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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Shtetlach©.

Passing through the traffic noise and the hubbub of business between Rechov Agrippos and Rechov Betzalel in Jerusalem, one would find it hard to believe that there are no fewer than seven chareidi neighborhoods tucked in-between the high city buildings. Although tiny in physical size, they shine in spiritual greatness as an island of holiness amidst a raging sea of secularism in the heart of the New City of Jerusalem.

Known as the Shtetlach, they are situated in what is known as the Shechunot HaNachlot which
are Lev Hair neighborhoods, in the heart of downtown Jerusalem behind Machaneh Yehudah.

It never entered the minds of those who grew up in this island of true Torah Judaism to even go and visit Rechov Yaffo, King George and Ben Yehudah that surrounded them. They felt there were high spiritual barricading walls around them. There was so much content and life-value, warmth of Torah, and chessed that they had no need to even to look outside their neighborhood.

To the secular segment of the population, these neighborhoods are considered shechunot oni
(Poverty suburbs). However, despite the poverty, the children of the Shtetlach knew how rich they were in happiness and meaning in their lives. For the children of these neighborhoods, the spiritual goodness, described below, precluded the need for outside stimuli.

The atmosphere of the shul at the centre and all that was conducted around it, was what absorbed the children and kept them in its warm, loving embrace.

The seven neighborhoods were built by the Vaad Haklali (the General Committee). Harav
Shmuel Salant encouraged the building of colonies beyond the walls, as the lack of living space in the Old City was unbearable. At first, the managers of the vaad wanted to build near the grave of Shimon Hatzaddik, but this did not work out. (Later it was realized that if they had built in that place, they would not have been able to live there after the 1948 War of Independenceas it was over the green line.)

They therefore decided to buy land near Mazkeret Moshe and Ohel Moshe (two suburbs
built in memory of Sir Moshe Montefiore) near Rechov Yaffo. Harav Salant sent a letter to chutz
laaretz requesting help to build the housing. The funds were donated mainly by American Jewry.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Porush, the secretary of Harav Shmuel Salant, was the main mover behind the project. Rav Naftali Tzvi, the son of Rav Shlomo Zalman Porush, had been a child prodigy. It had been predicted that he would be one of the future great Torah scholars. Unfortunately, he was afflicted with an eye disease that made it impossible for him to read at all, and so he used his time to be involved in community matters.

When his condition improved, he wanted to return to full-time learning, but he did not know if he should leave his involvement with community affairs. He discussed his doubts with his brother, Rav Akiva Porush, who was considered to be a great man. Rav Akiva in turn asked his Rebbi, a great tzaddik, Harav Tzvi Michel Shapiro, one of the eminent men of Yerushalayim. The Rebbi asked the question in a dream and received an answer: Rav Naftali Tzvi should continue with his community work.

Building of a Neighborhood

The first colony to be built, in 1893, was Knesset Alef. This consisted of thirteen homes of one story each, with the shul, Beis Rochel, in the middle. This was where the tzaddik Harav Aryeh Levin used to daven. Former residents remember seeing him walking slowly but firmly to the sanctuary.
Rav Aryeh used to give a daily lesson in Ein Yaakov to the congregants of Beis Rochel. One of
the members of the community was having many marital problems. Rav Aryeh decided to speak in one of his classes about being nice to ones wife, in the hope that this person would take note and remedy his situation. It happened that Harav Isser Zalman Meltzer also attended the shuir. After the lesson, Rav Issur Zalman came up to Rav Aryeh and thanked him profusely for having aroused him to take this matter to heart. Rav Aryeh asserted that his words had definitely not been directed at Rav Isser Zalman. But the latter insisted that he would seriously try and improve. Of late his wife, Baila Hinda, was helping him to write his sefer, Even Haezel, and he had surely pressured her. Now after hearing this mussar by Rav Aryeh, he would do his utmost to be nicer to his wife.

In 1894 Batei Minsk was built. The head of Kollel Minsk of Jerusalem received a telegram from a head of the community in Minsk. He implored the Rosh Kollel to go to the Kosel with his family and the tzaddikim of Yerushalayim to daven and ask for mercy for the son of the community head; the son had left the derech and was threatening to not even come to the Pesach Seder. They all assembled at the Kosel and began to pray.

At the very same time the tefillos ascended, the errant son repented. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the happy father donated money to build Batei Minsk, consisting of ten apartments, which were for the members of Kollel Minsk.

The residents of Knesset Alef were of the Yakirei Yerushalayim (Torah greats and tzaddikim), which gave them the zechus to live in the apartments rent free. These houses were called the Hekdesh [set aside for members] of the Kollel.

The suburb took ten years to erect. Before its completion, it was realized that it was sorely inadequate, for many more apartments were needed. Thus, a new piece of land was bought in
1908, near Knesset Alef. On this land they built Knesset Bet.

