| Magazine Feature |

Everything and Nothing

The simple greatness of Rav Chai Yitzchak Twerski of Rachmistrivka 

Photos: JDN, Rachmastrivka archives

It was just about a century ago when Reb Menachem Nochum Twerski, rebbe of Rachmistrivka, arrived in Yerushalayim from the Ukraine.

Back in Rachmistrivka, he had been Rebbe to the simple people, cloaked in simplicity and surrounded by simplicity. In the Holy City, where every alleyway held scholars and saints, the Rebbe of Rachmistrivka was able to walk in silence and maintain his precious simplicity.

But then his brother Reb Mordche was murdered by Arab ruffians, and the chassidus sought a new leader. Reb Nochum’che, as he was known, took the mantle along with his brother Rav Velvele until their passing, after which Reb Nochum’s two sons inherited it.

Rachmistrivka did not have two courts for the two Rebbes. Rather, the chassidus formed a single court with two Rebbes, Reb Avrum Dov and Reb Duvid’l leading the tishen and tefillos in unison. For two leaders to share a crown was a novelty.

Yerushalayimer Yidden a century ago were not the type to be easily impressed. Still, they marveled at the feat they were witnessing. For two Rebbes to share the mantle of leadership didn’t require mere scholarship or piety: It called for complete bittul. To be nonexistent, alive only to give, to take nothing at all.

For those who knew the roots of the chassidus, it made sense. This self-negation was a legacy of the dynasty’s founder, Rav Yochanan of Rachmistrivka. After the passing of his own father, Rav Mottele Chernobyler, the yerushah was divided between eight great sons. Rav Yochanan remarked that he’d hoped to receive as an inheritance his father’s middah of “gurnisht,” his ability to make himself as nothing, but his brother Rav Moshe of Korastchev had taken it. “For me,” Rav Yochanan concluded, “there is only gurnisht mit gurnisht left.”

Not just to be nothing, but not to exist at all.

Generations later, Rav Yochanan’s descendants evinced the same trait. All were united in their desire to serve the Creator in relative privacy, none of them eager to assume the mantle of leadership. And then came the day when a scion of Rachmistrivka, a lofty soul deeply bound to the Holy City, was instructed to plant simplicity in the land of excess, nurture modesty in the land of outsized exposure. To serve as Rebbe in America.

Was it even possible?

You can answer the question yourself. Try to make an appointment with any major rebbe or rosh yeshivah in America today: Due to full schedules and heavy workloads, you will run the gamut of gabbaim, handlers, insiders, and drivers.

Then head to Rachmistrivka in Boro Park. Call the gabbai, who will answer and give you an appointment, probably for that day, and head to the beis medrash and right there, beyond the creaky door and over the faded linoleum threshold, is your answer.

I don’t know how, but clearly, it’s possible. Simplicity can not only take root, it can thrive.

The Rachmistrivka Rebbe of Boro Park, Rav Chai Yitzchak Twerski, often refers to himself as a poshute Yerushalayimer Yid. He is referring not to a geographical location, but to a way of life, a perspective and approach. His Yiddish is the Yiddish of the Meah Shearim shuk, his smile — less a movement of lips than a visual embrace, happiness seeming to emanate from deep within — radiant as morning sun painting the holy streets, his eyes clear blue as the Jerusalem sky.

They are eyes of a Rebbe, a Rebbe from a different time.

He was, in fact, born in a different time. In 1931, his elter-zaide Reb Nochum’che was still alive, able to serve as sandek for the child who was named Yitzchak, for his ancestor Rav Itzik’l of Skver. Not long before his bar mitzvah, little Itzik’l grew terribly sick, and doctors gave him a slim chance of surviving. His grandfather Reb Dovid’l, who was Rebbe at the time, added the name Chaim, and the child experienced a miraculous salvation.

Later, after the fear and urgency receded, his mother realized that her younger son, whom they called Moshe, was actually named Moshe Chaim. Two children with the same name wouldn’t do, so the zaide made a slight edit, changing Itzik’l’s additional name from Chaim to Chai — as an einekel of the Chida, the boy was blessed with a Sephardic heritage as well — and so Chai Yitzchak, his health restored, started preparing for his bar mitzvah.

