On this night, in this shul, there is a Rebbe doing what Rebbes have always done
Motzaei Shabbos was a night of family Chanukah parties: get-togethers with bowls of chocolate coins and amateur family games and the uncle who insists that there’s a tradition to sing the zeide’s “Yevanim” and the brother-in-law who sticks around for clean-up and carts out three bags of garbage with one hand and the one who doesn’t and slips away and thinks no one notices but they do. (Hint: me.)
In middle of the happy commotion, my Hatzolah brother-in-law suddenly disappeared. By the time we realized he was gone we had already heard the news, and suddenly the feeling that’s becoming weirdly familiar — panic and confusion and what-does-this-mean — took hold. My parents-in-law live a short drive from Rabbi Rottenberg’s Forshay shul, where a vicious stabbing had just taken place. The perpetrator was on the loose and suddenly, we were locking doors and looking for baseball bats.
Then, details slowly emerged. The names of the victims. The account of the attack. As happens in such situations, voice notes piled up, each one an on-the-scene account from a different Hatzolah/Chaverim member, the contradiction and disparity in no way diminishing from the tremendous certainty with which they were forwarded as fact.
As the hours went by, the updates kept streaming in: The perpetrator was caught. The names of the injured jumped onto Tehillim lists and lips of Yidden all over. And then a picture came out, shared on the chareidi news sites, of the Forshay Rebbe, Rav Chaim Laibish Rottenberg, whose sons were among the injured. The immediate reaction to the picture of the gold-beketshed rebbe, sitting calmly at his Melaveh Malkah tish, was one of wonder. Really? Did he not have anywhere else to be? Was it proper?
About one hundred years ago, there was a small town that drew people from all over Hungary on Motzaei Shabbos, a place where “Melavah d’Malkah” was the high point of the week. On long winter Motzaei Shabbosim, people would take the express train from Budapest, traveling four hours and arriving in the village in time for the Rebbe’s entrance to the tish. The Rebbe would wash his hands, then circulate between the tables, greeting guests and distributing the fresh, hot bilkelech prepared specially for this feast.
The food at the Melaveh d’Malkah brought healing; those with stomach ailments were cured just by sipping the borscht. The Rebbe would share stories of tzaddikim, serving up portions of emunas tzaddikim as generous as the food, fortifying and strengthening the Yidden who came to join him.
Git voch, the rebbe would cry out, a call coming forth from Kerestir to bring salvation into the world.
In Forshay of 2019, the Rebbe — a descendant of Reb Shaye’le — sat last Motzaei Shabbos and led a tish as his sons and beloved chassidim lay in hospital beds.
We were raised with stories of those who blew tekios and baked matzos and lit candles in times of great peril and darkness. In Forshay, Melaveh d’Malkah is seen that way too; the seudah of Dovid Hamelech is a mitzvah that’s accorded the same seriousness.
A little more history.
About 30 years ago, not long after the Rebbe assumed leadership of this kehillah, a fire broke out at the shul. The small building — with the Rebbe’s home upstairs and the shul in the basement — was destroyed.
It was Shemini Atzeres afternoon.
The Rebbe and his family, suddenly homeless, moved in with a nearby family, and that night, hakafos were held at a neighborhood shul, Bais Avrohom, which graciously made its basement available.
The hakafos that night would stamp this kehillah, Netzach Yisroel of Forshay, forever after. The young Rebbe — 32, maybe 33 years old — led the hakafos with extraordinary spirit and joy. He, his Rebbetzin, and their many young children had no more home, no more clothing, and the shul faced an uncertain future, but it was Simchas Torah!
Yidden react by rising above their circumstances, by finding ways to blow/light/bake/dance despite the pogroms and hate and guards with barking dogs.
In Forshay of the early 1990s, the young Rebbe showed that the resilience and spirit of generations past could sometimes be necessary even in idyllic Forshay, where the lawns are vast and mountains are visible from your back porch.
That was then.
And then there’s now, when Yahadus America is wondering and worrying and everyone is a little wary, and life feels a bit like an amusement park’s haunted house where every step requires caution and every noise makes you freeze — and he’s done it again.
On Motzaei Shabbos, I went to Rabbi Rottenberg’s shul. I crossed the crime-scene tape on Forshay Road, saw the helicopter overhead and investigators working on the house itself and entered the shul, where the Rebbe was speaking.
People had asked about music, he said, but he felt it inappropriate to play music as long as the victims were still in critical condition. But, he continued, his voice trembling with emotion and something, a flicker in his eyes, hinting at the trauma of the last few hours, there is another approach: the Shelah Hakadosh quotes the pasuk “Tashuri meirosh amanah” as a source for the principle that true emunah calls for song even before salvation is seen. The ode of praise, he explained, is itself a catalyst for a yeshuah. So no music, ruled the Rebbe, but singing? We must sing.
And he started the niggun, “Chasdei Hashem ki lo samnu.”
This is Monsey, not Kerestir. There are no horses navigating mountain roads to bring hungry Jews from Budapest. Two miles away, there are still superstores selling 12 different kinds of doughnuts, six dollars each, the peace and plenty and prosperity of America filling window displays which by the time you read this will have been cleared for Tu B’Shevat platters or maybe even shalach manos designs — may it continue, gezundheit — but on this night, in this shul, there is a Rebbe doing what Rebbes have always done.
Reminding us that whatever is going on outside, inside we’re the same people that we’ve always been.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 792)
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