Bridge Built in Belz

What’s the secret of the grand Belz synagogue, the towering white stone edifice that dominates the northern Jerusalem skyline? 

AN American bochur was visiting the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Zeev when he walked into a shul that he discovered was affiliated with the Belz chassidus.

“I know of only one Belzer chassid, and his name is Yechezkel Friedman,” the bochur told a friendly man he encountered.

“Well, you’re in luck,” the man said. “Because Yechezkel Friedman actually lives right next door.”

Excited, the bochur came over to meet Rabbi Friedman and share his story. He’d grown up in the Midwest, the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. As a kid, he’d always been fascinated by Judaism, and one day, he came across a clip featuring Friedman giving a tour of the magnificent Belz shul in Jerusalem. The boy was hooked; he watched it about a dozen times, and something about the majesty and holiness of the place pulled at his heart.

“Today I’m a ger learning at Ohr Somayach,” he told Rabbi Friedman. “And it all started with your tour.”

What is it about this landmark in the heart of chassidic Jerusalem that attracts such a surprisingly broad swath of Jews? What is it that draws tour groups from around the world and across religious affiliation, and leaves them with eyes opened and souls touched?

On a recent hot summer morning, I make my way down Dover Shalom Street in Kiryat Belz to the famous towering white stone edifice with the mini spires forming a parapet around the flat roof, dominating the northern Jerusalem skyline. I want to discover the secret for myself.

From the Outside In

This tour has a personal attraction for me, as I come from proud Belzer lineage through my maternal great-grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Hertzberg a”h, one of the rabbinic founders of the Baltimore community. His own father, Rav Avraham, was one of the noted Belzer “yoshvim” — the Torah scholars who learned in the chatzeir of the Rebbe. He even served for a time as the childhood melamed of Rebbe Aharon of Belz. So when Rabbi Friedman graciously offers me to bring others along on the tour, I jump at the opportunity to make this a family event.

We start off in the large courtyard, where Rabbi Friedman draws our attention to the well next to the Rebbe’s apartment, which is the righthand wing of this building that takes up a full square block.

“This well is where we do Tashlich,” he says, explaining that it isn’t a natural well but is filled with water and fish before Rosh Hashanah. Later in the year, this same well stores the mayim shelanu (water that “rests” overnight), gathered from rainwater on the Rebbe’s roof, that is used for the matzah baking in Belz. (There are two matzah bakeries on one of the lower levels of the shul.)

He explains that it is a custom in some chassidish circles to use the same water source for both Tashlich and matzah baking, connecting the teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah with the teshuvah of Pesach by transforming and elevating the sins we “threw away” at Tashlich into mitzvos by baking matzos with them.

The Rebbe’s quarters are where men meet with the Rebbe and, through a separate entrance on a separate floor, where women meet with the Rebbetzin. The basement houses the large tish room — a room where, as Friedman describes it, “Five-thousand people squish in like sardines.”

Aside from 11 shtiblach on the lower levels that serve as a minyan factory for the chassidim and any other visitors at any time of day or night, the 11-story building serves as a full-service religious center for the chassidus. The mikvaos have 600 seats and 98 showers — including the only mikveh for handicapped men in Israel. The building houses the Belz kashrus headquarters; a 700-bed dorm for yeshivah bochurim; a guest quarters for men who come from around the world to spend Shabbos with the Rebbe; a kollel that takes up an entire upper floor; and eight simchah halls — two wedding halls and six for smaller simchahs. (Hearing from Rabbi Friedman the cost of making a chasunah in these discounted halls — 2,000 shekels per side for the hall rental and 35 shekels per plate for the catering — is enough to make you consider marrying into the chassidus.)

Yet despite the sheer size of the Belz center, Rabbi Friedman says there are plans for a major expansion.

This full-service center for the Belzer chassidim includes a dozen shtiblach, several mikvaos, a dorm for bochurim and a hostel for visiting married men, eight simchah halls, a kollel that takes up an entire floor, and thousands of seats for davening. Sort of makes you want to join

“There are over 3,000 seats in the main beis medrash, another 3,000 for men in the upper galleries, and 3,000 seats in the ezras nashim. When the building was dedicated 23 years ago, this was more than enough for the entire chassidus. But with the community doubling itself every 16 years, we’ve long outgrown the premises.”

