Rabbi Yosef Leibovits, the Nikolsburg Rebbe

Rabbi Yosef Lebovits, photo: www.nikolsburg.org

The south Moravian town of Mikulov, formerly also known by its German name Nikolsburg, is a popular tourist destination where people go to admire its beautiful architecture, the local wine, and its historic sights, including a Jewish cemetery and a synagogue. In the past, the town was home to a large Jewish community that accounted for nearly a half of the town’s population, and had as many as 12 synagogues around its Jewish quarter. Our very distinguished guest in this edition of One on One is the Grand Rebbe of Nikolsburg, Rabbi Yosef Lebovits. He is a descendant of Shmuel Shmelke Horowitz, who lived in Mikulov in the 18th century, and was one of the greatest rabbis Mikulov ever had. Our guest, rebbe Lebovits, is the leader of a Chassidic community based in Monsey, New York, in the United States.

Rebbe Leibovits, how did your community, which follows the teachings of your great forefather, get from 18th century Mikulov to 21st century United States?

“I think a lot of people would ask this question because people like to see new things instead of keeping the old traditions. But in the Jewish religion, and especially the Chassidic part of the Jewish tradition, it’s very important to preserve and appreciate the ways of our parents and grandparents and forefathers going back to the giving of the Torah by the Almighty. So it’s not that we lead our lives the way we want; we lead our lives the way the Almighty wants. Because He created us, so we feel an obligation to follow His ways. And because we focus more on the spiritual world, we feel that our fathers were more spiritual than we are because the more you go back, the people were closer to the creation and had a much deeper understanding of spirituality. So that’s why we like to keep the Torah, with the Chassidus from the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. And one of his disciples was my ascendant, reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg.”

Rabbi Shmelke Horowitz was the only Chassidic leader that ever lived in the Czech lands. Why was he so significant? Why is he considered one of the greatest rabbis of his time?

“Well, you won’t believe it. He only lived until 52 years of age but what he accomplished in those years was unbelievable. First of all, he was a person with such a good heart that he was there for everybody, to help anybody and everybody, Jewish people or non-Jews. There is a story that once, a poor man came to him and asked for charity. It was late at night and the rabbi had already given out everything and had no money left. He looked in his pockets but found nothing except a golden ring belonging to his wife. So he gave it to the man. Five minutes later, his wife came and asked, ‘where‘s my ring?’ ‘You should be so happy,’ the rabbi said, ‘I gave to a poor man.’ But she said, ‘that was not a plain ring, it was a golden ring, real gold, it’s worth a lot!’ Oh, I didn’t know, I thought it was copper. But don’t worry.’ He got his secretary and told him, ‘Run after the guy and tell him that it’s real good. He shouldn’t sell it just for copper. He should sell it as gold and get more money. That’s how great reb Shmelke was with people. Besides that, he had an academy, a school for his disciples. They studied the Torah there. But he was great not only in the Torah; he was great in so many different kinds of knowledge and wisdom. When he came to Mikulov, he gave a speech on the first seven Shabbats in a row. And he didn’t only talk about the Torah but about different kinds of wisdom of the world – secular wisdom – to show his people that a rabbi knows more than just the Torah. He was also a miracle worker. I don’t know if everybody believes in miracles these days, but he did things on a daily basis that were beyond nature. So we want to keep up with these traditions, we are very proud of them. We follow them and we don’t want them to be forgotten.”

You regularly visit the Czech Republic, and Mikulov, to commemorate the yahrzeit of reb Schmelke. What kind of event is yahrziet?

“Just like most people around the world celebrate birthdays, we also celebrate the day when a person passes away. Why? Because we feel that when somebody dies, it’s not the end. There is life after death. Those people who don’t believe it say, OK, that’s the end, so it’s a very bad and sad, sorrowful day. For us, it’s like elevating the soul from this universe to a higher level. And we believe, as the Kabbalah and the Zohar say, that every year the soul is elevated higher and higher, and that the soul returns to the grave. And whoever comes to the grave on that day, they can talk to the soul as if the person was alive.”

Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe had large Jewish communities before WWII that were destroyed in the Shoa, or Holocaust. When you and your Chassidim come here now, what kind of reactions do you get from the non-Jewish people who live there?

“It’s very interesting, especially in the Czech Republic. I have had great experiences; people show us a lot of respect and friendliness, and this happens in most countries. Wherever we went, the whole group, we never had bad reactions, only nice ones.”

What do you think of the ways the synagogues and other Jewish sites in Eastern Europe are used today?

“It rips my heart out when I see it. Just being in Mikulov and imagining how it was used when these great rabbis were there – there was so much praying and studying and all kinds of activities for the community, and now there’s nothing there. It’s nice to have a museum, but it’s not the real thing. It’s only stones, and it feels strange. But we try. When we were there this Shabbat and we tried to do what our great-grandfather did, we felt that his soul came down because it was the yahrziet, and he smiled.”