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Electronic finding aid was converted to EAD version 2002 by Yakov Sklyar in October 2006. EAD finding aid was migrated in 2012 to Archon for display at the online Guide to the YIVO Archives. Description is in English.
Title: Guide to the Records of the Vaad Hayeshivot (Council of Yeshivot) Vilna, Poland , RG 25
ID: RG 25 FA
Extent: 21.6 Linear Feet
Arrangement: The collection is divided into the following 5 series:
The Vaad Hayeshivot (Council of Yeshivot) was an organization whose central office was in Vilna, Poland and which was active from 1924 to 1939. It was authorized by the Polish government to provide spiritual and financial support to Orthodox yeshivot in the 5 eastern provinces of Poland, namely, Bialystok, Nowo Gródek, Polesie, Vilna and Wohlynia. During its existence the Vaad Hayeshivot supported a network of about 70 yeshivot which had a total of about 6,000 students. Its supporting membership included the rabbinate and the local populations of over 350 Jewish communities. The records of the Vaad Hayeshivot span the period 1920-1940. They reflect, to different degrees, all activities of the organization.
The records of the Vaad Hayeshivot in Vilna reflect the entire range of activities of the Central Office from 1924 to 1940. Although incomplete, they are comprehensive enough to throw light on all aspects of the Vaad’s history. The records consist of correspondence, correspondence log books, circulars, minutes of meetings, reports, questionnaires, lists, printed materials and financial records such as receipts, budget reports, book-keeping entries.
Series I, the largest and richest in the collection is arranged in alphabetical order by Polish name of town or city. It includes almost no names from outside the Vaad Hayeshivot network. Three separate series were merged to form this one, because their contents, purpose and order were similar. Also, the original records were arranged according to Hebrew or Yiddish alphabetical order and the records were reshuffled according to the Roman alphabet. Each town can have two types of files: a. correspondence file, consisting of correspondence with either a yeshiva, rabbi, or local Vaad society;b. contribution lists file consisting of a list of names and contributions sent in to the Central Office by a certain town.
While most towns have two separate files, in some cases the two files were merged as there were only a few documents in each. In other cases they were left together in the same folder as some letters contain both correspondence and contributions. Certain towns, which were also administrative branches of the Vaad or which had larger populations such a Baranowicze, Bialystok, Brześc, Grodno, are represented by larger quantities of records which are arranged chronologically.
Series I is comprehensive but incomplete. Most of the yeshivot of the region are represented although correspondence with individual yeshivot is fragmentary with numerous gaps in years. Most of the network’s communities and local Vaad societies are also represented and contribution lists from towns provide a fair sampling of Orthodox Jewish participation in Vaad Hayeshivot activities. The series contains valuable correspondence with well-known yeshiva deans active in administrative matters, as well as rare documents such as manuscripts in Russian script dated 1847 and 1892 relating to the Wolozyn yeshiva.
The correspondence with yeshiva deans includes: Rabbi Finkel, Mir; Rabbi Gordon, Łomża; Rabi Aaron Kotler, Etz Chaim of Kleck; Rabbi S. Szkop, Shaar Hatora, Grodno; Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Ohel Tora, Baranowicze. Correspondents from the central office include: Rabbi C.O. Grodzienski, Rabbi Meir Karelitz, Rabbi Aaron Berek, Rabbi Joseph Shub.
Series II, General Office Correspondence, 1924-1940, contains correspondence with government authorities, commercial establishments, miscellaneous organizations in Poland, the AJDC in New York, Paris and Berlin and individuals. The series is fragmentary and small in quantity but contains enough materials from each correspondence type to provide the interested historian with a general understanding of the Central Office’s activities. Correspondence with the AJDC was arranged separately and is also fragmentary. The folder in this series are arranged chronologically.
Series III, Special Program and Activities, relates to four types of activities. a. Jewish Community Elections, 1928b. Food packages Program to the Soviet Union, 1933c. Refugee Committee, 1940d. Sefer Tora Project, 1933-1935
Election records are actually records of Dos Wort which was the office which organized the election committee. The archivist assumed however that as the staff and policies of the Vaad and Dos Wort overlapped, that the records should remain in the Vaad records where they were originally found. These records consist of questionnaires, correspondence, minutes, committee membership lists, generated by the Central Orthodox Election Committee for Municipal Elections in the Eastern Provinces. The questionnaires provide statistical information on populations of small Jewish communities.
