Journey for Justice: A Mission to Daven for Jonathan Pollard

Davening at the kever of Harav Shaya’le of Kerestir, zy”a. The Sulitzer Rebbe is sitting to the left, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner is standing at the center.
Davening at the kever of Harav Shaya’le of Kerestir, zy”a. The Sulitzer Rebbe is sitting to the left, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner is standing at the center.

Most of the group had never met nor spoken to the man they traveled thousands of miles to daven for, but, greatly moved by the story of Jonathan Pollard and the miscarriage of justice that continues to keep him under partial house arrest and subject to other harsh parole restrictions, seven Jews from New York, including this writer, undertook an arduous 50-hour journey to the kever of a tzaddik in Kerestir, Hungary to daven on his behalf.

It all began when Rabbi Pesach Lerner, who has ceaselessly championed Jonathan Pollard’s cause for more than two decades, arrived late for his nightly seder at the evening kollel in the Sulitzer beis medrash in Far Rockaway.

Shea Levine is an accountant who also learns every night in the kollel. Aware of Rabbi Lerner’s penchant for punctuality, he inquired about his delay in arriving. Rabbi Lerner revealed that he was visiting Jonathan Pollard.

“It then hit me: We have tried a lot of things to get him out of the matzav he is in, but one of the things we didn’t do was go to Rav Shaya’le,” Shea related to me as we sat on the plane.

“Rav Shaya’le was known for being there to help everyone, no matter the situation the person was in. Being the type of person Rabbi Lerner is, he took it very seriously. The next day emails started going around about the trip,” Shea continued. “We soon saw Rav Shaya’le help us come. When we looked online, the prices were $800 for a very inconvenient trip, and over $1,200 for a convenient one. Then our travel agent found us an amazing deal — the same tickets that online we had seen for $1,200, he got us for under $550. The travel agent said he’d never seen them this cheap.”

Rabbi Lerner, who, in his long decades of askanus, has traveled often to Eretz Yisrael and various parts of the United States, is a frequent flyer. Yet this trip broke new ground for him.

“Even though for many years I’ve been davening at a chassidishe beis medrash, I did not grow up in a chassidishe home or environment and learned in non-chassidishe yeshivos,” Rabbi Lerner related. “So, visiting and being mispallel at kivrei tzaddikim of chassidishe Rebbes was not something I do often. But we can [ignore] no opportunity to beseech Shamayim on behalf of Jonathan’s total freedom, and when challenged to make this trip, I immediately responded ‘yes’.”

In the days and weeks that followed, several other members of what Rabbi Lerner fondly calls the “chevrah” — the closely-knit group of mispallelim at the Sulitzer beis medrash — decided to join.

“The current Sulitzer Rebbetzin is a great-great-granddaughter of Rav Shaya’le,” Rabbi Lerner explains.

Her father, Harav Berish Rubin, zy”a, the Kerestirer Rebbe of Boro Park, was the son of Harav Meir Yosef, Hy”d, the last Rebbe in the city of Kerestir, who was killed during the war. Harav Meir Yosef had succeeded his father-in-law, Harav Avrumele of Kerestir, who was niftar a short while after he succeeded his famed father, Harav Shaya’le, as Rebbe of Kerestir.

The Sulitzer Rebbe, shlita, and many members of the kehillah have made the trip to Hungary numerous times to daven at the kever of Rav Shaya’le. Upon hearing of this trip, one mispallel, who is in need of a yeshuah for a family member, asked the Rebbe if he could accompany us, and he did, adding immeasurably to the experience.

In a clear exhibition of hashgachah pratis (one of many instances we encountered on this trip) the dates that worked for all interested parties brought us to Kerestir on the yahrtzeit of the Rebbe’s father-in-law, the Kerestirer Rebbe of Boro Park, zt”l.

In recognition of Hamodia’s long history of doing all it possibly could for Jonathan Pollard, and this writer’s personal connection with this cause, Rabbi Lerner graciously invited me to join as well.

