By Rabbi Yaakov M. Dombroff
On the fourth of Teves 5756, December 27,1995, world Jewry suffered the loss of one of its great leader and teacher, HaGaon HaRav Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, the Rav of the Elizabeth, New Jersey community. Rabbi Teitz was a unique individual, blending vast Torah scholarship with communal activism and an intense concern for the welfare of the individual. He combined the key elements of the classical European Rav — master of halacha, leader of the Kehilla, teacher of its children, guardian of its kashrus — and applied them to the American scene with consummate effectiveness. Originally published June 1996
I. European Years
Rabbi Teitz, born on 8 Tammuz 5668 (July 10, 1908) in Subat, Latvia, to Rabbi Binyamin Avraham and Shaina Sara, was destined to become the family’s twentieth-consecutive-generation rabbi. Reb Binyamin Avraham served as the rabbi of both the Chassidic and non-Chassidic communities of Subat. His ability to successfully work with and guide people of varied backgrounds and divergent interests was passed on to his son, Reb Mordechai Pinchas.
When Rabbi Teitz was 7 years old, the family moved to Livinhoff, 40 kilometers from Dvinsk, home of two Gedolei Hador, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohein, author of the Ohr Same’ach and the Meshech Chachma, and Rabbi Yoseif Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon. His father had a close relationship with the Rogatchover who, in turn, had tremendous respect for him. When people came to the Rogatchover for his beracha he would often refer them to the Rav of Livenoff, saying, “Go to Binyamin HaTzaddik.”
At the age of 14, Rabbi Teitz made his first trip to Dvinsk and developed his own relationship with both Reb Meir Simcha and the Rogatchover, with whom he established a profound bond. He eventually became a ben bayis, a virtual resident at the home of the Rogatchover, and learned with him for four years. Some years later, when the Rogatchover was ill, Rabbi Teitz went to visit him. The Rebbetzin was turning away all visitors, but when the Rogatchover heard Rabbi Teitz’s voice, he called out, inviting him to enter. (During that visit, the Rogatchover received his mail, consisting of twenty-five postcards and twelve letters with halachic inquiries. He answered all thirty-seven as rapidly as he could write, without consulting any sefer.)
Rabbi Teitz’s relationship with Reb Meir Simcha also bore precious fruit. Reb Meir Simcha had written his classic Meshech Chachma on Chumash at the age of 17. His father feared that if he were to publish it, he would be thought of as a darshan, an expert in homiletics, rather than a lamdan, an analytical scholar. So he instructed his son not to publish his work until he produced a sefer with lomdus. Reb Meir Simcha left the Meshech Chachma aside even after he published the Ohr Some’ach, his widely acclaimed commentary on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. He confided to the young Rabbi Teitz that to his regret, he lacked the strength to edit Meshech Chachma. Rabbi Teitz suggested a young man in Slabodka, Rabbi Avraham David Yoffe, who did edit the work, now recognized as one of the great commentaries on Chumash.
As a youngster, Rabbi Teitz attended the Yeshivah in Ponovezh. While there, he was very disturbed by the inroads being made into the Orthodox world by the Bundists, Communists, secularists and others. In an effort to stem this growing tide, at the age of 14 he started a yeshiva in Livinhoff, as a project of Zeirei Agudath Israel. He named this institution Yavneh, after the city of Yavneh, seat of the Sanhedrin in the days of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Teitz also named subsequent organizations and yeshivos “Yavneh — such as the yeshivah he founded in Elizabeth (the third day school built in the United States outside of the city of New York), and the movement he helped created to service Jewish youth on college campuses.
According to his brother, Rabbi Elchonon Teitz, Rav in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, the Teitz family was very active in the Agudath Israel movement in Europe. They took great pride in their uncle, Rabbi Eliyahu Akiva Rabinovitz, Paltaver Rav who was founder, editor and publisher of the Agudath Israel’s monthly journal, Hapelles, as well as its weekly Hamodia. He was also a leading speaker at the founding conference of Agudath Israel in Katowicz, 1912. Rabbi Teitz himself campaigned with Mordechai Dubin and Shimon Yitzchok Wittenberg, Agudath Israel representatives to the Sjem, the Polish Parliament, to help ensure full Agudah representation. In addition, he also worked with Rabbi Chaim Chodakoff who was the principal of the Torah V’Derech Eretz Gymnasium, secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and representative of Agudath Israel to the Riga City Council. His involvement included his going on a lecture tour around Latvia before elections, campaigning on behalf of Agudath Israel.
