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Rav Dovid Kamenetsky brings Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski to life. “Everything we have today, the entire yeshivah world, is from Rav Chaim Ozer” 

Photos: Eli Cobin, Personal Archives

Walking into Rav Dovid Kamenetsky’s Har Nof apartment, I’m immediately struck by the resemblance to his father, Rav Shmuel, whose picture adorns the living room wall along with a photo of his grandfather, Rav Yaakov. My conversation with this modest talmid chacham, who is also a self-made scholarly historian, shows me just how much his life’s work has been influenced by his illustrious father and grandfather.

The atmosphere that permeated the Kamenetsky home, relates Reb Dovid, instilled a deep connection to Jewish history along with a sense of pride in the rich legacy of the Litvish mesorah.

“In our home you went back in time a little bit,” he says. “You started to get interested where your grandfather comes from. Where did he learn? What was Slabodka? At some point that casual interest in history broadened to a point where I said to myself, ‘I like this!’ — and it became a calling.”

Reb Dovid explains that Reb Yaakov, his legendary grandfather, had both a deep appreciation for and vast knowledge of Jewish history. “Binu shnos dor vador,” he’d emphasize. Our job is binu — to understand and to learn from our past. Reb Yaakov would seldom deliver a speech in which he didn’t express a historical idea with modern-day ramifications.

He also believed that the only way to convey the message of a story was by staying true to each precise historical detail. No hearsay, no conjecture, no dramatic embellishment. On a visit to Israel shortly following the passing of Rav Berel Soloveitchik, he paid a visit to the widow and children. The conversation turned toward his meeting with Rav Chaim Brisker several decades earlier. Reb Yaakov regaled his audience with an exact rendition of the memorable encounter, down to an exact rendering of Reb Chaim’s voice!

Rav Yaakov studied tekufos of Jewish history, explaining that certain personalities served as “bridges” between eras. These historical figures provided leadership and enabled the coming generation to gain a glimpse of the previous tekufah.

“My grandfather himself was one of those bridges,” Reb Dovid points out, “a Torah leader who served as a paradigm of the European Torah world and values for the American-born generations. In his older years, my grandfather was more of a storyteller. When he related a story, you were there. It became alive.”

Growing up and absorbing that message, it’s no surprise that Reb Dovid has continued the family tradition of looking to the past to shed light on our present. “In a certain sense, that’s how I envision people learning from my newest book, a biography of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski,” he says. “I want them to see it not just as a historical reference, but as a sefer that teaches them about their own here and now.”

The Job That Wasn’t

Though I meet him in his home in Har Nof, Rav Dovid’s unofficial office is actually the National Library of Israel, home to one of the largest collections worldwide of seforim, books on Jewish related topics and original manuscripts. Reb Dovid heads Mechon Pirkei Eliezer: Institute for the Publication of Rabbinic Manuscripts, which annotates and publishes sifrei haGra and various Rishonim and Acharonim. Using manuscripts and out-of-print editions, he brings many heretofore inaccessible but important works to light.

The sifrei haGra project has reprinted some of the Vilna Gaon’s previously published seforim with sources and footnotes in a more user-friendly edition, as well as printing some manuscripts for the very first time, in addition to his own Toras HaGra, a complete analysis of all the Gra’s writings. Another project in the works is a compilation of Rishonim expounding on the Ramban’s commentary to Chumash, especially the kabbalistic passages.

Along with the sifrei limud that he published, Reb Dovid has authored biographical profiles of some of the more obscure rabbinic figures in recent centuries, with his work appearing in Yeshurun and other Torah journals. Rav Aryeh Leib Lipkin, nephew of Rav Yisrael Salanter and rabbi of Kretinga, and Rav Meir Robinzon, a prominent rav in Lithuania who spent his last years inJerusalem, are just two of the many whose stories he’s told.

