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The Gerer Rebbe
A tribute to a chassidic leader who rebuilt his decimated flock in the Holy Land

by Rabbi Menachem Lubinsky

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Yisroel Alter

Where did all these people come from? What drove them to crowd the streets?

It is barely 4 p.m. The radio had broadcast the bleak tidings at noon. To all except the closest, the news was totally unexpected. The morning papers surely had no mention of the Gerer Rebbe's passing. Even the more popular afternoon dailies did not report it. Who, then, amassed this crowd of 100,000 mourners - or 200,000, as police estimated them?

What contact did these tens of thousands of Jews have with Gerer Chassidus, or with the late Rebbe? They never caught a glimpse of his features on the TV screen - he kept himself as removed from the instrument as he would from fire. Radio? His few chosen words were never squandered on radio frequencies. The papers seldom reported his activities - his entire demeanor was in total opposition to the games of publicity-seeking. So what triggered this flow of humanity to flood Jerusalem's streets in tribute to this man in just three to four hours?

The range of the representation is staggering. And so is the contrast they present... the faces: The obviously Chassidic bachurim and yungeleit, whose every expression and gesture bespeak devotion to Torah and Chassidus . . . middle-aged men, elegantly dressed in modern attire, tears flowing down their cheeks, unwiped ... Jerusalem natives, in full Me'ah Shearim garb, white crocheted skull-huggers peeking out from beneath their black velour hats, the gravity of generations weighing down their features ... The young Sabra generation, representing the Yeshivot Tichoniot, much in evidence - heads usually cocked audaciously, crowned by kipot s'rugot, now hung low ... And so many Jews, who bear no particular stamp of affiliation.

A glance upward, and the eye sweeps over balconies and rooftops, crowded with yet more Jews ... The rich bouquet of Sephardic Jews of all hues and shades, the mix that only Jerusalem can boast . . . mothers with their young, some cuddling infants in their arms.

One look around, and it is obvious that they are not spectators at all, but fellow mourners grieved over the terrible irreparable loss.

It was the response of those who had known him as Rebbe ... of others who had found in him the deep concern of a father - their father ... of still others who saw in him a rebuilder of shattered people and communities ... of yet others who had appreciated the leadership role he had assumed in the affairs of religious Jewry in the Holy Land - in Agudath Israel, Chinuch Atzmai . . . But primarily it was the instinctive response of every Jew to the trauma of losing a great man. All knew the loss and felt its pangs with an immediacy that drove them into the streets to mourn - both the simple Jew who could not point to more than the simple fact, the "Ma zos," and those who knew: Those who savored the fine points of Kotzk, how they were perpetuated for four generations of Ger, only to be destroyed, and then rebuilt again in the Holy Land. How the specifics of Ger - the fierce devotion to Torah, the uncompromising pursuit of truth, the jealous watching of minutes, the careful training of the youth, the sparing of the words - how they were all recreated by this prince of Ger. They live on, but he is gone.

Ger - A Dynasty of Torah and Chassidus

The late Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Alter, was scion of a family of nobility, and heir to a demanding Chassidic tradition that had its spiritual source in the fountains of unadulterated truth that flowed from Parshys'che and Kotzk.

An impoverished Jew came to the Kotzker Rebbe and begged him, "Help me! I haven't a bit of food to feed my family! "

"That's not a problem. Just daven to Hashem with emes."

"But I don't know how to daven with emes."

"Then you do have a serious problem!"

Kotzk was not known for miracles. In its pursuit of truth - in Torah study, in life, in avodas Hashem - there was no time for miracles. But the truth that emerged from Kotzk was indeed miraculous.

Rabbi Yitzchok Meir, disciple of Kotzk, was the first Rebbe of Ger. His penetrating Chidushei HaRim on Talmud is widely studied. His thirteen children had died during his lifetime. His grandson, Reb Arye Leib, succeeded him. He was known by the title of his commentaries on Torah and Talmud, Sfas Emes (Truthful Speech), which are basic volumes in every Talmudic scholar's library. [The great Rabbi of Sochatchov, son-in-law of the sainted Kotzker, author of the Avnei Nezer, is said to have maintained two bookcases, one for Rishonim (earlier commentators) and another for the Acharonim (later ones). The volumes of the Sfus Emes, written at the turn of the century, were found to be amongst the Rishonim ... To study some portions of the Talmud without the Sfas Emes is unthinkable to the modern day scholar.] Indeed, Ger is renowned for its emphasis on Torah learning, for all of the Gerer Rebbes were also leading Torah scholars in their generation.

His son and successor, Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter, continued in this tradition. He had amassed a huge library of sefarim. There were those that claimed that most of the books were superfluous, for he had committed their contents to memory in his first perusal.

During a visit to Berlin, he inspected the private library of a bibliophile. His host took out an old sefer, whose author was unknown to him - both the title page and first page of the work were missing. Reb Avrohom Mordechai asked permission to take the sefer to his room and his host readily agreed. The following day the sefer was returned with the title page and first page - written in by hand.

He is said to have left dozens of volumes of his own written commentary, which were never recovered from the destruction of World War II.

Reb Avrohom Mordechai was extremely reluctant to assume the leadership of Gerer Chassidus, deeming himself inadequate to the assignment. " 'He who commanded oil to burn can command vinegar to burn' - My sainted father was the 'oil' and his flame illuminated, I am the vinegar ..."

The growth Ger had experienced under the Sfas Emes was duplicated many times over under his son's leadership. 'While the town of Ger was over an hour's train-ride from Warsaw, and involved a long, difficult and expensive journey through the hills and valleys of Central Poland from other regions, 10,000 Jews would routinely undertake the trip to spend a Shavuos, a Yomim Norairn or a Succos in the company of their sainted leader. It was always considered a homecoming of sorts for Gerer Chassidim who, until the precious moments of greeting the Rebbe with "Shalom," considered themselves spiritually unfulfilled.

To be part of Ger for even a short while was to leave worldly concerns back home, to know the true meaning of serving Hashem with emes, to don the royal levush of Chassidic garb, and to muscle your way amongst the throngs for a glimpse - A word? That was a priceless commodity in Ger. For those few hours, the Chassid underwent a lapse of identity and it mattered little whether he was from the aristocracy or one of the numerous poor of Polish Jewry. Now he was a chassid . . . It is said that the world-renowned giant of Talmudic scholarship, Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, would sit anonymously at the foot of the Rebbe's tisch, imbibing the atmosphere, drinking in each cryptic word.

The ranks of Ger swelled to include some 250,000 followers. Indeed, Gerer Chassidim were the dominant force in many phases of life in countless Polish cities, towns, and villages.

Rebuildhg the Ruins

That was yesteryear, in pre-war Poland of the 1920's and 1930's, under the leadership of the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter. Then, Hitler intervened with his plan to wipe out Jewry, and this majestic empire ended up in total ruins. The Rebbe and three of his sons escaped destruction, finding refuge in Eretz Yisrael.

One question hovered above the smoke: Could illustrious Polish Jewry, now in ruins, ever be revived? Would this spiritual edifice ever again reach the epitome of G-dliness, Torah, and Chassidus? The Rebbe died in 1948, leaving the mantle of leadership on the shoulders of his oldest son, Rabbi Yisroel Alter. He had also suffered personal losses, for amongst the millions of kedoshim were his wife, their son and daughter, and their families.

At the time of his father's passing, Jerusalem was under siege. Despite the threatening Arab armies and the terrible food shortages, chutz l'Aretz was only a memory, never to be considered as an option for escape - not for himself, nor for others ... To a Rav, a refugee from the concentration camp, inquiring whether to settle in America or to stay in Eretz Yisrael, he remarked - "This may be Medinat Yisrael, but chutz l'Aretz doesn't compare to it." Indeed, he rarely left Yerushalayim and never left the Holy Land once he arrived there.

