Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Rav Mordechai Miller Principal of Gateshead Seminary

Rav Mordechai Miller of Blessed Memory
Principal of Gateshead Seminary

Yet another link to the mesorah of pre-war Europe was shattered last week with the passing of Rav Mordechai Miller, the principal of Gateshead Teachers Training College, known to Klal Yisrael as Gateshead Seminary or affectionately referred to by its sobriquet the Sem.

For over fifty years, Rav Miller, forged a link to the great mussar teachings and hanhaga of Kelm as he enlightened, and inspired, guided and focused, hundreds of young women. His influence and guidance helped his students transform their lives through the tenets of his teachings ¾ a direct link to those of his revered rebbe, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the Michtav M'Eliyah zt"l.

His brilliance transcended borders as the diversity of his students hailing from far-flung geographic backgrounds, distinguished cultures, and a variety of spiritual levels of Torah knowledge were amazingly unified by the marvelously powerful character and wisdom that emanated from his frail and embattled physical being.

His wisdom surpassed the walls of the Seminary and the Torah community of Gateshead where attendance to his many shiurim spanned from, B'nai Torah of the Gateshead Yeshiva, Ba'alei Batim and married woman and their families. His lectures, compiled and transcribed in the seforim Shabbos Shiurim in both English and Loshon Kodesh, have been a staple of the libraries of all who seek meaningful mussar synthesized with the depth of the machshava of Rav Dessler.

Rav Mordechai Miller was born in 1921 to Reb Todros and Shayna Miller who were prominent in London's Kehila. Stemming from Lithuania, they established a flourishing kitchenware distribution.
During the German blitz on London, they relocated to Dublin, where Mr. Miller commuted back and forth to England on business, forcing periods of separation from his family.

Young Mordechai was known as a child fro his sharp wit, brilliant intellect, but most importantly, gentle and humble demeanor.

In 1935, as fourteen-year-old he joined the group of elite Talmidim who formed the small roster of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler's private learning chaburah. Among the group rose two of the greatest disseminators of Rav Dessler's Torah, Rav Aryeh Carmel who worked ardently on the five volumes of Michtav M'Eliyahu and Rav Mordechai Miller who disseminated Rav Dessler's teaching through his eminent shiurim .

It was with great mesiras nefesh that Mordechai, known then as Monty, attended the private learning sessions. In his school, Mordechai was only one of a few frum students. He constantly refuted the heretical barbs from his irreligious classmates with insights from Rav Dessler. Every day he would present their aspersions to his Rebbe who would explicate exactly how to refute them.

It came to the point that the young bullies, tired of hearing quotes from Rav Dessler walked into the Bais Medrash, while Mordechai Miller was learning with him and bombarded him with irrelevant questions.

With Hillel-esque patience, Rav Dessler answered each question with a serious response that left the young men in awe.

The incident surely left a lasting impact on the young student. Rav Miller was known throughout his lifelong tenure at the Seminary for his ability to deal, patiently, methodically and with amazing clarity in answering an amazing array of questioners, from the serious seminary student looking o raise herself in the highest level of Torah and Yiras Shamayim, to wayward searchers asking rhetorical questions to engage in debate. Each question was treated with the highest regarded, with the realization that the proper answer can make an everlasting impact.

His parents were strongly committed to their son's learning with Rav Dessler which began after a meeting with him on another matter. Their commitment to their son's learning was so strong that they insisted on paying Rav Dessler even during the time that they were in exile in Ireland. Refusing to accept money without service, Rav Dessler wrote Ma'amorim and sent them to his talmid across the Irish sea.

Rav S. Wagshal recounts that, abiding to the direction of the Mishne in Avos which states that a Chacham never interrupts a questioner, Rav Miller would wait patiently until the questioner finished his or her issue ¾ whether it was a short query or a self-serving soliloquy. He would even inquire to the questioner if the problem was presented in its entirety. Only then would he begin to respond.

His actions and movements were the embodiment of the Kelmer derech combining calculated clarity with patience, humility and strength of conviction.

Mrs. Miriam Lider recalls how a young woman who embodied the mood of the rebellious 1970s came to Rav Miller's home with an arrogant array of issues concerning women's liberation and its contradictory existence with Yiddishkeit. Armed with a University education and the manufactured rhetoric that came free with her diploma she began presenting her arguments to bolster the demand for so her perception of equality. The ensuing conversations left her not only with a profound respect for the man, but for the Torah principals, his profound response presented. She joined the seminary and is today a true student of Rav Miller's, whose married life evolves around limud Torah and Shmiras HaMitzvos according to the mesorah of her revered rebbe.

But, Rav Miller's care and devotion did not begin with the intellectually sophisticated. An American public high-school graduate spent a summer in Camp B'nos where she developed a love for Yiddishkeit. Though age-wise, she was ready for seminary, her limited Jewish education-severely restricted her ability to be accepted. A phone call from Rebbitzen Kotler, the wife of Reb Ahron, to Rav Miller, got her immediate acceptance into Gateshead Seminary.

Rav Miller took a personal interest in the girl's education, revising tests to accommodate her limited ability to write Loshon Kodesh and her minimal skills in the Hebrew language. In addition, he would spend time tutoring her until she was one of the star students at the Seminary.

And when, on the rare occasion that he was unable to accept a girl into the seminary due to a variety of reasons it pained him greatly. He once received a bitter letter from family members of a girl who was denied entrance to the Seminary. Rav Miller kept the harsh letter open on his desk, so that everyday he would see it an d share the pain of the family.

According to some Talmidos, the Seminary was a Bais Mussar for women. It was not just a place to gain Torh knowledge, it was rather an institute in which, Toras hamussar could be breathed. The girls were taught their tafkid of making a kiddush Hashem in every aspect of their lives.

Rav Miller recalled how he used to travel in London with Rav Dessler. Rav Dessler would tell his Talmid to go to the upper deck of the double-decker bus. Their trip was short and often the conductor would not have the time to reach the upper level by the time the bus would reach their destination. Before they left the bus Rav Dessler instructed Mordechai to announce loudly that he was leaving, give a fellow passenger the fare and instruct him loudly that it was to be paid to the conductor when he finally made it upstairs!

When the war reached London during the early 1940's Reb Mordechai fled to Ireland. Though he learned from Rav Alony, who introduced him to the depth of amkus in learning, he maintained a kesher with his revered Rebbe through a series of letters.

Though he recived an LLB, an English Law Degree, Rav Miller travelled to Gateshead to study Torah with his Rebbe, Rav Dessler who had arrived in Gateshead in the early 1940s to help establish the Gateshead Kollel.

Rav Miller felt like a son to Rav Dessler, so much so that after Rav Dessler accepted the position of Mashgiach of the Ponovez Yeshivahe stipulated the ability to return to Gateshead where he would maintain the kesher with his Talmidim. His students vied for the opportunity to host him, and amongst the competitors were Rav Moshe Schwab, Rav Moshe Aryeh Bamberger and Rav Miller.

But Rav Miller's solid argument earned him the honor. Rav Schwab had studied in Kaminetz and Rav Bamberger in Slobodka. They had other Rabbeim as well. To them Rav Dessler was like an uncle, to Rav Miller, Rav Dessler was a father!

Rav Miller married the Gitta daughter of Reb Hirsh Bindinger. Throughout his life, his Rebitzin would be an unwavering source of support, beside him in every endeavor, supporting him through his long illness and terrible battles with asthma and arthritis.

Every though he said, though she may have heard it on countless previous occasions, would be cherished as if it were spoken the first time.

At the elderly age 60, Rebbitzin Miller learned to drive a car in order to help transport her husband back and forth from his teaching responsibilities. Despite difficulties in such a venture, she felt it was necessary in order to save the time and the difficulties of constantly waiting for taxis and other modes of transport.

In 1944 Rav Dessler helped establish the Gateshead teacher's Seminar. Under the leadership of Mr. Avraham Dov Kohn, whose humility and tzidkus manifested the refusal of any more illustrious title, the Seminary grew from a handful of German refugees, to one of the world's leading centers of Torah Education for women.

The Kelm philosophy that underscored the importance of women being knowledgeable in Torah and mussar thought was a driving factor in Rav Dessler's asking of Rav Miller to join the staff in its early years. He aimed to not only teach Ahavas haTorah, but hashkafas HaTorah through the essence of Torah itself!

Immediately, Rav Miller, with his keen wit, his gentlemanly manner and brilliant mind mad a profound impact on the students. His ability to use the language, combining English wit with perfectly form sentences that rhymed with reason, captivated his audiences. It was like the appetizers to draw young minds into the world of very serious Torah thought.

His shiurim, combined with the amazing organizational skills of Mr. Kohn, transformed the Seminary into a center of world-renown for serious-minded students. Their partnership, personified by Rav Dov Shternbuch in his moving hesped was like that of Dovid and Y'honoson ¾ a symbiotic partnership with only ahava shaino tolui b'dovor. The respect and reverence carried on after the passing of Mr. Kohn, who, in his tzava'ah, left instructions for Rav Miller to be the principal, a decision that Rav Simcha Kohn the son of the founder of the seminary help bolster through his humility and respect for the past twelve and a half years since his father's passing.

The reverence between Rav Miller and Mr. Kohn's son, Rav Simcha continued that lifelong partnership. So much so, that on Tuesday Morning, when the untimely petirah, left an orphaned class of talmidos waiting for a Rav Miller who would not arrive, Rav Kohn delivered the same hesped that Rav Miller gave for his father years prior, by Rav Miller, himself.

