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Avoid the Bill, Be a Waiter

Eytan Kobre

After the Six Day War, forward-thinking, ever-energetic Rav Mordechai Elefant cashed in on his unlikely connection with Moshe Dayan and received possession of a sprawling campus in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Tzafafa. Yeshivas ITRI became a rare phenomenon in the Torah world of those times, and Rav Mordechai left an unknown, unfinished memoir detailing how he built the institution everyone — from Israeli power brokers to US senators — was talking about.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Larger than life” is a term used to describe unusually colorful personalities, people exuding over-the-top vitality and humor, brimming with ideas and projects. Those who knew Rav Mordechai Elefant — his fourth yahrtzeit was recently marked worldwide by former talmidim of his once-famous Yeshivas ITRI — surely placed him in this exclusive club.

Yet for those who didn’t, an unfinished — and confidential — autobiographical memoir paints a riveting portrait of a multifaceted, forward-thinking, unabashed individual: a builder of Torah par excellence. A world-class talmid chacham. An intimate of gedolei Torah. An irrepressible raconteur and brilliant business mind. Confidant of heads of state and of corporate CEOs. Yet underneath it all was another Reb Mordche, one who really wanted nothing more than to swim through the yam haTalmud, and to help young bnei Torah do the same.

His sister, Mrs. Helen Wolf, says that from childhood he exhibited the restless, creative brilliance, the mischievous sense of humor, and the softest heart for those in need — traits that typified his career of spreading Torah to a generation.

“I had once earned a ticket to go to my uncle in Cincinnati for Succos, but my parents said, ‘A girl doesn’t go alone,’ so 12-year-old Mordche was chosen to travel with me,” Mrs. Wolf recalls. “We lived on Wilson Streetin Williamsburg, right next to Yeshivah Torah Vodaath, and we had a neighbor, Mrs. Rabinowitz, who had no children. Mordche was very solicitous of her and would bring her hoshanos every Succos, but that year he was with me in Cincinnati for Yom Tov. On Hoshana Rabbah morning, the people on the block see a mail truck pull up with a special delivery for Mrs. Rabinowitz, a package of hoshanos. Point of origin?Cincinnati.”

Mordche attended the neighboring Torah Vodaath until age 13, when his parents sent him off toBaltimore’s NerIsrael, hoping the experience of fending for himself out-of-town would help mature him, which it did. From there he went on to learn under Rav Aharon Kotler inLakewood.

But when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Mordechai, then just 19, came back to New Yorkto be close by. He began learning in the East New Yorkbeis medrash of Beis Hatalmud, which had been established not long before by newly arrived talmidim of the Mirrer Yeshivah and its legendary mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz.

With his mother suffering what would be her final illness, and four of her five children still unmarried, Mordechai resolved to see to it that she would yet rejoice at all her children’s weddings. He set about determinedly working to marry them all off, including himself, and he succeeded. Within the span of a year and a half, Mrs. Elefant merited to attend all four weddings, passing on soon after the last one.


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