Earlier today (Monday, 5 Iyar), at the age of 94, the last surviving great-great-great-grandson of the illustrious nineteenth-century Hasidic master, Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhyn (1796-1850), the unassuming “Pashkan Rebbe”, Rabbi Yisrael Shalom Yosef Friedman Ben-Shalom, died in Gilo, Jerusalem. To say that he was an enigma does not quite do his story justice.
It cannot be a coincidence that this unusual rabbi died on the fifth day of the Jewish month of Iyar — the actual anniversary of the declaration of Israel’s independence in 1948 — as he was throughout his life a dedicated and devoted Zionist. Unlike every other Hasidic rabbi of his pedigree and sincerity, Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom treated Yom Haatzmaut as a festive day, and said the Hallel prayer with the accompanying blessing, as part of his Yom Haatzmaut morning prayers.
And yet he was a full-fledged Hasidic “grand-rabbi”, or “rebbe”, descended from the most aristocratic Hasidic dynasty of all — Ruzhyn-Sadigur — whose founder, the aforementioned Rabbi Yisrael, was himself a scion, the great-grandson of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, leading disciple of the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, whose teachings and approach to Judaism he single-handedly popularized, propagated and organized, taking the small parochial sect of his master and turning it into a mainstream movement within Jewish life which has endured to this day.
So who was Rabbi Yisrael Shalom Yosef Friedman Ben-Shalom, and how did this anachronistic personality evolve out of the background from which he emerged?
Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom was born in Bohush, Rumania, in 1923. Both his mother and father were descendants of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhyn, and his mother’s father, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the acclaimed Rebbe of Bohush, was also his father’s first cousin.
When he was just nine years old, his mother died, and he was brought up in his grandfather’s house, where he studied Torah with an elderly Bohush Hasid who had tutored Ruzhyn family members for generations, before beginning private studies with his esteemed grandfather, to whom he became a devoted disciple.
The Ruzhyn Hasidic leaders were known for their enthusiastic support for the resettlement of Jews in the Land of Israel — unlike many of their Hasidic leader counterparts — and a number of them openly supported the Zionist movement after it began in the 1890s, a factor that set them apart from almost every other Hasidic leader in early twentieth century Europe. The Bohush dynasty was no different than the other Ruzhyn branches, and the young Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom was raised in an environment broadly sympathetic with Zionist aspirations for a Jewish National Home in Palestine that would be internationally recognized as an independent Jewish State.
It was this that probably inspired him to join the secular Zionist youth movement “Hashomer Hatzair” as a counselor, as well as his family’s belief that one had to proactively engage with non-observant Jews, in order to draw them closer to Judaism. Nevertheless, it is hard to overstate the incongruity of the scion of a Hasidic dynasty who had in no way abandoned his roots, aligning himself with a militantly secular Zionist organization that openly disparaged old-world Judaism, in favor of a Jewish “national” identity that rejected ancient Jewish laws and customs.
The rabbi was able to survive the Holocaust years in Bucharest, Rumania, together with his immediate family. It was there, in 1944, that he met his distant relative, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Meir Hager, also a descendant of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhyn, who passed through Bucharest as part of the miraculous journey that helped him survive Nazi attempts to kill him. More crucially, Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom met Zipporah, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s youngest daughter, whom he married in 1946 after they both managed to smuggle themselves illegally into Palestine. Neither of their parents were at the wedding, which was performed perfunctorily by a Yemenite rabbi who was on hand at the time.
In June 1948, the young couple joined together with a group of Rumanian and Bulgarian Holocaust-survivor immigrants to found a secular kibbutz in the Bet She’an valley, called Reshafim, where they remained for 18 years. During this period their religious observance was confined to their home, and all religious celebrations – such as the barmitzvahs of their sons – were transported to the home of Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom’s father, and of his uncle, Rabbi Yitzchak Friedman, the Rebbe of Bohush, who now resided in an orthodox enclave in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv, and with whom he remained very close.
The family later moved to the religious Kibbutz Sa’ad, and also spent time in Marseilles, France, on “shlichut” for the Jewish Agency. Keen to broaden his knowledge, Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom enrolled at Tel Aviv University’s Jewish History department, where he ultimately was awarded his Ph.D. on the subject of “Beit Shammai’s political influence in first century Judea”.
During the 1970s, after the passing of his father-in-law, who following the founding of the state had become a leading voice in the Agudat Yisrael ultra-orthodox non-Zionist community in Israel, the Friedman Ben-Shalom family started to spend more time with the religious community in Israel, after a break of many years, and to associate more closely with their family and people of their background and level of observance. Because of their deep connections with the side of Israeli society that had no connection with the Hasidic world, Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom and his family began to act as a bridge between these two worlds that were divided by a gulf of mistrust and antipathy – on both sides of the fence.
When he eventually retired from his role as an educator, Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom and his wife moved to Jerusalem, to be close to their son Hoshea Ben-Shalom, a winner of the Avi Hai Foundation prize, who had set up an “urban kibbutz” called Beit Yisrael in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Hoshea Ben-Shalom is also the Chief Reserve Officer of the IDF, and an ordained rabbi. Indeed, all of their children are remarkable Jews and remarkable Israelis – bright, charismatic, inspired, inspiring, and proactive in their mission to find common ground between the Jewish past and the Jewish present, and between the glory of Hasidism and the miracle of the State of Israel. But their inspiration in this quest was undoubtedly their late father, and of course their mother Zipporah, who is sister to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe (in Monsey, NY), and aunt to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe (in Bnei Brak), as well as Satmar Rebbe (Monroe), Belzer Rebbe, and Skver Rebbe (New Square, NY).
In his last few years Rabbi Friedman Ben-Shalom, now the full-time Pashkan Rebbe of the Ruzhyn Dynasty, drew hundreds of Jews from every walk of life into his orbit – each one of them moved by his authenticity, and by his genuine love of every Jew. Here was a man who perfectly embodied the Jewish narrative – a prince of Hasidic royalty, a master of Jewish history, a soldier of Jewish destiny, and a proud Zionist who worked the land, and helped to build the State, preparing it for the Messianic age from the ground up, and from the Heavens down.
This is truly a Hasidic Rebbe whose life story can inspire every one of us.
הרב ישראל שלום יוסף פרידמן זצוק”ל, אדמו”ר מפאשקאן זי”ע ועכי”א
תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים