| Magazine Feature |

A Torch from the Darkest Place 

You Will Survive: Rebbe Dovid Moshe Rosenbaum of Kretchnif charted a route from Rechovot to Heaven


Photos: Flash90, Ezra Trabelsi, Kretchnif archives

Illustration: Menachem Weinreb


At a writer’s seminar I once attended, the lecturer cautioned against falling down a rabbit hole and losing focus of the article.

“The reader doesn’t want to watch you play connect the dots,” the lecturer said as he emphasized the word “doesn’t.”

But this story is a rabbit hole that I have yet to emerge from, a sacred and sublime path inspired by a text message that I got from one person, then another, and then ten more, following the publication of some easily-skipped words in an obscure sefer.

“Who’s the Rebbe?”

The question wasn’t just who this rebbe was who penned the mysterious words, but also who his father was, and what is the secret wellspring from whence these people draw their words and customs?

The words in the sefer Noam Yisrael were from Seudah Shlishis Torah delivered on Shabbos Chanukah of 5778, 2018, by the Rebbe of Kretchnif-Kiryat Gat — Rav Yisrael Nissan Rosenbaum ztz”l — who passed away less than a year later, in November 2019.

“And Pharaoh dreamed: Hakadosh Boruch Hu can bring something to the world that is like a dream, in that it is intangible and invisible. For example, Hashem can bring a virus and spread it throughout the world and it can confuse and interrupt the entire universe, like a dream, attacking everyone despite the sophisticated technology of the generation.

And this will come to pass at the end of days, not a war, not with force or with intellect either, not the Iranians and not the Syrians, but Hashem Himself. He will wage the war of Gog and Magog, and bring Yisrael to teshuvah and the ultimate Geulah…”

I’m not a big proponent of the WhatsApp fortune-tellers and obscure kabbalistic seforim that suddenly pop up after major events with clear predictions that “anyone could have seen,” but this was different, a respected rebbe, not known for drama, who was niftar a month before COVID hit and casually offered a startlingly precise prediction before his petirah.

Kiryat Gat was a development town with factories and new immigrants when the Rebbe was sent there by his holy father, who’d chosen to settle in Rechovot at a time when rebbes were choosing between Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

His father. A “rebbe’s rebbe.” Rav Dovid Moshe Rosenbaum of Kretchnif.

In preparing this article, I spoke to family members and close chassidim, those who remembered the father and those who grew up with stories of his sanctity. Like the great rebbes of prewar Europe, Rav Dovid Moshe Rosenbaum of Kretchnif was known as a “Baal Shem’ske” figure, and although he passed away over half a century ago, his kever in Rechovot draws masses until today.

A man who appeared, then disappeared just as suddenly.

He had been crowned as Rebbe in the darkest place on earth.

In 1944, at a moment when all seemed lost, the Rebbe of Kretchnif, Rav Eliezer Zev Rosenbaum — son of Rav Meir and grandson of Rav Mordche’le of Nadvorna, one of the great rebbes of Hungary and progenitor of so many contemporary admorim — made a prophetic statement.

The Rebbe, who lived in Sighet, had several sons, all of them great men, but it was Rav Dovid Moshe whom he entrusted with the future. When they arrived in Auschwitz, he turned to this youngest son. “You will survive,” Rav Eliezer Zev said, “and you will continue the holy chain in Eretz Yisrael. May the power to bless be given to you… that which my father gave to me, I give to you…”

Soon afterward, father and son were separated for the last time — Rebbe Eliezer Zev sent left to the gas chambers, his son sent to the right.

“I proclaim,” called out the Rebbe as he walked to his imminent death, his head held high, “that my faith and connection to the Creator, may His Name be blessed, isn’t weakened for a moment.”

He, his rebbetzin, and six of their children would perish on that day.

A year later came liberation, but the Rebbe’s son Dovid Moshe, 21 years old, wasn’t sure where to go. Orphaned and alone, he returned “home” to Sighet, where a handful of survivors, chassidim of his father, crowned him as the new Rebbe of Kretchnif.

There was, he discovered, another child of his parents who’d survived: his sister, Rebbetzin Sima Reizel, wife of her cousin Rav Chaim Mordechai Rosenbaum of Nadvorna (son of Rav Issamar, son of Rav Meir of Kretchnif) had both survived, and it was with their daughter — his niece Esther Rochel — that the new Rebbe built a home.

Together with his in-laws (who were also his sister and brother-in-law), he traveled to Eretz Yisrael. They settled in Jerusalem, but with the unrest caused by the War of Independence, the city was in the line of fire. Many residents decided to wait out the bombings in Tel Aviv and Yaffo, the Rosenbaums among them.

En route, the time for Minchah arrived and they stopped in Rechovot to daven. The family continued on to Yaffo, but the young rebbe had been intrigued by what he’d sensed along the way.

There were many empty apartments in the town, and one had only to submit a request to the municipality to be eligible. The Rebbe made the request, and the clerk asked him what he did for a living. “My grandfather was a rebbe, my father was a rebbe… and I too, will try to follow that path.”

The clerk shrugged. Rechovot didn’t need any of those, and so he denied the request.

Disappointed, the Rebbe prepared to find another plan, when he happened to meet one of the most respected local residents, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer, son of Rav Isser Zalman and rosh yeshivah in Rechovot.

Rav Meltzer immediately sensed the spiritual nobility of the young man, and he approached and greeted him. He learned of the Rebbe’s predicament, and had a suggestion.

“Rechovot should not lose someone like you. Come live in our yeshivah. The bochurim are fighting the war, and until they return, there is empty space in the dormitory.”

The Rebbe accepted the invitation, davening and learning in the yeshivah — the private seudah shlishis he led each week with a sparse crowd of neighbors his lone concession to being a rebbe.

Three, sometimes four people would come, yet the scion of Nadvorna changed not an iota from what his father had done as he sat with hundreds, creating a near tangible crowd of holiness.

In time, the bochurim started to return to yeshivah and the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Tzvi Yehuda, faced a dilemma: Where would the Rebbe go? Rav Tzvi Yehuda traveled to Jerusalem and asked his father, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, who considered the question.

“Nu,” he finally said, “ehr iz doch a rebbe… zohl ehr machem a moifes, tzvei — he’s a rebbe, let him make a miracle or two, people will come to him and he will have a place.”

Remaining near the yeshivah, the Rebbe rented an apartment, and by Rosh Hashanah of 1949, a minyan had already formed around him. The tefillos and brachos that flowed from this tzaddik reminded them of places they had once known.

Suddenly, there were requests from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, people who wanted the Kretchnifer Rebbe to open a beis medrash, which they would fund. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin had a family, and their oldest two children, twin boys  Menachem Eliezer Zev and Yisrael Nissan, would soon need a proper cheder. How could they remain?

But Rechovot — with its thousands of Jews and very few interested in reaching out to them — posed its own opportunity.

The Rebbe decided to ask Rebbe Aharon of Belz, with whom he’d developed a close relationship, and the Chazon Ish, the man he’d come to view as a personal guide.

“I wanted the advice of the tzaddik hador and that of the gadol hador,” the Rebbe would later say.

Both of them told him to remain in Rechovot. Of the young rebbe, the Chazon Ish would say to his talmidim, “Did you see that yungerman? He is a true yerei Shamayim.”

The Rebbe started leading a tish on Leil Shabbos as well, as his father and grandfather had done. Between the orchards and huts, against a backdrop of barking dogs, people came to see the Rebbe’s Kiddush, to feel his Shabbos.

The current Krechnif-Rechovot Rebbe, Rav Menachem Eliezer Zev, recalls those Shabbos nights as his father’s oldest son. “There was usually about a minyan at the tish, just a few Yidden… but in a way, those gatherings were even more elevated than  the later years, when there was a large crowd around my father.”

By 1952, Rav Isser Zalman’s prediction had come to pass and the chassidus needed more space. The court of Kretchnif moved to Shechunat HaTeimanim in Rechovot. (When the Rebbe asked the Chazon Ish about moving far from the center of Rechovot, he responded, “You? You can move wherever you’d like, wherever you go the people vellen eich nochloiffen — they will chase you.”)

As his own children got bigger, the Rebbe hired a melamed to teach them Torah, creating the nucleus of the cheder that would eventually serve a flourishing chassidus.

During the next few years, a small kehillah coalesced around the Rebbe, but it wasn’t until 1957 — just after the passing of Rebbe Aharon of Belz — that the floodgates opened and people started to descend on Rechovot specifically to visit the Rebbe.

