Once a Pikesville country club, now a yeshiva campus, the Bais HaMedrash and Mesivta of Baltimore is a jewel of Torah learning – and the pride and joy of its founder and Rosh Yeshiva, Harav Zvi Dov Slanger. I recently visited the yeshiva on a weeknight and witnessed over 135 bachurim packing the beis medrash and learning with tremendous enthusiasm. This room filled with a chorus of Torah learning is the fulfillment of Rav Slanger’s dream and the crescendo of his Torah life.
The journey to this accomplishment starts with a young Hungarian Holocaust survivor who, this year, celebrates the momentous 70-year anniversary since his release from the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at a commemorative seudas hoda’ah, (festive thanksgiving banquet) on the 21st of Kislev. In preparation for this event, Devorah Klein told Rabbi Slanger’s life story in last month’s issue, from his birth in Budapest to his incarceration in Bergen-Belsen to his arrival in Baltimore. We continue with a detailed account of his years in Baltimore.
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What is it that influences the life of a distinguished talmid chacham? What inspires his learning and hashkafa? What molds him? What drives him to reach his life’s goal of establishing a yeshiva that emulates the derech of learning and lifestyle he witnessed during his teenage and young adult years in Eretz Yisrael? And how does one duplicate that Bnei Brak chinuch in Baltimore?
It was the effect of those precious years in yeshiva, along with his family life and rich heritage, that gave Rav Slanger his strength. He attributes the success of his Torah life to his parents, Avrahom Yitzchack Slanger, and his mother, Sheva Slanger, and their Torah home in Budapest. Both his parents were totally dedicated to shmiras hamitzvos, a dedication they inherited from their parents. Rav Slanger’s father is a descendent of Horav Shlomoh Zalman Ulman, the author of the Yeriot Shlomo, as well as the Noam Elimelech, and the Chacham Zvi.
Rav Slanger gives credit to his wonderful wife, Rebbetzin Chana Slanger (nee Mandelbaum), whom he married in 1959. Together they raised a beautiful mishpacha. Her father was a great talmid chacham, who learned the entire day for over six years with his chavrusa, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l. Her maternal grandfather was a talmid chacham and a tzadik. Her paternal great-grandfather was the Turov Rav, Rav Boruch Mandelbaum, and the maternal great-grandfather was the Kubrin Rebbe. Endowed with this treasured mesora, Rebbitzen Slanger a Ph.D., is the president of Baltimore's Binah Institute.
From Hungary to Palestine
As Europe was ablaze from 1938 until 1944, the Hungarian Jews were insulated from the treacherous Nazi terror. That changed in 1944, when Nazi troops occupied Hungary and Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest. Rav Slanger’s father was a businessman in the family-owned textile company, and the family lived a very comfortable life. In 1944, their home was designated as a Jewish home, and displaced Jewish neighbors were moved into their home.
The Slangers and their sons, Moshe Chaim, Zvi Dov, and Elyakim, escaped Europe by joining the “Kasztner train.” Rudolf Kasztner, a Jewish official, negotiated with Eichmann to trade the lives of almost 1,700 Jews for trucks that the German army greatly needed. Among the passengers on the train were the Satmar Rav, zt”l, Horav Yonoson Steif, zt”l, and Debreciner Rav, zt”l. Despite the promise of immediate freedom, the train’s passengers ended up in Bergen-Belsen for several months but were eventually taken to Switzerland and released. (For a more detailed account, see last month’s article at Wherewhatwhen.com.)
The Slangers eventually reached Palestine. There, the family lived in Givat Shmuel, a suburb of Bnei Brak. His youngest brother, David Meir, was born in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Slanger went to a boarding school run by the Mizrachi Women of America. He tells a poignant story of his first Yom Kippur in Eretz Yisrael, when only three boys exited the shul during Yizkor, as all the rest were unfortunately yesomim (orphans). On the occasion of Rav Slanger’s bar mitzva, boys walked a great distance to attend, because they wanted to experience a simcha where the child had parents.
Throughout Rav Slanger’s life, relationships with gedolim (great rabbis) influenced his personality as well as his goals and vision. At Yeshiva Zichron Yaakov, Harav Elya Lopian, zt”l, the mashgiach, had a major influence on Rav Slanger. After transferring to Slabodka Yeshiva, he regularly attended leil Shabbos shmuzin of Harav Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l, who was the mashgiach at the Ponevezh Yeshiva. (Rav Slanger once asked Rav Dessler if he should walk far out of the way and take a much longer route to avoid seeing chilul Shabbos in the pardesim, orchards, near his home. Rav Dessler told him it was best to take the longer route.) Rav Slanger also developed a very close relationship with Rav Schach, zt”l. Rav Slanger learned in both Kollel Slabodka and at the Kollel Chazon Ish.
Once in America, Rav Slanger spent a few years in Philadelphia. In New York, he befriended and taught with Rabbi Jacob Bobrowsky, zt”l, a huge talmid chacham, who was a rebbe at Baltimore’s Talmudical Academy for many years. Rav Slanger finally took a position at Yeshiva Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, where he served as a magid shiur (rebbe) and mashgiach at the Mesivta for 26 years. He taught many hundreds of talmidim in those years, many of whom have kept very close ties to their former Rebbe. The relationships, b”H, have lasted years after the bachurim left the Yeshiva.
