How did the Belzer Rebbe breathe new life into a shattered Chassidus ?
Walking through Kiryat Belz in Yerushalayim today and seeing thousands of Belzer chassidim streaming through its streets, one cannot imagine the bereavement that once struck this community. Shattered by the loss of its two great leaders in a span of seven years, the eyes of all Belzer chassidim focused on a nine-year-old boy, waiting for the day when he would become their leader.
How does a young man assume the leadership of a dying chassidus at the age of 18 and transform into an empire of Torah, chessed, and kiruv?
Elder chassidim attribute the success not only to the indomitable spirit of the current Belzer Rebbe shlita, who has rebuilt the chassidus in his forty-five years of leadership into unimaginable proportions, but also to the promise of the Sar Shalom, the first Rebbe of Belz.
Motzaei Shabbos, Parshas Chukas, 8 Tamuz 5726/1966. Rechov Ahavas Shalom, Kiryat Vizhnitz, Bnei Brak.
Five chassidishe Yidden who had just arrived from Tel Aviv stood outside a building, conversing in excited whispers. They entered the apartment building, ascending the stairs slowly and respectfully. If the pounding in their
hearts could have been amplified and broadcast throughout the neighborhood, the entire Kiryat Vizhnitz would have trembled.
These men were close associates of the holy Reb Aharon of Belz ztz”l, whose ninth yahrtzeit was one month away. They knocked on the door of Reb Aharon’s nephew, who had recently married the granddaughter of the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz ztz”l.
The fresh yungerman opened the door of the modest apartment himself. “Many hearts are filled with anticipation and expectation, focused on you,” they began as they settled around the dining room table. “Perhaps the time has come for you to accept the mantle of leadership – to occupy the place of your forefathers as the leader of the Belzer chassidus, to rebuild and to lead us into the era of Mashiach.”
For a moment, the Rebbe was unable to respond. Finally, he said humbly, “This is a matter that must be brought to the gedolei hador.”
The five chassidim wasted no time. They longed to see the young Rebbe presiding over a tish on the yahrtzeit of the Reb Aharon a month later, and the very next day, they dispatched a special messenger to the Klausenberger Rebbe ztz”l, the Shefa Chaim of Sanz. The Shefa Chaim immediately ruled that the distinguished yungerman be appointed as the new Rebbe. Four of the most distinguished Belzer chassidim, including the noted gabbai Reb Shalom Foigel, then traveled to Haifa, where the Beis Yisrael of Gur was vacationing, to seek his opinion. The Beis Yisrael responded that if twenty Jews requested it, the yungerman should accept the appointment immediately.
Of course, far more than twenty Jews were behind the request. . . .
On Wednesday of that very week, in a modest ceremony in Kiryat Vizhnitz, that young yungerman acquiesced to accept the mantle of leadership upon his shoulders. For years, hundreds of chassidim, young and old, had been watching him closely, and now their hopes would finally come to fruition. Communication was slower in those days, and the news only reached the Belzer Yeshiva in Jerusalem the next day, on Thursday. The spontaneous outbursts of joy and the fervent dancing of the bachurim that erupted are still fresh in the participants’ memories.
Nearly two generations have passed since that joyous celebration. At first the chassidus doubled and then tripled in size, and over time it has overshadowed the former glory it had before the war.
We can’t possibly do justice to the full scope of events that transformed Belz into what it is today from the day the chassidus was left bereft with the passing of Reb Aharon of Belz on the 21st of Av, 5717/1957. Nevertheless, we will attempt to sketch an outline of those years, to shine a spotlight on this distinguished chassidus and the illustrious leader at its helm.
The Ninth for the Sake of the Eighth
The Belzer Rebbe, Rav Yissachar Dov Rokei’ach shlita, was born on the eighth of Shevat, 5708/1948. His uncle, Reb Aharon of Belz, served as sandak at his Tu B’Shvat bris – the only occasion at which Reb Aharon was sandak after the war.
The Rebbe was orphaned at the tender age of two when his father, Reb Mordechai of Bilgoray ztz”l, passed away in the prime of his life. Reb Mordechai was considered the right-hand man of his brother Reb Aharon, and his petirah was a tragic blow to the everyone in Eretz Yisrael.
Reb Aharon took his nephew under his wing, and often expressed admiration for the boy, once remarking, “What do I have left in this world? This child is my whole life!”
Tragically, the Belzer chassidus was thrown into further bereavement some seven years later when Reb Aharon, who had been so fond of the young Yissachar Dov, was taken from this world.
How did the Belzer chassidus survive those early years after Reb Aharon’s passing?
Elderly chassidim do not understand the question. They relate that everyone knew that this child was destined to lead his flock, and the only question was how long they would have to wait after his marriage until he assumed the leadership role.
Shortly after Reb Aharon’s petirah, a convention took place with leading rabbanim and chassidim of Belz from all over the world in attendance. The decisions reached at the convention were recorded and publicized – the most significant of which was that Yissachar Dov Rokeach, son of the Bilgoray Rav and nephew of Reb Aharon, a descendant of the Belzer Rebbes, would be raised in the heart of Belz with his education carefully supervised to prepare him for his historic role.
On the Shabbos after Reb Aharon’s passing, there was a sort of Shabbos of camaraderie in Jerusalem. The Vayechi Yosef of Pupa, one of the most prominent Belzer Chassidim, traveled from the United States to Eretz Yisrael during Reb Aharon’s shiva. At seudah shelishis, small challos were distributed, and one large challah was placed in the middle. The large challah was offered to the Pupa Rebbe, but he declined it, expressing astonishment at the very thought that it might be presented to him. Instead, he offered the challah to the child who was destined to become the Belzer Rebbe.