Reb Dovid’s newest project is a monumental book on the life and times of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski Rabbeinu Chaim Ozer — Rabban Shel Kol Bnei Hagola. (So far it’s only available in Hebrew, but he hopes that an English-language version will be made available as well.) His interest in Rav Chaim Ozer, of whom the Chofetz Chaim said, “[He] is Klal Yisrael,” percolated for a long time, slowly evolving from a casual interest into a labor of love, and a desire to share with the world what can be learned from the life and activities of this towering personality.

“Everything we have today is from Rav Chaim Ozer,” he says emphatically. “The entire yeshivah world, Agudas Yisrael, and so much more is a result of his leadership.”

There is a personal side to the story as well. Before the Holocaust, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky served as the rav of a small Lithuanian shtetl called Tzitevian. Poverty led him to seek a position in a larger town. When a position as successor to Rav Leib Rubin in the Vilkomir rabbinate fell through in 1936, the Kovna Rav, Rav Avraham Dovber Kahana-Shapiro (the Dvar Avraham), made a suggestion.

“Rav Chaim Ozer in Vilna can use an assistant to carry out various rabbinical functions,” he told Rav Yaakov. “He’s getting on in years and is in a weakened state. I can arrange for you to become his assistant.”

Though the idea of being in Rav Chaim Ozer’s proximity was enticing, Rav Yaakov was a very practical person. He reasoned that serving as an assistant was one thing, but taking Rav Chaim Ozer’s place — be it whenever Rav Chaim Ozer traveled out of town or alternatively after 120 years — was simply too daunting and quite inconceivable. He turned down the offer and the Kamentetskys immigrated to the United States.

“I grew up with that story,” Reb Dovid says. “Maybe that’s another reason why I felt a subliminal connection to Rav Chaim Ozer.”

Letters that Speak Worlds

In contrast to the accepted norm in the biography industry, the new book does not rely so much on interviews, even though Reb Dovid began the project when it would still have been possible to speak to people who had met and interacted with Rav Chaim Ozer. Given the time that elapsed since those interactions, and the distortion so many years does to memory, Reb Dovid chose to limit material from interviews and for the most part used primary sources instead.

Working alone, Reb Dovid sifted through archives of the Hebrew and Yiddish press of the era searching for references to Rav Chaim Ozer. This proved to be a rich resource. However, the lion’s share of the book comes from Rav Chaim Ozer’s own letters. And there are thousands of them. As Reb Dovid puts it: “Let’s see what Rav Chaim Ozer himself wrote, and allow the narrator to create his own narrative.”

Rav Chaim Ozer was a prolific letter writer on a myriad of topics, Reb Dovid explains. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of his letters were lost during the war, but many of those sent to destinations outside of Europe — the United States, England, Israel, South Africa, etc. — were salvaged.

The correspondence offers a window into Rav Chaim Ozer’s thought process, projects, and expressions of leadership. The scope of his activities was enormous. Halachic responsum, family correspondence, communal activities, and various other topics all flow seamlessly from his pen, providing — if correctly analyzed — a clear picture of his life and worldview.

The process wasn’t easy, and entailed locating these letters in either public archives or private collections, deciphering Rav Chaim Ozer’s often difficult-to-read penmanship, organizing the chronological sequence of the correspondence, sorting it according to subject matter, and then weaving all those elements into one vivid tapestry. But the result is a work of art. The 600-page volume, sold out of its second printing, is actually only volume one, covering Rav Chaim Ozer’s life up until 1910. Just from the partial picture painted in this first volume, the reader can envision Rav Chaim Ozer standing before him and talking from the pages of the book.

Sparkling Facets

Several themes are highlighted in the book, an important one being Rav Chaim Ozer’s interpersonal relationships and concern for the everyman. We grow up with stories about Rav Chaim Ozer’s genius — Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman witnessed him responding aloud to a halachic query while simultaneously penning a teshuvah — but ultimately there’s little to gain from those anecdotes. Yet reading how this towering Torah genius had room in his heart and mind for all sorts of people and their everyday concerns is something that obligates us all.

Rav Chaim Ozer was very family oriented, and much of his correspondence with family members is filled with queries regarding individual family members’ welfare. He had a brother, Eliyahu Grodzenski, whose son Aharon Yitzchak had strayed from Yiddishkeit. Residing in Vilna, he became a prominent Yiddish writer within the literary circles popular in Vilna at the time. Rav Chaim Ozer maintained a close relationship with his secular nephew, and they even worked together during the shechitah crisis that faced Polish Jewry in the 1930s.

That wasn’t the only such relationship he nurtured. The Jewish community of Vilna turned increasingly secular in the early decades of the 20th century, and Rav Chaim Ozer enjoyed a good working relationship with the irreligious communal leadership, including social activist and Polish parliamentarian Dr. Tzemach Shabad.

Another interesting facet highlighted in the book is Rav Chaim Ozer’s apparent love for his city. Offers for prestigious rabbinic positions arrived from Kovna (Kaunas), St. Petersburg, and Jerusalem, and yet he stayed at the helm of the Vilna Beis Din for over a half a century. “Rav Chaim Ozer loved Vilna,” explains Reb Dovid. “When he arrived as a young man, it was still ‘Yerushalayim d’Lita.’ The Cheshek Shlomo and other great rabbanim were still on the beis din, and the legacy of the Vilna Gaon still permeated the atmosphere of the shul hoif, where the Gaon’s kloiz stood just a few paces away from the famed Vilna Great Synagogue.”

One of the Vilna institutions that Rav Chaim Ozer greatly benefited from was the famed Strashun Library, founded by Mattisyahu Strashun, the son of the Rashash. Legendary librarian Chaikel Lunsky would accommodate Rav Chaim Ozer with any conceivable sefer he needed to borrow. When the young Rav Ruderman found himself in Vilna, he’d occasionally stop in to visit Rav Chaim Ozer. Knowing the young man’s habits, Rav Chaim Ozer would ask him which obscure sefer he’d checked out this time at the Strashun library. Rav Chaim Ozer would then proceed to state the number of the siman of whatever topic Rav Ruderman had studied in the sefer. He never forgot anything and had a total command of kol haTorah kulah in the most literal and non-exaggerated way.

“Rav Chaim Ozer was so far beyond regular parameters that it would be impossible to say he was like one of the other gedolim,” Reb Dovid says. One of his colleagues from their Volozhin days was Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz. Following the passing of his rebbi, Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Baruch Ber named Rav Chaim Ozer as his new rebbi and would address him as such (which bothered Rav Chaim Ozer to no end).

The Biggest Surprise

Although the book is replete with examples of Rav Chaim Ozer’s breathtaking Torah knowledge, Reb Dovid admits that “what blew me away was how normal and down to earth he was at the same time.” As a youth in Philadelphia, Reb Dovid studied under Rav Mendel Kaplan. The latter’s father-in-law was Rav Hirsh Gutman, the menahel of the Baranovitch yeshivah. Once Rav Gutman’s daughter — Rav Mendel’s future wife — had a doctor’s appointment in Vilna. Her first stop was at Rav Chaim Ozer, to convey a message from her father.

Upon hearing the purpose of her visit, he proceeded to detail the directions to the doctor’s office to ensure her safe arrival. Seeing that it still wasn’t clear to the out-of-towner, he arranged for someone to escort her there. Arriving in Vilna again over a decade later with her family as refugees at the war’s outset, she once again stopped by the nerve center of world Jewry at 17 Zavalna Street. Rav Chaim Ozer greeted her, saying, “So, were you able to find the doctor’s office?”

Rav Chaim Ozer’s prodigious output was achieved despite significant personal challenges. He suffered from a throat ailment throughout most of his life that affected his speech and precluded his public speaking at the many conferences he initiated and led. His first wife passed away at a young age, and his only daughter succumbed to polio at the age of 19. In his last years — when he was at the peak of his leadership responsibilities — he suffered from stomach cancer, which would ultimately claim his life in the summer of 1940. “I just find it mindboggling to fathom the kochos hanefesh he had to accomplish all that he did,” Reb Dovid says.

By shedding light on Rav Chaim Ozer’s various interactions with the other Torah leaders of his day, the book presents a unique prism into the Torah leadership of that era. At the local level there was the Vilna rabbinate, including Rav Chanoch Henoch Eigis — the Marcheshes — with whom he enjoyed a very close relationship.

Across the Russian Empire, Rav Chaim Ozer worked together with Rav Dovid Friedman of Karlin, Rav Eliyahu Chaim Mazel of Lodz, Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Yehuda Leib Tzirelson of Kishinev, Rebbe Sholom Ber — the fifth rebbe of Chabad, and many others. Later on, he’d have contacts with Rabbi Dr. Solomon Breuer, the Rebbe of Gur,   and other Agudah leaders. “The book gives us an appreciation of who these gedolim were, how they interacted with each other and how they took initiative and responsibility for their people during times of challenge and change,” Reb Dovid explains. “That may have been the biggest surprise of this whole project of researching Rav Chaim Ozer. Combing through his correspondence, one is exposed to his relationships with other gedolim, his interactions with others, his diplomacy. It reveals an entirely new perspective of his personality.”

Vision for the Future

As a tour guide of Jewish sites in Europe who’s been grounded since last March, I’m eager to discuss the city of Vilna itself. Reb Dovid shares that he plans on doing some archival research in Vilna for the future volumes on Rav Chaim Ozer. He’s been there in the past, leading groups to daven at the kever of the Vilna Goan and Rav Chaim Ozer — the two great gedolim whose writings fill so much of his life.

On one of those trips he actually accompanied his illustrious father, Rav Shmuel, for a visit to his birthplace of Tzitevian where Rav Yaakov served as the shtetl’s rav. They visited Slabodka and Vilkomir as well, two locales where Rav Shmuel had studied in yeshivah as a youth. Reflecting on the proximity of his father’s world and the world of his research, I wonder if one inspired the other. “Growing up in a Litvish home, we were proud Jews,” Reb Dovid responds, “proud of who we are and what we stood for.”

I wonder aloud about the fact that we’re in the year 2020 and far away from Vilna and Rav Chaim Ozer. “What would you say is the legacy of Rav Chaim Ozer today?” I ask Reb Dovid. No pauses this time. “The yeshivos,” he states emphatically. “Rav Chaim Ozer was the father of the yeshivos: He initiated and ran the Va’ad Hayeshivos and he conceived the idea of the olam hayeshivos.”

Prior to Rav Chaim Ozer, yeshivos were individual units. He himself took personal responsibility for the local Ramailes Yeshivah in Vilna. But he envisioned a yeshivah world, a society in which the yeshivah played a central role in forming identity. The Va’ad Hayeshivos that he founded together with the Chofetz Chaim after World War One was a manifestation of that vision. It sought to unite all of the Lithuanian-style- yeshivos in Poland   under one rubric. Inspired by Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Kook attempted to found a similar entity in Eretz Yisrael.

With the decimation of European Jewry in the Holocaust, people like Rav Aharon Kotler, the Ponevezher Rav, and other visionaries endeavored to rebuild yeshivos on the individual level, as well as the yeshivah world as a whole. That focus on the institution of the yeshivah as a central component of the rebuilding process is the legacy of Rav Chaim Ozer, and it’s something that continues to sustain us till this very day.

After he completes volumes two and three of this mammoth project, what’s next for Reb Dovid? Actually, he says, there are more secrets to unlock when it comes to Rav Chaim Ozer; even three volumes of historical material can’t begin to convey his halachic prowess.

Reb Dovid pulls a vintage sefer off the shelf. It appears to be a 1920s first edition of Rav Chaim Ozer’s halachic work Achiezer. Rav Chaim Ozer was the last word in psak, fielding queries from every corner of the globe. Though many of his pioneering decisions are utilized by poskim till today, the sefer itself is a bit challenging for the average student.

Reb Dovid points out that Rav Chaim Ozer was reluctant to publish altogether, asserting that “it’s better to assist a widow than to publish seforim.” His writing style was shorthand, quoting a wide array of sources without elaborating.

