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Simple Majesty in Pshevorsk

Aryeh Ehrlich, Antwerp

Antwerp’s beloved rebbe has no institutions of his own, puts no emphasis on numbers, and hasn’t refurbished his beis medrash in years. Yet what’s the secret of Rebbe Leibish of Pshevorsk, that attracts everyone from fiery talmidei chachamim to those shattered in spirit?

Monday, September 16, 2013

A row of red bricks peeks out from the peeling plaster on the wall of the beis medrash at 56 Mercatorstraat, one of the most dilapidated buildings in the area. The air has the mingled musty smells of old books and aging furniture, as a flickering lightbulb casts a yellowish pallor over it all. Yet in this room, a long-gone Jewish town seems to come to life. Out of all the chassidic waiting rooms in the world, this one seems to be the closest to those in the stories of the Baal Shem Tov.

A rickety table stands at the side of the room, covered by a tablecloth with an outdated floral print; several chassidim sit around it, each immersed in thoughts so deep that even the loud clattering of the train passing outside doesn’t disturb their concentration. Soon they will be ushered into the Rebbe’s chamber.

An elderly, venerable-looking figure sits in the center of the group. He is Rav Shmuel Baruch Naeh, a Jew well past 80 whose job, in the hoif of Pshevorsk, is to write the notes conveying the requests of the chassidim as they prepare to speak with their rebbe.

It is very warm here. We perspire as we await our turn to enter the Rebbe’s room. Is the heat a product of the profound tension that grips those who come here, or perhaps of the passion of Chassidus that is even more powerfully present? Either way, the old air conditioner doesn’t live up to our expectations; no one is sure if it ever worked. The only modern appliance in this room is a small water cooler, allowing the Rebbe’s visitors to quench their thirst. This, of course, is appropriate for a chassidic dynasty whose founders placed chesed at the center of their lives.

It’s 2 a.m. on Motzaei Shabbos, and Rebbe Leibish has just finished his holy Melaveh Malkah meal, where he told stories of tzaddikim, beginning with Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev and Rav Uri of Strelisk, and culminating with the Vilna Gaon and the Chofetz Chaim.

Here, they all dwell side by side: the founders of Chassidus, the leaders of the Lithuanian Torah world, and the great scholars of Sephardic Jewry. Pshevorsk draws from all their teachings, although the actual number of men here to meet their ancestors at the holy meal is small. The Chassidus has never placed value on numbers; it never strives to impress. Its strength and beauty lie in its simplicity. Pshevorsk has no institutions of its own — no yeshivah, no educational system, no talmud Torah. All it has is the old Beis Yitzchak beis medrash. Yet it is headed by a brilliant, distinguished Rebbe, the third in a European dynasty and a throwback to a previous generation.

I am one of ten men granted the privilege of meeting with the Rebbe tonight. Two plates sit on the table before the Rebbe, one containing fragrant cookies and the other holding cloves of garlic. Upon our departure, we will be given pieces of garlic, considered a segulah for sustenance, as well as cookies — since in Pshevorsk, no man is sent out on the road without some food to accompany him.

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