Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein zt’l and the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg
Rabbi Goldfein was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. He was the middle son of Mr and Mrs Boruch Goldfein who founded the first Jewish day school in Minneapolis. Rabbi Goldfein was persuaded to give up plans to become a medical doctor and to enrol instead at the Telz Yeshivah in Cleveland Ohio. His abilities and diligence were recognized very quickly, as he became a lifelong Talmid Muvhak of The Rosh Yeshivah HaRav Mordechai Gifter zt’l. Rabbi Goldfein remained in Telz from 1953 to 1962 during which time he also married and continued learning in its Kollel. From 1962 to 1966 he served as the Rabbi in Carmel, New Jersey, and from there he moved to St. Louis, Missouri from 1966 to 1972, where he taught Torah first in its day school and then as a lecturer in the Yeshivah Gedolah of St. Louis.
It was in 1972 that Rabbi Goldfein received a request from his close friend and fellow Telzer Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, who had come to South Africa a few years earlier and headed the school Yeshiva College. Rabbi Tanzer wished to establish a post-matric Beis Medrash in his school and thought of Rabbi Goldfein as the best man for the job. With the guidance of his Roshei Yeshivah, Rabbi Goldfein accepted the call and, with the enthusiastic and enduring support of his Rebbetzin, came with his young family, to begin an illustrious career that would make him the most notable, longest serving Rosh Yeshivah in the history of South African Jewry.
The community were used to Yiddish-speaking Rabbis, previously from Eastern Europe and Hebrew-speaking personalities from Israel, but an English-speaking, American-trained gadol in their midst was something entirely new. And, given Rabbi Goldfein’s warm and winning personality, always conveyed with a wide smile that bespoke a deep happiness and joy of life, he gained a wide following among the youth and their parents.
South African Jews are mostly the descendants of immigrants from Lithuania, also referred to as Lita, who arrived between 1886 (when gold was discovered and the city of Johannesburg was born) and the 1930’s (when the white Afrikaner government stopped the flow of all immigrants to South Africa to protect their own jobs). Lita was the greatest Torah centre in the world and it was home to many great Yeshivahs and Gedolim for hundreds of years. However, like American Jews of those years, the Jews of South Africa began to assimilate, but they always remained proud Jews and retained a strong and abiding love for Torah and its scholars as well as the qualities of Derech Eretz, ehrlichkeit and Middos Tovos. They built magnificent Orthodox shuls with kosher mechitzas, and gave the highest amounts of tzedaka per capita of any Jewish community in the world.
Rabbi Goldfein loved the South African Jewish community. Because of their unique Litvishe background, coupled with their qualities of respect for Torah, Tzedakah, and Middos Tovos, he saw in them a remnant of pre-war Lithuanian Torah Jewry. Rabbi Goldfein had seen great Litvishe Gedolim, amongst them his own Roshei HaYeshivah, from whom he learned so much about the greatness of Litvishe Jewry. Therefore, he found fertile soil for Torah here in South Africa. Even though it was a time of uncertainty with regards to the future of the country and emigration, he decided to stay in order to build Torah. After all, how could it be that the descendants of Lita, that great Torah centre, did not have a Yeshivah Gedolah of their own?
Rabbi Goldfein had a unique vision. He did not want to make just another Hebrew day school or a Jewish high school. His unbending vision was to build a Yeshivah Gedolah for Torah, built on the foundations and principles which he had seen and learned at the Telz Yeshivah in Cleveland. His goal was to model the Yeshivah, as much as possible, after the great Yeshivahs of Lithuania.
It was in this spirit that he established the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, which he exclusively headed until his passing. The Yeshivah went from strength to strength and attracted hundreds of quality students over the decades, who gave up opportunities to learn abroad, and chose instead to come learn by their beloved Rebbi, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein.
The Yeshivah continues today, following in the same path in which it was created. Rosh Yeshivahs, Rabbi Avraham and Rabbi David Goldfein, sons of the late Rosh Yeshivah have carried forward the legacy of their father and continue to teach and spread Torah to the South African community, from within the humble walls of the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg. The Yeshivah continues to attract bochrim after they matriculate, as well as bochrim returning from Yeshivahs abroad. There have also been many talmidim who have come to learn in the Yeshivah after finishing their degrees, while others find the time in Yeshivah to pursue a degree through UNISA or other correspondence institutions.
History of the Yeshivah
In 1973 Rabbi Goldfein was brought out to South Africa to start a Yeshivah Gedolah on the Yeshiva College campus. His talmidim at this time were mainly leaders and members of Bnei Akiva and he had a great and lasting impact on them and the movement as a whole.
