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Through a Wide-Angle Lens

Shalvi Waldam

A year after the passing of Rabbi Yehuda Copperman, 15,000 women around the world are grateful for the authentic Torah homes they built with his encouragement

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT For Rabbi Copperman, it was clear that investing in women’s education was an investment in building the Torah homes of the future (Photos: Michlalah Jerusalem, Yossi Klein)

R abbi Yehuda Copperman was one of those rare educators who actualized an innovative vision that was ahead of its time. One year after his passing, it’s clear that the founder and dean of Michlalah, the first religious women’s college in Israel with full degree accreditation, left a legacy that changed the landscape of women’s Torah education.

Rabbi Copperman, who inspired three generations of women in their roles as teachers, principals, and rebbetzins, and saw over 15,000 students go on to build idealistic Torah homes, took pride in his students, whose yiras Shamayim preceded their wisdom, and who accrued an impressively comprehensive education under his guidance.

Today, Dr. Devorah Rosenwasser, Rabbi Copperman’s oldest daughter, is the dean of Michlalah. She shares that while it isn’t easy to fill her father’s shoes, she’s guided by the principles that he held dear. Father and daughter worked in tandem for years, as she freed him to focus on what he loved most — teaching Torah — while she shouldered both teaching and administrative responsibilities, dealt with the Ministry of Education, and screened student applications. She says that it was not uncommon, while reviewing prospective students’ medical history forms, to find friendly notes at the end from doctors who were themselves Michlalah alumnae way back when, sending warm regards to Rabbi Copperman many years after completing their studies in Michlalah’s overseas Machal program.

Now, a year after her father’s passing, Dr. Rosenwasser — who completed her bachelor’s degree at Michlalah and went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate — says she still finds herself pulling out her phone to call him for advice and direction. Teaching, giving over mesorah, was his life, and she knew therefore that she could always rely on his unclouded, agenda-free judgment.

Dr. Rosenwasser relates that although her father had suffered from a heart condition since his 50s, he would do everything within his power to avoid missing a single day of teaching. When his cardiologist advised him to undergo surgery, he agreed provided that it could be scheduled during summer vacation. But when his health took a turn for the worse and the doctor insisted that the surgery be performed immediately, Rabbi Copperman agreed on condition that Dr. Rosenwasser travel from the US, where she was living at the time, to take over his classes during his recovery. She arranged to be in Israel for three weeks, the expected duration needed for recovery, yet Rabbi Copperman surprised them by resuming his classes a mere week after surgery. When his physician saw how happy the Rav was after teaching his class, he agreed that teaching was the best medicine possible to aid in his recovery.

Man of Letters

Rabbi Copperman was born in Dublin on June 7, 1929, the third son of Avraham Simcha and Sarah Zlata. Dublin was home to a warm and vibrant Jewish community at the time, and the Copperman home was a loving bastion of ahavas Torah and yiras Shamayim.

When Yehuda Copperman was ten years old, the skies of Europe darkened with the onset of World War II; over 60 members of his extended family were murdered in Poland and Lithuania. Although the family was on safer shores, less than a year after the war broke out, Reb Avraham Simcha passed away, leaving behind six orphans between the ages of two and fourteen and a bereft but resourceful widow in her mid-thirties. Avraham Simcha Copperman had purchased a burial plot on Har Hazeisim, and in a move that was unusual at the time, his remains were sent to Israel for burial.

Sara Zlata carried the burden of providing for her children and raising them, yet her home and heart were open to anyone in need. In 1945, when the war ended, many orphans, widows, and heartbroken Jews arrived in Ireland. The Copperman home became known as a place where the downtrodden could receive a warm meal and encouragement. When the rabbi of the Dublin community passed away, his widow gave his Shas — an unusual and precious heirloom at a time when a Shas was not yet a standard or affordable item — to the Copperman family, commenting that in their home it would get the most possible use. (When Rabbi Copperman passed away last year, the prized Shas was divided up among his children as a reminder of their distinguished origins.)

After graduating high school with honors, Yehuda Copperman, nicknamed “Yukky” by his friends and family, enrolled in Trinity College in Dublin, where he arranged his classes so that he would have time available for his Torah learning. Summers, when he was free from the responsibility of his secular studies, he studied in the Gateshead Yeshiva. After completing a law degree, he returned to Gateshead for full-time Torah study, learning from such gedolim as Rav Nachman Dovid Landinsky and Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler.

At a time when the study of Chumash often consisted of short vertlach on one end or an approach questioning fundamental beliefs on the other, Rabbi Copperman developed a method that was both rigorous and faithful to tradition

In 1950, Rabbi Copperman came to study in Eretz Yisrael at the Chevron Yeshiva. At the time there was only one small group of English-speaking students, who shared one dorm room and would learn Chumash together during their afternoon rest time. Rav Copperman received semichah from Rav Yechezkel Sarna and Chief Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog in 1952, and soon after became engaged to Tzipporah Pinkus from Chicago — an opera-level singer who never allowed her talents to upstage her strict mitzvah observance.

After their wedding, the Coppermans detoured to Ireland, where Rabbi Copperman acquired his master’s degree in Semitic languages. The couple then made their way to Chicago, where they lived for four years while Rabbi Copperman completed a second master’s from the University of Chicago, this one in education, before they made aliyah and built their home in Jerusalem. Later, in 1968, he received a doctorate in conjunction with the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, for his commentary to Meshech Chochmah by Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk — a sefer he lovingly taught for decades.

After making aliyah, Rabbi Copperman served in the IDF’s education division, became principal of Boys’ Town High School in Jerusalem, and then taught at a national-religious teachers’ seminary. But Rabbi Copperman was distressed by the low academic standards for women’s learning, and even more by the low standards of yiras Shamayim. It was clear to him that investing in women’s education was an investment in building the Torah homes of the future. In the fall of 1964, with his wife at his side, Rabbi Copperman opened Michlalah in a humble Bayit V’gan apartment to students who were committed to both academic excellence and Torah principles. Rabbi Copperman insisted that high-level academics and real yiras Shamayim need not contradict each other.

At a time when the study of Chumash too often consisted of a series of short vertlach on one end or an approach questioning fundamental beliefs on the other, Rabbi Copperman developed a method for learning Chumash that was intellectually rigorous and completely faithful to tradition. He believed that the power and kedushah of the Torah could speak for itself, clarifying and dissecting the pshat so its inherent messages would come alive for his students. His dream of creating a place where women would excel in a comprehensive educational program initially met with some resistance, but Rabbi Copperman, who gave his own children a staunch and mainstream chareidi chinuch and perhaps had “blacker” hashkafos than many of his own students, persevered.

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