The Rebbe’s Shitah: Kind & Unwavering


    The Rebbe’s Shitah: Kind & Unwavering

    Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky is one of the most prominent Chabad rabbonim in America • In a special interview with Beis Moshiach he reveals guidance the Rebbe gave him regarding “thorny” topics such as keeping a proper kosher mechitza in shul and where a shliach may feel conflicted between unwavering commitment to halacha and the trademark Lubavitch pleasant way… • Full Story

    Avrohom Rainitz, Beis Moshiach

    Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky, a tremendous Torah scholar and one of the distinguished Chabad rabbanim in America, has been serving for almost sixty years as the rabbi of the Mount Sinai Congregation in the Ivy Hill section of Newark, New Jersey. He had the privilege of carrying out many missions in dozens of far-flung communities, from South America and the islands of the Caribbean to  distant Afghanistan, and has been a consistent strong voice in the battle for maintaining the halachic integrity of proper gender separation in synagogues. * In an interview with Avraham Rainitz, he reveals instructions and responses that he received from the Rebbe over the years, ever since he was a young bachur, and discusses the synthesis between halachic resoluteness and Chassidic pleasantness. He also states emphatically that identifying the Rebbe as Melech HaMoshiach is something that can be and is accepted.

    Very few Chabad Chassidim merited to carry out as many missions and directives of the Rebbe as Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky, who made dozens of trips to far-flung communities, from South America and the islands of the Caribbean to distant Afghanistan. Over the years of his shlichus he has connected thousands of Jews to the Nasi HaDor, many of whom continued to maintain a regular correspondence with the Rebbe.

    Even after he married, when he was appointed to the position of rabbi of the Mount Sinai Congregation in the Ivy Hill section of Newark, New Jersey, he was privileged to receive instructions from the Rebbe in the field of rabbonus and shlichus, Already in the early days of his career in the rabbinate, he needed to call upon his Chassidic forcefulness when his demand that a proper mechitza be installed in the shul aroused the ire of a number of the congregants. The Rebbe accompanied him throughout the struggle, step by step, until his complete victory.

    R’ Bogomilsky is also known as a tremendous Torah scholar who, along with his communal responsibilities, devotes his time to sitting and learning. His chiddushim have been published in various respected Torah journals, and the Rebbe sent him his comments and observations on a number of them. Many shluchim see him as someone to turn to for complex questions that come up in the field of shlichus and practical rabbinics.

    In our interview, we presented R’ Bogomilsky with some of the difficult and challenging dilemmas that many shluchim are forced to confront on a regular basis. In his responses, he wove in fascinating stories and personal guidance that he received from the Rebbe on these issues.


    Shluchim around the world frequently encounter conflict between the demands of the congregants/mekuravim/donors and the demands of halacha. What is the proper way to bridge the gap, without compromising on the integrity of the halacha on the one hand, and without undermining community cohesion on the other?

    The first guiding principle for every shliach has to be the statement of Hillel the Elder, “Be among the students of Aharon who loves peace and pursues peace, loves the creatures and brings them close to Torah,” as per the well-known textual insight of the Rebbe, that we need to bring the Jews close to Torah and not bring the Torah close to the Jews. We need to preserve the Torah in its entirety, without any compromise or concession, and along with that to bring the Jews close to Torah.

    The most effective path to success is hinted to in the beginning of Hillel’s words; loves peace and pursues peace. When the shliach is filled with Ahavas Yisrael, loves peace and pursues peace, he will consequently speak with pleasantness and the proper respect due to every person. That will lead to his view being accepted by the listeners, even if they are of a different opinion. When the mekurav feels that he is being respected and treated nicely, he is prepared to accept the most unyielding view of halacha.

    I had the privilege of being directed towards this approach of “pleasantness and respect” in a unique response that I received from the Rebbe, when I was a sixteen year old bachur. The story was this:

    In the winter of 1957, I learned in the main yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in 770. Like all the other bachurim during that period, I would go each Shabbos to review Chassidus in the many shuls that were spread around Crown Heights. One Shabbos, I went to speak on the shul on the corner of Troy and Union and was shocked to see that the mechitza was set very low, two-and-a-half feet high.

    The rabbi of the shul was an older gentleman in his sixties, a student of the Slabodka yeshiva in Europe, who had served as the rabbi for more than thirty-five years. Since I was a young bachur of sixteen, I though it inappropriate for me to approach him and point out to him the problem with the mechitza. Instead, I approached R’ Dovid Raskin a”h the director of Tzach, and I asked him if I should continue going to that shul to review Chassidus. He answered that I should continue to go there, and at the same time try to correct the matter of the mechitza.

    I waited for an appropriate opportunity to discuss the matter with the rabbi of the shul, and the opportunity was not long in coming. In that shul there were dozens of people who came to daven on Shabbos, but during the week there were only a handful of regulars. The rabbi asked me to arrange for some bachurim from the yeshiva to come and complete the minyan during the week. With much effort, I managed to get a few bachurim as he had requested who would come each day.

    One morning, a few women showed up during the minyan and the bachurim, who suddenly became aware of the problem of the mechitza, pointed this out to the rabbi. He calmed them down and said that it was okay, but when they told me about it I realized that this was the opportunity for me to raise the issue.

    By Divine Providence, immediately afterward it occurred that the bachurim couldn’t make it to the complete the minyan for a few days. That Shabbos, when I came to the shul to speak, the rabbi asked me why the bachurim didn’t come for a few days. I told him that apparently it was because they were G-d-fearing and didn’t want to transgress by davening without a proper mechitza between the men and the women. I added that since there was no minyan without them, they felt that by their coming they were also transgressing “Before a blind person, do not place a stumbling block,” since they were the ones causing the minyan to be held improperly.

    The rabbi did not at all understand what the problem was and he argued that the shul was already standing for thirty-five years with the current mechitza, and a number of Gedolei Yisrael had davened there over the years and nobody raised the issue before, and suddenly a few bachurim show up and claim that the mechitza is not kosher…

    I began to cite for him the halachic rulings of recent greats, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, but that rabbi held of himself and was even derisive of the rulings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.    

    In the interim, I conducted a comprehensive research of the topic and the next time I visited the shul, I told the rabbi that there is an explicit Gemara in Maseches Succa that at the Simchas Beis Ha’shoeiva they would put up a balcony for the women and that this is the Talmudic source for the need for a mechitza in a shul. After we had a brief back and forth about the meaning of the words of the Gemara, and about the reason for putting up the balcony for the women in the Beis HaMikdash, the rabbi also understood that there is a need for a mechitza that is high enough to prevent the men looking at the women during the davening. As a result, he backed down from his original position and said, “Nu, it can be arranged, it’s not such a complicated matter.”

    In fact, within a few weeks he arranged for a mechitza that was five-and-a-half feet tall. Although it really should be six feet, technically that would already be considered a kosher mechitza.

    When I told R’ Dovid Raskin about it, he suggested that I submit a full report and send it to Tzach with the address as 770 Eastern Parkway. He confided to me that many times these letters would be delivered to the Rebbe. I followed his advice and in fact had the privilege of the Rebbe opening the letter and adding a handwritten note at the end:

    “Yeyasher kocho and great is his merit that he succeeded in doing the aforementioned and provided merit to the many, and that the merit of the many is dependent on him. And certainly he will continue over time in ways of pleasantness and in a manner of respect – [to see to it] that they add to the aforementioned until it will be higher than the height of a man, as this is one of the shiurim (halachic measurements) that goes according to the individual person (Keilim ch. 17 mishna 11), as we follow the reason for the thing.”

    In addition to the privilege of discovering the Rebbe’s position on the subject of the proper height for a mechitza, that it has to be higher than the height of a man, I also received an important lesson in how to wield influence over people; “in ways of pleasantness and in a manner of respect.” When you speak pleasantly and show the person you are speaking with the proper respect, even when the subject is one that requires taking a firm halachic stance, the person will accept what is said with understanding and the words will have their effect.


    Being that you serve as the Rabbi of a community that does not identify as Lubavitch, have there been issues that affect the community where you had to combine taking a firm position with ways of pleasantness and in a manner of respect?

    (Laughing): Oho, I have needed to employ lots of firmness. Obviously, I poured that great forcefulness into a cup of pleasantness and with the Rebbe’s brachos I have seen wondrous results.

    It was back in the beginning of the 60’s.  Until that point, rabbis from Yeshiva University had served at Mount Sinai and since they weren’t familiar with the idea of shlichus, they didn’t last longer than a year or two.  One of the members of the community had a brother who lived in Crown Heights.  Those who lived in Crown Heights in those days remember that the wedding hall at Oholei Torah was called the Spot Hall, as that was his name.

    One day, Spot of Newark asked his brother whether he knew of any other yeshiva aside from Y.U. that could send a rabbi to their community.  His brother told him that right across the street was a yeshiva belonging to Lubavitch and he would get the phone number.

    The yeshiva was located on Bedford and only older bachurim learned in 770.  The yeshiva’s office was on Bedford and 770 had only a public phone.  The man gave his brother the number of the public phone.

    The brother from Newark called the number and by Divine Providence, a bachur from Newark answered the phone.  When he heard that a congregation in Newark was looking for a rabbi, he took the information and promised to help.  I was a chasan at the time.  That bachur approached me and told me about the phone call, and suggested that I try to get the position.

    I called up and he wanted to hear about my experience.  After I told him some of the shlichuyos I did in various countries, he said that it sounded good to him and that he needed to hold a meeting of the shul committee.

    A few weeks later, he called me back and said they had had a meeting and they were interested in my coming to meet them.  I went with my kalla so she could see the place we would be living in (I told her we would try it out for a year, but the year got extended and we are here over forty years!).  I told them about the experience I had accrued over nine years on Merkos Shlichus and they told me they were interested in having me serve as their rabbi.

    I wrote to the Rebbe and described the running of the shul up until that point. The Rebbe gave his bracha with the following conditions: A) that there be no issue of hasagas gevul of the previous rabbi, B) that the board would agree to commit to having a mechitza the height of a man, and C) that the bima for kerias ha’Torah be in the center of the shul as the Shulchan Aruch says it should be.

