A Revered Rav and a Link to a Lithuanian Past
This past Shabbos Hachodesh, Harav Yisroel Shurin a scion of Lithuanian Gedolim was niftar in Yerushalayim, just shy of eighty-nine years. Rav Shurin was the Rav of the Magen Avraham Shul in Efrat and helped build that kehilla from its first years. But perhaps one of his greatest legacies to thousands upon thousand of Jewish children was his teaching the next generation the faith and values of the past, and handing down to them the inheritance of our great Torah leaders of old, which was a foundation of his life. For many decades HaRav Shurin wrote a weekly feature for Olomeinu/Our World magazine on gedolei Torah (Torah giants). These 250 articles became the basis of the six-set series of books, "Morei HaUma" (Teachers of Our Nation), the lives and the way of our national Jewish leaders, men of intellect, giants of thought, men of action, whose efforts and lives influenced their generations and many generations to come.
Indeed Rav Shurin left the Jewish people a legacy of Lita. His son, Rav Yitzchak Shurin, one of HaRav Shurin's three sons, said, "He lived in America for 40 years, in Israel for 30. Yet, it seemed when you spoke to him it was as if it was that day that he left Lita. The way he spoke, the pashtus, the warmth, the Limud HaTorah. Whenever you spoke to him, you felt you were speak to a Litvishe Yid. When he spoke, I felt my father transcended time and place. And when he spoke about Telshe or Kovno, you could smell the air of Lita. When he spoke about Ponevezh, you felt you were sitting there. When he spoke about gedolei Torah, you felt their presence. I feel that as long as my father was alive, Lita was alive."
Rav Shurin originated from a renowned rabbinic dynasty of thirty-three generations, which included the Pnei Yehoshua and Rav Yisroel’s great-grandfather, Rav Avraham Aba Krenitz the Ahavas Eisan, a commentary on Mishnayos, and a direct descendant of Rav Aba Chosid of Kroiz, a man so holy that the Vilna Gaon would travel to him for advice and blessings. The sefer Tnuas Hamusar relates that every third rav in Lithuania was part of this famous family.
Rav Yisroel had the zechus to be close with many great Torah luminaries, especially Rav Isser Zalman Melzer, and his father-in-law, Hagaon HaRav Yaakov Kamenetzky, who would often confide in him and discuss major issues with him as well. Rav Shurin once quipped to his nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, “I know the most (Litvishe) stories in the world! After all, we all know that the zaide (Rav Yaakov) knows the most stories in the world. But I already got them all from him…” Then he smiled and added, “But there are a few that I know and did not tell him!”
He will be remembered most for being a vibrant link between the gedolei Torah of the Eastern European generation and our generation today.
LITHUANIA TO ERETZ YISROEL
Rav Yisroel was born on the 27th of Iyar, 5678/1918 in Ritova, Lithuania, the third of seven children. His father, Rav Moshe, founded a yeshiva there and headed it for twelve years together with the Sgan, Rav Yitzchak Eliezer Vishnevski who was the Rav in Koltinan.
Rav Yisroel started out in cheder in Ritova, a mokom Torah which he recalled fondly. The atmosphere was charged with a reverence for Torah and Yiras Shamayim and the love of Torah flowed from the Rabbanim to the Talmidim.
Ritoveh was a Lithuanian town whose Jewish inhabitants were almost all Shomrei Torah and Mitzvos. Rav Shurin would recall how the Rav of Ritave, Rav Shmuel Fundiler, who filled the position after the petirah of Rav Yitzchok Eliyahu Gefen would come into the Cheder to be mechazek the children during Chodesh Elul.
Once, during Elul, the boys had been playing ball and were a bit exhausted when the Rav walked in with a shofar in his hand and declared. Boys, you should understand that a break is important. And it is important to play as well. But not during these days! These days were set aside to become closer to Avinu Shebashamayim, and to work on our midos. These days we must not waste our time on games. I brought a shofar for you. During recess you will practice learning how to blow the shofar!
Indeed the entire Elul, the children used their normal recess time to learn how to blow the shofar together with all the halachos. Towards Rosh Hashana, the Rav tested them and declared that they were worthy of being baalei tekiah! The trouble was that they were sill too young! “when you grow up you will be worthy of this great Mitzvah even in front of great Jews!”
