Sunday, July 01, 2007

Skokie - Parts Five and Six

New Challenges

As is almost always the case, things do not remain static. The successes HTC had enjoyed were not going to remain untouched. A new Yeshiva was founded by several very talented Mechanchim, one of whom was former Brisk Yeshiva high school principal, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Lichtman. When Brisk realized it could no longer afford to stay open, it had to terminate the services of some of its own people. Rabbi Lichtman was one of them. If that name sounds familiar, it is because his father was former HTC Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Yechezkel Lichtman.

The new Yeshiva has successfully attracted students from the moderate right wing of Orthodoxy who might otherwise have gone to HTC. Those parents wanted a Yeshiva for their sons that was more like Telshe... but were unhappy with Telshe’s strong opposition to college. Yeshivas Brisk was first approached by these parents, but they made demands upon Brisk which they could not accept. Shortly thereafter Yeshivas Meor HaTorah was born.

HTC’s high school enrollment is down. At least one Rebbe has been re-assigned to another position as there were not enough students to justify his class. But more importantly the potential of HTC’s Beis Hamedrash program has never fully been realized, despite the fact that some of the best Rabbeim and Roshei Yeshiva in the city and perhaps even in the country are HTC’s Beis Hemdreash Rebbeim.

And that is no exaggeration. I have been around the block a few times… as a student, as a parent, and as a board member I have encountered many Rebbeim in many Yeshivos. No where have I found Rebbeim more dedicated to the students than at Skokie, both in high school and in the Beis HaMedrash. My experiences with my son’s Rebbeim, both in high school and Beis Hamedrash, will forever testify to that. They are by far amongst the most dedicated and talented Mechanchim I have ever known.

The dedication and virtual self sacrifice extended to each student defies description. My son will tell you the same thing. He will tell you that he owes everything to Rabbi Avraham Freidman who stood by him through thick and thin and helped guide his path from high school to Kerem B’Yavneh and later from the Beis Hamedrash of Skokie to the Beis Hamedrash of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

I think it is safe to say that all the Rebbeim he encountered when he was in the Beis HaMedrash in Skokie have significantly contributed to the successful path in learning he has taken. But none of this is so well known outside the Yeshiva. And that is an important factor in the lack of success in the Beis Hamedrash.

A Yeshiva’s primary function is the Beis Hamedrash program. That is its centerpiece, its crowning glory. It is the learning that takes place there by post high school students that defines it. Skokie’s Beis Hamedrash is not strong. It has not lived up to its potential. For years the Yeshiva has tried to build up the Beis Hamedrash and attract better students. That is one of the reasons it sought and received accreditation for its college.

But it has not succeeded in attracting a significant number of students, what I would call a critical mass. They have gone elsewhere post high school: Yeshivos like Ner Israel and Yeshiva University and various other East Coast Yeshivos. There are a few exceptions that do come to Skokie and of those, some are indeed quite brilliant. They are the ones who stay on in the Yeshiva’s Bellows Kollel. But that is what they are, exceptions. The post high school serious learning presence is mostly that of the Kollel.

It isn’t for lack of desire or lack of trying on the part of the Yeshiva. As brilliant as the Rosh HaYeshiva's Shiurim might be, the fact is the Beis Hamedrash is weak.

There are many reasons why this is the case. Here in my view are some of them:

Geography: Most young men who graduate high school in Yeshivos like Skokie tend to go to Israel for a year or two. When they return, they want to be in a good high quality Yeshiva. And the East Coast has a lot of great ones with long established reputations to choose from.

The Roshei Yeshiva in Israel: I have been told that some of them actively discourage the better students from going to Skokie.

Shiduchim: The New York area is where one can find many Yeshivos plus a Jewish atmosphere unlike anything the Midwest has to offer. And when it comes time for Shiduchim… dating prospects are much more numerous there, too.

