Jun 16, 2011
The Life of the 'Kotel Rabbi'
Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz talks about his life as Rabbi of Judaism's most famous landmark, bringing him in daily contact with heads of state, international VIPs and Jewish leaders from around the world.
By Yair Weinstock - Mishpacha Magazine
Photos by Yinon Fuchs
Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz rarely gets private time at the Kosel. Erev Pesach after chatzos, Purim night after the Megillah, Erev Rosh Hashanah after all the minyanim for Selichos and Shacharis have ended. Then he becomes anonymous, alone with his prayers like any ordinary Jew. This is his territory, but, as the rav of the Kosel and holy sites of Eretz Yisrael, it’s rare that he can face the stones in private conversation with G-d, unaccompanied by a visiting dignitary, a bar mitzvah group, or a tail of worshippers vying for a few minutes of his time.
“The Belzer Rebbe said to me on several occasions, ‘I wish I could come to the Kosel to daven — not as the Belzer Rebbe, but as any other Jew, so that no one would bother me. I want to be alone with Hashem.’ I, too, am simply another Jew with his own requests.”
Privacy issues notwithstanding, Rav Rabinowitz — who was appointed to the position before he turned 30 — bears his public role gracefully, cognizant of the fact that he is just another link in a chain of illustrious public servants. His own lineage is not lost on him, nor is the legacy of his grandfather and namesake, Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz ztz”l — a pillar of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem, who actually turned down the offer to become … Rav of the Kosel.
Rav Rabinowitz has his hands full with contemporary Western Wall politics — Women of the Wall, the visit of the pope, and gender segregation at secular bar mitzvahs — but he prefers to connect to his past, to take his energy from the memories and the history that has shaped his own position.
And to ensure that the political aspects of public service don’t rule the side of the spirit, his father, Rav Chaim Yehuda Rabinowitz, av beis din of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Courts, schedules time to learn with him every day.
“Every day before dawn, we have a chavrusa in daf yomi at the Belzer beis medrash,” says the Jerusalem dayan, looking at his son with a mix of fatherly pride and parental prerogative. “We began seven years ago with Maseches Menachos, and, baruch Hashem, we have already completed an entire cycle of Shas together, now that we have returned to Menachos.”
Rav Shmuel adds, “Even when I return from abroad at two in the morning, Abba still calls me at four thirty to wake me up for our chavrusa. Even if I insist that I’ve gotten up, he can hear in my voice if I’m still in bed. Then he keeps calling until I get up. It’s been that way for seven years already.”
It’s a precious opportunity to be seated together with father and son, sharing in their banter as each defers to the other. They are joined not in self-glorification or talking about themselves, but rather in connecting to the legacy of altruism and communal dedication that is their inheritance.
The patriarch of the Rabinowitz family, one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most distinguished, was Rav Shmuel Benzion Rabinowitz, a Lubavitcher chassid born in Russia and one of Jerusalem’s most active askanim. He passed away at a relatively young age, leaving a house full of orphans — who grew up to be counted among Jerusalem’s most prominent figures: Reb Nachum, who passed away suddenly on Rosh Chodesh Nisan of this year; Mrs. Chaya Ludmir; Reb Hillel; Reb Dov Berel z”l (who served on the Jerusalem Municipality); Reb Moshe Lipa; and the youngest, Jerusalem dayan Rav Chaim Yehuda.
Rav Chaim Yehuda says that even today, many of his father’s deeds and accomplishments remain unknown. But what they do know strengthens their resolve to follow in his footsteps.
“For instance, he was offered the position of rav of the Kosel before it was offered to Rav Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein, but he declined the offer. He then accepted the position of assistant to Rav Orenstein, even though he could have become the rav himself.”
Rav Chaim Yehuda continues, “The day before his petirah, my father gave my brother Reb Nachum z”l a directive that we viewed as his final will. ‘When someone asks you for tzedakah, never send him away empty-handed. Even if all you have is a mil [the smallest coin in circulation at the time, worth one-thousandth of the Israeli lira], give it to him and do not send a pauper away empty-handed.’ He said this even though we ourselves were the poor among the destitute.
“Once, a Lubavitcher chassid named Reb Michoel Dvorkin came from Russia to Jerusalem, arriving on Erev Yom Kippur, utterly penniless and not knowing a soul. He sat down in the Tzemach Tzedek shul and began learning Likutei Torah [a sefer by the Baal HaTanya] in preparation for Yom Kippur. He had nowhere to eat before the fast, and no money to buy food. When Abba saw him there, he invited him for the seudah hamafsekes. He remained a guest in our home for the next four years, until he went to New York to the Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchak ztz”l.
“Just to give you a picture of what this entailed, our home in the Old City consisted of a kitchen and a large room called a lugan. That was it. Nine people lived in this house: my two parents, six children, and my grandmother, Mrs. Leah Raizel Bergman a”h.
“It was into this tiny, crowded home that Reb Michoel Dvorkin came to live for four years. To show you how poor we were, for dinner my mother would fry a single egg with a bit of flour and then divide it among her six children.
“When the Imrei Emes came to the Kosel HaMaaravi, he used to visit his elderly melamed, Reb Hirsh Dovid, and from there he would go to the home of the rav of Jerusalem, Rav Yisrael Zev (Reb Velvel) Mintzberg ztz”l. My parents prepared tea and cake for their distinguished guest and served it to him in Rav Yisrael Zev Mintzberg’s home. Today, no one appreciates the significance of this. What’s so special about a cup of tea? But when everyone was destitute, it was no simple feat to prepare a cup of tea. It was considered a luxury.”
Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz never met his namesake; Rav Shmuel the elder passed away in 1950, when his son Rav Chaim Yehuda was just a child. But as Rav Shmuel daily witnesses broken souls pouring their hearts out at the Kosel — many of them praying for their bashert — and as he gathers up hundreds of thousands of anonymous notes stuffed in the cracks for burial to make room for more, he feels connected to the zeideh whose legacy of compassion is his family mission.
He shares the following postmortem story about his grandfather.
The zeideh Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz was buried conditionally in the cemetery in Givat Ram (Sheikh Badr). In 1967, after the liberation of Jerusalem, the family decided to transfer his remains to Har HaZeisim. While he was disinterred in the presence of a minyan, Rav Yechiel Yehuda Schlesinger, son-in-law of Rav Velvel Mintzberg, stood up and said, “I will not eulogize the deceased, but I have a story to relate about him, and I cannot hold myself back.”
Rav Schlesinger proceeded to relate: “As you all know, there used to be a governing body in Jerusalem known as the ‘committee.’ My father-in-law, Reb Velvel, chaired the committee, and among its members were Rav Pinchas Epstein, head of the Eidah HaChareidis, and other esteemed rabbanim. Some problems arose with the mikveh in the Old City, which created severe issues of taharah among the local residents. The deceased, Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, was called upon to resolve the problem.
“Rav Shmuel was fluent in several languages. He went to Rebbetzin Sarah Herzog, the wife of Chief Rabbi YitzchakHerzog, and spoke to her in English. He described the problems with the mikveh and the potential ramifications of its condition.
“The rebbetzin, impressed with his eloquence, spoke with her husband, and they decided to arrange a dinner to raise funds for the mikveh. A princely sum of 500 lirot was raised, and a new mikveh was built in the Old City. Once that was taken care of, Rav Shmuel approached my father-in-law and asked if he was halachically entitled to a commission.
“‘How much do you want?’ Rav Mintzberg asked.
“‘Eighteen lirot,’ Reb Shmuel replied without batting an eyelash.
“Rav Mintzberg was shocked and exclaimed, ‘Reb Shmiel! Have you become greedy? That is an enormous sum!’
“The deceased replied, ‘That is the amount that I want. If I am entitled to it, then give it to me. If not, do not give me a mil.’
“My father-in-law decided to convene the committee to discuss the matter, and they decided that Reb Shmuel was justly entitled to the money.
“At that point, Reb Shmuel came over to me and said quietly, ‘I don’t need the money for myself. There is a certain older bochur who came here from Russia and doesn’t have a grush to his name. He constantly moans that he wants to get married and establish a Jewish family, but no one wants to marry a pauper. He blames me for his plight, saying that if I were to give him money, he would be able to get married. Give my commission to him.’
