ABOUT – THE HISTORY OF BELZ
The Belz Empire
A REBIRTH IN JERUSALEM
The ninth day of Shevat 5704 (1944) marks the day that the two holy refugees, the Belzer Rebbe z”l and his brother the Bilgorajer Rav z”l, first set foot in the Holy Land and is generally regarded as the date when the process of rebuilding Belz was initiated. However, the truth is that the first seed was planted in Jerusalem in 1939, just before the onset of the war, when the first Belzer Shteible was founded in Jerusalem. It was also the determination of the handful of Belzer who were living in the Holy Land that contributed greatly to the sequence of events that culminated with the arrival of the holy brothers to the Holy Land. They worked tirelessly night and day, sparing neither time nor effort, utilized their every connection, and exerted all their influence until they managed to cut through the numerous bureaucratic barriers. As a result, eventually, the coveted entry certificates to Palestine that were worth their weight in gold in those troubled times were issued so that the brothers could finally get the necessary transit visas that would allow them to travel across occupied Europe into Turkey and on via Syria into Palestine.
The enthusiastic reception they received when they arrived in Haifa and all along the route until they eventually arrived in Jerusalem was like a throwback to pre-war times before the destruction of the Belz Empire along with most of Eastern European Jewry. Thousands of Jews thronged the streets as the entire religious community in the Holy Land came out in force to greet and welcome the great Chassidic leader who had come to reside in their midst.
Contrary to everybody’s expectations, the Rebbe did not settle in Jerusalem, B’nei Berak, or any other recognized religious settlements, preferring instead to settle in Tel Aviv. His house in Echad Ha’am Street became a place of pilgrimage for Belz Chassidim and thousands of other Jews from all walks of life who thronged to the Belzer Rebbe to seek his advice and his blessings.
During the Roman conquest of the Land of Israel that led in due course to the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish people going into exile, Titus, the leader of the Roman legionaries, offered Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackei that he would grant him any one request. He asked the Romans to spare the famous Yeshiva in Yavne and its Talmudical students without hesitation. He did not request that he should spare Jerusalem and the temple, preferring instead to ask for the one thing that would safeguard the Jewish future – the Torah that was being studied by the students at the Yavne Yeshiva.
BRICK BY BRICK
In much the same way, when the Belzer Rebbe z”l embarked on his quest to rebuild the Belzer Empire, he made an important strategic decision. He did not attempt to rebuild a Shtetele. Instead, he set about creating a network of Torah institutions that would educate a new generation of children in the unique Belz tradition, guaranteeing Belz’s future.
The task of setting up and running the Belz educational program was undertaken by the Bilgorajer Rav, and he was appointed by his brother Administrator-in-Chief of all the Belz institutions. He approached the task enthusiastically, and under his stewardship, the first Belz Talmud Torah was founded in Tel Aviv in 1949, followed shortly by a second Talmud Torah in Jerusalem. However, his leadership was not destined to last. About a year later, at the beginning of the Hebrew year 5710 (1950), shortly after the inauguration of the Belzer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the Bilgorajer Rov was taken ill and hospitalized, and after a short illness, he passed away on the 25th day of Cheshvan.
The foundation of the Belzer Yeshiva was an important milestone in rebuilding Belz in Israel. There is an old Hebrew saying, “if there are no lambs, there will be no sheep” therefore, having Belzer Talmudei Torah – independent boy’s schools for the education of the children of Belzer Chasidim was an important achievement. However, it was in the Yeshiva that Belzer Chassidim pinned their hopes on safeguarding the future of Belz.
The Yeshiva was the short-term answer to the problem of educating the youth born just before the war or refugee parents during and immediately after the war who were too old for the newly founded boy’s schools. It would enable them, too, to be instructed in the unique ways of Belz so that they would keep the Belzer traditions alive until they would send their children to be educated in a Belzer Talmudei Torah. Also, in the long term, it would act as a melting pot where students would come from all the various Belzer Talmudei Torah in Israel and from abroad and forge together to build the close-knitted international community that characterizes Belz throughout the world.
The Yeshiva opened in a rented Jerusalem property with no more than ten pupils, but it quickly outgrew its premises. In 1954 an appropriate plot of land was acquired, and on the 2nd day of Elul 5714 (1954), the Rebbe laid the foundation stone for the Belzer Yeshiva building. He instructed that the plans should include accommodation for several hundred students, a large central synagogue, and a study hall. Also included in the plans was a residential apartment for the Rebbe himself to reside in when he came to spend the summer months in Jerusalem.
At the time of completion, the main study hall was one of the largest synagogues in Jerusalem and perhaps in the world, indeed many wondered at the time if it was indeed necessary to build the Yeshiva on such a grand scale. When the Rebbe passed away on the 21st day of Av 5717 (1957), the Yeshiva became the focal point as well as the Centre of Belzer Chassidim, and in due course, they all came to realize that it had been fortunate that they had the foresight to build in such a scale that it could accommodate the periodical gatherings of the Belzer Chassidim. This was especially so after the present Rebbe Shelita took up residence in Jerusalem, and the great synagogue hall doubled as a Yeshiva for the students and as a center where Chassidim from Israel and all over the world would gather to spend Shabbos or Tom Tov with the Rebbe and participate with his prayers and his Tish.
KEEPING THE TORCH AFLAME
The Chassidim, who were devastated when their Rebbe the Rav Zechrono Levrocha passed away, realized that it was their responsibility to keep his legacy alive and keep up the momentum until such a time as the orphaned son of the Bilgorajer Rov, the Belzer crown prince, would be old enough to take over the leadership. Over the following nine years, the Belz institutions in Israel continued to grow in leaps and bounds. One of their most amazing achievements during that period was building the Belz synagogue and Talmud Torah in Bnei Brak. The groundbreaking ceremony was celebrated at the conclusion of the thirty days of mourning, and the inauguration ceremony took place less than a year later, on the first anniversary of the Rav Zechrono Levrocha’s passing away.