The public persona that he developed in his youth brought him to the attention of the Telshe1 Roshei Yeshiva. In 1933, at age 25, he responded to their request, and accompanied Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch to the United States to raise funds for Telshe Yeshiva. This was to be a major turning point in Rabbi Teitz’s life. He had promised his father that he would return to Europe — which he did, with his bride. During his travels in America, someone suggested as a match Basya Preil, daughter of Rabbi Elazar Mayer Preil, the recently deceased rabbi of Elizabeth, New Jersey.2
Rabbi Preil had left instructions that if the individual marrying his daughter would be worthy he should succeed him as rabbi of Elizabeth. Rabbi Teitz was eminently qualified.
With his ascension to the rabbinate of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a new chapter began in the life of Rabbi Teitz, which was to affect Klal Yisroel around the globe.
II. Rav of Elizabeth
American Orthodoxy was losing its youth — in part because the rabbis of the time simply did not speak their language. Rabbi Teitz felt it vital to communicate in English. At first, he would sit down with his Rebbetzin, who was American born, and tell her his derasha. She would translate his thoughts into English, which she would then transliterate in Hebrew letters. He then spoke, appearing to be fluent in English. He would read The New York Times daily with a dictionary at his elbow, until he developed full command of the language.
Rabbi Elazar Mayer Teitz relates that he asked his father why he had insisted on maintaining a full rabbinate in a small town like Elizabeth, New Jersey, rather than accepting a more prestigious, though limited, position in a larger, more prominent city. The Rav explained his attitude by recalling how in 1936 the League of Nations debated Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia publicly denounced Italy and called upon the League of Nations to impose sanctions. Italian delegates were outraged, asserting that the mayor of a city had no right to make such political statements. Interestingly, the final vote in the censure fell to Luxembourg, a county of 100,000 people. It had attained far more as a small, independent county than the mayor of the great metropolis of eight million people. Rabbi Teitz felt he would make a greater contribution by accepting full responsibility for the needs of an entire small community than as one Rav among many, or as one participant in a larger organization.
Rabbi Teitz explained further that the principle is recognized in halacha, as well. If one has before him a complete small loaf of bread and a broken larger one, the beracha is pronounced on the whole loaf.
Of course, the Rav worked within many organizations, including Agudath Israel of America whose national conventions he graced many times over the years. Rabbi Teitz was instrumental in the founding and maintenance of Agudath Israel of New Jersey. His constant advice and support helped the organization through many difficult victories and successes, including the passage of an autopsy law, the inclusion of a religious exemption and amendment to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (time of death) and aid to yeshivos.
He served as treasurer of Ezras Torah for over 30 years, and was on the presidium of Agudas Harabonim with Rabbi Eliezer Silver and Rabbi Dovid Lifschitz for 12 years. When he had made one of his first public appearances in America, he so excited the crowd that Agudas Harabonim immediately sought him for a leadership position. He was too young then to serve on the executive committee, so they created an executive board of which he was appointed chairman.
With Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky Rabbi Teitz was co-founder of Merkaz Harabonim, in the early 1980’s.
Whenever and wherever he saw a need, he filled it — a leader and a doer in its fullest sense.
The Full Range of Concern
Under Rabbi Teitz, Elizabeth provided a full spectrum of spiritual, educational, social and communal services. These included, among others, shuls, schools (K-12 for boys and girls), mikveh, shechita, kashrus, eiruv, Chevra Kadisha, and a cemetery plot for the asking.
He saw the welfare of each resident as his personal concern. He accepted the blessings and burdens of his role with equanimity, even dealing with the woman who delighted in telling her troubles to everyone she met. While other people crossed the street when they saw her, the Rav invariably took the time to let her unburden herself to him. She would call him on a regular basis, and although every minute of his day was precious, he would spend as much as an hour at a time on the phone listening to her litany of problems.
