| Magazine Feature |

Timeless Truths

The Biala-Lugano Rebbe shares timeless wisdom for a new generation

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Moshe Goldstein, Mishpacha archives


t’s not every day that we merit to be received by the elder rebbe of the generation, and so we straighten our gartels, gather our wits, and walk into the room on Jerusalem’s Rechov Yaakovson, whose walls have heard so much pain yet have absorbed so much wisdom.

The first thing to strike us are the very wise, penetrating eyes. More than 90 years of hasmadah, of a life of toil in Torah that began as a child on the run from the Nazis, have not dimmed the Biala Rebbe’s freshness and sharpness. A model of patience, kindness, consistency, and discipline, mechaber of over 30 seforim, and elder member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Rav Betzalel Simcha Menachem Bentzion Rabinowicz —Rebbe Bentzion — is known as the Biala-Lugano Rebbe after the Swiss city whose community he led before returning to Eretz Yisrael with the passing of his father, the Chelkas Yehoshua of Biala, when he was chosen to lead the chassidus.

If we ever wanted an example of a place where ruchniyus prevails over gashmiyus in a tangible way, we got it the minute we entered the Biala Rebbe’s room. It’s hard to ignore the physical fatigue of this elderly rebbe after hours of receiving chassidim for brachos and eitzos in advance of the new year – but it’s also impossible not to notice that any external tiredness is cancelled out by an intense internal vibrancy. The Rebbe’s Torah fortress has lots of cracks, but the kind that let the Torah seep to the outside.

This was clearly evident in the sharp, articulate, clear, and supportive answers he gives to all those who seek his support and wisdom – chassidim but so many others from all walks of life, even businessmen in search of financial insight.

And that’s why, for the past half a century or more, he’s been an address for thousands of people in need of advice, guidance, and direction – always dispensed with his calm, European-influenced demeanor, laced with decades of intense Torah study, together with his acute understanding of human nature and the complexities and challenges specific to this generation.

One of the big surprises of the chassidic world might be the story of Biala chassidus. Anyone who knows some modern chassidic history and walks through the main headquarters on Yaakovson Street, visits the yeshivah campuses in Bnei Brak and Elad, or pops into any one of the 15 shtiblach around the country, will surely wonder how all of this came about.

In order to understand, we need to first visit another, much older, beis medrash on the corner of Yosef ben Mattisyahu Street in Geula. In this tiny beis medrash — just a few square meters in size, with one central table in the middle and a few benches on the sides – the post-Holocaust seeds were planted. Less than 70 years ago, this small room contained pretty much the entire chassidus. There were times when there wasn’t even a minyan. But there was always a fire.

The entire yishuv in Jerusalem knew of the dynamic personality, with the weak body but giant spirit, whose avodas Hashem had become renowned all over – Rav Yechiel Yehoshua Rabinowicz, the holy Rebbe of Biala zy”a, known as the Chelkas Yehoshua for the sefer he wrote, and the father of the Biala-Lugano Rebbe. Many would come to learn from the ways of this holy tzaddik, who would spend most of the day in tallis and tefillin, and was known for his intense, hours-long prayers and especially careful recitation of Krias Shema. (He would often tell those who came for a brachah to be extra careful in reciting the Shema.) The Beis Yisrael of Gur, his next-door neighbor, would open his window on Friday night to hear the Biala Rebbe recite Kiddush. The Brisker Rav would send his talmidim to see the Krias Shema of the Biala Rebbe, telling them, “Look how a Yid takes upon himself Ol malchus Shamayim.”


The Chelkas Yehoshua was born in Shedlitz, Poland, where his father was the first Biala Rebbe. He was just six years old when his father died, and that year he fell out of a window and broke his bones. He was rushed to the capital city, Warsaw, in order to undergo a series of operations and a rehabilitation process that lasted half a year. During this time, his uncle, the Biala Rebbe of Mezritch (his father’s brother, who assumed the mantle of leadership until Yechiel Yehoshua grew up), who lived in Warsaw, took him under his wing.

In 1923, he became rav of Shedlitz, Poland, but that came to an end with the Nazi invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II. As was their policy, they first targeted the spiritual leaders in every city they occupied. The Rebbe was no exception, suffering under their jackboots. Just one example of the humiliation he suffered was when they killed the mayor of Shedlitz, and they forced the Rebbe to bury him.

