“I am a worm and not a man,” Psalms 22:7
There is an old joke among those who are familiar with the Mussar Movement: A new student comes to a Novardok yeshiva and during the first mussar session begins to cry, “I am a nothing! I am a nobody!” An older student whispers to a friend, “He’s here for one day and already he thinks he’s a nobody!” It’s a strange joke until one learns more about the Novardok brand of mussar.
The first Novardok yeshiva was built by Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, “the Alter” (Elder) of Novardok in 1896 in Nahvardok, Russia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Alter ordered all Novardok students (there were by then several branches of the school) to flee to Poland – about 600 made it across the border. The Novardok movement re-established itself in Poland, where its yeshivot were all named Beit Yosef (House of Yosef).
In addition to studying the usual sacred texts, the students of Novardok had daily mussar sessions. The goal of mussar is self-improvement, ridding oneself of negative traits such as jealousy, lust and the desire for honor. Mussar encourages a daily review of one’s behavior and an assessment of how one might improve. Novardok yeshivot often housed a special beis hamussar, house of mussar, where this exercise was the focus.
Novardok’s unique mussar atmosphere was its intense renunciation of “self.” Novardok students deliberately humiliated themselves, wearing ratty clothes and ridding themselves of personal possessions. The yeshivot were small and bare of any material luxuries.
Another unique aspect of the Novardok Beis Yosef yeshiva students was that they did not avoid service in the Polish army (1.5 years). This was in keeping with the great value placed on social service and using challenging situations for personal growth.
A branch of Novardok was established in Jerusalem in the 1930s. That yeshiva, as well as one in Gateshead, England, were the only Novardok establishments to survive the Holocaust. Several yeshivot exist today that continue to follow the philosophy developed by the Alter of Novardok.