Their collective progress during those nine years is truly impressive and includes building several buildings and extending the network of Torah institutions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, as well as in England, Belgium, the USA, and Canada. However, despite their remarkable achievements, the Chassidim were only undertaking a caretaker’s job. It was only when the present Rebbe shlita ascended the Belzer throne on the ninth anniversary of his uncle’s passing that the quest acquired a new sense of purpose.
Under his dynamic leadership, the Belz Educational Institutes’ scope and direction have broadened almost beyond recognition. It was extended to include educational institutions for girls and the traditional Talmudei Torah schools and Yeshivas for boys. Sarah Schenira, the founder of the Beth Yaakov schools for girls who pioneered the concept of religious Jewish schooling for girls in pre-war Europe, was a scion of a family of Belzer Chassidim and her brother Avrohom Schenira was one of the prominent Belzer Chassidim in Krakow. Although she writes in her memoirs that she traveled to Belz to consult with the then Belzer Rebbe, the Frierdige Rov zt”l about her plans for religious schooling for girls and received his consent and his blessings, as indeed she received from several of the other religious leaders at the time, Beis Yaakov was in no way affiliated or even endorsed by Belz.
With the foundation of the Beis Malka Girl’s Schools network, Belz acknowledged that the need to educate the girls with the unique Belz traditions was equally important to the future of Belz as it is for the boys.
Even though this was a momentous decision of great importance, it pales almost to insignificance when compared with the way the Rebbe Shelta revolutionized the traditional educational methods by introducing modern methods and concepts like psychology and graphology to assist with the assessment of students, recognizing the need for parallel schooling for students of different learning abilities and especially recognizing the need to cater for physical as well as psychological or emotional ‘special needs children, while at the same time preserving and maintaining the unique character and the values of traditional Jewish educational methods. In this field, Belz is regarded as a pioneer and the trailblazer who set the trend for the entire Chassidic world.
ESTABLISHING A DYNASTY
Over the years, as the Belz communities ‘reborn’ in Israel and around the world matured and stabilized, the Rebbe shlita decided that the time was ripe to shift the emphasis from the educational institutions to rebuild the cultural and social aspects of Belz.
This was no small task. Post-war Jewish communities are mostly located in the big cities and are made up of Jews from all over Europe and from all sorts of different social and traditional backgrounds. While the Belz educational institutions were well established, Belzer Chassidim had integrated with their surrounding communities on an individual basis. Belz was looking for a delicate balance that would protect their Chassidim’s individuality without cutting them off and segregating them from the wider Jewish communities.
To do this, the Rebbe chose a two-pronged approach; to build upon and extend the Belz social and charitable institutions, in due course under an umbrella organization called Kahal Machzikei Hadass, and to build Kiriyot – special housing projects that would create Belzer neighborhoods within the larger religious neighborhood blocks. The first Kirya was founded in Jerusalem, followed by one in the Israeli seaport Ashdod and more recently in Beth Shemesh near Jerusalem, each housing several hundred Belz families and, of course, with their own synagogues and other community buildings.
Kahal Machzikei Hadass was established in the year 5740 (1980) in order to provide Belzer Chassidim with all the community services that Jews residing in a pre-war Shtelel would have traditionally expected from their local communities. The difference was of course, that the present-day Jew no longer resides in a Shtelel. Jews today live in large cosmopolitan cities and are by default part of the wider Jewish congregation. Therefore the new Belzer Kehila was a social experiment, a new concept in which the boundaries of a Kehila can transcend any physical tangible boundaries, and membership is based on ideological and social unity rather than geographical location. Much in the same way as Jewish communities exist as independent entities within the confines of a town or city, interacting with but remaining independent of their neighbors and the wider community, so does the Kahal Machzikei Hadass operate within the framework but independently of the general Jewish congregations.
Kahal Machzikei Hadass also consolidated the existing Belz social and charitable organizations and, in due course, was instrumental in the creation and the running of numerous organizations that extend their services to Belz followers and the general public throughout Israel.
In the year 5744 (1984), the cornerstone was laid in Kiryat Belz on the outskirts of Jerusalem for the Belz World Centre. Thousands of Belzer Chassidim and well-wishers attended the grandiose groundbreaking event. Over two hundred famous Rabbis and Jewish dignitaries graced the stage, and delegates from all the Israeli political parties attended, along with politicians from far and near. The American president sent an envoy with a personal message, and Walter Mondale, the then-American presidential hopeful, attended in person.
Fifteen years later, the main synagogue was completed. Today it is one of the greatest synagogues in the world, and the ornamental battlements that grace the top of the Grand Synagogue dominate the Jerusalem skyline.
As the emphasis gradually shifted from the educational institutions to the social and communal institutions, so too the focus shifted from the Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which had been the central focus point for so many years, and swung over to the Belz World Centre. The role of the Yeshiva as the melting pot for all Belzer Chassidim was no longer required. Having one central Yeshiva where students gather from all over the world to study under one roof had great advantages; however, the Rebbe decided that it was too large and unwieldy for its overall benefit. In line with his restructure and modernization of the rest of the Belz educational network, he preferred having several smaller and hence, more manageable Yeshivas where each student can receive more personalized attention.
Today the Belz Yeshiva Network in Israel educates about one and a half thousand students in eight Yeshivas located in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Haifa, Beis Chelkia, Ashdod, Rishon Le’zion, and Telz Stone on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
As the Belzer communities grew in strength and numbers, so did their social and political influence. Belz is recognized today as one of the world’s greatest and most influential Chassidic empires.
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