Some of the people in our group want to know how to get an appointment with the Rebbe.

“The official way is to call during appointment booking hours,” Rabbi Friedman says. “But though there are hundreds of people answering the Rebbe’s phone lines, you still can’t get through. The other way is through protektziya — or, if you’re a chassid, you know how to climb in through the chimney.”

With his easy humor and unapologetic reverence for the chassidic way of life, Rabbi Friedman has honed to perfection his ability to present Belz to outsiders — from Litvaks (like our tour group) to secular groups coming in with a chip on their shoulder.

Why would a non-Orthodox group even be interested in a tour of the Belz shul?

“Maybe it’s intellectual honesty,” says Rabbi Friedman. “They’ve toured Israel from top to bottom, they’ve met the Women of the Wall, they’ve met the leftist organizations, and they feel they should at least see one chareidi before they leave — so I guess I’m it.”

Whatever the motive, the impact never fails to amaze him.

“The level of animosity immediately goes down,” he says. “We had a group of Israeli police officers here the other week. One of them told me that when he would see a chareidi across the street, he’d feel like ripping him to pieces. ‘You took that hatred out of me,’ he said.”

He adds that many secular Jews perceive chassidim as backward cavemen; simply walking into the beis medrash and seeing what a magnificent, technologically advanced edifice these backwater chassidim were able to produce is a jolting experience that upends their preconceptions. “For some,” he says, “they’re learning for the first time to see us as real people.”

While Rabbi Friedman has finessed the art of introducing outsiders to the chassidish way of life, it isn’t something he ever expected to do. A native of Melbourne, Australia, he moved to Eretz Yisrael soon after his marriage in 1994 and studied for several years in kollel. With English his mother tongue and with full fluency in Hebrew and Yiddish, a year after the building was dedicated in 2000, he was asked by the Belz administration to fill the role of tour guide.

(Today, this is not his main source of parnassah; Friedman runs a tallis whitening business from his Givat Zeev home. He also engages in “mitzvah entrepreneurship,” grabbing opportunities to be mezakeh the rabbim in rare mitzvos, such as pidyon petter chamor, shiluach hakein, and purchasing portions of shemittah fields.)

While he doesn’t expect to change any opinions, Rabbi Friedman’s goal is to soften hostilities among the secular and introduce others to the nuances of chassidic life. Everyone, he says, leaves inspired

Holy Bricks

Indeed, with nine dazzling crystal chandeliers hanging above, the world’s largest aron kodesh (built from 23 tons of Brazilian walnut wood and large enough to house 70 sifrei Torah), thousands of wooden seats and shtenders, and 85,000 seforim lining the walls, the majesty and massive scale of the main beis medrash can take your breath away.

But the true beauty lies beneath the surface.

“Every part of the shul, down to the tiniest detail, was built with a specific holy kavanah,” Rabbi Friedman explains. And it is all modeled after the original shul in the town of Belz in Western Ukraine, built by the first Rebbe, Rav Shalom Rokeach (known as the Sar Shalom of Belz).

The story goes that, as a young man, Reb Shalom and two friends decided to learn through the night for 1,000 nights in a row in an effort to achieve sublime levels of Torah and dveikus. However, his friends eventually dropped out of the arduous challenge until only Reb Shalom remained. On the thousandth night, Eliyahu Hanavi appeared and learned with Reb Shalom through the night. They concluded with hilchos beis knesses, and the prophet revealed to him the kabbalistic kavanos to have in mind when building a shul.

In 1816, Reb Shalom was appointed rav of the town of Belz and, as his fame spread, he slowly became renowned not just as a community rabbi but as the rebbe of a new chassidus. He began to build a shul in 1828, which was completed in 1843. (The construction of the Jerusalem Belz shul also took 15 years, although it wasn’t pre-planned.)

The uniqueness of this shul was apparent from the beginning of its construction: the Sar Shalom of Belz himself was on the building site every day, shlepping bricks, pouring cement, getting his hands dirty with the physical work — and he encouraged his chassidim to do so, as well. When one of the Rebbe’s brothers protested that his behavior wasn’t befitting the kavod of a rebbe, the Sar Shalom responded by divulging the story of Eliyahu Hanavi’s visit and explained that he was building the shul according to Eliyahu’s specifications, infusing every brick with holy contemplations and intents.

Later, when another holy visitor came to inspect the completed shul, he commented to the Rebbe that one particular spot was lacking the kedushah of the rest. The Rebbe admitted that he was out of town when that section was built — and immediately ordered the section to be torn down and built again.

One of the immediately noticeable features of the original shul was its flat roof, unlike the typical sloped roofs that were far more practical in the snowy Ukrainian winters. The Rebbe explained that when Mashiach comes, his shul will be transported to Yerushalayim near the Beis Hamikdash, and its design will need to fit into the skyline there.

Built to Last While we’re still waiting for the Beis Hamikdash, today the Sar Shalom’s shul has completed the journey he foresaw nearly 200 years ago. And the miracle of that story is the miracle of the survival of Belz, out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

Ukraine was conquered toward the start of World War II, with the western portion falling under German occupation. On Simchas Torah of 1939, right after Hakafos, the Belzer Rebbe, Rebbe Aharon, and all of the Jews of the town fled eastward toward Russia. Over the ensuing five years, Rebbe Aharon survived through a series of miracles, but lost his entire family — his wife, children, and grandchildren. His only surviving relative was a much younger half brother from his father, Rebbe Yissachar Dov’s second marriage. Rav Mordechai of Bilgorai had also lost his entire family. Together, the two arrived in Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe weighed 61 pounds and could barely walk on his own — but he carried within an iron strength and determination to rebuild.

Both brothers remarried, and in 1948, Reb Mordechai had a son. Yissachar Dov’s birth was a huge celebration for the shattered chassidus, and Rebbe Aharon himself served as sandek — the only time the Rebbe was a sandek at a bris in Eretz Yisrael. Yet, a year and a half later, tragedy struck when Reb Mordechai suddenly passed away. Reb Aharon raised his nephew until he, too, passed away in 1957. Yissachar Dov, who was only nine years old, was left without a father — and the chassidus that had barely survived the inferno of Europe was left without a rebbe.

It was only nine years later, following Reb Yissachar Dov’s marriage to the daughter of the Yeshuos Moshe of Vizhnitz, that he stepped into the role of rebbe and leader of his eager chassidim. And one of the key goals of the new rebbe was to rebuild a replica of the shul of his ancestors, on the holy ground of Jerusalem.

The groundbreaking took place in 1984. “Back then, this area was pretty much in the middle of nowhere,” says Rabbi Friedman. The new neighborhood of Kiryat Belz was being constructed, Mattersdorft was below, and up the street was the Tenuvah factory and the Jerusalem Zoo. “They’d hear the lions and monkeys as they worked,” he says. Actual construction began in 1986 and was completed on Pesach of 2000.

From the majestic chandeliers to the sunken tile the chazzan stands on to the simple chair of Rebbe Aharon of Belz, every detail has special significance

As we’re listening to Rabbi Friedman, an elderly man walks into the beis medrash. Rabbi Friedman gives him a nod and remarks that this man was one of the shul’s builders.

He means this literally. Like the first Belzer Rebbe, Rebbe Yissachar Dov insisted that the shul be built by Belzer chassidim, not hired workers. He selected several of his chassidim to perform the actual building tasks: They were the ones who poured the cement, while the professional construction workers stood and watched. More importantly, the Rebbe trained these chassidim in how to prepare themselves for this holy task: to first go to the mikveh and give tzedakah, and then review the special kavanos they should have as they performed the construction.

The Rebbe himself was involved in every detail of the design and even participated in pouring cement for much of the shul; in particular, he spent many hours personally designing and pouring the cement for the steps of the aron kodesh. Every detail of the design has deep intentions and significance behind it. For example, the steps leading up to the aron kodesh twist around in such a way that the person walking up will never turn his back on the sifrei Torah. There are nine steps in total which, together with the crown at the very top of the aron kodesh, represent the ten Sefiros.

Yet one of the most striking details of the shul is a simple wooden chair that sits enclosed in a glass case next to the platform of the aron kodesh. Rabbi Friedman explains that the chair belonged to the previous rebbe, Rebbe Aharon. From the time he arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1944 until his passing in 1957, this was the only chair he would sit on. He brought it with him wherever he went; it would be tied to the roof of his taxi when he traveled. He never revealed the secret of this chair, which the current Rebbe placed in a spot of honor in the beis medrash, symbolizing that all of the credit of Belz’s current growth goes to Rebbe Aharon.

(Photo: Mordche Zev Schwammenfeld) The Rebbe himself was involved in every detail of the design of the new Belz complex and even participated in pouring cement for much of the shul

Crowd Control

Although the new structure isn’t an exact replica of the original, the customs within mirror the Sar Shalom’s original edifice, including what isn’t in it. There are no dedication plaques inside the beis medrash, nor any pesukim found on the walls, other than a gold-leafed “Shivisi Hashem L’Negdi Samid” plaque in front of the chazzan’s shtender, which is a minhag dating back to the Rishonim. In another nod to an even more ancient minhag which seems to have generally fallen out of practice nowadays, the tile on which the chazzan stands is slightly lower than the rest of the floor, fulfilling the Gemara’s mandate that the shaliach tzibbur should lower himself when he approaches to daven.

There is also no ner tamid in the main beis medrash. The reason, Rabbi Friedman explains, is that although the ner tamid in Belz consisted of five constantly burning oil lamps, the Rebbe was worried about leaving fire unattended in the beis medrash, which is not used during the week; instead, the Rebbe had it placed in the smaller downstairs beis medrash, used for the weekday minyanim.

Our tour takes place on a Sunday morning, and as we walk through the beis medrash, Rabbi Friedman points out the siddurim and Chumashim still left from Shabbos on many of the shtenders.

“It’s not that people are lazy,” Rabbi Friedman says. “It’s that they’re told to keep their seforim by their seat, to prevent a bottleneck when davening is over. Imagine thousands of people heading down the same aisle to the bookshelves.”

On a regular Shabbos, you won’t be able to get an aliyah in the main beis medrash unless you’re a chassan; anyone else in need of an aliyah (someone who has a yahrtzeit, for example) must go to one of the smaller downstairs minyanim. Since visibility in the ezras nashim can be difficult (though acoustics are excellent), the women are told in advance which chassan is scheduled for which aliyah, so that the families know when to throw the pekelach.

Of course, this means a candy-filled beis medrash to clean up each week. Someone had actually suggested to do away with the minhag and simply hand out the pekelach at the end of the shul, but the Rebbe wouldn’t hear of it. “If there are no candies being thrown, why should the children come to shul?”

Each seat has a plaque bearing the name of the person who bought the rights to that seat. Due to the lack of available seating, some have two names; the secondary owner purchases the right to sit there when the original owner is out of town.

“On the Yamim Noraim, the aisles are jam-packed solid with bochurim and young men standing. If you move your elbow, you’ll push twenty guys down the row,” Rabbi Friedman says. “This past Rosh Hashanah, my son started his Shemoneh Esreh in one spot and finished it halfway down the aisle.”

As such intense crowding can sound off-putting to someone who appreciates personal space, I’m intrigued when Rabbi Friedman tells us that he recently encouraged a secular tour group to come on Motzaei Shabbos and join the throngs of people wishing the Rebbe a “Gut voch” just so that they could experience the pushing.

“And they enjoyed it?” I ask.

He smiles at the memory. “They loved it.”

The tours were originally intended for donors, but Rabbi Friedman soon realized the powerful potential for kiruv — an initiative that received strong encouragement from the Rebbe, who is renowned for his support of kiruv efforts within Belz and beyond. (As an example, 40 years ago, when Arachim founder Rabbi Yossi Wallis needed a car for his nascent organization, he came to the Rebbe to ask for funding. The Rebbe immediately said, “Take mine.”)

Rabbi Friedman moved forward, developing his own unique brand of kiruv. It required educating himself in the causes du jour of the various Jewish sectors, and developing answers for the questions that would inevitably arise.

He tailors his messages for each group. For chareidi groups, he’ll speak about the chashivus of a beis knesess and the importance of building a shul that reflects its beauty and dignity; for non-Orthodox groups, he emphasizes the story of a community that was nearly decimated by the Holocaust and then rebuilt itself.

Across the board, the groups are interested in hearing about the more intriguing features of chassidic life. Nonreligious groups are fascinated by such things as how they do shidduchim and the number of children they have (“When I tell them my kids have hundreds of first cousins, they’re blown away”), while litvish visitors might question halachic issues such as the way chassidim approach zeman tefillah. All in all, the atmosphere opens them up to appreciate and accept the beauty of a lifestyle different from their own.

“A tour guide I know who leads secular groups through chareidi enclaves always makes sure that their last stop is in Belz,” Rabbi Friedman says, “because it always winds up being transformative. It’s one of the things they talk about long after their visit.”

The Belz great synagogue in Jerusalem is more than an enormous structure serving as a center for the burgeoning chassidus. It’s a near-replica of the original Belz shul built in 1843 and destroyed by the Nazis brick by brick, when the edifice refused to burn down

Bringing Us Closer

Of course, it’s during the Q&A part that things get interesting, which is one reason Rabbi Friedman has started giving the tours to the non-Orthodox groups in the upstairs women’s gallery. For one thing, it keeps the session more private, preventing chassidim from overhearing the conversation; and second, it heads off the group’s inevitable first question: Why do you keep the women behind a cage?

“By starting the tour up there, they can see for themselves how beautiful and comfortable the women’s section is,” Rabbi Friedman says.

What are some of the most common questions?

“For the not-yet-religious, gender issues are always a hot topic — and, in recent years, this includes all of the ‘liberal lifestyle’ issues. Your typical Belzer chassid has never even heard of such things.”

Friedman uses a lot of Rav Avigdor Miller’s material in crafting his answers to their questions. “It can be a bit sharp,” he admits, “but I add a lot of humor to soften it.”

While he doesn’t expect to change any opinions, his goal is to soften their hostility so that they can begin to understand where the chareidi viewpoint is coming from.

Mizrachi or secular Israeli groups will tend to ask questions about why the chassidim don’t serve in the army. There, too, Friedman provides a sensitive answer which, he says, is very much in line with the Rebbe’s outlook.

“I tell them that serving in the army is a hugely important thing and that we’d love to do so, but, at this point in time, the environment of the army precludes us from serving, since we can’t fulfill one mitzvah at the expense of others. We’re ready to give up our lives for Eretz Yisrael, I say, but not our souls.” Of course, he also notes that the bochurim who learn in yeshivah serve as the home front soldiers.

Which groups give him the hardest time?

He laughs. “The seminary students! They want to know why our men are wasting time going to tishes — isn’t that bittul Torah? I tell them, ‘Do you know what went on in the Beis Hamikdash? The Kohanim weren’t sitting and learning — they were eating meat all day long!’” He elaborates on how the tish is actually meant to reflect the avodah of the Kohanim.

Yet no matter the audience, there’s a special power to the shul that leaves visitors inspired and awakens a connection in even the most distant souls.

Over the years, Rabbi Friedman has given tours to many prominent figures, including all of the recent US ambassadors and embassy staff, plus notable American Jews such as former vice-chair of the Federal Reserve and governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer, and Harvard president emeritus Lawrence Summers. Yet he just shrugs it off — for him, it’s not about fame or kavod, but about reaching out to Jews, whoever they may be. And, as the years continue to bring more and more changes and divisions within Klal Yisrael, he hopes to continue using his unique platform to promote acceptance.

“The Rebbe’s ahavas Yisrael is legendary, and that’s the feeling I try to impart. My goal,” he says, “is to open hearts and bring us all a little closer to each other.”


Yechezkel Friedman can be contacted through the Mishpacha office.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 971)

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