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The Roots of Hasidism
By CHAIM SHNEIDER, HasidicNews.com Writer
In the eighteenth century, serfdom dominated Eastern Europe. Most People did not own anything of their own. They were given a piece of land; worked very hard to produce crops, and as long as they could produce enough to allow for a sufficient tax for the lord, the lord was satisfied and the peasant made it through another year.
Peasants were the lucky ones. Jews were generally not allowed that; they did not get any property to toil. They were forced to become peddlers, merchants and bartenders. Life for Jews in Eastern Europe in those days was significantly more miserable than a common peasant. It was normal for a Jew not to know from where to feed his wife and kids the next day. In addition to Occupational restrictions, they were restricted residentially too.
From among this despair and misery in Poland arose a person name Reb Yisrael Baal Shem (Master of the Good Name). He began preaching about the importance of community, brotherhood and spirituality. He used to go from town to town to spread his message, as he quickly struck a deep not among his miserable, desperate people.
It did not take very long before his name became widely known in Eastern Europe. Whenever he would visit a town, people would gather to see him speak to him in private, discuss their livelihood problems, and often Reb Yisrael would come up with amazing working solutions. People were marveling about the miracles he used to perform in order to help a fellow Jew. The concept of miracles and the comfort he instilled was a very strong boost to the spirituality of Jews in those days, and it helped them survive both physically and mentally in those trying years.
Upon his death, Reb Yisrael from Koznitz was the most prominent of his disciples and assumed the Hasidic leadership role. His disciples in turn established their own Hasidic communities locally. Hasidism quickly spread throughout Easter Europe and their communities were rapidly growing.
Reb Eliyahu from Vilna, considered a mighty Torah scholar and a prominent authority, strongly opposed Hasidism, as he saw it as a deviation from traditional rigid Judaism and from Halacha (Jewish Law) .He launched a campaign against the newly formed movement and ostracized its follower.
After Reb Eliyahu died, it became apparent that the Hasidic movement was too big and permanent to be ostracized. Slowly but steadily, Hasidism came to be accepted as a legitimate way of observing Judaism. Hasidim were known for their devout practices, such as frequenting the Mikva. They sometimes didn't follow Halacha, such as Davening (praying) late in the day.
Hasidism Branched out into literally hundreds of Rabbinic dynasties. Every town would have their own Hasidic Rabbi, even though there usually was an official Rav as well who was officially leading the local Jewish community. Sometimes the Hasidim would clash with the rest of the Jewish community about their clandestine and mystic practices. They would often form their own "Minyan" in what came to be called a "Shtiebel", rather then go to the main synagogue in town.
Hasidism was greatest in Poland. 3.5 Million Jews lived in Poland immediately before WWII. The vast majority of them were Hasidim. They mostly belonged to the "Aleksander" dynasty. This is one of the very sore points in Hasidic as well as Jewish history, as the Aleksander community now nearly extinct. After the War When most of Polish Jewry perished, other communities managed to rebuild but Aleksander never managed to do so.
Satmar is named after a Hungarian town, whereby a thriving Jewish community existed before WWII. Satmar, like most Jewish towns in eastern Europe had several communities. It had a central, official, Orthodox synagogue, a reformed synagogue and a Hasidic synagogue. In the 1920's the reform population was dwindling while the Orthodox and Hasidic populations were growing. In 1929, the Rav of the Orthodox community in Satmar passed away. Some in the community, bent towards the increasingly popular Hasidic style and a strong leader, consented or even preferred to appoint a Hasidic rabbi. When Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (then Rav in Krooly) was invited for a Shabbas to Satmar, he demonstrated exceptional scholastic achievement and talmudic knowledge, somewhat different than the prevailing image of a Hasid as being more spiritual and less Scholastic. Those in the community who liked him, liked him even more, and his followership grew after several invitations. When it came down to a vote, the then-Krooly Rav won by a narrow margin. This was definitely a promotion, as the Satmar community was larger, more modern and wealthier. In the beginning, some in the community were very suspicious of having a Hasidic Rav, but the new Rav was very keen in dealing with those people in a very subtle and accommodating way, as he strategically won their hearts over.
The community prospered under his leadership. Students started coming from all neighboring towns to the Satmar yeshiva and later from all over Hungary. In the years immediately preceding the war, Satmar was considered one of the greatest Orthodox Jewish centers in Hungary. Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum would hold long, sophisticated lectures on Talmudic subjects, inspiring and bewildering everyone. Everyone in his congregation was proud of him and admired him greatly. When the war was spreading, and the Jews in Hungary were being rounded up in to concentration camps by the Nazis, the rav's people arranged for him to leave the city in middle of the night clandestinely in an ambulance, for the Nazis first order of business in any town was arresting the local Rav. There was a problem with the destination address. It wasn't very clear for the Rav and his companions what the address was or where to find it and there was no one to ask in middle of the night. The ambulance driver became increasingly nervous, as he was to return the ambulance by morning, in order not to raise any suspicion. The Rav was dropped on the street in the town of Klozenberg, and was soon afterwards arrested. He was released after his people found out where he was, and pleaded and bribed the local authorities.
It became clear to the rav's friends and followers the urgency of finding a permanent escape and safe haven for the Rav. A Zionist organization had managed to arrange with the Nazis to allow about 1400 of their people to leave for neutral Switzerland, in return for a heavy ransom. The rav's people managed to include the Rav and his wife in that transport list. The Zionists ended up not paying the full amount of money promised to the Nazis, and the Nazis ordered the train stopped at the border. The Zionists bribed the guards to record their arrival several minutes earlier, so as to render the last-minute retraction too late. On the twenty first of Kislev (Hebrew month) the Rav crossed the border, being the only Hasidic Rav in that entire group, and was relatively safe in Switzerland. He stayed in camps for several months until the war was over, during which time it is said that he kept Kashrus fully despite the challenge and difficulty.
In 1946 the Rav left for Israel, where he stayed with his sun-in-law for about a year. Life was extremely difficult for the shattered poor community who had nothing left. There wasn't a single family that wasn't affected by the Holocaust. Allot of people were questioning the effectiveness of worshipping God and keeping the Torah after all that god allowed to happen for his chosen people. The Rav was very distressed about all this and took it upon himself to rebuild the community. Eventually, the Rav left for a visit to the US to raise money for one of his campaigns. He met allot of people from his former community in the US, as well as others from all over Hungary. They urged him to stay and help rebuild the community and comfort their wounds. The Rav eventually acquiesced to stay.
The rav's decision to stay marked the beginning of the modern Satmar dynasty. During the first few Shabattim, he was staying in Williamsburg - Brooklyn without even his own Shul. After a few months a small but close-knit group of former community members and friends gathered around him and founded newly replanted "Yetev Lev" Satmar congregation in 1947. The congregation immediately elected him as rav and granted him broad powers. The congregation was growing rapidly as more people from Hungary arrived to the US and settled in Williamsburg. They quickly outgrew the premises and had to move to accommodate the crowd. In 1948 the rav drew worldwide Jewish attention when he was the only prominent Jewish figure to categorically renounce the newly founded Jewish state. He would sob tremendously on Shabbas "Shallosh Seeudos" gatherings about the harm that the Jewish state causes and about how sinful it is for Jews to establish their own power prior to the arrival of "Mashiach" to redeem them.
His resolve and sincerity about this issue impressed people in his congregation who would have otherwise been cheering for Israel. They remained neutral and accepted all the blame and embarrassment the Satmar community experienced in those days.
After those early years, the immigration wave surged once again in the 1960's. The Satmar rav was by then already considered a leading figure in the US Orthodox Jewish community. People were coming to seek his advice and blessing from all over the globe. One congregation in Williamsburg quickly branched out into tens of congregations in Williamsburg and various parts in Brooklyn as well as nationwide and abroad. By the 1960's, the Satmar community was easily the largest Hasidic community in the US. Hasidim from sects whose Rabbi's had passed away in the course of WWII were converting to Satmar en masse.
1967 marked the Israeli-Arab "six day war", during which the Israelis won a landslide victory. The Satmar rav again found himself being the only person lamenting Israel's victory instead of celebrating it. It bothered him very much to see people, even from his own community, subconsciously celebrating the Israeli victory. He would thunder and scream during his famous "Shallosh Seeudos" sermon's. At one point he ordered that no one who believes in the Zionist cause should ever step through the Shul's door again. This issue seemingly damaged his health, as he experienced a severe heart attack a year later. He never fully recovered from his illness. Never again would anyone hear those thunderous sermons. It was a thing of the past. Eventually he did resume "Shallosh Seeudos" sermons but it wasn't quite like the good old days.
In the early 70's, the rav bought some land in Monroe, NY and founded the first Satmar town in the US. It was named after the rav "Joel's town" or "Kiryat Joel". By 1979, Satmar was a very powerful and huge community. It had held protests against state of Israel on various occasions. There were quite a few wealthy successful business men in the community, who would sponsor various projects the Rav had initiated. Satmar congregations owned hundreds of properties all over New York, and had communities in Europe and Israel as well.
The Rav's last major public appearance was at the foundation of the "Keren Hatzalah" (=redeeming principle), a fund raising money for Israeli Jewish educational institutions, who pledge not to apply or receive any government aid. According to the Satmar rav, taking money from the Zionists is prohibited, as they are grave sinners. Several weeks later on a Saturday evening he passed away.
Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral on a bright Sunday morning in Monroe NY where he was put to rest in the newly founded "town". The Satmar community as well as the entire Hasidic community was grieving at the tremendous loss. He left no children behind, as all of his three daughters died while he was still alive.
Lubavitch, An Omnipresent Empire
By CHAIM SHNEIDER, HasidicNews.com Writer
Lubavitch is somewhat isolated from the other Hasidic groups. Lubavitch started at the town of Lubavitch in Russia about 150 years ago where the Author of the Tanye lived. He founded the Lubavitch school of Chasidus and passed it on to his posterity. Lubavitch was a rather small Chasidus before WWII. Yosef Yitzchak Shneirson, Lubavitch Rebbe at the time, survived the war and made it to the US soon thereafter. He died in 1949 and left no carry on the Chassidus. His son-in-law Menachem Mendel Shneirson was given the task of carrying on with the dynasty. He, unlike other Hasidic Rebbe's, was college educated and very well-read. He adopted a very mystical but independent approach to the concept of Chasidus. He in a sense reinvented it. He claimed to be just interpreting the "Older Rebbe's teachings. Practically speaking, though, he came up with an entire new model. Ultimately Chabad (a synonym to Lubavitch) developed into a very unique Chasidus.
Some of Chabad's unique characteristics are: Members do not necessarily live in a single close-knit community. On the contrary, they are encouraged to seek out lost souls across the US, Europe, Israel and Russia after the break of the Soviet Union. Chabad Hasidim speak English as a first language, not Yiddish. They do NOT wear the popular "Shtreimel" on Shabbas. They are exposed to secular culture a great deal, through various projects of Kiruv and elsewhere.
Shlichus is one of the very popular Chabad projects initiated by the Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shneirson. Male Yeshiva students at about age 18-19 would be sent all over the globe to teach jews about their heritage, set up local congregations, bring Kosher food, and build a Mikva. Getting people to put on Tefillin is one of the very common tasks every Shliach has performed at least once. If you go to the Western Wall, you'll always have a Shliach putting on administering the Tefillin to anyone interested.
Chabad never shied away from science and secular exposure like other Hasidic sects. Lubavitch Rebbe is the only Hasidic Rebbe that had received a college education. Chabad Hasidim are no different. Chabad welcomes the opportunity to explain to non-observant jews and non-jews alike the concepts of Judaism and Chabad. They don't shy away from the media and the public spotlight. They are literally everywhere. Every town that has more than a few jews, has a "Chabad house" or a local shellac's private house assumes the functions of a Chabad house. Chabad Hasidim are know for their kindness and amiability to everyone including people who are not Jewish at all.
In the 1980's, the Rebbe started talking about the arrival of Messiah and the revelation of God. Hasidim eventually became convinced that their Rebbe is the actual Messiah and that the redemption day, the day the Rebbe will reveal himself as the Redeemer, is near. In the 1990's this belief intensified and engulfed every element of the Lubavitch community. Hasidim literally believed that it's a matter of days or even hours. They would arrange special "crowning events" where Mashiach will be crowned, or Mashiach discussion groups. Hasidm believed that talking about Mashiach and about the Rebbe will expedite the Rebbe's revelation.
The Rebbe never explicitly claimed to be Mashiach. His manner of speech was always one of enigma and mysticism. He would talk about "lights" and "spirit" and other kabala-related subjects. It was therefore hard to detect anything concrete and absolute. If he did mean to say that he is Mashiach and has been sent by God to redeem his people, he certainly did not say it in an unequivocal fashion. He would, however, cheer on the crowd singing "We want Mashiach now" or even chanting "May out lord, teacher, master, the anointed king live forever".
When he became ill in the early 90's Hasidim were convinced that it's just a test of faith and a pre-revelation endurance. The Rebbe died in 1994 after being unconscious for several months. Fear and confusion gripped Chabad Hasidim worldwide. They didn't know what to make out of it. Some believed that the Rebbe isn't really dead. Mashiach lives forever; therefore, the Rebbe cannot be dead. Some Hasidim were seen dancing and chanting the abovementioned phrase at the Rebbe's funeral at 770 in crown Heights Brooklyn.
Most Hasidim, though, realized by then that the Rebbe is dead and will remain that way. They believed that the Rebbe was "capable" and worthy of being messiah, but the generation wasn't or didn't do enough to bring about the realization of his revelation and the people's redemption.
The Rebbe did not leave behind any children and Chabad Hasidim never appointed a new Rebbe. They believed their Rebbe was the seventh in the Chabad dynasty and the last. No one can or should succeed him. They appointed various people by the title of "Mashpia" (inspirer) but not as "Rebbe".
The Belz'e sect
By CHAIM SHNEIDER, HasidicNews.com Writer
Belz is name d after a town in Galician. The Belz dynasty dates back to the nineteenth century. Its founder was Rav Dov. One of Belz'e unique characteristics was its "Yoshvim" program. Married men would remain in the synagogue all day and study the Talmud and pray. "Yoshvim" were supported by businessmen and merchants in the community. They had absolutely no income of their own. Food and other necessities would be brought to them straight to the synagogue so they don't have to leave the Shul even for a short time. Some "Yoshvim" would sleep over in the Shul on the bench, and would typically stay remain in the Shul, immersed in Torah study, worship of God and deriving inspiration from the Rebbe until the Rebbe would tell them to go home and to the "Mitzvah" with their wives, after which they would return and remain in Shul for anther 5 months or so.
Unlike Satmar and other established Orthodox congregations, the Belz'e sect was originally founded as a "Chasidus", not as an official congregation. The leader was therefore called a "Rebbe" not a Rav, and had no official or government recognized power. The role of a Rebbe was more spiritual and followers usually had hundred's of stories about miracles performed by the "Rebbe" as well as instances where the "Rebbe" was inspired by "Ruach Hakodesh" (Holy Spirit) to know one's personal life or the future, and accordingly advise his followers.
The Belz'e dynasty, like most other Hasidic dynasties in the nineteenth century, was inherited, unlike the original Hasidic communities whose leaders did not pass over leadership to their offspring but to the most qualified disciple. The last Belz'e Rebbe Yisoochar Dov passed away in the 1930's. His son Aharon was crowned as the new Belze Rebbe as customary. Unlike Satmar, the Belz'e community was rather static and its leader did not maintain a high profile. Aharon's Hasidim would be raving about miracles and open "Ruach Hakodesh" about their Rebbe. This was a bit uncommon in those modern days.
When the WWII hit home, Hasidim devised a rescue plan for the Rebbe. According to the story, they managed obtain the services of a driver who would drive the Rebbe, his wife and to others across the border using falsified documents, pretending to be Government officials in the course of performing their duty. They were stopped at the border, their identity questioned and were about to be detained when three tall high-ranking officials ordered that they be allowed to pass the border. Hasidim believe that those three men were angels sent from heaven, as their identity was never discovered.
The Rebbe stayed in Switzerland and left for Israel after the war. He settled in Bnei Brak, where there was a fledgling Hasidic community. Unlike Satmar, originally from Hungary, Belz suffered a lot greater losses in the Holocaust. Belz, like some of the other Polish-originating communities was nearly wiped out. Some Hasidic followers from other communities joined Belz, after their Rebbe did not survive. The Rebbe was known, after the war, to be extremely Holy. He only weighed 90 pounds and rarely ate anything. People would say that he is really in heaven, only his body being in this physical world.
