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Rabbi Ruven Yehuda Neufeld, the Last Rabbi of Nowy Dwor

by Dov Berish First, Tel Aviv

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In memory of my father, Yisroel Khaim First, the dear friend of Rabbi Neufeld

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Rabbi Ruven Yehuda Neufeld,
of blessed memory

Sick and broken, the last rabbi of Nowy Dwor–– the saintly son of a saintly man, Reb [respectful term of address] Ruven Yehuda bar [son of] Avraham Neufeld – was carried in a handcart to the umshlagplatz [Ger., place where Jews were assembled for transport to concentration camps] in Warsaw. He had been the rabbi of Nowy Dwor for 35 years, until the day of judgment when he and his congregation departed for the Warsaw Ghetto.

The number of Jews from Nowy Dwor in the Warsaw Ghetto grew ever smaller. Hunger and typhus had done their work and the German rulers saw to it that only a small handful of exhausted and starving Jews remained from the once large community. When they were ordered to assemble on the umshlagplatz, the rabbi was already unable to walk. But because the number of people reporting had to match the exact figure kept by the punctilious Germans, they would not excuse him; he was crammed into a handcart, and that was the last road taken by this great rabbi of a small town.

 

The Road to the Rabbinical Post in Nowy Dwor

It was 1904. Russia, the giant with feet of clay, had entered into a risky war with Japan. The part of Poland that was under Russian rule was drawn into the war, and its sons were sent to slaughter at the front. There were already stirrings in the revolutionary underground that would lead to the uprising of 1905. At the same time, the small Jewish community of Nowy Dwor was waging its own internal war, and the town was left without a rabbi.

The former rabbi, Reb Mendele Landau, had become a rabbi in Zaviertsh, and Nowy Dwor was confronted with the need to hire a new rabbi. There were many candidates for the post, because although Nowy Dwor was not a large town, it was considered one of the more prosperous established towns in Poland, with a number of rich residents offering prospects for a respectable salary

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for a rabbi. Thus, there were many applicants and there began a parade of candidates.

The town was in an uproar. Every couple of days a new man of stately appearance showed up and delivered a speech to the congregation in the synagogue. Every one of them was trying hard to win over the audience, displaying his knowledge and facility in Torah and in politics. After each speech, people would divide into followers and opponents of the candidate, until after many disputes and quarrels, two candidates emerged: Rabbi Reb Yonah Zlotnik from the neighboring town of Zakrotshin and Rabbi Reb Yehuda Neufeld, who was then a rabbi in the small, remote town of Ratsianzh.

Reb Yehuda Zlotnik was a very unassuming person and a great religious scholar and already one of the best known leaders of the religious Zionist movement. Along with Rabbis Raynes and Mohilever, the precursors of Mizrachi [religious Zionist organization], Rabbi Zlotnik had supporters among the few maskilim–“Litvaks” – and the religious middle class.[1]

Reb Ruven Yehuda Neufeld did not lag behind his opponent in learning and wisdom. In addition, he had a more energetic, combative character, was involved with the social issues of the day, and was an impressive speaker. He could hold the interest of his audience for hours with a speech that combined Torah, religious argumentation, and secular matters. For the Hasidic circles, who at that time constituted a majority in the town, he also had the great advantage of being an ardent follower of the “Grand Old Man of the Aleksander Hasidim,” as he was called by the scholar of Polish Hasidism, Rabbi Avraham Yitshak Gomberg. Another of his merits as a candidate was that he was a son–in–law of Nowy Dwor. His wife, the future rebetsn [rabbi's wife] was the daughter of a man from Nowy Dwor, Moyshe Yankl Blat, a very wealthy government contractor and an ardent Radziminer Hasid. The

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Rabbi Reb Mendl Landoy at a Mizrachi convention in Warsaw, September 1919.
From right to left, first row: Reb Mendl Landoy (Zaviertshe), Reb Moyshe Avigdor Emial (Grayeve)
Second row: Reb Yitshak Yehuda Trunk (Kutno), Reb Yehusial Zalman Graubard (Bendin), Reb Shmuel Brod (Lipne), Reb Yehuda Leyb Zlotnik (Gombin)

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Radziminer Hasidim were then very influential in the town's religious circles, because their leaders included several very keen Torah scholars like the dayan [religious judge] Reb Shloyme Fridman (son of Reb Shloyme Leyzer, who took his father– in– law's name); Reb Pintshe Guterman (a relative and member of the court of the Radziminer rebe [Hasidic rabbi] Reb Shloyme Guterman and also a brother–in–law of Rabbi Neufeld); and Reb Menashe Vronski (a major supplier of meat to the Modliner garrison).

