NEW YORK (Aug. 2)
Mourners are remembering the longtime rebbe of the Bobover Chasidic group as an exceptional leader — one who rebuilt a community from the ashes of the Holocaust. Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam died early Wednesday morning at a hospital in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, the heavily Jewish neighborhood where the Bobovers are based and where he had built a world-renowned synagogue and yeshiva.
Halberstam, 92, was believed to have been the last remaining Chasidic rabbi to have survived the Holocaust. Born in Galicia, Halberstam arrived in the United States in 1946, indigent after his group was largely obliterated by the Nazis.
During World War II, Halberstam dressed up as a nun in order to rescue other Jews, hiding them in the false bottom of a coal truck. However, his wife and several children were killed in the Holocaust. Rabbi Naftali Halberstam, now, 70, was the only child to survive the war and he will replace his father as rebbe.
Halberstam, who subsequently remarried and had additional children, is widely credited with rebuilding the Bobover community in the United States.
When Halberstam first arrived in New York, there were so few fervently Orthodox Jews in his Manhattan neighborhood that his son recalled being sent out into the street to look for a minyan. He was known to greet newly arrived Holocaust survivors as their boats docked on the piers.
Later, he moved his community to Brooklyn.
“People needed a leader, someone who could help them restore their faith and optimism. He did that,” said Abraham Biederman, an activist in the Borough Park community and a friend of the rebbe.
“He was energetic and had a regal bearing and extraordinary sense of class, but at the same time extraordinary warmth,” added Biederman. “People really loved him.”
Yitzhak, a Bobover Jew living in Borough Park who did not want his last name used, said Halberstam was “open to everyone — there was no such thing as a closed door.”
Yitzhak, who studied for his Bar Mitzvah under the rebbe’s tutelage 40 years ago, described Halberstam’s death as “a loss for the Jewish people.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, got to know Halberstam in the 1970s, while heading the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York.
“He eschewed extremism,” said Hoenlein. “To be in his presence you sensed not only his charisma but his nobility and his saintliness. He literally knew every single child in his yeshiva, and it has thousands of children.”
An estimated 20,000 Bobover Jews live in Borough Park, and there are smaller communities in Monsey, N.Y., Montreal, Mexico City, Great Britain and Israel. Most Bobover Jews do not descend from the group’s prewar Polish community, which was almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust, but were drawn to the sect through the rebbe’s leadership.
In a 1993 book on fervently Orthodox Jews, Israeli journalist and JTA Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Landau described Halberstam as having a “warm, outgoing personality, a welcoming smile, a rare gift for storytelling and an inexhaustible fund of Chasidic tales that attracted people to his table or festive meals.”
“He was an extremely engaging and warm personality,” said Rabbi Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council, adding that there are other rabbis of Halberstam’s generation, but “not of his stature.”
Followers of Halberstam will likely find the timing of his death — on Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av — as religiously significant, said Kaplan.
The nine days preceding the holiday marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples are observed in the Orthodox community as a period of mourning in which people refrain from eating meat, shaving, listening to music and holding festive occasions.