The Lev Simcha era could be called a period of consolidation
The trio of Gerrer Rebbe brothers — Rav Yisrael, Rav Simcha Bunim, and Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter — weren’t the first generation of sibling admorim in the kingdom of Gur. Their father, the Imrei Emes, legendary leader of Gur and Polish Jewry for nearly a half century, wrote a will designating his younger brother, Rav Moshe Betzalel Alter, as his successor.
During his brother’s tenure, Rav Moshe Betzalel was the right-hand man and a beloved figure, so he seemed the natural choice as heir. Providence ordained otherwise, however. In the depths of the Shoah, Rav Moshe Betzalel turned down a visa to stay with the beleaguered chassidim in Poland, ultimately perishing al kiddush Hashem in Treblinka and becoming the Rebbe of the Kedoshim.
The Imrei Emes duly modified his will, and his oldest surviving son Rav Yisrael was tasked with rebuilding the decimated chassidus. Despite the personal loss of his family in the Holocaust, upon assuming the mantle in 1948, the Beis Yisrael set out to rebuild Gur and its institutions. His magnetic personality drew many to the ranks of the chassidus. At the same time he was very active in what he referred to as “the Tatte’s Agudah.”
Rav Simcha Bunim Alter had immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1934, long before the dark clouds had descended upon Polish Jewry. With his older brother assuming center stage, the Lev Simcha sojourned first in France and then in Antwerp, Belgium, where he engaged in a successful real estate enterprise. With the passing of the Beis Yisrael in 1977, Rav Simcha Bunim took the reins of leadership.
If the reign of the Beis Yisrael was characterized by ambitious building, the Lev Simcha era could be called a period of consolidation — establishing Gur communities in the periphery, regulating the lavish spending at weddings, and struggling to maintain Gur dominance at the helm of Agudas Yisrael.
The difference between the brothers’ leadership styles can been seen in a seemingly mundane example. In the early days, the Beis Yisrael would occasionally walk into the Gerrer beis medrash and share cigars with his beloved chassidim. The Lev Simcha, on the other hand, waged a war against smoking and attempted to uproot the unhealthy habit entirely from within Gur.
Throughout the tenure of both Rebbes, the youngest brother — the ben zekunim of the Imrei Emes from his second marriage — was Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter. Shortly after the celebration of his bar mitzvah, he escaped with his father and several family members to Eretz Yisrael in April 1940.
A world-renowned talmid chacham, he served for decades as the rosh yeshivah of Gur’s flagship institution, Sfas Emes, residing within the building. He also served as his brother’s spokesman and maintained a leadership position in Agudas Yisrael and other organizations.
With the Lev Simcha’s passing in 1992, the torch was again passed from brother to brother and the Pnei Menachem served as Gerrer Rebbe for a short time until his own untimely passing in 1996.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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