Hagaon Harav Mordechai Goldstein, zt”l
Founder and Nasi of Diaspora Yeshiva
The Torah world was plunged into mourning with the passing of the Rosh HaYeshiva Hagaon Harav Mordechai Goldstein, zt”l, on Erev Shabbos Parshas Toldos. Harav Goldstein, zt”l, was the founder and Nasi of Diaspora Yeshiva who inspired countless Jews and drew thousands back to their Source. The story of his life, replete with learning and accomplishment, could easily fill many a book, yet this article will endeavor to present a brief overview of the fascinating chapters of his life.
The Rosh Yeshiva was born in the United States in 1931. His father Harav Moshe, z”l, was a faithful Jew, renowned for his tireless efforts to preserve authentic Judaism in the USA in an era where many succumbed to spiritual hardships. R’ Moshe refused to submit, and even when his children needed to take three trains both ways to attend an Orthodox school, refused to compromise on pure Jewish education.
Young Mordechai Goldstein studied in the Salant cheider in Manhattan and then in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim. From there he progressed to Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim where he imbibed Torah from the venerable Rosh HaYeshiva Harav Henoch Lebowitz, zt”l, and studied under the tutelage of Hagaon Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l. His genius and wisdom in Torah were discernible to all, and at a remarkably young age he obtained semichah and was esteemed as a moreh tzedek and dayan.
Following his marriage in 1957 to tblch”t Malka Tzruya, Harav Mordechai continued learning in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim while simultaneously serving as a Rav in Queens and rebbi in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. During this period he studied b’chavrusah with Hagaon Harav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zt”l, the venerable Rosh HaYeshiva of Torah Ohr, and the two remained close throughout the years.
In 1964, Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim relocated, along with its faculty and students, to Eretz Yisrael with the Rosh HaYeshiva Harav Henoch Lebowitz, zt”l, who joined them in Yerushalayim together with his family. Some time later, when the Yeshiva returned to the United States, Harav Goldstein remained to serve as Rosh Yeshiva to the handful of talmidim who had resolved to stay in the Holy Land and to new students who joined the Yeshiva.
The Yeshiva faced many a challenge in its new home and country, and its path was not always strewn with roses. Initially, the Yeshiva took up temporary residence in the ezras nashim of Yeshivas Chevron-Geula where it was warmly welcomed by the former Rosh Yeshiva, Hagaon Harav Yechezkel Sarna, zt”l. When the Yeshiva grew too large for its accommodations, it relocated once again, this time to the Diskin Orphanage Campus in Givat Shaul.
The Yeshiva was the first institution geared specifically to foreign Yeshiva graduates, and this, in of itself, represented an innovative step in the Torah world of that generation.
In the months leading to the Six Day War, Israel was in a constant state of political turmoil, and many American parents exerted pressure on their children who were learning in Israel to return to the safety of their home countries. Thus, shortly before the outbreak of war, the majority of American students left the Yeshiva and returned home, albeit a small group still clung devotedly to their beloved Rosh Yeshiva who was now officially directing the Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael while simultaneously studying in the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Jewish Law.
The need for a yeshiva geared uniquely to baalei teshuvah became evident when a wealthy young American baal teshuvah by the name of Lacey Sachs applied to Yeshivas Kol Torah, then under the auspices of Hagaon Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l. At the time, Sachs was only embarking on his journey to authentic Torah Judaism, and the Rosh Yeshiva refused to admit him, fearing his negative influence upon other talmidim. This suspicion, practically incomprehensible in this day and age, was a genuine fear in the pre-teshuvah era when most outreach efforts were still concentrated far from the hallowed halls of yeshivos.
Hagaon Harav Mordechai Goldstein, zt”l, met Sachs and sympathized deeply with the heartbroken young man. In response, he determined to open a yeshiva that would admit every Jew, with the single criterion for acceptance being a sincere desire to learn Torah.
In a festive ceremony, a new Yeshiva opened under the name Toras Yisrael, conveying that Torah is the birthright of every single Jew. The Rosh Yeshiva quoted the famed Gemara regarding the Crown of Torah balanced on a horn, tempting anyone who wishes to come and take it, and the Yeshiva’s emblem was designed correspondingly.