The Rebbe was raised by his mother shetichyeh. Rav Mendel Bleier, who had said Kaddish for the Bilgorayer Rav, became somewhat of a father figure for the future Rebbe. Every decision regarding the young Yissachar Dov was brought before the rav of the Belzer community in Montreal, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Neiman ztz”l, a maternal relative of the Rebbe.
Until Reb Aharon’s petirah, the Rebbe lived near his uncle, spending most of the year in Tel Aviv and learning in the Belzer Talmud Torah, and the summer months in Yerushalayim, where he learned in the Talmud Torah of Satmar. A few years after Reb Aharon’s petirah, he joined the Belzer yeshiva in Yerushalayim. The administration gave him two rooms—a room to sleep, which he shared with other bachurim, and a private room for him to learn and store his sefarim.
The eighth of Shevat 5721/1961 was a festive occasion for Belzer chassidim throughout the world — the day on which the young boy on whom the chassidim had pinned their hopes reached the age of bar mitzvah. The festivities were held in the Belzer beis medrash in Tel Aviv, near the home of the late Reb Aharon ztz”l.
Tens of Rebbes and gedolei hador participated in the future Rebbe’s bar mitzvah. For many of the chassidim, the simchah was punctuated by a sense of loss and poignant yearning for the father and uncle of the orphaned boy. But the bar mitzvah boy himself delivered an intricate pshetel with confidence, radiating a princely air of sanctity.
Toward the end of the simchah, the Klausenberger Rebbe appeared at the hall. The bar mitzvah boy repeated his pilpul for him, and the Rebbe was effusive in his praise.
The Rebbe donned his tefillin for the first time in Yerushalayim, with the Yabrover Rav, a descendant of the first Belzer Rebbe, the Sar Shalom of Belz, presiding.
The evening after the bar mitzvah, the ninth of Shevat, is the “Yom Hahatzalah—the Day of Rescue” in Belz – the date when Reb Aharon of Belz and Reb Mordechai of Bilgoray arrived on the shores of Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe was born four years after their arrival. Belzer chassidim see a continuum in these two dates, explaining that the ninth of Shevat, when the two brothers were saved from mortal danger, was for the sake of the eighth of Shevat, when the Rebbe shlita was born, planting the seeds for continuance of the holy dynasty of Belz.
The “Yenuka” Marries
As a bachur in the Belzer yeshiva in Yerushalayim, the Rebbe shared his dormitory room with two other bachurim, one of whom is the current Chernobyler Rebbe shlita.
The Rebbe spent long hours in his private study room, steeped in learning with chavrusos. Hagaon Rabbi Shimon Yechezkel Yakobovitz, the Vetketer Rav ztz”l, studied with the Rebbe during the morning hours and prepared him to be tested for semichah. During the afternoon, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Feder ztz”l would learn with the Rebbe. Although the custom in Belz is that the Rebbe does not deliver hespedim at a funeral, the Rebbe did eulogize Rav Feder as a sign of gratitude for teaching him Torah.
When the Belzer Rebbe was about fifteen years old, a group of Belzer chassidim rented an apartment for him near the yeshiva. The apartment was frequented by Rav Moshe Weiss ztz”l, an author of many halachah works who later became the director of the network of Belzer kollelim. He continued learning with the Rebbe until the latter’s marriage, covering many topics across the length and breadth of the Torah. During that period, the Rebbe’s rare intellectual gifts, his exalted level of material abstinence and sanctity, and his unusual leadership abilities were already coming to the fore. The Rebbe would invite bachurim who sought spiritual growth for the Shabbos meals. After the seudah on Friday nights, bachurim and yungerleit alike would gather to sit at the table of the bachur who had already earned their respect to the extent that they refrained from calling him by his first name. The Rebbe would sit at the head of the table, sharing divrei Torah, words of chassidus, and chassidic tales. Those fortunate enough to participate in those gatherings still reminisce longingly about those uplifting Shabbosos.
Reb Yissachar Dov was offered many shidduch suggestions, but rumor had it that he was destined to marry into the Vizhnitzer chassidus—which, in fact, is exactly what happened. The Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz expressed great excitement over the idea that the future Belzer Rebbe might become the son-in-law of his son, then rosh yeshivah and av beis din of Kiryat Vizhnitz and now the Vizhnitzer Rebbe shlita. A unique bond of love and admiration formed between the Rebbe and the elderly Imrei Chaim, an eminent sage who enjoyed engaging in conversations on both Torah-related and worldly subjects with his new grandson.
The chassidic world was euphoric when the Rebbe celebrated his engagement at the age of sixteen. Belzer chassidim in particular viewed this as another milestone on the road toward the inauguration of the new Rebbe.
The wedding took place about a year later, in Adar Rishon 5725/1965, in Kiryat Vizhnitz, Bnei Brak. It was dubbed “the wedding of the century” by journalists at the time, who referred to the chosson as “the yenuka (child-Rebbe) of Belz.”
The Imrei Chaim wasn’t well at the time, and his participation at the wedding was limited to siddur kiddushin at the chuppah.
The chosson moved to Kiryat Vizhnitz after the wedding, and Rav Moshe Weiss moved to Bnei Brak to remain in proximity to his unique student and continue their regular learning sessions apace.
The Interim Period
About a year and a half after Rav Yissachar Dov’s marriage, the delegation of prominent chassidim took the necessary steps to secure his agreement to be coronated as Rebbe.
Shortly after the Rebbe accepted the mantle of leadership, several delegations of Belzer chassidim traveled to his home in Kiryat Vizhnitz to bless him and express their acceptance of his authority. The eighteen-year-old’s humility were visible in those meetings. “When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was appointed as a Rebbe,” the Rebbe said emotionally to one group, “he asked his followers to daven for him to have the ability to effect salvations and to guide them on the path of the Torah.”
