| Magazine Feature |

Pioneering Spirit   

  The story of the chalutz who became the pioneer of teshuvah in Eretz Yisrael

Photos: Itzik Balinsky

Meah Shearim, 1920.

A group of bareheaded young men walked hesitantly through the neighborhood, studying the crowded row of houses that lined the street. Their short trousers and sandals identified them as chalutzim, the pioneers of the secular kibbutzim committed to draining the swamps and rebuilding the land. Finally, they came to the building they were looking for: Yeshivas Meah Shearim, in the heart of the shuk. They walked into the beis medrash and it didn’t take but a minute for them to find the young man they were looking for — a holy, bearded Jew, clad in a Yerushalmi chalat, poring over his sefer. To the surprise of the others in the beis medrash, the guests approached this man and asked to speak to him. He signaled to them silently that he would come outside with them, so that the others would not be disturbed.

Seconds later, once outside, they pounded him with questions. “Alex! What happened to you? Are you okay? Do you need help? Maybe you need money?” It wasn’t the first time they’d tried to win him back. But this time, to their surprise, their questions were met with absolute silence. The Yerushalmi avreich — their former kibbutz partner, the strong one who kept them inspired and forward-moving when exhaustion took over, when Arab interlopers sabotaged their hard work, when the harsh elements and unyielding terrain threatened to pull them under — tapped lightly on his lips, and uttered “Nu, uh, aha, nu,” as if to say, “I cannot speak now.”

“Alex has gone crazy,” his old friends concluded.

The friends conveyed their opinion in a telegram dispatched to Alex’s parents, the Uri family in Vienna.

Alex’s father, Reb Elazar Uri, received the sparsely-worded telegram and became anxious. He hurried to travel to Bluzhov, to the Tzvi LaTzaddik — Rebbe Rav Tzvi Elimelch Spira  zy”a, a grandson of the Bnei Yissaschar and a distant cousin of Reb Elazar. The Bluzhover Rebbe knew Reb Elazar Uri well. Vienna in those days was the large medical hub of the Austrian Empire, and it drew many people from all over Europe seeking cures for their ailments. The Uri family was known for hosting rebbes and rabbanim who needed to stay in the busy city.

“Rebbe!” Reb Elazar cried, “not only has my son become a secular kibbutznik, but he’s gone crazy, according to his friends from the Holy Land.” The Rebbe looked at the kvittel and read, “Alexander Sender ben Rivka.” Then he raised his eyes to the chassid and declared: “Zera kodesh.”

Infused with Hope 

Rav Alexander Sender Uri ztz”l was born in 1898 in Vienna to a family descended from Rav Tzvi Elimelech Spira, the Bnei Yissaschar. Yet at the time, both the Haskalah influence and the fervor of secular Zionism ensnared many of the city’s bochurim, and young Alexander was one of them. And then, with the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and the forced conscriptions, Austrian draft officers who came to the Uri home were thrilled to have found four eligible boys under one roof.

Their mother, frantic with worry, traveled to the Tzvi LaTzaddik in Bluzhov. “Rebbe,” she cried, “they took my four sons!” But the Rebbe just lifted his hat and said, pointing to the place where tefillin is placed, “All your children are here, there is nothing to worry about.” Indeed, for four years, the brothers were on the Italian front, where they saw their comrades falling in one battle after another. When a new deployment of soldiers arrived, the brothers were the only ones alive from the previous cohort to greet them.

“The merit of the Bluzhover Rebbe saved my father’s life, both spiritually and physically,” Reb Sender’s son, Reb Yaakov Uri ybl”c, relates about his illustrious father, one of the tzaddikim of old Jerusalem who passed away in 1992 at the age of 94. “The army barely provided the soldiers with food, so they had to hunt animals in order to survive. But my father never sullied his soul by eating treif food, not in the army and not afterward, when he joined a secular kibbutz. You see, before his conscription, he’d already joined the ‘Blue and Whites,’ a secular Zionist youth group dedicated to building up Eretz Yisrael. One of their mission statements was to be vegetarian, not to touch anything made with meat or chicken. He signed their pledge, which ultimately saved his soul from being contaminated. Before he passed away, he told me, ‘For the last 72 years, I have not put meat in my mouth, and I did not miss a single day at the mikveh.’”

After the war, he joined a convoy of pioneers on their way to Eretz Yisrael, young men who subsequently helped found the Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz of Beit Alfa. In the beginning they lived in tents, four people assigned to each tent. Alex shared a tent with three others: Levi Skolnik, who eventually became known as Levi Eshkol, the third prime minister of Israel; Meir Yaari, who became a leader of the Mapam party; and David Horowitz, who eventually became the governor of the Bank of Israel.

