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The Prince of America’s Torah Renaissance

Binyamin Rose

Ten years ago, the Jewish world suffered the loss of Rav Mordechai Gifter, ztz”l. One of America’s first native-born gedolim, Rav Gifter fused his out-of-town upbringing with the soul of Lithuania’s yeshivah world, eventually becoming a link in the perpetuation of the Telshe yeshivah. In honor of his tenth yahrtzeit, Mishpacha visits the home of his son-in-law and daughter, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, shlita, and Rebbetzin Luba Feuer, tlita, for a glimpse of the gadol they merited knowing so well.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In the 1920s, Baltimore’s east end was an important Jewish port of call for roshei yeshivos from Europe who needed to raise funds to keep their institutions viable. Rav Shimon Yehudah Hakohein Shkop, the gadol hador, and nephew of Telshe Yeshiva founder Rav Eliezer Gordon, was one of Baltimore’s distinguished visitors during that decade, having arrived to raise funds for the Grodno Yeshivah which he had founded, but which was floundering financially.

Times were tough for the Jews back then, but after much effort, Rav Shkop and his escort, a local rabbi named Rabbi Marcus, he managed to raise the then-princely sum of $100 from a gentleman by the name of Nathan Strauss. Rav Shkop was elated. When he arrived later that afternoon in Rabbi Marcus’s shul to daven Minchah, his countenance was still beaming with gratification. Rabbi Marcus noticed this and discerned that this just might be an unusually propitious time to approach Rav Shkop with a heartfelt request of his own.

“There is an eight-year-old boy here this afternoon, who plays with my children. Please give him a brachah,” asked Rabbi Marcus.

Rav Shkop joyfully complied. His brachah consisted of three Yiddish words, which made an eternal impact — not only on that boy, but on future generations of Torah Jewry. “Zolst vellen lernen,” you should desire to learn, said Rav Shkop.

That eight-year-old boy was Mordechai Gifter, whose will to learn, teach, and put all of that into practice enabled him to become one of America’s, and indeed the world’s, leading Torah sages and roshei yeshivah, during his eighty-four-year lifespan. “Rav Gifter always said he attributed any success he had in learning and teaching Torah to that brachah that he got from Rav Shimon Shkop,” says Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, a talmid of Rav Gifter’s at Telshe yeshivah for seventeen years, and one of his sons-in-law.

It would have been characteristic of Rav Gifter’s great humility to attribute his greatness to a brachah of three simple, but powerful words. But doing justice to Rav Gifter, on this his tenth yahrtzeit, would not be possible by leaving it at that. Remembering his greatness, and maybe more importantly, how he attained it and what he overcame to achieve it, is a lesson for Klal Yisrael.

Rav Gifter was one of America’s first native-born gedolim. He was born in the southern state of Virginia — not exactly the hotbed of Yiddishkeit in America, by any means. At age three, the family moved to Baltimore. As a boy, he attended public school in the morning and Talmud Torah only in the afternoon. He never had the opportunity to learn Gemara until age thirteen when one of his Talmud Torah teachers taught him a few lines of Bava Metziah in preparation for his bar mitzvah drashah. Yet in serving as dean and rosh yeshivah of Telshe in Cleveland, he became an authentic baal mesorah and a link between the glorious traditions of the Lithuanian yeshivas, who trace their heritage all the way back to the Vilna Gaon. Rav Gifter was a bridge between that mesorah and America at a crucial moment where the nation’s Torah institutions were just beginning to sprout from the ground up.

“What made Rav Gifter a gadol?” asks Rabbi Feuer, rhetorically. “I saw it clearly and felt it clearly. You could feel his presence in the room. He had a certain power. I would call him the powerhouse of Torah. Powerful but simple. One rabbi described Rav Gifter in a beautiful way: the prince of the Torah renaissance in America. That’s exactly what he was, but his goal in life was simplicity. No affectations. He was just pure power and love of Torah. He didn’t just learn Torah. He took achrayus for Torah.”

 

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