Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Sivan 5760 - June 28, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Belz Beis Medrash in Yerushalayim: Full Circle

by Yisroel Spiegel

The dedication of the new beis midrash was the crowning glory in the reestablishment and rehabilitation of the Chassidic court that was razed to its foundation during the Holocaust. Herewith a tour in the magnificent Belzer complex against the background of personal reminiscences over a period of fifty-six years dating back to the wondrous rescue miracle of the previous Admor of Belz zy'o, and the moving reception he was given upon his entry to Jerusalem:

The spectacle is awesome and breathtaking. From outside, one already finds it difficult to absorb the full dimensions of size and its impact, and all the more so when one stands within, inside the huge heichal, where you must crane your neck to see the beautifully geometrically sculpted ceiling rising to a height of eighty-one meters (about 250 feet), and to focus on the nine crystal chandeliers that erupt in prism-shattered majesty. Feeling overwhelmed by this sight alone, your eyes are then drawn to the magnificent Aron Hakodesh towering in front of you in its elaborate carved bas-relief, reaching up almost the full height of the hall and almost as wide as it is high. To the right and the left on this southerly wall, and on the eastern wall, are huge windows admitting the brilliant sunlight. Along the two sides and the northern wall are spacious galleries while along the main hall itself are the many rows of seats capable of seating two thousand worshipers. The interior design is extremely tasteful and pleasing to the eye, creating an atmosphere of grandeur and stateliness, "To glorify the House of Hashem."

This, in a nutshell, is the new gigantic beis midrash standing proudly in the heart of the new complex of the Belzer Chassidic court in Jerusalem, a center teeming with never-resting life reflecting both Torah and chassidus, from which the sound of Torah never ceases, but carries on, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year round.

Only two days before Pesach was the actual work on the crowning glory of this complex, its beis midrash, finally completed. The event was celebrated in a most original manner: through `A day that was all-Torah,' literally, a full twenty-four cycle 'round the clock of Torah study, with massive shifts of hundreds of studiers manning them, from eve to eve. This memorable day was further heightened with the moving dedication of eight new sifrei Torah into the new premises amidst tremendous joy and celebration, in true simcha shel mitzva, an exhibit of "The joy of Hashem is your stronghold."

Leave it to the administrators and askonim under the direction of the Admor of Belz to celebrate this momentous event with the proper spiritual dimension for which this very holy structure was designed and built, that is, for Torah study and prayer. Thanks to their efforts, an inauguration ceremony with speeches and greetings was superfluous. Nothing could be more fitting for such an edifice than its own dedication through actual study and prayer, whereby its walls could immediately absorb a holy atmosphere which would reverberate and echo for all time with that incipient Torah give-and-take, fervent prayers and moving personal techinos, with the mass recital of the entire Tehillim to the tears of great joy mingled with sadness for the remembrance of what was destroyed in the original chassidic court in Belz, itself, where the dynasty was first established, to carry on here forever more, till the coming of Moshiach.

"With this shall Aharon enter the sanctuary," quoted the Admor. "With this Torah, this preparation and inception of Torah and holiness, shall we enter the Beis Hamikdosh."

Fifteen Years -- Then and Today

Many rich memories relating to the Belzer chassidic world have been preserved in the mental archives of its followers, evoked by this great historic event. There are parallels from the dedication of the beis medrash in Europe to this occasion of the dedication.

Then, as today, fifteen years passed from the laying of the cornerstone until the completion of the structure. Then, in 5603 (1843), the Belzer Rebbe, Admor R' Sar Sholom zy'o, founder of the illustrious Belzer dynasty, foresaw in his holy vision a place of worship: " . . . my Beis Knesses shall be one of the most splendid synagogues in all of Jerusalem, and when the Kohen Godol will go to perform his avoda in the Beis Hamikdosh, he will have to pass by my synagogue."

Several months before his demise, his great-grandson, Admor R' Aharon zy'o, said, "I don't know from our sources, but gentiles related that when the beis midrash in Belz was set afire, they saw a venerable looking, white- bearded Jew, strolling within, saying, `Synagogue, synagogue, don't you weep. For just as people prayed inside you, so will they again pray within you in the future."

Under the heavy impact of rich memories, and from the holy urge to renew the chain of rule and restore the crown to its original glory, Belzer chassidim found themselves mobilized by the thousands throughout the interim years to realize this sacred mission. The goal: to reestablish the glorious edifice that existed in Belz, in even greater dimensions of size and space (as present needs dictate), under the fervent, dynamic, energetic and indefatigable guidance of the current Admor.

Throughout the entire incubation period, he was immersed in the building plans, frequently supervising them himself at the ground level, on site, through his great love for the mitzva and his immense desire to propel it forward to its final completion, while mobilizing the huge financial funding that necessarily accompanies such a great venture. His efforts were continually blessed with the aid and support of the masses of chassidim whose donations poured in to help realize the establishment of such a House of Hashem, a mikdash me'at of splendor that today rises up proudly to grace our holy city of Yerushalayim.

Small wonder that on the "Day that was All-Torah" upon which was inaugurated the new gigantic beis Midrash, the sense of tremendous accomplishment should find expression among the throngs of Belzer chassidim who participated in this event, both those who were there in person at the actual festivities, and those present in spirit, in the numerous Belzer enclaves throughout the entire world. All were united through the satellite-beamed closed circuit broadcasts and screens which presented the events as they occurred.

They shared the tremendous joy exhibited at this climactic occasion, a completion of the actual construction, which was actually a beginning, a dedication of a new start, a new circle of rich Torah study and blessed chassidic activities. The joy was not only that of the consummation of a building project that was purely holy and destined to augment the glory of Hashem and His Torah. It was far more: it was the closing of a full circle, a historic cycle of sixty years, dating back to the beginning of the Holocaust, of the systematic destruction of the illustrious European Jewry, including the birthplace of the glorious dynasty of the Belzer chassidus in Galicia.

With a Procession of Children Near Motza

Here, the writer of this article is able to relate to the event on a personal level:

If the readers have noted that our impressions have been tinged with a fervor and reverence that goes beyond the normal account of a reporter covering a certain public event - - they are correct. Indeed, I am extremely impressed, deeply affected, emotionally moved and even wipe away a tear here and there, because I, myself, was a young student in the Eitz Chaim Talmud Torah and had the privilege -- both my brother and I -- to be among those children who stood, one memorable evening together with an enormous crowd on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near Kfar Motza, waiting in electrified anticipation for the coming of the wondrous tzaddik, the saintly Admor R' Aharon of Belz zy'o, together with his brother, the holy HaGaon Hatzaddik of Bilgorei, after they had succeeded, through amazing miracles, to survive the Holocaust and make their way to the Holy Land.

I don't really know who organized this mass exodus of Jerusalemites to Motza and who thought of the idea of getting cheder children to join those throngs. But I will never forget the stirring scene: a black limousine in which sat an elderly Jew, eyes tightly shut, enveloped in a huge, heavy overcoat, shrunken almost like a skeleton. And next to him, his brother, of similar description. The vehicle passed between the throngs of welcomers lining the road, who gazed expectantly and reverently upon the occupants. Since then, I have eagerly followed the doings of the Belzer court and noted how, from one year to the next it has grown, expanded in size and quality. I still cannot cease marveling at this phenomenon of growth, of which much has still to be said.

Then, as a small boy, I could not possibly absorb and appreciate the event. Only many years later could I begin to interpret the significance, of what we saw and experienced on that memorable day of the Belzer Rebbe's arrival to Jerusalem. We saw then what is meant by destruction, what was the devastation executed by the Nazi fiend. Not only upon the Belzer chassidus and not only against the exalted tzaddik who glorified east European Jewry up till World War II, but to all of Jewry, all of the strongholds of Torah and chassidus that existed then and upon the vibrant, throbbing Jewish life.

The Admor and his brother came alone, cindered remnants, saved by the skin of their teeth, so to speak, without their families, their children, their courts of chassidim, without their scores of botei midrash scattered throughout the settlements of Galician and Hungary. They, two, singly, bereaved, stripped of everything, for this was the stark reality of their survival. The sole survivors . . .

The Burgeoning Renaissance in the Wake of the Survival-Miracle

It was in the winter of 5704. The ocean of blood shed in Europe had not yet stopped streaming. The Yishuv in Eretz Yisroel knew very little about the true scope of the devastation and decimation. They did, however, know that something dreadful was taking place.

And then came the news that the Tzaddik of Belz and his brother, the Gaon of Bilgorei, had been saved and were arriving in Eretz Yisroel. On the one hand, it was obvious that they had come all alone, and the significance of this was shocking. Without even one of their relatives -- not one of the many branches of the family, nor any of the thousands of loyal, devoted chassidim -- accompanied them. And yet, the facts of the wondrous, miraculous odyssey of events, each of whose turn was an additional miracle, was greatly inspiring in itself. It showed the explicit guiding hand of Providence at play. But further miracles were yet to develop, since their rescue was a promising bud of a blooming future.

Jerusalem Jewry, of all stripes and streams, deeply moved by the momentous news of their survival, flocked to greet the two men. Many people, without any previous affinity to chassidus, decided to cleave unto the Belzer Rebbe as their leader, with loyalty and love. And slowly, a new growth was visible. With sure steps, a solid foundation was created, and one could again see the emergence of a Belzer court, at first small in size, but fully intact with the full ingrained Belzer tradition, nuances, lifestyle, characteristics.

Meanwhile, the exiles began gathering in, converging to the hub, a few survivors here, there, some chassidim who had the good fortune to escape the Holocaust before doom struck, each one with his personal tale of Providence to relate. All these were joined by newcomers to Belz, Jews who studied the ways of the great Admor and sought to identify with and join his ranks of followers. And all of these began raising families in the traditional way of Belz.

The Belzer Rebbe first settled in Tel Aviv but visited frequently in Jerusalem. In both places, Jews thronged to pray in his proximity, to attend his holy tish, to bask in his holy presence. Very interesting was the fact that precisely during these times, when so many young folk eased themselves away from traditional Yiddishkeit, away from the yeshivos, and dropped out of religious life, the ranks of Belz actually swelled and increased. So many youth were attracted by the magnetic pull of Zionism, of nationalism, of secular youth movements etc., because of their idealistic appeal or because of their element of "forbidden fruit," and yet, at this same time, chassidus was making significant inroads and experiencing a rebirth according to its age-old formula, along the selfsame lines and styles as had existed in Galicia before the war, without a hairsbreadth change.

Belz became the symbol of renewal from the ashes, phoenix- like resurgence from ruin, an example of hope and encouragement for all other elements of Orthodox Jewry who were determined not to succumb. Indeed, those few remaining seeds sprouted with new life of Torah and of chassidus. Vintage wine in new decanters.

I remember Shabbosos in which Jews crowded around the tish, reverently studying the holy figure at its head, from which only the eyes were visible, or gathering in the chassidic beis midrash in Botei Warsaw on Shabbos when the Admor came for the daytime prayers and read from the Torah in person.

It was a scene to marvel at, for this man barely had the strength to stand upon his own feet. When he walked, he had to be supported by his loyal attendants on either side. And yet, standing before the outspread scroll, his voice rang out, thin, but sharp and audible, every word flowing perfectly and rapidly from his lips and heard clearly. It was evident to all that only an exalted spiritual force from within enabled him to withstand this physical exertion.

Another Station on the Memory Track: the Demise of the Saintly Tzaddik of Belz

Thus did the incredible process of the "rebirth of the dry bones" develop, with its identifying symbol being the first unforgettable picture of the elderly tzaddik, a mere composite of skin and bones, sitting huddled in his huge overcoat in the limousine that bore him to Jerusalem, welcomed by the astonished throngs of Jews coming to pay him homage. From that moment on, the slight figure evoked strong feelings of reverence, awe, fealty and respectful affection.

Another historic vision follows, similarly engraved upon memories: that of the demise of the saintly Admor of Belz zy'o, some thirteen years later. An indescribable, incomparable pain grips the entire city in the month of Av, 5717 (1957). Those days were already completely different, in every way, from the momentous day upon which he had arrived. Masses upon masses of Jews crowd into the vast yeshiva hall of the Belzer center on Rechov Agrippas, straining towards the room where the holy remains lay, surrounded by many candles and chassidim reciting Tehillim in broken voices while rivers of tears flowed from their eyes. And then the tremendous funeral procession that filled the Jerusalem streets.

The question begins to gnaw in some people's hearts: will the Belzer branch of chassidus, so recently transplanted, struck roots, and having shown such promise -- will it continue to sustain the new and promising growth? Will it withstand this terrible blow of the tzaddik's departure from this world, after his younger brother, the saintly Gaon of Bilgorei ztvk'l, was prematurely plucked from the land of the living several years before, leaving behind a single son who was all of two years old? At this gloomy stage, he was the only hope for the continuity of the golden chain of Belzer chassidus.

This question did not only disturb the loyal followers and adherents, but also preoccupied the minds of the many other Jews who followed the developments of the rebirth and resurgence of this dynasty -- that had begun with the miraculous survival of the Rebbe and his brother -- with great sympathy and deep reverence. But at this stage, as painful and difficult as it was, Belzer chassidus had already struck strong roots. All that was needed was a strong will and iron determination to continue the growth and expansion.

We all know the rest of the story, from history. In the interim, the scion and heir of the Belzer dynasty grew and matured into manhood. When the happy time came, he was garbed with the royal mantle of leadership and became the new Admor, who now leads his glorious flock with strength and dignity. That flock has grown, expanded and become a mighty force indeed.

This entire circle, with all of its forward steps and vicissitudes, is the backdrop of a glorious picture which unfolds these days, with the dedication of the new, magnificent Belzer beis midrash, in the center of the illustrious Kiryat Belz in Jerusalem, a community throbbing with life, filled with housing units where Belzer chassidim today carry on the succession of the Belzer tradition from its inception in Galicia. This realization of a vision has been central to the Rebbe's thoughts, hopes and activities for all these years and his guidance has been geared to this goal. Indeed, the present day Belzer community imbibes from the fountains of yore, exactly as did the original community, with no discrepancies in customs, dress, lifestyle and everything that ever characterized Belz in the times of the preceding leaders, the great Admorim of the illustrious Belzer dynasty.

A Kirya Throbbing With Torah and Chassidus

The construction of this beis midrash, from its inception, took fifteen years, but even in the years preceding it, Belzer chassidus was being built up from the inside, in quality and quantity. The legions of chassidim swelled and their institutions burgeoned at a tremendously impressive velocity, with chadorim, yeshivos ketanos, yeshivos gedolos, kollelim, educational institutions for girls and institutions of charity and welfare which encompass the huge public in every manner, centers for kiruv, seminars for baalei teshuva - - all demonstrating that Belz is not only a self contained chassidic circle but a community at large, a true "Machzikei Hadas" -- upholders of the faith, with all that is necessary to maintain a Jewish community of scope and size at all levels, just as in former times.

When one comes to behold and take pleasure from the impressive sight of the new beis midrash, in all of its full glory and rare grandeur, one is struck by the inner quality of the Belzer community which captivates the heart.

In the course of a tour of the new building, we traverse the numerous halls and corridors of the lower floors of this immense complex: we see the "smaller" botei knesses which serve the needs of countless worshipers in shteiblach-style, with one minyan following fast on the heels of the previous one.

Then there is the old beis midrash, a spacious auditorium in itself, filled to capacity with Torah scholars bent over their gemoras, sifrei halocho, rishonim, studying singly or in pairs, on a normal day of bein hazmanim. Those studying number among the Belzer chassidim, of course, but also include local inhabitants of all the circles who live nearby.

The lights in this vast beis midrash are never extinguished and it bustles with study-activity around the clock, day after day, nonstop. The walls of the beis midrash are lined with holy books, in addition to a prestigious library of tens of thousands of works, covering all aspects of Torah study, available to the studiers at all times, for perusal. There are, for example, no less than one hundred and thirty sets of the Talmud, a fact that testifies to the vast number of people who come to study here throughout the year.

A special campaign to increase the library was launched before the dedication of the new beis midrash to fill the shelves that line this gigantic hall as well, so that the sound of Torah will ring out from here too and the scholars will not have to go searching for a particular volume they need. This, of course, in addition to the many thousands of siddurim, Chumoshim and other basic texts.

Everything points to the inner, spiritual dimension of Torah study and prayer. But great effort was invested in the physical enhancement of this mikdash me'at, its splendor and beauty. The huge walls are paneled with rare marble, resembling wood, which creates a warm atmosphere within its spaciousness. Special effort was invested in ensuring the proper acoustics for a hall as immense as this. Since this is one of the largest synagogues in existence, it was necessary that all of its thousands of worshipers be able to follow and participate in the service and to properly hear the shaliach tzibbur. To ensure this, the best experts were called in and they utilized their know-how to maximize the auditory reception, not only in the grand heichal, but also in the women's section in the upper gallery, the other galleries set aside for the younger folk and the numerous halls throughout the building.

Experts were also involved in the matter of lighting, that it not only illuminate as most decoratively as possible, but also as efficiently. The same applied to the air conditioning and to an automatic system which opens and closes the windows through special sensors. The seating accommodations are also comfortable as well as luxuriously designed, each person with his individual seat and shtender for prayer and study.

A Closing of a Significant Historical Circuit

All had been finished and completed and the beis midrash was finally inaugurated, to the great joy of the multitudes of Belzer chassidim and yet, with all of its great significance, it is continually stressed that the building, itself, is not the end purpose, and certainly not the pomp and splendor which was invested in it, even if aesthetics plays a vital role with regard to a House of Hashem.

It is the interior, its purpose and function, which counts. As the Belzer Rebbe, himself, said, among other things, in his dedication speech, "This holy Beis Midrash which we are privileged to inaugurate now is, indeed, a magnificent edifice. Its aron kodesh is beautiful, its chandeliers are exquisite, but this is not the main thing. The primary goal is for this Beis Midrash to serve as a continuation of the holy edifice, the great beis midrash which my esteemed ancestor, Maran R' Sholom, of Belz, founded and built in the city of Belz, into which he invested great work and which he endowed with much sanctity during its construction. And later, of course, this sanctity increased with the Torah study and prayers that filled it. My great- grandfather and after him, my grandfather, added to the buildings and expanded them, prayed in them and later my uncle continued to vest the beis knesses and beis midrash with added holiness until, due to our many sins, they were destroyed during the times of suffering and persecution."

He added, "First and foremost, our prayer to Hashem is that we be privileged to learn Torah in this beis midrash for Torah's pure sake, and to pray in it with undivided concentration, with pure heart and thoughts to Hashem. We trust and hope that all of our prayers uttered in this beis midrash ascend directly to the Heavenly Throne, amidst the prayers of all Jewry, and be favorably accepted. We pray that Hashem will shower upon us all, from Heaven, collectively and individually, all of our needs, both materially and spiritually, from now and forever more."


And so, the wheel has revolved a full turn, beginning in the olden times of Belz up to this present day.

A smaller circle has also been completed, from the time that the Admor R' Aharon of Belz came to Jerusalem. This is very symbolically commemorated in the small corner specifically set aside in the gigantic heichal of the beis midrash, alongside the magnificent aron kodesh.

To the left, ensconced in a small transparent glass compartment, stands the simple shtender and the old wooden chair which served the saintly Rebbe for his prayers. They are preserved just as they were, small and modest, with parts of them chipped away -- not by age but by the fervent adherence of faithful chassidim who sought to take a small souvenir for themselves as a holy segulah. It was imminently necessary to preserve these relics intact behind lock and they have now found a suitable permanent place in this new great beis midrash.

The contrast between the ancient shtender and chair and their humble simplicity -- and the majesty and pomp of this new, immense beis midrash, speaks volumes about the transition from destruction to rehabilitation of the illustrious Belzer chassidus. It so vividly evokes the shattering picture of the Admor's arrival to the Holy Land, a shard, a frame of skin and bones barely escaped from the Nazi inferno. And now, through the mercy of Hashem, everything has been reconstructed in greater glory.

Perhaps, we cannot help thinking, this event does not reflect on this particular event alone, but also comes to personify the whole picture of Orthodox Jewry which has been resurrected from the flames and smoky ruins of the terrible Holocaust, an outstanding symbol, a miraculous indication that the Eternal G-d of Israel stands by His promise and His people and will never let us down.

This celebration of Belzer chassidus and the victory over the schemers of its destruction is, then, a celebration for chareidi Jewry as a whole, for the entire Jewish people. Would that this be a true harbinger of the complete Redemption of our nation and of the imminent construction of the Third Beis Hamikdosh on its designated site of Har Habayis, so close geographically that it can actually be seen from the new Belzer citadel.


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