Rekindling the Original Flame

The emotions spanned five continents, dozens of cities, thousands of blatt, and hundreds of thousands of Yidden – all connected through the holy pages of Shas and the vision of Rav Meir Shapiro.

My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan, used to say, “People say that they are swimming in the ocean; but how much of the ocean are they really in? They are only touching a miniscule fraction of the greater ocean. Yet they claim to be swimming in the ocean, as if they are connected to the massive body of water that spans the globe. And indeed, they are.”

No matter where anyone celebrated either his own Siyum Hashas or the completion of Shas by his brothers across the globe, he was swimming in the ocean. In his seat, in his suite, in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, St. Louis or Lublin, they were all connected… as was I.

I was not in MetLife Stadium for the siyum, I had happened to have planned a trip to Eretz Yisroel for Shabbos Chanukah, and after seeing that a trip to Lublin from artzeinu hakedosha was relatively convenient and less expensive than many of the available tickets at MetLife, I decided to travel to Lublin. I joined Rabbi Yehuda Fried of Nesivos Tours and Rabbi Dovid Singer, who guided us through the fascinating history of Polish Jewry. The two whirlwind days in Poland, beginning in Warsaw and ending in Lublin, were both and heart wrenching and uplifting. We traversed the blood-stained cobblestones of Warsaw and Lublin, the killing fields of Ger, Lizhensk, Lancet, and visited many other towns and villages.

Indeed, there are volumes that can be written about Poland’s past, but there is barely nothing remaining of the great legacy of Polish Jewry. I would not be the first person to talk about the coldness and zombie-like indifference displayed to Jewish visitors who come to Poland.

I took a taxi from the airport for an early morning davening in the magnificent Nozyk shul, at 6 Twarda Street, the only remaining functioning shul in Warsaw after it was spared destruction by the hands of the Nazis. It was certainly not their compassion that left it standing, but their scheme to convert it to a horse stable. (There was a small Gerrer shteibel that the Nazis overlooked, but it is hardly accessible.)

The taxi driver dropped me off one block away, and in the pre-sunrise darkness, I was not able to spot the shul. It took literally six or seven people to whom I asked, “Excuse me, do you know where is the synagoga” – adding the extra “a” to make it Polish sounding.

The first five Poles walked past me as if I did not exist. They did not look toward me when I asked them where the shul was. They looked lifeless, uncaring, and I could feel the annoyance in my asking about a synagogue – as if it was disrupting their nearly Judenrein existence. One shrugged his shoulders and continued on his path, at least acknowledging that there was another human being trying to engage him. The seventh pointed left to a walkway through a small grassy area that led to the shul.

The shul and davening are led by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, an enthusiastic and gracious man who, like me, grew up on Long Island. He went to the local Hillel School, though, now known as HAFTAR, a bit different then the chadorim where previous Warsaw rabbonim had their first encounters with Torah. Indeed, it was heartening to see a glimpse of Yiddishkeit begin to emerge, with shiurim being given after Shacharis to a handful of participants. Still, although there is a daily minyan in the Nozyk shul, it is hardly a morsel of semblance of the thriving Jewish life that once filled Poland’s streets.

I spent the next day and a half traversing sections of the Polish countryside, visiting kivrei tzaddikim and listening to Reb Dovid Singer relate the fantastic and storied history of the great centers of Yiddishkeit and Chassidus. Although it was uplifting spiritually, the sad history of the destruction and devastation of the glorious world was quite depressing.

From Warsaw and its fascinating bais hakevaros filled with the gedolei olam, to the places where Yidden were rounded up and shot or transported to the concentration camps; from the forlorn bais medrash in Ger to the ohel of Reb Elimelech in Lizhensk and the destroyed bais hakevaros with tombstones thrown down so that Nazi Panzer tanks could ride over them – it was a terrible mixture of the elevation of knowing what once was and the pain for these great worlds gone.

And that is why the culmination of the trip in Lublin was so uplifting.