But that was just the beginning. One day, they came up with a new form of torture: A few SS cavalry soldiers began galloping around on horses, and a group of elderly Jews was ordered to run and catch up to the riders. The Chelkas Yehoshua was in this group, but after lagging behind, they shot him in the leg. The Rebbe was treated by a Jewish doctor, who hid the Rebbe in a flour sack so that the Nazis wouldn’t discover him.

It was clear that it was time to flee Shedlitz. In the middle of the night, the Rebbe packed up his family – his teenaged sons Yerachmiel Tzvi (who would become the Biala-Peshischa Rebbe in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem), Yaakov Yitzchak (who would become the Biala Rebbe of Ramat Aharon), and David Mattisyahu (who would become his father’s right-hand and the Biala Rebbe of Bnei Brak), and his ben zekunim Bentzion, just six years old, and fled to Baranowitz, which, as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, was controlled by Russia.

On the Russian side, no one awaited them with flowers, but the Rebbe and his family had a short period of reprieve. There, they forged ties with Rav Elchanan Wasserman Hy”d, who was still living in the city. But within a few days, the Communists demanded that all refugees declare whether or not they were ready to accept Russian citizenship, or if they intended to return to Poland. It was a test of loyalty, but the Chelkas Yehoshua determined that one was not allowed to accept citizenship in a Communist country.

The Communists were furious. That very Friday night, NKVD forces spread out through Baranowitz, ordering all refugees who hadn’t accepted Russian citizenship to pack up their belongings and gather in the city center. The very next day, on Shabbos, the Rebbe and his family were taken to the train station and shipped off to Siberia. It looked like their end, but it was, in fact, their salvation. The Nazis, as is known, breached the pact and launched an offensive against Russia – and the Jews of Bananowitz were killed.

The Chelkas Yehoshua and his family were in the frozen steppes of eastern Siberia, placed in a tiny village surrounded by endless forests. They were forced into harsh labor, chopping down trees and making ropes. Yet the Chelkas Yehoshua did not allow himself any concessions: not with Shabbos, kashrus, or even in the chassidic custom of immersion in a mikveh. He would break the ice on the frozen river with the axe he used to chop down trees. He was once almost killed by a Russian guard who mistook the Rebbe for an animal in the river, but he was miraculously saved.

Despite the hardships and suffering, the Rebbe managed to clandestinely organize a kehillah of Jews for minyanim and Torah study, and even led a tish late on Shabbos night in the hours after returning from the forced labor. On Rosh Hashanah, the Rebbe was leading a group of Jews in prayer when the Russians entered. Everyone fled in fear, but the Rebbe had soared to such heights that he didn’t even notice them. Incensed, the guards gave him a severe beating.

The Rebbe was able to take a few holy books with him into the Gulag, but at one point they were all confiscated. Still, one Erev Shabbos he couldn’t bear to be parted from his sefer Noam Elimelech, and so he sneaked into the guard house where his books were being held, searched through the books, and managed to take out the sefer.

He faced death a number of times because of his firm refusal to work on Shabbos, and when he was placed in a solitary confinement cell, his young son Bentzion would sneak him in a bit of food through the hatch. Bentzion – the current Rebbe – was just a child, but remembers an officer barking to his father, “We won’t be able to change you anymore, but your children will grow up the way we want them to.”

Two years later, with the intervention of the Polish government in exile, Polish citizens in Russia were allowed to leave Siberia, and the Rebbe traveled east to Tashkent, where he heard a piece of good news. The authorities had organized a group of Jewish children who would cross the Uzbek border into neighboring Iran, and from there, would travel to Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe made sure his children — the four brothers and a sister — would be part of that group, which would infamously come to be known as the Yaldei Teheran, where they would face pressure from their secular Zionist madrichim to leave the “old ways” behind.

The group remained in Tehran for more than half a year, until March of 1943, when1,228 children boarded a ship that set sail from Iran to Egypt. In Egypt, they boarded a train that took them to Atlit, outside of Haifa.

Meanwhile, in Eretz Yisrael, chareidi askanim were preparing to help the children who had come alone – before the Zionists could sweep them up and resettle them in secular enclaves. There were negotiations between Agudas Yisrael and the Labor Federation over every single name – and to this day, the Rebbe says he remembers friends from the journey who were wrenched from their heritage.

