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The Etrog Picker

Eytan Kobre

He was one of 13 boys picked by Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz to travel from Morocco to Brooklyn’s Mirrer Yeshivah in 1948. Later, Rabbi Avraham Portal would return to his native land and become a field marshal in the struggle for the soul of Moroccan Jewry in the 1950s What brought the famed rav of Tiktin — a man consumed by the Nazi threat to European Jewry — to the sun-soaked cities of Morocco?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

etrog treeThe name Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz ztz”l is synonymous with the concerted attempts by a small group of activists in the US, where Rav Avraham had fled in 1941, to save a remnant of European Jewry from the Nazi juggernaut. Lesser known, but no less heroic, were his efforts during the 1950s to bring authentic Torah education to Morocco’s Jewish youth, and spirit as many of them as possible to physical and spiritual safety in the United States.

After working tirelessly to save the famed Yeshivas Mir and many other Jews trapped in Europe, he devoted himself from 1947 through the entire next decade to rescuing Sephardic communities in Arab lands from the dire physical and spiritual threats they faced. He embarked on this new stage of his rescue efforts just eight months after the Mirrer talmidim arrived in New York from Shanghai, with a trip to Morocco in the summer of ’47 that laid the foundation for the opening of the Ozar Hatorah network of schools.

He was urged to take a break before moving on to this new and different challenge, but where others saw change, he saw only continuity: “Hitler made sure that virtually an entire generation of our [Ashkenazic] children was slaughtered. There are almost none left. The Sephardic Jews, baruch Hashem, were not decimated. Let us save their children for Hashem and His Torah!”

But Rav Kalmanowitz, known by all simply as “the Rav” ever since serving as rav in the Lithuanian city of Tiktin, now stood at the helm of Brooklyn’s branch of the Mirrer Yeshivah. How was an Ashkenazic rosh yeshivah in New York to effect such long-distance change in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Morocco, on Africa’s northwestern edge?

Enter Rabbi Avraham Portal. A native of Marrakech, a large city in west-central Morocco, young Avraham received a traditional Torah education that included not only Gemara but a thorough exploration of Tanach as well. Reb Avraham recalls that at age 14, “my rebbi was Chacham Dehan, whose father was the av beit din of Marrakech. He encouraged us to memorize the Gemara by promising us a US dollar for each daf recited by heart. My chavruta, Avraham Ankaba, and I each committed to memory three or four chapters of Ketubot. In fact, we could each repeat all 13 pages of the second perek, HaIsha SheNitarmela, in 13 minutes; we did it so quickly that we were the only ones who could test each other.”

Avraham was still in yeshivah in 1948 when something happened to radically alter his life’s course. Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz arrived in the country seeking boys interested in an adventure: to travel to faraway America for study at the illustrious Mirrer Yeshivah. Avraham was one of a group of 13 boys who undertook the journey.


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