Monday, January 21, 2008

Pini Dunner -- Mercaz Agudat Ha-Rabbanim Be-Lita, Kovno, 1931

Pini Dunner B.A (Hons), formerly rabbi of London's Saatchi Synagogue, is an avid collector of polemical and controversial Hebraica, with a very large, diverse private collection of such material. Many items in his collection are unknown and unrecorded, and relate to long forgotten, obscure controversies.

This is his first post at the Seforim blog in a series about rare polemical pieces from his personal collection.
Mercaz Agudat Ha-Rabbanim Be-Lita, Kovno, 1931
Pini Dunner
(London, England)

In the mid-1920s the rabbi and rosh yeshiva of Slabodka, R. Moshe Mordechai Epstein (1866-1934), left Lithuania to lead the newly established branch of his yeshiva in Chevron. In his place as rabbi of the Slabodka community he left his son-in-law, R. Yosef Zusmanowitz (1894-1942), renowned in the Lithuanian yeshiva world as the 'Yerushalmi Illuy'. R. Zusmanowitz was a scholar of repute and a great communicator. The heads of the yeshiva, R. Boruch Horowitz (R. Epstein's brother-in-law) and R. Yitzchak Isaac Sher (1875-1952; son-in-law of the Alter of Slabodka), were concerned that the young R. Zusmanowitz would also try and take over the yeshiva. They were totally opposed to his involvement in the yeshiva, especially as he was not enamoured with the strong concentration on mussar. Instead they appointed R. Zalman Osofsky as the rabbi of the town.

A fierce controversy erupted between the 2 factions. R. Zusmanowitz's most vociferous supporter was R. Nota Lipshitz, son of the famous secretary to R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, R. Yaakov Lipshitz. The fight became so personal that R. Lipschitz's nephew was effectively expelled from Slabodka yeshiva simply because of his uncle's support for R. Zusmanowitz. As a result, the nephew, and others, began to learn together with R. Zusmanowitz, thereby starting a rival Slabodka yeshiva. At its height the yeshiva had 50 students. Frightened of the competition, and of the fundraising confusion that was impacting on their income (Zusmanowitz fundraisers included the 2 Teitz boys from America), R. Horowitz and R. Sher arranged for the Agudat Ha-Rabbanim (R. Horowitz was chairman) to issue a psak that R. Zusmanowitz had to close his yeshiva. This decision was met with anger and derision by its supporters, but the yeshiva closed. None of the 50 students were allowed back into Slabodka yeshiva – except for R. Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003), and he was subsequently suspected of being a spy who had been planted by the Slabodka yeshiva in R. Zusmanowitz's yeshiva.

In this stencilled poster, the Agudat Ha-Rabbanim vigourously deny that they had reported R. Zusmanowitz to the authorities as a subversive, as he and his supporters were claiming in posters, pamphlets and correspondence. They also explain that as R. Zusmanowitz refused to sign that he would not open a yeshiva if he won the elections that had been scheduled as a way to resolve the dispute, he had effectively ruled himself out of the election. The status-quo that established itself during this time was that R. Osofsky was the rabbi for the Slabodka yeshiva community and R. Zusmanowitz was the rabbi for the rest of the town. The whole controversy was viewed very negatively by those not involved, and particularly because R. Zusmanowitz's opponents - who used a variety of nefarious tactics to get their way - were meant to represent the mussar movement and its ethical ideals.

R. Zusmanowitz later became the rabbi of Wilkomir – a position for which R. Yaakov Kamenetsky had been vying, and thought he had secured – when the previous rabbi, R. Arye Leib Rubin, father-in-law of the Ponevezher Rov, died in 1937. It was as a result of this that R. Kamenetsky came to America. He would later say that what had at the time seemed like a tragic failure had in fact saved his life and the lives of his family as he was spared from the Holocaust as a result. R. Zusmanowitz was not so lucky. He was killed in 1942. (With thanks to Rabbi Eliezer Katzman for much of the information concerning this controversy).


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