More than Another Chumash Seudah
It was with a mixture of joy and astonishment that I walked through the old metal gate on Rechov Yeshayahu and entered Etz Chaim, Jerusalem's future campus. I was on my way to celebrate the school's 170th Chumash Seudah, to share the simcha of 42 five- ear-old "bachurels" rejoice as they officially began studying Chumash. Inside the large auditorium, the music was playing loudly as each group of excited youngsters tried to contain their giggles while taking their place on the podium.
Although over the years I had attended at least half a dozen Chumash seudos, this was probably the first time I was attending not as a mother or grandmother, but as a member of the Etz Chaim staff. Over the course of the last several years, a large number of English speaking parents started sending their children to Etz Chaim, Jerusalem, and the administration felt that it was important to have a native English speaker in the office to take care of all the English language correspondence – in other words, an English speaking secretary. And of course, after having felt the mounting excitement and taken a part in many of the preparations, how could I not be there for this momentous occasion?
But this Chumash seudah really was special –because, in the most poignant way possible it symbolized the victory of Torah education in Eretz Yisrael. But to understand why, let me explain a bit of the history behind Etz Chaim's future campus and for that, I'll have to go back to 1841, when Rabbi Shmuel Salant, chief rabbi of Jerusalem for over 70 years, established the first Torah school in Jerusalem, Etz Chaim, a school that reflected the values of the Yishuv Hayashan -- holiness and spiritual elevation.
Just thirteen years later, in 1854, followers of the haskalah movement in Vienna sent Ludwig August Ritter von Frankal – a physician, poet, educator and follower of Zecharia Frankel, founder of the Conservative Movement -- to establish a secular school in the Holy City. Shortly before the planned opening of Frankal's school – the Lemmel School - Rav Shmuel Salant led all the Ashkenazi Rabbonim of the city and many of the Sefardi Chachamim in making a cherem against the new school.
For over 110 years, the two educational systems -- Etz Chaim and Lemmel -- battled for the neshomos of Jerusalem's children. Although at every opportunity, the cherem was reiterated by the Rabbonim of Etz Chaim and the Yishuv Hayashan, Lemmel continued to grow in popularity until it became the largest school in Jerusalem.
The growth of the Lemmel School was a reflection of the general direction of the country, and, for that matter, the entire world. People assumed that Israel would soon become a completely secular state and that within a generation or two, Torah true Judaism would dwindle until it vanished. An interesting anecdote, a friend of my husband's, a German Jew who arrived in Israel after during the British Mandate, recalls his first Kiddush Levana in Tel Aviv. One of the men commented, "You know, this might be the very last Kiddush Levana to be recited in Eretz Yisrael."
Because of the cherem and all that the Lemmel School symbolized, the Jews of the Old Yishuv were particular to avoid all contact with it. People refrained from even walking past the building, and if there was no choice, they made a point of crossing to the opposite side of the street.
Yet, amazingly enough, despite all predictions, the Torah community, both in Jerusalem and around the world, blossomed. Today, the overwhelming majority of Jerusalem's children attend Orthodox schools, and each year, those numbers increase, whereas around the world there are frum Jewish communities in places that no one dreamed there would be one. And that brings us back to why this particular Chumash seudah symbolizes the triumph, and eternity, of Torah. Last year Etz Chaim had to leave its historic campus on Yaffo Road. After consulting with Harav Hagaon Rabbi Chaim Kenievsky shlita, and receiving his warm bracha for hatzlacha, Etz Chaim used the money from the sale of the old school to purchase the Lemmel Campus on Yeshayahu Street.
The school that broached Jerusalem's walls of kedushah and led the fight against Etz Chaim and Torah education in Israel will now become Etz Chaim's new home – another example of the eternity of Torah.
Is it no wonder that I could not possibly miss this Chumash seudah?