Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Monday, February 2, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, Bobover Rebbe, arrived in Israel for a two-week visit. He was joyously received by thousands of chassidim. The Bobover Rebbe came to strengthen his chassidim in Israel and to celebrate the chanukas ha’bayis of the new building of the Bobover Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Bnei Brak.
Thousands of chassidim came from the United States, Canada, Europe, and from all parts of Israel to be with the Bobover Rebbe during his sojourn in Eretz Yisrael. His father, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, zt’l (1907-2001), third Bobover Rebbe, first traveled to Israel in 1959, establishing Kiryat Bobov in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv.
At that time, the Bobover Rebbe, zt’l, established Yeshiva Kedushas Zion, which has developed into a major Torah institution where thousands of students have studied through the years, and it continues to function as a citadel of Torah. Additional Bobover shuls and yeshivas are found in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Elad, and in other cities in Eretz Yisrael. The present Bobover Rebbe visited Israel and established Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Bnei Brak, where hundreds of students study, and it has become among Israel’s most prominent yeshivas.
Though the Rebbe visited Israel just a month ago, Bobover chassidim there have been beseeching the Bobover Rebbe to visit Bobover establishments and celebrate a Shabbos together. The most recent visit was a quick stopover of six hours to attend the wedding of the granddaughter of his brother-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Yeshurun Meisels, rav of Kiryat Bobov in Bat Yam. The kallah, the Bobover Rebbe’s niece, is the daughter of Rabbi Ben Zion Meisels, son-in-law of Rabbi Menachem Ernster, Vizhnitzer Rosh Yeshiva. She married the son of Rabbi Shimon Ernster, son of the Vizhnitzer Rosh Yeshiva and son-in-law of Rabbi Meir Katz, Sereter Rosh Kollel in Haifa.
The Bobover Rebbe arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and went directly to the home of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe in Bnei Brak, from where they went together to the wedding’s kabbalas panim in the main Vizhnitzer Beis Medrash there. After the chuppah, the Bobover Rebbe took part in the wedding meal and then participated in the mitzvah tantz. He then immediately returned to the airport to fly home, leaving no time to meet with his chassidim. With the completion of the new building of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim on Rechov Ezra in Bnei Brak, the Rebbe agreed to come and share in the celebration and stay for two weeks.
On Tuesday evening, thousands of Bobover chassidim gathered in Bnei Brak for the Rebbe’s Tu B’Shevat tisch held in a huge tent erected especially for the occasion. Many of the area’s Chassidishe Rebbes joined. On Thursday, the Rebbe proceeded to Jerusalem, where he stayed for Shabbos. An enormous kabbalaspanim reception was organized in the Neve Yerushalayim Hall by Kollel Chibas Yerushalayim Tzedakas Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, of which he is an honorary president. Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, chief rabbi of the Jerusalem Eidah Hacharedis, was the first of the speakers welcoming the Bobover Rebbe, noting that the Rebbe’s father was an honorary president, and that the current Rebbe continues in his father’s footsteps.
For Shabbos Yisro, February 6-7, a massive tent was erected on Rechov Malchei Yisroel in Jerusalem wherein more than 10,000 chassidim took part in the Rebbe’s tefillos and tisch. On Sunday, the visit’s main event was held in Bnei Brak—the chanukas ha’bayis for the newly completed building of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim, which the Rebbe established in Bnei Brak. The new building was dedicated in the name of Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Schlaf, a’h, of Vienna. The celebration included the hachnassas sefer Torah dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Yosef Shmuel Landau, a’h. Yosef Shmuel headed the committees of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim and Yeshiva Kedushas Zion and was a key financial supporter.
The sefer Torah was completed and taken from the Bobover building on Rechov Chazon Ish and carried under a chuppah in a torch-lit parade with music, song, and dance to Rechov Ezra. After the hachnassas sefer Torah, a banquet meal was served in the Royal Hall in Petach Tikvah. The seudas mitzvah was dedicated by Yechiel Mechel Rosenberg, son-in-law of the Schlafs.
On Monday, the Rebbe journeyed north to pray in Meron, at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and in Teveria, at the gravesite of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, as well as at other holy sites. The Bobover Rebbe will be in Meron for Shabbos Mishpatim, Shabbos Shekalim. He will be joined by thousands of chassidim, from within Israel as well as from abroad, coming together to share in an inspiring, spiritual Shabbos.
Of Bobover Rebbes
Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam is the successor to his revered brother, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Halberstam, zt’l (1931-2005), Bobover Rebbe, both sons of Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, zt’l (1907-2000), Bobover Rebbe; son of Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, zt’l (1873-1941), Bobover Rebbe; son of Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, zt’l (1847-1905), founding Bobover Rebbe; son of Rabbi Mayer Nosson, zt’l (1823-1855), son of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, zt’l (1797-1876), venerated Sanzer Rebbe and author of Divrei Chaim.
Rabbi Ben Zion, zt’l, served as Bobover Rosh Yeshiva in Wishnitza, establishing 60 branches of the yeshiva throughout Galicia, where he attracted thousands of students over the years. He was charismatic, a magnetic singer, and had an exceptionally stately presence. His sage wisdom guided thousands of individuals who turned to him for advice. Rabbi Ben Zion was murdered during the Holocaust, shot together with his youngest son and three of his sons-in-law by the cursed Nazis.
In 1931, Rabbi Ben Zion self-imposed an exile from Bobov and temporarily settled in Tshebin, a city near Krakow. He appointed his worthy son Rabbi Shlomo as rav of Bobov and leader of the yeshiva network. Rabbi Ben Zion returned to Bobov in 1936, but left the city rabbinical and yeshiva management to Rabbi Shlomo, who was catapulted to a prominent leadership role on behalf of Polish Jewry in the battle against the outlawing of shechitah that year by the Siem, the Polish parliament.
Rabbi Shlomo’s mother, Rebbetzin Chaya Freidel, a’h (1882-1974), was the daughter of Rabbi Sholom Eliezer Halberstam, zt’l (1862-1944), Ratzferter Rebbe and youngest child of the Divrei Chaim. He was cherished by thousands of chassidim who traveled great distances simply to hear the Ratzferter Rebbe being called up to the Torah. The Ratzferter Rebbe was murdered in the Holocaust.
Immediately prior to Yizkor on holidays up until Simchas Torah 1973, Rabbi Shlomo, zt’l, would remind his mother that her father’s name was Sholom Eliezer ben CHAIM. Chassidim strove to be within earshot, to hear a direct living connection to the Divrei Chaim. Rebbetzin Chaya Freidel bas Sholom Eliezer, Rabbi Shlomo’s mother, was the last surviving grandchild of the Divrei Chaim. During Rabbi Shlomo’s eulogy for his mother, when he referred to her as having been the last living grandchild of the Sanzer Rebbe, a great wailing arose. At her funeral on Sunday, 16th Adar, 1974, thousands of chassidim, with copious tears, escorted her to her final resting place in the Bobover Cemetery in Floral Park, New Jersey.
The War Years
With the advance of the Nazi hordes eastward in 1939, Rabbi Ben Zion fled to Lemberg, then under Russian occupation, where he secured lawful mandatory employment, thus avoiding exile to Siberia. In 1941, the Nazis invaded Lemberg. On Friday, Rosh Chodesh Av, July 25, 1941, Rabbi Ben Zion was taken, in midst of prayers, by Ukrainian collaborators of the Nazis who tore off his holy tefillin and marched him together with others to Nazi headquarters. The tefillin were those of the Divrei Chaim. Weeks were spent in bribe efforts to locate and free him. Only later did the family learn that Rabbi Ben Zion, the holy Bobover Rebbe, and 4,000 other innocent Jews, were marched into the forest at Yanov, ordered to dig their own graves, and shot to death on Monday, 4 Av, July 28, 1941.
During his stay in Lemberg, Rabbi Shlomo was deeply involved in life-saving efforts on behalf of his fellow Jews. He developed an elaborate network of contacts who bribed Nazi guards and secured the release of those arrested. The clandestine rescue efforts were conducted personally and placed Rabbi Shlomo in constant danger of being apprehended.
In 1942, Rabbi Yechezkel Dovid Halberstam, zt’l (d. 1978), Pokshevnitzer Rav and brother of Rabbi Shlomo, arranged to have the Halberstam family smuggled out of Lemberg back into Bobov. However, as soon as Rabbi Shlomo arrived there, the friendly chief of police advised the family that an informer had betrayed them and that Rabbi Shlomo must leave immediately. Rabbi Shlomo instantly fled to Bochnia, Galicia. There he again built a network that was effective in bribing guards and he was instrumental in personally saving countless lives.
In the Bochnia Ghetto, Rabbi Shlomo had obtained an employment pass that allowed him to leave the ghetto on a regular basis. Outside the ghetto, Rabbi Shlomo had arranged to have non-Jewish families take in Jewish children and protect them until the end of the war. Rabbi Shlomo personally took hundreds of children to their places of refuge. However, with each contact and with each trip, the danger increased. The Rebbe was arrested on Friday, February 19, for harboring children and his dwelling was thoroughly searched. Though no evidence of his secret activities was uncovered, the ruthless investigators found bread and chicken prepared for Shabbos, a grave violation of ghetto rules. Rabbi Shlomo was hauled off to prison where he prepared for the worst. Knowing that he faced execution, Rabbi Shlomo asked a Jewish guard to relay a message to his Rebbetzin to protect the spirituality of their children. When taken out of his cell that motzaei Shabbos, Rabbi Shlomo resigned himself to accept Heaven’s decree and was ready die. After a few moments of interrogation, Rabbi Shlomo, to his amazement, was released. Upon his return, Rabbi Shlomo was admonished by those around him to divest himself of all rescue activities, the dangers being overwhelming. He responded that Heaven only saved him to enable him to save yet more Jewish lives.
In 1943, Rabbi Shlomo and the Halberstam family decided to smuggle themselves into Hungary. They secured false passports and visas and left Bochnia. In Neimark, Slovakia, they were apprehended by a Nazi patrol on Friday, June 9, and brought to headquarters where the commandant there, having perceived that their papers were forged, told them that they would be shot the following morning. The family spent the entire evening in prayer in preparation for their demise the following day. After completing his ShabbosShacharis prayers, Rabbi Shlomo was brought before the commandant and was informed that all his money was taken as a fine, and they were ordered to return to Bochnia by escort, somehow miraculously again escaping execution.
