ABOUT – THE HISTORY OF BELZ
The Belzer Rebbe Shlita
THE FIFTH BELZER REBBE
It is difficult to describe the excitement and joy experienced by the Belzer Chassidim who participated in the wedding of the century when the Crown Prince of the Belzer dynasty married the granddaughter of the then Viznitzer Rebbe – daughter of the current Viznitzer Rebbe Shlita. Hundreds of Chassidim from throughout Israel and abroad thronged B’nei Brak to participate in the joyous occasion. They heralded the wedding as an important milestone, indicating that their long wait was drawing to a close and the Belzer throne was soon to be occupied again.
Two short years later, in the month of Av 5726 (1966), on the ninth anniversary of the passing of the late Belzer Rebbe, the present Rebbe shlita was ordained and anointed in Jerusalem as the Fifth Belzer Rebbe and leader of the Belzer Chassidim.
Who, if any, of those present at the time could have possibly foreseen the phenomenal success that the Rebbe would have in guiding Belz into the future and that under his able leadership, Belz would be transformed into an international superpower that ranks as one of the greatest Chassidic and Torah movements in the world?!
MIRRORING HIS GREAT ANCESTORS
When studying the biography of the Rebbe Shlita, it is almost uncanny to observe how it seems to mirror and reflect the entire essence of the history of Belz and to incorporate the unique characteristics of each of the previous Rebbes!
The first Belzer Rebbe – The holy Sar Shalom- was orphaned at a tender age and brought up by his uncle and the Rebbe Shlita.
The Sar Shalom founded the Belz Chassidic movement and built it up from scratch. The present Rebbe shlita inherited a fledgling movement that was no more than a shadow or a reflection of its pre-war glory and nurtured it and built upon it until it has become a mega Chassidic movement with thousands of followers, a movement that boasts numerous synagogues and Houses of Prayer, and incorporates social and religious institutions and even its own education network of schools and seminaries, Talmud Torahs, Yeshivos and institutes for higher education with several thousand pupils and students in Israel and throughout the world.
The First Belzer Rebbe – the holy Sar ShAlom, built a famous synagogue that was renowned throughout the Jewish world as a physical and spiritual masterpiece. He spent fifteen years building his synagogue and was not only personally involved in the planning but also physically participated in the actual building.
The present Rebbe Shlita built the Belz World Centre in Jerusalem modeled largely on the style of the famous Belzer synagogue that his great-great-grandfather built and that was destroyed by the Nazis. The building also took about fifteen years to build and, as his forefather before him, the Rebbe Shlita took an active part in every stage of the planning and also contributed physically to the building work.
The main synagogue building, styled as a modern version of the famous Belz synagogue that was destroyed during the war, dominates the Jerusalem skyline and is probably the largest synagogue in the world, while the rest of the complex houses the biggest and the most vibrant Torah center in Israel, where the sounds of prayer and Torah study permeate the surrounding air around the clock, 24 hours a day 365 day a year.
A YOUNG – YET GIANT LEADER
Rabbi Yehoshuah, the Mittler Rov started his leadership under a cloud of reservations because of his young age and doubts about his suitability to succeed his father, as well as facing the difficulties of guiding his followers and the wider religious community into a new era, however in due course he disproved all those who doubted him and had phenomenal successes, including the implementation of dramatic social changes that have become the accepted norm today.
The leadership of the present Rebbe shlita also set off to a bumpy start beset with many reservations. Whereas his forefather, the Mittler Rav, was considered young when he ascended his father’s throne at approximately thirty years of age, by recent standards, thirty is considered quite a reasonable age. But the Rebbe Shlita set a new record because he was only eighteen years old when he was crowned Fifth Belzer Rebbe!
If the Mittler Rov courted reservations because his father was his only Rebbe and he hadn’t ‘widened his horizons’ by visiting other leading Rabbis, the Rebbe Shlita was accused by some of the old timers as being unsuitable because he had not learned from his father, who had passed away when he was only two years old, nor had he learned enough from his holy uncle who had passed away when he was just nine years old. After all – the doubters asked – how could a young man who had never set foot in the ‘real’ Belz and who hardly even knew the previous Rebbe possibly be the appropriate leader of the Belz Chassidim?
Above all the Mittler Rov weathered severe criticism when he tried to implement drastic changes to the traditional ways, sometimes with dramatic consequences, in order to adapt to a new era and come to terms with its new challenges. Similarly, the Rebbe Shlita bravely took on the traditional establishment in order to adapt to the post-World War Two era.
The pre-war style of community life was gone forever. Gone were the little Shtetelech where, tucked away far from the mainstream of modern Europe, traditional lifestyles and values were preserved as if in a time warp.
In pre-war Europe, Jews lived scattered in hundreds or perhaps thousands of small Shtetelech. Post-war Jewry has developed a marked preference for living in the densely populated big cities. The Rebbe Shlita realized that the module of the old-time Chassidic movement would not provide the new generation with a strong enough sense of identity and purpose.
The new module he advocated encompasses the entire social and religious life of the Belzer Chossid. Nowadays, as a Chossid and a follower of the Belzer Rebbe, not only can one pray in a Belz synagogue and observe the unique Belz traditional customs, he can reside in a Belz Kiriya or settlement, send his children to study in Belz educational institutions from kindergarten through to higher education programs for married students, make use of Belz social institutions that include all community services and even a Beth Din. He can volunteer to help with the numerous Belz charitable institutions for the poor and the needy. Or perhaps, if he is that inclined, he could participate in the Belz outreach programs that guide those seeking the way back to religious Torah observance. And finally, when his time is up, he can be attended to by the Belz Chevre Kedusha and be buried in a Belz cemetery!
If there are those who will compare a pre-war Chassidic movement to a state within a state, there is no doubt that Belz today can be compared to an empire without international boundaries!
The Belzer Rebbe’s political involvement in pre-war Europe was limited to the support of the general religious parties and guiding their activities, mostly from behind the scenes nowadays, Belz sends its own representatives into the political arena, and over the years, Belz representatives have served as councilors in several Israeli towns and cities, deputy mayors and even members of parliament in the Israeli Knesset.
Whereas under the umbrella of the Machzikei Hadas in Galicia and later the Agudas Yisroel in Poland, religious Jews ventured into the world of politics, their main purpose was to safeguard the religious Jewish interest. In the new era of living in the State of Israel, religious politicians were venturing into minefields where no religious parliamentarian had ever ventured.
EMBRACING TODAY WITH THE FOUNDATIONS OF YESTERYEAR
The Rebbe shlita was one of the first religious leaders who prompted dialogue with all the non-religious parties both on the right and the left. He was brave enough to advocate publicly the return of territories captured by the Israelis to their Arab neighbors in exchange for peace ten or fifteen years before it became, first an acceptable theory to discuss, then almost a consensus, until it became the reality, it is today.
He initiated and embraced many ‘new’ concepts ranging from the distribution of Chassidic music tapes as an alternative to more secular popular modern music to the introduction of psychology and modern teaching techniques into mainstream religious institutions.
But despite apparently bowing to the winds of change, he seems to possess the ability to tame the winds and to bend them to blow in the directions he feels fit! Although he has pioneered some of the most dramatic changes in recent times, at the same time, he is considered one of the most ardent admirers and protectors of the traditional Chassidic values, and Belz is a bastion of traditional Chassidus! This almost paradoxical ability to extract what is good from the new while retaining the character and beauty of the traditional way of life is a direct inheritance from his great grandfather the Mittler Rov.
Rabbi Yissochor Dov, the Frierdige Rav, was famous for his passion for Torah study, and with his guidance and encouragement his followers founded Talmudai Torah – a traditional boy’s school, in numerous towns and villages to promote and preserve the traditional style and method of Torah study.
His grandson of the same name, the present Rebbe shlita, continues along his path. The Belz Torah Educational Network educates several thousand pupils in numerous Talmudai Torah and no less than eight Yeshivos in Israel and the Talmudi Torah and Yeshivos wherever there is a Belz community throughout the world.
But his crowning achievement in the sphere of religious education has got to be the founding of the Beis Malka schools for girls. With branches scattered throughout Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, these schools offer several thousand pupils a unique learning experience based on traditional Chassidic values, even to the extent of setting Yiddish as the main language (a concept that is generally only available in Israel for boys studying in Talmud Torah boy’s schools) and producing textbooks and other study material exclusively for the use of the Belz educational network.
His passion for strengthening and enhancing the study of the Torah is not restricted to the benefit of members of the Belz community. He has set up various extremely successful programs to encourage and support Torah students and help them publish their work for the benefit of Torah study worldwide.
LOVING CONCERN FOR EVERY JEW
His uncle, the late Rebbe z”l, had tremendous compassion and unbound love for his fellow Jews. Throughout the 2nd World War, in dark and difficult times, he devoted his time and energy to helping his brethren and then to consoling and encouraging the broken and downtrodden remnants of pre-war Jewry in the aftermath of the terrible holocaust.
The present Rebbe shlita’s concern for the welfare of his fellow Jews is boundless. Living as he does in Israel, he does all that is in his power to comfort and encourage his fellow countrymen, who have suffered through several wars and years of terrorism, strife, and hardship. He has utilized his enormous organizational skills and the goodwill of his followers to set up, within the framework of the Belz institutions, several high-profile and extremely successful charitable organizations, ranging from organizations for the help of the poor and needy, to clinics offering cheap and affordable medical and dental care, as well as organizations that direct volunteers to assist the ill and offer free medical assistance and free loans of medical equipment.
When he ascended the throne as the Fifth Belzer Rebbe, many considered him a young man who could not qualify as a legitimate leader of Chassidus Belz because he had never even set foot in the original town where the movement started. Today, practically all the present-day Rebbes and leaders of the other Chassidic sects belong to the new generation, and practically none of them can claim the privilege of having observed their particular Chassidus on its home turf. Indeed, forty years on, while by no means the oldest, the Rebbe Shlita is actually one of the longest reigning Rebbes in our generation! Under his leadership, Belz has become one of the world’s most vibrant and dynamic Chassidic movements. May it be the will of Hashem that we shall continue under his leadership until imminently; we shall merit going forward under his flag to greet the Moshiach!
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