It is not surprising that those who led efforts to save Jews from the Nazi genocide would remain involved in their rescue activities after the war. Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz arrived in the United States in 1940 and never stopped working on behalf of the Jews trapped in Europe. He was instrumental in the transfer of the Mirrer Yeshiva to Shanghai and successfully lobbied politicians in Washington to grant endangered refugee status to Jews from Arab lands.
After the war, when he learned that the Jewish communities of North Africa were crumbling, Rav Kalmanowitz responded with the same urgency as he had during the Holocaust. He traveled to Morocco, where he founded the Ozar HaTorah network of schools and yeshivos. He selected about 20 local teens for enrollment in his yeshivah in New York and personally cared for them as though they were his own children. To him, the threat of spiritual annihilation was little different from death.
Rabbi Duvi Bensoussan, who heads Congregation Magen Abraham in Brooklyn, recently spoke at a Bais Yaakov dinner in Minneapolis, where he told a fascinating tale of how Rav Kalmanowitz’s visit to Morocco changed his life.
For centuries, Morocco had had a well-established Jewish community that boasted many prominent chachamim. However, the French established an educational system called the Alliance that put an end to traditional Torah schooling. Rabbi Bensoussan’s grandmother was deeply pained that her children weren’t going on the right derech. So when Rav Kalmanowitz arrived and announced that he was looking for boys to join his yeshivah, she decided that her son Yitzchak would go.
However, there was a basic problem. Rav Kalmanowitz tested every child who applied, and Yitzchak didn’t even know a single pasuk of Chumash. Mrs. Bensoussan did not give up; the night before the test, she took her child to her father, who was the av beit din of Casablanca. “Please teach him,” she pleaded. “He must learn something by tomorrow!”
When her father expressed doubt, his daughter said simply, “Abba, there is no other choice. You teach him, and I will pray all night.”
Little Yitzchak sat with his grandfather for a while and learned the first two pesukim of Vayikra with Rashi. Soon after, the little boy grew tired and fell asleep. His mother, however, kept her word and spent the night beseeching Hashem tearfully to set her son on the right path.
The next day Yitzchak was called in to meet Rav Kalmanowitz. When the rav opened a Chumash to Sefer Devarim and asked Yitzchak to read, the boy’s heart sank. Just then the door opened, and another rabbi entered and engaged Rav Kalmanowitz in conversation.
Little Yitzchak then witnessed something incredible. The pages of the Chumash, which had been opened to Devarim, began flipping back and forth. Page after page, they continued to move with a sense of purpose. Yitzchak watched in amazement as the rav turned back to him and smoothed the pages, which were now open to the beginning of Vayikra. “Okay, where were we?” he asked. “Would you like to read?”
Yitzchak read the first pasuk flawlessly, and then went on to the second. “Should I read Rashi?” he asked the rav, who was duly impressed.
Yitzchak soon left his home for the yeshivah in Brooklyn, where Rav Kalmanowitz took care of him. That episode, said Rabbi Bensoussan, was the reason he was able to grow up in a frum environment, charting a course of Torah life for generations.
To me, this story captures not just the devotion and love of our Torah leaders, but also the burning concern of every Jewish mother for her children’s welfare and the power of tefillah. Mrs. Bensoussan sent her child off to a foreign land with a complete stranger so that he would carry on her family’s Torah lifestyle.
In truth, Rabbi Bensoussan adds, Rav Kalmanowitz had a regal air about him; to Moroccan Jews, his dignified rabbinic garb and white beard evoked images of Eliyahu Hanavi. Still, it was a huge sacrifice for a mother to part with her young son. When asked how she had the strength to do so, Mrs. Bensoussan would respond that ever since Avraham Avinu, Jews have sacrificed by placing their children in Hashem’s Hands with implicit faith.
“This,” she would say, “is my Akeidat Yitzchak.”