The inspiring story of Rabbi David Miller’s quest to combat American Jewish apathy still speaks volumes
Title: From Kovno to California
Location: Oakland, California
Document: Nationally syndicated advertisement
Although Rabbi David Miller’s seforim — once among the most widely circulated English-language Jewish works — have long been relegated to the dusty shelves of used bookstores and genizah piles, the inspiring story of his quest to combat American Jewish apathy still speaks volumes.
Rabbi Miller (1869–1939) was a Lithuanian-born product of the Slabodka yeshivah, where the mussar giants Rav Naftali Amsterdam, Rav Yitzchok Blazer, and the Alter of Slabodka were his primary influences. Earning semichah from Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, he immigrated to the United States in 1890, at first serving as a rav in New York and Providence, Rhode Island. With time, he became disillusioned with the rabbinate and journeyed west, where he entered the business world. He subsequently saw great success in real estate development in the booming San Francisco Bay Area.
Even prior to his move to California, Rabbi Miller observed the abandonment of Jewish observances like Shabbos and taharas hamispachah and dedicated his life to reversing this calamity. He authored two seforim, The Secret of the Jew (on family purity) and The Secret of Happiness (on Shabbos observance), printing more than 50,000 copies across 20 editions and distributing them free of charge to anyone who requested them. In January 1932, Miller wrote to Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel with a report about the success and popularity of his work: “It has reached the far, remote corners of the earth, such as South Africa, Australia, China, Persia, India, etc.”
In addition to his seforim, Rabbi Miller worked to promote Jewish education through the local Oakland Talmud Torah he helped found. He’d also offer financial assistance for those who wished to continue their studies in proper yeshivos.
When Rabbi Miller passed away (childless) at the age of 70 in 1939, he bequeathed nearly $300,000 to support Jewish education. For decades to follow, his seforim continued to be printed and distributed free of charge by the Rabbi David Miller Foundation. The bulk of his inheritance went to yeshivos around the world, from Slabodka, Mir, and Kamenitz to Torah Vodaath, Ner Israel, Chaim Berlin, and RIETS — who remembered him annually on his yahrtzeit with the learning of Mishnayos and a seudas mitzvah.
A Ben Torah in Burma
Rabbi Miller’s philanthropy extended across the world. When he heard that Elias Levi, a Sephardic prodigy living in Burma (now called Myanmar), wanted to travel abroad to receive proper rabbinic training, Rabbi Miller championed his cause, helping Levi obtain a student visa to come study at RIETS, and assisting him financially.
Yeshivah in Yehud
Rabbi Miller studied in a yeshivah in Ruzhany, a town that hosted another noteworthy individual. Rav Mordechai Gimpel Yoffe (1820–1891), a close talmid of Rav Itzele of Volozhin, served as the rabbi there for nearly 40 years. A leader in the Hovevei Zion movement, Rav Yoffe moved in 1888 with several of his community members to Eretz Yisrael during the First Aliyah, settling in the new moshav of Yehud, where he founded a “kibbutz” of great Torah scholars.
Thanks to Rabbi Hillel Goldberg PhD for his assistance with this column
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 856)
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