THEY CALLED HIM REBBE: The Life and Good Works of Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky
THEY CALLED HIM REBBE: The Life and Good Works of Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky
by Raphael D. Blumberg
Hardcover, 295 pages
Urim Publications, 2007
The present volume, which contains more than one hundred vivid stories about Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky's relationship with his students, entertains as it inspires. With tears and laughter, you will accompany Rebbe through the tragedies and triumphs of his life as he reaches out to his students with humor, wisdom and compassion, helping each one to achieve his full potential as a Jew and a human being.
They Called Him Rebbe also contains new primary source material about the Holocaust and the Mir Yeshiva's years in Shanghai.
Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky was born in Vishnevo, Belarus in 1913. Over a twenty-year period, he learned in Radin, Baranovitz and at the Mir Yeshiva. Together with the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Milikowsky fled to Shanghai during World War II. The Nazis murdered most of his family. After the war, Rabbi Milikowsky became a Torah educator and mashgiach at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. There, over the course of forty years, he employed his unique, God-given talents to help hundreds of boys to remain Jewishly strong and inspiring many to go on to careers in the rabbinate and in Jewish education. He passed away in 1990 and is survived by four children and many grandchildren who live in both the United States and Israel.
About the Author:
Raphael Blumberg, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied under Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky in Tenth Grade at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. He earned degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and at the University of Pennsylvania, and spent four years learning in Israeli yeshivas. He is the translator of more than twenty-five books and hundreds of articles on mostly Torah-related topics. He and his wife Mona and family have lived in Kiryat Arba, Israel since 1984.
Praise for They Called him Rebbe:
"They Called Him Rebbe demonstrates how a synthesis of wisdom and love created a force that spanned space and time to bring the flavor of prewar Lithuania into today's American classroom. But only a true Talmid Chacham, as was Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky, z"l, will know how to utilize the 'chochmas lev' (Exodus 35:35) effectively. A must read for every educator."
- Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, author of Making of a Godol
"This is the true story of a European Rabbi trained in Mir and Radin who won the hearts and minds of his American students, inspiring them to become leaders of a post-Holocaust generation born out of tragedy. It is must reading for any parent or educator who wants to understand teenage boys and how to motivate them to be better Jews and menschen."
- Rabbi Yaakov Spivak, Rav and Rosh Yeshiva, Kollel Ayshel Avraham
"A welcome new contribution to the genre of frum biography is scheduled to appear in Baltimore bookstores in time for the High Holidays. Written about a Baltimorean, by a Baltimorean, Raphael Blumberg's They Called Him Rebbe: The Life and Good Works of Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky (Urim Publications) brings to life a personality who had a profound influence on many hundreds of students during his 40-year career at Talmudical Academy. And, after reading about his kindness and wisdom in dealing with teenage boys and, of course, his brilliance in Torah and in teaching Torah, one can only say, "I wish I had known him in person." But isn't that the point of a good biography? Print may be second best, but Mr. Blumberg does an outstanding job of introducing us to Rabbi Milikowsky through this inspiring yet credible portrait.
Like other figures who built Baltimore's institutions of learning, Rabbi Milikowsky was a direct link to the great pre-War European yeshivos. He was a "Litvak," born in 1913 as the oldest child of a prosperous business family. Although the family was strictly religious and the children were raised to love Jewish practice, it was not a family of rabbis and scholars. When Boruch finished the traditional cheder in town, it was his own decision - influenced by his talmid chacham great-grandfather - to attend a yeshiva. He studied at the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva in Radin from age 12 to 21, taking off half a year at age 17 to experience Rav Elchonon Wasserman's yeshiva in Baranovitz. In 1934, Rabbi Milikowsky moved on to the elite Mir Yeshiva, where he was accepted despite his young age.
From this point, Rabbi Milikowsky became part of the miraculous story of the Mir, and the author of the book describes the fascinating historical details, including the escape to Shanghai and the life of the yeshiva students there. Rabbi Milikowsky distinguished himself in Shanghai not only as a talmid chacham but also as a baal chesed. At the end of the War, he traveled to the United States with the Yeshiva and continued learning in the Mir in New York. Altogether, he learned in yeshiva for 22 years!
Rabbi Milikowsky began teaching at T.A. in 1947. Many of us in 21st century Baltimore don't know that T.A. sponsored many Torah scholars who were Holocaust survivors, bringing them to America and giving them teaching jobs in the elementary school or the newly-established high school. The language of instruction in limudei kodesh was Yiddish at that time, so English was not a problem. What was a problem was handling American children and controlling the classroom. Some of the men were too scarred from their experiences to teach or relate to the boys, and soon dropped out. (One T.A. boy recalls his class going through seven or eight rebbeim in one year.) Adding to the teaching challenge was the fact that the student population of T.A. was composed of two very different groups, requiring different approaches: boys who were highly motivated and accomplished in learning and boys from nonobservant families whose parents only wanted them to maintain their Jewish identity.