The young Rebbe also remarked that when his grandfather, the ‘Mittele Rav’ [Reb Yehoshua of Belz, the "middle” Rebbe] was appointed as Rebbe, he said that he was accepting the position for three reasons—because his father had instructed him to do so, to merit longevity, and to continue the holy dynasty of Belz.
From their enclaves in the United States, London, and Antwerp, Belgium, Belzer chassidim began to flock to Eretz Yisrael for the inauguration ceremony of the Rebbe on the 11th of Av.
Crowned With a Kolpik
The day that lives on in the minds of the elder chassidim fortunate enough to witness it soon arrived.
The yeshiva building was decorated with signs crafted by talented bachurim wishing to express their great joy at the occasion. The rabbanim of Belz ruled that tachanun should be omitted during Shacharis on that festive day.
That afternoon, the young Rebbe left his apartment in Kiryat Vizhnitz and visited his grandfather, the Imrei Chaim, and the two were closeted together for a long time. The Imrei Chaim then left his home together with his son, the current Vizhnitzer Rebbe, and the Belzer Rebbe. The distinguished trio entered a car belonging to Rabbi Moshe Ernster, the Imrei Chaim’s son-in-law, and they were joined by Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Neiman ztz”l.
Half an hour later, the car came to a stop outside the home of Reb Aharon of Belz in Tel Aviv. The vehicle’s occupants entered the beis medrash there, and the Imrei Chaim took leave of his grandson tearfully after insructing several prominent Vizhnitzer yungerleit to travel to Yerushalayim to join in the festivities.
At that sublime moment, the Rebbe entered the sacred room of his uncle, the room where Reb Aharon had served his Creator for days and nights at a time. From that room, salvation had flowed out on both individual and communal levels. The new Rebbe spent a few minutes in the room, his lips moving in a whispered prayer, and he then emerged wearing a kolpik in accordance with the custom of Belzer Rebbes. His appearance struck awe into the hearts of even the elderly chassidim and rabbanim present for the occasion. After Minchah, several chassidim presented kvittlach to the Rebbe, but he requested that they limit the kvittlach since the hour was already late and many chassidim were waiting at the entrance to Yerushalayim.
With Permission from Above and from Below
A private car, known as a “taxi” in those days, was an uncommon commodity in those days. A chassid named Reb Fishel Zussman requested the Rebbe’s permission to transport him in his own “taxi.” They set out on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway with the Rebbe’s attendants, including his gabbai Reb Eliezer Wind, who was appointed to his position on the day of the Rebbe’s marriage and had moved to Bnei Brak in order to live near the Rebbe during the year and a half that he spent in Kiryat Vizhnitz. Reb Eliezer was now returning to Yerushalayim as the Rebbe prepared to settle there permanently.
Dozens of buses, cabs, and private cars streamed to the Motza intersection to await the Rebbe’s arrival. All eyes were glued to the horizon, watching for the first sign of the Rebbe. Reb Fishel Zussman’s “taxi” approached with its headlights lit as a sign that the Rebbe was inside. The chassidim poured out of their respective vehicles and pandemonium ensued. The Rebbe instructed that everyone return to their cars and buses and proceed to Har Hamenuchos, to Reb Aharon’s grave site. The Jerusalem police closed the road leading from Motza to Har Hamenuchos. Within minutes, the road was covered with black as hordes of chassidim streamed to the gravesite. The Rebbe stationed himself beside the grave and instructed Reb Eliezer Wind to lead the people in prayer. At 6:40 in the evening, they began reciting the fourth sefer of Tehillim with great emotion. The chassidim knew that the Tehillim would be followed by the Rebbe’s inauguration, and there was a sense of “vegilu b’radah – trembling with joy.”
The Tehillim concluded with a heartrending yehi ratzon and the recitation of Kaddish. There was an electric sensation in the air. The mass of humanity parted to make way for the Yabrover Rav, the eldest of the rabbanim of Belz, who approached the young new Rebbe with the inauguration letter in his hand. Absolute silence fell over the cemetery. The young Rebbe stood, his expression a picture of awe, the momentous nature and weighty responsibility about to be placed on his shoulders evident in his bearing. Tears streamed from the Yabrover Rebbe’s eyes as he approached the Rebbe and stood beside him, declaring in a tearful voice: “Al daas HaMakom v’al daas hakahal, b’yeshivah shel maalah u’b’yeshivah shel matah. [W[With the permission of the Omnipresent and with the permission of the congregation, in the assembly Above and in the assembly below.]e are standing beside the resting place of the great Rebbe, may his merit protect us, and we are seeking to fulfill his holy will, the will of his holy forefathers, and the will of all of Klal Yisrael by placing the crown of leadership in the hands of his brother’s son, the Rebbe shlita, who will take his place as the leader of the flock. We have fulfilled your command, and we have guided him along the proper path and raised him in the spirit of his ancestors of blessed memory. The time has now come for him to show us the path and to rear us in the appropriate way.”
The Yabrover Rav then recounted that the Sar Shalom of Belz had promised that Belz would be a cornerstone of Torah and yiras shamayim until Mashiach’s arrival. Now the Rebbe shlita would be the embodiment of the fulfillment of this prophecy, perpetuating the royal dynasty of Belz.
The rav then announced, “We are now crowning Moreinu Harav Yissachar Dov shlita, the son of Moreinu Harav Mordechai, who will merit to effect salvations and wonders for Klal Yisrael, for individuals and the community at large, in material and spiritual matters, and will lead the holy yeshiva that represents the glory of Belz in the gates of Yerushalayim.” The rav handed the Rebbe the letter of inauguration, which had been composed by Rav Nosson Gestetner on behalf of the entire global Belzer community, and called out “Mazel tov!” three times. A thunderous roar of “Mazel tov!” reverberated from the mountaintop toward greater Jerusalem.
Belz now had a Rebbe to lead them towards Mashiach!
Like an Experienced Elder
Night had already fallen upon Jerusalem, but for the chassidim of Belz, it was a night filled with light. The Rebbe performed hakafos around his uncle’s gravestone, then quickly left the mountaintop in another “taxi” belonging to Reb Tzvi Elimelech Wagschall, which took him to his new apartment. The masses boarded their buses with song and dance, wishing mazel tov to one another.
After an uplifting Maariv, the first l’chaim tish was held. The main hall of the yeshiva was overflowing with Belzer rabbanim and masses of chassidim. After the tish, the Rebbe entered his uncle’s room and began receiving kvittlach while preparations were made outside for his return to his home.
The event ended when the Rebbe left the yeshiva, accompanied home by crowds of people bearing torches, amidst resounding song. The Belzer chassidus had risen from the dust and was looking forward to a new era.
Preparations then began for the first Shabbos in the Rebbe’s company, with each person working diligently to complete the task he was given. When the Rebbe arrived for Minchah on Erev Shabbos, he signaled his disappointment that he could not hear the sounds of davening. The yungerleit and bachurim understood the hint and immediately began to daven loudly, with great emotion – a change that has lasted until today!
The Rebbe delivered divrei Torah at each of the three Shabbos meals on that first Shabbos, renewing his ancestors’ practices. Those very first divrei Torah have been recorded in the annals of Belz. Even today, the Rebbe’s divrei Torah are not generally words of mussar and rebuke, but masterful derushim woven together from sources throughout the length and breadth of the Torah and infused with words of faith and spiritual guidance.
The Next Link
Young Belzer chassidim today would have a difficult time understanding the arduous journey that the chassidus underwent in Eretz Yisrael during the past seven decades. Even after the nine years of orphanhood ended with the Rebbe’s coronation, the Chassidim were still worried. Years passed and the Rebbe still had not been blessed with children.
An ocean of tefillos ascended to Heaven. Chassidim, along with the gedolei hador, davened daily to see a child who would carry on the legacy. The Belzer Rebbe forged close relationships with many of the greatest tzaddikim and mekubalim of the generation. Some attribute his ultimate salvation to the berachos and tefillos of specific Rebbes, but for the chassidim of Belz, the question of who actually brought about the long-awaited salvation is entirely irrelevant. On the seventh of Cheshvan 5736/1975, the entire chassidus was overcome with joy with the joyous tidings spread that a son had been born to the Rebbe after eleven long years of waiting. Tears of joy streamed from the eyes of chassidim; yungerleit danced in the streets of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak. The news spread at an incredible speed for an era before cellular telephones.
Everyone felt that the simchah was his own. In general, the Belzer empire has become like a single family. Every milestone celebrated by the Rebbe’s only son is like a personal simchah for every member of the chassidus.
The Beis Yisrael of Ger served as the sandak at the bris, which took place about a year and a half before his passing. The berachos and kerias shem were recited by the baby’s grandfather, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe shlita. The child was named Aharon Mordechai after his revered great-uncle, Reb Aharon, and his paternal grandfather, Reb Mordechai of Bilgoray, zichronam l’vrachah.
The “Only Child” of the Chassidus
At the feast held on the third day after the milah, the Rebbe conducted a tish and addressed the chassidim, thanking all those who had poured their hearts out in prayer until that day. He added, however, that they should not stop davening; rather, they should continue to beseech Hashem that the “chut hameshulash” (three-ply cord) not be severed and that the newborn should be the progenitor of future generations of leaders.
That occasion marked the beginning of many simchos in the House of Belz. Every time Aharon Mordechai moved up to another class and at every milestone in his life, thousands of chassidim shared the occasion with hearts overflowing with emotion. When he entered Talmud Torah at the age of three and when he began learning chumash, the entire chassidus followed his development with tremendous love. He was the “only child” of the entire Belzer chassidus.
A year before Aharon Mordechai’s bar mitzvah, askanim began planning the occasion, in which every Belzer chassid would participate, regardless of how far away he lived.
The bar mitzvah was the first mass gathering of Belzer chassidim since Aharon Mordechai’s bris. Since all the Belzer chassidim in the world would be staying in Yerushalayim, it was decided that the chain of events would begin with a communal Shabbos, followed by a convention of Belzer chassidim in Binyanei Haumah. On Sunday, the fifth of Cheshvan, the halls of Binyanei Haumah were packed to capacity. The Rebbe addressed the crowd for three hours, with several breaks in the middle. By then, he had been leading the chassidus for over twenty years. He had reached the point where he could see the fruits of his labors before his very eyes, and he spoke with gratitude and humility about the resurrection of Belz and what he expected from the members of the chassidus.
On Tuesday of that week, the day of the bar mitzvah, Aharon Mordechai donned tefillin for the first time in the main hall of the yeshiva. His grandfather, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, placed the tefillin shel yad on his arm, and his father, the Belzer Rebbe, placed the shel rosh on his head.
That afternoon marked the beginning of the seudas bar mitzvah, held at the central Belzer beis medrash, which had not yet been completed. Dozens of gedolei hador participated in the occasion, including Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach ztz”l, who had close ties with the Belzer Rebbe. The Rebbe blessed Rav Shach that he should participate in Aharon Mordechai’s chuppah. His berachah was ultimately fulfilled: Rav Shach’s final public appearance was at the momentous wedding four years thereafter.
Some chassidim speculate that the heightened sense of excitement discernable in the Rebbe’s bearing during that month stemmed not only from the bar mitzvah itself, but also from secret preparations being made for the Rebbe’s first trip to the town of Belz in the Ukraine, which was scheduled for the end of the month. The Iron Curtain had begun to part. It was now possible to enter the Ukraine on an Israeli passport – an opportunity the Rebbe wouldn’t pass up.
On the 22nd of Cheshvan, the yahrtzeit of his paternal grandfather, the Rebbe shlita traveled for the first time to the graves of his holy ancestors in Belz, accompanied by a small group of close associates.
Shocking the Confidantes
Aharon Mordechai Rokeach’s youth was spent under the steady supervision of the Rebbe, with private tutors studying with him in seclusion, just as his father had done. Speculation was rife among chassidim regarding who would receive the “crowned prince” as a son in law. Rumors circulated and theories came and went, but no one could have predicted what ultimately took place. On the sixth of Tammuz, 5752/1992, when Aharon Mordechai was sixteen and a half, he celebrated his engagement to the daughter of the Makova Rav shlita. Despite the difficulty entailed in maintaining absolute secrecy in a community as large as Belz, the shidduch came as a great surprise even to the Rebbe’s closest confidants. The vort was held in the home of Rav Aharon Mendelson, the son-in-law of the Makova Rebbe. Spontaneous dancing erupted in every Belzer beis medrash across the world that day.
At the beginning of that year, thousands of Belzer chassidim had davened on the Yamim Noraim in the “shatter,” a special tent erected for the holidays since the large beis medrash still had not been completed. The shatter was still standing, and the engagement was celebrated there. The chosson was crowned with a kolpik, surrounded by his father, the Belzer Rebbe; his grandfather, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe; his future father-in-law, the Makova Rebbe; and the Makova Rebbe’s own father-in-law, Rabbi Elchanan Halperin of Radomislav, the rav of Golders Green in London.
A Chain of Simchos
The chassidus had a little more than a year to prepare for the historic wedding, the likes of which chareidi Jewry had never seen. The date was set for the sixteenth of Av, 5753/1993. The Rebbe chose to make the wedding during bein hazemanim so the festivities wouldn’t interfere with learning schedule of the yeshivos. During the period between Aharon Mordechai’s engagement and his wedding, the Rebbe visited the Kosel Hamaaravi frequently. Sometimes he would spend a long time there, and sometimes he would be there for just a few minutes.
How can one even begin to plan for a simcha that will host tens of thousands of men, women, and children, with dozens of the gedolei hador at their head?
A committee of over 100 prominent figures in Belz was formed to wrestle with this challenge. Belzer chassidim, who had waited nine years for a Rebbe, then ten years for their Rebbe to become a father, and then another seventeen years for the Rebbe’s son to marry, would not allow the occasion to pass without marking it with all the honor and festivity that it deserved.
14,000 souls participated in the chuppah, which was held at the large square at Kiryat Belz in Yerushalayim. The chuppah was broadcast live and reported on the news in the media both in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the world.
The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the chosson’s grandfather, served as the mesader kiddushin, and the kesubah was read by the kallah’s grandfather, Rabbi Elchanan Halperin. Rav Shach ztz”l expended tremendous effort to attend the chuppah. He had lost his eyesight almost completely by then, and he needed to be escorted by family members. The Belzer Rebbe wanted to honor Rav Shach with six berachos under the chuppah, but the rosh yeshivah asked to be given only the first two berachos. The final berachah was recited by the Rebbe himself.
When asked to describe the historic wedding, Belzer chassidim invariably reply: “It can’t be described.” Every chassid has his own stock of emotionally charged recollections of that glorious evening.
Naturally, the apex of the wedding was the mitzvah tantz. After the exuberant dancing of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe himself danced for a long time with unusual vigor. The grammen in honor of the Rebbe’s dance were composed and recited by Rav Pinchas Friedman, the director of the Belzer kollelim and the Rebbe’s personal chavrusa. While Reb Pinchas recited the grammen, the Rebbe sat with an expression of rapt devotion. Several days later, it became clear that his thoughts had been far from the tent when he asked to hear the grammen for the first time. In accordance with the Rebbe’s explicit order, and in defiance of the prevailing custom, the grammen contained no words of praise.
The vast majority of the gedolei yisrael—admorim and rabbanim, roshei yeshivos and other Torah personalities—participated in the seven days of celebration, either by attending the wedding or sheva berachos or by making personal visits to wish mazel tov. Even secular politicians, lehavdil, including then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, joined in the festivities.
The Vizhnitzer Rebbe joined the Shabbos Sheva Berachos in Kiryat Belz in Yerushalayim. In a unique event, the two Rebbes conducted their tefillos and tishen jointly. Throughout the Shabbos, the Belzer Rebbe honored his father-in-law, asking him to lead the tefillos and the tishen in accordance with his own practices and traditional tunes. The Belzer and Vizhnitzer choirs took turns performing.
Since that day, Belz has never stopped celebrating happy occasions. A year later, the chassidus celebrated the birth of the Rebbe’s first grandson. The chut hameshulash, the “three-ply-cord,” would not be severed. Brissim and kiddushim of the Rebbe’s grandsons and granddaughters became more commonplace, then bar mitzvah celebrations, and the legacy carries on. This year, the chassidus looks forward to receiving news of the engagement of the eldest grandson of the Belzer Rebbe.
