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Never Say “I Can’t”

Yitty Honig

Established in London by Rav Moshe Schneider in the thick of World War II, “Schneider’s” was where every bochur could become a gadol… And many did

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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FLAME OF DEVOTION “If you think about it, by the time he arrived in London, my zeide was over 60 — he had been marbitz Torah for 40 years but he didn’t feel that he had done enough. So from the moment he arrived in London he began to search out bochurim and schlep them in,” says Rav Menachem Halpern, rosh kollel of Toras Emes in London and grandson of Rav Moshe Schneider (Schneider Family Archives, Mishpacha Archives)

W hen Rav Moshe Schneider passed away on the first night of Chanukah in 1954, it was not, as some feared at the time, the extinguishing of a flame — rather, it was just the beginning of a great light that still shines across the Torah world more than six decades later. Rav Moshe, the foremost marbitz Torah of the last century and founder of the legendary “Schneider’s” yeshivah in London, made sure his talmidim — from Gaavad Rav Yitzchok Tovia Weiss to Raavad Rav Moshe Sternbuch to Rav Nissim Toledano to Reb Moshe Reichmann — never let go of their safety rope, no matter what rough waters they found themselves in.

“When the Zeide was a young man, he suffered from a skin condition and was advised to go to the hot springs, where the water was very deep and had a very strong current,” says Rav Menachem Halpern, rosh kollel of Toras Emes in London and grandson of Rav Moshe Schneider. “That current, though, was what aided in the healing properties of the water, so in the center of the water hung a thick rope that all the clients had to hold on to for their safety. But one time, the current was overpowering and Rav Moshe lost his grip — and felt himself being pulled into the depths. Suddenly he heard a voice — someone was handing the rope back to him. But when Rav Moshe turned around, his savior was gone. He always felt that Eliyahu Hanavi had been sent to save him, and in doing so gave him a mashal and a charge for life: The Torah is that rope, and even when the world around becomes a strong current in the opposite direction, eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah — if you hold on to the rope, you’ll be okay.”

Whether in the German town of Memel, in Frankfurt or later in London, wherever Rav Schneider was able to gather bochurim to learn, he knew that no matter their initial level, each was a world of promise — the promise of eitz chayim hi. He was living in a time and place where yeshivos were not the height of fashion, but how could he let young Jewish boys slave away in some factory in a side street of the city? No, he would let them taste the sweetness of Torah, delve into its depth and ultimately cling to its rope. And through the upheaval of two world wars and the subsequent threat of assimilation in the calm that followed, a Schneider’s talmid was always holding on, never letting go, never giving up.

Teg and Teplach

Rav Moshe was born in January 1874 in a small town near Vilna. His mother descended from Rav Eizel Charif, one of the talmidei haGra, and she was related to the wives of Rav Yechezkel Abramsky and Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. But young Moshe created his own yichus as a star talmid in Vilna and then in Slabodka, later joining some elite chaburos . Ever fearful of the army, he escaped to Memel, Prussia, where he became known as an extraordinary talmid chacham — he studied Yoreh Dei’ah forty times, with a plan to travel to America and take a post as a rav in order to strengthen the spiritually weakened immigrant community on the other side of the ocean.

“The person with the greatest impact on my zeide’s life was a man known as the Shvartzer Porush,” Rav Halpern tells Mishpacha. “Officially he was a Lubavitcher chassid, but he also traveled to the baalei mussar. He introduced Zeide to a whole new approach to avodas Hashem, and even encouraged him to grow a beard.

“The Shvartzer Porush had some interesting ways. He had a set time when he would learn Torah every day, and if he had to take care of something else during that time, he would stop his watch as soon as he left the beis medrash. Only when he returned would he resume its time — which often left him two hours behind those around him. But the most impactful thing he taught my grandfather was that as wonderful as it is to learn Torah, there is nothing that compares to being a marbitz Torah, especially when they are scarce. And so that became his life’s mission — and once he started building, there was no stopping him.”

Rav Schneider built his first yeshivah when he himself was still a bochur, and continued to build yeshivos and collect bochurim — scholars, orphans, anyone willing to wrap themselves in Torah — even for a short period.

Rav Schneider was still single when he opened his first yeshivah in the German town of Memel — not a mainstream project for that area, but he was never deterred by what others might think. He also decided it was time to look for a wife, and had just one requirement: that the girl must be willing to cook and care for the yeshivah students (in Eastern Europe yeshivah bochurim “ate teg” at the homes of local families, but in Memel there was no such culture). He wrote to several rabbanim for suggestions, including the Chofetz Chaim, whom he’d learned under for a time. The Chofetz Chaim told his son-in-law Rav Tzvi Hirsch Levinson to instruct Rav Moshe to come to Radin — he had a suitable idea: the orphaned daughter of Rav Gedaliah Kaplan, who had been close with the Chofetz Chaim and who had passed away when he was quite young. When Rav Moshe Schneider met with young Sima Yehudis, he asked her one question: “Will you cook for the boys?” She answered “Yes,” and that was basically the beginning and ending of that meeting. The two married, and she became the surrogate mother of hundreds of bochurim until the end of her life.

From relative safety in England, young Gedaliah Schneider was able to set in motion the wheels of a rescue operation that snatched his family and the yeshivah from the jaws of death. Years later, Rav Gedaliah, surrounded by bochurim in this 1955 photo, saw the fruits of his father’s labors

“The Rebbetzin, my bubbe, grew up in close proximity to the Chofetz Chaim’s family,” says Rav Halpern. “Since she had lost her father when she was just a child, and her mother was a close friend of the Chofetz Chaim’s oldest daughter, she would frequent the Chofetz Chaim’s home. When talmidim talk about the greatness of Rav Moshe, they talk about the Rebbetzin in the same breath. She was like their mother — and inherited that quality of selfless dedication from her own father, who they used to call ‘Reb Gedaliah mit di teplach [Reb Gedaliah with the pots].’ Reb Gedaliah understood the discomfort and embarrassment of bochurim eating at the tables of others even though that was standard practice, so he’d go to the hosts’ homes and would bring the food back to the bochurim in pots.” Rav Halpern smiles as he reveals how the Chofetz Chaim encouraged the match. “He told Rav Moshe’s family that the maileh of the shidduch was that Reb Gedaliah was a pauper — implying that Sima Yehudis was a girl who knew how to get by on little and wasn’t spoiled. Maybe we should consider those words more seriously today!”

The Chofetz Chaim was mesader kiddushin — a rarity — and the young couple moved back to Memel to lead the yeshivah and care for the bochurim. But political upheaval in Europe meant the tranquility of those years would be short-lived.

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