American-born Rabbi Nosson Finkel, head of Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, said to be the world’s largest, who died in Jerusalem on Nov. 8 at 68, Finkel, whose funeral drew an estimated 100,000, was praised throughout the ultra-Orthodox and “Torah” communities for building Mir into a major institution with multiple branches, encouraging thousands to learn in yeshivas and adult kollels, and for personal warmth and generosity.
But others mentioned the rarity of an American-born rabbi making such a mark in Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox world.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Shul on the Beach in Venice Beach, California, said that Finkel’s “primary legacy will not be the growth of the yeshiva. Rather, in my opinion, his legacy will be his life story. The only prominent Rosh Yeshiva living in Israel who was born in America, R’ Nosson Tzvi was a model to all American born Jews that the sky is the limit. He was not born to a family of Roshei Yeshiva, nor was R’ Nosson Tzvi born into the lap of Talmudic luxury. He grew up with public school, Americana and sports. That did not stop him from becoming who he was. R’ Nosson Tzvi earned everything he achieved as a Torah scholar through his own blood, sweat and tears.”
At his funeral at the yeshiva’s main campus in northern Jerusalem (photos and videos from the funeral here), family members and yeshiva rabbis spoke of Finkel’s devotion to his school and students. According to Hamodia, a newspaper for the ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Refoel Shmulevitz said Finkel’s “concern for and dedication to each and every individual…has produced what we see today, this great yeshivah, where each person feels that the other is his brother…”
Hamodia quoted Finkel’s brother Gedalia as saying that Finkel loved every student in the yeshiva, and Finkel’s son, Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, as saying his father “tried to spur his students…to ‘think big’ in their goals in learning.”
Many noted Finkel’s efforts despite his debilitating Parkinson’s Disease, and his reported unwillingness to take medication, as it might limit his mental capacity and reduce his Torah study. One blogger wrote: “Every limb in his body trembled, swayed, and shook. He needed much assistance simply in order to walk or stand, if he could even manage that. His hands flailed at his sides and his head moved uncontrollably. The pain he experienced must have been horrendous."
Shmarya Rosenberg, editor of the blog, Failed Messiah, and a prominent critic of Orthodoxy, said about Finkel: "As haredi gedolim go these days, he was pretty good guy who understood there were legitimate shades of gray in the world. Maybe that’s because he heard his mother talk about growing up in her tiny old neighborhood, which was filled with hasidim (many from Chabad rebbes but not from Lubavitch), former hasidim (same), Litvaks and former Litvaks, socialists, communists, Bundists and Zionists of all stripes, and where almost everyone somehow got along – even if they wouldn’t daven at that other shul."
Finkel was born in Chicago and was named after his paternal great-grandfather, founder of Lithuania’s Slabodka yeshiva. He attended Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a mainstream, co-ed Orthodox high school in Chicago, where he played baseball and was known a Nathan. He married his second cousin, Rochel Leah Finkel, granddaughter of the last head of the pre-Holocaust Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland. When his father-in-law died in 1990, Finkel succeeded him at yeshiva.
The school is now reportedly the yeshiva world’s largest, and has branches in two ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities, as well as its main location in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. The yeshiva draws many American students.
The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.