Zei A Mentsch| June 1, 2021
Famed mashgiach Rav Shlomo Carlebach retraces his life as a spiritual builder
Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab, Family archives
In 1947, a 22-year-old survivor of multiple Nazi slave labor camps named Shlomo Carlebach stepped off a boat in New York Harbor. Waiting to greet him at dockside was his uncle Rabbi Naftali Carlebach (whose own son Shlomo — born, like his first cousin, in Germany in 1925 — would gain renown as the Jewish world’s foremost composer of soulful songs). Although he could not have known it then, this young man, orphaned of both parents and penniless, was destined to become a marbitz Torah whose spoken and written word has touched thousands of bnei Torah and bnos Yisrael for well over a half-century.
Rabbi Naftali Carlebach’s son-in-law, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Levovitz, son of the legendary Mirrer mashgiach Rav Yerucham, took responsibility for helping Shlomo resume his Torah education, interrupted for years by slave labor camps and death marches. It was no small matter to find an appropriate yeshivah for a young man in his twenties who hadn’t held a Gemara in his hands since age 16, and after dismissing several other options, Reb Simcha Zissel said, “Maybe Rav Yitzchok Hutner will give you a chance.”
And so, off Shlomo went to Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, where the rosh yeshivah’s farher consisted of asking him to recite a Mishnah of his choosing. He selected the Mishnah in Sanhedrin stating that once a beis din has reached a guilty verdict in a capital case, it must wait until the next day to issue its ruling. When he had finished explaining the Mishnah, Shlomo asked Rav Hutner whether he was accepted to the yeshivah. The Rosh Yeshivah replied with characteristic wit, “You just read the applicable halachah, no? Check back with me tomorrow…”
Shlomo was in, and Rav Hutner paired him as a chavrusa with a fellow Yekke, Yosef Loebenstein, to help him make up for lost time and propel him ahead in his learning. Fast-forward two decades, to 1967, when the yeshivah moved into its new Flatbush quarters on Coney Island Avenue, with a new mashgiach ruchani, too: Rav Shlomo Carlebach. Following a dozen years as a very successful mesivta rebbi, he would be a mentor to talmidim in the very yeshivah whose portals he’d tentatively entered so many years earlier.
How does such a transformation — from young, bereft immigrant to master mechanech and spiritual guide — take place? To gain some insight, I traveled to Lakewood, New Jersey, where Reb Shlomo and his rebbetzin now live. Stepping into his home off a quiet, treelined street, I encountered someone whose appearance and bearing bespeak a rare dignity, and who speaks with s the gravitas of a genuine baal machshavah whose every word is considered.
His very nobility of character, however, impels Reb Shlomo to question why I’ve come to meet him altogether. In a heavily German-inflected English, he self-effacingly protests, “You know what the Intrepid is? It’s an inactive battleship sitting in New York Harbor. It’s a museum. Its guns are not blazing, its rotors are not whirring — it’s just a museum. That’s what you see here.”
The choice of metaphor and its dramatic delivery are just the merest hints of the rhetorical power that once won his shiurim such acclaim. But in fact, “intrepid” is surely an apt description for someone who has weathered life’s vicissitudes as successfully as Reb Shlomo has. And perhaps he is indeed a kind of museum, too, because his life story offers a unique window into two seminal chapters of recent Jewish history: life in Jewish Europe before and during the devastation of the Holocaust, and the postwar American Torah community’s coming of age, in which he played an active role.
With Them until the End
Several portraits hang on the living room walls, from which Reb Shlomo’s illustrious forebears peer down. More than mere interior décor, they are a key to understanding so much about the life of the man sitting beneath them.
One photograph is that of his grandfather, Rav Shlomo Carlebach, rav of the northern German city of Lubeck for close to 50 years and progenitor of the leading rabbinic dynasty in early-20th-century Germany.