The Gerer Hasidim, who for a long time were at odds with the Aleksander Hasidim, at first were reluctant to choose an Aleksander Hasid for their town rabbi. But they agreed to his appointment after receiving a directive from Ger, because it was assumed that when Rabbi Ruven Yehuda Neufeld left the post of rabbi of Ratsianzh, he would be replaced by his brother, Rabbi Berish Neufeld, a Gerer Hasid and a very pious Jew and an upright person and a constant presence at the Gerer court.

The official representatives of the Jewish community at that time were Reb Peyshe Frankl and Reb Binyomin Yungrits. Frankl was a major wine merchant and the owner of a delicatessen store in his large building at the end Zakrotshin Street across from the market place. Yungrits, brother of the renowned artist Boaz Yungrits, was a big military contractor and later was well known in Warsaw as a man of wealth and a longtime gabai [administrator] in the Nazhik Synagogue. They both had a lot of money and a lot of power. Both were stern, stubborn men whose word was law. They placed all their authority behind Rabbi Neufeld.

We should also mention the “eminence grise” in this story of community intrigue. I mean Reb Yeheskl Segalovitsh, nicknamed “Khatskele Shames [sexton]”, a devoted, clever Jew, with small beady eyes and a saccharine sweet smile on his little face. You could never tell what that smile really meant. He also helped to get Rabbi Neufeld elected. After Rabbi Neufeld took up his post, he helped the rabbi get oriented to all the spats and intrigues in the town, and he was for many years a member of the rabbinical court.

All of these townsmen smoothed the way for Rabbi Neufeld to obtain the rabbinical seat, and everything worked out well. Rabbi Neufeld's brother Reb Berish became the rabbi in Ratsianzh and the Zakrotsher rabbi, Yonah Zlotkin, who lost to Rabbi Neufeld, got his satisfaction when he was chosen to be rabbi in Plotsk, the provincial seat.

Rabbi Zlotkin, however, had to wait several years for this “satisfaction.” Immediately after Neufeld's election, which he felt had been handled dishonestly, he published in the then popular Hebrew–language newspaper Hatsifirah a biting article entitled “The Rabbinical Seat that was Bought” that caused a stir in the rabbinical world. Neufeld then took revenge on the Zakrotsher rabbi by taking away his control over the religious slaughter of animals in Modlin. This control and license over the shokhtim [sing.shoykhet: ritual slaughterers] who served the Modlin garrison was of course a major source of income. The shokhtim were from Nowy Dwor and the kosher meat was sold by Nowy Dwor butchers. So Rabbi Neufeld forbade the shokhtim from reporting to the Zakrotsher rabbi and took over the control himself.

This matter was the subject of disputes and rabbinical courts for many years, almost until the eve of the First World War. It appears that both

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of the learned opponents reckoned with the Talmudical saying precept, “Any Torah scholar who does not take revenge or bear a grudge is not a true Torah scholar.”

 

Family Pedigree and Personal Prestige

Reb Ruben Yehuda Neufeld was born in Wegrow in 1869. His father Reb Avraham was a wealthy shoe merchant who died a martyr in the Bialystok pogrom while he was in that city on business. He gave his sons a rigorous Talmudic education and made every effort to have them become religious scholars and rabbis. That was the greatest thing that a rich Jew could aspire to 100 years ago.

On his father's side, Rabbi Neufeld came from a prominent family from Krakow. On his mother's side, the family traces back to the renowned gaon [brilliant, eminent Talmudic scholar] Reb Yom Tov Lipman, Segal [elder of the tribe of Levi], an expert in Talmudic commentary.

As a boy he studied with the most renowned rabbis of the day, such as the Wegrow Rabbi, Reb Yekheskl and the Warsaw Rabbi, Reb Psakhie. Later he studied with the rabbi of the yeshiva in Povanzek (near Warsaw), Reb Yisroel Yitskhak, who was a star pupil of the Gerer Rebe, the innovative Torah scholar. He received authorization to make rulings on religious law and rabbinical ordination from the renowned rabbis and gaons in Poland: Reb Meyer Yehiel Halevi, the Ostrowster rabbi; the Lodz rabbi, Reb Eli Khaim; the Lukow rabbi, Reb Yerekhmiel; the renowned Warsaw rabbi, Reb Zaynvele Klepfisc; and the Sertosker Rabbi, Reb Yosef Levenstein, the author of the book, “From Generation to Generations.”