Academic studies: For those interested in a university program that enjoys respect in academia and has many academic options for study while at the same time is a Yeshiva with serious Torah learning and top Rebbeim, YU is an obvious choice.

Reputation: For those who want a solid right wing type Yeshiva, they will not choose Skokie. As good as the Yeshiva is now, it’s not Lakewood or even Ner Israel.

On the other hand Chicago is no wilderness. We too have Yeshivos. And a vibrant Jewish community. And when it comes to Shiduchim we are no wilderness either. While it’s understandable that a young man would want to go east, that doesn’t really explain why HTC is not as successful as it should be in attracting students.

It is all about the level of learning. This is its most important attraction to serious students. In order to attract a critical mass of top students it has to concentrate on this the most because potential Beis Hamedrash students are going elsewhere.

While all the above mentioned items are important, they pale in comparison to this one. Improving the college by adding more courses and granting advanced degrees is indeed an imperative. The Yeshiva is in fact expanding its course options. And they need to do a lot more. But, as important as that is, it’s secondary.

To a serious student of Torah, it is about the quality and quantity… the depth and the scope of the learning. Once a serious student has gotten the taste of serious leaning for a year or two in Israel, he wants to advance. Skokie does not attract on that level. No matter how great the Rebbeim are, or the Rosh HaYeshiva's Shiurim are... they are not attracting students. Their reputations have not spread. There are too few Beis Hamedrash students in the Yeshiva to help spread it.

As I said the Yeshiva has tried and is still trying to recruit students to its Beis Hamedarsh. But they are not succeeding. The question must be asked: Why?!

Over the last decade or so I have observed numerous missed opportunities to hire some very charismatic Rebbeim who easily could have attracted more students. In one case they missed out on a top name in Torah world. Here are four cases in point that I am familiar with:

Rabbi Zev Cohen. As the Rav of a large Shul in West Rogers Park here, he was still willing to be a regular presence at the Yeshiva. The Yeshiva had initially hired him as a Rebbe. But the obligations to his Shul increased to a point where he could no longer be a full time staff member. There are few Rebbeim in any Yeshiva that are as charismatic as Rabbi Cohen is. He attracted people. He was beloved by almost all students he encountered… students that over the years are still loyal to and seek out for advice and council no in matter what part of the world they live. It may not have been ideal, but they should have held on to him. That would have been a start.

Rabbi Yosef Bechoffer. He is a brilliant Talmid Chacham. And what he brought to the table, few others can bring. His depth and breath of Torah knowledge was tremendous. He was a full time member of the Beis Hamedrash there. But the Yeshiva never utilized his talents. He was passed up for opportunities to teach. Eventually the Yeshiva let him go. He would have been a tremendous asset. There are very few Mechanchim like him.

Rabbi Avraham Kivelevitz is a great scholar, who was a great source of intellectual development, his knowledge of Jewish history is shared by few people in the Torah world and as a Jewish thinker he had few peers.

But the biggest mistake in my view was in turning down an opportunity to hire Rav Eliyahu Soloveichik, Rav Aharon’s son. He was the Rosh HaYeshiva in Brisk under his father. His knowledge of Torah had very few peers in this city, which boasts many fine and even great Talmidei Chachamim. He is modest, mild mannered, and eschewed the limelight. He sees his entire purpose in life as a teacher of Torah. As Brisk was winding down, Lander College hired him to commute weekly to New York and give Shiurim there. As would be expected he became a very popular Rebbe.

In my never ending quest to improve the state of my alma mater I had approached Rav Eliyahu to see if he would be interested in taking a position as a Beis Hamedrash Rebbe in Skokie. He told me that if asked, he would accept. He had no real interest in moving to New York at the time, Chicago having been his home for most of his life.

I approached the Yeshiva with this prospect. Although it had support from some key members of the administration and board, the idea was rejected. HTC could have had him with no strings attached. Imagine the impact of having Rav Eliyahu Soloveichik teaching a high level Shiur in Skokie. But they said no.

I’m sure they had their reasons. And they are under no obligation to share them with the public. But in my view they need to explain why they passed up on opportunities that surely would have attracted more top students and created a much higher level of Torah learning.

The high school is no longer filled to capacity. And while there is no controversy anymore thanks to the years of hard work on the part of Rav Morgenstern, Rabbi Isenberg, and the board, that alone is insufficient. The Yeshiva needs more than that.

The potential is there. But they have yet to achieve success as a major Yeshiva.


I would be remiss if I did not convey some of the more interesting events that occurred along the way.

The Traditional Movement is dying movement today. There are a few Traditional Shuls left most of which now have Mechitza Minyanim that are attended by more people than the main Shul. The largest of these Shuls, KINS, became Orthodox several years ago. After almost dying it has now been completely resuscitated. The long term Traditional rabbi of KINS, Rabbi Moses Mescheloff was a Musmach from Yeshiva University. He was given Smicha by Rav Aharon’s father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. He is well into his nineties now and sits next to the dynamic young modern Orthodox Rav of the Shul, Rabbi Leonard Matanky.

Rav Aharon certainly played a part in the Traditional Movement’s demise. I happen to believe those Shuls would have died anyway. But credit should certainly be given to those in the front lines of the fight against non Mechitza Shuls. And Rav Aharon certainly deserves it. I believe it cost him his health.

Mizrachi, once a powerhouse movement here in Chicago, has become very small. It is dwarfed by Agudath Israel now. They no longer even have an independent building in Chicago. The property they bought from the proceeds of the sale of the old Mizrachi building to Buddhist missionaries was eventually sold to The Chicago Community Kollel (Lakewood) many years ago. There have been attempts to revive Mizrachi over the years, but they have been largely unsuccessful thus far.

During the hieght of the battle between Rav Aharon and HTC, Rav Aharon was offered the job of Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivas Rabbenu Jacob Joseph (RJJ). He declined as he felt his mission was not yet acomplishged here in Chicago.

Seymour Abrams was the chairman of the Board of HTC when Rav Aharon was fired. Many years later he chaired a banquet for Yeshivas Brisk. It was just a short time before Rav Aharon's death. He spoke at that banquet and donated a substantial amount of money to the Yeshiva at that time.

As I said in an earlier chapter, some of Rav Aharon’s hand picked faculty did not support him. Rabbi Gedaliah Rabinowitz had been hired by Rav Aharon from Yeshiva University to become the high school principal. He ended up being in the forefront of Rav Aharon’s opposition. Some have blamed him as being directly responsible for Rav Aharon’s ultimate ouster from Skokie.

Here is what happened. Rabbi Rabinowitz had made some decisions in the high school without consulting and getting the approval of the Rosh HaYeshiva. Rav Aharon countermanded those decisions. Rabbi Rabinowitz felt that his ability to function as a principal was being undermined. He complained to the board and led the charge against Rav Aharon amongst the members of the faculty that opposed him.

After Rav Aharon’s departure from Skokie in 1973, the Yeshiva hired a major name in the Torah world, Rav Moshe Herschler. Rabbi Rabinowitz had stayed on as principal of the high school.

After a relatively short tenure Rav Herschler returned to Israel. Rabbi Rabinowitz filled the void and became the defacto Rosh HaYeshiva giving the Smicha Shiur and signing Semichos. The students in the Yeshiva loved, honored, and respected him. Over the next few years he changed his look. He came to the Yeshiva clean shaven and wearing a suit. By the time he left he was wearing a Chasidishe Bekeshe, a Shtreimel and he had a long full beard. He had become the Manestricher Rebbe. Apparently he was descendant from a Rabbinic line in Chasidus.

When he finally left Skokie to move to Israel in the early eighties he took out a full page ad in the Sentinel, then Chicago’s weekly Jewish newspaper, publicly apologizing to Rav Aharon. He left Chicago after that, never to return.

Updated: 7/2/07 11:33 AM CDT