Another portrait is of his own father, Rav Yosef Tzvi Carlebach, a truly larger-than-life personality, educated in the finest rabbinic and secular institutions of Germany yet also an indispensible supporter of the great yeshivos of Lita. A profound thinker, stirring orator and prolific author, he was looked to by Jew and non-Jew alike as Orthodoxy’s spokesman, setting forth its positions on issues of the day in clear, unapologetic terms and vigorously defending it against assaults from without, whether coming from the Reform movement or Streicher’s Der Sturmer.
As his son Reb Shlomo speaks of Rav Yosef Tzvi, “larger than life” takes on another meaning — because Rav Yosef Tzvi’s dynamic life-force, stilled tragically at age 59, overflowed and merged with that of his son, deeply imprinting the stamp of his great father’s essence upon him.
In February 1936, Rav Yosef Tzvi was installed as rav of Hamburg at a ceremony of the greatest pomp in the city’s majestic Bornplatz Shul, attended by 2,500 guests from near and far. By then, however, the storm clouds of German Jewry’s impending doom were gathering, and a slow, steady exodus of Hamburg’s Jews had begun.
But it was precisely then, as darkness descended, that one of Rav Yosef Tzvi’s greatest attributes came to the fore: moral courage even in the face of mortal danger. Less than two years after his ascent to the pulpit of the Bornplatz Shul, on that dreaded night in November 1938 — Kristallnacht — the Rav was informed that the very same synagogue was in flames.
Reb Shlomo describes what his father did next: “Without a moment’s hesitation, he was on his way. He let himself into the shul through a side entrance exclusively for the rabbi’s use, thus avoiding the stormtroopers who were blocking the main entrance. Once inside, he faced a dreadful scene of horror. Nazi hoodlums were smashing windows and woodwork, dragging out the Torah scrolls from the Holy Ark and setting them on fire. The Rav confronted the chieftain of the Nazi horde: ‘If you must destroy the synagogue, at least let me save the holy Bible scrolls. Isn’t the Bible sacred to all people on earth?’…The Nazis jumped on him, beating him brutally. Miraculously, he was able to escape with his life.”
The terror that was Kristallnacht had changed everything, and the stream of those leaving became a flood. Rav Yosef Tzvi wrote to a friend in London asking him to inquire about an open pulpit in England, keeping the letter secret from everyone for fear that the knowledge he was contemplating leaving Germany would crush his community with despair. But by April 1939, he had made his decision. In a letter to relatives in Eretz Yisrael, he wrote, “The general exodus of the rabbis has had catastrophic consequences. The greatest kehillos… have virtually no Orthodox rav able to pasken a sh’eilah… The entire responsibility has dropped onto my shoulders, creating a moral imperative for me to remain at my post.”
The Carlebachs managed, however, to send their four oldest daughters and their older son to safety in England, while they carried on in Hamburg, trying to create a semblance of normalcy for their younger children and buoy the flagging spirits of their kehillah. That July, the Rebbetzin escorted a children’s transport to England, where she was joyously reunited with her older children there. Former Hamburg residents came to greet her, urging her to remain there in the hope her husband and remaining children would be able to join her. But she responded unhesitatingly that she would not forsake her husband and the rest of Germany’s remaining Jews.
In October 1941, the first deportations of Hamburg’s remaining 8,000 Jews to the East commenced, with 16 more to follow. The Rav was at the train station to see the first several transports off, seeking to lift their spirits and inspire trust in Hashem. But on December 6, the Carlebachs, along with 800 fellow Jews, were herded onto trains for a three-day journey to the Jungfernhof camp near Riga, a makeshift location where the Jews were to be held until their inevitable liquidation. On its occasional stops, only the Rav was allowed to leave the train, and as he made his way from car to car, he’d hear their occupants telling each other, “As long as our Rav is with us, nothing really bad can happen.”
The camp’s 4,000 inmates lived under the most inhumane conditions, housed in barns without heat or sanitary facilities. Yet, incredibly, the Rav, believing it was critical for the children to have structured activities to occupy them, set up an entire school program, replete with a multi-subject curriculum and a full teaching staff. One survivor of this camp testified that “the Rav’s impact upon the entire camp was enormous. He was on the go, day and night, talking to small groups or larger circles, in the large barracks or in one shed or another, words of encouragement, as well as hespedim for the many who died of hunger, of cold and sickness. His messages of comfort were deeply moving, while his unshakeable bitachon proved contagious, lifting the spirits of his downtrodden listeners.”
March 1942: The camp commandant announced that the inmates would be transferred to another, better location. It was, of course, a lie. A week before Pesach, there was a roll call, at which several hundred inmates were selected to remain in the camp for maintenance duties. Sixteen-year-old Shlomo, with his robust appearance, was one of them.
As the men and women were separated, the Rav bade a tearful farewell to his wife and daughters, and then turned to give his young bochur a long, last hug. Then he strode toward the trucks that would transport them to their fate, his tefillin bulging from one coat pocket, and from the other, the matzos he had baked clandestinely in preparation for the coming Yom Tov.
The destination was the nearby Bikernieki Forest, containing rows of mass graves, and as the Jews came off the trucks, SS beasts in human form machine-gunned them to death. The Rav rallied his people to proclaim Shema Yisrael as they died, and he, too, returned his exalted soul to his Creator with “echad” on his lips.
“My father,” says Rabbi Pinchas Carlebach, a Flatbush-based author and lecturer, “was very, very attached to his parents. The day they were separated, his world ended.”
No Room for Your Type
After his parents were murdered in the forest, Reb Shlomo remembers how they took the Jungfernhof survivors, himself included, to the Riga ghetto, “and from there for hard labor to Kaiservald, where I worked for a year, loading and unloading trains that were supplying the German war effort on the Eastern front. From there to Stuthoff, a huge concentration camp near Danzig.”
In all, he would find himself in nine separate camps over the coming three years, and, he says, “with the Russians approaching, the Nazis took us on death marches in bitter cold with no food for days on end.” But even after being liberated by the Russian army, Shlomo’s ordeal was far from over. The young orphan languished in DP camps along with many other survivors, unable to find a country willing to take them in.
“Finally,” Reb Shlomo recalls, “I returned to my native Hamburg and lived there all alone, like a vagabond. With relatives in America, England, and Eretz Yisrael, I wasn’t sure where to go.”
The Jewish Agency had a representative in Frankfurt who was enlisting people for Aliyah Bet, and Shlomo told him, “I’m orphaned of both my parents and all I have left is my grandmother Preuss who lives in Eretz Yisrael, so I would like to go there to be with her.”
The representative answered him, “We don’t need any tzitzis-spinners in Eretz Yisrael, we need chayalim. You don’t look like you would be a good chayal and for tzitzis-spinners we have no room. Dismissed.”
Shlomo’s first cousin, Ezriel Carlebach, a famed Israeli journalist who served as chief editor of Yediot Ahronot and later as founding editor of the Maariv newspaper, visited Frankfurt to report on the postwar work of the United Nations, and Shlomo went to see him.
“He rummaged through his pockets, emptying them of all their contents, which was ninety American dollars and a gold fountain pen,” Reb Shlomo recalls. “He said, ‘Here, take this, it’s all I have to give you. But for Heaven’s sake, get out of the accursed Germany!’ I took his advice to heart, and thanks to HIAS and the sponsorship of my uncle, my father’s youngest brother Reb Naftali, I was able to come to America.”
Utilizing the Gifts
Entering Chaim Berlin, Shlomo was assigned a bed by the dormitory supervisor, a young man named Shlomo Freifeld (he and Rav Freifeld, who would go on to found and lead Yeshivas Sh’or Yoshuv, became lifelong friends), and began learning with Yosef Loebenstein, whom he describes as a “a big talmid chacham and a groyse baal machshavah.” He was placed in the shiur of Rav Hershel Levenberg, but after only two months there moved up into the higher-level shiur given by Rav Yaakov Moshe Shurkin.
The road was not an easy one for this late starter, and in his own words, “I struggled through, from shiur to shiur and from chavrusa to chavrusa.” But he persisted, learning with great diligence. One major Chaim Berlin figure from that period recalls the nightly scene of Reb Shlomo, “a moradige masmid,” learning in the beis medrash for hours following Maariv along with a handful of other talmidim.
