Chinuch in Yerushalayim Comes Full Circle
For tens of centuries our nation has been mourning the destruction of Yerushalayim, focusing on the churban of the Beis Hamikdash. However, Yerushalayim witnessed another type of churban in the mid-1800s that is barely remembered. Today, when the differences between the Conservative and Reform movements and authentic Torah miSinai are so obvious, it is difficult to understand how formidable were the challenges these aberrations presented to previous generations, not only in Europe and America but in the heart of Yerushalayim. When the Enlightenment was still in its formative stage, and the differences — and dangers — were not yet clearly recognizable, it took the keen perception of our Torah leaders to distinguish truth from falsehood and to wage a fierce battle to preserve the chinuch of our precious children.
Yerushalayim 170 Years Ago
When Harav Shmuel Salant, zt”l, arrived in Yerushalayim in 1841 to join his father-in-law, Harav Zundel Salanter, zt”l, the city’s Ashkenazic community consisted of approximately five hundred Jews.1 Just twenty-eight years before that, some twenty Ashkenazic Jews had fled the plague in Teveria, and ignoring the Ottoman government’s prohibition against Ashkenazic Jews settling in Yerushalayim, had quietly put down roots there. Then, after the devastating earthquake in Tzefas in 1837, Yerushalayim’s Ashkenazic population multiplied dramatically.
The tiny yishuv struggled to survive. People died of starvation, and hygiene was primitive. Without a proper sewage system, the city’s water cisterns were often contaminated, resulting in plagues that killed many, among them Harav Zundel Salanter. In addition, many older Jews who had come to Yerushalayim to fulfill their dream of being buried on Har Hazeisim subsisted on donations from the community coffers. Job opportunities were scarce, and the chalukah system, in which money from abroad was collected and divided according to country of origin, had not yet been instituted.
Funds that arrived sporadically from abroad were barely sufficient to keep starvation at bay. In those days the poverty was intense, and during the Crimean War (1853-56) the Old Yishuv was basically cut off from outside support.
Although as a whole, both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities consisted of G-d-fearing Jews who recognized the importance of limud Torah and strived to elevate themselves spiritually, because of the political upheavals among the ruling Ottomans, earthquakes, plagues, and overriding poverty, the Ashkenazic community had yet to establish a proper educational system. Instead, groups of parents hired private tutors to teach their sons, and since the teachers were paid according to the parents’ financial means, they automatically favored those children whose parents were able to pay more. In today’s terms, the money involved was infinitesimal, amounting, perhaps, to an extra slice of bread a day for the tutor’s family. In nineteenth-century Yerushalayim, however, that extra slice of bread often meant the difference between starvation and survival.
Shortly after his arrival in Eretz Yisrael, Harav Shmuel Salant was appointed Rav of the Ashkenazic community of Yerushalayim. With the assistance of Harav Yeshaya Bardaki, zt”l, former Rav of Pressburg and one of the leaders of Yerushalayim’s Ashkenazic kehillah, he established the Talmud Torah and Yeshivah Etz Chaim to ensure that all the community’s children, both the poor and the less poor, received a proper Torah education.
The original Etz Chaim cheder was located in the women’s section of the Menachem Tzion synagogue. The two melamdim, Harav Shmuel Moni Zilberman, zt”l, and Harav Yaakov Saphir, zt”l, were both Gedolei Torah who displayed tremendous mesirus nefesh to live in Eretz Yisrael.2 As a young boy of nine, Harav Zilberman had accompanied his uncle on a pilgrimage to Yerushalayim from Europe, and despite all opposition, he insisted on remaining in the Holy City. Taken under the wing of some of the dayanim of the beis din, he grew to become a Gadol baTorah. He later refused the position of chief rabbi of a large European city in favor of teaching young boys in Yerushalayim.
His shiurim were so inspiring that one of the judges on the beis din regularly came upstairs to listen. The beis din’s Rabbanim closely supervised the two melamdim and regularly tested the students. Within a few years, however, the cheder expanded and classes were held in apartments scattered throughout the city, making proper supervision difficult.3
Frankal Comes to Yerushalayim
In 1854 Eliza Herz, one of the leaders of Austria’s Reform movement, sent forty-year-old Ludwig August Frankal-Hochwart to Yerushalayim to open the Lemel School. An ardent Austrian patriot, Herz had established a charity fund in honor of Kaiser Franz Joseph’s birthday. The fund was later used to establish the Lemel School, which they hoped would strengthen diplomatic relations between the kaiser and the sultan. The goal of the school, named after Herz’s recently deceased father, Simon Edler von Lemel, was to “educate Jewish orphans according to a new German innovative schooling system.”
To the poverty-stricken Jews of Yerushalayim, Herz’s vision appeared to be the answer to their dreams. Backed by seemingly unlimited resources, she had the means to provide Yerushalayim’s children with an excellent education, as well as daily hot meals and clothes to replace their rags. Herz’s emissary, Frankal, played the part of a benevolent religious benefactor, concerned for the spiritual as well as physical welfare of the city’s inhabitants. He informed the Jewish leaders in Austria that “in this school, the children will learn from their youth to walk in the ways of the Alm-ghty, to observe His commandments and to love an occupation.”4
Prior to his arrival in Yerushalayim, Frankal distributed his pamphlet “Kol Mevasser”5 among the Jews of Yerushalayim, detailing his plans for the new school. In addition, he convinced the Austrian kaiser and the Turkish sultan of the value of his mission. And truthfully, who could argue against providing children with what he described as an excellent secular and religious education?
Frankal thought he would encounter no opposition from what he assumed to be the poor and uneducated leaders of Yerushalayim’s Jewish community. However, before he arrived, Rabbi Yitzchak Deutsch of Vienna, z”l, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the heads of the Austrian Kollel, sent Yerushalayim’s Rabbanim a letter warning them of Frankal’s true intentions.6
Frankal arrived in Yerushalayim and almost immediately invited the city’s Rabbanim and Chachamim to a meeting to explain how his school would benefit the yishuv. It soon became evident, however, that the Rabbanim were not amenable. “Why is it so difficult for you to approve of the type of school I envision?” he asked them. “Am I doing something illegal?”7
Harav Yeshaya Bardaki responded with characteristic sharpness. “If I understand you correctly, in this ‘school,’ as you have coined it, the children will be studying secular subjects together with Torah. Although there is no prohibition against learning something other than Torah, still, there is reason for us to be wary, for when secular subjects and Torah are studied together, the students tend to view them as being equal. Once one doubts the primacy of Torah, assimilation is not far off. Have we not seen the terrible results of this in Europe, with the emancipation and Haskalah?”8
Harav Bardaki later explained his reasoning. “Outside the Holy Land we were moser nefesh for our children’s chinuch; how much more so in the Holy City must our children be immersed in their limudei kodesh, and anything that will disturb them from that study is considered a sin.” The Ashkenazic Rabbanim subsequently placed the Lemel School in cherem, forbidding G-d-fearing parents to send their children there.9
In his autobiography,10 Rabbi Benzion Yadler, an alumnus of Etz Chaim who received rabbinical ordination from Harav Shmuel Salant and was known as the “Yerushalmi Maggid” because of his amazing oratorical skills, described Frankal’s attempt at deception. “Upon entering and exiting the room, [Frankal] was careful to reverently kiss the mezuzah” and “Frankal donned two sets of tefillin, and opposite his desk was a large sign proclaiming, ‘Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid, I set Hashem before me constantly,’ but the scholars of that generation recognized his lowly mission, that he was sent by the leaders of the Enlightenment to destroy Jewish education.”
Actually, the Rabbanim of Yerushalayim had nothing against vocational training. According to the original bylaws of the cheder, students studied the basic Talmud Torah curriculum until bar mitzvah and afterwards were divided according to potential. Yerushalayim’s shoemakers, grocers, and laborers were pious Jews who arose early to learn before davening and concluded their day with a shiur after Maariv. Although the Lemel School claimed to be teaching practical skills, in reality much emphasis was placed on the study of French and German, which in the mid-1800s had no practical application for the city’s Jews.
That same year, 1854, most probably in response to Frankal’s plans for a school that would teach secular subjects in addition to Torah, a permanent building was constructed for Etz Chaim in what was later to be known the Churvah Courtyard. Although nowhere explicitly stated, we can assume that Frankal’s arrival in Yerushalayim was the catalyst that saved Etz Chaim. That’s because after Etz Chaim outgrew the women’s section, classes were scattered throughout the city. Supervision became lax and the school was in danger of closing.11
Interestingly, only after the community’s children were provided with a proper place to learn did construction commence on the magnificent Bais Yaakov Synagogue, later known as the Churvah Synagogue, which was completed eight years later in 1864. This historical fact attests to the priorities of the yishuv’s Rabbanim.12
The cherem against the new Lemel School was officially pronounced on 9 Sivan 5616/1856. Rabbi Benzion Yadler describes his meeting with an elderly Jew who was present at the pronouncement.
“When I was around bar mitzvah age, the cherem was announced in the Beis Medrash Menachem Tzion, located in the ruins of Harav Yehuda Hechassid Synagogue. The shul was packed. The aron kodesh was opened, and black candles were lit. One of the elders of Yerushalayim, Harav Hagaon Yosef Shmuel Hershler, z”l, formerly a Rosh Kollel in Czechoslovakia who immigrated to Chevron and later to Yerushalayim, ascended the bimah and called out with the ferocity of a lion, ‘We are distancing ourselves from that evil congregation.’ The bookshelves were trembling, and the fear was palpable.”
Although the text of the cherem emphasized that it applied only to the Ashkenazic community, several Sefardi Chachamim signed, including Harav Rafael Yedidya Abulafia, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Beit El.
Despite the cherem, the Lemel School officially opened its doors the following month, on 23 Tammuz. Almost all the students were children of foreign consuls. The Haskalah movement was virtually unknown in the Middle East, and therefore most of the Sephardic Chachamim accepted Frankal’s false promises at face value. Yet in those first few years only a few children from their community attended the school.
The Ashkenazic community, however, continued its opposition. Even after Rabbi Zalman Baharan, a talmid chacham known for his constant acts of chessed, was imprisoned for speaking against the school,13 the protests continued. Yehoshua Yellin, z”l, who was present at the opening of the Lemel School, recalls in his memoirs, “People stood outside the school crying, ‘Oy! Woe to us! Help us! There is a fire in the city!’”
A Real Threat
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Jews of Yerushalayim were struggling to survive. With the rise of secular Zionism, it became almost impossible for an Orthodox Jew in Eretz Yisrael to find a job. Almost all doors, except the door to poverty, remained closed, and many succumbed to temptation.
One poignant example of the general movement away from tradition is the testimony of that same elderly Jew who was present when the cherem was pronounced: “My children received a pure Torah education. But they later went away and sent their own children to study in the secular school. I have rebuked them many times, but they do not listen to me. …
“When I asked Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l [the Rav of Yerushalayim], what I should do, he replied, ‘Since you’ve done everything possible, you’ve fulfilled your obligation.’ I requested that he put his words into writing, which he did. I instructed my family that after a hundred and twenty years, that note be placed beneath my head.”14
With almost unlimited resources, Frankal’s secular school continued to flourish. In 1903 there was a huge celebration when the school moved into its own spacious building on Yeshayahu Street. In honor of the occasion, Frankal even had a special copper medallion coined. One side depicted a palm tree with the Hebrew words “From the mouths of babes You have created strength,” and on the reverse, the Hebrew words “The school of Shimon from the noblest house of Lemel.”
Meanwhile, the Orthodox community was struggling to survive, and those dedicated to destroying the Lemel School continued protesting.
A Continuing Battle
Despite the cherem, which was not universally supported, and the protests, the Lemel School and secularism in general continued to flourish. By 1930, 550 students were registered in the school, making it the largest grammar school in Yerushalayim.
In the more than a century and half since the cherem was declared, although sweeping social and political changes took place throughout Yerushalayim and what was then known as Palestine, the members of the Old Yishuv continued their attempt to protect themselves from outside influence. Rebbetzin Aidel Tucazinsky, wife of Rabbi Yosef Tucazinsky15 and daughter of the famous Yerushalmi tzaddik Rabbi Gedalia Kenig, z”l, recalls, “When I was growing up in the 1960s, we were severely warned about keeping our distance from the secular schools. We tried never to walk past the Lemel School, and if we had no choice, we’d cross the street.” Rebbetzin Chava Tucazinsky recalls that Harav Nissan Aharon Tucazinsky16 would make a detour to avoid walking between the Edison movie theater, which was open on Shabbos, and the Lemel School.
