Paths Crossing: A Great Posek Shapes the Great Sekulener Dynasty

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by R. Eliyahu Safran

When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time 

-Maya Angelou

When a man, by his actions, by his wisdom and insight shows us his holiness and erudition, we should believe our eyes and hearts and be grateful to God that such incredible souls walk the earth.  Few have demonstrated to the world who they are, where their hearts lay, and the goodness of their souls more fully than HaRav Eliezer Zusia Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe.  A biographical outline of his life would be enough to garner our devotion to his blessed memory.  

His father, Rav Yisroel Avrohom, died when Eliezer was just turning eighteen years old.  Upon his beloved father’s passing, R’ Eliezer sought to become the rabbi of the Bessarabian town of Sculeini (“Skulen” in Yiddish).  His desire to assume his father’s role was met by some dissension, as I will explain below.  However, once established as rabbi, he was loved, admired and respected by his community.  His great gift was in reaching Jewish youth, who – as in our own time – were rapidly assimilating and turning away from mitzvot.   While others were quick to condemn these “off the derech” young people, R’ Eliezer engaged them with love and meaningful discussion focused on the deep power of Judaism.  His compassion toward young people presaged his most sacred behavior to come.

In 1945, Eliezer began adopting dozens of war orphans and caring for still hundreds of others.  When he moved to Bucharest, he managed to smuggle his large and ever-growing “family” with him.  There, he established an orphanage devoted to their care.  In return for his great kindness and compassion, he asked only that his “children” remain loyal to Judaism and Torah.  

In 1959, after being accused of spying for Israel and the United States, and being subsequently imprisoned and tortured, there was an international effort to free him.  Through this effort and the intervention of the United States Department of State, Rav Eliezer – the Skulener Rebbe – was freed.  From there, he came to America and settled in New York’s Crown Heights.

It was here, in New York’s Orthodox Community that the “simple biographical outline” of this great man’s life and my own life’s path crossed. 

 

As with all of life’s paths, this intersection needs a bit of context.  While true that Rav Eliezer Portugal became rabbi after his father’s death, the process was bitterly contentious for a period; in short, it was not a simple nor foreordained matter that it would be so.  In fact, the elders of Sekulen were much opposed to his taking over his father’s rabbanus.  His mother argued forcefully for his right to inherit his father’s shtella.  

He is “too young” they argued.  

As forcefully as they argued, she argued back.  

Finally, unable to resolve their disagreement, they agreed to present the issue to the greatest Romanian rabbinic authority at the time, HaRav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran.

My grandfather.

 

As I have noted, R’ Eliezer Zusia’s father passed away when he was just about eighteen and the Sekulen community resisted him as the inheritor of his father’s rabbinic position.  Turning to my grandfather, they received an unequivocal response/p’sak.  It is enlightening to study the full teshuva to learn all one needs to know that when it comes to the “crown of the rabbinate”, the inheritance of the son cannot be challenged by any “kahal or edah”.  Citing sources including the Rambam, Chinuch, Rivash, Ritva, Rema, Sifri, Toras Kohanim, Sefer Chasidim, as well as “teshuvot gedolei acharonim” my grandfather made clear that they were all in agreement “l’maa’seh” that yerusha shayach b’rabanus” – that when relating to the rabbinate, “inheritance” is the law.  

My grandfather’s halachic knowledge was encyclopedic.  Every source relevant to a responsa was incorporated in his determination as to whether a son, a very qualified, worthy and competent young man, should automatically inherit his father’s position.  

As with any great thinker and logician, my grandfather began by considering the obverse of what he was asked to judge.  That is, he began by examining every conceivable argument as to why the Sekulen rabbinic position should not pass to the son.  One by one, he rejected each one, including the “request” by none other than Moshe rabeinu who requested that his sons “inherit” his position, a request that God Himself denied.  (They, my grandfather noted, were not worthy – baneicha yashvu la’hem ve’lo asku ba’Torah.    It is self-evident, he made clear, that one not worthy should not inherit a position of merit.) 

Having exhausted every possible argument for why a son should not inherit his father’s rabbinate, my grandfather determined that the young R’ Eliezer Zusia was “the one”.   His judgement was clear, and it was firm.  The position was to be R’ Eliezer Zusia’s.  My grandfather spoke to his qualifications, his piety and his wisdom.  

He added that, the young man was “destined for greatness.”

Even more than his relentless intelligence, it is possible to hear in my grandfather’s response a deep sympathy, compassion, sensitivity and passion.   Reading his words even today it is possible to hear his tears of pain and wonderment how anyone would even contemplate denying a meager existence to the deceased rabbi’s widow and orphaned children.  And then to go even further and to torment them with their cruelty?  It clearly troubled his soul.  

He made clear that the Torah warns us about such evils.  Beyond the mitgefiel shown to the inheriting son, my grandfather decried the community leaders for having stopped all income and support of the widow and instead giving income to new “employees”, including shochtim and others in the community.