After visiting shells of buildings, empty from all signs of living Yiddishkeit, the appearance of the massive building of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, awash in floodlights, was a majestic relief. The atmosphere was the antithesis of the dead feelings that emanate from the blood-soaked streets of the countryside. I saw life and renewal. I saw hope and courage. And I heard the sounds of Torah wafting the through the crisp Lublin night.

The large words were boldly displayed on the building in Lashon Kodesh: “Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin d’Maharam Shapiro.” Smack in the middle of Lublin, there was one building that openly decried its fealty to an eternal heritage – with no fear and no shame. Its substantial presence filled almost an entire block and the beloved words that embodied Rav Meir Shapiro’s essence glowed on the edifice’s facade: “Lechu bonim shimu li, yiras Hashem alamedchem – Come my children, hearken to me, for I will teach you the fear of Hashem.”

There were four gigantic banners, clearly as large as any in MetLife Stadium, that rose to the tops of the large entrance of the building. Two had a large and equally proud declaration of the 13th Siyum Hashas, while the others could not be replicated anywhere else in the world. For under a large portrait of the Lubliner rov and rosh yeshiva, Rav Meir Shapiro, they read, “Where it all began.”

There may have been 90,000 Yidden in the Meadowlands, but not one sign in that stadium could have read “Where it all began.”

And that’s what made it so heartening.

As I stood in awe of the replication of a glorious past, buses and cars began pulling up to fill the former yeshiva, which is now maintained as a hotel with a kosher restaurant and a large bais medrash, replicating the original bais medrash in Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.

The participants came from all over Eastern and Western Europe, with a smattering from North America and Israel. Indeed, from all corners of the world, they came to reclaim it. Whether from Netanya and Yerushalayim and other cities across Israel; or from Moscow, Russia; Odessa, Ukraine; Pinsk, Belarus; Berlin, Germany; London, Gateshead and Manchester in England; Toronto, Canada; and of course, Boro Park, Flatbush and even Lawrence and Woodmere, they all came to reclaim what once was, and what will always be theirs. There were young and old alike – the chief rabbonim of Berlin, Odessa, Pinsk and other kehillos were there, as well as young children, the Masmidei HaSiyum, who were born in the outlands of the former Soviet Union.

In one of the great post-Chanukah symbolisms, hundreds of Yidden converged on what was once Europe’s most prestigious citadel of Torah, and rekindled its menorah of Torah scholarship. For that night, they rekindled the oil that was defiled by the Nazi beast. Indeed, they returned to the place “where it all began.”

They came to stand and declare that despite 22,000 seforim once thrown from the windows of this great citadel of learning, Klal Yisroel shall return! The enthusiasm was palpable. The entire event was not only a Siyum Hashas, but a celebration and commemoration to the life of the founder of the daf yomi, Rav Meir Shapiro.

Every drosha was interlaced with his Torah and stories of his mesiras nefesh for his two beloved children: Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and the daf yomi. And although for most of the year the words “Ilan Hotel” may be displayed prominently outside, that night, they were an afterthought.

The evening began with the writing of the final letters of a sefer Torah dedicated by the Jaffa Family Foundation in memory of Rav Meir Shapiro, the founder of daf yomi, and Rav Meir Zlotowitz, whose vision in creating ArtScroll helped so many Jews fulfill the daf yomi dream.

After a jubilant hachnosas sefer Torah where Jews from all corners of the globe danced the Torah into the bais medrash, the crowd heard an historical overview from Reb Dovid Singer. Rabbi Michael Schudrich discuss the events that led to the rebuilding of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Rabbi Schudrich lauded his own mentor, Rav Chatzkel Besser, whose brilliant ability to converse with anyone and everyone helped restore the yeshiva building’s former beauty and dignity. Indeed, it was Rav Besser – one of the prominent orchestrators of the resurgence of the worldwide daf yomi movement – who orchestrated previous siyumim in the building, immediately after the Soviets gave up their grip of power over Poland.

After a powerful video presentation by the Geliebter Foundation about the fascinating life, struggles and accomplishments of Rav Meir Shapiro – too many to enumerate in this brief article – the program moved upstairs to the majestic bais medrash recreated to its former glory.

