(Photo: BMG Lakewood)
“A Fire in his Soul”
Chana Bunim Rubin Ausubel Reflects on the Life of Irving Bunim
Perhaps the most impactful lay leader in American Jewish history, Irving Bunim zt”l was a man driven by Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel. A successful businessman also known for his insightful commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, Bunim used his Washington contacts to rescue thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and help them resettle in the United States. As a driving force behind the Young Israel movement and Rav Aharon Kotler’s partner in founding Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, Bunim set Orthodoxy on a path to success in the United States. In parallel, he was a proud Religious Zionist who made extraordinary efforts on behalf of the new State of Israel.
When he passed away in December of 1980, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein declared his death an aveilus d’rabim, a loss for the entire community. December 27, 2022 (the 3rd of Tevet) marks Irving Bunim’s 42nd yahrzeit.
In 2018, Eric Halivni (Weisberg), founder and Executive Director of Toldot Yisrael, interviewed Chana Bunim Rubin Ausubel, author of As Long As The Candle Burns, about her father’s extraordinary efforts on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people. The following is an edited and abridged version of their conversation.
Tell me a little bit about your father’s love for Israel.
My father had the greatest love for Eretz Yisrael, more than I could ever describe. It’s easier to give examples of how his love for Israel translated to action.
In 1947, he was in the textile business, where he worked with huge crates of textiles. Together with Eddie Silver, the District Attorney of Brooklyn, he hid surplus guns from World War II under the textiles in these huge cartons and shipped them to Israel.
That same year, Dov Gruner was sentenced to be hanged by the British for his participation in the Irgun’s arms raid on a police station in Ramat Gan. My father flew to England and made an appointment with Lord Pakenham, the Under Secretary of State, hoping to convince him to rescind the sentence of Dov Gruner. He tried very hard, but sadly, Dov was hanged.
My father yearned his whole life for an independent state. When he came to Israel after independence and saw an Israeli flag, he wept. I also remember, one year shortly after the Independence War, when a ship arrived in New York from Israel. My father had recently had surgery and was very sick. But he was adamant: “I’m going to see our ship!”
He also loved Jabotinsky and was one of his supporters, working with him to convince the Jews of Eastern Europe to move to Eretz Yisrael. People would ask my father, “How can you have Jabotinsky in your home one day and host a Torah scholar like Rav Elchonon Wasserman hy”d in your home the next day?” He said, “I like emet, I like truth and honesty. I like an honest and a truthful Torah scholar and I also greatly admire a true Zionist – and that was Jabotinsky.”
For many years, Ben-Gurion refused to allow Jabotinsky to be buried in Israel. In 1964, when Ben-Gurion was no longer Prime Minister, my father flew to Israel to meet with Levi Eshkol about the importance of bringing Jabotinsky to Israel for burial, which they finally did. In 1980, the year before my father died, Menachem Begin presented him with the Jabotinsky Order Life Achievement Award.
He wanted to live in Israel, but my mother had a new baby and was afraid of the living conditions here, so they remained in America. Still, he felt that everybody should have a chelek, a part of Eretz Yisrael. He bought property in Herzliya, gave it to a moshav and said to the people in the moshav: “Listen, if you keep the laws of Shemitta and all the laws of the
Torah, I will pay all the taxes and you can keep all the profit from this property.”
My father also had a great love for the Hebrew language. Though he was born in Volozhin in 1909 and moved to the United States at about the time of his bar mitzvah, he spoke Hebrew fluently. When we had to read difficult Hebrew literature in school, the students in my class would come to our house and my father would teach it to us. The teacher wondered how everybody got such good grades when they weren’t paying attention in school! When reading the Kuzari, he would tell me where Yehuda Halevi was quoting from Tehillim or elsewhere in Tanach; he knew all the sources! He also knew Bialik’s poems by heart.
Can you tell me a little bit about how he was active during the Holocaust?
Oh, boy! My brother wrote a big book on this, called A Fire in His Soul, a biography of my father.
We didn’t have a single relative in Europe, but he was a great lover of Rav Kook, and he said, “Every Jew is my brother.” That’s why he helped. He gave up his business, he gave up everything, to speak and raise funds to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Throughout the war, he was always in Washington trying to get visas for Jews in Europe to bring them to the United States. He played a critical role in bringing the Mirrer Yeshiva to Shanghai and ultimately to Oswego, New York. When the Yeshiva arrived in America, he was in Oswego all the time bringing them pots and pans, and things they might need.
My father, one of the leaders of the Va’ad Hatzalah, brought hundreds of European rashei yeshiva and their students from Soviet- and Nazi-occupied territories to America, including Rav Aharon Kotler of Kletzk. Together, he and Rav Kotler went to Washington DC where they succeeded in getting Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, to help a great many of our brothers. Rav Aharon didn’t speak English, so my father was the interpreter. Rav Aharon once said to Acheson, in Yiddish, that “one Jew, saving one Jew, is worth more than your life!” He urged my father to translate what he said into English. “Tell him, Bunim, tell him!” But how could my father say that to Dean Acheson? So instead my father said to Acheson: “Queen Esther said that she was given a kingdom in order to save the Jewish people. Mr. Acheson, perhaps this is why you were given the great position of Secretary of State – so that you can save people!”
I remember that there was an emergency during those difficult years, and he had to raise thousands of dollars immediately. It had to be done quickly, even though it was Shabbat. So on Shabbat morning, he got in a car together with a rabbi and drove to the Jewish neighborhoods. People said, “If Irving Bunim and a rav are driving in a car on Shabbat, it must be an emergency.” He raised thousands of dollars that day to save Jews. Pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, overrides the entire Torah.
Growing up, I knew of your father because of the Young Israel movement.
He started the Young Israel movement. He and a few others felt that the old kind of synagogues were not attracting young people, who would only show up at the synagogue to say kaddish. He was afraid that Orthodox Judaism would be lost, as Conservative Judaism was then very strong.
He said, “Let’s build a beit knesset that attracts young people – a shul where they wouldn’t sell aliyot, a shul with singing, to encourage and inspire young people to come to the synagogue.” That’s how the Young Israel movement started. He even designed the movement’s emblem!
How did your father’s example influence you?
It’s because of my father that I am here, in Israel, since 1981. He always said that this is where Jews belong. It was his chinuch (education) that inspired me to become a principal so that I could inspire other young people to come here, to Eretz Yisrael.
Toldot Yisrael is a Jerusalem-based nonprofit dedicated to recording and sharing the firsthand testimonies of the men and women who helped found the State of Israel. 1,300 video interviews (more than 4,000 hours of footage) have been conducted to date and are housed in The National Library of Israel, the official library of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The interviews and several acclaimed film series are shown in schools across the Diaspora, sent by Israel’s Ministry of Education to every history teacher in Israel, and can be viewed at www.youtube.com/toldotyisrael. More information about Toldot Yisrael is available at www.toldotyisrael.org.