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Hot Soup, Warm Spirit

Aryeh Ehrlich

Once an abandoned Polish gravesite, the resting place of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk is now a magnet for tens of thousands of supplicants. Back when Rav Simcha Krakowsky decided to warm the chilly nights with some hot soup, he never could have dreamed how big his hachnassas orchim venture would grow

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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THE WARMEST WELCOME Rav Simcha Krakowsky transformed the holy gravesite from a deserted landmark to a year-round destination, starting with just coffee and soup. Today, tens of thousands make the trip to Reb Elimelech’s resting place, finding solace and hope in the power of the place (Photos: Shuki Lehrer)

"Aderaba, place in our hearts… That each one of us merit seeing the mailos of his fellow Jew…” It’s a song, a hope, and a directive — the legacy of Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, the 18th-century student of the Maggid of Mezeritch who became one of chassidus’s dominant founding figures. On his yahrtzeit on the 21st of Adar, you can watch that legacy come to life, as tens of thousands of Jews from all walks of life descend upon his resting place in supplication, in prayer, and in unity. 

Among the crowds is an older man instructing, directing, switching languages from Yiddish to Hebrew to a bit of Polish. Every now and then he steps back to look at the scene of hospitality he has spearheaded for so many years. Back when Rav Simcha Krakowsky first visited Lizhensk, it was a deserted graveyard. It took no small measure of determination to transform the abandoned town to a welcoming spot for those seeking salvation. But after his initial urge to restore the glory of the tziyun effected his own personal miracle, he wanted every other Jew to have the same chance. 

IT ALL BEGAN with the fall of the Iron Curtain. In Shevat of 1989, Reb Simcha Krakowsky, a childless Lelover chassid from Bnei Brak, accompanied his Rebbe, Harav Moshe Mordechai of Lelov ztz”l, on a trip to Lizhensk. During the Communist years, the Jewish imprint of the historic city has almost been obliterated. “Opposite the cemetery was an old, gentile woman who spoke a Galician Yiddish. She had the keys to the ohel,” Reb Simcha recalls. “There was an ohel over the grave, but other than that, not a sign that this site meant anything to Jews. The conditions were awful; a person could not attend to his most basic needs here for lack of facilities.” 

Reb Simcha was determined to change that. In 1996, he decided to come back — this time with provisions for hot drinks, so other Jews visiting the site would be fortified against the Polish winter weather. 

“There was a tavern opposite the tziyun,” he remembers, “and I rented the upper floor of the building. From there, I distributed hot soup and coffee to all the people who came. I also installed bathrooms for all the visitors. People came upstairs, had a bite to eat, and then went out to the tziyun to daven — passing by drunkards lying on the floor.” 

The visitors enveloped Reb Simcha in a cushion of brachos; he had brought the warmth and welcome back to Reb Elimelech’s resting place and their gratitude was palpable. “We had waited more than two decades for children, and I remember that when I came home I said to my wife: ‘After getting so many brachos, I have a sense that we’ll soon have our yeshuah.’” 

With the miraculous yeshuah — the birth of their long-awaited son — came a drive to do more, give more. 

With a little scouting, Reb Simcha was able to locate a building nearby that had once housed the municipal mikveh. He rented the building, set up sleeping quarters on the second floor, and restored the mikveh. Word of the accommodations spread, and more and more people began to make the trip. 

In the 90s, visitors had to fly first to Warsaw and then travel an additional four hours on the road to reach the tziyun. Eventually, as the demand grew, more convenient charter flights were booked to nearby Rzeszów (Reisha). The Jews who made the trip knew that once they’d arrive in Lizhensk, their worries were over: housing, bedding, food, drink — all would be arranged for them by Reb Simcha. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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