#561(s5768-51 / 25 Menachem-Av 5768)

The Father of Orphans

Many men in Israel call Rabbi Eliezer Zusia Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe, "father-in-law," even though he had no daughters.

The Father of Orphans


Rabbi Eliezer Zusia Portugal, 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 Rabbi Eliezer Zusia's accomplishments, he urged him to move to Chernowitz, where he could serve a larger community. Rabbi 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 cared for some three hundred of them, all of whom called him "Tatteh" ("Daddy" in Yiddish). Almost all of them settled in Israel and remained observant Jews.

(Many people in Israel claim to be sons-in-law of the Skulener Rebbe, and call him their father-in-law. This sounded strange because the Skulener did not have girls of his own at all. Then the mystery became understood: the orphaned ones were regarded as his daughters, and the Rebbe had married them off to men who were then regarded as his sons-in-law.)

Because of these activities, the Skulener was persecuted, and sometimes tortured, 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 as did the Rumanians. 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 Israel. Two weeks before Passover in 1959, the Skulener was imprisoned with his son. 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 Israel and spying for the US and Israel. They were jailed for five months.

Despite the danger, the Skulener 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.

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, and also over 200 individuals, were saved.
* * *
When the Skulener Rebbe was imprisoned in Rumania, he determined to use his time wisely. He began to review all the daily prayers, to insure that when he would pray he would do so knowing the full meaning and intent of every word. When he reached a certain phrase, "Baruch gozer u'mekayem" ("Blessed is He who decrees and fulfills - from the Baruch She'amar blessing), he was a bit puzzled. Generally, when we talk about a decree, we are referring to what we perceive of as a negative, seemingly evil phenomenon. Why then do we thank Him for carrying out evil decrees?

The Skulener pondered this phrase for days and days, attempting to ascertain exactly what was the intent of this prayer. He even announced, "I will not leave this prison cell, even if I am freed, until I uncover the meaning behind this phrase."

Finally, insight came; revelation dawned upon him. The word "fulfills" does not refer to the Al-mighty who issues the decrees -- the subject of the verse. It refers to mankind, the object. G-d enacts the decree and also gives (or has given) us the strength to endure it, to withstand the trial. In understanding this verse, we must read it, "Blessed is He who decrees and enables us to fulfill."
* * *
After months of tremendous international efforts, including the intervention of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold (and the influence at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of a prominent, non-Hasidic Rabbi in Cincinnati, Eliezer Silver, to intervene at the U.S. State Department and with the Romanian ambassador on behalf of the Skulener), the Skulener Rebbe was freed. He emigrated immediately. Finally, in the spring of 1960, he was able to settle in the United States. He chose America over Israel so he could better help those who remained in Rumania.

When he was encouraged to open a yeshiva in his new country, his response was, "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 the end of the years that he lived in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, in the mid 70's, the Skulener shul did not always have a morning minyan, due to the extraordinary length of the Skulener Rebbe's prayers and the fact that most of his Chasidim no longer lived in that section of Brooklyn. On many such occasions the Skulener Rebbe would go to the main Lubavitcher shul, which is located in that neighborhood. If the Lubavitcher Rebbe was present and it was a day when the Torah was read, the Lubavitcher would give his aliya to the Skulener. It is not clear that anyone else was ever given that honor by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
* * *
In 1961, Rabbi Eliezer Zusia visited Israel for the first time. One of his side-trips was to a left-wing 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 the Skulener Rebbe: In Romania, her husband was an extreme leftist in his political opinions. He was imprisoned under the charge of espionage. She said it is impossible to describe the assistance and the support which the Rebbe granted her. Not only that, but he also succeeded in obtaining the release of the husband from prison and helped him to immigrate to 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 would travel to visit the Rebbe, to ask him for his blessing and to thank him for his kindness.

An aide of the Skulener Rebbe 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.
* * *
The Skulener Rebbe was endowed with many fine characteristics which he applied to his Divine service, in particular his intense feeling and talent for music. As a "sweet singer of Israel", he composed many Chasidic melodies which are sung with enthusiasm until today, drawing the hearts of Jews across the spectrum.

He prayed with an extraordinary enthusiasm, and very lengthily. It has been said: "Whoever did not see the prayers of the Skulener Rebbe never saw a real davvening." Those who did not witness the intensity of his prayers and hear the melody which accompanied his deep concentration, never witnessed how a heart can cling to the love of his Creator.

It was not unusual for those in his minyan to open a Gemara, Chumash, or other holy book 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 praying together with someone really special.

His niggunim are very soulful, yet full of emotion and enthusiasm. Sometimes he would interrupt the singing to give a Torah explanation to some of the words of a song 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! (says Yitz)

On occasion he would suddenly halt whatever he was doing and sit at full attention. Everyone present would freeze as the Rebbe began to hum a new tune never heard before. Eventually they would join in and a new Skulener niggun would be officially born. (I personally witnessed this one Shabbat night -YT)

The Skulener Rebbe continued his rescue and outreach efforts after arriving in America, visiting Israel eight times and establishing the Chessed L'Avraham netwrork of charity organizations and schools. Throughout his lifetime, he was a paragon of kindness and the mitzva of 'redeeming captives.' He passed away in 1982. His son, Rabbi Yisrael Avraham Portugal, the present Skulener Rebbe, continues his father's holy work in America as well as in Israel.


[Adapted, contracted and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from the impressive anthology of linked sources by my old friend "Yitz" at http://heichalhanegina.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_archive.html , a highly recommended site for chasidic bios and stories, and especially music, and with some added information compiled by Dr. Yisroel Susskind, a great Jew, highly regarded therapist, and good friend living now in Monsey, NY.]

Biographical note:
Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal [1 Cheshvan, 1898 - 29 Av 1982], the Skulener Rebbe, immigrated to the USA in 1960, after imprisonment in Rumania and international efforts to secure his release. He is the author of Noam Eliezer and Kedushas Eliezer, and was a prominent follower of the Shtefaneshter Rebbe, but is best known for his superhuman efforts to rescue Jewish orphans and refugees in Eastern Europe before, during and after WWII and his continuing support of them, and his Chessed L'Avraham network of schools for children that continue until today. Those who merited to be in his presence were astonished by the length of his prayers and the beauty and intensity of the tunes that he composed, many of which have become internationally famous today.

Yerachmiel 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, and many have been translated into other languages.

A 48 page soft-covered booklet containing eleven of his most popular stories may be ordered on our store site.

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