In 1894, at the age of 25, he was hired as rabbi in Ratsianzh, near Plotsk, and held the position for ten years, until he moved to Nowy Dwor in 1904.

Rabbi Neufeld was very knowledgeable in Talmud and Talmudic literature He authored several books on religious topics which were never published. He always hoped to see his books in print, but despite his prominence, that never happened. He was one of the few rabbis of the time who passed an exam in the Russian and Polish languages, which earned him governmental certification.

He had eight children: three daughters–Milke, Rokhele and Sorele ; and five sons –Nokhem, Shmuel, Elye, Elimelekh, Shloymele and Yermiye. Six children were killed by the Nazis. One son – Rabbi Elimelekh Neufeld, a renowned leader of Hapoel Mizrachi [Workers of Mizrachi, a religious Zionist movement] and a member of the Jewish Agency –– died in Israel in 1956. The youngest son, Yermiye, who managed to get out of Poland at the last minute, when the Germans were already in Warsaw, made it to Israel where he is today a high government official. His only son bears the name Ruven Yehuda, in honor of the rabbi of Nowy Dwor.

 

Forty–Five Years of Rabinnical and Community Work

Rabbi Neufeld held the rabbinical post in Nowy Dwor for 45 years. During his ten years in the small town Ratsianzh, which was in the Plotsk region far from a train station and cut off from the wider world, he deepened his Talmudic knowledge and honed his mind so that at the right moment he could use his learning and intelligence in the broader spheres of Polish religious Jewry. That moment came with his move to Nowy Dwor, which at the time of his arrival was one of the more progressive Jewish towns. The proximity to Warsaw and the large number of merchants, military contractors and all kinds of “Litvaks” [see Footnote 1] around the Modliner

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Fortress added a special flavor to the town and put its mark on the entire population. There Rabbi Neufeld found the appropriate outlet for his stored up energy. From there, his activity spread out beyond the borders of the local community until he became a spokesman for the Polish religious community and a religious leader in the nearby capital city Warsaw and in other large cities in Poland.

Notwithstanding Rabbi Neufelds's Zionism and his wholehearted devotion to Eretz Yisroel, he remained a member of Agudat Yisroel [anti–Zionist religious organization] and was active in it from its founding. In 1913, he participated in one of the first conventions of rabbinical activists of Agudat Yisroel in the little town of Jablonna, which lies between Nowy Dwor and Warsaw. Also participating were the Kutner rabbi, Reb Yitshak Yehuda Trunk and the Gombiner rabbi Yehuda Leyb Zlotnik, who later became renowned leaders of Mizrachi [religious Zionist organization]. Rabbi Neufeld remained in Agudat and for some time was one of its most militant spokesmen, especially during the First World War, in 1915–1917.

In December, 1917, upon the initiative and with the participation of the German Agudat leaders Rabbis Karlbach and Kohn, a rabbinical assembly for all of Poland took place. Rabbi Neufeld was one of the most active participants. In his speech on educational matters, he demanded that the state subsidize yeshivas, that rabbis should have the authority over all educational institutions, and that free–thinking teachers–– “those microbes who corrupt our children” (as reported in articles in [the Yiddish language newspapers] Haynt [Today] and Moment)–– should be dismissed.

At the meeting of the Rabbis' Committee in Warsaw in 1916, Rabbi Neufeld was bold enough to demand that in Jewish life a rabbi's ruling should have the same legal authority as a ruling from a governmental court

During this period of religious activism, he also formed an Agudat Yisroel in Nowy Dwor with the help of his very able son Elimelekh, the future rabbi and leader of Hapoel Mizrachi and he also founded a youth organization , HaTevuna [Wisdom] in Nowy Dwor.

With the expansion of his activism for religious Jewry in Poland, Rabbi Neufeld moved to Warsaw, to an apartment on Marianska Street, and he would go back to Nowy Dwor from time to time to deal with the issues of the Jewish community there. The town authorities began to grumble: “What's this? A town without a rabbi? There's no one whom we can ask religious questions and we risk violating religious law.” In order to pacify the community, Rabbi Neufeld brought in his brother–in–law, a Gerer Hasid, and appointed him as a judge over religious matters.

During his residence in Warsaw he was one of the founder of Agudat Harabonim [Council of Rabbis] in Poland and for the rest of his life he was one of its spokesmen and a member of the Executive Committee. He participated in delegations to the Catholic cardinals and the state rulers whenever Jews encountered difficulties.

 

The Rabbi At Home, on the Street, and in the Community

During the years 1917–1919, until I left Nowy Dwor, I was the secretary of the Jewish community there. I frequently visited Rabbi Neufeld's home and my comments here are based on personal memories. I write as a student about his teacher, because during the time I

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spent in his home, I learned a lot from him, especially in the area of Jewish wisdom.

Many years later, when I had ungratefully strayed from his ways, every time we met in Nowy Dwor or Warsaw, he received me with the kind of joy and love that is found only between teacher and student. He would keep me for hours, asking me about all the details of my life and with great delicacy avoiding things that could embarrass me, because he already well knew how far I had gone along the path of foreign ways. When we parted he would clasp my hand for a long time and his blue eyes would regard me with a boundless love seldom found between people with such a difference in age and outlook. That is just how he was.

The way he lived his daily life was unique. Day and night were confused. He would go to sleep late and get up at first light. He was passionate tea drinker and an even more passionate smoker. The town jokesters used to say, “Our rabbi doesn't use matches, he uses one cigarette to light another.” He was affable, but in a measured way. He was very neat and clean; everything on him shone. He was punctilious in fulfilling his rabbinical role. He was never boastful. He followed the Talmudic precept that religious scholars should dress respectably, but modestly, and he hated the rich men who shamelessly displayed the arrogance of wealth.

Although he was an Aleksander Hasid, he had in him a bit of the Kotsker manner. He always valued learning more than praying. He did not care to say the prayers at a fixed time, following the Talmudic precept the prayers not be fixed. Often on a late winter afternoon, his devoted daughter Rokhele would come to remind him numerous times that his midday meal was getting cold, and not until then did he realize that it was time to pray. Then he would grab his prayer shawl and phylacteries and go to the window where the last rays of the sun were fading and there fulfill the injunction to pray day and night.

Although he was a lenient man, he conducted the religious affairs of the town with a strict hand. When he declared a cow unkosher after slaughter, he was not afraid, as were so many other rabbis, of the harm this would do to the butchers. Woe to any butcher who in such a case spoke even a word against the rabbi. That person had to come and beg forgiveness for the insult.

When the Jewish community built a mikvah [ritual bath] several years after Rabbi Neufeld's arrival in Nowy Dwor, and the rabbi certified that it conformed to religious law, it didn't matter that the learned men of the Gerer shtibl [small house of worship], along with the rich benefactor Moyseh Fridman, wanted to declare it unkosher. The rabbi didn't back off. If the rabbi said it was kosher, so it was. And who knows what kind of battle would have broken out if not for the big fire of 1910 which destroyed the mikvah along with half the town.

After the big fires, Nowy Dwor was left without a synagogue. After the fire of 1910 the only representative religious building was the newly built, half–story besmedresh [house of study also used for worship]. It was a long wooden structure that sufficed for the modest, poor Jewish God, but how did that look to the Christians? When there was a galuvke [celebration of the Tsar] and the local government official

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had to come to the besmedresh to hear the Hanoten Teshna [prayer for the Tsar] and the rabbi's fiery sermon, the community practically died of shame. [The shames, i.e. sexton] Itshe Shvitser did what he could to fix things up, draping a bordeaux curtain over the Torah, spreading a whole cartful of golden sand over the floor. But none of this could make the dilapidated besmedresh look respectable.

Then Rabbi Neufeld took matters in hand and devoted his energies to building a brick synagogue that would not be shamed by the two towered buildings of the Catholic and Protestant churches. This was a huge undertaking that demanded tens of thousands of rubles. Rabbi Neufeld mobilized all the rich men in town, especially the military contractors who made quite a lot of money supplying the fortress. He also turned to former Nowy Dworers in Warsaw, a few of whom were quite rich; “not a poor community,” as Jews say.

And the money came through. They began to build quite a large synagogue, using the most modern techniques. They had gotten as far as the roof when the First World War broke out. The synagogue wasn't completed until Poland became independent. But Nowy Dwor didn't have a very long time to enjoy it. The Nazi barbarians desecrated it first thing, turning the holy place into a horse stable and finally burning it down.

Rabbi Neufeld acted as a representative for Polish Jews with the authorities of all the regimes that governed Poland –Russian, German, or independent Poland. None of these spared the Jews from evil decrees and Rabbi Neufeld was always one of those who got them reversed. During World War I, when things began to go badly for the Tsar's army and they blamed the Jews, the Army's tyrannical High Commander, the Tsar's uncle, Count Nikolai Nikolaivitch issued a circular (in December 1914) about the treachery of the Jews, requiring all Jews to evacuate the region of the front lines. Pursuant to the decree, the commander of the Nowy Dwor fortress, General Baber, ordered the Jews to leave the area of the fortress, including Nowy Dwor, Zakrotshin, Pomiechow and other towns. Rabbi Neufeld organized a delegation of the most important and prominent men of the town

 

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The Nowy Dwor besmedreash

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including military contractors, and went to the rulers to get the decree reversed. This time he didn't succeed and the Nowy Dwor Jews had to go to Warsaw, along with all those expelled from their homes.

Years later, people still talked about how furious the general had been, screaming how the “German spies,” by which he meant the Jews, dared to come and ask him to intervene.

Rabbi Neufeld was wholly devoted to the mitzvah [religious obligation] of redeeming people in prison or subject to punishment. This is one of the most important mitzvahs and entails supporting and providing encouragement for Jewish arrestees or soldiers. The Modlin fortress provided ample opportunities for performing the mitzvah; its barracks were always full of Jewish political prisoners or criminals as well as innocent people who had been falsely accused. If he couldn't get them released, he tried to alleviate their conditions by reducing the sentences, making contact with them, providing food, etc. He put a lot of effort and care into providing kosher food for the holidays, especially Pesach.

Many of us still remember the emaciated mare that pulled a long wire wagon that disturbed the holiday peace of the town, carrying food for the soldiers of the fortress. The tall, thin, quiet Yekheskl Rozetes (father of the Zionist Fishl Fridman) with his sparse grey beard, long Sabbath caftan and “Jewish hat,” led the horse by the bridle, since it was forbidden to ride on the holiday. The horse went by itself and the heavily loaded wagon wobbled along the cobblestones toward the fortress. Often a Jewish mother, spying it through a

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The Nowy Dwor Rabbi, after prayers on Sukkot, bringing home a guest, a Jewish soldier

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window, wept, thinking of her son who was now, on a holiday, away from home, in Christian hands.

When Pesach approached, along with the warm weather and sunny spring days, the rabbi was up to his ears in work. It was a big job to see to the kosher food requirements of an entire town. First there was a lot of bargaining and bother with the bakers over who would bake matzo and who would bake bread, and how to distribute profits. The rabbi pressured the bakers not to overcharge the customers and he set the prices.

After that, the rabbi set out to protect all of the “seasonal proletariat,” like the people who helped with baking, rolling and piercing the matzo, and the men who inspected the food to ensure it was kosher, to make sure that the bosses didn't exploit them. For a lot of them this seasonal work came after a whole winter of unemployment and without it they wouldn't be able to celebrate Pesach.

And then came the work of koshering itself – all the bakeries, mills and other small workshops which went into extra production for Pesach. Also, financial help had to be provided for the poor so they could celebrate the holiday. The rabbi took care of all that. He selected several of the most prosperous people in town and every evening after prayers they set out over town, knocking on doors. He made special efforts with the rich misers who didn't give willingly, and wouldn't allow them to get away without paying their share. The rabbi decided what they should pay according to his judgment. And if such a Jew was stubborn and refused to comply with the rabbi's decision, the rabbi would get insulted and leave. Later on these holdouts would figure out that it didn't pay to oppose the rabbi, and would come up with the sum that he had demanded. It also frequently happened that the rabbi, as punishment, would demand more. “Today it will cost more, because yesterday you were disrespectful to the rabbi of your town and besides, overnight we gained several new poor Jews in town.”

The high point of the Pesach program was the sermon on the Sabbath before Passover. It wasn't simply a speech, but an expose of the regime that lasted almost three hours. In a lovely, charming Yiddish he delivered to a fully packed synagogue a colorful speech that had everything. It began with a difficult commentary on the Talmud interwoven with a tangle of extracts from the Shulchan Orekh [compilation of laws], a bit of Rambam sprinkled with scholarly insight, and sayings of the sages. This was all a gift to the few scholars in the audience, who pricked up their ears and with closed eyes followed their rabbi's every word. They thought that any minute now he would slip up and wouldn't be able to emerge from the confused tangle. But by the end, broad enthusiastic smiles would spread over their ascetic faces at the learning exhibited by the speaker.

For the smattering of “maskilim” [followers of the Enlightenment], the modern young people who were Zionists or interested in Zionism, he girded his loins and strove to speak in a secular manner. From the pulpit where he stood wrapped in his prayer shawl came words the likes of which are seldom heard from a rabbi's mouth in a holy place, such words and phrases as “wisdom of the Greeks,” “Aristotle,” “ Bismarck,” “ Napoleon,” “ Moses Mendelsohn” and “ Nokhem Sokolov,” the names of kingdoms and countries, the sinking of the Titanic and the uprising of the Young Turks, world politics and Jewish politics.

In a fascinating way, he would take the opportunity indirectly to get even with a few recalcitrant wealthy men. He would end with a few comments about religious practice, and wished the congregation a joyful and most important, a kosher Pesach. And after he had put away his unfolded prayer shawl, he quickly stepped down from the pulpit, accompanied by his shames, Itshe Shvitser, until he passed through the

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narrow lanes around the synagogue, headed for the Polish Market, where he always lived.

The official title of the rabbi of Nowy Dwor was “Rabbi of the town of Nowy Dwor and its district.” Before the First World War, during which Poland was occupied by the Germans, he was addressed as the “district Rabbiner” [official state rabbi], because the domain of Nowy Dwor also included the nearby small town Jablonna; the more distant factory town Henrikow, with its enormous yeast factory, which belonged to Shpilfogl from Pietrikow; and also the larger villages which had several tens of Jewish families –Nieporent, Vieleshow, Zegzhe, etc. The Nowy Dwor community received significant taxes from these smaller communities, giving them nothing in return except for the use of the Nowy Dwor cemetery to bury their dead. And when the deceased was rich, the burial society would even fleece the family of money for their services.

Jablonna, with its small Jewish population, always tried in various ways to free itself from Nowy Dwor's rule. It had several ambitious and well–off residents, like Yehuda Epstein, the Miller family of butchers, and others who wanted a taste of independence, to be the leaders of their own religious community. But they never succeeded.

During World War I, Jablonna made its first attempt to establish an independent Jewish community by hiring its own rabbi. A bitter conflict broke out between the rabbi of Nowy Dwor and one of the wealthy men of Jablonna, Avraham Rozenboym but this time Rabbi Neufeld was defeated. The tiny town Jablonna appointed its own rabbi, although officially he was called “under–rabbi to the regional Rabbi Neufeld.”

Jablonna later contributed a sad chapter to the history of Polish Jewry. It was there that in 1920, well before Hitler, the notorious Polish General Sikorski established the first Polish concentration camp for Jewish soldiers.

Rabbi Neufeld had a large Talmudic library in his home, with a lot of unique items which had cost a lot of money. He studied on his own quite a bit and when time permitted gave lessons to a group of intelligent young people in the besmedresh. He also liked to read about current events and subscribed to several daily newspapers, such as Haynt, Moment and Hatsifirah. He even subscribed to Polish newspapers and to the Bundist “Folks Tsaystung” [People's Newspaper] in order to know what the unbelievers were saying. It was his sharp, quick mind that enabled him to do all this.

Rabbin Neufeld was the rabbi for the military at the Nowy Dwor fortress and had the decisive word on all religious matters that affected Jewish soldiers serving in the garrison, especially when the Jewish soldiers had to take the oath and swear that they would loyally serve the Fatherland. I attended one such ceremony during the period of Polish independence and observed the respect with which he was treated by the senior Polish officers.

He was driven to the ceremony in an open military coach, where he sat in a place of honor holding a small Torah scroll. When he entered the fortress he was

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saluted and at the mustering place all the officers greeted him and accompanied him to where the Jewish soldiers were lined up in strict military formation. With the Torah in hand, he stood near the machine weapons. He gave a short speech in Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish, read aloud the Hebrew text of the oath and each soldier then kissed the Torah, while laying his right hand on the machine weapons. At the conclusion, the soldiers, on orders, shouted out “Long live the rabbi!” and the rabbi, politely refusing an invitation to partake of a drink of wine in the officers' club, said goodbye and returned to his home in Nowy Dwor. In this way, he always maintained his honor and that of the Torah in his appearances before the non–Jews

 

The Rabbinical Court

Rabbi Neufeld's spiritual retreat in his spacious home was the room used for his rabbinical court. That was where he studied for his own sake, wrote his Talmudic works and shut himself up in order to prepare the ruling in a difficult case.

In addition to the small, routine lawsuits involving business matters, he sometimes handled lawsuits of great commercial significance, where there were major disputes between contractors in which each side claimed the right to do business and alleged that the other side had bribed government officials or undersold its competitor, etc. Even a modern day judge would find these cases very difficult to untangle, with their labyrinth of complaints, especially since both parties demanded a ruling entirely in their favor, without any compromises. Such cases lasted weeks and the issuance of a decision took another few weeks.

