In 1999, I searched the old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem for an apartment to buy with my wife, Chaya. A real estate agent had mentioned that there was one available on Mishmar Haam Street, but he said that televisions were not allowed inside because Rav Yochanan Sofer, the Erlauer Rebbe who recently passed away, lived there and had rights to the building. We decided to ignore that apartment and continued our search.
We had seen about fifty apartments when another real estate agent told us that the issue with the apartment was not one of having a television but rather that tenants could not place an antenna outside on the building. We decided the apartment on Rechov Mishmar Haam would suit us, limitations on TV and antennae and all. First, however, we had to get the approval of a representative of the rebbe.
Coming from American Orthodox and non-Hasidic backgrounds, we had never heard of the Erlauer Rebbe (the rebbe of the Erlau-Eger dynasty) and his Hasidism. We were told that he was a direct descendant of Rabbi Moses Sofer, a brilliant Talmudist and Halakhic authority who was a staunch opponent of religious reform and is widely considered the “father” of Haredi Orthodoxy. We were told the Erlauer Rebbe was a talmid chacham, or Torah scholar, and that he was an especially pious leader of a Hasidic sect. In time we would get to know him as real person, not just a public figure, and I am forever grateful.
On the Friday before our first Shabbat in the apartment, one of the rebbe’s right-hand men brought us a big flower arrangement with a warm note from the rebbe welcoming us. Several weeks later, I went to a nearby grocery store and saw several men around the building who were obviously part of a security team. Curious—over the years we would see rabbis, Hasidic rebbes, and politicians visiting him—I kept going in and out of my apartment, ostensibly to take out trash.
Then, I saw Ariel Sharon coming down the stairs with a big smile on his face: He had just received the rebbe’s blessings for his campaign to become Prime Minister.
Until he suffered a stroke, I used to hear and see the Rebbe leaving very early in the morning to the Erlauer yeshiva, Ohel Shimon, almost a kilometer away. Twice a day he would walk briskly to and from the yeshiva accompanied by a few Hasidim, but he walked each morning to Shacharit alone, smiling warmly to anyone who greeted him along the way.
Every Purim, my wife and I exchanged mishloach manot (the exchange of food and gifts on Purim) and sometimes some of the younger Chasidim come to sing and dance for us which, of course, we would follow with a donation to the yeshiva. A number of our grandchildren have received berachot from the Rebbe. Our grandson, Yosef, and his wife, Henya, went to the Rebbe for a brachah before their wedding. One of the Rebbe’s sons, with whom I speak often, says “chag sameach” to me on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and that if Jews are happy, then it’s a holiday.
Every year at the conclusion of Simchat Torah, there would be a procession with the Rebbe, accompanied by music from a sound truck and masses of Hasidim, from the yeshiva to his apartment, where he would go out onto the balcony and bless everyone in the street below, as well as all of Israel, with a good and healthy winter. This was followed by dancing.
Until he had his stroke, the Erlauer Rebbe would go with his loyal assistants to the beginning of the street where there was a lot where neighbors burned their chametzon the morning before Pesach. He always wanted to participate with them in the mitzvah. When he could no longer walk to the beginning of the block, he would burn the chametz on the sidewalk outside the building. I would always try and be there at the time to wish him a chag kasher v’sameach and receive his very warm wishes.
When the Rebbe took ill and confined to his apartment, his meshamshim requested our approval to make the small apartment adjacent to us into a mikveh and beit medrash. When the construction was complete, the Rebbe sent his assistants to thank us and again apologize for all of the inconvenience during the renovations. Chaya and I felt a bonding with the Rebbe and his assistants, and we donated the ner tamid (eternal lamp light) that hangs in the beit midrash.
The Rebbe strove for unity in the Jewish community. He specifically moved into Katamon, a mixed community of Ashkenazim and Sephardim of all stripes of religiosity, not to overtly preach to them, but to be part of them and perhaps influence them by his behavior. He was a bridge between Hasidism and non-Hasidim. He was not originally a Hasid and only became so as an adult after coming to Israel after the Holocaust and studying in the Belzer Rebbe’s yeshiva. Even afterward, he davened Nusach Ashkenaz and did not wear a gartel. He was a member of Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages, but was known as a pro-Zionist.
The rebbe’s funeral in Katamon was jam-packed. Jews of all stripes came to pay their respects. There was another stop for eulogies in the Ezras Torah neighborhood where, I imagine, the population did not appear as heterogenous, but even there, the Rebbe’s piety and his love of the Jewish People and of the Land of Israel were emphasized as his outstanding traits.
Dr. Chaim I. Waxman is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University and a Senior Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.