroel. Some of the bnei hayeshiva went to America with Reb Reuven while others settled in Eretz Yisroel with Rav Moshe Bernstein and Rav Yaakov Moshe Leibovitz.
The roshei hayeshiva in Eretz Yisroel lost no time in gathering the handful of talmidim and establishing Yeshivas Knesses Beis Yitzchok – Kamenitz in Yerushalayim. Within a short time, some tens of talmidim were learning there. The war was raging in Europe and rivers of Jewish blood were being spilt, but these firebrands that had been plucked from the flames were already a source of comfort for the immense destruction that was taking place.
Leadership of the yeshiva, which Rav Boruch Ber entrusted to his son-in-law and son, passed after their petiros to their own sons and sons-in-law, who continue their work: HaRav Yitzchok Scheiner, HaRav Chaim Shlomo Leibovitz, HaRav Osher Lichtenstein zt’l and today his son Rav Boruch Dov Lichtenstein ylct’a. HaRav Moshe Aharon Stern zt’l served as the menahel ruchani for many years. Today’s maggidei shiur are Rav Avrohom Scheiner, Rav Yaakov Krausz and Rav Yisroel Eliezer Grozovsky.