The notion of opening a yeshiva uniquely for baalei teshuvah was revolutionary in the Torah world. This change in approach was compounded by the fact that Harav Goldstein, zt”l, did not derive from a family of respected roshei yeshiva, when in that time, only a son or son-in-law of a presiding rosh yeshiva was deemed worthy of acquiring the title and filling that august role.
Interestingly, it was in this same era that a powerful wave of longing for societal and cultural change swept through American youth. Conventional ideals, philosophies, and longtime practices were questioned and summarily rejected as the liberal hippie movement gained momentum across the USA and Europe, espousing ideals of love, beauty and world peace. In their quest for self-discovery, many Jewish youths journeyed to Israel, the eternal Jewish homeland, where they endeavored to connect to an Israeli culture that didn’t necessarily welcome or accept them.
Identifying the spiritual potential of the flower children, the Rosh Yeshiva, zt”l, acted with supreme wisdom and sensitivity in attracting many wandering, confused souls and opening their eyes to the beauty and richness of Judaism. Addressing them in a language they could appreciate, a language of love and peace, Harav Goldstein reframed their ideals into authentic Jewish concepts and the perfection of Torah.
With the single condition for admission to his Yeshiva being yearning and connection to limud Torah, Harav Goldstein set about the complex task of building the first yeshiva for baalei teshuvah, a yeshiva that was singular in its kind and goals.
In those early days of the Yeshiva, it wasn’t uncommon to observe a hippie with long, unkempt hair and a guitar strapped to his back wander into the beis medrash out of sheer curiosity, and then return several hours later to find him immersed in a sugya or involved in vigorous philosophical debate with other students.
Harav Goldstein’s innovative method of diving straight into the ocean of Torah with no prerequisites or prior background proved itself time and again. Indeed, many individuals whose first glimpse of Torah was in the Toras Yisrael beis medrash are today renowned Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbanim, dayanim, and authors of exemplary Torah works both in Israel and around the world.
On 23 Elul, 5728 (1968), the doors to the Diaspora Yeshiva-Toras Yisrael officially opened on Mount Zion.
The grand opening celebrated many long months of the Rosh Yeshiva’s search for an appropriate home for the Yeshiva. It was Mr. Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, z”l, former executive officer of the Ministry of Religion and unofficial commissioner of Mount Zion who made the connection.
Following a brief sojourn in Beit Knesset HaRamban in Jerusalem’s Old City, which had served as a goat pen until being liberated from Jordanian hands during the Six Day War, the Yeshiva relocated to the edifice across from the Tomb of King David on Mount Zion. This site, which presently serves as the synagogue above the Chamber of the Holocaust Museum, was where the Yeshiva first set down its roots and began to flourish.
At that time, the numbers of visitors to Mount Zion, which overlooks the Western Wall and was thus frequented by many who wished to feast their eyes upon the holiest Jewish site, drastically declined. The Yeshiva thus took up residence in several antique, ramshackle structures that became its dormitory and dining room, and it was from these humble beginnings that the Diaspora Yeshiva acquired fame and repute, drawing hundreds of wandering Jewish souls back to their Source.
אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן...
Loves the creations and draws them close…
By the 1970s, Diaspora Yeshiva stood at the forefront of the Torah world, attracting countless young truth-seekers to a life of Torah and Judaism. Many hailed leaders of the teshuvah movement in the past decades commenced their journey to faith in the hallowed hall of the Diaspora Yeshiva. In its peak, the Yeshiva numbered some 220 aspiring young men, when to compare, the famed Yeshivas Chevron numbered no more than 250 students.
With longing for spirituality spurring youth around the world upon audacious quests for truth and meaning, there were hundreds of thousands—among them many Jewish youth—who traveled the globe and made their way to the Far East where they fell prey to religious gurus and experimented with forbidden faiths and rituals. Convinced that they had finally discovered truth, they continued their world tour until arriving in Israel and Mount Zion. A single encounter with the Rosh Yeshiva was sufficient to inspire them to attempt learning Torah and reveal the one and only Truth. This discovery of Torah and authentic Judaism completely transformed their lives, and many abandoned their forbidden ways and returned wholeheartedly to their Source.
