Hashem’s unlikely partners

Rabbi Shlomo Cohen


Jan. 2014


Ask any yeshiva person, “Who built Torah in America?” and you will hear that Rav Aaron Kotler and Mr. Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz were the ones.

Is this really the case? Did they build what we see today single-handedly?

Not, Chas V’Sholom, to take away the fantastic credit due these two individuals. Their efforts clearly had a major impact on the phenomenal growth of Torah and Yiddishkeit in this country. However, as we are going to see, the reality is rather more complex.

Mr. Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz arrived alone in Philadelphia in September 1913. He lived in Scranton for seven years, teaching in the local Talmud Torah. In 1920 he was able to bring his family from Hungary, and settled in Williamsburg. He was appointed the head of Torah V’Daas in 1921.

Rav Aaron came to the U.S. in 1943 and started BMG with 15 Buchrim. 


First of all, let us examine what the state of learning was like in America before either of these Rabbonim came on the scene.

(Much of this information came from Wikipedia and various articles and reminisces on-line.)

These are the earliest Yeshivos, which opened in the United States before WWII. It was amazingly difficult to find the little information that you see here.

1- 1886 A group of immigrants founded Yeshiva Eitz Chaim, an elementary day school, in the Marionpole Synagogue at 44 East Broadway on New York’s Lower East Side.

2- 1896, RIETS, the first high-level yeshiva gedolah in the United States, was established in memory of Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor zt’l, who had passed away that year. Chartered on March 20, 1897, by the New York State Board of Regents, RIETS obtained its own building in 1904 at 156 Henry Street. It held its first ordination ceremonies in 1906, with semicha granted to three graduates.

Around 1915 these two schools merged retaining its high school but dropping the elementary school.

The American Jewish Yearbook of 1935 says: RABBI ISAAC ELCHANAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY AND YESHIVA COLLEGE Charter amended 1928, to permit the organization of the YeshivaCollege, authorized by the Regents of the University of the State of New York to give courses leading to the degrees of B. A. and B. S.

LIBRARY: Printed volumes, 30,000, manuscripts, small collection.

Entire number of graduates, Rabbinical course, 136.

In an article, From Tradition to Modernity, published in Commentator, which I have cut down to the essentials, Chaim Schneider. tells us some of the early history of how Y.U. came to be.

The history of MTA began nearly eighty-five years ago with the amalgamation of two modest yeshivot on the Lower East Side.

Yeshivat Etz Chaim was founded in 1886. It pledged two hours a day to the study of English in addition to a full schedule of Judaic studies. Ten years later, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) was created, pledging similarly to instruct yeshiva students in English – a novel idea at the time. Despite its seemingly liberal educational philosophy, the school gained the public support of the Agudat HaRabbanim of New York.

Although each institution faced demanding individual financial pressures, businessman David Cohen sought to merge the neighboring yeshivot. This union gave rise to what is now YeshivaUniversity’s high school for boys. Dr. Bernard Revel, head of the Rabbinical College of America, in collaboration with Dr. Solomon Hurwitz, sought to use the schools in creating the first high school in America under Jewish auspices.

The Talmudical Academy (TA) opened its doors to approximately 20 students on September 3, 1916, with yeshiva classes given from 9:00 a.m. through 3:00 in the afternoon, followed by secular subjects until 7:00 p.m. By June of 1919, the New York State Board of Regents had chartered it as a fully accredited four-year high school. The student body doubled to nearly 400 individuals between 1921 and 1923. The overwhelming popularity of the institution was backed by the introduction of an additional Judaic Studies program. RIETS succeeded in blending the fiscally beleaguered Mizrachi Teachers Institute’s Hebrew studies program with the school’s pre-existing Talmud program. Because of this tremendous growth, Dr. Revel proposed a plan to establish a four-year college to the Yeshiva’s Board of Directors in 1923, selecting its current home in WashingtonHeights as the future site of TA.

3- 1902 Rabbi Shlomo Kluger started as a Talmud Torah at 319 Rivington, later became full day yeshiva with secular studies as well. A Lower East Side institution, located at No. 376 Houston St, started by Galician residents of the area, hence the name. At some point, in the WWII era, there was a merger with Yeshiva Chasan Sofer.

4- 1903 Rabbi Jacob Joseph is the oldest continuously operating day school in America. Rabbi Jacob Andron began the yeshiva in a rented room of a Hester Street Shul with only ten boys, paying salaries out of his own pocket. The founders included Louis Rozman, Julius Dukas, Mrs. Sara Dukas and Mrs. Dora Golding.  With the help of Rabbi Hirsch Green and two of Rabbi Andron’s sons RJJ expanded into a two story building on Orchard Street. Although it had predecessors, they either closed or merged with other schools. After Rav Joseph’s death, his son Raphael and Samuel I. Andron obtained a charter from the N.Y.S Board of Regents in 1903 to establish a school in his name. Its founders originally established the school on Orchard St., but later moved it to 198 Henry Street. There were religious studies from 9AM -2PM and secular subjects from 4PM- 6PM. By 1907 RJJ moved to 156-165 Henry St. where it remained for nearly 70 years. By 1910 the Yeshiva had about 500 students.

5- 1904 Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, established in 1904 as Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim, it is the oldest yeshiva in Brooklyn. I have a Hagadah, from Chaim Berlin, printed in 1958, which says that the original building was in rented building on Sutter Ave. Ten years after it began, the name of the yeshiva was changed to honor the memory of Rav Chaim Berlin, zt”l. The elementary school was located at 1899 Prospect place. The high school was begun in 1935. The American Jewish Yearbook of 1920 cites 8 teachers and 200 students. Rav Hutner joined the faculty in 1936 and became Rosh Yeshiva soon after. Located first at 400 Stone Ave., it later moved to 350 Stone Ave. taking over the building of the defunct Bank of the United States.

6- 1907 Tiferes Yerushalayim was founded at 87 Eldridge Street as a Talmud Torah. First moving to 115 Hester Street, then 240 Madison, then 13 Montgomery Street, the yeshiva finally settled in two adjacent lots on 145 and 147 East Broadway. The American Jewish Yearbook of 1920 cites 600 students and 10 teachers. The current structure was built in 1912. It was under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Adler in the early 1930’s. A high school was established in 1929. A dormitory for out-of-town boys was opened in 1934. R’ Moshe became a lecturer in Yeshivas Tiferes Yerushalayim in 1937, where after a year he became Rosh Yeshiva.

7- 1909 The Rabbi Israel SalanterTalmud Torah opened at 74 East 118th Street. The American Jewish Yearbook of 1920 cites 6 teachers and 475 students. The first East Harlem Jewish Institution to follow its constituency to a new section of New York was the Rabbi Israel Salanter Talmud Torah, which in 1923 moved from its original home at 114th Street and Madison Avenue to Washington Avenue in the South Bronx, where, it was renamed Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter of the Bronx. This particular institution was destined to continue following the generational migrations of Bronx Jewry. In 1940, the Salanter Yeshiva moved to Webster Avenue in the Tremont section of the borough. And in 1970 the then declining Yeshiva moved to Riverdale, New York, the city’s newest Jewish residential neighborhood, where it merged with two other schools and was renamed and reinvigorated as the S/A/R Academy.

8- 1917  Yeshiva Torah Vo’daas was conceived by Binyomin Wilhelm and Louis Dershowitz to provide a yeshiva education to the children of families then moving from the Lower East side to Williamsburg. They contacted Rabbi Zev Gold of Cong. Beth Jacob Anshe Shalom and together they formed a board and established an elementary school. The American Jewish Yearbook of 1920 gives the address as 238 Keap St. The American Jewish Yearbook of 1925 gives the address as 206 Wilson St. The founding members of the yeshiva soon offered the principalship to Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz who headed the yeshiva from 1922 to 1948. The high school was opened in 1926. Rav Shlomo Heiman became the Rosh Yeshiva in 1935. In 1931 R’ Shraga Feivel founded CampMesivta, the first yeshiva day camp.

9- 1917 Bais Medrash L’Rabbonim was established by Rabbi Yehuda Levenberg in New Haven. No secular studies were offered. Rabbi Levenberg moved the yeshiva to Cleveland in 1930 where it soon had 45 students. By the late 30’s internal differences caused the yeshiva to close.

10- 1921 Hebrew Theological College was founded in Chicago in 1921 by Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Rubinstein (1872–1944) an alumnus of Volozhin who arrived in America in 1917 and Rabbi Saul Silber (1876–1946) a pulpit Rabbi in Chicago who served as president of the school for its first twenty-five years. The school’s original location was at 3448 West Douglas Boulevard in the North Lawndale and moved to Skokie (a northern suburb of Chicago) in 1958. Rabbi Nissan Yablonsky, an alumnus of Slabodka, served as the first rosh yeshiva.

The American Jewish Yearbook of 1939 tells us the number of graduates: Rabbinical Course, 1937: 8.

Whole number of Graduates, Rabbinical Course, 67.

Whole number of Graduates, Teachers’ Course, 40

11- 1923 Yeshiva Beth Yehudah of Detroit. In August 1914, Rabbi Judah Leib Levin began the school that grew to become the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Its first home was the Mogain Avrohom Synagogue on Farnsworth Street, where students met five days a week for after-school Hebrew study. In 1923 the growing Yeshiva moved its 35 students to Beth Tefilo Emanuel Synagogue on Twelfth Street and instituted a full day school curriculum. Upon his death in 1925, the school was renamed Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in memory of Rabbi Levin. The Yeshiva moved to several locations until 1940, when they settled into a new building on Dexter and Cortland. By this time, 162 children were being taught at six grade levels. Rabbi M.J. Wohlgelernter became Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s first President and Rabbi Simcha Wasserman was appointed Dean. Brothers Wolf and Isadore Cohen were founding members of the Yeshiva. In 1944, Rabbi A.A. Freedman moved from New York at the urging of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz. 

12- 1927 Yeshivas Toras Chaim was founded in East New York, at 293 East 3rd, by Rabbi Isaac Schmidman. It then moved to 631 Belmont Ave. EastNew York. This was also the home of Young Israel of East New York, organized in 1921. Yeshiva Toras Chaim merged with the Yeshiva of South Shore in 1963 and moved to Hewlett, L.I.

13- Circa 1925, Ohel Moshe, a Sephardi yeshiva in Bensonhurst, a predominantly Syrian Jewish community at the time, was begun. R’ Shlomo Perla was one of the founders.

[Both Toras Chaim and Ohel Moshe in Bensonhurst were solely elementary schools.]

14- 1933 Rav Ruderman founds Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore with six students. The Yeshiva was housed in a very primitive wooden Shul building on Forest Park Avenue. Soon after, the Yeshiva acquired a new building on Garrison Boulevard. In the early 40’s there were some seventy students. At that time there were no black hats, beards, nor any chasidim, among the students.

15- 1933 Rav Dovid Leibowitz leaves Torah Vodaas and opens Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim / Rabbinical Seminary of America, in a 4 story building on Bedford Ave. The yeshiva was established in 1933 following a dispute between Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz and the administration of Torah Vodaas. The cause of the dispute is not well known. At the time, Rabbi Leibowitz, served as the Rosh Yeshiva, and taught the top shiur at Torah Vodaas. When he quit, to create his own yeshiva, most of his students left with him. The new yeshiva was named for his great uncle Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan zt’l, who had died that year. In December 1955 it relocated to Forest Hills, and more recently, to KewGardens.

16- 1937 Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan opens the first Bais Yaakov high school in America. She started the school with seven students around her dining-room table in Williamsburg in 1938. Two of her first students were the daughters of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz of Mesivta Torah Vodaas, who told her, “Take my daughters and build a seminary around them”. The Mendlowitz girls brought five friends, and classes began.

