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Wednesday
Jan312018

THE YESHIVA THAT FEELS LIKE HOME

The largest Chabad yeshiva in the world, located in Tzfas, is currently involved in a struggle for its very survival.  We spoke with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Wilschansky, who has been rosh yeshiva for over forty years, about the yeshiva and the current situation.

Some of the staff members of the yeshiva saying l’chaim at the start of the big campaign. (Photos by Dovid Cohen)

When sitting with Rabbi Wilschansky, the challenge was to remain the neutral interviewer. The inviting and inclusive atmosphere, his fatherly smile, his passionate speaking from the heart, made it hard not to get swept up in nostalgic feelings of the golden days in the yeshiva in Tzfas.

Because we are talking about such a beloved rosh yeshiva, and the yeshiva that we all feel is the home where we grew up, concerns about the future of the yeshiva, which is presently fighting for its existence, crept in. But those who know R’ Wilschansky, know how impossible it is to detect even a crack in his ironclad bitachon in Hashem. I saw this when I asked him pointed questions about the fate of the yeshiva in the event they are, G-d forbid, not successful.

I could see it was hard for him to talk about this, but R’ Wilschansky did not waver. Strong. Firm. Believing and trusting that only good will emerge from this. “It’s the Rebbe’s mosad. We will emerge from the constraints to the great expanse.”

YESHIVA – THE REBBE’S SHLICHUS

How did the Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim come to be founded in Tzfas?

The answer is one word: shlichus. The yeshiva was founded and grounded upon a shlichus we got from the Rebbe.

In 5736, I was among the shluchim chosen by the Rebbe to go to Eretz Yisroel. The Rebbe sent three groups of shluchim to Eretz Yisroel, in 5736, 5737, and 5738. I was in the first group.

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan a”h, shliach to Tzfas and founder and director of Chabad mosdos there, and who was one of the founders of the Chabad neighborhood in Tzfas back in 5733, came up with the idea of opening a yeshiva. He presented the idea to R’ Chadakov and the Rebbe approved it.

Rabbi Eliyahu Aryeh Friedman was appointed the menahel gashmi and he immediately began raising funds to open the new yeshiva. Then R’ Kaplan asked me and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Levkivker to be roshei yeshiva.

The yeshiva opened in Iyar 5737 with 20 bachurim who came from the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad.

BAALEI TESHUVA TOO

A year later, the idea was proposed for the yeshiva to serve baalei teshuva. When we submitted the idea to the Rebbe, he circled the words “yeshiva for baalei teshuva” and wrote, “also.”

As a result of this answer, we developed a model which is the first (and I think the only) yeshiva in the world in which baalei teshuva learn side-by-side with born and bred Lubavitchers, in the same zal. Obviously, enrichment classes and tutoring is provided for those who need it, but the learning is in the same beis midrash.

The interesting thing is that over time we have discovered that having Lubavitcher bachurim and baalei teshuva learn together not only doesn’t have a negative effect; on the contrary, both parties benefit. The enthusiasm of the baalei teshuva as well as their disdain for what the world has to offer, have made positive contributions to bachurim from Lubavitcher homes.

With Hashem’s help, we see the results in many hundreds of baalei teshuva who passed through our yeshiva and became Chassidim and established Chassidishe homes. You can’t even tell the difference between them and the born and bred.

While mentioning baalei teshuva graduates, we can’t forget the first one, Rabbi Rachamim Antian a”h.

Rami a”h was unique. He really serves as an example of the early days of the yeshiva. Before he became religious, he was a sports writer for a national paper. He met up with R’ Moshe Dickstein, today a shliach in Beer Sheva and who was active at that time in Tzach in Tel Aviv, and Rami began taking an interest in Judaism.

After their relationship grew stronger and Rami’s interest in Judaism grew, R’ Moshe, who knew about the yeshiva from the brief time he served as a madrich here, heard that we were going to accept baalei teshuva. He brought Rami to us and he was indeed, the first baal teshuva to learn in our yeshiva.

