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.
Rita and Marvin Weintraub with Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library librarians Karen Corrin, left, and Helen Pinsky, second from the right. (photo from Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library)
The e-book market has been growing by leaps and bounds, particularly in Canadian libraries, where the concept of a book that doesn’t get dog-eared, doesn’t fall apart and can be carried around on something as small as a phone or tablet seems to appeal to young and old alike. According to a 2014 report published by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, the interest in e-books in libraries “has exploded” since 2011, when e-book borrowing constituted just one percent of the overall circulation in Canadian libraries. By 2013, that number had jumped to 10 percent, demonstrating that library readers were now comfortable with the digital book format.
The Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library has been tapping into that surge, thanks to a grant from the Sonner Family Foundation. The library launched its digital book-lending program in 2013, said librarian Helen Pinsky. The program got going at the encouragement of Eve Sonner, who manages the family foundation in her parents’ memory. The list of available books now numbers around 206 titles. “[It] is just amazing how much we were able to do and how much we were able to achieve [with this grant],” she said.
But keeping up with the expansion has been a challenge at times, she added, particularly because of the cost that publishers charge libraries for digital books.
“The popular books are extremely expensive in e-book version,” Pinsky explained. This is because most publishers charge libraries a higher price for e-books, which are regulated under usage licences based on the amount of times the book is checked out and the length of the licence. The top five Canadian publishers – HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin and Random House – will all licence to libraries, but with varying terms. Simon & Schuster’s pilot library program was not available until 2014, when it made its digital property available on the electronic public library system.
Isaac Waldman licences its e-books through OverDrive, an e-book platform that sets its own contracts and costs. Pinsky said the average cost of an e-book licence for a newly released book can run as much as $85. That allows for it to be listed for two years or 26 views (whichever limit is reached first).
“So it is very difficult for us to maintain this,” she said, explaining that the library naturally wants to carry the most popular and requested titles, but must find a way to balance the costs. “It is our intention to, but we would really love to get more financial support to keep this collection growing.”
One of the ways the library hopes to expand its funding is through the upcoming telethon, which this year will run March 15-22. The annual telethon, which was started in 1994 by Rita Weintraub, is a vital part of the library’s fundraising network for many areas of the library.
“We serve so many [interests], and are constantly trying to keep each area current and meaningful to its reader base,” explained Pinsky. The money raised is allocated according to need. “For example, we’re always updating the storytime corner, where parents and grandparents come with their little ones to hear stories being read, or to read together. Our non-fiction books include the latest in politics, economics and history/biography, especially about Israel. We try to entice and encourage young readers with the latest in their favorite genres, all with a Jewish motif.” Some of those selections may be in print, while others are in electronic format. Pinsky said the library generally tries not to duplicate print editions in its electronic listing, but makes exceptions in some cases.
“Many of the purchases these days are in direct response to requests. And so, what we want to do is make books available to our members that wouldn’t necessarily be available through [other] library systems.” So books that have long wait times at other libraries, or are hard to get, are also considered for the program.
Some of the most popular e-books that the library has carried include My Promised Land by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, The Remains of Love by Zeruyah Shalev and Growing Up Jewish in China by Dolly Bell. Pinsky said there are also books that are difficult to supply on the OverDrive system, and those include books in Hebrew and children’s picture books.
Asked if she had any advice for readers, she said simply, “Avoid long lines by borrowing from us.”
Those who wish to contribute to the library can either do so at the time of the telethon, by going online to the Isaac Waldman site at jccgv.com or by calling 604-257-5181. Those who donate $36 or more automatically become Friends of the Library.
“We are grateful to the Sonner family for their generosity in initiating the e-book program and helping us to build the collection,” said Pinsky. “Eve chose this initiative to honor the memory of her father, who was an innovative and creative thinker.”
Honoring one’s parents is one of the Ten Commandments. In Judaism, respecting and deferring to our elders is not just a value, it’s the law. That said, the opportunity to honor our elders in front of the entire community doesn’t come around very often. Which is just one of the reasons Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation’s Eight Over Eighty is so unique.
On May 25, noon, in the Great Hall at the Vancouver Law Courts, LBJAF will honor eight individuals/couples in their eighties who all have one thing in common: “They have each led by example.”
Four of the honorees are featured in this article: Dr. Marvin and Rita Weintraub, Rita Akselrod, Dr. Jimmy White and Chaim Kornfeld. Next week’s Jewish Independent will feature profiles of honorees Dr. Arthur and Arlene Hayes, Stan and Seda Korsch, Samuel and Frances Belzberg, and Serge Haber.
“I know the eight and they are wonderful,” event chair Mel Moss told the Independent, noting about the planned celebration, “Eight over Eighty is modern, yet staged in a traditional way. It is a tribute. It is light and bright yet respectful, it is a vibrant, swinging and ‘with it’ event.”
Dvori Balshine, LBJAF director of development, said, “This will be an event that the community has not seen before. People have been saying, ‘What a brilliant idea!’…. We came up with something fresh, in a new place and at a new time of day.” Even the nomination process, she added, was incredibly well received by the community
RITA AND MARVIN WEINTRAUB Books and education
Marvin Weintraub was born in Poland and came as a child to Ontario, where he ultimately received a PhD in plant physiology. Rita (Enushevsky) was raised in southwestern Ontario, near Niagara Falls, and graduated in sociology and philosophy. Both studied at the University of Toronto, where they met. They married soon after.
Settling for a decade in St. Catharines, which at the time had a Jewish population of about 500, together they started an adult education series and Rita launched a Jewish library in the synagogue that doubled as a community centre. Some of the librarians still working at the desk were originally trained by Rita.
“I have great faith in the value of education of all kinds, but particularly for Jewish adults and for youngsters,” said Marvin, who taught in the synagogue’s afternoon school. They both became active in Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and she in National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).
Marvin took a job at the University of British Columbia in 1959 and the young family moved west, immersing themselves in synagogue and community life. Rita became vice-president of Beth Israel Sisterhood and NCJW, taking special interest in global concerns like Vietnamese boat people and Soviet Jewry. She also brought her dedication to adult education, which she championed in Vancouver as she had in Ontario.
Marvin was elected president of Beth Israel and, later, Pacific Region chair of CJC, during which time he focused on addressing challenges of Jewish schools and helping teachers upgrade their skills.
Invited to the USSR in 1968 by the Soviet Academy of Science to lecture on plant virology, Marvin took the opportunity to smuggle in a suitcase filled with tefillin, tzitzit, siddurs and machzors. He attended shul morning and night for a month, using his serviceable Yiddish to identify daveners who could use the items.
In 1973, with Dr. Sid Zbarsky and Dr. Robert Krell, Marvin began the process that would lead to the first professor and program of Judaic studies at UBC, which now has three full-time and one part-time faculty.
In 1978, he was awarded a Queen’s Medal for service to Canadian science.
When the Jewish community centre at Oak and 41st was being designed, Rita convinced planners to set aside space for a Jewish library. Then Marvin set up a lunch between Rita and Sophie Waldman, during which Rita convinced Waldman to memorialize Waldman’s recently deceased husband, Isaac, with a library. Rita remains chair of the Friends of the Waldman Library and the annual fundraising telethon, which she began 20 years ago. She also has been a volunteer with Shalom BC, welcoming newcomers to the local Jewish community.
Of all her achievements, the library holds a special place for Rita. “It’s the focal point of the JCC,” she said.
RITA AKSELROD From tragedy to action
Rita Akselrod’s early experiences were forged by life in Romania, first under the Nazis, then under communism. At seven, she was barred from attending public school because she was Jewish, so a makeshift Jewish school was formed. She and the other Jews in Bacau were forced to wear the yellow star, were subject to curfews and forbidden from assembling in groups. The men in her family were conscripted into forced labor.
By the time Rita was ready for high school, the Russians had taken over and she was taken by her uncles to high school in Bucharest. Her brother wanted to go to university, but the communist regime wanted him in the army, so he fled the country. The rest of the family soon fled also, making their way to Budapest, then trekking through cornfields to an American-controlled zone before landing in a displaced persons camp in Austria.
There, she met “my Ben,” who she recently lost after more than a half-century of marriage. The couple made their way to Israel. But life was difficult in the state’s earliest years, and more so when Rita lost a baby three days after birth. They chose to move and were helped by Leon Kahn, a friend of Ben’s who had settled in Vancouver.
“Leon Kahn sent us papers and we came to Canada,” she said, acknowledging that when she first looked at an atlas, she was alarmed. “I couldn’t believe that we would come to Vancouver when I saw Alaska close by. When I was in Israel and we were corresponding, I said, ‘What’s Vancouver? It’s cold. It’s near Alaska.’ But we did come.”
Kahn set them up in a room in a shared house that had seen many Holocaust survivors and Ben began collecting junk with a horse and buggy, which he would then sell to used-goods dealers. “My husband wasn’t a businessman,” Rita said. “He came from camps and ghettos, he didn’t know the city, he didn’t know the business.”
But the family succeeded, and later sponsored Rita’s parents, brother and his family from Israel.
In 1979, tragedy struck, when the Akselrods’ daughter, Sherry, was killed by a drunk driver. She was a parole officer who had offered to trade shifts on Dec. 26 so a colleague could spend Christmas with family. The loss spurred Rita to bring the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving to British Columbia. She also became involved in grief support, which was taking place in a church.
“I was speaking to a rabbi and said, ‘Can we have it in the Jewish community? Do I have to go to a church?’” Jewish Family Service Agency started a grief support group and Rita attended. Eventually, they asked her to take it over, which she did for many years as a volunteer. As well, she has been actively involved in substance abuse education programs.
She and Ben were founding members of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and, for more than 20 years, Rita coordinated the speakers program, which has allowed tens of thousands of young British Columbians to learn about the Shoah directly from survivors. She is a past president and a life governor of the centre.
