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Rabbi Shimon Romm: A Biography

From The Life and Times of Rabbi Shimon Romm: A Biography
The Commentator
By: Zalman AlpertIssue date: 12/6/04 Section: YUdaica

At a young age, Rabbi Romm lost his father and was sent by his mother to study at the yeshiva in Slonim. Although Slonim is now chiefly remembered for the Weinberg Hasidic dynasty that began there, it was in fact a real Mithnagdic town, with the greatest of Litvishe rabbanim (among them, Rabbi Mordechai Rosenblatt, known as the Oshmener Rav who, besides being a Talmudic giant was also a well known Poel Yeshuoth, the last of the Lithuanian Baalei Mofsim). In Slonim, the young Rabbi Romm studied under the famed Rabbi Shabsi Yagel, and was exposed to the oratorical talents of the communal rav, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fein HY"D. On numerous occasions, Rabbi Romm spoke of Rabbi Fein's impressive speaking abilities, even referring to him as the greatest rabbinical orator in inter-war Europe. After some time at Slonim, Rabbi Romm studied at the Mussar Yeshiva of Novardok before moving to Kletzk where he studied under the late Rabbi Aharon Kotler, who later came to America to establish the Beth Medrash Govoha and Kollel in Lakewood, New Jersey. Though he was close with Rabbi Kotler, Rabbi Romm never visited the Lakewood Kollel in the United States even while Rabbi Kotler was alive, which I suspect had to do with issues of hashkafa and geographical distance.

Rabbi Romm's final formal yeshiva years were spent in "Da Mir," the best known Yeshiva in Polish Lithuania. Here he studied both under Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, (son of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the famed Alter of Slabodka,) and under the rabbi of the town of Mir, Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Hirsch Kamai HY"D, who eventually conferred rabbinic ordination on Shimon Romm.

Despite the impressive list of teachers, Rabbi Romm remarked on several occasions that his "rabbo muvhak" (master teacher) was the 16th century Maharsha - Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels - a comment very much in tandem with another Lithuania giant, the Chazon Ish [Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz] who too bemoaned that modern post-Brisker yeshiva students were no longer steeped in the Maharsha.

Several years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Rabbi Romm married Kaila Eisenbod, the daughter of Rabbi Eliyahu Eisenbod of Vashilishok, a small town near Vilna with a strong tradition of Torah scholarship, even in modern times. The "Heiliger Chafetz Chaim," as Rabbi Romm referred to him, had lived in Vashilishok for a while.

When Rabbi Romm informed Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, the chairman of the Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah (Council of the Torah Sages) of the Agudath Israel, of his impending marriage to the Vashilishoker Rav's daughter, Reb Chaim Ozer congratulated him and told him that he wished that the Agudah would have such rabbinic members as Rabbi Eisenbod; the Vashilishoker Rav was a known Mizrachi leader. Indeed, it remains a little known fact that many of the Lithuanian rabbis in pre-war Poland were associated with Mizrachi. The Chafetz Chaim's eldest son, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Poupko (who assumed the surname to escape from compulsorily army service) served as president of the Polish Mizrachi for a number of years leading up to 1939.

Following his marriage, Rabbi Romm served as the "Rav Zair," the associate rabbi, of Vashilishok under his father-in-law, thus gaining experience in the fields of pastoral and practical rabbinics. He gave the daily Gemara shiur in the town's largest Beit Midrash. But in 1939, at the outbreak of the war, Rabbi Romm fled Lithuania with his family and the rest of the Mirrer Yeshiva, making their way across the Soviet Union and eventually in Shanghai. While in Shanghai, Rabbi Romm served as a teacher to the already tens of thousands of German Jews living there in addition to continuing studying at the yeshiva.

Yet unlike most of his fellow refugees that went Shanghai, Rabbi Romm managed to leave prior to the conclusion of the war. In 1942, together with a small group of Jews from Shanghai, Rabbi Romm left by steamer to Mozambique, then a mere colony administered by Portugal. In Mozambique he met a solitary Lithuanian Jew, who, in 1926, had built a small shul in anticipation of the Messiah, or in the least, in case other Jews came.

After a brief stay in Africa, Rabbi Romm left for Palestine with the help of its chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog, who he later became good friends with.

In Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Romm served as rabbi of the Gesundheit Shul in Tel Aviv. The Gesundheits were a prominent Polish family whose great-grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Gesundheit, served as Warsaw's first chief rabbi. Although a small synagogue, many leaders of the Yishuv prayed at the Gesundheit Shul and were impressed by Rabbi Romm's speaking talent. Among his congregants there were Rabbi Isaac Mayer Lewin, son of the Bendiner Rav and son-in-law of the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Alter, and Mr. Moshe Chaim Shapiro, a leader of the Mizrachi party.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, because of personal reasons, Rabbi Romm left Israel for the United States. Though Rabbi Herzog had promised him an important rabbinical position, Rabbi Romm stubbornly had already accepted an offer from his childhood friend from their days in Slonim together, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, who was the second president of Yeshiva.

