Today the name Rav Yehudah Davis does not ring a bell with many people. Some may recall that he was the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Zichron Mayir of Mountaindale, NY. However, few people are aware that Rav Davis was a bold thinker and innovator whose groundbreaking efforts in the late Thirties, Forties and Fifties set the stage for things that are considered commonplace in today’s Orthodox world. Some of his accomplishments include being the driving force that led to such people as Rabbis Avigdor Miller, Nosson Wachtfogel, and Mordechai Gifter, ,זצ''ל studying in European yeshivas, starting the first Orthodox summer learning camp for boys, revitalizing Yiddishkeit in Baltimore shortly before and during World War II, successful Kiruv work, and an innovative approach to Chinuch. Rabbi Avraham (Albert) Schwartz, whose family was strongly influenced by Rav Davis beginning in ,1938told me that his mother called Rav Davis “der Heliger Rebbe”1 despite the fact that there were no Chasiddishe rebbes in Baltimore at this time. “My family did whatever Rav Davis told us to do.” Mr. David Schwartz, a younger brother of Rabbi Schwartz, told me “Rabbi Davis was fifty years ahead of his time. He turned Baltimore upside down!”
Who was this man who influenced so many? What lessons can we learn from knowing about his life? In order to at least partially answer these questions, we first present a biographical sketch of the life of Rav Davis. This is followed by some recollections of Rav Davis by four people who personally knew him. In this way it is hoped that the reader will gain a real appreciation for this extraordinary man.
Rabbi Davis was born in Baltimore on October 25,1907 17 (Heshvan, 5668) When he was young, his grandmother inspired him with stories of European Gedolim. There were no yeshivas in Baltimore, so he attended public school and received his Jewish education in an afternoon Talmud Torah. Even as a youngster he displayed an unusual interest in his religious studies. After graduating high school Rabbi Davis enrolled in Johns Hopkins University and completed the requirements for his degree in a little more than three years. In,1927 at the age of twenty, he went to New York to study at the Rabbi Yitzchok (Isaac) Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). He also continued his secular studies at Columbia University, but left after a year. “He often explained that this was out of disappointment in finding no evidence to support the institution's claims to honest pursuit of knowledge.”3
“Wherever he was, Rabbi Yehudah Davis formed youth groups dedicated to Torah study. In New York, he formed a study group of ten, including Rabbi Avigdor Miller, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, Rabbi Ber Elya Gordon, and Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel.”4. In 1931, Rabbis Davis and Wachtfogel went to study in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland. In 1932 Rav Davis returned to RIETS. “Immediately upon returning to America in ,1932 Reb Yehudah resumed his New York study group, continuing to arrange lectures by European Torah - giants who were visiting America. Within a year, he influenced each of the members of the group to make the move to Europe, and convinced any reluctant parents to agree. Thus, Reb Mordechai Gifter went to Telshe, Reb Elya Gordon attended the Mir in Poland, and Reb Avigdor Miller joined Rabbi Davis in his return to Slabodka.
“His learning in Slabodka was interrupted in 1936 [This date is incorrect. It was in 1934.5(YL)], when his mother became deathly ill, and he decided to marry in America while near his mother. His mother expressed concern about her younger son, Chuni, for she felt that her husband would not be able to care for him. Rabbi Davis assured her that he would take his teenage brother under his wings. Indeed, Rabbi Davis took his new wife and brother back with him to Slabodka, and fashioned games for young Chuni to play after his scheduled learning.
“During this period, Rabbi Davis joined a chabura (study group) that completed the entire Shas in one year. (This was not his first time; he had already done so even before arriving in Europe.) Rabbi Yisroel Bergstein ,ז''לone of the chabura’s members, described Rabbi Davis as a “tremendous force, the ari she’b’chabura (the lion of the pack).