I remember one such case from my youth, a lawsuit between the renowned man of wealth Yankl Faynshtayn and Old Man Goldfenig. My father, Reb Yisroel Khaim, appeared as arbitrator on behalf of Faynshtayn, and Reb Binyomen Pinker, a young rising star among the town arbitrators, appeared on behalf of Goldfenig. Both arbitrators employed “heavy artillery.” If Reb Yisroel fire off a citation from the Shulchan Orech in support of his side, Reb Pinker countered with a citation from Rambam. The battle raged on, complete with reliance on authorities, accusations and contributions from the supporters of both sides.

The rabbi sat in his wide armchair in a red velvet robe, tugged at his beard, and with eyes closed listened to both sides. If he was pleased by some profound idea advanced by one party, a smile would appear on his parchment yellow face, and he would inhale deeply from the cigarette which was always in his mouth. He would take a short break to have a sip of tea and would then re–immerse himself in the issues raised by both sides.

Both of the arbitrators were Gerer Hasidim, following the same Hasidic rebe and praying in the same shtibl. Both were grain merchants and despite the difference in their ages were good friends. But after such a long, bitter lawsuit, they fell out, until the rabbi intervened and made peace between them. Another difficult case was coming up soon and the rabbi wanted these two fellow congregants to serve as arbitrators again, before they had another falling out.

I remember a typical episode when I was still a young boy and was praying with my father in the Gerer shtibl. It was on Rosh Hashanah and Reb Binyomin, who was leading the morning prayer, had just begun when my father took off his prayer shawl , went off to the besmedresh to pray, and didn't return until after the morning prayer had ended. But by Yom Kippur

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my father stayed through Reb Binyomen's praying because in this time of repentance the good and gracious gabai of the Gerer shtibl, Reb Kosl Tasimovitsh, did everything he could to make peace between the two.

*

I wanted with this essay –as far as my modest abilities allow – to erect a memorial for our great rabbi. The rabbis of the large and small towns of Poland had an enormous influence form the beginning of this century to the outbreak of World War I, the years I mostly deal with here. The town rabbi was the voice of authority in all Jewish matters. Now and then a keen maskil would challenge him, or there would be a rebellious freethinker who tried to rid himself of the heavy burden of religion. But as far as the rabbi was concerned, these were isolated individuals or tiny groups, who in all kinds of situations were dependent on the rabbi. They needed the rabbi to get married, to get divorced or for khalitse [ceremony in which a widow frees her dead husband's brother from the religious obligation to marry her], to intervene with the municipal government, or obtain help from the various religious charitable organizations. Without the rabbi nothing could happen.

In later years, during the social renewal that came after world War I, when Nowy Dwor was in the avant garde with its class consciousness and progressive social–political movements, when there was a strong Zionist organization with a range of positions, when large segments of the town's Jewish population were under the influence of the Bund and the labor unions – even then the Nowy Dwor rabbi with his tact and modest ways, had a certain amount of influence over the rebellious elements, something that many of the rabbis in other towns could not achieve.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Maskilim [sing. maskil] were adherents of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement, that is, more modern and less traditional in their approach to religion, and more open to secular learning. “Litvak” denotes a Jew from a specific geographical area of the Jewish Pale encompassing Lithuania and other areas. Because Jews from this region were considered less observant and more secular by traditional Jews, the word Litvak is used as a synonym for such a person even if he does not come from that geographical area. Return


[Page 130]

The Rabbi of Nowy Dwor in Tsarist Times

by Menashe Unger, New York

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Rabbis often risked their lives in order to save the life of a fellow Jew. So it was with the renowned rabbi of Nowy Dwor, Reb [respectful term of address] Ruven Yehuda Neufeld, who was the secretary of Agudat Harabonim [council of rabbis] in Poland at the time when the gaon [eminent religious scholar] Rabbi Reb Mendele Pabianitser was its president. Rabbi Neufeld risked his own life to save two Jews from the gallows on the eve of Yom Kippur during World War I, and thanks to him, they were freed. His sacrificial act became known throughout Poland.

Rabbi Neufeld was born in Wegrow. As a child, he was known as a prodigy. He married in Nowy Dwor and was hired as rabbi there. Rabbi Neufeld wrote many articles about Jewish problems in the newspaper “Moment” and he was famed in the rabbinical world as an authority on religious law.

The story of the rescue of the two Jews occurred in 1914. On the morning of the day before Yom Kippur, a messenger arrived and told the rabbi that two Jews had strayed onto the road to the Modlin fortress, where they were stopped by Russian guards. Since they didn't have authorization to enter the fortress they were arrested as Austrian or German spies, for which they could be executed.

