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Special Tribute Edition: One Father, Myriads of Orphans

Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The sweltering Jerusalem heat on that late summer day 13 years ago only served to aggravate  the overwhelming jetlag, culture shock, and language barrier. Was five months of excited planning, shopping, and packing all for this? How soon could I turn around and go home?

One meeting would change my attitude — and those of the other new arrivals — forever. Following directions from passersby, I found the Rosh Yeshivah’s house with relative ease. A large group of future talmidim was already waiting to meet with him.

We were ushered in as a group, and I began to wonder if I would have to deliver my shtickel Torah in front of the entire group — a daunting prospect under the circumstances. But a glance at the man sitting — or perhaps trembling would be more accurate — at the head of the table had a calming effect on us.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel looked around the room with a smile on his face. He addressed each boy individually, asking him what his name was and which yeshivah he had learned in previously. Then he gave us each a slip of paper, effectively declaring us talmidim of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim.

“Wait,” he said suddenly as we stood up to leave. “You are all baalei chov. You each owe me a shtickel Torah. Come back in a few weeks to tell it to me.”

As a close talmid who eventually joined the hanhalah of the Yeshivah said succinctly just hours after the levayah, “The Rosh Yeshivah was about two things — Torah, and bein adam l’chaveiro.” He wanted to hear a shtickel Torah, but not from a group of weary bochurim who had barely begun to acclimate to their new home.

It wasn’t long before we all came to feel that the yeshivah was indeed a home — a home led by a loving father, Rav Nosson Tzvi ztz”l.



from All-American boy to rosh yeshiva

Born in Chicago in 1943, the Rosh Yeshivah was named after his great-grandfather Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka. Little did anyone know then that this boy would eventually follow in the path of his legendary namesake and become the foremost disseminator of Torah in his generation.

Brought up as an all-American boy, Rav Nosson Tzvi would quip that he first arrived in Eretz Yisrael wearing a baseball cap, having left his golf clubs at home. He had planned a short visit to Eretz Yisrael, but his great-uncle Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel ztz”l (“Rav Leizer Yudel”), the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, took note of his untapped greatness and fought mightily to keep him in Eretz Yisrael. He dispatched some of the finest yungeleit in the yeshivah, including Rav Chaim Kamil, whom Rav Nosson Tzvi would later consider his rebbi muvhak, to begin studying with him. The young man’s Torah greatness soon began to blossom. Eventually, Nosson Tzvi Finkel married his second cousin, the oldest daughter of Rav Leizer Yudel’s son, Rav Beinish Finkel.

Rav Leizer Yudel demanded a lot from his young protégé. As a yungerman, Rav Nosson Tzvi joined a chaburah led by Rav Leizer Yudel in which each member had to commit to learning 12 hours every weekday and 17 hours over Friday and Shabbos. Rav Nosson Tzvi would later relate that he needed chavrusas to walk him to and from his home on Rechov Yisa Brachah in order to fulfill his daily learning quota.

When Rav Leizer Yudel was niftar in 1965, his son Rav Beinish became rosh yeshivah alongside his brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. Rav Chaim passed away in 1979, and his son-in-law, Rav Nochum Partzowitz, began to serve as rosh yeshivah alongside Rav Beinish. But an illness prevented him from serving in that capacity for long, and Rav Beinish led the yeshivah until his petirah in 1990. As the years passed, Rav Nosson Tzvi grew into a beloved and revered figure in the yeshivah.

Even in those early years, Rav Nosson Tzvi’s “dual track” in life — personal growth and dissemination of Torah while caring for each individual — quickly came to the fore. In the late 1970s, Rav Nosson Tzvi used to deliver a blatt shiur for bochurim in the yeshivah. When one of his bochurim fainted suddenly for no apparent reason, Rav Nosson Tzvi insisted that the boy move into his home to recuperate until the doctors would determine what had caused him to faint. More than three decades later, this bochur — now a popular mesivta maggid shiur in America — still remembers how Rav Nosson Tzvi cared for him.

“He accompanied me to one doctor, and later, when I went to another doctor alone and suddenly realized that I didn’t have the money to pay for a test that the doctor wanted to administer, I called Rav Nosson Tzvi’s house. He told me to wait at the doctor’s office, and before long, he was there with the money.”

The doctors never did determine why the boy had fainted, but Rav Nosson Tzvi kept the boy in his home for over a week until he felt certain that the bochur had recovered fully.


