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In the Land of No, He Said YES

Dovid Sussman

Several weeks ago, Rabbi Binyomin (Bernard) Goldenberg passed away in Yerushalayim, having lived the last three decades of his life in Eretz Yisrael. But over his long career with Torah Umesorah, he played a vital role in radically reshaping the spiritual landscape of Judaism in America. In an exclusive interview with Mishpacha only months before his passing, Rabbi Goldenberg shared some of his recollections, opening a rare window into the history of American Jewry in the early twentieth century.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sitting down with Mishpacha to reminisce, Rabbi Goldenberg began with a dramatic episode that was a pivotal moment in his life.

The year was 1946. While Europe’s rich world of yeshivos, with its centuries-long legacy of limud haTorah, lay in ruins, America’s yeshivah system was in its infancy. From a spiritual standpoint, North America was a parched wasteland. Only a relative handful of American boys were studying in the few yeshivos that existed; the rest were attending public schools. New York boasted a total of 7,000 students learning in twenty-seven yeshivos, and only three Jewish schools existed outside of New York — in Baltimore, Chicago, and Jersey City.

While Jews lived in many cities and towns across the United States, the level of Torah observance and knowledge was abysmally low. Many Jews had come to view the Torah and its precepts as antiquated and irrelevant, an obstacle to their pursuit of the security and prosperity that America had to offer.

This was the gloomy backdrop for a momentous encounter between the young Binyomin (Bernard) Goldenberg, then a student in Torah Vodaath, and his mentor, the legendary Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, one wintry afternoon in 1946. It is likely that Binyomin had no idea of the fateful nature of the conversation that was about to take place, of the startling new direction his life was about to take, and of the impact it would have on the entire future of American chinuch.

Only a few months earlier, Reb Shraga Feivel, the great architect of Torah education in America, had placed a full-page ad in the Morgen Journal, the most widely read Yiddish newspaper of its day. The anonymous ad excoriated American Jews for their inaction during the Holocaust and called upon them to rebuild the Torah institutions and the vibrant Torah world that had been lost. The ad was Reb Shraga Feivel’s plea to the slumbering Jewish public, his effort to awaken them to the aching need for a revival of Torah study and observance. He signed the advertisement, “Speaking to you is a Jew whose heart is pained by the destruction of our people, and who hopes that Torah in America will yet be rebuilt in the spirit of Torah and mesorah.” That last phrase was an allusion to Torah Umesorah (the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools), which Reb Shraga Feivel had founded in 1944.

Reb Shraga Feivel’s advertisement had elicited at least one response. A Mr. Leventhal, who lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, had written to the newspaper seeking to contact the anonymous advertiser, and the newspaper had forwarded his letter to Reb Shraga Feivel. Leventhal was a junk peddler who spent every Sunday collecting money in order to pay a melamed to teach the community’s children, and he was most interested in founding a school where the children could receive a formal Jewish education.

On that windswept Brooklyn street, as he headed toward the bus that would take him home to Williamsburg, Reb Shraga Feivel withdrew Leventhal’s letter from his pocket and handed it to Binyomin Goldenberg. Along with the letter, Reb Shraga Feivel handed the young man a directive he would never forget: “Binyomin, you must pack your bags and go to St. Paul, Minnesota. You must help this man build a day school there.”

Binyomin was stunned. A flurry of objections arose from his confused thoughts. “But it’s cold in Minnesota! And I don’t know how to get there!”

“You’ll find out,” was Reb Shraga Feivel’s even response.

“And I don’t know what to do when I get there!” Goldenberg continued to object. “How do I open a day school? At least give me the phone number of someone I can talk to, someone who can explain how to do this. Besides,” he added, “you just gave me a different job here. How can I leave that position?” Only two months earlier, Reb Shraga Feivel had informed Binyomin, in a similarly unceremonious fashion, that he was to be the founding editor of Olomeinu, a magazine in the spirit of the Torah for young Jewish readers.

Reb Shraga Feivel was unmoved by Binyomin’s protests. To his mind, someone else could take over the helm of Olomeinu. He had already selected Binyomin Goldenberg as the emissary of Torah Vodaath to plant the seeds for an oasis of Torah in the spiritual desert of Minnesota.

Mentor and student continued their intense exchange as one bus after another pulled into the bus stop and left without Reb Shraga Feivel. Finally, when the seventh bus arrived, Reb Shraga Feivel decided to board.

I’m not going!” Binyomin told him emphatically.

“There will yet come a day,” Reb Shraga Feivel called out to him through the bus’s still-open doors, “when they will invoke the words of Yirmiyahu HaNavi about you.”

Binyomin stared. “What words?”

“Don’t you know what he says?” the gadol replied. “Yirmiyahu says: Zacharti lach chesed ne’urayich, ahavas kelulosayich, lechtaich acharai ba’midbar, b’eretz lo zeruah. We read the words b’eretz lo zeruah as ‘a land that has not been sown’ — but that phrase can also be taken to mean a land that has been sown with lo, with ‘no,’ a land where negativity is embedded everywhere. Minnesota is such a land, a place of negativity, where no one believes that a Jewish day school can thrive and that Jewish children can learn Torah and remain faithful to it. You will go to that land, and you will overcome the lo that is sown in every corner of it!”


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