Rechovot, they said, was a “yeshuos factory.”

On the nights when the Rebbe received the public, taxis lined up at the curb, depositing and accepting people through the long night. It wasn’t uncommon for those coming to Shacharis on Sunday morning to see the Rebbe’s devoted gabbai, Reb Yossele Pollak, still wearing his shtreimel and beketshe, never having had the chance to go home after Maariv the night before.

A kiryah, a chassidic neighborhood, formed around the beis medrash, and the Rebbe realized another dream: establishing a yeshivah called Sha’ar Eliezer in memory of his father.

IT was a difficult time in the young country, survivors struggling to put the past behind them, children of a new world finding their own paths, confusion leading to change. What worked in Sighet wasn’t so popular anymore.

In the Kretchnif kehillah though, people found comfort, the pure faith and simple joy in tradition vibrant and alive.

The Rebbe was somewhere else, his tefillos, his Torah, the reality he perceived — and yet, the long nights were spent listening to those with physical ailments, parnassah issues, struggles with acclimating to the new country.

Such problems of the heim like “Rebbe, my one milk cow is sick,” had been replaced by more contemporary issues — but even these stories seemed removed from the exalted dimension that the Rebbe inhabited.

How did he do it? A man who didn’t sleep, who ate little, who plumbed the depths of Torah and kabbalah sitting patiently and listening to the simple concerns of Yidden?

“An airplane,” the Rebbe once explained, “that never lands on earth, isn’t effective for anyone, because it’s whole function is to transport passengers from one place to another. It’s when it lands that it can accomplish its true goal, to welcome passengers and lift them up.”

“Go to Rechovot” was a solution offered by friends, doctors, even admorim from around the country when there seemed to be no other way. Sometimes it could take weeks to get an appointment with the Rebbe, the doors to his room opening just after he completed Shacharis, about three in the afternoon. At times, the Rebbe would receive people for more than ten hours straight.

The receiving line generally started before the Rebbe had eaten “breakfast,” and the gabbai once pushed the Rebbe to eat something even as people waited outside. “How can I eat?” the Rebbe wondered, “when Jews are in pain just outside my door?”

Once, scanning the crowded waiting room, the Rebbe remarked, “None of the Yidden here have come to tell me that they won the lottery.”

His son Rebbe Menachem Eliezer Zev understood how deep this ran, even as a child. One of the close chassidim took ill and was rushed to the hospital, but the doctors didn’t think he would make it through the night. The patient’s son hurried to the Rebbe’s home, but he was told that the Rebbe’s door was closed for a precious few minutes of rest.

“My father is a devoted chassid and his life is in real danger, please wake the Rebbe!” the desperate petitioner pleaded.

“Why are you worried?” asked the current Rebbe innocently. “If my father allowed himself to rest, it means that your father is not in danger.”

The son returned to the hospital, where his father had taken a turn for the better.

Once, the Rebbe returned from a trip to America, and there was a large crowd of chassidim waiting to greet him at the airport. He acknowledged them, but didn’t extend his hand and his face didn’t seem to reflect the usual glow. When the Rebbe and his entourage reached Rechovot and joined the kabbalas panim, the chassidim saw the same strange behavior, the Rebbe politely returning the greetings, but withholding the usual radiance.

The Rebbe spoke quietly with the gabbai, who left the beis medrash, returning a while later. The Rebbe had realized that it was Erev Rosh Chodesh, and the melamdim in the cheder were to be paid: He’d been traveling and wanted to ensure someone had taken care of it. Only when the gabbai came back and said that everything was arranged did the Rebbe allow himself to smile, suddenly “back home,” shaking hands, blessing, and greeting his beloved chassidim.

This ability to move seamlessly between the very practical and the very sublime was rooted in a comment the Rebbe had heard from the Chazon Ish. Before one of his trips abroad, the Rebbe had gone to discuss the halachic ramifications of Yom Tov Sheini while in chutz l’Aretz, and among other questions, the Chazon Ish asked the Rebbe when he was planning to return.

“As soon as possible, with Mashiach,” the Rebbe replied.

“Yes, but the Eibishter conducts His world with ‘derech eretz,’” the Chazon Ish replied, meaning that while a person must be consumed with hope and anticipation for Mashiach’s arrival, plans — especially those with halachic ramifications — must be made for every eventuality.

The local drugstores knew to fill the Rebbe’s prescriptions, understanding that the recommendations that came on slips of paper in his holy scrawl were the natural cloak for salvation, that the syrups, vitamins, or herbs had little connection to the refuah.

“The Chazon Ish said the Eibishter runs the world with derech eretz,” the Rebbe would smile.

Once, in the holy commotion of the matzah bakery, the Rebbe took his place in the chaburah led by his father-in-law, Rav Chaim Mordechai of Nadvorna. Amid the prayer and focus and intensity, the Rebbe noticed a young man off to the side.

He approached and learned that the bochur, a newcomer to the process, had been given a job as a kneader, but he hadn’t been prepared for the role, and he’d quickly been pushed aside by the older members of the chaburah.

The Rebbe sat down and said, “Let me teach you how to knead, we will do it together.”

For 15 minutes, as the activity continued all around them, they sat together. Only when he saw that the bochur had happily returned to his place did the Rebbe, man of lofty kavanos, return to his place and resume his avodah in baking matzos.

Throughout the 1960s, the name of the Rebbe continued to spread, as the Chazon Ish predicted.

But the open mofsim, the wonders and miracles, says the current Rebbe, were the smallest part of the story. “Only someone who didn’t hear my father say Nishmas and Hakol Yoducha on Shabbos morning speaks of his wonders,” the Rebbe says.

Rebbe Dovid Mordechai’s father-in-law had established Nadvorna in Bnei Brak, and his brother-in-law Rav Hershele had established Kretchnif in Jerusalem, but he remained in Rechovot, comfortable between the farmers, factory workers, and technicians.

In 1967, as winds of war swept across the country, the Rebbe addressed his people. On the Shabbos before the Six Day War broke out, the Rebbe said, “They are being mechallel Shabbos to make final preparations for war, and really, if I were a posek, I wouldn’t allow it, since the salvation is already here.”

Throughout the week of war, including during the yahrtzeit tish for his father on the 27th of Iyar, held in an underground shelter, the Rebbe promised great victories while even top military and political figures carried a pall of hopelessness. And when his predictions came to pass, a blanket of peace settled over the Holy Land.

For the first time since the war that had decimated European Jewry, it seemed the people would be able to catch their breath: Yeshivos and chassidic courts were flourishing, tens of thousands of Jews settled in their very own country.

The chassidus seemed poised to enter its glory era, but those closest to the Rebbe heard the strange messages he was sending.

The Rebbe told the Nadvorna Rebbetzin, his sister and mother-in-law, that their father had appeared to him in a dream and spoke of a great kitrug facing Klal Yisrael: Tzaddikim would have to accept the suffering in place of the entire nation. “I told him I agreed,” the Rebbe said, and his sister started to argue. “You? You are so young, and you have a house full of young children!”

The Purim tish was a special time, the Rebbe opening private windows that were usually shut tight. At the mishteh hayayin of 1968, someone was mazkir the Satmar Rebbe, who was ill. “For one year, I can carry him on my shoulders,” the Rebbe remarked, “after that, other rebbes will have to take responsibility.”

In the summer of 1968, the Rebbe instructed his oldest son to stand at his side when he received the people, “so that you might learn how to read kvittlach too.”

His second son, Menachem Eliezer Zev’s twin, Yisroel Nissan, had just gotten married to the daughter of Rav Chezke’le Mertz, and he was living in Brooklyn. The Rebbe sent for him, suggesting that many new Romanian immigrants who’d settle in  Kiryat Gat needed a rebbe too.

The next Purim, 1969, the Rebbe shared what seemed to be a joke. “There was a Jew whose wife caused him much grief. He said, ‘I know I won’t see Gehinnom, because Chazal teach us that one who has a difficult wife won’t be sent to Gehinnom… my only request is that I not be sent to Gan Eden too early…”

The people laughed, but the Rebbe was pensive. “I too, do not worry about Gehinnom. I don’t think in Shamayim they will send a Jew who endured Auschwitz to Gehinnom… I only worry that they should not send me to Gan Eden too soon.”

During the month of Tammuz 1969, the Rebbe traveled to Romania in order to daven at the kevarim of his forbears, a crowd of chassidim accompanying him to the airport to bid him farewell. Before he walked toward the airplane, the Rebbe turned and waved to them.