For many decades, a fierce battle raged in Yerushalayim, a battle for its children’s education, and for many years it appeared that the battle was lost. The general attitude among secular Israelis was that religion was an outdated relic that should be eradicated. Even in Yerushalayim, the majority of children attended secular state schools, and outside of the city the situation was much worse.
Although a large percentage of Old Yishuv residents assimilated into secular society, the dwindling religious community continued to send their children to Etz Chaim. In its more than 170 years of existence, Etz Chaim has produced generations of scholarly laymen in addition to many of our great Torah leaders, including Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank; Harav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, Rav of Shaarei Chessed; Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rosh Yeshivah of Kol Torah and world-renowned posek; and Harav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher, Av Beis Din of the Eidah Hachareidis, zecher tzaddikim livrachah. Other products of the yeshivah, ybl”c, are Harav Yaakov Aryeh Alter, shlita, the Gerrer Rebbe; Harav Yaakov Aryeh Milikowsky, shlita, the Amshinover Rebbe; Harav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, shlita, Rav of Migdal Ha’emek; and Harav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik, shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Brisk. Many chadarim and yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael are based on the Etz Chaim model, among them Netivos HaTorah in Kiryat Sefer, with over a thousand students, Magen Avos in Tzefas, and Kaminetz.
The Lemel School Comes Full Circle
As for the Lemel School, it closed some forty years ago. In what can only be described as Divine irony, Etz Chaim, the educational system endorsed and headed by Harav Shmuel Salant and the other great Rabbanim of the Old Yishuv, recently purchased the Lemel building and grounds. Renovation plans are under way, and by 2016, b’ezras Hashem, the complex will house the more than 1,500 students students currently enrolled in Etz Chaim’s Yerushalayim-based yeshivos.
The outcome of the Old Yishuv’s opposition to the Lemel School is just one example of the eternity of Torah. And what about the Lemel School graduates? Although many became high-ranking professionals and leaders of secular Israeli society, Frankal’s promise that “in this school, the children will learn from their youth to walk in the ways of the Alm-ghty, to observe His commandments and to love an occupation” was never fulfilled. Hopefully, their descendants are part of the teshuvah revolution taking place in Eretz Yisrael and around the globe. And who knows? Perhaps their children will one day learn in Etz Chaim.
Simon Edler von Lemel
Eliza Herz was the principal financial backer of the Lemel School, which she named after her father, Simon Edler von Lemel, a wealthy Austrian wool merchant and community activist.
Born in Toscho, Bohemia, Lemel was known to all as Zelke Toscho; before 1787, when Austria compelled Jews to adopt German-sounding last names, people used their city of birth in lieu of a family name. Orphaned of his father at an early age, Lemel entered the wholesale wool business, introducing improvements in the method of raising sheep and in manufacturing the wool. By the time he was twenty-one years of age, his wholesale house in Prague ranked among the most important and prosperous businesses in the city.
Strongly patriotic, he risked his entire fortune during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) to provide the government with valuable services. Yet when he requested permission to purchase a house in Vienna, the emperor initially refused to provide him with the special letter of protection that Jews required to reside there. Later that same year, the emperor expressed his gratitude for all that he had done for the Austrian Empire by elevating him to the nobility. He was even given his own coat of arms.
In 1826, when Lemel renovated a Torah breastplate donated by his ancestors in 1763 to the Maisels Synagogue in Prague, he added his coat of arms and the following inscription: “These are the sacred implements that have been donated by my ancestors, of blessed memory. And were renovated by their son, who was formerly called Zelke Toscho, and by the mercy of our lord, the Emperor Franz I, who gave me the title of the noble man of Lämel (Edler von Lämel) [in] the year 586/1826.” The Torah breastplate is at present housed in the Jewish Museum of Prague.
