Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor Orenstein: The First Kosel Rabbi


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    Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor Orenstein: The First Kosel Rabbi

    He was one of the directors of Kollel Chabad in Eretz Yisrael, he served as Rabbi of the Kosel under the British rule, and was one of the prominent personalities in the Jewish quarter of the Old City until it fell to the Arab marauders in 1948 when he was killed by a flying piece of shrapnel • A profile of Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor Orenstein Hy”d • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    By Avrohom Rainitz, Beis Moshiach

    Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor Orenstein was born in 5653/1893 in Yerushalayim. His parents were Moshe Yehuda Leib and Raizel. Rabbi Orenstein was a scion of a distinguished Chabad family. For a hundred years, he and his ancestors, going four generations back, were in charge of Kollel Chabad in Eretz Yisrael.

    His great stature wasn’t only in his ancestors’ merits but primarily in his own merit, as one of the precious sons of the Holy City who spent all his life in Torah, avoda, and mesirus nefesh for Yerushalayim and the outlying areas, and who stood at his post defending the Old City and the remnant of our Mikdash, the Kosel HaMaaravi (Western Wall) until his final day.

    In his youth he learned in yeshivos in Yerushalayim and he was already well known as a gifted Torah scholar. He learned in Ohel Moshe among other yeshivos, and was one of the outstanding students there.

    After the Rebbe Rashab founded Yeshivas Toras Emes in Chevron before the First World War, Rabbi Orenstein went to learn there. Although he had not studied Chassidus before this, in a short time he managed to climb the steps of wisdom to become one of the deep students of Chabad Chassidus. He continued learning there until the outbreak of World War I.

    The war hit the residents of Yerushalayim hard and took R’ Yitzchok Avigdor out of the four cubits of halacha. In those tumultuo

    Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor Orenstein

    us times, he turned out to be an effective communal activist and he took part in all rescue activities that took place in Yerushalayim at that time. Thanks to the Spanish citizenship papers that his ancestors paid good money for, he was able to walk around freely without fear of the Turkish gendarmes who pounced on every young Jew in order to draft him.

    He was also active in helping those starving in Yerushalayim, and those afflicted by outbreaks of plague and spotted fever, which spread during the war years.

    * * *

    During the Rebbe Rayatz’s visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1929, he visited the offices of Kollel Chabad (in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Yerushalayim). This opportunity was used by the gabbaim of Kollel Chabad to beseech the Rebbe to accept leadership of the kollel. The Rebbe made his leadership contingent on having absolute authority over the kollel, the full power to appoint people of his choice to the administration, and also demanding that all members of the kollel commit to accepting his enactments. The hanhala of the kollel agreed to these conditions.

    In the first stage, he appointed R’ Shlomo Yehuda Leib Eliezerov as his representative and left the previous administration intact until he would send a set of rules for the kollel.

    The Rebbe left Eretz Yisrael and visited the United States and other countries and only a few years later did he send “regulations” for the kollel with many conditions for being appointed a member of Kollel Chabad (like davening regularly in a Chabad shul, learning Chassidus, etc.)

    After the Rebbe accepted the leadership, he made several changes in the running of the kollel, and together with his representative, R’ Eliezerov, he personally appointed the Chassidim, R’ Dovid Levanon and R’ Orenstein, as members of the governing board representing him. It was then that Rabbi Orenstein stepped into the role that his forbears had held in the Kollel.

    As expected, Rabbi Orenstein harnessed all his energy and talents to run and wisely sustain the needs of this illustrious kollel. In his service of the kollel he was the father to hundreds of poor families in the Chabad yishuv, widows and orphans.

    His son, Mr. Shmuel Even-Ohr (Orenstein), describes a meeting his father had with the Frierdike Rebbe in Riga:

    “When my father first met the Admor R’ Yosef Yitzchok z”l in 5689 in Riga, the Admor was very impressed by him and asked him to move to Riga and be his secretary. However, my father, whose love for the Land burned in his heart more than anything, forwent this appealing offer by his Rebbe even though he was in dire financial straits at the time.”

    * * *

    Rabbi Orenstein underwent a significant turning point in his life after World War I, when the British conquered Yerushalayim. At that time there was an awakening among Jews in Yerushalayim to organize their communal lives. Many Jews rallied to this work.

    The Kosel story began for him in Tishrei 5689/1928, and ended up becoming a central part of the life of R’ Orenstein. In those days there was a meeting of the heads of the yishuv in the course of which it was decided to form a committee that would closely supervise Kosel matters for the benefit of the Jews who visited it, but whose rights were being undermined by the Arabs and the British Mandate. The committee was named “Vaadas HaKosel,” and Rabbi Orenstein was picked to lead it.

    In the protocols written at the time, it listed the jobs that had been assigned to him and the working committee (Vaad HaPoel) who worked with him:

    1-He was to be present on all gathering days and times (i.e. tefillos);

    2-While Jews were there, he was to oversee order;

    3-He was to look into the work of the shamashim (sextons) and as soon as possible present a detailed proposal regarding the monetary income of the Kosel, incorporating all existing available data;

    4-He was to maintain a ledger and write all significant incidents that happened at the Kosel;

    5-He was to liaise with the police who guarded the Kosel and if possible, also with the neighbors;

    6-In extraordinary disruptive situations, he was to consult with the working committee.

    He was also given scholarly research jobs, such as collecting all printed material and that which was known orally about the Kosel throughout the generations, and was secretary of the Vaadas HaKosel;

    His salary was set at 10 Israeli liras (which was basically matched to the British Pound) a month. Although the original committee disbanded right after it finished its job, the administrative responsibility and the management side of supervising the Kosel remained in the hands of the International Committee and Agudath Israel, who also paid his salary.

    In exchange for this paltry monthly sum, “starvation wages,” he worked extremely hard, for he considered his position of responsibility as a sacred task. His work at the Kosel was difficult, exhausting, and also dangerous to some extent.

    “During the hardest days and situations I barely missed a day of visiting the Kosel, and more than once I was in mortal danger, but there was nothing that prevented me from doing my work completely and faithfully.” This is what he wrote in a letter to the International Committee: “The work is physically hard. On Shabbos I am at the Kosel from morning till evening, almost twelve hours. Every day I am at the Kosel for a few hours. Aside from this, it is work of great responsibility to maintain order at the Kosel and relations with the Arab neighbors who live around the Kosel. I think that I have consistently carried out my work and fulfilled my role faithfully.

    “But, my current material circumstance is very difficult, because my salary is tiny relative to the needs of the household and family, and this has forced me to turn to you with a request to consider all the aforementioned and designate a proper salary to me in a way that enables me to make a living from this.”

    Rabbi Orenstein was not exaggerating about the difficulties of his work, the tremendous responsibility involved, and mainly, the danger that always hovered over him at the Kosel. For example, an entry in the “Kosel diary” from a Shabbos in 5697:

    “After the davening, I and Rabbi Gersten began to head home. When we arrived at Rechov HaShalsheles near the oven of the Arab that stands on the corner of Rechov Chevron, I suddenly heard the sound of a shot and R’ Gersten fell to the ground screaming: They killed me! I immediately turned around and there was a young Arab approaching me with a revolver in his hand. I screamed with all my might and the Arab was frightened and fled.” This did not stop Rabbi Orenstein from going back to the Kosel the very next day.

    Rabbi Orenstein leads the vaad for writing the Torah of Moshiach in Eretz YISRAEL

    * * *

    Rabbi Orenstein remained at the Kosel every Shabbos for most of the day. Since on Shabbos it was forbidden by the Mandate to read from the Torah near the Kosel, they would enter a nearby house and read the Torah there and return to the Kosel for Musaf. After the davening, Rabbi Orenstein would stay at the Kosel until noon. In the afternoon he would return to the Kosel and stay there until night, until the last worshipers left the Kosel area.

    Rabbi Orenstein had a calming influence on the worshipers. In times of tension he would calm the people’s agitation and fear. He had a special spot at the Kosel where he stood to separate between the men and the women, which he never deviated from. He stood there for hours holding a volume of Gemara and learning. According to reliable testimony, he would complete all of Shas over a year’s time. The police at the Kosel loved him and wanted to enable him to rest, but Rabbi Orenstein refused, saying: If my fellow Jews are not allowed to sit near the Kosel, why should I be able to?

    He also had good ties with the Arabs who lived near the Kosel. These good ties did not stop him from complaining to the authorities when the Arabs disturbed the davening and dirtied the Kosel with vomit and excrement.

    As supervising rabbi, representing the chief rabbinate and the nationalist institutions, he would receive honored guests who came to visit the Kosel.

    * * *

    R’ Orenstein’s influence extended beyond the Kosel area, and also affected life in the Old City of Yerushalayim where he lived. He moved there in 5700/1940. He found plenty of opportunity for activism, to help infuse life into the dwindling community of the Old City.

    When he moved to the Old City, there was a small community that was shrinking and becoming progressively more debilitated, until in the final years, the population was just 3000 people. Many of them were poor and the percentage of elderly was high. Some of them learned in yeshivos and some were dependent on the care packages of the Vaad HaKehilla. Only a few were fortunate enough to have jobs as day laborers, working outside the walls.

    Anytime there was any tension on the Arab street, the Jewish quarter was completely cut off and in danger. This situation bothered him tremendously, and he filed complaints with the governing bodies. He saw, and rightly so, that we would be unable to retain the holy sites, particularly the Kosel, if there would not be a robust yishuv in the Jewish quarter, financially stable, and fully recognized by the national authorities who would be ready and prepared to protect it.

    Rabbi Orenstein devoted much time and energy to the task he took upon himself to attract young people to the Rova, to strengthen the Jewish population and develop sources of parnasa there. At his initiative, a committee was formed of various personalities in the Yerushalmi community that prepared plans to open factories and home industries, to build buildings on empty lots in the south of the Rova near the wall, and to buy courtyards that the Arabs owned in the Jewish area of the Old City, especially on Rechov HaKaraim.

    But the difficulties were great and awareness of the necessity for these activities did not penetrate the official institutions and the public. The money wasn’t available and out of all the big plans almost nothing was accomplished. Obviously, if the plans to regenerate the Jewish quarter had been accomplished even partially, the fate of the Jewish yishuv there would have been completely different.

    List of committee members, highlighting the two chosen by the Rebbe Rayatz

    Rabbi Orenstein saw to it to raise money to support the poor of the Old City from various sources. He received money from a wealthy philanthropist who chose to remain anonymous, from the Achva organization of which he was one of the respected members, and from the religious council of the community in Yerushalayim.

    He would receive the poor at his home and would give each one what was coming to him each and every day. He was busy with this for many hours a day. Although this placed a great burden on him since he was busy with his learning and Torah research, he accepted it with love.

    Rabbi Orenstein also worked to strengthen the spiritual state of Judaism in the Old City. For this purpose he founded a yeshiva called Midrash Shmuel, named for the Rebbe Maharash, and the outstanding young men of the city learned there at night.

    * * *

    The British looked askance at his many activities to bolster Jewish life in the Jewish quarter. One day in Teves 5708, he left the Old City in order to take care of matters for Kollel Chabad and the Kfar HaIvri organization. When he went to the assigned place in order to join the caravan to return to his home in the Old City, he was taken aback when the British blocked the way and did not allow him to return home, claiming that his job near the Kosel ended and there was no reason to be there. When he said he lived there, they told him they would bring him his wife and children.

    The fact that he could not return to the Old City caused him great anguish. He made great efforts to return home. Despite the advice of many friends and the pleading of his elderly mother, he told them all, “My place is there, among my suffering brethren, and not here. Many Jews live there, thank G-d, and an entire city is fighting for its life.”

