Meeting the Baal Shem Tov in 201810 min read
The Netzach Yisrael beis medrash on Mesilat Yosef Street in Kiryat Sefer looks like any other shul dotting the city’s Torah landscape, but it contains one of the best-kept public secrets of this staunchly Litvish town: The 120 avreichim who comprise the kehillah are actually closet chassidim. They still maintain their Litvish dress and haven’t switched their children into chassidic schools, but these graduates of Ponevezh, Tifrach, and Brisk have become students of Kabbalah and Chabad and Breslov — piling into cars in the middle of the night for an hour-long hisbodedus in the nearby forest and spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman.
“Over the years, we discovered each other through our individual journeys, and eventually we decided to create this kehillah,” says Reb Shlomo, one of the shul’s founders. Reb Shlomo was an avreich in Tifrach when a spiritual search took him to Rav Shimshon Pincus and Rav Moshe Shapira, then to the study of Chabad chassidus and finally, about ten years ago, to Breslov.
The shul, under the guidance of Jerusalem-based spiritual leader Rav Itche Meir Morgenstern, has become a chassidic destination for the general public, where people off the street — both curious onlookers and those seeking an added dimension to their Yiddishkeit — can avail themselves of chassidic seforim and an assortment of shiurim.
Reb Shlomo says that he’s turned down numerous requests to be interviewed by the Israeli media, partly because he doesn’t want to call attention to the wives of the avreichim, each of whom has had to navigate dealing with her husband’s newfound identity and passion.
“Some of the women have embraced it and others aren’t interested,” Reb Shlomo says. “It’s very hard for them to make the change, so we’ve made a pact to minimize the tension by not demanding changes from our wives and our children, although most of us have switched our davening to the chassidic nusach Sefard and taken on chassidic minhagim.”
But Reb Shlomo is optimistic that this double life won’t last much longer. “It’s the revelation of pnimiyus before the Final Redemption,” he says. “Until 30 years ago, Breslov was a small chassidus of a few hundred families, and now there are thousands. Rebbe Nachman himself said that when his seforim — which were actually banned by some chassidic groups — will finally become accepted, it means the world is on the verge of Mashiach.”
Maybe that’s one reason Netzach Yisrael has lots of company, as part of a mushrooming trend that’s hit every facet of the Orthodox Jewish world. Walk into any “modern” beis medrash and you’ll see the tables piled up with Tanyas and Sfas Emes, as post-modern 2018 rediscovers the Mezhibuzh of 1750. From Israeli Hesder yeshivos to New York’s Yeshiva University, from Modern Orthodox Young Israel congregations to Litvish study halls in Bnei Brak and Kiryat Sefer, it seems like everyone today is looking for the Baal Shem Tov.
The Light They Crave
On the surface, the Orthodox world today seems to have it all — minyan factories where you can catch a 2 a.m. Maariv, morning kollels and evening kollels and overflowing mosdos and gemachs for every possible need, glatt-kosher cruises and Yom Tov getaways and hachnasas orchim websites and 100,000 Yidden packing a stadium at a Siyum HaShas. Technology is widely considered the scourge of frum society, but if that can just be gotten under control, the thinking goes, our lives will continue to flow in spiritual perfection.
Yet that view might be short-sighted, says Rav Moshe Weinberger, rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY and one of the generation’s leading teachers of chassidus. While it’s easy to blame the Internet for our societal ills, it’s much more difficult and painful to consider that as far as this generation has come in creating vibrant Jewish societies, we haven’t been providing the true inner joy and light of Yiddishkeit that people’s neshamos crave.
“We’re seeing it before our eyes,” Rav Weinberger says. “Jews today are demanding to have a real relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”
Rav Weinberger’s enthusiastic encouragement of a deeper engagement with the inner dimensions of Torah has branded him as the conductor of a growing movement across the Jewish world to reconnect with the spiritual vision of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. Some call it “neo-chassidism” — a burgeoning trend among non-chassidim, especially more “modern” Jews, who have begun gravitating toward chassidic practices such as the study of chassidic texts, daily mikveh immersion, wearing a gartel for davening, growing a beard and peyos, and other spiritually-energizing motifs.
But ask the rabbanim and mashpiim directing these people toward a higher spiritual sensitivity and they’ll cringe at the term.
“I don’t know about any ‘neo-chassidim movement,’ ” says Rav Weinberger. “I’m just another Jew trying to come closer to Hashem. It’s the same movement that started on Har Sinai with Anochi Hashem Elokecha, it’s the message of the Baal Shem Tov, and it’s being revived in the most remarkable way in 2018.”
One of the great innovations of the Baal Shem Tov was the rendering of kabbalistic concepts and truths in very human and accessible terms. Much of chassidic teaching revolves around a mental, emotional, and spiritual reorientation of our relationship with our material needs, drives, and preoccupations, a shift especially potent for those who don’t spend their entire day learning Torah but who are engaged in the working world.
When a person realizes that his seemingly inconsequential thoughts, words, and actions are linked up with the Infinite Creator, it imbues all of life with great weight and significance. It means that everyone has a way in.
The Missing Spice
Rav Weinberger’s own kehillah was created in 1992, when a few people in Woodmere were looking for a more uplifting, personal, and connected tefillah experience. At the time, Rav Weinberger, a graduate of Yeshiva University, was teaching in several kiruv programs and at Ezra Academy, but the sincerity of the petitioners convinced him to leave his beloved teaching positions. When the shul first started, only a handful of women covered their hair, and most families sent their children to co-ed schools. Today Aish Kodesh is a magnet for people all over the tristate area seeking depth and inspiration, even for “mainstream” chassidim from Williamsburg and Boro Park who want more from chassidus than a Friday night tish in the bleachers after their soup, chicken, and kugel. Rav Weinberger’s first words to the fledgling congregation still resonate 26 years and more than a thousand members later: “It’s the natural tendency of a Jewish soul to yearn to cling to Hashem. Life, however, places many obstacles in our paths, but with Hashem’s help, our task will be to remove these obstacles one by one, so that our souls can grow closer to Him.”
“I was once at a conference where it was discussed what kind of Judaism we will have in America 100 years from now,” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote in his book, Faces and Facets, published ten years after his sudden passing in 1983. “Some people said the trend would be toward Reform. Others said it would be toward the middle, Conservative movements. The pessimists said that there would be no problem, given the current rise in intermarriage, for in 100 years, there would be no Judaism at all in America. But one person suggested that 100 years from now, chassidic Judaism would dominate the American Jewish scene.
“I would agree. The chassidic spirit, the chassidic philosophy, is certainly the up-and-coming thing. Perhaps this is our answer, the missing ingredient which will provide our coming generation with a new kind of Judaism, a turned-on Judaism... Maybe we have to get involved in this love affair of the chassidim, this love affair with G-d.”
Five years ago, Yeshiva University recognized that many of its students were looking for something deeper and turning “right” — especially those who’d come back from studying in Israel and wanted to hold onto the inner dimensions of Torah and the personal relationship with Hashem expressed in chassidus that they’d been exposed to. So YU appointed Rav Weinberger as the institution’s mashpia, someone who spoke and lived this language.
“Maggidei shiur from different yeshivos have approached me,” says Rav Weinberger, “because they’re stumped. They don’t understand why the boys are no longer getting inspired from straight Gemara learning. ‘Reb Moshe, can you help me? What worked for me back then isn’t working for the boys in the beis medrash anymore.’”
At YU today, there’s a veritable revolution going on. Dozens of Rav Weinberger’s talmidim go to the mikveh every morning, and hundreds come to his farbrengens and have made real changes in their lives. Many of them are struggling after a year in Israel — they want to hang onto their increased piety, to find a way to cling to their newly-refined levels of Yiddishkeit, but find themselves up against their old lifestyle. The study of chassidus equips them with the perspective to engage in all aspects of life with a renewed G-d-consciousness, affecting their davening, their interpersonal middos, and even whom they choose to marry.
But there are also the “noshers,” the people who hop from one kumzitz or chassidic experience to another, tasting from a smorgasbord of feel-good spirituality without maintaining a real inner commitment; the bloggers who casually throw around deep, holy cosmic terms (“working on the whole ratzo v’shov thing today”) like they’re talking about the weather. Is this what the Baal Shem Tov envisioned when he was told that Geulah would come to the world when the wellsprings of chassidus would spread to the masses?
Rav Weinberger tells the story of Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz, a talmid of the Maggid of Mezritch and a contemporary of the Baal HaTanya, who felt the holy teachings of chassidus should be safeguarded from the clutches of the masses. One day he found some notes of his rebbe’s teachings trampled in the gutter, which caused him great anguish and only intensified his position. The Baal HaTanya, realizing his pain, told him the following parable:
There was once a king whose only son was dying, and there seemed to be no cure. Someone told the king of a tzaddik who might be able to heal the dying prince, and indeed, the tzaddik said there was one remedy. He described a certain stone, which, when ground up to a fine powder and mixed with a certain wine, would cure the prince. The gem was rare, however, and only existed in one place — on the king’s own crown, the ultimate symbol of his sovereignty. The king’s servants were horrified at the idea of destroying his crown, but the king himself was overjoyed at the prospect of saving his son. But just as he was about to remove the crown, the king was given devastating news: The prince’s condition had so deteriorated that he couldn’t even drink a sip of the potion — his lips were sealed. Yet the king didn’t desist, and commanded the stone to be pulverized. “Grind, pour, squander the entire gemstone,” he said. “Perhaps a single drop will enter his mouth, and he will be cured. If it works, there will be continuity. If not, there’s no point to my kingdom.”
“Sure, there are always spiritual adventure-seekers and it’s no question that it’s become in vogue to speak the language of chassidus, to have a ‘chassidish’ look,” admits Rav Weinberger. “But it’s easy to sort them out from the ones looking for a real meaningful connection to Hashem in a healthy, normal way, and it doesn’t matter if they have peyos and a beketshe or whether that connection is in Yiddish, English, or Hebrew.”
Making an Empty Space
Rav Weinberger, the acknowledged leader of chassidic renewal, hasn’t limited his influence to the East Coast. He stretched his long arm of influence all the way to Seattle, Washington, helping to establish a kehillah built on the warmth of chassidus in a city with over a century of solid Jewish roots. He encouraged Rabbi Shmuel Brody, a talmid chacham and chassid who came to Seattle with his wife, Sarah, to teach in the local schools, to light the fire of chassidus in this easygoing town rated the nation’s “second most livable big city”.
About ten years ago Rabbi Brody became involved in a small minyan headed by Seattle residents Chanan and Sarah Simon. Chanan had become close to Rav Weinberger and other teachers of chassidus and wanted to somehow maintain the bren of his tefillos and avodah. That small minyan was propelled into a kehillah by Mr. Joe Reback and Rabbi Binyamin Edelstone when they spent a Shabbos in Woodmere and asked, “Why can’t we have something like this in Seattle?”
Rabbi Brody, who grew up in Silver Spring, learned in Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore and in The Jerusalem Kollel under Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, and considers Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg to be his chassidic ignition.
“By watching him daven, I learned what genuine tefillah is,” says Rabbi Brody. In fact, it was Rav Tzvi Meir who unwittingly confirmed the name of the kehillah. “When I went to him for a brachah, I had the name of our newly-founded kehillah, Ashreicheim Yisrael, formulated in my mind. Then he took my hand in his and said, ‘Ashreichem’ — so the name of the shul carries his blessing,” Rabbi Brody says.
He’s the only shtreimel-wearer in Seattle, but somehow his chassidish dress has become a magnet for all types of Jews, even those unaffiliated Jews who’ve never learned alef-beis.
While the shul is a place for serious davening and learning, it is simultaneously an entry point for those who’ve discovered a desire for spiritual connection in a Jewish context. Rabbi Brody’s most famous talmid is Nissim Black, the Seattle-born rapper who converted to Judaism, and who now lives in Jerusalem with his family where he continues to perform. Nissim and his family converted under the authority of the city’s Sephardic rabbi, but he was drawn to Ashreichem Yisrael’s chassidic warmth, and is today a full-fledged Breslover chassid.
“The common thread of our kehillah is that the people are serious about tefillah and a relationship with Hashem, so whether the person on my left can’t read Hebrew and the person on my right can learn Tosafos, they still have common ground — they’re both looking for a dynamic relationship with Hashem,” Rabbi Brody says, but qualifies that “while that thread comes from chassidus, the wrapping is very contextual for what’s going on in this city.”
