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New York - Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz: From Radin To The Mir To Yeshiva University

Published on: August 21, 2014 10:00 AM
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Rabbi Yankelewitz with a talmid and R’ Chaim Bronstein (on the right)Rabbi Yankelewitz with a talmid and R’ Chaim Bronstein (on the right)

New York - Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz, one of the last remaining talmidim of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Belarus and a prized talmid of Rabbi Yeruchim Levovitz who shared a close relationship with the Chofetz Chaim, died on Tuesday at the age of 104.

A beloved Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Yankelewitz said shiur at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary for almost 60 years and gave a nightly mishnayos shiur at the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway.

Rabbi Yankelewicz was born in Lubcza, Poland in 1909 and he studied with the Chofetz Chaim at his yeshiva in Radin.  In an interview recorded by Yeshiva University in April of 2011, Rabbi Yankelewitz described the Chofetz Chaim’s levaya in 1933.

“The whole world came….the mashgiach made a hesped the next day and he made wet more than one handkerchief.  He didn’t stop crying.”

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Below video: An interview in 2011 with Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz zt"l at YU

Rabbi Yankelewitz continued his learning at the Mir until the onset of World War II, when the entire yeshiva relocated in 1941, first to Kobe, Japan and then to Shanghai.

“We were afraid of Shanghai because of the climate but it was not as bad as we thought,” said Rabbi Yankelewitz in the interview.  “There was a community of yidden.  They had their own shul, their own businesses and their own hospital even.  They came to help every day, the food should be the right food and we should get it in time. That was the biggest help.  We managed to learn exactly like we learned in the Mirrer Yeshiva.”

Rabbi Yankelewitz remained at the Mir, which continued in Shanghai until 1947, and after immigrating to the United States, he served as a rebbe in the Bronx at Yeshiva Rabbi Yisroel Salanter.  Among his talmidim at the time was Rabbi Hershel Schachter, now a noted Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS.

“Years later we realized how fortunate we were that we had such a talmid chochom teaching us Chumash and Rashi and hascholas Gemara who was not just ten lessons ahead of the students but light years ahead,” Rabbi Schacter told VIN News.

“When he taught Chumash and Rashi, he knew all the Gemaras on his own that Rashi was quoting, each in its proper context.  It was like the Pri Migadim, who was such a great gaon and used to teach young little children.”

It was clear even to his young students that Rabbi Yankelewitz had absorbed more than just pages of learning from Rabbi Levovitz during his time at the Mir.

“As with many others from the Mirrer yeshiva in Europe, the influence of the Mashgiach was very noticeable upon him, the way he would walk, stand, and speak,” observed Rabbi Shachter. 

Rabbi Yankelewitz was appointed as a rosh yeshiva at RIETS in 1958 by then president Samuel Belkin, an exception to the yeshiva’s policy of only allowing college graduates to serve as roshei yeshiva.  Since his appointment, Rabbi Yankelewitz said shiur at RIETS continuously through this past school year where he made a tremendous impression upon students at Yeshiva University, both in and out of the beis medrash.

“I was fortunate to be a talmid of his my first year in YU in 1966,” said Rabbi Chaim Bronstein, a senior administrator at RIETS.  “It was my freshman year in college and he was my first rebbe here.  He was an unusual person, a tzaddik.  All of the roshei yeshiva here are gedolim but he was a true tzaddik.  That is the best way to describe him.”

Rabbi Bronstein recalled the special way that Rabbi Yankelewitz related both to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and to people.

“His shemiras hamitzvos was exceptional,” said Rabbi Bronstein.  “Rabbi Yankelewitz was known for always being very calm but a rabbi from Chicago once told me how he came to see Rabbi Yankelewitz when he was already getting on in years and he found him unusually agitated.  Asked what was troubling him, Rabbi Yankelewitz replied that he thought he had said a bracha l’vatala.  Trying to reassure Rabbi Yankelewitz, the rabbi explained that we all make a bracha l’vatala on occasion and that there was no need to get so upset but Rabbi Yankelewitz responded that this was the first time in his life he had ever said a bracha l’vatala.”

