The yeshiva was established in 1896, together with a Kollel for married men, under the direction of Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, an alumnus of the Kovno Kollel and pupil of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. In the footsteps of his mentor, he was a staunch advocate of the Mussar approach. He was known as the Alter fun Novardok, a Yiddish term meaning "the elder of Novardok".
Novardok established yeshivas all over the region, in major cities such as Kiev, Kharkov, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Zhitomir, Berditchev, Tsaritsyn, Saratov, Plogid, and Chernigov. Influenced by the Alter, his students also created Yeshivas in Kherson, Mohyliv-Podilskyi, Kamieniec-Podolski, Berdichev, Nikolaev, Bălţi, Odessa, Piotrków Trybunalski and other places. The Alter sent young scholars to lead the yeshivas.
The directors of the yeshivas were in constant contact with The Alter, who guided and visited them, spending nearly every Shabbos in a different town.
The yeshiva opened with ten students. A few months later there were already fifty. A year after the yeshiva's establishment, great criticism was levelled at the study and practice of Mussar, and the opponents of that philosophy sought to close the yeshiva. They didn't succeed. By 1899, the yeshiva had swelled to 200 pupils.
Some students came to Novardok yeshiva from as far as the Caucasus.
At first, The Alter served as both the rosh yeshiva and mashgiach of the yeshiva, delivering shiurim in Gemara and mussar. In time, though, he appointed others to deliver the Gemara shiurim, while he focused on developing the mussar aspect of the yeshiva.
After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Alter ordered his students to cross the border into Poland. Many of the students were shot in the attempt; others were sent to Siberian prison camps, but six hundred made it across the border.
The Alter's son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Yoffen, was the head of the Novardok yeshiva in Białystok, the biggest Yeshiva in Poland between the two world wars. This yeshiva Beit Yosef, which was the name of all Novardok yeshivas in Poland, supervised 30 other Beit Yosef yeshivas.
The Novardok philosophy
Novardok had its own unique outlook, stressing the total negation of ego and the physical world. Through this, the complete and total focus of a person can be on his spiritual and intellectual side. Like other Mussar schools, Novardok demanded the complete shattering of personal desires, eradicating any vestige of evil habits. For that purpose, students would carry notebooks, in which they would daily enter records of failures and achievements. Before bedtime, they would check their "bookkeeping" and make plans-of-action for correcting faults. One method of "breaking" oneself was by denying oneself the rewards of a sin.
Students of Novardok participated in deliberately humiliating behaviour, such as wearing old, patched clothing, or going to a shop and asking for a product not sold there, such as screws in a bakery. All Novardok students would share their personal belongings with friends to rid themselves of their desires for worldly possessions.
One pupil related that the purpose of these exercises were not to "put yourself down", as is commonly thought. The training, in fact, promoted the opposite; it gave the students the emotional freedom from the chains of public approval. They discovered that the fear of embarrassment was actually much greater than the reality. This strengthened their confidence to do the right thing, oblivious to what others might think.
An extension of Novardok's unconventional approach entailed the establishment of numerous branches of the yeshiva. The most elite students of the yeshiva would set out on foot to strange communities without money in their pockets, simultaneously abstaining from speech and not asking for a ride or even food. Upon reaching a town, they would enter the Beth Midrash, and without a word to anyone, study Torah.
With this method, Novardok established in Poland alone no less than seventy yeshivas of varying sizes. Dispatched from the yeshiva base in Białystok, teams would investigate towns and cities and evaluate their suitability for a yeshiva. The extensive Novardok network supplied half of all the students to Eastern Europe's other famous yeshivas.
One of the Alter's students, Rabbi Ben Tzion Bruk opened a branch of the Yeshiva in Jerusalem in the 1930s. The Yeshiva was called Bais Yoseph Novardok. Today, it is headed by his son and grandson, Rabbi Yitzchok Bruk and Rabbi Avrohom Bruk, respectively.
Post World War II
With the exception of Gateshead Talmudical College which is officially called "Yeshivas Beis Yosef" of Gateshead, all Novardok yeshivas in Europe were wiped out during the Holocaust. Several Novardok yeshivas were established after the Holocaust. However, most of the post-World War II yeshivas are run as regular yeshivas, without the unique Novardok way of education.
Rabbi Avraham Yoffen survived the Holocaust, came to the United States, and settled in Brooklyn, New York where he re-established the yeshiva. The faculty consisted of Rabbi Yoffen as dean, his son, Rabbi Yaakov Yoffen as a lecturer, and his son-in-law Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nekritz as Mashgiach ruchani.
During the 1960s, Rabbi Avraham Yoffen moved to Jerusalem and established a branch of his yeshiva in Meah Shearim. Under the leadership of the younger Rabbi Yoffen and Rabbi Nekritz, the Brooklyn branch continued to thrive and became renowned as a center for advanced Talmudic studies.
Following Rabbi Avraham Yoffen's passing in 1970, leadership of the Jerusalem branch was assumed by his grandson, Rabbi Aaron Yoffen, editor of the Mossad Harav Kook edition of the Ritva's commentary to Yevamot and Nedarim. Yearly, Rabbi Yaakov Jofen would travel to Jerusalem to teach the students of his father's yeshiva.
Following Rabbi Nekritz's death and Rabbi Yaakov Yoffen's passing in 2003, the leadership of the Brooklyn-based yeshiva fell to their sons, Rabbi Mordechai Yoffen and Rabbi Tzvi Nekritz. They chose to move the Yeshiva to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, and bring in Rabbi Yaakov Drillman of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin as a Rosh Yeshiva.
The Jerusalem branch is headed by Rabbi Shmuel and Rabbi Eitan Yoffen, sons of Rabbi Aaron Yoffen. However, the latter is primarily a high level talmudic professor in the Chevron Yeshiva (Knesset Yisrael) of Jerusalem .
Another branch of the yeshiva, the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway in Far Rockaway, New York, is led by Rabbi Yechiel Perr, son-in-law of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nekritz. The yeshiva is named after Rabbi Yoffen's book, Derech Ayson.
Another branch in the footsteps of Novardok is Yeshiva Madreigas HaAdam in Queens, NY, named after the Alter's mussar compendium, headed by Rabbi Yoffen's grandson, Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz.
- Dayan Yehezkel Abramsky
- Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan
- Chaim Grade
- Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg
- Rabbi Nachman Kahane
- Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman
- Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky
- Rabbi Gershon Liebman
- Rabbi Selig Starr
- Gutman, Shlomo M. "What I Remember of Novogrudok". p. 39. Retrieved Oct 21, 2016.
- Sofer, D. "Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz ZT"L The Alter of Novardok". Retrieved Feb 14, 2012.
- Ginsburg, Mordechai. "The Musar movement". p. 33. Retrieved Oct 21, 2016.
- See Avner, Esther Leah (June 2011). Learn, Live, Teach. Brand Name Books. ISBN 978-965-7552-00-1.
- Tuchmayer, Avi (Sep 15, 2013). "Novardok in the French Countryside". Ami (136): 140–151. Retrieved Nov 2, 2016; Frankfurter, Yitzchok (Sep 15, 2013). "A Conversation with Rav Chaim Halpern of Armentières-en-Brie". Ami (136): 155–164. Retrieved Nov 2, 2016.