“I have heard about you,” he wrote, “that you are stealing [li’gzol] the income of the rebbetzin and her son…” 

His outcry on behalf of the widow was revolutionary.  A great rav recently explained to me that, “Your grandfather didn’t simply deal with pure halacha, he felt the personal pain and anguish not only of the young orphan, but of his destitute mother, the rebbetzin.”  

It is humbling and wonderful to read his halachic case, including the legitimate rabbinic income relating to shechita, siddur kiddushim and so forth; to read his total and absolute mitgefiel with the plight of the orphan and widow, to read in his words not just the evidence of his halachic brilliance but also the depth of his soul.  

And how right he was, how prophetic!  This young man, whom he had complete faith in did indeed fulfill – no, exceeded – the fullness of his vision from the moment he assumed his rabbinate until he passed on the 29th of Av, 5742 – 1982. 

 

I was a boy when the Skulener Rebbe arrived in America in 1960; not quite at the age of Bar Mitzvah.  On the first Chanukah that he celebrated in the Land of the Free, beloved friends of my father, the Distenfelds, insisted that I join them to experience the lighting of the menorah with the Rebbe.   A description of that event deserves its own lengthy essay.  Suffice to say that it was transcendent.  I cannot imagine that the lighting of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash itself was any more of a religious experience!

Remember, at the time I was only a boy, a child.  Yet, I felt I was in the presence of holiness when the Rebbe davened Maariv and recited the Sh’ma.   

Later in the evening, Mr. Distenfeld took me by the hand and introduced me to the rebbe, saying, der kind iz Shafran – this child is Shafran.  In that moment, it was as if everything around us stopped.  The Rebbe leaned forward and strained to rise from his chair.  His eyes searched my own, overwhelming me with his gentleness and love.  Then he reached out and took my hand in his own and he said, Oib nisht far der zaide, volt ich geven a gornisht – if not for your grandfather, I would be a nobody.

What?  This man who I already knew to have saved so many from utter despair; who had taken so many into his home and his heart; this man would have been a nobody?

When I came home and told my father what had transpired he seemed to understand my emotions.  He said simply that there is a lengthy teshuva in my grandfather’s She’elot U’Tshuvot R’BAZ about the Sekulener Rebbe and that maybe I should read it.  

From our youngest ages my father encouraged me and my siblings, teayenu b’sefer shel sabba – look into Saba’s sefer.  But this time felt different.  This time it felt as though he wanted me to uncover something powerful and unique.  So, I did exactly that only to discover a teshuva covering a dense four pages, filled with source upon source.  Oye!  This was no reading for a twelve-year old boy!  I closed the book feeling even more overwhelmed with emotion.

Even so, I had felt something that evening, something that transcended erudition and halacha.  I felt a sacred bond; a holiness.  I felt the power of my grandfather’s scholarship and the depth of his compassion.  I never forgot how I felt that evening, looking in my Sabba’s sefer.  Nor did I ever forget that moment when the Skulener Rebbe held my hand and looked into my eyes and spoke words that even now are nearly impossible for me to reckon with, words that filled me with joy and pride, words that spoke to my grandfather’s connection to this holy man.

 

Of course, like all wonderful stories, this one did not end that Chanukah evening.  Many, many decades after my encounter with the Sekulener Rebbe, I came to daven at the Beis Medrash of his saintly son, the current Sekulener Rebbe (Shlita) ZT’L When chasidim there asked me my name, I told them.  A gentleman standing nearby overheard me and made the association with the R’baz.  He came up to me and said, “There is no more coveted name here than your grandfather’s”.  

As he and I spoke, he mentioned that he possessed something that might be of interest to me.  

Yes, I asked him.  What might that be?

He said, “I am a collector of precious and historic rabbinic letters including correspondence between the Sekulener ZT’L and your grandfather.”  

Hearing this, I felt the breath leave my body.  I could not have been more anxious to see them.  It took several years before I was finally able to obtain a copy of one of these letters (collectors are notoriously stingy with their coveted collections!)   The letter that ultimately came to me?  It was the one in which the Sekulener wrote in appreciation to my grandfather, the one in which he informs my grandfather that, hishlimu iti anshei iri – the people of my city made peace with me….

In the letter, he listed in detail all aspects of this peacemaking, starting with shnitmaneisi l’male mekomo shel – that I have been appointed to assume the position of my late revered father ZT’L.

He goes on to share with my grandfather details of his compensation and conditions of his “employment”.  He also listed several concessions he agreed to for the sake of “shalom”.   With these matters satisfactorily concluded, he was finally able to devote his attention to the needs of his community and to begin the great works that would define his presence in the world.

 

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.  The Skulener Rebbe showed himself to be a man of God.  So too did my grandfather.  Perhaps most importantly, they were able to see in each other the fullness of the gifts God had bestowed upon them.

May both their memories be a blessing.

  • Originally appeared in Ami Magazine – August 8, 2018

About Eliyahu Safran

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.

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