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For Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, it’s nothing but emes. He introduces himself as “an American boy who grew up in Europe,” a man who understands the American mind even as the spirit of Brisk hovers in his yeshivah. Now he’s spreading the message of unadorned truth that has become his imprint, and implanting a new generation of students with the sense that Torah learning must play a constant role in their lives.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
It sounded intriguing: a conversation with Rav Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshivas Toras Moshe of Jerusalem, whose reputation precedes him as a scion of Klal Yisrael’s leading Torah dynasty, and as a first-rank talmid chacham who has written eloquently on issues facing Klal Yisrael. But none of what I knew about Rav Meiselman quite prepared me for my meeting with him some weeks ago at the Flatbush home that serves as his yeshivah’s American office. In that venue, I came to know a different Rav Meiselman, filling the role that is clearly closest to his heart: a transformational teacher of Torah, standing at the head of one of Eretz Yisrael’s leading yeshivos for American post-high school bochurim.
In a back room hardly larger than a closet, a cocoon of quietude amid a beehive of administrative activity, I listened to the multifaceted Rosh Yeshivah speak — and couldn’t help but wonder what might be the singular animating ideal binding together the variegated strands of his life and life’s work.
Once I grasped what that ideal is, I realized that it is alluded to in his yeshivah’s very name, Toras Moshe. There is, after all, one word that’s closely associated with both “Toras” and with “Moshe,” and that’s “Emes,” — truth — as in the phrase “Moshe emes v’soraso emes.” Teaching Toras emes to his talmidim, giving the broader world a perspective of emes that debunks the societal influences of sheker encroaching on the Orthodox community, modeling emes in one’s personal interactions — all these form a mosaic of truth for which Rav Meiselman’s “Toras Moshe” is a kind of shorthand.
The name Toras Moshe is, of course, primarily intended to evoke the memory of the Rosh Yeshivah’s grandfather, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, the middle son of Rav Chaim. But while the Rosh Yeshivah’s family name is Meiselman, it is the Soloveitchik legacy that informs every fiber of his being. He, Rav Michel Shurkin, and Rav Moshe Twersky — who teach alongside him at Toras Moshe — are three of the closest talmidim of his uncle, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik of Boston, and their shiurim reflect that. Perhaps for that reason, it seems appropriate to ask him what Rav Chaim would say of the derech halimud that prevails almost everywhere in today’s yeshivah world. After all, Rav Chaim is reported to have said that one can’t be a ben Torah unless he learns 40 blatt a month with clarity, and his son Reb Velvel added that he’s willing to halve that and settle for a ben Torah learning a monthly quota of 20 blatt in depth.
The Rosh Yeshivah’s answer reveals an understanding of the contemporary scene that may help explain why, with so many yeshivos catering to American boys, his institution has continued to thrive and lead the field nearly three decades after its founding. “Those to whom Rav Chaim was speaking were not today’s yeshivah bochurim,” Rav Meiselman explains. “He was dealing in a totally different context. Look, I grew up in Boston, which was a litvishe shtoht, and our family doctor was a man who came to America when he was 14, after having learned in cheder in Europe. In his 70s, he still knew Gemara, Rashi, Tosfos, and Maharsha in the three Bavos baal peh. He hadn’t seen these Gemaros since he was a child, because, nebach, he fell away from observance on his arrival here, but it was in his blood. How many yeshivah bochurim today can say Gemara, Rashi, and Tosfos in the Bavos baal peh? Anyone? And this was not some great genius, he was just the product a certain system.
“Clearly, to transpose standards from context to context makes no sense.”
When it comes to understanding different milieus and contexts, Rav Meiselman is unusually seasoned. An American-born descendent of the Soloveitchik family (his mother is a daughter of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik), he spent his formative years in the inner circle of his uncle, Rav Yoshe Ber Solovetichik, later gaining advanced academic degrees. After marrying Rivkah Leah Eichenstein, scion of the Zidichover Chassidus, he served as a maggid shiur in Chicago from 1971–77, first in Beis Medrash L’Torah in Skokie and later in his uncle Rav Ahron Soloveitchik’s Yeshivas Brisk.
