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A Fire Goes Out From Novhardok - Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz

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A Fire Goes Out From Novhardok - Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz
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Revach L'Neshama
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Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, also know as the Alter of Novhardok, was one of the unique figures of our recent history. His uncompromising, walk through fire, bitachon for even the most minute detail, was unparalleled. It was said on him that the Chofetz Chaim was the Gadol HaDor in emunah and the Alter of Novhardok in bitachon.

The turning point in his life was a chance meeting with Rav Yisroel Salanter. In 1868, after the Alter's father-in-law was niftar between his engagement and his marriage, the Alter who was 18 years old at the time, took on the responsibility to support his wife's family. He continued to say Shiurim in the local yeshiva as he had been doing since he was 16 years old. In his role as businessman, he was at a fair in Mamal when he met the legendary giant of mussar. Seeing the Alter's potential, Rav Yisroel spoke to him about his derech in torah and mussar. The Alter became very attracted to Rav Yisroel and whenever he was in Mamal on business he would attend Rav Yisroel's Mesilas Yisharim shiur.

At age 27, after hearing 13 shiurim from Rav Yisroel Salanter, the Alter decided to give up business forever and join the famed Kovno Kollel with Rav Itzele Blazer and Rav Naftoli Amsterdam the two leading talmidim of Rav Yisroel. He didn't even finish his business. He left Mamal and headed straight to Kovno, while sending home a significant amount of money for his family. After a short while, as he made great strides on the way to becoming a gadol b'Yisroel, he sent for his wife and family to join him. During the subsequent period, his wife tragically died during childbirth.

This did not deter the Alter. He then decided to learn in hisbodedus, complete solitude. This lasted in one form or another for the next few years, which in the interim he remarried. It was only after ongoing persuasion from Rav Simcha Zisel the Alter of Kelm, with whom he was very close, that the Alter finally gave up his ways of solitude and opened a Yeshiva. His Yeshiva in Novhardok survived attacks from both the Maskilim and the opponents of the mussar movement. In the latter battle, the Alter was greatly aided by help of the Rov of Novhardok, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein the author of the Aruch HaShulchan, who stood by the Alter's side and repealed all attempts to delegitimize the Yeshiva and its loyalty to the mussar movement.

The Alter's goal was to light the entire world with the fire of torah. To this end he would send his finest talmidim (among them the Steipler Gaon) to towns all over Russia, where they would start Yeshivos. For each yeshiva he would send two talmidim, one to run the yeshiva and one to say shiurim and infuse the boys with Ruchniyos. Each host town would have a committee of laymen who would support the yeshiva. When all was said and done, Novhardok Yeshivos were all over Russia, with the Alter running between them to make sure that all was in order and to infuse them with the fiery spirit of the Alter himself.

During the difficult years of the Bolshevik Revolution, when society was in complete turmoil as violence engulfed the streets, learning in Novhardok yeshivos continued as if the world was standing still. This was a credit to the successful chinuch the Alter has imbued in his talmidim. It is told that during the Bolshevik Revolution, one Motza'ei Shabbos he was making havdala while his courtyard was being shelled and bullets were be fired from all sides. All the talmidim were trembling around the Alter as he made havdala with an air of serenity in perfect calmness, not even spilling a drop of wine.

His dedication to the yeshiva knew no bounds. He once came home late at night and saw his daughter washing laundry by the candle light. He told her that it is better to give the candle to a yeshiva student to learn torah, and the laundry can be washed in the moonlight. The story of Alter's petira was a symbolic of his whole life. In 1919 a large group of talmidim took refuge from the ongoing war, in the city of Kiev. An epidemic broke out which eventually took the lives of 15,000 people. Most of the boys of the yeshiva contracted the disease and 16 died from it. Despite being 70 years old, the Alter personally cared for the talmidim, putting his life at risk. He said that Chesed was the best vaccine against the plague. He ended up contracting the disease himself and was Niftar on 17 Kislev 5680/1919.

He left behind a rich legacy of talmidim who continued to be moseir nefesh to spread torah. The yeshivos flourished through very difficult times until the second world war. His four daughters married distinguished talmidei chachomim, Rav Reuven Silver, Rav Alter Shmuelevitz (father of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz), Rav Avrohom Yaffen, and Rav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky.

In 1963, when permission was given to convert the old cemetery in Kiev to a public park, after a great deal of behind the scenes covert and overt activity, the Alter was successfully brought to kevura in Har HaMenuchos. Yehi Zichro Boruch!

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