Early one grey morning, a group of passengers boarded their flight at London’s Luton Airport, carrying luggage for the journey ahead. But this was no ordinary voyage, and these were no ordinary passengers; a large group of British Hasidic Jews were embarking on a pilgrimage to the resting place of one of their most venerated rabbis.
Reb Shayele, as he was affectionately called, was known especially for his “dedication to feeding the poor and hungry under any circumstances, often performing miraculous feats to provide sustenance for those in need”, as the Rav Lehoshia website states. Even among the Hasidic tsaddikim (lit. righteous ones, who acted as intermediaries between their communities and G-d), Reb Shayele is set apart; the YIVO Encyclopedia writes that “on the physical or material level, Hasidim are obligated to supply the tsadik and his family with all their worldly needs”, but Reb Shayele himself provided food and shelter to those in the often impoverished world of Eastern European Jewry who needed it.
During the flight, some Hasidic passengers were kind enough to buy drinks for all of their fellow passengers, in the merit of Reb Shayele’s memory. Likely similar scenes were unfolding on flights from America and Israel, all heading towards this one corner of Eastern Europe.
The next day, in the little village of Bodrogkeresztúr (Kerestir in Yiddish), Hungary, where Reb Shayele established his court, tens of thousands of Hasidim – rabbis, Torah scholars and lay-people – had arrived to commemorate his yahrzeit (anniversary of passing). The village had been transformed, not only in terms of demographics but also by the new infrastructure required to accommodate such crowds; vast tents had been erected to host the festive dinners, and Yiddish-language signs were plastered over the old shtetl streets.
In the early morning the prayer quorums gathered under the ceilings’ thick wooden beams, praying the same prayers and studying the same ancient texts as their forefathers did, perhaps in these very rooms.
Outside, minibuses carrying pilgrims trundled around the gentle hills surrounding the villages, while rapid preparations were being made for the evening’s events.
To feed the tens of thousands, vast quantities of food were produced. Inside the meat-designated kitchen (Jewish law forbids consumption of meat and dairy simultaneously) bearded men with sidelocks and skullcaps supervised the cooking of briskets, as well as vast vats of cholent (Ashkenazi slow-cooked beef stew). Cauldrons of chicken soup, replete with chopped carrots, potatoes and onions, bubbled away. It was immediately clear that this was a coordinated operation, acting on an industrial scale. These kitchens operated non-stop around the clock for almost two days straight. To enter at any hour would be to see the careful preparation of all sorts of food; at three in the morning the bleary-eyed volunteers packed all manner of delicacies, originating in this same part of the world. Loaf after hot loaf of challah bread were brought out, all so that no guest would remain unfed.
Days in the Jewish calendar begin at sundown, so when the evening came a great feast – a testament to the endurance of Reb Shayele’s legacy – took place in the cavernous tent, to signal the beginning of the yahrzeit. Wearing long frock coats of silk and flat hats of beaver fur, the people spoke of the miracles that the rabbi is said to have caused. Above all, perhaps, they spoke of his sheer selflessness, and his unending desire to help others. Even on his own deathbed, the story goes, Reb Shayele asked his family to ensure that the people coming to his funeral would not go hungry.
Another key element of the Kerestir pilgrimage was having prayers next to the grave of Reb Shayele; all through the night and the day the pilgrims recited the Book of Psalms and wrote kvitelekh (little prayer notes) while waiting their turn; the murmur of thousands of prayers emanated around the graveyard’s grassy knoll, dotted with aged stone monuments.
The yahrzeit operation extended far beyond this pleasant Hungarian village, though; great sums of money were collected for charity, to help the needy the world over. From providing groceries to families in England to giving financial aid in America to distributing hot meals in Israel, Reb Shayele’s legacy has reached a level that perhaps even he wouldn’t have imagined possible.
To paraphrase the central idea of Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers’ book “American Shtetl”, which discusses the success of the Satmar Hasidic sect in creating a Hasidic village in America by using the “very instruments of secular political and legal power that it disavows”, the Reb Shayele yahrzeit operation simply wouldn’t be possible in its current form without the secular practices and influences of the outside world, the influences that Hasidim often seek to separate themselves from. To coordinate an international gathering of this scale, the organisers had to use different aspects of “secular” technology, such as websites and WhatsApp groups, where timings, charity advertisements and photographs of the event were shared.
This yahrzeit gives the opportunity to observe the Hasidic community’s very respectful view of the tsaddikim, especially Reb Shayele – it is estimated that around 50,000 came to Kerestir this year alone – in addition to the way that it is often happy to adapt modern technology in order to serve their own needs.