Only after their arrival back in Bochnia did they learn that the commandant had called Bochnia headquarters to confirm that the passports and visas were false. An officer there received the phone call and substantiated that the papers were fake. A Jewish slave orderly overheard the conversation and stormed towards the officer’s desk, angrily informing him that Rabbi Halberstam was his personal Rebbe and that he would reveal all of the officer’s corruption to his superiors if he does not immediately call back and substantiate that the Halberstams’ papers were valid. Frightened, the officer called the Neimark commandant and advised that, upon review, the Halberstams’ papers are indeed valid. Thus, their executions in Neimark were averted.
In March 1944, the Halberstams arrived at Grossverdein, where they hid in an underground bunker. Rabbi Shlomo had acquired an in-depth understanding of engineering principles during the war years and became an expert in the construction and camouflaging of bunkers. He knew how to hide the necessary airshafts and disguise entryways. Nevertheless, Rabbi Shlomo had to leave the bunker periodically to make life-sustaining arrangements. One particular outing took longer than anticipated and his wife, Rebbetzin Blima Ruchel, daughter of Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Teitelbaum, zt’l (d. 1933), Limanover Rebbe, dispatched her oldest child, Rabbi Naftali Zvi, then only 13 years old, to inquire after his father. During Rabbi Shlomo’s and Naftali Zvi’s absence, the bunker was raided and, sadly, Rebbitzen Blima Ruchel, son Mordechai Dovid, and daughter Henchi were never heard from again.
As the war was ending, Rabbi Shlomo traveled to various besieged cities where he was instrumental in personally rescuing thousands of Jewish refugees as well as providing Jewish burials for the many bodies that were found. He hid for six weeks in Budapest and then reached Romania, all the while saving lives and risking his own. One of Rabbi Shlomo’s charges came down with a double case of pneumonia. The only cure possible was the newly invented penicillin, only available in limited quantity. Rabbi Shlomo was able to acquire half of the prescribed prescription. He was told that the local bishop would have access to more penicillin through the Red Cross. Without hesitation, Rabbi Shlomo, alone, stealthily arrived at the Bishop’s door, nervously announcing to the butler that Rabbi Halberstam humbly requested an audience. When the bishop heard that a Rabbi Halberstam was at the door, he ran to receive him, asking in fluent Galician Yiddish, “who of the Divrei Chaim’s family is here?” The bishop, a Jew in hiding who had assumed the office as a disguise, gladly accommodated a descendent of the Divrei Chaim and secured the necessary penicillin.
After the war, Rabbi Shlomo stayed in Bari, Italy, where some Bobover chassidim were to be found. Rabbi Shlomo brought them together and energized them with his remaining chassidishe warmth, reigniting their thirst for Torah. In Italy, Rabbi Shlomo was formally crowned as Bobover Rebbe, though reluctant to accept the title. Though willing to sacrifice his own life to save others and poised to help others rebuild religious lives, he felt unworthy to carry his father’s lofty title. Bobover chassidim in Italy, however, refused to be turned away and Rabbi Shlomo was ceremoniously anointed.
To Crown Heights
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Shlomo received a travel pass to London to speak at an Agudath Israel function there. After doing his utmost to help Jewish orphans and refugees in England, the Rebbe immigrated to America, arriving on Taanis Esther, March 24, 1946. Bobover chassidim established a beis midrash and yeshiva on West 85th Street, on the upper west side of Manhattan. As the yeshiva and congregation of Bobover chassidim grew, a larger observant community was desired. On Rosh Hashanah of 1954, the Bobover complex on Brooklyn Avenue in Crown Heights was inaugurated.
As the community of Bobover chassidim continued to grow, centers were established in Antwerp, Bat Yam, Beitar, Bnei Brak, Boro Park, Elad, Jerusalem, London, Monsey, Montreal, Toronto, Williamsburg, and elsewhere. A decision was made to centralize Bobover institutions in Boro Park and the Rebbe moved to 15th Avenue in 1967. Since then, almost perpetual construction has been necessary to increase Bobov facilities to accommodate its ever-growing population. Today, Bobov represents the core of thousands of families, with thousands upon thousands of students being educated in its yeshivas throughout the world. Bobov is the third-largest chassidishe group on the American continent.
The stunning Bobover edifice on 48th Street, erected in the early 1980s, serves as its main sanctuary with hundreds of Shacharis, Minchah, and Ma’arivminyanim throughout the day. Bobover chassidim are steeped in learning with shiurim scheduled throughout the day almost non-stop. The beauty of the Bobover Beis Medrash may leave one open-mouthed, even after many visits. Bobover chassidim are respected by all segments of chassidim and observant Jews as G-d-fearing, learned individuals who love other Jews. The Bobover Rebbe invested great energies to mold a community that loves Heaven and loves Jews. His personal love for every Jew is the standard, not an ideal. v
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.