By Ray Schultz
In my ignorance, I now considered myself an expert on the varieties of Hasidism. In addition to the Satmar and Lubavitch, there were the Breslover Hasidim, the “Dead Hasids,” so called because their founding Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman, had died and never been replaced; they were viewed by other Hasidim with a mixture of contempt and pity, I thought. There were the Gere, the Belze and the Squarer, who inhabited New Square, in Rockland County, New York.
I’d also somehow heard of the Sassover Hasiim, and I visited the remnant that existed in their shul on the ground floor of a tenement in in the East Village of New York. To get to it, you had to walk through a dark alleyway. The Rebbe was a slightly passive young man, maybe 27, who did not look to me like a leader. Everyone else was elderly. They could barely pull together a minyan for afternoon prayer.
Next on my tour were the Bobover, one of the largest groups in the city. They lived mostly in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood served by an El line that went to Coney Island. One Friday morning, I visited Rabbi Halberstam, a nephew of Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, who at 67 was one of the most well-known Hasidic leaders in New York. We sat at a dining room table with a large, bright chandelier overhead and enjoyed soft drinks while talking.
The Bobover dynasty was founded in Sanz, Poland in 1830 by Chaim Halberstam. He learned with Rabbi Naftali Horowitz, who in turn had learned with Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk, who had studied with the Maggid of Mezeritch, successor to the Bal Shem Tov himself. Rabbi Weisblum “was above our conception, we can’t even conceive the mind that he had,” our host, Rabbi Halberstam said.
The current Rebbe’s father, Ben Zion Halberstam, had greatly expanded the movement after World War I, helping and praying for people with serious problems. Life was hard in Poland. And like other Hasidic groups, the Bobover were caught up in the horror overtaking Europe. The Rebbe, Ben Zion Helmerstam, was shot to death by the Nazis along with 1,200 other Jews in a slaughter in Lvov, Poland in 1941. And Shlomo Halberstam’s wife and two children also died in the Holocaust.
Despite these tragedies, Shlomo Halberstam took up the mantle of Rebbe and devoted himself to smuggling people out of concentration camps. In one operation, he hired coal trucks that were shipping coal into Hungary, and made double layers near the bottom, 20 to 24 inches wide, and there they would hide people. “The drivers got paid, they knew what was going on, and they smuggled out hundreds of people,” Rabbi Halberstam said. “He was running a whole intelligence system.”
Some of the Bobover escaped to Russia, and found themselves in Siberia. Rabbi Halberstam’s own father died in prison there. The Hasidim were afraid to take Russian citizenship because it meant they couldn’t return to Poland, they thought. But in the end, they were allowed to go home, only to find that anti-Semitism still prevailed in Poland and that they were not welcome back.
The Rebbe’s son left for Palestine on one of two ships headed there. The British Navy sank one, and fired on the other. The young man barely made it to land.
Finally, the Rebbe arrived in the United States and found himself ministering to survivors, some of whom had not belonged to the Bobover congregation.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of other Hasidic movements some who were just wiped out, and there were no followers to reinstate it,” Rabbi Halberstam said. “There was nothing left in those countries, Poland, Hungary, Austria, nothing left over there.”
These survivors were often burdened with psychiatric problems, as were their children. But few were ever treated because people wouldn’t seek help. And even if they did, there were few professionals qualified to deal with these issues. “What is psychiatric help going to do when a kid starts talking about a dybbuk or gilgul?” asked Rabbi Yitchak Rubin, a Bobover I spoke with that same week. Rabbi Rubin added that some of these children were “skeletons,” or challenged in other ways, and encumbered with the fears of the parents.
“There are little kids whose parents from the camps won’t let them ride on public transportation—they’re afraid they will be driven to the camps,” he said.
It fell upon the Rebbe to pull the surviving followers together—if he could.
“It was the Rebbe’s job to encourage them and prove to them they could start anew,” Halberstam said. That was the first challenge.
Then there was the problem of making a living.
“In early part of 1946 or ’47, the people who came over were lost people without any families, nobody to turn to, so the Rebbe felt that he must try and help these people,” Halberstam said. “So instead of them going out, not knowing English, not knowing where to start in this new country, he felt it was his duty to provide them with an occupation where they can make a decent living. “ The Rebbe decided on watch repair and jewelry.
Why those two trades?
“He had meetings with professional people, with economists, from various trades, and had some of his businessmen bringing in people from the Labor Dept.,” Halberstam answered. “It was decided that these would be the most appropriate trades for a Jewish Hasidic youngster. It was an individual trade—there wouldn’t be any problems with unions, or with observing the Sabbath or the Jewish holidays.”
The training program lasted for two years—after that, there was no need.
How did the Rebbe bear up under all this pressure? Halberstam answered by saying something I had never heard about any of the other Rebbes: “He has a tremendous sense of humor, not only a sense of humor, but he rises himself above any problem he may encounter.”
This was reflected in the character of the Bobover, who while just as serious as other groups in their observance, they avoided controversy.
“We do not discourage anyone, we do not disqualify anyone from becoming part of our movement,” Halberstam said. “To the contrary we tolerate anyone’s views.”
The Rebbe himself “is accessible to all,” Halberstam continued. “He’s in constant contact He has weekly gatherings every Friday night after the first Sabbath meal. The congregation would come where the rabbi comes. He says the kiddush, and they drink a cup of wine and sing the Sabbath songs. The Rabbi eats his Sabbath meal, and the rest of the people participate either by drinking a cup of beer, and eating fruit, and dance. And on this occasion the Rabbi gives a sermon. During this sermon, he will seek a certain topic to speak about. Sometimes it’s about education of children, sometimes it’ about ethics. Whatever the topic is, people are delighted and exceptionally enthusiastic about it.”
The Bobover were also known for their joyous singing.
“An important point in the Bobover movement is singing because my grandfather, the Rebbe’s father, was a great singer, a composer,” Halberstam said. “He composed beautiful songs, we have records that we distributed. The Rebbe today also makes very beautiful compositions, so singing is important. It’s a good release, it tends to make you joyous and gives a lot of young people a certain feeling. It gives you patriotism, and they could be enthralled and prepare for the gatherings and for the holidays.”
Once again, I was astounded by the diversity within the Hasidic movement– how the Satmar, Lubavitcher and Bobover could have such distinct characters while rigorously adhering to the same commandments.