The Yiddish are coming! Part 2: The Hasidim

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Since we’re talking about Chassidis, let’s start with a story:

In 1914, there were a few Chassidim in Boston, but no Rebbe. So, they sent a letter to Reb Dovid of Leilov. Reb Dovid thought his nephew, a young man named Pinchas would be perfect. This part of the story reminds me of the first scenes in The Frisco Kid, but this story is more amazing. He was smart, personable and had Yichus (which Yenta the Matchmaker would call ‘family background’); he was a direct descendant of the Shelah, Reb Yeshayahu Horowitz. 

There was a problem. Reb Pinchas was studying Kabala in Jerusalem and didn’t want to leave for America. But Reb Pinchas was summoned to Galicia, then part of the Russian Empire for a rabbinic tribunal.  Then things got complicated. Reb Pinchas officially was a citizen of the Turkish/Ottoman Empire, and while he was in Europe, World War I broke out. 

On his way back to Eretz Yisrael, he was seized by Greek authorities, who never liked the Turks. But the Chief Rabbi of Salonika arranged a visa to America. He landed in New York, but he remembered his uncle’s request to start a chasidishe court in America. 

Reb Pinchas moved to Boston, where there was a group of Chassidim enthusiastic to have a Rebbe of their own.

So, Reb Pinchas became the Bostoner Rebbe!

Now, of course, there are pieces of Boston in Brooklyn, Har Nof and Ramat Beit Shemesh, and more.

The Boston brand of Chasidus was always warm and welcoming. In those days and in Boston, then Brookline (under his son Reb Levi Yitzchak), there was no expectation that the followers take on the garb of the Rebbe. My encounters with all members of the family were always inspiring. The were giants in kindness. 

There had been Chassidim in America before this, but no rebbe. Even after the arrival of Reb Pinchas, there was a critical Rebbe shortage. And, what is Chassidus without a Rebbe? This was to change, big time during after WW2, the Big One.

A short list of Chassidishe Rabbeim who arrived as a result of the Holocaust is impressive: Chabad, Satmar, Bobov, Sanz-KlausenbergSkverVizhnitzMunkatch, and many more smaller sects.

Eventually, most of these groups ended up in Brooklyn. In 2018, Haddassah magazine, which has a Zionist bent, ran a story calling Brooklyn, the Most Jewish Place on Earth. Really?! That’s offensive. Especially when reading that in Yerushalayim. But statistically, Brooklyn is very Jewish and religious. It has over 600,000 Jews, over 40% are religious. It’s estimated that the number was 900,000 right after the War. It then went down for decades but has been rising again since the 90’s.

This new group was very different from the earlier wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe (1881-1914). the first group left voluntarily, emigrating for a better life. Most of them wanted to become American in every sense. The post-WW2 group came because there, literally, was no choice. The Holocaust had destroyed their world.

To the best of my knowledge not a single Rebbe came to America of his own volition!

These Rebbeim were a remarkable group. Their survival was viewed by followers as miraculous. Each one deserves a separate article, and maybe we’ll get to each. But in this post, I want to focus on Harav Shlomo Halberstam of Bobov (1907-2000).

Reb Shlomo came to the US with his oldest son, Naftali, and they were determined to rebuild in New York what had been destroyed in Bobov. He remarried, and with boundless energy worked to rebuild a piece of Eastern Europe in America. Until the ’60s, he was in Manhattan, and could be seen on the street asking people if they were Jewish, not to recruit them like Chabad: He just needed a minyan!

Bobov like most non-Chabad Chasidim weren’t interested in outreach per se, nevertheless they attracted many outsiders into their ranks.

By time he moved to Boro Park, the movement was well established, but he was zealous to maintain the Old World style. In his obituary from the Jewish Observer, it was recorded as a positive aspect of the Rebbe:    

Someone once said something that he disagreed with, and he argued vehemently. ‘How can you express an opinion? It must be because you grew up here, in the land of Coca-Cola! How can you understand the way things ought to be?’

America had nothing spiritual to offer them. America was just gashmiut (physical stuff).  

As his sect grew, he became politically savvy, and, I believe that he was the first Rebbe who promised politicians, from he wanted favors that he could deliver as a block of voters his entire sect, and, often, other Chasidic groups as well.

When the Rebbe died over 100,000 mourners attended hi funeral, he had rebuilt Bobov in Boro Park.

The Bobover Rebbe and these other men are part of my story of the rebirth of observance in American in the ’60s, but in a different way. Their presence meant there were more Jewish services available to all Jews; more kosher products, Jewish book stores, shmurrah matza on Pesach, lulavim on Sukkot and teachers for Jewish schools. However, their relationship to America was like their relationship to Czarist Russia. May God bless and keep the Czar far away from us.

We’ve traced two different routes to greater observance of Torah in America. The return of the third generation, mostly through curiosity and greater Torah education. And, the building of Torah enclaves (Boro Park, Williamsburg, Crown Height, Rockland County, Lakewood, NJ, etc.) by the newer arrivals.

Today, there is a battle for the hearts and souls of Orthodox Jews in America. The two sides are usually identified as ‘modern’ or ‘centrist’ on the one side and ‘chareidi’ on the other. Generally speaking, I strongly believe that we can trace the former group to the ‘third generation’ or Hansen’s Law group and the latter to the post-Holocaust group. But that’s not my story. All that dissension is after the renaissance I’m endeavoring to chronicle.

Next:   The Baal Teshuva Movement

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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