Rabbi Wasserman, a Pioneer Educator, Dies


Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, a pioneer of Orthodox Jewish education in Los Angeles, died in Israel last week at age 93.

News of the death brought thousands of mourners to the funeral in Jerusalem on Friday and 500 to a memorial service Sunday at Young Israel Synagogue in Hancock Park.

Among them were rabbis, teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals who studied at Wasserman's West Coast Talmudical Seminary, also known as Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon, after Wasserman's father, Elchonon Bunim Wasserman.

Born in Imperial Russia and educated in France, the young Wasserman founded the first of his four rabbinical seminaries at Strasbourg in 1933. All four are in operation.

He came to the United States before World War II on the orders of his father, a renowned Talmud scholar and leader of the Agudath Israel movement who was executed by German forces in 1941. Agudath Israel is a sociopolitical group that represents the interests of many of the most strictly observant Jews.

Active in New York-based Vaad Hatzolo , a committee that tried to save European Jews during the war, Wasserman returned to Europe with a U.N. relief team to help with the resettlement of refugees.

After founding a seminary in Detroit, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1953, where he opened a yeshiva that offered elementary, secondary, college and post-graduate training in traditional Jewish texts as well as secular studies to local youths and others who came from as far as Arizona and Colorado.

Located at various times in the Fairfax District and the San Fernando Valley, the school had 300 students at the height of its popularity.

Although not an adherent of the charismatic Chabad movement of Hasidic Jews, Wasserman transferred the school to the Chabad Lubavitch organization when he and his wife moved to Israel in 1976. Chabad eventually sold the property on Kings Road but continues to use the building and the name Ohr Elchonon (the light of Elchonon) at its yeshiva near La Brea Avenue.

One of the first Orthodox rabbis to reach out to the rapidly assimilating Jewish community in Los Angeles, Wasserman was credited by students and colleagues with training a generation of rabbis and lay leaders and laying the groundwork for a resurgence of traditional observance in recent years.

They also remembered him as an exceptionally warm and humble mentor.

"When he came here in 1952 the traditional community had very little by way of learning institutions," said Rabbi Zalman Uri, head consultant for Orthodox schools at the Bureau of Jewish Education. "He was the pioneer."

"He represented a carry-over from an era that has vanished of the Old World scholar who really symbolized the heights of rabbinic scholarship that we only read about in our legends and in tales of centuries past," said yeshiva alumnus David Fox, a clinical psychologist and rabbi.

"There is an elite group of Torah giants in the world who are recognized for their sterling qualities. He achieved that, and he was the only one in that group who ever lived in Los Angeles," said Rabbi Yitchok Adlerstein, professor of Judaic studies at the Yeshiva of Los Angeles. "He was probably the first among the really top people in Torah leadership to understand the need for strong outreach to the non-observant."

Before he went to Israel, Wasserman often traveled to San Diego, San Francisco and Vandenberg Air Force Base to teach classes in basic Judaism.

He also held workshops to train teachers for the Orthodox day schools in cities across the country and published widely used collections of his father's commentaries on the Bible and rabbinical teachings.

In Jerusalem, Wasserman founded another seminary named after his father. He was active as its dean until his death.

The rabbi, who was childless, is survived by his wife, Fayge.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World