The ideals of the Seminary soon became internationally revered. Within a decade, when overseas travel became more commonplace, Rav Miller attracted students from far-reaches of the earth. Girls from South Africa and Australia joined with counterparts from Canada and the United States as well as all parts of Europe to draw from the wisdom of Rav Miller's shiurim.

In the early 1970s the New York Times sent a reporter to Gateshead to explore the phenomenon of American girls traveling to a small town in northern England to a Torah Institute, where the main focus was pursuit of spiritual growth and refinement of character!

One student explicated the difference between the selfish character of the me generation and this world of sharing and caring in every aspect of their lives.

Of the amazing array of shiurim and lectures that Rav Miller gave, his Shabbos Shiurim received the most notable acclaim. Originally given on Shabbos, in later years, due to asthmatic conditions that required him to use a microphone, they were given to packed audiences on erev Shabbos in the summers and on Motzoei Shabbos during the winter.

The shiurim became known world-over. Taped, transcribed and translated they became the spiritual foundation for hundreds of Torah homes and families.

Rav Miller never missed a shiur despite numerous illnesses. He never changed his seder hayom, arising each day at the same early hour, whether, winter, fall spring or summer.
The last years, his arthritis was so severe that he was hardly able to raise his hand.
But his voice did not waiver and the shiurim continued as a steady flowing maayan hamisgaber.

In adddirtion to the Women's shiurim, he gave a bi-monthly chaburah in Michtav M'Eliyahu in the Gateshead Yeshiva attended by prominent bochurim and yungeleit for nearly 40 years!.

Rav Miller's greatness was not only apparent in his ability to communicate Torah machshava and hashkafa, but also in his ability to communicate his appreciation of even the smallest acts.

His arthritis made it difficult for him to mount the platform upon which he delivered his shiur. One of the Talmidos suggested to the administration of the Seminary that they reconstruct the steps that led to the stage in a manner that Rav Miller would be able to get to the podium more easily.

The week it was completed Rav Miller was determined to find out he one who suggested the improvement and thank her personally. In fact each time he descended the podium he made sure to acknowledge the chessed of his talmidah. Long after she left the Seminary and raised a family in a different country, Rav Miller, still continued to often mention to the students about the chessed of this one girl.

His erudite clarity penetrated the minds of anyone who heard the soft spoken truths he so eloquently portrayed.

A girl from England told the story of how her father's car broke down and was brought into a Jewish, albeit secular mechanic. While repairing the car, the mechanic turned on the engine, starting the cassette tape that was lodged in the tape deck. It was a copy of on of Rav Miler's Shaarie Teshuvah Shiur. The mechanic was fascinated. Infact he listened to both sides of the tape! Upon returning the car he asked the patron if there were more cassettes were that one came from. The man supplied the mechanic with the entire series. It was not long before the mechanic became a Shomer Torah U' Mityzvos!

He related that sroy to his students to show, how an action can have far-reaching ramifications, far beyond our wildest imaginations.

A massive levaya was held in Gateshead where The Gateshead Rav, Rav Rakow was maspid in addition to Rav Simcha Kohn, and Rav Todros Miller, the Nifter's son who continues his father's legacy with his shiurim at the Seminary.

The funeral moved to London and then to Ezras torah in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Miller was brough to Menuchas Olomim at Har haMenuchos.

He is survived by his almanah, Rebbitzin Gitta, his sons Rav Todros, Rav Yaakov and Rav Eliyahu Eliezer and daughters, Rivka Kaila, Tova,Faiga, and Chana .

His sons-in-law are Rav Meyer Trepp, Rav Yisrael Cahen, Rav Boruch Dov Ben Sholom, and Rav Yaakov Moore.

How fitting for one whose entire life was devoted to the assurance of the perpetuity and appreciation of husbands who are lomdei and marbitzei Torah to have children and grandchildren deeply immersed in the ideals he so faithfully espoused!

Rav Dessler explains that the form of Torah transmission must adapt depending on the needs and understanding of each generation. Rav Miller had the uncanny ability to inspire an entire generation of Jewish mothers, teachers, wives and their husbands in a manner that was so sweetly palatable to each individual. What compounded the amazing talent was that his teaching were not stories and parables, but serious, even deep, profound and complex divrei machshava.

He will be sorely missed not only by the generation that had the merit to bask in his glow, but from those who only tasted the sweetness of his ideas, the depth of his clarity and his illumination of Divrei Chazal through his tapes and seforim. It will leave us all yearning for a world that once was. Y'hai Zichro Boruch.

The author expresses appreciation to talmidim, talmidos, colleagues and family members who helped in the writing of this article.