DIASPORA YESHIVA TORAS YISROEL UNIVERSITY
When the Israeli armed forces achieved spectacular success during the Six Day War in 1967, the Jordanian Royal Army was pushed out of Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan River. The border installations, such as the Mandelbaum Gate, that ran through Jerusalem and the West Bank were no longer necessary and were dismantled. On Mount Zion, where the Israeli-Jordanian border had existed, a very special building was brought back into the holy service of G-d. The building served as the official Religious Court of Jerusalem until the 1948 Israeli War of Independence when, because of its vulnerable location, it was no longer usable on a regular basis.
The building had two levels with a flat, gate-enclosed patio roof. When the Religious Court was forced to leave in 1948, the lower level was still safe, out of reach of Jordanian snipers. In 1948, Holocaust survivors established the Chamber of the Holocaust within the lower level. This memorial hall, which may have been the first dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust, includes tragic items and tombstone shaped plaques that commemorate nearly one thousand European Jewish Communities annihilated by the Nazis during WWII. The second floor level was seldom used in 1948 because it was within the line of fire of the Jordanian snipers.
Nevertheless, when the general atmosphere seemed tranquil, its rooftop was the only spot from where brave souls were able to see the top of the Western Wall. Even while the Western Wall was beyond touch during those years and access to Judaism’s holiest site was therefore barred, the former Religious Court’s building’s holy service never diminished.
In 1967, with the threat of Jordanian sniper bullets no longer an issue, after the Israeli border moved to the Jordan River itself, the full building became usable. However, there was no need for the Religious Court to relocate back to the building, because the Court was well established in the heart of another neighborhood in a large modern facility. After Israel unified Jerusalem and reopened the holy places to all faiths, Mount Zion lost its unique status as the closest that a Jew could get to the Western Wall. It seemed that the eight-hundred year old building was going to lose its previous glory.
After Jerusalem was liberated in 1967, when the Religious Court elected not to return, the Chief Rabbinate offered the building to a small new rabbinic seminary, a Yeshiva, that needed space. In Jerusalem, Rabbi Mordecai Goldstein had started a Yeshiva for advanced Torah students who were committed to intensive learning. He had been a star pupil of Rabbi Henoch Lebowitz at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens, New York, and was highly respected by the Rabbinate.
At the time, Rabbi Goldstein spent his entire day learning with the six students that comprised his fledgling rabbinic seminary, Yeshiva Toras Yisrael. Rabbi Goldstein accepted the invitation from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and moved his Yeshiva into the building that used to house the Religious Court, using the empty second level for study, worship and meeting. An adjacent building that had served as a military base for years became used as a dormitory. Thus the Yeshiva had space within which to grow and the building was once again dedicated to the holy service of G-d. The six students grew to eight, then ten, etc., and intense Torah study reigned on this former military outpost.
That first winter found the Yeshiva ill equipped. The dormitory had gun shutters for windows and the frost entered every crack and crevice. The students slept wearing all their clothing under several blankets surrounding a petrol-burning space heater. When they awoke each morning the creases on their faces were embedded with soot from the heater. When they went to wash themselves, they found the water pipes frozen. That winter Jerusalem was paralyzed by two major snowstorms, a first in many years. The seldom-used roads were iced over making the ascent to the mountaintop impossible. The few petrol heaters quickly consumed the little bit of stored fuel and the meager supply of food quickly depleted. With the Yeshiva students’ concentration focused on Rabbi Goldstein’s lectures that explored the deeper meanings of the religious writings, they did not even realize how bleak their immediate situation was.
The Israeli army came to the rescue. At the whirling sound of a helicopter outside, the students ran out and saw a liberal supply of food and fuel being dropped off. It lasted through the first snowstorm. This was repeated immediately after the second snowstorm as well.
In spite of the severe conditions, the Yeshiva thrived. In those early days before the Western Wall had a paved plaza, the students regularly walked the short distance to pray at the Wall amidst rubble, often being the only ones constituting the prayer quorum there. The dedication and excellence in Torah and Talmud study blossomed as a beautiful flower, with the core of those students becoming some of today’s leading rabbis, their names widely recognized and honored.
With what can only be called the hand of G-d, thousands of nonreligious Jewish youths were magnetically drawn to the Western Wall in search of spiritual fulfillment. The youths would often initiate conversations with those praying around them and the noble students of the Yeshiva Toras Yisrael were more than glad to share their Torah knowledge. The Yeshiva students, aspiring to fulfill the commandment to provide hospitality, invited the youths for meals, for lodging, and to celebrate the Sabbath at the Yeshiva. At all hours, Rabbi Goldstein’s accumulated learning and wisdom beckoned as a beacon of light in a dark storm. The Yeshiva ultimately kept its doors and kitchen open 24 hours a day. By word of mouth, the Yeshiva got a good name among Jewish youth who had dropped out of the Jewish world. Some of these youths even lived on the streets of Jerusalem in the drug culture. Something deep inside drew them to the Yeshiva where they found new purpose in life.
During this mass migration to the Western Wall, Yeshiva Toras Yisrael welcomed the first tidal wave of secular and unaffiliated Jewish youth who returned to Jewish religious practice while visiting or living in Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Goldstein was at its helm. In addition to teaching and closely monitoring his advanced students, he gave of himself to the curious and the interested. From those humble beginnings, Rabbi Goldstein and his wife raised a beautiful large family and educated them in Judaism while living and teaching on Mount Zion itself. Despite the demands of a growing family, they nevertheless pursued the teaching and study of Torah with great dedication and energy.
Rabbi Goldstein’s rabbinic seminary, Yeshiva Toras Yisrael, had an unusual magnetism about it that brought intellectually and spiritually hungry youths to its open doors daily. The Yeshiva later changed its name to the Diaspora Yeshiva, recognizing its role as a place of spiritual homecoming for Jewish youth from all around the world. Being on Mount Zion, very near the tomb of King David, at such a holy place, the Yeshiva often held grand religious celebrations at the conclusion of the Sabbath, drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of guests.
It also happened that an old tradition was reactivated at the tomb of King David. Friday’s afternoon prayer service and the Sabbath evening service were held before the start of the Sabbath so that worshipers could enjoy using musical instruments. Afterwards the guitars, flutes and drums were put away and then the Sabbath was received with an intensiveness that is hard to envision. Everyone present could literally feel the participation of King David himself playing his harp. The musically inclined students had an opportunity to develop and apply their talents. A musical band was organized and became known as the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. Its music is amongst today’s classics.
The Yeshiva grew with special blessing from Above. A post-graduate Rabbinic study program was established to absorb the married students. Special courses were given so that the students would master the art, science and religious duties required for ritual slaughter, scribal arts and circumcision. An impressive number of students in fact chose to become professional ritual slaughterers, Torah scribes, and surgically trained ritual circumcisers. Several students remained within the Yeshiva to teach Torah to the next generation. A girls’ school was added. A community was organized in Metzad on the West Bank where over fifty-five Yeshiva families reside. With over 800 students, boys and girls, ranging from pre-school to post-graduate study, the Diaspora Yeshiva has established its own special place in the world of Torah.
The Yeshiva conferred special recognition to 35 students as paradigms of Torah observance and scholarship when they earned Ordination into the Rabbinate. All had successfully been tested by leading deans of rabbinical seminaries and members of the organizations that certify foods and restaurants to be Kosher. In a reception at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rishon Lezion and President of the Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shalom Messa, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and Rabbi Yehuda Deri, Chief Rabbi of Beer Sheva, joined many other Rabbinical luminaries in honoring the 35 students for reaching lofty heights in Torah learning. The rewards of teaching and practicing Torah serve for Rabbi and Rebbitzen Goldstein and the entire Diaspora Yeshiva family only as incentives to achieve even greater Torah accomplishments.
This history is adapted from “Machberes,” published by News of the Yeshivish and Chasidishe World, written by Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum.
Diaspora Yeshiva Phone Email/Fax
P.O. Box 6426 Israel: 02-671-6841
Mount Zion, Jerusalem 91063 US: 011-972-2-671-6841 FAX: 02-672-9493