Pinchos Zelig Bak
Pinchos Zelig Bak (July 9, 1944-March 3, 1977) (Hebrew: פנחס בק), a U.S. Jewish educator whose career coincided with the earliest days of the baal teshuva movement, was “responsible for a virtual revolution in Jewish education.” In Berkeley, Vancouver, and New York City he combined a desire as an Orthodox Jewish educator to help young people find meaning in traditional Jewish life with the creation of institutions to promote that goal.
Bak was born in New York City and raised in Baltimore. He was one of four children of Muriel and Rabbi Benjamin Bak (1920-91), the Lithuanian-born and educated founder of the Orthodox Shomrei Emunah synagogue in Baltimore. He attended the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago, graduated from Yeshiva College (BA, English, 1966), and was a graduate student in Communications at the University of British Columbia.
Berkeley, California (1966-8)
Following his graduation from Yeshiva College, Bak was hired as educational director of the Hebrew School at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, where Saul Berman served as rabbi. There, Bak organized the Bay Area Youth Commission (the synagogue’s youth program) and headed the West Coast Torah Leadership Seminar.
Marvin Hier, the rabbi of Congregation Schara Tzedeck in Vancouver, met Bak by chance in Oakland, California during a Yeshiva University-sponsored West Coast Torah Leadership Seminar in December 1967. Rabbi Hier believed Bak would be a valuable asset in Vancouver’s Talmud Torah, which “needed to be infused with the spirit of Torah, and Pinky Bak, with his love of Judaism and contagious enthusiasm, was the person to do it.”
When Bak came to Vancouver in the summer of 1968, there were 200 students in the Vancouver Talmud Torah, then the only Hebrew day school in Western Canada. By 1973, there were 310 students in the day program and an additional 50 in the evening high school. A new building next to the existing school was added to meet the increasing enrollment.
By the time he left Vancouver in 1974, Bak had, according to Hier, turned the school into “a first-class Hebrew day school that provided hundreds of students with a traditional, yet relevant and exciting, Jewish education.” It was the “golden age” of the Vancouver school.
Shlomo Riskin met Bak in the summer of 1972, and during a boat ride with him from Vancouver to Victoria, British Columbia, discussed plans for a Jewish educational venture in New York. While still in Vancouver, Bak was invited to become principal of the new Manhattan Hebrew High School’s Mesivta Ohr Torah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose advice Bak sought on whether or not to leave the Canadian city, counselled against the move from Vancouver to New York.
The school was to express the vision of Rabbi Riskin to establish a yeshiva which “touches as well as teaches, a yeshiva which trains personality as well as mind, a yeshiva which stresses commitment to the Jewish people as well as academic excellence.” It opened in September 1974 with 20 students; two years later, it had 150 students, and a girl’s school (Ulpana Ohr Torah) was launched in September 1976 with 40 students. Bak was widely considered to be a “dynamic Principal” and a “a spiritual father to thousands of young people with whom he came into contact.”
Seeking to utilize the best practices in Jewish education, Riskin and Bak travelled to Israel in the spring of 1976 visiting various yeshivot and auditing classes.
Bak believed that, to a large extent, the “revival of Jewish learning and observance” in the period around the 1960s was due to “the development of new methods of communicating old values.” Moreover, unlike American Orthodox leaders who, in past times, had been willing to accept modifications in Orthodoxy in order for it to survive, Bak said that “It has not been necessary to change the tradition, but it has been necessary to rephrase it into the vernacular and to adapt progressive educational techniques to our ancient task of teaching Torah.”
This was in keeping with the philosophy of the baal teshuva movement as promoted at Yeshiva University, and avoided the trap which some saw for Modern Orthodox of falling into a “half-pagan, half-halakhic world”.
Similarly referring to his experience at Berkeley, he observed that “it has been demonstrated here that Orthodox religious practice when espoused in the vernacular of the environment, without condescension, yet also without compromise, can be a potent and attractive force.”
Bak wrote that Jewish knowledge consists of four elements: a familiarity with the Hebrew language; an understanding of the Bible and important post-Biblical texts; an intellectual grasp of Jewish practice, customs and law; and a knowledge of Jewish history. “Jewish youth of today will seek their heritage only if they see in it a message of relevance,” he stated. “… we see young people searching for challenge, searching for identity, searching for a cause. … Our identity is the Jewish people; our purpose, the moral life; our challenge, the survival of Israel and the Jewish Community in the Diaspora.”
Bak’s career was cut short on Purim evening, March 3, 1977, while participating in the holiday celebrations in the Beit Midrash at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. He was “dancing like a wild man – ecstatic, alive, on fire, his energy contagious” when he suddenly collapsed. He died almost immediately of a brain aneurysm.
“Rav Bak’s greatest legacy,” wrote Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “remains an amazing number of students who were touched, and a countless number of students who will be touched, please G-d, by his educational vision.”
Bak was posthumously awarded a citation of recognition at the 34th Annual Awards Dinner of Torah Umesorah - National Society of Hebrew Day Schools in New York on November 20, 1977. He was the subject of a memorial tribute at the Ohr Torah Stone annual dinner at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York on December 13, 2016.
[Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact].New York: Pinchos Bak Memorial Society, 208 unnumbered pp., illustrated, English, 1980.
Works by or about Pinchos Bak in libraries (WorldCat catalog).
- “Bak, Rabbi Pinchas,” death notice under the names of Shlomo Riskin and Max Stern on behalf of the Manhattan Hebrew High School’s Mesivta Ohr Torah, The New York Times, March 6, 1977, p. 36.
- M. Herbert Danzger, Returning to Tradition. The Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) notes that “In the late 1960s probably the only one on the American scene prepared to deal with [returnees to Orthodox Judaism] in terms of their search for commitment rather than their lack of background was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a Lubavitcher chasid” (p. 84).
- “Bak To address ghetto event,” Jewish Western Bulletin, April 16, 1971, p. 15.
- “Bak, Benjamin,” in Who’s Who in World Jewry 1972, New York: Pitman Publishing Corp., 1972, p. 51.
- “Rabbi Benjamin Bak dies at 72, founded synagogue,” Baltimore Sun (Feb. 19, 1991).
- “Rabbi B. Bak dies in Baltimore, 71,” Jewish Western Bulletin, Feb. 21, 1991, p. 6.
- “B.I. Sisterhood Opens New Season,” Jewish Western Bulletin, Sept. 13, 1968, p. 10.
- The Ubyssey (Vancouver), vol. 53, Jan. 11, 1972, p. 7.
- “T.T. appoints new principal,” Jewish Western Bulletin, May 10, 1968, p. 12.
- Five children were born during his lifetime (Death notice The New York Times, March 9, 1977, p. 30).
- His wife was pregnant at the time of his death (advertisement, “An Important Announcement,” Jewish Western Bulletin, March 24, 1977, p. 20).
- Archie Greenberg, in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact], New York: Pinchos Bak Memorial Society, 208 unnumbered pp., 1980.
- “200 West Coast Teenagers To Attend [Second] Yeshiva Seminar,” B’nai B’rith Messenger (Los Angeles), Dec. 9, 1966, p. 18; Archie Greenberg, in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact], New York: Pinchos Bak Memorial Society, 208 unnumbered pp., 1980.
- Marvin Hier, Meant to Be: A Memoir (New Milford, CT: The Toby Press, 2015), pp. 26.
- Harold and Rose-Ellen Grunfeld, in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact] (New York: Pinchos Bak Memorial Society, 1980).
- Marvin Hier, Meant to Be: A Memoir (2015), pp. 27.
- Pinchos Bak, “Reflections on Jewish Education,” Jewish Western Bulletin, Sept. 20, 1968, p. 16.
- Jewish Western Bulletin, Nov. 17, 1977, p. 5.
- “T.T. Opens Registration,” Jewish Western Bulletin, May 4, 1973, p. 19.
- Pinchos Bak, “Modern facilities, methodology stimulate student individuality,” Jewish Western Bulletin, May 31, 1974, p. 7.
- “JWB Staff, “Testimonial fetes the Pinchos Baks,” Jewish Western Bulletin, Nov. 6, 1970, p. 11.
- “250 Orthodox Teenagers Set To Attend Bannockburn Parley,” B’nai B’rith Messenger (Los Angeles), Dec. 25, 1970, p. 19.
- Marvin Hier, Meant to Be: A Memoir (2015), pp. 30-1.
- Edwin Epstein cited in “New T.T. principal hopes to strengthen Jewish identity,” Jewish Western Bulletin, Sept. 1, 1988, p. 3.
- Shlomo Riskin, “The Model Yeshiva: A Dream Awaiting Fulfilment,” Jewish Life (New York), vol. 3 (Fall 1979), p. 49.
- Peter Abelow, [Biographical overview], in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact] (New York: Pinchos Bak Memorial Society, 1980).
- Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, Letter to the Editor, “JWB coverage of Rebbe’s passing ‘impressive,’” Jewish Western Bulletin, July 28, 1994, p.4.
- Peter Abelow, “Manhattan High School,” Echad: Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin (New York City), Nov. 1, 1974, p. 9.
- Death notice, The New York Times, March 8, 1977, p. 32, signed by Rabbi Avraham Weiss, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and David Mann, President.
- Irwin Shaw, in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact] (1980).
- Kimmy Caplan, “The Ever Dying Denomination: American Jewish Orthodoxy, 1824-1965,” in Marc Lee Raphael (ed.), The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp.168,170,179
- P. Bak, “The Revitalization of Traditional Life among Jewish Youth,” n.d., in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem (1980).
- “Morris Besdin, director of the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University for 25 years … pioneered in the educational direction of the Baal Teshuvah movement,” in “Rabbi Morris Besdin dead at 69,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin, April 14, 1982, p. 4.
- Charles S. Liebman, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life,” American Jewish Year Book 1965, vol. 66, p. 91.
- Pinchos Bak in the Yeshiva College newspaper Hamevaser, February 21, 1968, cited in [Marc Belzberg, compiler], Yetsi’at tsaddik min ha-makom ‘oseh roshem [The departure of a righteous person from a city has an impact] (1980).
- Pinchos Bak, “Reflections on Jewish Education,” Jewish Western Bulletin (Sept. 20, 1968), pp. 16, 20-1.
- Anon., “Purims Past,” Echad: Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin (New York City), vol. 25, Adar 5750/March 1990, p. 3.
- Marc Gafni, Soul Prints (New York: Atria, 2002) p. 151.
- Marvin Hier, Meant to Be: A Memoir (New Milford, CT: The Toby Press, 2015), p. 30.
- Caroline Van Hasselt, High Wire Act: Ted Rogers and the Empire that Debt Built, Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.
- Bak was a "wise, brilliant teacher," Marc Gafni quoted in Douglas J. Guth, "Individualizing ourselves through soul prints," Cleveland Jewish News, June 1, 2001, p. 37.
- Toby Klein Greenwald, “Marc Belzberg,” in Leaders Then and Now: Profiles of NCSY Alumni,” Jewish Action (Spring 5762/2002)
- Former Vancouver Talmud Torah student Greenhut, who studied Talmud with Bak, was later ordained by Rav Yitzhak Ruderman (Lazar, “Between Ourselves,” Jewish Western Bulletin, April 23, 1981, p. 16).
- Shlomo Riskin, “The Model Yeshiva: A Dream Awaiting Fulfillment,” Jewish Life vol. 3 (Fall 1979), p. 54.
- “Torah Umesorah to honor late Rabbi Pinchos Bak,” Jewish Western Bulletin, Nov. 17, 1977, p. 5.
- The volume was initially available by donation (Jewish Western Bulletin, June 5, 1980, p. 12), with 400 copies later for sale at $6 each (Jewish Western Bulletin, Oct. 23, 1980, p. 9)
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