Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz: A Humble Life of Torah
A new era in the lives of first-year students began on Wednesday, August 20th with the first day of orientation and coincided with the end of another. Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS for half a century, passed away August 19th at the age of 104. His funeral was held in the Glueck Beit Midrash the following day. Rabbi Yankelewitz was one of the last Alter Mirrers, original students of the legendary Mirrer Yeshiva. With the outbreak of World War II, he fled with the yeshiva to Kobe, Japan and eventually Shanghai, China. He remained there until 1946, when he was able to immigrate to the United States. In 1964, he was appointed Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS by then-President Samuel Belkin, where he continued teaching up until last year.
Rabbi Yankelewitz was not only a dedicated and beloved teacher to his students, but he also served as a bridge between YU and the Eastern European world of yeshiva learning on which the University’s foundations were laid. “He was a constant reminder of Jewish history and Jewish destiny,” said President Richard Joel at the funeral.
Gershon Yankelewitz was born in the town of Dzyatlava, Belarus to Dovid and Bunia. The family briefly moved to Lubcha, but returned to Dzyatlava with the outbreak of World War I. After the war they returned to Lubcha.
He studied in the yeshiva of Raduń at the age of nineteen where he met the renowned Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, more famously known as the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Yankelewitz had many interactions with the Chofetz Chaim, including regularly going to his house to help make a minyan, attending shalosh seudos in which the Chofetz Chaim would speak, and hearing the Chofetz Chaim give words of mussar and Torah at the yeshiva. In an interview with Yeshiva University, Rabbi Yankelewitz recounts his memories of the Chofetz Chaim’s funeral. He studied in Raduń for four years before moving on to study in the Mir Yeshiva, where he became close with Rabbi Yerucham HaLevi Levovitz. It is with the yeshiva that Rabbi Yanekelwitz eventually fled Europe, the only yeshiva in Eastern Europe to survive the Holocaust as a whole.
With diplomatic maneuvering and leadership from within the yeshiva, the Mir managed to escape Europe as the rumblings of war began to roll over the continent. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Mir found itself under Soviet rule and relocated to Lithuania which was neutral grounds due to the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty in which Lithuania was allowed to hold onto the sovereignty of Vilna. It is there that the yeshiva along with many others relocated before moving to Keidan. Less than a year later the Soviets took control over Lithuania and announced that all foreign missions were to be closed by August 25, 1940. Without the assistance of a consulate, the prospects of escaping Soviet occupied Europe looked bleak, if not impossible. Thankfully, with the help of the Dutch and Japanese consulates, thousands of Jews, including some 400 students and faculty of the Mirrer yeshiva, were granted entrance visas to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao and a transit visa to Japan. These transit visas were issued by Chiune Sugihara, who was honored as Righteous Among the Nations later in his life. In the fall of 1940, the yeshiva traveled via the trans-Siberian railroad from Keidan to Vladivostok, Russia. From there, they traveled by boat to Tsuruga, Japan. The yeshiva reopened in Kobe, Japan in March 1941, but was relocated by the government to Japanese occupied Shanghai, China in November of that year. The Jewish refugees were able to set up a community in the Shanghai ghetto, and as Rabbi Yankelewitz mentioned in his interview, the Jews had their own synagogue, businesses, and a hospital. The locals were respectful and helpful to the Jews and “we managed to learn exactly like we learned in Mirrer yeshiva,” said Rabbi Yankelewitz.
In the summer of 1946, Rabbi Yankelewitz immigrated to the United States. He married Bluman Rabinowitz, who passed away in 2010, and settled in the Bronx where he lived the rest of his life.
He began teaching at Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter in 1948. Rabbi Herschel Shachter, a Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS who had Rabbi Yankelewitz as a teacher, criticizes how learned men often view teaching in day schools as below their dignity and notes how Rabbi Yankelewitz never viewed it as such.
Rabbi Nachman Cohen, a Research Professor at RIETS, was taught by Rabbi Yankelewitz when he was in eighth grade. “I think he was outstanding in the sense that he was concerned for every student and he was really able to engender interest in the gemara. He always had a pleasant personality. He would always be concerned about the personal needs of the students that were in his group. It’s important to say that because it was in an era when that was not necessarily the norm. In those days it wasn’t an expectation - he did it naturally,” said Rabbi Cohen.
Eight years later, he went on to teach in MTA, and in 1964 he was appointed by then-President Samuel Belkin to be Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS, where he taught up to and including last spring. Because of his long tenure, many of his students eventually worked with him as faculty of RIETS, including Rabbi Chaim Bronstein, who was in Rabbi Yankelewitz’s shiur his first year of YU in 1966. “Always this time of year towards the end of summer he would call to ask how the yeshiva was doing, how the shiur was coming, how many talmidim would he have. This year, nebech, (sadly) the call did not come.”
Rabbi Yankelewitz also taught mishnayot in between mincha and maariv in Young Israel of Pelham Parkway for sixty-two years. Though many would have considered it unnecessary for a Torah scholar of his stature, he made sure to prepare before teaching each time.
At a memorial service held in the Glueck Beit Midrash on September 3, a central motif mentioned about Rabbi Yankelewitz was the humility with which he carried himself. His son, Rabbi Yoel Yankelewitz, speaking in the name of his mother-in-law, said “he was a talmid chacham, personified that, but he was a gentleman par excellence. He knew how to treat people. He knew how to make people feel good.”
He is survived by seven children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren, and leaves a lasting legacy of Torah contribution with his efforts to rebuild the world he saw destroyed.