• U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro visits the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem in Jan. 2012. Accompanied by Rabbi Aharon Chodosh, Rabbi Nachman Levovitz, Rabbi Binyamin Carlebach and Rabbi Aaron David Davis, the mashgiach ruchani, spiritual supervisor of all the students at the Mir | Photo: Wikimedia Commons by US State Department

The Incredible Tale of Mir

Tal Hartuv - 18 January 2022

Every day, (except during the pandemic) nearly 9,000 Jewish students from the likes of Israel, USA, UK, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Russia, Canada and even Panama, gather in a yeshiva in the heart of Jerusalem and huddle over ancient books. The study of the Bible and Talmud at the Mir Yeshiva – the largest yeshiva in the world – is ferocious and vibrant, and the quality of students and rabbis to graduate from here, is considered the very best.

But Mir Yeshiva did not have its beginnings in Jerusalem. It began in the little shtetl of Mir in Belarus.

Before World War II, Eastern Europe was flooded with hundreds of Jewish academies. Each one was named after the town it was situated in, and each one developed its innovative method of study. Mir was famous for what is known as “mussar,” a word that appears in the Book of Proverbs (1:2) which depicts ethical conduct, personal discipline, and focuses how to act in an appropriate and moral way in all the situations that life brings up. Situated near a quaint castle and a river, the yeshiva at Mir was the most prestigious in the world.

“Before World War II, Eastern Europe was flooded with hundreds of Jewish academies”

No one foresaw the Nazi invasion which wiped out the yeshivas and Jewish life forever. But Mir, unlike all the other Jewish academies, managed incredibly to survive thanks to the actions of the Japanese diplomat Sempo Sugihara, who risked his life, violated Japanese policy and issued transit visas to thousands of Jews to escape – including the 300 students of the Mir Yeshiva.

In 1939, as borders and alliances shifted, the students fled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to nearby Vilna. After a month they ended in Japan. From there they were deported to a ghetto in Shanghai.

Devoted to the life of Torah, the students biggest concern was not their refugee status but rather where could they continue to study. Incredibly, they utilised a ready-made synagogue complex which could hold 250 people. It even included a kosher kitchen and a ritual bath. The complex had been built 10 years earlier, by a Jewish entrepreneur called Silas Hardoon, who had built it just because he had a dream that he had to build a synagogue in Shanghai! He had no idea why. Little did he know that this dream would lead to the survival of the only yeshiva in Europe.

“Devoted to the life of Torah, the students biggest concern was not their refugee status but rather where could they continue to study”

In 1944, foreseeing how short-lived Jewish life would be in Shanghai, the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda, risked his life, travelled to the Land of Israel and with the help of other rabbis, set up the humble building for a new Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Two years later, 70 penniless students who had crossed the vast contingent of Russia on that Siberian railway to Japan, left Shanghai and made their way to Israel where they were reunited with their rabbis and continued their studies.

The tale of Mir Yeshiva is extraordinary and unique. Thanks to the dream of a Jewish entrepreneur, the actions of a Japanese Righteous Among the Nations, the foresight of the Jewish leadership, and the determination of the students to study at all costs, the Mir Yeshiva has thrived and survived and become the greatest institute of Jewish learning in the 21st century.

About the Author