When the two of them came to Tzfas, R’ Moshe told me that this bachur he brought to yeshiva was very serious and wanted to learn, but he needed a good chavrusa to learn with every day. Since, at that time, we didn’t have a surplus of staff members, I learned with him. Rami progressed with giant steps and became a Chabad Chassid. After he married, he undertook the administrative duties of the yeshiva.

TOUGH BEGINNINGS

How was the yeshiva run in those days?

A yeshiva with only two staff members, doesn’t operate in the usual way. Officially, I served as maggid shiur and mashpia and R’ Levkivker as rosh yeshiva and mashgiach, but the division of labors was merely a formality. We both did whatever had to be done, whether it was giving shiurim, serving as meishivim, farbrenging, supervising, guiding and educating. That is how the yeshiva got off the ground, with our joint efforts. The thing we were most particular about was that the bachurim should feel comfortable in yeshiva, that they should always feel that the yeshiva is their home and that the rabbanim are mainly loving figures.

The yeshiva slowly grew and more staff members were added, like Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Orenstein who came as a mashpia. As more talmidim joined, the number of staff members grew. We tried to always provide the same family atmosphere even when the yeshiva grew.

At first, the dormitory was located in the Carmel Hotel in the Old City, and in other hotels. Once we expanded, R’ Leibel Kaplan and R’ Rami Antian found and bought the Rakefet Hotel, where the dormitory is till today.

The study halls also moved around between various battei midrash in the Old City, like Vizhnitz Tunis, Karlin Stolin, and Kossov, until we moved to our current place which is also constantly expanding. This zal served as a study hall over 100 years ago for the yeshiva of the Ridbaz, who wrote a commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi.

FAMILY FEEL

Even as the yeshiva grew, the special family atmosphere remained. What is the secret to your success? How do you maintain that atmosphere even with hundreds of students and thousands of graduates?

The answer has two parts. All staff members have the identical approach: we are all children of one father, the Rebbe. We are all brothers. This is the foundation for everything. We are Chassidim and we are shluchim. A yeshiva founded as part of a shlichus, will remain that way. That is the first part of what forms the puzzle which is Yeshivas Tzfas.

The second part consists of the staff’s attitude toward chinuch. Chazal say “and teach your children” refers to students. One who teaches his friend’s son Torah, is like he gave birth to him. That’s not a trendy saying or sweet turn of phrase. It’s the reality. This relationship of “father” is rooted in halacha and in the wording of the verse. It’s not “as though” they are your children in the borrowed sense, but actual children.

This is the source for the family feeling that our graduates have toward our yeshiva. When teachers, mashpiim and mashgichim regard the students like their actual children, including thinking about them outside of work hours, this will wend its way into the feelings of the students and will be reciprocated. When you feel that someone is thinking about you and someone really cares about you, feelings of love and affection will start to sprout inside you.  “As waters reflect a face, so is the heart of a man to a man.”

The feeling of the staff is that we aren’t merely people who give shiurim in Nigleh and Chassidus. We are operating as educators on the Rebbe’s shlichus and this is what generates the fatherly feeling of closeness and love for the students.

RELATIONSHIP WITH STUDENTS

Not all students are sweet and obedient. Sometimes, they don’t behave as they should. What then?

Excellent question. In the sicha on Parshas VaEira (Likkutei Sichos vol. 26) the Rebbe gives us the educational approach when dealing with a student who needs to be put in place with a stern word.

From the verse, “and Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs,” the Rebbe learns that even if you need to deal with the student or mushpa to get him to bend, to the point that his negative “yeshus” be “swallowed up” – the Rebbe warns that you need to remember who is allowed to do so and in what manner he is allowed to do this:

1 – This needs to be done by the “staff of Aharon,” with Aharon’s love, “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving creatures and drawing them close to Torah.” Only if there’s Ahavas Yisroel and genuine caring for the mechunach, can you put him in his place.

2 – When someone needs to be put in his place and his “metzius” needs to be “swallowed up,” the mashpia and mechanech need to be like a staff, not a snake – without mixing in personal motives.  The staff is just a dried stick without fangs and poison like a snake. It must be clean and to the point.

How can you form this united feeling on the part of all the rabbis in the yeshiva?

