Students of the Telz yeshiva, 1938. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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Telz, Yeshiva of

The yeshiva of the Lithuanian town of Telsiai—or Telz, as it was known among Jews—had its beginnings as an initiative of some local scholars around 1870, but it became an institution of major significance when Eli‘ezer Gordon was appointed rabbi of Telz in 1883 and took over the direction of the yeshiva. Gordon was a creative organizer who sought ways to adopt modern methods in the service of what he saw as tradition. He was one of the first to call for an Orthodox Jewish press and for modern political organization in traditionalist circles.

The Telz yeshiva introduced a number of innovations that have become universal today. The student body was divided into classes based on the level of proficiency in Talmud study. There were yearly examinations, and advancement was dependent on test grades. The school year—including opening dates and vacation periods—was clearly defined and carefully adhered to. The effect of these innovations was to make the yeshiva more like a school or college and less like a bet midrash. The new system increased the effectiveness of the teaching and helped create a sense of order among students—an important issue in a period marked by the collapse of traditional society.

The students of the yeshiva were well organized and had special charitable societies that helped mainly with the material needs of the students. Starting in the 1880s, Gordon attempted to introduce the study of (ethics) alongside the traditional study of Talmud. (The yeshiva was funded by a German Jewish donor, Emil Lachmann, who had close ties to the Musar movement.) The students of the yeshiva, however, considered the requirement to study musar an insult because it took time away from their studies and suggested that they were like children who needed to be trained to behave. They reacted with demonstrations and disturbances. Ultimately, a student strike in 1897 led to the closure of the yeshiva for months. The revolutionary spirit of the time was no doubt a factor in this reaction, as was the spirited character of the student body.

The staff of the Telz yeshiva included some of the leading scholars and teachers of the period, including Shim‘on Shkop and Ḥayim Rabinowitz. After the death of Gordon in 1910 while he was raising funds for the yeshiva in England, the leadership passed to his son-in-law, Yosef Bloch.

During the interwar period, the Telz yeshiva was one of the most important yeshivas in independent Lithuania. It developed a number of subsidiary institutions, including a school for girls and a teachers’ seminary. During this period, students came not only from Eastern Europe but also from the United States, Germany, and Palestine.

Most of the staff and students were murdered during the Holocaust. Before then, in 1940, two rabbis from Telz had traveled to America to try to find a way to rescue the yeshiva. They were unsuccessful, but in 1945 they reestablished the institute under the same name, Telz, in Cleveland, Ohio. There it developed into one of the leading American yeshivas.

Suggested Reading

Samuel K. Mirsky, ed., Mosdot Torah be-Eropah be-vinyanam uve-ḥurbanam (New York, 1956); Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, forthcoming).