The Road From Galicia to Meron

 

The stone marker for Derech Yisrael.

As Lag BaOmer of 5753 (1993) approached, Rabbi Yeshai Koenigsberg of Har Nof, Yerushalayim, looked forward to attending the tisch of the Bobover Rebbe, Harav Shlomo Halberstam, zy”a. Lag BaOmer fell that year on Sunday, and the Rebbe’s tisch was to be held on Motzoei Shabbos in Bat Yam. The Koenigsbergs had familial connections to the Bobover Rebbe for generations, beginning in Galicia where they were Chassidim of the Shinova Rav, Harav Yechezkel Halberstam, zy”a, and the Bobover Rebbe, Harav Ben Zion Halberstam, Hy”d, zy”a. During World War II, the Koenigsberg family had worked on securing a visa for Rav Ben Zion, who was eventually murdered. Later, Reb Yeshai’s grandfather, Reb Berel Koenigsberg, had attended the kabbalas panim held for Rav Shlomo in the Greystone Hotel in Manhattan upon his arrival in America after the war.

Reb Yeshai was excited to spend some time with the Rebbe and made sure he would be well stationed when the tisch began. As he waited patiently, he spotted Harav Naftoli Halberstam, zy”a, the only surviving child of Rav Shlomo from before the war, who would eventually succeed his father as Rebbe. Rav Naftulcha, as he was known, was waiting for his father’s arrival as well, and many in the crowd came over to greet him.

Yeshai walked across the Beis Medrash to say shalom aleichem and mentioned his name, telling Rav Naftulcha that he was an einikel of Reb Berel Koenigsberg. The response nearly took Yeshai’s breath away: “Derech Yisrael!” Rav Naftulcha exclaimed.

Reb Yisrael Koenigsberg, z”l.

When Reb Shmuel Moshe Koenigsberg became a widower, he consulted with the Shinova (Sieniawie) Rebbe, Harav Yechezkel Halberstam, zy”a, as to the propriety of remarriage. His grown children from his first wife were opposed to the idea, and Shmuel Moshe was hesitant to proceed with his plans. The Rebbe urged him to go ahead.

As a devoted Chassid, Shmuel Moshe followed the Rebbe’s advice and remarried, confident that it would work out for the best. On 9 Teves, 5620/1860, his son, whom he named Yisrael, was born. The Shinova Rebbe attended the bris and gave his brachah that the children of his first marriage would benefit from this child.

Unfortunately, Shmuel Moshe did not live to raise his young son, as he passed away while the child was yet a young boy. Yisrael’s mother was still young and chose to remarry, and she left her son with the Shinova Rebbe, who raised him in his own home. Yisrael’s mother had children from her second husband (Dr. Bernard Lander was a descendant), leaving him with half siblings from both his father and his mother. Nevertheless, the siblings did not maintain a connection with him.

Yisrael married Esther Feiga Aptergot. He was trained in shechitah, serving as the personal shochet of the Rebbe. In 1888, the Rebbe sent him to New York so that the Yidden who immigrated to America would have kosher meat to eat. Since Yisrael would need a minyan, and the Rebbe was not assured that he would find ten ehrliche Yidden in New York, he sent along nine other Chassidim to accompany him on his mission.

Yisrael soon opened a butcher shop to supply kosher meat to the Jews on the Lower East Side. Through his choice of occupation, he was able to make his own hours and did not face the struggle of many who would be fired when they did not show up for work on Shabbos. Indeed, he encouraged his sons to become professionals so they too would not be faced with the nisayon of shemiras Shabbos.

Together with his landsleit, Yisrael organized their own shtiebel, the Shinova Chevra Anshei Sfard, in 1889, and he became involved in many projects serving the klal. He was an early supporter of Yeshivah Rabbeinu Shlomo Kluger of the East Side, which provided chinuch for the children of the Galicianer Yidden, many of whom were impoverished, and was also a founder of the Downtown Talmud Torah. He traveled back to Europe on several occasions and made sure to bring much-needed merchandise for his half-siblings from both his mother’s and his father’s sides.

