Thirty-nine years ago, Klal Yisroel lost Rav Gedaliah Schorr, a brilliant talmid chochom and rosh yeshiva, who came to America at a young age. Rav Aharon Kotler referred to him as “the first American gadol.” He was a tremendous masmid, always exerting himself to learn more and learn deeper. Despite his lightning-fast grasp of complex sugyos, he was soft and gentle in the way he treated talmidim. The bochurim of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas revered him and watched in awe as he walked down the street, noble and dignified, holding his precious seforim, often surrounded by talmidim discussing his shiur. He was the manhig of Agudas Yisroel in Williamsburg and a rebbi to hundreds, guiding talmidim at both Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn and Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey, the yeshiva founded by Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz.
I spoke with Rabbi Nosson Scherman, General Editor of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, a close talmid of Rav Schorr, and learned more about his great rebbi, whose 39th yahrtzeit is on 7 Tammuz.
Is there one attribute of Rav Schorr that you can define him with?
“Rav Schorr had a brilliant mind.” Rabbi Scherman begins. “Rav Meir Shapiro met Rav Schorr during his long stay in America, and Rav Schorr spent much time with him, learning from him and being meshamesh him. Rav Shapiro said about Rav Schorr, ‘He has the most brilliant mind I came across in America, and one of the most brilliant minds I have met.’ Yet, despite his extreme brilliance, he always worked very hard in learning and never relied on his genius. He loved to learn and was constantly horeving and working tirelessly to be able to understand Torah on its deepest levels.
“When he was a bochur in Williamsburg, he went up to his parents’ attic and learned for over a year, while his mother brought him meals, so as not to disturb his learning. He displayed the stamina to learn for hours on end, and even as a young bochur, he would stay up the entire Thursday night learning and would not sleep until Friday night.
“During his years at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, after his family moved from Galicia to Williamsburg, he immediately caught the attention of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. He was quickly recognized by all for his brilliance, his clarity, his knowledge in Torah, and his lightning quick grasp of complex sugyos. Rav Shraga Feivel was amazed at this rarity, a young bochur, bred in America, who was equal to, if not greater than, his counterparts learning in the greatest yeshivos in Europe. Rav Shraga Feivel invited him to say a shiur at Torah Vodaas while he was in his twenties, and he remained there until the end of his life, filling the role of menahel and, eventually, rosh yeshiva. In fact, when Rav Shlomo Heiman took ill, Rav Schorr was asked to say the shiur in his stead.
“He had tremendous respect for gedolim,” Rabbi Scherman recalls. “He would spend time with the gedolei Torah who came from Europe to America during the ‘30s to raise money for their yeshivos. He spent a lot of time with Rav Meir Shapiro and Rav Aharon Kotler. He was drawn to Rav Aharon because they had similar minds, both of them able to process like a computer.
“After his marriage, he travelled to Kletzk to learn under Rav Aharon, and considered him his rebbi for life. When he arrived with his wife in Kletzk and realized that the rosh yeshiva and his rebbetzin were not able to afford more than a straw mattress, he gave them his mattresses, while he and his own rebbetzin slept on straw.
“Rav Schorr returned to America before the war broke out and resumed his position at Torah Vodaas. Being close with the Kletzker rosh yeshiva, he was instrumental in helping secure Rav Aharon’s visas and tickets to escape to America.
“His middah of chesed was unparalleled. He would do anything to assist a talmid in his learning, or in any way that would enhance his life. When a yasom in Torah Vodaas became a chosson, Rav Schorr, realizing that he was alone without anyone to arrange the basic preparations for his chasunah, went with the bochur to shop for a ring for his kallah. Nothing was below his dignity. He would also supply funds for the needy bochurim to buy new suits before Yom Tov.
“After his petirah, his family found a stack of kollel checks, written out to various yungeleit, in his drawer. They realized that he, knowing that the checks would not clear, paid these young scholars in cash, which he raised himself, and held their checks without depositing them.
“In the 1950s, a group of his talmidim went to start their own yeshiva out of town. The yeshiva found itself in financial trouble, and Rav Schorr took out a personal loan of $3,800 to cover the shortfall.
“He had a sense of humor, and he would use it to diffuse a tense situation. However, he never spoke with sarcasm. Never would he use humor at the expense of a bochur. He was very careful about the feelings of everyone. He was always encouraging and gave chizuk to every bochur. He simply believed in the potential of every bochur.
“He had a warm personality and the bochurim adored him. We didn’t only look up to him as a rosh yeshiva, but also as a mentor, and to a certain extent almost like an older brother. He never demanded the kavod that he rightfully deserved. Rav Schorr did not demand from us that we fear him. He was a real anav, and he allowed himself to be easily accessible. We did not fully appreciate his gadlus when we were young, and we could have all gained from him even more had he demanded the kavod that he deserved.
“When I became menahel in Stolin, the boys would stand up for me when I entered the room. It made me feel uncomfortable, so I told them to stop. Looking back, I was wrong. Maybe I should have been the one to teach them kavod haTorah.”
Which part of Rav Schorr’s hashpa’ah did you shteig the most from?
“When I came to yeshiva, he was already the menahel, and his responsibilities prevented him from giving a daily shiur. Even after he became menahel, he still said a shiur in his office to a group of elite bochurim, but with time, he was forced to discontinue that shiur, too. I came to bais medrash after he stopped that shiur, and even had I been in yeshiva during that time, I would not have been chosen to attend that elite shiur.
“While I was in bais medrash in Torah Vodaas, he said a Chumash shiur every morning for half an hour. He continued this shiur for many years. This shiur was fantastic. He would share anywhere from 15 to 25 meforshim on Chumash within the half hour. This shiur was easier to grasp. However, when he said shmuessen, he delved into the complexities of the world of hashkafah through the seforim of the Sefas Emes, the Maharal, Rav Tzadok, and others. Those shiurim were hard to grasp in their entirety, although we gained very much from them.”
“He taught hashkofas haTorah, together with chavivus haTorah, love of Torah. The sefer Ohr Gedalyahu was written based on cassettes of his shmuessen during the last three years of his life. At the time, he was not in the best of health, and the shmuessen were somewhat easier to follow. It’s a tragedy that his shmuessen of the earlier years were not recorded, so unfortunately all that Torah has been lost. Those shmuessen of all the previous years were brilliant binyonim filled with Torah and hashkofah and would have been learned and spread throughout the olam haTorah. Sefer Ohr Gedalyahu, as great as it is, does not adequately portray his brilliance and his comprehensiveness in his shmuessen.”
Rav Schror didn’t only teach with shiurim and shmuessen. He taught his talmidim on a daily basis through example, by the way he lived and spoke.
“Once, while Rav Schorr was walking through the dormitory,” Rabbi Scherman remembers, “he saw a bochur, who was a big baal kishron, lying on his bed, learning from a sefer propped up by his pillow. He was upset. ‘One should not learn like that,’ he instructed. ‘It’s not kavod haTorah.’ These are concepts that we, as American boys, simply did not know, and he taught them to us. He could not understand how someone could yawn while learning, as if he was bored. ‘How can you yawn while learning? You have to be involved fully, and you have to hureva in learning.’
“These were ideals that his talmidim saw him practice every day. He didn’t just preach them; he set an example, and everyone wanted to emulate him. He would not sit in front of the bais medrash, only on the side. He would come to Bais Medrash Elyon for two days during the week, sleeping overnight on a folding cot in the yeshiva office, so as not to take up a room in the dormitory that could be given to bochurim.”
His middos were impeccable. “During the shivah,” Rabbi Scherman recalls, “I went to his sons, and my wife sat with the rebbetzin and their daughters. My wife told me that a woman walked in to his rebbetzin and, in the course of conversation, started talking disrespectfully about an adam gadol who took a different approach than Rav Schorr. Immediately, one of Rav Schorr’s daughters cut her off, saying, ‘We never heard our father say anything negative about that adam gadol and neither should you!’”
In what way was he involved in the klal?
“He worked tirelessly with the Agudah during the war years to assist the Vaad Hatzolah in any way possible. At the time, 616 Bedford Avenue was the headquarters of Tzeirei Agudah. The building was the central station for the Hatzolah efforts, along with a shul and a shelter for Holocaust survivors. Rav Schorr was the unofficial rov of the Agudah and was the manhig of Reb Moshe Sherer, Mike Tress and Louis Septimus, the askonim who worked tirelessly on behalf of Klal Yisroel from that location.
“There was a time when Rav Shraga Feivel sent Rav Schorr and someone else on Shabbos to raise emergency funds for Hatzolah in Europe in order to impress on the baalei batim that this was indeed pikuach nefesh. There was one freezing January Shabbos when Rav Schorr walked from Williamsburg to Boro Park to make an appeal to raise much-needed funds to rescue his brothers from the inferno in Europe. At the time, when there were no Shasim printed in America, he sold his own precious Vilna Shas, which he brought back from Europe, for $80, and donated the money to the Vaad Hatzolah.
“Rav Aharon Kotler held of Rav Schorr in high regard and sought his counsel as well. Once, Rav Aharon came back from a doctor with a diagnosis on a certain condition. I don’t think that it was a life-threatening condition, but it was something of concern. Rav Aharon instructed Rabbi Henoch Cohen, who had driven him home from the doctor, to call Rav Schorr on the phone, as he wanted to discuss it with him. ‘Er hut nit nohr ah gutte kop, nor ah glatte kop! He has not only a good head, but a clear head,’ explained Rav Aharon.
“Rav Aharon was always involved with Agudas Yisroel. At the convention, it was sometimes difficult for the Agudah leaders to determine which of the gedolim would have the opportunity to speak at the choice slots. Rav Schorr, however, took a simple approach. He told Rabbi Sherer before the convention that he is prepared to give his own drosha at any time that would work out for others to receive the slots they preferred.”
Did you have any personal experiences with Rav Schorr?
“Yes, and the truth is that I owe my entire life as a ben Torah to him. After I was in Bais Medrash Elyon for a year or two, my parents wanted me to go to college. This was back in the ‘50s, and that was normal in those days. European parents wanted to see their sons be successful in America, and in their minds that entailed going to college and becoming professionals. My parents were simply afraid of what would become of me if I stayed in yeshiva. You have to understand that when I got married, there were probably fewer than fifty kollel yungeleit in America. Rav Schorr arranged for Mr. Louis Septimus, a highly successful accountant and chairman of the board of Torah Vodaas, who was extremely close to Rav Schorr, to pay a visit to my parents’ store in Newark. He walked in there, pretending that he ‘happened to be’ in the area on business, and introduced himself as the chairman of Torah Vodaas. He heaped praises on me and touted my excellence in my studies in the yeshiva. He then suggested that it would be very beneficial for me to remain in the yeshiva. My parents, after hearing such words from a baal habayis, readily agreed and allowed me to remain in yeshiva.
“I knew that Mr. Septimus paid this visit to my father, yet it wasn’t until after Rav Schorr’s petirah that he told me that Rav Schorr had asked him to make a special trip to Newark. Rav Schorr knew that had he tried to convince my parents, his argument would not have carried the same weight. After all, a rosh yeshiva would want bochurim to be in the yeshiva. But if a baal habayis said it, it would carry more weight.
“When Rav Simcha Wasserman founded his yeshiva in Los Angeles, the city was worse than a midbar. The extent of a Jewish institution was the movie industry, which was controlled by Jews, but in terms of ruchniyus, it was bare. Rav Schorr sent a few of the best talmidim to learn under Rav Simcha, including Rav Mendel Weinbach, Rav Nisson Wolpin, and Rav Meir Weinberg. I wanted to go as well, as these were my best friends, yet Rav Schorr did not let me go, because it would be too hard for my parents.
“Once I am mentioning Rav Simcha Wasserman, there was a fascinating story with Rav Simcha in LA. Rav Simcha moved from Detroit to LA to start Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon. At the time, Rav Simcha was not able to take a salary from the yeshiva, as there was simply no money. His rebbetzin remained in Detroit, working as a teacher to support him. After some time, Rav Simcha told his rebbetzin that he was ready to move back to Detroit. The rigors of the day-to-day running of the yeshiva, with all the heartache that came along with it, was simply too hard for him, and he was ready to give up. His rebbetzin would not hear of it. “Why do you think the Aibishter did not give us children of our own?’ she asked. ‘So we can take care of His children!’ Rav Simcha stayed in LA.
“When ArtSroll was ready to work on Sefer Doniel, we asked Rav Hersh Goldwurm zt”l, a brilliant talmid chochom and a talmid of Rav Schorr, to write the translation and peirush. When the project was finished, I went with Rav Hersh to Rav Schorr for a michtav brocha. Rav Schorr started speaking to Rav Hersh in learning, but I was unable to understand anything! They were simply in a different league.”
What are your first memories of Rav Schorr?
“I came from Newark, and I was an ‘out-of-towner’ in the Torah Vodaas dormitory. I remember that Rav Schorr called an assembly for all of us out-of-towners. This was at the height of the Pirchei and Zeirei movements, and many bochurim were caught up in the excitement of helping young bochurim draw closer to Torah. Rav Schorr lifted us up and explained that we, who left our homes to live in the yeshiva, were mevakshei Hashem, like those in the midbar who came to learn from Moshe, and the Torah calls them mevakshei Hashem. ‘Although we have many others to be concerned about,’ he said, there is still ah yochid vos ruft zach ich, a yochid called I. We have to take care of that yochid as well. We have to make sure not to neglect our own growth in Torah in the ohel moed of the yeshiva.’ I drew great inspiration from his words, and they still inspire many talmidim many years later.
“Rav Schorr is remembered as a gaon in Torah, a mushlom in middos, and a leader of a generation. He was zoche to sons and sons-in-law who are gedolei Torah and leaders of Klal Yisroel today. His talmidim continue to draw inspiration from his gentle personality and embodiment of Yisroel asher becha espo’er.”