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How Did The Murdered Warsaw Ghetto Rabbi Build A Huge Modern Following?

This month, thousands of unlikely Hasidim will commemorate the martyrdom of a lesser-known rabbi sometimes called “The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.” Since the discovery of his buried Holocaust manuscripts in December 1950, fascination with the creative genius and theological heroism of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira has swelled into a rising tide of interest in unexpected circles.

The Rebbe left behind no surviving children and no Hasidic dynasty, yet his strange mix of followers continues to grow by leaps and bounds. A Hasidic congregation in Israel thrives around the grandson of the Rebbe’s brother, and in the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg, Rabbi Yoel Rubin’s remarkable chaburah studies the Rebbe’s Torah in The Shtiebl, even though they wear the traditional garb of other Hasidic groups. Manchester, UK has a congregation dedicated to the Rebbe as well.

But more surprisingly, in tony Woodmere New York, a synagogue named Aish Kodesh flourishes under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, serving a largely modern Orthodox community otherwise more likely to identify with the Manhattan’s Upper West Side than with Hasidic Meah She’arim. On the political right, an Israeli settlement in Israel carries the name as well, taken from a murdered Israeli security guard who was in turn named for the Rebbe’s Warsaw Ghetto writings. On the more left wing end of the spectrum, Yeshivat Maharat, more widely known for their training and ordination of female clergy, has Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler as their Director of Spiritual Development; Dr. Smokler’s 2014 dissertation at the University of Chicago was on the Piaseczno Rebbe.

To be sure, his Holocaust writings possess an incredible level of potency and immediacy as he finds creative — although often theologically challenging — ways of conveying meaning in the darkness of the Warsaw Ghetto. These writings are perhaps the greatest contribution to the study of theodicy since the Book of Job. For those who know his work well, however, it is his prewar writings that express the warmth and power of his Hasidic philosophy. He wrote for a generation not unlike our own, with many ideologies competing for Jewish hearts and minds, resulting in widespread defection from the Hasidic lifestyles, and his thought is persuasive for millennials, raised in the current postmodern Zeitgeist.

Many Americans first encountered the Rebbe of Piaseczno (pronounced Pee-ah-SECH-no) through Shlomo Carlebach’s iconic 1981 “The Holy Hunchback” story. Apocryphal and inaccurate in minor details — the story of the child who found the writings is apparently without foundation — Carlebach’s story nevertheless captured the essential spirit of Rabbi Shapira and some key biographical elements well confirmed by survivors who remember his boundless love for all Jews, and especially children.

Born in 1889, Rabbi Shapira was the gifted scion of the Grodzisk Hasidic dynasty. He led a large Yeshiva in Warsaw and authored a remarkable introduction to Jewish spirituality for children entitled The Obligation of Students (1932). Trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto with the Nazi invasion of 1939, the Rebbe refused offers from the Jewish underground to spirit him to safety, insisting on remaining with the expanding group of followers — Hasidim, mitnagdim and freethinkers — who gathered in his Bet Midrash every Shabbat, hoping to hear words of consolation to help them through the increasingly horrific conditions of the German occupation.

After the massive deportation of Warsaw Jews to their deaths in Treblinka, the Rebbe was impressed into slave labor, first in the Ghetto and then later in the Trawniki labor camp. Before his expulsion, however, he entrusted his notes from those weekly gatherings — as well as his personal spiritual journal and two unpublished sequels to The Obligation of Students — to Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum’s clandestine Oneg Shabbat archive. The precious manuscripts were sealed in a tin milk container and remained entombed under a building at 68 Nowolipki Street until they were accidentally uncovered by a Polish construction worker clearing rubble from the destroyed ghetto. The Holocaust sermons were published in Israel ten years later under the title “Holy Fire” — Aish Kodesh — the name by which Rabbi Shapira is now most widely known.

Survivors from Trawniki recall that the Rebbe maintained his solidarity with other Jews in the labor camp right to the very end, refusing to participate in an escape attempt if it did not include all prisoners. In the fall of 1943, however, the Nazis implemented a vicious plan called “Operation Harvest Festival” in response to the growing wave of Jewish revolts. The Rebbe was murdered on the fourth or fifth of Cheshvan, 5704. The Nazi responsible for overseeing the mass shootings survived the war went into hiding and eventually immigrated to the United States, living peacefully in Queens, New York, until his deportation to stand trial earlier this year.

What accounts for the remarkable popularity of the Rebbe’s works, and why does his thought resonate over such a broad and diverse audience?

Rabbi Shapira was, by all accounts, an exceptional individual with a unique sensitivity to the challenges of every Jew. Many, like Dr. Michael Chigel of Chabad in Jerusalem, see his spirituality as a form of heroism: he was “a Jew who could not be rattled by time into even that most forgivable form of levity, namely distrust of the Aiberishter [God] on account of personal suffering.” Joshua Rosenfeld testified that “the Rebbe taught us the irreducible nature of faith. Even in the heart of darkness, he uncovered the potency of faith that rests specifically there. In a world that has lost its way, the path of the Rebbe remains the impossible hope at the core of hopelessness itself.”

Many other followers identify with the Rebbe’s searing honesty and authenticity, reflected most clearly in his personal spiritual journal, Tsav Ve-Zeruz, in which he remarkably lays bare all his doubts and fears, without sacrificing his awesome faith in God. One of the most oft-quoted passages portrays his self-doubt (translation by Yehoshua Starrett):

“Thank God…in a few months it will be my fortieth birthday. After that begins the decline of life, the beginnings of my old age. I am afraid. Very afraid. Not so much from the inevitable passing of my life but from the spiritual poverty of my years do I shudder: they are gone and past, empty and void, wasted on childish games…But to what shall I commit myself? To learn more? I think that as far as possible, I don’t waste any time. To abstain from physical pleasures? If my own desires are not fooling me, thank God, I am not so attached to them. So what am I missing? Simply to be a Jew. I see myself as a self-portrait that shows all colors and features real to life. Just one thing is missing: the soul.”

Close readings of his published, public documents reveal fascinating overlaps between internal musings like this and their creative transformation into messages that bolstered the spirits of his followers.

I think most of us, however, see in the Rebbe a warm and understanding guide for personal spiritual development despite adversity, as Nate Fein put it in a recent discussion in Pesach Sommer’s popular Facebook group dedicated to the Rebbe: “I feel like he’s leading me down a path that not only can I achieve, but one that he himself walked.” Rabbi Yoel Rubin echoed the feeling of many of us when he wrote, “The Rebbe has built a Bridge between the heart and mind, opening up new vistas and horizons. Upon learning his Seforim one can get the feeling of a father taking his little son by the hand, on a road trip together to teach him about life and the universe around us…His ideas are like a very deep wellspring which is brought up to the surface, giving it the notion of simplicity and the encouragement of ‘I Believe In You. You can do it.’”

The Rebbe’s Torah from the Holocaust is indeed a remarkable legacy of his genius. For those of us who know his writings well, however, it is his prewar work that gives us the true measure of his stature. I am, for example, not a Hasid — my family background is Lithuanian via Canada, and I prefer the standard Ashkenazi prayer book. Yet when an older man in shul the other day asked me “which kind of Hasid I was” — I immediately, and instinctively, answered “Piaseczno.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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