On the 15th of Tammuz, the Rebbe and his entourage were in Bucharest, staying at the home of the local shochet, Reb Anshel Silber. The Rebbe insisted on going to the mikveh, even though his host argued that the water was too cold.

The Rebbe returned, his face aglow, and removed his jacket. He asked for a l’chayim, and after making a brachah, he took a sip from it.

“I would want to be home,” he said, his last words on earth.

He was just 44 years old.

“Today, we lost one of the few tzaddikim who did kiruv in the way of the Baal Shem Tov,” remarked the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn.

In Rechovot, they were numb, this group of chassidim that had built new lives with him at the center — their world gone dark.

(Incidentally, on that very day, the 15th of Tammuz 1969, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer, who had “discovered” the Rebbe and welcomed him to Rechovot, was niftar as well.)

At the levayah, the eldest son, Rav Menachem Eliezer Zev, just 20 years old, was appointed Rebbe, though he would not formally accept it until the Purim seudah seven months later. His twin brother, Rav Yisroel Nissan, would become Rebbe in Kiryat Gat.

Unprecedented in the world of chassidus, the new rebbes started to lead courts even as their own great-grandfather — Rav Issamar, the “alte Rebbe of Nadvorna,” father-in-law of Rav Chaim Mordechai — was still an active rebbe.

The two brothers would remain very close, spending Shabbos at the other’s court once each year. In time, many of Rav Dovid Moshe’s sons would become admorim, including the Premishlaner Rebbe of Bnei Brak and the Bitchkover Rebbe of Yaffo.

The sons of the Kretchnifer Rebbe would preside over the growth of their kehillos, building upon the memories of their father. “Not a day goes by,” the current Rebbe of Rechovot remarks, “that I don’t think about my father and what he wanted from us.”

The mix of heaven and earth, of ideological purity and boundless love for others, lives on in these courts as well. The children of Rebbe Dovid Moshe don’t visit the Kosel or vote in national elections, yet their courts regularly draw secular Jews, leading academics and politicians (newly-installed prime minister Naftali Bennett is one of them), and many of those within the Dati-Leumi community who are drawn to the chassidus.

In Rechovot, the chassidus runs a nonprofit grocery store to benefit the kehillah. The Rebbe was told that many more modern Jews were coming to take advantage of the low prices — and rather than aggrieved, he was delighted. “Are they not also us, not part of my father’s chassidus?”

In Kiryat Gat, Rav Yisroel Nissan would distribute vast sums of money, sending envelopes to various recipients who often didn’t know who the sender was. Someone suggested that there were those within the chassidus who could use the money, and the Rebbe was incredulous. “Are the others less worthy or less in need because they don’t come to our tish?”

When the Rebbe of Rechovot was shown the Torah of his deceased twin brother — the startlingly acute analysis of what no one could even conceive in 2018 — he suggested that it would be a “mitzvah to be mefarseim it.”

“Let people know,” the Rebbe said, “that there existed among us a Jew with a holy vision, a clear vision.”

Perhaps the story that best expresses the distinctiveness of Kretchnif, the fusion of kindness and truth, is shared by a family member — a memory from those painful early years after Rav Dovid Moshe’s passing.

There were 14 orphans, just two of them married, and they ate the Shabbos seudos with their eldest brother and his rebbetzin. Six years after Rebbe Dovid Moshe’s petirah, Rebbetzin Esther Rochel suddenly passed away as well, leaving her older children to raise the youngest ones.

In Nadvorna, minhag is sacred, the customs and traditions handed from father to son as precious treasures. But the new Rebbe made a change, breaking with the Nadvorna custom of bentshing the children on Friday night.

The years passed, and the Rebbe’s own children started to get married — and then he called them in, addressing them as one.

“I ask you to bentsh your children on Leil Shabbos, as is the minhag of our heilege forbearers,” he said. “When you were young,” the Rebbe continued, “my own younger brothers and sisters joined us for the seudos, and I felt that the sight of a father bentshing his children would be hard for them, for they had lost their father… but now, you are building your own homes. Please, my children, remember the ways of my father and his father before him. You should bentsh your children.”

And maybe that’s the secret: “Remember the ways of my father.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 867)

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