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Remembering Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam ZT”L, The Bobover Rebbe

Last Wednesday July 22nd, Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av was the 20th yahrtzeit of the Bobover Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Halberstam (1908-2000), son of Rav Benzion, grandson of Rav Shlomo, founder of the Bobov dynasty. At the outbreak of World War II, he and his father escaped to Lemberg. On the fourth of Av 1942 his father was killed, and Rav Shlomo escaped to the Bochnia Ghetto. In Bochnia, the Rav lost his rebbetzin and two children. He managed to escape with his only surviving child, Reb Naftali, to Budapest, and then to Bucharest. Rav Shlomo is believed to have been the last remaining Chassidic rebbe to have survived the Holocaust.

Born in the Galicia region of central Europe, Rav Shlomo arrived in the United States in 1946, alone and indigent after his group was largely obliterated by the Nazis. During the war, Rav Shlomo dressed up as a nun in order to rescue other Jews, hiding them in the false bottom of a coal truck. He strove to create a Bobov that would match the Bobov that had been destroyed, working assiduously to build chassidim that his father would have been proud of. Rav Shlomo is widely credited with rebuilding the Bobover community in the United States.

It’s hard to believe that its been thirty two years. The date, Friday, February 12, 1988. It was exactly eight days before my Bar Mitzvah. Surprisingly my father picked me up from Yeshiva and told me we were in for a special treat. As we entered Boro Park, I still had no clue whom or where I was going to see or meet. My father managed to find a parking spot on 15th Avenue between 46th and 47th streets. We walked to the corner of 48th street and 15th Avenue to an attractive looking home that somehow appeared out of place in Boro Park. To my surprise, outside this home waited my 90-year-old great uncle Harry Boren and his wife, my great aunt Eleanor. My uncle greeted me and told me again that this would be a day I would never forget for the rest of my life. He was certainly correct! I was at the home of the Grand Rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam zt”l, The Bobover Rebbe.

My family is not Bobov, however, growing up I always knew that my family had some sort of connection to the Bobover family. I knew that my family was with Rabbi Halberstam zt”l in Poland. But that was all I had known.

As we were greeted by the Gabbai of the Rebbe, Reb Shmuel Horowitz zt”l, I immediately felt as though we were royalty. The Gabbai took us up the steps where the Rebbetzin greeted us. We followed the Rebbetzin to the dining room, where she gave us something to drink and warmly conversed with all of us. About five minutes into the conversation, the Rebbe appeared.

The very air around us seemed to clear a path for the Rebbe. Could this room alone contain all the greatness that stood before me? I knew that I was in the presence of one of the leading figures of Torah Jewry. Physically, he was a tall man in stature, with a silver beard and horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a magnificent navy blue, patterned robe. He kissed my uncle, and treated him as though he was the Rebbe, the “nobleman”. His actions and his mannerisms made an impression on me that I shall never forget.

My uncle proceeded to introduce my father and me to the Rebbe. In a mixture of broken English, Hebrew and Yiddish, the Rebbe spoke to us for close to two hours. To any Bobover Chasid, this would seem impossible, however, the Rebbe spoke to my uncle like he was his best friend. He talked about the old times with my uncle, showed us pictures of his family in Eretz Yisrael and tested me on the Perek of Gemara I was learning in Yeshiva.

My great uncle Harry Boren and the Bobover Rebbe discussed the relationship between my great great Grandfather Aryeh Leib Borenstien, (my namesake and Uncle Harry’s father) and the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam zt”l. As times grew worse for the Jewish people in Galicia, Poland in the early 1900’s, the elder Bobover Rebbe recognized the dangers that lurked. However, for fear of intermarriage and the lures of the “brave new world,” Rabbi Ben- Zion Halberstam, was hesitant to allow immigration to the United States.

However, he felt that the Borensteins were a family that would not succumb to outside temptations. Aryeh Leib and his family settled in America and the situation worsened in Poland. As World War II approached, Aryeh Leib recognized that the Bobover dynasty was in danger of becoming lost in the ashes of the Holocaust. He and a small group of dedicated followers made every attempt, and succeeded, to bring Rabbi Ben-Tzion Halberstam, zt”l, and his family to America in the 1940’s.

An hour passed like seconds, and the Rebbe took out a Sefer Torah that was written by a sofer of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidus. He told me that he was a direct ninth descendant of the Baal Shem Tov and that this Sefer Torah had been handed down from one generation to the next in his family. The Rebbe allowed my father and me to hold and kiss the Torah. Years later, I went to the Rebbe for Simchas Torah and learned that he would only dance with this Torah on this day. I was among the privileged few who had the “zechus” to hold this precious Sefer Torah.

The Rebbe ended our conversation when it was time for him to daven Mincha. Before he left, he presented me with a bar mitzvah gift of a silver kiddush cup and his grandfather’s work, Divrei Chaim. The bond between our families was apparent to me, and the bracha he gave me to continue in the footsteps of my family only strengthened our bond.

Over the years, I have managed many times to visit Bobov in Boro Park. One year I visited the Bobover Succah on one of the nights of Chol Hamoed. It was the first time I ever went to a Rebbe’s Tish. I was amazed at the amount of followers that came, longing to get a piece of the Rebbe’s food, a bracha in its own right. When the Rebbe saw me, he told the person next to him to make sure I got a spoon of his soup. I was astounded that he still remembered me, even years after I had first met him.

Regretfully, I had been out of town the day of the Rebbe’s P’Tirah. However, I heard how the streets of Boro Park had been closed for blocks. I heard how in addition to the Rebbes six thousand chasidim, there were an additional thirty thousand mourners from all over the world who came to show their respect, devotion, and dedication to the Rebbe. My father later told me how he had been among those who listened to the Rebbe’s son’s words of mourning and comfort. My father, one of thousands, is testimony as to how one man, one great man, touched the lives of so many and will be gravely missed.