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5 Cheshvan 5765 - October 20, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Hachaver R' Erik Avrohom Guttermann zt"l
By Moshe Schapiro

The Jewish community of Scandinavia mourns the recent death of R' Avrohom Guttermann, the legendary Danish Jew who dedicated his life to perpetuating the tenets of authentic Torah observance in a region so distant from the hub of world Judaism.

R' Avrohom's son, Shuvu-Israel Director Rabbi Chaim Michoel Guttermann, delivered the hesped at the levaya, which was held in Eretz Yisroel on 24 Ellul.

"Chazal teach us that Avrohom Ovinu was called `HaIvri' because when it came to avodas Hashem, he was on one side (ever) of the river, and the rest of the world was on the other," said the Rabbi Guttermann in his hesped. "Our father, too, was like our forefather Avrohom Ovinu. When it came to protecting authentic Yiddishkeit in Scandinavia, he was on one side and the rest of the people were on the other."

R' Avrohom zt"l was a descendant of one of Denmark's oldest Jewish families, which immigrated from Altona, Germany, in the 1700s when the Royal Danish Court issued an edict allowing Jews to live there.

Although the Jews of Denmark enjoyed security and freedom, no yeshivos were established there, and naturally the level of observance decreased with each passing generation. By 1920, when R' Avrohom was born, Yiddishkeit in Denmark was surviving purely on momentum: parents transmitted the remnants of messora and minhag to their children and hoped for the best.

R' Avrohom's father, Tzvi, was an exceptional individual who expected more from his own children and from the Jews of Scandinavia.

Known as a "chaver," a term of distinction granted only to select members of the community who dedicate themselves selflessly to the needs of the kehilloh, R' Tzvi Guttermann played a prominent role in the struggle to preserve authentic Torah Judaism in Scandinavia.

One of his boldest acts was to criticize the rabbi of the central shul for diverging from halacha with regard to conversions. R' Tzvi, together with a small group of frum Jews, waged this battle completely on their own, without any of the support systems that we take for granted today, such as the direction of gedolei Yisroel and alliances with other frum communities. "In this respect, he, too, was an Avrohom Ovinu," his grandson, Rabbi Chaim Michoel Guttermann, said.

R' Tzvi and his small group of kehilla members broke away from the main shul and created their own Torah-observant minyan and community, which they called Machzikei Hadas. Visitors to Denmark referred to it as "the Bnei Brak of Scandinavia."

R' Tzvi Guttermann certainly could not have dreamt that the Machzikei Hadas community he and his chaverim brought into existence would raise the level of observance not only in Denmark, but all over Scandinavia. It was the knowledge that there was a community in the region that defended its right to perform shechita and maintain a kosher mikva that kept mitzvah observance alive in the minds of Scandinavian Jews.

R' Avrohom zt"l followed in the footsteps of his father.

One relative recalls a particular incident that illustrates R' Avrohom's similarity to his biblical namesake: a group of Jewish youngsters, not all of them religious, went skiing together in Sweden, where the Jews of Denmark found shelter from the Nazis during World War II. Among them was young Avrohom. While the group was busy winding down a steep slope, Avrohom signaled to his friends to stop.

"It's time for Mincha!" he called out, pointing to his watch. And right then and there, halfway down the mountain, Avrohom and his friends unbuckled themselves from their skis and began saying Ashrei. Such a level of observance was completely unheard of in Denmark at that time.

In his youth R' Avrohom zt"l mastered the intricate Danish nussach tefilloh, which consists of a different niggun for each Yom Tov, and a different niggun for each Yom Tov tefilloh. His dedication to minhag and nussach were strong manifestations of his love for Yiddishkeit.

World War II reached Denmark in 1940, when the Nazis took control of the country without firing a single shot. The Gestapo arrived soon after, setting up its headquarters in a building adjacent to the Machzikei Hadas shul. On Shabbos, R' Avrohom and his father would walk past Gestapo headquarters on the way to shul. However, no harm came to them because the Nazis were taking their time and amassing detailed information about the Jews in Denmark before rounding them up.

R' Avrohom zt"l joined the Danish resistance movement, but not for long. On erev Rosh Hashonoh 1943, the Germans launched an aktion to round up the country's Jews, but a few hours earlier the Danish underground, with the help of the general population, evacuated virtually every Jew in the country to Sweden by means of a large flotilla of fishing boats. R' Avrohom and his family fled along with the rest of the Jews.

When the war ended in 1945, R' Avrohom and his family returned home to find everything exactly as they had left it; the table was still set for the Rosh Hashonoh seuda. Their non-Jewish neighbors had guarded the homes of the Jewish evacuees throughout the war years, and none of their possessions had been touched.

Upon his return, R' Avrohom opened a leather goods factory which eventually received the esteemed status of "By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark." He married Mildred Levin, who was from one of the Jewish families of the even smaller Jewish community of Oslo.

R' Avrohom was very active in the Scandinavian Jewish Youth Movement (the SJUF), spearheading a number of programs to promote Yiddishkeit among the region's youth.

He gradually emerged as one of the leaders of the Machzikei Hadas community, and served as the head of the chevra kadisha of Denmark. He also served one term as President of the general Jewish community. As part of his "duties," in his later years he opened a Jewish community center that included a cheder, simchah hall, kosher kitchen and library.

