It’s appropriate that the Torah Scroll in the Squirrel Hill Kollel Center for Jewish Learning originates from Lithuania because the Kollel movement itself originates from Lithuania. The history of this Torah scroll, like the history of the Kollel movement itself, showcases the way that Jewish communities and ideas have migrated throughout the world. While Lithuania was a land rife with penury, it was also a land flooded with Torah learning, Yeshivas, and institutions like the Kollel. Thus, the Squirrel Hill Kollel center has given this Lithuanian Torah scroll a fitting home.
Section 1: Modern Jewish History in Lithuania
This Torah scroll originated in the Grodno province of Lithuania. While Grodno was likely part of Lithuania when this Torah scroll was commissioned, today the Grodno province is a region in Belarus as the borders of the nation have shifted over time.
Jews have a long history in Eastern Europe. During the medieval expulsions from Western Europe, many Jews moved eastward where they became pivotal members of the local economy. Lithuania formed out of Poland in the mid-16th to 18th centuries and was already home to a large Jewish community. During this time period, Jews were encouraged to conduct their economic, civil and religious lives however they saw fit. Life generally flourished for many Jews during this era.
Grodno was first given a coat of arms in 1444, and based upon a survey administered in 1558, there were 35 streets and 700 houses in the capital of Grodno. The Golden era came between 1576-1586 when Stephen Bathory King of Poland bestowed honors upon Grodno and began to rebuild the principal castle in the region in 1580. This set the tenor for about two hundred years or so during which time Lithuanian Jewish life flourished. Even in the smallest cities in which Lithuanian Jews comprised a total of some few households, “families had a vibrant and full Jewish life.”
Because the Jews were so concentrated in area, and because Jewish life flourished so much in the region it would go on to become a major center of Torah learning. Unlike other parts of Eastern Europe in which the Hasidic movement was developing, Lithuania maintained a tradition of religious leaders that shied away from the mystical notions of Hasidism and instead developed the principled core of mitnaggedism, or anti-Hasidism.
Jewish Life thrived in Lithuania from the 16th century until the end of the 18th century, developing a unique Jewish way of life, until Lithuania was annexed by Russia in 1795. Under czarist Russia, Lithuanian Jews underwent a strict program of Russification and were terrorized by cantonist programs that tried to conscript Jewish boys into the military in an effort to forcibly convert them. Life for Jews became more precarious and harsh economic sanctions restricted where they could do business and earn a living. Despite all this hardship, however, Lithuania remained a stronghold of Torah study. The yeshivot of Lithuania attracted young men throughout Russia and remained leading institutions of Torah scholarship and Jewish thought.
While the Haskalah extended to Lithuania during the 18th century, the assimilation which was a feature of the Haskalah in Western Europe and even in Poland and Southern Russia did not make its way to Lithuania. Even maskilim in Lithuania maintained a unique Jewish culture and language.
Lithuania was the home of many important Jewish thinkers, all of which left their impact on Jewish life in some way or another.
One such important thinker was Elijah B. Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon (the genius of Vilna), who lived during the second half of the 18th century. He developed an influential program of study which featured close examination of the Talmudic text and accuracy in its interpretation, a comprehensive knowledge of all the sources, and the study of grammar and the sciences which were essential for profound understanding of the teachings of the Torah. His leadership bulwarked Lithuanian Jews against the ideas of the Haskalah that were penetrating the West and the Hasidic movement which was gaining momentum in the South. Followers of the Vilna Gaon believed that the only way to adhere to Jewish life was to reject these movements in favor of a rigorous program of Torah study that would ensure that Jews could live and thrive. This was one of the philosophies which inspired the Kollel movement.
Section 2: The Origins of the Kollel Movement in Eastern Europe
The word Kollel stems from the Hebrew root, kl”l [ﬤﬥﬥ], meaning a collective. Participating in this collective is at the core of the Kollel philosophy. Kollel centers, as they were originally conceived, were institutes funded by the entire Jewish community to support intensive Torah study and leadership training among a select group of young men.
The first Kollel center was established in Lithuania between the years of 1877 and 1879 by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter and it was called the Kollel Perushim of Kovno. The Kollel center was heavily influenced by the Musar movement, which emphasized religious and ethical character development. This approach to personal development was seen as unusual and even dangerous by many Orthodox Jews. Nevertheless Musar Literature was promoted by the ten initial members of the Kollel movement.
In 1880 Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, one of the original ten members of the Kollel, left the Kovno Kollel so as the devote himself to establishing more Kollelim throughout Eastern Europe. From there the Kollel movement in Europe expanded beyond Lithuania, and the movement took off. Never abandoning its mitnaggedic roots, Kollel centers popped up in Jewish communities around Eastern Europe and had a meaningful impact on those communities.
Section 3: The Origins of the Kollel Movement in the United States
The first Kollel in America was established in the midst of World War Two by renowned scholar of Lithuanian descent, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. The opening of the Beth Medrash Govoha in 1943, an institution that is better known as the Lakewood Kollel, transformed ultra-Orthodox Jewish life in the United States. Located in Lakewood, NJ, about an hour or so away from the Orthodox strongholds of New York City, the Lakewood Kollel was originally designed as an enclave for Jewish learning. It was a place where married men who were scholars of Torah could go and dedicate themselves to further study. Originally, the Kollel was based on a strict program of separation from the larger culture that might dilute effective Jewish thinking. In later years, however, the severity of the separatists wore down and the Kollel centers around the nation opened in an effort to reach out to all Jews who wanted to learn more about the Torah. They sought to transform “committed Jews” into what they termed “Torah Jews,” scholars who had facility with traditional Jewish texts.
The Kollel movement eventually established many centers around North America, and these institutions thrived in places with large populations of Orthodox Jews. And as the movement took hold, its mission became more focused on outreach. Whereas the Lakewood kollel center was originally established as a way for scholarly, married Jews to pursue further Torah learning away from the distractions of the everyday, centers around the United States developed an emphasis on reaching out to Jewish men from many backgrounds and providing them with opportunities to learn Torah.
Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel. “Musar Movement” Encyclopedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 14. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 621-623.
Etkes, Immanuel, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth. New York: The Jewish Publication Society. 1993.
Ferziger, Adam S, “The Emergence of the Community Kollel: A New Model for Addressing Assimilation,” Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2006
Ferziger, Adam S. “From Lubavitch to Lakewood: The Chabadization of American Orthodoxy” Modern Judaism Vol 33 No 2 May 2013, 101-124.
Gurock, Jeffrey S. Orthodox Jews in America. Indiana University Press. 2009.
Slutsky, Yehuda, Joseph Gar, Michael Beizer, and Daniel Romanowski. “Lithuania” Encyclopedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 13. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 117-128.