Friday, January 18, 2008

Rabbis of Belz

  • Rabbi Shalom Rokeach was born in 1779 and died on 10 September 1855. He founded the Belz Hasidic Dynasty. He was also known as the Sar Shalom. He was inducted as rabbi of Belz in 1817. He was a great Torah scholar and legendary miracle worker. Rabbi Shalom personally helped build the city's large and imposing synagogue which was dedicated in 1843 and stood until the Nazis invaded Belz in late 1939. He is buried in Belz.
  • Rabbi Joshua (Yehoshua) Rokeach was born in 1825 and died in 1894. He was the son of Rabbi Shalom Rokeach and succeeded his father. He was deeply involved in Jewish public life. Belzer chasidus grew in size during Rebbe Joshua's tenure. As early as 1878, several Galician admorim, headed by Joshua Rokeach of Belz, established an organization named Mahazikei ha-Dat (defenders of faith), which was supposed to oppose the maskilim of Lwów and promote the interests of Hasidic Orthodoxy using modern, political tools: They published a newspaper, participated in Austrian parliamentary elections, and operated in the standard frames of political action.
  • Rabbi Issacher (Yissachar) Dov Rokeach was born in 1854 and died in 1926. He was the son of Rabbi Joshua Rokeach and succeeded his father. World War I and the disintegration of the multinational empires Austro-Hungary and Czarist Russia resulted in the physical destruction of some of the greatest Hasidic centers in the Ukraine, Poland, and Galicia (such as the courts of Sadegora, Czortków, and Belz). The Zaddikim, their families, and associates were forced to relocate, departing for other countries or large cities (such as Vienna). This shift of Hasidic courts from the small Shtetl or township to the great city was one of the signs of the times.
  • Rabbi Aharon Rokeach was born as the first son of Rabbi Issacher Dov Rokeach in 1877. He succeeded his father upon the father's death in 1926. A deeply spiritual, almost mystical man, who studied much and slept and ate little, Rebbe Aharon was known for his saintliness and his miracle-working capabilities. Many of his followers reported experiencing miraculous recoveries or successes after receiving his blessing, and flocked to his court by the thousands. Aharon was called the "Wonder Rebbe" by Jews and gentiles alike for the miracles they claimed he performed.
    With the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi takeover of Poland, the town of Belz was thrown into turmoil. From 1939 to 1944 it was occupied by Germany as a part of the General Government. Belz is situated on the left, north waterside of the Solokiya river (affluent of the Bug river), which was German-Soviet border in 1939-1941.
    The "Wonder Rebbe" was at the top of the Gestapo's "wanted list" of rabbis targeted for extradition and extermination during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Thanks to the untiring efforts and cash inflow from Belzer Hasidim in Israel England and the United States, the Rebbe and his half-brother, Rabbi Mordechai of Bilgorai, 22 years his junior, managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis in one miraculous escape attempt after another. Notwithstanding the watchful presence of Gestapo patrols at every turn, the pair was spirited out of Belz and into Sokal, then Premishlan, then to the Cracow ghetto, and then to the Bochnia ghetto.
    In their most hair-raising escape attempt, the brothers were driven out of occupied Poland and into Hungary by a Hungarian counter-intelligence agent who was friendly to Jews. The Rebbe, his brother, and his attendant, shorn of their distinctive beards and side locks, were disguised as Russian generals who had been captured at the front and were being taken to Budapest for questioning. To quell rumors of the Rebbe's disappearance from the ghetto, one of his Hasidim dressed up in Rebbe Aharon's clothing and sat in his inner sanctum all day, imitating the way the Rebbe immersed himself in prayer and study. When other hasidim urged the Rebbe's attendant to let them send in their kvittlach ("notes" or "petitions for blessings"), they heard a perfect imitation of the Rebbe's voice, mumbling his blessings.
    The refugees subsequently reported that they had experienced "miracles" at each stage of the escape. Throughout the 250-mile drive across occupied Poland, according to the Hungarian agent, the escape vehicle was enveloped in an "eerie mist" that made it difficult for the car to be detected. When the agent asked the driver to stop along the way and join him for something to eat, leaving the refugees unguarded, the two were unable to locate the car upon their return. They finally identified it by feeling for it in the place they had parked it. As the refugees passed into Hungary, they were stopped by several patrols. At one checkpoint, their identity was questioned and they were about to be detained when three high-ranking Hungarian officials appeared and ordered that the car be let through. Belzer Hasidim believe that those three men were the "first three Belzer Rebbes sent from Heaven" to expedite Rebbe Aharon's escape.
    Rebbe Aharon and Rabbi Mordechai spent eight months in Budapest before receiving highly-rationed Jewish Agency certificates to enter Palestine. In January 1944 they boarded the Orient Express to Istanbul. Less than two months later, the Nazis invaded Hungary and began deporting its 450,000 Jews.
    Aharon and Mordechai immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1944. The two lost their entire extended families, including their wives, children, and grandchildren. Both remarried shortly after arriving in the Holy Land, although only Mordechai produced an heir, Yissachar Dov Rokeach. After Mordechai's sudden death in 1948, his son was groomed by Aharon to be the next Belzer Rebbe. Under Aharon's leadership, the Belzer Hasidut was reborn after the war in Israel and, to a lesser extent, in the United States.
  • Rabbi R. Shalom Rokeach was another son of Rabbi Issacher Dov Sokeah and in 1930 was elected Rabbi of Opatów, Poland in the Swietokrzyskie Voivodeship. He was the last rabbi of Opatów and perished in the Holocaust.
  • Rabbi Issachar (Yissachar) Dov Rokeach is the firth and present Belzer Rebbe and was living in Jerusalem, Israel in 1995.