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Who Was Rabbi Isaac Elchanan?

We’ve all heard the name Rabbi Isaac Elchanan hundreds of times. His name is plastered across the facades of our buildings and the front of our new YU swag. He’s on our stationary, our flag, and our YU admissions-sponsored tchotchkes. The man behind, or rather, atop, the name on our logo deserves some attention. A little research reveals the lucky story of a fledgling home-yeshiva, an ideological young student, and his internationally renowned rabbi.

The story of RIETS begins not in the boisterous streets of the Lower East Side but in the pastoral Lithuanian town of Slutzk. Moshe Meir Matlin, born in the far-flung town, but a promising student, came to the Kovno, the capital city, to study with the undisputed master of Talmud in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Yitzchok Elchanan Spektor.

Rabbi Spektor hadn’t always been the Chief Rabbi of Kovno. Like Rabbi Matlin, his roots lay in extreme poverty in a tiny town at the edge of the Lithuanian empire. According to Rabbi Spektor’s biographer Ephraim Shimoff, his father was his first teacher. At eight, he was recognized as a prodigy. At ten, he was orphaned. At thirteen, he married. A few years later, he lost his 300-ruble dowry to the bankruptcy of his debtor. Destitute, Rabbi Spektor moved to a nearby town to serve as a rabbi. His pay: five Polish guldon a month, barely enough to pay for food.

Undeterred, Rabbi Spektor continued to seek out mentors. His erudition earned him respect in every town he visited: Tiktin, Karlin, Nishvez, Novohrodok. He slowly began to rise in the ranks. After thirty years of study and community leadership, he earned the coveted position in Kovno.

Once in office, the challenges facing Rabbi Spektor became national. According to Geulah Bat Yehuda in Encyclopedia Judaica, he helped manage the Volozhin Yeshiva and appointed rabbis to serve on commissions previously limited to lay-leaders. He saved the Mir Yeshiva from internal politics that threatened to tear the place apart. He temporarily permitted Lithuanian Jews to eat peas and beans over Passover after a drought and famine loomed on the horizon. In solidarity with poor Jews, he took a stand against price-gougers by prohibiting the use of a specific species of Etrog. His community celebrated his progressive halachik decisions regarding Agunot. Rabbi Spektor was undoubtedly a rabbi of the people.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Rabbi Spektor attempted to tackle pressing international issues through social activism. Together with Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, he lobbied the Russian government to protect Jewish citizens after deadly riots broke out in 1881. He was the only rabbi invited to a conference in St. Petersburg to discuss the deteriorating problems facing Russia’s Jewish community. Later, he urged Jewish communities around the world to rally against Russian policies that were squeezing the Jewish communities of the precious few financial and religious resources available.

Towards the end of his career, Rabbi Spektor joined the early efforts of the Hovevei Zion movement. He held parlor meetings in his home and unabashedly endorsed the fledgling movement and the obligation to settle the land.

Such an active lifestyle surely wore down the frail rabbi. The few surviving pictures of Rabbi Spektor show a man exhausted by the tensions of leading Russian Jewry. Unlike other photographs of rabbinic figures of the age, he wears a simple—if not disheveled—coat. His white bearded and frazzled hair show a unassuming man disinterested in appearances. “His life was characterized by personal sanctity, reverence, and humility,” writes Gilbert Klaperman in The Story of Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Spektor’s global vision of Jewish solidarity attracted students from towns and villages across Lithuania. His broadminded halakhik decision-making and camaraderie with Jews of all stripes—not to mention his ocean of Talmudic knowledge—inspired his students to build communities in the nascent locations of  Palestine and the United States. Rabbi Meir Matlin was one of those students.

After receiving ordination, Rabbi Matlin was recruited to New York City, where, in 1891, the Chief Rabbi of New York quickly enlisted him as a dayyan and supervisor of all schochtim in New York City. Rabbi Matlin relished in his demanding schedule, touring the city’s few Jewish enclaves to quietly inspect slaughterhouses, butchers, restaurants, and grocers. According to Moshe Sherman in Orthodox Judaism in America, Matlin was an introverted scholar who, unlike his teacher, never presided over weddings, divorces, or funerals. However, he did share two important commonalities with his teacher: a belief in the importance of both the advanced study of Talmud and secular subjects.

Rabbi Matlin enrolled his son Akiva in Yeshivat Etz Chaim, a secondary school for proficiency in Chumash with Rashi and Gemara with Shulchan Aruch. Students at the Lower East Side cheder, founded in 1886, stood with one foot in the new world and one in the old. They were mostly new immigrants or first generation American, but they had a knack for the city and its potpourri of poor immigrants. Unburdened by their baggage of leaving Eastern Europe, many sought a general education that would actualize their potential in America. Etz Chaim was, in essence, the first American answer to the Torah U’Madda question.

