Tag Archives: Belarussian Jews

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines

Father of Religious Zionism

Yitzchak Yaacov Reines (1839-1915) was born near what is now Pinsk, Belarus to a long line of rabbis. He studied at the famous Volozhin Yeshiva where he received his rabbinic ordination in 1867. Rabbi Reines became the rabbi of the town of Svintsyan, Lithuania, just north of Vilnius. There, he opened his own yeshiva which, for the first time, included a secular studies curriculum as well. In 1882, a large assembly of rabbis gathered in St. Petersburg to discuss easing the plight of Russian Jewry, then suffering immense persecution and poverty. Reines proposed spreading his successful yeshiva model across Russia, allowing Jews to integrate into mainstream society (and economy) without abandoning their faith and traditions. The assembly rejected his plan, so Reines continued his mission on his own. His Svintsyan Yeshiva created a ten-year program that would give students both rabbinic ordination and a government-approved job. Unfortunately, the yeshiva faced too much opposition and shut down after four years. Meanwhile, Rabbi Reines was an active member of Hovevei Zion. In 1893, together with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, he proposed that Jews settle in their ancestral Holy Land and organize a mercaz ruhani, “spiritual centre”, that would combine Torah with good-old-fashioned agricultural labour. In 1899, Reines participated in the Third Zionist Congress, following which he kept a regular correspondence with Theodor Herzl. Rabbi Reines worked tirelessly to get more approval and understanding for the Zionist movement among traditional and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In 1901, he built on his earlier mercaz ruhani model to start a new “religious Zionist” movement, known as Mizrachi. That same year, at the Fifth Zionist Congress, Reines played an instrumental role in preventing Zionism from becoming entirely secular and anti-religious (stopping the radical “Swiss faction” behind it). In 1902, Rabbi Reines published A New Light on Zion, a book that addressed the concerns that Ultra-Orthodox Jews had with Zionism. In it, he debunked many of the myths surrounding Zionism, and also composed a manual for establishing a model Jewish state in Israel that would be both materially and spiritually prosperous. Rabbi Reines assembled a large gathering of rabbis in Vilnius in 1902 to officially launch the religious Zionist movement. It would later gave birth to Israel’s first religious political party, the Mizrachi Party, which established Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, and made sure that the Israeli government would adhere to Sabbath and kashrut observance. Mizrachi also built Israel’s first network of religious schools (which are Zionist and encourage students to serve in the IDF). The youth movement of Mizrachi, called Bnei Akiva, is the largest Jewish youth organization in the world (with 125,000 members in 42 countries) and operates religious Zionist schools around the globe. In 1905, Rabbi Reines resurrected his old vision and opened a new yeshiva in Lida, near Minsk, Belarus, which integrated religious and secular studies. Rabbi Reines also came up with a new Talmud-study system, wrote a commentary on the Midrash, and published a number of other acclaimed books. Today, the religious Zionist movement that he founded remains one of the largest and most influential in Israel. Rabbi Reines’ yahrzeit is this Sunday.

Words of the Week

I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.
John Adams, second president of the United States

Jew of the Week: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The Man Behind Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Yitzhak ben Yehuda Leib Perlman (1858-1922) was born in what is now Belarus to a religious, Yiddish-speaking, Chabad family. Before his bar mitzvah he was already recognized as a genius in Torah and Talmud. While studying to become a rabbi, Ben-Yehuda was first exposed to some of the Hebrew works of the medieval Sephardic rabbis (such as Ibn Ezra) who wrote poems, stories, and even textbooks of Hebrew grammar. Meanwhile, he came across contemporary, secular (Haskalah) literature written in Hebrew, most notably a Hebrew-only Zionist newspaper called HaShahar. This sparked a passion for languages in general, and Hebrew in particular. Ben-Yehuda plunged into the study of the grammar, history, and development of Hebrew, and also started learning Russian, German, and French. He soon realized the tremendous power of language, and that the only thing truly uniting all Jews around the world—whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular—was Hebrew. In 1877, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris to study medicine and Middle Eastern history at the famous Sorbonne University. While sitting at a café one day, he met a fellow Jew who started speaking to him in Hebrew. This was the moment that convinced Ben-Yehuda that it was possible to turn Hebrew into a common, spoken language. While some Zionists (like Herzl himself) initially sought to make Yiddish or even German the official language of what would be the Jewish State, Ben-Yehuda knew that it had to be Hebrew. Upon graduating in 1881, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda taught at the Torah and Avoda School, where he devised his immersive ivrit b’ivrit system of learning. He spent the rest of his time writing and developing the language. He founded the Hebrew Language Committee (still operating today) to dig up ancient Hebrew words and to coin new words for modern phenomena, based primarily on ancient Biblical, Aramaic (often Talmudic) terms, as well as from Arabic roots. Ben-Yehuda coined words like glida (“ice cream”), ofanaim (“bicycle”), magevet (“towel”), and rakevet (“train”) using Biblical roots for similar terms. Meanwhile, he wrote for the Havatzelet newspaper, edited the Hashkafa newspaper, then launched his own periodical, HaTzvi, where he would introduce his new words (such as iton, “newspaper”!) He published the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew, a whopping 11-volume tome (later expanded to 17 volumes). Ben-Yehuda raised his children strictly in Hebrew. His son, Ben-Zion, is considered the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. Some people inaccurately state that Hebrew was a “dead” or “extinct” language before Ben-Yehuda and the Zionists. This is, of course, completely inaccurate since Hebrew has always been used by Jews throughout the centuries, particularly in prayer and for the writing and teaching of holy texts. What Ben-Yehuda did was systematize Hebrew, adapt it to modern times, and transform it into a commonly-spoken tongue, as historian Cecil Roth summed it up: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

