Repairing and Restoring the Shul of the Maharsha

Renovation work on the old shul in Ostroh.
Renovation work on the old shul in Ostroh.

There is no one who learns Gemara who has not heard of, and learned, the commentary and explanations of the Maharsha.

The Maharsha, Harav Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Eideles, was born in Posen in the middle of the sixteenth century.

His last post was as Rav of Ostroh, where he led the local yeshivah. He was niftar there, on 5 Kislev, 5392/1631. His yahrtzeit will be marked next Monday.

The Maharsha stands out as one of the leading Gedolim of all time, who has contributed immensely to the widespread knowledge and understanding of Gemara.

Less known is that the shul in which the Maharsha wrote his commentary, the main shul of Ostroh, is currently under repair.

A fascinating story is told about the shul: Toward the end of the seventeenth century, when the building was full of Jews, a mortar was shot toward it – and, though the mortar landed inside the shul, it miraculously did not explode. The Jews said that this was in the zechus of the Maharsha. They hung this mortar in the shul to commemorate the miracle.

Rabbi Hillel Cohen and councilman Gregory Arshinov with the key to the shul.
Rabbi Hillel Cohen and councilman Gregory Arshinov with the key to the shul.

Hamodia spoke this week to Rabbi Hillel Cohen, an Israeli born Breslover chassid, who has been in Ukraine for the last 18 years, about the current refurbishing of the shul in Ostroh.

Rabbi Cohen, who is overseeing the rebuilding, relates that there was a very large Jewish cemetery in Ostroh, estimated to contain between 14,000 and 16,000 graves. This cemetery was unfortunately destroyed by the Communists in 1968; the matzeivos were uprooted and the site was turned into a park.

In recent years, a Jewish council member in Ostroh, Mr. Gregorey Arshinov, has helped in the effort to fix the matzeivos that were left whole. This was done with help and support of Reb Eliezer Surkis and Reb Eliezer Kestenbaum. It has cost over $100,000, to restore the several hundred matzeivos that were left, and to try return the area to the status of a cemetery.

Rabbi Cohen relates an interesting story, showing clear siyatta d’Shmaya and an apparent message from Heaven. On one occasion, during the renovations of the cemetery, he took a group from a yeshivah in Kiev to Berditchev. On the way, he suggested that they go via Ostroh, without telling them of the recent find and restoration of the matzeivos. The Rosh Yeshivah mentioned that his mother was from Ostroh, and he called her, telling her that he was on the way to Ostroh. She asked that he look for the kever of her parents in Ostroh. Surprisingly, he found the matzeivos of his family members among the few hundred that remained.

In Ostroh, there are about 50 Jews. The Jewish councillor, who helped with the kevarim and now is helping with the shul of the Maharsha, has two children who are baalei teshuvah and live in New York.

Mr. Arshinov also helped build an ohel over the approximate place of the kever of the Maharsha.

The ancient shul of the Maharsha recently received demolition orders from the city, as the centuries-old roof had begun to cave in.

The price of renovating the roof and the shul is estimated to be over $100,000. Reb Eliezer Kestenbaum has donated $25,000 to the effort.

In a remarkable occurrence, which those involved viewed as an amazing sign, on the first day that they began the renovations, the old key to the shul was found among the debris being cleared from the shul!

Restoring the roof of the shul.
Restoring the roof of the shul.