While these chalutzim had high aspirations for once again making the land bloom after 1,900 years, the harsh reality was different: Between malaria and other illnesses, starvation, fighting the elements, and Arab riots, many succumbed to depression and despair. But one pioneer, Alexander Uri, would infuse them with hope. He was their beacon through the fog of desperation and gloom. He would pull them into a circle and begin dancing, the chassidic blood of his parents and ancestors still coursing through his veins.

Like a Real Jew 

Reb Sender Uri’s great moment of change came in 1920 when he was sent with a group of workers from the kibbutz to the Meah Shearim area of Jerusalem as part of a work detail for the newly-founded Solel Boneh company. Their job was to pave the muddy, pot-holed path that would become Rechov Baharan, in front of what was then Berman’s Bakery [the 125-year-old bakery moved to Givat Shaul in 1965], which supplied bread to the Jerusalem hospitals.

One day, a bookseller named Reb Yehoshua Yonoson Rubinstein passed by pushing his cart of books for sale, and Alexander Uri inquired as to whether he had the holy sefer Bnei Yissaschar. The man was taken aback: What interest would a bareheaded pioneer have in the sefer Bnei Yissachar?

Alex explained: “He was my great-grandfather. The original manuscript is in my parents’ home in Vienna.”

“And the grandson of that tzaddik goes bare-headed and hews stones?” Rabbi Rubinstein asked.

The bookseller kept up the connection, coming to visit him in the nearby hostel where he and his friends were staying.  A spark began to flicker in the darkness of his life. Over the Pesach holiday, he began sneaking out to prayers at the Yemenite beit knesset next to the hostel.

In one of his very rare interviews, Reb Sender Uri spoke with the Hebrew Mishpacha in 1991, several months before his passing. He related the feelings of 70 years before, when he crossed  the line to become a baal teshuvah — a line that in those days was rarely traversed.

“After Pesach, the seforim seller told me he’d take me to yeshivah, and the words pierced my soul,” Reb Sender related. “It didn’t take me long to reach a decision. I turned to Rabbi Rubinstein immediately and said: ‘I’m not a chalutz! There’s nothing behind me. I want to go to yeshivah!’ My friends all stopped what they were doing and looked at me. ‘I’m leaving, take care of yourselves.’ They stared at me in utter shock. ‘I’m going,’ I repeated. I took the heavy pack, with the hammer and the other tools, and put it all on the ground. They were so stunned they couldn’t utter a word.

“‘Next Pesach,’ I said to myself, ‘I’ll sit down to the Seder like a real Jew.’”

Before Alex/Sender could change his mind, Rabbi Rubinstein took him to Rav Zelig Braverman, the rosh yeshivah of the central Meah Shearim yeshivah — and put him on a trajectory to eventually becoming one of the eminent chassidic personalities of Jerusalem.

Reb Zelig looked at the two in surprise. What was a fellow dressed like a kibbutznik doing in yeshivah? Rabbi Rubinstein hastened to explain. Reb Zelig turned to the kibbutznik and asked: “What do you know?”

“I forgot everything there in the bloody war in Austria,” Alex replied.

“If so,” Reb Zelig turned to the bookseller, “take him with you, teach him the basics, and then bring him back to me.”

“A short time passed, and my father returned to yeshivah,” Reb Yaakov relates. “This time, a large yarmulke covered his head, and his face was framed by long peyos. He was wearing a chalat, and everyone called him Sender, instead of Alex. Reb Zelig, whose daily schedule began at midnight, told my father, ‘I have time to learn with you all night; can you do that?’ My father agreed.”

Reb Sender himself described those moments from his long-ago memory: “Reb Zelig took me under his wing and learned with me b’chavrusa. For an entire year I learned with unshakable hasmadah, sleeping at night on the bench. I was used to that, because in building a kibbutz, getting the land to grow and fighting the elements, I was accustomed to a very ascetic lifestyle.”

Like No Other  

For three years, Reb Sender learned diligently day and night, acquiring a reputation as an authentic talmid chacham. Reb Zelig, who was familiar with Reb Sender’s expansive knowledge and brilliant mind, appointed him to be a choizer in the yeshivah, and to prepare the bochurim for Reb Zelig’s shiur.

When Reb Sender was 26, Rav Shmuel Brichta, one of the eminent Yerushalmi personalities of the time, came to Reb Zelig and asked for a shidduch for his daughter. Reb Zelig pointed to Sender Uri.

“But he’s a baal teshuvah! He was a kibbutznik!” Reb Shmuel gasped at the suggestion.

“Indeed,” Reb Zelig replied, “but he’s a talmid chacham and a masmid like few others I’ve ever seen.”

After the wedding, Reb Sender and his new wife moved to Batei Rand, near her parents, generously supported by his father in Vienna — who saw his own rebbe’s words come to fruition before his eyes. There, Reb Sender joined a select group of scholars and adopted many ascetic practices, including prolonged and frequent fasts. One of the group members was a Rachmistrivka chassid named Rav Chaim Hersh Eisenbach — and another chapter in Reb Sender’s rich life was about to begin.

“It was in the winter of 1927, ten years before the passing of Rebbe Menachem Nachum (“Nachumche”) of Rachmistrivka,” Reb Yaakov Uri relates. “Like every day, my father went to immerse in the mikveh early in the morning. It was freezing, and as my father forged his way through the snow, he saw Rav Chaim Hersh Eisenbach walking toward him. Reb Chaim Hersh was worried that because of the snow, they may not be able to gather a minyan at the Rebbe’s house, and offered my father to join. Now, the Rebbe lived in the Musrara neighborhood at the time, and walking from Batei Rand, which is off Agrippas Street, to Musrara is a hike even when there’s no snow… After davening, Reb Chaim Hersh gave the Rebbe a kvittel for my father, and when my father approached, the Rebbe asked about his life in Vienna and everything he went through since coming to Eretz Yisrael.

“When the Rebbe finished speaking, my father turned to go,” Reb Yaakov continues. “As he was at the door, he heard the Rebbe remark, ‘Haba l’taher mesayin b’yado — Hashem supports those who seek to purify themselves.’ My father related that the holy Rebbe’s words lodged themselves deep in his heart, and at that moment he decided that this was his place. From that point on, he began to come regularly.”

Later, when the Rebbe heard about Reb Sender’s frequent fasts, he summoned him and said, “This is not our way.” He asked him to desist, and allowed him to fast only on Monday and Thursday.

While Reb Sender’s father sent generous support for the first few years, once Reb Sender turned 30, it was time for him to seek out a parnassah. He considered safrus, or perhaps becoming a mohel or a batim-macher, but the Rachmistrivka Rebbe told him that neither was appropriate. Reb Sender had also heard that Shaare Zedek Hospital was looking for a bookkeeper, and years before, in Vienna, he’d studied the profession. When the Rebbe heard this, his eyes lit up, and he instructed Reb Sender to apply.

At the hospital, he met the renowned founder and director Dr. Moshe Wallach, who didn’t get what kind of position the Yerushalmi avreich with the long beard was looking for in the hospital.

“Bookkeeping,” Reb Sender replied, and added, “I also know German and several other languages.” Dr. Wallach gave him some letters in German, and Reb Sender translated them on the spot. He was hired. The hospital soon came to appreciate his prodigious talents as he kept all the accounts in meticulous order, using his many creative skills and astounding memory to solve the stickiest problems that arose.

“My father worked at Shaare Zedek for 35 years, until his retirement at the age of 65,” says Reb Yaakov, “after which he was asked to return. ‘We’re not managing without you,’ they told him. When he was 78, he again considered retiring, but was again asked to stay on. He continued coming every day until the age of 92, when he finally retired for good. He worked in Shaare Zedek for 62 years, and never missed a day of work.”

The Whole Plate

On a Friday night in 1929, in honor of the birth of the Rebbe’s great grandson — a son to his grandson Rav Yochanan (who would become Rebbe until his own passing in 1982), the chassidim crowded into the small beis medrash of Rachmistrikve for the shalom zachar. When Reb Sender arrived, the shul was packed, and he found himself pushed out into the equally crowded hallway, trying to edge his way inside and to get closer to the Rebbe’s tish. But as he stood at the doorway, he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Der Rebbe ruft eich, the Rebbe is calling you.” He realized that the Rebbe probably wanted to seat him at the tish, so he remained standing in his place. The Rebbe again sent someone to call him. This time, he acceded, pushing his way inside until he was standing behind the Rebbe’s chair. When a bowl of arbes was brought to the table, the chassidim waited for the Rebbe to make a brachah on them, and then distribute them as shirayim to the large crowd. But instead, the Rebbe tasted the arbes, lifted up the bowl, and to the shock of all those present, placed the whole thing in Reb Sender’s hands.

Reb Sender, shocked as the rest of them, conducted himself like a genuine chassid and did not ask anything about the strange incident. Twenty years later, though, the riddle was solved: Rebbe Yochanan’s oldest son, Yisrael Mordechai, the baby for whom that shalom zachor was held, became engaged to Reb Sender Uri’s daughter. Rav Yisrael Mordechai would become the next Rebbe, and he and the Rebbetzin, tichyeh, would be the parents of Rebbe Dovid Twersky, the current Rachmistrivka Rebbe of Jerusalem, and Rav Nachman Yosef Twersky of Crown Heights.

