Volozhin Yeshivah in Belarus, 2017. In learning about the institution, Mark Weintraub was moved to sponsor a lecture on it, in honour of his mother, and to champion restoration efforts. (photo by Da voli)
“How did I not know about this?” That was the question echoing through the mind of Vancouver lawyer Mark Weintraub, a longtime student of Jewish intellectual history, when he first learned about Volozhin Yeshivah, a once-illustrious place of study that he describes as “the Harvard, MIT and Yale of the Jewish people rolled into one.”
Once Weintraub understood the influence Volozhin – which was open from 1806 to 1892 in what was then Russia – had on the Jewish world, he was stunned that it was so little known. His passion about this treasure of Jewish history led to his participation in organizing a recent online class, From Volozhin to Vancouver, taught by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, the rav and a teacher of Ohr Samayach Yeshivah in Israel, whose resumé includes having been a professor of law at the University of Maryland. It led, as well, to Weintraub’s championing of an effort to restore the still-standing building of the yeshivah, which is in Belarus.
To spread knowledge of Volozhin and to honour his late mother, Rita Weintraub, z”l, a lifelong devotee of Jewish learning, Weintraub helped organize and sponsor the online class with Congregation Beth Hamidrash, Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Vancouver Hebrew Academy and Shalhevet Girls High School. On Oct. 18, more than 60 people gathered to learn from Breitowitz on Zoom. Weintraub introduced the lecture, dedicating it to his mother, and Rabbi Ari Federgrun of Schara Tzedeck moderated the discussion. Breitowitz had risen at 5:30 a.m. in Israel to give the lecture about the legend and history of Volozhin, whose very name, he said, “carries an aura of mystery and delight.”
Volozhin is sometimes called “the mother of yeshivot,” since it was the first modern, institutionalized yeshivah, explained Breitowitz. It was established by Rav Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821), a famed kabbalist and Torah scholar. Rav Chaim was a student of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), a towering figure at the time and the leader of non-Chassidic Jewry in Eastern Europe. The Vilna Gaon had led the Orthodox opposition to Chassidism, concerned about its radical theological ideas and the possibility that Chassidim might transgress Jewish law and lead to extremist mystical movements that would disrupt or damage the Jewish community. Followers of the Vilna Gaon came to be known as Misnagdim (Opponents), as the Chassidic movement grew to become the dominant force in Eastern European Jewish life.
Rav Chaim, who did not sign the Gaon’s writ of excommunication against the Chassidim, took a gentler stance towards the movement than his teacher. He focused his efforts on teaching an intellectually intense absorption in Torah study for its own sake and a fierce devotion to the observance of halachah (Jewish law) as a form of devotion to God.
Rav Chaim formed the Volozhin yeshivah to create a new kind of environment for study. Instead of the local learning that took place in small houses of study in the shtetls, Volozhin was a large institution that provided both housing and food to its students, and taught young Jewish men from near and far. “The Volozhiner wanted yeshivahs to be non-local institutions which all of Israel had a stake in,” explained Breitowitz. “He didn’t like a few large donors but many small donors.”
The yeshivah had 24-hour learning that was intended to sustain the world with the power of Torah and de-emphasize practical legal rulings for the sake of pure disinterested study. Volozhin – and its immediate offspring in the form of other similar yeshivot started by its graduates – created both a new model of Jewish learning and a generation of non-Chassidic luminaries with a far-ranging and decisive influence on orthodoxy and beyond. A short list of the graduates it produced, or who taught there, included Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav, 1853-1918), Rav Nafatli Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv, 1816-1891), Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) and many others, including both Zionists and anti-Zionists, mystics, ethicists and legalists.
The yeshivah environment encouraged creative ferment and demanded intellectual rigour, and Volozhin was not only famed for the Orthodox leaders it produced. Some of the students became leaders in the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, and it was rumoured that secret books were passed among students and housed in a hidden library full of philosophy, science and secular language texts. Among its luminaries in this regard was Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), the renowned Israeli poet and writer.
In 1892, the Russian government closed Volozhin when the heads of the yeshivah refused to change the daily schedule to curtail Torah study and include hours of government-approved secular studies. While it reopened in 1899 on a smaller scale, its glory days had passed.
Volozhin functioned until 1939, when the Second World War broke out. During the war, German soldiers used the building as a stable; later, it was a canteen and deli. The site was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus in 1989. In 1998, it was registered on the State List of Historical and Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Belarus.
It was the discovery of this history that so excited Weintraub. His mother had been a devotee of learning, libraries and study. “I wanted to have lectures to honour her, since it was difficult to communally mourn her during COVID,” said Weintraub. “I approached Rabbi [Don] Pacht at Vancouver Hebrew Academy about bringing in Rabbi Breitowitz.”
Wondering if the topic was too Orthodox for his mother, Weintraub, who has been involved in the Conservative movement for years, decided, “Nothing was ever too Jewish for her. She saw the goodness in everyone’s Judaism, no matter what it was, so I went ahead to tell this fascinating story of Jewish learning in her honour.”
For his part, Breitowitz has taken on a project to raise awareness and money for the reconstruction of Volozhin. He has begun organizing a group to work on it and is beginning “to raise momentum and find a way.”
“Five hundred years from now, Harvard, Yale and MIT are in ruins and everyone just walks by it?” he challenged. Volozhin, he said, “is a place that needs special attention from the Jewish community.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He has been published in Philosophy Now, Tricycle, the Forward and elsewhere. He blogs on Medium and is master teacher at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver.