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There is another important factor, however, one that went unexamined in the articles published and speeches delivered on the occasion of the yahrzeit: Lakewood’s seamless integration into American society.
Although Reb Aharon (as the founder is referred to within the yeshiva world) was radically countercultural, an uncompromising opponent of the American pursuit of wealth and pleasure, his yeshiva has made its peace with American bourgeois values.
Kotler’s bold idea was to establish a yeshiva for adult men on the model of the elite Lithuanian yeshivas, where Talmud would be studied day and night for its own sake, without any ulterior career motivations or concerns for social advancement.
Students in Kotler’s yeshiva would not be allowed to attend college at night, unlike students at the few other Orthodox yeshivas that existed in America at the time.
An even more radical idea of his was that even after marriage, young men should receive community support to continue their life of study.
Continue reading: Explosive growth Kotler’s vision captured the imagination of a segment of the younger generation of American Orthodox Jews who thirsted for the intellectual and spiritual excitement and the purity of purpose that his yeshiva promised.
Many of Lakewood’s alumni sacrifice financially to pursue vocations as educators and community rabbis, and a few do spend their lives in penurious full-time study, but most enter the business world and build lives of white-collar respectability and commercial success, with the attendant trappings of a comfortable suburban lifestyle.
Lakewood’s integration of yeshiva ideology and American capitalist lifestyle has been the object of critique from the more hardline Israeli Haredis whose uncompromising stance has put them at odds with the larger society in which they live.
He crossed the Pacific with the help of a refugee assistance organization, arriving in San Francisco with his family in 1941 at the age of 49.
For many years, the Lakewood yeshiva has been the central and most respected academic institution within the community of Ashkenazi Lithuanian Orthodox Jews in America, and the town of Lakewood has attained a “city upon a hill” reputation as an exemplary community where Torah study is the highest value.
There are assuredly many factors that have contributed to the success of the Lakewood yeshiva, chief among them its determination to be the American yeshiva with the best students and the highest standards.
He studied at the famed yeshiva in Slobodka, Lithuania, and then at the yeshiva in Slutzk, where he married the daughter of its head, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer.
Kotler became the head of the yeshiva in Kletzk, a Polish border town, when he was 29, where he became known as one of the great Talmudic scholars of his time and a leader of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry.