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Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin
During the Agudat Israel congress in Vienna, apart from Daf Yomi, Shapiro announced one more project concerning the creation of a modern Talmudic academy. Lublin was selected for its site because of its venerable traditions. A yeshiva had functioned there from the 16th century, and its sages became the patrons of the planned academy.
As early as at the end of 1923, Keren ha-Torah, the Committee for the Construction of the Religious Academy, was established in Lublin. A wealthy Lublin Jew, Shmuel Eichenbaum, granted the Committee a recently purchased plot of land with an area of 1.2 hectares, situated at the intersection of Unicka and Lubartowska Streets.
On May 22-28, 1924, the celebration of placing the cornerstone under the future building at 57 Lubartowska Street (now 85 Lubartowska) took place. Approximately 20,000 people participated in the event, including a few dozen rabbis, representatives of the Polish government, and numerous journalists. At that time, individual donors had already granted some funds for the Construction Committee or pledged their future help in the form of money or building materials. Both the construction itself and later activities of the academy were financed almost exclusively by donations. Most funds were collected personally by Meir Shapiro during his fund raising campaigns abroad. In 1924-1925 he collected $12,500 in Europe (Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, France, United Kingdom). Later he toured for thirteen months in the US and Canada, visiting at least 240 places, where he managed to collect $53,000. In the years 1927-1930 he traveled all over Poland, collecting approximately 300,000 zlotys and consulting with Orthodox rabbis about the curriculum of the future academy. Apart from financial assistance, he received numerous publications and manuscripts from various donors for the library of the future yeshiva. At the moment of the official opening, the total cost of the investment was estimated at approximately 1.5 million zlotys. The collected funds were insufficient and at the last stage of the project the Construction Committee was forced to take a loan of 360,000 zlotys from the state bank.
The opening ceremony of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin (called Yochel for short) took place on June 24 and 25, 1930. Apart from thousands of local Jews, around ten thousand people arrived from all over Poland and abroad, including numerous rabbis and Chassidic rebbes, as well as representatives of the central government’s administration and army. The symbolic opening acts were affixing the mezuzah at the main entrance to the building (performed by Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Chortkov), cutting the ribbon (the Head of the Department of Public Security representing the voievoda [district governor]), and opening the door with a golden key (a young yeshiva student). Unsurprisingly, Meir Shapiro became the head of the academy. (According to the estimates of Jewish historians, he was the fortieth rector in the history of the Lublin yeshivas).
Let us have a look now at the edifice of the academy. Designed by the architect Agenor Smoluchowski, to this day its exterior has remained almost unchanged; the square in front of the building has also been preserved together with part of the fence with the monumental gate.
The interior of the building covers 18,310 cubic meters. The first two stories (the basement and the ground floor) housed a boiler room, storage and larder, laundry and drying room, bath with showers and ritual bath, mechanized bakery, two kitchens (for meat and milk) and a dining room; on the second floor were the chancellor’s office and other offices, two reading rooms and a room with a huge model of the Jerusalem Temple from the times of Herod, with a detailed description of particular parts which served for educational purposes. The academy was also equipped with educational posters to teach ritual slaughter of animals. On the third floor there were: a library (initially consisting of approximately 13,000 books and periodicals), a conference room, the rosh yeshiva’s apartment and guest rooms. The auditorium was located on this floor, facing south. It measured 200 square meters, was two stories high and filled with desks for students. It also served as a synagogue (accessible also to Jews from outside the academy). On the eastern wall there was an aron kodesh to hold the Torah scrolls, framed with an architectural casing. In front of it was a spacious podium. At its southern side a huge Hanukkah menorah was placed. Along the remaining walls there was a gallery supported by columns. This served as a women’s section and has been preserved until now. Access was from a separate entrance with a staircase placed in the southern section of the building. The location of the auditorium-synagogue was marked on the eastern elevation with four high windows (now bricked up). The fourth and fifth floor housed the students’ dormitory.
In front of the building there was a square, and behind it (from the eastern side) a spacious garden with paths and benches, gradually planted with more than 10,000 trees.
The academy was very modern in terms of its educational base and housing. In order to pass the entrance exams for the yeshiva, candidates had to meet very high standards both in terms of knowledge (memorizing 400 pages from the Talmud) and moral conduct. Their material status also played a certain role because of their possible patronage of the academy. The youngest candidates could attend a preparatory course called Mechina. The students were divided into two age groups: younger (14-17 years) and older (from 17 years upward). The course of study lasted four years. The curriculum encompassed exclusively religious matters: studies of the Talmud, its codifications and commentaries.
The core of everyday instruction was memorizing the daily folio of the Talmud, and then studying pertinent commentaries by scholars from the medieval and modern period. Four times a week, the rector offered a 3-hour-long lecture presenting the methods of interpretation of Talmudic issues. During these lectures discussion was allowed. At the end of every semester, each student was examined by the rosh yeshiva on his newly acquired knowledge. More talented students gained additional knowledge necessary to perform the function of a rabbi. No general subjects were introduced. (This was inconvenient for graduates applying for the post of rabbi as in order to pass the state examination some general knowledge was also required.) The official language of instruction was Hebrew.
The student’s day lasted from 5:30 a.m. till supper time. It was divided into self-study and common lectures with breaks for three prayers and a walk in the garden after lunch. The time after supper was usually spent by the students on individual studies. In the yeshiva a regime of moral impeccability obtained, which included, among other things, a ban on reading improper literature under the threat of expulsion from the school. It was planned that eventually 500 students would study there at the same time but this plan was never realized. In 1931 around 150 talmidim (students) studied there. By 1933, there were approximately 200. Most of them were young men from Chassidic homes. Some students came from outside Poland, including such distant countries as Palestine or Argentina.
After the war, in the fall of 1945, the property was taken over by the state as a so-called abandoned possession and assigned to the newly established Marie Curie-Skłodowska University. Next it was taken over by the Medical Academy.
In the fall of 2003 (as a result of the 1997 decree on the state’s relations with the Jewish religious communities in the Republic of Poland) the building and grounds were given to the Jewish Community of Warsaw, the present owner of the building. Since that time parts of the building have been gradually renovated to serve as a place of holiday gatherings for a tiny group of local Jews as well as for other events.
For instance, on March 1, 2005 (21 Adar I, 5765), after an interval of 67 years, the celebrations of the eleventh Siyum ha-Shas took place in the auditorium hall, attracting a few hundred Jews from various countries. Thanks to a live TV broadcast, 120,000 Jews all over the world participated in the ceremony; simultaneously, a broadcast from the parallel ceremony in New York could be watched.
On January 22, 2006 the official opening of the partly renovated quarters took place to serve as the seat of the Lublin branch of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. So far a prayer room, rabbi’s room, library, kitchen, dining room, and internet café have been opened. In the near future there will be a doctor’s office and Seniors’ Club.
Edited by Andrzej Trzciński
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