One who chooses to study the history of the development of the twentieth century rabbinic leadership will likely come across the name “Slabodka.” The town for which the renowned yeshiva of Slabodka was named was adjacent to Kovno (Kaunus, Lithuania), a center of Jewish life and scholarship. The “mother of yeshivas,” as the Slabodka Yeshiva has been called, gained its particular renown under the leadership of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was known as Der Alter (the Elder) of Slabodka.
Born in 1849, Rav Nosson Tzvi was orphaned at a young age and was raised by relatives. He spent his formative years studying at the Kelm Talmud Torah where he was taught by Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (who had been a student of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement). After running the Talmud Torah (a primary school) of Kelm, Rav Nosson Tzvi helped start several yeshivot before the Slabodka Yeshiva came into existence.
Rav Nosson Tzvi chose the best and the brightest for his institute and gave each of the students his full attention. Rav Nosson Tzvi’s educational philosophy reflected Proverbs 24:6: “educate your child according to his/her way.” He had a unique talent for understanding the individual needs of each of his students and guiding them in the best way for their own personal growth. Rav Nosson Tzvi also emphasized Gadlus Ha’adam, the greatness of man, and the importance of being well dressed and well groomed. There was a strong emphasis on Mussar (character development) in the Slabodka Yeshiva curriculum, which caused other more traditional institutes of Torah learning (such as Brisk) to criticize Slabodka for taking time away from the study of the Talmud.
The First World War forced the Slabodka students and teachers to move around to various locations in Russia in order to stay safe. While they were eventually able to return to Slabodka, this set in motion the yeshiva’s great move to Hebron in Palestine. Rav Nosson Tzvi arrived in the Holy Land in 1925. He passed away on the 29th of Shevat, 1927.