Shlomo took on various jobs to support himself, from serving as a dormitory counselor to delivering eggs, but it was Rav Hutner who was his source of emotional succor, a surrogate father. The Rosh Yeshivah was also his rebbi muvhak, with Reb Shlomo mastering his unique approach to machshavah in particular and becoming, in his words, “a 50-year talmid of Maharal.”
In 1953, Michoel Loebenstein, the brother of Yosef, Shlomo’s erstwhile chavrusa, made the shidduch between Reb Shlomo and Maude Katzenstein, a daughter of one of the most prominent families in the Breuer’s kehillah of Washington Heights. Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, who was like a second father to Shlomo, walked him down to the chuppah, and Reb Naftali’s son Shlomo, who by then had become a devotee of Chabad, gave his cousin a Sefer HaTanya as a wedding present, inscribed with his heartfelt blessings to his cousin. (Whenever the two would meet over the years, Reb Naftali’s Shlomo would tell his cousin with an impish grin, “You know, you’re the real Shloime Carlebach.”)
During his six years in yeshivah, Reb Shlomo had seen tremendous success in his Torah learning, but his new in-laws, in keeping with the Frankfurt philosophy of Torah im derech eretz, wanted him to enter a profession. He initially acceded, taking courses in accounting and working in that field for one year. But, says his son Pinchas, “My mother redirected his life path, insisting that my father resume his trajectory of growth in Torah by leaving the workplace and entering kollel.
“Even before she met my father,” he adds, “my mother had been a bit of a maverick. She attended an elementary school outside Washington Heights where the girls didn’t cover their elbows, but she started covering hers, and the next time Rav Yosef Breuer saw her in the street, he remarked in German with a look of satisfaction, ‘I see you’re on your way to becoming a Bais Yaakov girl.’ In fact, she did attend Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov for high school, continuing on in seminary. The example my parents set in dedicating their lives to Torah influenced a whole generation in their circle in Washington Heights.”
Blessed with his father’s magnetic personality and an intuitive grasp of what it takes to help a young man grow, Reb Shlomo took the first opportunity he had to utilize those gifts. His dear friend and fellow Chaim Berlin talmid, Rav Shlomo Prager, was set to become a ninth-grade rebbi in the yeshivah’s high school and asked Reb Shlomo to take over his position as the eighth grade rebbi. He agreed, with one condition: that a group of outstanding boys then entering in the eighth grade would be allowed to skip ninth grade the next year and enter tenth grade instead, where he hoped to be able to be their rebbi for a second year. His plan was accepted, and two of those boys, Aharon Yoffen and, yibadel l’chayim, Chaim Walkin later became prominent figures in Eretz Yisrael’s Torah world.
Reb Shlomo’s tenure in Chaim Berlin’s high school was followed by a successful stint of equal length in the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway’s mesivta, alongside colleagues like Rav Mottel Weinberg and Rav Shlomo Prager. In both mesivtas, Reb Shlomo taught some of the most promising young men of those years, and not a few of them — talmidim such as Yaakov Busel, Yaakov Drillman, Yehudah Levenberg, and Reuven Schepansky — went on to become renowned talmidei chachamim.
The American Torah world was then still in relative infancy, and many of those same boys were coming to yeshivah straight from Brooklyn’s mean streets, with no expectation of dedicating themselves to serious lifelong learning. With patience and love, a passion for Torah and a sense of humor, Reb Shlomo won his boys’ hearts, helping them to see a future for themselves in the world of Torah. And all these many years later, many grateful talmidim remain extremely close with him as a result.
One of them, today a renowned rosh yeshivah and the author of acclaimed seforim, was once a 15-year-old student in Rav Shlomo Carlebach’s class, struggling to find his identity as a ben Torah. One Purim, remembers Rabbi Pinchas Carlebach, “my father’s talmidim were at our house in East New York, and this bochur was there too. Now, my father’s talmidim all knew he had a beautiful collection of old seforim that he’d later retrieved from his father’s country house, a collection the Nazis had somehow never discovered. In the middle of the Purim mesibah, my father turned to this bochur and said, ‘You see all these seforim here? If you take to learning, they’re all yours!’ He later said those words were a turning point in his commitment to begin learning in earnest.”
