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Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Halevi Ruderman Zt”l

Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel of Baltimore

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY.

On His Yahrtzeit 14 Tamuz

As we enter the twentieth year since the passing of the revered Rosh Yeshiva and founder of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel of Baltimore, the Yated presents highlights of his life as told by his talmidim. We thank the talmidim who shared with us their oral and written memories of the Rosh Yeshiva.

It was in 1933 in Baltimore. The first few talmidim of Yeshiva Ner Yisroel had begun learning in a local shul. They had no idea that they were making Torah history on the American scene. Within a year the group had swelled to ten.

Rabbi Moshe Lefkovitz, one of the yeshiva’s four founding talmidim, remembered how the bochurim would learn in one shul, sleep in different houses throughout the city and ate somewhere else. He approached the Rosh Yeshiva and said, “Rebbe, we are in different homes, we have to be mafsik so many times to go to the shul, back to the home, back to the shul, when are we going to have a dormitory and dining hall?” The Rosh Yeshiva was dressed as usual, wearing a frock coat, with a beautiful vest, and his wedding watch on a chain entangled in the loops of his vest. Slowly he started to take out his watch. “I did not know exactly what he was doing, until he finally got it untied. Taking the watch out of his pocket he handed it to me saying, ‘Ich geb eich a mashkin, I am giving you a security, that in two weeks you will have a dormitory and dining room.’ I replied, ‘Rebbe, I don’t need a mashkin from you. Your word to me is holy.’ And indeed, the words were said and done - in two weeks we all moved into the Yeshiva. We had a dormitory in the shul.”

Rabbi Lefkovitz followed the Rosh Yeshiva from Cleveland to Baltimore to be one of the first talmidim in the yeshiva. He recalls his trepidation from that first September in 1933 and his subsequent conversation with the Rosh Yeshiva: “We came into the yeshiva, which was actually the shul in which the Rosh Yeshiva was Rav and we learned there. Afterwards I expressed my disappointment to the Rosh Yeshiva. “Rebbe, for myself, I am not disappointed. I am only disappointed because I am afraid. I was always concerned about the future of Yiddishkeit and now that I am here I am even more concerned. I see only four boys forming a yeshiva in a building that is not their own and I wonder what is going to be the future of Yiddishkeit? Where are the boys?” the Rosh Yeshiva answered me with an answer he would repeat many times, “Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker – the Eternal of Israel does not say falsehood. Zurg zich nisht – don’t worry. That is the Ribbono Shel Olam’s concern, not yours.”

Indeed, with phenomenal siyata dishmaya and a sense of mission, Rav Ruderman helped plant Torah in Baltimore, throughout the entire United States and Canada in a manner and on a scale inconceivable to any Jew living in 1933. By the time he passed away in Tamuz of 5747 (1987), the Yeshiva had many hundreds of talmidim and many thousands of alumni who mourned their Rebbe muvhak.

Hallowed Beginnings

Rav Ruderman was born on Shushan Purim in 5660 (1900) in Dolhinov, a small shtetl near Vilna. He was born late in life to his parents, Reb Yehuda Leib and Sheina, the first son after six daughters. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Ruderman’s illustrious cousin who is named after the same person related a fascinating story about how Rav Ruderman got his name. A year before his birth, an elderly, childless Jew named Reb Yitzchok assured Reb Yehuda Leib that he would have a son and made him promise to name the child Yitzchok. Thinking that it was unlikely that he would have a son, Reb Yehuda Leib half jokingly agreed. A year later, when his son was born, his mother wanted to name him Yaakov after her father. A halachic shayla was asked and the psak was that he be given both names Yaakov Yitzchok.

One of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s early recollections was that of reciting krias Shema at his newborn cousin’s bedside. Thus began a friendship that would span eight decades.

Reb Yehuda Leib was a melamed. Rav Ruderman often stated that his father knew Shas with Tosafos well, but even though he may have eclipsed his father in learning, he did not even approach his level of avoda and yiras shamayim. Reb Yehuda Leib recognized his young son’s prodigious talents and encouraged him to learn. The child was awakened early to learn a blatt before davening and was rewarded for every Daf memorized. As a result he mastered Seder Nashim and Nezikin before his bar mitzva.

Threaded through every chapter of Rav Ruderman’s life are stories of his complete immersion in learning to the exclusion of all else. Once, a talmid was speaking with an elderly man, a native of Lithuania. Upon hearing the name of the Rosh Yeshiva, the man exclaimed, “Ruderman from Dolhinov? Can’t be! That’s extremely interesting. He was well known in the town, a ten year old boy who would walk down the main street talking to himself! He did this every day from morning until evening. And you say this boy became a Rosh Yeshiva?!”

Upon returning to Baltimore, the bochur reported this conversation to the Rosh Yeshiva, who confirmed it. “I would walk back and forth along the street, learning pages of Gemara by heart. In my pocket I kept a small Gemara and occasionally when I was afraid I hadn’t repeated what was written accurately enough, I would look into the Gemara and then continue.”

Shortly before his bar mitzvah, Reb Yehuda Leib took him for a bracha to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Shalom Ber, zt”l. The Rebbe was so impressed that he blessed the boy that he should grow to be an “adam gadol.” The Rebbe wanted the youth to learn in Lubavitch, but Reb Yehuda Leib chose instead to send him to Slonim.

The young ilui from Dolhinov soon developed a remarkable reputation. At that time it was customary for Slabodka talmidim to seek exceptional bochurim to join Slabodka. The future Chevron Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yechezkel Sarna, zt”l, who was already one of the Alter of Slabodka’s closest talmidim, convinced the young genius to join Slabodka. That decision was undoubtedly a watershed in his life.

It was in the middle of World War I when Rav Ruderman joined Slabodka when it was in the city of Minsk after it had fled eastward, away from the approaching German Army. In Minsk, he merited to meet the revered gadol hador, Rav Chaim Brisker. It seems that Rav Chaim discerned tremendous potential in the young ilui and realized that he would need special care to withstand wartime difficulties. Towards that end, unbeknown to Rav Ruderman, Rav Chaim arranged for a certain wealthy Yid to provide him with extra money so that his learning would not be adversely affected by hunger. Only after Rav Chaim’s passing in 1918 when the support ceased did Rav Ruderman become aware of Rav Chaim’s role in caring for him.

The Alter also displayed an enormous amount of affection towards the youngster. He assigned Rav Yechezkel Sarna to serve as his ‘eltere bochur.’

Rav Ruderman learned with tremendous hasmada, but he was completely unable to keep to sedorim of the Yeshiva. The Alter gave him latitude to learn in his own way as long as he achieved the pre-set goals. It was decided that he attempt to complete Shas that winter. Rav Ruderman would take long walks during which he would review Gemaros and Sedarim by heart. He was well along the way to reaching his goal when the Alter received a telegram shortly after Sukkos advising of the petira of Reb Yehuda Leib. Not wishing to interfere with his talmid’s learning regimen, the Alter chose not to tell him the terrible news. Only after Pesach when he had achieved his goal, was he informed of his father’s passing. The Alter remarked that the completion of Shas would be a far greater zechus for his fathers neshama, than all the recitations of kaddish that he missed.

Rav Ruderman was well aware of the special treatment afforded him and the enormous responsibility to succeed that came with it. The special treatment also made him realize how much he had to learn from his Rebbi, clearly a master mechanech and how important it was to observe the Alter’s manner of dealing with others and way of reacting to various situations.

One of the most extraordinary stories depicting the treatment afforded him by the Alter, occurred through his desire to leave Slabodka with a group of iluim to learn with Rav Itzale Ponovizher, zt”l, renown for having one of the most phenomenal minds of that time. When Rav Ruderman disclosed his plan to the Alter, the Alter took him to a window and showing him a nearby river suggested, ‘Throw yourself into the river here. Why bother traveling elsewhere to drown?” It was only a matter of time before the Alter’s prophetic insight was confirmed. Most of that group did not remain attached to Torah.

It once happened that a visiting rabbinical dignitary was given an aliya while in Slabodka and enunciated the bracha with unusual feeling. Impressed, the young Yaakov Yitzchok shared his awe with the Alter who responded, “Yes, very admirable – if he also says it that way every morning during the birchos hashachar…”

In many ways, Rav Ruderman followed in his Rebbi’s footsteps. For example he constantly observed and heard from the Alter that the Alter consulted gedolim with questions regarding the yeshiva. In particular he would turn to Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Meir Simcha and Rav Chaim Ozer. Similarly, in the initial years, Rav Ruderman corresponded with Rav Chaim Ozer and later, he consulted Rav Yechezkel Abramsky for advice. A case in point was when Ner Yisroel was slated to move from the city to the new campus. A Baptist group offered to purchase the existing building for more than four hundred thousand dollars above any other offer. The Rosh Yeshiva, besides being aware of the chilul Hashem that might result from selling a Yeshiva to a Baptist school, was afraid to refuse such a huge sum of community funds without asking a shaila. Rav Abramsky considered the matter for a short period before agreeing with that the Rosh Yeshiva should forgo the extra money.

His talmidim in Baltimore understand their great zechus to have had a Rebbi whose every action was a reflection of the Alter. On the Alter’s 50th yahrtzeit, Rav Ruderman and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky were invited to Lakewood to speak. Rav Schneur Kotler related that when Rav Yaakov was unable to attend he stated that “The Baltimore Rosh Yeshiva is the most reflective personality of the Alter in our generation.”

The Rosh Yeshiva endeared himself to many gedolim whom he had been privileged to meet in his youth and particularly those whom he had met in a resort area where he would frequently spend his summer bein hazemanim. There he would take walks with the Telzer Rav, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, and would talk in learning for hours with Rav Chaim Telzer. It was there that he also developed a very close relationship with one of the great elder Rabbonim of Lita, Rav Leib Vilkomirer, the father-in-law of the Ponovizher Rav. One evening, Rav Leib was talking with him in learning and the Rosh Yeshiva asked a question after which he went to sleep. Very early the next morning he was awoken by the elderly gadol with an answer to his kushya. Rav Ruderman would often cite this story as an example of pure ahavas haTorah of that generation.

On his rare visits to Vilna, the Rosh Yeshiva would spend the bulk of his time in the home of Rav Chaim Ozer who would devote much attention to him. The Rosh Yeshiva recalled once when he had not been to see Rav Chaim Ozer for more than five years, he walked into the house assuming he would have to reintroduce himself. Much to his surprise as he entered, Rav Chaim Ozer exclaimed, “The Dolhinover is here.” Rav Chaim Ozer then dropped what he was doing to devote himself to Rav Ruderman.

In addition, he was privileged to share a special relationship with the Kovner Rav, Rav Avrohom Kahana Shapiro, author of Dvar Avrohom. It was the Dvar Avrohom who not only urged the Rosh yeshiva to write his sefer Avodas Levi, but even reviewed several simanim and praised even more than the content, the clarity with which it was written.

One thing in which Rav Ruderman particularly took pride was the fact that he merited to receive smicha from Rav Meir Atlas, the revered father-in-law of Rav Elchonon Wasserman. This smicha traced back to the Vilna Gaon as Rav Meir Atlas had received smicha from Rav Eizele Charif, who was in turn a musmach of Rav Abbale Peslover who had received smicha directly from the Gaon, thus Rav Ruderman was a direct link in this chain of the mesora back to the Vilan Gaon.

Building Torah in America

In 5684 (1924), Rav Ruderman married the daughter of Rav Sheftel Kramer, a son-in-law of Rav Shraga Feivel Frank and brother-in-law of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Baruch Horowitz.

The Rebbetzin was his partner and help mate in all of his undertakings on behalf of Yiddishkeit. Not only did she free him from the yoke of responsibility in the material aspects of the house, but she was also instrumental in helping him achieve lofty spiritual pursuits. Later, when they moved to America and Rav Ruderman sought to build a yeshiva in a country that had no understanding of the concept, it was the Rebbetzin who constantly encouraged him to persevere rather than be deterred by the numerous stumbling blocks placed in his way. It was the Rebbetzin who organized fundraisers and donations of staples for the yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva was eternally grateful for all that she had done and, many decades later, upon her passing several years before his petira, the Rosh Yeshiva was simply inconsolable.

During the first years after their marriage the Rosh Yeshiva devoted himself to complete immersion in learning. In 1931, the Rosh Yeshiva, Rebbetzin and their baby daughter immigrated to the United States. Rav Ruderman joined his father-in-law, Rav Sheftel Kramer in the yeshiva of New Haven that had re-located to Cleveland where the latter served as Menahel Ruchani.

In 1933, Rav Ruderman decided to accept a position as Rav of the Tiferes Yisroel Shul in Baltimore with the understanding that he could use the facilities for a Yeshiva. His father-in-law convinced four bochurim to travel with him to Baltimore. Rav Moshe Lefkovitz, one of the members of that group of boys, recalls the clear sense of mission with which his Rebbi was endowed. “It was only after we arrived in Baltimore that I realized that not only did the Rebbi have a tremendous mind, a tremendous knowledge, but he had an even stronger conviction. He was convinced that ultimately yeshivos will flourish in America like they flourished in Europe. This was at a time when there was minimal Yiddishkeit in America. All Yiddishkeit was in Europe. If one needed a Rebbi, a melamed, a baal koreh, one went to Europe. Nevertheless Rav Ruderman would say that yeshivos would eventually flourish in this country, even more than in Europe. Another thing he would say to me was, “Do you think that Hashem created you, an American, any different than He created a European boy?! No! If a boy in Europe was created so that he could become a gadol in America, you can become the same gadol as you could have become in Europe. Don’t worry!” He reiterated this countless times until it became stuck in our minds. I was so encouraged by his words that even though there were only four of us with no dormitory and no facility, we sat down and learned with great hasmada. We learned to such an extent that the baalei batim of the shul began to complain that the electric lights were burning too late. We learned so well that our reputation spread. Soon boys came from Baltimore, Toronto, Cleveland and New York. Soon we counted ten, maybe even more than ten…”

