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Philip Earl Steele
Philip Earl Steele

Rabbi Samuel Mohilever – toward ‘the gates of hope’

The winning design for the former Samuel Mohilever Synagogue in Białystok - photo from the architectural firm Atelier Zetta

A young Jewish woman from Glubokoye, in today’s northern Belarus, was with child. Nearing the end of her pregnancy, she had a nightmare about a huge fire engulfing her home. Her father, Rabbi Joshua Jaffe, soothed her explaining it was a good sign – her son would be a great luminary who would enlighten the eyes of his people with his Torah and his wisdom”. Two days later, April 25, 1824, Samuel Mohilever was born. He would become a famous rabbi and one of the principle architects of religious Zionism. Indeed, Mohilever – most often associated with Białystok, Poland – is the father of a branch of Zionism that would be crucial to modern Israel: “Mizrachi” – short for Merkaz Ruhani, meaning spiritual centre, a movement that “envisioned itself as the spiritual centre of the Zionist organization and wished to make Eretz Israel the spiritual centre of Judaism”.

The prophecy of Samuel’s grandfather quickly began to come true. When he was just ten years old, Samuel was deemed a child prodigy (illui) in Glubokoye. This was no huge surprise as among his relatives on his father’s side were gaonim – some of the greatest masters of the rabbinate. Five years later, the teenager married (such were the times!) and then moved into the home of his in-laws in accordance with tradition. Thereafter, he began his studies at the famed yeshiva (Jewish college) in nearby Valozhyn. After becoming ordained as a rabbi, he returned to Glubokoye. Yet despite the pleas of the community, he decided to… enter the linen trade, according to his early biographer Rabbi J.L Fishman. Nevertheless, in 1848 when he was 24 years old, he relented and agreed to become the rabbi of Glubokoye. He would remain a rabbi for the next half century – until his passing in 1898.

Mohilever served as a rabbi in Glubokoye for six years, and then tended the community in Šakiai, west of Kaunas, Lithuania another six years. In 1860, now a mature 36-year-old man, Samuel Mohilever became the rabbi of the prestigious community in Suwałki, Poland, where he served for eight years. During this time the January Uprising broke out, the Poles’ bid to throw off tsarist rule in 1863-64. The insurrection had a large influence not only on how Mohilever viewed the world and the emancipation of nations. Many of the Jews in Suwałki took a favourable view of Polish ambitions for independence, with some supporting the insurgents. This is why the Russians arrested several members of the Jewish community and marked them for execution by firing squad. Rabbi Mohilever tearfully begged the Russian commander for clemency – and successfully so. All the men were freed.

In an omen of what would later transpire, the rabbi became friends during his first year in Suwałki with a man who would become an important figure in the first Zionist movement. His name was Eliezer Mordechai Altschuler, and there in Suwałki in 1881, he founded the very first group of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), the movement that soon spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In the next years, Altschuler would visit Ottoman Palestine twice in order to purchase land required to establish a Jewish settlement. He did this in close consultation with his friend of 20 years, rabbi Mohilever, who was then serving as the spiritual leader of Białystok.

The rabbi’s worldview crystalizes

In 1868 rabbi Mohilever moved from Suwałki south to Radom, also in eastern Poland, where he went on to serve for the next 15 years. It was during this time that his worldview took clear shape. One aspect of this regards his relationship to Hasidism, whose members in Radom soon decided to win Mohilever over for themselves as an “admor” – spiritual master. Mohilever however, was a rabbi of the strict Mitnagdic traditionwho reconciled orthodoxy and modernity in the form of the Haskalah – the Jewish enlightenment. Thus, he not only taught co-operation with the maskilim (those who adhered strictly to the Haskalah, while rejecting orthodoxy), but also practiced such co-operation, as seen in the conference in St. Petersburg in 1873, where he participated alongside maskilim, something anathema to Hasidism.

Rabbi Fishman explains in his biography of Mohilever that the Hasids attitude of exaggerated veneration caused the Rav no little displeasure”. Fishman also tells an anecdote that may well even be true: during a meeting with some Hasidim at his home in Radom, rabbi Mohilever, having decided to put a close to their overtures, called out, “rebbetzin!” (the term for a rabbi’s wife) “come and eat with us”. The Hasidim supposedly “rushed out of the room”.

Mohilever supported Jewish secular education and economic activities, something that was (and remains) at variance with Hasidism, including of course in today’s Israel. The rabbi was fluent in many European languages and viewed the fact that the Jews in Jerusalem knew neither Arab nor French as one reason for their problems. Naturally, he held the same view regarding Jews in Central and Eastern Europe who did not know Polish or Russian.