This neighborhood was slightly more lavish then its forerunner Knesset Alef, as the buildings were two stories instead of one. The Halperin matzah bakery was behind it.

One of the askanim, Rabbi Yakovson, received a letter from a wealthy man in Warsaw, Reb Yaakov Yosef Brodie. Reb Yaakov Yosef wrote that, as he had not been blessed with offspring, he wanted to eternalize his name in Yerushalayim by building apartments for Torah scholars outside the Old City. A new piece of land was acquired vertical to Knesset Bet, near Knesset Alef, in 1902. Since foreign residents could not buy land, it was bought under the name of a citizen of Jerusalem and was considered hekdesh for poor scholars of the prushim (Ashkanazic Litvish) community.

Rav Brodie wrote that he wanted that in the shul that would be built in the neighborhood, people should learn and say Kaddish for him each day in his nusach and that of his forefathers, i.e. the nusach of the prushim. This would not happen if everyone was from a different eidah, so even though all of Am Yisrael was precious to him, the houses in the new area known as Batei Brodie are only for prushim. Anyone who is given a home in this area (even nowadays) must sign that he will daven only in the shul of the neighborhood, which is also bears the donors name.

 In accordance with halachah, the shul is taller than all the houses in the area. There are 26 apartments, 22 in the buildings and four under the shul. Rav Yaakov Brodie sent seven crates of expensive sefarim to be learned in the shul. The Vaad Haklali made a large chanukas habayis celebration at the opening of Batei Brodie, for which the vaad paid.

Rav Brodie also wanted to pay for the celebration, so he gave the vaad an extra 400 pounds sterling without specifying what the money was for. This was the very sum used to buy land for Knesset Gimmel in 1925, opposite Batei Brodie. These houses were already much more spacious, having a porch for each two apartments.

Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, the pioneer of Bais Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael, lived in Knesset Gimmel. One time, when teachers had not received their salary for a few months, three teachers from Petach Tikva came to his home with the intention to demand payment. They probably thought Reb Hillel lived in a villa, as his home was near the Knesset in Rechavia. When they entered the one-room home, the beds had to be moved to make space for the visitors, who were astounded to see that people could live in such cramped conditions. They did not say a word and just picked up and left. This story is to show the reader that although Knesset Gimmel was considered more spacious than all her predecessors, this was hardly so. The lack of space perhaps because of itdid not detract from the kedushah and grandeur of these enclaves.

In 1910, Batei Rand was built opposite Batei Brodie. Batei Rand was the Chassidic counterpart to the Litvish Batei Brodie. It was said that both neighborhoods finished prayers at the same time. But in Brodie they had just completed Minchah Gedolah, while in Rand they just finished Shacharis. Furthermore, it was said that in Brodie they shed tears while saying Tehillim, while in
Rand there is dancing during Tehillim. When the preacher in Brodie was describing the flames of purgatory, before Maarivof Motzoei Shabbos, Rand was still singing zemiros of Shalashudis.

As the elders of Brodie awoke and washed hands before the vasikin prayers of Sunday, the elders of Rand were washing mayim acharonim after their Melaveh Malkah seudah. The day that most sharply showed the difference between Brodie and Rand was Lag BaOmer. Enthusiastic dancing on this day can be seen, till today, in Rand on Lag BaOmer.

Rand was built by Rav Meir Rand, a chassid of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz. In Galicia he had been extremely wealthy, with vast holdings of forest land. When he first made aliyah he lived in Tzfas.

His fervent wish was to settle in Yerushalayim. Eventually he had to sneak out of Tzfas, as the community there opposed his leaving. He moved to Jerusalem and built Batei Rand, consisting of 22 apartments, a shul, and a mikveh.

Batei Rand was built with much Heavenly assistance. At the time, the Christian mission was trying acquire as much land in Jerusalem as possible and they had set their sights on the piece of land on which Rand was eventually constructed. It is told that when the Jews wanted to buy the land, they got together a hundred gold napoleons and made an appointment to meet the Arab landowner.

For the meeting, they brought with them the money in cash as well as documents to be signed.
As they neared the plot they spied a priest they knew, accompanied by a large group of guards. They feared that if this priest would realize they were interested in buying the area, he would do his utmost to supersede them. They therefore hid all the money and papers in a hole in a rock at the top of the hill (the very spot where the shul was built), and made a quick getaway. When they returned, though, everything was gone. They made haste to recollect money and arranged the purchase.

The houses were built with long iron beams, which were brought up to Jerusalem by train and then transported on two camels walking in unison each camel holding up one end of the beam to the building site.

The last of the seven colonies was Batei Munkach, which was built several years after Rand, in 1928. The Munkatcher Rebbi asked some of his adherents to purchase land and build houses on it. This was a chassidish section like Batei Rand. Munkatcher chassidim came from the town Munkacs in what today is Ukraine. The fact that he built this small pioneer suburb in Yerushalayim despite his fierce opposition to Zionism shows his love of the Land. The neighborhood consists of two rows of buildings. It is located on Betzalel Street adjacent to Batei Rand and Batei Broide and houses 30 families.