The school outgrew Rebbetzin Kaplan’s home and occupied several rented locations before settling into its own building at 143 South 8th Street in Williamsburg in 1944.

17- 1937 The Yeshiva of Jersey City began in the Five Corner Shul with eight students. Then, Aaron Rosenbaum found a public school building for sale on New York Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets in Union City. The school was renamed Yeshiva of Hudson County in 1947 and then renamed again as the Yeshiva of North Jersey.

18- 1940 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn opens a yeshiva very soon after he arrived in the U.S. on 19 March 1940. When he came to America, two of his chassidim told him not to start up all the activities in which Lubavitch had engaged in Europe, because “America is different.” To avoid disappointment, they advised him not even to try. Schneersohn wrote, “Out of my eyes came boiling tears”, and undeterred, the next day he started the first Lubavitcher Yeshiva in America, Tomchei Tmimim, and an elementary school Achei Tmimim On Sunday, 19 days in Elul 5700, the Rebbe left the hotel, where he had lived for six months, and moved into 770. His living quarters were on the second floor, and the Shul and Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim on the first floor.

19- 1941 The Telz Yeshiva was transplanted from Lithuania to Cleveland. Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, who had studied at Telshe Yeshiva and had been on the faculty since 1917, and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz escaped to the U.S. with 10 students and reestablished the yeshiva in Cleveland. The yeshiva was opened in the house of Reb Yitzchak & Sarah Feigenbaum on November 10, 1941. In 1944, the yeshiva relocated to East 105th Street from a remodeled home on East Boulevard. By 1947 it boasted more than 150 students, many of them from outside the U.S. After formally changing its name to the Rabbinical College of Telshe in 1954, the yeshiva relocated to a new 57-acre campus, located on the old John H. Devereux estate, at 28400 Euclid Avenue in Wickliffe in 1957.

20- 1941 Central Yeshiva Bais Yosef Rabbinical Seminary transplanted from Europe by Rav Avraham Jofen on 49th St. in BoroPark. Rabbi Yoffen was the head of the Novardok Yeshiva in Bialystok. Rabbi Yoffen survived the Holocaust and came to the U.S., where he established the Novardok Yeshiva.

21- 1942 When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn arrived in New York in March of 1940, he immediately set about establishing Jewish schools. After replanting his yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim in New York, the first Beth Rivkah girls’ school opened its doors in 1942. Beth Rivkah welcomed its first class in a small house on Riverdale Road in East New York, Brooklyn. As the school grew it changed locations, and from Riverdale Avenue moved to occupy the second floor of a synagogue on Stone Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Over the next few years, branches popped up in Boston and Springfield, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; Bridgeport and New Haven, Conn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Penn. Additionally, a Beth Sarah school—named for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s mother, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah, who had passed away in New York in 1942—was established in Newark, N.J.

22- In 1943, the Detroit Beth Jacob School for Girls was established.

23- 1943 In April, Rav Aaron Kotler founds Beis Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood. It almost didn’t happen. An effort was made to establish a yeshiva in White Plains under the nominal leadership of Rabbi Hillel Bishco. Rav Kotler was asked to lead the group, but he declined citing the need to continue his Va’ad Hatzoloh rescue efforts. Later, they attempted to persuade other scholars who turned down their requests. They returned to Reb Aaron who finally agreed to give a Shiur, but with no financial responsibilities and in this manner the yeshiva was established. It still needed a place. Amos Bunim bought a house in Lakewood for $15,000. Reb Aaron was hesitant to move the yeshiva to a resort town. Rabbi Nissan Wachsman, a rabbi in Lakewood at the time, visited Reb Aaron five times in order to convince him until he finally agreed.

(The World of the Yeshiva William Helmreich 2000) 


As hard as it was to determine names, dates and locations of these early yeshivos, determining the number of students in any given year proved frustratingly difficult. Rarely are elementary numbers separated from high school enrollment. Keep in mind that most boys who were sent to yeshiva ketana left to go to public high school. Early statistics of Yeshiva enrollment are confusing, hard to come by and one wonders if the figures are inflated. Nonetheless, these are some of the numbers I found.

