The Lomza Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, spent more than 15 years in the United States fundraising
Title: There’s No Football Team in Lomza
Location: Bangor, Maine
Document: Bangor Daily News
Among the Lithuanian-style yeshivos of the interwar period, the Lomza Yeshivah was unique in several respects. Located deep in chassidic Poland, from which it drew its primary student body, it had an impressive building and numerous preparatory schools, more than a dozen across Poland. Lomza’s anemic financial situation, which rivaled Novardok’s as the most desperate among major yeshivos, was a more unfortunate standout feature. In order to alleviate this crushing burden, the Lomza Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, spent more than 15 years in the United States fundraising.
A great tzaddik and gaon, Rav Yechiel Mordechai lived a life marred by tragedy. “Mottel Trokker” joined Slabodka in the late 1890s and sided with the Alter of Slabodka during the anti-mussar revolt of 1897, and was one of the founding students in Knesses Yisrael.
In 1905, he married Tzirel Leah Shulevitz, the daughter of the Lomza Yeshivah’s founder, Rav Eliezer Shulevitz. With his wife’s encouragement, he traveled to Kelm. Shortly thereafter, a typhus epidemic took the lives of his wife and mother-in-law. Not wanting to lose his esteemed son-in-law, Rav Eliezer offered him the hand of his daughter Aidel Devorah (Tzirel Leah’s sister). That marriage would last until her untimely passing in 1929.
In 1907, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was appointed a rosh yeshivah in Lomza at the age of 24. His younger brother-in-law and fellow Slabodker, Rav Yehoshua Zelig Ruch, ran the day-to-day operations, while Rav Yechiel Mordechai (whose seforim speak for his learning acumen) focused on fundraising.
His first visit to the US was in 1925. He was welcomed by a group of rabbinic alumni of the yeshivah, who tried to organize fundraising in America, with little success. While Rav Yechiel Mordechai was abroad, Lomza became the second European yeshivah to open a branch in Palestine. Rav Yechiel Mordechai traveled there directly from America in 1926 to help get the Petach Tikvah branch off the ground, before returning later that year to Europe.
In 1934, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was back in the United States. By then, most of his family had settled there. His brother was a rabbi in Winthrop, Massachusetts, his brother-in-law ran the yeshivah’s office in New York, and other family members were scattered across New England as far north as Maine. Even with their assistance, his planned two- to three-year visit turned into more than 15 years, as the yeshivah’s debts piled up as quickly as his fundraising intake.
Stranded in America with the onset of World War II, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was among the founding members of the Vaad Hatzalah. He also served during that time as rosh kollel of the White Plains Kollel, which Rav Aharon Kotler would eventually move to Lakewood and reopen as Beth Medrash Govoha.
In 1950 Rav Gordon moved to Israel, where he resumed his position in Lomza Petach Tikvah and became a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael. Along with the rabbi of Petach Tikvah, Rav Reuven Katz, he worked tirelessly to improve Yiddishkeit in the city and was a beloved figure there until his passing in 1964.
In April 1939, Rav Yechiel Mordechai’s 23-year-old son Shneur, a student at the Chevron Yeshivah, was killed in a tragic shooting accident during his duty on nighttime watch in Talpiot, Jerusalem. Rav Yechiel Mordechai’s close friend (and Lomza native) Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog delivered the main hesped.
Who But the Boss
While the Bangor Daily News article on Rav Yechiel Mordechai teems with errors and mistranslations (e.g., “Yoma” instead of Lomza), his mention of “rich men” saving the yeshivah from collapse almost certainly refers to a well-known incident involving Reb Yaakov Yosef Herman (of All for the Boss fame), who, while in dire financial straits, decided to send a $1,000 check to the Lomza Yeshivah. His grandson Rav Moshe Aharon Stern regularly shared this story.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 874)
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