He died in 1957, with Thousands of admirers following his casket at the funeral in Bnei Brak, Israel. He did not have as much devout followers within his community as he did enchanted admirers who believed very strongly in the Rebbe's Holiness and righteousness. He is widely believed to be among the last of the old-generation holy Hasidic Rebbe's. His nephew Dov was appointed Belz'e Rebbe soon thereafter. He was born after the war and was only 18 when appointed leader of the Belz'e community. He adopted a very modern somewhat revolutionary policy of secular government relationships and community customs. Satmar was very angered by his decision to send delegates to the secular Israeli "Knesset" and instruct his followers to vote.
The Belz'e Rebbe lashed back in 1981 at the Satmar allegations and proclaimed himself as knowing well enough on his own what Belz should be like, and allegedly insulted the already deceased former Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbam. Satmar was angered even more, and managed to obtain signatures from significant segments of the Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox in an attempt to renounce and even ostracize the Belz'e Rebbe. This created a huge and lasting rift between the Belz and Satmar communities.
In the 1980's the Rebbe also launched what is probably the biggest modern Hasidic construction project ever. Plans called for a humongous huge and magnificent Synagogue in the Belze section in Jerusalem. That building would, additionally include Wedding and Bar Mitzvah halls, sub-synagogues, libraries, learning centers, as well other community and civic centers. Unlike in the US, where Rebbe's find it relatively easy to raise money, in Israel most local Hasidim do not have much to spare. He, thus resorted to various fund-raising projects overseas among his followers and supporters, throughout the 80 and 90's. At one point he changed plans in the construction which required the demolition of some already built parts, which angered many.
At the turn of the century, the structure was mostly complete and can be seen to this day in "Kiryat Belz" in Jerusalem.
The Two Viznitz's
By CHAIM SHNEIDER, HasidicNews.com Researcher
Viznitz started in Hungary about hundred years ago. After the WWII Reb Chayim Mei'rel, as he was affectionately called was leading the sect in Bnei Brak, Israel.
Disciples from pre-war Europe gathered around him and formed the "Kirya" (town) in Bnei Brak, along with a comprehensive net of educational and communal institutions. He was later known to head the Ultra-Orthodox political and social organization "Agudas Yisrael". Agudas Yisrael has had roughly 4 seats in the Israeli Knesset (out of 120) from the time it was founded to this day. It has thus never had major political influence, yet it managed to extract significant "concessions" and financial aid from the ruling governments in return for their support of the ruling party or coalition.
Reb Chayim Mei'rel had two sons, the older Moshelle and the younger Mottele. While the Moshelle was raised and educated in the community, Mottelle preferred to study the Talmud in the Satmar Yeshiva in Brooklyn after he came to the US for a visit and became attracted to the Satmar "Shittah" (unique religious policy). He was somewhat resented back home in Viznitz for this act signaling a departure from the traditional Viznitz style.
After Reb Chayim Mei'rel passed away, Reb Moshelle was, expectedly, appointed to lead the Viznitz community in Bnei Brak, while some dissenters and Viznitz Hassidim in the US gathered around Moshelle and helped him create the Viznitz community in the fledgling Jewish settlement in Monsey, NY. He quickly became known as a "kanui" (zealot). He protested his brothers participation in the secular anti-messianic Israeli government as well as other policies. While he was a stanch disciple and referrer of the old Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, he wasn't as kind in relation to the newly appointed nephew Moshe Teitelbaum. He frequently criticized him and drew harsh reaction in return.
In the famous Kiryat Joel independent school district case that ultimately came before the Supreme Court of the United States, he was outspoken against Satmar. He publicly criticized Aaron's handling of the case as Aaron announced that no religious studies were being taught to the handicapped children and that "god's name is not being mentioned" in the government-sponsored premises. Aaron was prompted to say this in order to continue receiving the millions of dollars in aid from the government and not violate the separation of church and state constitutional clause. Reb Mottelle and other Rabbis believed that this announcement was an immense "Chillul Hashem" (profanity of god's name).
