Yeshivah to honor Mr. Isaac Shamah and Mr. David Heskiel at 63rd Annual Dinner

On the corner of Ocean Parkway and Avenue R in Brooklyn, stands a commanding brick-and-glass edifice, a fixture of the neighborhood’s landscape for over six decades. From within, one can hear the crash and roar of a mighty sea, voices rising and falling, hundreds of men debating and clarifying, pushing their minds to the limit in order to understand the intricacies of the Gemara. This is the world of the Mirrer Yeshivah, an institution that is almost as deeply rooted in recent Sephardic history as it is in Torah.

As any old-timer from Brooklyn’s Sephardic community will attest, “the Mir” has played an integral role in the development of the Sephardic community here in Brooklyn, besides the incalculable impact it has had throughout the world, where its alumni are at the forefront of advanced Torah study, education and outreach.

The Shanghai Surprise

The storied yeshivah was founded in 1815 in the village of Mir, Poland (today Belarus), and  quickly grew into one of the premier destinations for students seeking first rate Torah scholarship and devotion to learning. The Mirrer Yeshivah reached its zenith in the early part of the 20th century, under the leadership of Rosh YeshivahRabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel z.s.l. (1879-1965) and the mashgiah (spiritual guide), Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz z.s.l. (ca. 1873-1936). Young men from across Europe and from around the globe, attracted by the glow emanating from this small Polish town, came to bask in its warmth.

But like for all European Jewry, the situation of the Mirrer Yeshivah changed drastically in 1939 as the Nazis rose to power. The Russians and Germans divided Poland between them, and amid the great peril posed by both armies, the yeshivah was forced to go on the run. Through a series of miracles, they managed to escape intact, making the 6000-mile eastward trek to the shores of the Sea of Japan. A rickety ship transported them to Kobe, Japan, where they remained for a few weeks, before finally being resettled in Shanghai, in Japanese-occupied China. It was there, in the Sephardic shul (which, amazingly, was built – years before – with the exact number of seats required by the yeshivah), that the students and rabbis would continue their holy work in relative peace for the next five years. After the war, the yeshiva moved on to America, settling in Brooklyn, with a separate division of the yeshivah relocating in Jerusalem.

The leader of the American branch of the yeshivah was the dynamic Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz z.s.l. (1891-1964). It was he who raised the necessary funds to acquire visas and provide transportation for the faculty and students. After searching for a permanent home for the yeshivah in Brooklyn, he ultimately decided to bring the renowned institution to its present location on Ocean Parkway, in the heart of a predominantly Sephardic enclave. He explained his seemingly curious decision by noting, “The Sephardic community is a new one here, as is the yeshivah. We will grow together.”

The Sephardic Division

Rabbi Kalmanowitz proved true to his word. As soon as the yeshivah was settled in its new home, he began bringing in young men from Sephardic and Arab countries to learn at the venerated institution. He had worked together with legendary community leader Mr. Isaac Shalom to save European Jews from the clutches of the Nazis since 1940, raising funds, applying pressure to various government officials, and working to spread awareness of the tragedy unfolding in Europe. Meanwhile, Mr. Shalom had been on the go since 1934, travelling to Sephardic communities around the world, doing whatever it took to ease the burden of his brethren. In 1947, he persuaded Rabbi Kalmanowitz to join him in North Africa, to see what he could do to help. One product of that trip was the introduction of the Otzar Hatorah school system, which, under the leadership of Mr. Joseph Shamah, operated a network of schools throughout the land of Israel and in various Sephardic communities in the region.

After World War II, with unrest sweeping the Arab world in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel, the organization shifted its focus onto the Sephardic Jews in their home countries. Within five years, the network had grown and was educating over 10,000 children throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Another result of this collaboration was the arrival of 13 young men from Arab countries whom Rabbi Kalmanowitz brought back with him to Brooklyn under student visas to join the Mirrer Yeshivah. One of these young men was Rabbi Abraham Portal. Seeking to settle in America, Rabbi Portal returned to Morocco in 1953, so that he could legally apply for a permanent U.S. residency permit. Upon obtaining the permit in June of 1956, Rabbi Portal returned to the states, bringing with him a fresh group of students, some as young as 11 years old. The yeshivah welcomed the 14 boys with warmth and open arms. “When we got off the boat,” says Rabbi Shimon Cohen, a member of that group, “Rabbi Kalmanowitz was there waiting for us, along with Rabbi Feldman [the legendary mashgiah of the yeshivah] and his wife. The yeshivah placed us in a dormitory on East 9th street, gave us some spending money, and took care of all our needs.”