Exponential Expansion

Prior to Rav Beinish’s passing in 1990, Rav Nosson Tzvi was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that causes progressive loss of muscular function. A number of medicines have been developed to help control the tremors and spasms that are symptomatic of Parkinson’s disease, but Rav Nosson Tzvi refused to take any of these medications because they either cloud the mind, making learning difficult, or cause memory loss — both of which, to Rav Nosson Tzvi, were unacceptable side effects.

When Rav Beinish was niftar, Rav Nosson Tzvi became the primary rosh yeshivah, alongside Rav Chaim Shmulevitz’s son, yblcht”a Rav Refoel Shmulevitz shlita. Rav Nosson Tzvi also assumed the financial burden of the yeshivah — a weighty responsibility he would carry until the last minute of his life.

When Rav Nosson Tzvi became rosh yeshivah, the Mir’s total enrollment numbered fewer than 1,000 students. The yeshivah was already expanding, but no one could have predicted the exponential growth it would undergo over the next two decades.

When the yeshivah outgrew its original building in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood, a wing was added to the beis medrash to accommodate another few hundred talmidim. But before long, bochurim and yungeleit began to learn on the stairs, under the stairs, and even on the platform in front of the aron kodesh. Additional batei medrash were added on the upper floors of the yeshivah building, but they, too, were soon filled to capacity. More and more students were flocking to the Mir, and Rav Nosson Tzvi maintained an open-door policy — anyone who wanted to learn was welcome in the yeshivah. 

As Rav Zvi Holland, an alumnus who now heads the Pheonix Community Kollel, put it, “In the Mir, it doesn’t matter who your father is or where you’re from.”

Eventually, even the nearby shuls and batei medrash — which had long been occupied by Mirrer bochurim — could no longer contain the entire population of Yeshivas Mir. Long-time talmid and now Mirrer maggid shiur Rav Nissan Kaplan quips, “I had a quarter of a seat — if three other people didn’t show up, then I had a seat.”

In the late 1990s, Rav Nosson Tzvi decided that it was time to begin construction. He undertook the colossal task of raising the funds for additional buildings, and within a few short years the Mir boasted three new buildings: Ner Gavriel (originally known as the Kodshim Kollel), the Friedman building, and Shalmei Simchah.

As each beis medrash was built or renovated, Rav Nosson Tzvi would set aside space for groups on the basis of what they were learning or the method of their learning. One beis medrash would primarily serve Israeli bochurim, another would serve yungeleit who did not want to attend a formal shiur, and so on.

But enrollment continued to grow, and with it came the need for more batei medrash. Beis Shalom followed a few years after Shalmei Simchah.

During these years, the bochurim were divided among a few maggidei shiur, with the heaviest concentration of bochurim in Rav Asher Arielli’s shiur. (Rav Asher is a son-in-law of Rav Nochum Partzowitz.) The next-largest shiur was given by Rav Eliyahu Baruch Finkel ztz”l, a grandson of Rav Leizer Yudel.

As the Mir’s enrollment grew, a new dynamic developed: talmidim of the main maggidei shiur began to deliver shiurim of their own in English, teaching the Torah of the Mirrer roshei yeshivah along with their own chiddushim. By now, these talmidim — Rav Yosef Elefant, Rav Nissan Kaplan, Rav Eytan Joffen, Rav Moshe Aharon Friedman, and Rav Yehuda Wagschall, among others — have each established an impressive following. Eventually Rav Nosson Tzvi sensed a need for a separate beis medrash to house all of these shiurim, and in the spring of 2006, Beis Yeshayah was inaugurated with a hachnassas Sefer Torah. Yet another beis medrash, Beis Menachem, has been added since.

The Mir’s relentless expansion prompted Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Brisk, to jokingly remark to Rav Elya Boruch Finkel ztz”l that one day Rav Nosson Tzvi would put a roof over the entire Beis Yisrael neighborhood and rename it Shechunas Mir.

But even as the Mir grew to its present proportions — with some 6,000 bochurim and yungeleit onto the Beis Yisrael neighborhood each day and many more attending a satellite yeshivah in Achuzat Brachfeld — one thing remained inviolate: the Rosh Yeshivah’s commitment not only to the yeshivah as a klal, but to each individual as well.

 ‘To read the rest of this story, please buy this week’s Special Tribute Edition’  

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