She also spent nearly three decades on the board of the Louis Brier, stopping only because she needed to devote more time to Ben when he developed Alzheimer’s. She is immensely proud of her work on denominational health, which ensured that faith-based agencies like the Louis Brier were treated appropriately when the province devolved health delivery to regional boards. A master agreement was signed between the province and the boards, and Rita noted that it “was signed in the Louis Brier, in front of the synagogue, with a priest there and other members of the denominations.”
She is a recipient of the YWCA Women of Distinction Award for community and humanitarian service and, on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she was awarded with honorary Canadian citizenship in Ottawa as a Holocaust survivor who has contributed to Canadian life through remembrance and education.
JIMMY WHITE Make friends with change
Change has been a constant for Jimmy White. He was born in Ohio but the family moved to Saskatchewan during the Depression. His father ran a store before thinking better of it and moving the family to the coast. Jimmy studied at UBC but, since there was no medical school here at the time, he headed to Toronto to become a doctor. While there, he met Beulah and they returned to British Columbia as a married couple.
Jimmy saw even more of Canada through assignments at military hospitals during the war. When peace came, he took up practice downtown and became an institution in the community.
Beulah passed away young, leaving Jimmy and two daughters. He would later marry Miriam Brook, who was widowed with three girls of her own. Sadly, Miriam, too, has since passed away, but Jimmy said he is thrilled to have five daughters.
In addition to his work and family obligations, Jimmy has been a leading voice for Zionism, as an activist in Young Judaea, then the Vancouver Zionist Organization. He was president of the Jewish Community Council (precursor to the Federation) and of the Richmond Country Club. He was a key fundraiser who helped obtain the land for and construct the JCC at Oak and 41st.
These days, he is the head of the residents council at the Weinberg Residence and enjoys yoga, concerts, bridge, art classes, detective novels and debates on politics and language.
The guiding advice of his life came from his mother, he explained. “She said, ‘Make friends with change.’ In her day, there was a horse and buggy. Then the automobile came in. What a big change that automobile made. And now computers and everything! If you don’t make friends with that, you’re left behind. You don’t have to like it, but you have to make friends with it.”
He was amused by a young visitor recently who came to the Weinberg Residence from a Jewish day school. “One of the kids said to me, ‘You’ve had so much change in your lifetime, now there’s no more change left, there’s no more to discover … iPads and iPods,’” Jimmy recalled. “I said, ‘It’s just beginning.’ He said, ‘What else is there to discover?’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what they said when the automobile was invented and when the computer came along. Somebody’s going to invent an antigravity pair of shoes.’”
CHAIM KORNFELD Never give up
Chaim Kornfeld was born in 1926 in a small town in northeastern Hungary, the youngest of eight children. While his father ran a grocery store and his mother managed the large, observant family, Chaim studied at cheder and yeshivah – until 1944. It was at that comparatively late period in the war when the Jews of his town, and of much of Hungary, were placed in ghettoes before being transported to camps.
In May 1944, Chaim was separated from his parents, sisters and grandmother on the platform at Auschwitz. Dr. Josef Mengele sent Chaim to the right and the rest of his family to the left. His father’s last words to Chaim, before he and the others were sent to the gas chambers, were “Never forget that you are a Jew.”
Chaim survived Mauthausen and Gusen, where he worked in an airplane factory. He survived a death march just four days before liberation in May 1945. Of his large family, only Chaim, a sister and two brothers survived. He finished his secondary education in Budapest and was preparing to enter rabbinical school when the Jewish Agency offered him the chance to go to Israel. He leapt at the opportunity, joined the Israeli air force, and was a founding member of Kibbutz Ma’agan. But educational and professional advancement was limited in Israel’s early years and Chaim took his brother up on a sponsorship to Canada.
In Saskatoon, Chaim taught Hebrew school in the afternoons and evenings, while attending university. During this time, he corresponded with a young woman he had met in the Israeli military, Aliza Hershkowitz, and convinced her to join him on the Prairies. Chaim and Aliza would raise four children (a fifth passed away in infancy).
While at the University of Saskatchewan law school, he served as camp director for Camp B’nai B’rith in Pine Lake, Alta. Practising law continuously since 1960, he is proud to be one of the oldest in his profession.
Chaim is a board member, past president and life governor of the Louis Brier Home. He shares his story of survival and accomplishment with students at the annual high school Holocaust symposium and he swims six days a week at the JCC, where he has been a member for 40 years.
For years, he has served as a Torah reader at the Louis Brier synagogue. Responding to the honor of being recognized for his dedication to community, Chaim said he is embarrassed by the fuss. “I don’t look for honor,” he said. “I never looked for kavods.”
His advice for others? “I would advise people – and I still do in my office sometimes – to never give up. That is my motto in life. Whatever comes up, I won’t just lie down and take it.”
He emphasized his enduring love for his wife Aliza and added, “I always come home for dinner.”