Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Bostoner Rebbe, May His Memory Be a Blessing!

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This is a beautiful write-up in the Jewish Week about the Bostoner Rebbe. I didn't know him myself, but I had friends in the Boston area who attended the colleges around Boston, and many of them owe their observance to this man's very grounded and loving view of Judaism.

In a time when Hassidim are increasingly attacked for their non-Zionist, judgemental ways, the Bostoner Rebbe reminded them all that you could be Hassidic, Zionist, and encouraging to non-religious Jews to up their observance level. He did it with a light touch (as recalled in this article), and he did it with humor and humanity.

He practiced Kiruv beautifully with a non-judgemental, open, welcoming, and firm view of what was right, wrong, and moving in the right direction (as recalled by my friends).

He was also not afraid to stand up for Israel. He knew Israel was important, and he made a great effort to perform the Mitzvah of Aliyah, finally completing his move last April (even though this reporter gets this one fact wrong it is still a great story).

I am sorry I never knew him.

The Rebbe With A Common Touch by Steve Lipman
Staff Writer

A story has circulated in Orthodox circles for a long time about a chasidic rabbi who was invited to speak to an auditorium full of Jewish students at a major American university. The bearded rabbi, according to the story, stepped up to the lectern, outfitted in typical chasidic garb – shtreimel fur hat on his head, and long black coat — and began droning about the Talmud in Yiddish.

The uncomprehending students, most from secular backgrounds, looked at each other, totally confused — until the rabbi stopped after a minute and asked, in English, “Had you worried, didn’t I?”

Then he had a captive audience.

The story sounded apocryphal — until Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Horowitz, the chasidic figure in the story, confirmed it.

I had the opportunity to escort the rabbi between two New York wedding ceremonies where he was officiating two decades ago, and related what I had heard.

He smiled. All true, he said. He shrugged. “I knew I looked foreign to the students,” he explained. “I had to show them I understood.”

Rabbi Horowitz, better-known as the Bostoner Rebbe — the first American-born leader of a major chasidic group — died Dec. 5 at 88 in Jerusalem, where he had lived for a decade after splitting time for several years between Israel and his home in Brookline, a Boston suburb. He had been in ill health since suffering a heart attack this summer.

The rabbi, who won over the university students that day, was a pioneer in the kiruv, or outreach movement, in the United States, opening his home and his Beit Pinchos New England Chassidic Center synagogue to Jewish students from the Boston area’s universities, and to other members of the non-Orthodox community. In one-on-one encounters or in group settings, he proved false the stereotypes of a cloistered, unworldly chasidic leader. He was a serious Boston Red Sox fan, and he spoke English eloquently, albeit with a Boston accent. His shul, named for his late, European-born father, offered the same combination of personal warmth and erudite education that he did.

The rabbi was the scion of a chasidic dynasty that originated in Eastern Europe.

Upon becoming head of a small group of followers in 1944, after his father’s death, Rabbi Horowitz developed a chasidic community in the United States that featured a uniquely American flavor – rigorously observant, but open to the culture, sports and pastimes familiar to most American Jews. Under his leadership, branches of the Bostoner chasidim opened in Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey and Israel.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, called Rabbi Horowitz “a transition between the European model and the American model” of a chasidic leader.

The most visible sign of this was Rabbi Horowitz’ decision to be known as the Bostoner Rebbe, not to adopt the name of the European town whence came his forebears, as other chasidic communities have done.

Rabbi Horowitz had a significant influence in many Orthodox circles; he remained accessible to his congregants and students and members of the wider Jewish community, discouraging the type of cultish behavior found in some other chasidic groups.

Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, who met the Bostoner Rebbe while studying in Boston four decades ago and became a prominent professor of philosophy and Jewish educator, said: “He told me once that being a rebbe meant that you were there when someone needed to make a big decision and needed spiritual guidance.

“There were times when I was motivated in my religious life by false piety and he always insisted on clear logic,” Rabbi Gottlieb told the Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Horowitz was the founder of Rofeh International, a Brookline-based organization that offers free medical referrals, support services and home hospitality to the infirm and their families.

A member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, he held right-wing political views that sometimes deviated from many haredi leaders’ more apolitical positions. He served as a prominent Orthodox proponent of maintaining a Jewish presence in the West Bank, and took an outspoken position against Israel’s disengagement from Gaza three years ago.

A leading figure in the part of the Orthodox community that usually favors tacit, back-channel approaches to controversial political issues, he was a participant, as a recently married rabbinical student, in the 1943 White House march of 400 Orthodox rabbis, who urged President Roosevelt to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

The demonstration took place three days before Yom Kippur. “Going to Washington that week certainly made it more difficult for everyone but we all understood how important it was to do something in that situation,” the rabbi said in an interview with Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

In 1967, after the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Rabbi Horowitz organized buses to bring Jews from Boston to Washington for a rally urging the U.S. government to support Israel.

Rabbi Horowitz maintained conciliatory relations with representatives of other Jewish denominations.
He and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the late spiritual head of the Modern Orthodox movement who also lived in the Boston area, were “part of the reason why there is very little political divisiveness among the Jewish groups in Boston,” said Rabbi Waldoks, whose “independent” congregation is not Orthodox. “They both were people who understood that there was nothing to gain by Jewish sectarianism.”

I got a glimpse of this while escorting Rabbi Horowitz that afternoon two decades ago. A clean-shaven, newly Orthodox stranger, I was made to feel immediately accepted. Sharing a ride for more than an hour, he asked about my life and my career. I didn’t hear a single negative word about my secular interests or my non-Orthodox writing assignments.

I understood how he had captivated those nervous university students.

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