The following story often related by the Rosh Yeshiva provides a window into the sense of haplessness with regard to the flourishing of Torah that existed among American Jews - even among the religious Jews and Rabbanim - during the Rosh Yeshiva’s first two decades in America. In the early 1940s, Rav Aharon Kotler came to Baltimore to raise funds for his fledgling yeshiva in Lakewood. Rav Ruderman brought Rav Aharon to a distinguished wealthy Jew and after explaining that Rav Aharon was founding a new yeshiva, the Jew asked Rav Ruderman if he could speak with him privately. He then asked him, “Rebbi, why are you permitting Rav Aharon to undergo the indignities of collecting for a yeshiva? Yeshivos won’t grow here! I will get Rav Aharon a job as a shochet in a local slaughter house and this way he will at least be able to sustain himself with honor.”

Despite all the scoffers, the yeshiva in Baltimore grew steadily but slowly, with Rav Ruderman totally committed to his dream that here would rise a great Torah center. Rav Shimon Schwab recalled an occasion when Rav Ruderman pointed out a large, multi-story apartment house as being suitable for the yeshiva. In reply to Rav Schwab’s amused and surprised expression, the Rosh Yeshiva exclaimed, “Do you doubt that will have a yeshiva the size of Slabodka here?”

The yeshiva’s early growth intensified through the recognition and support of prominent Rabbanim. Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, Menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaas and unquestionably one of the most important figures in the development of Torah in America, sent bochurim from New York whom he thought would benefit. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky sent his children from Toronto which in those days was a major distance away. Rav Yehoshua Klavan, one of the foremost talmidim of Rav Baruch Ber and the Rav of Washington, D.C. was among the staunchest supporters of the Yeshiva. He not only sent a son to learn in the Yeshiva, he even raised funds for the upkeep and growth of the Yeshiva. Furthermore, during the winter months when Rav Ruderman would occasionally suffer from laryngitis, Rav Klavan would come from Washington to deliver the daily shiur. Rav Naftoli Zvi Yehuda Riff, a grandson of the Netziv and the Rov of Camden, New Jersey was also extremely helpful.

Total Immersion in Torah

Without a doubt, it was the power of the Rosh Yeshiva’s total immersion in Torah; his contagious ahavas Torah and his complete belief in the eternity of Torah that enabled him to become the quintessential Rosh Yeshiva and Torah builder. His love of Torah was such that it overcame even the most natural human limitations. Once, during the early years of the Yeshiva at its current campus, a fire broke out in the building where the Rosh Yeshiva lived. Everyone immediately evacuated the building. Suddenly Rav Ruderman ran back into the burning building exclaiming, “I forgot an absolutely irreplaceable item!” What was the item for which he risked his life? His very rare copy of the sefer Nesivos Hamishpat on Rabbeinu Yeruchem.

His dedication to learning knew no bounds. His encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim, Poskim, Acharonim and teshuvos set a lofty standard for which to strive. The Rosh Yeshiva stimulated lively discussions thereby deepening interest and broadening horizons, by challenging his students to bring proof from one Gemara to a seemingly unrelated issue.

He constantly focused the attention of his talmidim and their awareness to the breadth and inter-relationship of all of Torah. He was always involved in a kushya. In fact, he would say that he used questions as memory keys with which to remember the Gemara. Therefore, he was always ready with a penetrating query or comment that would lend insight to whatever Gemara one mentioned. He lived with his questions and was constantly seen with his lips moving as he was totally and consistently absorbed in learning.

Rarely was his sleep at night not disturbed by the kushya with which he went to bed. This total involvement was transmitted to his talmidim.

On par with his love for Torah, was the Rosh Yeshiva’s love for his students. If ever a talmid asked him a good question or related a nice sevora his face would radiate delight. When one of the talmidim had the good fortune to ask or say something that was new to him, he would be ecstatic. Many talmidim had the fortune to be embarrassed by the Rosh Yeshiva when they would be reminded years later of an insightful Torah thought that they themselves had long since forgotten.

A revealing incident occurred when he was learning in Slabodka and a visitor arrived bearing a copy of the newly published sefer Ohr Same’ach. The young bochur asked to borrow the sefer but was refused permission as the man planned to continue his journey the following day. Rav Ruderman was undaunted. He borrowed the sefer for one night promising to return it in the morning. Over night he went through and mastered the sefer in its entirety!

On another occasion, the Rosh Yeshiva was once undergoing a lengthy medical procedure. The doctor, wishing to distract the Rosh Yeshiva from the pain and unpleasantness, engaged him in small talk. Throughout the procedure the Rosh Yeshiva continuously nodded his head in agreement. After leaving the clinic, he explained to the talmid accompanying him wonderful approach to the sugya that had occurred to him in the midst of the procedure. He then suddenly interrupted himself, “By the way, perhaps you heard what the doctor was saying to me? I nodded to him out of respect, but what did he want?”

The Rosh Yeshiva once complained to his talmid, Rav Yisroel Dov Kaplan, today Rosh Kollel in Bayit Vegan, “Nowadays, people do not learn. When I was fifteen, learning in Slabodka we would get up at five in the morning and go to sleep after midnight. We learnt fifty blatt a day, every day!”

Once on a long trip, the Rosh Yeshiva was accompanied by two bochurim from the yeshiva who decided to utilize the duration of the journey to go over several pages of Maseches Brachos which they had committed to memory. The Rosh Yeshiva was seated right in front of them and they noticed that he was shifting about in his seat uncomfortably. From time to time he walked around and fixed them with a piercing look. “What kind of Gemara are you using over there, is it a different girsa?” he asked. Scarcely concealing their pride, the bochurim replied, “We don’t have a Gemara, we’re going over what we learnt by heart!”

The Rosh Yeshiva, with a smile on his face, proceeded to quote the exact language of the gemara.

When he was already in his 80s, a talmid relates, “I went to daven Mincha with the Rosh Yeshiva and he complained that the strong medicines he was taking for his numerous ailments caused him to forget. The talmid asked, “Has the Rosh Yeshiva forgotten any Tosafos in Shas?” Immediately the Rosh Yeshiva banged his cane and forcefully said, ‘No! No! No Tosafos. I mean a chiddush in a difficult Rambam that I once said - I have trouble remembering in its entirety.” The talmid related that the way in which he could not even contemplate the horror of forgetting a Tosafos was an indication of ahavas Torah and devotion to Torah that remained with him for ever.

Rabbis of the New World

R' Yaakov Yitzchak Halevi Ruderman z"l was born on Shushan Purim in 5601/1901

in Dolhinov, Russia, where his father, R' Yehuda Laib, was the rabbi. He

studied in Yeshivat Knesset Yisrael in Slobodka, then headed by R' Nosson Zvi

Finkel (the "Alter") and R' Moshe Mordechai Epstein z"l. (Slobodka produced

more future leaders of American Torah Jewry than any European yeshiva. Among

R' Ruderman's colleagues in Slobodka were R' Reuven Grozovsky; R' Ruderman's

first cousin, R' Yaakov Kaminetsky; R' Aharon Kotler; R' Yitzchak Hutner; R'

Yaakov Moshe Lessin, and others.) R' Ruderman received semichah/ordination

from R' Epstein in 1926. At approximately the same time, R' Ruderman

published his only written work, Avodat Halevi. In 1930, R' Ruderman joined

his father-in-law, R' Sheftel Kramer, at the latter's yeshiva in Cleveland.

(R' Kramer previously had taught at the yeshiva of R' Levenburg in New Haven,

Connecticut, the first yeshiva in the United States outside of New York.) In

1933, R' Ruderman moved to Baltimore and founded the Ner Israel yeshiva. R'

Ruderman led that yeshiva for 54 years until his passing and built it into

one of the largest yeshivot in America, producing numerous rabbis, educators

and learned laymen. Outside of his own yeshiva, R' Ruderman was involved in

many aspects of Jewish communal life. His death on 14 Tamuz 5747/July 11,

1987 followed less than one-and-a-half years after the passing of R'

Kaminetzky and R' Moshe Feinstein (both of whom died just before Purim of

1986). With the passing of these three giants of the Lithuanian yeshiva

world, many considered an era to have ended in American Jewish history.

Posthumously, R' Ruderman's students have published two volumes of his

teachings: Sichot Levi contains mussar/ethical insights based on the weekly

parashah, while Mas'at Levi contains lectures on the 19th century work

Minchat Chinuch and other Tamudic and halachic insights. Copyright © 1998 by

Shlomo Katz and Project Genesis, Inc.