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Binyamin Wilhelm

Birthdate: (86)
Birthplace: Łódź, Łódź, Łódź Voivodeship, Poland
Death: August 31, 1972 (86)
Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Avraham Abba and Chana Tzirel Wilhelm
Husband of Blima Wilhelm
Father of Chana Tzirel Belsky (Wilhelm); Claire Gewirtz (Wilhelm); Leah Herskowitz (Wilhelm); יוסף Wilhelm; Chaim Yehoshua Wilhelm and 1 other
Brother of David Willhelm

Managed by: David Bunin
Last Updated:

About Binyamin Wilhelm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binyomin_Wilhelm

Binyomin Wilhelm (1886–1972) was the founder of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.

Born in Lodz, Poland, he was the oldest son of a Radoshitzer chassidic family. In his teens he left by himself to the United States. He first peddled a pushcart, until he had made enough money to rent a store. At 20, he had a houseware business.

He moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he wanted to open a yeshiva for boys. At that time, the few yeshivos that existed in the United States—Yeshivas HaRav Yaakov Yosef, Etz Chaim Yeshiva, Yeshivas HaRav Shlomo Kluger—were all in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Wilhelm envisioned a yeshiva that taught secular studies in the afternoons. Wilhelm had to overcame large opposition to his type of yeshiva. Most parents did not want to send their children to yeshiva. There was also opposition from the other side. Some parents held that a yeshiva should be purely for Jewish studies.

Wilhelm was active in Torah Vodaas until his 80's, when he moved to Israel in 1968. There, he founded a network of afternoon programs for Sephardic youth in developing areas, which was to strengthen their commitment to Judaism. He called the network Mifal Torah Vodaas.

His grandson Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, is a rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.


The Founding of Torah Vodaas - - Reb Binyomin Wilhelm, Torah Pioneer in the Early Twentieth Century

by M. Samsonowitz

A history of Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, the premiere yeshiva of New York between the years 1929-1945 must begin with the amazing story of its founder, Reb Binyamin Wilhelm.

Like many other Torah visionaries, Reb Binyamin was a resolute, single-minded, dedicated and idealistic man who did not let the colossal obstacles that existed in the U.S. at that time get in the way of his principles.

Difficult Childhood

Not many know that Mr. Wilhelm's resoluteness was born in the harrowing circumstances of his early childhood. He was born in 1886, the oldest son of a Radoshitz chassidic family in Lodz, Poland. The family was very religious and also musical, and they lived an animated chassidic life, with the father visiting many tzadikim of those times.

Tragedy set in when Binyomin's mother died when he was 12, leaving behind five orphans. His father remarried and Binyamin had to leave.

An older cousin, Nochman Yosef Wilhelm, took him in for a while and taught him his bar mitzva parsha. Nochman Yosef eventually moved to Eretz Yisroel and was the patriarch of the large Wilhelm family of Jerusalem.

Unable to remain with his cousin long-term, Binyomin's next stop was an elderly grandfather who lived alone in a village near Lodz. He studied in the local beis hamedrash and shared a bed with his grandfather until one day when he was 17, he awoke to discover that his grandfather had passed away in the night. Once again he was alone in the world, pondering what to do with his life, and particularly how to escape the army draft which was looming ahead of him.

Two days later a fateful letter arrived from a former friend of his called Rennick. Rennick had left for the U.S. some time back, and now he invited Binyomin to join him. "We have here a group of young G-d-fearing men who have all pledged not to submit to the pressures of America. We have pledged that when we get married, we will lead our homes as if we lived in Europe. Come and join us."

This offer seemed to answer the problems looming over him, so Binyomin decided to accept the offer. Although many people with difficult life experiences carry a chip on their shoulder, Binyamin's tough experiences had the effect of forging him into a person who was never fazed by anyone, who would never buckle under, and who would never take "no" for an answer.

After Rennick sent him his own passport (in those days passports didn't have pictures), Binyomin set out on his way. From the savings of odd jobs he had done, Binyomin was able to pay for the trip to the port in France, but he didn't have enough money for the ocean liner to America. He offered the crew of the ocean liner to take him on as the mashgiach kashrus, and they agreed.

The boats were filled with Jews who were fleeing the misery of Europe. To his dismay, Binyomin saw many of these people eating in the non-kosher section of the ocean liner. When he asked them why they were eating treif, they justified themselves, "It's impossible to be a religious Jew in America anyway, so we may as well begin eating treif now."

He encouraged them to go to the kosher section and not to be so fatalistic.

Upon arrival, Wilhelm joined the staunch group of friends, who had united themselves into a group called Adas Bnei Yisroel. This group was just as busy as everyone else in the struggle to establish themselves and make a living, but they refused to ignore their religious obligations. They rose early to study Torah and daven in the shul, and afterwards attended school or ran their businesses, and then gathered together late at night for another shiur.

Like everyone else, Wilhelm first peddled a pushcart, until he had made enough money to rent a store. At 20 he was an up- and-coming businessman with a housewares business. But he was also a dedicated Torah student who never left the pursuit of Torah study, and by the time he was middle-aged, he had a phenomenal grasp of Tanach and Chok Leyisroel and he also knew large sections of Shas by heart.

A Challenge to Found a Yeshiva

At age 25, Wilhelm married the daughter of Mr. Weberman, a descendant of a Hungarian-German Jewish family who had immigrated to the U.S. right after the Civil War. They were among the very few who still remained dedicated to Yiddishkeit after half a century of America's embrace.

Children were born to the couple, and by the time his son was about to turn 5, Mrs. Wilhelm was talking about moving to the "noveau-riche" neighborhood of Williamsburg where there would be more room for the growing family. Wilhelm wouldn't contemplate it, though, because the neighborhood had no Jewish school. Public school, in his eyes, was not an option.

At that time, the few yeshivos that existed in the U.S. -- Yeshivas HaRav Yaakov Yosef, Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, Yeshivas HaRav Shlomo Kluger -- were all in the East Side although the truth be told, most religious Jews preferred sending their children to public school. Williamsburg was a Jewish neighborhood teeming with impressive shuls and a large religious community, but no one felt the lack of a yeshiva.

One day a friend, Reb Leibel Dershowitz, entered Wilhelm's shop at 81 Norfolk Street. Dershowitz was living in Williamsburg, and Wilhelm spoke of the dilemma he found himself in. Dershowitz replied, "To the contrary, move to Williamsburg and open a yeshiva yourself!"

Wilhelm, just 30, was fired up by the challenge. He decided to make the move and at the same time work to set up a yeshiva. He told himself privately that if he didn't succeed, he could always move back to the East Side. In June, 1917, the young family moved to 91 Tellier street, and Wilhelm immediately began to put his plans into action.

His diary records the wearying efforts he put forth to convince skeptical Jewish parents that their children could be both good Jews and good Americans if they studied in a Jewish school:

"I davened in the Beis Aaron shtiebel (107 Rust Street) where I found a congregation of distinguished chassidim and bnei Torah. Without delay, I spoke to them about founding a yeshiva, but to my great grief, saw that most of the people here were overwhelmed with hopelessness. Some looked at me with pity in their eyes, Look at this dreamer who's fooling himself.'

"But I felt mercy for them. I was amazed, here were so many good Jews, but so apathetic? They told me, Do you really intend to turn these "American boys" into Torah students and tzadikim? We also thought like you, when our children were small, but the years have taught us that there is nothing to be done. This is America, all is lost.'

"I saw that everyone had come to peace with the idea that nothing could remedy the situation. Many of the Jewish immigrants had already lived in the States for several years, while their families had been left behind across the ocean. The children grew wild without the supervision of a father. By the time they came here, they were ready to absorb Columbus's ways' and were dragged along with the others. Even in many homes that were officially shomer Shabbos, after the cholent and the kugel, the mothers gave their children some coins to buy tickets to the movies, saying, They're still young, the children. Let them enjoy themselves a bit.'

"One distinguished Jew told me, What are you making such a fuss all day long about "yeshiva, yeshiva"? Can you show me one man who you succeeded in convincing to take his children out of public school and send them to a yeshiva?'

"I responded, You! You yourself will take your child out and bring him to yeshiva.'

"He told me, Even if you succeed in convincing me, do you think his mother will agree to turn him into a "greener"?'

"I told him I would go and explain to her that the yeshiva won't turn him into a greener' but on the contrary, he'll be educated to find favor both in Hashem's eyes and the eyes of man.

"He said, And do you think his sister, who is already a teacher, will let us turn her brother into a bench- sitter?'

"These were the claims that were heard in our shtiebel, but the worshipers in the shtiebel afterwards became among the first to follow me."

First Steps

Wilhelm wasn't disillusioned by the nay-sayers. He began to make the rounds in all the local shuls, speaking out about the necessity to found a yeshiva for the youth. In the Kahal Machzikei Hadas shul on South 3rd Street, the president tried to convince him of the impossibility of his quest. Showing Wilhelm the palm of his hand, the man reproved him, "Can hair grow here? In the same way, a yeshiva can be established here!"

But Wilhelm wouldn't give up. On Hoshanna Rabba night, 1917, a fateful event took place in the spacious Bnei Aaron shul (the Polisher shtiebel) where Wilhelm knew a large crowd of worshipers would come to recite the Tikun. Just as they were about to take the Torah out to recite sefer Devorim, Wilhelm blocked the aron, and said he would not let them lein unless they first let him speak.

In his dynamic, blunt way, Wilhelm told the worshipers that without a yeshiva, their children would grow up and marry goyim. He explained the utter necessity of a yeshiva, and the fact that the yeshiva would have secular studies too.

The time and setting had the necessary effect. Mr. Aaron Goldman, the wealthiest man in the shul and the president, pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check for $1,000 (something like $20,000 today). Mr. Wolf, a furrier, wrote a check for $500.

But Wilhelm knew that money was only part of the many problems -- in fact, the least of them. A minyan of his original friends from the Adas Bnei Yisroel who had moved to Williamsburg agreed to help out. Both men and women joined him to form the founding committee of the yeshiva. The committee included Rav Zev Gold (later, head of Mizrachi); Eliezer Meir Blum; Mr. Zimmerman; his brother-in-law Mr. Benzion Weberman, a lawyer; and Mrs. Halberg.

Throughout the summer, the committee met to discuss funding, plans, registration. Sometimes four showed up, sometimes two, and sometimes it was Mr. Wilhelm alone with his Creator.

The committee met with violent opposition. Even the frumest of the Jews in those times dreamed of having children who wouldn't be "greeners," who would go to public school, play baseball, become lawyers and doctors, and be spared the difficult existence and acclimatization that their parents had gone through.

Mrs. Halberg went from door to door to recruit children for the yeshiva. It was a major battle each time. Once she came home and found her daughter in tears. A group of religious Jews who Mrs. Halberg had pestered, came to visit her daughter when Mrs. Halberg was out. They told her daughter, "What kind of mother do you have, running around recruiting for a yeshiva and leaving her daughter alone like an orphan?"

There was also opposition from the other side, for reasons of piety. Mr. Wilhelm's own father-in-law was against the initiative, because in his eyes it was a travesty to combine Jewish studies with secular studies. "A yeshiva should be all kodesh!" he averred. It was only when he saw the results of the yeshiva after a few years that he wholeheartedly embraced his son-in-law's views.

Gradually the rabbonim began to support Wilhelm. Slowly, a trickle of parents agreed to send their children to the new yeshiva.

While the committee was talking about collecting money to purchase a proper building, and perhaps opening the yeshiva in a few years or so, Wilhelm was getting impatient. His son had already turned 5 and had to attend school the following year.

Wilhelm demanded that the school be opened immediately in a temporary structure. All the grandiose plans about buildings could be dealt with in the years to come, but the important thing was to get things moving.

The committee was getting upset with Wilhelm's pushiness and they arranged meetings whose time and location were expediently not told to Wilhelm. In his enterprising way, Wilhelm found out about the meetings anyway and showed up uninvited. Finally the committee grudgingly accepted his view and bought a small house at 238 Keap Street for the yeshiva, and on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first banquet for the up-and- coming yeshiva was held.

Throughout the summer, frenzied recruiting was done by the committee members all over the neighborhood, and they finally achieved a student body of 45 youths from grades 1 to 7. This was all they could muster in New York City -- at a time when the Jewish population numbered between 1-1.25 million Jews.

A Fateful Night

Again the committee hemmed and hawed. Opening a yeshiva with such a small student body did not seem financially feasible. How can we pay for 7 rebbes and 7 secular teachers with only 45 children in the school? the board members complained. They called a separate meeting between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, coordinating their positions against him, told Wilhelm that they refused to open the yeshiva until the following year.

Choking back his tears, Wilhelm pleaded with them, "How can one decide not to open a yeshiva between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?"

"You're right," one man stood up and told him. "Meeting called for motzei Yom Kippur."

Wilhelm spun into action. That Yom Kippur, he awoke early in the morning, said brochos, and then spent the day charging from one synagogue to another. He demanded the podium and stopped the prayers. He cried, he wept, he begged the worshipers to send their children to the yeshiva.

The incredible result was that the fasting of Yom Kippur vanquished American apple pie. Wilhelm's desperate efforts bore fruit and another 45 children were registered for the school by the end of the day. Wilhelm left Ne'ilah after 12 hours of concentrated recruiting, on the verge of collapse. He burst into the committee meeting and told everyone, "The yeshiva's opening! We have ninety kids! This Yom Kippur will go down in the annals of Jewish history as one of the milestones of the twentieth century."

On chol hamoed Succos, the committee met to decide on the staff. The president of the committee decided that one teacher should preside over two classes -- to save expenses -- and that the principal and secretary should also teach a class.

But Bulldozer Wilhelm's voice resounded loud and clear: One teacher per class! The principal will have to concentrate on his duties and nothing else!

The committee buckled under Wilhelm again. They hired Reb Mordechai Eliyahu Finkelstein, a chossid who was a lamdan and had good general secular skills too. He chose for his staff top-notch teachers who were the best available in New York at the time.

By no means were the trials over. When the school opened its doors a few days later, only 15 children showed up in the six elementary grades. The rest of the children were kept home by their skeptical parents who didn't think that the yeshiva would get off the ground. But within a few days, all the kids came.

Wilhelm knew there would be no sitting on the laurels. He constantly looked for new opportunities to recruit more students.

A Belsky family lived a few doors down from the new yeshiva. Once day, Wilhelm was at their residence, knocking on their door. When the father welcomed him into his home and pulled out a checkbook, Wilhelm got straight to the point. "Put away your checkbook," he said. "I heard that you have a 5-year old child. I want him."

The son was duly registered and began to attend the yeshiva. The boy grew up to be Mr. Wilhelm's son-in-law, Reb Berel Belsky, who married his daughter Chana, and became one of the few American students who attended Yeshivas Radin in Europe.

No one believed that the yeshiva would experience such tremendous growth within a few short years. Within two years, the yeshiva already had eight grades. Four years after its founding, it was able to move into a beautiful new campus on Wilson Street whose building had been built for it from scratch. Within a few years, the yeshiva had a student body of over 1000 students!

Throughout the beginning decades, Wilhelm remained active on the yeshiva's committee. The committee held many fundraising affairs such as banquets, bazaars and carnivals to bolster the yeshiva's budget. With time, numerous wealthy individuals agreed to join the Executive Board of the yeshiva as well as have their children study in the yeshiva.

The principals changed several times during the early years of the school. Although the school's views were considered the height of frumkeit for America, the confusion of those days had penetrated in various ways. For instance, the youth would gather for an oneg Shabbos every Friday, at the beginning of which they would sing Hatikva before an Israeli flag.

Enter Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz

A far-reaching change in the yeshiva occurred when Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz was appointed principal of the school in 1922.

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz was born in the town of Willig in Hungary in 1886 into a family of simple G-d-fearing Sanzer chassidim. At the age of nine -- when he was already studying Shulchan Oruch Yore De'ah with Shach, Taz and the Pri Megadim -- he had acquired a name as an iluy who brimmed with deep religious passion. He studied under the Arugas Habosem, the Beer Shmuel, and the Shevet Sofer, Rav Simcha Bunim Sofer -- the three leading gedolim of Hungary at the time, and received semichah from them.

A person of deep contemplation, he pursued Jewish philosophy and mussar privately and at a young age had completed the entire works of the Maharal, Kuzari, Mesilas Yeshorim, and works of chassidus. He avidly studied the works of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch in the original German. He saw Rav Hirsch as his ideal because Hirsch had successfully devised a religious Jewish weltanschauung that could stand up to the challenges of modernity. (Nothing showed his diverse interests more than the fact that he spent his entire wedding dowry on buying a set of Zev Yaavetz's history books.)

Although Rav Shraga Feivel appeared an unassuming young man, he had a rare strain of boundless idealism running through his fabric. When he came across the statement in the gemora that, "Were Israel to keep two Shabbosim in a row, the Redemption would immediately come" he promised himself then and there that he would work to draw the hearts of Jews back to their Father in Heaven.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Jews all over the world were blindly rushing to embrace enlightenment, communism, socialism and every other "ism" besides their ancestral heritage, his dream appeared as unpractical, wishful thinking.

At age 22 he married the daughter of his stepmother, and settled near his father's home in the town of Homna. In 1913, because of fear of the draft, he decided to leave for the U.S. Before he left, he received a brocho from Rav Yeshaya of Krestira, who prophesied that he would accomplish great things in America.

The first few years in the U.S. Rav Shraga Feivel spent trying his hand at different professions. Although an expert at the laws of shechita, he saw after a day that this profession did not suit him. He taught in talmud Torahs in New York, Bridgeport and Scranton, before he returned to New York to open an ice cream and sundae shop.

Although he still dreamed of opening a yeshiva, he had discovered that in the U.S., all the power was concentrated in the hands of a talmud Torah's president and board of directors, and the principal and teachers were viewed as merely low level servants. He dreamed of succeeding in his business and with the funds, opening his own yeshiva. However, his business was not succeeding as planned, possibly because his head was more in his Torah studies than in ice cream.

One of his clients was Mr. Wilhelm, who promptly realized that he had a kindred spirit in Rav Shraga Feivel. After numerous discussions between them in which Wilhelm realized that a passionate, righteous soul lurked under this unostentatious Hungarian Jew, Wilhelm suggested that Reb Shraga Feivel take a teaching job in Torah Vodaas. When Rav Shraga Feivel realized that his business enterprise was failing, in the summer of 1921, he finally agreed to come. A series of illnesses that struck him didn't allow him to take the job until Elul 1923, when he was appointed to teach the eighth grade class.

Rav Nesanel Quinn, a student who had arrived the year beforeand later became principal of Jewish studies in the yeshiva, recounts, "In the first days after he came to the yeshiva, even the worst students began to feel more positive about their Jewish studies. He tried -- and succeeded -- in making Torah study beloved to them, and in giving them the feeling of closeness to Hashem. They began to keep mitzvos not out of habit but out of deep feeling. He imbued one with pride to study Torah, and that nothing in this world could compare to Torah study."

Totally enamored with Rev Shraga Feivel's personality, Wilhelm longed to appoint him the principal. After a slight ruckus in which Wilhelm announced to the current principal that he would have to submit a new application for his job as principal, the outraged principal resigned.

Satisfied at developments, Wilhelm tried to prevail upon the committee to appoint Reb Shraga Feivel immediately. The committee, which was formed primarily of Polish and Russian Jews, did not find the unassuming Hungarian candidate particularly attractive, especially because of his non- American appearance which included a beard and payos.

The Yeshiva Leaps Spiritually

Wilhelm suggested that the board hire Reb Shraga Feivel for just six months on a trial basis instead of a year, as they had done with all the previous principals, and if they weren't satisfied, they could fire him. To their surprise, Reb Shraga Feivel told them that he wasn't even interested in a six-month contract. He offered that they could hire him on the basis that if at any point they were dissatisfied, they could fire him on the spot. All the previous principals had insisted on a detailed contract for an entire year.

Rav Shraga Feivel began the next day. He found a group of cool, impassive teachers whose resentment of him bristled under the surface. The teachers too were all of Polish or Russian extraction, and they could not respect the Hungarian man who lacked up-to-date scholastic and educational training.

But as the following weeks unfolded, and each teacher had the occasion to meet and discuss topics with him, they soon stood open-mouthed before Rav Shraga Feivel's vast knowledge. The teacher who was expert in Hebrew grammar soon discovered that Rav Shraga Feivel was a giant in dikduk. The teacher whose specialty was Jewish history soon discovered that Rav Shraga Feivel knew far more than he.

Within a few weeks, the entire staff was united in their reverence and respect for the new principal who each admitted towered far above him. Rav Shraga Feivel begin his innovative program right away.

On his first day as principal, Rav Shraga Feivel dictated a letter to the members of the board. He wrote them that a person cannot be balaboss over a yeshiva unless he appreciates Torah. He demanded that every one of them attend a Torah shiur at least twice a week. The board members were astonished -- but they complied.

Rav Shraga Feivel gave a shiur in the home of Reb Benzion Weberman where he impressed the committee members with his deep religious, educational and personal ideals. They began to understand that it wasn't sufficient for a child to have a Jewish education only until his bar mitzva years, which was the standard in America until then.

In addition to winning over the rebbes and the parents, Rav Shraga Feivel soon was idolized by the students. They had never seen a principal who taught with such heart and neshomoh. On holidays he made assemblies and parties, and would dance with the students. He would sing soulful songs "Kadsheinu" and "Vetaheir libeinu" with such ecstasy that all the students were swept up with the same emotion.

Wilhelm later wrote in his diary, "It isn't the slightest exaggeration to say that Rav Shraga Feivel blew a new soul into us, of a natural Jewish approach to our Torah. We could clearly sense how the Shechina was present in every class. A new spirit blew in the life of the yeshiva -- and all this he did quietly, without noise, without giving orders. "

Torah Vodaas's name began to spread far and wide in New York. There was no longer any need to recruit bochurim for the yeshiva and the problem now became how to find enough room for all the boys. The crowding forced the committee to open classes in rented apartments around the district. Classes were held in the Keap Street beis hamedrash, the Lincoln business school, and the Beis Aaron shtiebel on Division Avenue. At the same time, the spiritual growth fostered by Rav Shraga Feivel kept pace with the physical growth of the yeshiva.

The Mesivta is Founded

The idea of a Jewish high school was still far-fetched. When the end of the year drew near, Rav Shraga Feivel persuaded the parents of the eighth-grade boys to keep their sons in the yeshiva for "just one more year." Rav Shraga Feivel arranged for the youths to study in a local high school at night where courses were offered for adults who had not completed their high school diploma. He knew such a school would have less of an influence on his students than learning in a public school with youth their age. Besides the hours at night devoted to secular studies, the boys studied Jewish studies from early in the morning and even late at night after they finished their secular studies.

When the end of the year came around again, Rav Shraga Feivel convinced the parents to agree to just one more year. And when that year finished, the parents were willing to agree to another year. At that point, he found himself with a group of high school youths whose dedication to Torah study remained strong and unswerving.

Says Rav Nesanel Quinn, one of the students of this group, "Our study day was long and exhausting, but Rav Shraga Feivel pushed us to study Torah additional hours, on our own initiative, as it were, until late at night. I remember that he sat and studied Torah with us every Thursday night until almost midnight, and we felt that Torah study was so sweet that we almost didn't feel tired. Our load of studies was not easy, particularly if you compared it to the study program in a public school. But none of us ever complained. The frequent recesses of course helped to release the tension, but mainly what helped was that in our society, everyone was working hard and no one had it easy. So the heavy load on us wasn't viewed as anything extraordinary. We were so busy with our studies that we virtually had no time to spend on small talk."

When Rav Shraga Feivel was ready to implement his next educational endeavor -- the Mesivta -- he already had a group of older boys who had spent 12 years in intense Jewish education and the idea of continuing Jewish studies after elementary school was becoming more palatable.

When Rav Shraga Feivel asked to open a full high school division, with structured Jewish and secular studies offered within the format of the school in 1927, his request met with resistance from the board. The board, truth to tell, had nobly maintained the elementary school through unflagging and exhaustive efforts, but to undertake the support of a high school on top of that was a burden that the members saw as overwhelmingly difficult and perhaps unjustified.

Once again, it was Wilhelm and another friend, Mr. Avrohom Lewin, who backed Rav Shraga Feivel. Despite the failure of Mr. Lewin's business during the growing Depression that hit America in those years, he staunchly agreed to buy a building at 505 Bedford Avenue for the Mesivta (as Rav Shraga Feivel called the high school to differentiate it from the elementary school, which was called "the yeshiva").

Shortly after Mr. Lewin purchased it, taking out large loans in his name, a real estate agent offered to buy it back from him at a much higher price -- that would have landed him a profit equal to three years of livelihood. But Mr. Lewin passed the difficult trial, and made the building available to the yeshiva. Eventually, with the help of Mr. Wilhelm, the committee board agreed to take the Mesivta under its wing and pay for its cost. However, the burden of running and maintaining it fell upon Rav Shraga Feivel.

It must be emphasized what an immense achievement this was. Not only had Yeshivas Torah Vodaas acquired a sterling name as a yeshiva with undiluted Torah values, but it was the only yeshiva at the time with a high school program. The other yeshiva schools, such as Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef, Rav Shlomo Kluger and Tiferes Yerushalayim, were only elementary schools with at best afternoon programs for public high school students.

Rav Shraga Feivel's concept of the Mesivta program had no parallel in any yeshiva in the world -- and not just because he had to concede secular studies and a high school degree. Besides gemora being taught on a high level, he insisted that the curriculum include Chumash and novi with their commentaries, the meanings of the prayers, knowledge of the 613 mitzvos, Jewish law, and sifrei yirah and mussar such as Sha'arei Teshuvah, Mesilas Yeshorim, and for select students, even Doros Harishonim, the detailed Jewish history book written by Rav Y. Halevi. Many of the latter courses he personally taught. He saw the utter importance of giving his students a solid foundation in Jewish faith and hashkofo that was taken for granted in the European yeshivos.

The atmosphere of the yeshiva was an unusual mix of Litvish learning taught by great Litvish scholars some of whom he brought over from Europe, with chassidic enthusiasm and soul which he himself injected. He integrated different approaches from various groups in Klal Yisroel and knew how to create a harmonious synthesis that appealed to his American students.

Although his influence permeated the yeshiva and every student in it, he humbly kept himself to the sidelines and refused to accept the title of "Rosh Mesivta" or even the more routine title of "Rabbi." He could not be found at the Mizrach of the beis hamedrash during prayers. He was the hinge on which the entire yeshiva turned, but to the unknowing eye, he seemed just an unassuming person filling a nondescript role. Who had ever heard of a man who built an entire yeshiva with mesiras nefesh -- only to refuse to take the mantle of honor it would bequeath to him?

In the shiurim Rav Shraga Feivel gave to the classes of the Mesivta he spoke constantly of Eretz Yisroel and the negative effect of college. In one shiur, to the astonished eyes of his students who didn't know if he was hallucinating or really meant it, he said that the day would come when he would found a kollel avreichim for them to continue their studies in Eretz Yisroel after their weddings. No one in their wildest dreams at the time even considered continuing their Torah studies after their weddings. Each student felt that his hands were full with just remaining in yeshiva for high school despite the disapproval of his parents, the mockery of his neighbors, the haughty looks of his more Americanized friends, and the spirit of materialism and heresy that blew in powerful gusts all around him.

The Mesivta grew, and Rav Shraga Feivel realized his dream of creating knowledgeable, deeply religious and committed Jews. Years later, he created Beis Midrash Elyon in an unknown town called Monsey near Spring Valley, where married students engaged in high-level Jewish studies and where Torah students went in the summer for a combined program of summer relaxation and Torah study.

Wellsprings of the Mesivta

Rav Shraga Feivel created soldiers who went forth to Jewish communities outside of New York and founded yeshivas and saved the remnant of religious Jews from going lost. He sent students to found new yeshivos: Lakewood, Telz, and the Nitra Yeshiva, and he gave up his own sorely-needed supporters instructing them to help support new yeshivos that were opening up elsewhere. He founded Beis Midrash Elyon, for advanced Torah study at a kollel level. One of his greatest dreams came to fruition when Torah Umesorah, whose goal was to create day schools and yeshivos all over the world, was founded.