R’ Yankelewitz and YU President Richard M. Joel celebrate at RIETS Chag HaSemikhahR’ Yankelewitz and YU President Richard M. Joel celebrate at RIETS Chag HaSemikhah

Most remarkable was the special attention that Rabbi Yankelewitz lavished upon his talmidim. 
“Rabbi Yankelewitz once had a talmid in the semicha program who didn’t have a penny to his name,” said Rabbi Bronstein.  “He noticed during the winter that everyone else was wearing parkas, some with ski tags attached to the zippers, but this one talmid was walking around in his shirtsleeves.”

Asking the talmid why he wasn’t wearing a coat, Rabbi Yankelewitz was dismayed to discover that the student didn’t own a coat. 

“The next day Rabbi Yankelewitz brought him a coat and realizing that someone who didn’t have a coat probably needed a suit too,  he brought him one as well,” recalled Rabbi Bronstein.  “Rabbi Yankelewitz didn’t just give over a shiur, or divrei Torah, he was so dedicated and he cared so much for everyone.”

Law student Daniel Danesh was in Rabbi Yankelewitz’s shiur during the 2012-2013 school year.

“The shiur had an official cap of 64 but since it was only my brother and me in the shiur, we met in Rabbi Yankelewitz’s office,” said Danesh.  “It was more of a chavrusa than a shiur and I cannot properly convey how amazing the experience was.  It was surreal:  I was 22 and he was 103.  We were worlds, cultures, lifestyles apart, but what struck me was how at that age he still had the same passion for learning that a yeshiva bochur might have.

He would learn with such a big bren and he would lose track of time and he never got tired.  We would tell him what time it was and that we had to stop but he never wanted to shut the Gemara.”

Danesh viewed the chance to be in Rabbi Yankelewitz shiur as a once in a lifetime experience.

“What drew me to his shiur was where else would I have the opportunity to be with someone who heard shiur from the Chofetz Chaim?  How many people are there who could say that they learned with Reb Yeruchim Levovitz, the mashgiach of the Mir?  It was a privilege to have spent an entire year with Rabbi Yankelewitz.”

Despite the massive age gap, Danesh said he found Rabbi Yankelewitz to be very much in tune with his talmidim and today’s world. 

“My brother once asked Rabbi Yankelewitz for shidduch advice, figuring who better to ask than someone who has been around for a century,” said Danesh.  “Rabbi Yankelewitz told him ‘She could be the prettiest girl in the world but if she doesn’t have middos you will come to hate her.’  So many people will tell you to look for middos but how many rabbis actually grasp human psyche knowing that a guy would be looking for a pretty girl?  He was so candid and it was amazing how he got things, how he really understood.”

Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Yankelewitz celebrate at 2010 RIETS Chag HaSemikhah<br />
Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Yankelewitz celebrate at 2010 RIETS Chag HaSemikhah

Danesh, who would physically lift Rabbi Yankelewitz from his chair and support him as he walked from the shiur to catch his ride home, recalled one instance where Rabbi Yankelewitz’s driver was running late.

“The driver said he would be there in fifteen minutes and Rabbi Yankelewitz told me I should go, not to wait for him,” said Danesh.  “I hung around of course, but what struck me was his thoughtfulness.  Here he was 103 years old, it was cold out, we were standing on 185th Street with cars whizzing by, this is a man who can’t even walk down a flight of stairs by himself, but here he is concerned that as a college student I might have other things that I needed to do.  He was so sharp and so thoughtful.”

In addition to his sensitivity, his breadth of knowledge and his keen understanding of people, Rabbi Yankelewitz had one particular physical attribute that caught Danesh’s eye: his fingers.

“When I first came to Rabbi Yankelewitz’s class I noticed that his fingers were curved in an angle,” said Danesh.  “At first I didn’t understand why. I have seen a lot of older people and their fingers were straight.  But then I realized that when you are sitting with a gemara for 100 years with your finger on the place, your fingers are curved around the gemara and that was why his fingers looked like that.”

Danesh recalled that throughout his career in Yeshiva University Rabbi Yankelewitz was always alert and attentive and despite his advanced age, he continually took his learning to heart.

“One time we had been learning Reb Yeruchem and as we walked to the elevator he started saying something about having to work on ourselves, about mussar and chizuk,” noted Danesh.  “It took me a minute to realize that he was referring to what we had learned in the shiur and that it was something he himself had to do.  He was 103 and he was still so fired up, he still walked away from that sefer thinking about what he had to do to be better.”

Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean emeritus of RIETS, delivers hesped a the funeral on Aug. 20, 2014.Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean emeritus of RIETS, delivers hesped a the funeral on Aug. 20, 2014.

Choosing to be in Rabbi Yankelewitz’s shiur may have been the most important choice of Danesh’s academic career.

“You look at someone like Rabbi Yankelewitz and say ‘Will I ever meet someone like him again in my life?’  Everyone in life shapes you and molds you in a certain way but you get maybe one or two opportunities to meet someone who shapes you like no one else can.  It was amazing to have someone like Rabbi Yankelewitz as a force in my life and I am really going to miss him.”
Adam Rosenberg, a senior at Yeshiva University, described how Rabbi Yankelewitz traveled to the yeshiva each day.

“Every day until he was almost 100 years old, he would take two busses to get to YU,” said Rosenberg.  “He was too modest to mention it to anyone but when the school found out they arranged other transportation for him.”

Rosenberg recalled his only personal interaction with Rabbi Yankelewitz, which took in the spring of 2013 as he walked the Rosh Yeshiva to the car that would be taking him home.

“At the time I was having a bit of a hard time concentrating on my learning,” recounted Rosenberg.  “As he strongly gripped my arm for support I asked him how he developed his sense of hasmada and zitzfleish at the venerated Mirrer Yeshiva.  His response was, ‘What you think the Mirrer Yeshiva was a summer camp?  It was hard work.’  It was one of the most impactful lines I have ever heard.”

For Rosenberg, Rabbi Yankelewitz was a tangible link in the chain that links modern Jewry to its roots in Europe.

“Rav Yankelewitz was the real connection I had to the worlds that I had only imagined throughout my formative years,” said Rosenberg.  “We have lost a true giant.”

Well known halachic authority and frequent VIN contributor Rabbi Yair Hoffman described Rabbi Yankelewitz as being “kulo Torah” and recalled being at a wedding with him in Baltimore several years ago.

“The rabbi had lost the kesubah and you can’t just pick one up in Baltimore on a Sunday night, so Rabbi Yankelewitz just wrote one by heart,” said Rabbi Hoffman.

Rabbi Hoffman remembered Rabbi Yankelewitz for his many middos.

“He was a big onov, who had such ehrlichkeit and was mikabel everyone b’sever panim yafos,” said Rabbi Hoffman.  “He had a true love of Torah and he imbued his family and his talmidim with a sense of genuine Torah trueness.  There was such kedusha to him and it was obvious from that special kedusha that he had met the Chofetz Chaim.”

That unique level of holiness that Rabbi Yankelewitz possessed carried through in his many decades at Yeshiva University.

“Rav Yankelewicz’s hadras panim and regal presence added kedusha to our Yeshiva campus,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University.  “As a Talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, who taught at Yeshiva University for over 50 years, he connected us to the Torah legacy of the past, simultaneously inspiring the destiny of thousands of Yeshiva’s talmidim.”

Rabbi Yankelewitz’s loss has been felt deeply throughout the Yeshiva University campus.

“This is a great loss, for me personally and for the yeshiva,” observed Rabbi Bronstein.

On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of people packed both floors of Yeshiva University’s Glueck Beis Medrash in Washington Heights to say a final farewell, with a special section arranged outside for the many kohanim who came to pay their respects and a live video stream set up to accommodate those who could not be in attendance.. 

Among those who spoke at the levaya were Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean emeritus of RIETS, Rabbi Dovid Yankelewitz and Rabbi Moshe Fuchs, with tehillim led by Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at Yeshiva University and Rabbi Herschel Reichman, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Yeshiva Program.  Rabbi Yankelewitz will be buried in Israel.

Rabbi Yankelewitz and his wife Bluma, who passed away in 2010, are survived by their children Rabbi Dovid Yankelewitz, Rabbi Yaakov Yankelewitz, Rabbi Yoel Yankelewitz and Rabbi Moshe Yankelewitz and their daughters Mrs. Devora Fromowitz, Mrs. Pearl Gross and Mrs. Gitty Lipsius, as well as many children and great grandchildren.

Levaya procession down Amsterdam Avenue on Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus on Aug. 20, 2014.Levaya procession down Amsterdam Avenue on Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus on Aug. 20, 2014.

Video below: Levaya for Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz zt"l at YU.



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Read Comments (6)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Aug 21, 2014 at 10:11 AM Pops Says:

We need to mourn his loss; and to emulate his way of life.

2

 Aug 21, 2014 at 10:56 AM Anonymous Says:

The Rav, Z'tl, was mesader kedushin for me 45 years ago and also conducted the levayah for my father, 20 years ago. He was one of the most modest and unassuming talmeidi chachamim and tzadikim that Hashem has shared with the tzibur in recent generations. May he be a maylitz yosher for kalall yisroel.

3

 Aug 21, 2014 at 12:43 PM Keep it straight! Says:

Patently false statement: "an exception to the yeshiva’s policy of only allowing college graduates to serve as roshei yeshiva."
None of the Roshei Yeshiva at YU in the fifties had a college degree. They were among the greatest Talmidei chachomim of that era. R'Dovid Liphshutz, R' Paleyoff, R. Noach Bornstein, R' Henoch Fishman, R'Yerucham Gorelick, etc. etc.
Dr. Belkin who was the President at that time was also the youngest musmach of the Chofetz Chaim and knew how to pick his Roshei Yeshiva. They didn't have college degrees; they had Torah!

4

 Aug 21, 2014 at 01:22 PM LionofZion Says:

Reply to #3  
Keep it straight! Says:

Patently false statement: "an exception to the yeshiva’s policy of only allowing college graduates to serve as roshei yeshiva."
None of the Roshei Yeshiva at YU in the fifties had a college degree. They were among the greatest Talmidei chachomim of that era. R'Dovid Liphshutz, R' Paleyoff, R. Noach Bornstein, R' Henoch Fishman, R'Yerucham Gorelick, etc. etc.
Dr. Belkin who was the President at that time was also the youngest musmach of the Chofetz Chaim and knew how to pick his Roshei Yeshiva. They didn't have college degrees; they had Torah!

"They had Torah"
And they chose to share their Torah at Yeshiva UNIVERSITY. For a guy who is trying to make a point about avoiding falsehood, you seem to have lost your way between the beginning and end if your post.

5

 Aug 22, 2014 at 08:15 AM charliehall Says:

Reply to #3  
Keep it straight! Says:

Patently false statement: "an exception to the yeshiva’s policy of only allowing college graduates to serve as roshei yeshiva."
None of the Roshei Yeshiva at YU in the fifties had a college degree. They were among the greatest Talmidei chachomim of that era. R'Dovid Liphshutz, R' Paleyoff, R. Noach Bornstein, R' Henoch Fishman, R'Yerucham Gorelick, etc. etc.
Dr. Belkin who was the President at that time was also the youngest musmach of the Chofetz Chaim and knew how to pick his Roshei Yeshiva. They didn't have college degrees; they had Torah!

Rav Soloveitchik z'tz'l was a rosh yeshiva in the 40s and he had a PhD!

6

 Aug 22, 2014 at 10:03 AM daveph Says:

Reply to #5  
charliehall Says:

Rav Soloveitchik z'tz'l was a rosh yeshiva in the 40s and he had a PhD!

Actually he only had a BA

7

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