Once he arrived in the United States Dr. Belkin made use of Rabbi Romm's speaking abilities to fundraise, sending him off to cities across the country. Thankfully, Dr. Belkin and the other roshei yeshiva soon realized that Rabbi Romm's talents could be better utilized in the shiur room, and was appointed a maggid shiur [lecturer] at Yeshiva's Teachers Institute (T.I.). When Rabbi Mendel Zaks (son-in-law of the Chafetz Chaim) died after serving as Yeshiva's official bochen [tester] for many years, Rabbi Romm became the official bochen, and soon thereafter, became a full-time rosh yeshiva at RIETS, where he taught hundreds of students, delivering well crafted and scholarly shiurim in a masterful Modern Hebrew.

The talents of Rabbi Romm, however, extended beyond the walls of Yeshiva. He also served as rabbi of Congregation Noda Bi-Yehuda in Washington Heights for many years. Although the synagogue was small, Rabbi Romm's service in the shul was most impressive. His Shabbat morning drashot were masterpieces delivered in a beautiful Lithuanian Yiddish. His speeches focused mainly on the Holocaust and the Renaissance of the Jewish people in terms of the creation of the State of Israel, which often ran close to an hour in length. He loved to quote the Midrash Tanchuma, the Torat Moshe [of the Chatam Sofer], and Meshech Chochma [of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk]. His drashot on Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbat Shuva always attracted large audiences from the neighborhood. During Seudat Shlishit on Shabbat afternoon, he would often morph into a Hasidic rebbe, relating Hasidic tales or exploring the teachings of the leaders of Hasidism.

The scholarly Rabbi Romm also found time to be involved politically, especially in the Mizrachi movement in America. In the 1950s and 60s, the halcyon days of Mizrachi, Rabbi Romm would often serve as the "warm up" speaker at its annual Lakewood convention, prior to the keynote address of his good friend, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik. As a Mizrachi leader, he also delivered a weekly Talmud shiur at Yeshiva for laymen; consequently, this shiur was the last Gemara shiur delivered in Yiddish at Yeshiva.

Though in his later years he became disenchanted with the policies of the State of Israel and at times sounded like an Agudah leader, Rabbi Romm always retained a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. It should be noted that Rabbi Romm's religious Zionism was not of the school of either Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook or his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook; rather, he considered himself a proponent on the Zionism forged by Rabbis Yaakov Yitzchak Reines, Yitzhak Nissenbaum and Isaac Rubenstein. Rabbi Romm was certainly no mystic, but he did believe in Israel as an important step in the realizations of Jewish messianic destiny.

Although Rabbi Romm gave his shiurim in Hebrew, he was a fervent lover of Yiddish and was well versed in the classics of Yiddish literature. At the same time, he also was quite familiar with the best of Modern Hebrew literature, particularly with Chaim Nachman Bialik. On one occasion, Rabbi Romm told me that Bialik's poetry was perfectly kosher, with the exception of some passages in two of his poems. He also was well educated in secular studies and was familiar with world literature and psychology. I recall feeling shocked when, in the course of conversation, he mentioned the German-Jewish thinker Otto Weininger. Rabbi Romm also kept up to date on world events and contemporary issues, including the Cold War, Israel, American politics, Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Despite joining RIETS, which culled almost of its faculty from Lithuanian traditions, Rabbi Room had a soft spot for Hasidut from his days in Solnim and other cities in White Russia. While he was still in Israel, Rabbi Romm maintained close contact with the fourth Belzer Rebbe, Aharon Rokeach. He was also close to both Rabbi Zalman L. Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe of Netanya and Rabbi Jacob J. Twersky, the Skverer Rebbe, for whom he administered several complicated rabbinic functions. Rabbi Romm also enjoyed a close relationship with the Bais Yisrael Rebbe, Yisrael Alter of Ger, whom he met through the Rebbe's brother-in-law Rabbi Isaac Mayer Lewin, head of the World Agudath Israel. Knowing my own Habad background, Rabbi Romm always inquired into the health status of the Lubavitcher Rebbe when he was critically ill. Often he himself would personally make a Mi She-Bairach [prayer for the sick] for the Rebbe. Alas when the Rebbe died, Rabbi Romm dedicated his weekly shiur to the memory of the Rebbe.

Watching Rabbi Romm walk with his rebbetzin, Kaila Romm, to shul on Shabbat morning along Bennett Avenue was always a lesson in spouse relations. Rabbi Romm not only respected and honored his own rebbetzin, but on almost every Shabbat upon arrival in shul, his first order of business was to the Mechitza; there he inquired to the health and welfare of a number of elderly widows who were members of our shul.

Rabbi Romm was fastidious in his appearance and was particular to present an image worthy of a talmid chacham, as was the custom amongst Lithuanian rabbanim in the 20th century. A Rosh Yeshiva of the highest caliber who, at his death in 1997, was the eldest rosh yeshiva at RIETS, Rabbi Romm also served his congregants in the Washington Heights community. But last and certainly not the least, he was a good and loyal friend. Zecher Zaddik Livracha.

Zalman Alpert is the Reference Librarian at the Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University.