From there, R’ Yisroel left to begin learning at Beis Rubenstein, the yeshiva katanah of Ponevezh Yeshiva. Young Rav Yisroel stayed in Ponevezh for his bar mitzvah where he gave a dvar Torah on the Shev Shmaitsa at one of the local shuls. The mispallelim celebrated the simcha with schnapps and special taygelach – a Lithuanian treat – that his mother baked and sent for the occasion.
Soon after, he continued at Telz Yeshiva and learned there until he and his family moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1935. But from the age of eight until the age of seventeen, Rav Yisroel didn’t see his father who was serving as a rav in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rav Moshe sent money home to Ritova where his wife, Rebbetzin Rus, raised the family. Instead of moving to the United States, the family decided to relocate to Eretz Yisroel because it was already becoming an important Torah center. Additionally, they sought to leave because Rav Moshe sensed the impending destruction awaiting them in Europe.
Rav Yisroel began learning at the Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, but switched soon after to Yeshivas Lomzeh in Petach Tikvah when the family relocated there. Ultimately he returned to the Chevron Yeshiva where he spent his most formative and productive years of Torah learning, and where he developed a very close relationship with the rosh yeshiva Rav Yecheskel Sarna. He also participated in the guard duty of the yeshiva that each bachur was expected to do.
It was during this time that he received smicha from Rav Yecheskel Sarne of the Chevron Yeshiva; Rav Isser Zalman Melzer of Eitz Chaim Yeshiva; Rav Reuven Katz, chief rav of Petach Tikvah; Rav Meir Stolewitz of the Zichron Moshe neighborhood in Yerushalayim; Rav Yechiel Michel Zev Hurwitz, a well known dayan of the Knesses neighborhood in Yerushalayim; and rav haroshi of Eretz Yisroel, Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog.
On one of the occasions that Rav Yisroel got smicha, Rav Hurwitz told Rav Yisroel that he didn’t have his own stamp to use for the smicha letter. So Rav Yisroel took matters into his own hands and went out to commission a stamp with the rav’s name. When he returned with the stamp in hand, Rav Yisroel was then able to receive his smicha, and Rav Hurwitz was able to use the stamp on subsequent smicha letters.
Having more than one smicha paid off later in Rav Yisroel’s life. While living in New York, he got into a car accident and rammed into a police car. The police officer sued Rav Yisroel for damages, even though Rav Yisroel insisted the officer was lying. In court, Rav Yisroel claimed that his view of the car was blocked by a bus. Once the judge discovered that Rav Yisroel had received his rabbinic ordination from the chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, he promptly dismissed the charges.
It was during the time that Rav Yisroel spent in Yerushalayim that he truly forged an unbreakable bond with the holy chachachim there.
When Rav Yisroel initially went to introduce himself to Rav Isser Zalman Melzer of Eitz Chaim Yeshiva, who was also originally from Lithuania, he was warmly greeted as “a Ritover!” Rav and Rebbetzin Melzer quickly made a simcha out of the occasion, bringing out the schnapps to celebrate a bachur coming from such a chashuv place.
Rav Shurin recalled his first meeting with Rav Isser Zalman. “It was a winter day in Yerushalyim. It was bitter cold and pelting rain. Rav Melzer who suffered from the cold was by the wall in which the oven was. When I told him that I was from Europe and had learned in Telz, he greeted me with such warmth, he made me a tea and offered home-baked cookies. At the time, seventeen year old Reb Yisroel was shocked. He was coming from Telshe where one would not sit in front of a Rosh Yeshiva without permission, and here he was in the home of the world-reknowned Gadol HaDor being treated as if he was either a child or a cherished peer!
Rav Shurin became extremely close with Rav Isser Zalman, and was almost a ben bayis in his home. Once, Rav Aba Grosbard, Mashgiach in Yeshivas Petach Tikvah was visiting the Chevoner Yeshiva in Yerushalayim and asked rav Yisrael to bring him to Rav Isser Zalman. When they arrived at the home they saw a note on the door, “Please do not come from 2-5 PM.”
As soon as he saw that Rav Grossbard began to turn on his heels and leave. But Rav Shurin who was younger was not deterred. He knocked lightly and immediately Rav Isser Zalman answered. He warmly invited them to come in, but Rav Shurin explained that Rav Grosbard was hesitant because of the note on the door.
“That note is not for you, Reb Yisrael!” exclaimed Rav Isser Zalman. And then he turned to his wife, “Baila Hinda, Please! Have rachmanus on me and remove the note!”
When the Chazon Ish first met Rav Yisroel, he asked Rav Yisroel where he grew up.
To this, Rav Yisroel replied, “And if I tell you, would you know?”
The Chazon Ish responded, “Try me!”
“Ritova,” Rav Yisroel revealed.
“You were wrong! I do know Ritova!” exclaimed the Chazon Ish. “I stayed in your uncle’s hotel when I used to buy the wares for my wife’s store.”
This rebuttal shocked Rav Yisroel.
Rav Yisroel frequented the home of the Chazon Ish, and he followed the practice of the Chazon Ish of entering the house from a window on street level, so as not to disturb the Chazon Ish’s wife.
Once Rav Yisroel asked the Chazon Ish a question in Masechta Kesuvos.
The Chazon Ish responded to Rav Yisroel’s query by stating: “It’s a good question, but you don’t know how to ask the question.”
So the Chazon Ish taught Rav Yisroel how to express the question properly.
THE NEXT ERA IN THE UNITED STATES
Rav Yisroel continued to learn in the Chevron Yeshiva until 1939 when war broke out. The situation in Eretz Yisroel was dire with poverty striking the Jews everywhere. His father had said at the time, “If I had a little bit of hard bread to dip into some tea, I would have stayed in Eretz Yisroel.”
While trying to figure out what do, Rav Yisroel sought the eitzah of his rosh yeshiva, Rav Yecheskel Sarne. Rav Sarne replied that since the situation was a “sha’as cherum” (emergency situation), he could not tell Rav Yisroel what to do; Rav Yisroel would have to make the decision himself.
With a heavy heart, Rav Yisroel left Eretz Yisroel with his family though never abandoning his memories of those wondrous impressionable years with the gedolim. He arrived in New York in 1940 and learned under Rav Moshe Soloveichik – the eldest son of the illustrious gaon Rav Chaim Brisker – who recognized Rav Yisroel to be a talmid chacham. Subsequently, he sent him shortly thereafter to his son Rav Yosef Dov in Boston along with four other European talmidim. These were the five original talmidim of Rav Yosef Dov. Prestigious bal habatim used to ask Rav Yisroel to speak as a representative of the other talmidim at events where Rav Yosef Dov spoke.
Rav Yisroel remembered that Rav Yosef Dov used to give shiur for nine hours each day with only a short break for lunch. During the shiur, Rav Yosef Dov would learn the masechtas with the talmidim while giving over his sevoras at the same time. In this way, they were able to cover much ground in their talmud Torah.
When Rav Yosef Dov moved to New York, he brought Rav Yisroel and his fellow talmidim with him. For a short period, Rav Yisroel wrote articles in Hebrew in a weekly va’ad hakashrus publication under the supervision of Rav Yosef Dov. He also wrote book reviews on sifrei halacha for the rabbinic journal Talpiyos.
After a brief stint as a rav in Portland, Maine in 5705/1945, Rav Yisroel returned to New York where he married Malka Kamenetzky, the daughter of hagaon Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vo’Daath. From then on, Rav Yaakov would consult Rav Yisroel, his oldest son-in-law, on many family matters and through those consultations, Rav Yisroel was able to help a number of the family members find their zivugim and first positions in chinuch.
After getting married, he served as the rav of Magen Avraham Kehillah in the East New York section of Brooklyn, which was famous for its many European rabbonim. While in Brooklyn, Rav Yisroel taught at the Beis Yaakov Seminary in Williamsburg, which was the first Beis Yaakov School in America. There he educated many future Torah leaders, amongst them Rebbetzins David and Freifeld. Every Beis Yaakov in the United States had staff members who had benefited from their training under Rav Yisroel.
He also taught at Mesivta Chaim Berlin in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He lectured in many Torah Umesorah teacher-training programs, in which he was mashpiah over many of the budding tamidei chachamim and future teachers of klal Yisroel. During those years, he took advantage of teaching in both the Beis Yaakov School and Mesivta Chaim Berlin by making many shidduchim between the students. In 1954 Rav Reuven Grozovsky asked him to become the Hebrew editor of Torah Umesorah’s day-school monthly journal for children about the gedolei Yisroel called Olomeinu.