The Kabbalah of Yom Ha‘Atzmaut

Words of the Week

For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.
– Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Jews of the Week: the Genius of Rogatchov and Joseph Trumpeldor

An Unparalleled Genius and a Zionist Icon

Joseph Trumpeldor

Joseph Volfovich Trumpeldor (1880-1920) was born in Russia, the son of a cantonist (young Jews forcefully conscripted into the Russian army). He became a dentist, but in 1902 enlisted in the Russian army. Trumpeldor lost his left arm in one battle of the Russo-Japanese War, yet wanted to continue serving, reportedly saying “I still have another arm to give to the motherland.” He returned to the battlefield and was captured by the Japanese. Trumpeldor spent most of his captivity studying, learning more about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Zionist cause. He even started writing on Jewish topics and found fellow Jewish prisoners who dreamed of settling in the Promised Land. Upon his release, he received four medals, and was later made an officer, making him the most decorated Jew in the Russian army, and its first Jewish officer. Unable to return to the military, he became a lawyer. In 1911, Trumpeldor made aliyah and settled in Kibbutz Degania. With the outbreak of World War I, he went to Egypt to establish the Jewish Legion (which fought for Britain) alongside Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The legion, also known as the Zion Mule Corps, is considered the first entirely Jewish military unit in two thousand years, and a precursor to the IDF. It helped the British conquer the land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. Trumpeldor was a key soldier in that effort, and was wounded in the Battle of Gallipoli. After the war, he returned to Russia to gather more young Jews to settle in Israel. In 1920, while working to build the new town of Tel Hai, a band of Arabs attacked the Jewish community. Trumpeldor was shot twice, and succumbed to his injuries. According to legend, his last words were “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Trumpeldor immediately became a symbol of Jewish strength, self-defense, and resilience, and an inspiration for a new generation of Zionists. The day of his death, the 11th of Adar (this coming Monday), is a minor holiday in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon

That same date is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936). He was born in the town of Rogatchov (in modern Belarus) to a Chabad family. By the age of 13, he was recognized as a genius and was sent to study with some of the great rabbis of the day in the town of Slutzk. At 31, he was appointed one of two chief rabbis of Dvinsk (in modern Latvia), and served in that role for nearly five decades, until his last days. Rabbi Rosen ensured the survival and flourishing of Jewish life under Russian Imperial, and then Communist, rule, often with great sacrifice to himself. Meanwhile, he published several important works of Jewish commentary and Jewish law. Some of his best writings were published only after his death, under the title Tzafnat Paneach, “Decipherer of Secrets”. Rabbi Rosen was known as the Rogatchover Gaon, the “Genius of Rogatchov”, and was famous for his unbelievable breadth of knowledge on just about any subject. After once meeting him for a lengthy discussion, the renowned poet Bialik said that “from the mind of the Rogatchover could be carved out two Einsteins” and that he is “a great spiritual national treasure.” Rabbi Rosen had many students, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who also received his rabbinic ordination from the Gaon. The Rebbe once said that Rabbi Rosen was able to simplify all of Judaism into ten ideas, and quoted him as saying: “Were I a little bit smarter, it would be only one idea!”

Did You Know These Famous People Converted to Judaism?

Words of the Week

Love and work are the two things you have to do in life.
– Sigmund Freud