In 1977, he focused his energies on the West Coast, founding California’s YULA (Yeshiva University of Los Angeles) as a yeshivah gedolah and kollel. Then, in 1979, he founded YULA high schools for boys and girls. During this time, when he was responsible for much of the halachic psak in Los Angeles, Rav Meiselman developed a close relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Later, he would develop a close relationship with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, eventually becoming a mechutan of his.
In 1982, YULA was flourishing, with 75 bochurim in the yeshivah gedolah, 15 in kollel, 150 students in the boys’ high school and 150 in the girls’ high school. Furthermore, a city-wide kiruv program that Rav Meiselman founded was drawing 2,000 attendees. At that high point, he decided to move to Eretz Yisrael and bring his passion for truth to yet another sort of youngster in the now-famous Yeshivas Toras Moshe.
After decades spent in the beis medrash with aspiring young minds, Rav Moshe has a clear view of his mandate. “In today’s world,” he observes, “you can train a person’s mind from age 18 to 22. If I don’t train a person to think through a masechta then, I’ve lost him; he’ll never know what it means to think through a masechta. I have a certain window of opportunity. I’m not worried about someone who began learning at age 5 and will be learning until he’s 75. When I deal with most products of today’s yeshivos, I have to assume they’re not proficient in independently learning a Mishnah Berurah, so I have to teach them how to read a Mishnah Berurah. I have to assume the only seforim they’ve seen in mussar and machshava are ArtScroll books, and so I have to get them exposed to primary sources. Many of them are not equipped to go through things inside.”
In the business world, there are people who are talented CEOs, who can take a profitable company and make it even more lucrative. But there’s also an entirely different type of entrepreneur, those individuals known as “turnaround artists,” who, through sheer creativity and iron will, are able to make a success out of any enterprise. The Rosh Yeshivah, one might say, is a Torah turnaround artist.
That’s not to say the talmidim of Toras Moshe are on their way down when they arrive there — to the contrary, the yeshivah attracts the better products of many of the leading center-right high schools, such as Yesodei Yeshurun, Shaar Hatorah, Ner Yisroel, Kaminetz, and Chofetz Chaim. But Rav Meiselman and the stellar staff of talmidei chachamim he has assembled have found the formula for accelerating these boys’ growth and jumpstarting them on the path of success in Torah. This process applies even to talmidim from weaker backgrounds. Rav Meiselman illustrates this by recalling “a talmid who was by us for three years and then went on to Rav Uren Reich at Westlake Village, where he is now the top bochur. He comes from a Reform family and came to us after attending public high school, while receiving tutoring in Gemara. Some may wonder how he could move so far in three years, but to me it was no big surprise.”
Toras Moshe’s well-earned reputation for success in helping its talmidim integrate into the olam hayeshivos has led many high schools further to the left to view it as something of a threat. These institutions, says the Rosh Yeshivah, will “fight tooth and nail to prevent any of their boys from coming to us. I only get those boys if they come to me through another place, after finishing their shanah alef in Eretz Yisrael at a place like Ohr Yerushalayim.” He smiles, recalling a boy from Teaneck who was thinking of enrolling at Toras Moshe. “I met with his parents,” he remembers, “and after we finished, they said, ‘Rabbi, can you just answer one question?’ I said, ‘What is it?’ They said, ‘Why is it that all the people we talk to say don’t let your son fall into that man’s hands?! You seem to be such a nice person.’ ”
I ask the Rosh Yeshivah whether he considers it a success when a boy moves on to, say, the Mir. “He could move on, but he certainly doesn’t have to,” Rav Meiselman feels. “He can stay by us for many years. We have a staff of gedolei talmidei chachamim who can deal with talmidim at every level. We have 96 boys in the beis medrash and 44 in the kollel, and almost all of our kollel yungerleit are home-grown. Success is not determined by whether he moves on, but by what he’s doing with his life.”
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