Prof. Pinkhos Churgin: A Personal Tribute
Few of his generation amassed such a long list of outstanding
achievements in so many Jewish intellectual and administrative areas
as did Dr. Pinkhos Churgin, of blessed memory, my beloved teacher and
Pinkhos Churgin (1894 - 1957) was born in Belorussia into a rabbinic
family. His father, R. Reuven Yonah, was the rabbi of Pohost, a shtetl
near Pinsk. An ardent Zionist, his father decided to leave the secure
life in Pohost and immigrate to Jerusalem with his family in about
1906. There Churgin celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and studied in Yeshivat
Etz Hayyim before he left for study at the famous Volozhin yeshiva in
Poland (later Lithuania), where he received his semikha at the age of
eighteen. Eager to obtain a university education, he left Palestine in
1915 for the United States. He attended Clark College and Yale
University, where he earned his PhD in 1922 in the field of Semitics,
as a student of the famous researcher Charles C. Torrey. His
dissertation, Targum Jonathan to the Prophets, was published by Yale
in 1927 and has since become a classic. It was twice reprinted in the
Churgin quickly entered the world of Jewish affairs and Jewish
education, even before he received his PhD Over the years, he
published more than 200 articles in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, as
well as two further books of great importance: Targum Ktuvim (1945)
and Mechkarim b'Tekufat Bayit Sheni (1949). He also founded and edited
the semi-annual journal Horeb (1936-55), devoted to research in Jewish
history. Always concerned with Jewish education, he was an original
member of the New York Board of License for Hebrew teachers and
founded the Va'ad Ha-Hinuch Ha-Haredi, which later became associated
with the Mizrachi Organization of America. He also spearheaded the
movement for religious day schools in the U.S. and helped found the
Hebrew Teachers Seminary for Girls, later affiliated with Yeshiva as
the Teachers Institute for Women. He was active in the Jewish Book
Council of America and the Jewish Book Annual, and was co-editor of
the Hebrew journal Bitzaron (1949-55). Always active in the Mizrachi,
he was a delegate to several Zionist congresses, Vice-President, and
then, in 1949, President.
The center of Churgin's activities for thirty-five years (1920-55) was
what is now known as Yeshiva University. At the end of the second
decade of the century, there was still no institution equipped to
train qualified, modern Orthodox Hebrew teachers. The Mizrachi
Organization of America undertook sponsorship of a Teachers Institute
needed to fill the gap, affiliated with the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan
Yeshiva at Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side. Dr. Churgin
became a teacher in the fledgling Beit Midrash LeMorim in 1920. It was
an entirely new experiment, and the total number of students was
small, recruited from among graduates of Talmud Torahs and the three
Yeshiva Ketanos. The Institute became the first higher school of
learning to offer advanced studies in Gemara, in Tanakh, and in
Hebrew, within an Ivris B'Ivris environment, making its impact felt
throughout the Jewish educational world and serving as an impetus to
the eventual creation of Yeshivos Ketanos of similar orientation.
The first principal was R. Yaakov Levenson, of Chicago. Dr. Churgin
taught Tanakh, Jewish History and Hebrew Grammar. At first the
Institute was under the joint control of the Yeshiva and the Mizrachi
Organization, but this partnership was shortly dissolved in 1921 due
to financial difficulties, and full control remained in the hands of
the Yeshiva, which by this time had moved to 301 East Broadway. Not
everyone associated with the yeshiva viewed its association with the
Institute favorably, and begrudged the use of the rooms in the
far-from-spacious building for its classes, so that it had to make do
with minimal space. But Dr. Revel, the head of the Yeshiva, lent his
unwavering support, and in 1923 Dr. Churgin was appointed principal.
At first, there were two classes, which Dr. Churgin gradually
subdivided into four, always finding room to absorb in the staff
gifted teachers recommended by Dr. Revel. By 1927 there was already a
full four-year program of classes. In 1928, when the Yeshiva moved its
headquarters to 186th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and opened Yeshiva
College, the prestige of the Beit Midrash LeMorim was enhanced as well
and there was no longer a need to struggle for students. There were
already 150 registered students in 1930.
Although the period between 1930 and 1937 was a time of great
suffering for everyone on the faculty, because of the Great
Depression, not only was work carried on but progress was made with
plans for growth and expansion. The program of studies at the
Institute was lengthened in 1942 to five years, and in 1945 it was
extended and became a six-year curriculum. This became possible
because of the existence of the College, which enabled the students to
pursue their secular training in higher studies in the afternoon
hours, as they did in their high school studies (at Talmudical
Academy). This extension was vital, because the nature of the student
body had been gradually changing. Most of the students in the 1920s
were emigrant Europeans, who had a better basis in Jewish studies.
Four more years of training was more than sufficient for them to get a
rounded and substantial Jewish education, definitely qualifying them
for teaching, whereas later on, in the 1930s, most of the students
were American-born, who did not have such a firm basis, and therefore
required more years of study to qualify as teachers.
But Dr. Churgin's activities at the Yeshiva were not limited to the
administration of the Beit Midrash LeMorim. At the request of Dr.
