#129 (s5760-29/22Adar II)


In the displaced persons' camp in March 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe, sought to obtain wheat that he could bake into “shmurah matzah.”


by Dr. Yisroel Susskind, Pittsburgh

Torah tells us that the desire to engage in social acts of loving-kindness is one of the three basic characteristics of the Jewish soul. How do we elicit this characteristic in our own daily behavior and in our children?

Both Torah and psychology agree that the telling of stories is a very powerful teaching and motivational tool. We Orthodox Jews are very fortunate that our weekly cycle has us regularly sharing stories with our families over Shabbat and Holiday meals. I would like to share with you a story that moved me deeply, which relates to this characteristic of loving kindness and mutual responsibility.

Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal (1896-1982), the Skulener [pronounced skoo-LEH-ner] Rebbe, was the Chassidic Rebbe from a small town, Sculeni, in what was then northeastern Romania (now Ukraine). Toward the end of World War II, in March of 1945, he found himself, along with other holocaust survivors and displaced persons, in the Russian-governed town of Czernovitz, Bukovina. Although Germany would not officially surrender until May 7, much of Eastern Europe had already been liberated by the Russian army.

Passover was only weeks away. Although some Passover foodstuffs might well be provided by charitable organizations, the Rebbe sought to obtain wheat that he could bake into properly-guarded and traditionally baked "shmurah matzah". Despite the oppressive economic situation of the Jews, he was able to bake a limited number of these matzahs. He sent word to other Chassidic Rebbes in the region, offering each of them 3 -and only 3- matzahs.

One week before Pesach, Rabbi Moshe Hager, the son of the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, came for the matzahs that had been offered to his father, Rabbi Boruch Hager. After being handed the allotted 3 matzahs, he said to the Skulener Rebbe: "I know that you sent word that you could give only 3 matzahs, but nonetheless my father, the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, told me to tell you that he must have 6 matzahs." The Skulener felt that he had no choice but to honor the request, albeit reluctantly.

On the day before Pesach, R. Moshe returned to the Skulener Rebbe, saying "I want to return 3 of the matzahs to you."
"But I don't understand. I thought your father absolutely had to have 6
"My father said to ask whether you had saved any of the
shmurah matzah for yourself?"
Embarrassed, the Skulener replied, "How could I, when so many others needed?"
"My father assumed that is what you would do," explained R. Moshe. "These 3
matzahs are for you!"

I learned this story at the Passover seder of Dr. Tzvi-Yehuda Saks, a brilliant and Jewishly-passionate Pittsburgher. Subsequently, I found out that a version of it is published in Rabbi Paysach Krohn's collection, Echoes of the Maggid (p.50). I was so touched by hearing it that I was obsessed that Passover to verify its credibility and to learn more about the Skulener Rebbe.

I found out that the Imre Chaim Rebbe of Viznitz told his Chassidim in Bnai Brak, "If we had known who the Skulener really was, we would have put on our shtreimels and Shabbos clothes and waded up to our noses in the Haifa harbor to meet him when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel from Romania the first time."

People I spoke to said that when you saw the Skulener Rebbe, you immediately sensed that he was a special, caring, refined, "aydeleh" Jew. He was known as an exceptionally pure person, who invested long blocks of time in prayer. ("You could go out and chat, and have a cigarette, while the Skulener was reciting the evening Sh'ma, and return to the minyan before he had finished. Many regulars wouldn't even start maariv until then! Visitors, on the other hand, would stand close to him to listen in open-mouthed fascination to his powerful drawn-out words."). He was also a master of nigunim [religious melodies]. Yrachmiel Tilles, a notorious storyteller at Ascent of Tsfat and a good friend, claims that he personally witnessed the Skulener Rebbe "download a tune from Heaven."

I found out that the Skulener Rebbe was highly respected by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Yaisi Deren, of Pittsburgh, told me that whenever the Skulener came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's morning minyan, the Rebbe would give his aliya to the Skulener. Rabbi Deren said he knew of no one else to whom the Rebbe gave that honor. It makes sense that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose life epitomizes "Ahavat Yisrael " [love of our fellow Jews], would so value the Skulener.

Rabbi Sholom Kalmanson, of Cincinnati, told me that the Rebbe had in fact been instrumental in enabling the Skulener Rebbe to emigrate from Romania and to enter the United States. In the late 1950's, the Rebbe asked a prominent, non-Hasidic Rabbi in Cincinnati, Eliezer Silver, to intervene with the U.S. State Department and with the Romanian ambassador on behalf of the Skulener. Rabbi Silver, who had been close to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, was successful and the Skulener Rebbe came to America.

The Skulener Rebbe had a major impact as a person committed to saving imprisoned Jews (pidyon sh'vuyim). In chapter 19 of the memoirs of Rabbi Binyamin Gorodetzky, who was the Lubavitcher Rebbe's emissary for "secret operations" in Europe and North Africa, Rabbi Gorodetzky describes how the Skulener Rebbe enlisted the help of Lubavitch and of the Joint Distribution Committee to free Jews who were imprisoned in Rumania. The Skulener reported that for $2,000.00, a Jewish prisoner could be released and permitted to emigrate from Rumania secretly with his family. At that time, communist Rumania did not permit emigration. From 1960 to 1962, a total of 400 families, including over 200 individuals, were saved. One of these prisoners was the father of Zishe Gutman, who became an owner of the Kosher food market in Pittsburgh. By 1963, the Israeli authorities became involved in seeking general permission for all Jews in Rumania to have the right to emigrate.

Once, in the mid-seventies, Rabbi Boruch Akiva Greenberg, of Brooklyn, delivered gifts of money for Pesach from the Skulener Rebbe to a number of people throughout Israel. He states that each one of them, whether observant or not, referred to the Skulener as "Tatteh" [father]. Probably they were among the Jews that the Skulener had rescued from Rumania.

On 29 Av 5742 (8/29/82), the Skulener Rebbe passed on. His son, Grand Rabbi Israel Avraham Portugal, is the current Skulener Rebbe. He resides in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn.

I still ask myself why I became so obsessed in seeking out the details of this story? Perhaps I found a clue. In Rabbi Gorodetzky's book, there is a copy of a letter that mentions, as an aside, the names of 3 of the prisoners. No other name of the 2,000 rescued appears. One of the 3 is "case #155, Weinberg". Although my last name is Susskind, I am a Weinberger from Stropkov, Slovakia, through both of my parents. Could it be that this Weinberg was a relative? Or is it just that all of us Jews are family?

We are urged by our Rebbe to show great love to our fellow Jews. May it be in the merit of such love that G-d chooses to bless us with the Redemption immediately, now.


Dr. Susskind is a psychologist (Ph.D., Yale '69) who lives in Pittsburgh. He also counsels internationally over the telephone. He lectures nationally and also authors a regular column, "Soul and Psyche: Torah insights and family psychology." The above is an edited revision of his article that appeared in The Chabad Times (of Southern Ohio), April, 1999.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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