A Religious Zionist Pioneer
Meir Berlin (1880-1949) was born in Volozhin, near modern-day Minsk, Belarus. He was the youngest son of the “Netziv”, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, one of the greatest rabbis of the generation and head of the illustrious Volozhin Yeshiva. Young Meir studied at his father’s yeshiva, as well as other prestigious academies like Brisk and Telshe. He received his rabbinic ordination at the age of 22, then headed to the University of Berlin for secular studies. It is there that he became a staunch Zionist, and in 1905 joined the Mizrachi movement of religious Zionists (founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines). Berlin represented Mizrachi at the Seventh Zionist Congress where he voted against the Uganda Proposal (creating a Jewish state in Uganda instead of the Holy Land). In 1911, he founded a religious Zionist newspaper, HaIvri, which would go on to feature great writers and thinkers like S.Y. Agnon and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Berlin moved to New York a few years later to establish and develop the American branch of the Mizrachi movement. In a short period of time, it grew to over 100 chapters. He served as president of Yeshiva University between 1920 and 1922. The following year, he finally fulfilled his dream of making aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. As did many others, Berlin would later Hebraize his last name to “Bar-Ilan”. Meanwhile, he founded a new newspaper, HaTzofeh, and started work on the Talmudical Encyclopedia (which would eventually be a massive 42-volume series). Bar-Ilan served on the boards of Mizrachi Bank and the Jewish National Fund. When the British limited Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, Bar-Ilan became their vocal opponent and began a campaign of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. In 1943, he went on a trip around the world to build support for establishing a Jewish state and met with numerous political leaders. He also criticized the American government for staying silent and doing little about the atrocities happening in Europe, and campaigned for more assistance to Jewish refugees. When the State of Israel was finally born, Rabbi Bar-Ilan presided over a committee to discuss how Jewish law can continue to be observed properly in the new country. He also championed the establishment of a university that would combine rigorous religious education with advanced secular studies and professional training. Though he did not live to see it, such a university did open its doors in Tel-Aviv in 1955, and was named after him: Bar-Ilan University. Today, Bar-Ilan University is Israel’s second-largest educational facility, with over 20,000 students. Moshav Beit Meir and the Meir Hills in Israel are named after Rabbi Bar-Ilan, too, along with numerous other streets, neighbourhoods, and schools.
Happy Jerusalem Day!
Words of the Week
If horses were being slaughtered as are the Jews of Poland, there would by now be a loud demand for organized action against such cruelty to animals. Somehow, when it concerns Jews, everybody remains silent, including the intellectuals and humanitarians of free and enlightened America.
– Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan