The Rebbes of Zvhill continue to impact the lives of people in Israel as they have for generations. Who are these rebbes, and how are their lives relevant to our era?
To answer these questions I spoke with Grand Rabbi Yaakov Leib Goldman, The Zvhiller Rebbe of Monsey. A Jerusalem native who is fluent in Hebrew, he has a special connection to Eretz Yisrael.
The Zvhill Dynasty transverses generations and geography. Zvhill is a scion of Rabbi Yechiel Michel, known as the Maggid of Zlotshev. He, in turn, was the son of Rabbi Yitzchok of Drubitsh, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rabbi Goldman notes that “The Maggid of Zlotshev had five sons. Each son embodied the spirit of one of the five books of the Chumash. His son Rebbe Moshe of Zvhill personified the Chumash Bamidbar because he possessed great humility, which is the theme of the book of Bamidbar.”
Reb Moshe was the first Zvhiller Rebbe. Zvhill is the Yiddish name for the Ukranian city of Novohrad-Volynskyi. Zlotshev is approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the west, and Kiev is approximately 225 kilometers (140 miles) to the east.
Among many scions of this Chasidic dynasty was Rebbe Yechiel Michel. His son was Rebbe Mordechai Goldman of Zvhill.
Rabbi Mordechai of Zvhill’s son was a very famous Tzaddik who made aliyah to the Holy Land, and who was well known as a miracle-worker. His name was Rabbi Shlomo Goldman of Zvhill-Jerusalem, known in Chassidic circles as “Reb Shlomke of Zvhill.”
His grave on Mount of Olives is venerated in pilgrimage by Hasidic Jews from around the world, who come to pray at his grave. During my conversation with Rebbe Yaakov Leib Goldman, the Zvhiller Rebbe in Monsey, New York, to find out more about his famous ancestor, these are some of the lessons he shared:
Rabbi Goldman explains that “Reb Shlomke was known as a great anav, a person of humility. He would run away from kavod (honor).”
Reb Shlomke did not aspire to take the leadership after his father’s passing. He thought it would be appropriate for his older brother Reb Michel to lead the community. The Hassidim attempted to convince Reb Shlomke to be their leader but to no avail. In time, The Rebbe in Chortkov, Grand Rabbi Duvid Moshe Friedman directed Reb Shlomke to follow in his father’s footsteps as The Zvhiller Rebbe.”
Rabbi Goldman describes how Reb Shlomke shunned recognition in Jerusalem.
“When his ship approached the port in Yaffo, he told his son-in-law Reb Mordeche Zvhiller to figuratively throw the ‘Rebbistve’ (“rabbinic trappings”) into the sea. He did not want to be a Rebbe in Eretz Yisrael.”
“When he arrived in Jerusalem, he didn’t tell anyone that he was the famed Zvhiller Rebbe. He’d sit in the back of the shul, acting no different than any of the other thousands of “random” jews of the city. He continued the same path of Torah, Avodah (prayer) and Hessed (acts of kindness) as he did being the esteemed leader of a Chassidic group back in Europe. But rather than do all of this while being known as The Rebbe, he did it under the guise of a regular person…”
While some might misinterpret Reb Shlomke’s attempt to shun the spotlight as a means of taking a vacation from the responsibilities and pressures of being a communal leader, Rabbi Goldman describes his true intent. “Reb Shlomke wanted to break any morsel of ego that he had. He continued to do everything that he had done in Zvhill, but in Jerusalem, he had the opportunity to do it without the recognition that he had in Europe so that there was zero “ulterior motive” possible in what he was doing. Here, he blended in anonymously with everyone else…”
Reb Shlomke’s humility was remarkable. He was famously known for taking care of Jerusalem’s stray cats, of which there were many.
Do Not Hurt Others
Teaching Torah in the Soviet Union was a crime punishable by fines and lengthy imprisonment, sending people to the gulag in Siberia as an almost guaranteed death sentence due to the frigid, sub-zero temperatures. Yet the Rabbaim of Zvhill continued to teach Torah even as the communists tightened their grip.