As he established himself in Elizabeth, the horrors of Nazism blackened Europe. During World War II, his concern for the individual placed him in the forefront of the Vaad Hatzalah (The Rescue Committee) together with other rabbinic luminaries, including the legendary Rabbi Eliezer Silver, tirelessly working to save European Jewry. The Jewish Educational Center (J.E.C.), comprising the shuls and schools of Elizabeth, was instrumental in helping stranded Jews enter the country. By offering teaching positions, the Rav was able to bring over many people who would otherwise have perished. After the war, he was one of the Orthodox rabbinate’s representatives visiting the Displaced Persons Camps, helping shape European Jewry’s rehabilitation.
Recognizing the isolation of Soviet Jewry, in 1964 Rabbi Teitz made the first of twenty-two trips to the USSR; it was the first crack in the Iron Curtain. Because he refused to allow any publicity about his visits, he was able to win the trust and tacit cooperation of the Soviet authorities. Surprisingly, the Rav was at times severely criticized by establishment groups for “giving aid and comfort” to the Soviet government because he went as their official guest — in contrast to the confrontational tactics of other pro-Soviet Jewry activists.
Rabbi Teitz’s purity of motive in his work in the Soviet Union is perhaps best seen through the experiences of Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, the “father” of the Russian Baal Teshuvu movement, as related by him at a hazkara-memorial gathering held for the Ruv. Rabbi Essas first met Rabbi Teitz on Tisha B’Av 5733 (1973), after having heard the Rav read Megillas Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Rabbi Essas felt as though he were hearing Yirmiyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Jeremiah, reading the Megilla. Their time together was always limited to an hour or two for various reasons, not the least of which was constant KGB surveillance. The Rav tried not to overwhelm Rabbi Essas with his own knowledge, but rather downplayed his true stature. In spite of the risks, Rabbi Teitz met with some twenty-five of Essas’s students. They were greatly encouraged by Rabbi Teitz, a man they viewed as a “Mishnah Berurah V’Halacha Berurah L’Doreinu” — the embodiment of Torah for our time. As their link to the outside world, the Rav quoted to them the pasuk: “Hinei yamim ba’imne’um Hashem… . — Behold, days are coming, said G-d, when there will be a hunger not for bread nor for water, but for the word of Hashem” (Amos 8,ll). The teshuva movement was global, he said, and they were at the heart of it.
At the Knessia Gedolah (International Congress) of the Agudath Israel World Organization in Jerusalem in 1980, Rabbi Teitz struck a poignant note by reading a letter from Rabbi Essas to the gathering, bringing the issue to this prestigious forum.
Rabbi Teitz was always concerned with all segments of Klal Yisroel. In the early 1950’s he saw the influence of Yiddishists fading. In its heyday, this group would hold “Yom Kippur Balls.” The Rav realized that its members were advancing in years and thoughts of teshuvu were probably starting to haunt them. Having all their lives preached the value of Yiddish and the lack of value of Torah and religion, however, how could they now return? Rabbi Teitz felt that by bringing Torah into the privacy of their living rooms, they might respond without being forced into a public retreat from their lifelong-held position.3
It was with that in mind that Daf HaShavua was created in 1953.
Daf HaShavua was a half-hour program in which Rabbi Teitz taught Talmud.4 He started with Megilla, which contains much Aggadata (homiletical sections), to capture the hearts as well as the minds of his listeners. At the end of his first year of broadcast, he held a Melave Malka for the public to see who his listeners were. 1,400 people attended, including, among other Gedolim, the Ponevezer Rav and the Satmar Rav. Government statistics showed the listening audience to be between 175 – 250,000 people per week. (This was the McCarthy Era when the government monitored all foreign language broadcasts, including the Yiddish-language Daf HaShavua.)
The program aired on Saturday night, an unconventional time selected to avoid conflict with any other Rav’s class. A phenomenal success, the Daf was broadcast for thirty-six consecutive seasons.5
III Factors in Greatness
Always on the lookout for ways to disseminate Torah, Rabbi Teitz started Bas Kol, teaching Torah on phonograph records; though short-lived, it was the spiritual antecedent of today’s Torah-tape system.
When he first came to America with the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch, he undertook to learn no less than two hours daily. Although his communal activities made it very difficult, he maintained that regimen until the end of his life. His daughters recall that he would usually come home late at night, only to begin learning. From their bedrooms, they would hear him recite the Gemora with a sweet melody, accompanied by the gentle creak of his chair. When it would suddenly become quiet, they knew he had reached a difficult point; he would resume, and they knew the problem was resolved.
It was hard to figure out when he had time to learn. Forever snatching minutes here and there, he was, in fact, always learning. During his many plane trips, he would develop thoughts and ideas, jotting down notes… dubbing the file in which he placed them: “Torah Min Hashamayim, Torah from the heavens.”
- His grasp of Shas and poskim was remarkable. Rabbi Michel Yoseif Bomrind, a rebbi in the J.E.C., tells of when Rabbi Teitz saw a student walking in the hall and asked him why he was out of class. The boy told him that his rebbi had told him to find out how many times the word “pruzbul” appears in the Talmud. The Rav waved his hand in the air, as though running down a page of Gemora, and then told him, from memory, every Talmudic citation for pruzbul.
- When I moved to Elizabeth, I was in doubt as to where to place the mezuza on the doorway between my kitchen and dining room. I posed the question to the Rav in shul. As we walked from his shtender to his office some 100 feet, he began quoting the relevant Gemora in Menachos, verbatim. He continued his recitation, with explanation, while he retrieved the Gemora and found the appropriate place.
The Rav as a Leader
Rabbi Teitz was a man of action, in keeping with the dictum: “Lo hamedrash ha’ikar ella hama’aseh — Action, not study, is the main thing” (Avos 1:21). In his commentary on Mishlei (12,18), the Vilna Gaon writes that there are two kinds of leaders: one who reproves the people harshly but gives no suggestions for correction, and one who teaches a way to improve and correct what has gone awry. The Gaon states that the wise man says only that which is necessary to heal and for that which needs to be healed. Seeing a need for a national awakening of Orthodox Jewry in America, he published in Elul 5696 (1936) the first of a series of booklets entitled “Urah — Awaken” as a call to teshuva.
Rabbi Teitz felt strongly that every Jewish child was entitled to a Jewish education. At a Torah Umesorah convention in February 1968 (5728), he presented the Jewish Child’s Bill of Rights, which reaffirmed that right, and placed the responsibility of implementing this goal on the Jewish community.
He lived up to his own standard. No Jewish child has ever been turned away from J.E.C. for lack of funds. He looked to the community to support the institutions, maintain that young parents have so many bills to pay — pediatrician, dentist, shoes, clothing, and so on — that their children could not be denied access to a Torah education for lack of funds.6
His sheer force of personality is partially illustrated by an event that took place during his early years in America, related by Rabbi Yehoshua Yoseph Preil, his brother-in-law.
One of the wealthiest, most respected members of the community decided to buy a mausoleum for family interment, instead of in-ground burial as is required by halacha. Because of his standing in the community, people were reluctant to reproach him. The Rav, who lived his life based upon the pasuk: “Lo saguru mifnei ish” — to fear only G-d — summoned the individual and explained that his plan violated Jewish law. The man asked if the young rabbi could prove his point. The Rav compiled the relevant sources, had his Rebbetzin translate them into English and reviewed the material with that individual. He was convinced, and halted construction on the building midway. The partially built edifice still stands in mute testimony to Rabbi Teitz’s remarkable influence.
The Rav was a man of vision. When the J.E.C. needed a new structure in 1947, he studied the changing demographics of the metropolitan area, and decided to “skip” two neighborhoods and put up the new buildings in the uptown Elmora section of Elizabeth.
He was keenly aware that promoting Orthodoxy in the New Jersey suburbs meant battle against the Conservative and Reform7 institutions for the hearts of his congregants.
He believed that the shul should be a place of beauty l’chavod u’l’siferres (the shul won an architectural award for its sight and sound lines), and decorum was a must. His Slabodka Yeshiva training, emphasizing the majesty of the individual, was reflected in his own regal bearing and in the upkeep of the institutions over which he presided.
Rabbi Teitz believed that “Chanoch lena’ar al pi darko… raise the child according to his path” was not restricted to children. Each person is unique and has to be dealt with on his level. He was as comfortable conversing with heads of state and leaders of nations as he was in talking with the simplest person.8
He brought people from all walks of life closer to Torah, including people who did not quite finish the trip. When he passed away, there was an outpouring of grief and sympathy from all, including irreligious Jews and non-Jews.
Indeed, he maintained close friendships and worked effectively with both Chassidim and Misnagdim. He was close with the Rebbes of Satmar and Lubavitch, among others, as well as with the Lithuanian Gedolim in America. In his pursuit of excellence he posed questions affecting the American rabbinate to Gedolim in Eretz Yisroel, such as the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank and the Steipler Gaon. When I accompanied him once to an Agudath Israel Convention, he was virtually mobbed by a large group of Chassidim. When I asked one Chassid why they were so attracted to Rabbi Teitz, the fellow looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, “The Rebbe said Rabbi Teitz is an Adam Gadol!”
This assessment was reinforced by other Gedolim. He sat on a beis din with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Henkin in the 1950’s, when a controversy broke out in California over the kasha ering of chickens. Two groups each insisted that the other used water so hot as to render the chicken nonkosher. As the beis din’s junior member, Rabbi Teitz was dispatched to California to interview the parties on tape to bring back to the full beis din — perhaps the first time that testimony for beis din was taken on tape.
Man of Chessed
When Rabbi Berel Peker asked Rabbi Aharon Kotler if he should take a job teaching at the J.E.C., Reb Aharon responded that it would be worthwhile working with Rabbi Teitz because he is an ish kulo chessed — chessed incarnate.
Rabbi Teitz’s involvement with the yachid was not determined by the recipient’s age. He held weekly study sessions (vaadim/chaburos) with the ninth- and tenth-grade boys in his high school. Aaron Stier — an Elizabeth native, and today an attorney in that town — was 14 years old when the Rav asked him to read the Torah in a different shul. Realizing that the young man would feel awkward in an unfamiliar place, the Rav walked the 11/2 miles with him, introduced him to some of the people there, and then returned to the main shul in time for davening.
Another resident of Elizabeth, Dr. Steven Singfer, had completed high school at the J.E.C., and went to learn in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. During a trip to Israel, Rabbi Teitz visited the young man, who complained about teasing by his classmates. Rabbi Teitz gently reminded him that he was there to learn Torah. The Torah, the Rav said, is compared to honey; he was the bee trying to get to the honey, and they, his taunters, are like the thorns. You have to get past the thorns to reach the honey. The boy stayed on and today is a lecturer in a Daf HaYomi shiur.
He also acted on issues most people did not realize existed. For example, since any object with lifeblood on it must be buried, after World War II he searched for seforim with blood on them, which might have been held when people were shot, so that he could arrange for their burial. He also saw to it that the graves of the Vilna Gaon, the Ba’al Shem Toy Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky and others were restored and well tended.
Rebbetzin Teitz, a woman of great strength and character, worked at his side as a full partner. When all their children were out of the house, some tried to persuade her to pursue a career of her own. She explained that she could not because she had to be there when the Rav came home for breakfast, and again to serve him lunch, and would therefore not be free until at least 2 p.m.; and soon after, of course, there was supper.
During the war years, they routinely made small weddings in their home and took in orphans, family members, and friends for as much as a year at a time. The Rebbetzin also tended to the homebound daily. When a community member was ill and needed a second cardiac opinion, she arranged the appointment with one of the world’s foremost cardiologists at Harvard. The doctor had stopped taking patients, but when the Rebbetzin called, the doctor’s office set up an appointment within the week.