“When I shared our planned 48-hour tefillah mission with Jonathan and Esther,” Rabbi Lerner relates, “they were very moved that strangers would spend their time and money to daven on his behalf.”

Tefillah has always been a key part of the efforts to secure Jonathan’s freedom. During the long years of spearheading the efforts to end the miscarriage of justice that kept her husband behind bars for so long, Mrs. Pollard often stressed that it was the many tefillos that were being uttered by Klal Yisrael that were keeping Jonathan alive and emotionally intact despite all odds.

Those close to the Pollards point out that Mrs. Pollard herself set the example: She was constantly at the Kosel and various mekomos hakedoshim in Eretz Yisrael, spending countless hours reciting Tehillim and davening for Jonathan and others in need of a yeshuah.

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The following is a diary of the trip.

Sunday Night

Aboard KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Flight 6178, from Newark, New Jersey, to Amsterdam

We waited until after the meal had been served and the trays cleared away before requesting and receiving permission from the cabin crew to daven Maariv in the back galley. A number of other Yidden aboard the flight joined the seven of us. The Sulitzer Rebbe served as shaliach tzibbur, as airline crew members stood by and watched. After reciting the Kaddish after Shemoneh Esrei, the Rebbe announced, “We will say Aleinu at our seats,” and then thanked the crew for allowing us to daven in their space.

As he walked back to his seat, the Rebbe told me why he had chosen not to say Aleinu in the galley. “I sensed that the crew was getting impatient,” he explained, thus teaching me a lesson in sensitivity and seeking to create a kiddush Hashem.

Monday Morning

Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport, Hungary

The waiting time for the connecting flight in Amsterdam was too short to allow us to daven Shacharis, and when the second leg of the trip proved to be on a packed airplane, we reluctantly waited until reaching Budapest to daven Shacharis. As soon as we cleared immigration, we found a quiet corner in the airport to daven. In yet another exhibition of hashgachah pratis, we met four other Yidden who had also arrived in Budapest — three of whom hadn’t davened Shacharis yet, either — forming precisely a minyan of mispallelim.

As we concluded Shacharis, a man speaking Hebrew approached Rabbi Lerner and expressed his surprise at seeing a group of Chassidim davening Shacharis.

“I am used to seeing anti-Semitism here, not this. I have to take a picture to send to my son in Israel,” the Hungarian-born businessman, who now lives in Israel, said.

Nagykálló, Hungary

This ancient town traces its history back over more than 600 years, but for the Jewish community, who refer to this town by its Yiddish name, Kalov, it is famed as the hometown and burial place of the venerated tzaddik and miracle worker, Harav Yitzchak Eizek, the Kalover Rebbe, zy”a.

As we approached the city, we passed a sign indicating the way to Nyieredhaza. I recalled what Reb Shiya, a precious Holocaust survivor, shared with me several years ago during an interview.

Reb Shiya was born in Nyieredhaza, and there is a straight road from that town to Kalov, a six-minute train ride away.

The Divrei Chaim, the Sanzer Rav, zy”a, used to say that when he traveled on this road to be mispallel at the kever of Harav Eizek, the first Kalover Rebbe, zy”a, he would sense the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael. In the town of Kalov proper he would sense the kedushah of Yerushalayim, and at the kever of the Kalover Rebbe he would sense the kedushah of the Kodesh Kodashim.