By the time Rav Shraga Feivel passed away in 1948, American religious Jewry was still small and tender, but had deep and strong roots. Yeshivas Torah Vodaas had sprouted numerous rabbis and activists that helped create the prominent religious Jewish communities that we see today spread out throughout the U.S. and Canada.

With the mighty personality of Rav Shlomo Heiman, the rosh yeshiva who taught the older bochurim of the Mesivta from the years 1933-1943, Rav Shraga Feivel produced the first team of Torah scholars of stature on American soil, all of whom had incubated in the classrooms of Torah Vodaas. Men like HaRav Gedaliah Schorr, HaRav Pam, HaRav Yitzchok Sheiner, HaRav Moshe Aaron Stern, zt"l, and many others continued to reinvigorate Jewish religious life around the globe throughout the twentieth century.

The fabric of the American Jewish community began to change in the 1950s. The flood of survivors and the local religious community opened new yeshivos, the religious community burgeoned, a new religious-American weltanschauung developed which enabled a religious Jew to face American society with confidence and independence. While no longer being the only player in the field of Torah education, Yeshiva Torah Vodaas continued to play a prominent part in it, as it does until today.

Although Rav Shraga Feivel had passed away before my birth, I too owe my Torah life to him, since it was because of the urging of one of his notable talmidim that my father agreed to remove his children from public school and send us to the newly opened yeshiva in our Midwest town.

Wilhelm's Legacy

Binyomin Wilhelm was active in Torah Vodaas until his 80's, when he moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1968. Not one to tolerate slothfulness even at advanced old age, he promptly founded a network of afternoon programs for Sephardic youth in developing areas, which was to strengthen their commitment to Judaism. He called the network Mifal Torah Vodaas.

In Eretz Yisroel, he remarried a prominent Yerushalmi woman, and lived at Nechemia 3. He was close with former Torah Vodaas talmid HaRav Yitzchok Sheiner, who had married a granddaughter of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and settled in Jerusalem as the rosh yeshiva of Kaminetz Yeshiva.

One night late he was walking in his house when he fell down flat and didn't stir. His wife panicked, and called HaRav Sheiner. HaRav Sheiner bounded over and, bursting into the house, bent over the prostrate figure of Wilhelm. "Mr. Wilhelm, how are you?!" he said in alarm.

Wilhelm opened one eye and said calmly, "Oh, you're here, Yitzchok? I just had a great idea for Mifal Torah Vodaas!"

R' Binyomin Wilhelm was sick and feeble during the last months of his life, but his mind remained as idealistic and active as ever. His grandson, Rav Yisroel Belsky, was visiting him in 1974, two months before he passed away, when Wilhelm's wife served her husband a drink. "Nem a gluz fun tei," she entreated him. Wilhelm stopped a minute, deep in thought, and then turned to his grandson.

"In America they call it tea,'" he said reflectively. "Tee! Never forget -- tee!" (In Polish Yiddish, tee' means 'Do!)

Today, Binyomin Wilhelm's many hundreds of descendants are spread throughout the U.S., Canada, England and Eretz Yisroel, and have even reached Australia. They are devoted Jews engaged in Torah study and chesed, following the tradition so nobly upheld by their distinguished patriarch. His grandson Rav Yisroel Belsky, is a rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas, and the family's connection with Torah Vodaas remains firm.

The vibrant American religious community as we know it today would have been unthinkable were it not for the courage and tenacity of Binyomin Wilhelm and those rare individuals who made countless sacrifices to prove that Torah can indeed grow in a barren land.

(The author wants to thank Rav Yisroel Belsky for his assistance with this article. Part of the material was taken from Shlucha DeRachmana by R' Aaron Suraski.)

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Binyamin Wilhelm's Timeline

1886
June 14, 1886
Łódź, Łódź, Łódź Voivodeship, Poland
1916
1916
Age 29
1920
April 13, 1920
Age 33
New York, Kings, New York, United States
1921
1921
Age 34
1972
August 31, 1972
Age 86
Kings County, New York, United States
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