Friday, July 06, 2007

Belz in Israel

I'm combining all of the previous posts of the week into this one giant post so I and others can link to it in the future.

From Belz to Eretz Israel

In 1779, while in what would become the United States the Revolutionary War raged on, and in the South Pacific captain James Cook met his death exploring the uncharted waters of the South Pacific, in the Shtetlach (small Jewish villages) of Europe, a different kind of enlightenment was afoot. In that year, man who would later be named the "Sar Shalom," the "Minister of Peace," was born.

Disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidut, the new, less intellectualized, more fiery and devotional form of Judaism, had spread across the fiefdoms of an Eastern Europe still locked in the dark ages. Soon each Shtetl had it's on Rebbe, and in 1817, the "Sar Shalom" became the first Rebbe of Belz.

Stories of his miraculous piety and healing powers abound, but he was best known for his great learning. Any action a tzaddik, a righteous holy person, takes for the sake of the Jewish nation can have the effect of thousands of ordinary people. The Sar Shalom and two others took it upon themselves to study Torah the entire night for one thousand consecutive nights. First one, then the other of his study partners fell by the wayside, but the Sar Shalom kept going. On the thousandth night, a great storm struck the town of Belz, threatening to tear apart the beit midrash (study hall) as the Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination, made a last ditch effort to break the Rebbe's concentration. He survived the ordeal, and as the sun began to rise, Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet, revealed himself to the Sar Shalom, and revealed to him the details of the building of a Shtiebl, a synagogue, that would have the strongest possible connection to the worlds beyond.

The Sar Shalom immediately set to work building. In behavior that was considered unseemly for a Rebbe of his stature, he came to the building site daily, inspecting progress and issuing new instructions, micromanaging every last detail. When he finished, the shul of Belz became a wonder of the Hassidic world, seating thousands.

The shul stood for over a century. When the Nazis conquered the town, they attempted to burn and dynamite the Shtiebl, but all attempts failed. Meanwhile, the Sar Shalom's great grandson and fourth Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, was at the top of a Nazi list of Jewish leaders to be hunted down and killed. The Belzer Rebbe and his half-brother Rabbi Moredechai managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. While their entire family, along with virtually all Belzer Hassidim in the Ukranie, were wiped out, those two managed to escape to Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, third Belzer Rebbe and father of Rabbi Aharon Rokeach.

While the synagogue survived the war, it didn't survive the Ukranians who cannibalized it afterwards, stripping it of it's ornaments and eventually cannibalizing even the basic bricks for use in construction.

Rabbi Aharon Rokeach

While Rabbi Aharon Rokeach had no children after the Holocaust, his half-brother, Rabbi Mordechai, had a son, and Rabbi Aharon adopted him and began grooming him to be a successor. Rabbi Aharon's work in fanning the dying embers of Hassidut in Israel came to an abrupt end, as he died in 1957, his assumed successor, Issachar Dov Rokeach, only nine years old. During this dark period for Judaism, many in Israel left the traditional faith to follow the seeming success of the radical secularists and socialists. In the United States, rampant assimilation and reformation led most to believe that such fundamentals as kashrut and Shabbat would soon be just a historical memory. And the Belz were left without a Rebbe.

The Rebuilding of Belz

In the late 1950's , the Belzers had no rebbe, no heart, no center. The young Issachar Dov Rokeach continued in his learning until the age of 17, when he married the daughter of the Rebbe of Vizhnitz, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager. At this time, secular Zionism, still young and confident, seemed to be scoring major achievements building a country, making deserts bloom, winning diplomatic victories. Almost every family could count someone who had "gone off the derech," leaving the fold of observant Judaism to follow the sun-bronzed pioneers.

Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe

But Torah, the Eitz Chaim, the Tree of Life of the Jewish people, has a way of sprouting new branches from a seemingly dead stump. In 1966, at age 18, Rabbi Rokeach returned to Jerusalem to take control of the Belzer Chassidim. He began his work establishing schools and shtieblach (hassidic synagogues.) In one of these buildings, hidden inside the walls, several bricks, the last surviving remnants smuggled from the ruins of the great Shtiebel of Belz, were carefully hidden.