The seudah in the home of Harav Shaya’le, in the room where he would lead melaveh malkah. Clockwise: Rabbi Pesach Lerner; Mr. Yummi Knobel; the author; Harav Shaya Rubin, descendant of Rav Shaya’le and director of the Hachnasas Orchim; Harav Elya Gross; the Sulitzer Rebbe; Shea Levine: Moshe Mandel; and Moshe Feigenbaum. (Vavrek Valter)
The seudah in the home of Harav Shaya’le, in the room where he would lead melaveh malkah.
Clockwise: Rabbi Pesach Lerner; Mr. Yummi Knobel; the author; Harav Shaya Rubin, descendant of Rav Shaya’le and director of the Hachnasas Orchim; Harav Elya Gross; the Sulitzer Rebbe; Shea Levine: Moshe Mandel; and Moshe Feigenbaum. (Vavrek Valter)

When Reb Shiya was a young boy, he got to know an elderly Yid who was a grandson of Reb Yaakov Fish, a wealthy Yid who was the rosh hakahal of Kalov, as well as the gabbai of the Kalover Rebbe. In his youth, Reb Yaakov had received a brachah for arichus yamim from the Baal Shem Tov, zy”a, and he lived to the age of 119.

As the grandson of Reb Yaakov related to Reb Shiya, the Kalover Rebbe would miraculously go to Eretz Yisrael every Erev Shabbos to immerse himself in the be’er shel Miriam which is in the Kinneret. Reb Yaakov pleaded with the Rebbe to take him along, and one week he agreed, stipulating that he should hold on to him well. While he was there, Reb Yaakov somehow got separated from the Rebbe, and the Rebbe returned without him, but brought him back the next week.

Up until World War II, this was one of the most visited kevarim in Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands would come here for the yahrtzeit, 7 Adar, including many of the leading Rebbes of the generation. In fact, it is related that there was an ancient minhag for Rabbanim to give drashos in their shuls on that date, 7 Adar, the yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu and a fast day for those belonging to the chevrah kaddisha. Yet after the petirah of Rav Eizikel, when an ever-growing number of people began to travel to Kalov, the Rabbanim stopped giving drashos in many towns, as most of the townspeople had traveled to Kalov.

This tzaddik is also known for composing some of the most powerful and moving niggunim about Moshiach and longing for the Geulah.

Led by the Sulitzer Rebbe, we recited Tehillim and davened for Yehonasan ben Malkah, a Yid whose most fervent wish is to be allowed by the American government to live a truly free life, serving Hakadosh Baruch Hu together with his wife in Eretz Yisrael.

Sátoraljaújhel, Hungary

While most readers may not recognize the Hungarian version of this name, they are probably well aware of its Yiddish name, Ujhel or Ihel.

Granted town status by King Stephen V of Hungary some 850 years ago, it is known in the Torah world as the hometown of Harav Moshe Teitelbaum, the Yismach Moshe, zy”a.

We arrived here after stopping in Liska, known in Hungarian as Olaszliszka, to daven at the kever of the renowned tzaddik Harav Hershele of Liska, author of the Ach Pri Tevuah, and his son-in-law, Harav Chaim Friedlander, the Tal Chaim, who succeeded him as Rav of the town.

Harav Shaya’le of Kerestir was a close talmid and gabbai of the Liska Rebbe and, even when he was renowned as a Rebbe and miracle-worker, would sign his name as “Yeshayah the son of Harav Moshe, who was meshamesh bakodesh of Harav Hatzaddik of Liska.”

The beis hachaim in Ujhel is now owned and perfectly maintained by the New York-based kehillah that is under the leadership of the Satmar Rebbe, Harav Aharon Teitelbaum, a direct descendant of the Yismach Moshe. A magnificent mikveh was built right outside the beis hachaim, and we took the opportunity to immerse in the mikveh before davening at the ohel of the Yismach Moshe. After long hours of traveling, we appreciated the cold and hot drinks — complete with chalav Yisrael milk and snacks brought along from Brooklyn — that were waiting for us in the hachnasas orchim room on the second floor of the building.

Among the members of our group was Moshe Feigenbaum, who, as the Sulitzer Rebbe pointed out, is a descendant of the Yismach Moshe.

After we recited Tehillim at the kevarim of the Yismach Moshe and his Rebbetzin, and Harav Sender, Rav of Komarna and the forebear of the famed Komarna dynasty, I asked the Sulitzer Rebbe about a puzzling historical fact.

Harav Sender of Komarna was niftar during a visit to the city on 21 Av 5578 (August 1818). More than 20 years later, in 5600/1840, the wife of the Yismach Moshe was buried to his right, with only one space left empty between the two of them. A year later, on 28 Tammuz 5601 (July 1841), the Yismach Moshe was niftar, and was buried to the right of his Rebbetzin.

Later, an ohel was built over the kevarim, and until this very day, Rav Sender is to the left, an empty space to his immediate right, followed by the wife of the Yismach Moshe, and then the Yismach Moshe.

For years I wondered about this most unusual set-up, and the various descendants of both the Yismach Moshe and the Kamarna dynasty whom I had asked had no information about it.

The Sulitzer Rebbe had a ready answer for me.

“The empty space to the right of Harav Sender was originally supposed to be for the Yismach Moshe,” he told me. “But it is told that Harav Sender had left a will that no one should be buried near him for 23 years after his petirah. The Yismach Moshe was niftar less than a month short of 23 years after Rav Sender. Afraid to go against the will, they buried him on the other side of the Rebbetzin.”

As we got back into the van and set out for Kerestir, the conversation invariably turned to Rav Shaya’le and the purpose of our visit.

For Shea Levine, this was the fifth time in 14 months that he was traveling to Kerestir. Each time he traveled either with the Sulitzer Rebbe, with whom he has an extraordinarily close relationship, or a member of the Rebbe’s immediate family.

When I asked him what drives him to make this trip again and again, Shea was emphatic.

“It is an unbelievable experience to daven there for all the things we need, and on top of that it is the chizuk and spiritual lift that you get — the boost of Yiddishkeit that this trip accomplishes … I highly recommend everyone going …

“I have never met or spoken to Jonathan Pollard,” Shea added. “But this is something that Rabbi Lerner has selflessly devoted so many years to, and something important to all of us. …”

Moshe Mandel, another beloved member of the Sulitzer chevrah, was succinct. “Every time you come, you see yeshuos,” he declared.

“I was discussing with the Rebbe various issues that I was davening for,” said Yummi Knobel, another member who has a very close relationship with the Sulitzer Rebbe. “The Rebbe told me, ‘Yummi, you have to go to Kerestir.’” When this trip came about, he was excited to join.

Davening in the room where Harav Shaya’le would receive visitors and give brachos.
Davening in the room where Harav Shaya’le would receive visitors and give brachos.

For more than a century, Jews in need of salvation have made their way to this small town, whose Yiddish name is Kerestir. It is here, in the picturesque town surrounded by vineyards and pumpkin fields, that the tzaddik fondly known as “Reb Shaya’le” resided. In his lifetime, he was famed throughout Hungary and much of Galicia, Russia, Poland and beyond, as a miracle worker.

More than 90 years after his petirah, the miracles continue. In recent years, after numerous individuals saw their tefillos answered, ever-growing numbers of people from throughout the globe have flocked to Kerestir to pour out their hearts.

“Three types of people could be found in the house of Reb Shaya’le,” the Sulitzer Rebbe related. “They were referred to as orchim, borchim, and dorchim.”

The orchim were the ordinary guests. The borchim were those fleeing anti-Semitic decrees or seeking to avoid being drafted into an army where they would be unable to live halachic lives and be singled out for persecution. The third group consisted of Jews from Marmarosh who would come to press the grapes with their feet during winemaking season and were therefore called “dorchim.”

On frequent occasions authorities would come to Kerestir to investigate reports that Jews were residing there illegally, and the borchim in Kerestir would have to hide in attics and cellars. On one occasion, one of the borchim — who personally related the story to the Rebbe — realized that the police had arrived at the Rebbe’s house to look for illegals, and he had no time to hide. He rushed into the Rebbe’s room and told Reb Shaya’le about the crisis.

“Grab onto my chair,” Rav Shaya’le told him.

