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No Honor, No Shame

Yisroel Besser

When Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman ztz”l passed away twenty years ago this week, he was the last living testimony to the great yeshivos of prewar Europe and the venerated Vilna beis din. But the past and future converge as the small yeshivah he created in Jerusalem’s Rechavia neighborhood is being revitalized, bringing back the Rosh Yeshivahs’s special credo: that the yeshivah remain a fortress, while never losing sight of the rights of the neighborhood residents to feel respected.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

None of the words in the real estate agent’s arsenal — charm, elegance, mystique — can really do justice to the neighborhood, because, like everything in this holiest of cities, it is of a dimension beyond the physical.

Here, rays of golden dust rain down into streets too narrow to contain their own rich history, and buildings built for inhabitants of one world are still servicing the needs of another. And, in a grand old building at the corner of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, there is a sense of prophecy fulfilled. 

The Rosh Yeshivah stood in contemplation, a lone figure by the Holy Wall. “Ribono shel Olam,’ he said out loud, “we know that the Rambam writes, ‘Amar Hashem’ at the beginning of his commentary, because whatever he writes, it’s all from You. The words of the gedolei hador are really Your words, Ribono shel Olam. Now I have a dilemma. I can buy a building for the yeshivah in Geulah for forty thousand dollars, or one in Rechavia, where it’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But, Ribono shel Olam, the Tchebiner Rav told me to purchase the one in Rechavia, so that means that You say so as well, correct?”

The Rosh Yeshivah waited a moment before continuing. “Okay, shetikah k’hodah.’ So, I suppose that means that you, Eibeshter, will help me find the means to purchase it.”

And, with that, the Rosh Yeshivah turned and walked away, a picture of contentment. And within days, he had the money for the building, confirming his faith in the Ribono shel Olam.

The Tchebiner Rav instructed him: “Geulah doesn’t need Torah; Rechavia does. Go build a yeshivah there, and bring Torah to the neighborhood.”




It’s forty years later, and I’m sitting in the very building the Rosh Yeshivah purchased, in conversation with Rabbi Avraham Berniker, a talented and energetic young talmid chacham — and the grandson of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman. He has made it his mission to rehabilitate the structure and thus, reenergize the yeshivah and the neighborhood around it. From the early 1970s, Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael thrived, and then, with the passing of Rav Gustman on 28 Sivan 5751 (1991), the yeshivah declined, the beautiful building falling into disrepair and neglect.

But now, there is a sense of in-gathering here, a perception that in the neighborhood, and more specifically, in this building, the many tribes of Israel can all find a home.

There is no better way to soak in the atmosphere than to join with the others who fill the beautiful beis medrash with Torah. I am greeted by a Yerushalmi, his gravelly voice hinting at years of smoking unfiltered Time cigarettes. His wide-brimmed hat sits next to him and his smile is warm and good-humored. He has been learning here, he tells me, “forever,” and is amazed at the resurgence. “I have to come on time to seder in order to protect my seat,” he laughs uproariously at his own joke. Just down the bench, a kippah-clad student, overflowing briefcase at his feet, is focused intently on his Gemara. And of course, ever-ubiquitous in this city, there are two Americans, speaking unapologetically accented Hebrew, arguing in learning with a group of natives.

At the front of the beis medrash sits the Rosh Yeshivah, a picture of serenity as he pores over a sefer. This is Rav Michoel Berniker, a deep, erudite scholar and Rav Gustman’s only son-in-law.

It’s not only the return of Torah: it’s the return of Rav Gustman’s Torah — a man who cherished each holy word, but also each holy soul, who loved the Nation as a whole and considered the sight of a lone Jew a cause for rejoicing.

I sit down in the well-appointed otzar hasforim with Reb Avraham, Rav Michoel Berniker’s son, marveling at the renaissance. He replies with an observation. “Chazal teach us that one doesn’t appreciate his rebbi’s advice until forty years have passed — it is now forty years since the Gaon of Tchebin instructed my zeideh to purchase the building here ... and, baruch Hashem, we are seeing the fruits of his advice.”

Bring Torah to Rechavia ...

In a sense, there was none better suited to the job than Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman, a living link to the yeshivah world of prewar Europe, a man equipped with diverse talents for a neighborhood of diversity. He possessed the learning and yiras Shamayim to earn the respect of the Yerushalmi locals; the penetrating intellect and understanding to earn the reverence of the neighborhood’s academics and scholars; and, perhaps most importantly, the warmth and sensitivity to ensure that every Jew was comfortable in his presence.

By way of introduction, Reb Avraham points out what kind of appeal his grandfather had. “At his weekly Thursday afternoon shiur, the beis medrash would be packed with a wide range of listeners: his own talmidim from America, the Israelis who discovered him here, and the likes of Gershon Stammer of the Eida Chareidis and Menachem Elon, an Israeli Supreme Court justice, each of whom were equally at home here.

“He would say that after all he’d encountered, the sight of any Yid was enough to fill him with joy” says Reb Avraham, “it made no difference what type of Jew he was.”

Rav Wolbe once referred to Rav Gustman as “the Iyov of roshei yeshivah” because of the horrors he lived through and was forced to witness during the war years. The Nazis made him watch as they used babies for target practice, shooting them out of their mothers’ arms.

When his own infant son, Meir, was murdered, the bereaved father had to remove the child’s shoes, in order to trade them for food for his surviving family members — his starving wife and daughter.

The Rosh Yeshivah rarely discussed the unimaginable anguish of those years — falling into a mass grave and hiding among corpses, living for months in a pit with his wife and surviving daughter and surviving off of potato peels, escaping to the forest and joining a group of partisans — explaining that he was saving the images for the Olam HaEmes. Then, he said, he would incorporate the pain he’d seen into a special tefillah on behalf of Klal Yisrael.

“After all my zeideh witnessed in the Holocaust,” Reb Avraham reflects, “he wasn’t capable of rejecting another Jew. It cured him of being a ‘party-man’ and, miraculously, even in the polarized climate of Eretz Yisrael, he succeeded in remaining above factional politics. His friend, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, would often comment how ‘jealous’ he was of my zeideh’s ability to remain completely apolitical.”

Not only in the relatively tranquil environment of America, but even in Eretz Yisrael, there was nothing that could dissuade him from his goal, his only interest: Torah, teaching and learning and answering questions from Yidden, all Yidden.

“After the humiliation I sustained at the hands of the Nazis on one hand, and the honor shown to me by Rav Chaim Ozer on the other, there is neither kavod nor bizyonos that can have an effect on me,” he once said.

The famous story tells of how, one day in prewar Vilna, the great Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky went for a walk, accompanied by his young protege, Reb Yisroel Zev. In a verdant field outside the city, the gadol began to identify different types of plants, telling his companion which were suitable for eating, which had curative properties, and which were dangerous. Everything Rav Chaim Ozer said was sacred, and Rav Gustman filed away the information.

A few short years later, Reb Chaim Ozer was gone, the Torah world was in flames, and the Gustman family was in hiding, a step ahead of their Nazi pursuers.

During those bitter years, living as they did in the subhuman conditions of the forest, the sole source of nourishment was plants ... and thanks to his rebbi, he knew which he could eat and which he could not.

In later years, the Rosh Yeshivah himself insisted on watering the plants in the yeshivah’s garden, a display of gratitude to the foliage that had sustained in him at the worst of times.


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