Yeshivas Chachmei Tsorfat (Yeshiva of the Sages of France) was established in June 1945, almost immediately after Europe’s liberation from the Nazi inferno. With the smell of smoke still clinging on their prisoner’s uniforms, many young survivors from the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps made their way to displaced persons (DP) camps in Aix-les-Bains. Rabbi Moshe Leybel, a Polish Jew and former student of the famed Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin joined forces with Rabbi Ernest Weill, Chief Rabbi of Colmar, to provide these young men not only with a physical home but also with spiritual nourishment and an educational framework. Before WWII, Rabbi Weill had founded France's first yeshiva since Napoleonic times in Neudorf-Strasbourg (his yeshiva opened in 1933, headed by Rav Simcha Wasserman, son of Rav Elchonon Wasserman הי"ד, and continued until 1938 with the approach of war).
In Aix-les-Bains, Rabbi Leybel and Rabbi Weill selected Rabbi Chaim Yitzchok Chaikin, a product of the Lithuanian Yeshivos, a disciple of the revered Chofetz Chaim, and former head of the Neudorf Yeshiva, as Rosh Yeshiva of the nascent Yeshiva. Rav Chaikin was a person who had no need for any physical comfort. He lived with his large family in a small apartment on the yeshiva premises with the barest necessities; they slept on the same beds as the boys in the dormitory. The door to his home had no lock as talmidim were welcomed at any time of the day or night. He and his rebbetzin were totally devoted to Hashem, His Torah and the Jewish People. He planted this devotion into his talmidim, preparing them for a life of Kiddush Hashem, wherever they may find themselves, whether this would be in the rabbinate, the bais medrash, or in the business or professional world.
Under Rav Chaikin's leadership, thousands of students -- Holocaust survivors and refugees from anti-Jewish persecution in North Africa, students from throughout Europe, the Middle East, and beyond -- experienced the sweetness of Torah study, mussar, and the study of secular subjects in the spirit of Torah, in order that they might preserve and rebuild Torah after the destruction of the Holocaust. The thriving Jewish communities across Europe, Eretz Yisrael, and beyond headed by Aix-les-Bains alumni are testament to the success of the Yeshiva of Aix-les-Bains in transmitting Torah and Jewish leadership qualities to its students.
Since its establishment, Yeshivas Chachmei Tzorfas prided itself on a unique fusion of rabbis and students from a wide variety of backgrounds, all of which were honored and appreciated. Everyone found his place there, whether they were Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Chassidish, Litvish, Yekkish, or baal teshuva. The Yeshiva and its special personalities had a strong direct influence on the rebirth of Judaism throughout France, the whole of Europe, and beyond in Eretz Yisrael and North America. Thriving Jewish institutions around the world headed by Aix-les-Bain’s alumni are a testament to the lasting influence of its rabbis and unique curriculum.
Many leaders of the Jewish people, including rabbis and Tzadikim from many diverse circles, have formed special ties to the yeshiva over the course of decades. Among these rabbis who visited and supported the Yeshiva of Aix-les-Bains were the revered mekubalim Baba Sali and Rav Yitzchak Kaduri, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, and three generations of the Rebbes of Pshevorsk (Rav Itzikel, Rav Yankele, and יבל"ח the current Pshevorsker rebbe of Antwerp שליט"א).
Over its decades of existence, the Yeshiva and its students have benefited from the contributions of many dedicated rabbis, staff, and lay leaders. The role of Rav Guerchon (Roger) Cahen in sustaining the yeshiva must be highlighted. For over 50 years, Rav Cahen worked with mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) to sustain the yeshiva, raising money throughout France and around the world, without salary, in addition to serving as a rabbi in Alsace. He served the yeshiva successively as secretary, director, president, and fundraiser. His sefer, Imrei Cohen אמרי כהן, testifies to his profound Torah knowledge in addition to his leadership and selfless dedication to the yeshiva and its students.
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