By Larry Gordon
Reb Boruch Ber Leibowitz, zt’l, passed away over 75 years ago. Last week, about 200 people from far-flung Jewish communities around the world assembled in Vilnius, Lithuania, to finally erect a matzeivah, a monument, at his gravesite.
The project was years in the planning. I only received word of the event after a chance meeting with activist-businessman Abe Biderman, who was one of the group that spearheaded the drive to make the ceremony possible. Reb Boruch Ber, as he is famously known in yeshiva circles, passed away in 1939 just as World War II was getting under way, so paying attention to erecting gravestones or even identifying where someone was actually buried proved somewhat difficult.
Why it took all these decades to finally make this happen is a story unto itself. Finding the location of the grave seemed to have been the task of Rabbi Yisroel Mayer Gabay, a Breslover chassid who has dedicated his life to locating, repairing, and maintaining Jewish cemeteries and gravesites of Jewish notables and luminaries like Reb Boruch Ber.
Before we get to last week’s placement of the matzeivah, it’s important to understand how Rabbi Gabay goes about his business. His son visits our offices here in the Five Towns annually to raise money for an all-night kollel that he runs in Kever Rachel in Bethlehem. The kollel operates from midnight each night until after Shacharis the next morning. The first time I met the junior Rabbi Gabay, a few years ago, he told me about his father’s exploits, which include an annual visit to Iran around the time of Purim so that he can inspect the gravesites of the dominant personalities of the Megillah, Mordechai HaTzaddik and Queen Esther.
It a fascinating project to dedicate one’s life to. The senior Rabbi Gabay is one of the key individuals who took it upon himself to discover and restore the kever of Rav Nachman of Breslov in 1980. Since that time, that gravesite in Uman, Ukraine, has become quite a tourist site and a place where followers and admirers, by the tens of thousands, flock each year.
As for Mr. Biderman’s involvement in the project and the spearheading of the trip to erect the monument, it is a matter of hakaras ha’tov, or repaying a good deed with yet another gracious act. As Biderman explained the matter to me, his father-in-law, Rabbi Yehoshua Yitzchok Belsky, was a student of Rav Leibowitz in Europe. Rabbi Belsky was drafted into the Polish army, which concerned him greatly, but Reb Boruch Ber told him that if he remained true to Torah he would come through the experience unscathed–which he did.
Reb Boruch Ber was a prominent student of Rav Chaim Brisker. He was born in Slutsk and was known as a Talmudic prodigy at a very young age. He was sent to learn at the yeshiva in Volozhin and afterwards adopted the Brisker approach to learning. Shortly before his death in 1939, he fled with the yeshiva to a suburb of Vilna, hoping to escape from the Nazis.
According to Abe Biderman, when Reb Boruch Ber passed away, the community intended to inter him at the Zarychta cemetery in Vilna; however, there was simply no room. To accommodate such a distinguished Torah luminary, however, they circumvented the usual protocol and buried Reb Boruch Ber perpendicular to the other graves. While everyone else was buried north to south, in order to make room, Rav Leibowitz was buried from east to west. It was this oddity due to lack of burial space that made it possible for Rabbi Gabay to identify in 2012 where Reb Boruch Ber was buried. By utilizing X-ray equipment that produces images from underground, he was able to discover that one of the bodies in this Lithuanian cemetery was buried in a position unlike any of the others.
It took the fall of the Soviet Union and a lot of work since then, but Yisroel Meyer Gabay–and the 200 men and women who braved the brutal Eastern European winter on Reb Boruch Ber’s yahrzeit, 5 Kislev–went to Lithuania and administered a final honor, ensuring that 75 years later an otherwise nondescript and almost unknown location of this Torah leader would finally be recognized in a most fundamental and respectful fashion.
This is an extraordinary demonstration of connectedness and responsibility for one another that traverses generations. Unlike so many other people throughout the centuries, the lesson here is that there is simply no forgetting; we all have an obligation, on some level, in our concern about the next Jew, regardless of how or where he may have lived, or, for that matter, the way in which he died.
And there is even more than meets the eye that went on here. As Mr. Biderman explained, people arrived for the ceremony from around the world. As our columnist Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum reported in 2012, in order to identify the location of the Rav Leibowitz’s grave, maps were searched with thoroughness and intensity. This included maps in the archives in the municipality in Vilna.
Years ago, there was a movement afoot to reinter the remains of some luminaries, like Rav Nachman of Breslov, in Eretz Yisrael. Why pump so much cash into the economies of places like Uman in the Ukraine and now Vilna, where it reportedly cost $300,000 to get this latest project completed?
I asked Abe Biderman what he thought of the idea. He said that he did not see it happening. The leaders like Rav Nachman and Reb Boruch Ber insisted on being buried at their present locations because they wanted to be with their people and would not have it any other way. We may not understand it, it may not seem practical, but it is apparently one of those many things that are beyond our grasp.
There are other gravesites that will need similar attention in the coming year. It is difficult to fathom how and why people get involved in projects of this nature, but be assured there are great and caring philanthropists in Jewish communities around the world. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude. Biderman added that there was one Sephardic gentleman who knew nothing about the history of Reb Boruch Ber, Volozhin, the cemetery in Zarychta, or anything else. But when he heard about the project about a half-year ago, he gave $100,000 toward the effort. Who out there is like this people Israel?
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