Living Legacy: Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, on His 60th Yahrzeit
By Yehuda Alter
This Shabbos, 2 Kislev, marks the 60th yahrzeit of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Kletzk and Lakewood, one of the greatest leaders of postwar America who revolutionized Torah in America, dedicated himself completely to the cause of establishing Torah bastions in America and Eretz Yisroel – shaping countless talmidim who remain shaped by his influence to this very day, 60 years after his passing.
The Rosh Yeshiva was born to Reb Shneur Zalman Pines, in the town of Svislac, Russia, in the year 1891. At the tender age of ten, he was orphaned of his father and was taken in by his uncle, a dayan in Minsk. It is said that, at the age of eleven, he already knew the entire Tanach by heart.
His primary education was in the famed Yeshiva of Slabodka, under Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka. Once, the Alter of Slabodka sent his talmidim to speak in learning with Rav Chaim Brisker, who said on Rav Aharon, “in forty years, I have not met an iluy like him.”
In 1913, he married the daughter of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and came to Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Slutzk to assist his father-in-law in running the yeshiva.
Following World War I, he took a group of talmidim and established a yeshiva in Kletzk, which would exist there until the outbreak of World War II. A number of his talmidim in Kletzk would be reunited with him on American soil in later years. His style of teaching Torah was marked by a fiery passion and a burning ahavas haTorah.
In the interwar period, he became a forceful leader in the administration of the Vaad Hayeshivos, which sought to assist the yeshivos in Russia and Poland impacted by the war. In this capacity, he traveled to England and America to raise funds to undergird the yeshivos and their talmdim.
In 1939, he escaped, along with his talmidim to Vilna, and finally made his way to America. With the European yeshiva world gone, he dedicated every moment of his remaining years to rebuilding Torah.
He took the helm of Beis Medrash Gavoah, a tiny group of Kollel Yungeleit in White Plains, and moved the yeshiva to the resort town of Lakewood, New Jersey. With his fire and passion, he set the souls of these American-born boys aflame with a love for Torah.
Although Lakewood was Rav Aharon’s primary project in creating and shaping lamdonim who would make Torah their life, it was far from his only endeavor; he encouraged so many institutions and yeshivos that each made their impact. One of them was Yeshiva RJJ, where his confidante, Irving Bunim, served as the president for four decades. Rav Aharon would frequently say shiurim there.
Vaad Hatzolah during the war was another major project in which he immersed himself, and chinuch Atzma’i, which saved tens of thousands of children Eretz Yisroel from spiritual ruin, was likewise close to his heart.
His talmidim from those early days in Lakewood went on to become the Torah leaders of the next generation. They created a Torah world in the city of Lakewood, which has continued to grow exponentially, spurred on by the greatness and energy of a unique gadol who bridged Kletzk and America with a fusion of ahavas haTorah.