Revel, he undertook to plan for the development of graduate studies at
Yeshiva College. As a member of a special committee to oversee changes
in the College program and organization, together with Dr. Samuel
Belkin, and Dr. Moses Isaacs, changes were made in salaries for the
teaching staff, in the curriculum, and in the hours of classes, these
being limited to 7:00 in the evening, cutting down from the previous
11:00 o'clock limit. Eventually, Churgin became Senior Professor of
Jewish History and Literature in the Graduate School as well.
The death of Dr. Revel in 1940 created a crisis jeopardizing Yeshiva's
continued progress. A vigorous attempt was made by the Agudath
HaRabbanim to wrest control of the Yeshiva from its leadership,
because it bestowed semikha, which they felt should not be in the
domain of Yeshiva College. They did not foresee the need for modern
Orthodox rabbis who could take their place in the modern synagogues
throughout the country. Dr. Churgin was a member of the committee that
was appointed to deal with the emergency; it reconstituted itself as
the central Board of Directors of the Yeshiva, preventing any
takeover. It was decided to have Dr. Isaacs, Dr. Belkin, and Dr.
Churgin elevated to the Deanship: Dr. Churgin of the Beit Midrash
LeMorim, Dr. Samuel Belkin of the Yeshiva, Dr. Isaacs of the College;
and Dr. Samuel Sar as the Dean of Men. The Executive Board, consisted
of the Deans, plus the representatives of the chairmen (R. Joseph
Lookstein and R. Leo Jung). Dr. Churgin played an influential role in
the decision to appoint Dr. Belkin as president of Yeshiva and
remained his chief advisor for many years.
Dr. Churgin's crowning achievement, after more than three decades of
service to Yeshiva University as one of its most influential leaders,
was founding and serving as first president of Bar- Ilan University of
Ramat Gan, Israel, the preparations for which are a remarkable saga in
themselves. Before leaving for Israel on March 28, 1955 to take up his
new post, Yeshiva University on March 27 conferred on him the honorary
degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Shortly before this notable event,
he delivered the following statement in an interview with Dr. Hyman
Grinstein, his successor at the Teachers Institute: "Bar-Ilan
University represents actually an extension of what we were doing in
the Yeshiva. We want, through Bar-Ilan University, to train a cultured
generation in Israel, intellectual leaders, who at the same time will
be based and rooted in Judaism, to guard the coming generations from
an annihilating secularism. We believe that Judaism can go hand in
hand with science and general culture, and we believe in the strength
and the power of Judaism. It has enough strength in itself to not only
recreate its past glories but to fashion new glories, and to bring new
revelations, spiritual guidance, spiritual light to itself and to the
world. And that is mainly the purpose of Bar-Ilan University.
Personally, I believe that Bar Ilan University will not only be a
sister institution to Yeshiva University, but - I would not say part
of it, because we cannot have a part in Eretz Yisrael - but it will
become a partner with the Yeshiva and a joiner with the Yeshiva in the
great work of bringing about a great renaissance of the Jewish
I was privileged to serve under Pinkhas Churgin, President of Bar-Ilan
University, as its first Academic Secretary (Registrar), from 1955
till the close of 1959, and I recall our standing on the stage of the
newly constructed Schleifer Auditorium, surveying the empty hall
waiting for rows of seats to be installed. Prof. Churgin, gesturing
toward the entrance, proclaimed: "From there, in four years' time, God
willing, the first graduating class will march up to get their BA
diplomas." To our great loss and distress, he was no longer with us
when that happy occasion arrived, but he knew that his newly
established Torah-true University had taken root and was on its way to
achieving the goals he had set.
Professor Pinkhos Churgin, outstanding figure of vision and practice,
of learning and teaching, of planning and execution, an incomparable
teacher, a personality distinguished by his personal warmth and
magnetism, his love for his fellow-men, his support and encouragement
of his many students, will always serve as a model of perseverance,
dignity, and selflessness in his devotion to his people, their culture
and their destiny. Yehi Zichro Baruch.
Mr. Menachem Bloch, YC '47, was the first Registrar and served as
Senior Teacher of English (1970-1994) at Bar Ilan University.
One man has a dream..... "to create an institution of higher learning
in the newly-established Jewish republic in which Jewish learning and
the Torah of Israel would be studied together with all the latest
findings in the fields of human research".
"A university demonstrating that", wrote Bar-Ilan's architect and
founder Prof. Pinkhos Churgin, "Judaism is not a cloistered way of
life, removed from scientific investigation and worldly knowledge....
A college of excellence that will strive to implant within the heart
of each student an unswerving faith in the unity of our people with
all of its diversity, in all of its divisions and parts".
Prof. Churgin, an American rabbi and educator, nourished the dream and
pursued it relentlessly. A graduate of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva,
scholar of Semitics, and professor of Jewish history and literature at
Yeshiva University, Churgin gathered around him an elite group of
American orthodox academics and leaders who shared his vision.
Central figures in this group were Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Lookstein
(later Bar-Ilan Chancellor), Rabbi Zemach Zambrowsky, Rabbi M.