Another individual who effected a major change in the lives of countless students was the unforgettable Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, former teacher and mentor at Diaspora Yeshiva. R’ Shlomo, who was beloved to all who knew him, possessed extraordinary musical talent and ability to open the hearts of youth to Torah through music and song. Until this day, Diaspora Yeshiva alumni speak longingly of R’ Shlomo’s remarkable wisdom, brilliance, and diligence in Torah study, aspects of his character that were less known to the world but that served as constant inspiration to his students and admirers.
Since then, Torah study through music and song has been a central identifying trait of the Yeshiva. When the Yeshiva learned about the benefits of reviewing Mishnayos with songs, they practiced what they preached. Out came the guitars and musical instruments, and students who were accomplished musicians before returning to their faith played along to the tune of the Mishnayos, a practice that also extended to verses in Tanach.
The above were the seeds of what would soon become the hailed Diaspora Yeshiva Band, a musical group that gained worldwide repute for revolutionizing Jewish music. Their music paved the way for Jews who were remote from their heritage to return to Judaism through song and harmony.
As expected, the Rosh Yeshiva’s ground-breaking approach to outreach stirred giant waves in the Torah world. There were instances when he was sharply criticized by the public, and more than once large posters were hung in the streets castigating the Rosh Yeshiva and his hippie students. Yet the Rosh Yeshiva’s righteous, pure intentions proved themselves time and again as dozens of those same hippies underwent complete spiritual transformations and became proud Torah Jews.
The following episode illustrates the extent of the ideological revolution that was the Rosh Yeshiva’s legacy to Torah Jewry:
When the Yeshiva was still in its early years and appealed to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for funding like all yeshivos, their application was summarily rejected on account that there was no official classification of a “Yeshiva for Baalei Teshuva.” Indeed, the concept did not even exist yet, and in order to approve funding for such a body, the Ministry required the signed authorization of the Chief Rabbinate along with an entirely new criteria list! The amended list, drafted then, benefits dozens of yeshivos for baalei teshuvah until this very day.
Another one of the Rosh Yeshiva’s pioneering concepts in Jewish education and the outreach world was a women’s seminary for baalos teshuvah that offered parallel classes to female returnees. The seminary had the added benefit of facilitating the matchmaking process, enabling baalei teshuvah to find their spouses with greater ease. The Rosh Yeshiva’s wife, Rebbetzin Goldstein, tlit”a, is dean of the seminary who guides and oversees its high spiritual level. Over the years, many alumni of the Yeshiva and its affiliate women’s seminary have been introduced, married, and built beautiful homes and families. With infinite gratitude, they unanimously declare that they owe their spiritual lives to the Rosh Yeshiva and Rebbetzin.
ימין ושמאל תפרוצי
You Shall Burst Forth Right & Left
Diaspora Yeshiva of the 1980s was characterized by fabulous growth, and it was during these years that the Rosh Yeshiva founded Meitzad, a brand-new settlement on rocky, desert earth. In establishing the new community, the Rosh Yeshiva cited the words of the Rambam who writes that when a generation is stricken with corruption and sin, one must flee to the desert in order to distance oneself from all the negativity. The Rosh Yeshiva’s eldest son, Hagaon Harav Yisrael Goldstein, shlit”a, was appointed Rav of Meitzad where he faithfully serves the community until today.
1984 contained a tragic chapter in the history of the Diaspora Yeshiva. A terrible blaze decimated the Yeshiva Heichal along with the 15 Torah scrolls in the Ark, among them an antique Torah scroll that belonged previously to Maharam Rottenberg. Authorities concluded that the fire had been deliberately set, and the heartrending levayah for the 15 sifrei Torah was attended by tens of thousands of tearful Jews who escorted them respectfully to burial. Remnants of the scorched, blackened Heichal are visible even today.
Following the destruction, the Steipler, zt”l, venerable leader of Torah Jewry, was asked what tikkun could be done to atone for the terrible tragedy. The Steipler, zt”l, replied that the burning of the Torah calls attention to a lack of strong Jewish childhood education. In response, the Rosh Yeshiva promptly opened a cheider and girls’ school that both served the community children for many years thereafter. Both institutions operated under the auspices of the Rosh Yeshiva’s son, Hagaon Harav Shlomo Goldstein, shlit”a.
Battle for the Mount
The story of the Diaspora Yeshiva melds a touch of politics with a fortune of money. The presence of a charedi Yeshiva in the heart of the Holy Basin, a modern Israeli term used to describe the Old City and its adjacent territories, irked various political leaders. Furthermore, the Yeshiva’s location on Mount Zion prevented the said leaders from altering the natural character of the holy site of the Tomb of the Kings of David to suit their own purposes.
During this period, the Rosh Yeshiva fought valiantly, tirelessly expending all his energies and strength to defy the will of those who wished to defile this holy site. At one point in time, government officials sought to negotiate with the Vatican and sign a deal that would include surrendering specific areas of Mount Zion in order to improve diplomatic relationships, but the Rosh Yeshiva waged war against this. Despite the many individuals who attempted to silence him, with efforts ranging from lucrative bribes to threats of legal harassment, the Rosh Yeshiva strongly protested and warned the public of the terrible threat hanging over the Tomb of King David. On many occasions, Harav Goldstein was offered astronomical sums of money for the sale of even one of the scores of rooms comprising the Yeshiva; yet the Rosh Yeshiva, a man of uncompromising truth, inevitably refused to cooperate with these developers.
Beyond this, the Rosh Yeshiva together with his son Hagaon Harav Yitzchak, shlit”a, waged a fiery battle against missionary groups and organizations which veil their wicked intentions as contributions to the Jewish nation.
It was ironically his unshakeable integrity and resolve that caused numerous government officials to besmirch the Rosh Yeshiva’s name and squeeze every last penny out of the Yeshiva, dragging him into a complex legal battle in the hope that he would eventually despair.
Yet as the Torah describes of the Jews of Egypt, “And as they oppressed them, so would they multiply and burst forth,” so too the Diaspora Yeshiva. Surmounting myriad challenges, the Rosh Yeshiva invested maximal energies into building the Yeshiva, and hundreds of beloved students benefited from his exceptional wisdom and advice. Harav Goldstein likewise encouraged founding new institutes and programs on Mount Zion.
Following his own advice, several years ago the Rosh Yeshiva appointed his beloved student Harav Hagon Yaakov Avraham Sfard, shlit”a, to found a Kabbalists’ Yeshiva—Yeshivas Nefresh Hachaim in the beis medrash beneath the Tomb of King David. The Rosh Yeshiva’s unique learning method is based on the teachings of the Ramchal. These methods were further developed and enhanced by his close talmid Hagaon Harav Dovid Sackton, shlit”a, whose reputation precedes him as one who is capable of illuminating every sugya with logic and clarity.
In the past few years, the Rosh Yeshiva grew steadily frailer, yet devotedly continued teaching Gemara and mussar until a mere two weeks before his passing.
During the final week of his life, the Rosh Yeshiva’s health took a sharp turn for the worse, and thousands of students, past and present, united in prayer on his behalf. Yet the Upper Spheres triumphed and the Rosh Yeshiva, zt”l, restored his exalted soul to his Maker on Erev Shabbos Parshas Toldos. His aron was carried to the Yeshiva Heichal on Friday afternoon where it was met by hundreds of heartbroken students who wept bitterly upon their personal loss and the loss of our generation.
Eulogies were emotionally delivered by Hagaon Harav Shmuel Auerbach, shlit”a; Hagaon Harav Yehuda Deri, shlit"a, Rav of Beer Sheva, who for the past decades has delivered weekly lectures in the Yeshiva; and other esteemed Rabbanim who were former students of the Rosh Yeshiva.
Harav Goldstein, zt”l, merited much nachas from his family and students throughout his lifetime. All his sons are esteemed Rabbanim, Torah scholars and teachers in Israel and around the world. At the helm of the Yeshiva and its affiliates stands his son and successor Hagaon Harav Yitzchak Goldstein, shlit”a, and there are currently some 200 bachurim and avreichim learning in the Yeshiva.
Concurrent to the levayah in Eretz Yisrael, tearful assemblies were held in the USA and Mexico; France, England, Italy and Austria in Europe; Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and Panama in Central and South America; and Australia. Students and followers around the world tearfully grieved the passing of their beloved and revered Rosh Yeshiva who for 53 years taught and spread Torah to the masses and launched an unprecedented wave of teshuvah around the world.