Be a Mensch
Reb Shlomo treated his high school students as mature thinkers capable of relating to Torah in depth, and they responded in kind. On Yamim Tovim, his talmidim would gather at his home to hear him deliver chaburos in machshavah on the theme of the day, which Reb Shlomo then transcribed and distributed in kuntreisim entitled Roshei Prakim.
In 1967, Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin moved back to Brooklyn from Far Rockaway, and Rav Hutner asked Reb Shlomo to assume the post of mashgiach ruchani that Rav Avigdor Miller had last held. Initially, Reb Shlomo balked, arguing there were Chaim Berlin talmidim whose higher level in learning made them more fit for the position. But, Reb Shlomo says, “the Rosh Yeshivah took hold of my arm and, fixing his gaze on me, said, ‘I’ll reveal a secret to you: In Slabodka, there were a hundred talmidim who knew how to learn better than the Alter — but he was bigger than them all.’”
And when Reb Shlomo told the Rosh Yeshivah he feared this new position would spell an end to his own learning. Rav Hutner replied, “If you continue learning, no one else will. If you continue davening, no one else will.”
According to Reb Shlomo’s son Rabbi Sholom Menachem Carlebach, a longtime member of the Beth Medrash Govoha kollel, it was his father who was instrumental in disseminating his rebbi’s Torah to a broad audience in published form. Originally, the maamar Rav Hutner delivered on each Yom Tov would appear in handwritten form in a soft-cover kuntres, with a note stating that it was intended only for those who were present. Reb Shlomo approached Rav Hutner and asked for permission to print all the maamarim on each Yom Tov as a bound sefer to be available to all, and even committed to undertaking the publication costs. The Rosh Yeshivah agreed, and thus did his world-renowned teachings first see the light of day in the Pachad Yitzchok series of seforim.
Reb Shlomo only began writing his own seforim, profound masterpieces of machshavah entitled Maskil L’Shlomo, long after his tenure at Chaim Berlin ended in 1979, but they had their beginnings in the shiurim on Chumash he said as mashgiach there. He began with Sefer Bereishis, which took him six years to complete, and from there went on to V’zos Habrachah to study the unique character of each of the shevatim. In 1994, the first volume of Maskil L’Shlomo was published to great acclaim in the Torah world, and it has been followed by four more.
Listening to the Mashgiach’s penetrating shiurim helped his talmidim to learn how think on their own, deepening the way they approached a pasuk in Chumash or a Chazal and guiding them toward living a fully developed life of spiritual sensitivity. They knew that in speaking with him, it would not do to offer half-baked vertlach, just as it would not pass muster with him to go about one’s life as a Jew going through the motions mindlessly just because everyone was doing so. Every line of Torah, every Yom Tov, every mitzvah contained boundless meaning waiting to be mined and internalized.
The twin influences of his father and of his rebbi were readily apparent in both the substance and style of his teaching: There was, on the one hand, Rav Yosef Tzvi Carlebach’s thoroughgoing explication of the Jewish worldview and the timeless messages of the Neviim, and on the other, Rav Hutner’s searching discourses ranging across the full spectrum of Torah thought, from chassidus to mussar to kabbalah. Like his father, Reb Shlomo was a gifted orator, yet he also incorporated a dramatic flair reminiscent of his rebbi, and all in a German-accented King’s English.
But more than anything, it was the Mashgiach’s way of relating to people, and to life, that wrought the greatest influence on those around him — and this, too, was a legacy of his father. Describing his father’s 11 years as rav of Altona before coming to Hamburg, he wrote: “With all his intellectual greatness and the high esteem bordering on awe in which the Rav was held by his contemporaries, he was very much a man of the people. He shared the joys and even more so, the troubles of everyone in the community. His house was wide open to every supplicant, and during the early evening hours one could find in the vestibule crowds of people from all walks of life asking for help or advice or a simple blessing.”
