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Echoes of Telshe

Leah Gebber

Rebbetzin Shula Sternbuch was raised in Jerusalem; found her spiritual mother in Cleveland, Ohio; and built her home in Lucerne, Switzerland. But no matter where she was, she drew strength from the ideals of her illustrious ancestors from Telshe, Lithuania.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

alps “Most people dream of all the things they’ll change when they marry and have a home of their own,” says Shevi, the daughter of Rebbetzin Shula Sternbuch, reflecting on her childhood in Obernau, Switzerland. “I dreamed of replicating my parents’ home.”

It only takes a few minutes of chatting with Rebbetzin Sternbuch to understand why. Lively and quick to laugh, she speaks freely about her challenges — and triumphs — in building a home of Torah and simchah with her husband Rabbi Naftali Shmuel Sternbuch, who has been teaching at the Lucerne Yeshivah for more than 30 years.

Throughout our conversation, we go back in time as she recalls the rich Torah legacy of her ancestors from Telshe, Lithuania. The tales she shares aren’t just sound bites; they are stories that helped define her as a wife, mother, and teacher — and that gave her strength at her most difficult moments.


A Family of Builders

Rebbetzin Sternbuch comes from a long line of Jews devoted to disseminating Torah — even when it required going against the tide. When her great, great grandfather, Rav Eliezer Gordon, was appointed rosh yeshivah of Telshe in 1884, he streamed the boys into different shiurim. Until that point, all boys attended one shiur, irrespective of ability and level. He also made limud hamussar mandatory.

His son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, who assumed the role of rosh yeshivah after Rabbi Gordon’s passing, established a girls’ school (Yavneh), a mechinah, and a kollel. His grandson, Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, who also served as rosh yeshivah, set up Jewish schools in all the outlying neighborhoods. Thus, deep in the Lithuanian countryside, a Torah citadel pulsed with life.

When World War II broke out, everything changed. The fortress became a pile of ashes. Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, the faculty at Telshe, and all the students were massacred.

But there were survivors. Three of Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok’s daughters — Chaya, Rochel, and Miriam (Rebbetzin Sternbuch’s mother) — escaped. His brother, Rabbi Elya Meir, was collecting in America at the time, and he responded to the collective and personal tragedy not with despair, but with fiery determination.

His goal was to rebuild Telshe on American soil, but in the 1940s, this was no easy task. As the owner of one bookstore told Rabbi Elya Meir when he asked to buy a Ketzos HaChoshen, “A Ketzos? No one in America learns the Ketzos HaChoshen!”

When Rabbi Elya Meir insisted, the store owner scaled a shaky ladder to scan the long-forgotten seforim on the highest shelves. Eventually, he climbed down, holding a worn volume. He presented it to Reb Elya Meir with a flourish: “The last Ketzos HaChoshen in America.”

Reb Elya Meir shook his head. “Not the last Ketzos HaChoshen in America,” he said, grasping the sefer with both hands. “The first Ketzos HaChoshen in America!”

Thus the roots of Telshe, Cleveland were planted. 


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