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Tuesday, August 22, 2006


The Skulener Rebbe: Enduring Decrees with Love and Song

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Tonight and tomorrow, the 29th of Menachem Av, is the 24th yahrzeit of the holy Skulener Rebbe, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal, ZTUK”L. Although he did not have a large following of Chassidim, he left a strong impression upon all of those who came in contact with him, by virtue of both his deeds and his heart-felt niggunim. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had the merit of meeting the Rebbe personally, attending his Tish and hearing his Torah and niggunim [more on this below].


The following, from HaMaayan, will be interspersed with other info culled from around the Internet [sources listed below].

Rebbe Eliezer Zusia, the "Skulener Rebbe," was not a Chassidic Rebbe at all until well into his sixties. His first "career" was as Rabbi of the town of Skulyany (Skulen), in Bessarabia. His focus there was on increasing the spiritual level of his town-folk, including writing booklets in Yiddish specifically tailored to the spiritual needs of his neighbors. When the Sadigorer Rebbe visited Skulen and saw Rebbe Eliezer Zusia's accomplishments, he urged him to move to Chernowitz, where he could serve a larger community. Rebbe Eliezer Zusia complied, and before long was chosen as chief rabbi of that city. (The wisdom of the Sadigorer Rebbe was demonstrated soon after, when Bessarabia was invaded by the Russian Communists, under whom the Jews suffered terribly.)

Chernowitz, too, changed hands several times during World War II, eventually ending up in the Soviet Union. A new chapter in Rebbe Eliezer Zusia's life opened after the war, when he became the father of hundreds of war orphans, even formally adopting scores of them. (Rebbe Eliezer Zusia had one natural son--today, the Skulener Rebbe in Brooklyn.) Later Rebbe Eliezer Zusia smuggled his "family" into Rumania and settled in Bucharest where he adopted even more children. In his will, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia would ask that his "children" show their appreciation by remaining loyal to Judaism and studying Torah at every possible moment.

At the end of the World War II, he immediately founded institutions for the orphans of the Holocaust. He saved thousands of orphans. He personally made cared for some three hundred of them, all of whom called him “Abba”. Almost all of them settled in Eretz Israel and remained observant Jews.

He often had the occasion to meet people who always reminded to him that they were sons-in-law of the Rebbe, and called him their father-in-law. Later it was learned that he did not have girls of his own at all. Then the secret was understood: they were the orphaned ones who were regarded as his daughters, and that the Rebbe had married off to men who were regarded as his sons-in-law.

Because of these activities, the Rebbe was persecuted, by both the Germans and Russians. More than once his life was in danger. One day he was even taken out to be executed, but he was saved from the Germans by a miracle. The Russians also imprisoned him several times. But despite everything, he never stopped his appointed task.

The governmental authorities viewed his spiritual work as a challenge to Communism and accused him of trying to supplant the state as the orphans' guardian in order to send them to Eretz Yisrael. On Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5719 (1959) the Rebbe, zt"l was imprisoned with his son, the Rebbe Shlita. They were put in a notorious prison together with dangerous criminals, isolated from one another, so that they would not conspire together. The charges: smuggling children to Eretz Yisrael and spying for the US and Israel. They were jailed for five months. However, through chasdei Hashem [Divine mercy] the authorities were forced to release him.

Despite the danger, the Rebbe remained in Romania until 5720 (1960). He was loathe to leave the country until the last of his "children" had reached safety. During this period the well-being of all of Romanian Jewry was hanging by a thread. The Rebbe's home was the only address for all matters of holiness and Jews would come calling day and night.

It should be noted that the Rebbe underwent tremendous periods of being tortured when he was in jail, by the Germans, Russians and Rumanians. Despite this, he was inspired to compose some of the loftiest niggunim in the midst of this terrible travail. Some examples of his dedication to the orphans, even at risk to himself follow.

From the Shema Yisrael website:
Mesiras nefesh, means dedication to the point of self-sacrifice… One endeavors whatever he can on behalf of his people who are incarcerated. The Skulener Rebbe, HaRav Eliezer Zusia Portugal z"l, was like that. Nothing stood in his way in his mission to rescue Jews who were in need. He was in Chernowitz, which was under Soviet dominion, in order to assist Soviet Jews who had smuggled themselves across the border in to Romania. Furthermore, it was much easier to get papers to enable them to go to America or Israel. The Jews were caught and immediately found guilty. The punishment was imprisonment in Siberia or a quick bullet to the head. The Rebbe was indefatigable; nothing stood in his way. "I will get them out - regardless!" he exclaimed.

The colonel who was in charge of the border guards lived in Chernowitz and knew the Rebbe well. The Rebbe had won him over many a time with heartrending entreaties on behalf of his brethren. The last time he was there the colonel had told him, "This is the very last time you will bother me. If you come again on behalf of your Jews - I will kill you!"

Nonetheless, when the Rebbe was notified about a family of nine people that had been captured, he immediately undertook the daunting and dangerous task of rescuing them. Nothing worked, not even a hefty bribe. They were adamant; these people were to serve as an example for others. There was still one avenue to be employed: the Rebbe would go to the colonel and beg, regardless of the imminent personal danger involved. Jewish lives were in danger and that was more important than his life. His family begged him not to go. "How can you risk your life like this?" they asked. He responded, "It is not clear that he will take out his wrath against me, but one thing is for sure, their lot is sealed unless I am able to do something in their behalf."

The Rebbe approached the colonel's house with trepidation, climbed up the steps and knocked on the door. When the colonel saw who stood at his doorstep, he was overcome with anger. He grabbed the Rebbe and threw him down the stairs. The Rebbe was hurt badly, yet, with extreme difficulty, he was able to get up. With the little strength he had left, he once again climbed the stairs and knocked on the colonel's door.

The colonel opened the door and could not believe his eyes. There stood the Skulener Rebbe, dirty, bloodied, clothes torn - but with defiance in his eyes. "I must speak to you, colonel!" the Rebbe said, with tears streaming down his face. The colonel listened: the Rebbe begged, he cried, as he depicted the bitter plight of this hapless family. The colonel's hardened heart could not ignore the selfless pleas, the heartfelt emotion of the Rebbe. His devotion to others at the expense of his own health impressed the colonel. The family was freed. Mesiras nefesh triumphed.


How can one explain such dedication? From where did he draw the Emuna, the faith? Perhaps from learning like this:

from Chumi Friedman's Eishes Chayil website:

The Skulener Rebbe was imprisoned in Rumania. In order to use his time wisely, he began to review all the Tefillos, assuring himself that when he would pray he would do so knowing the full meaning and intent of every verse, every word. When he reached a certain phrase –"Baruch gozer u'mekayem – within the Baruch She'amar, he was a bit puzzled. Generally, when we talk about a gezeira, or decree, we are referring to what we perceive of as a negative phenomenon, a seemingly evil decree. Why then are we thanking Hashem for carrying out this evil decree? The Rebbe pondered this phrase for days and days, attempting to ascertain exactly what this prayer was referring to. The Rebbe announced, "I will not leave this prison cell, even if I am freed, until I uncover the meaning behind this phrase." Finally, the insight came, the revelation dawned on him. The word 'u'mekayem' is generally misunderstood. It does not refer to the Ribono Shel Olam who carries out the decrees - the subject of the verse. But it refers to mankind, the object. Hashem enacts the decree and then, u'mekayem, Hashem gives us the strength to endure the decree, to withstand the trial. In understanding this verse, we must read it, "Blessed is He who decrees and gives the wherewithal to emerge victorious, to endure the decrees.


After months of tremendous international efforts, including the intervention of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, he was freed and emigrated immediately to America in 1960. Finally, in the spring of 1960, he was able to settle in the United States. He chose the U.S. over Israel so he could better help those who remained in Rumania. He was encouraged to open a yeshiva, but he said, "What would my yeshiva add to all the others? A person who wants to do a mitzva must ask how he can give the most 'pleasure' to G-d." Instead, he founded the "Chessed L'Avraham" network of schools to compete with leftist schools in Israel for the children of immigrants to that country.

In 1961, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia visited Israel for the first time. One of his side-trips was to a leftist kibbutz to forgive a Rumanian socialist who had been one of his fiercest opponents years before. (That man's descendants later became observant.) A woman told the following about the devotion of Rebbe: In Romania, her husband was a leftist in his political opinions, and a member of HaShomer HaTzair. He was imprisoned him under the charge of espionage. It is impossible to describe the assistance and the support which the Rebbe granted to this woman. Not only that, but he also succeeded in releasing the husband from prison and helping him to immigrate to Eretz Israel. The kindness of the Rebbe was instrumental in the man’s return to G-d, and today he is a Jew who observes Torah and mitzvot. From time to time they came to return and visit the Rebbe, to ask him for his blessing and to thank him for his kindness.

From Yehudis Samet's "Other Side of the Story":

An aide of the Skulener Rebbe, Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal, once related: Among the many people whom the Rebbe had rescued from Europe was a woman who had informed the Rumanian government of his religious activities, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. Why go to such effort and expense to save a person of her ilk?

“You have no idea how much she suffered beforehand, and how tempting the authorities make it to inform,” the Rebbe said with tears in his eyes.

