A chronicler of American Jewish history, a talmid muvhak of Rav Joseph B. Soleveitchik and a teacher of thousands, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, will speak this Sunday at the Young Israel of West Hempstead.
The talk, “The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation,” is part of Yeshiva University’s Kollel Yom Rishon that is celebrating the new Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) YU musmakhim (ordained rabbis). New RIETS rabbis from the area will be speaking Shabbat in various local minyanim. Rav Rakeffet is a member of RIETS’ 50th anniversary class that was celebrated at YU’s recent chag hasemicha.
In an interview with The Jewish Star, Rav Rakeffet stressed the importance of studying and learning our history, “If we don’t know our past we are going to make the same mistakes in the future.”
He said his book “Bernard Revel: Builder of American Orthodoxy” was the first book published by the Jewish Publication Society of America more than 40 years ago. His book, “The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation,” has been called “the single most excellent volume on the history of Orthodoxy in the United States.”
Rav Rakeffet was honored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School on May 4 for his contributions to the study of Jewish history, on the occasion of the republication of those two books. “I never got so much honor in my life,” he said. “I am overwhelmed and humbled. I am very thankful to my students for their beautiful words,” he said.
Identifying himself as a “Yeshiva University graduate with a good sprinkling of Bnei Akiva, Lakewood and Chabad with a basic orientation to Lithuania,” he began his career as a rabbi in Pennsylvania in 1961, was a rebbe at MTA, and with his wife Malkah made aliyah in 1969, changing his name from Arnold Rothkoff to Aaron Rakeffet. He worked as a staff editor for the Encyclopaedia Judaica, was among the first teachers at BMT (Jerusalem Torah College) in 1969, and taught at Machon Gold, Michlala and one of the founding teachers at Midreshet Moriah. He has been on the Gruss Kollel faculty since it opened in 1976.
He served in the IDF until he aged out of service and was recruited by the Mossad to teach Torah in the Soviet Union. During his first visit to the USSR, in 1981 with his wife, he was motivated to assist in the founding of Shvut Ami, an organization to help Soviet Jewish immigrants in Israel. He returned to the USSR in 1985 and 1989.
He discussed the current shift in learning and influence of rabbis, suggesting that “there is a negative and positive to everything.”
“The roshai yeshiva are more learned than shul rabbis and wield tremendous influence because so many people are looking up to them,” he said. “But they may not know what’s going on outside the yeshiva. A shul rabbi has his hand on the pulse of the community and may not be as learned. Ideally there should be a partnership which may be evolving on the Anglo scene.”
He stressed the importance of Torah learning and of aliyah. “I hope the best will accept the challenge and come on aliyah,” he said. “Boruch hashem (thank G-d) we have over six million halachik Jews in Israel today.”
He estimates that he’s taught 11,000 students in the classroom, more “virtual” students and tens of thousands in the IDF.
Rav. Rakefet’s May 11 lecture begins at 9 am. It is open to men and women.