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Miracle on the Lower East Side

Yisroel Besser

America of the 1920s and ’30s was a society at a crossroads: second-generation American children who were on the one hand committed to the Yiddishkeit of their parents, but on the other hand educated, fluent in English, and fully exposed to the American way. To keep them chassidish would take a miracle. The Boyaner Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, was that miracle. A visit to his kloiz on the Lower East Side unlocks a wealth of memories, and a portrait of America’s first authentic rebbe.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In Ruzhin, words are a commodity, used sparingly.

Just as royals stir the masses with their mere appearance — not through thunderous rhetoric or winning oratory — so too the rebbes of the Ruzhiner dynasty utilized silence rather than speech, uplifting the people through the sheer potency of their holy presence.

A rebbe can teach without being heard.

In fact, a rebbe can inspire without being seen — and on the Lower East Side, the effect of a rebbe remains potent, even forty years after his passing.

 

Ruzhin

In keeping with its Ruzhiner roots, there is no written or spoken record of what might just be the foundation of all Chassidus in America. The story of what went on between the walls of 247 East Broadway on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was never committed to words.

The story is written only in the unfolding of events, the Divine orchestrations, legible to those perceptive few. It begins with the arrival on American shores of the sainted rebbe, Rav Mordechai Shlomo of Boyan, a descendant of the Ruzhiner Chassidus who made his home in America when rebbes were a rarity there. That lone, serene figure was somehow heard over the teeming chaos of the Lower East Side, though he never raised his voice.

The story continues even after his petirah, when the Boyaner Chassidus, uniquely fortunate to have had their rebbe spared the fires of churban, was suddenly once again bereft of a rebbe.

Ultimately, the present Rebbe, a grandson of Rav Mordechai Shlomo, accepted the lofty mantle — and with dignity, refinement and grace, has merited great siyata d’Shmaya in overseeing the continued growth of the Chassidus.

 

The Cradle of American Jewry

The blocks leading to the kloiz in New York’s Lower East Side are gritty, the noise deafening; the ambition of a century ago is still in the air. The Chinese are the newest demographic to start their journey toward the American dream in these streets, and they mean business. They mingle with the yuppies and the tourists, and, every so often, the authentic Lower East Side old-timer.

On this visit, I am fortunate to be joined by my father, who, as a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, spent years in the neighborhood. As we walk, he points out the sites to me. There is the Pike Street Shul, considered so central to New York Orthodoxy that the levayah of Rav Ahron Kotler left from there, and Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, from whence the Torah of Rav Moshe Feinstein came and spread throughout the world. There is the famed Bialystocker shul, and then, a building with a whole stack of plaques around a door, memorializing different congregations. The shuls and their congregants are gone; only the brass plates remain.

And then comes a small wooden sign announcing “Boyaner Kloiz.”

Enter the building, where little has changed since the days when the tzaddik of Boyan walked this narrow hallway. No matter what the Chassidus or location, there is a certain atmosphere in “the Rebbe’s beis medrash.” This beis medrash, while more humble than most, certainly has it.

The original Ruzhiner Chassidus spawned many branches — Boyan, Sadigur, Bohush, and Chortkov are a sampling — but in all, the rebbes retained the Ruzhin custom to daven in a “daven shtiebel,” a secluded room adjoining the beis medrash. As you enter the Boyaner kloiz on the Lower East Side, that room is to your left. It’s there that the Rebbe spent most of his waking hours, and it’s usually kept locked.

Just beyond the beis medrash is the “salash” or tisch room where the impression of holiness still lingers, almost tangibly. One imagines the Rebbe as he is seen in pictures, eyes closed, body erect, absorbed in thought, perhaps in the Ruzhiner pose of hand on forehead at the head of the long table, with the chassidim standing in reverential awe.

 

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