July 21, 2024
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Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff: The Rabbi Who Lives History

New York—Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, professor of rabbinic literature at YU’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute came to town recently to be celebrated at the launch of the republication of two biographies that he authored: Bernard Revel: Builder of American Orthodoxy and The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation. He was also invited to give a lecture. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s semi-official “historian,” he earned those kudos as both a witness and participant in the rebirth of Orthodox Judaism in America (and Israel).

His book about Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel tells the story of the founder of Yeshiva University and its first president. The Silver Era describes Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the president and moving force behind Agudath HaRabanim and Vaad Hatzalah—an organization that raised money to free the students of Mir and pay for the Kasztner Transport organized by representatives of the Jewish Agency in Budapest (who were ultimately betrayed by that agency) and Rabbi Dov Ber Weissmandl of the Nitre Yeshiva in Slovakia, leader of the Vaad in Europe. (Between them, tens of thousands of Jews were saved. Disclosure: the author’s Polish mother was put on the Kasztner train by the Vaad and thus survived.)

Revel and Silver stand as representatives of different communities within Orthodoxy, but they transcended partisan labels. They were each recognized as leaders beyond their own communities because of their passionate dedication to the Jewish people as a whole. Through the lives of Revel and Silver, Rakeffet brings to life the fascinating history of Orthodox Judaism in America, in all its diversity.

In a free-ranging conversation with JLBC on the eve of the event, Rabbi Rakeffet covered many, many subjects, including Jewish history and philosophy. He is revered at YU, but there are many Modern Orthodox Jews who don’t know who he is, and perhaps it is time that his story was told beyond the ivy-covered towers of academe. One thing is patently clear. Rabbi Rakeffet is scholar of modern American Jewish history and Judaism. What became even clearer is that he part and parcel of that history. (Among other interesting things he did in his life, he joined the Mossad to help teach Torah to refuseniks in the Former Soviet Union.)

As someone who was ten years old in 1947, Rabbi Rakeffet, (born Arnold Rothkoff in The Bronx, he changed his name when he made aliyah) was old enough, and it seems, involved enough, to understand the ramifications of World War II on world Jewry. In the late 30s and early 40s, American Jewry was contracting and assimilating, and it seemed that Americanism would destroy what was left of Yiddishkeit—he became a witness to a remarkable rebirth. With the founding of YU in 1935 to the influx of thousands upon thousands of Holocaust survivors from Europe that began just ten years later, he experienced and witnessed the birth and growth of Modern Orthodoxy, Hassidism and the Haredi world.

He told JLBC that the influx of people from Holocaust-torn Europe profoundly changed American Jewish life and re-created Orthodoxy in this country, and also in Israel. “Certainly Orthodoxy was reinforced when Rabbi Revel established Yeshiva College. Orthodoxy was a very weak presence and the influx intensified this.” Until the 1930’s when his grandparents took a risk—100 to one—that their kids would not remain Jewish, Judaism in America was disappearing at an alarming rate.

Rabbi Eliezer Silver, an Agudist Orthodox leader whose story he tells in his book, The Silver Era in American Jewish Orthodoxy, was from Cincinnati (ironically the center for Reform Judaism in America) and was one of the founders of the Vaad Hatzolah, an organization that was vital in the rescue of Jews immediately prior to and during World War II—the movement that brought Rav Aaron Kotler and other rabbinic greats to America.

Rabbi Rakeffet told JLBC the story of how Silver’s colleague, philanthropist and activist Irving Bunim took Shmuel Schmidt, a secular Jew, to see Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky. Schmidt, he told us, became an instant baal teshuva after Rav Grodzinsky called him Reb Shmuel because he was doing a mitzvah by rescuing Jews. He told the story of how Bunim took a cab ride on Shabbos on one of his attempts to rescue Jews and when they asked him why, he said, “Time is working against us, and if we do it on Shabbos they know it’s serious.”

The rabbi explained how the refugees who came before the war didn’t want to be so Jewish, but that thousands of the survivors who came after were determined to recreate where they came from. As a youth, he went to Crown Heights to see Lubavitch, and to Williamsburg to see the Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitlebaum, who he holds in contempt until today. He even says, “Yimach Shmo,” for the way Reb Yoeli used the Zionists he hated to save his skin, yet ordered his Hassidim to stay put instead of escaping to the two most treyf places in the world: The United States and Mandate Palestine.