Mohilever’s Zionism also crystalized during his years in Radom. He had been deeply impressed by the thinking of rabbi Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer from Toruń and was well aware of his outstanding work Derishat Zion (1862). Like Kalischer, Mohilever also discerned “the finger of God” in the times he lived in, and anticipated the coming of Messiah. Moreover, Mohilever not only knew and read the Zionist Hebrew-language weekly Ha-Magid from Ełk, but also started writing for it.

In 1874, he took advantage (as we will see, not for the last time) of the occasion of the 90th birthday of Moses Montefiore, the English-Jewish philanthropist who so generously supported Jewish communities in Europe and the Levant, to raise money for his confreres living in Jerusalem. The following year he sent a significant sum to Jerusalem in honour of Montefiore.

One of the leaders of Hovevei Zion

The coalescence of the first Zionist movement also took place during the rabbi’s service in Radom. It arose in response to the pogroms in the western governorates of the Russian Empire in the years 1881-82. We know this movement as Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) or Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion). Rabbi Mohilever quickly became one of the most important leaders of the movement. Already in April 1882, he travelled to Brody and Lviv, where Jewish refugees were gathering on the Habsburg side of the border in eastern Galicia. The rabbi, believing that the time for “messianic activism” (Jody Myers) had arrived, intended to help dispatch as many Jewish refugees as possible to Palestine. There in eastern Galicia he worked towards this aim together with… Laurence Oliphant, the famous Christian Zionist from Great Britain who had arrived on the scene in early April 1882 as an emissary of the Lord Mayor of London (Mansion House). As Oliphant also wanted to direct as many Jews as possible to Palestine, the two men at once developed an understanding. Mohilever in fact issued a public statement of approval for Oliphant’s activities: “Our brethren should not suspect that his intention is to strengthen the Christian religion and divert our people from their faith”, as cited by the historian Joseph Nedava. “He and his wife wish only for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets that Israel will be restored to its land, and that [the Jews] should do this in a way that enables them to keep every detail of the Jewish religion”.

A couple weeks after Oliphant’s arrival, two other delegates from the Lord Mayor of London arrived in Brody – namely, the English Jews Asher Asher and Samuel Montagu. These men were not fully convinced of Zionism, but they earnestly listened to rabbi Mohilever, who “tried to persuade them to settle the [refugees] in Eretz Yisrael”. And so it happened that, in the ensuing years, Samuel Montagu was to become an ardent Zionist.

In May Mohilever was busy in Warsaw, where “a body of the wealthiest Israelites was formed, with each member contributing 1,000 rubles to the general fund for the purchase of land and founding of settlements in Palestine. At the head of this group, which was growing ever more numerous, was the revered rabbi from Radom, Samuel Mohilever. He has spent the past couple weeks in Warsaw working toward this end and, together with several of his wealthiest associates, he is intending to travel this summer to the land of his forebears. […] The idea of this very influential man in local Orthodox Jewish spheres is making a great sensation in these and kindred religious groupings” (Dziennik Polski May 20, 1882).

However, that same summer the sultan barred Jews from entering Palestine – and the tsar barred them from leaving to Palestine. The newly created settlements of the First Aliyah, as the wave of Jewish immigration from the early 1880s is known, suddenly found themselves in peril as they had not yet become self-sufficient. In the latter half of 1882, the BILU movement of young secular Russian Zionists collapsed. The Hovevei Zion movement as a whole was at the precipice of disaster. It was saved by rabbi Mohilever, and not only in Central and Eastern Europe, where it was kept alive through the organization of meetings and devising various aims. For rabbi Mohilever managed to win over Baron Edmond de Rothschild himself for the yishuv – that is, the Jewish population in pre-state Eretz Yisrael. Through his open-handed generosity Rothschild became the father of the yishuv. Things had unfolded thus: in late September 1882, rabbi Mohilever was in Paris, where he met Rothschild thanks to the efforts of Chief Rabbi Zadok Hacohen. After hearing the rabbi out, Rothschild announced, “Rabbi… state the sum and I shall give it”.

Rabbi Mohilever traveled extensively throughout Central and Eastern Europe in 1883, trying to prevent the flame of Hovevei Zion from extinguishing. His visit in Białystok resulted in him being asked to accept the position of local rabbi. He agreed, and the city became his home until his death 15 years later. In Białystok’s synagogue he preached and developed the Zionist concepts of his mentor, rabbi Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer from Toruń. Just like him, he combined traditional religiosity with the modern desire of nations for self-determination.