Not until 1980, when the educational and religious institutions of Belz had been rebuilt around the world, was the Rebbe ready for the master project; to rebuild the great synagogue of Belz. Fundraising began five years before the groundbreaking in 1985, and and continued until the project was complete fifteen years later, in 2000. The location for the shul was carefully selected. In the heart of Kiryat Belz, at the center of Israel's Belzer community, it faces precisely towards Har Habayit, the Temple Mount. All prayers in the world are understood to travel from their place of origin to Har Habayit, and from there into the next world. Therefore, to reduce the risk of impurity, the Belzer Beis Hamedrash Hagadol was located such that if one were to draw a straight line from there to the Temple Mount, no Mosques or Churches would be encountered. The elevation of the shul is such that, from the rooftop, one can see directly onto the Temple Mount, several miles distant, over the tops of the mosques built around it.

The Southern entrance to the Belzer Beis HeMedrash HaGadol in Kiryat Belz, Jerusalem

A close-up of the doors to give a sense of scale.

The Beis Medrash Hagadol itself is, in fact, built to one-third the scale of the Beit Hamikdash (holy temple) itself. The massive structure is a full 14 stories, and can be seen from all directions, especially at night.

The Belzer Beis Hamedrash Hagadol, lit up at night.

Like his anscestor, the Sar Shalom, the present Belzer Rebbe managed all aspects of construction using all the secrets of purity and construction first revealed to the Sar Shalom by Eliyahu Hanavi. The Rebbe even appointed two of his Hassidim to pour all concrete to be used for the structure, with instructions to visit the mikveh (purity bath,) recite tehillim (psalms,) and maintain a deep sense of kavannah (divine intent) during their work.

Going Into the Sanctuary

Throughout the Jewish world, one notices a lack of aesthetic. While Jews have stood as equals with the best of their Goy (non-Jewish) neighbors in literature, science, mathematics, and military achievement, one still does not find the same quality of Jewish artwork or architecture as one does among the Christians or Muslims. If a Jew does become a famous artist or architect, his or her talent and contributions are generally made towards the Goy culture in which he or she resides. The great cathedrals of Europe, the mosques of Araby, or the religious works of Michelangelo have no counterpart in the Jewish or Israeli world. This may be the result of relentless persecution and poverty, or it may simply be that observant Jews living outside the land of Israel lacked the attachment to their birth lands, knowing that they would one day be called upon to pack up their belongings and return home. Even in Israel today, with a country so focused on security and growth, building as much as possible as fast as possible before the Arabs can get a hold of it, aesthetics have fallen by the way side.

The Belzer Beis HaMedrash HaGadol stands as the exception to this rule. Unlike the shuls (synagogues) in makeshift trailers, modified bomb shelters, even underground parking garages that one finds throughout Israel, all fourteen stories of the Belzer Beis HaMedrash from the smaller shtieblach on the bottom floor to the massive sanctuary which takes up the top five floors, displays the undivided attention to detail that the rebbe himself invested in the project over a decade and a half of construction. While most hareidi, "Ultra-Orthodox" neighborhoods, typically comprised of poor families with dozens of kids, are rough and dirty, the Belzer shul is immaculately clean, with a full-time team of brass polishers and rotations of workers and volunteers.

Volunteers sorting through the siddurim (prayer books) in the sanctuary.

In one of the smaller shtieblach on a lower floor.

The Aron Kodesh is a more modern design. The walls are black marble with inlaid copper.

The clock is outside the sanctuary. The Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) does not state that a Shul should have a clock, so all clocks remain outside.

There is a Hassidic minhag (tradition) to wash one's hands before prayer. This washroom is comprised of limestone and elongated carved marble basins with copper "kvarts," washing cups. There are a total of four rooms like this, two on either side of the entrance to the great sanctuary.
Sitting down in the sanctuary.

Attention to detail: the area near the shtender (podium) where the chazzan (prayer leader) sings, is set down slightly in the floor, a literal interpretation of Psalm 130, in which King David calls out, "From the depths I cried out to you." Also, note that the floor tiles are offset slightly. This is to avoid that one should bend over while praying the aleinu and see the orthoganal lines of the floor tiles coming together to form a cross, which might be a distraction.

Not only is the exquisite attention to detail impressive, but so too is the massive scale of the project. On a typical Shabbat, the 1954 seats on the floor level are filled.

Seats on the floor level. The wall with the windows can be completely removed to drive a cherry picker into the sanctuary as needed for maintenance.

Two additional floors provide seating for women and children. During Rosh Hashannah, the windows on the top floor were removed and rafters were built up on the roof to provide additional outdoor seating to yeshivah students and visitors who had flown in from around teh world, brining the seating up to 5,500.

The two women's galleries and the windows at roof level.

A computerized list is used to track who has seats reserved, each seat costing about $180 American for Rosh Hashannah.

A name on every seat.

The Rebbe, despite his great stature among his hassidim, sits in a seat identical to everyone else's. At his home is a much larger chair, which serves as a throne. The idea is simple: to his Hassidim, as a leader of his hassidim, the rebbe is a king, but in the eyes of the infinite God, all are as lowly equals.

On the bemah, from which the Torah is read on Shabbat (sabbath)

Hand carvings along the edge of the bemah.

The view from the bemah

Rebbe Aharon, the previous rebbe, worked tirelessly and carried his chair and shtender with him wherever he went, throughout the world. Today, they stand next to the Aron Kodesh, preserved behind glass.

Rebbe Aharon's shtender and chair.

The Aron Kodesh and Ceiling

In one of the final acts of building the shul, the Rebbe carefully dictated the instructions on every aspect of building the aron kodesh, the holy ark, in which the Torah scrolls are stored. The aron kodesh itself is precisely to scale of one of the smaller of the thirteen gates which led to the Beit Mikdash, the Holy Temple, at the time of the Roman occupation.

The aron kodesh

Carvings decorate the Aron Kodesh, which has room for 70 torah scrolls.

Near the end of construction, the Rebbe returned to the building where he had hidden the surviving stones smuggled from the original Shtiebel back in Belz, Ukraine. These bricks were used to build the new aron kodesh. The rebbe himself personally built the steps leading to the aron kodesh.

Note how the steps lead out sideways from the aron kodesh. This allows one to walk away with the aron kodesh on his side, preventing one from accidentally turning one's back on the aron kodesh and the Torahs within.

On either side of the aron kodesh stands a four-branched menorah. Belzer Hassidim have a minhag to light four candles for shabbat, representing the four-letter ineffable name of God.

On Yom Tov (holidays) the menorah on the other side is also lit, for a total of eight candles.

Yours truly, in front of the shtender, menorah, and aron kodesh.

"The tribes of God are always before me."

Branches of the menorah, and carvings on the aron kodesh.

Looking up the edge of the aron kodesh.

The ceiling has been painted blue, the color of the sky. This is because of a dictum that if one becomes confused in prayer, one should look upward at the sky. The blue color will remind one of the royal kingdom above. Each indentation in the ceiling has three levels, representing the three upper sephirot, the divine characteristics.

The chandeliers can be lowered to floor level by hydraulic cable. Even then, to change the 112 bulbs and 96 spotlights in each requires very large ladder. The chandeliers, like the walls and ceiling, are acoustically designed to reflect sound back town towards the floor level. The middle chandelier sits lower than the rest, directly over the head of the baal koreh (Torah reader) on the bemah, in order to reflect the sound outwards to those sitting on the floor level.

A Living Faith

The rebbe's home, adjacent to the shul in the courtyard. On, Lag B'Omer, the Belzers light enormous bonfires in the courtyard and the Rebbe delivers a sermon from his balcony.

Aside from the main sanctuary which is used only on Shabbat and holidays, the lower floors contain an additional 12 shuls, all of them in rotating use. One can come here any time of day or night and find a minyan (prayer group.) There is also a wedding hall, in which all Belzers use the same caterer at the same cost to prevent people from outdoing one another, which might cause jealousy and strife in the community. It is also home to a beit din (court of Jewish law,) and a study hall. Nobody keeps track of exactly how many thousands of people pass through in a given day, but in the study hall and shuls one can obtain free coffee, and an average of 7,000 cups of coffee are served daily.

(The following photos are from Belz in Pictures.)

Visiting the rebbe.

Chol Hamoed Sukkot in the shul.

Visiting the Rebbe's Tisch (table.)

But by far the most heartening fact of the Belzer Beis HaMedrash HaGadol, beyond it's mere size, is that it is in constant use. Unlike the old churches and cathedrals of Europe, empty monuments to a formerly vigorous European Christian society today in its demographic death throes, the new Belzer building is center of a rapidly expanding community. Having survived physical extermination of the Nazi death camps and the spiritual challenges of assimilation and secular nationalism, Hassidut is today on the upswing worldwide.

Reading from the Torah


David_on_the_Lake said...

wow..As a grandchild of Belz Chassidim I really enjoyed this..

ldove14 said...

The translation of the sign above under the menorah is incorrect. Shiviti- means, I place G-d before me, always.

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