Jonathan Rosenblum added:

Few of us will reach the level of the Skulener rebbe, but each of us can go a long way to bringing peace among ourselves by learning to turn a favorable eye on our fellow Jews.


The Rebbe continued his rescue and outreach efforts after arriving in America, visiting Israel eight times and establishing the Chessed L'Avraham organizations. Authoring Noam Eliezer and Kedushas Eliezer, he was musically inclined and composed many of today's popular Chassidishe melodies. Throughout his lifetime, he was a paragon of pidyon shvuyim, never resting until he helped the Jew in unfortunate circumstances. He was laid to rest in Monsey. His son, the present Skulener Rebbe, continues his father's holy work in America as well as in Israel.

Sources, in order:

Hevrat Pinto, a French website

Dei'ah V'Dibbur

The Jewish Press

The Rebbe’s Avodas Hashem and Niggunim:

The Skulener Rebbe was endowed with many fine characteristics which he applied to his Divine service, in particular his intense feel for music. As a “sweet singer of Israel”, he composed many melodies which are sung with enthusiasm until today, thus attracting the hearts of hundreds of young people, who, owing to him, remained just and fearing of G-d.

He prayed with an extraordinary enthusiasm, and very lengthily. One said: “Whoever did not see the prayers of the Skulener Rebbe never saw a real davening.” Those who did not hear at the melody which emanated and went up with deep concentration in his prayer, never witnessed how a heart can cling to the love of his Creator.

“One of the inyanim to singing is that it the niggunim can help one to appreciate the meaning and beauty of the words. I have found this to be true, such as at the Skulener Tish, most recently. It's not just while you are singing and hearing them as well, the niggunim continue to play in my mind as do the memories of seeing the Rebbe.”

My personal experience with the Rebbe ZT”L bears this out. I found him to be an incredible oved Hashem, who served his Creator with all his being. As mentioned, he davened very lengthily. It was not unusual for those with him to open a Gemara, Chumash, or other sefer to learn, while waiting for the Rebbe to finish Kriyas Shema or Shmoneh Esre. Nevertheless, no one became bored or wanted to leave, for they knew they were davening with someone really special.

His niggunim are very soulful, yet full of emotion and enthusiasm. He could sing “Kol Mekadesh” to a standard Chassidic Tish niggun, then intersperse it with his own niggunim such as “B’yom HaShabbos Sisu v’Simchu”, and get up and dance with everyone present. I also witnessed him interrupt the singing to give a Torah explanation to the words of part of a niggun [and then continue the melody]. Similarly, at Havdala, he would recite it normally, then when he came to “LaYehudim Haysa Orah,” he would sing his own niggun and start everyone off dancing. It was an incredible experience!

Besides the above-mentioned niggunim, the famous “Yamim al Ymei Melech” tune was composed by Rebbe Eliezer Zusia of Skulen. There are some seven recordings of his niggunim, and it appears that four of them are out of circulation [I couldn’t find them on the Web].

Skulener Niggunim, David Werdyger, Vol. I [1969]

Skulener Niggunim, David Werdyger, Vol. II [1977]

Shiru LaShem Shir Chadash [1982]

Baruch Hashem Asher Nasan Menucha [1983]

Padah B’Shalom Nafshi [1989]

Oy Oy Shabbos [1991]

Hoshiva Li [2000]

Zechuso Yagein Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael – May the Rebbe’s merits protect us all!

I heard a story at Simcha Beis Hashueva on Succos in the Amshinov Succha about the Rebbe. The story was that when he was taken prisoner by the Russians he was taken with his son the current Rebbe Shlita. They took the current Rebbe and hung him upside down. They started to whip him infront of his father and they would not stop until the Rebbe Z'tl told them where he was teaching the Jews Torah. His son said Tati be strong and don't tell them where the Jews are learning Torah. It was here that I heard the niggun LNafshi Shifchi Kamayim was composed.
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My Rebbe, shlita, was the Gabbai to the Rebbe, Rabbi Eliezer Zisya, from about 1974 until about the Rebbe', ztl petirah. The Rebbe, ztl's, Shacharis davening would last 2 1/2 hours, and my Rebbe would have to schlep Minyan in order the Skulener Rebbe, ztl would have a Minyan. Twenty and thirty years and more later those Yidden whom my Rebbe schlepped into the Skulener Rebbe ztl's minyan would express extreme gratitude to my Rebbe for having enable them to have the zechus of davening by the Skulner Rebbe, ztl. May the Skulener Rebbe, ztl's, neshama have an aliyah. May he be a meiletzer yosher for us in this dor. 30 Av 5774.
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