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Clouds of Faith

Aryeh Erlich

Rav Mordechai Hager, the spiritual leader of Vizhnitz-Monsey, survived the war with his family, and then set out on his next daunting quest: to rebuild Vizhnitz chassidus in America

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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LIVING ON When the Imrei Chaim returned after the war, he found a handful of broken survivors in whom he instilled the will to keep on living. For the Rebbe, there is no essential difference between Grosswardein 1936 and Monsey 2016. What was good for the early chassidim is good for the present-day chassidim, too. (Photos: Yossi Goldberg, Avraham Sorkis Archives)

T he beis medrash building is pulsing with action. Boxes of bread are stacked up in the hallway, cases of milk have been unloaded in advance of breakfast — still several hours away. The door to the mikveh swings open and closed as chassidim emerge, pure and ready for a new day. And the sun hasn’t even peeked over the horizon.

At the end of long hallway, heavy wooden doors open to the kollel. From afar, you can hear the din — chavrusas shouting, speaking, and whispering in learning.

Welcome to Vizhnitz-Monsey, a chassidus that is as traditional as it is vibrant. It’s a court founded on several principles — first among them kevias ittim laTorah, fixed times for learning. The Rebbe pioneered the concept of the “sha’os tzet’l,” a note each chassid brings to the Rebbe once a month listing his sedorim and a precise accounting of his learning.

The central beis medrash, a sprawling white structure that is the informal hub of the wider Monsey community, is filled at all hours with people learning — the chassidim know it’s the surest way of finding favor with their Rebbe. Soon, these assembled masses will join in the main beis medrash for Shacharis. Though the Rebbe doesn’t always come to davening — in recent years, he hasn’t been feeling well — when he does, it’s a Yom Tov. Though he sits nearly motionless in his seat, his presence alone sends a current through the building.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Rebbe, 94, would conduct surprise inspections of the shtieblach downstairs himself. He wanted to know who was davening where, that no minyan was missing zeman tefillah, and to observe the pace and decorum of each minyan.

“That the Rebbe has such a hold on his chassidus is impressive,” one of the chassidus’s senior administrators reflects, “but if you knew what he started with, had you seen the original group of Monsey chassidim, you’d appreciate that this new generation dedicated to Torah and avodah is nothing short of miraculous.”

The Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, who rebuilt the chassidus in Eretz Yisrael after the family’s escape, joins the Beis Avraham of Slonim at the pidyon haben of a grandson

All the more remarkable is that the force of the Rebbe’s personality is completely self-contained; he appears bound up with Heaven and his own thoughts. Always a man of few words, the Rebbe makes an impact through his saintly presence alone. He built a kehillah with tremendous focus, knowing what he wanted, and how to achieve it.

And what a splendid kehillah it is.

Little Time for Talk

Vizhnitz-Monsey is its name, but there are also communities in Eretz Yisrael, Boro Park, London, and Williamsburg. There’s even a new community of younger families in Kiamesha, about an hour north of Monsey. The Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Hager, has many sons spread out across the world, each with his own kehillah: When there is a simchah or Yom Tov, they join as one at the feet of their father. The Rebbe’s ideology reflects the approach of Satmar, yet he’s always maintained warm relations with the Agudah camp. He might be considered a kanoi, but that kana’us is focused inward: He rarely shares his political views, preferring to use his addresses to call for more learning, purer avodah. It’s a chassidus of shalom, genuine peace.

If there’s a common thread that unites the chassidim, it’s the daily learning quota — a minimum of two hours — that the Rebbe demands. That, more than anything else, is the secret of this kehillah’s development and incredible growth.

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