Rabbi Milikowsky made it. Despite his accented English, he managed to "get through" to the sometimes brash American teenagers in his charge. As one boy remembers, "We were not an easy bunch. Of course he was a European, and he didn't know the ways of the Americans yet, and we tried to pull the wool over his eyes. Yet gradually, gradually, he got us to learn! He learned how to control us! I remember. We saw that he was very kind. Sometimes he had to shout, but he was very good."
After teaching the eighth and ninth grades, Rabbi Milikowsky moved up to the tenth grade, where he remained for the rest of his career. Gradually, Rabbi Samson, the Rosh Yeshiva, realized that his warm rapport with the students also made him suitable for the job of mashgiach for the dormitory boys. In fact, he was already doing aspects of the job informally. (Interestingly, T.A.'s first dorm mashgiach was the then-unmarried Rabbi Hirsch Diskind.)
So, Rabbi Milikowsky became the mashgiach, and it was soon clear that this was his essence, that everything he was and had experienced until then - including his innate qualities of insight and understanding, his tragic personal losses in the Holocaust, and his contact with the great mashgichim of Europe - had prepared him for this task. "More than anything else, it was his role as mashgiach that earned Rabbi Milikowsky the title 'Rebbe.'"
- Elaine Berkowitz, Where, What, When
"Raphael Blumberg has the good fortune of writing a biography of one of his own teachers in They Called Him Rebbe. Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky, who was born in Belarus studied in some of the most famous Yeshivot in Eastern Europe and survived the Holocaust in Shanghai as a student in the Mir Yeshiva. Upon his arrival in the United States after World War II, he successfully overcame the barriers that existed between American-born teenagers and a European-trained scholar to educate a generation of students as a teacher at TA in Baltimore.
Blumberg writes as an admiring student, and his extensive interviews with Rabbi Milikowsky's students draw the picture of a uniquely gifted educator who was able to share not only his knowledge of Torah but also his love and devotion to Judaism and the Jewish people. Today the enterprise of formal Jewish education in the United States is very much taken for granted. This book reminds us of the challenges that Jewish educators faced half a century ago, and can serve as inspiration for teachers who work with American youth today."
- Shalom Z. Berger, Lookstein Digest
"I have always admired successful immigrant rabbis, men who arrived on American shores during and after the Nazi era, poor, grieving, and with no knowledge of the English language or American culture but who managed to break through all of those barriers to touch the lives of others. The stories of those who overcame so much, emerging from hell to win the hearts and minds of a new and foreign generation, stand as triumphs of human spirit that can continue to enlighten and inspire long after they pass on.
My appreciation for this genre has only deepened in recent years, when I became an "immigrant rabbi" myself, moving from the United States to Israel and facing the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture, albeit without fresh memories of a Holocaust and with inestimable material advantages. It has made me think about the challenges that my own grandfather faced upon his arrival in Baltimore in 1947 with my grandmother and their three children. I stand in awe of his struggle to establish his shteebl while working as a shochet, mohel, chazzan, and assorted other religious capacities (he was a "Swiss-army Jew", as I like to call it).
Raphael Blumberg's They Called Him Rebbe: The Life and Good Works of Rabbi Boruch Milikowsky (Urim, 2007) carried a special resonance for me. Most of the book is set in Baltimore, my hometown and my parents' hometown, and in its Talmudical Academy (TA), my alma mater. Its "characters' " students of Rabbi Milikoswky and graduates of TA from the 50s into the 80s - are familiar as longstanding members of the Baltimore community, as friends of my father (who was in Rabbi Milikosky's shiur in 1962-3), and as figures well-known throughout the Jewish world (but who may be a bit better known to those who take interest in remembering who has Baltimore roots). Its event -- both the comic and the tragic - remain part of Baltimore's collective Jewish memory until today.
One might get the impression that this book would only interest vintage Jewish Baltimoreans, who smile at the mention of Cottage Avenue or Old Court Road as they would at the names Wes Unseld or Cal Ripken. In fact, however, the book should attract broad interest specifically because of its unique setting, and not despite it. Rabbi Milikowsky's successful adaptation to the peculiar culture of that particular school, in that particular city, and in those particular years contain a universal message of love and devotion, and their ability to bridge between even the most disparate of cultures.