“The war clouds forming over Europe in 1938 marked Rabbi Davis’s final days on that continent. Before leaving, he sought a formal semicha, knowing how this would please his father. Presiding over the “examination” were three great Lithuanian rabbanim: Rabbi Reuvein Zelig Bengus (the Kalverier Rav, later to become the Av Beis Din of the Eida Hachareidis in Jerusalem), the Kaidaner Rav, and the Kovner Rav (the D’var Avraham).” 6
“He took over Baltimore’s network of Talmud Torahs from the Conservative rabbi who ran it. And he formed groups of young men, some of whom he sent to Brooklyn to learn in the new Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim under Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, ,זצ''לto become b’nei Torah of the highest caliber. He favored a “hands-on” approach to learning, having the boys make their own tsitsis after learning the relevant halachos, and helping them build their own succos after studying that subject.”7 With the assistance of others “he began Baltimore’s Bais Yaakov for girls, knocking on doors and recruiting students to absorb the teachings of Rebbetzin Davis around her kitchen table.” 8
Exactly when Rabbi Davis left Baltimore is not clear. Some think it was in,1942 some say, 1943 and others believe it was in 1944. In any event, in 1944 he became the General Studies Principal of the Brighton Beach Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY. “Within four years,) 1948 (Rabbi Davis was no longer principal of the school, but remained as a rebbi. Yet it was now that he began to have his greatest influence in Brighton Beach, reaching the youth of another generation and fashioning them into Torah scholars and leaders. He began ‘The Boys’ Chabura of Brighton,’ and took under his wings future leaders such as Rabbi Shaya Jacobson, who was to head Yeshiva Tiferes Torah [Yisroel (YL)]; RabbiDovid Weiner, now of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim; his brother Rabbi Binyamin Weiner [former Menahel of Bais Yaakov Cohn High School of Queens (YL)]; and Rabbi Aharon Zuckerman, now Rav of Agudath Yisroel of Midwood and faculty member of the Mirrer Mesivta in Brooklyn.”9
“During this period, Rav Davis created original methodologies for learning Talmud based upon rules of logic, syntax and language. In the mid-1950's Reb Aharon (Kotler, ),זצ''לsent Rav Davis to be Rosh Yeshiva of a Boston branch of the Lakewood Yeshiva for a year-and-a-half, and then returned to Brooklyn. Now followed a period of personal tragedy. After a long bout with pneumonia, he was finally able to resume teaching. But two days later, his 19-year- old son Mayir--a tireless masmid and exemplary baal middos-- suddenly died from a brain tumor.
“Despite the tragic loss of this budding scholar, Rabbi Davis continued to devote himself to disseminating Torah learning and ideals. He assumed the position of maggid shiur in the Mir Yeshiva
“In,1965 the yeshiva property was purchased in Mountaindale, New York, where it eventually relocated year-round. The decaying hotel building that originally had housed the married couples was soon replaced by an innovation –mobile homes that turned far- from-wealthy idealists into instant homeowners.”10
Personal Recollections of Rav Davis
As interesting as the reader may find the biographical sketch above, it still does not give real insight into how Rav Davis was able to have such an effect on those who came within his sphere of influence. For this, one needs to “hear” from those he influenced.
With this in mind, we present below some recollections of the activities of Rav Davis by those who were close to him during three periods:
(1938 - 1940 from Rabbi Avraham (Albert) Schwartz and his brother Mr. David Schwartz. Rabbi Schwartz was the Rov of Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh in Perth Amboy, NJ from 1956until .1979Mr. D. Schwartz was the Executive Director of the Yeshiva of Flatbush for thirty years;
)Beginning in 1953 from Professor Eliezar (Leon) Ehrenpreis. Dr. Ehrenpreis is a world-famous mathematician who received semicha from Rav Moshe Feinstein, .זצ'‘לHe has held positions at Harvard, Yale, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Johns Hopkins University, Brandeis University, the Courant Institute at New York University, the Belfer Graduate School (when it existed at Yeshiva University), Temple University, and other prestigious universities and institutes. He has been and continues to be invited to lecture on his advanced mathematical research throughout the world. He will soon be lecturing in Japan.
)3( 1968 – 1997from Rabbi Zvi Lampel, a talmid of Rav Davis’ yeshiva. He spent 18years studying with Rav Davis in Yeshiva Zichron Mayir. Rabbi Lampel is the author of The Dynamics of Dispute and Maimonides’ Introduction to the Talmud, the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.
Baltimore, MD during the Thirties was a city with a relatively large Jewish population. However, the vast majority of Jews residing there were not observant. Many of those who were affiliated with an Orthodox shul were not Shomer Shabbos. Much of the Jewish community was concentrated in East Baltimore. Between 1905and 1963Congregation Shomrei Mishmeres HaKadosh occupied what was known as the Lloyd Street Synagogue. It was “one of the leading Orthodox congregations of the East European immigrant community.”13 Rabbi Schwartz told me that in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties “The shul was full of Seforim, and people learned there regularly. My father, Chaim Schwartz, ,ע''הwas one of the mainstays of the shul. He kept it going long after the neighborhood changed, and even paid boys to come and help make the minyan.”
Rabbi Schwartz was born in .1924His brother, Boruch Mordechai, ,ע''הwas a year older. However, since Rabbi Schwartz was very close with Boruch, he insisted on attending the first grade with his brother. As a result, they both entered Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim (then known as the Hebrew Parochial School) at the same time. This school had only seven grades. After completing the seventh grade of Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol in ,1937the Schwartz boys attended summer classes and completed the Eighth grade of secular subjects, enabling them in September 1937to enter the ninth grade of public high school (known as the Baltimore City College, because a student could earn college credit during the senior year). During that first year of high school they studied with a Rebbe after school.
Their father, Reb Chaim Schwartz, ,ע''הwas a successful businessman, deeply committed to Yiddishkeit. His was one of the few businesses in Baltimore that were closed on Shabbos. Reb Chaim regularly tested his sons, and he was not happy with the Jewish education they were receiving while attending high school. Therefore, when Rav Davis and his family returned to Baltimore from Slabodka in ,1938Reb Chaim hired him to be a rebbe for his sons. Mrs. Davis was engaged to teach the Schwartz girls. Reb Chaim probably had no real idea what kind of a rebbe he had hired for his sons or what he was getting his family into!
Rabbi Schwartz told me, “We were the Charedi family of Baltimore in the Thirties, yet everything changed when we got involved with Rav Davis. My mother, Ida Rose, ,ע''הwas constantly bringing this or that to the mikvah to be toiveled. We wore cotton Tzitzis during the summer. Rabbi Davis insisted that we wear woolen Tzitzis, and, of course, the ones we had were too small, so my mother had to make us new, bigger Tzitzis. Whatever he said, my mother, who referred to him as ‘der Heliger Rebbe,’ would do.”
Chaim Schwartz had planned that his sons Boruch Mordechai and Avraham would go to RIETS and Yeshiva College, graduate, and eventually take over his prosperous business. Rav Davis would not hear of it, insisting that the brothers attend Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim to study with Rav Dovid Leibowitz, .זצ''לIn the end Rav Davis prevailed, so, in the summer of ,1940the boys became talmidim of Reb Dovid. However, Boruch Mordechai became deathly ill a month or so after they were there and passed away in September.
Avraham Schwartz knew that his mother would never let him return to Chofetz Chaim. Still, Rav Davis was absolutely opposed to RIETS and Yeshiva College. A solution that everyone could live with was found when Rav Yaakov Ruderman, ,זצ''לRosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, came to be Menachem Ovel. He suggested that Avraham come to Ner Yisroel. Rav Davis agreed, and this is indeed what Reb Avraham did. Such was the extent of the influence that Rav Davis had on the Schwartz family! Reb David Schwartz told me. “He was a powerhouse; you could not but follow his lead. He was fifty years ahead of his time!”
