Sunday, July 01, 2007

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.

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