“Reb Shmuel forbade me from revealing this secret to anyone, even the bochur himself. He asked me to shake hands with him to cement our agreement. He preferred to be known as a ‘gold digger,’ so long as that bochur received enough money to marry. No one on the committee, not even my father-in-law, knew the truth. Yes, we sealed our agreement with a handshake — but I committed to secrecy only during his lifetime. Now, seventeen years after his death, I can no longer keep this story a secret. I must reveal who Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz really was.”
Sweet Memories Rav Shmuel draws his inspiration from his own father — who is very much present — along with the grandfather he never knew.
“When I was a child, we lived in Mattersdorf, and there was only one shul — Heichal Shmuel. My father used to sit on a bench in the shul and learn from morning until evening,” he smiles.
A miniature confrontation unfolds between father and son, as Rav Chaim Yehuda interrupts uncomfortably. “I don’t like that. We don’t tell over things like that.”
Rav Shmuel ignores his father’s protests. “My father studied dayanus from morning until evening, and on Shabbos as well. Shabbos afternoons, while all the other children played, I used to run away, go into the shul, and see Abba learning. Every Shabbos it was the same thing.”
The venerable dayan, Reb Chaim Yehuda, comes from decades of public service in the worlds of rabbanus and dayanus. He is confident, his voice resonates with conviction, and his rich tongue expresses exactly what’s on his mind.
Rav Chaim Yehuda relates, “I studied under the greatest dayanim for thirty years — Rav Yitzchak Kulitz, Rav Yosef Cohen, Rav Dvir. They taught me a vital lesson: there is a very fine line between kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem. A dayan can easily cross that line by making the smallest slip. Secular people come to beis din, and the way the dayan behaves will determine how they perceive chareidim.
“Let me give you an example,” he says. “An elderly couple came to beis din asking for a divorce. It turns out they had been separated for seven years. After a long, drawn-out conflict in the secular courts, they decided to come to beis din. The husband, however, did not want a divorce. Yet after analyzing the case thoroughly, the dayanim finally ruled that he was required to grant one. Then I asked the wife why she had waited seven years to come to us. She replied, ‘Because of the public image of a beis din in the secular world!’
“After the get was concluded, the couple admitted that their perception of beis din had changed. A case that had been drawn out in secular court for seven years was resolved in a single day! The woman was in shock. ‘Why didn’t we know about you?’ she asked. ‘This didn’t cost us a single shekel, but the courts wiped us out. We spent all our resources on lawyers who squeezed the last cent out of us over seven years.’
“In this generation,” Rav Chaim Yehuda continues, “anyone who wears a black hat, has a beard, and looks like he could be a rabbi is automatically a representative of chareidi Jewry. Once upon a time, there were two classes: rabbanim and simple people. Nowadays, everyone is a chacham and a dayan. If one person acts improperly, all of chareidi Jewry is blamed for it, so the individual responsibility is great.”
Rav Shmuel nods. He’s spent the last fifteen years tiptoeing between the raindrops, advocating a Torah voice when a hostile, pluralistic world is waiting to jump in and attack.
When a “Women of the Wall” worshipper was arrested for preparing to read from a Torah scroll at the Kosel, he stood resolute in the face of outrage against an upstanding Israeli citizen being hauled off by police for donning a tallis and holding a Torah. At the time, he stated that it was “an act of provocation that seeks to turn the Western Wall into disputed territory. A prayer that causes contention and desecration of the sanctity of the Western Wall has no value. It is an act of protest,” expressing his regret that the various bodies have attempted to compromise the Kosel out of political interests. “The Kosel HaMaaravi was always excluded from that realm,” he said.
When Pope Benedict visited Jerusalem two years ago, Rav Rabinowitz refused to clear the area of Jewish worshippers, and further instructed that the pope conceal the gold cross he wears around his neck (in the end, diplomatic sources overruled the cross instruction).
“You have to remember that over eight million people visit the Kosel HaMaaravi every year,” Rav Shmuel says. “It is not an easy place to manage. But the bottom line is that every Jew has a spark of kedushah, even if it’s hidden deep within his subconscious, and somehow he feels that the Kosel is relevant to him. It could be a secular person, a Reform Jew, a left-winger, or an American guest — it doesn’t matter.
“But because it is the spiritual center of the Jewish People throughout the world, it is not easy to preserve it. Everyone feels that it belongs to them. My job is to preserve the kedushah of the Kosel while still ensuring that it remains the home of every Jew.”
Rav Shmuel’s internationally recognized public persona makes this task all the more difficult. “I came to this interview from a meeting with a group of senior officials at the American embassy. Politically, they represent American interests, but they also come to me from a liberal Jewish vantage point, as if they represent all the liberals and all the Jews in the world. Every time we experience a problem with the ‘Women of the Wall,’ it’s the American consul who comes forward to represent them.”
The attention isn’t always negative. Rav Rabinowitz managed to protect then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s dignity after a yeshivah bochur pulled his note out of the Wall, which made its way to the Israeli daily Maariv the following day. Defending Obama’s private talk with G-d, Rav Shmuel said the publicity “damages the personal, deep part of every one of us that we keep to ourselves. The note placed between the stones of the Western Wall is between a person and his Maker. It is forbidden to read them or make use of them.”
Indeed, twice a year Rav Shmuel and a team of a dozen workers clear out all the notes — some of them mailed to Israel and simply addressed to “G-d in Jerusalem” — and bury them in the genizah of holy writings on Har HaZeisim.
Presidential candidates and presidential has-beens both fall under Rav Shmuel’s purview and the results are often surprising.
“Last year former president Bill Clinton came to visit. Now, he’s very public about his views — he had brought Barak and Arafat to Camp David in order to broker a land giveaway. But when he came to Jerusalem, he insisted on seeing the Kosel tunnels. The American government denies the historical connection of the tunnels; as far as they are concerned, only the plaza exists. Yet Clinton took an interest in the Kosel and its history. I suggested a tour of the tunnels, where he could see the history for himself. He agreed enthusiastically.
“His security personnel went wild with rage. They sent away all the photographers, even the Kosel photographer, and forbade any of them from following Clinton into the tunnels. Heaven forbid that the world media should see Bill Clinton in the Kosel tunnels! He is actually a very emotional person and I could see he was impressed.
“When we came out, he told me two things. ‘First of all, if you stop digging here and uncovering your past, it will be a sin to yourselves, and it will show that you are not interested in the Jewish People’s history. Secondly, you should know that I once told Arafat that he shouldn’t have any illusions that the Jews will give up Jerusalem. Forget about it! I told him then that if he really wants that, there is no chance for peace in the Middle East.’ He went on to declare, ‘Now I understand much more how deeply connected you are to Jerusalem.’
“People don’t grasp the importance of a visit of a head of state to the Kosel,” Rav Shmuel adds. “They think it’s just a ceremonial visit, but it’s really much more than that. When they come here, their entire position can change.
“The current battle over Jerusalem is a complicated, daily battle, and one of the main theaters is the Kosel plaza. The public is not aware of how difficult this struggle is. But every visit to the Kosel makes an imprint on the visitor. Even if that president or head of state votes against us in the UN, he begins to understand that the deep connection between the Jewish People and Jerusalem will never be severed.”
Rav Chaim Yehuda interjects, reading from a booklet of family history written by his brothers, who witnessed the events of 1948.
“The last tefillah that took place at the Kosel before its capture in 1948 was on the seventeenth of Kislev. On that day, the members of the regular minyan at the Kosel, including Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, went to daven there. The Arabs began shooting at them, and they managed to escape to the police station nearby. They waited there for several hours until the British police brought them back to the Jewish Quarter. That was the last tefillah at the Kosel until its liberation in 1967.”
Reb Shmuel adds, “Because of our family roots in the Old City, I see it as a tremendous zchus that I was able to restore two ancient shuls. One of them is Ohel Yitzchak on Rechov HaGai [the main road from the Kosel through the Muslim Quarter], above the former location of Reb Chanoch Arza’s seforim store. The shul, which used to belong to Kollel Shomrei HaChomos, was repurchased by Mrs. Irving Moskowitz. The tunnel at the Kosel extends beneath the shul, and we opened a passageway from the tunnel into the shul.”
Rav Shmuel has published the volume Sh’eilos u’Teshuvos Shaarei Tzion, in which he discuss the many halachic sh’eilos that have arisen at the Kosel and other holy sites. The issues range from questions about the kedushah of the stones of the Kosel, to the sale and exchange of tashmishei kedushah from historic shuls, Kosel renovations, the question of opening the ohel of Kever Rochel on Shabbos, and many other related issues. In fact, an entire chapter deals with the above-mentioned notes from between the Kosel stones. There is an old argument about whether to burn the notes or bury them, and Rav Shmuel opined that although burning could be acceptable, burying them is more honorable.