The same Chaim Berlin Hagada cites an enrollment of 300 boys in 1912 and 500 in 1936.

The 1923 Elchanite, MTA’s yearbook, lists 25 graduates. The 1925 Elchanite, lists 16 graduates. 40 graduated in 1928.

As of 1933 there were 1,350 boys in Yeshivos in Brooklyn and a further 881 in Manhattan. Of some 1,500 elementary all day religious education 1,060 {70%} were in Brooklyn and 30% were in the Bronx.

(Jewish Community Elementary Parochial Schools, Jacob Hartshein 1934)

Between 1938 and 1946 the number of yeshivos grew from 14 to 84 and enrollment increased from 4,000 to 17,500.

(The World of the Yeshiva – An intimate portrait of Orthodox Jewry, William Helmreich, Yeshiva University Press 1986 pg.32).

The numbers of students, both boys and girls, attending day schools grew considerably in the postwar period. In the 1940-1941 school year 7,700 students attended 35 Jewish schools in America. By 1963, 65,000 students had enrolled in 306 schools. By the 1980s, that number had grown to over 100,000 students in over 500 Orthodox day schools.

(Defining Bais Yaakov: (A historical study of Yeshivish Orthodox girls high school education in America, 1963-1984, Dissertation ; Leslie M Ginsparg 2009)

The 1941 Chaim Berlin high school graduating class consisted of 28 boys. (Shofar 1941 Chaim Berlin Yearbook)

Between 1940 and 1944 enrollment increased by an average of 352 students per year. Starting in 1945 the yearly increase was at least 2,000 and in most cases 3,000/year.

Even as late as 1944 there were 69 Day Schools with a combined enrollment of about 10,000 but only 9 high schools (with no enrollment figures given)

(Tempo report #10 of Torah U’mesorah).

By contrast, in 1978 there were 463 day schools with an enrollment of 83,350 and 150 high schools totaling 16,800 students.

There was a census of the Jewish day schools in the United States covering the 2008-09 school year. It is a follow-up to the comprehensive studies of 1998-99 and 2003-04, both conducted by Dr. Marvin Schick and sponsored by The AVI CHAI Foundation.

The statistics in this census include enrollments for every Jewish day school in the United States.

There were 228,174 students in Jewish elementary and secondary schools—the four-year-old level through grade 12—in the 2008-09 school year. This represents an increase of 23,000, or 11%, from 2003-04, and an increase of more than 43,000, or nearly 25%, since1998-99. There was a 56% increase in Chassidic schools and a 34% increase in Yeshiva-world schools over the past ten years—in large part due to high fertility rates.

So, there are 100 times as many Yeshiva students in the U.S. in 2008 as there were in1933.

In 1950 there were no more than 50 -100 persons learning in Kollel.

(The World of the Yeshiva – An intimate portrait of Orthodox Jewry, William Helmreich, Yeshiva University Press 1986 pg.257).

Consider that, prior to WWI, in Europe less that 1% of boys over 15 were in Yeshiva. Today, in America, it is 99%. In 1937, combined enrollment of Aguda schools in Poland and Lithuania were 71,000 boys and 35,586 girls. 


The question, then, is, “What factors created this phenomenon?” Is this truly simply the results of Reb Shraga Feivel and Reb Aaron’s efforts alone?

Here are a number of events and factors which all contributed, in fact, made possible, what Reb Shraga Feivel and Reb Aaron were trying to accomplish.

Firstly, we must take into account the huge population shifts beginning in the 1880’s and then again after WWII and again after the Hungarian Revolution augmenting the numbers of orthodox Jews on these shores. Between 1947 and 1951 over 120,000 Jews entered the U.S. Many were orthodox and would never have emigrated had it not been for the Holocaust.

Secondly, education through elementary school became mandatory in every state in the union by 1918. In Europe few boys stayed in school after several years of elementary school.

Yeshivos could then fulfill the requirements of state compulsory education while remaining in an all-Orthodox environment and obtaining a strong Jewish education. Orthodox leaders rejected the previous model of public school attendance, supplemented by after-school Jewish studies. They did not want Yeshiva children exposed to the secular environment of the public school system. In the public schools, they had no control over classroom content, schools generally celebrated Christian holidays, and students socialized with non-Orthodox or non-Jewish classmates. Additionally, the leaders believed supplementary Jewish education ineffectual. The day schools and Yeshivos became a place where the leadership instilled its values in the next generation of Orthodox Jews. (Defining Bais Yaakov: A historical study of Yeshivish Orthodox girls high school education in America, 1963-1984, Dissertation ; Leslie M Ginsparg 2009)

Thirdly, in 1954 Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court decision “Brown vs. the Board of Education”, desegregating the public schools, caused Jewish mothers to have to decide whether to send their children to school with black students or black hats. In many cases the black hats won the day.

Fourthly, in the late1950’s a change over from European trained to American trained Rabbeim occurred. Young men, who were able to relate to baseball, recess and snacks, were teaching. From the 1960s onward, the graduates of American Yeshivos took over the leadership positions in schools throughout the Orthodox community.

Fifthly, early on the Yeshivos accepted just about everyone. The only question asked was, “Is your mother Jewish?” Nor did they throw anyone out.

Sixthly, in the period between 1963 and 1984 social upheaval in American society, came into play during those years. Major civil rights protests and riots occurred in 1963, including the march in WashingtonD.C. at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That year also saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which led to increased social unrest.

Seventh, a loosening of morals in American public behavior in the years following 1963, rates of drug use, alcohol consumption, divorce, illegitimate births, significantly increased the liberalization of American society in the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and student movements with ideologies that questioned authority and an increasingly immoral climate both in schools and in the workplace challenged Orthodoxy and its educational systems because they heralded the beginning of the era associated with social protest and liberalization, which Orthodoxy rejected.

(Defining Bais Yaakov: A historical study of Yeshivish Orthodox girls high school education in America, 1963-1984, Dissertation ; Leslie M Ginsparg 2009)

Eighth, by 1964 under President Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War began heating up leading to a large draft. Before the war, virtually every 12th grade graduate of yeshiva left to go to college at their parents’ insistence. Suddenly, with the loss of their 4D deferments at stake, parents began insisting that their boys remain in yeshiva. This occurred just at the age when boys could begin learning seriously.

Ninth, there was a booming economy. Orthodox Jews had always struggled financially. By the late 60’s many had finally made it to the point where they could consider keeping their sons in yeshiva.

Tenth, In the case of New York City, orthodox Jews had not settled in a permanent location. They moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in New York City, shifting as they improved their economic status and as neighborhoods became poorer or racially and ethnically integrated. During the 1960s, they finally settled in areas like Boro Park and Flatbush, where their communities remained through the early twenty-first century, and achieved a measure of stability. The stability of the neighborhood allowed for the establishment of more permanent educational institutions. (Defining Bais Yaakov: A historical study of Yeshivish Orthodox girls high school education in America, 1963-1984, Dissertation ; Leslie M Ginsparg 2009)

Eleventh, the birth rate among the Frum population began to creep upwards.

Twelfth, in the late 60’s and early 70’s the kiruv movement took off creating a new cadre of yeshiva people. The Young Israel movement, NCSY, Lubavitch, Ohr Somayach, as well as other groups began making a major impact.

Thirteenth, President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Great Society programs made it possible for Kollel families to sit for years on Section 8 housing, food stamps.

Finally, government funding for private schools, along with higher tuitions, reduced the financial struggle enabling many Yeshivos to make it financially.

Without each and every one of these fourteen people, trends and events Reb Shraga Feivel and Reb Aaron’s plans and efforts would have been for naught. Hashem had to bend history to accomplish this.




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