The Story of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Hebron

When a Lithuanian yeshiva moved to Hebron, it sparked new life for the city's residents.

22.12.15, 14:15
(Photo: Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. Source: Wiki Commons)
In 1924, the Slabodka (sometimes spelled Slobodka) Yeshiva, the largest and most important Jewish institute of higher learning in Lithuania moved to Hebron. Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein served as the Rosh Yeshiva and Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, one of the most important leaders of the Musar movement, served as mashgiach or spiritual director.
When they moved to Hebron, the yeshiva numbered about 120 students and by 1929 they had close to 200 student. Yeshivat Knesset Yisrael, as it was officially called, grew to be the largest yeshiva in the Land of Israel and considered the first Lithuanian yeshiva to relocate.

(Photo: "The Knesses Yisrael Yeshiva" in Hebron. Source: The First Photographs of The Holy Land)
Students from Europe, the United States of America and other cities in Israel studied there. They excelled in Torah study and were famous for their modern, fashionable clothing, in an effort to live up to a higher code of dress and deportment.
The yeshiva and dormitories were located near Eshel Avraham, the Oak Tree of Abraham, also known as the Oak of Mamre. The staff and students, along with other accompanying institutions, brought about a notable spiritual and economic renewal to the city, which had suffered greatly following World War I. 

(Photo: Hebron Yeshiva students in front of the Eshel Avraham (Oak of Abraham) circa 1926-1927. Source: "So They Went Together" by Dov Cohen)
According to a 2004 article written by M. Chevroni in honor of the 80th anniversary of the yeshiva's move to Hebron, "the beginning was not easy, but the yeshiva was welcomed cordially and joyfully. "'The poor city simply came to life,' said Rebbetzin Rochel Chevroni, daughter of Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein. 'Trade began to develop and the whole city experienced a renaissance, thanks to the yeshiva. The Arab dignitaries of the city even hosted welcoming ceremonies and declared forthwith that they would pray for the welfare of the yeshiva. One time, when a rumor began spreading that the yeshiva was thinking of moving, a special delegation was formed which officially came and requested that the Rosh Yeshiva change his mind and remain in Hebron.'"
Born in Lithuania, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (1849 - 1927) was considered a mentor to his students who went on to become leaders in their own right. He originally helped found the Slabodka Yeshiva in 1877. His noted students include Rabbi Aaron Kotler, of Lakewood, New Jersey, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner of Brooklyn, New York, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky of Brooklyn, New York, his son, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel of the Mir Yeshiva in Israel and more.

(Photo: Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel at the Hebron Yeshiva, circa 1925. Source: Giants of Jewry, by Aharon Surasky, Chinuch Publications, Lakewood NJ 1982.)
Rabbi Finkel was a student of the Musar movement founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883). It focused on ethics and the polishing the character traits. He stressed the importance of outer appearance and the need for neatness and cleanliness. Students reflected that he was a master of the human psyche and knew how to give direction to his students' lives. 
Rabbi Finkel was known as Der Alter fun Slabodka, or the Alter, (Elder) of Slabodka. After sending waves of top-notch, hand-picked students to Hebron, he also made aliyah, and lived in the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs until his passing in 1927.

(Photo: The Beit Midrash - Study Hall)
In Lithuania, he encouraged the students to sing, a tradition that continued in Hebron. On Shabbat and at weddings students would participate in group singing, interspersed with solos to display individual musical talent. On the Simchat Beit Hashoeva during the holiday of Sukkot, students would hold a special celebration with dancing and singing. 

(Photo: Wedding scene)
Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein (1866 - 1933) served as head rabbi of the yeshiva. He too led the thriving yeshiva campus in Lithuania until he moved to Hebron along with Rabbi Finkel to join the new, successful satellite campus.
Rabbi Epstein was a child prodigy and studied in the Volozhin yeshiva under the legendary Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. There he met his future brother-in-law, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer and married Chaya Menucha Frank, the eldest of the Frank sisters in 1889.

(Photo: Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein. Source)
Chaya Menucha Frank was the daughter of the philanthropist Rabbi Shraga Feivel Frank of Kovno. Legend has it that he at one point turned down a lucrative offer to manage a thriving business because he thought it would take away from his personal Torah study. He is quoted as having stated, “if I become too wealthy, my daughters might not marry Torah scholars.” Rabbi Frank passed away at the age of 43. His wish was for his four daughters to marry high-level Torah students. His widow Golda Frank took this mission very seriously, and investigated every candidate thoroughly.
The two rabbis were known to share a warm relationship with Rabbi Epstein's daughter marrying Rabbi Finkel's son. Another one of Rabbi Epstein's daughters married Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna (1895-1969), who succeeded him as head of the Hebron yeshiva.
Many of the students were murdered in the riots of 1929. The yeshiva then moved to the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. In 1975, the yeshiva moved into a new and larger campus in the Givat Mordechai neighborhood of Jerusalem. It is still referred to as the Hebron Yeshiva. Today, the institute has about one thousand students and is considered one of the most prestigious institutes of Torah study in Israel.

(Photo: The yeshiva building today in Givat Mordechai, Jerusalem. Source: Wiki Commons)

(Photo: A new generation of future Torah scholars at the Hebron Yeshiva in Givat Mordechai, Jerusalem. Source: Wiki Commons)
Unfortunately the old Slabodka yeshiva building, the Eshel Avraham and other historic sites in Hebron are inaccessible to Israeli citizens. The ancient Jewish cemetery which contains a memorial to the yeshiva students killed in the massacre is the site of an annual memorial. To visit this and other important locations in Hebron please contact us.