Belz is a Hasidic dynasty named for the town of Belz, a small town in Western Ukraine. The town has existed since at least the 10th century with the Jewish community being established during the 14th century. In 1665 Jews in Belz obtained equal rights and duties. The town became home to Hasidim in the early 19th century. At the beginning of World War I Belz had 6,100 inhabitants, of which 3,600 were Jewish.
The founder of the dynasty was Rabbi Shalom of Belz, also known as the Sar Shalom, who was inducted as rabbi of Belz in 1817. A great Torah scholar and legendary miracle worker, Rabbi Shalom personally helped build the city's large and imposing synagogue. Dedicated in 1843, the building resembled an ancient fortress, with three-foot thick walls, a castellated roof and battlements adorned with gilded copper balls. It could seat 5,000 worshippers and had superb acoustics. It stood until the Nazis invaded Belz in late 1939. Though the Germans attempted to destroy the synagogue first by fire and then by dynamite, they were unsuccessful. Finally they conscripted Jewish men to take the building apart, brick by brick.
When Rabbi Shalom died in 1855, his youngest son, Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach (1855-1894), became the next Rebbe. Belzer Hasidism grew in size during Rebbe Yehoshua's tenure and the tenure of his son and successor, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach (I) (1894-1926).
Unlike other groups which formed yeshivot in pre-war Poland, Belz maintained a unique yoshvim program which produced many outstanding Torah scholars. The yoshvim were married and unmarried men who remained in the synagogue all day to study the Talmud, pray, and derive inspiration from their Rebbe. They were supported by local businessmen and their food and other necessities were brought to them so they wouldn't have to leave the synagogue for even a short time. Some yoshvim even slept in the synagogue on a benches. They typically remained in this program until the Rebbe would tell them to return home to their wives and families.
With the passing of Rebbe Yissachar Dov in 1926, the mantle of leadership fell on his eldest son, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, who was 49 years old at the time. A deeply spiritual, almost mystical man, who studied much and slept and ate little, Rebbe Aharon was known for his saintliness and his miracle-working capabilities. Many of his followers reported experiencing miraculous recoveries or successes after receiving his blessing, and flocked to his court by the thousands.
Some of the most learned scholars of the generation were Hasidim of Belz, such as Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (Maharsham) and the world-renowned Rabbi Chanoch Dov Padwa (Cheishev Ho'ephod), who was very close to Rebbe Aharon of Belz.
With the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi invasion of Poland (1939), the town of Belz was thrown into turmoil. From 1939 to 1944 it was occupied by Nazi Germany as a part of the General Government. Belz is situated on the left, north waterside of the Solokiya river (affluent of the Bug river), which was German-Soviet border in 1939-1941.
Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, known as the "Wonder Rebbe" was at the top of the Gestapo's "wanted list" of rabbis targeted for extradition and extermination during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Thanks to the untiring efforts and cash inflow from Belzer hasidim in the British Mandate of Palestine, England and the United States, the Rebbe and his half-brother, Rabbi Mordechai of Bilgorai, 22 years his junior, managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis in one miraculous escape attempt after another. Notwithstanding the watchful presence of Gestapo patrols at every turn, the pair was spirited out of Belz and into Sokal, then Premishlan, then to the Cracow ghetto, and then to the Bochnia ghetto.
In their most hair-raising escape attempt, the brothers were driven out of occupied Poland and into Hungary by a Hungarian counter-intelligence agent who was friendly to Jews. The Rebbe, his brother, and his attendant, shorn of their distinctive beards and sidelocks, were disguised as Russian generals who had been captured at the front and were being taken to Budapest for questioning. To quell rumors of the Rebbe's disappearance from the ghetto, one of his Hasidim dressed up in Rebbe Aharon's clothing and sat in his inner sanctum all day, imitating the way the Rebbe immersed himself in prayer and study. When other Hasidim urged the Rebbe's attendant to let them send in their kvittlach ("notes" or "petitions for blessings"), they heard a perfect imitation of the Rebbe's voice, mumbling his blessings.
The refugees subsequently reported that they had experienced "miracles" at each stage of the escape. Throughout the 250-mile drive across occupied Poland, according to the Hungarian agent, the escape vehicle was enveloped in an "eerie mist" that made it difficult for the car to be detected. When the agent asked the driver to stop along the way and join him for something to eat, leaving the refugees unguarded, the two were unable to locate the car upon their return. They finally identified it by feeling for it in the place they had parked it.
As the refugees passed into Hungary, they were stopped by several patrols. At one checkpoint, their identity was questioned and they were about to be detained when three high-ranking Hungarian officials appeared and ordered that the car be let through. Belzer Hasidim believe that those three men were the "first three Belzer Rebbes sent from Heaven" to expedite Rebbe Aharon's escape.
Rebbe Aharon and Rabbi Mordechai spent eight months in Budapest before receiving highly-rationed Jewish Agency certificates to enter Palestine. In January 1944 they boarded the Orient Express to Istanbul. Less than two months later, the Nazis invaded Hungary and began deporting its 450,000 Jews.
Although he had lost his entire family—including his wife, children, grandchildren and in-laws and their families—to the Nazis, Rebbe Aharon re-established his Hasidic court in Tel Aviv, where there was a small Hasidic community. Both he and Rabbi Mordechai (who had lost his wife and daughter) remarried, but only Rabbi Mordechai had a child, Yissachar Dov Rokeach (II), in 1948. Rabbi Mordechai suddenly died a year later at the age of 47. Rebbe Aharon took his brother's son under his wing to groom him as the future successor to the Belz dynasty.
Like some of the other groups originating in Poland, Belzer Hasdism was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. Some Hasidic followers from other communities joined Belz after the war and following the deaths of their rebbes. Belz, like Ger and Satmar, was comparatively fortunate in that its leadership remained intact and survived the war, as opposed to many other Hasidic groups which suffered losses both in terms of rank-and-file supporters, as well as the physical decapitation of their leaders.
Rebbe Aharon became an acknowledged leader of Torah Jewry in Israel. He laid the groundwork for the spread of Belzer Hasidism through the establishment of schools and yeshivot in Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. In 1950 the Rebbe moved his court to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon and established a yeshivah there. His sights set on expanding Belz, he drew up plans for a large yeshivah and study hall in downtown Jerusalem, on a hill behind the original Shaarei Tzedek Hospital. The cornerstone was laid in 1954 and the building was completed in the summer of 1957. One month later, however, the Rebbe died.
Tens of thousands of admirers followed his casket to his burial site in Jerusalem. His nephew, Yissachar Dov, was nine years old at the time. For the next nine years the movement did not have an active Rebbe. Yissachar Dov married at the age of 17 to the daughter of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, and moved to Bnei Brak, Israel to be close to his new father-in-law. A year later, he returned to Jerusalem to assume leadership of the Belz movement.
Since 1966, the new Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach (II) has presided over both the expansion of Belz educational institutions and the growth of Hasidic populations in Israel, the United States and Europe. Like other Hasidic groups, the Belz community has established a variety of self-help organizations, including one of the largest patient-advocacy organizations of its kind, a free medical counseling center, and an affordable medical treatment clinic in the New York area.
In the early years of his tenure, the new Rebbe adopted a policy of engagement with the secular government of Israel. Under the umbrella of the Agudat Israel political party, he sent delegates to the Israeli Knesset and instructed his followers to vote in general elections. This stance angered the Satmar community. Satmar activists obtained signatures from significant segments of the Haredi community in Israel in an attempt to denounce and ostracize the present Belzer Rebbe. This episode created a lasting rift between the Belzer and Satmar communities.
In the 1980s, Rebbe Yissachar Dov spearheaded plans for a huge synagogue to be erected in the Kiryat Belz neighborhood of Jerusalem. The building, which would have four entrances accessible to each of the four streets of the hilly neighborhood, would be an enlarged replica of the structure that the first Rebbe of Belz, the Sar Shalom, had built in the town of Belz. It would include a grandiose main sanctuary, smaller study halls, wedding and Bar Mitzvah halls, libraries, and other communal facilities.
Funds for this ambitious project were raised among Belzer Hasidim and were supplemented by various fund-raising projects throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Like the original synagogue of Belz which took 15 years to complete, the new Beis HaMedrash HaGadol ("The Great Synagogue") that now dominates the northern Jerusalem skyline also took 15 years to construct and was dedicated in 2000. Its main sanctuary seats 6000 worshipers (though crowds on the High Holy Days exceed 8000), making it the second largest Jewish house of worship in the world. A huge ark has the capacity to hold 70 Torah scrolls. Nine chandeliers in the main synagogue each contain over 200,000 pieces of Czech crystal. In stark contrast to the majestic synagogue, the simple wooden chair and lectern used by Rebbe Aharon when he came to Israel in 1944 stands in a glass case next to the ark.
Rebbe Sholom Rokeach, the founder of the Belz dynasty, was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. The Seer was a disciple of Rebbe Elimelech Lipman of Lizhensk, author of Noam Elimelech. The Rebbe Elimelech was a disciple of the Rebbe Dovber, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch, the primary disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.