The frum world digested the devastating news after Shabbos was over: The famed Nitra Yeshiva in Mount Kisco, NY, which has nurtured some of the most prominent personalities in the Torah world, had been decimated by a mammoth blaze.
The conflagration broke out on Friday night of Shabbos Parshas Yisro. One of the bochurim noticed flames coming from a room in the lower level of the yeshiva where the Shabbos food was kept and notified his peers to vacate the building. A faulty outlet was later identified as the source of the fire, which ultimately spread and destroyed the historic structure.
With little time to spare, the bochurim immediately set about removing the Sifrei Torah. They also pushed the bimah, which contained many of the bochurim’s tefillin bags, outside.
Shortly after the building was evacuated and the tashmishei kedushah were removed, the floor of the bais medrash collapsed. Thankfully and miraculously, there were no injuries, but the damage was done. A historic yeshiva that had endured decades of daunting challenges and tribulations had just been dealt a severe blow.
The next morning and over the subsequent days, talmidim and others from the surrounding Nitra shtetel of about 70 families could be seen standing on the campus and simply gazing at the burnt-out structure that used the house the bais medrash of the yeshiva. They looked on in disbelief, almost unsure if what they were seeing was reality. A precious makom Torah that had served Klal Yisroel for decades, producing outstanding talmidei chachomim and marbitzei Torah, had so suddenly been destroyed. The majesty and grandeur of this famed yeshiva had seemingly been torn away.
Among the items that were burnt beyond repair were thousands of seforim, including many rare and precious ones, in the bais medrash and the otzar haseforim of the yeshiva.
“It is a neis that all the talmidim escaped safely,” said the menahel ruchni, Rav Yaakov Hersh Ausch. “At the same time, so much history and numerous valuable seforim were wiped out.”
A Rich History
The Nitra Yeshiva’s roots were planted in Czechoslovakia in 1907 by Rav Shmuel Dovid Ungar, who drew to his fledgling yeshiva gifted students from distant towns and villages all across Eastern Europe.
In 1931, the town of Nitra asked Rav Ungar, then the rov of Tirnau, to become its rov. He accepted the position and settled his yeshiva there, telling his talmid and son-in-law, Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, “My heart tells me that there will come a time when the only remaining yeshiva on the continent will be in Nitra. That is where I wish to be…”
These words indeed proved to be sadly prophetic. The yeshiva in Nitra was to become the last bastion of Torah to function on the European continent.
The Nitra Yeshiva was a haven of refuge and Torah study during the catastrophic years of war, the torch of Torah burning there relentlessly throughout, while others had long succumbed, until the final phase of the Nazi terror campaign, when the last lone light in the darkness was snuffed as well.
Incredibly, even as the soil of Europe was drenched with Jewish blood and its skies filled with smoke rising from the crematoria, the doors of the Nitra Yeshiva remained open until early 1945, when the yeshiva was discovered by the Nazis and forced to disperse. The elderly Rav Ungar fled to the woods of Banska Bystrica and perished there on the 9th day of Adar 5705.
Following Rav Ungar’s petirah, his son, Rav Shalom Moshe Ungar, gathered a group of the surviving bochurim in the city of Nitra, intent on rebuilding the yeshiva his father had founded. When he realized that a move to America was necessary, he worked diligently to salvage the remnant of European Torah Jewry that remained. Together with his brother-in-law, Rav Weismandl, Rav Shalom Moshe reestablished the yeshiva in the United States with approximately 80 young talmidim gathered from various hiding places and concentration camps whose parents and families had perished during the war. They settled in Somerville, New Jersey.
For technical and economic reasons, the stay in Somerville could be only temporary. In 1948, the yeshiva purchased the Brewster Estate in Mount Kisco, in Westchester, New York, consisting of several buildings and 300 acres of farmland, where a shtetel was established around the transplanted Nitra Yeshiva. Survivors studied Torah there and were provided with jobs and opportunities to rebuild their lives.
The yeshiva successfully served as one of the pioneering institutions with rigorous Torah study in the United States. During its seven decades on these shores, it has produced talmidim who have gone on to impact Klal Yisroel significantly. Its proud alumni include Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, Rav Yitzchok Elazar Moskowitz, and other prominent Torah personalities.
Rav Weismandel served as rosh yeshiva for ten years, until his petirah in 1957, at which time Rav Shalom Moshe assumed the positions of rov and rosh yeshiva in Nitra. He led the yeshiva with great devotion for over 45 years, until his passing in 2003. His son, Rav Shmuel Dovid, then became rov and rosh yeshiva, taking over the reins of this prominent makom Torah, which benefits until today from his inspired leadership and guidance.
The campus of the Nitra Yeshiva was comprised of two buildings, one housing the bais medrash and shiur rooms and the other serving as the dormitory and dining room.
The recent fire completely destroyed the bais medrash building, which was last renovated in 1985, when a second floor was constructed.
After the fire, the hanhalah of the yeshiva worked feverishly to reorganize the dormitory building in the interim. Amazingly, by Monday afternoon, just two days after the blaze, the bochurim were back at the yeshiva engaged in limud haTorah, albeit in smaller, cramped quarters. In fact, by that time, the yeshiva administration had already purchased a full collection of brand new seforim for the talmidim to use. New tables, chairs and even a safe for the Sifrei Torah were also procured by Monday.
“It was of paramount importance to us not to have any delay in the sidrei hayeshiva,” said Rav Moshe Yitzchok Friedman, administrator of the yeshiva. “The fire left us all overwhelmed, but we knew that most important was ensuring that the bochurim could return to their Gemaros right away. The Nitra Yeshiva was once the lone makom Torah of its type in the Chassidic world, serving bnei Torah on American shores. Today, that legacy is being perpetuated so beautifully by the talmidim, whose kol Torah are the greatest tribute to the sacrifices of Rav Ungar and Rav Weismandl.”
Despite the most recent setback, the yeshiva administration is focused on the future, undertaking a massive campaign to get the yeshiva back on its feet.
“At the present time, the bochurim are learning in a makeshift bais medrash in the dormitory building,” said Reb Moshe Grunhut, chairman of the board of the yeshiva. “A different, small room is being used as a lunchroom. This is, obviously, a bedieved.”
And these arrangements are only temporary.
“We are doing all we can to provide the bochurim with an environment that provides the comfort and menuchas hanefesh needed for their undisturbed devotion to their limudim and avodah,” said Reb Moshe.
The many illustrious alumni of the yeshiva are being joined by friends, supporters and admirers of the yeshiva, and Yidden from communities across the country and beyond, in stepping up to the plate at this important juncture to ensure that the Nitra Yeshiva’s brightest days are ahead.
In their minds, they replay the unforgettable words of the yeshiva’s founder: “That is where I wish to be…” They are committed to ensuring that the legacy of Rav Ungar and Rav Weissmandl will continue to inspire generations of bnei Torah, serving as a beacon of light to the greater Torah world.
To participate in the Nitra Yeshiva’s emergency Million Dollar fundraising effort and the upcoming building campaign, one may contribute via the yeshiva’s automated system at 718.682.2002 or by mail Yeshiva of Nitra 163 Rodney St. Brooklyn NY 11211. To contact a member of the yeshiva administration, call 718.963.1800 or email yeshivaofnitra163@gmail.