With the backdrop of the aron kodesh as a centerpiece surrounded majestically by the replicated wrought iron decorations, renowned baal tzedokah Reb Avraham Berkowitz opened the program, noting the auspiciousness of the occasion and the holy venue in which it was taking place.

In introducing Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, mara d’asra of Khal Nachlas Yitzchok in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, and one of the foremost maggidei shiur of daf yomi, Reb Avraham spoke about his tremendous harbotzas haTorah through the innumerable amount of shiurim that Rabbi Oelbaum delivers, both in person and via TorahAnytime.

The moment arrived and all eyes turned to and ears listened to the emotional Hadran. Rav Oelbaum quoted the final words of Shas, “Tanna d’bei Eliyahu, kol hashoneh halachos b’chol yom, muvtach lo shehu ben Olam Haba.” The Gemara talks in the present. It does not say that one who learns will merit Olam Haba, but rather is currently considered a ben Olam Haba. Rav Oelbaum quoted Rav Aharon Kotler, who explains that one can achieve Olam Haba in Olam Hazeh through the geshmak of Torah study.

In an emotional drosha that followed given by Rav Yair Adler, mara d’asra of Khal Shoavei Mayim in Toronto, the large crowd lived through the final moments of the yeshiva as the Nazi stormtroopers closed in on the sacred yeshiva and ordered all the bochurim to leave.

Rav Adler quoted survivors who recounted their final moments inside the hallowed halls of the bais medrash. The talmidim ran to the walls of the yeshiva, tearfully kissing them. “Our dear holy yeshiva,” they cried, “you sheltered us, nurtured us and loved us. Now we must go. But we promise you that one day, we shall return to learn Torah again, in your walls.”

With a tear-filled emotional crescendo, Rav Adler declared, “We now have fulfilled their promise. We have returned! We are learning and recreating the Torah that was taken from us! We have returned!”

Rav Moshe Chaim Lau, rov in Netanya who is named for the rov of Pietrokov, where Rav Meir Shapiro once served as rov, had the zechus of beginning Maseches Berachos. Rav Lau’s zaide was also a cousin of Rav Meir Shapiro.

Rav Lau explained that Rav Meir’s goal was not only to ensure daily learning by Klal Yisroel, but to unite Yidden through unified limud haTorah. Citing Rav Meir Schapiro, Rav Lau quoted the first question in Shas: “Tanna haicha ka’i, diktani Me’aimasai? Where is tanna coming from that he asks, Me’aimasai?”

Explained Rav Meir, “Indeed, where is the tanna coming from?”

The Mishnah was written in Eretz Yisroel. The Gemara, written in Bavel, is there to explain it. If you need more explanation, you turn to Rashi from France. But Rashi may not be the final word, as the Tosfos of Germany explains it further. And then there is the Maharam in Lublin! The Rambam in Spain! The Rif in Fez! The Rema in Poland!

In his brilliant homiletic fashion, Rav Shapiro exclaimed, the Gemara begins “Tana haicha ka’i? Where is the tanna who is learning the Mishnah? He is all over the globe! That is the secret of the daf yomi!”

Each speaker spoke about the revolutionary institution of the yeshiva that became the forerunner for every successful mosad haTorah to follow. Even after the destruction of European Jewry, the model lived on. “Imagine that boys today would have to eat teg?” asked Rabbi Lau.

As the program was concluding in Lublin, the participants were able to watch and listen to the siyum in New Jersey which was taking place six hours earlier, in the EST time zone. All the while, the crowd participated in a deliciously catered seudah through Nesivos Tours.

The seudah lasted way after midnight, with dancing of young and old, including the dozen or so children of Masmidei HaSiyum from all over Eastern Europe, who stood proudly with the representative rabbonim from each of their prospective countries.

The emotional evening, where worlds that were once destroyed saw the light of renewal, ended with a spirit of hope and promise that we will all see the miraculous redemption by Moshiach in our times.