Continuing in his father's footsteps, he defended the right to perform shechita, which was the target of constant criticism from the Danish authorities. And when the leadership of the main chevra kadisha "modernized" Jewish burial customs, R' Avrohom became the head of a separate chevra kadisha that remained faithful to minhag.

Many remember R' Avrohom for opening Scandinavia's first and only kosher hotel in Hornbeak, a popular summer resort area favored by Scandinavia's Jews. R' Avrohom would often joke that the hotel was the only business one could discuss on Shabbos, because it wasn't really a business, it was a loss. The only reason he opened it, and continued to run it, was to provide the Jews who came to vacation in the area a place to eat glatt kosher food and daven in a minyan.

For many years, the Jews at Hornbeak would rent a classroom in a local non-Jewish school and use it as a classroom throughout the summer vacation season. R' Avrohom saw the need to establish a permanent facility, and to this end he invited two wealthy acquaintances of his to go for a walk through the town. At one point, R' Avrohom stopped, took off his shoes, and instructed his two friends to follow suit. The two looked at R' Avrohom with a puzzled look on their face, as though perhaps they hadn't heard him correctly. "I said take off your shoes!" R' Avrohom instructed. They did, and now their curiosity was piqued.

"The place we are standing on can become holy," R' Avrohom explained to his bare-footed friends. "We can buy this lot and turn it into a shul. Horbeak needs a permanent shul. Let's do it together." R' Avrohom's associates responded to his dramatic appeal, and the lot did become holy. However, they soon pulled out of the venture, leaving R' Avrohom to bear the entire burden of maintaining the shul.

Even non-religious Jews who rented rooms in non-Jewish hotels would go to daven at the minyan held in R' Avrohom's shul. In addition to minyanim, the shul featured shiurim by well-known rabbonim. Yeshivas Ponovezh even ran Yarchei Kalla programs there, year after year. Through this shul dozens of non-religious Jews were introduced to davening, Torah study and mitzvah observance, and many of them continued to explore Judaism and became completely observant.

In addition, many individuals from religious families said that the minyanim at the Hornbeak helped them maintain their level of observance. R' Avrohom would himself made the rounds through the summer resort in the early morning hours and rustled people out of their beds for the minyan. Those who didn't respond to his knocks on the door received a telephone call. "No excuse was good enough to escape R' Avrohom's minyan," a Hornbeak veteran recalled wistfully, adding that he misses those early-morning phone calls.

R' Avrohom's penchant for minyan-making continued in Copenhagen, where he came up with a novel idea to ensure there was a minyan every single morning in Machzikei Hadas: He built several apartments on the top floor of the Jewish community center. The rent was variable: either $1,000 a month, which was the going rate, or $50 a month if the male tenants attended the morning minyan daily. Needless to say, this arrangement made the task of putting together a minyan each morning much easier.

One of R' Avrohom zt"l's crowning achievements was to open the only kollel in Scandinavia in 1986. To this end he "imported" from Eretz Yisroel 12 avreichim and their families, and provided for all their needs, including apartments and monthly stipends. The goal of this unprecedented venture was to strengthen the local Jewish community and to do kiruv work among non-affiliated Jews in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Another landmark achievement was opening the first yeshiva in Copenhagen for Russian boys from the Soviet Union and East Germany, located in the very same building adjacent to the Machzikei Hadas shul that had served as Gestapo headquarters during the war years. An Islamic group had its eye on this building to serve as a Muslim school, so all in all the Jews of Copenhagen were quite happy when R' Avrohom secured it for his yeshiva.

It was especially a moment of sweet revenge for the generation of Danish Jews who had lived through the War years. Turning the building into a yeshiva made a mockery of the evil intentions of the Nazis, who sought to erase Judaism from the face of the earth. R' Avrohom's yeshiva created an entire generation of dozens of talmidei chachomim who continued their studies at world-renowned yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel, England and North America.

During the last months of his life, R' Avrohom became very ill. He decided to come to Eretz Yisroel, his most beloved place on earth, and there he spent the last three months of his life.

He was niftar on Friday afternoon 24 Ellul, and was buried shortly before Shabbos, only two hours after his petiroh. "In his role as the head of the chevra kadisha in Denmark, he would always make superhuman efforts to bury people according to halacha, as soon as possible after their petiroh, preferably on the same day. Perhaps because of this zechus he was zocheh to receive such a burial himself," said his son, Rabbi Chaim Michoel Guttermann.

R' Avrohom was an extraordinary person with ideas that some people considered outlandish and unrealistic. But with the assistance of his dear wife, ad meah ve'esrim, who always gave him the support and encouragement to put his plans into action, his ideas invariably turned into concrete actions that, in retrospect, are viewed as bold and visionary.

His list of achievements speaks for itself. He proved that what everyone thought impossible could be done. All that was required was emunah, bitochon, determination, and fierce loyalty to Torah and halacha.

These were the qualities that were instrumental in changing the face of Judaism in Scandinavia throughout his 84 years of life.

He is survived by his wife, Mina; two sons and three daughters in Copenhagen, Manchester and New York; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will carry on in his footsteps.

May his memory be a blessing.


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