Reb Elimelech Gavriel “Mike” Tress, On His 45th Yahrtzeit, Today

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mike-tressBy Dr. Gerson Kranzler

At the beginning of Chodesh Tammuz 5727 (1967), Elimelech Gavriel Tress, Administrative President of Agudath Israel of America, was called to the Yeshiva Shel Ma’aloh. His short life spanned a period in American Jewish life which went from utter despair that Torah would ever take root in the alien soil of this continent, to the development and growth of scores of Torah institutions, built and surrounded by a growing community of committed Orthodox Jews. But his life and work not only spanned this period–Elimelech Gavriel Tress was in large measure responsible for raising American Orthodoxy from the darkness of despair to the spiritual prosperity it now enjoys.

Elimelech Gavriel Tress, functioning on the highest levels of Torah leadership, was the personification of authentic humility, not the least bit compromised by the great dignity of his bearing. He was known to many as ‘Mike,’ an unusual familiarity for a man of his stature; yet it did not in the least compromise the deep respect and even reverence felt by all who knew him.

The story of his life, which must one day be written, is the story of a revitalized American Orthodoxy – which must also one day be written. The debt which Orthodoxy owes to ‘Mike’ Tress is being repaid by the untold numbers of American men and women who are today Torah Jews because of his efforts. But American Orthodoxy owes it to Elimelech Gavriel Tress that his life and works be made known – not for his sake alone, but for the glory of Torah. Toward that goal, the following sketch of one aspect of his work – his monumental rescue achievements – by one who worked closely with him, offers an insight into the total personality of Elimelech Gavriel Tress.

It was in a small room in the house of his aunt, somewhere in the section of old Williamsburg that has since given way to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. ‘Mike’ had been ill for a few days and we had come to visit him. He had made us newcomers feel at home the first moment we had entered the local branch of Zeirei Agudath Israel, searching for some bridge, some continuity with the Jewish ideals that had shaped our world in the past. It was then, months before the outbreak of World War II that ‘Mike’ Tress outlined the bold, broad-scope plan that showed his near-prophetic vision, his alertness to the needs of the hour, and his ability to see with the heart and with the soul, rather than with a cool, sober, cautious mind.

The world was still at peace, watching idly as Hitler turned ever tighter the screws of torture and destruction on the Jewish masses under his control, as he prepared his campaign of persecution and extermination that was to dwarf the worst recorded in the annals of human inhumanity, by the Teutonic thoroughness of his attack.

In retrospect, it seems almost uncanny how this young American Jew, not quite a full-product of the Yeshiva world, realized the role America — particularly from a Jewish viewpoint — was to play in the perpetuation or perhaps the survival of human freedom and dignity. Most of us were Europeans, graduates of years of intensive Agudist leadership-training. Yet we were deeply affected by the vision and keen understanding of the meaning of what was going on that was revealed to us by a young man who, as we had quickly learned, stood in the mainstream of American life — a young man with a thorough college education, with business connections that seemed beyond our grasp at the time.

In materialistic America, the land supposedly void of idealism, ‘Mike’ Tress spoke of the urgent need to organize Orthodox Jewish youth; to bring them close to Torah chinuch when the fountainheads of Jewish scholarship seemed in danger. He spoke of the gathering clouds of war, when so many more of the heartlands of Jewish life might come under the heel of war and catastrophe, and when America would be the only place that could offer some chance of help and rescue. Trained to think of the New World as a place where everybody lives and works for himself, we watched with growing admiration as this young man spoke of the need to set up an organization that would tie together the isolated Orthodox Jewish energies, and provide some form of systematic help for the mass of Orthodox Jewry that was threatened by the growing German steamroller of military might and brutality. It was an eye-opener, even to those of us who had personally witnessed some of these historic developments, but were caught up in our own limited and limiting perspective. It was time to forget about ourselves, about our own careers — if there was any meaning to our Agudism. Now — he said with his warm, persuasive voice — was the time to start moving, organizing, so that we would not be caught unprepared when and if, chas vechalilah, the need arose.