It was held in Geula, and the tzaddikim of the time attached significance to the event: a bar mitzvah combined with a seudas hodaah for the miraculous recovery. Reb Ahre’le Belzer, who would later become the bar mitzvah boy’s rebbe, was meant to leave Yerushalayim to go home to Tel Aviv, but decided to remain local. “The Rachmistrivka Rebbe is making a bar mitzvah for an einekel, and I should leave?” Though he didn’t actually attend the bar mitzvah, Reb Ahre’le waited in Yerushalayim for the duration of the simchah, “participating” in the way of those who inhabit other dimensions.

The elderly Husyatiner tzaddik came from Tel Aviv for the simchah. When his cousin the Rebbe of Boyan-Leipzig entered the hall, he sat next to the Husyatiner. “What did you bring as a gift for the bar mitzvah bochur?” the Husyatiner asked his cousin.

The bar mitzvah bochur of that night was seated close enough to hear the Husyatiner say, “I brought him a ‘Nuch’ (a reference to a multi-volume set of Tanach, pronounced with a Russian accent),” to which the Leipziger responded, “I bought a Kli Yakar, because the bar mitzvah bochur is a ‘kli yakar,’ a precious vessel.”

Of course, the Rachmistrivka Rebbe reflects, the comment was just to encourage him and strengthen him, since he had been so sick.

Following the time-honored path of the good Jews of Jerusalem, the bochur went to learn in Etz Chaim, where he first came under the spell of the man he considers his rebbi, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

Several years ago, a group of litvisher yeshivah bochurim, hearing a rumor about the chassidisher Rebbe who’d learned under Rav Isser Zalman, went to speak to the Rebbe about a shtickel Even Ha’ezel in Bava Kamma. Rather than be caught off guard by the “test,” the Rebbe greeted them with an extra measure of joy, pleased not just that bochurim were learning the Torah of his rebbi, but also that they felt comfortable discussing it with him.

“I can’t tell you how to learn the sugya,” he told them, “but I can tell you how Rav Isser Zalman said this vort in shiur.”

His Torah was that of Rav Isser Zalman, and his kedushah had its source in the malach, Reb Aharon of Belz.

Reb Ahre’le, as he was known, would only shake hands with people through a towel. Yet when it came to young Chai Yitzchak, to whom he was related, he would take the hands of the bochur. The relationship was personal, so much so that the Rebbe involved himself when a shidduch was proposed between this scion of Rachmistrivka and the daughter of the Skverer Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, in faraway America.

Before leaving to America for his wedding, the chassan wrote a kvittel in which he asked to return to Eretz Yisrael, since it had been agreed that after five years in America, he would go back to his father’s court. The Belzer Rebbe reviewed the request and said, “Mit Mashiach in einem — you will come back together with Mashiach.”

The ensuing conversation lasted for two hours. Among various directives given by the Belzer Rebbe that day was advice that “if ever people try to persuading you of something, do not refuse them, for you will benefit from it.” The Belzer Rebbe also asked that when the traditional seudas aniyim would be held before the wedding, the paupers should be given high-quality cakes.

In time, the Belzer Rebbe’s prescience would grow apparent.

It wasn’t easy for a child of Jerusalem to settle in America.

The Skverer Rebbe had misgivings about the open atmosphere in America as well. He believed that seclusion and tranquility were necessary for raising children. Back in Iași, Romania, he wanted his daughters to remain in the house rather than play with local girls who’d been exposed to the impure ideas of the regime, but he also wanted them to have friends.

So he became their friend, chatting with them. When the Rebbe, a great masmid, reached stories in his Gemara learning, he called over his daughters and recounted the stories in Yiddish. “I sacrificed many blatt gemara for the sake of my daughters,” the Rebbe once remarked, “but I don’t regret it all.”

Not long after young Chai Yitzchak married his daughter, the Skverer Rebbe realized his dream of moving out of the city, and his new son-in-law joined him in establishing New Square. (The elder son-in-law, Rav Mottele of Vizhnitz, had established a court in nearby Monsey.)

The son of the Rachmistrivka Rebbe immersed himself in the tasks with which his father-in-law charged him, creating a chinuch system, working with yungeleit, and saying shiurim. He davened Shacharis from the amud on the Yamim Noraim, and sat next to the Rebbe at the tish, observing his every move. But immersed as he was in the culture and atmosphere of this court, a piece of his heart was far away.

He longed for Yerushalayim, for the beis medrash of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

And even in New Square, surrounded by chassidishe Yidden, there were reminders that he was not home. In Yerushalayim, Lag B’omer is felt weeks before, spiritual energy piling up along with discarded pieces of wood in its courtyards. In a Lag B’omer letter to his father, Reb Itzik’l writes of imagining “how right now, you must be getting ready to leave for Meron, hearts racing with excitement.” One Lag B’omer morning in America however, Reb Itzik’l gave tikkun and a well-meaning Jew asked what the occasion was.

If ever a Jew felt far from home…

He wrote long weekly letters to his father, who faithfully returned those missives. But even as the correspondence kept him rooted in the Rachmistrivka court, his father encouraged him to soak up the holiness of Skver, once writing, “In this regard, you should follow the path of the one whom you live near.”

Rachmistrivka was never about miracles, but if pressed to share the Rebbe’s greatest moifes of all, a chassid reflects that it might well be the way the Rebbe conducted himself between 1968 and 1984. It was after the passing of his father-in-law, and before the petirah of his own father. In Skver, his brother-in-law had been crowned as the new Rebbe; his father’s court was in Yerushalayim. And in New Square, Reb Itzik’l lived the dream of the “posheter Yerushalayimer Yid” he aspired to be. He was donning the cloak he would wear a generation later — giving, giving, giving and taking nothing at all, a Yid adding layers of “gurnisht” to an inheritance that had only grown through the generations. He was royalty, but royalty in exile, seeking no favors and shunning honor, devoted to the leadership of his brother-in-law, the current Skverer Rebbe, with whom he remains exceedingly close.

In 1982, Reb Yochanan was niftar, leaving behind several sons.

At the levayah, the Machnovka Rebbe of Bnei Brak, who was the senior Rebbe in the Chernobyl dynasty, announced that the oldest son, Rav Yisrael Mordechai, would succeed his father, even as the newly crowned Rebbe waved in protest. When Rav Itzik’l, the second son, arrived from America following the shivah, the Machnovka Rebbe announced that he would serve as Rachmistrivka Rebbe in America, “whether he agrees or not.”

Rav Itzik’l insisted that he could not accept the role, telling the Machnovka Rebbe that he couldn’t read a kvittel. “You? Where did you grow up, in the forest?” the Machnovka tzaddik countered. “You, whose eyes saw the elter-zaide Reb Nochum’che, who grew up by the zaide Reb Duvid’l? A son of Rav Yochan’che and an eidem of the Skverer Rebbe? You can read a kvittel.”

And a new era began in the world of American chassidus. Once again, the Rachmistrivka chassidus was “B’nesisus ho’admorim shlita, under the leadership of the admorim.” Two rebbes would share a crown with peace and submission.

Why did Rav Itzik’l choose Boro Park as the location of his court? Because it was the easiest place to get lost, a place where he could lead a beis medrash and still blend into the scenery.

The Shacharis minyan in the newly established Rachmistrivka beis medrash, on 45th Street between 12th and 13th Avenues, was called for seven-thirty in the morning, since at Beitch, a block away, there was already a seven o’clock minyan, and taking even one person from another existing minyan was unthinkable. Eventually, the Rebbe started davening at a later minyan, at 8:30, and one of the close chassidim wondered why the Rebbe wasn’t davening earlier, as was his preference.

It turned out that the Rebbe had been learning through the night and first going to sleep near dawn. He found it hard to arrive precisely at seven-thirty, though eight-thirty was indeed too late for him.

“I don’t understand, we’ll just delay the seven-thirty minyan until the Rebbe is ready,” the chassid argued, and the Rebbe looked at him, genuinely baffled. “But the sign says seven-thirty, how can you push it off?”

Only once the Rebbe was assured that the minyan was composed of people who wanted specifically to daven with him — it was not the seven-thirty minyan, but the Rebbe’s minyan — did he resume davening at the time he considered optimal.

During his father’s lifetime, the Rachmistrivka beis medrash at the top of Geula would welcome legions of Gerrer chassidim coming to spend Shabbos or Yom Tov with their Rebbe, the Beis Yisrael. The relatively small Rachmistrivka beis medrash would host the seudos and sometimes serve as the actual lodging for these chassidim of another rebbe, and one of the gabbaim wasn’t pleased. Why should one chassidus incur expense and inconvenience to host chassidim of another?

The Rebbe, Rav Yochanan, was incredulous at the question. “They are Gerrer chassidim, so they go to the Gerrer Rebbe, as they should… and we have an obligation of hachnassas orchim, so we open our doors, as we should. I don’t understand the problem.”

In that vein, Rachmistrivka Boro Park would become the headquarters of Brooklyn’s chassidim, even if those chassidim belonged to different rebbes.

It was precisely how the new Rebbe liked it.

But soon this Rebbe would have many chassidim of his own.

What did they see, that first group of chassidim that coalesced around their Rebbe and devoted themselves to him with remarkable loyalty?

There wasn’t that one defining moment to the year — a dramatic hakafah or Purim tish at which miracles flowed like red wine. The glasses in the menorah didn’t shatter from the force of the brachos, and they couldn’t point out the spirited mitzvah tantz at which the Rebbe would clearly dance with souls from the Other World.

Rachmistrivka wasn’t just gurnisht, but gurnisht mit gurnisht, a Rebbe allowing none of his inner greatness to show even as the people around him were made bigger. He listened. He guided. He encouraged. And in his own way, almost inadvertently, he blessed too.

There were less than a handful of Rachmistrivka chassidim in America at first. It was a kehillah built from the foundation, a mix of individuals — seasoned chassidim who’d been drawn to him over the years in New Square alongside American boys who spoke no Yiddish, but were entranced by the purity and kindness of this man from Yerushalayim. Once the door closed to his room, he advised them — never with insistence, but rather a friend offering a suggestion, his every casual remark making it clear that he saw it all, everything.

He was tolerant. A bochur came in and ashamedly confided to have been drawn to inappropriate behavior, and the Rebbe responded by… smiling. “Yes, this is what it means to be human,” the Rebbe said, pointing toward the waiting room filled with people. “Everyone, every single person, struggles with the yetzer hara. It’s why HaKadosh Baruch Hu made us. But you are stronger. You can triumph.”

Outside of the beis medrash, Rachmistrivka had no formal mosdos, because there were so many good yeshivos and girls schools associated with other chassidus’n and the Rebbe saw no reason to create new ones. But then the community grew to the point that their own children needed space in mosdos, so he allowed for their establishment. The cheder and the girls’ school were established, and within a few short years, families from beyond the Rachmistrivka kehillah were eager to attend as well.

As the children grew, it became clear that the chassidus needed a yeshivah. One of the hanhalah members of the new yeshivah asked what the yeshiva should be called. After all, there were so many illustrious ancestors for whom to name a new institution. Yes, the Rebbe agreed, the yeshivah needed a name. Eisek HaTorah, it should be called. Not even ahavas Torah or cheishek HaTorah, simply eisek. The relationship between the talmid and the Gemara, at the most basic level: to sit and learn.

Many talmidim continued on to the chassidus’s flagship yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, Me’or Einayim. One young man was quite nervous before leaving for the prestigious yeshivah, and he shared his apprehension with the Rebbe.

A few weeks later, the Boro Park Rebbe arrived in Yerushalayim for a visit to his brother’s court. Whenever he came, it was Yom Tov, the two brothers reveling in physical proximity to each other, massive crowds coming to participate in the joint tishen and tefillos.

Late Leil Shabbos, at the end of the tish, the Boro Park Rebbe noticed this bochur. He didn’t nod to him or even call him over. The Rebbe walked over to him and placed an arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Nu? How’s it going? Do you have good chavrusas? Friends? Is it working out?”

The local chassidim might have gaped, but to that bochur, at that moment, his Rebbe’s arm around his shoulder, it was the most normal thing in the world.

Reb Itzik’l knew them all by name, the parents and their children. He understood them and let them know that he did. With the pashtus, the matter-of-fact way he conveyed truths to them, he taught them to deal with real issues, showed them the wellsprings of simchah and strength within them.

And what a chassidus it has become!

The Rebbe of Rachmistrivka isn’t considered an orator. Throughout his life, he has suffered from a stutter that makes speech difficult, though it disappears entirely when he davens from the amud. (Then, a chassid explained, the Rebbe is standing in tefillah, and he does not exist at all: How can one stutter if he does not exist?)

Even so, the Torah he offers is a tapestry of chassidic thought — not uniquely Chernobyl, not uniquely Rachmistrivka, not uniquely anything. So sweet is the Rebbe’s Torah, that his (very typically titled) Amaras Teharos on Chumash is constantly being reprinted, a classic sefer for this generation.

Until a few years ago, he would speak for the bochurim in his yeshivah, but some topics were off limits. He would talk about toil in learning — a prerequisite for chassidus — and the centrality of proper middos, but when it comes to anavah, the trait of humility, he was silent. “How can I discuss this… with what would I be proud?”

For years, the Rebbe would take the garbage down with him each morning, and a gabbai once found him standing on a chair in the shul before Pesach, cleaning the seforim.

Eventually, the chassidus expanded to the point that a new beis medrash was needed to supplement the small beis medrash in the Rebbe’s home. The spacious new beis medrash a block away was jammed that first Rosh Hashanah, and before tekios, the gabbai reminded the Rebbe that there was a new mikveh a few flights down. He didn’t have to walk back home to be toivel.

The Rebbe thanked him but said he preferred to use the mikveh in his house. The senior chassidim speculated about possible reasons, suggesting that perhaps the Rebbe wanted a moment of perfect privacy, in his own home, to concentrate on the kavanos of tekias shofar.

One of them, unable to contain his curiosity, asked the Rebbe, who explained his reasoning. That morning, the Rebbetzin had mentioned that one of the pots on the stove needed to be removed from the fire during the day, and she would have to leave shul to attend to it. The Rebbe assured her that she didn’t have to come back, since he was going to use the mikveh at home regardless, and he could take care of the pot.

With these holy kavanos did the Rachmistrivka Rebbe go prepare for tekios.

Both brothers, the “admorim shlita,” led flourishing courts, the mutual respect and reverence only increasing as the chassidus grew. But then, in 2004, Rav Yisroel Mordechai was niftar, and his son Rav Dovid succeeded him.

Rachmistrivka wasn’t an alliance of brothers anymore. Yet nothing changed. The masters of “gurnisht” opened a new frontier in disappearing in the presence of the other, the Yerushalayim Rebbe refusing to fihr tish in the presence of his uncle and the Boro Park Rebbe treating his young nephew as an equal.

When the Yerushalayim Rebbe visited Brooklyn, there was a great demand from chassidim eager to take advantage of the young Rebbe’s proximity. They begged him to lead one tish, and finally he agreed that, once his uncle’s tisch was complete and the elder Rebbe had gone home, he would preside over a botteh in the home of his hosts. The Yerushalayim Rebbe has a different approach from his uncle’s; his weekly tish lasts for hours, and it draws crowds too large for a private house. The plan didn’t seem very practical. So the children of the Boro Park Rebbe invited their cousin to lead his botteh in their father’s beis medrash following the regular tish, which isn’t a very long affair.

The visiting Rebbe participated in his uncle’s tish like a devoted chassid. The Boro Park Rebbe completed the tish, but on the way home, he turned to the chassid accompanying him. “Reb Simcha,” he said, “I have to leave, because I am weak, but you should go right back — the Rebbe is fihring tish!”

The Rebbe! Go quick!

Sometimes, it’s not about words.

In the Rebbe’s room, one experiences proximity to someone whose very presence is comforting. More than one chassid has described going in feeling burdened and, even before speaking, feeling enwrapped in a blanket of tranquility.

There is compassion in the Rebbe’s eyes, but also a wellspring of faith. He has known pain. Not long after he moved to America, his sister passed away, and he was devastated. He sat shivah alone, far from his parents and siblings, but the mourning didn’t stop after seven days. He carried that sorrow for quite some time, until a Belzer chassid stopped him one day on the Williamsburg street.

He had just returned from a visit to Eretz Yisrael, where his Rebbe, Rav Ah’rele, had given him a mission. “Go to Williamsburg and find the eidem of the Skverer Rebbe… and please send him my regards.”

It was a jolt of chizuk, a cord of holy connection with the Land and its sainted residents, a reminder from a Rebbe who had lost so much that better days lay ahead, that man can rise above challenge.

Many years ago, the Rebbe’s eldest son suddenly passed away. Reb Mordche, who’d been a son-in-law of the Rebbe’s brother, was a leader in the chaburah in Yerushalayim, a gaon in Torah and chassidus, and the loss was devastating.

At the close of the shivah, the bereaved father flew to Eretz Yisrael to be with his orphaned grandchildren, and he started his trip at the fresh kever of his son, on Har Hazeisim. Surrounded by chassidim and family members, the Rebbe approached the grave and, with his expression impassive, he said Kaddish.

It was intriguing that the Rebbe, who was shattered by the loss, showed no emotion, and his mother, who worried that maybe he hadn’t processed the tragedy, called him in and asked him about it. He explained that he’d spent seven days listening to people comfort him “among the aveilim of Tziyon and Yerushalayim,” reminding him that his pain was but a tiny sliver of the collective pain of a homeless nation.

“I very much wanted to cry at Mordche’s kever, but I was standing there, on Har Hazeisim, just across from the desolation and ruin of the Ribbono shel Olam’s home — I should cry about my own pain at that moment?”

Gurnisht is to accept the decree with dignity and faith. Gurnisht mit gurnisht is to deny oneself the tears that are longing to flow free.

An interior decorator might refer to the decor in the Rebbe’s room as “honest,” the room breathing with its own unassuming authenticity, no heirloom clock or ancient tabak-pushke soaking up air. In this room, you, the visitor, are the most precious heirloom.

If the Rebbe has a favorite word, it might well be “Yerushalayim.” Over the years, many down-and-out visitors from the Holy City, tired after a day of circulating in the crowded Brooklyn streets for crumpled dollar bills, have come here to receive that welcome. A Yerushalayimer Yid! Eat something. Lead us in Minchah. What a zechus. How can we help you?

When the Rebbe hears that my great-grandfather bore the exalted title of Yerushalayimer Yid, his eyes open wider, and I feel a current of pride, as if I did something right. “Reb Berel Ludmir, from Rechov Hayeshivah.… Wait,” the Rebbe is delighted now, “he davened in the Boyaner kloiz in Batei Hornstein, yes?”

The brachos that flow reassure me — the Rebbe’s expression changing as he reads different parts of my kvittel — but the sense I have as I stand up isn’t gratitude for the gift of blessing, but for the gift of connection, for allowing me to feel a bond with someone so clearly connected to Heaven.

The Rachmstrivka Rebbe is an older man. He endured a stroke several years ago, and it weakened him. If in the past, tears of dveikus or longing were kept inside, in recent years he no longer has the strength to keep everything hidden, and you can see it on his face.

Back in 1982 the Machnovka Rebbe thrust a title upon him, one he reluctantly accepted.

When people refer to him as “the Rebbe,” he will sometimes mumble, “oich mir a Rebbe,” and wave his hand. A close chassid brought a bar mitzvah bochur to the Rebbe so that the Rebbe might lay tefillin on the boy for the first time, and the devoted chassid expressed the hope that the bochur would follow the minhag of Rachmistrivka.

The Rebbe looked at him in surprise. “But you have a family minhag! I wouldn’t be pleased if my einekel changed our minhag because ‘some rebbe’le’ suggested it!”

Some Rebbe’le.

The Rebbe once shared a memory of his father-in-law’s final days. The Skverer Rebbe was lying in the hospital, and though he’d been very vigilant about being tended only by male nurses, an emergency injection was needed and a female nurse was dispatched.

The Rebbe was distressed and begged his family to allow him to leave the hospital so that he could go to the mikveh. The Skverer Rebbe had endured intense suffering, and he’d often moaned with pain, but after this incident, he was completely silent, saying just one word, “mikveh!” The Skverer Rebbe’s final wish was never fulfilled, and he never got that final chance to immerse in the mikveh during his lifetime.

And in a uniquely Rachmistrivka take, the Rebbe reflects on his understanding of what happened. “There are Yidden who leave the world without having been able to reach the state of purity they might have liked to achieve, and my shver, the tzaddik, had to experience that in order to lift them up.”

To leave the world longing for a tevilah and not getting it. Gurnisht. To give that away to others? Gurnisht mit gurnisht.

The Rebbe wants to retire, the Rebbetzin once remarked, and go spend his time learning in Zichron Moshe, back home in Yerushalayim.

Perhaps he does, but it was never about what he wanted, never about him at all.

This is the young man who left Yerushalayim carrying instructions from a malach, the sainted Rebbe of Belz.

If they push you, do not refuse. And so he became a Rebbe, even when he didn’t want to.

And send cookies to the poor people, the better cookies, the Belzer Rebbe said.

Are we not a generation of paupers? And has the Rebbe not smiled with such warmth, with such generosity? Has he not looked at us as princes, giving us words that nourish, words that bring such joy?

Though he takes nothing, in a humble room in a humble building in Boro Park, a Rebbe of a different era is still giving, still giving cookies to the paupers.


Rachmistrivka: Where Brothers Work in Concert

When Rav Mordechai, the maggid of Chernobyl, passed away, he left behind eight righteous sons. Each of those sons established a chassidus: Chernobyl, Tolna, Skver, Trisk, Makarov, Cherkas, and Koroschev all had new Rebbes. The youngest brother was Rav Yochanan of Rachmistrivka, and from its inception, the chassidus was marked by the modesty and simplicity of its leader.

After the passing of Rav Yochanan, his four sons would lead together, giving Rachmistrivka a new identity: a chassidus where brothers work in concert. In time, the eldest son, Rav Dovid, settled in Zlatipoli, and the next brother, Rav Mordechai, moved to Eretz Yisrael. The youngest brothers, Rav Menachem Nochum and Rav Zev, remained in Rachmistrivka, leading the chassidim together. When a father would bring his son to Rachmistrivka to put on tefillin for the first time, Rav Menachem Nochum would put the child’s tefillin shel yad on his arm, and Rav Zev would place the tefillin shel rosh on his head.

In 5686, Rav Menachem Nochum made his way to Eretz Yisrael. Rachmistrivka would become a Yerushalayim-based chassidus — the city filled with scholars and saints providing the perfect backdrop for a Rebbe who sought privacy.

Rav Menachem Nochum was succeeded by his two sons, Rav Dovid and Rav Avraham Dov. After Rav Avraham Dov’s passing, Rav Dovid remained the sole leader of the Rachmistrivka chassidus until his passing on the 13th of Tammuz, 5710 / 1950.

Rav Dovid’s son was the second Rav Yochanan of Rachmistrivka, the father of a set of brothers who served as Rebbes in tandem: Rav Yisrael Mordechai of Yerushalayim and Rav Chai Yitzchak of Boro Park. Rav Yisroel Mordechai passed away in 2004, and he was succeeded by his son, Rav Dovid, in Yerushalayim, who is Rebbe along with the Boro Park Rebbe, Rav Chai Yitzchak. It’s a familiar theme for the chassidus: uncle and nephew leading Rachmistrivka as one.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)

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