Bearing the Burden
Since he was crowned as Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe has felt a weighty responsibility not only toward his own chassidim, but to Klal Yisrael as a whole. In his mind’s eye, he constantly sees the image of his holy predecessors, the tzaddikim of the House of Belz, and the practices of communal leadership of previous generations, which he feels should be reestablished in the Holy Land.
The chareidi community, the Rebbe feels, should maintain a low profile and not incur envy or hatred. Each community should invest their energy into building Torah institutions, promoting education and chessed, and maintaining their unique traditions and practices that have been passed down through the generations. This is the underlying reason for the great admiration the Belzer Rebbe has for Rav Ovadiah Yosef shlita, who struggles to preserve the authentic traditions of Eastern Jewry.
The Rebbe will often express his feelings for the needs of other sectors. When an author came to show the Rebbe a sefer he had written on Sefer Yehoshua, the Rebbe examined the sefer and lamented that there were very few sefarim on the parts of navi that are studied in Bais Yaakov. “I am referring to a work of hashkafah, not a work explaining the simple peshat, which the commentators on the Tanach deal with,” he emphasized. “And I want such a work for the Bais Yaakov schools, because the girls of Bais Malka [t[the Belzer girls’ school]on’t study Nach.”
The Rebbe spoke about the matter at length and struggled to find someone who would deal with it. He was concerned that Jewish girls – even those not connected to his community –might interpret the message of the Neviim incorrectly.
Once, a prominent educator in the chassidus remarked to the Rebbe that there were fewer educational problems in Belz than there were in other kehillos. “Is that something to celebrate?” the Rebbe asked in surprise. After all, we are all the children of one Father!
Over the years, the Rebbe has been the first to notice many pernicious influences, and has directed his followers to address these problems as they arose. He was the first to warn about the dangers posed to the community by computers and the Internet, and he supported efforts to develop kosher, filtered computers for those people who must use a computer.
How does the Rebbe deal with dozens of questions on matters of health and education, shalom bayis and financial difficulties, shouldering the weight of the generation on his shoulders, while remaining immersed in learning for many hours every day? Older chassidim and young yungerleit we polled cannot explain it.
After Shacharis at his personal Beis Midrash, the Rebbe serves as sandak at brissim. Some people use that opportunity to direct brief, pressing queries to the Rebbe.
In the evenings, the Rebbe receives the public for many hours, but even that amount of time is not enough to deal with the thousands of families who will not make a single move without consulting the Rebbe. A system is now in place in which chassidim can send their questions by phone or fax, which is relayed to the Rebbe. Within a very short time, they receive a clear verdict.
The Rebbe spends long hours learning alone or with his chavrusa, Rabbi Pinchas Friedman. The breadth of his knowledge is astounding, even extending to Kabbalah – a fact that first came to light when, after being coronated as Rebbe, he began to spend long nights, from midnight until dawn, at the beis medrash of the mekubal Rabbi Mordechai Sharabi. Belzer bachurim would quietly approach the windows and stand outside for a few moments, taking in the scene of their Rebbe, with his chassidishe garb, immersed in the study of Kabbalah with the elderly, white-clad Yemenite mekubal.
A Rebbe Without Cease
The Rebbe’s profound erudition and knowledge in every field astonishes visitors. Anyone who enters the Rebbe’s chamber with a personal or communal concern will find a listening ear and understanding heart. The Rebbe speaks very little, and every word is weighed carefully. Sometimes the Rebbe will pose some terse questions, and only later will the members of his household understand why the Rebbe needed the information and how it assisted him in resolving a particular issue.
The Rebbe views each yungerman who asks him about job opportunities as an individual, advising one chassid one way and his friend in exactly the opposite manner. A talented yungerman related to us that he had asked the Rebbe about a certain organization that wanted him to join its kiruv rechokim activities. Without diminishing the yungerman’s natural talents, the Rebbe expressed his concern that the yungerman might be influenced by those he was seeking to be mekarev more than he could influence them. Yet the same Rebbe has dispatched dozens of that yungerman’s contemporaries to the front lines of kiruv.
In recent years, the Rebbe has placed many important tasks in the hands of his son Reb Aharon Mordechai, who is beloved by Belzer chassidim of all ages. Among other positions, Reb Aharon Mordechai serves as the chairman of the educational board of all Belzer institutions and of the organization Chayim shel Osher, which provides guidance to newlywed yungerleit.
Restoring the Crown
Belz of today is closely linked to the original Belz of five generations ago. The communal structure of the chassidus in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the world, the nusach hatefillah, the areas emphasized in the children’s education, the dress, the language, the terminology, and many other parameters are preserved by chassidim in strict accordance with tradition and with spiritual and communal codes that an outsider would not understand. From a very young age, the Rebbe considered it his mission to preserve the tradition of Belz at any cost – an attitude that emerged in conversations even before he was bar mitzvah!
Along with his adherence to tradition, however, the Rebbe doesn’t hesitate to introduce professional methods to assist students who experienced difficulty learning, an area in which chareidi education had been lacking for generations. The Belzer Rebbe determined that a high percentage of youth at risk had difficulty reading from their childhood, which made them feel disconnected from their studies and from Torah and mitzvos in general and caused them to seek fulfillment in the streets. The educational staff in Belzer schools have been trained to identify reading difficulties in preschool. When the Rebbe first established this system, many raised their eyebrows at the idea of introducing innovations in the traditional educational framework. Today, such systems exist in every educational institution.
“The Rebbe is driven by a determination to preserve the shtetl of long ago, the ancient community and the educational methods of previous generations, while dealing sagaciously with the contemporary problems that arise constantly,” says Rabbi Pinchas Friedman, the Rebbe’s longtime chavrusa and confidant. “He wants to preserve the bachur who walks in the street with a gartel, but within the advances of our generation.”