‘Mike’ sketched in broad outlines what later proved to be one of the least-known, least-publicized feats of Orthodox Jewish rescue work that hinged solely on heart, iron will, raw courage, and sheer guts — to be more exact, on ‘Mike’ Tress, Michael G. Tress, or Elimelech Gavriel, as he became known to many thousands of Jews throughout the Jewish world. The result of it was — it may seem gross exaggeration at this time, decades and a generation later – one of the most important bridges from the Old World of Torah Judaism to the New World that was to arise on what had before seemed arid, hopeless ground. Across it flowed the human and spiritual resources that were salvaged from the worst catastrophe modern Jewish history has known. And the man solely responsible for it, for its scope, for its spirit, for its unlimited vitality was ‘Mike’ Tress.

He had no illusions. There was little chance for glory, for monetary rewards or other incentives that motivate the less idealistic. His was a strength of conviction, with a heart that flowed over with compassion for anyone in need; with love and enthusiasm for anything Jewish. This was the secret of the success of all the work done by ‘Mike’ Tress in those tragic, yet heroic years when he single-handedly created an apparatus to save Jews from the burning Gehinnom of Hitler Europe; to help them come to these shores, and to offer them a chance to reweave some of the strands of a normal human and Jewish existence in a new and fertile soil.

Soon after this first planning session by his bedside, we opened the office of Zeirei Agudah Israel in the then recently-acquired building at 616 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn – an address that was soon to become a beacon of light and hope in a world shrouded with hopelessness and abject tragedy. We started with an old desk and Mike’s own typewriter — he had given up a promising business career to dedicate himself wholly and wholeheartedly to the task which he had so vividly outlined for us, perhaps not even realizing himself the historic function of this initial effort. From it grew a strong Agudist youth movement, with a spreading and tightening net of Pirchei and Bnos branches. From it originated numerous campaigns and activities to bring the wider masses of Jewish youngsters to the yeshivos that had begun to spread, and to give support to communities where hope had long been abandoned for Jewish survival beyond the Last Minyan of Elders.

‘Mike’ was everywhere. He gathered groups of inspired young chaverim about him, who carried his spirit everywhere. They brought trainloads of youngsters from other cities and towns to Williamsburg, to the yeshivos and mesivtos; gave them a feeling of the beauty and significance of yiddishkeit. He ignited the spark of mesiras nefesh wherever he went, with his warm talks, his tireless efforts for old and young, for anyone who called on him for help day or night.

But most important of all, there was the effort that ‘Mike’ Tress lavished in preparation for the massive rescue work that emanated from the office at 616 Bedford Avenue, until he built it into an efficient organization that achieved so much more than other organizations — larger, better qualified, and richer in personnel and resources. There were no office-hours, no vacations, no time for routine or relaxation. There was only that restless drive to save and help the innocent victims of a growing tragedy day in, day out, wearing hour after hour. There was a constant coming and going of people seeking and giving help. Cables to and from all parts of the collapsing Jewish world, seeking to open doors that were closed or closing by the minute. And there were the chaveirim who gave up so much of their time, of their limited means, all of their efforts inspired by the example and the limitless zest of ‘Mike’ to get affidavits, to collect sorely needed funds, to find jobs and opportunities for rescue, for medical care, for replanting what human bestiality had brutally uprooted. The methods and means were unorthodox, far different from the bureaucratic routines of other relief and rescue organizations. They defied the rigidities and inflexibilities which hampered or blocked so much that might have been done by other more powerful organizations set up for this purpose in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. With the weak, limited resources at his disposal ‘Mike’ molded the office of Zeirei Agudath Israel, later on Agudath Israel of America, into a powerful center, whose work has not been recognized or even recorded amidst the trumpets and publicity of the larger relief organizations.

It would be preposterous were one to attempt even to outline the extent and scope of this work initiated and executed under the guiding hand of ‘Mike’ Tress. One can merely touch on a few highlights, some of the breathtaking historic moments, encounters, and experiences that turned each day and night of our activities in those early years during and after World War II into a kaleidoscope of tireless toil, frustration — and undreamed of success … The first batches of affidavits procured and shipped out and the first men and women brought over … the opening of the Refugee Home on the top floor of 616 Bedford Avenue … ‘Mike’ himself ordering food, calling friends and business associates for clothes, beds, jobs for the young and older men who came there because they had no place else to go that would give them shelter and help them to build a new future … ‘Mike’ buying an old truck to establish a business for some of these young men … ‘Mike’ flying to Washington several times a week, back-and- forth, pleading, cajoling, using the most impossible, hopeless ways to open doors … flying to Washington even on Shabbos at the urging of the gedolim who had soon turned to ‘Mike’ to guide them and help those who turned to them . . . the first telephone call to Reb Aharon Kotler in Japan … Reb Aharon arriving in the U.S.A. … Frank Newman traveling to Japan at Mike’s request to bring the first large contingent of the Mirrer Yeshiva to these shores, and helping to get them settled . . . the coming and going of the world’s foremost gaonim, rabbonim, gedolei haTorah who helped compile lists of those who had to be helped … roshei yeshivah who arrived in this country turning to ‘Mike’ to help them organize or reorganize their yeshivos in the new land under strange conditions … Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch, Rabbi Motel Katz, Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, and all the other famous personalities to whom ‘Mike’ was a constant source of aid and guidance, until they were ready to make their greatness felt in creating a renaissance of Torah and Torah life in this country unexpected even by the most daring visionary . . . the Chassidic rabbe’im _.. the Kapitshenitzer, the Lubavitcher, the Boyanner, the Skwerer Rebbe, and so many others who have since been taken from us, to whom ‘Mike’ had become a personal friend and advisor … famous men like Chazzan Kwartin … the hundreds of ordinary men and women looking for help and advice … the woman whose husband had been caught in Finland, for whom even the Red Cross had not been able to do anything. ‘Mike’ sent a cable to the King of Sweden, and today the man lives in Brooklyn with his family … and thousands of others who may have forgotten what ‘Mike’ did for them, for their parents, their children … the gadol haTorah who came into an executive meeting to express the gratitude of the Mirrer Yeshiva for the help ‘Mike’ had given them — this token of appreciation was a first act of duty carried out with tears of joy and appreciation … an endless parade of men and women who owe so much to one warmhearted, seemingly inexhaustible Jew.

Books could be filled with all that ‘Mike’ Tress initiated, organized or guided during those early years of frantic rescue work. ‘Mike’ did not stop there. He grew far beyond all of us and our amateur efforts, as he answered the challenge to ever larger and wider tasks thrust upon him by Divine Providence. He was called upon to work with world rescue and relief organizations on a global basis. He began to travel the continents, and his name and the name of Agudath Israel were respected and beloved far beyond the confines even of his own keen vision. We who had the privilege to accompany him during those first inspired and inspiring years of preparation and building knew that he was and always wanted to remain just a chaver among chaverim, a Jew who felt the call of the time and the hour of need, whose heart was big enough to feel the pain and sorrow of his fellow brethren, and who sacrificed all he had and could give for them.

When we printed our first letterhead, ‘Mike’ said: “Let’s put on the bottom the slogan: ‘Hamekayem nefesh achas beYisroel, k’ilu kiyam olam molei’ (He who saves a single soul, is considered as having saved a whole world). Let it be the leitmotif of our rescue work.” This ‘Mike’ did in the fullest sense of the word. He gave all of his strength, and all of his health, and wealth, so that others could live and continue to build a Torah-true Jewish life, to use his favorite words. Only to him they were not words, they were a reality which he helped build and perpetuate, in one of the most glorious phases and chapters of recent Jewish history, written with the blood of his heart and his inspired soul.

{This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.}

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