But though the boys were eager to learn, they did not understand Yiddish – the language in which all the classes were taught. To solve this problem, the yeshivah arranged for a tutor, named Rabbi Yitzchak Tarshish, who taught the boys the language and helped them with their studies. With some Yiddish in hand, yet firmly holding on their Sephardic heritage, this unlikely group of Moroccan boys turned out to be the founding class of the Mirrer Yeshivah high school, a noted institution to this day. The boys eventually integrated fully into the student body – Rabbi Cohen even served as the ba’al koreh (designated Torah reader) of the yeshivah, as well as toke’a (one who blows the shofar – ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah – and maintain their connection to the yeshivah to this very day. In fact, Rabbi Kalmanowitz used to comment about how the Sephardic contingent was “the essence of the yeshivah.”

Rabbi Kalmanowitz also lobbied in the halls of power in Washington for passage of a bill to designate Jewish residents of Arab lands as “endangered refugees,” a status which would allow them entry into the U.S. without immigrant quota restrictions. Much of the Jewish community from Egypt – over 5,000 souls – escaped to the U.S. thanks to this bill, as did thousands more from other hostile countries. Many of these émigrés – and their children – ended up in the Mirrer Yeshivah and are now among the “who’s who” of Sephardic rabbinic leadership. Mirrer Yeshivah alumni include: Rabbi Shemuel Chamoula z.s.l. and sheyibadelu lehaim, Rabbi David Bitton, Rabbi David Ozeirey, Rabbi Shlomo Lankry, Rabbis Shmuel Choueka, Rabbi David Choueka, Rabbi David Sutton, Rabbi Shlomo Churba, among many others. In the words of Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, the yeshivah’s current administrator, the community has gone “from 1,000 people in Shaare Zion lining up to use the same lulav and etrog, to today, when you can walk into Shaare Zion and find 1,000 people studying Torah at one time.” This extraordinary growth is due in no small measure to the Mirrer Yeshivah and its graduates.

Celebrating the Sephardic Connection

Among the Mirrer Yeshiva graduates who is giving back to the community, is Mr. David Heskiel, a well-known figure who is actively involved in many communal ventures. As Rabbi Hecht put it, while many people want to do for the community; David actually gets up and does. Although he left the yeshivah more than ten years ago, he retains a strong connection with the institution to this day. On any given weekday morning, he can be found studying with the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Osher Berenbaum shelita. David is a member of the Mirrer Yeshivah’s executive committee, and is actively involved in the new building campaign. Additionally, he serves as vice president of Refuah Va’Chesed, an organization that connects seriously ill patients to top doctors and specialists. David is also a police chaplain and community liaison, and is involved in numerous other community initiatives.

On November 18th, the Mirrer Yeshivah will be holding its 63rd annual dinner, in memory of Mr. Shloime Gross, at The Palace, in Brooklyn. At the dinner, the yeshivah will confer upon Mr. Heskiel the Community Service Award, in recognition of his tireless efforts for the community.

Another distinguished guest at the dinner will be Mr. Isaac Shamah, a noted community philanthropist who will be honored with the Hagaon Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz z.s.l. Award. A dedicated supporter of the Mirrer Yeshivah, Mr. Shamah has become very involved in the yeshivah’s expansion plans, while his son Mark is on the building committee.

The miraculous, against-all-odds history of both the Mirrer Yeshivah and the Sephardic community serves as a source of inspiration and hope for the continued survival of our nation and of our Torah. This year’s dinner will celebrate this strong foundation of commitment and resilience, and will look ahead to many more years of growth, dedication, and partnership among all segments of the Jewish community.