In 1978 he opened the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg. It was to be a full time, apolitical, post matric Yeshivah with all the facilities necessary. His goals were 1) to establish a place of the highest calibre of Torah Learning, 2) to provide Torah personnel from South Africans to serve the South African Jewish Community and 3) to strengthen the community as a whole by spreading the love of Torah and learning amongst laymen.
He saw it as his mission to pass on the Torah of Telz, as well as the Lithuanian heritage, with its principles and values. Some of these principles are:
- Study of Torah for Torah’s sake alone. The Torah cannot be limited to any agendas or groups; it must be apolitical
- Torah is for everyone, and has the potential to bring them closer to Hashem
- Unity, inclusiveness and non-sectarianism
- The pursuit of Shalom – to flee form division
- The importance great Derech Eretz, Middos Tovos, integrity and menshlichkeit
- “Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace”
Rabbi Goldfein exemplified all of the above and pursued his vision, with great determination and perseverance.
The Yeshivah opened its doors with two talmidim, Rabbi Ron Hendler and Rabbi Yossi Hollander. There was tremendous opposition to the establishment of the Yeshivah. It is also important to note that this was taking place at a time that the future of the South African Jewish community did not look so bright. However, Rabbi Goldfein’s optimism, determination and great faith in the community, especially the youth, was rewarded with great success.
In the past a student who went overseas to Yeshivah would be ‘lost’ to his community. One of Rabbi Goldfein’s fundamental objectives was to reverse this trend by teaching his talmidim the importance of taking responsibility for the community and spreading Torah. Rabbi Goldfein felt that his talmidim had an obligation to give back to the South African Jewish community in which they were raised. Therefore, he encouraged his students to remain in South Africa and to become contributing members of the community. He wanted them to go out into all sectors of the community and teach authentic Torah as well as the love of Torah. At least 40 shuls in South Africa have been served in some capacity by graduates of the Yeshivah. They have also served in most of the Jewish day schools as well as Jewish institutions including the Beth Din, the Chevra Kadisha, Sandringham Gardens and the various youth movements.
History of the Telz Yeshivah
Rabbi Goldfein felt extremely privileged to be a Talmid of the Telz Yeshivah and to be a part of the great Telz dynasty. He often spoke about the traditional Litvishe approach to life which was shared by most of the Litvishe Gedolim. It is for this reason that it is fitting to include some of the history of the Telz Yeshivah, from its initial birth in Lithuania, to its re-establishment on American soil.
The Telzer Yeshivah was a famous Eastern European Yeshivah situated in the Lithuanian town of Telz. The Yeshivah was founded in 1875 to provide for the religious educational needs of young Jewish men in Telz and its surrounding towns. The Yeshivah was established by three luminaries, Rabbi Meir Atlas, Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov Oppenheim and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Abel, the brother-in-law of Rabbi Shimon Shkop.
In 1884, HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Eliezer Gordon zt’l was appointed as both the Rabbi of the city Telz and its Rosh Yeshivah. Rabbi Gordon was not satisfied with a Yeshivah that served only the younger students in Telz, and set himself to the task of expanding it. Rabbi Gordon always tried to attract the top Talmidei Chachamim to the Yeshivah and was even prepared to give up his position to do so. In 1884 Rabbi Gordon added his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch to the faculty and in 1885 he acquired the talents of Rabbi Shimon Shkop. Both Rabbi Bloch and Rabbi Shkop were innovators in the field of Jewish education, pioneering new methods and approaches to the study of Chumash, Talmud and Halacha. Together, their methodical formulae set down the foundation for what became known in the world of Torah study as the Telzer Derech (the “Telzer approach”). They both became highly respected Gedolim and Roshei Yeshivah in their own right and greatly shaped the Torah world as we know it today.
Rabbi Eliezer Gordon instituted various innovations, which were cause for a rapid increase in the student body. Among them were designating lectures for specific student levels. Whereas other contemporary Yeshivahs had only one level of study for all students, Telz provided students with shiurim commensurate with a student’s age and understanding. When a student was proficient in his level, he would advance to the next shiur. The benefits of such a system are self-explanatory and this system was soon integrated into almost all Yeshivahs and to this day remains the accepted structure in most Yeshivahs worldwide.
In 1902, Rabbi Shimon Shkop left the Yeshivah to fill the position of Rabbi and Rosh Yeshivah to the community of Breinsk, Lithuania. In 1905 Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz, who was a well-known Gaon, joined the Yeshivah to fill the void left by Rabbi Shkop’s departure. As with his predecessor, Rabbi Rabinowitz innovated a unique style of Talmudic analysis, which further added to the Yeshivah’s reputation.
