Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Those who charge Israel with a disproportionate response to indiscriminate shelling from Gaza forget British and American bombing of Dresden in World War II. Towards the end of the war, Allies reportedly killed upwards of 25,000, many of whom were civilians, and destroyed the entire city center. Bombing gutted the city, as it did other major German cities. Dresden was attacked seven times between 1944 and 1945, and was occupied by the Red Army after German capitulation.
The inner city of Dresden, Germany, was largely destroyed by 722 RAF and 527 USAF bombers that dropped 2,431 tons of high explosive bombs and 1476 tons of incendiaries. The high explosive bombs shattered buildings and exposed their wooden structures, while the incendiaries ignited them, severely reducing the number of shelters available to Dresden’s population, retreating German troops, and refugees. The intensive bombing destroyed almost all of the ancient center of the city. Widely quoted Nazi propaganda reports claimed 200,000 deaths. The German Dresden Historians’ Commission, in an official 2010 report published after five years of research, concluded that casualties numbered 25,000. Regardless, official claims remain that up to 500,000 people died. The Allies defended the operation as legitimate bombing of military and industrial targets.
Dresden had Jewish residents beginning in the 1200s, but Jews were banished from 1500 to 1700, after which Jews again settled there. The Dresden Jewish cemetery dates back to 1751. In 1837, a law was passed to grant Jewish inhabitants of Saxony equality and full citizenship rights, which enabled the Dresden Jewish community to flourish. In 1933, before the Holocaust, the Jewish population numbered 6,000 souls. After the Holocaust, the survivor community had 200 members in 1950, and declined to only 60 people in 1990.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the influx of Jews from Russia gave Dresden a Jewish rebirth. Presently, more than 7,000 Jewish families live in Dresden. In 2001, the new synagogue was completed on the location of the 1840 Semper Synagogue, which had been destroyed in 1938, during the Kristallnacht. The new synagogue incorporates the remaining wall of the Semper Synagogue. Built off-plumb, to convey the feeling that the Jewish community has always been slightly set off from the German city, the synagogue incorporates several meaningful historical messages, and earned the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 2003.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Rebbetzin Chanie Havlin arrived in Dresden in March 2002 and established the Chabad Center, with its manifold functions. Almost immediately, an upsurge of Jewish identification evolved around them. As a result of their hard work, religious events attract the participation of hundreds of families. The Jewish school, which started with 18 children, now has more than 3,000 enrolled, and that number keeps growing.
The Mikvah Rema organization, at the behest of Rabbi Havlin and the Dresden kehillah, built an aesthetically beautiful new mikveh. Together with the Dresden kehillah, the Mikva Rema organization will conduct a grand chanukas ha’bayis on Monday, 20 Elul, upon the opening of the new mikveh there. The closest mikveh represents a four-and-half-hour drive, a severe hardship.
The Mikvah Rema organization, dedicated to perpetuating the memory of Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Freund, zt’l (1894–1996), Chief Rabbi of the Eidah HaCharedis of Jerusalem and author of Ateres Yehoshua. Rabbi Freund’s yahrzeit is on the 20th of Elul. He was the son of Rabbi Yisroel Freund, zt’l (d. 1940), Honiader Rav; son of Rabbi Avrohom Yehoshua Freund, zt’l (1856–1932), Nasoder Rav. The Nasoder Rav was renowned for his endless efforts to build and repair mikvehs so as to enable Jewish couples to be fruitful and multiply.
The Ateres Yehoshua miraculously survived the Holocaust. Sadly, his wife and all nine of his children, Hy’d, were murdered in Auschwitz. Though remarried, he passed away without any surviving children. In his own lifetime, the Ateres Yehoshua also placed great emphasis upon building, maintaining, and repairing mikvehs.
The new Dresden mikveh, as all mikvehs that the Rema Mikva organization builds, was built to conform with the strictest interpretation of hilchos mikvaos, embodying Tanya-Chabad commentaries as well as those of the Divrei Chaim. All mikvehs built by the Mikva Rema organization, regardless of location, effort, and cost, conform to those high requirements.
The Mikvah Rema organization is also celebrating a cornerstone-setting for the construction of a multipurpose building in Rendsburg, Germany, upon an old spring-fed mikveh there. In the winter of 1744–5, the Rendsburg mikveh was visited by Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, zt’l (1698–1760). Chassidish historians note that on a particularly cold day that winter, the Baal Shem Tov immersed in the mikveh 310 times and declared that much salvation was thereby achieved for many Jews with different needs.
In 1932, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro, zt’l (1868–1937), Munkaczer Rebbe and author of Minchas Elazar, under the direction of his doctor, traveled to a health spa near Rendsburg. Members of the kehillah shared that in conducting repairs at the mikveh in 1927, an inscribed broken stone was found. Hebrew letters could be discerned, but words were indecipherable. The Munkaczer Rebbe immediately traveled to Rendsburg and instructed that the many broken pieces of stone be assembled. He was able to match the broken stone and to read: “In this pool of water, the Baal Shem Tov immersed 310 times on a cold day in the winter of 5504 and declared salvation for needy Jews, including barren women.” In 1814, a structure was erected enclosing the spring-fed mikveh. After the Munkaczer Rebbe’s visit, the kehillah sent the Rebbe a picture of the reassembled stone, which he used as a decoration for his sukkah. This is recorded in Sefer Igros Shirin, which contains a copy of the picture.
In a letter dated 1838, Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Sofer, zt’l (1815–1871), Pressburger Rav, author of Ksav Sofer, and son of the Chasam Sofer, written to Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, zt’l (1834–1882), fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the spring-fed mikveh in Rendsburg is extolled and the Rendsburg kehillah’s pinkas (congregational record book) quotation regarding the Baal Shem Tov’s immersions is detailed.
The structure upon the mikveh, built under the direction Rabbi Yoel Rendsburger zt’l, served as a beis midrash. The secret of the mikveh was forgotten until renovators found the inscribed stones. From the time that the episode of the Baal Shem Tov was uncovered, many endeavored to immerse in the mikveh and achieved salvation. Many barren women who immersed in the mikveh gave birth shortly thereafter. The Pilzen kehillah’s pinkas records that Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam, zt’l (1813–1898), Shiniva Rebbe and author of Divrei Yechezkel (son of the Divrei Chaim), traveled to Rendsburg and immersed in the mikveh in a time of need. The structure enclosing the mikveh was destroyed in 1939 by the cursed Nazis.
The building that served as a guesthouse for those coming to the mikveh still stands.
Immediately after World War II, when many survivors lived in DP camps, the mikveh was a destination for many. In the pinkas, a notation was found that Rabbi Yehuda Lowey, zt’l (1520–1609), rav of Prague and author of Maharal M’Prague, journeyed to Rendsburg to use the mikveh, almost 150 years before the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Yosef Zvi Dushinsky, zt’l (1867–1948), Chief Rabbi of the Eidah HaCharedis of Jerusalem, served as Galanta Rav from 1895 to 1921 and as Chuster Rav from 1921 to 1930, when he immigrated to Palestine. While still in Europe, Rabbi Dushinsky would routinely advise those undergoing fertility difficulties to go to Rendsburg and use the mikveh there. Many who did so were blessed with children shortly thereafter.
In 1967, the local municipality closed the mikveh. Years later, it was reopened, but local neighbors hoping to discourage visitors almost immediately plugged the spring and buried it in sand, rendering the place of the destroyed structure an empty, arid plot of land. In 2012, with much effort, a group of dedicated chassidim unearthed the spring in order to bring it back to use. After establishing good relationships with the neighbors and receiving the necessary permits from the local municipality, the group unearthed the entire plot and found the foundation of the previous structure. The objective was to open the spring so that it would flow naturally. The news was joyously received around the world and many came to Rendsburg to immerse in the spring. With the endorsement of the municipality and under the direction of the Zidovska obec Plzen (Jewish Community of Pilsen), Mikvah Rema’s plans for building a structure enclosing the mikveh are moving speedily ahead. The building will include a hachnasas orchim section as well as a beis midrash and a combined kitchen and dining hall. 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.