The conference in Katowice

It was from here in Białystok in the autumn of 1884 that rabbi Mohilever departed for Katowice. In honour of the 100th birthday of Moses Montefiore, mentioned earlier, the leaders of the Hovevei Zion movement – besides rabbi Mohilever, also Leon Pinsker from Odessa, David Gordon from Ełk, and Karpel Lippe from Jassy, Romania amongst others – decided to organize a grand international Zionist conference in Katowice. The birthday of the international Jewish philanthropist, which was at the end of October, served as a good explanation so as to avoid political complications. Yet because of logistical challenges, the conference was postponed and began not until November 6. It had two chairmen: Samuel Mohilever and Leon Pinsker, the author of the famous Zionist pamphlet Auto-Emancipation published in September 1882. The fact that a rabbi and a secular Jew were in charge of the conference perfectly illustrates the character of Hovevei Zion, where traditional Judaic beliefs intertwined with secular ones.

From the German-language protocol of the conference we best know the speech made by Leon Pinsker on November 6, the first day of the conference. It lasted some 20-25 minutes, during which time Pinsker emphasized the importance of developing agriculture in Eretz Yisrael. His most resonant statement was: “Let therefore colonization be our watchword from here forward”. In his own speech, rabbi Mohilever drew upon chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel and its prophecy of resurrecting the dried bones: “The Lord Yahweh says this: I am now going to open your graves; I shall raise you back from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel… And you will know that I am Yahweh when I… put my spirit in you and you revive, and I resettle you on your own soil…”.

The rabbi’s legacy in Białystok

Today’s Białystok is difficult to link with the city where the great rabbi once laid foundations for the modern Jewish state. The lower storeys of the synagogue building that was once named after him did somehow survive the war. But it is currently an empty dilapidated shell covered in crumbling plaster from which a sports club moved out in 2015. From the back of the building one may note arches above windows that can be associated with the former synagogue. There is also the rear of a kind of apse that marks the place where the Aron Hakodesh (Torah ark) once stood.

The former Rabbi Mohilever Synagogue, which was built in his honour in 1902, is located in the centre of Białystok, at 3 Branicki street. The experts at City Hall will tell you that the building is owned by the city outright and that there are no formal hurdles that would hinder its refurbishment or restoration. Moreover, a few years back an architectural design was officially selected for the site, one that includes the construction of a new glass storey among other altogether striking elements. But these plans came to naught. Tomasz Wiśniewski from “Jewish Białystok” says he believes “a very interesting project was created”, while laying the blame for the impasse on the lack of funds and the covid pandemic. At the same time, Wiśniewski trusts that the great patron of religious Zionism will be properly commemorated when the project for the synagogue is at long last realized. “This is what we will focus on as soon as we receive the keys to the planned Jewish Museum in Białystok. We’ve received the mayor’s promise”. The head of “Jewish Białystok” will no doubt also make sure that the “Białystoker” Albert Sabin, the inventor of a polio vaccine, will be commemorated – together with Urszula Biszkowicz, the subject of his documentary film “Granddaughter of the rabbi”. And so will the 20 thousand Białystokers who made aliyah up until the 1930s. Among them was rabbi Mohilever’s grandson Joseph, who made aliyah in 1920.

In the second half of the 1880s the Hovevei Zion movement and First Aliyah ran aground, but Mohilever never gave up the idea of restoring a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. He continued to preach that the prophecies would be fulfilled, collected funds for the settlers, and corresponded with other rabbis. Via his travels he nurtured contacts with other activists and created new connections. For example, in 1886 Mohilever officiated at the wedding of Moritz Schnirer from Vienna. That is where, in 1883, Schnirer, Nathan Birnbaum, and Ruben Bierer had formed a leading chapter of Hovevei Zion called Kadima forward. Half a century later, Schnirer would describe his visit to rabbi Mohilever when he came to discuss matters concerning his wedding: “Overlooking the genius loci I took off my hat on entering the room and held it in my left hand while I stretched the right to the Rabbi who had come forward to meet me. In this same instant I became conscious of my lapse and wanted to put on my hat again with embarrassed excuses, but the rabbi seeing my embarrassment said gently, »That’s nothing. One who has deserved so much of Judaism as the founder of the Kadima can be allowed such a sin«”.