• • •

Cutting the ribbon to open Derech Yisrael from Tzfas to Meron, Lag Ba’omer 5685-1925.

Yisrael’s reputation for generosity was well known, and he served as the gabbai of Kollel Chibas Yerushalayim of Rav Meir Baal Haness for several decades. His service for the residents of Eretz Yisrael was a product of his love of Eretz Hakedoshah, and in 1924 he finally traveled there. Although he was a Kohen and could not visit many of the kivrei tzaddikim throughout the land, he decided to travel to Tzfas, and from there he set out for Meron to visit the kever of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.

The unpaved road leading from Tzfas to Meron was treacherous, with not much more than a dirt path leading up the mountain. Visitors to the village, including those coming to the yeshivah and the old-age home situated there, as well as tourists coming to be mispallel at the kever, had to travel on donkeys through the mountainous region in order to reach it. As Yisrael was riding his donkey he fell off and was hurt, which made him realize how dangerous the trip to Meron was.

Letter from the yeshiva and old age home in Meron thanking Yisrael Koenigsberg from paving the road from Tzfas to Meron.

Negotiations between Rabbi L.J. Podhorzer, M. Barsel and E. Klinger — the askanim who were in charge of the yeshivah and the old-age home in Meron — and the British Mandate governor of Safed to upgrade the infrastructure had been ongoing. Yisrael decided there was no better way for him to leave his mark on Eretz Yisrael than to contribute to the modernization of this road. His substantial donation convinced the British to complete the paving of the road, which would allow travelers to enjoy a safe and peaceful 20-minute automobile ride from Tzfas through the scenic mountains surrounding Meron. In recognition of his generosity, the new paved road was named “Derech Yisrael” in honor of Yisrael Koenigsberg.

Yisrael was no longer in Eretz Yisrael when the new road opened for Lag BaOmer 5685 (1925), so he could not join the festive celebration that was organized to commemorate the occasion. The event was attended by an assortment of dignitaries, including Rabbanim, residents and Ronald Strauss, the Consul of the British government. The Beis Din of Tzfas sent an official letter to Yisrael in which they expressed their gratitude for his kindness, and a stone marker was erected designating the road as “Derech Yisrael.” Less than two years later, in November 1927, the American Consul to Palestine, Oscar S. Heizer, sent a letter to Yisrael Koenigsberg describing his feelings as he traversed the magnificent road.

Letter from Oscar S Heizer, American Consul to Mandate Palestine, describing his ride on Derech Yisrael.

Yisrael considered his contribution to the completion of the Tzfas-Meron road as the crowning accomplishment of his life. He left instructions that the inscription on his matzeivah should say that Derech Yisrael was named for him, and when he was eventually interred in the Shinova chelkah when he was niftar on 2 Iyar, 5694/1934, his matzeivah stated just his name and that accolade.

Yisrael had four sons, who were nicknamed the “Zivchei Yisrael,” since the first letters of their names spelled the word zivchei (zayin-beis-ches-yud): Yehoshua (Shia) Zelig, (Yissachar Dov) Berel, Chaim and Yitzchak. Berel, a prominent lawyer, was admitted to the New York State Bar Association in 1901 and to the Bar of the Supreme Court in 1905, and Chaim and Shia Zelig were lawyers as well. Yitzchak was the commissioner for the Kashrus Inspection Department of New York State. Yisrael also had two daughters, Chanah Bodek and Gittel Deutsch. The Koenigsbergs were involved in philanthropic work in New York City and abroad, including contributing generously to support the melamdim of the children of Shinova.

In the years leading up to World War II, Berel signed 185 affidavits for families trying to escape the inferno of Europe. Signing an affidavit obliged the signatory with the responsibility for the financial stability of the refugee so the immigrant would not become a public charge. Berel continued signing these affidavits until the State Department notified him that due to the enormous number of families he had accepted responsibility for, he was no longer eligible to sign.