The current Rebbe and his older siblings, however, were determined to reach Bnei Brak, where their uncle, Rav Yosef Tzvi Kalish of Skierniewice, was the chassidic rav. When he heard about his nephews, he took them in, where they remained for the next two years.  

The current Rebbe was just eight at the time, but Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, had already spotted his diligence and talent. Ponevezh would become the Rebbe’s home for many more years, and a warm and deep relationship developed between the young ilui and Rav Kahaneman, who even chose him as a chavrusa.

And throughout that time, the Chelkas Yehoshua was still trapped in the Soviet Union,   trying to find a route to Eretz Yisrael and reunite with his children. At the war’s end, the   Chelkas Yehoshua returned to Poland, from where he continued to France; he finally arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1947, where 12-year-old Bentzion, who was already heading for greatness, was overjoyed to be reunited with his father. A year later, the current Rebbe celebrated his bar mitzvah with his father in Eretz Yisrael – something unimaginable just a few years before.

There was great devastation in Eretz Yisrael at the time. Jewish communities in Europe had been wiped out, and ragtag refugees came to the Holy Land, broken in body and spirit. But the Chelkas Yehoshua wouldn’t be broken. He first settled in Tel Aviv, and moved to Jerusalem in 1955, where his little beis medrash became a magnet for so many broken souls looking for chizuk.

IN essence, almost every chassidic court in the world has a similar story to tell – the miracle of their survival and revival. For Biala, it began on the benches of Ponevezh Yeshivah. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Ponevezh, the boy who had come with the Yaldei Tehran became well known.

The Rebbe, who was a talmid muvhak of Rav Shach, still basks in the memories of his rebbeim from those early days, recalling the shiurim of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, Rav Dovid Povarsky, and the other spiritual giants in the yeshivah at the time. Even years later, when he became a chassidic rebbe, the Ponevezher derech halimud remains deeply ingrained in his personality. In fact, he encourages the bochurim of the chassidus to integrate this derech halimud with their chassidic fire.

In 1957, the Rebbe married the daughter of Rav Avraham Moshe Babad, chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in Europe and rav of the British port city of Sunderland, and moved to Gateshead, where he soon became one of the esteemed rabbanim in the Gateshead kollel.

Before his father-in-law passed away a few years later, he made a final request: Rav Babad asked his young son-in-law to agree to take a position in rabbanus, in order to continue the chain of Babad rabbanim through the generations. The son-in-law agreed. It would take more than ten years until this wish would be fulfilled and he would become the rav of the Jewish community in Lugano, Switzerland.

The position of Rav in Lugano met all the criteria the Biala Rebbe could wish for: A Jewish community that was quiet and calm, in a place that would enable him to sit in his room and learn around the clock. But in 1982, just three years after coming to Lugano, the Rebbe’s plans for the future were upended. He received the news from Jerusalem that his father, the Chelkas Yehoshua of Biala, had passed away.

The chassidic communities in Jerusalem were grieving —who would take the place of this tzaddik? The Rebbe had four sons — the Rav of Lugano was the youngest of them, and all he wanted to do was sit and learn in peace. The chassidim relate that at the airport in Switzerland on the way to Eretz Yisrael, the Rebbetzin a”h pleaded with her husband to do her a favor: “When you get to Eretz Yisrael, to the levayah, don’t get involved in the decision of ‘which of the brothers’ will be the Rebbe.” It didn’t enter her mind that he would be selected.

But the chassidim sensed otherwise. During the shivah, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv  came to be menachem avel. After he left, Rav Elyashiv whispered: “I already know who will be Rebbe, the younger son, the Lugano Rav…”

And that is when the unbelievable transformation began, a transformation which, by any metric, was its own chassidic mofes. The young son acceded to the request of the chassidim to become their rebbe, but he had one condition: “I cannot leave my community in Lugano.” The chassidim agreed. And that was the beginning of the long-distance combined rav/rebbe position.

And then something unusual happened. The Rebbe wasn’t even in the same country as his chassidim, yet the numbers of this small chassidus kept growing.

For nearly three decades, the Rebbe spent most of the year with his community in Lugano. Meanwhile, in Eretz Yisrael, a large community grew under his influence. Hundreds of chassidim — and many others — didn’t make a step in life without placing a call to Lugano first.

Moreover, until a few years ago, Biala didn’t even have its own yeshivah, although that was in principle. Hundreds of Biala bochurim could be found in yeshivos throughout the chassidic landscape. In fact, some of them even followed the Rebbe’s path of his early years and attended litvishe yeshivos, the Rebbe encouraging them to reap the benefits of all the communities of chareidi Jewry.

Throughout those years, the Rebbe came to Eretz Yisrael primarily for Yamim Tovim. But instead of the chassidus dwindling with a rebbe abroad, it just kept growing, as more bochurim, avreichim, and even many new baalei teshuvah came from the outside, drawn to both the intensity of the Rebbe’s Torah and his profound, penetrating wisdom when it came to life issues.

During the years of the Chelkas Yehoshua, Biala was known primarily for its avodas hatefillah and avodas Hashem, which, of course, the new Biala Rebbe perpetuated. But there was a new emphasis as well. The early Biala chassidim initially struggled to get used to their Rebbe’s divrei Torah. At most chassidic tishen, the rebbe will give a short address, but the Biala Rebbe delivers long and expansive Torah discourses. In the middle of the tish, he’ll begin a deep shiur in Torah and chassidus.

While most chassidic tishen are adorned with silver bechers and wine bottles, at the Biala Rebbe’s tish, the table is piled high with seforim, the referenced from which he builds the structure of the shmuess he is delivering. He is always surrounded by a team of roshmim, those who commit his words to memory and put them down in writing on Motzaei Shabbos. The Rebbe then reviews every word.

Throughout the years, writing has been one of the Rebbe’s preferred forms of expression. He has written thousands of pages while sitting in his room in Lugano. The local residents would often come across their beloved Rebbe walking in the street, then suddenly stopping — a chiddush had come to mind  — and then walking to the side, pulling out a pen and paper and finding a surface to lean on in order to write it down so he wouldn’t forget it.

The Rebbe has made it his priority to infuse his chassidim with this ahavas Torah. Over the years, during bein hazmanim when all the yeshivos are on break, he would come to Eretz Yisrael and convene the Biala bochurim who were dispersed throughout other yeshivos into a special bein hazmanim yeshivah, usually held on one of the religious communities of the Golan or the Negev.

These bein hazmanim programs were actually the first Biala Yeshivah, with the Rebbe himself serving as rosh yeshivah. He would deliver deep shiurim to the students, and primarily, presented them with concepts in hasmadah and how to learn. And this infusion, two weeks a year, seemed to be enough for the talmidim for the whole year.

The Biala Rebbe seemed to prefer it this way. A chassidus, he felt, is not primarily a slew of mosdos isolated from other streams. Instead, is should be a haven where one can become elevated in Torah and avodas Hashem. For the Rebbe, a good chassidic bochur is one who is proficient in a broad array of chassidic works —from the early Torah of the Baal Shem Tov to Kedushas Levi and Noam Elimelech – and who also has a hand or foothold in the litvishe derech halimud.

But several years ago, the Rebbe changed course: It began with a public address that took the chassidim by surprise. “Our bochurim are in yeshivos all over, but the generation is changing and the nisyonos are widening. The time has come to give our bochurim a special protection.”

Within a few weeks, this speech became reality. The askanim of the chassidus began to form the first shiur of the nascent Biala Yeshivah Ketanah. There wasn’t even a building yet. The old shtibel of the chassidus, on Chiddushei HaRim Street in Bnei Brak, was chosen to house the bochurim. Now, eight years later, Biala chassidus has two yeshivos –  a yeshivah ketanah in Bnei Brak and a yeshivah gedolah in Elad – where some 400 bochurim currently learn.

Even so, the Rebbe is extremely klal-oriented in his essence, and doesn’t hold from communities divided into tribes and sectarian groups who prefer to isolate within their own mosdos.

“Personally,” the Rebbe tells us, “I don’t hold from that. There is no reason to be self-isolated when you’re in the larger community of yarei Hashem. On the contrary, let them get to know each other and blend together and learn from one another.”

