Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
History notes that the human remains of Jewish ancestors have always been held sacrosanct. This reverence has been shown not only by direct descendants, but by all Jews everywhere.
1307: Maharam’s body is redeemed from prison. Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Baruch of Rothenberg, zt’l (1220–1293), the Maharam, died in prison on the 4th of Adar after being held for seven years for an exorbitant Jewish community tax ransom. The Maharam was among the Ba’alei Tosefos and is venerated as an important Torah scholar. He did not allow the Jewish community to pay the outrageous ransom demanded, in fear that the demands would continually be repeated. Finally, in 1307, 14 years after his death, the Maharam’s body was redeemed and released. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany. Alexander ben Shlomo Susskind Wimpen, z’l, who sold everything he owned to redeem the body of the Maharam, is buried right next to him.
1841: Sir Moses Montefiore visits Eretz Yisrael. Sir Moses Montefiore, z’l (1784–1885), was one of the world’s richest men. He was acknowledged as the greatest philanthropist during his lifetime. In 1841, he visited the Holy Land and found the Holy Temple’s remnant Western Wall in terrible circumstances. It was being buried by incremental increases of the ground around it. On one side stood the interior courtyard of the Mosque of Omar, which was being raised by Arab landscapers. On the other side, Arab refuse, deliberately being dumped there, also raised the ground level. Fearing that the Holy Temple’s remnant Western Wall would, with time, be completely buried, Sir Montefiore bribed local rulers to permit additional levels of stones to be positioned atop the Western Wall. The stones are easily discernible in contrast to the original huge stones of the Western Wall.
When visiting Kever Rochel, Sir Montefiore was again startled into action. Seeing its deteriorating condition due to Arab abuses, he again bribed local rulers into allowing the building of the structure that is known today. According to historical accounts, travelers from the 11th through the 18th centuries described Kever Rochel as an open grave site consisting of 11 stones, laid by the 11 sons of Yaakov Avinu (Binyamin, the 12th son, was then a newborn baby), covered by one large stone laid down by Yaakov Avinu himself. In the 18th century, the tomb was covered by a dome supported by four pillars and the structure was enclosed. The final renovation came in 1841 from funds supplied directly by Moses Montefiore. The immediate structure is still intact, though it is surrounded by security walls built by Israeli security forces in order to protect visitors from snipers, missiles, and stones thrown by Arab neighbors. Sir Montefiore entombed the immediate grave, covered by 12 stones, in a tall concrete structure.
1927: Munkacser Rebbe visits Palestine. Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro, zt’l (1872–1937), Munkacser Rebbe and prolific author of Minchas Elazar, visited then Palestine in 1927. Praying at the holy sites, the Minchas Elazar was especially moved standing at Kever Rochel. He cried copiously for hours. When asked by those accompanying him as to why Kever Rochel elicited such a profound reaction, the Minchas Elazar shared that he had come with great anticipation in seeing and touching the very stones placed upon our mother Rochel’s grave by our ancestor Yaakov Avinu himself and by the Shivtei Kah, his sons. Though intellectually appreciative of the important work of Sir Moses Montefiore, he was deeply disappointed in not being able to touch the holy stones directly.
And The U.S. Commission
The Admas Kodesh organization has been instrumental in preserving many old cemeteries in Eastern Europe. In addition, Admas Kodesh played a key role in salvaging the old Jewish Cemetery in Lucena, near Toledo, Spain, wherein many gedolim of old are buried. The 170 desecrated graves were fully restored. A mass grave of Holocaust victims in Yass (Iasi), Romania received government protection through the efforts of Admas Kodesh and its affiliate organizations.
Gary (Gershon) Schlesinger, a representative of Admas Kodesh and executive board chairman of UJCare of Williamsburg, together with Rabbi Yitzchok Fleischer, a member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (USCPAHA), arranged an important meeting of community activists with Lesley L. Weiss, the new chairwoman of the Commission, on February 19 at Ohel’s offices on 16th Avenue in Boro Park.
The Commission seeks to preserve cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings, including houses of worship, in Eastern and Central Europe that are associated with the heritage of United States citizens. A particular focus of the Commission is endangered properties. The Commission, with the Department of State, seeks the cooperation of foreign governments of the region in protecting and preserving endangered properties.
Mrs. Weiss was appointed by President Barack Obama in January 2013, replacing Warren L. Miller, who stepped down after serving for 12 years. Mrs. Weiss is the respected Director of Community Services and Cultural Affairs of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), a non-governmental organization that advocates on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her mother was born in the Carpathian Mountain (the Karpatan) region, near Munkacs, today in the Ukraine, and was a survivor of Auschwitz. Her mother told of being in the Canada barracks section of Auschwitz together with a pregnant woman who carried the child to birth. After giving birth, she never saw the child again. This was very unusual because pregnant women were routinely sent to the gas chambers, lo aleinu. Recently, Mrs. Weiss met a child of a Holocaust survivor who told her that his mother had been pregnant in the Canada barracks section of Auschwitz and that she carried the child to birth. Mrs. Weiss was startled in hearing her mother’s sad story corroborated by another child of a survivor, the actual son of that pregnant woman and younger brother of that child born in Auschwitz.
The Meeting At Ohel
The USCPAHA meeting at Ohel is a step in forging the relationship between Admas Kodesh and its affiliated organizations with the new chairwoman. Gershon Schlesinger and Yitzchok Fleischer are moving mountains. Their future work with Chairwoman Weiss will result in the protection of thousands, if not millions, of graves and the priceless legacy of America’s heritage abroad.
The meeting in Brooklyn was chaired by this writer, Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, as director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America (Igud Horabbonim). Speakers included NYS Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who noted the new chairwoman being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and their automatic affinity.
Rabbi Dovid Zweibel, vice president of Agudath Israel of America, extolled the important work of the Commission and its close ongoing working relationship with the Agudah. Herbert Block, member of the USCPAHA, praised the leadership of the newly appointed chairwoman. Rabbi Edgar Gluck, Chief Rabbi of Galicia, applauded the Commission’s important purposes. Gary (Gershon) Schlesinger, chairman of UJCare social services in Williamsburg, hailed the warm working relationship of the Commission with Admas Kodesh. David Moskowitz, community activist and founder of the Jewish Day School in Budapest, stressed the important advantages in utilizing the Commission’s prestige in preservation efforts.
Leon Goldenberg, president of Goldmont Realty and prominent philanthropist, told of his 98-year-old mother who survived Auschwitz. Chaskel Bennett, CEO of MBA Supply Corp. and prominent Agudah activist, quoted his 92-year-old grandmother who survived the Holocaust. Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the Friedlander Group, noted the dedication pledged by the Commission. Mrs. Gabi Friedlander, staff member for NYC Councilman Brad Lander, who grew up in Budapest, lauded preservation works under way. David Singer, of Focus Electronics and leader of groups visiting holy sites in Eastern Europe, told of the Commission’s successes and the continuing need for preservation.
Chairwoman Weiss shared her dedication to work diligently in tackling all challenges in rescuing and preserving endangered heritage sites in Eastern Europe. The Commission currently has bilateral agreements with 24 governments sharing the purposes of the Commission in addition to ensuring equal treatment of all cultural groups in heritage site preservation and access policies. Negotiations are currently under way with additional countries. The chairwoman noted that preservation efforts are being directed at countries with which the Commission does not yet have any contractual agreements.
The participants at the meeting appreciated the opportunity to meet the Commission’s chairwoman and to share their important work. The chairwoman, in turn, warmly articulated her admiration of heritage efforts and looks forward to cooperating in future achievements. 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. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at email@example.com.