Reb Pinchas offers an example of how the Rebbe strikes that balance.
“The Belzer Rebbe was the first person in the world to bring professionals who can diagnose and help children with learning disabilities into the chassidic educational system. Once upon a time, weak students were assumed to be lazy or lacking motivation. When the Rebbe brought in professionals, some protested that we must adhere to the traditional methods of education. The Rebbe insisted that we could do so even while tapping into modern tools. Today everyone understands this, and educators and professionals from Belz are invited to address pedagogic meetings all across the chareidi spectrum.”
Another “innovation” introduced by the Rebbe was to encourage chassidim to develop all their talents within the framework of the community so that no chassid should feel the need to express those innate gifts elsewhere.
“The Rebbe understood decades ago that we need to find an answer for the young generation in every area,” explains Reb Pinchas. “He encouraged people to express their musical talent, for example, asking talented yungerleit to compose songs and produce albums, a phenomenon that was unheard of at the time. Nowadays, Belzer niggunim are popular in all circles. Music was never a dominant part of the avodah in Belz, but the Rebbe feels that it is a vital necessity today. The Rebbe encouraged it, as long as the music would retain the flavor of yesteryear. In every other area as well, the Rebbe asks his chassidim to channel their abilities and talents into endeavors of kedushah.”
Of course, the first talents each chassid is expected to develop are his learning and education skills. The Belzer yeshivos consistently produce high percentages of dayanim, halachic decisors, and educational figures for every stage of education. But alongside those achievement, when a Belzer chassid is noticeably blessed with musical talent, organizational or managerial abilities, or the gift of the pen, his natural abilities are immediately put to work on behalf of one of the hundreds of institutions and organizations within the ranks of the chassidus.
Returning Lost Souls
Perhaps the most surprising jewel in the crown of the Belzer empire are the kiruv institutions that the Rebbe founded and considers the apple of his eye. Even today, as these institutions—Yeshivas Torah V’Emunah and the massive Tzohar organization — are flourishing, the Rebbe keeps them under his constant supervision, urging them to grow even larger and bring more Jews back to their Father in Heaven.
In the winter of 5733/1973, after the Yom Kippur War, the Rebbe cried out from the depths of his heart and declared, “We must do some soul searching and determine why Hashem has done this, why so many of the Jewish people have been lost. Isn’t there a massive amount of Torah being studied and endless chessed being done? It must be that the grandfathers and grandmothers from previous generations, Yidden suffused with Torah and yiras shamayim, were wailing up in Shamayim and bemoaning the spiritual state of their descendants here in Eretz Yisrael. It must be that they demanded the evil decrees in order to awaken the people to repent!”
After that speech, a group of yungerleit asked the Rebbe what they should do about the situation. The Rebbe replied that the first step must be to introduce Yiddishkeit to the youth in the cities and moshavim. “Eventually, we will try to influence the parents of those youths,” the Rebbe added, “but the time has not yet come to turn to them. We must turn to their children first.”
In that conversation, the seed was planted for the tremendous Belzer teshuvah movement, and a small organization known as the Achdut HaNoar was founded.
“We went out several times a week to visit various neighborhoods and moshavim,” relates Rav Yitzchak Davidowitz, one of the Rebbe’s emissaries in founding the organization. “We learned Tanach with the children, studying the same sections on which they were being tested in school, but using that opportunity to instill Jewish concepts. In the summertime, we organized camps in which we taught Yiddishkeit. The Rebbe told us at the time, ‘Days will come when there will be Jews who are yereim u’sheleimim, whose first Shema Yisrael was in your merit.
“Then came the stage when the Rebbe instructed us to begin trying to be mekarev the parents. We became involved in kiruv efforts directed at families who were far removed from Yiddishkeit.
“During Elul thirty-six years ago, the Rebbe said, ‘My main goal is for a baal teshuvah to reach a point where he no longer feels like a baal teshuvah, like someone different. He should feel like every Jew who observes the Torah and its mitzvos.”
Indeed, Belz is perhaps the only community in which baalei teshuvah become fully integrated. Belz doesn’t actually encourage potential baalei teshuvah to become Belzer chassidim – thankfully, the chassidus struggles with natural population growth and sees no need to increase its ranks artificially. Indeed, most of the graduates of Torah V’Emunah and baalei teshuvah who began Tzohar ultimately choose more familiar communal structures. But those who do choose to become Belzer and adopt the norms of the community do not encounter suspicion or hostility. Instead, they are embraced as equal members of the community.
The Direction of the Train
“The Rebbe considers baalei teshuvah literally like his own children,” remarks Rav Pinchas Friedman, the Rebbe’s longtime chavrusa. “He will do anything, even things completely beyond the norm, in order to develop the teshuvah movement further and to help them.”
Reb Pinchas illustrates with a story.
“Decades ago, at the Rebbe’s behest, I was learning with a baal teshuvah, as many of our other yungerleit did. One of them once complained to me that his commanders in the army had been persecuting him and imposing difficulties on him at every step. Now he was being court-martialed. I went to the Rebbe and shared the baal teshuvah’s tale of woe with him. The finances of the Belzer yeshiva were in difficult straits at the time; salaries weren’t being paid, and the Rebbe had asked me several days earlier to deal with the situation. The Rebbe asked me again if I had resolved the issue of the salaries. When I said that I had not, the Rebbe told me to leave and take care of that matter first. I left the Rebbe’s room and began to make phone calls to arrange for the salaries to be paid.