    After great and nonstop effort on his part and the part of other important figures like Rabbi Herzog z”l, and the president of the National Committee, Mr. Yitzchok Ben-Tzvi, Rabbi Orenstein was allowed to return home. As soon as he arrived home safely, he wrote a thank you letter to the National Committee and its president, “After I returned home safely in the afternoon of Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar I to the Old City, I feel obligated to thank you, especially your distinguished president, Mr. Yitzchok Ben-Tzvi, and all those who lobbied the authorities to allow my return to my family in the Old City where I yearned to be and worked so hard to return, in order to live together with our brothers who are under siege.”

    * * *

    At the start of the Arab siege of the Old City during the War of Independence, Rabbi Orenstein was called to the new city in connection with matters of the Kollel, but he did not give in to the pleading of his friends that he remain with them, especially after he found out that his house had been damaged by shelling and his son was injured. After much effort on his part and intervention on the part of important people, like Yitzchok Ben-Tzvi and R’ Herzog, with the British authorities, he was allowed to return to the Old City. To friends in the United States who asked him why he insisted on going to a dangerous place he said, “If it was decreed that someone be offered up as a sacrifice for the sanctity of the Old City of Yerushalayim and sacred places, then I am more obligated than other people.” His home, which was on the border between the Jewish quarter and the Arab quarter, and which served as an outpost for the defenders, was completely destroyed and went up in fire with his large library and important manuscripts.

    But Rabbi Orenstein did not despair. He stood at the front lines and was appointed as the head of administrative affairs of the residents of the Jewish quarter. For the three months that he served in this position, he demonstrated his superior organizational abilities in assigning jobs, in defense, and raising general morale. Practically speaking, he was responsible for every aspect of life in the city. Two days before he fell, he personally helped bring to burial in the Battei Machseh section those fighters who had fallen that week, and as the father of the “Old Yishuv,” he said the final Kaddish over their graves.

    Shabbos, 16 Kislev 5708, was the last Shabbos that Jews were allowed to visit the Kosel. There was a special feeling for those who visited the Kosel that Shabbos, and as usual, Rabbi Orenstein was the last to go home.

    From the time of the proclamation of the State, he was no longer able to go to the Kosel. However, from the notes in his personal diary that was found after his death, it can be seen how he continued to be concerned with the Kosel and protecting the furnishings and Torah scrolls that remained in storage in the Strauss courtyard. He also writes about how pained he is that they can no longer make kiddush near the Kosel, which actually would be done in the room set aside for him in the Strauss courtyard. He kept up his tremendous concern until the middle of Adar Sheini of that year, when apparently he realized that there was no hope of returning to the Kosel for the foreseeable future due to the siege on the city.

    In a letter dated 7 Iyar, that he managed to have smuggled out of the sealed off quarter, he described the goings on after the British soldiers left the city a few days prior. He describes how the young defenders immediately took up their positions, and how the Old City was under constant fire, day and night, from heavy artillery. There is also a description of the tragic death of a young Sephardic man, who attempted to sneak out over the city wall and was killed by a sniper, as well as the death of a Hagana member standing watch in the courtyard of the Porat Yosef yeshiva.


    His son, Mr. Shmuel Even-Ohr recounts:

    “Four days after the first burial was held, on Sunday 14 Iyar 5708, in the early morning, a heavy barrage began to fall on the small area of Battei Machseh, from the artillery position of the Arab Legion on the Mount of Olives. My father and mother, who lived in one of the houses at the far edge of Battei Machseh, were awakened by the racket. My father washed netilas yadayim and even managed to make the blessing “al netilas yadayim,” and in that instant a piece of shrapnel from a shell scored a direct hit in his brain. My mother, the Rebbetzin, was struck in a major artery in her leg, and after excruciating suffering for two hours, passed away due to lack of medical care.

    “‘The beloved and sweet ones in their life, and in their death they did not part.’ One enemy shell hit both of them, and they, whose whole lives were one chain of dedication, heroism and sacrifice, met their deaths in the battle for the place that was most holy to them. And so they both remained buried in the Old City of Yerushalayim, and so they returned their souls in the embrace of the Old City of Yerushalayim that was so beloved to them.”

    Rabbi Orenstein was a very modest and hidden person. He always tried to conceal from others the extent of his greatness in Torah. A close friend once asked him why he was hiding from others, “With your abilities and knowledge you have so much to offer?” He responded sincerely, “What do I have in my possession that I might be concealing, what advantage is there in me relative to others my age? What do I know that they don’t know?”

    Chief Rabbi Hertzog wrote about him in a special memorial column, “In connection with his role as the supervisor of the Kosel, he would visit me frequently and during those opportune moments I got to know him, to study his worthy talents, to appreciate and value greatly his character that was pure, refined and sublime. The son of a tremendous and sharp Torah scholar, who was also a renowned activist, Reb Yitzchok Orenstein was also an impressive Torah scholar. Infused with the teachings of Chabad Chassidus, he rose up to the highest levels of Sublime Awe and service of the heart, attributes not so commonly found even among Torah scholars. He fulfilled his sacred duties with great alacrity and wondrous consistency.”

    Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, one of the venerated Chabad Chassidim in America, wrote about him that “his memory will never be removed from my mind and heart.” He goes on to write how he made his acquaintance through correspondence about Kollel Chabad and other matters, “But I never pictured him as clearly as when I got to know him during the weeks that I spent in the Holy Land. His sincerity, his simplicity, his belief in Hashem, his attachment to the Rebbe shlita of Lubavitch and Chassidus in general, the sweetness of his talk and the modesty of his ways. And his extraordinary love, literally to the point of sacrificing his life with his entire being and essence to the Old City of Yerushalayim, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days, to the point that there was no hair on his body that had not been purely dedicated only and exclusively to Eretz Yisrael, in every corner of her, in the Old City of Yerushalayim, in Chevron and in his work for the Kollel, from which he drew great satisfaction. In his impassioned service he was as a father to the hundreds of poor families of the old yishuv, to its widows and orphans. I can never forget him, the image of his face stands before my eyes. I remember him as he was when he took me around to all the holy sites, and how much pleasure he took in reviving my soul with the sights of that which is holy to our nation.”

    Rabbi Orenstein also met the Rogatchover Gaon in Dvinsk in the year 5688. As is known, the Rogatchover would put down even the greatest scholars of the day. Rabbi Orenstein had a heated back and forth with the gaon in Torah, at the end of which the Rogatchover gave him a pat on the shoulder and said, “Bist doch a mentch” [lit. you are a human being], a rare approbation on his part.

    He was a very talented writer with a clear and polished style, grasping extremely complex matters, and able to convey them in simple terms, pithily and well explained. He authored a number of articles and research papers on minhagim of earlier generations and on the laws pertaining to Eretz Yisrael. For twenty years, he was involved in producing a major work on the Sefer HaAruch from Rabi Nosson of Roma. Additionally, he prepared for publication a research work on the history of Chassidus Chabad in Eretz Yisrael. His other work includes editing for publication two works of Torah scholars who had passed away and left behind manuscripts, Mishnas Yoel on the history of Chabad Chassidus and its founder, and Minchas RIV”A from R’ Eizik Charif of Petersburg. From the introductions that he wrote we get a glimpse of his own greatness in Torah.


    By the Rebbe Rayatz’s direction, Rabbi Orenstein was also appointed to direct the global Chevras Tehillim, founded by the Rebbe, along with R’ Shlomo Yehuda Leib Eliezerov. The organization’s headquarters was in the Old City. A minyan sat in the Chabad shul every day and said Tehillim for the welfare of Jews worldwide.

    The two rabbanim mobilized to develop the organization and published a letter to the public with the request that people join the organization. As a result, tefillos and the recitation of Tehillim began taking place every day at the grave of Dovid HaMelech a”h on Har Tziyon, near the site of the Mikdash.

    The Rebbe wanted to expand the organization even more. By his instruction, Machne Israel published a letter aimed at rabbanim and gabbaim of shuls worldwide with a call to strengthen the Chevras Tehillim and to found new ones. Included was a letter the Rebbe wrote, as well as the resolutions of the chevra. These resolutions were composed by the mashpia, R’ Alter Simchovitz and R’ Orenstein, after the Rebbe asked them to do so.

    * * *

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