Rabbi Brody teaches shiurim in Mishnah, Gemara, and halachah but has found the intimacy of the one-on-one chavrusa as an effective means of transmitting the teachings and spirit of chassidus. The shul’s mission to reach beyond itself and engage Jews of all backgrounds has propelled Rabbi Brody to create gateways for Jews who are curious and desirous of something substantial, but who are missing the knowledge of what that is and how to access it. He found in the Piaseczno Rebbe — Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira Hy”d — an example of such a gateway, who as a rebbe is as relevant to the modern millennial as he was to his chassidim back in Poland.
“The Piaseczno Rebbe has one page in the back of his sefer Derech Hamelech, written by a talmid on certain meditative techniques the Rebbe taught him,” Rabbi Brody explains. “The first step is what’s called hashkatah — quieting down. Because the ego is what creates all the clutter in the mind, all the self-centered associative thoughts, the first thing to do is quiet the ego to allow the neshamah to be exposed. That’s why sleeping is a little bit of nevuah — the ego consciousness is put to sleep and the neshamah can rise. So now we’ve created an empty space, which can actually be scary because people don’t like empty spaces — it feels insecure, like you want to fill it with something. But that space is necessary for the next stage, when you fill it with a pasuk or a tefillah. When practiced consistently, this can be transformative.”
Most of the people who participate in these sessions aren’t frum and don’t yet have a language of prayer. Still, says Rabbi Brody, these teachings give them the beginning of a language of connection and they begin to feel there’s a neshamah somewhere under all the busy stuff that tends to hijack our lives.
In the Circle
And really, say teachers of chassidus today, it doesn’t much matter if you have an impeccable chassidic pedigree going back to the Alter Rebbe, or if you just learned alef-beis. “In the chassidic world you’re either a geborener or a gevorener [born into it or a newcomer],” says Rebbetzin Yehudis Golshevsky, herself a product of a Modern Orthodox home who has been teaching chassidus to women in Jerusalem for over two decades, and today a Breslover. “But in the time of the Baal Shem Tov and his students, no one was a geborener. So in that sense we’ve just come full circle.”
Rebbetzin Golshevsky’s classes draw women from all backgrounds — baalos teshuvah, FFBs, women who grew up chassidish, women who left Yiddishkeit and are on the way back, Beis Yaakov graduates, geirei tzedek, women in tichels, and women in pants. “There is great harmony in our circle because we’re all interested in growing and changing and learning, and I place myself in that circle, as much a seeker as anyone else,” she says.
She’s been taking women to kivrei tzaddikim in Eretz Yisrael and in Ukraine for the past 15 years, but emphasizes that she’s not in the business of selling yeshuos or segulos. “The journey is its own reward, and the yeshuah comes from unlocking your blocked-up places in your relationship with Hashem, with others, and with yourself. I don’t know whether you’ll get what you’re davening for, but you’re going to get more from your davening. You’ll discover that you have much more inside yourself, many more channels of connection with Hashem, than you knew about. And that can change your life if you let it.”
Avigayil, a recent student of the Rebbetzin who joined the group on a trip to Uman last year, would agree. From as far back as she can remember, Avigayil had “tzniyus issues” — dressing in a sub-halachic, provocative manner in order to call attention to herself, even if it was attention of degradation. “But then I began to learn how every Yid is a ben yachid of Hashem, how I am a bas melech and should treat myself with utmost dignity, and how little me in my skimpy getup causes pain to Hashem — how I matter to Him.”
Rebbetzin Golshevsky, who is in the process of opening an educator’s course for women to broaden their range of learning skills in order to bring Torah and chassidus to whatever educational environment Hashem sends them, is also no fan of the “neo-chassidic” definition, even for people like Avigayil who dabble in the learning but haven’t made a full-fledged commitment to a “chassidish” way of life. Why, she says, does one have to become an anthropological study if he wants to absorb and be inspired by the chassidic message yet remain within his non-chassidic environment? “Is chassidus a style of dress, a type of hat, a denier of stocking, or predicated on pronouncing kugel or kigel? It’s probably the Breslover gevorener in me, but I really don’t think that this is the point of chassidus. Can you be a chassid and still daven in Young Israel? I should think so. Your kids just won’t get into the chassidishe schools, but maybe you don’t want them there — maybe as a community, it’s not suited to you for many reasons. Why should that disqualify you from delving in chassidus, though, and benefitting from its exquisite light?”
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