[Page 131]

Rabbi Neufeld immediately went to the fortress, where he was seen right away by Commandant Bober. But when the commandant learned why he was there, he said, “I regret I cannot help you. I know that tomorrow is your holiest day and you want the two arrestees to be freed, but because we are in a state of war this matter is in the hands of the field marshal.”

Rabbi Neufeld persuaded Bober to telephone the field marshal and ask him to delay the execution of the Jews until a thorough investigation could be conducted. The rabbi was given permission to go to army headquarters several kilometers away, and he walked the entire distance, through fortifications and military guards. Every few minutes he was asked to show his papers. The Russian soldiers didn't understand why a rabbi wearing a caftan, beard and sidelocks was there. Nevertheless, the rabbi got to see the field marshal and pleaded with him to free the two Jews.

The field marshal, a Russian general who was an anti–Semite, became very angry at the rabbi. He said that he had no right to be there, even though had had been given authorization, that he could be arrested and was subject to the death penalty. Rabbi Neufeld was frightened, but he kept his head. He explained that it was the day before Yom Kippur, that tomorrow all Jews repented and prayed for themselves, for all Jews and for peace for the entire world. He told the general that he would not have come on such a day unless he was sure that the two Jews were innocent, that they had simply lost their way.

Rabbi Neufeld's refined and somber appearance and manner of speaking softened the general's heart. After a two–hour debate the field marshal telephoned his aide and instructed him not to hang the two Jews. Rabbi Neufeld thanked the field marshal and returned to General Bober at the fortress, this time accompanied by a military escort. There, he signed a document taking full responsibility for the two Jews, and the commandant ordered them freed. Rabbi Neufeld took them with him to Nowy Dwor.

It was already late in the evening, and the congregation had gathered and was waiting for the rabbi to say the Kol Nidre prayers. Stars were already visible in the sky and still the congregation waited and waited. The rabbi's family and the entire congregation were loudly lamenting his fate. Suddenly, the rabbi arrived with the two Jews, went directly to the pulpit and started to recite Kol Nidre.

The rabbi fasted two days in a row – both Yom Kippur and the day before. He had drunk only water in the fortress on the day before Yom Kippur, so as technically not to have actually fasted that day [which would have violated religious law]. After Yom Kippur, the whole town was abuzz with the news of the rabbi's willingness to risk his life.

This story was told by the cantor and shub [ Shub is an acronym, standing for SHoykhet U (and) Boydek (inspector of the animal). It's basically synonymous with shoykhet, since all shokhtim were also boydeks. It's used as a title and also as a last name, as is shoykhet, ritual slaughterer and inspector of animals] Reb Dovid Bernholtz from Pittsfield, who had been shub in Ostrow under Rabbi Meyer Dovid Plotsky, and after Rabbi Plotsky's death, in Nowy Dwor. He wrote that when Rabbi Neufeld delivered the eulogy at his wife's funeral,

[Page 132]

he said that the grief she had endured that Yom Kippur eve would save her in the world to come, where she would be directly ushered into paradise.

Rabbi Bernholtz also described how when Rabbi Neufeld attended the dedication of Yeshiva Khokhme Lublin [wisdom of Lublin] in Lublin, they went together to visit the old cemetery there. On the way back, they met a Jew from Shedlets , who recognized Rabbi Neufeld as the one who saved him from the gallows that Yom Kippur eve, and he told everyone the story.

Rabbi Bernholtz writes about his encounter with Rabbi Neufeld in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. “Before we parted we discussed Parsha Vayetze.[1] Rabbi Neufeld said, ‘The parsha says that every king has a minister in heaven. Our Father Jacob saw how kingdoms rise and fall, and Jacob remained sitting under the ladder. He watched as the kingdom of Russia fell, and how Poland, which demanded the whole of its territory back, has also fallen. And Hitler, too, will fall.’ I asked him ,‘Rabbi, what will happen to Jacob? How long will he sit under the ladder?’. And Rabbi Neufeld answered, ‘Jacob will come out from under the ladder and we will have Eretz Yisroel.’ I did not see him again, and I later learned that he died in the Warsaw ghetto.”

 

now132.jpg
Reb Dovid Berish Bernholtz, the last cantor in Nowy Dwor, who died in America.


Translator's Footnote

  1. A parsha is the Torah portion read in a given week. Parsha Vayetze [“And he left”] comprises Genesis 28:10–32:3, and describes Jacob's vision of a ladder reaching to heaven, which angels climb and descend. In the discussion with Rabbi Neufeld, Jacob represents the Jews. Return

 

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