Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
If you blinked while driving through the central Moldova Romanian border at the Ungheni District, which is composed of the communities of Blindesti, Floreni, Gherman, and Sculeni, you might have missed seeing Sculeni, the collective name of that section, which is quite small. However, the name of Skulen, derived from Sculeni, has grown immensely in the world of chassidim.
A huge tent erected at Rosen’s Bungalow Colony at 366 Mount Hope Road in Swan Lake was the site of an exceptionally joyous Shabbos Nachamu melaveh malkah, attended by thousands to celebrate with Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, beloved Skulener Rebbe of Boro Park, to mark his and his late father’s release on that date from Romanian prison.
Many chassidim and yeshiva students were guests at Rosen’s and neighboring bungalow colonies for Shabbos. Chartered buses were arranged to bring participants from many areas of the Catskills as well as from Boro Park, Lakewood, Williamsburg, and Monsey. Mount Hope Road was made into a one-way thoroughfare for the evening. In addition, since parking space was limited, arrangements were made for cars to be parked at open spaces a short distance from the bungalow colony, and shuttle buses made continuous round trips. Local police were admirably courteous in maintaining order on the roads in the immediate area. Chassidim brought refreshments for the police so that they too could share in the celebration.
The melaveh malkah began at 11:00 p.m. and lasted late into the night. The Rebbe entered at 11:30 p.m. Passionate singing of old and new Skulener melodies, some composed and sung by the present Rebbe, served as highlights of the evening.
In 2003, a special coin was minted to celebrate this annual occasion. The coin was distributed to those contributors of endowments that further the holy work of the Skulener Rebbe in Israel and around the world. The coins were imbued by the Rebbe to serve as a shemirah (protection) and blessing for their recipients. Books listing all endowments and their benefactors were also published and distributed at the melaveh malkah.
In 1959, the Rebbe was imprisoned together with his father, Rabbi Eliezer Zushe Portugal, zt’l (1898–1982), revered previous Skulener Rebbe, who served as father—and mother—to thousands of Holocaust orphans who call him father to this very day.
Born in 1898, the previous Rebbe was barely 18 years old when his own father passed away and he became Rav of Skulen (Sculeni), where he served for 20 years. The young rav established yeshivas that taught Torah to the uninitiated. His exemplary personal conduct and his beautiful, melodious voice inspired all who heard him sing his own tunes and compositions.
Before World War II, area chassidishe rebbes persuaded the Rebbe to relocate to the large Jewish center of Chernowitz, home to a Jewish population of almost 25,000 souls, to guide Jewish education there. His loving attitude inspired many and earned his appointment as head of the regional Agudath Israel. Before the outbreak of World War II, the Rebbe moved to Chernowitz. He survived the war and moved to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where he made a home for the many orphans who survived the Holocaust, providing for their needs.
When the Communists took over Romania, the Rebbe’s activities were considered highly suspect by the authorities. Obtaining large quantities of food was a challenge, and the authorities viewed these activities as properly belonging to the government. Father and son were charged with undermining the Romanian government by supporting and educating orphans!
After months of tremendous international efforts, they were freed and emigrated immediately to America in 1960. Together with his son, the Rebbe celebrated the day of liberation every year since.
On June 14, 1960, JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency) reported, “Rabbi Eliezer Zisu Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe, who was arrested last year by Rumanian authorities for aiding and maintaining homeless Jewish children, arrived here today to settle in the United States. Rabbi Portugal will assume the post of spiritual leader of a Brooklyn congregation.
“The 62-year-old rabbi was released and allowed to emigrate with his family from Rumania after the intervention of United Nations Undersecretary for Special Political Affairs C. V. Narashimhan. The State Department, at the request of Jewish religious leaders here, had granted special immigration visas to the rabbi and his family.
“The United HIAS Service arranged for Rabbi Portugal’s transportation to the United States from Rumania and European cities of transit. He is being assisted by the New York Association for New Americans in establishing himself and his family in Brooklyn.”
The Rebbe initially settled in Crown Heights, moved to Williamsburg, and then established his beis midrash in Boro Park. The Rebbe visited Congress and met with U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of the state of Washington to plead for the release of Jews from Soviet Russia. The effort ultimately helped enact the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1974, which limited economic relations with countries that restricted freedom of emigration and other human rights.
After immigrating to America, the late Skulener Rebbe continued his holy rescue and outreach efforts, frequently visiting Israel to establish Chesed L’Avrohom centers throughout the country. Authoring Noam Eliezer and Kedushas Eliezer, he was musically inclined and composed many of today’s popular chassidishe melodies. His son, the present Skulener Rebbe, continues his father’s hallowed work here in America and especially in Israel. The Rebbe passed away in August 1982 and was buried in the Vizhnitzer cemetery in Monsey, where thousands gather to pray. ϖ
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.