“This is for a future project someday,” he says, patting the sefer gently. “I’d like to take this closed book and open it for the olam haTorah. Footnotes can be added to illuminate his citations. A project like that would reveal not just the layers of knowledge behind Rav Chaim Ozer’s approach to halachah — it would reveal his true brilliance.”

What Makes This Different?

Rav Dovid Kamenetsky’s biography of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski is not the first one to be published — but it’s decidedly different from its predecessors.

Rav Dovid Kamenetsky is part of an emerging cadre of talmidei chachamim who are also scholars of note. They are serious researchers who write on an academic level without necessarily having spent time in academia.

“We understand the research methodology and appreciate it,” he says. “And when it comes to topics that are close to our hearts, we have the ability to write with an understanding and inside knowledge of the subject matter.”

In practical terms, this means a rigorous approach to historical research and a focus on primary sources. It means a critical reading of those sources. It means placing the subject and the anecdote into the larger historical context. It means sourcing every anecdote and being transparent with the sources used. It means keeping focused on the greatness of the subject and imparting the necessary lessons. All this while keeping the story interesting and relevant to the average reader. No small feat.

In the context of this specific book, it meant a thorough research of Rav Chaim Ozer’s life, the city of Vilna as the backdrop of his activities, and the background of the institutions and events with which he was affiliated. I open the copy of the book lying on the table and the difference between it and almost any other gedolim biography is immediately apparent. Entire chapters are devoted to topics such as the Ramailes Yeshivah in Vilna, the “kibbutz” of Rav Chaim Ozer (an ad hoc yeshivah of sorts), the rabbinical conferences in Vilna and St. Petersburg, and the Knesses Yisrael organization that Rav Chaim Ozer spearheaded and that served as a prototype of Agudas Yisrael.

And footnotes: Everything is clearly sourced, and points are elaborated in the notes so that the primary text maintains its flow and remains captivating.

Referring to his extensive source notes, I ask Reb Dovid, “You call this a frum biography? Are you sure you aren’t an academic?” With a patient smile he clarifies that it isn’t a biography altogether. “This isn’t a storybook. Its purpose is so that we can learn from Rav Chaim Ozer, study his tekufah, see how he reacted to the sweeping changes taking place in the Jewish world and how he dealt with people and situations.” The way to accomplish that, he says, is to present a full and accurate picture of his endeavors along with the appropriate historical context.

A telling illustration can be found in the 12th chapter, which discusses a historic meeting in Bad Homburg in 1909. This was the catalyst for the first international meeting of great Torah leaders and communal activists from both east (Russia) and west (Germany), and which provided the framework for the founding of Agudas Yisrael a few years later.

Rav Chaim Ozer was one of the primary organizers of the meeting and his flurry of correspondence gives an insider’s view of the preparation and execution of the summit. The excitement is palpable as we read Rav Chaim Ozer’s letters to Agudah founder Rav Yitzchak Isaac Halevy about who will be attending and what topics are on the agenda. We feel like we’re the silent observers at this august conclave, witnesses to history in the making. The extensive footnotes provide an accurate reconstruction of the what, how, when and where, while not interrupting the flow of the unfolding story.

Incredibly enough, the more than 600-page book is just Volume One, covering Rav Chaim Ozer’s life up until 1910. Volumes Two and Three will have to wait their turn as the research continues.

In those volumes, Reb Dovid promises, the entire topic of Agudas Yisrael will get a thorough treatment — from its founding at the Katowice conference of 1912, through its rise during the interwar years, along with the Knessiah Gedolahs, the first two of which Rav Chaim Ozer himself participated. Another topic is World War One and Rav Chaim Ozer’s subsequent exile, his return to Vilna, and the rebuilding of a shattered community. There’s also the Va’ad Hayeshivos initiative, the dispute over the Vilna rabbinate and the tumultuous last year of Rav Chaim Ozer’s life after World War Two had already begun.

An additional two volumes means an enormous investment of time and research. Entire troves of letters need to be analyzed. It’s a daunting task, but Reb Dovid exudes optimism. The excitement generated by the current volume will undoubtedly leave readers clamoring for more.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 841)

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