“Suddenly, the Rebbe came out of his room and approached me, holding the white yarmulke he wears during the tefillos of the Yamim Noraim. ‘Take this,’ he told me, ‘and give it to that baal teshuvah to wear on his head. I promise him that nothing bad will happen to him.’ I was worried about how the baal teshuvah, who was only at the beginning of his path to Yiddishkeit, would react. But I gave him the yarmulkeh and he did put it on. Everything ended up working out for him.
“Anyone who knows the Rebbe would know that this was a highly unusual move on his part. But the Rebbe’s concern for that baal teshuvah drove him to do what he did. Incidentally, that baal teshuvah is today the spiritual leader of Tzohar, Rabbi Yitzchak Alchimeister.”
The Rebbe occasionally reminds his men who work with baalei teshuvah that the main goal of their activities must be to provide long-term guidance, without which baalei teshuvah are liable to sink instead of rising spiritually. “It’s like a person who gets onto a train,” Rav Yitzchak Davidowitz explains. “If he’s on the wrong train, the further he travels forward, the farther he gets from his destination. A baal teshuvah who makes progress in an incorrect way is actually distancing himself from the correct goal. It’s easy to drill into a person who is far from Hashem that he is mistaken and that he is leading an empty and meaningless life. The true difficulty lies in guiding such a person onto a correct new path.”
What the Rebbe Holds Dear
Rav Menachem Klein, a gifted Belzer avreich who was previously a maggid shiur in Torah V’Emunah and today heads both the yeshiva and Tzohar along with Rabbi Shmuel Wind, reveals how the Rebbe is personally involved in the kiruv effort. “The Rebbe knows every bachur who studies at Torah V’Emunah and relates to each one on an individual level,” he says. “When the whole yeshiva comes to say Gut Shabbos after davening, the Rebbe will immediately notice one the new bachur who joined the yeshiva.”
Torah V’Emunah is designed for “quality” baalei teshuvah, intelligent young men who lacked nothing other than spirituality. From previously pampered lives, they now reside under simple, cramped conditions at the yeshiva, and their accomplishments in learning are so incredible that even the faculty has a hard time believing it. Rabbi Klein tells us about a bachur who had not known anything about Yiddishkeit until five years ago. He came to Torah V’Emunah after his tour of service in the army, thirsting to know and understand the purpose of life. Today he learns in the yeshiva’s kollel iyun and is a chavrusa of Rabbi Shamai Kehas Gross, one of the leading rabbanim of Belz. When Rabbi Gross was asked why he dedicates so much time to this bachur, he responded that the bachur does not sleep in a bed from one Shabbos to the next because his heart yearns to learn. Rabbi Gross added that the young man is certainly destined to become a notable posek and dayan in the coming generation.
There were years when the directors of Belz’s institutions had such difficulty raising funds for their yeshivos and kollelim that one of them mustered up the courage to approach the Rebbe and question his determination to continue supporting the yeshiva for baalei teshuvah, calling it a “bottomless pit.” The Rebbe’s face turned as white as plaster, and he declared, “As long as my soul resides in my body, I will never cease upholding the yeshiva that brings children back to their Father in Heaven.” The chassid felt that he had insulted something that the Rebbe held dear, and he immediately asked for forgiveness.
The Rebbe explained his feelings on the matter. “After the destruction of Europe and the near-devastation of many yeshivos and chassidic courts, there were years when every individual worked on himself, seeking to rebuild. But now it’s time to work for Hashem’s children, l’shem shamayim, not just for the success of our own courts and communities.”
Turning the Spotlight Inward
In recent years, the Rebbe has directed the heads of Tzohar to continue their kiruv rechokim activities while addressing another frontier, as well—kiruv kerovim. In Belz itself, as well as in other communities, the rabbanim and counselors of Tzohar come to speak with the students in the yeshivos and seminaries about the supreme value of Torah and mitzvos and the joy and privilege inherent in them. They answer questions that a regular teacher or melamed would be inclined to suppress. Where others would respond that it is forbidden even to ask such questions, they respond with passion and burning faith, so that no youth should come away with the impression that they do not understand him and are trying to avoid answering him—a perception that might lead him, chalilah, to seek fulfillment elsewhere. The Rebbe’s goal is to establish a kiruv center on behalf of the chareidi community itself, primarily its youth.
The Rebbe maintains that kiruv rechokim and kiruv krovim add up to another form of kiruv—bringing the geulah closer.
The Rebbe urges those who are not involved directly with the kiruv work to get involved as well, sharing a vort from his father.
During the Second World War, when millions of Jews were being taken to their deaths, an opportunity arose to save transports of thousands of Jews in exchange for enormous sums of money. Askanim went around to Jews who were still living in comfort and security, in places the Germans had not yet reached, and tried to solicit funds to save the lives of their brethren. Some Jews were fortunate to donate money for the cause, and the thousands of Jewish lives that were saved became a merit for them and their descendants throughout the coming generations.
But what became of a Jew who refused to contribute for the cause? What did he say when his time came to give a reckoning for his deeds? He had the ability to save Jewish lives, but he was too stingy!
Certainly in our days, the Rebbe says, when we can take part in the effort to save lost souls, what will we say if we don’t take that opportunity?
Belzer chassidim who managed to survive the war never thought for an instant that Belz would remain alive, and they sent their children to study in various other institutions. The Belzer Rebbe began his long journey toward the resurrection of Belz with only a few hundred families numbering among his followers. Today, 45 years after he accepted the scepter into his hands, the Belzer chassidus counts over 7000 families among its ranks and maintains satellite batei medrash, educational institutions, and chessed organizations throughout the frum world.
The empire of Torah, chessed, and kiruv that is Belz of today are a constant living example of the fulfillment of the Sar Shalom’s prophecy: “Belz will be a cornerstone of Torah and yiras shamayim until Mashiach comes.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 380)
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