It was time to rebuild, to strengthen his own soul and to work for Jewish continuity. For Polish Jewry, and particularly for the remnants of Gerer Chassidim, he was a link to a world that was no more.

The Emerging Rebbe

Rabbi Yisroel Alter was always recognized as a brilliant scholar. When only five, his grandfather, the Sfas Emes, prophesied greatness for him. Not given to little jokes, he referred to his favorite grandson as "Reb Yisroel." When Reb Yisroel was 16, that genius of scholars, the Rogatchover, is said to have remarked, "This young man knows Shas!" When still 15, he was engaged to be married to the daughter of a renowned Polish Torah Gaon, Reb Yaakov Meir Biderman, son-in-law of the Sfas Emes. In Torah correspondence that he exchanged with his father, the latter would address him in terms reserved for those destined for greatness - unusual in Ger, but not in his case. Before long, Polish Jewry recognized him as an outstanding Torah scholar.

The Gerer Priority: The Youth

The Chassidic courts of Kotzk, the "Rim," and the other Rebbes of Ger had a preponderance of young men. Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai especially had gone out of his way to encourage younger Chassidim, much to the consternation of some of their seniors. But in time, the barriers between old and young all but vanished.

"Sharfe yungeleit - sharp young men" they were called - sharp-witted, sharp in intellectual acumen, and sharply outspoken in their fierce intolerance of indolence, hypocrisy, and complacency. The Rebbe assigned the supervision of the yungeleit to his son, Reb Yisroel, and he took to the task with a zeal that never waned.

Batei midrashim cropped up all over Poland - in Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow, and other communities - where Gerer youth crowded their days with Torah and Chassidus. Some were fulltime scholars, others were out in the world of commerce, but all had made the bais hamidrash the focal point of their days ... They were prominent among those who streamed to Ger to more fully experience the kedushah of a festival, the awe of the Ten Days of Repentance. And they were outstanding among those who had heroically demonstrated the tenacity of their convictions by learning and living Torah around the clock in Ghettos under the worst of the Nazi terror. (Some of their exploits are recorded in Moshe Prager's Eilu She'lo Nichne'u.)

No sooner had the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai, arrived in the Holy Land, but that he again focused on the needs of the young, and began to build Torah. First he devoted attention to the Yeshiva Sfas Emes in Jerusalem, which he had founded on one of his five previous trips to the Holy Land. Sfas Emes was greatly expanded by his heirs, Reb Yisroel, and, yibadel lechaim, the present Rebbe, Reb Bunim Alter. Reb Yisroel continued to honor this priority of devoting special attention to the bachurim and yungeleit, for they were his pride of the present and hope for the future. This was of extreme importance, for at the time he took over the leadership of Ger, the outlook for the future was bleak, indeed - a Chassidus without Chassidim.

In the words of David Zaritzky, well-known Israeli writer:

His task was more difficult than that of his great father, for he was standing on ruins; from under his feet curled the smoke of crematoria, of charred Batei Midrash, and their members. Around him gathered half-dead, fully-despondent Chassidim, whose attachment to Ger was their sole spark of life, surviving lost parents, wives, children.

Not only did he rebuild the Ger empire, he rebuilt tens of thousands of people, endowing them with new neshamos, forming new features on their faces - it was a brand-new start, from Bereishis ... It was not simply a matter of teaching them to think like Chassidim, but to think like human beings, then like Jews ... like Chassidim, and then ultimately in the singularly Gerer approach.

He created it all. Quietly, with a soft word, a sharp gesture, an understanding nod. He quickly perceived not only the kvittel (the paper with the name and request written on it), but the person as well. The person? - he himself did not know what he wanted, so first the Rebbe taught him to want, then what to want. Finally, he taught him to ask for what he wanted - then he allowed himself to smile.