While Reb Mottelle has always stuck to a very independent non-chalant mannerism of publicly criticizing any Rebbe or Hasidic leader he believed wasn't doing or saying the right thing, he did manage to maintain a chore of followers and established various "shtieblech" (cells) throughout the Metropolitan area and even abroad. Some people came to admire his obstinate attitude while others believed that it was simply stupid to get involved in every Hasidic sect's internal affairs and announce his opinion unasked.
Reb Moshelle held on the existing and much-larger Viznitz community in Bnei Brak and followed a very traditional Viznitz-like model. He had a very elegant "Hadras Panim" and commanded significant respect in the religious establishment in Israel, both as being one of the largest Hasidic sects in Israel and as being the president of the "Aguda". He is also known for his long and beautiful friday night "Tish" and his extensive skill in public speaking. His three daughters were married to Aaron Teitelbam, Rav of Kiryat Joel, Yisuchar Dov Roke'ach, Belz'e Rebbe and the Skver'e Rebbe.
The Shiduch (engagement) that he did with the then-Sigget'e Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum drew much opposition and stirred up much controversy in Satmar. When the Satmar Rebbe passed away in 1978 and he was viewed as a potential successor as the closest akin, many people objected for the mere reason that he was "Meshadech" with an "Agadist". Years later, after Moshe was elected Satmar Rebbe and his son Aaron Kiryat Joel Rav and Aaron celebrated the wedding of his son Mendel, inviting his father-in-law Reb Moshelle to the wedding, Hassidim pinched his legs and tossed orange peels on the Viznitz'e Rebbe and Aaron had to beg his Hassidim to leave his father-in-law alone.
By CHAIM SHNEIDER, HasidicNews.com Researcher
Bobov is named after the little Polish town where the original Bobov Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Halbershtam founded the sect. He was adescendant of the the Tzanz'e Rav (Baal Divrei Chayim) and modeled his Hasidic style after the Tzanz.
Bobov wasn't a very big Chassidus at any given time. In fact, it was rumored that upon saying "Ose Shalom" when finishing one's prayers (during which times one takes three steps backwords), Bobov'e Chassidim had to remember to take along their passport to show upon return. That's how small Bobov was and that's how numerous and unstable governments in the region were in those days.
Bobov, like all Polish Jewish communities was severly hit by the Holocaust during WWII. Most Chassidim were killed by the Nazis as was the Bobov Rebbe Bentzion Halbershtam. His son Shlomo was in his young 20's during that time and he managed to survive the war and emigrated to Brooklyn, NY soon thereafter.
Crown Heights was then a Jewish neighberhood and that's where Shlomo settled and established a shul and evntually other religious instituions. His followers were very few at the time, since the vast majority of them did not survive the war. He infused much needed courage into the hearts of those who did survive and were struggling to start a new life and family in a strange country.
Unlike many other Hassidic Rebbe's, the Bobov'e Rav was a bit modern and extremely down-to-earth. Bobov'e chassdim are known to be very neat and "bapitzt" at all times and the Rebbe acted as an adviser on a personal level, not so much as a spiritual leader.
Eventually, the few Bobov Holocaust survivors were joined by other Polish Chassidim whose Rebbe did not survive and were thus left without a chassidus. Over the years the community grew and moved over to Borough Park. Bobov is now the biggest Hassidic community headquartered in Borough Park.
The Rav, Shlomo, led his people many years until he passed away in 2000. He was known to avoid getting invloved in other Hassidic quarreling. He made it a point to remain friendly with all Hasidic sects, including Satmar, Klozenberg and even Belz. He would simply refuse to sign any posters that spoke out against a particular Rebbe or to ebdorse a particular side. He was quite successful at that and will forever be praised for this accomplishment.
There was some speculation before he passed away as to who whould succeed him. Some people favored the older son, born before the war, Nafuli, and some favored the younger, more charismatic and social son Bantziyon. He was born after the war by the Rav's new wife (his original wife died in the Holocaust). However, The dispute never evolved into any real fighting. It was eventually unaninmously agreed that Naftuli would become Rav and Bantziyon ould be name "Rav Hatzair" (the young Rav). This essentially guarentees the throne to Bentziyon, rather than to Naftuli's descendants after Naftuli dies.
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