In the first chapter of The Autobiography of August Bondi, “Family History,” Bondi recounts, “As he entered the room the emperor called out, ‘Come closer, glad to see you, I love you, Lämel’ (Lemel or Lemele means lamb in the Austrian dialect.) Lämel answered, ‘So your majesty can shear him?’ This so pleased the Emperor that Lämel was thereupon ennobled with the title Simon Edler von Lämel. He was even given his own coat of arms and (finally!) permission to reside in Vienna — where he was barely tolerated. Until 1813, he was forced to quarter soldiers in his private home. (Jews needed a special letter of protection to be permitted to reside in Vienna. In 1811 the small Jewish community was allowed to set aside a prayer room in a house they had purchased. Twelve years later, they were permitted to construct a synagogue.)”
Lemel devoted his life to improving the living conditions of his fellow Jews. In 1817 he succeeded in getting the Bohemian Jews’ taxes reduced, although he personally continued paying full taxes even after moving to Vienna. It was also thanks to him that the “body tax” on Jews was abolished in the German Kingdom of Saxony. Shortly before his death, he tried, without success, to abolish the demeaning and often dangerous medieval “Jewish Oath” that Jews were required to take in European courts of law until the twentieth century.
A New Home for Etz Chaim
Before purchasing the Lemel School grounds, Rabbi Yosef Tucazinksy, member of Etz Chaim's board of directors, traveled to Bnei Brak to ask Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, if it was advisable for Etz Chaim, with its strong roots in the ideology of the Old Yishuv, to establish its permanent premises in a building that for so many years had symbolized the fight against Torah. In Rabbi Tucazinsky’s own words:
When the neighborhoods surrounding Machaneh Yehudah changed drastically and the light rail barred access to our building, the Gedolei Hador instructed us to sell the historical Etz Chaim building on Yaffo Road. We encountered numerous obstacles in our quest to find new premises that would be both centrally located in a religious neighborhood and spacious enough to house our many different educational divisions, as well as provide for future expansion.
I approached Harav Kanievsky with a request for a blessing that Etz Chaim succeed in finding a suitable site. The Rav responded with tremendous warmth, so much so that the other people who were there at the time were surprised at the Rav’s enthusiasm.
I left the Rav’s home positive that things would work out and that we would soon find a suitable location.
When the proposal to purchase the old Lemel School building first came before the board of directors, although the location and spacious grounds made the building perfect for our needs, there was a lot of hesitation due to the building’s history. I told the other members of the board that before discussing the proposal I would ask Harav Kanievsky for daas Torah.
I traveled to Bnei Brak that same night. Once again, Harav Chaim greeted me with extreme warmth. I asked him if an institution such as Etz Chaim could move into a building that had been used to spread apikorsus. He responded that we should make some changes to the structure, and then not concern ourselves with the building’s past. He felt that despite the huge financial outlay, Etz Chaim should purchase the building and surrounding grounds, and gave us his brachah that we succeed in covering all payments.
1. A. R. Malachi, “Lakoros hachalukah b’Yerushalayim,” in Luach Eretz Yisrael, Vol. 15-21 (1909-1916), Vol. 3, edited by Eli Schiller, (Jerusalem: Ariel, 1980) 150-171.
2. Rabbi Y. M. Tucazinsky, Luach Eretz Yisrael, 1904 (Jerusalem: Avraham Moshe Lunz).
4. Ben Zion Gat, Hayishuv Hayehudi b’Eretz Yisrael, 1840–1881 (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzchak Ben Tzvi, 1974).
5. Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, Maaseh Avos, first published anonymously in 5661/1901 and republished with additions in 5736/1976.
7. David Rossoff, Where Heaven Touches Earth (Jerusalem: Guardian Press, 1st edition 1998, revised edition 2001).
9. Benzion Yadler, B’Tuv Yerushalayim, ed. Rabbis Betzalel Landau and Aharon Surasky, published by the author’s grandson, Reb Yitzchok Zev Yadler-Goldberg (Bnei Brak: Netzach, 5727/1967).
11. Luach Eretz Yisrael, op. cit.
12. Etz Chaim records.
13. Since Frankal had presented the school’s establishment as a step toward strengthening diplomatic relations between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, opposition to its establishment was considered a crime.
14. B’tuv Yerushalayim, op. cit.
15. Currently on Etz Chaim’s board of directors.
16. The late head of Etz Chaim, who was niftar in January 2012.