One of the children of Reb ‘Shlomke’ Goldman was Rabbi Gedalia Moshe Goldman. He fearlessly taught Torah to the Jews around him, for which he was exiled to Siberia. Rabbi Gedalia Moshe’s mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) was legendary. He did his utmost to keep the Torah and the mitzvot even in the harshest of conditions.
In The Soviet Union, people could often avoid the Gulag through meseria – informing the authorities about someone else who committed a ‘crime’. In this way, a person could attempt to avoid their own punishment– at a terrible cost to another person.
Rabbi Goldman explains that “Reb Gedalia Moshe was very careful about how he treated other people. He did not want, under any circumstances, to cause another person agmas nefesh (suffering). Before he died he said as far as the Ben Adam le-makom (Between me and The Almighty) I am not worried– I am good. But as far as how I acted Ben Adam le-hevero (Between me and my fellow man), I don’t know how my judgment will be…” Such was his worry about his interaction with his fellow man.
People from all walks of life go on a pilgrimage to Reb Gedalia Moshe’s kever (burial site) in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Badr Cemetery (Givat Ram, near the Knesset). Praying at the kever of a righteous person has a long history in Judaism. For example, the Talmud (Sotah 34b) explains that Caleb prayed at Cave of the Patriarchs (Me’arat ha-Makhpela) in Hebron. The kever of Reb Gedalila Moshe is specifically known for the segulah of praying there on a Monday, Thursday and Monday while asking for a specific request to be fulfilled.
Haredi newspapers are filled with small notices from people who write “I did the segulah of going to the tomb of Rebbe Gedalia Moshe of Zvhill and my prayers were answered.”
Actions Speak Louder than Words
One of Rabbi Gedalia Moshe Goldman of Zvhill-Jerusalem’s children was Rabbi Mordechai Goldman (the Second) of Zvhill.
The Zvhill Rebbe’s move to Jerusalem was inspired by the young Mordechai, or Mordchele as he was known. Rabbi Goldman describes how once a group of boys tormented Mordchele.
“They hurt him terribly. They even pulled out the hair of his payot.”
To add insult to injury, Morechele knew several of the boys who hurt him. They were indoctrinated into the Soviet system, hardened by the communist worldview.
After this brutal incident, the young Mordchele went to his grandfather Reb Shlomke Zviller. Reb Shlomke said, “Now is the time to go to Eretz Yisroel.”
Public Lectures and Secret Deliveries
One of Rabbi Mordechai Goldman (the Second) of Zvhill’s children was Grand Rabbi Yosef Goldman, affectionately known as Reb Yosef.
Reb Yosef was very close to his father. Before Reb Yosef was born, Reb Shlomke said that “A big neshama was coming.”
He gave shirum in the Zvhill Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He gave lectures in Talmud and on the esoteric teachings of Chassidus.
Reb Yosef was known for his acts of kindness but kept many things hidden from public view. “He did a lot of hachnasat orchim (inviting guests). My father secretly gave many people groceries, they didn’t know where it came from.”
Today, there are several Zvhiller Rebbes around the world. Each Rebbe continues the tradition of the family in his unique way.
Rabbi Yaakov Leib Goldman was ordained as The Zvhiller Rebbe of Monsey by his uncle Reb Shlome Goldman the Zvhiller Rebbe of Union City. Reb Shlome was a brother to Reb Yosef.
The Zvhiller Shul in Monsey is a thriving community where the legacy of this special family continues.
The preschool educates 40 students, and every night 50 to 60 children participate in the “Chevra Mishnayos” learning program. There is a tutoring program for older children, and members of the community learn in groups.
The shul is a place of heartfelt tefillah, and people are careful not to talk during davening. The Rebbe and Rebbitzen continue the holy Zvhiller traditions, giving Torah shirum, giving food to those in need, and helping many people before the holidays.
The candle of Zvhill continues to brightly glow and continues to inspire many Jews from across the globe.