He did so. The officers walked into the room, greeted the Rebbe, looked carefully around the room, and didn’t see him at all.

Upon our arrival in the town, we made our way to the house of Rav Shaya’le, which now serves as a hachnasas orchim. We merited to daven Minchah and recite Tehillim on behalf of Jonathan and his wife, Mrs. Esther Pollard, in the tzaddik’s private room.

On the way to the beis hachaim, I received a call from Gary (Chaim Yosef) Apfel, a prominent attorney who has selflessly dedicated the past few years to the cause of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, l’sheim Shamayim.

The attorney, who gives his time pro-bono, had just completed a visit with Rubashkin. “Please have in mind Sholom Mordechai,” Gary pleaded.

The Pollards had sent us the same request.

We then went up to the ohel of the Kerestirer Rebbes, and the Sulitzer Rebbe led us in an emotional recital of the entire sefer Tehillim. Like so many before us, we pleaded with the tzaddik Rav Shaya’le to once again intercede on our behalf in Shamayim and that Jonathan Pollard and other Yidden in need of a yeshuah should merit a miraculous salvation.

After we concluded, while still standing near the kever, the Sulitzer Rebbe spoke briefly but very powerfully, infusing us with bitachon about the power of our tefillos.

“From here, everyone goes home with a pekel of yeshuos, a kos filled with yeshuos,” the Rebbe said.

Jonathan Pollard’s Call

After we reluctantly left the ohel and returned to the car, Rabbi Pesach Lerner called Jonathan, and after receiving his permission, put him on speakerphone.

Jonathan proceeded to profusely thank each member of the group for making this trip, and articulately expressed his heartfelt wish that our tefillos be accepted and answered in Shamayim, and that we should soon all merit to experience the Geulah Sheleimah and return to Eretz Yisrael.

Jonathan also pointed out that the number 7 — the number of participants who made this special, arduous and heartfelt davening trip — has special significance in our tradition. He likened the participants to the shivas haminim, seven species of fruit and grain produced in Eretz Yisrael — each one representing the best of its type. He noted that the seven shlichim came from different backgrounds, and joining together, they in essence represented the best of all of Klal Yisrael.

He wished each of us, personally, a hearty “Yashar Koach!”

We then went back to the house of Rav Shaya’le, where a lavish seudah was served in honor of the yahrtzeit of the Kerestirer Rebbe of Boro Park.

After sleeping over in the nearby town of Tokay, we returned to the house of Rav Shaya’le for an uplifting Shacharis and then, filled with inspiration, we set out for Budapest and our flight back home.

“Giving Jonathan such chizuk was an important result of our trip,” Rabbi Lerner told me on the way home. “We kept them updated throughout the trip and called him from each stop.

“To Hamodia’s readership I add, please keep Yehonasan ben Malkah in your tefillos, that he be allowed to go to Eretz Yisrael very soon to be with his wife, Esther. As you all know, he is restricted to certain areas of Manhattan, has a lockdown in his apartment from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., must wear a GPS bracelet 24/7, and has restrictions on any computer use, among other restrictions.

“Everyone has to do for the klal, big or small, depending on their situation,” Rabbi Lerner adds. “Actions speak louder than intentions. Just as bringing a korban in the times of the Beis Hamikdash required a sacrifice of time and money, any real chessed also requires a sacrifice of time and money. Everyone needs to find their opportunity, their special chessed, their unique chance to make a difference, and to then do!

“We must show the Ribbono shel Olam that we care enough to sacrifice something, then He will fill in the gaps. When a group of individuals cares enough to spend their time and money to do something on behalf of another Jew, we are mispallel that Hakadosh Baruch Hu will complete the mission.

“That, I pray, will be the result of our tefillos at kivrei tzaddikim. And we should all be zocheh to know that Jonathan is standing at the holy Kosel, expressing his thanks to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for his final and complete freedom, very speedily in our day.” n