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At The Ballot In Belgium

David Damen, Belgium

This week, the Jews of Antwerp’s Machzikei Hadas community went to the polls. The language on the ballot slips: Yiddish and Flemish. The aim: to choose a new chief rabbi. Not every community carries out official elections for the post of chief rabbi. Then again, Antwerp is far from a typical Jewish community. The chosen candidate will fill the void left with the passing of Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, ztz”l, and serve as the linchpin uniting the varied strains of a unique and historic community.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish community of Antwerp is that it is a city of chassidim.  Even the more cosmopolitan of its residents (or the statishe, as they are called here) don a gartel for davening, dip in a mikveh on occasion, and take pride in their own “rebbe.”

In this respect, Antwerp is actually returning to its roots. There are two major communal groups in the city – the Shomrei Hadas community and the Machzikei Hadas community. The latter group, which comprises the chareidi Jews of Antwerp, had a presence and school system in Belgium as early as 1903. The community was founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Hirsh Ratsdorfer zt”l, a Belzer chassid and extremely active public figure. Though the community later grew to include Chassidim of many other courts, it retained the name Machzikei Hadas, which is associated with Belz. And Belzer chassidim continue to wield a major influence in the city, running many of the chesed organizations and serving in key positions.

The city’s authentic chassidish character was further enhanced when thousands of survivors streamed to the Belgian port city after the Holocaust.  It was nearly the only place where the Jews could easily integrate into normal life and earn a decent living without having to adapt to a new continent and learn a new language. The new immigrants were absorbed into the diamond industry, then in its infancy. Diamond dealings provided them with the possibility of making an honorable living, something that seemed almost like a dream.  My own grandfather, z”l, came to Antwerp and never learned the local language, which did not prevent him from running a flourishing and successful business.

Although Antwerp’s Chassidic character is roughly a century old, the first shtreimel appeared on the streets of Antwerp just 60 years ago.  Until then, not a single person had dared to appear in the streets on Shabbos wearing a shtreimel.  Most of the residents of Antwerp did not wear shtreimels at all, and those who did were afraid to appear in them in public, in the presence of their non-Jewish neighbors.

The first to break this barrier was Rabbi Shmuel Porges, z”l, who would later become a leader of the Belzer community in Montreal.  Reb Shmuel was a passionate, fearless individual.  The very first week that he arrived in Antwerp, he appeared on the street in a shtreimel.  His temerity cost him greatly, however, for his shtreimel quickly disappeared in shul.  Reb Shmuel’s shtreimel reappeared only after the gabbai announced that no one would be allowed to leave the shul until the shtreimel was returned. The incident continued to be a topic of conversation for a long time afterward, but the taboo had been broken to some extent.

Nevertheless, a popular joke in Antwerp captures the spirit of those days: A group of Jews were walking along the streets of the city clad in shtreimels and talleisim, when a car drove past them and the driver, an irreligious Jew whom they recognized, called out, “Nu, chillul Hashem!

The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, shlita, felt that the fear was misplaced. “Once I was visiting in Antwerp,” I heard him relate, “and they asked me not to walk on the street with my shtreimel, but I refused.  I asked them: ‘Whom do I have to be afraid of? Not the non-Jews, because they go around dressed however they please. Whom do I have to fear? The Jews who are mechallel Shabbos. . .’.”

Nowadays, shtreimels are a common sight on the streets of Antwerp.  But there are some elderly residents of Antwerp who still maintain the habit of carrying their shtreimels around in a bag.

Another hallmark of Antwerp’s kehillah is the pure Yiddish spoken by its members. The Yiddish here retains an authentic Galician dialect — the true “mamme lashon,” not an Americanized or Israeli version.  And it is not only the religious Jews of Antwerp who speak Yiddish.  It is fairly common to find a group of bare-headed Jews conversing in a rich Yiddish in the streets of the city.  My own neighbor  unfortunately used to answer the telephone on Shabbos with a heartfelt greeting of “Ah gitte Shabbos,” and he would conclude every other sentence with a drawn-out, heartfelt “Im yirtzeh Hashem.”

In short, the Antwerp of today contains a strong chassidish presence, with a number of large chassidish communities and even some chassidic courts of its own. The community includes about 5,000 families, with close to 2,000 registered members.  The most prominent local Chassidic group is the Pshevorsker chassidus, whose dynasty began with the noted tzaddik Reb Itzikl Gewirtzman, zt”l.  Reb Itzikl was succeeded by his son-in-law, Reb Yankele Leiser zt”l, and the chassidus continues today under the leadership of his grandson Reb Leibush shlita.  The Pshevorsker Rebbe draws visitors from within Antwerp and from abroad. The courts of Shotz and Zhemigrad, which were both established within the past twenty years, also serve as centers of operation for the dissemination of Torah and chassidus.

The Belzer community, which is run by five dayanim but whose members visit their Rebbe in Eretz Yisrael often, is the largest chassidish community in the city, with about 300 families. Alongside it are the large, respected kehillos of Vizhnitz, Satmar, Sanz, Bobov, Gur, Alexander, Tchortkov, Chabad, and many other distinguished communities. Members of all the kehillos live together in unity and harmony. They are all acquainted with each other, and a shalom zachor in any of the communities is announced in all the batei midrash.


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