Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tammuz 5764 - June 30, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








One Big Family: The Jewish Community of Antwerp

by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen

The Jewish community of Antwerp is one of the oldest, most rooted kehillos in the history of Am Yisroel, a kehilloh revived following the Holocaust after Hitler nearly wiped out the entire community. Through chasdei Shomayim it became a haven for refugees and visitors and one of Europe's main centers for the renewal of Torah and Chassidus.

The community is flourishing. With numerous botei knesses and yeshivas wide open to the entire spectrum of Judaism, the kehilloh is organized to meet the spiritual and material needs befitting a large city. In Antwerp the religious Jew can find all of his needs, from birth to the grave, from kindergartens to retirement homes, all unified under the banner of Kehillas Antwerp Chareidis.

Recently, the entire kehilloh came out clad in its holiday best to install the new moro d'asro, HaRav Alter Eliyohu Rubinstein, who was selected by an overwhelming majority of community members in internal elections and immediately began to fill in the void following the petiroh of HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l more than two years ago.

After the installation ceremony we spoke with Rabbi Pinchos Kornfeld, the secretary of the Jewish community in Antwerp and chairman of the Installation Ceremony Committee. He also edits the local Torah weekly, Shabbos BeShabbato, which covers Antwerp and its Jewish roots, the status of the Jews in the city, golus among the goyim and life within the chareidi community.


Arranging an interview with Rabbi Kornfeld was no easy task in light of the many, wide-ranging communal affairs he attends to. His schedule was even tighter around the time of the installation ceremony but after several brief, interrupted conversations held at highly irregular hours we heard a fascinating account of Jewish life in the heart of Europe. At the beginning of the telephone interview, we asked for a few words on what the concept "kehilloh" means in Antwerp.

Rabbi Kornfeld: Certainly the concept kehilloh here in chutz laAretz is unlike in Eretz Yisroel. If in Eretz Yisroel there are many kehillos of good, kosher Jews, some of which have their own beis din, hechsher, etc., and sometimes their followers and members are scattered in cities throughout Eretz Yisroel, here in Antwerp there is just one chareidi kehilloh! The kehilloh unites all of the ehrlicher Yidden-- chassidishe, Litvishe and others. There are also numerous secular families living in Belgium that include old and young in a non-compulsory Jewish framework in the second, traditional kehilloh.

The vast majority of Antwerp Jews are active members of the chareidi community and are connected to it in many ways. In fact, the chareidi community provides every Jew all of his religious needs, from mikveh to eruv to marriage and divorce to chevra kadisha and many other matters Jews confront while living in the Diaspora among goyim. Later we'll expand on this topic.

If you want to hear a few figures, over 1,300 families are members of the kehilloh, and over 4,000 children are enrolled at chareidi schools. There are 33 shuls and numerous Lithuanian and Chassidic yeshivos gedolos, including the renowned Yeshivas Eitz Chaim.

What are the roots of the Jewish community in Belgium?

Rabbi Kornfeld: The Jewish community has been rooted in Belgium for many generations. The foundations of Jewish settlement in Belgium were lain in the days of the Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition, who set up Jewish life in the area, whether openly or underground. The Jewish community in its present form has existed for quite a long period, from the time of Napoleon's rule over France and Belgium.

One hundred years ago, HaRav Noach Tzvi Ulman served as rov, followed by HaRav Mordechai Rotenberg, a member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Europe and the author of Yad Mordechai, who perished together with the members of the kehilloh who didn't flee from the Nazis on time. Thus the longstanding kehilloh was cut down until it rejuvenated after the Second World War when survivors returned and rebuilt the infrastructure of community life.

Today the city beautifies all of Europe with its variegated spiritual life, yeshivas and Chassidic courts, and serves as a lighthouse for the entire region. The last rov who served as moro d'asro in our community was HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l who was niftar about two-and-a- half years ago.

Several vestiges of the old communal organizations in Europe that might not be so familiar in Eretz Yisroel remained here, reminders of Jewish communities as they were run during the long years of the Diaspora. For example, over the years there has always been a single community leader of high standing who led the kehilloh through thick and thin. Today the head of the community is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Lehrer, who represents the community with dignity and stateliness in all of its dealings with the government, both inside and out.

What void was created with the petiroh of HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth, zt"l?

Rabbi Kornfeld: With his noble spirit he elevated the rabbinate here to new heights and with his gadlus in Torah he transformed Antwerp into a citadel for matters of halochoh and customs, tzedokoh and chessed, and when he went to the Next World it left an enormous void in the kehilloh.

He became an emblem of tzedokoh and chessed for the entire world. He was chairman of our communal institutions, fought for religious needs, stood his ground and fought with his hard and fast spirit against every attempt to taint traditional, autonomous Judaism. He was greatly loved and was involved with people, all of whom saw him as a great and compassionate father guarding over his children and he essentially represented the community in the whole world and before the government authorities with honor and respect. Even in Eretz Yisroel he gave people the feeling they had somebody to rely on regarding all sorts of serious and not-so-serious problems in Europe, such as conversion.

On more than one occasion, people said he was reminiscent of the true rabbinical figures from the time of the Chasam Sofer and his great talmidim. Actually, his greatness created quite a problem for us, for it was a real challenge to find someone to replace him, someone who could fill the great void he left behind.

In Chutz la'Aretz the moro d'asro is everything! He is the baal habayis and everything is done according to his word. All community life hangs on his decisions in matters large and small. He is the final posek on every question, big or small, and every matter, big or small, is brought to him. In addition to all this, he lends an ear to give advice and share his wisdom, a paternal figure guarding over orphans and widows.

Here among the goyim we produce or import almost everything on our own. We have independent shechitoh with the moro d'asro's hechsher. There is a calendar with local times, special botei kevuros for kehilloh members and many other things that require a supreme authority elevated above the people to lead with a sure and steady hand, knowing how to navigate among the various figures from without and within and how to instill peace and love among all.

And have you found someone to replace him?

Rabbi Kornfeld: Since his petiroh the names of many rabbonim have been proposed. It was not easy to search for a new rov who would be accepted by all. Naturally every group tries to pull in a certain direction like the stones that said, "Olai yani'ach tzaddik es rosho," until besiyata deShmaya we found what we had been hoping for, someone who besiyata deShmaya will successfully replace him, and now the big installation ceremony was held.

HaRav Alter Eliyohu Rubinstein was elected with a very big majority of kehilloh members. Ninety-three percent voted for him in internal elections. When the previous rov was selected 50 years ago there were no organized internal elections, just a raising of hands in keeping with the spirit of the times, and he, too, won with an overwhelming majority.

The Rov does not need me to speak for his stature in Torah. He is widely known for his book, Migdanos Eliyohu and as an outstanding talmid chochom who is known among gedolei halochoh and poskei hador. I would also like to note we are already very pleased with our choice and from every standpoint he already appears to be assuming the yoke of local affairs upon himself and is quickly blending in with communal life. Indeed, from the very first days he visited the kehilloh's leading institutions, the talmudei Torah, etc.

But to me what was more important was to see his personal visits at a retirement home, where he spoke warmly and sincerely, taking an interest in the solitary old men. He even made consolation calls to community members sitting shiva Rachmono litzlan, and, based on the community's impression it appears he will be a great success in his post and will serve, with the blessings of gedolei hador, as a rov who carries the community members on his shoulders, taking part in their rejoicing and sorrow, his door open to give his advice to whomever seeks it, a leader of stature who also serves as a compassionate father and a patron for orphans and widows.

What is the Belgian rabbinate's status vis-a-vis government authorities?

Rabbi Kornfeld: In order to understand the rabbinate's status vis-a-vis the authorities, let me begin with a short introduction.

Napoleon, who ruled over France and Belgium, had a special relationship with the Jews, to the point where he even wanted to set up a Sanhedrin headed by HaRav Dovid Zitzheim, author of Yad Dovid. Toward this end, he set up a special organization and body called the Consistoire, a liaison between the government and religious bodies.

This organization serves as an umbrella organization for all of the communities, and all religious needs are arranged through it. The government does not deal with every Jewish town and village, and with every city and province; instead everything is channeled through this official organization, which is under the Belgian Ministry of Justice and Religions.

This body stands between the citizen and the authorities and, through it, all of his needs are taken care of. It has a chairman and four deputies from various communities and I, myself, serve there as a representative of the chareidi kehilloh in Antwerp. The rabbonim of the kehilloh were rabbonim recognized by this body and received a government allotment as community rabbis.

In which religious matters does this organization help?

Rabbi Kornfeld: You wouldn't believe it, but there are dozens of things that are unknown in Eretz Yisroel.

Here we live among the goyim and are subject to old, obsolete laws, some of which appear ridiculous in our progressive age. For example, did you know that in order to pick arovos for Hoshanoh Rabboh one needs a government permit? It would be very unpleasant to get caught picking arovos without a license, and our organization arranges the special license for the public.

Another classic example: the law says a person cannot be buried until 24 hours have passed since his petiroh, whereas we have a commandment against linas hameis. Shortly before chagim and yomim tovim there are deceased people who would be forced to wait several days, Rachmono litzlan, and therefore someone has to arrange the special licenses, which is one of the reasons why the Consistoire exists and why we are in it.

Sounds interesting. Here [in Eretz Yisroel] in golus among the Jews, sometimes we fail to appreciate what golus among the goyim is like.

Rabbi Kornfeld: Here's another example almost unknown in Eretz Yisroel: Here someone who is unemployed and receives unemployment benefits must report and sign at the government ministries almost every day. The chareidi Jew must arrange an exemption from having to sign on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Or, according to the law every business must select a day of rest on which it remains closed. Of course the Jews choose Shabbos and sometimes, in largely chareidi areas, those who want to open on motzei Shabbos on arvei chagim etc., must secure a special license to prevent incursions on their chosen day of rest.

In general, government representation is also necessary for marriage and divorce, constructing religious facilities such as shuls and mikvehs, permits for rabbonim to visit Jewish prisoners, food for Jewish hospital patients.

And another very current example, that just came to mind, that we handle through our organization: at the airport we set up botei knesses for Jewish travelers with a local rov who maintains them, and someone has to handle the upkeep and frequently obtain various permits. We also secured a special exemption from high taxes on matzoh imported for Pesach and recently there has been another major issue the organization has been heavily involved in-- compensation payments for Jewish victims of the War and everything that entails.

There are many issues the organization handles innumerable times. Just this week we filed a legal claim against a Moslem who opened a butcher shop and wrote the word "Kosher" on the sign.

For every hachnosas sefer Torah one must organize licenses and even for the big installation event just held, official permits had to be obtained. Here it's not like in Eretz Hakodesh where everyone spends Shabbos or chagim in the middle of reshus harobim with nobody asking any questions or making any objections. Here everything is legal and official and thoroughly organized in advance.

Do you encounter antisemitism in Belgium?

Rabbi Kornfeld: On this issue there is an umbrella organization called Forum to bring together all of the various organizations in Antwerp and the rest of Belgium and they address this painful issue and maintain contact with the government. Here in Belgium, antisemitism is not the concealed hatred seen in many other parts of the world. There are many Muslims here and antisemitism takes on political dimensions. So the attitude to it, and the attitude of all of the decent citizens who see in them potential international terrorism, is somewhat different.

There are 40,000 Jews in Belgium. In contrast, there are half a million Turkish Muslims and all sorts of other refugees from Arab countries whose increasing power was stanched only recently by another political group in the last elections that focused on opposing them and opposing terror and what they stand for. And more than we battle against them, many citizens who fear Muslim terror come out against them.

Do events in Eretz Yisroel have an effect on the level of Muslim antisemitism?

Rabbi Kornfeld: Definitely. We are connected to the residents of Eretz Yisroel in a very spirited battle, whether we like it or not. For example, during the operation in Jenin the situation was very tense here. We had to bolster protective measures and stay more alert.

There are neighborhoods where a high concentration of chareidim live in very close proximity to Muslims, and when there is tension in the Middle East it is immediately felt on the street. There have already been incidents of serious violence in the Belz neighborhood, for instance, which is located in a part of the city with a Muslim majority.

There is a Jewish company called Shmirah that we used for the installation ceremony and on other occasions, but it focuses more on guarding and protection and its members do not carry guns with live ammunition. If the need arises during an event, they summon the police right away. The police also conduct their patrols in chareidi neighborhoods, based on changing needs and in light of the military and security developments in the Middle East--and we feel the tension immediately.

You said there are a lot of secular Jews in Belgium. Is anyone doing outreach work?

Rabbi Kornfeld: Here everything is different. Like in every part of the world there are certain groups that try to bring every Jew closer to religion but here there are no established organizations like Arachim.

Most of the secular Jews came to the installation of the new rov and felt a part of the Jewish people and the kehilloh even though they do not keep Torah and mitzvos. Here, secular Jews speak Yiddish as well. Here everything is perceived as it appears from the perspective of the goyim and in their eyes these Jews are a part of the covenant.

Unlike Eretz Yisroel nobody here has complaints about religious coercion. Every individual acts as he pleases, whether like a Jew or a secular Jew or a goy. There is no tension between secular and religious Jews. Everyone does as he pleases, therefore even within the young generation there is no hatred toward religion and the religious.

Sad to say, 30 years ago there was no mixing between Jews and goyim and incidents of assimilation were very few, whereas now among the secular Jews the assimilation rate has accelerated, Rachmono litzlan. Assimilation is on the increase and from year to year they leave Judaism through civil marriages with Belgians, more and more secular Jews from the other traditional and modern kehilloh.

Is it true that all of chareidi Belgium is really like one big family?

Rabbi Kornfeld: Now you've hit the mark. Here when someone holds a simchah, say a kiddush on Shabbos, unless it rains, hundreds of people will come to wish him mazel tov! On a normal Shabbos, long processions file along from one simchah to the next and thousands of people pack the streets on their way to these simchas, without exaggeration.

Pain and sorrow in one home, like happiness and joy in another, quickly turn into everyone's sorrow or everyone's joy. The Jews are connected to one another through a wide array of chessed and mitzvah organizations, lending a hand in times of hardship, and we are used to seeing everything orchestrated besiyata deShmaya by the local rov, the moro d'asro, who runs matters with a strong and loving hand.

Do you export a young generation to Eretz Yisroel?

Rabbi Kornfeld: Of course. Some members of the kehilloh move to Eretz Yisroel to settle, like every Jew's dream and prayer, vehavi'einu leTzion Ircho berinoh, and when they reach the appropriate age many, many yeshiva students travel to Eretz Hakodesh to learn in the holy yeshivas. You can see for yourself, in the Torah world and in the major halls of Torah in Eretz Yisroel, how hundreds and hundreds of yeshiva students from Belgium and from all of Europe are scattered in the renowned yeshivas such as Mir, Ponovezh, Slobodka, Sfas Emes, Belz and others.

We're nearing the end and we nearly forgot--can you say a few words about the installation of the new rov?

Rabbi Pinchos Kornfeld: The installation was a very moving event. Representatives arrived from around the world and blessings and best wishes were sent by gedolei hador including Maran HaRav Eliashiv, shlita, and thousands of people took part.

The event was divided into segments. During the first segment, the new rov was received by talmidim from all of the talmudei Torah. Then the rabbinate writ was read aloud and Kel Molei Rachamim was recited by some of the world's greatest chazonim in Beis Knesses Hagodol in remembrance of past rabbonim and leaders of the kehilloh. And in the last segment, blessings written by gedolei hador from all over the world were read out loud while listeners sat at dinner tables in the huge Zichron Moshe Events Hall on Stenback St. and droshos were delivered by rabbonim and the new rov also delivered a droshoh.

One especially moving moment was when the new tallis was given to the Rov by the kehilloh. The Rov recited a brochoh on it and then added the Shehechiyonu. All this took place with a large crowd on hand at the ancient shul belonging to Kehillas Austin Shul where the installation ceremony was held on a decorated stage with a crown suspended overhead.

Yeshiva Student in Serious Condition Following Attack by Arab Youths in Antwerp

By Betzalel Kahn and Arnon Yaffeh

A sixteen-year-old yeshiva student was listed in serious condition after a group of 15 Arab youths attacked him and three other students from Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in an Antwerp suburb last Thursday. A spokesman for the Forum of Jewish Organizations in Belgium told reporters the youth had been stabbed in the back and one of his lungs had been punctured, but his life was no longer in danger. On Friday the heads of Belgium's Jewish organizations held an emergency meeting following the assault. They demanded the Mayor of Antwerp apply pressure to counter such acts and he promised that local police would increase patrols in the city's Jewish neighborhoods.

The Belgian Absorption Minister said that the attack was a response to the rise of "the extreme right in Belgium." Her suggestion drew angry denials from the Jewish community.

Other government officials privately also tried to interpret the attack as a political response to the fact that some Jews voted from the extreme rightist Vlaams Blok party that is against Moslem immigration. The Parisian newspaper Le Monde also wrote that the attack was due to Jewish support of rightist parties.

However eyewitnesses said that the attack was carried out by a group of ten Arab youths armed with knives and metal rods.

The organization of mosques in Antwerp condemned the attacks, saying that they had upset the harmonious coexistence that had prevailed in the city. They said that they reject such actions.


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