Rav Slanger recalls a wonderful and close relationship with Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, zt”l, and Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, as well as with Rabbi Naphtali Neuberger, z”l. Many of Rav Slanger’s rebbeim at Slabodka, in Bnei Brak, had been Rav Ruderman’s acquaintances and good friends at the Slobodka yeshiva in Europe. Rav Ruderman told Rav Slanger that he considered Rav Yecheskel Sarna, zt”l, Rav Yecheskel Abramsky, zt”l, and Rav Schach, zt”l, as three of the greatest gedolim of that era.
When Rav Slanger speaks of Rav Ruderman, you clearly see the love and respect he had for the Rosh Yeshiva. He enthusiastically tells the story of Rav Ruderman’s arrival to Slabodka at the young age of 13. When the Alter of Slabodka saw what an ilui (genius) he was, he asked Rav Yecheskel Sarna, a son-in-law of Rav Mordechei Epstein of Slabodka, to watch over this extraordinary bachur.
Rav Ruderman once told Rav Slanger that someone invited him to learn in a yeshiva just for iluyim (geniuses). He asked Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, if it would be a good idea to learn in such a yeshiva. Rav Finkel took the Rosh Yeshiva over to a window and said it would be better to jump in the river below. The learning might be great, but Rav Finkel was concerned about the hashkafa. It turned out that the Alter of Slabodka was correct, as some who attended that yeshiva did not turn out well.
Rav Slanger also bonded with Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, with whom he would spend time when Rav Gifter came to visit his son-in-law, Rav Ephraim Eisenberg, z”l. Rav Slanger knew many of Rav Gifter’s peers from his years of learning in Eretz Yisrael.
In Baltimore, Rav Slanger forged wonderful relationships with Rav Amram Taub, zt”l, and Rav Yitzchak Sternhill, zt”l. Rav Sternhill, whom Rav Slanger describes as boki niflah, asked Rav Slanger to serve on the Vaad Hachinuch of Shearith Hapleita. They had a warm and ongoing relationship. Rav Amram Taub provided space for the Yeshiva to daven in his Beis Medrash on Rosh Hashanah. Although Rav Taub never accepted honors, he agreed to be honored at Rav Slanger's Yeshiva banquet. Rav Slanger continues the relationship with Rav Taub’s son, Rav Shaya Taub.
Rav Slanger speaks fondly of all these people, and credits many of them with helping him develop his vision. But it was Rav Menachem Man Schach who had the biggest impact on Rav Slanger, advising and giving him chizuk throughout his life. Eventually, Rav Schach wrote him a letter encouraging him to start Bais HaMedrash and Mesivta of Baltimore. Rav Slanger met with Rav Schach, seeking advice as to how the Yeshiva would operate. They discussed limudei kodesh the derech of limud as well as the English studies for the Mesivta. They even discussed how important it would be for in-town bachurim to walk to the Yeshiva every Shabbos for learning sedarim to make sure that Shabbos at the Yeshiva was experienced by all, since many ninth- and tenth-grade bachurim reside at home.
Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, was extremely helpful in many ways. He signed a letter with all the Rabbanim of Baltimore encouraging the start of the new Yeshiva. The Yeshiva Bais HaMedrash opened in Elul 5757 in a few classrooms at Ner Tamid Congregation. Four years later, the purchase of the Summit Country Club was a remarkable achievement. Several local balabatim were helpful in negotiating the purchase of the campus, an eight-and-a-half-acre property.
Rav Slanger has put together a vibrant team of outstanding magidei shiur. Rabbi Dovid Strum (ninth grade), Rabbi Yisrael Shubert (tenth grade), Rabbi Shaul Sinsky (eleventh grade), and Rabbi Meir Rottenberg (twelfth grade) conduct the high school classes. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Kagan is the magid shiur of the Beis Medrash, and Rabbi Elyasuf Slanger is the menahel. Rabbi Shlomo Kinzer is the mashgiach.
Rav Slanger takes tremendous pride in the wonderful limud (learning) and the beautiful tefila (prayer) that the bachurim of the Yeshiva practice with great hislahavus each day – as well as in the warmth of the Yeshiva and the closeness of the rebbes to all the talmidim.
Approximately 50 percent of the Yeshiva students are Baltimoreans. The other students come from as far as Los Angeles, Australia, Brazil, and Canada to study. Classes in the Mesivta high school comprise 20 to 26 bachurim. Some parents of talmidim were former students of Rav Slanger at Ner Yisrael. Many former talmidim come with their families to daven at the Yeshiva for the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays).
The campus continues to grow, as a new beautiful dorm housing 92 bachurim has recently been built. The Yeshiva, b”H, has outgrown the present bais medrash and dining room facility, and these issues will need to be addressed in the near future.
A Banquet to Remember
Bechasdei Hashem (through Hashem’s mercy), Rav Slanger and his immediate family were spared the catastrophic fate of so many European Jews. What is remarkable is how Rav Slanger, uprooted in the middle of his childhood, went on to rebuild his life committed to limud Hatorah and guided by daas Torah. This year’s banquet and seudas hoda’a, commemorating 70 years since Rav Slanger’s escape from Nazi oppression, will be held, iy”H, on Sunday December 14. It will celebrate what a Holocaust survivor has accomplished in the Torah world – achievements no one could have imagined on that terror-filled train to Bergen-Belsen – and will pay tribute to all survivors who rebuilt their lives with yiras Shamayim and trust in Hashem from a tragic time in Jewish history. May Rav Slanger and the Yeshiva he has built have continued hatzlacha (success), and may this important mosad of Torah bring chizuk to Baltimore and to all of Klal Yisrael.