Unwilling to provide the Rav with possibly less than optimal kashrus, particularly at Pesach time, she made her own cheese, churned her own butter, and kashered her own meat and poultry. She continued this practice throughout their marriage, until illness interfered.
To those who were close to him, Rabbi Teitz was larger than life, and this short sketch does not begin to do him justice. His essence might best be captured in his interpretation of the biblical term “Hineni — I am here” — as meaning: “I,” not someone else; “am,” now, not later; “here,” not anywhere else. This was how he lived his life and realized his goals.
Though not hasty, the Rav was very decisive. Once he made a decision, he acted upon it. He either would be satisfied or he would resolve to act differently the next time. No time to wallow in regrets. (This by no means had any bearing on his relationship with his Creator, as was obvious when one witnessed him havening.)
Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva in Philadelphia, remarked at a hazkara memorial held for Rabbi Teitz: When Hashem showed Adam HaRishon a listing of each generation and its leaders, beyond doubt Rabbi Teitz was included in that group.
The passing of Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz was a great loss for Elizabeth; just as surely, it was a loss for Jewry throughout the United States and around the globe.
1. The relationship with Telshe lasted his entire life. His only son, Rabbi Elazar Mayer, attended the Yeshivah in Cleveland. The Rav was a principal speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony at the Wickliffe campus, and was the keynote speaker at the Yeshiva’s centennial celebration in 1976. The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Stein, flew in from Cleveland to be present as the Rav’s funeral and was among those who eulogized him; subsequently, the Yeshiva held its own memorial for him. Most significantly, the decision to establish the Yeshiva, after its flight from Europe, in Cleveland, was made in consultation with the Rav in his office in Elizabeth.
2. Rabbi Preil was considered a Gadol BaTorah. His responsa were collected by Rabbi Teitz and published as Sefer HaMeor. At the time of his passing, his only son, Rabbi Yehoshua Yoseph, was 9 years old. Rabbi Preil had purchased all the lulavim and esrogim for the town. The day before Succos, on his deathbed, he was concerned that were he to die, his only son would inherit his property, including all the lulavim and esrogim for the city. But, as a minor, he would have no way of giving them to the people who needed them. Rabbi Preil therefore called in an adult to accept ownership of the lulavim and esrogim on behalf of all the other townspeople. His concerns were well justified. He passed away that night.
3. He indeed received letters from a number of Yiddishists saying that they actually did return to Torah life as a result of the influence of his broadcasts.
4. The Rav often used his program to comment on matters of communal concern. On one occasion, he denounced certain irregularities taking place in the Jewish community. As a result, he received threatening phone calls, and ultimately two people arrived at his door. In a rare display of anger, the Rav rebuked them and warned them not to return. He then picked one up, literally, by the scruff of the neck and threw him off the porch. The phone calls ceased and they never returned.
5. The Rav believed that all technological advancements are to be used for Torah. This concept was also voiced by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who, at a Daf HaShavua Siyum, pointed out that the airways were surely created to teach Torah, in line with Rabbi Teitz’s endeavor.
6. Though he was renowned as a great fund-raiser, he was uncomfortable in that role. His belief in a cause and his dedication to it created the situation in which people never failed to respond with adequate funds to actualize his vision. He was keenly aware that promoting Orthodoxy in the New
7. His success is now a matter of history. When he came to Elizabeth, he was often attacked for bringing “old world ideas into the New World. He was accused of wanting to “ghettoize” the Jewish community and at times was actually jeered. Elizabeth was also home to the first female rabbi, Sally Preisand. Recently, toward the end of the Rav’s life, the City’s last non-Orthodox synagogue was razed. The Rav took great pride in the fact that when he first came to Elizabeth, there was not even a minyan of Shomrei Shabbos, while today there are four active shuls comprised of about 600 Orthodox families.
8. The Rav was highly regarded by many government leaders. His involvement with the Vaad Hatzalah during World War II as well as post-war activities brought him into contact with many leading figures both in the United States and abroad. From 1958 to 1964, he testified on many occasions before congressional committees and various state legislative bodies in a successful attempt to block legislation that would have banned shechita.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer in June 1996 and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.