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[Page 52]

Religious Functionaries, Religious Institutions and Tzedakah Societies


Isaac Kesler

Hasidim, Misnagdim and Religious Chevras/Societies

When Reb Avramele Ciechanower was a Rov in the town, he had a great influence on all the inhabitants of Ciechanow. He influenced the religious and social life in town.

The Rov organized the following societies: Hakhnasat Kallah (assistance to poor brides), Pidyon Sh'viim (rescuing prisoners) and also a Chevra Bikur Cholim (society for visiting the sick). From the thousands of Jews who came from the surrounding cities for Shabbes and Yom Tov to his table, Reb Avramele took money for poor brides for naden (dowry),to rescue Jews from military service, as well as for hospitals for the poor.

Rov Shlomo Zeidenfeld, a very learned man, who was head of the Rabbanut in Ciechanow, in 1890, had little influence on the social life of the Jews there. He just devoted his time to answering religious matters and religious judgments but interfered very little in the communal life. He took over the living quarters in the Bet Din that was together with the Bais Medresh.

The Kehillah leadership was divided, at that time, into three branches/sections, elected by a vote of the Jewish population. But the only ones who had a right to vote were those who paid taxes to the Jewish Kehillah. One of those, without whose agreement nothing could be done, was Yenkel Lakh. The other two – Yosl Kahane and Yishakar Chechanover, who were wealthier people. After 1905, when the tradesmen managed to exert some influence in the Kehillah, one of the three most important people was Leib Kanarick, a tailor.

The religious leader, Reb Henekh Perlmutter, belonged to an extensive family in Ciechanow, intelligent people, but not leaders of religious life. One of his sons was Ephraim Perlmutter, who was very learned in Yiddish and worldly knowledge. He did not attempt, however, to take his father's place. When Reb Henekh died, his place was taken by Reb Yosele, a fanatically religious Jew but not very scholarly.


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Nearly the complete population of Ciechanow was divided amongst Hasidim and Mitnagdim. The Rov, Reb Raphael Moishe Zazenband, the son-in-law of Rebbe Reb Avramele, carried on with a table with Hasidim. The wealthier Jews of Ciechanow as well as those from surrounding cities grouped themselves around the Rebbe. They spent their Shabbosim and Yomtovim with the Rebbe. There were also shtiblech in the shtetl: Gerer, Alexander and Atvosker.

In the shtiblech the Hasidim lived out their lives both religiously and socially. In every shtetl there was a spiritual leader. In the Gerer – Mashkers; in the Alexander one – Dovche Ciechanower. The majority of those who davened in the shtibl knew very little about Hasidim. They considered themselves as people of a higher standing and instead of living out their lives in the Bais Hamedresh or in the shul amongst the working people, the merchants preferred to go to the Hasidim who were not workers.

In Ciechanow there was a cobbler who knew how to learn – Shilem Strepliak. He was not admitted to the community of learners, though, because he was a cobbler, so he took revenge on the learned ones through letting them have it in a stinging and humorous manner.

Once a Magid came to Ciechanow. After his drash in the Bais Hamedresh, he stood with a cup at the door so that when people left the Bais Hamedresh they should pay him. So Shilem Strepliak approached him and asked: “And how goes it with parnoseh?” The Magid replied: “Not good.” Shilem said to him: “Our parnoses also are no good. So the Magid asked him: “So who are you?” So Shilem replied: “I am also a cobbler” -- with such biting jokes he would tease the Magid's learners.

There was also a yeshiva in town where boys from various cities came to learn and ate “days” by the local population. At the end of the nineteenth century the yeshiva, for economic reasons, closed. A certain number of the local children, after they left the cheder, learned in the Bais Hamedresh from pre-dawn until late at night. In the evenings, when everything was quiet, one could hear the singing of learners in the streets around the Bais Hamedresh.

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The Bais Hamedresh boys used to split up into three groups. The older ones used to decide what sort of books to buy and what to learn. The younger ones helped teach the newcomers, and the youngest ones used to go around to the houses every Thursday to collect money to repair books.

It was a custom to invite boys to perform before a wedding for the groom, Shabbes before the wedding, and also before the badekn of the bride. For this purpose the wealthy of the town used to invite the Bais Hamedresh boys to their simchas.

Moishe Fuchs

Reb Yosele Dayan and his Son the Kadosh, Reb Ephraim

Ciechanow had three dayanim. The eldest was Reb Nachman Perlmutter. He was already dayan in the time of Reb Avramele Ciechanower Z”L. There is very little information about him. He did not live in my generation. I remember only his son and grandson. He was called Reb Yosele. He had a strict. earnest face. I do not remember ever seeing him smile. He was a man, very strict in Halacha. So he was very careful with what he said. He did not look at the person, only at the din (religious judgment).

