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[Page 401]


[Page 427]

Important Figures in Our Shtetl

Rabbi Yaacov Leib Heller, Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Komay
& Rabbi David Kamin

by Eliyahu Ribak z”l

When I think of the title Rabbi, my mind first dwells on the past rabbi from Ciechanowiec, Rabbi Yaacov Leib Heller, z”l. Rabbi Heller was an outstanding and righteous man who was already in his nineties when I was a lad of eight or nine.

Rabbi Yaacov Leib was known for his scholarship and charity. People would come from far and wide with questions for him and to listen to his discussions on religious decisions. His opinions were highly valued among the scholars of that generation. In addition, he came to be known as a Tzaddik and miracle worker, much against his will as he was not Hasidic. He did not preside over a Hasidic table and would not give or accept amulets. He was more in touch with the Mitnagdim and prayed in the Ashkenazic style of the Vilna Gaon. He was of the progressive rabbis , younger than him, like Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanon of Kovno, Rabbi Yeshua Ber of Brisk, Rabbi Lipele of Bialystok, Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim of Lodz, and Rabbi Shmuel Mohilewer.

Rabbi Yaacov Leib had no children of his own. His wife took in daughters of poor families and other orphans. She also took care of the Rabbi's pupils as he prepared them in Torah. All of these children were taught the traditional Jewish way of marriage and good deeds. Each relative or stranger who found shelter in the Rabbi's house was treated as a member of his own family. The purpose was to raise all these children as righteous Jews and after 120 years all of them would be equal heirs. The Rabbi's wife pre-deceased him by a few years. Rabbi Yaacov Leib, whom I remember as a short and stocky man, lived to his mid-nineties.

After his death, the position was filled by Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Komay of Vekshena in Kovno Guberniya, who later became dean of the Mir Yeshiva. I remember the outstanding reception for Rabbi Komay. Many rabbis and scholars from other communities came to Ciechanowiec to celebrate with the leaders of the community. Some arrived by train at the Czyzewo railroad station and took buggies from there to our shtetl. Others walked that distance. Those in the carriages stopped outside of Ciechanowiec, and the horses were unbridled. The dignitaries were then pulled by the townsfolk to where Rabbi Komay and other guests were assembled. Shouts were heard, “Make way, make way. Welcome to Ciechanowiec!” Music rose up from our bands filling the air with joyful melodies.

The community decided that the house of Itche Rosenbloom, where the former rabbi lived, should be expanded. A small synagogue stood in the yard. As was the normal procedure in our town, the house was also refurnished for the new rabbi.

Rabbi Komay immediately presided over the daily study of Talmud. Several impressive students were trained in his home. He started the lessons in early morning and never asked for any remuneration. I was fortunate in being one of his students in Talmud and in other biblical subjects.

Our town had another exceptional personality by the name of Rabbi David Kamin. He was the cantor, schochet and mohel. Tall and muscular, R' Kamin wore a beautifully combed long beard that had a wide separation in the middle. He sang with a choir and his sweet voice soared over the others. He was extremely knowledgeable in Hebrew and in religious music. People would come from other synagogues to listen as he sung the hymns. On the High Holy Days they would come in throngs. Even the Polish military and police, as well as government officials, would come as if they were attending an opera. They always expressed pleasure and tried to show how liberal they were through their presence. But rumors persisted that the Chief of Police, though he publicly gave the impression of enjoying the cantor's singing, would privately gripe when he intoned Kol Nidre and other prayers.

Rabbi Komay was our neighbor and good friend of our family. He had no children and was a wealthy and charitable man. He never charged for presiding over a Brit Milah; he did it as a mitzvah. He even supplied refreshments for the poor who attended the ceremony. He also helped poor pregnant women. Rabbi Komay's wife was also very good natured and charitable. She provided shelter to many poor children and made sure they received the necessities of life. Young boys who had good voices but could not afford training also found a home with the Komays.

When I left Ciechanowiec, the Cantor was middle age and in the prime of his capabilities. They lived in a brick house on Kowaleski Street. In addition to his professional duties, he taught Talmud. Years later in 1912, after the death of his wife, he moved to Eretz Yisrael. There, he was author of Bet David, a scholarly book on kosher slaughtering. It was recognized as an outstanding work.

[Page 449]

Moshe David Heller and the
Ciechanowiec Working Youth

by Bertche Shtiegal, America

I always respected those individuals who were devoted Zionists and Hebraicists; those energetic personalities who injected Zionistic ideals into the cultural life of our community. As the shamash (sexton) would awaken the people at sunrise to recite psalms, so did Moshe David Heller arouse the Jewish people to Zionistic pursuits and the need to teach the young people the Hebrew language.

I, myself, was a member of Poalei Zion and believed that I could live in Israel and speak our mamaloshen (mother tongue) Yiddish. However, I was very impressed with the sincerity, devotion, and integrity of Moshe David whenever he spoke about Zionism and Hebrew. When I was young, Moshe David insisted that I learn to speak Hebrew, the biblical language of our prophets. His teachings influenced me as to the real meaning of our history and why we must return to our home in Eretz Yisrael. Now, many years later, I understand just how correct Moshe David was. He was not a socialist but tolerated my leaning in that direction. He would tell me, “You believe in the Jewish return to freedom in our own land just as I do. We are fortunate to have been born in this exciting period of Jewish history when we are privileged to witness with our own eyes how a small population of Jewish workers are laying the foundation for the building of our homeland in Eretz Yisrael.”

We thirsted for knowledge during those days of our youth. Evening classes were established in the Tarbut School building. Moshe David taught us Hebrew without charge. He awakened all youth that came to him - from the middle class, the workers, and those from the poorest families. Everyone was taught by him with the same passion. It mattered little whether they had money to support the program. When the Tarbut school was built on the property of the large synagogue, Moshe David was the one who organized the teaching staff. The main language of instruction was Hebrew and in a very short time the majority of young people in Ciechanowiec spoke our reborn ancient language. The songs we sang were those of Chaim Nachman Bialik, Saul Chernikhowsky, and others. We would march through the fields and forests and our voices would loudly and proudly burst forth in Hebrew song.

Moshe David Heller was a true pioneer. His singular focus could be characterized as very stubborn, even fanatic, but he was a man of great integrity. With zeal and devotion, he envisioned the future of the Jewish people. I remember when he was very ill and could hardly speak. He was forbidden to teach. Nevertheless, he attended our meetings and lovingly listened to our Zionistic speeches. He would forget his own pain and illness as he watched the young pioneers prepare to make aliyah to Israel. His face would shine from happiness as his eyes beheld the fruits of his labor.

The fine personal attributes of Moshe David became evident during the strike of Tarbut School teachers. He spoke against the strike, stating, “I will not stop teaching Hebrew and Zionism, even if I was paid nothing.”

Moshe David Heller lived long enough to realize his dream of aliyah to Israel. He saw with his own eyes the new kibbutzim, moshavim and the rising towns and cities. These were his pupils who were building the land with the love that he had implanted in their hearts and souls.

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