Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal • The Skulener Rebbe

On Wednesday the 29th of Av, 5742 (Aug 18, 1982), the Gaon and Tzaddik Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe, was called back to G-d at the age of 85. Multitudes attended his funeral, which took place in the Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Near his Beit Midrash, famous Rebbes and Rabbis gave their eulogies, and all who spoke rendered homage to the Skulener Rebbe by declaring that he was a father to orphans, a pillar of kindness, and a remnant from a much older generation – a Tzaddik on whom the world is founded.

The Skulener Rebbe is the name by which Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal was known around the world. People did not know him by his real name. People only knew that in Romania there was a Jew called the Skulener Rebbe, a man who looked for Jewish children orphaned by the war. He tried to save them from spiritual destruction, so he adopted them and raised them as his own, devoting himself to them so that they would remain Torah-observant Jews.

It did not take long for him to become known around the world as the “father of orphans” and a leader in rescuing Jews. Everyone respected him, both young and old, and he was loved by yeshiva students, Bnei Torah, and the masses of the Jewish people, in whose midst he became a living legend.

Rabbi Eliezer Zusha was born around the year 5657 (1897), the son of the Gaon and Tzaddik Rabbi Israel Avraham Portugal, the Rav of several Russian communities. At the end of his life, Rabbi Israel Avraham became the Rav of the Romanian city of Skulen. He was already quite old when his son Eliezer Zusha was born, yet he devoted himself to the boy and instilled him with his Torah and wisdom. Rabbi Eliezer was still young, about 18 years old, when his father passed away, yet despite his age the inhabitants of Skulen chose him to succeed his father, for everyone could see that the young man was destined for greatness.

With his appointment as the Rav of Skulen, Rabbi Eliezer Zusha devoted himself with all his heart and soul to the concerns of the community, earning fame throughout the region. He was not simply the Rav of the community; he was also its beloved shepherd. Jews cherished and respected their leader and Rebbe for his greatness in Torah, his goodness of heart, and his love for the Jewish people. He loved all Jews, be they rich or poor, religious scholars or the simplest of people.

The Rav of Skulen was endowed with many virtues that he put to use in his holy work, particularly his great sense of music. Like the “beloved singer of Israel” (see II Samuel 23:1), he composed numerous melodies that are sung with great fervor even until today, thus attaching himself to the hearts of hundreds of youngsters, who because of him remained upright, G-d fearing people who built homes that were beyond reproach.

While still a young man, people noticed his tendency for taking action. He was concerned with everything that dealt with the community, and he sought to take steps to strengthen the sacred values of the Jewish people. He especially devoted himself to education, establishing religious schools for Jewish children.

Rabbi Eliezer Zusha remained in Skulen for about 20 years, until a prominent individual from Chernovitz offered him the position as Rav of the city, which at the time was a large Jewish center. There, the rabbis placed him in charge of everything that concerned religious education. The Rav of Skulen devoted himself with all his heart and soul to this work as well, since his love for the Jewish people was boundless. His every thought concerned the education of the generation’s young, and in this role he found spiritual satisfaction and achieved great success.

Rabbi Eliezer Zusha accomplished a great deal during his lifetime. However the jewel of his intense work was the devotion he demonstrated during the Second World War and the years that followed, for he was renowned as a leader in rescue work. He feared nothing and was constantly ready to give his life for any Jew.

When the Russians left Chernovitz and the Germans took it over, they issued the directive that whoever sheltered a Russian soldier would pay for it with his life. When the Rav heard people speaking about three Jewish Russian soldiers that nobody wanted to shelter, he immediately had them brought to his home and hid them in his attic, personally bringing them food each day until the Russians finally retook the city. During that time he had 40 orphans living with him, sleeping across the width of a bed, while he and the Rebbetzin slept on the floor.

A woman recounted the following story concerning the Rav’s devotion: In Romania her husband had been a leftist and a member of Hashomer Hatzair. When he was imprisoned on false charges of spying, the help and support that the Rav provided for this woman was impossible to describe. Not only that, but he also succeeded in freeing her husband from prison and enabling him to leave for Eretz Israel. The goodness that the Rav showed the man encouraged him to return to G-d, and today he is an observant Jew. From time to time he visited the Rav and asked him for his blessing and thanked him for his kindness.

Such was the Rav. He was self-effacing with everyone, and wisdom illuminated his face. He brought hearts back to G-d and the Torah by his gentle manner of speaking, and because of his finesse and natural nobility he was loved by all who met him.

At the end of the war, Rabbi Eliezer Zusha immediately began to establish institutions for orphans of the Holocaust, saving thousands of them. He personally sustained about 300 orphans, all of them calling him “Abba.” Almost all of them settled in Eretz Israel and have remained observant Jews.

He often had the occasion to meet men who always reminded him that he was their father-in-law, even though he never had any daughters! In fact, these men had married orphaned girls who were considered to be the Rav’s daughters, and so by extension they considered themselves to be the Rav’s sons-in-law.

Because of his activities, the Rav experienced tremendous persecution, both by the Germans and the Russians. More than once was he in danger of losing his life, and at one point he was even being led out for execution, when by a miracle the Germans saved him! The Russians also imprisoned him several times, yet despite everything he never stopped his sacred work.

In 5720 (1960), the Rav arrived in the United States and eventually settled in Williamsburg, New York. It was there that he established his Beit Midrash. He had barely opened it when hordes of people came to hear the Torah emanating from his lips. His home was soon attracting great crowds, with many coming to his door early in the day asking for advice and listening to his prayers. He prayed with extraordinary devotion and at great length. It is said that one who had never witnessed the prayer of the Rav of Skulen has never witnessed true prayer. Those who never heard the melody that escaped his lips and ascended during his prayers, said with the utmost concentration, never saw how a soul could connect itself to its Creator in love.

The Rav did not remain at rest in the United States either. Rather, he worked with all his might to save imprisoned Jews. He also established an educational network in Eretz Israel called Chesed LeAvraham, which today includes more than 50 institutions. The Skulener Rebbe often traveled to Eretz Israel and closely supervised the educational institutions that he founded. Even up to his final days, he was busy saving Jews, promoting Torah-based education, and performing acts of kindness.

At the Skulener Rebbe’s funeral, his son and successor read his will. In it, he called upon all his friends to pursue the holy task to which he had devoted his life.

He was buried in the Viznitz cemetery in Monsey, New York, but on condition that he be reburied in Jerusalem after a year.

The great activities and good deeds that marked the life of the Skulener Rebbe will carry his name onwards to the far future.




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