Butchers were deathly afraid of him. When there was a question concerning a cow, people already knew that the reply to a sh'ailah would always receive a treif judgment, and when he would sometimes find by a poor woman a question regarding a pipik of a fowl, and he knew that if he will consider it treif the woman would have to go hungry, he would plead with her to go with the question to the Rov. Characteristically, nobody was angry with him. It was known that he was the last of the tzadikim cheder and that he is very afraid of making a mistake in halacha.

Many hours in the day Reb Yosele used to sit in the Bais Hamedresh, deep in study of a difficult problem. Everyone treated him with much respect. He always prayed on time according to the Tzadik's Ashkenazi way.

Still, people said that from time to time he would go in to the Sfat Emet Z”L, but his behavior was an Ashkenazi one. In community matters also he stuck to the halacha. He strongly objected to all the Parties that arose in his time. He had a positive attitude only to the Agudat Yisroel. But even in this religious party he was not active. He was always occupied with Torah study.

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On Friday, an hour before candle-lighting, Reb Yosele Dayan used to go around in the streets, dressed in a shtreimel and Shabbes clothes and plead: “Jews, light candles. Close your stores. Shabbes is approaching “ One could note the worry on his face at this time, lest someone desecrate the Shabbes. The storekeepers started to rush out the customers with the shout: “Reb Yosele is coming. Reb Yosele is coming.” The stores got closed and the shtetl assumed a true attitude of Shabbat rest.

Fathers and their children rushed to shul, Bais Hamedresh, and to shtiblech in order to greet the holy Shabbat.

In the Bais Hamedresh, where Reb Yosele davened, the members of the Psalm Readers group assembled, older tradesmen who strongly respected Reb Yosele. Nachman, the shamesh, gave a knock at the shul and announced that Shabbat is being greeted. It was still daylight outside.

Reb Yosele lived to a deep old age. I do not remember the exact date of his death, but I remember the funeral. Rabbonim gathered, from the whole area, to eulogize him, and the city deeply mourned the passing of this great Jew, Reb Yosele.

After his death his son Reb Ephraim took over by us as the dayan. He was decidedly different from his father: He was a passionate Gerer Hasid, very esteemed by the Rebbe and in the Gerer courtyard. Reb Ephraim's face always had a sweet smile for every Jew. He felt everyone's pain and rejoiced at everyone's joy. A quiet, gentle Jew, Reb Ephraim was almost always sitting and studying, but one could feel that in his heart there was a burning love for every Jew. He put his heart into every aspect of Halacha. He saw the Torah as a Torah of Life. He served the Almighty with joy and had a purpose in his life on earth.

Reb Ephraim drew close to himself boys who studied Torah. He considered human beings as a part of Godliness, and because of this he was greatly loved by all, both Hasidim and Misnagdim.

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In the midst of his spiritual, highly acclaimed activity, the war broke out with its tragic consequences. The pious dayan saw the destruction of his Kehillah. His heart was torn apart with pain for the suffering of the Jews. He prepared himself to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem. He took strict care of his beard, so as not to let the Nazi murderers cut it off. He went around with his face wrapped in a kerchief.

Benjamin Apel, who presently lives in Detroit, told me that his father, one of the fiery followers of Reb Ephraim Z”L, had once seen him as he looked, so he started to cry bitterly and asked: “This is Torah and this is its reward?”

The dayan, Reb Ephraim, consoled his Hasid, that it is not the time to mourn. It is necessary to prepare for the act of giving up ones soul. “The One on high wants me to fulfill the sacred text words: 'With your whole soul even to the death.' -- was the way Reb Ephraim interpreted the words.

The Hitlerite murderers captured Reb Ephraim and issued the decree – to be shot in the castle. The beasts teased him: “Nu, let's see how your God can help you.”

Proudly, with his head held high, the pious dayan made his last way, deep in thought about Kiddush Hashem.

The tortured Jews had to witness how their Rov was being led to the execution. His wife pleaded with the Gestapo murderers to let her die together with her great husband.

The Germans showed their generosity and allowed the dayan, Reb Ephraim Z”L, to be shot together with his wife.

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M. Fuchs

The Ciechanow Hazzanim (Cantors)

There were very few modern Hazzanim in Ciechanow. Until recently, the shtetl only had prayer leaders. One of them was Reb Yaacov Hillel. When I got to know him, he was already an elderly Jew, tall, with a yellowish beard. He had a fine voice. He davened the Musafim in the shul and in the Bais Hamedresh. Shachrisim others davened, as in the shtiblech. He was also shoichet and mohel.

His heartfelt prayers penetrated the hearts of the men. Until World War I he was recognized as a good prayer leader.