Among the families who entered the United States through Berel’s efforts were the descendants of Moshe Shmuel Koenigsberg’s children from his first wife, bringing a realization to the words of the Shinova Rebbe that they would come to appreciate the children of his second marriage. In addition, Berel’s association with Kollel Chibas Yerushalayim helped save the family of Mr. Lederer, who served as the gabbai of the Kollel in Vienna.

The Lederer family arrived in New York right before Chanukah. When the recipients of the affidavits signed by him would arrive in New York, Berel was accustomed to inviting the new immigrants to spend their first Shabbos in his home, and the Lederers had enjoyed a memorable Shabbos Chanukah there. The family established themselves in the Lower East Side, opening a successful bakery that became a mainstay in the community, with Mr. Lederer serving as the baal tefillah on the Yamim Nora’im in the Shinova shtiebel. Yet they never forgot the kindness of that Shabbos, and for the next 80 years, the Lederer family would send flowers to Berel Koenigsberg or his descendants each and every Shabbos Chanukah.

• • •

Discovery of the stone marker of Derech Yisrael 11.

In 1969, members of the extended Koenigsberg family visited Eretz Yisrael to attend a family wedding. While visiting Tzfas, they inquired of some of the local residents about Derech Yisrael, the road whose paving was sponsored by their grandfather.

Reb Aron Prero, a great-grandchild of Yisrael Koenigsberg who lived in Baltimore, met up with Reb Zundel Roth, z”l, the son-in-law of the mayor of Tzfas. Reb Zundel led him to the shul’s machsan (storage room), where he showed him the engraved stone marker of Derech Yisrael that had been gathering dust there for quite some time. Reb Zundel had no need for it and promptly handed it over to Reb Aron. After showing it to his relatives in an emotional reunion, the stone was transported to the home of Sachie (Yissachar Dov) Weiss, a great-grandson of Berel (Yissachar Dov), where it is kept in the garden of his home in Kiryat Moshe in Yerushalayim.

When Sachie’s neighbor, the Stropkov Rebbe, shlita, asked him about the stone marker, Sachie related the family story, beginning with Yisrael Koenigsberg’s upbringing in the home of the Shinova Rebbe. “In that case,” the Rebbe told him, much to Sachie’s surprise, “your elte zeide was the shochet for my elte zeide, since I am a descendant of the Shinova Rebbe.”

The discovery of the stone marker created another mystery that begged to be solved. Why had the road marker for Derech Yisrael been removed? And where was the road located? A chance taxi ride in 1977 helped solve the mystery.

Community leaders with British dignateries sitting below the stone marker of Derech Yisrael on the day it opened.

In the summer of 1977, Arie Weiss, another grandchild of Berel, was traveling in a taxi through Tzfas, and in the course of the conversation with the driver, he realized that he was quite knowledgeable about the history of the area. When asked about Derech Yisrael, the driver responded, “I know what you are talking about. During the war in 1948, Derech Yisrael played an important role in the victory of Israeli forces over the hostile Arabs. When the war came to a conclusion, the road was renamed Derech Nitzachon — Victory Road. The roadway kept that name for several years, but as time went on, a highway was built connecting Tzfas and Meron, and little remains of that original road. However, the last portion of the road connecting Tzfas to the tziyun of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai is where the original road ran.”

Today, there are dozens of religious descendants of Reb Yisrael Koenigsberg, most of them living in Eretz Yisrael.

• • •

“Derech Yisrael.” Two small words uttered by Rav Naftulcha Halberstam, zy”a, which taught the einiklach of Yisrael Koenigsberg that the glorious achievement of their elte zeide was not forgotten.

“I’m not quite sure how he knew about Derech Yisrael, the road that my great-grandfather paid to have paved,” says Yeshai Koenigsberg. “My zeide is buried near the kever of the Sokolover Rebbe, zy”a, and it’s possible that Rav Naftulcha saw the matzeivah while visiting the Sokolover Rebbe’s kever. Today it is known that Rav Naftulcha was very connected to Meron and Rabi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag BaOmer. Perhaps he knew the story through that connection. Regardless of how he knew it, it was exciting to hear that the story of paving the road from Tzfas to Meron had not been forgotten.”