That gets back to the sense of shlichus. All along, even when we had 20 bachurim, and now too, when we have over 400 in the beis midrash and about 150 in the yeshiva k’tana (i.e., mesivta), and several dozen more in the branch in Haifa, we are always particular about everything being done with that sense of mission.

No staff member looks at his work in yeshiva as just a way to earn a paycheck or make a living. All of them, without exception, view their involvement with the yeshiva as a shlichus. When you treat it as a shlichus of the Rebbe, you devote yourself to it and live it. This feeling permeates all of the staff members. All of them regard the yeshiva as a home, and in a home you invest without considering the number of hours you put in or what time of the day it is.

You can see the results in the relationships between the staff and the talmidim. This bond continues with many graduates. The vast majority has a strong bond with the staff in the form of an ongoing mashpia relationship. Every graduate, and it makes no difference how he learned and what he does today, has a warm spot for the yeshiva and the staff. Each one feels that there is someone in the yeshiva with whom he has a connection and with whom he can talk.

In order to be able to continue providing a personal relationship with each bachur, we added and continue to add more staff members. When we opened the yeshiva, we were two staff members for 20 bachurim. Today the ratio hasn’t changed. We have about 45 staff members for 400 bachurim.

Both the administration and the spiritual staff, invest all their energy into building the yeshiva and all the credit for the atmosphere in the yeshiva is theirs. I express my deep thanks to them here, even though I know that none of them is waiting for this.

BIG CHALLENGES

Over the past decade, we have heard rumors and news about the yeshiva building in the former Rakefet Hotel. The yeshiva did not publicize this until recently, about the eviction notice.

Over the years, the yeshiva has been dealing with financial and administrative challenges. We never wanted to elicit concern while things were being handled by lawyers and other professionals.

When the yeshiva moved into the Rakefet Hotel, at first we rented it. After a few years, the yeshiva bought the building. When we encountered financial difficulties in paying the mortgage, R’ Kaplan found a donor who agreed to pay for the building on condition that it would be registered under his company’s name.

Later on, when this donor had financial troubles, his creditors demanded this building. By force of this claim, they sold it to a developer. That is when the legal wrangling began between us and them.  We claimed that the building was bought for the yeshiva and the registering under his name was a formality in exchange for a sizable donation, and that we had a “chazaka” of usage. They claimed that this was of no interest to them and the building is theirs.

The legal proceeding dragged on for a decade and sometimes, the scales swung to our favor. But the court had to rule, not according to halacha, but according to the formal registration, which is why the yeshiva is forced to come to an arrangement with the buyers or leave.

AN OPPORTUNITY

Chanuka time, we were given a court order to immediately leave the dormitory building. After the intervention of influential people, we were able to postpone the eviction and create a window of opportunity in which we can buy the building and put an end to all those years of uncertainty and gnawing doubt. With the help of the friends of the yeshiva fund, led by R’ Shlomo Kalish, we launched a campaign to raise 24,000,000 NIS ($7,080,996) to buy the building and the grounds, and once and for all finish with this matter that has drained so much time and energy from us all.

The staff is working day and night on this. We have also gotten hundreds of inquiries from graduates and friends who want to donate in any way they can to the yeshiva. I thank all of those who have helped and who give us hope that we will prevail and meet our goal.

It is important to note that this is the only option. There are no other locations in Tzfas that can serve as a dormitory, and there are no other plots of land available to build a new building. This is why we are putting all our efforts into this; this is about saving the yeshiva.

PLANS FOR FUTURE GROWTH

What are your plans for the future?

In the immediate future, to renovate the yeshiva building so it is spacious, well maintained and tasteful, as is fitting for the children of the Rebbe.  In the more distant future, the yeshiva will have to expand, and the six dunam of land that we are buying with the building will enable the yeshiva to put up additional buildings so that the number of talmidim can double, both because of the natural growth of families of Anash and because of the increased demand for both the yeshiva k’tana and the yeshiva g’dola.

The yeshiva does not belong to any individual; it belongs to the Rebbe and now is the time for us to mobilize for the continued growth and development of the yeshiva.

The yeshiva needs everyone to take part in buying the building, which will be transported with the hisgalus of the Rebbe MH”M, and be attached to 770 and the third Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim Ir Ha’kodesh. Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed.

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