In the Bais Hamedresh, Mendl Shokhet also davened. He was a pious Jew, respected by all.

When the shtetl started to modernize and the youth were no longer drawn to shul, the gabbayim decided that it was necessary to bring a modern chazzan who will influence the youth. The first one was Reb Elimelech Gotheimer, a young man from Lodz, an Alexander Hasid. He had a fine tenor voice, and was also a good Shochet. I was privileged to be amongst his first choir-boys. Understandably, he could not read notes very well, but for Ciechanow it was a novelty to hear Mikalkel Chaim in four voices. His brilliant tenor was also heard outside of the shul, that was always packed with people. When the cultural life of the town developed further, choirs and musical groups were organized so the regular shul goers wanted to benefit from a modern chazzan.

So Chazzanim started to apply. Every Shabbes a Chazzan visited our town. Lovers of religious music filled the shul. It was difficult to find a suitable candidate because he had to be both a Chazzan and a Shoichet.

After much searching, the right expert was found in all respects, Reb Laizer Baruchovich from Novidvor. Reb Laizer was the teacher of Eisenshtadt, the famous director of the Tlomatzker Synagogue in Warsaw.

It was a festive occasion when Reb Laizer came from Novidvor with a choir that numbered thirty people. When I recall his praying, I feel to this day the elevation of the spirit from Reb Laizer's choir from his cantorial musical tricks. People forgot about food and drink, and stood with bated breath to catch a fresh melody and to be enthralled by the beautiful singing. Reb Laizer became the darling of the town.

I was one of his first choir-boys and sang solo. Reb Laizer organized a good choir of all voices that are necessary, and started to teach the choir-boys how to read notes. In time, the choir developed into an important musical institution that concerned itself with religious music.

Laizer's son -- Yechiel -- was the main tenor and director. Now he is a chazzan in America. Reb Laizer perished with his family in Neishteter ghetto.

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Simcha Fuchs

Shoichtim, Shamesim and Religious Institutions

The Kehillah in Ciechanow, just as in every Jewish shtetl in Poland, attended to its religious needs in these ways:

1) Talmud Torah
2) Shuls for davening
3) Mikvehs
4) Chevra Kadisha and cemetery
5) Pay for Rabbonim/Shoichtim, Shamesim etc.

Under the pressure of the worldly members, the activities broadened. Subsidies were given for learning institutions and libraries, understandably under condition that the upper hand should still be with the religious and philanthropic institutions. The religious functionaries that the Kehillah supported consisted of : Rov, religious head, and the shoichtim such as Reb Eliezer Baruchovich – Chazzan and Shoichet, Reb Elimelach and Reb Menachem.

The majority of the town's shoichtim also had the authority to be the prayer leaders during the High Holidays. Ciechanow Jews considered themselves fortunate to have as Chazzan the great prayer leader, Eliezer Baruchovich. This was a Jew of great stature, a learned man. He composed several compositions and had quite a choir group. Every year, for the High Holidays, he would prepare new compositions.

Jews who liked choral music came, for this reason, to daven in the great shul during the High Holidays.

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Amongst the religious functionaries we must also include the two Shamesim: Reb Pinhas from the shul, and the shames of the Bais Hamedresh.

Beside the shtot-shul and Bais Hamedresh there were also many shtiblech. There were also a few minyanim of tradesmen: tailors, cobblers, and the night-shelter for the needy also had a minyan.


The Religious Educational Institutions and the Philanthropic Institutions

The cheder of Trallin, as it was called, had a resounding name. Who did not learn in Trallin? This cheder was on the Yiddishe Street. The teachers of Reb Mordecai Trinamon Reb Shlomo Zalman Levcovitch and Ziskind learned in the Talmud Torah. Also active was a Yeshiva K'tana named after Reb Avramele Ciechanower Z”L. It was called Yeshiva Bais Avraham. Its leader was Reb Avraham.

The Bais Yaacov School was the beloved institution of the Agudah of Reb Yoel Dovid Weingarten. In the Yavna School, children of Zionist parents studied.

Kindergarten of the Bais-Yaacov School with the teacher, Freedman
Kindergarten of the Bais-Yaacov School with the teacher, Freedman

Picture Index

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There were also some philanthropic institutions in the shtetl whose job it was to help the needy with loans. For example: the G'milat Chesedim, established by Moishe Klinger and others established by Shmuel Fuchs.

The chevra Linat Hatzedek supported the sick. The Burial Society was also an important institution. It provided for a Jewish burial. The gabbayim were Reb Yisroel Yaacov Student, Reb Avraham Freedman. The Chevra Kadisha was an old institution and had a list of rules that every member had to observe. For instance, they had a custom that for Shmini Atzeret they must all daven in shul with the Rov, and all the gabbayim received an aliyah.

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