Since the Rebbe moved to Eretz Yisrael, he has become one of the leaders of Agudas Yisrael, picking up where his father left off as a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah — he’s the last living child of the Chelkas Yehoshua.

But at the top of the Rebbe’s list of priorities is always the question of the chinuch of the younger generation.

“Today’s generation prefers to press buttons,” he tells us. “But even today, everyone knows that in order to reach goals and achieve things, one needs to exert himself. It’s like working out at the gym. People who don’t want their muscles to atrophy pay a fortune to show up each day for excruciating exercises. They lift weights and work up a sweat, and they’re admired for it – because the world knows that the more the muscles are exerted, the stronger and healthier they get.”

According to the Rebbe, we need to create a fitness center for the neshamah as well. “There,” he says, “you don’t have to lift weights, but you learn to stretch your middos muscles. It’s not always easy and it’s often out of your comfort zone, but the harder you work, the stronger the neshamah becomes. It will keep going and glowing in its special light. It’s true that at first it’s very hard. But those who go regularly to the gym start to enjoy it, and won’t give up that painful exercise no matter what.”

That’s one reason Motti, a young chassid, has attached himself to the Rebbe, even though he’s self-admittedly more “modern” than some of the “frummer” chassidim. He appreciates that the Rebbe gently pushes him to flex his own neshamah muscles.

“He tells me things I want to hear, and even some things I don’t want to hear, but in a way that I know is coming from emes,” Motti says.

Motti’s grandfather was a chassid of the Chelkas Yehoshua, and his father went on to become a chassid of the present Rebbe. Motti says that connection has been the greatest gift of his life.

“I was in my 20s and not such a serious chassid,” he admits, “but then I went through a divorce. I would never have expected this Rebbe, already in his 80s, to take an active interest in my life, but somehow, he became my sounding board and rock of stability, welcoming me into his private time and guiding me through the rocky waters. And I’m not the only one. The Rebbe has thousands of chassidim and disciples, but as soon as you’re sitting with him – and he happens to be very available – you’re the only one in the world, and he’ll help you out and really get involved in your situation. As if you’re a ben yachid.”

After Motti’s divorce, the Rebbe encouraged him to remarry, but never pushed. “He respected my own pace, even as I was dating, even though among the chassidim it’s generally two meetings and then break a plate,” says Motti, who notes that the Rebbe is often involved in shidduchim — for his chassidim, and also for others who come to him for support and advice. “But,” says Motti, “he won’t be mevater on the shadchan’s fee, which he says is holy money. He actually made a shidduch for a friend of mine, and took ten shekels from each side.”

As open and broad-minded as the Rebbe is, he’s able to connect to a wide swath of Jews who seek his clarity and, he emphasizes that we’re living in times where protection can’t be overstated.

How, we ask, do we keep the bad influences out without totally cutting off?

“The reality today is that the outside has seeped inside, even into the beis medrash,” the Rebbe says. “The Gemara in Maseches Bava Basra says that “yeshivas krachim kashah.” What does this mean? We are now sitting in a very busy krach, a city, but we are closed in an air-conditioned room away from the noise and we’re very calm and comfortable. How can we understand these words?

“The answer is that the city seeps into the rooms. Even the reality around us seeps into the beis medrash. And we need to be aware of this and generate solutions.

“The environment has a great influence on us, whether we realize it or not. A person who walks into the trading floor of the stock market sees the tense atmosphere. Indices are going up and down. Millions of dollars are at stake. Even if he doesn’t understand a thing about finance, within a few minutes, he’ll feel the tension and the excitement as well. He’ll be part of the turmoil there. That’s just how it is — the atmosphere has an effect.

“And perhaps more than ever,” the Rebbe explains, “it’s time we adhere to the words of Chazal that ‘derech eretz kadmah laTorah’: The Torah iz di greste shmirah oif Klal Yisrael, it’s the best protection for Klal Yisrael. But the Torah alone is not enough. The protection of the Torah is primarily when it is combined with derech eretz, good middos, and proper conduct between man and his fellow man.

“When a person learns, but he lacks the humanity, the derech eretz — then his Torah doesn’t influence him. Because he lacks the condition that precedes Torah, which is the derech eretz. And this is what we need to teach the next generation — to focus on good middos and derech eretz. This way, their Torah learning will have an effect and be our ultimate protection.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

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