The Lithuanian winter. The temperature tenaciously persisted at double-digits-minus, climbing to zero only on rare occasions. Amidst that icy frigidity was a single bastion of warmth: the Kahaneman home in Kuhl. The poor itinerants who wandered from village to village – as the war of 1812 raged off America's shores, and Napoleon began his retreat from Russia – knew this address well. It was there that they lodged, cozying up to the potbellied stove in an attempt to warm their freezing bones.
And as these indigents defrosted and hibernated, Fraidel Kahaneman would remove their "poorman's boots," the pitiful rags they wrapped around their feet as shields from snow and rain. These putrid rags were soaked with mud and other filth and their stench was abhorrent. Fraidel laundered the rags so that they were clean, odor-free– practically sanitary– and most importantly, they would be dry in the morning.
This legacy of kindness and devotion to those in need was bequeathed by Fraidel Kahaneman to her son Yehudah Leib, and to his son Yosef Shlomo... the future Ponevizher Rav.
(Excerpted from the section about R' Kahaneman, the Ponevizher Rav.)
Sarah Schenirer's devotion to her People, her love for the daughters of Israel, was tangible to all who heard her speak, friend and foe alike. Some compared her to one who, having discovered a starving, naked child, was driven to look after the abandoned creature. The urgency she felt, as if she were saving lives, was not lost upon her listeners. She herself made the metaphor explicit, referring to the restoration of Jewish pride as the only way to acquire true "chaim." Admittedly, this did not translate smoothly, but her audience understood what she meant by a "chaim-true life."
After the initial Bais Yaakov was well established — even after the idea had caught on elsewhere — Sarah Schenirer still operated in a virtual vacuum. Parents throughout Poland sought to send their daughters to local versions of the school in Krakow. But there was one apparently insurmountable obstacle to the creation of new schools: there were no teachers. Even Sarah's own students, her initial class, were now barely 13 and 14 years old!
Yet considering the alternative– no schools at all– this was an obstacle that would have to be overcome. As a first step, Sarah Schenirer relied upon her old strategy, which had enabled her to embark on her recruiting missions. She placed a young girl, barely a teenager, in the classroom. This protégé far exceeded Sarah's anticipations! A natural teacher, the girl's finesse, enthusiasm and responsibility made her an immediate success. A thrilled Sarah entered into her diary, "My heart wept from joy– my dream is becoming a reality!"
A cadre of 14-year-olds, veterans of Bais Yaakov's brief existence, was drafted into service. These young women would later lovingly reminisce about the days that they put up their hair, donned high-heels and adapted serious demeanors to play the part of mature teachers.
Beyond the illusion of age and experience, Sara Schenirer provided her girls with genuine tools to educate. After a full day of teaching, she would sit up all night, writing lesson plans and lectures on every subject in their curriculum. These precious notebooks remained the key reference work for all of her teachers, even decades later when they were respected teachers and leaders of their own schools.
Once a girl had been sufficiently groomed for her new position, Sarah would escort her to a distant town, and instantly a new school would be founded. At a public meeting, Frau Schenirer would first address the audience, and then introduce her well-rehearsed talmida. After a brief presentation by the tenderfoot teacher, Sara Schenirer would retake the podium and pose the usually rhetorical question, "Who wouldn't wish for a teacher like this to instruct her daughters?" And so would sprout a new branch of Bais Yaakov.
This meant that Sarah had to take to the road again and again, and each trip bore fruit. A dynamic was underway, and there was hardly a Jewish community in Poland that Sarah Schenirer had not visited. Branches of Bais Yaakov were initiated in hundreds of towns.
(Excerpted from the section about Frau Sarah Schenirer)
Let’s say you have a lot of faith in the Rabbis, and let’s say that you like to read about their piety and wisdom, and let’s say that you believe that no one is more instrumental in shaping Jewish — indeed world — history, then Builders is the book for you. I remain rather cynical about the above, but I must confess that Builders did soften my criticism.
Builders is the biography of three key personalities of the yeshivah world that were chiefly responsible for the renaissance of Torah learning and lifestyle before and after the Holocaust. Most notable and commendable about this collection is that a woman made it into the Big Three.
This woman is Sarah Schenirer who founded the Beth Jacob all-women school movement and her story is a fascinating rags-to-riches tale of faith and fearlessness. Starting off in Krakow, Galicia, Poland, circa early 1900s, her ambitious plan of providing girls with a “yeshivah” education was not only met with mockery and scorn by the local chassidim, but she and her students were pelted with rocks. Schenirer proved to be an unstoppable force and, in the blink of an eye, 38,000 students were enrolled in her school network in Poland and an equal number across the continent. The movement that she started remains vibrant and flourishing nearly 90 years later.
It is Teller’s assertion that Rabbis Aaron Kotler, Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (The Ponevizher Rav) and Schenirer are the three paramount “builders” of the chareidi world. It is easy to take exception with his selection, but he nevertheless presents a convincing case. Although I was faintly aware of the work of rabbis Kotler and Kahaneman, I had always associated their contribution to be exclusively in the realm of Talmudic scholarship. Unbeknownst to me was the vast work both of these scholars contributed to rescue efforts during the Holocaust. The Ponevizher Rav even saved over a hundred lives that were condemned to a horrible death during World War I.
There is a burgeoning literature about great rabbis and they all seem to read the same describing unmatched wit and acumen at a tender age followed by diligence to Torah studies for the duration of their lives. In this realm, Builders is refreshingly different than the other scores of books that I have described. Teller’s biographies are rich and varied and anything but boiler plate. Hanoch Teller is the last one to find fault in his subjects, yet each spiritual leader does not emerge from a cookie cutter mold.
The men and woman of this book led inspiring lives that deserve to be told, and Rabbi Hanoch Teller did a faithful job.
Reviewed in Moment Magazine
Words of Praise
|“Already established as a master biographer of Gedolei Yisroel and chronicler of life-lessons, every one of Rabbi Teller’s wonderful books is a prime lesson regarding emunah and bitachon and is essential for readers young and old. Writing a book about the fundamental pillars of these past generations, Rabbi Aharon Kotler and the Ponevizher Rov, along with the founder of women’s education, Sarah Schenirer, is a key service for the contemporary reader. All of his sources are authentic and the stories genuine.”|
Rabbi Eli Ber Wachtfogel
|“Everyone knows that Sarah Schenirer, Rav Aharon Kotler, and the Ponevezher Rav were three of the greatest builders of Torah in the 20th Century. But how many really know the extent of their achievement or how they did it? Anyone who wants to know the answer to that question should consult Rabbi Hanoch Teller’s Builders.|
Rabbi Yonason Rosenblum
|“Hanoch Teller is best known for his action-packed stories, but I have always believed his greatest talent is in bringing the memory and the lessons of the gedolim to life. I still draw inspiration from his work on Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, And From Jerusalem HIS Word. In Builders Rabbi Teller takes three of the most well known personalities of the last generation and shows how their lives and struggles have built the world we live in – and gives us the inspiration to continue building the on the foundation they gave us. Builders is a must read for people who care about the Jewish world of today.”|
Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky
|“All of Rabbi Teller’s words are expressed with such deep understanding, in such a lucid style, that it warms the heart and titillates the intelligence. Like all of his other books, this is a masterpiece of kavod shamayim and daily instruction.”
Rabbi Berel Povarski