Trip to Eretz Yisrael

In contrast to his mentor rabbi Kalischer, rabbi Mohilever succeeded in visiting Eretz Yisrael. This happened in 1890. He travelled from Jaffa to Jerusalem, to Hebron, and to the new Jewish settlements: Petah Tikva (‘gates of hope’), Rishon LeZion (‘first in Zion’) and Ekron, later renamed Zichron Yaakov (‘Jacob’s Memorial’). He also participated in the purchase of 1,556 acres for the settlement named Rehovot, established by Polish Jews the same year. The rabbi’s personality is winningly revealed in his accounts in defence of BILU members and other young pioneers he met in Jewish Palestine: “I am surprised to see many Rabbinic scholars and pious Jews opposing the development of Palestine by Jews because, as they claim, the Jewish colonists, particularly the young element, do not observe the law… Even if such accusation were true, I have shown long ago from Rabbinic writings that God prefers His children should be in His land, even if they do not observe the law in the proper manner, rather than that they live in other lands and observe the law scrupulously. But even the greatest enemies of the Jew would not dare say that in Palestine the Jews are less observant than elsewhere. On the contrary, they are much better Jews in Palestine than anywhere else. I visited many colonies and I found almost all of them are observant Jews. But granting there were a few, free in their religious views, such Jews are found all over, and Palestine is no exception. I can testify that during my stay in Palestine I never witnessed a colonist violate the Sabbath or any other law publicly” (Benjamin L. Gordon, 1919).

A bridge connecting Hovevei Zion and the Zionism of Herzl

In 1893, Samuel Mohilever and many of the rabbis he collaborated with – among them Mordechai Eliasberg, Yitzchak Nissenbaum, and Yitzchak Reines – established the previously mentioned spiritual centre Merkaz Ruchani – Mizrahi. Rabbi Reines formalized the organization in 1902, four years after Mohilevers death, recognizing him as the patron of this crucial component of Zionism and today’s Israel. Worth mentioning is that Bnei Akiva, the organization known the world over, is the youth wing of Mizrahi.

Samuel Mohilever was one of the first rabbis to support the secular Zionism of Theodor Herzl, who published his famous booklet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish state) in 1896. The now elderly rabbi of Białystok corresponded with Herzl and planned to participate in the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. But due to poor health he was represented in Switzerland by his aforementioned grandson, rabbi Joseph Mohilever, who read out a short speech written by his grandfather. Here are a few of his concluding remarks: “But I say that our faith and hope, as ever, so now, is that our Messiah will come and gather in all the scattered of Israel, and, instead of being wanderers upon the face of the earth, ever moving from place to place, we shall dwell as a nation in our own country… We shall be the pride and honour of all the peoples of the earth. This is our faith and hope as foretold by our prophets and seers of blessed memory” (Fishman).

On the 50th anniversary of Hovevei Zion, in December 1931 a ceremony was held in Białystok commemorating Rabbi Samuel Mohilever. It gathered many of his former associates, including his secretary rabbi Nissenbaum. Among the many dignitaries was Polish Senator Yitzchak Gruenbaum, who (17 years later) would sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence in May of 1948 together with another Płońsk native – David Ben-Gurion. After the prayers in the Mohilever synagogue at 3 Branicki street, a procession walked to the cemetery in the Bagnówka district, to the place the rabbi had been buried in 1898. An article in The Jewish Telegraphic Agency from 1931 adds that a plaque was unveiled in honour of the emergence of Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion) fifty years earlier in Białystok. Surprisingly, no-one in Białystok today seems to know of this plaque, but some wonder if maybe it had been mounted on rabbi Mohilever’s ohel – the small mausoleum that once stood over his grave, not far from the still-existing ohel atop the grave of rabbi Chaim Halpern.

Rabbi Mohilever’s grave in Bagnówka is now empty. His bones were taken to Israel in 1991 and reinterred in Mazkeret Batya, which he had helped found in 1882.

Samuel’s garden in Israel

There is another testimony to rabbi Samuel Mohilever in Israel. It can be found close to Hadera – halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is an etrog orchard that was planted in 1893 at the commission of the conference held that year in Białystok which created Mizrahi. In 1913, a kibbutz – an agrarian commune affiliated with secular, leftist Zionism – was established there. Nevertheless, the kibbutz dubbed itself Gan Shmuel – Samuel’s Garden. It therefore embodies the long-lasting bonds of secular and religious Zionism, and even more so the surprising link between contemporary Israel and Białystok.

Jarosław Kociszewski and Philip Earl Steele

[This is the fifth in a series of six articles on ‘fathers of modern Israel’ from the lands of today’s Poland]

The post was produced as part of the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański Eastern Europe College project funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of Christian Zionism.
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