Records of the Russian food package program consist of only 1 folder but include correspondence with the Diszkin Compnay in Warsaw which provides information on the Vaad’s formal role in the program as accepted by the Soviet embassy. The records of the Sefer Tora project are incomplete but contain lists of thousands of names of residents of towns in the eastern region as well as towns from other parts of Poland and abroad. Refugee Committee Records are fragmentary but provide some cumulative lists of beneficiaries, lists of yeshivot, and include financial reports and correspondence. Files on individual yeshivot are arranged geographically by name of town where yeshiva was originally located.
Series IV, Administrative Records are valuable, and rich, but fragmentary. There are by-laws but only for 1926. Convention materials include resolutions and agendas for 1928-1929 and 1939 but a portion of the convention materials are so illegible that they are practically useless. There are materials of historical value such as a resolution signed at the convention of 1928-1929 and bearing the signatures of the Chofetz Chaim and other rabbis. Questionnaires collected from all yeshivot provide useful statistical information on the financial situation of individual yeshivot, but only for 1926, 1929, and 1936.
There are lists of yeshivot, towns, communities, rabbis, which provide information on the structure of the organization, but dates are often unavailable. Bookkeeping records are very fragmentary and there are only two annual budget reports extant, for 1924-1925 and 1933.
Series V, Printed Materials, are comprehensive and not only indicate how well organized the publicity department was, but the circulars and printed materials are themselves a reflection of the organization’s entire range of activities and also of certain events in its history.
In addition to Dos Wort the Vaad Hayeshivot was also organizationally connected with the educational organization Chorev. In some cases, letters addressed to these two organizations were found to have been interfiled with the Vaad Hayeshivot records and were not removed.
The records are sources for the following subjects of research: yeshivot in Poland, 1847, 1892, 1924-1939; Jewish municipal elections, 1928; refugee aid in Poland; 1940; food package program to Soviet Union, 1940; Jewish organizations in inter-war Poland, 1924-40; the rabbinate in inter-war Poland, 1924-1940.
The Vaad Hayeshivot, (Council of Yeshivot) was founded at a rabbinical convention in Grodno, Poland, in 1924, under the sponsorship of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan of Radunʹ and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzienski of Vilna, both prominent spiritual leaders of Polish Orthodox Jewry. The main purpose of the Council was to provide financial support to yeshivot in eastern Poland, which had been uprooted or destroyed during World War I and were on the verge of financial bankruptcy. Active from 1924 to 1940 with its central office in Vilna, the Council was authorized by the Polish government to function in five eastern provinces of Poland, namely, Bialystok, Nowo Gródek, Polesie, Vilna and Wohlynia. For 15 years the Vaad supported a network of about 70 yeshivot with a total student body of about 6,000 students. It also used its spiritual influence and organizational strength to espouse political, religious and practical causes in support of Orthodox Judaism. Dos Wort, the Vaad’s official organ, was published weekly from 1924 to 1939.
The Vaad’s network consisted of a central administrative board and central office, the rabbinate of the eastern Polish countryside, local vaad societies from about 350 communities, as well as the Jewish orthodox residents of those communities, and finally the staffs and student bodies of about 70 yeshivot. The different elements of this network were related in the following manner. The administrative board and office planned and scheduled fund-raising campaigns, conducted simultaneously in the 5 provinces. Responsibility for the campaigns was delegated to rabbis who visited communities and formed local vaad hayeshivot societies. Money collected from the community by the local society was sent to the central office in Vilna which distributed it to the yeshivot according to established percentages.
The central administrative board was headed by Rabbi Kagan and Rabbi Grodzienski. Rabbi Kagan (who was known popularly as the “Chofetz Chaim” after his book which bore that title) was the executive director of the Council from 1924 until his death in 1933. He was succeeded by Rabbi Grodzienski who was president of the board until 1940. As an indisputed spiritual leader of Orthodox Jewry in Eastern Poland the Chofetz Chaim was in fact the inspirational force behind the Council and was successful in unifying the rabbinate, the yeshiva deans and the local population into a single organization which worked together for the survival of the entire yeshiva system, then on the verge of extinction. Rabbi Grodzienski, a renowned rabbi and dayan (religious judge) in Vilna, unaffiliated with any particular yeshiva, had worked since World War I for the reconstruction of yeshivot and by 1924 was recognized by U.S. relief institutions as a national spokesman for Polish Jewish institutions and individuals in need of financial aid. The personalities of these two men contributed more to the effectiveness of the Council than any other single factor.
As the Chofetz Chaim’s advanced years and poor health precluded practical day-to-day participation, Rabbi Grodzienski was the recognized administrative director although he too was involved in many other community and religious matters. Technical aspects of the administration were in the hands of Rabbi Joseph Shub, active from 1924-1939 and listed as Secretary and treasurer in a 1933 list of board members. Other members of the board included yeshiva deans, such as Rabbi A. Kotler of Kleck, Rabbi F. Hindes of Grodno and Rabbi L.J. Finkel of Mir. The administration also included members of the rabbinate, such as Rabbi Meir Karelitz of Lachowicze and Rabbi M. Rabinowicz of Szczuczyn.
The Central Office in Vilna consisted of a handful of office workers whose duties, conditions of work and salaries, were defined at an executive board meeting. The Central Office served as the central communication point for all units of the network. i.e., the yeshivot, rabbis, community residents, local vaad societies. It functioned as a clearing house of funds which it distributed to the yeshivot and all of its office duties were generated by this basic function. It corresponded with all yeshiva deans, collected statistical information on yeshivot, kept records of all funds distributed, and received all yeshiva requests relating to building repairs, staff salaries and student services. It issued instructions to rabbis, kept records of all their visits to communities. It kept records of all contributions, corresponded with over 350 communities, distributing notices of events, such as rabbinical sermons, lectures. Finally it corresponded with the Polish government, commercial establishments, and organizations and individuals around the world.
The rabbinate, considered by Rabbi Kagan as a vital group in the Vaad net work, consisted of rabbis of communities who voluntarily agreed to work for the Vaad in a joint proclamation signed by all attending the convention of 1924. Each rabbi was asked by the Central Office to visit 2 communities a year, to speak on behalf of the Council, explaining its purpose and delivering a general discourse on a Tora topic. They also were to form a local Vaad Hayeshivot society and launch the fund raising campaign. The rabbis were the key link between the central office and local population; they were the backbone of the entire fund raising campaign. Moreover, they fulfilled a spiritual and educational need, as many of the communities they visited had no rabbi and the sermons they delivered were considered educational lectures.
The local Vaad societies or sometimes ladies auxiliaries, were founded by the visiting rabbi and consisted of active lay members of the community, headed sometimes by the synagogue manager or treasurer. The local society collected money, sent lists of contributions to the main office, received and posted notices concerning Vaad Hayeshivot events such as special collections, lectures, held meetings and sent reports to Dos Wort for publication.
Over 350 communities were considered part of the Vaad’s campaigning network. In fact, the Chofetz Chaim’s proclamation of 1924 stated that all Jewish residents of the 5 provinces were obligated to give a minimum of 18 zlotes or $2.00 a year. They were to consider this amount a national obligation, in the same manner as the ‘half-shekel’ was collected annually as part of Jewish religious practice.
The yeshivot in the network were either yeshivot gedolot, or ‘higher’ schools, for students between about 15-20 or yeshivot ketanot or ‘preparatory’ schools, for students between 12-15. There were about 15 yeshivot gedolot, many of which were well known for their high academic standards in Talmudic studies. Students came not only from all over the 5 provinces but from other parts of Poland and often from the U.S. as well. The best known yeshivot were: Ohel Torah, Baranowicze; Toras Chesed, Baranowicze; Toras Chesed, Brześc; Beis Yosef, Bialystok; Beis Ulpana, Bialystok; Shaar Hatora, Grodno; Rameiles, Vilna; Etz Chaim, Wolozyn; Łomża Yeshiva, Łomża; Mirrer Yeshiva, Mir; Beis Yosef, Międzyrzec; Slonim Yeshiva, Slonim; Beis Yosef, Pinsk; Kobryn Yeshiva, Kobryn; Knesset Beis Yitzchak, Kamieniec Litewski; Etz-Chaim, Kleck; Chofetz-Chaim, Radunʹ.