In three decades, the Gerer Rebbe built a network of Torah institutions which were to educate thousands of children. Gerer Chassidim from Europe and the Americas sent their children to learn in the Torah institutions of Ger and from the Rebbe's greatness. They joined Israeli youngsters in the Yeshivos Sfas Emes, Chidushei HaRim, and numerous kollelim spread across the land. The kollel in Bnei Brak (Bais HaTalmud LeHora'ah), for example, is well-known for having produced some of the outstanding Torah scholars in the land.

His involvement in building Torah went beyond his own Chassidus; the Gerer Rebbe was one of the founders of Chinuch Atzmai (the Torah School network in Israel), actively serving on its Board of Governors. Besides guiding the growth of many other Torah institutions, he was also at the side of his cousin, Rabbi Pinchas Levin, who was leader of the Beth Jacob movement in Israel, and headed the Jerusalem B. J. Seminary.

His interest in Torah youth was also not limited to his own. Thousands of yeshiva students visited him regularly and this writer personally witnessed his closeness with the talmidim of Chevron, Kol Torah, Etz Chaim and other Jerusalem yeshivos. While levush - the traditional Chassidic attire - is of great importance in Ger, it mattered little to the Rebbe how a visitor was dressed; that was merely chitzonius, exterior. What was more significant on such occasions was p'nimius - the inner content of Torah and midos.

The Rebbe's building plans also reflected a concern beyond parochialism. He ordered the building for the Yeshivas Chidushei HaRim to be constructed in an extremely modern section of Tel Aviv, predominantly inhabited by secular Jews. The Rebbe felt that the Yeshiva could have an inspiring effect on the whole community. . . . During his last years Ger began constructing Chatzor, a new settlement town in Galilee. Ger always had a special attachment to the Holy Land, and encouraging building in Eretz Yisroel was one of the Rebbe's important goals. His own father, Reb Avrohom Mordechai, would stress that the mitzvah of settling and building Eretz Yisrael is applicable in our times, and was above political considerations.

Leader of Klal

The Rebbe enhanced his many innate qualities by a relentless pursuit of personal perfection, making him into a Torah giant. This, however, did not lead him to withdraw from public life, and he forcefully used his unusual perceptive abilities in public leadership.

Like his father before him, who had joined the Chofetz Chaim and other leading figures of his time in founding Agudath Israel, he too chose to be one of the prime movers of the Agudath Israel movement. It was there that he saw his hopes for unifying Torah Jews - Chassid and Misnagid - into one strong movement. The Gerer Rebbe was one of the pillars of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages), and there was hardly a problem affecting Jewry in which he was not involved. Indeed, he felt it a sacred trust, and was often heard to refer to "my father's Agudath Israel."

He shunned personal publicity and offered his signature only where he saw a long-range benefit to Klal Yisrael. Agudath Israel was his vehicle for public expression and on almost every occasion he sought to strengthen the movement in the Yishuv as well as anywhere around the world. He felt a special kinship with the Agudath Israel of America, and often wrote his followers in the United States to assume active roles in its affairs. Outside of Agudath Israel proclamations, he was not given to issuing public statements.

He was extremely close with other gedolei Yisrael- it mattered little what the background of the gadol was. Although he had occasional ideological differences with other Chassidic leaders, these never interfered with his relationship with them. The Rebbe never waited for a famed Torah scholar to visit him, but was quick to travel to see them - such as the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Issur Zalman Meltzer, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, and Rabbi Aharon Kotler. Torah, more than anything else, was his criterion for determining greatness, and he responded accordingly. People knew the extent of his involvement in Klal; they also sensed the depth of his devotion to being a loyal servant; their only questions were - When? - How?

Unity and peace amongst Torah Jews are known to have preoccupied his last days. One of his last actions was to take the initiative to heal a breach in political activity that had grown between him and the followers of the Ponovezher Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Schach - a split that had resulted from the Rebbe's policy of extending Agudath Israel's areas of cooperation to include some debatable factions. As if to underscore this fierce determination, he was stricken as his lips uttered "Shalom," the final blessing of Bircas Kohanim.

The Value of Time

The Gerer Rebbe seemed to have an obsession with time. No material commodity was more precious as a tool in avodas Hashem. His clocks and watches were meticulously synchronized and never had he arrived even one minute late for tefillah. Z'man tefillah (the halachically prescribed time for prayer) was scrupulously observed in Ger.

One could see his face nervously perspire at the slightest hint of wasted time. His every minute was accounted for and he often appeared edgy at public gatherings, in grief over time slipping by. Nor could time be measured without precision, and even his driver learned never to be late . . . "Farbreng nisht der tzeit - don't while away the time" he was often heard to say.

Following the Yom Kippur War, the Rebbe was besieged by visiting delegations from all over the world. He detested discussions on the political and military situation. To all queries he had one answer, "We must pray."

Once a distinguished American Rabbi asked him, "What do you say to the current situation?"

Replied the Rebbe: "I say Tehillim."

Time also meant organization, and as if to preach by example, his day was a model of structured planning. There was time set aside to pray, to learn, to receive Chassidim, to take interest in his institutions, to lead in the affairs of Agudath Israel and Klal Yisrael . . . To be koveya ittim, setting aside time for Torah study, was the substance of many of his messages to his followers.

When he was not busy receiving Chassidim or occupied with his involvement with Klal, he was totally immersed in Torah. His Rebbetzin was known to complain that he never slept, even after a serious operation in 1972. A familiar sight in Jerusalem's Ge'ulah section was the Rebbe strolling through the deserted streets well before daybreak. His bachurim were expected to have begun their day in Torah learning and he would not hesitate to awaken those who were not so quick.

Dawn: It was a time to take a deep breath of the brisk Jerusalem air - and to sigh for the woes of the individuals and the Klal. Equally as important was the opportunity it offered to signal the start of another day of avodas Hashem to his followers ... Chassidim remember the Rebbe performing essentially the same role in Poland, where he had also watched over the youth.

The before-dawn stroll was also a time when soldiers from the Schnellers Army Base (just opposite the courtyard of the Rebbe) would jog - and often would respond to a nod with "Boker tov, Rebbe."

The Private Encounter

The Rebbe had the unusual ability to sweep over a crowd of hundreds with one glance ... Somehow, each of the people in the crowd felt he had locked eyes with the Rebbe for one brief but powerful moment. In private consultations, he literally spent only minutes with each Jew who came to see him, yet he was able to swiftly profile the problems of the man before him. Scores of people would queue up outside his office and within a half-hour he would have seen everyone; each problem thoroughly aired and every response measured - but all in lightning time. He was privy to tens of thousands of problems - spiritual, economic, medical - and pronounced his advice within minutes. Surprisingly he would recall these brief encounters 10 and 20 years later, referring to names, dates, situations - asking after the welfare of those troubled. Sadness and joy passed quickly before him - through him - yet he was able to adjust his mood to a fresh start with each person.

Each man walked out with a substantial response. To a young yeshiva student who had been summoned home with dozens of telegrams on the eve of the Six-Day War, he said: "If you are afraid, stay here. If it is a matter of kibud av v'eim, go home." In little less than 30 seconds, a response, a halachah, and Torah philosophy.

An elderly Jew from Romania with a wholesale toy business in Tel Aviv, told his tale simply:

My wife became seriously ill with yener machalah (a veiled reference to cancer). The doctors could not decide: "Operate." "Don't operate." People in the street said to me, "Take a trip to the Gerer Rebbe. Everybody goes to him for advice and a brachah." So I traveled to Yerushalayim.

When I was younger I used to seek brachos at the courts of the Romanian Rebbes. And the procedure was simple. I'd put a sizeable pidyon (contribution) down on the Rebbe's table and he would devote a considerable amount of time to hear me out, question me on all the details, and rain down a host of brachos on me ...

At the Gerer Rebbe's, everything was different. That he doesn't accept pidyonim, I knew; but I had no idea everything went so fast. Before the people ahead of me even get inside they're out. What am I to do? 1 didn't even prepare a kvittel because I'd have to fill up a whole notebook with details.

I was very upset, and suddenly I was inside. To this day I don't understand what happened. I said only, "My wife's life is in danger," and the Rebbe understood everything. He asked me all kinds of questions and I felt sure it was taking a lot of time. He said "Don't operate!" and gave me a strong brachah. I felt wonderful. I looked at the clock when I came out - the whole thing had taken maybe two minutes. I still don't understand it. I know that "A tzaddik decrees and God fulfills." But I had not come for a brachah alone, but for advice as well. How did this tzaddik read my mind?

(from "An Appreciation," by Moshe Prager)

When he spoke, his answers were a remarkable blend of caution and razor-sharp wit. He yearned for the sharpness of Kotzk and he was overheard to have said, "Oh, how I wish I could lead like Kotzk!" But he considered the generation too weak for such leadership.

To Chassidim, Misnagdim, b'nai yeshiva and unaffiliated Jews, he was the Gerer Rebbe. Regardless of who you were, you were untruthful if you denied that your knees knocked in fright when you stood before him. - I heard this from people with no connection to Chassidus! His penetrating eyes were enough to make anyone quiver. But soon you were reassured, and once you walked out you realized that the Gerer Rebbe had left you with a lifelong impression.

The late Rav of Ponovezh once remarked: "Before the war, when my heart ached, I traveled to Radin to see the Chofetz Chaim and I felt better. After the war, I travel to Jerusalem to see the Gerer Rebbe and I feel better."

Such was the power of the late Gerer Rebbe - to penetrate minds, to soothe and to inspire. To people, big and small, he was the "big brother," the surrogate father, on whom to pour out all the world's woes ... Grandfathers saw in him the vanished patriarch in whom one could trust.

Whence the diversity of the Rebbe's followers? He had opened his door to everyone, and there is something about the Jewish soul, the pintele Yid, which homes in on its source.

The Loss and the Legacy

What did the Rebbe leave behind for us? A rebuilt, revitalized Chassidus, consisting of thriving institutions and devoted followers . . . an enriched Klal Yisrael. Seforim? It is widely believed that, like his father and grandfather, he had recorded his Torah thoughts. No one is certain, but he did say, "Although there are differences of opinion amongst Torah leaders whether or not to write Torah, I say that in our impoverished generation everyone should write."

And he left us with indelible memories of a penetrating glance, a sharp word, a tisch ... and a funeral - the silent procession of multitudes, where the only sound was the shuffling of feet and the wiping of tears ... A silence.

In Judaism there is a kind of inverse relationship between authority and words, and never was this more acutely demonstrated than in the "court" of Rabbi Yisroel Alter. A man of immense presence, a person who said a thousand words with a mere glance, the Rebbe needed to say almost nothing to work an internal revolution in his followers. A single sentence from him appeared to carry the authority of generations . . .

The Gerer Rebbe became a "Rebbe's rebbe," as Chassidic leaders from all over the world sought his counsel and submitted to his leadership. Following the death of the Amshinover Rebbe of Jerusalem, the Gerer Rebbe reputedly motored from his residence in the Ge'ula section of Jerusalem to the Bayit Vegan section. There he met with the grandson of the late Amshinover Rebbe and spoke with him for about half an hour, convincing him to carry on the Amshinover line and assume the position of Amshinover Rebbe.

A half hour. How frequently do we throw away a half-hour's words? If the Rebbe spoke half an hour, it had to be an unprecedented occasion. In measuring words, a person deepens his wisdom and impact. Thus it really wasn't ironic that when the Gerer Rebbe died, thousands were left speechless, and, in accord with Polish Chassidic custom, no eulogy was delivered. Nothing needed to be said. The loss spoke for itself.

(from an article in the Denver Intermountain Jewish News, by Hillel Goldberg)

Silence. How fitting a tribute to man who led with such an economy of words!

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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