How Lakewood, N.J., Is Redefining What It Means To Be Orthodox in America
Seventy years ago, Rabbi Aharon Kotler built an enduring community of yeshiva scholars by making peace with capitalism
“The Primacy of Torah” was the motto for the grand commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder of the country’s largest yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, N.J. The memorial, called an azkarah, was marked with a series of events that spanned an entire weekend last November in and around the yeshiva and the surrounding community. The revered sage was remembered with reflections on his life and contributions in public talks in the yeshiva and throughout the town of Lakewood, as well as in special supplements in the major Haredi newspapers both here and in Israel. Many shiurim—lectures on Torah topics—were delivered to uplift his soul in the world beyond.
The memorial was not a purely somber affair, however. The yeshiva seized the occasion as an opportunity to celebrate the phenomenal success of the institution Kotler had founded 70 years before. Hundreds of alumni from all over the globe returned to their alma mater for the weekend in a type of homecoming. The azkarah culminated in a large “Main Yarzeit Program,” open to the public and attended by thousands of people, which took place outside on an empty lot within the yeshiva campus on which a large new beit midrash, or house of study, will soon rise. Leaders and representatives from various segments of the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox community came to pay their respects in a demonstration of the universal esteem the Lakewood Yeshiva seems to enjoy.
The much-repeated theme of the many encomia to the yeshiva’s late founder was that Kotler, a refugee from Eastern Europe, fundamentally changed what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew in America. Kotler insisted that it was possible to establish in the treife medina—a social environment inhospitable to the values of Torah study and Orthodox Judaism—a community of scholars whose purpose in life would be the study of Torah “for its own sake,” without concern for livelihood, and at the level of the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe destroyed in the Holocaust. But for the arrival of Kotler, the narrative goes, serious Torah study could never have developed in America.
The small yeshiva Kotler founded with 14 students in 1942 is now a mega-yeshiva with 6,600 students and satellite institutions spread throughout North America and beyond. The growth of the yeshiva has in turn driven the growth of the surrounding community of Lakewood; a sleepy resort village in 1942, it is now a large town with over 55,000 Orthodox inhabitants. For many years, the Lakewood yeshiva has been the central and most respected academic institution within the community of Ashkenazi Lithuanian Orthodox Jews in America, and the town of Lakewood has attained a “city upon a hill” reputation as an exemplary community where Torah study is the highest value.
There are assuredly many factors that have contributed to the success of the Lakewood yeshiva, chief among them its determination to be the American yeshiva with the best students and the highest standards. There is another important factor, however, one that went unexamined in the articles published and speeches delivered on the occasion of the yahrzeit: Lakewood’s seamless integration into American society. Although Reb Aharon (as the founder is referred to within the yeshiva world) was radically countercultural, an uncompromising opponent of the American pursuit of wealth and pleasure, his yeshiva has made its peace with American bourgeois values. Many of Lakewood’s alumni sacrifice financially to pursue vocations as educators and community rabbis, and a few do spend their lives in penurious full-time study, but most enter the business world and build lives of white-collar respectability and commercial success, with the attendant trappings of a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Lakewood’s integration of yeshiva ideology and American capitalist lifestyle has been the object of critique from the more hardline Israeli Haredis whose uncompromising stance has put them at odds with the larger society in which they live. But it is these baalebatim, or householders, and others like them who provide the substantial financial support necessary to keep the Lakewood yeshiva, as well as the many other community institutions, going and growing.
Aharon Kotler was born in 1892, in Sislovitz, Russia, and at a young age he was known as an illui, a prodigy. He studied at the famed yeshiva in Slobodka, Lithuania, and then at the yeshiva in Slutzk, where he married the daughter of its head, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. Kotler became the head of the yeshiva in Kletzk, a Polish border town, when he was 29, where he became known as one of the great Talmudic scholars of his time and a leader of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry. Kotler held his position for nearly two decades, moving his yeshiva to Vilna upon the outbreak of World War II; after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he fled to Japan by way of Siberia together with a small group of students. He crossed the Pacific with the help of a refugee assistance organization, arriving in San Francisco with his family in 1941 at the age of 49. He immediately took the train to New York and threw himself into relief efforts on behalf of the Jews he had left behind in Europe, before founding his new yeshiva the next year.
At a time when American Jews, including Orthodox ones, were intent on acculturation, the pursuit of the American dream of material success though higher education and professional training, Kotler insisted that such aspirations were empty, constituting the sacrifice of eternal well-being for ephemeral this-worldly gratification. Kotler believed that the sole purpose of Jews on this planet was to observe the commandments, and above all, to study Torah. Follow this path, Kotler promised, and God will provide whatever material sustenance one needs. Kotler’s bold idea was to establish a yeshiva for adult men on the model of the elite Lithuanian yeshivas, where Talmud would be studied day and night for its own sake, without any ulterior career motivations or concerns for social advancement. Students in Kotler’s yeshiva would not be allowed to attend college at night, unlike students at the few other Orthodox yeshivas that existed in America at the time. An even more radical idea of his was that even after marriage, young men should receive community support to continue their life of study.
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