The yeshivot ketanot, which accounted for the rest of the schools, received 12% of the total monies collected by the central office. The balance was distributed monthly to the yeshivot gedolot, according to fixed percentages based upon an established priority system. The money paid for food, new clothing, clothing alterations, shoe purchases and repairs, bedding, medical services, books, staff salaries and summer camps.
The Vaad Hayeshivot had four major sources of income. The first source was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. This source, though considered indispensable in the 1920’s became unpredictable, however, especially in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when practically all aid stopped because of the Depression. The JDC had branches in Paris in Berlin and the Vaad, through Rabbi Chaim O Grodzienski, corresponded with them, sending periodic budget reports. A second source, was based on the local collection campaign, held bi-annually in all Jewish communities in the eastern provinces. The campaign objective was 18 zlotes or $2.00 a year and campaigns were held during the Sabbath of Yisro, that is when the portion of Yisro is read from the Tora, some time in February.
The second campaign was held during the high holy day period. For those unable to donate $2.00 at one time, money boxes were distributed so that they could donate small sums daily. A letter to the JDC states that the income derived from the regional campaigns was $40,000 or a fifth of total yeshiva expenses, estimated at $200,000.
A third source of funds consisted of international ‘friends’ and supporters of the Vaad, former yeshiva students, rabbis and Jews interested in supporting Tora education. Countries included France, Holland, England, USA, Australia and South Africa. Finally, the Vaad had some special projects or activities, such as the Tora Project in memory of the Chofetz Chaim, 1933-1935.
Despite the Vaad’s success in penetrating local communities, and despite the high participation rate as demonstrated by the contribution lists, the yeshiva network continued to suffer serious financial problems. Cumulative budget figures for the entire yeshiva system for 1937-1938 are income: 1,211,908 z; expenses: 1,521,150 z; deficit: 709,242 z. The figures for 1938 and 1939 are similar with deficits of higher than 50% and as these figures represented the cumulative budgets of all the yeshivot combined it can be concluded that the financial situation of the average yeshiva was deteriorating.
To plan and control its activities the Vaad Hayeshivot held conferences. Major ones, held in Vilna and attended by rabbis and yeshiva deans from all over the 5 provinces, were held in 1924, 1928-1929 and in 1939. The 1924 conference was convened because of the yeshiva crisis and saw the establishment of the organization. The 1928-1929 conference, a rabbinical conference held in the Vaad Hayeshivot building, dealt with Jewish municipal elections and at the same time, the financial crisis occasioned by the impending cessation of aid from the AJDC. The rabbinical conference was at the same time a Vaad Hayeshivot conference, for the attending rabbis were members of the Vaad and the conference was chaired by Rabbi Grodzienski, so that the future of the yeshiva system was high on the agenda. In addition, committees were established to deal with general religious matters such as Sabbath observance and kashrut.
The next major Vaad Hayeshivot conference was held in the summer of 1939 in order to celebrate 15 years of existence. It dealt not only with Yeshiva matters but also with the question of assimilation among religious Jews. Committees were again appointed to deal with problems in kashrut and sabbath observance, as well as general religious practice. Thus, both major conferences, concerned themselves with general religious and spiritual questions as well as the general financial status of the yeshiva system.
The second kind of conference, called regional conferences, convened much more frequently and its purpose was to review past fund raising campaigns and plan future ones. Resolutions were passed relating to campaign matters and regional conferences were attended by the regional rabbinate, members of the Vaad Hayeshivot Central Office, deans of yeshivot. Reports were written after each conference and often described in Dos Wort. In addition to its main function, the Vaad Hayeshivot took part in political matters was active in relief work, and other projects. The Vaad Hayeshivot played an indirect role in the election campaign for the Jewish Kehilla elections of 1928, when community councils were to be elected for communities in the eastern provinces. Dos Wort, the Vaad’s official newspaper, wrote articles and campaigned actively on behalf of the Orthodox candidates. It called a conference of 100 community leaders, participated in the formation of the Tsentral byuro fun ortodoksishn val amt far di mizrakh kontn, or Central Orthodox Election Committee for Municipal Elections in the Eastern Province and sent out questionnaires to communities in the eastern region, in order to provide campaign advice and evaluate current propaganda methods in use.
