Yosef Chaim Shneur Kotler (1918 – 24 June 1982) was an Orthodox rabbi and rosh yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha (also known as the Lakewood Yeshiva) in Lakewood, New Jersey from 1962 to 1982. During his tenure, he developed the Lithuanian-style, Haredi but non-Hasidic yeshiva into the largest post-graduate Torah institution in the world. He also established Lakewood-style kollels in 30 cities, and pioneered the establishment of community kollels in which Torah scholars study during the morning and afternoon hours and engage in community outreach during the evenings. Upon his death, he had served as the Lakewood rosh yeshiva for exactly the same amount of time as had his father, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the founding rosh yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha: nineteen years, seven months, and one day.
Kotler as a young man in the 1940s, while studying at the Hevron yeshiva in Jerusalem
Yosef Chaim Shneur Kotler
|Died||24 June 1982 (aged 63–64)|
|Spouse||Rischel Friedman (d. July 2015)|
|Children||Meir Kotler, Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Isser Zalman Kotler, Yitzchok Shraga Kotler, Aaron Kotler, Sara Yehudis Schustal, Batsheva Krupenia, Esther Reich, Baila Hinda Ribner|
|Parents||Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rivka Chana Perel Meltzer|
|Alma mater||Hevron yeshiva|
|Predecessor||Rabbi Aharon Kotler|
|Successor||Rabbis Malkiel Kotler, Yerucham Olshin, Dovid Schustal, Yisroel Neuman|
|Yeshiva||Beis Medrash Govoha|
|Buried||Har HaMenuchos, Jerusalem|
He was born in Slutsk, Russia, to Rabbi Aharon Kotler and his wife, Rivka Chana Perel, the daughter of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav of that town. Of his parents' children, only he and his sister, Sarah, survived infancy. He was named after his father's father, Shneur Zalman Pines.
In 1940, when most yeshivas in Lithuania fled to Vilna—including the yeshiva in Kletzk (to where Rabbi Aharon Kotler had moved the Slutsk yeshiva)—Shneur also came to Vilna. There he became engaged to Rischel, the daughter of Malkiel Friedman. He was able to escape Europe and get to Mandatory Palestine in 1940. While his fiancé made refuge in Shanghai with the Mirrer bnei torah. Which was where she lived, until their reunion, and marriage in America after the war. (His father escaped to Japan and from there to America in 1941.) Throughout the war years, he studied in the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva led by his grandfather, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, who had also emigrated to Palestine, and attended shiurim given by Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, rosh yeshiva of the Hevron yeshiva in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav.
In 1946 Rabbi Kotler was able to rejoin his father in America, where he enrolled in the kollel division of the Lakewood Yeshiva which his father had founded. Although he was the son of the rosh yeshiva, he eschewed any honor or special position, but acted like any other kollel member. Sixteen years later, he accepted the mantle of leadership with his father's death in 1962.
Whereas his father had actively restricted enrollment to a select group of students, Rabbi Kotler opened the yeshiva doors to a broader range of students and post-graduate fellows. Enrollment grew from less than 200 students in 1962 to over 1,000 by the time of his death in 1982, transforming the Lakewood Yeshiva from a small, elite institution into a world-class Torah center. As more students enrolled, the scope of study broadened to the point where a student could join any number of groups studying all the tractates of the Talmud.
Rabbi Kotler continued his father's dream of establishing "branches" of the Lakewood Yeshiva in other cities, supervising the opening of 30 Lakewood-style kollels in 30 cities, including Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Long Beach, New York, Scranton, Pennsylvania, Miami Beach, Denver, Pittsburgh, Deal, New Jersey, Mexico, and Melbourne.
He also pioneered the establishment of community kollels in the United States and other countries. Unlike a kollel, which is a full-time learning program, a community kollel is a part-time learning program, part-time outreach program. Its Torah scholars learn together in the morning and afternoon and then interact with lay members of the community by offering evening lectures and one-on-one learning. Serving as a hub of Torah activity, community kollels make a significant impact on the growth of Torah awareness in remote Jewish areas. His able assistant in this endeavor was Rabbi Nosson Meir Wachtfogel (1910–1998), the Lakewood mashgiach (spiritual supervisor), who had been one of the original students of Rabbi Aharon Kotler when Beth Medrash Govoha first opened in 1943 and who subsequently served as mashgiach under three generations of roshei yeshiva. Rabbis Kotler and Wachtfogel paved the way for the opening of community kollels in many cities, including Passaic, New Jersey (this kollel developed into the Yeshiva Gedola of Passaic), Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Melbourne, Australia.
Rabbi Kotler was a prominent leader of American Orthodox Jewry as well, serving on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America and the rabbinical boards of the Torah Umesorah National Society for Hebrew Day Schools and Chinuch Atzmai. He was also active in the effort to help Jewish refugees from Russia and Iran.
He died on 24 June 1982 (3 Tammuz 5742) in Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, at the age of 64. He was survived by his wife, Rischel, eight children, fifteen grandchildren, and his sister, Sarah Schwartzman. His funeral processions in Lakewood and Jerusalem were attended by tens of thousands, with an additional stop in Borough Park, Brooklyn attended by 30,000. He was buried near his father, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, and his grandfather, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, on Har HaMenuchot.
His widow, Rischel, died at her home in Lakewood on July 17, 2015. Her funeral took place on July 19 in Lakewood. Estimated attendance was about 15,000.
Kotler served as rosh yeshiva for nineteen years, seven months, and one day, exactly the same amount of time as did his father. This extraordinary coincidence was noted throughout the Torah world and seen as a sign that he had been a worthy son and successor who carried on his father's mission.
He was succeeded as rosh yeshiva by his son, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler along with another three gedolei torah Rabbi Dovid Schustal, son-in-law, and Rabbi Yerucham Olshin and Rabbi Yisroel Neuman who are married to other grandchildren of Rabbi Aharon Kotler.
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