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Away from it All

Yisroel Besser

Rav Yisroel Kanarek was a strong believer in the ability of the Torah to reshape a person — especially when a yeshivah was located far away from the distractions of big city life. And so he found his dream location for Ohr Hameir in the “vald” ofPeekskill. Fifty years after Rav Yisroel recruited his first students, his son Rav Elya Kanarek reclaims those early days of the “Peekskill Mandate.”

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

ravThe Rosh Yeshivah’s home is a humble structure, perched — as if symbolically — at the summit of the sloping hill that is the campus of Yeshivah Ohr Hameir. But it’s what’s inside that gives a real clue as to what makes this yeshivah special. The front door opens directly into the Rosh Yeshivah’s dining room, without a foyer or entrance hall preempting it, showing whoever enters that the role of the Rosh Yeshivah is far more than didactic.

Rav Elya Kanarek, the present rosh yeshivah, didn’t create this atmosphere, though. He is just following the path hewn by his revered father, Rav Yisroel Kanarek, a soul from the vanished Torah world that arrived inAmerica and started again. It was Rav Yisroel who traveled to this picturesque corner ofWestchesterCounty and said, “Here! Here we can teach Torah.”

Richest Accomodations

Leipzigis a German city, yet it lives in the annals of Chassidus by virtue of a great chassidic rebbe who settled there, the Boyaner-Leipziger Rebbe. His shul inLeipzigdrew many “Ostjuden,” Jewish immigrants from the Eastern European countries ofPolandandGaliciawho’d come to settle there. Reb Tzvi Mordechai Kanarek was among them.

Though the accepted practice in Leipzigwas to send the boys to the local school, Reb Tzvi Mordechai was determined that his own son, Yisroel, would have an authentic Torah education. He consulted with the Tchortoker Rebbe of Vienna, a frequent visitor to Leipzig, who advised him to send the young boy away “to a litvishe yeshivah.”

The boy, barely bar mitzvah, boarded a train and traveled east. The train stopped in Bialastock, where young Yisroel got his first taste of a real yeshivah when he went to see Novardok. Talmidim were running through the beis medrash, engaged in their unique brand of mussar. One fellow alternated between dipping his arms in a jug of freezing water and one of boiling water.

Reb Elya laughs as he recalls the story. “My father, raised in Germany, would always say that the first neis of his journey was that he didn’t turn around and go back home when he saw that.”

The boy continued on to Radin, his destination, and experienced a culture shock, again. He expected that the home of the Chofetz Chaim — rabban shel kol bnei hagolah — would tower over the city, reflecting the prominence of its inhabitant. Of course, the opposite was true, and so the new talmid began to reshape his value system.

When he was introduced to the Chofetz Chaim, the elderly tzaddik gripped the hands of the young boy and began to cry, “A bochur fuhn Preissen [Prussia, as he referred to Germany] hut gekummen lernen Torah!”

During the month of Elul, the yeshivah in Radin would host Rav Elchonon Wasserman, the Baranovitch rosh yeshivah, who would spend the month with his revered rebbi. It was arranged that Reb Elchonon would stay with the young man fromLeipzig, whose financial situation afforded him more spacious accommodations than was standard.

Reb Elchonon refused to accept the hachnassas orchim for free, but the bochur was equally determined not to accept money. A compromise was reached where Reb Elchonon “paid” for his room and board by learning Chumash with Yisroel Kanarek each morning. It was an experience that would help shape the hashkafah of the future rosh yeshivah.


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