The yeshiva as a community institution – The Australian Jewish News
The recent inauguration of the new wing of “YG”, Yeshivah Gedolah Melbourne – The Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand, on Sunday, March 13, provides an opportunity to reflect on the context of yeshivas now commonplace in communities contemporary Jews. In this regard, I am not referring to schools that go by the name of yeshiva but to full-time institutions of advanced Jewish studies for boys aged adolescence and beyond.
As historian Rabbi Berel Wein explained in his Triumph of Survival, The History of the Jews in the Modern Age, the establishment of large houses of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe in the 19th century was in makes a revolutionary break with tradition. For centuries up to this time, the learning system was not institutionalized but personalized. Boys went to cheder from about age three until bar mitzvah. Some quit at age 11 or 12. Most young Jewish men were working at the time of their bar mitzvah. The elite, those who showed promise in their Talmudic studies, or who came from the upper classes, or from rabbinical houses, continued their education into adolescence and beyond, usually studying with the rabbi of the city in which they lived. It was part of the rabbi’s job to lead the study sessions with anyone who came to learn. If the young man showed particular promise, then he was sent out of town to the towns of reputable rabbinical scholars, where he would learn with that rabbinical scholar for a time. Then, finally, when he had attained sufficient knowledge, he would be ordained.
The new concept, led by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, was a centralized place of learning, what today we would call an institute of higher learning. The yeshiva he founded lasted for most of the 19th century until it was closed due to pressure exerted on the government by the maskilim who feared its impact opposed to their philosophy.
Another such 19th century institution was that established by the Chatam Sofer in Pressburg which has continued in various forms to the present day; its current location being Yerushalayim. And of course, especially in Lithuania, many more such yeshivas would grow, with their place names such as Mir, Telshe and Ponevitz becoming household words in the religious Jewish world.
However, the concept of a yeshiva as more than a centralized gathering place for learning, but with modern concepts such as a dormitory and a quality building, actually waited to be introduced by Reb Meir Shapira at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin during the interwar period of the 20th century.
Regarding Chabad, Mordechai Rubin described the establishment of the first yeshiva by Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn (the Rashab) in 1897.
On Elul 15, two days after the marriage of his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak who is now called the previous Rebbe, the Rashab convened a gathering of prominent rabbis and announced his intention “to inaugurate and establish a yeshiva distinguished for our young brothers, with appropriate and correct advice”.
“It should be God’s will that all their work be in Torah and divine service. Their hearts and minds should be fully devoted to their studies and work.
This yeshiva was not just another yeshiva to add to the many that already existed. This yeshiva was unique. The Rashab felt that in the climate of the time, the study of Hasidic texts was integral to the very survival of the Jewish people. It should be incorporated into the yeshiva curriculum and taught properly by dedicated teachers. Although there were yeshiva students in Lubavitch before this time, they were generally advanced students who studied independently without any formal structure or curriculum to support them.
About a year after the yeshiva was established, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was named dean. On the following Simchat Torah, the last of the seven hakafot, the Rashab named the yeshiva, drawing inspiration from the text recited for the hakafot: “The yeshiva which has been established with the goodness of God has no name yet . Now I call him ‘Tomchei Temimim’ (suiters). Indeed, the purpose of the yeshiva is to ensure the completeness of the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah.
Immediately after Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn arrived in America in 1941, the Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim, then uprooted from Warsaw and Otwock in occupied Poland, was reestablished. He became the forerunner of the Chabad yeshivas bearing this name throughout the Western world.
1949 saw the arrival in Australia of six Lubavitch families. Inspired by the words of the Rebbe at the time that “America is no different”, Reb Zalman Serebryanski and Reb Abba Pliskin decided that no matter what, they would establish a yeshiva. On Cheshvan 16, 5710/1949, in the small wooden shule of Shepparton, a yeshiva opened as three students began their studies under their tutelage. It was a small start, but Lubavitch had arrived.
Fast forward seven decades. In the meantime the yeshiva had moved to Burwood and then to East St Kilda, schools were established and in 1966 came the Yeshiva Gedolah – now known as the Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand. A fully residential institute of tertiary Jewish studies, it now welcomes Australian and international students. Its graduates are found in all areas of the professions, industry and commerce, education, rabbinism and outreach, serving communities here, interstate and abroad. Yet it is essentially a direct successor to that yeshiva established in Shepparton 70 years earlier. His first teacher was Reb Laizer Herzog who had been one of Shepparton’s first three students.
However, although within a few years of its establishment the college came to occupy spacious premises in Alexandra Street, although large they were old, and over the decades the lack of renovation funds had led to further decline. Given their heritage listing, replacement was not an option – hence the new Tatarka Wing now open next to the existing building. Indeed, its luxury is a far cry from Shepparton 1949. Or for that matter most yeshivas of the past.
May it continue to thrive and develop mechayil el chayil by serving and influencing Jewish communities in Australia and overseas.
Yossi Aron OAM is The AJNreligious affairs editor.
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