Rabbi Milikowsky, a native of White Russia, studied in some of Europe's great prewar Yeshivos, ultimately fleeing from Lithuania to occupied Shanghai as a student of the Mir Yeshiva. Soon after his arrival in the United States after the war, he became a Rebbe at TA, where he remained until his passing in 1990. When he arrived at TA in the late 1940s, it had recently added a high school. Although it had been in existence for 30 years by then, it remained one of a small handful of Jewish day schools outside of New York. As such, its student body included a wide variety of local students and "out-of-towners", immigrants and "Yankees", from observant families and from traditional but non-observant families, and with a broad range of talents and abilities.
Thrown into such a situation with a strong yeshiva background but no formal training, Rabbi Milikowsky used whatever means he had at his disposal to communicate with his students. The author recounts (p. 87):
"there was a concentration of good ball players amongst the non-observant boys. During recess the boys would go outside and play softball on the T.A. asphalt lot. At some point Rabbi Milikowsky asked how to play and joined in some of the games with the eighth graders. If he could not communicate verbally with some of the weaker boys, he could at least communicate nonverbally.
Yet, on the very same page, the author includes an anecdote which many readers would view negatively, as characteristic of a worldview not shared by contemporary pupils and one that is potentially damaging to their religious development:
There was a boy, not so observant, who was creating problems for the class and for Rabbi Milikowsky. One time, in a fit of anger, he threw a chumash on the floor. Rabbi Milikowsky got very upset and castigated him about how this was a forbidden, dangerous thing to do. The next day the boy was taken to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The students of Rabbi Milikowsky's eighth-grade class took this as an omen about their own behavior. Rabbi Milikowsky didn't have to say a word.
The startling juxtaposition of these two stories captures the tension of an old-world rabbi trying to forge relationships with new-world students. Other practices of Rabbi Milikowsky's that would be frowned on today include smoking in front of students, turning a blind eye to students who smoke, and mild corporal punishment (including a story on p. 147 of a student who complained to his father that Rabbi Milikowsky hit him with a broom, whereupon the father presented the rabbi with a belt, in case his son ever deserved another beating). To his credit, the author makes very few attempts to minimize or contextualize these stories (he also does not airbrush a larger hair-covering or longer sleeves onto pictures of Mrs. Leah Milikowsky).
This book has little to offer in terms of formal pedagogy. Its subject never trained to be a classroom teacher and may have never prepared a lesson plan. Of all the praise found in this book, next to nothing of his teaching style or skill is offered. His students did not pay tribute by acknowledging that he taught them to learn Gemara or read Rashi. Rather, the book emphasizes the relationships that he built with his students, the informal classroom moments where he would allow students to discuss whatever topics were on their minds, his availability to them at all hours, his willingness to spend Shabbat and Yom Tov in the T.A. dormitory long after he had retired as the dormitory's mashgiach, his presence in the school's Beit Midrash and on school trips, and his mussar shmuessen (lectures on ethics).
The author pays special attention to the way that Rabbi Milikowsky treated each student individually (pp. 142-146, 182, et al), tailoring his responses to the needs of each student. In the 1960s, when desegregation began in the American South (which the author often erroneously calls "South America"), T.A. accepted many students from southern cities, Atlanta in particular. As dormitory students, Rabbi Milikowsky was directly responsible for them. The book recounts how he tried to understand their background and ease them into a life of observance. Other anecdotes describe his relationship with a poor student who was diagnosed with ADD later in life (pp. 176-180) and how he dealt with the issue of students who were seeing girls (pp. 142, 228). His concern for everything going on in the lives of his students coupled with a grounded, common-sense approach with how to deal with them finds expression both in the numerous stories and in witticisms like -Treat them like adults - expect them to act like babies" (p. 272).
Another element of Rabbi Milikowsky's personality highlighted by the book is a profound openness to different types of learning and ways of thinking. The book illustrates the way he approached women's Jewish learning (indeed, his daughter, Rabbanit Malke Bina, founded MaTaN, a major institution of higher women's Jewish learning), academic Jewish studies (his son Chaim is a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University), Zionism (p. 253), Haskalah Literature (p. 252), and American patriotism (p. 208).
In general, the book does a good job of arranging numerous brief stories into a chronological whole. The reader comes away with a sense of the man and the trajectory of his life. Nevertheless, it often reads life a tribute by his favorite students. A small handful of the hundreds of students who sat in his classroom or lived in his dormitory are profiled. Perhaps more attention should have been paid to students who were not amongst "Rebbe's boys", in order to complete the picture of this fascinating personality."
- ADDeRabbi Blog
"This volume, which contains more than one hundred vivid stories about the rabbi's relationship with his students, accompanies the Rebbe through the tragedies and triumphs of his life as he reaches out to his students with humor, wisdom, and compassion."
- Jewish Book World