In this venue, Rav Yisroel was able to serve as a bridge between the gedolim and the younger generation. These articles were later compiled into a six-volume set of books called Morei Ha’umah. Rav Yisroel wrote articles in many Torah publications during this period and was a member of Agudas Harabonim in America.
FINAL MOVE TO ERETZ YISROEL
He encouraged his youngest son, Yitzchak, to move to Eretz Yisroel in 1977, immediately after he got married, and Yitzchak’s two older brothers, Moshe and Dov, followed soon after. In 5743/1983, he moved with his wife to Efrat and founded Magen Avraham, as a beis medrash and community kollel for the residents of Efrat, a name which he brought with him from his former kehillah in Brooklyn. He also started a gma”ch (gemilus chasadim organization) in Efrat for its residents and the surrounding areas.
When he decided that it was time to return to Israel, he asked his father-in-law Reb Yaakov about it. HaRav Shurin didn't only want to move to Israel, he wanted to help build the land, and was considering moving to Efrat, which was then only a dream on paper. HaRav Shurin received a blessing from his father-in-law that Efrat would be blessed and he would always be protected. Indeed, Efrat had been blessed by his presence for the past decades.
Before his move, the Rav approached the president of Magen Avraham in East New York, and told him that he wanted to move the shul to Efrat, the shul president, Baruch Stein agreed, and helped finance the recreation of Magen Avraham. HaRav Yitzchak Shurin noted, "My father always said, he didn't want a shul. He wanted a Beis Medrash, and if people wanted to daven there, that was okay."
He was very proud of Kollel Magen Avraham, which he founded. And at every siyum, he thanked the wives who encouraged their husbands' Torah learning.
The rav also continued Magen Avraham's tradition of chesed by overseeing a gemach that has generously helped hundreds of families through the years.
While in Efrat, he wrote and published Sefer Minchas Yisroel, which is a compilation of topical questions and answers in halacha, as well as chiddushim on the Gemara and Torah.
Menachem Kuchar, who published Minchas Yisrael and several of the rav's Morei HaUma volumes, noted that "the rabbi wanted to call his sefer by another title, but then decided to call it Minchas Yisrael. He said that the Mincha was the simplest form of korban, and it applied appropriately to the sefer, because he felt that it was his humble contribution to Jewish learning."
In this sefer, Rav Yisroel included many shaylos that people asked him, including the following story.
When he was a young rav in New York, an elderly husband and wife from his shul passed away around the same time. They had two daughters, one married and one single. At the cemetery, the husband of the married daughter told Rav Yisroel the following predicament about his sister-in-law.
“She’s engaged to a goy. Is she still, therefore, able to go to her parents’ graves?”
Rav Yisroel thought about it for a minute and said, “Absolutely not, she is not allowed to mourn for her parents.”
The girl, upon being told the psak, fainted on the spot. There were great arguments in Rav Yisroel’s shul about his psak since according to the letter of the law the girl should have been allowed to visit her parents’ graves. Yet Rav Yisroel wouldn’t change his mind.
A year later, a young girl knocked on Rav Yisroel’s door with a young man wearing a yarmulke.
She said, “Do you remember me, Rav Shurin? I’m the girl that you wouldn’t let go to my parents’ grave. Rabbi, when you told me that I couldn’t mourn for my parents, it was such a shock to me that I did a cheshbon hanefesh and broke up with the goy. Now I am engaged to this man and we would like you to be our mesader kedushin.”
He spent his days in Efrat totally immersed in learning and could often be found in his garden with an open sefer. Rav Yitzchak Shurin described what an impression that made on Efrat's residents and visitors. "He lived right above the gate of Efrat. When people got off at the first bus stop and climbed the steps, at the second house, they'd see an elderly sage sitting in his garden learning." Just as the shomer guarded the city from below, HaRav Shurin and his Gemara guarded it from above.
Rav Yisroel is survived by his wife Malka, the daughter of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and their three sons – Moshe, Dov, and Yitzchak – who all reside in Eretz Yisroel, and their many grandchildren and great grandchildren. R’ Moshe is a retired business executive; R’ Dov is a famous activist, radio commentator and musician, and R’ Yitzchak is the rosh midrasha of Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya of Darchei Noam institutions.
May his memory be a blessing.
This article was compiled by Yated Staff with contributions from Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky and Sharon Katz of Efrat, Isrrael.