In his inaugural sermon in Hamburg, Rav Yosef Tzvi pledged to his new community that “my house and my heart will be wide open to everyone. I will cry and laugh with you and bear all the anguish of your soul with you; I will regard the honor of having been called to this rabbinical position only as an obligation to relate toward everyone with simple menschlichkeit.”
And that, observes Rabbi Pinchas Carlebach, captures well his own father’s essence, for whom “an emphasis on menschlichkeit is central, as are order, punctuality and propriety. The way he keeps appointments, the way he greets every person he encounters on the street, the way he tends to his finances, the way he’ll never attend a simchah, even a bar mitzvah, without bringing a present. I can sum up his philosophy in three words: ‘Zei a mensch.’”
The Next Chapter
Because Chaim Berlin permitted attendance at evening college classes, there was a subtle condescension on the part of some in the yeshivah world toward the “college boys.” To counter this tendency, Reb Shlomo made a point of specifically taking these talmidim under his wing, seeking to ensure that the need to pursue a degree would not cause them to see themselves as “b’dieved Yidden.” Yet this didn’t diminish his standing with the learning-only olam either; his shiurim in yeshivah and the mesibos in his home on Chanukah and other occasions were magnets that drew even the most committed bnei Torah.
With his departure from Chaim Berlin in 1979, a new chapter opened in Reb Shlomo’s career of harbatzas Torah, moving from within the beis medrash walls into the broad communal domain. Rav Yosef Elias sought him out to teach in the Rika Breuer seminary, as did Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan for her Bais Yaakov, and this led to similar positions in numerous other schools. Having enlightened a generation of bnei yeshivah, he was now given the opportunity to do the same for bnos Yisrael.
For many years, he delivered a well-attended Sunday class for women at the Prospect Park girls’ school, a Thursday-night shiur in the Agudah of Kings Highway to a standing-room-only audience of bnei Torah and similar regular presentations in a variety of venues, including yearly pre-Yom Tov vaadim in several yeshivos gedolos.
In 2008, Reb Shlomo published a two-volume set entitled Ish Yehudi: The Life and the Legacy of a Torah Great. The first volume is a biography of his father, Rav Yosef Tzvi Carlebach, expanding upon an earlier biographical work his uncle Rabbi Naftali Carlebach had published almost 50 years earlier. The second volume contains English-language translations of selected essays and commentaries by Rav Yosef Tzvi.
Together, they represent an offering of love from a son for whom the lessons of his beloved father and teacher haven’t lost their power, even some 79 years after their last embrace. One of those lessons is “Odcha Hashem ki anafta bi,” the need to carry on with gratitude to the Creator regardless of what life brings, knowing that within seeming misfortune may lie the seeds of great blessing.
And carry on he does. Even these days, when he feels up to it, Reb Shlomo, at 95, gives a Friday night shiur in Maharal to a devoted following, and still speaks at various Lakewood mesivtas. And a recollection he shares helps explain why.
For many years, Reb Shlomo would daven in the Mirrer yeshivah on the Yamim Noraim. One time, the rosh yeshivah, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, went home to make kiddush before tekias shofar and Reb Shlomo and several others joined him there. As they sat at the table, Reb Shmuel asked a kushya in learning and, turning to Reb Shlomo, said, “So what does the Mashgiach have to say about this?”
When Reb Shlomo protested that he no longer held such a position, Reb Shmuel retorted, “You think being a mashgiach is a post? It’s an atzmiyus — it’s your essence!”
FOREVER IN SERVICE
The large tribe raised by the “original” Rav Shlomo Carlebach, rav of the northern German city of Lubeck for close to 50 years, was one of the leading rabbinic dynasties in early-20th-century Germany.
A disciple of both Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rav Ezriel Hildesheimer, Rav Carlebach authored numerous seforim as well as German-language guides to religious practice. The Lubecker Rav and his wife Esther (née Adler) had eight sons, five of whom became rabbanim, and four daughters, two of whom married rabbanim. Thus, such important points on the German Jewish map as Leipzig, Cologne, Berlin, Memel, Hamburg, Halberstadt, and Altona all came to have a Carlebach son or son-in-law as their rav during the first decades of the 1900s.