Minefield in Meron
Father and son accord each other kavod and reverence. Are there areas where they disagree?
They both smile.
“Do you want us to argue?” asks Rav Chaim Yehuda. “Of course, everyone in the world has his individual opinions. We do not see eye-to-eye on every issue. I have seen a lot more in my life. There have been times I’ve felt it would have been better for him to have acted differently. But today’s world runs on trial and error.”
Rav Shmuel qualifies, “My father belongs to the generation before me, and that means a lot. People were more trusting. Today, we live in a cynical, cruel world, where you must learn the rules of the game quickly — or you won’t survive.”
Reb Chaim Yehuda interjects, “I have news for you. Even in the fast-paced modern age, there are plenty of simple people in the world, and they have survived quite well.”
Perhaps they are referring to the Meron quagmire, in which Rav Shmuel found himself embroiled for the last six years. Following a series of legal battles over the holy burial site of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai — where neither judicial elements nor rabbinic committees could impose any semblance of order with regard to running the site due to private turf wars — the government imposed a committee with Rav Shmuel appointed as head, to finally make order of the chaos. He eventually resigned due to intolerable harassment from the “zealots” who wanted to prevent government intervention at all costs, but not before major changes were made at the site.
“This was certainly no easy time for me, but I don’t regret my decision. The results justify everything,” Rav Shmuel says. “The face of Meron has changed beyond recognition, but it goes beyond that. Terrible things — property destruction and other abuses — were going on, diametrically opposed to the sanctity of the site. Today, even the people who opposed me admit that the situation in Meron was intolerable.
“At the time, people advised me not to get involved; they asked me, ‘Why do you need this headache?’ It was a minefield. But I wasn’t deterred; I asked myself what would happen after 120 years, when I arrive in Shamayim and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai will challenge me, ‘You had an opportunity to cleanse my gravesite of so many negative forces; why didn’t you do it?’ What would I respond to him? That I didn’t want the pressure? Baruch Hashem, we worked l’Shem Shamayim, and that is why we were successful.”
Rav Chaim Yehuda adds, “He received a lot of encouragement from the gedolei Yisrael. They all demonstrated unusual support for him.”
Rav Shmuel continues, “Meron receives about two million visitors every year, and many of them are not religious. What did they see there in the past? What did they think? And what do they see today, baruch Hashem?”
Despite the mudslinging and pashkevilim deriding him for siding with government forces, Rav Shmuel chose not to respond.
“He has an amazing attribute,” his father Rav Chaim Yehuda continues. “Most people can’t remain calm when they are insulted. Not everyone is the Baal Shem Tov or the Mezritcher Maggid. My son, however, is often insulted, and not only does he forgive the offenders, but he goes out of his way to do favors for them.
“Two avreichim came to ask him for tzedakah. Someone who witnessed this told me, ‘These two avreichim have caused your son so much anguish, and now they are coming to ask him for tzedakah!’ But he gave it to them. What else would he do?”
Perhaps some of that old-time trust has brushed off on the new generation, after all. But really, Rav Shmuel insists, it all comes down to the zeideh’s legacy.
Rav Chaim Yehuda clarifies, “Abba, who was destitute, never let anything get in his way of helping others. There was a time when Abba was a mashgiach in a slaughterhouse. Once, an animal was found to be treif, but when Abba gathered the pieces of the animal, he discovered that one leg was missing. He conducted a quick investigation and found out that it had been sent to a certain butcher in the Machaneh Yehudah marketplace.
“Abba wasted no time in traveling there, and asked the butcher to return the leg to him so that the public would not inadvertently eat treif. The butcher was a strong man, and he began to beat my father, but Abba did not relent. Finally, the butcher drew his huge butcher’s knife, when Abba opened his shirt to reveal his chest. ‘Please, you may stab me,’ he said. The butcher was so shocked he handed over the treif meat.
“Abba always taught us that each person must focus on the klal in the place where he is. It doesn’t matter what job he has been given from Shamayim: a rav, a mashgiach, a dayan, or a journalist. Every individual has to take responsibility in the setting that Hashem designated for him in the vast puzzle of Klal Yisrael.” —