In 1910, whilst fundraising for the Yeshivah in London, Rabbi Gordon suffered a heart attack and died. His twenty-nine years as head of the Yeshivah had seen a small town institution grow into a world famous center of Talmudic study. Following Rabbi Gordon’s passing, his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch assumed the mantle of leadership as both Rabbi to the community and Rosh Yeshivah.
Rabbi Bloch did not regard his obligation to enhance educational standards as being limited to the Yeshivah itself, and in 1920, he established in Telz primary schools for both boys and girls. In the same year, Rabbi Bloch added a mechina (“preparatory school”) to the Yeshivah. Previously, older students would tutor younger students who entered the Yeshivah but were not up to the standard of the lowest class. The mechina was structured in the same fashion as the Yeshivah itself with four levels of classes commensurate with the different levels of student advancement. At the time, the notion of a Yeshivah possessing its own preparatory school was novel. Today, however, it has become an accepted norm, something Rabbi Bloch pioneered.
In 1918, a teachers training institute had been established in Kovno; however, the seminary did not achieve much success. The faculty of the academy turned to Rabbi Bloch, renowned for his pedagogical prowess, to take it over, and, in 1925 The Yavneh School for the Training of Teachers reopened in Telz. This served as a postgraduate institute, with the charter of producing teachers for Jewish schools. The curriculum at the teacher’s institute included educational skills, Hebrew Bible, Talmud, the Hebrew language, literature and mathematics. The school succeeded in supplying qualified and trained teachers of a high calibre not only to the communities of Lithuania, but also to those of greater Europe.
For many years the Jewish community in Lithuania had lacked a structured educational system for teenage girls. Rabbi Bloch felt that such a concept was called for and in 1927 a high school department for girls was established in Telz. The school found immediate praise and support from many rabbis and community leaders who saw the immense value that such an institute had to offer.
In 1930, a sister institute to The Yavneh Teacher’s Training Institute was opened, offering a two year course to young women who wished to enter the field of education. Like its counterpart, the female division of the school succeeded in producing many high quality teachers who branched out across Europe.
1922 saw the founding of a kollel (“postgraduate institute”), the aim of which was to train graduates for the rabbinate. Admission was not easy; a student had to display great promise and the institute soon became known as an exclusive school for higher studies. Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, a son-in-law of Rabbi Bloch served as the Rosh Kollel.
In October 1930, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch died, and his second oldest son, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch succeeded him as both Rabbi to the community and Rosh Yeshivah. Exactly one year and a day after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz died.
At the time of Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch’s passing, his son Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch was only thirty eight years old; however, he had been lecturing in the Yeshivah since 1926 and had already acquired a name as one of the greatest minds in the rabbinic world. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch’s two brothers: Rabbi Zalman Bloch and Rabbi Eliyah Meir Bloch also occupied positions within the Yeshivah. All remained dedicated to continuing with their father’s educational methods and approach.
During the early years of World War II, the Yeshivah management sensed that the time had come to transplant the Yeshivah on American soil. Rabbi Eliyah Meir Bloch and Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz were sent to America to try and establish the roots in American soil to bring over the rest of the Yeshivah. Tragically, by the time they had any news to send back home, it was too late. The original faculty, their families and most of the student body left behind in Europe, were murdered by the Nazis. Hashem Yinkom Damam. The 20th of Tammuz was set as the day to mourn the Kedoshai Telz.
The Yeshivah was opened in Cleveland in the house of Yitzchak & Sarah Feigenbaum on 10 November 1941. It later moved to larger premises and this was the Yeshivah to which Rabbi Goldfein arrived.
The faculty included Rosh Yeshivahs Rabbi Eliyah Meir Bloch and Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz as well as the Ramim and future Roshei Yeshivah Rabbi Boruch Sorotzkin, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, Rabbi Chaim Stein, Rabbi Aizik Ausband, Rabbi Pesach Stein and Rabbi Eliezer Levi.
It was during the nine years that Rabbi Goldfein studied at the Telzer Yeshivah in Cleveland, that he built strong connections to these Lithuanian Gedolim, as well as becoming a lifelong Talmid Muvhak of Rabbi Gifter.
His love for the Telzer Derech and Litvishe way of life deepened, until he was given the opportunity to build a Yeshivah in South Africa founded on those very principals which he loved so dearly.
Sources for the History of Telz include
· Sefer Yovel Hameah of Telz, article by Rabbi Avraham Shoshana
· Shiurim by the Rosh Yeshivah Rabbi Azriel Goldfein zt’l