In 1933, the Vaad Hayeshivot participated in a food package program to the Soviet Union, which was then suffering from a famine due to widespread crop failures. The Vaad acted as a representative of the Diszkin Company in Warsaw, a meat company which had been authorized by the Soviet embassy to be the sole sender of food packages in Poland. The Vaad Hayeshovot accepted food order and forwarded them to Warsaw and or to Latvia where another licensed company handled orders. The program seems to have lasted only a year.
Another project was the writing of a Sefer Tora in memory of the Chofetz Chaim, initiated after his death in 1933 and terminated about 1935. A scribe was commissioned by the Vaad Hayeshivot to write a Tora scroll. The entire Jewish community both in Poland and elsewhere was invited to share in the religious commandment of writing a Tora by ‘buying’ a letter, verse or more. Portions of the Tora were printed, word by word, or letter by letter, in notebooks and letters were checked off as they were ‘sold’. In this manner thousands of names were collected. It is possible that these lists of names which survive in the YIVO Archives in the Vaad Hayeshivot records, are the only surviving records of individuals who later died during World War II. The Sefer Tora project had two purposes. The first, was to achieve a symbolic feeling of unity among Jews by asking them to participate in a collective religious act. Secondly, the project was a source of income and funds raised from it were distributed to yeshivot as indicated by some extant financial records. At the completion of the Tora traditional celebrations were held.
The Council had an additional function in 1940 when Eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union and Central Poland by German. The yeshivot in both areas closed down and staff and many students, teachers and administrators fled to Vilna. The Vaad worked with the Refugee Committee of Vilna to provide shelter, food and clothing to these refugees. Some of the yeshivot handled by the refugee committee were from outside Vaad Hayeshivot territory such as the Yeshiva of Lublin, or the Yeshiva of Lubavitch situated in Otwock near Warsaw. Many of the yeshivot used Vilna as a transit point in their flight through Poland across Russia to Shanghai where they stayed for part or all of the war.
Something must be said about the activities of Dos Wort which coexisted alongside the Vaad for 15 years. It’s editors were Rabbi Joseph Shub and Rabbi Meir Karelitz. The primary purpose of the papers was to publicize the financial objective of the organization and to report on its activities. Dos Wort provided complete coverage of all Vaad activities, including conferences and campaigns. It reported rabbinical visits to towns and described their sermons in detail. It published appeals and announcements relating to major campaigns as well as reports on their degrees of success. It also published open letters by the Chofetz Chaim and other rabbis. In addition, Dos Wort provided detailed coverage of the entire Jewish municipal election campaign of 1928, favoring the orthodox candidates and writing lengthy political analyses.
Articles were written as well on religious and spiritual matters, such as pieces on the religious festivals and Sabbath observance. Some foreign, political and diplomatic news was included. Anecdotes and stories of famous rabbinic personalities were featured as well. Social ads were a regular weekly item and yeshivot would print announcements about their student admission policy, and other student matters. In 1925 the price of an issue was 30 groshen. Copies were probably mailed to all local Vaad Hayeshivot societies as well as to private subscribers.
In conclusion, the Vaad Hayeshivot succeeded in creating and maintaining an organization which attempted to provide a regular financial base to the yeshiva system. Because of general economic difficulties in Poland and elsewhere the Vaad did not succeed in eliminating the deficits of individual yeshivot. Nevertheless, by building an organizational structure which reached out to the entire Jewish population in the eastern provinces, and by conducting enthusiastic and persistent campaigns, the Vaad Hayeshivot succeeded in keeping the yeshivot open, providing partially for the essential needs of students and staff.
Secondly, for the first time in modern yeshiva history a precedent was set for yeshivot to work together in order to solve their problems. Throughout the existence of the Vaad, the yeshivot were subject to the regulations laid down by the central office as far as regional collecting was concerned; individual yeshivot were not permitted to organize separate collections for themselves in Vaad Hayeshivot territory, although they could do so abroad.
And finally, the Vaad Hayeshivot through its traveling deans and rabbis, through the far reaching influence of its leaders, through its organizational machinery, its newspaper and publicity methods, was also effective in exerting an influence in spiritual and political matters.
General Access Policy: Open to researchers with special permission of the Chief Archivist. At the present time, temporarily closed to the public pending completion of conservation and microfilming.
For more information, contact: Chief Archivist, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Preferred Citation: Published citations should read as follows:Identification of item, date (if known); YIVO Archives; Records of the Vaad Hayeshivot (Vilna, Poland); RG 25; folder number.