Irving M. Bunim was a businessman, philanthropist and a major lay leader of Orthodox Jewry, in particular the Young Israel movement in the United States from the 1930s until his death in 1980. As the trusted assistant to Rabbi Aharon Kotler, he was deeply involved in all aspects of Torah dissemination, philanthropy and Holocaust rescue. A detailed account of Bunim's life and experiences is in his biography A Fire In His Soul by his son Amos Bunim.
Irving Bunim was born in 1901 in Volozhin, Lithuania, then the major Torah centre of Europe and the home of the first Yeshiva, Etz Chaim. Bunim, in his young years, was a Yeshiva student. When Bunim was nine years old, his family moved to the United States. There, Bunim attended high school, after which he started working. His brother-in-law hired him to his textile factory. When his brother-in-law moved to Palestine, Bunim bought the company.
Together with other American Orthodox leaders, Bunim was active in the Vaad Hatzalah, an organization created by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada to save Yeshiva students and teachers from captivity and probable death in Eastern Europe. Later, the Vaad's scope expanded to include all suffering Jews in Europe and helped them by sending food and other relief supplies, or by giving them refuge in non-European countries of safety. Bunim was committed to following Torah Law and to saving lives. Once, because the Torah gives life-saving activity priority over Sabbath observance, and under express instruction from prominent rabbis, Bunim took a cab ride on Shabbat to raise funds so that the Mir Yeshiva students and teachers could escape to Curaçao.
The hardest aspect of rescue work was negotiating with the Nazis themselves. This series of negotiations was called the Musy Negotiations named after Jean Marie Musy, Himmler's acquaintance and the pro-Nazi former president of Switzerland and his son Benoît Nicolas. The negotiations with Musy were held by Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch in Switzerland. In these negotiations, the Vaad agreed to pay Nazis ransom to free Jews from Nazi concentration camps. After some dealings the Vaad agreed to pay $5 million for 300,000 Jews or $250,000 each month for 20 months to free 15,000 Jews. These negotiations failed, though some thousand Jews, out of the 300,000 Jews promised to be freed, were saved from a certain death. After the war the Vaad kept working to supply the survivors with food and other relief supplies.
Bunim also supported and was vice-president of Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools founded by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the head of Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath. He traveled to distant places to raise funds. He also encouraged people to open schools, helped prevent communities from closing schools, and encouraged teachers and principals.
Irving Bunim was also involved with Chinuch Atzmai, Israel’s independent ultra-Orthodox elementary school system, aiding its chairman Stephen Klein, and Rabbi Aharon Kotler, its founder and head, and frequently spoke on behalf of the organization in America and helped raise funds for it. Bunim became devoted to Chinuch Atzmai after seeing a Sephardic child in Israel who did not know the meaning of the Shema Yisrael prayer.
Irving Bunim was a philanthropist who gave loans and helped people in need. His main goal was spreading the word of the Torah to all Jews. He was a popular guest speaker at the functions of many Orthodox Jewish organizations and institutions. He was a raconteur, filled with anecdotes and parables, a skill reelected in his three-volume commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai.
Irving Bunim, who was devoted to rescue during the Holocaust, came to see Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the first Satmar Rebbe. A chassid spoke and disparaged Bunim for not having a beard. The Rebbe responded with typical sharp wit:
- Ethics from Sinai: a wide-ranging ... Retrieved June 11, 2011.
- Amos Bunim (1964). A Fire in His Soul: Irving M. Bunim, 1901-1980, the Man and His Impact on American Orthodox Jewry. New York: Feldheim Publishers. Retrieved June 11, 2011.
- The legacy of Maran Rav Aharon ... Retrieved June 11, 2011.
- The world of the yeshiva: an ... Retrieved June 11, 2011.
- Kranzler, David; Friedson, Joseph. Heroine of Rescue: The Incredible Story of Recha Sternbuch Who Saved Thousands from the Holocaust. Artscroll History Series. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications Ltd. ISBN 978-0-89906-460-4.
Additional Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica