The Keidan Yeshiva

By Adv. Shimon Shibolet-Zang

As in every Jewish community, Keidan had its traditional cheder, which the children attended until about bar mitzvah age. Keidan always had many cheders and the various rebbes and melameds who taught Torah to children in these schools were remembered fondly.

Keidan for centuries also had a yeshiva, where Jewish youths, after their years studying in cheder, continued to study Gemara [Talmud] with well-known scholars and rabbis. The students studied there both individually and in classes — not in order to make Torah their life’s work, but rather learning for its own sake — and Keidan’s Torah scholars multiplied in number over the years.

We know for instance of Rabbi Yehezkel bar Avraham Katzenelenbogen, who was invited in 1707 to serve as rabbi of Keidan. He was a member of the rabbinate and managed the Keidan yeshiva until 1714, when he moved on to serve as rabbi of Altona in Germany.

Yehezkel’s son, Rabbi David Katzenelenbogen, inherited his father’s rabbinical position in Keidan, and his sons taught Torah and Gemara at the Keidan yeshiva, not only to pupils residing in Keidan, but also to those from the surrounding area.

Rabbi David’s son, Rabbi Meshulam Katzenelenbogen, continued his father’s and grandfather’s tradition, also heading the Keidan yeshiva and teaching its students.

Rabbi Avraham, David’s third son, went to Vilna around 1725, where he met the young prodigy Eliyahu ben Shlomo, whom he took to Keidan with him to study Gemara in Keidan’s yeshiva. The boy Eliyahu later became famous, and was known as Rabbi Eliyahu the Vilna Gaon [genius].

During the same period, a young man known as Moshe bar Shimon Margalit resided in Keidan, where he had been born in 1710. In time he became a well-known commentator on the Jerusalem Talmud and later served as head of the Keidan rabbinical court. In the Keidan yeshiva, the boy Eliyahu from Vilna actually met Shimon Margalit, then a 15-year-old yeshiva student, who taught him Torah.

Rabbi Meshulam Zalman [Katzenelenbogen]’s son, Moshe Mordechai, also headed the Keidan yeshiva. The genius Rabbi Shmuel Salant, a Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and founder of Etz Chaim yeshiva, which still exists today, came to Jerusalem from Lithuania in 1841. Rabbi Salant was still young when he left Lithuania, and he surprised people with his knowledge, acquired during his studies at the Keidan yeshiva before he made aliya to Eretz-Israel (he was called “the Keidan prodigy” by rabbis who taught him).

Rabbi Benyamin Ze’ev Wolf, known as Velvele of Keidan, was Keidan’s rabbi and a head of the Keidan yeshiva from 1852. He had a sharp mind and was called “Iron Head.” His students loved hearing his words of Torah. He passed away in 1865 in Keidan. When the gabbais [synagogue officials] wanted to raise his salary, he refused, telling them, “I don’t want to rob Keidan.”

Charles Lipschitz of New York, president of the Keidan Association there, wrote in his memoirs that he left Keidan in 1907, up to which time he was a student at the Keidan yeshiva.

Until the Keidan Jews were expelled in May 1915, classes were held in the large beit-hamidrash [house of study] that stood in the square at the extension of the synagogue street. Rabbi Avraham-Zvi bar Eliyahu-Baruch Kamai was Keidan’s rabbi at that time, and a head of the yeshiva. He gave regular lessons in Gemara to the yeshiva students. After the expulsion in World War I he moved to Mir, where he served as rabbi and head of the famed Mir yeshiva. He died a martyr together with the rest of Mir’s 900 Jews in 1941.

When Jews began returning to Keidan after the 1915 expulsion, they were joined by others from surrounding towns as well as other places. One of these was Rabbi Shmuel Hanoch Altmuner, who then began to serve as rabbi in Keidan. The Keidan yeshiva came back to life, and Rabbi Altmuner taught Gemara there.

When Rabbi Shlomo Halevy Feinsilber was invited in 1924 to serve as Keidan’s rabbi, Rabbi Altmuner continued serving as well, and both taught at the yeshiva. It was a beautiful sight to see the two rabbis with their followers sitting, holding lit candles and studying, and dozens of yeshiva students seated on benches in the beit-hamidrash next to lecterns, rocking back and forth, also holding lit candles, chanting melodically as they attempted to memorize a page of Gemara. Rabbi Feinsilber, may his righteous memory be blessed, taught at the yeshiva from the day he became chief rabbi until the bitter last day for Keidan’s Jews, when they all were murdered and buried in a mass grave.

In addition to the traditional cheder, where children were taught the basics by melameds [teachers of young boys], and various other schools in Keidan, there was also a religious school founded by Rabbi Feinsilber, for Torah-related study, called Beit Hatalmud.

As soon as I had graduated from the Hebrew real-gymnasium [high school] in Kovno, the rabbi and director of Beit Hatalmud approached my parents and asked them to persuade me to stay on and teach Hebrew and secular subjects there. I took the position and stayed for two years at this school. Classes were held in the women’s section of the beit-hamidrash.

Beit Hatalmud was a sort of preparatory school for the yeshiva. During that time, on the town rabbi’s recommendation, I also taught religion classes to Jewish pupils of the government-run Lithuanian gymnasium. I would come in two or three times a week for two hours each time, during the times when the priest taught religion to the Christian pupils. The principal and teachers called me “young rabbi.”

The last person to head the Keidan yeshiva was Rabbi Shimon Dubiansky, may his righteous memory be blessed. At the time of the horrible massacre in Keidan, he happened to be out of town, and he was taken to a labor camp. From there he was transferred to Dachau, where he perished.

The voice of Torah never ceased at the Keidan yeshiva, which nurtured many leaders of the Torah world. The Keidan yeshiva was known throughout the diaspora, and many strove to get there to learn Torah from its rabbis and spiritual leaders. There was even a saying, “Today, here; tomorrow in Keidan,” describing the constant flow of rabbis and yeshiva students who came to Keidan to hear Torah wisdom.

As in all Lithuanian yeshivas, Keidan’s yeshiva students learned both Gemara and musar[1], in contrast with yeshivas in Poland and elsewhere where the latter was not taught. The Keidan yeshiva was simply a hive of deep and thorough study, where the sound of the Torah was heard night and day, its students bent over their Gemara and musar books. My heart mourns the loss of Torah scholars in my Keidan.

[1] Musar (literally, ethics or moral instruction) was a Jewish educational movement begun in the 19th century in Lithuania that stressed ethical and spiritual discipline.

Translated by Miriam Erez