All of the Carlebachs made signal contributions to Orthodox Jewish life in Germany, whether as influential rabbinic leaders and founders of thriving Jewish schools or as lay activists and generous philanthropists on behalf of Torah causes. But within this family of luminaries, it was the sixth son, Rav Yosef Tzvi, whose star shone perhaps brightest and longest in the German Jewish firmament. Virtually alone among German rabbanim, he remained with his community throughout the Nazi horror until their deaths al kiddush Hashem in 1942, becoming the de facto spiritual leader for all of German Jewry in those final, desperate years.
As his son Rav Shlomo Carlebach speaks of his father, the outlines of a truly larger than life personality come into focus.
“My father’s first rebbi was Rav Mordechai Gumpel, the private melamed who tutored all of the Lubecker Rav’s 12 children,” Reb Shlomo relates. “A great and humble talmid chacham, Reb Mordechai lived in the Carlebach home, taking the boys from alef-beis through in-depth Gemara study. As for his own father’s influence on his development, my father wrote about the ‘calm and confident manner’ in which his father helped him solve the problems that troubled him, and for ‘proving to me that the ideology of traditional Judaism was second to none in its truth and veracity.’”
Rav Yosef Tzvi had stellar secular educational credentials, holding doctorates from the Universities of Berlin and Tubingen, in mathematics and philosophy, respectively. He studied under renowned physicist Max Planck and authored scientific articles explaining Einstein’s theories. But from a young age, Yosef Tzvi’s heart was set on a life spent serving his people. And already as a teenager, he showed his capacity for motivating others, organizing a Chevras Hashkamah for his peers that encouraged regular attendance at shul and met monthly for Torah discussions. Later, while studying in the University of Berlin and attending the Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary there, he taught at the religious school of the Adas Yisrael congregation, where he influenced many youngsters to adopt an Orthodox way of life.
While serving as a captain in the German army during World War I, he became an advisor to the German occupational authorities in Lithuania on education. In the short span of five years, he founded thriving schools for boys and girls in Kovno, which led to the establishment of the Yavneh network of schools and teacher training programs throughout Lithuania.
He also secured financial support for the great yeshivos of Lita that teetered on the brink of collapse during the war years, although his role in saving them remained unknown for decades. Reb Shlomo recalls once accompanying Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel — while on a fundraising trip in America for the fledgling Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem — on a visit to Rav Reuven Grozovsky.
“When Reb Leizer Yudel Finkel introduced me to Reb Reuven,” says Reb Shlomo, “the latter pointed excitedly to me, exclaiming, ‘I can attest that if not for the intervention of this young man’s father, Slabodka and all the other great mosdos haTorah of Lita would have ceased to exist.’”
In 1919, Reb Shlomo’s father married Lotte, daughter of Dr. Julius (Yitzchak) Preuss, who had died six years earlier. Renowned as the author of Biblical-Talmudical Medicine, a magisterial work citing every medical reference in all of Torah literature and explaining it in modern scientific terms, he was a humble, G-d-fearing physician — a “tzaddik yesod olam” in his grandson’s words — and part of the circle of Torah intellectuals surrounding Rav Ezriel Hildesheimer of Berlin.
That same year, both of Rav Yosef Tzvi’s parents died, 11 months apart, and when the elders of the Lubeck kehillah offered him the pulpit left empty by his father’s passing, he felt constrained to accept it. Thus began in earnest a lifetime of serving his people in chinuch and rabbanus. In each of his successive positions — after Lubeck, as principal of Hamburg’s 1,000-student Realschule, then chief rabbi of Altona and later, of its larger sister city, Hamburg — Rav Yosef Tzvi won the hearts and minds of young and old, religious and irreligious alike with his peerless combination of deep scholarship and religious fervor, and his humble demeanor and genuine caring for all. And all throughout the many years of tending to his flock, he produced volume upon volume of brilliant commentary on various aspects of Jewish theology and on multiple books of Tanach.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 863)
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