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Etched In Stone

Yair Weinstock

His grandfather and namesake, Rav Shmuel Benzion Rabinowitz, was a pillar of pre-state Old Jerusalem. His father, Rav Chaim Yehuda Rabinowitz, is head of the Jerusalem Beis Din. So although Rav Shmuel Rabinowiz, rabbi of the Kosel and holy sites in Eretz Yisrael, is in daily contact with heads of state and international VIPs, he says he’s just another link in the chain, taking encouragement from his own inspiring legacy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz rarely gets private time at the Kosel. Erev Pesach after chatzos, Purim night after the Megillah, Erev Rosh HaShanah after all the minyanim for Selichos and Shacharis have ended. Then he becomes anonymous, alone with his prayers like any ordinary Jew. This is his territory, but, as the rav of the Kosel and Holy Sites of Eretz Yisrael, it’s rare that he can face the stones in private conversation with G-d, unaccompanied by a visiting dignitary, a bar mitzvah group, or a tail of worshippers vying for a few minutes of his time.

“The Belzer Rebbe said to me on several occasions, ‘I wish I could come to the Kosel to daven — not as the Belzer Rebbe, but as any other Jew, so that no one would bother me. I want to be alone with Hashem.’ I, too, am simply another Jew with his own requests.”

Privacy issues notwithstanding, Rav Rabinowitz — who was appointed to the position before he turned thirty — bears his public role gracefully, cognizant of the fact that he is just another link in a chain of illustrious public servants. His own lineage is not lost on him, nor is the legacy of his grandfather and namesake, Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz ztz”l — a pillar of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem, who actually turned down the offer to become … rav of the Kosel.

Rav Rabinowitz has his hands full with contemporary Western Wall politics — Women of the Wall, the visit of the pope, and gender segregation at secular bar mitzvahs — but he prefers to connect to his past, to take his energy from the memories and the history that has shaped his own position.

And to ensure that the political aspects of public service don’t rule the side of the spirit, his father, Rav Chaim Yehuda Rabinowitz, av beis din of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Courts, schedules time to learn with him every day.

“Every day before dawn, we have a chavrusa in daf yomi at the Belzer beis medrash,” says the Jerusalem dayan, looking at his son with a mix of fatherly pride and parental prerogative. “We began seven years ago with Maseches Menachos, and, baruch Hashem, we have already completed an entire cycle of Shas together, now that we have returned to Menachos.”

Rav Shmuel adds, “Even when I return from abroad at two in the morning, Abba still calls me at four thirty to wake me up for our chavrusa. Even if I insist that I’ve gotten up, he can hear in my voice if I’m still in bed. Then he keeps calling until I get up. It’s been that way for seven years already.”

It’s a precious opportunity to be seated together with father and son, sharing in their banter as each defers to the other. They are joined not in self-glorification or talking about themselves, but rather in connecting to the legacy of altruism and communal dedication that is their inheritance.

The patriarch of the Rabinovich family, one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most distinguished, was Rav Shmuel Benzion Rabinovich, a Lubavitcher chassid born in Russia and one of Jerusalem’s most prominent askanim. He passed away at a relatively young age, leaving a house full of orphans — who grew up to be counted among Jerusalem’s most prominent figures: Reb Nachum, who passed away suddenly on Rosh Chodesh Nisan of this year; Mrs. Chaya Ludmir; Reb Hillel; Reb Dov Berel z”l (who served on the Jerusalem municipality); Reb Moshe Lipa; and the youngest, Jerusalem dayan Rav Chaim Yehuda.

Rav Chaim Yehuda says that even today, many of his father’s deeds and accomplishments remain unknown. But what they do know strengthens their resolve to follow in his footsteps.

“For instance, he was offered the position of rav of the Kosel before it was offered to Rav Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein, but he declined the offer. He then accepted the position of assistant to Rav Orenstein, even though he could have become the rav himself.” 

Rav Chaim Yehuda continues, “The day before his petirah, my father gave my brother Reb Nachum z”l a directive that we viewed as his final will. ‘When someone asks you for tzedakah, never send him away empty-handed. Even if all you have is a mil [the smallest coin in circulation at the time, worth one-thousandth of the Israeli lira], give it to him and do not send a pauper away empty-handed.’ He said this even though we ourselves were the poor among the destitute.

“Once, a Lubavitcher chassid named Reb Michoel Dvorkin came from Russia to Jerusalem, arriving on Erev Yom Kippur, utterly penniless and not knowing a soul. He sat down in the Tzemach Tzedek shul and began learning Likutei Torah [a sefer by the Baal HaTanya] in preparation for Yom Kippur. He had nowhere to eat before the fast, and no money to buy food. When Abba saw him there, he invited him for the seudah hamafsekes. He remained a guest in our home for the next four years, until he went to New York to the Rebbe Reb Yosef Yitzchak.

“Just to give you a picture of what this entailed, our home in the Old City consisted of a kitchen and a large room called a lugan. That was it. Nine people lived in this house: my two parents, six children, and my grandmother, Mrs. Leah Raizel Bergman, a”h.

“It was into this tiny, crowded home that Reb Michoel Dvorkin came to live for four years. To show you how poor we were, for dinner my mother would fry a single egg with a bit of flour and then divide it among her six children.

“When the Imrei Emes came to the Kosel HaMaaravi, he used to visit his elderly melamed, Reb Hirsh Dovid, and from there he would go to the home of the rav of Jerusalem, Rav Yisrael Zev (Reb Velvel) Mintzberg ztz”l. My parents prepared tea and cake for their distinguished guest and served it to him in Rav Yisrael Zev Mintzberg’s home. Today, no one appreciates the significance of this. What’s so special about a cup of tea? But when everyone was destitute, it was no simple feat to prepare a cup of tea. It was considered a luxury.”


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