Half a century after his father fled Nazi-occupied Europe and brought the Belz Hasidic dynasty to Jerusalem, Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokeach, the present-day Belzer rebbe, returned to Lvov with 350 of his followers.
Greeted at the airport by a Ukrainian military marching band playing “Shalom Aleichem,” the rebbe and his entourage spent the day meeting with the local Jewish community in Lvov, a city that before the war had a large Belz population.
Until World War II, Belz was one of the largest and most influential Hasidic groups in Galicia and all of Eastern Europe. The dynasty founded at the beginning of the 19th century by Rabbi Sholem Rokeach of Belz expanded rapidly over the next century.
At the outbreak of World War II, Belz and Lvov fell under Soviet rule as a result of Poland’s partition between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In 1941, both cities were conquered by the invading German army and occupied by the Nazis for four years. The two cities were eventually reconquered by the Red Army and formally annexed to Ukraine after the war by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Though the Belzer rebbe was able to escape to Jerusalem, almost the entire Jewish population of the region was killed during the war.
The Jewish population of Lvov, which comprised 30 percent of the city before the war, was reduced to a few thousand.
After the war, the Belz dynasty rebuilt itself in Israel. Today, there are approximately 25,000 Belz Hasidim around the world, with major centers in Jerusalem, Brooklyn, Vienna and Antwerp.
BECAME REBBE AT AGE 18
The present rebbe was born after the war and assumed leadership of the group in 1967, when he was 18 years old.
The main purpose of the rebbe’s trip this month was to visit the graves of his relatives and other righteous Jews to invite them symbolically to the upcoming wedding of his only child, Aaron Mordechai Rokeach.
The wedding, scheduled for Aug. 3, will bring together the Belz dynasty and the Makever dynasty of Kfar Ata in Israel by the marriage of the children of the two rebbes.
Since the collapse of Soviet rule, the Jewish community of Lvov, renamed Lviv by the Ukrainians, has slowly been rebuilding.
Under Communist rule, every synagogue in the city was closed and all Jewish community property confiscated.
For the past three years, Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal, an Israeli-born member of the Karliner-Stolin Hasidic movement, has been the head of the religious community.
One synagogue, which had been used as a warehouse for four decades, was returned to the Jewish community by the local government.
Restored and rebuilt, the building again houses an active synagogue and yeshiva. Despite a small Jewish population of less than 10,000, the Lvov community is planning to open a Jewish day school in September, and its yeshiva has earned itself the reputation of being one of the best in the former Soviet Union.