In the Old Yishuv, it was a bit anomalous for a woman to exert so much influence on public policy and education.
When Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin’s first wife passed away at a young age, he married Sarah Sonia Retner, subsequently known to history with the appellation “Brisker Rebbetzin.” Descended from the Noda B’Yehuda and the great philanthropist Yehoshua Zeitlin, she entered the marriage as a wealthy woman. With the signing of the kesubah, she was said to have told her husband, “Mazel tov! Don’t take your kallah’s blessing lightly.”
In 1877 they moved to Eretz Yisrael, where she immersed herself in establishing the Diskin Orphanage and Yeshivas Ohel Moshe, among a myriad of other projects benefiting the beleaguered local population.
In the Old Yishuv, it was a bit anomalous for a woman to exert so much influence on public policy and education. She usually worked behind the scenes and in concert with her illustrious husband, leading the struggle against expressions of modernity in Yerushalayim, and often raising the ire of the press and the “more enlightened” community.
The newly founded Kollel America was one noted beneficiary of her formidable organizational skills. Ostensibly instituted to help US immigrants to the Holy City, it stayed independent of the Vaad Kol Hakollelim, and the Diskins’ support was a source of tension for a while, but it also afforded them the protection of the American consul, who saw the project as something of an honorary consulship — though its links to the US were murky at best.
With Rav Yehoshua Leib’s passing in 1898, Rav Shmuel Salant ordained that the funeral be delayed until the next morning, against the prevailing custom, to ensure a levayah befitting the great tzaddik. During the night, the Rebbetzin delivered an impromptu, “very touching and learned” hesped in her home before the official proceedings began.
Though a bit older than Rav Yehoshua Leib, she outlived him by nearly a decade, passing away in 1906 at the ripe old age of 90. She was remembered by the diverse Yerushalayim community as a rare woman who essentially became a leader in the Old Yishuv. While there are contenders for the coveted title “Brisker Rav,” there will always be only one “Brisker Rebbetzin.”
Home to Jerusalem’s Orphans
A vaunted institution of the Old Yishuv, the Diskin Orphanage was founded in the home of Rav Yehoshua Leib and Rebbetzin Sarah Sonia in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, later moving into a building of its own nearby. Besides feeding, housing, and clothing Yerushalayim’s starving orphans, it also gave them religious education — saving them spiritually from the predations of the local missionary-run orphanages. The Rebbetzin used her own funds to manage and expand the orphanage in its early stages. The Diskins also opened a vocational school to teach the children essential trades.
A Worthy Successor
Following the Brisker Rebbetzin’s passing, Rav Yehoshua Leib’s only child, Rav Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin, immigrated to Palestine to assume control of the orphanage, rescuing it from financial ruin and enabling it to grow. It moved first to Rechov Haneviim, ultimately settling in 1927 into an impressive structure in Givat Shaul, then the outskirts of the city. When Rav Shmuel Salant, the longtime rav of Yerushalayim, was niftar in 1909, and the community was unable to choose a successor, Rav Yitzchak Yerucham and Rav Chaim Berlin were seen as unofficial rabbis in his stead. Following World War I, Rav Yitzchak Yerucham cofounded the Eidah Hachareidis, helping lead it until his passing in 1925.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 872)
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