In Different Worlds| March 23, 2021
The story of the oldest and youngest children of the Netziv, Rav Chaim Berlin and Rav Meir (Berlin) Bar-Ilan
There are times when brothers share a set of parents — or, in this case, a father — and seem to have grown up in two different worlds. Such is the story of the oldest and youngest children of the Netziv, Rav Chaim Berlin and Rav Meir (Berlin) Bar-Ilan. Although their births were to separate mothers, nearly a half a century apart, their upbringings shared some surprising similarities.
Perhaps the most obvious things they had in common were the immense impact their illustrious father had on their lives, and their lifelong association with the legacy of Volozhin. Rav Chaim Berlin studied under his father in Volozhin for a number of years, eventually assuming the rabbinate in the wealthy Jewish community of Moscow, where he helped fundraise for his father’s yeshivah. In Volozhin’s last years, the Netziv summoned his son to return to the yeshivah and named him his successor.
In his twilight years, Rav Chaim Berlin immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, where he immediately assumed leadership positions in the educational and charitable institutions of the Old Yishuv, alongside his activities on the beis din of Rav Shmuel Salant.
Though Rav Meir Berlin was only 12 when the Netziv passed away, as the child of his father’s old age, they enjoyed a close relationship. He was subsequently reared by his maternal grandfather, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of Aruch Hashulchan, while studying at the Telshe yeshivah. Despite the vast age difference and geographical separation for the majority of their lives, Rav Meir wrote warmly about their relationship in his memoirs.
Like his brother, he moved eventually to Eretz Yisrael, in 1926. This was after a sojourn in Berlin, and then a number of years in New York. Inspired by his father’s support of the Chovevei Zion movement of the 19th century, Rav Meir became one of the leaders of the Mizrachi. He’d go on to build much of its infrastructure in the United States and Israel, founding the movement’s newspaper, Hatzofeh, and serving as its editor.
While Rav Chaim Berlin assisted his father in the writing and publication of his monumental Ha’amek Sh’eilah, Rav Meir initiated literary projects of his own, notably the ongoing Encyclopedia Talmudit series.
While Rav Meir Bar-Ilan is best remembered for his work on behalf of the Mizrachi, he made substantial contributions to the Torah world as well. He was among those responsible for arranging for the move of the Slabodka yeshivah to Eretz Yisrael in 1924, and helped obtain visas to Palestine for his cousin the Brisker Rav and other rabbinic leaders in 1941.
Perhaps his most lasting initiative came in 1914, following the passing of his brother. He influenced the leaders of a fledgling yeshivah called Tiferes Bochurim, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, to be renamed Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, a lasting tribute to his dear brother.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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