Kirshblum, Prof. Saul Lieberman and Rabbi Prof. Emanuel Rackman (later
to become Bar-Ilan president), along with philanthropists Philip, Max
and Frieda Stollman of Detroit.
1950. Getting Started.
Meeting in Atlantic City, the leadership of Mizrachi Religious
Zionists of America enthusiastically endorsed Churgin's vision and
adopted the project. An Israeli founders committee was established,
involving national religious leaders Moshe Haim Shapira, Dr. Joseph
Burg, Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, David Pinkas, Herman Hollander, M. D.
Magid, Y. Karib, Rabbi Zev Gold and others.
The name Bar-Ilan was chosen, in honor of Rabbi Meir Bar- Ilan
(Berlin), a spiritual leader who led traditional Judaism from the
ashes of Europe to rebirth and renaissance in the Land of Israel.
1951. Churgin meets the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben- Gurion to
inform him of the decision, and sets-out to raise funds among the
Jewish communities in Canada and the US. At first, the Prime Minster
was unenthusiastic about Bar-Ilan. "As long as it doesn't cost the
government any money", he told Prof. Churgin. But he rapidly warmed to
the institution, later charging Bar-Ilan with guidance of the National
Bible Quiz, a project Ben-Gurion initiated and nurtured.
1952. The Government and the Jewish National Fund allocate land in
Ramat Gan for construction of a campus; 1953. The university
cornerstone is laid.
1955. Opening ceremonies are held followed by the beginning of classes
(with 56 students). On May 10, 1955 The New York Times headlined the
establishment of the university with a front page story:
"New Israeli University to Open in Fall Stressing Judaism Study.
Bar-Ilan, Sponsored by Mizrachi Group, Regarded as Cultural Link
Between the Republic and America".
US President Eisenhower and leaders the world over sent messages of
congratulations upon the university's founding.
Yet many Israeli editorialists and politicians, antagonistic to
Bar-Ilan's traditional orientation and skeptical of its ability to
excel, remained aloof. On the other side of the spectrum,
ultra-orthodox elements fired missives at the young religious
university, rejecting Bar-Ilan's synthesis of religion and modernity.
Prof. Churgin's response to all this was that "if we're being
criticized from both the right and left, clearly we are doing
something right..." Bar-Ilan, he felt, would breathe new life and a
fresh Judaic perspective into the study of sciences and humanities in
the 20th century; and at the same time, the university would augment
and revolutionize the traditional study of Torah in the yeshiva world.
1956. In April, Bar-Ilan's first eight buildings are dedicated by
President Churgin with the participation of Israeli President Yitzhak
Ben-Tzvi. "Bar-Ilan serves as a bridge between Israel and the
Diaspora", Churgin said at the dedication. Indeed, more than half the
students in Bar- Ilan's first class came from the US and Canada.
But Bar-Ilan 'turned Israeli' fast, and from the start placed
community involvement high on its agenda. First-year students and
teachers spent their vacation in the swamps of the Beit Shean Valley
and in guard posts along the Jordan, in Jewish refugee camps and among
new groups of immigrants, and in the nearby Tel Hashomer Hospital
during the 1956 Suez campaign.
1957. Tragically, Prof. Churgin died shortly after the university's
third-year opening ceremony. In his last address, he sketched an
outline for the future: establishment of a center for research into
Jewish law, a holocaust studies center, new physics laboratories, a
central library and regional colleges in the Galilee and Negev. Today,
Churgin's vision in entirety -- and beyond -- has become reality.
Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Lookstein succeeded Churgin at the university's
Deborah Krohn and Peter Miller (grandson of Pinchas Churgin who
studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva)
Published: June 29, 1997
Dr. Deborah Leslie Krohn, an assistant museum educator at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is to be married this evening
to Dr. Peter Neal Miller, a fellow of the National Endowment for the
Humanities. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is to perform the ceremony at the
Water's Edge, a restaurant in Long Island City, Queens.
Dr. Krohn, 36, who is keeping her name, graduated from Princeton
University, from which she also received a master's degree in art
history. She received a Ph.D. in art history from Harvard University.
She is a daughter of Dr. and dMrs. David L. Krohn of New York. The
bride's father is a professor of ophthalmology at New York University
and also practices in New York. Her mother, Barbara Ehrenwald Krohn,
is a sculptor and also the executive editor at Balsam Press,
publishers in New York.
Dr. Miller, 32, is to begin a fellowship in October at the Institute
for Advanced Study in Berlin. He graduated magna cum laude and
received a master's degree in history from Harvard, where he was
elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received a Ph.D. in history from
Cambridge University, where he also is a fellow of Clare Hall.
He is the son of Naomi Churgin Miller of New York and the late Samuel
R. Miller. The bridegroom's mother retired as a professor of history
at Hunter College. His father was a production supervisor at the New
Era Lithograph Company in New York. The bridegroom's maternal
grandfather, the late Pinchas Churgin, was a founder of Bar-Ilan
University in Ramat-Gan, Israel.