Photo Credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90
The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, during Purim celebrations, March 11, 2009.

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the fifth and present Rebbe of the Chasidic dynasty of Belz, has declared a revolutionary program in terms of Haredi politics, which he named Ahavat Kdumim (lit=ancient love), to help men and women who were born into Belz and have gone “off the derech,” or, as they’re known in Israel, Yotzim B’She’ela, a play on word referencing the opposite movement, Chozrim B’Tshuva.

Yoeli Brim, Army Radio’s religion reporter, who broke the story on Twitter on Tuesday, quoted a former Belz Chassid who told him: “We received a real hug, feeling like in a dream.”


Behind the Belzer Rebbe’s announcement is a tragedy that befell Belz half a year ago, when an off-the-derech member of a Belz family ended his life when at age 23 years. The tragedy rattled the Rebbe and led to his realization that it is no longer acceptable for his Chassidim to remain disconnected from their erring loved ones.

But this is not, apparently, a move to bring these men and women back into the fold religiously, only to embrace them, to be followed by lots of holiday and simcha invitations.

The idea of a major Haredi spiritual leader acknowledging the existence of a substantial number of his followers who no longer follow would have been a messianic-time fantasy only a few years ago. The idea that the same spiritual leader also wants them to reconnect fully with the families that have shunned them and, in some cases, sat shiva over them, would have been religious science fiction only recently.

According to Brim, the Rebbe’s initiative included a very secret gathering abroad for some 30 off-the-derech individuals who had been born into Belz families with the idea of forming a support group to usher in renewed contact with their families. The entire project is funded by Belz Chassidim. The trip to several European countries for the individuals and, in some cases their spouses.

The project could go a long way in changing the attitude of the entire Haredi society regarding its former members, writes Brim, quoting one of the organizers who told him: “They studied in Chassidic institutions throughout their lives, and even though they decided not to observe Torah and mitzvot, we must continue to care for them and embrace them unconditionally.”

The Belzer Rebbe has long been a maverick in Israel’s Haredi community. Belz educational institutions were the first to strike a deal with the Lapid-Bennet government for increased financial support in exchange for teaching core curriculum subjects. This approach proved costly early on, in the 1980s, when the extremist Edah HaChareidis was critical of the Rebbe’s decision to accept state funds and his encouraging his followers to vote in elections. The disagreements became an outright feud after 1980 when the Rebbe pulled his movement out of the Edah HaChareidis.

On Simchat Torah of 2005, the Belzer Rebbe broke all the rules with his “Work Speech,” when he encouraged Chassidic men to learn a profession and earn a living. The Rebbe said:

“Long-term students in yeshivas who are talented and have the economic means are fortunate, but students who, year after year, see that their studies are not going well, whether because of their skills or their economic situation, must learn a profession that earns a living. I’m not talking about getting rich, but earning a living so that one does not fall into debt. … One can prepare for this in the yeshiva and devote a few hours a week in the evening to studying a profession.”

The Belzer Rebbe is a hardline nationalist, and in 1990 said the following in a speech to his Chassidim:

“Everyone knows that the Arabs residing in Eretz Yisrael––descendants of Ishmael––have only one aim: to drive the Jewish people out of Eretz Yisrael and to annihilate them. Now, when the Jewish people conduct themselves in the proper manner, the Arabs most certainly will have no power to harm them. On the contrary, the Arabs themselves will vanish from the scene. But even when Jews do not behave quite as they should, then the Holy One, Blessed be He, compares His nation with the nations of the world. And when viewed together, He finds that the Jewish people are the acme of perfection. … For the Jewish people, when measured against the nations of the world, are absolutely flawless. In this merit, the Jewish people will defeat their enemies and crush them.”

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