Thoughts on Rabbi Yisroel Avraham Portugal

By David M. Mallach

Last week, Rabbi Yisroel Avraham Portugal passed away at the age of 95. The Skulener Hassidim, whose rebbe he was, is composed of at most a few hundred families but over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Borough Park. To appreciate the significance of this it is helpful to understand some of the recent trends in the Hassidic world. Born in Moldova/Romania, he had lived in the US since 1960.

The neighborhood of Borough Park, where Rabbi Portugal lived for many decades, is the largest concentration of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in the United States and probably the world outside Israel. It is overwhelmingly composed of Hassidim from a large number of different groups. While the Satmar may dominate in Williamsburg and Lubavitch in Crown Heights, Borough Park has the largest concentration of different groups – Bobover, Karlienr, Vishnitz, etc. reflecting the gamut of the Haredi community in NY. But what also exists, and is growing in numbers and significance, is the group referred to as Hassidim without a Rebbe. The Hassidic world, from its origins in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century, through the evolution into late 20th century in the US, Israel, or elsewhere, Hassidism was organized in courts or dynasties – a rebbe and his followers. There was a very special connection between a rebbe and his Hassidim. Together they constituted a powerful and dynamic community of mutual support and identity. One could not be a Hassid without a rebbe and to be a rebbe one had to have followers. The rebbe, the spiritual leaders of a Hassidic community, was the hub around which the community revolved and evolved.

But in the last few decades in America, this has changed. American culture, identity and values are a phenomenal powerful force and they have impacted the Hassidic community as well as virtually every other sector of American society. American society is built of a concept of individualism and free choice. The Bill of Rights enshrines these values in law, and it reflects and molds the core American identity. This has become a major force in the Hassidic world. People choose not to identify with any particular branch or group, but rather adopt the life-style. They may send one child to a Bobover Yeshiva and another to Vishnitz one, and personally study with a Karliner rabbi and daven Munkacz synagogue. As the person has religious issues, he or she may go to any of these community’s rabbis in seeking a response. Numerous knowledgeable observers have suggested that a third or more of the total Hassidic community in Borough Park is composed of the unaffiliated Hassidim. This is very similar to millennials across America in opting for a parting life-style but avoiding formal organizational affiliation. To the outsider they look as if they have affiliated in a very distinct way, but in fact that is far from the case.

Now the challenge to the Hassidic without a rebbe is to find the rebbe with whom to identity who does not try to push people into affiliating with his particular community. This was the greatness of Rabbi Portugal. Whether by plan or by design, he became the quintessential Rebbe without Hassidim. It is very likely that on any given day he spoke with more people than then the total number of those who identity as Skulener Hassidim, and the vast majority of those with whom he spoke were not ‘his’ Hassidim, but were Hassidic Jews. He gave them the advice, the compassion and the sense of belonging, but as there was no such entity as a Skulener yeshiva, the issues that may have been challenging in conversations with other rabbis, did not exist with him.
As Rabbi Portugal strongly opposed open access to the internet and objected to television in the home as comparable to having chometz during Pesach, he was often described as anti-modern, although he was a big fan of cassette tape recorders. This view looks at the technology of modernity while ignoring the fundamental changes taking place in society. The Hassidic world is not more static or unchanging than any other part of the human landscape, and as in each society there are leaders who understand the changes, work with them and facilitate them in a constructive way, and those who choose not to do so. Rabbi Portugal was the most visible and inspiring example of those who are supporting and creating a new direction in the Hassidic world, understanding the forces that are re-shaping it from outside and inside and helping it to to a new generation of American Jews. Even those of us who never met him and are not part of the Hassidic community are indebted to him for what he helped to flourish.

His memory truly is a blessing.

David M. Mallach is Vice President JFNA – Executive Vice-Chairman United Israel Appeal/IEF. The views expressed are personal and not those of UIA.