“My father was very modest,” Reb Yaakov explains, “and he’d never join the holy men of Yerushalayim who would sit next to the Rebbe at the tish. But he merited to bask in the presence of four generations of Rachmistrikve rebbes: Rebbe Menachem Nachum, his son Rebbe Dovid, his son Rebbe Yochanan, and his son — my father’s son-in-law and my brother-in-law — Rebbe Yisrael Mordechai.”

What happens when your son-in-law becomes your rebbe?

“From the moment Rav Yisrael Mordechai was coronated Rebbe after Rebbe Yochanan’s passing, my father no longer called him by name, only ‘Rebbe.’ He conducted himself like a submissive chassid, like a servant before his rebbi,” Reb Yaakov relates. “The fact that he was ‘the Rebbe’s shver’ didn’t change anything for him. And I’m sure that if my father were alive today, he would submit himself like an ardent chassid to his grandson, the current Rebbe.”

To the Tune of his Soul  

The startling combination of determination, enthusiasm, brilliance and unmatched humility that characterized Reb Sender throughout his life was really no surprise to those who knew him in his kibbutz days, some of whom kept in contact. While Reb Sender abandoned their lifestyle, he would never abandon another Jew.

“I heard from some of his old friends, that in the work detail paving roads, the backbreaking work of dragging heavy buckets full of gravel and chopping up boulders was so challenging that there were often moments that the group felt they just couldn’t go on,” Reb Yaakov says. “But then my father would put his buckets down and burst into spiriting dancing, which soon drew in his friends as well. His soul knew he was doing holy work, and it sang.”

Israeli journalist and filmmaker Micha Shagrir, who once went through the archives of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, found an interesting entry about Alexander Uri from those early days, when so many others felt defeated by the challenges they faced: “He was like a wellspring that erupted with fire and enthusiasm, and that’s why he was able to hold on. He danced and worked, danced and worked, while others broke under the load. He had unusual emotional fortitude, dancing to the chassidic tunes of his soul.”

He was also gifted with impressive physical strength. During one of his trips to a work camp that would later become the sister kibbutz of Ein Charod, three Bedouin men approached him and asked him for tobacco. Because he didn’t have any, they came closer with a large club and began beating him on the head. With blood flowing, Alex took out brass knuckles, knocked them all down, and then fled.

He had a strong streak of fairness, and wouldn’t take bureaucratic decisions lightly. When the kibbutz announced a broad cutback in the allowances given to the kibbutz members, along with a cigarette restriction, Alex was angry. As an act of protest, he took eight cigarettes, stuck them into the eight holes of his chalil (recorder) and smoked them all together.

Yet as tough and determined as he was, he was also soft and sensitive. He never allowed hitting horses or mules with a whip, and would  threaten anyone he caught abusing animals.

His Hashomer Hatzair friends, who saw him as a role model and as a window into the chareidi world that was so far from them, would sometimes come to visit. And while many of his former friends kept in contact, “For the most part, those visits took place in his office in Shaare Zedek, not at home,” Reb Yaakov explains, “so we hardly ever saw it happen.”

One friend who maintained ties with Reb Sender was author Yudke Ya’ari. At one point, when he was hospitalized in Shaare Zedek, Reb Sender was at his side constantly, attending to his needs.

When the Zionist Congress gathered to mark the Third Aliyah, Reb Sender was invited and in a rare move, even opted to participate. The event took place on Motzaei Shabbos, and Reb Sender attended — wearing his shtreimel. When he entered the hall, a tumult erupted. “Is that our Alex?” his friends asked. “Look where he is and where we are.”  They were standing around him, transfixed. They were pumping him with questions, some inquisitive, some contentious, but he hadn’t lost his persuasive touch, and they all wanted to hear what he had to say.

As his friends were still standing around him, Prime Minister Ben Gurion walked into the room. For a moment, everyone rose in his honor, but they quickly turned their attention back to Reb Sender.

“That was a moment of kiddush Hashem,” Reb Yaakov relates. “The arrival of the bareheaded prime minister drew minimal interest from the crowd, because their attention was riveted on the chassid with the shtreimel.

In fact, even when he changed his life around, Reb Sender Uri’s powerful personality still held influence with his former friends.

“My father never liked to talk about himself, but I heard the following story from Reb Menachem Alter, who was a relative and close confidant of the Pnei Menachem, Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter of Ger ztz”l,” Reb Yaakov relates. “One day in the 1960s, the Pnei Menachem — who at the time was rosh yeshivah of Sfas Emes and chairman of Agudas Yisrael — instructed Reb Menachem to summon my father urgently. The Rebbe was aware of his connections from his younger years and thought he might be able to help nullify a law that could harm the yeshivos.

“‘Reb Sender,’ the future rebbe told him, ‘There is a difficult decree hanging over the yeshivos. Reb Menachem is ready to drive you right now to the government compound.’ My father followed Reb Menachem out, hoping he’d be able to have an audience with prime minister Levi Eshkol, his former friend and tent-mate.

“When they arrived at the prime minister’s office, my father informed the secretary that Alex Uri wanted to meet with the prime minister. When Levi Eshkol heard this, he instructed that the guest be admitted immediately.  ‘We’ve been sold out,’ my father told him. ‘It’s inconceivable that the yeshivah budgets should be cancelled.’ Eshkol responded, ‘You know that there’s a vote about it tomorrow in the Knesset,’ to which my father pleaded, ‘Please. Don’t be a party to this decree.’ Indeed, Levi Eshkol, who had a certain backhanded admiration for the path my father had chosen, acceded to the request. The next day, the proposed bill was taken off the agenda.”

No Delays

“About a year before his passing, when my father was already 93,” Reb Yaakov relates, “he was suffering from a certain medical condition that required surgery. Because he had worked at Shaare Zedek for so many decades, the staff all knew him well, and Professor Steiner agreed to do the surgery. After checking if my father would be able to withstand the surgery, he pronounced him ‘healthy as an athlete,’ and wrote his opinion.

“My father lay on the bed in his green gown, ready for the surgery. When his turn came, an emergency suddenly came up and my father had to wait. Suddenly he called me. ‘Yaakov, bring me my clothes and let’s get out of here before they call me.’ ‘What happened?’ I asked in alarm. ‘I’ll tell you at home,’ he said. ‘Now we have to get out of here before anyone sees.’

“I was quiet, waiting until we arrived home to hear why my father had changed his mind so suddenly and uncharacteristically. When we arrived home, he related: ‘Dr. Wallach had a very strict rule, that he would lock the doors to the wards between two and four, so that the patients could rest. Anyone inside could not leave and anyone outside could not get in. Some of the employees — including me — had a key, but his rule was quite strict and no one dared defy it. One day though, I heard loud knocking at the hospital door. Even though no one went to open, the knocker didn’t give up, and because my office was near the entrance to the ward, it was hard for me to ignore it. I didn’t know what to do. If I opened the door, I’d be in trouble. On the other hand, the anonymous knocker needed something that clearly could not be delayed. Finally, I got up and went out to see what was going on.

“To my utter shock, there was Rav Shlom’ke of Zvhill zy”a, standing and banging on the door to get out of the department. I hurried over and asked, “Rebbe, what happened? You have an appointment for an operation today.’ Reb Shlom’ke didn’t reply, but put his hand on his mouth, signaling that he could not speak, and with the second hand, he motioned for me to open the door. I complied and he hurried out. It turned out that for some reason he’d backtracked on the surgery, but because he was afraid I’d try to convince him to go back, he refused to speak. And now, while I was lying there, ready for the surgery, I remembered this incident and thought that if Hashem put this memory in my head now, it was clearly a hint that I also had to leave. But because I was afraid you’d try to persuade me to remain, I refused to talk until we got home.”

A year later, though, on 8 Tishrei 5753/1992, Reb Sender Uri told his son that he sensed his time had come. “It was strange,” Reb Yaakov remembers, “because he had already gone to the mikveh that morning and maintained his regular schedule. He actually passed away four weeks later, on 7 Cheshvan, and until a few days before, he functioned normally.

“I agreed to remain at his side, as per his request,” says Reb Yaakov. “One day, he said to me the words of the pasuk, ‘Kol ochel tesa’ev nafsham, v’yagiu ad sha’arei maves [Their soul despises all food, and they reach the portals of death].’ After that, he refused to eat. As such, he became dehydrated, and was taken to Shaare Zedek to get an IV. When his son-in-law, the Rachmistrivka Rebbe, came to visit him, my father said to him, ‘Oy Rebbe, I’m leaving the world and surely the Rebbe will daven for me. So please, could the Rebbe daven that I pass away without any delays…’

“On 7 Cheshvan, my father suddenly said, ‘It’s a holy day today, it is the day of rain. This will be the day.’”

Reb Sender said Vidui that entire day and  night, and as the blessing of rain came down to nourish the Holy Land where his passion was ignited, his pure soul rose above.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 876)

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