Rabbi Ratkeffet knew many legendary Jewish leaders personally, including the people from Agudath Yisroel, like Stephen Klein, Mike Tress, Moshe Sherrer and other activists. He knew Rav Aaron, who found his way to Lakewood to establish the Beis Medrash Govoha in 1943. He knew Reb Moishe Feinstein and all the great leaders of those days, and is aware that today Jewish leadership is truly standing on the shoulders of giants and need to do better.

He generously took the time to discuss some burning issues of the day with JLBC, offering hope on a number of them, including the issues of agunot. He described how the law against recalcitrant husbands works in Israel, and how privileges are taken from them, including their driver’s licenses and access to their bank accounts. He described two recalcitrant husbands in very unflattering terms who were sitting in jail for years because they refused to give gets, and finally, how putting them solitary confinement got one to give a get within 24 hours, and the other within 48. He also reiterated the importance of prenuptial agreements to prevent, when possible, the issue raising its ugly head if and when a marriage must be dissolved.

In light of the recent revelations from YU and the conviction of yet another pedophile, he said that there should be zero tolerance of these people, naming names, and saying that they should not be supported in any way by anyone. But lest we despair at the current conditions in our community, he said that there is hope.

“Modern Orthodox life is ameliorated each year. We are getting a new type of dayan in Israel instead of the old timers. A new breed of rabbanim are coming in, little by little in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the world is opening with each new appointment. Yet there is no question that there was a swing to the right—to black is beautiful. But I can see from teaching future rabbis, that in the last 15 years, the pendulum has begun to slowly swing back.” He noted that women are gaining greater roles in Orthodox leadership and that this a good thing, especially for women advocates in Israeli courts and he said the haredi world is changing dramatically, too.

“The haredi world in business was once very successful, and the question became how do you support nine or ten grandchildren? So now the haredi rank-and-file world is willy-nilly changing. There is Machon Lev (Jerusalem College of Technology, see JLBC Jan 9, 2014) where thousands of students, men of every type of black hat to shtreimels, and women, are all welcome. Haredi College, founded by Adina Bar Shalom, the late Rav Ovadia Yosef’s daughter, also welcomes them by the thousands.

“What is interesting is that the haredim discover they can stay frum in the real world. Army bases have mikvaot, now too,” and then he described how that came to be. “Men also go to mikvah, and I was told that the hassidim in the IDF wake up early to go to mikvah in Rishon Leztion, so I asked why they have to go to Rishon—and a Chabadnik picked up on that. Miracles happen and it was accomplished with no infighting and no bloodshed!”

He continued with another story. “A few weeks ago, Israel sent a spy satellite into space, an all-Israeli product. The arms industry held a toast about it. My grandson, who works for the defense industry in a small way, was there. He told me that the head of the whole industry, who is not dati, noted that three different divisions produced this achievement and said, ‘The heads of all three wear kippot and I am very proud of it.’ My son believes that the message this leader was sending to haredim is to join the IDF to get ahead, do it with your kippa, because your head covering is your commitment to the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Rakeffet wrote about his life in From Washington Ave to Washington Street. The title got its name from the street where he lived in the Bronx to the street he now walks to get to the Kotel—Washington Street near the King David Hotel. His life as a teacher of rabbis has been fascinating.

He told JLBC, “I have had thousands of students, and I teach rabbis. Some are older than me, and sometimes when I start teaching, I feel like I am the youngest in the room, and when the course is over, I am older again. But the Torah is eternal, and R’ Soloveitchik taught us that we cannot escape the Western world, that we have to have the ability to deal with it and retain the Torah gestalt while embracing the modern world. There are those who want Torah only, but we have to run an army, hospitals, explore for oil and develop technology.”

This is all well and good. But what about the sinat chinom we see in our world, the vicious behavior of Jew against Jew for having a different point of view? What about the racism of the Ashkenazim for people of color in Israel? “The religious Zionist (Dati Leumi) world is changing. There is lots of interethnic marriage, when Ashkenazim marry Sephardim and Ethiopians, and people from different backgrounds marry. I believe that in 50 years we will all be davening with a whole new nusach—but the haredi world will not know the difference.”

When he confronts the realities of the Jewish community in all its mutations, he says, “Judaism is perfect, Jews are not. That has saved my life.” And he added, “On June 1, two days before Shevuot, I am giving a talk on sinat chinom.”

Check it out on www.YU Torah.org

By Jeanette Friedman

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