Brighton Beach and Boston15
Professor Eliezar (Leon) Ehrenpreis’ family moved to Brighton Beach from the Bronx in .1953He was 23years old, but he had never “really studied Gemara before.” He expressed this desire to his mother. She asked around and was told by her kosher butcher “If your son really wants to learn Gemara, then he should learn with Rabbi Davis.” It was arranged that one Shabbos morning Dr. Ehrenpreis would meet Rav Davis at the minyan that he then had in Brighton.
“We studied a piece of Gemara with a Tosephos. Afterwards, Rabbi Davis introduced me to someone and asked me to tell this person what we had learned. I was able to recall the Tosephos word for word by heart. Rav Davis said to me, ‘Eliezar, I just heard that the price of tape recorders has dropped dramatically!’ In this way he at once made it clear to me that it was understanding of the Gemara that counted, not the ability to regurgitate it Baal Peh.
“In truth Rav Davis rarely learned much Gemara with me. On Friday evenings we often went for long walks on the boardwalk. Sometimes we would walk for three or four hours and discuss various topics. He said more than once, ‘If you were to see the Ramchal walking down the street, you would see a Seichel walking!’ He always stressed developing one’s Seichel so that one knew how to properly understand and deal with the world. Rote learning was useless to him.
“He was very interested in Dikduk and knew it well. He had developed certain approaches to learning Gemara that were linked to what he considered key words in the Gemara. He stressed the consistency of the Gemara and understanding the text deeply before studying Rishonim and Achronim. ‘The Tannaim included everything they wanted to say in the words of the Gemara,’ he often told me. ‘You have to read the words of the Gemara very carefully.’ More than once he told me the story of a bochur who got into trouble with his rosh yeshiva. His rosh yeshiva had explained a piece of Gemara in a certain way. This bochur pointed out that the text of the Gemara did not support the rosh yeshiva’s explanation. There was some give and take, but the bochur would not back down, and his being adamant did not do him any good. Rav Davis supported the bochur’s approach. ‘He was correct. The words of the Gemara did not support the rosh yeshiva’s p’shat!’
“I took a position at Brandeis University (near Boston) in 1957. At this time Rabbi Davis was head of the Boston branch of the Lakewood Yeshiva. In fact, I lived in the yeshiva while I was at Brandeis. Rav Davis always dealt with the boys in a manner tailored to each individual. He did not use a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to Chinuch, and was not afraid to do innovative things.
“Rav Davis was always interested in excellence. He recruited a fellow who was a champion wrestler to learn in the yeshiva. He wanted him because he was tops in wrestling, despite the fact that this fellow had very little background in learning. Rav Davis was always looking for people who were superlative in this or that; he felt that such people could become Gedolim.
“With this in mind he visited me at the Institute for Advanced Study during the 1962 - 63 academic year. I took him into the Faculty Tea Room and introduced him to some of the top mathematicians and scientists of the day. He spoke at some length with André Weil, who was considered by many to be the greatest mathematician alive. Rabbi Davis was interested in seeing how one achieved true excellence, no matter where it was to be found. He wanted to know how top people function. Not long afterward he permitted a number of boys from his yeshiva to visit the Institute. A highlight of their visit was when I showed them Einstein’s desk.
“I suspect that one of the reasons why he moved the yeshiva to Mountaindale was because he was impressed with the atmosphere in and around the Institute. It is a place located in a lovely environment that is “isolated” from the world at large, and whose members devote themselves exclusively to intellectual pursuits on the highest level.
“He always spoke to me in English. In fact, when I first met him, I assumed, because of his full beard, that I would have to communicate with him in Yiddish. However, he immediately greeted me in English, which ‘startled’ me. He did not fit the ‘standard’ picture of what I thought a rosh yeshiva should be. He was a very strong personality, and refused to compromise. He always taught me to ask, ‘Why?’ when it came to anything. He would not compromise. If he felt he was right, that was it. He could not be budged.
“In the Fifties he was given the most difficult high school class at the Mir. The first day he walked into class, the boys were noisy and essentially ignored him. He tried to begin learning with them, but it was very clear that they were not really interested. Finally, he told them to go outside and play ball. This they did for a couple of hours, until they realized that they were not going to learn anything that day. They came back into class, and he began teaching. It did not take very long before he had the entire class involved in learning. He had this unbelievable power to take people who were far from Torah and bring them close.
Yeshiva Zichron Mayir – Not Your “Average” Yeshiva
What follows is a description of Rav Davis’ yeshiva written by Rabbi Zvi Lampel. It is because of what is written below that the title of this article refers to Rav Davis as an “Avant-Garde Rosh Yeshiva.”
“I came to Rav Davis' yeshiva when 18 in 1968, located in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn during the winter, and Mountaindale, NY in the summer. (Five years later the yeshiva relocated to Mountaindale year-round.) I was introduced to a world of Torah learning in which the Rosh Yeshiva was revered, there was a seder of calisthenics in the morning, and it was insisted that we spend time swimming. There purposely was no kitchen or janitorial staff. We, the bochurim, in emulation of Yehoshua bin Nun, who ’swept’ Moshe Rabbainu's tent, were to feel that the Beis Medrash upkeep was our responsibility and privilege. We learned to clean and cook and took turns managing the tasks. (My mother still remembers how shocked she was when she visited the yeshiva, and her pampered ben-yachid actually offered and made her a cup of coffee!)
“Beards were out (to avoid yehora) and tsitsis were in (‘because the begged with its tsitsis is meant to be worn as a garment, not partly in and partly out’). And if a new bochur with a beard would become a member of the yeshiva (on a contingency basis--it was forever on a contingency basis) he would have to go through the process of being mattir a nedder and remove it.
[Readers unfamiliar with the Derech of Lithuanian yeshivas before World War II may find it hard to comprehend this approach to beards and Tzitzis. However, the truth is that in yeshivas such as Slabodka, Telshe, and Mir, unmarried bochrim were not allowed to wear beards. In the Mir the bochrim not only did not wear their Tzitzis out, but they did not take them out when saying Krias Sh’ma. It was considered unseemly for them to be “fishing around” for their Tzitzis during davening. This approach to beards and Tzitzis was continued in the United States in yeshivas founded by Roshei Yeshiva who had studied in Lithuania. Dr. Manfred Lehmann, who came to Ner Yisroel in 1941, wrote, “At that time there were no black hats, not even beards, nor any chasidim, among the students. The Lithuanian influence, especially by the mussar teachings of the Mir Yeshiva, dictated that any outer demonstrations of frumkeit (piety)—like black clothes,
Rav Davis himself did not grow a beard until 1942 or 1943, when he was 35 or 36. It may well be that given the “complexion” of today’s yeshiva world, Rav Davis would not have the same policy towards beards and Tzitzis that he had then. On the other hand, he was a man who was concerned with substance, not form. Perhaps, given the emphasis on externalities that we see in some circles today, he would have continued his policy of not allowing unmarried bochrim to grow beards and wear their Tzitzis out. After all, he was an innovator who was not afraid to “buck the establishment” when he felt it was appropriate. (YL)]
“The beis medrash was quiet, with learning conducted in conversational tones, in high contrast to the loud pitch heard in most. [I have been told that this changed in the late 1970’s and that from then on the Bais Medrash ‘hummed’ with the sounds of learning. (YL)] There was no bein ha Zemanim--ever. "How does anyone take a vacation from learning?" Go home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur?--How can you be away from yeshiva on Yom HaDin?! Succos, Pesach, Shavuous?--The days of Kabbolas HaTorah you want to leave the yeshiva?? Chanukah, when we commemorate the sacrifices made to learn Torah, you want to leave the yeshiva?? Elul Z'man? The time for teshuva? Are you insane?
“Rav Davis practiced a strong love for his talmidim coupled with "hard-core mussar." Almost every Shacharis would be immediately followed by a drilling on the sugya being learned, inevitably leading to the conclusion that we are all ‘am-haaratzim,’ or worse. Visitors who came to Shacharis would leave white-faced and trembling after the experience, asking, ‘Is it always like this?’ I would joke: ‘This? This was nothing compared to what we usually get!’ (I could afford to joke. The Rosh Yeshiva was always soft on me, afraid I would fall apart under strong criticism.)
”Rav Davis focused on developing each talmid's individual strengths, disparaging the practice of trying to fit all into one mold. But he drilled into all of us the mandate of applying heart and seichel in the pursuit of emes. There was hardly a day he would not extol the value of “seichel, seichel, seichel!” practically salivating at forming that word. When asked why he made the permanent move to Mountaindale, where the Yungerleit would live in affordable mobile homes, Rav Davis would quote the Sforno in Braishis that explains why Hashem saw it necessary to place Adam in a beautiful garden: A pleasant environment is “marchiv es haDaas,” it expands the mind's thinking abilities, and to Rav Davis, that is the meaning of life. As always, to keep closely connected to each bochur, the number of bochurim was kept low. I think the greatest number we ever had was ”.30
Rav Yehudah Davis, ,זצ''לwas nifter on 23 Adar I 5757(March ,2.)1997
I once told Rav Avigdor Miller that I thought Reb Yisroel Salanter was a “revolutionary.” (I was curious to see what his reaction would be to this statement.) He replied excitedly, “Of course he was a revolutionary! You have to be a revolutionary! Anyone who ‘walks’ like everyone else cannot be an Ovid Hashem. You must be a revolutionary!” Without exaggeration I think that we can say that both Rav Miller and his boyhood friend Rav Yehudah Davis were true Torah revolutionaries. There is much for each of us to learn from the lives of both of these great men.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Yeshiva Zichron Mayir and talk with its present Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg. He explained to me that the yeshiva still maintains Rav Davis’ unique approach to chinuch. In particular, each bochur receives an abundance of individual attention. This can be accomplished, because the yeshiva remains small. Two years ago a new, modern bais medrash was built which includes a full size basketball court in the basement. Parents looking for a yeshiva where their son “will not get lost” should certainly consider Zichron Mayir.
1Interview with Rabbi Avraham Schwartz, June ,1 .2005Subsequently referred to as AS Interview.
2Telephone conversation with Reb David Schwartz, June ,3 .2005Subsequently referred to as DS Interview.
3Rabbi Yehudah Davis ztvk"l and the Mountaindale Yeshiva by Rabbi Zvi Lampel, posted Avodah Discussion Group (Monday, May 23 2005Volume :15Number )020 http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol15/v15n020.shtml#11. Subsequently referred to as Avodah Post.
4Rabbi Yehudah Davis, Builder of Torah and Kiruv in America by Rabbi Zvi Lampel and Mrs. Faygala Safran, The Jewish Observer, November ,2000page .25(Reprinted in Torah Leaders, Artscroll/Mesorah, .)2002Subsequently referred to as JO.
5 Based on a conversation (June 20, 2005) with Rabbi Moshe Davis, son of Rav Y. Davis. 6 JO, pages 26 - 27.
7 Ibid., pages 27 -28.
8 Ibid., page 27.
9 Ibid., page 29.
10 Ibid., page 30.
11 AS Interview.
12 DS Interview.
14 JO page 27.
15 Based on a personal interview with Professor Eliezar (Leon) Ehrenpreis conducted on June 1, 2005.
16 Avodah Post
17 Baltimore Half a Century Ago, Manfred Lehmann,
http://www.manfredlehmann.com/news/news_detail.cgi/55/0. 18 Personal email from R. Shmaryahu Miller, June 8, 2005.