The boys of the seven shtetlach learned in Etz Chaim. Theres a famous quip in Yerushalayim that goes, One enters Etz Chaim with a tallis (at three years of age) and one leaves Etz Chaim in a tallis (after 120). All ages learned in Etz Chaim. Even during the times of greatest poverty, the children went to Etz Chaim. It is told that children took dry pieces of bread to school, as there was nothing else.

The greatest of Torah giants lived in these seven areas, men of immense stature. Among them were Harav Pinchas Epstein and Harav Elya Zlotnick. Rav Epstein (1887-1969) was the Rosh Av Beis Din (Ravad) of Yerushalayim. In 1949, he was appointed to head the Eidah Hachareidis. He lived in Knesset Bet, in just one room with a little hall, and no telephone. When he needed to get to the beis din he would come down into the yard and ask one of the children playing there to go to the Halperin Matzah Bakery and ask them to order him a taxi.

Rav Zlotnik was the vice-Ravad, and was also a resident of Knesset Bet.

The shul never closed. Even some of the women would arrive an hour or so before the vasikin (sunrise) minyan to pray. The reason they gave was that at this time many men were learning, so it was the best time to make requests from Hashem. Even on snowy days people would slide down from the second floor on the iced-up steps and make their way to shul.

With the outbreak of different wars (World War I, World War II, 1948, 1967, etc.) the men left the synagogue at certain times, and the women entered and opened the aron kodesh. Their weeping and screams must have reached the Heavenly Throne and surely helped defeat the enemy.

Chagim in the Shtetlach

The different Chagim were painted, each in its own vivid colour, on the canvas of the year. On Purim, groups of men and boys would go around to every part of the shechunah, dressed in red, flat-domed hats called a tarbush that the Turks used to wear. They would drum, dance, and sing loudly, and make sure to visit all the lonely and widowed, spreading much happiness.

As Pesach neared, rivers of water ran out of the houses. An enormous pot would be boiled in the communal courtyard, on large log fire. When it started boiling, the children would run around the courtyard, calling loudly in Yiddish, Kashering of utensils! The pot is boiling! The pot is boiling! Women would leave their Pesach chores and stream to the pot with whatever needed to be kashered. A burning, red-hot, fired brick was thrown into the pot to make it overflow.

On the seventh night of Pesach many would gather at the shul in Knesset Alef. Rav Issur Leib
Sussman, dressed all in white, would sing Shiras Hayam. The holiness was palatable.

On the Ninth of Av the women gathered and read Megillas Eichah in Yiddish. They would cry in pain over the Destruction and the fact that Moshiach had not yet come.

Sleep on every single night of Selichos was cut short for everyone women and children included. No one would even think of missing these highly packed, special spiritual times.

On Rosh Hashanah the womens gallery was bathed in tears, such crying and wailing burst forth
from everyone there.

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah there were chicken coops in the courtyards for kapparos, which were usually done before sunrise, as was their minhag.

On Sukkos, sukkos covered almost every inch of the courtyard. The singing emanating from some of the structures was heavenly.

During Simchas Torah tremendous honor was given to the Rabbanim. Everyone, including the children, would go to Rav Elya Zlotniks home before Maariv. They would then accompany him, with enthusiastic singing, to Rav Pinchas Epsteins house.
From there the joyful procession, with the two great men at its centre, would wend its way to the shul, as a special song with a special tune was sung. The kavod given to the illustrious scholars was tangible and the children internalized the importance of Torah learning.

Oasis of Comradeship and Holiness

The communal courtyard was the place where everyone met each other and they all lived together. No one got lost. If one was ill and did not leave his home for a few days, the neighbours would come and inquire what was wrong and what help was needed.

On Motzoei Shabbos all the widows and lone women would be called to a central place for Havdalah. Old people were not left alone at night; children were sent to sleep over in their homes. It did not matter if both parties did not want this. It was needed, so it was done. Every Friday, a collection for those who did not have the means to make Shabbos was made throughout the neighbourhoods. Food was also distributed. The food for weddings was prepared by the neighbours for each other.

The seven Shtetlach were in close contact with nearby Shaarei Chessed. Shaarei Chessed was a lighthouse, so to speak, of 200 homes of intense holiness, in the ocean of godlessness about it.
Harav Shalom Shwadron, who lived in Shaarei Chessed, would give a shuir in Zichron Moshe on
Friday night. Most of the women and girls (and men) of the Seven Colonies would hurry to hearhim. There was barely standing room in the womens gallery.

This seven-pronged fortress of the Seven Shtetlach still emanates fear of Heaven and kedushah till this very day.

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