Rabbi Shmuel Berenbaum, who studied at the yeshiva in Mir, a small Polish town before World War II, was part of its international rescue during the Holocaust, and headed a transplanted branch of the school in Brooklyn for nearly six decades, died Jan. 6 of stomach cancer in his Brooklyn home. He was 87.
The rabbi, whose body was taken to Jerusalem for burial after a funeral in Brooklyn that drew tens of thousands of mourners, was one of the last links between the generation of pre-war Talmudic scholars in Europe and the members of a resurgent Orthodox community who grew up in the United States after the war.
The Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood – which includes a high school as well as advanced non-matriculating programs for married and single students – grew into one of the largest such advanced Jewish learning centers for adult men in New York City, with an estimated 1,200 students. The Jerusalem branch, with 4,000 students, is located in the city’s Mea Shearim neighborhood.
“His entire essence was learning and teaching Torah,” said Rabbi Mordy Mehlman, president of an advertising and events coordinating firm, who studied at the Mirrer Yeshiva in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He said Rabbi Berenbaum largely eschewed involvement in communal activities, in order to concentrate on his teaching in the yeshiva.
Rabbi Berenbaum continued to offer his daily Talmud shiur until two weeks ago, Rabbi Mehlman said.
“He had influence on literally thousands and thousands of students,” said Rabbi Dovid Seeve, administrative director of Agudath Israel of America and a Mir student about 40 years ago. “He was a transmitter. There are very few people [still alive] who remember the great sages we had” in Europe before the Holocaust. He was one of the last.”
Rabbi Berenbaum, born in Poland, studied at the Ohel Torah Yeshiva in Baranovich, now in Belarus, before transferring to the Mir Yeshiva. At the start of the war, he joined the rest of the yeshiva in an en masse move to Vilna, where they received destination visas to Curacao, a Dutch protectorate in the Caribbean, and travel visas to Japan.
The visa-granting actions of the Dutch and Japanese consuls in Vilna enabled the entire yeshiva, which traveled to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, to find safety in Kobe, Japan, before settling in Shanghai, China, for the duration of the war.
After the war, Rabbi Berenbaum moved to the U.S., settling in Brooklyn.
In 1952 he became Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva, along with his brother-in-law, the late Rabbi Shraga Moshe Kalmanovitz, after the death of his father-in-law, Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanovitz.
“Rabbi Berenbaum’s love of learning and wealth of wisdom will live on through his tens of thousands of students worldwide,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a prepared statement.
“The main point he gave over to his to all of his students was diligence. He was always there in the study hall. He was always accessible,” said Rabbi Seeve. “He would never leave until the end of study, which in my time was 8 o’clock at night. There was no such thing as giving up time in the study of Torah.
“He was an original thinker” who offered popular Friday night lectures on the Torah portion of the week and Saturday nights talks on Jewish ethics, said Rabbi Seeve. “He had a tremendously sharp mind.”
Leadership of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn passes to Rabbi Berenbaumn’s nephew, Rabbi Osher Kalmanovitz.