A jewel of Eastern European life has been returned to Jewish hands, but will the community be up to the task of holding on to it?
This is the dilemma facing the Jewish community of Belarus, which has been struggling to maintain the building that once housed the historic Volozhiner Yeshiva. Two months ago, authorities in Volozhin, located 55 miles from the capital city of Minsk, threatened to take over the structure if Jewish communal leaders couldn’t raise the $20,000 needed to renovate it. They gathered the money, but a new challenge seems to have emerged: disagreement over exactly what to do with the building.
The Volozhiner Yeshiva, also known as the “Etz Chaim,” was founded in 1803 by Reb Chaim of Volozhin, one of the most prominent disciples of the Vilna Gaon, and later became the model for all the great Lithuanian, or non-Hasidic, learning institutions, such as the Slobodka, Mir and Telz yeshivas. After the Holocaust, the building came under municipal management and was used for a variety of mundane purposes — including as a bakery and as a sausage factory.
This last phase elicited harsh protests from the Belarusian Jewish community, a move that led authorities to return the dilapidated yeshiva building to the Jewish community in 2000. But the building remained in disrepair — and, due to its location in the center of town, a thorn in the side of government representatives.
“Unfortunately, the mayor can see the yeshiva from his window,” explained Yuri Dorn, a leader of the Belarusian Jewish community. The issue came to a head a half a year ago, when a commission appointed by Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, visited Volozhin and made a remark about the building.
Immediately after receiving the letter of warning, the Jewish community rushed to raise the funds. Yet, despite the apparent urgency of the appeal, the renovation seems to be having trouble getting off the ground.
Dorn, who visited Volozhin several weeks ago, claims that although the construction company has already been given a 50% deposit, very little has been done.
Still, though some have attributed the slow pace of the renovations to Belarus’s unwieldy bureaucracy, the delay may be a result of competing visions within the Jewish community itself.
The history of the Volozhiner Yeshiva makes the Jewish community’s desire to hold on to the building understandable. At the turn of the 19th century, yeshiva students were increasingly joining the popular Hasidic movement, which emphasized that the notion of dveykus (cleaving to God) was more essential than studying Torah. In response, Reb Chaim took it upon himself to inspire the youth to return to Torah learning, and did so by building a large, dynamic yeshiva that emphasized analysis of the talmudic text. Although it initially drew only 10 students, the Yeshiva’s reputation grew rapidly, and within several years the school attracted almost 100 students.
“Up to that point, the yeshivas were small, local institutions,” explained David Fishman, professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Reb Chaim’s was the first one where hundreds of students from all over Eastern Europe came and stayed for months, or years, learning and praying day and night.”
The Volozhiner Yeshiva became so highly esteemed that the military governor of Lithuania issued a document in 1813 instructing all military units to “safeguard the chief rabbi of Volozhin, Chaim Ben Isaac, his schools and educational institutions.” A number of students from the Volozhiner Yeshiva later distinguished themselves in Hebrew literature. Among them were Micha Yosef Berdyczewski and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Later Bialik wrote a poem, “Ha-Matmid” (“The Diligent One”), dedicated to the students of the Volozhiner Yeshiva.
A newly created New York-based committee to preserve and restore the Volozhiner Yeshiva has received pledges from several Jewish groups, including a major pledge last month from the Dallas-based Morton H. Meyerson Family Tzedakah Fund. Some of the other groups are the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Agudath Israel of America, and the Canadian Foundation for Education and Welfare of the Jews of the CIS.
Some, like Dorn, have ambitious plans for the building. Dorn said he would like to see it transformed into both a museum devoted to the history of the yeshiva and the Jews of Volozhin, and an active yeshiva complete with a kosher kitchen for student groups visiting several weeks at a time. Although he admitted that in order for the yeshiva to be revived, it would require about $400,000 — far beyond the community’s means — he does not see this as an impossible dream.
“Many Jews round the world whose families come from Volozhin or near there would be interested in funding this project,” Dorn said. “In fact, Shimon Peres’s family comes from Volozhin, and we have already received a letter from the Belarusian embassy in Israel saying that Peres is willing to participate in the reconstruction of the Volozhin Yeshiva.”
Dorn also pointed to a recent revival of Jewish life in Belarus as evidence that the project would find wide support. He said that although there are only 11 Jews left in Volozhin, there are synagogues in 22 Belarusian cities, and a Jewish high school, six Sunday schools, two ritual baths and a monthly communal shekhita (ritual slaughter of animals according to Jewish law). About 55,000 Jews live in Belarus today.
Herbert Block, who is assistant executive vice president of the JDC and is also a member of the committee to restore the yeshiva building, envisions a more subdued plan: a museum and a separate study hall to be used for lectures and classes. Although the yeshiva carries a personal poignancy for Block — he, too, is a direct descendant of Chaim, on his mother’s side — he envisions a difficult climb ahead.
“Unfortunately, the $20,000 is only enough to cover cosmetic repairs, like painting and exterior work,” Block explained. “Just enough to keep the authorities satisfied.”
“This isn’t like a yeshiva in a big city like Lublin,” Block said, referring to the celebrated reopening last February of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin. “There is no industry here. It’s in the middle of yenems velt,” the middle of nowhere.
“On the other hand,” Block said, “Since this is such a historical religious building, we have to do whatever we can. If we don’t, we really are failing to maintain a landmark.”
Rukhl Schaechter is an editor of the Forverts, in which a version of this article originally appeared.