Part 1-Yeshiva Torah Vodaath at 100: Talmidim of the Mesivta Speak

It all began with a Yom Kippur appeal, yet the request was not one for financial support, but for bodies and souls.

Rabbi Binyomin Wilhelm, z”l, knew that the future of his son would be inextricably linked with the creation of a yeshivah to educate him in the ways of his forefathers. Thus, Reb Binyomin davened alone, and made his way from shul to shul, begging, pleading and imploring parents to send their sons to the fledgling yeshivah that was planned.

The idea took root, and before long, the new school began to blossom. After a while, Harav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, was brought in as a Rebbi, and was soon promoted to the position of Menahel. This was a watershed moment not just for the yeshivah, but indeed for the future of Torah education throughout the United States.

A “Gaon in ruach” is the way Harav Reuven Grozovsky, zt”l described Rav Shraga Feivel. The force of his spirit would spearhead a religious revival. Yet, to the talmidim of “the Mesivta,” he was “the boss.” The title was not meant disrespectfully; Mr. Mendlowitz, as he insisted on being called, was revered by his students. They looked to him for guidance, inspiration, and direction. He provided them with leadership, counseling them in their personal lives, and forging their future in the unchartered world of frum America. His dreams became their dreams, his goals their goals, and their successes were his success. Indeed, he was their mentor, their father, their boss.

As Yeshiva Torah Vodaath begins its second century promulgating Torah in America, the legacy of Rav Shraga Feivel endures through the accomplishments of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and the talmidim which he molded. Hamodia interviewed some of the prominent alumni of the “Mother of Yeshivos,” which will present a portrait of the accomplishments of Rav Mendlowitz and Yeshiva Torah Vodaath over the past century.

We begin with an interview with Harav Zalman Pinchos Quinn, son of the legendary Harav Nesanel Quinn, zt”l. Rav Nesanel was the quintessential talmid of Rav Mendlowitz, who appointed him as Menahel of the high school division, where he served with great distinction for over half a century. Rav Zalman Pinchos was a talmid of the yeshivah and is currently a Maggid Shiur in the mesivta.

Why did you/your parents choose to send you to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath?

Well, you can say that I was born into Torah Vodaath. My father was bound to the yeshivah from the early days of his youth, when he entered the yeshivah and became attached to Rav Shraga Feivel. My mother, too, grew up in the shadow of the yeshivah, as she learned with Mrs. Batsheva Mendlowitz, who eventually married her brother, Rabbi Sender Linchner.

My father’s entire mehalech hachaim was molded by Rav Shraga Feivel. Yet growing up, he preferred not to speak openly about him, perhaps because of his reverence for his Rebbi. But his influence pervaded our home, and we were raised with an awareness of his presence in the lives of our parents.

For many years, my father attended the Pesach Sedarim of Rav Shraga Feivel and his family. In the first years, there were several talmidim who came toward the end of the Seder to spend time with Rav Shraga Feivel. Later, the Sedarim were private, but my father was permitted to attend. He drew a tremendous amount of yiras Shamayim from those Sedarim.

After Rav Shraga Feivel relocated to Monsey in the last years of his life, my family attended the Sedarim there, and continued doing so for several years after his passing. In a way, I guess we were considered “einiklach” of the family.

Certainly, there was no question that I, too, would be a talmid of Torah Vodaath. I entered the yeshivah at a young age and learned in the yeshivah through beis medrash.

Which Rebbi/Menahel/Rosh Yeshivah did you associate with while in the yeshivah? After leaving the yeshivah?

I had many fabulous Rebbeim in yeshivah, and I remember them all in a positive way, including those who I had in elementary school. But I’ll speak mainly about those I had in mesivta. I remember my ninth-grade Rebbi, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Schoen, z”l, who was a great tzaddik and yerei Shamayim. Rabbi Avrohom Brody, z”l, my 10th-grade Rebbi, a talmid of Harav Baruch Ber (Leibowitz of Kamenitz), zt”l, who had such tremendous ahavas haTorah. I had Harav Avraham Pam, zt”l, whose middos were those of an adam gadol. In 12th grade, which was beis medrash kattan, a bridge between mesivta and beis medrash, Rabbi Aharon Yeshaya Shapiro, z”l, ran the class as a meluchah.

Harav Eliyahu Moshe Shisgal, zt”l was a master Maggid Shiur, and a tremendous tzaddik. Harav Simcha Sheps, zt”l, gave over the lomdus with incredible zeeskeit. And Harav Elya Chazan, zt”l, who said the highest shiur, had an unbelievable breitkeit in his command of the sugya.

It’s interesting to note that in those days, in an average year we learned almost 40 blatt Gemara. There was a time when the yeshivah offered what was called “night classes” for the talmidim. These were extra shiurim in the evenings, from 7:30 until 8:50, and it was a major operation.

The Maggidei Shiur included Harav Elya Jurkanski, zt”l, and Harav Shaul Brus, zt”l, among others. I remember that my father would personally transport talmidim to and from the yeshivah in order for them to be able to attend.

In addition to these Rebbeim, Harav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt”l and Harav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l, gave shmuessen. Each in his own way made a tremendous impression on the talmidim.

Who was your role model?

Rav Yaakov was the Rebbi who gave me hadrachah (guidance) in life. Although I did not attend his shiur, he did give us vaadim in Chovos Halevavos. Rav Schorr learned with us the sefarim of the Ramchal, and gave shmuessen in the beis medrash as well as speaking by seudah shelishis.

After he moved from Williamsburg to Crown Heights, Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, would speak. He was my Rebbi in life. However, my Rebbi in the way I teach was Rav Shisgal. Although this did not happen while I was in his shiur, when I began teaching, I realized that I adapted his method and style of teaching.

What is your fondest memory of your Yeshiva Torah Vodaath experience?

In 1961, there was a major fire in the yeshivah building. The top part of the arched facade and building was destroyed completely and the building required extensive repairs, and the yeshivah was “in galus” for half a year afterward.

But there is a Yiddish saying, “Noch ah feir vet men reich — after a fire, one becomes rich.” In the aftermath of this incident, the yeshivah experienced tremendous growth, both in quantity and quality. It was a time of tremendous aliyah for the yeshivah.