The peddlers and rabbis, butchers and newspapermen who sent their children to the Yeshiva wanted—needed—their children to have a dual education. Without English and math skills their children would be lost in the urban tangle of tenements. Without knowledge of basic biology and history, their children would end up as their parents—tailors and shoemakers, not the doctors and lawyers of their dreams.

After a few years of study, Akiva Matlin grew too old for the yeshiva. His cerebral father, however, was eager to further his son’s religious studies. In 1896, Rabbi Matlin assembled a few graduates of Etz Chaim and began to teach Talmud in his unassuming apartment at 172 Clinton Street in the heart of the Lower East Side.

“The news of this advanced class spread, and soon the group grew to about twelve students,” records Sherman, “Rabbi Matlin could not accommodate them in his home any longer and began to seek larger quarters.” The father of a student convinced Matlin and the nearby Mariampol Synagogue to house the new Yeshiva. Later, the school moved to a synagogue established by butchers located, not surprisingly, above a butcher shop. The yeshiva could certainly claim humble roots.

The yeshiva attracted both American students seeking smicha and new immigrants—some with advanced rabbinical training—who were seeking the familiar environment of the house of study to begin their adjustment to American culture.

Like Yeshivat Etz Chaim, the Lithuanian students of Rabbi Spektor who founded the nascent yeshiva firmly believed in Torah Lishma (Torah for its own sake). In addition, according to William Hemreich, author of The World of the Yeshiva, “secular studies became two of the most basic features of the yeshiva.” The new seminary would train rabbis who could “relate to the American environment and the particular demands it made on new citizens.”

Barely a year of study passed before news of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor’s death reached the shores of Manhattan. For Orthodox Jews, in whose homes his picture “hung on the walls of almost every Jewish home in Russia,” according to historian Gilbert Klapperman, his death marked the passing of an advocate and sage. For Rabbi Matlin, his rabbi’s death meant the loss of a teacher and role model. Rabbi Matlin joined communal leaders, parents of the students of his yeshiva, Lithuanian immigrants, and other lay-leaders in deciding to name the new yeshiva in his honor. His death gave birth to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

The next twenty years of RIETS brought about quick changes. Under the guidance of Rabbi Matlin, the yeshiva bought a new building. The newly formed Union of Orthodox Rabbis threw its support behind the school. Yeshiva Etz Chaim merged with RIETS in 1915. After student protest, the administration introduced a new general studies curriculum. The outbreak of World War I ended immigration and forced the school to attract American students by expanding course offerings. In 1916, RIETS opened a high school. In 1921 it opened a Teacher’s Institute. In 1928, RIETS opened a four-year liberal-arts school: Yeshiva College.

The American answer to Torah U’Madda was not quite as rosy as many had hoped. The founding of the college was not without internal and external controversy. Orthodox Jews associated all but the most basic secular study with secularism.  Helmreich’s The World of the Yeshiva recounts that various protests against the project. The head of the Mir, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, denounced American Torah institutions. In 1932, postcards were distributed across the east coast proclaiming Yeshiva College to be a “nest of atheism and Apikorsut” (denial of God). Rabbi Elchana Wasserman condemned the school.

By bifurcating the institution between seminary and college, tensions and mutual suspicion became inevitable. When funds dried up during the depression, roshei yeshiva accused the administration of siphoning funds away from the yeshiva.

Rabbi Matlin, however, escaped the second round of ideological battles of Yeshiva College. According to Encyclopedia Judaica, Chronic health problems caused him to flee New York City in 1915 in search of a tranquil town, not unlike his bucolic birthplace in rural Lithuania. Spurred by populist romantic enthusiasm, Rabbi Matlin applied for government land in Montana where he hoped to create a model rural Jewish community in America.

Moshe Meir Matlin, however, was a rabbi, not a rancher. Not surprisingly, his idealistic venture quickly fell apart. He was forced to give up the land. He traveled to Sioux City, Iowa, where he accepted a small rabbinical position. He also served as a mashgiach for Midwestern slaughterhouses until his death in 1927.

Without Rabbi Matlin’s quiet coordination and vision, RIETS and Yeshiva University would not exist. But you wouldn’t know it from visiting campus. His name appears nowhere—not on buildings, not in classrooms, not online. There are no Moshe Meir Matlin memorial lectures or Moshe Meir Matlin memorial prizes.

In the annals of YU history, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor, like Harry Fischel and David Zysman, lives on in name only. “Like many other major figures of his stature and influence he has not received the attention from historians that is his due” said Dr. Jess Olson, Assistant Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. “We are still waiting for a critical, academic study that places Rabbi Spektor in his context as a leader during perhaps the most complex and trying times in modern Jewish history.”