    The Rebbe said that if they arranged a row of people to sit between the bima and the Aron Kodesh, it would be enough to establish that the bima was in the center.

    In a conversation with the president of the congregation, I told him my conditions and he said he would arrange it and there was nothing to worry about.  He invited me for Shabbos so that the members of the shul could meet the new rabbi.

    I imagine that the condition regarding the mechitza was the most difficult. How did the president manage to overcome that issue?

    He discovered that the synagogue’s bylaws stated that the rav was the person who was exclusively responsible for religious matters at the shul.  He put a similar clause in my contract and when I presented my demands he explained to the members of the board that they had no choice but to accede to my demands, for if not, they were violating the bylaws of the synagogue and would be in violation of a signed contract.

    If we are already on the subject, it is worth mentioning a number of additional directives that I received from the Rebbe, even if they are not directly relevant to the general topic of this discussion:

    After I arrived at an agreement with the president regarding the mechitza, I brought him for a visit to 770 and showed him the mechitzos made of glass. I told him that it would be possible to make the mechitza in the shul in a similar manner.

    When I wrote about this to the Rebbe, the Rebbe raised a number of points in connection with the mechitza. 1) Regarding what I wrote that the mechitza has to be six feet tall, the Rebbe added: at least. 2) Regarding what I wrote that the mechitza could be made of glass, the Rebbe emphasized that it had to be made of glass that is not transparent to the one looking from the men’s section. Additionally, the Rebbe expressed reservations about a mechitza of glass in a shul like ours, in which the men’s and women’s sections are on the same level and the mechitza serves as the only separation. (As opposed to 770, where the main mechitza is the separation on different floors). This is what he wrote:

    “And what compelled him to get involved with a heter (which is in any case a great dochak) – without realizing that here the women’s section is higher (and exceedingly) in height than the men’s section, and see Succa 51 end of side b: and they would come etc. and they were still coming etc. (until) they instituted etc. up high – and in Chiddushei Aggados Maharsha that the change of them sitting [up high] is called in-and-of itself a great rectification relative to what was before!

    “And he casually negated with his talk-comparison all of this.

    “As relates to what to actually do – he should ask (in secrecy) a Rav of Anash. Since it would seem that it is not worthwhile prodding too much if there will be be a great need etc.”

    I learned from the Rebbe’s answer that he expects that when being accepted to serve as a rabbi for a given congregation, one needs to be particular about every small detail and not look for any leniency.

    I saw this point in another response that I received from the Rebbe, in connection with the Rebbe’s insistence that there be at least one row of congregants between the bima and the Aron Kodesh. Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dworkin was uncertain as to the Rebbe’s intention, whether they actually had to sit there or if it was enough for there to be an empty space of one row, so that they would be able to circle the bima. The Rebbe negated this and wrote, “because then it will be a great question as to whether the separation will be a lasting one.


    It went pretty easily for you thanks to the cleverness of the president of the shul. But what should a shliach, who is offered a position as the rabbi of a synagogue, do when he is certain that if he insists on a full fledged mechitza the congregants will abandon him and go find a Conservative rabbi? Is it not worthwhile to compromise on the mechitza issue in order to ascertain that in every other matter the place will operate as an Orthodox shul and not Conservative?

    If only it had gone easily for me. After we signed the contract, and those congregants realized that they had a problem with the synagogue bylaws, they looked into it and discovered that with a two thirds majority they could change the bylaws. They began to take action in that direction with the goal being to turn the shul into a Conservative synagogue.

    I found myself in a real dilemma, as you described in your question. When I asked Rabbi Berel Rivkin whether I should compromise temporarily on a four foot mechitza, and perhaps over time I would succeed in getting consent to raise the mechitza, especially as with that I would save them from falling into the hands of the Conservatives, he said this was a spiritual question and only the Rebbe could answer it. I directed the question to the Rebbe, and received a very sharp response: This is not his matter at all, and in general it demands great study as to whether it is permissible according to halacha.

    This is a clear answer to your question: A shliach has to check into what is permitted and what is forbidden according to halacha, and not deviate even one hairs-breadth from the halachic ruling. This is not his matter at all, if as a result of his firm stance regarding the rules of halacha they turn towards the Conservatives.

    In the same response, the Rebbe also wrote that after it would become known that those who were opposed to the mechitza wanted to turn the shul into a Conservative shul, my chances would be better to convince the other members of the congregation to support my position on the mechitza:

    “Based on the above [that they prepared a petition to make the shul Conservative] it would be proper to speak with the balebatim and the president etc. that from this can be seen clearly what is the significance of the mechitza, in that those who oppose a proper mechitza – have now revealed their position as to what their true outlook is [to make the shul Conservative], and from this is understood that all those who believe in the Torah from Heaven (unlike the Conservative Jews) need to fight on behalf of a mechitza.”

    The Rebbe also explained that although the shul bylaws stated that I was the one to make spiritual decisions, there is nothing stopping them at all from arranging the aforementioned petition – now or after a brief time. Therefore, I had to fight to arrange everything before I took the position since if I accepted it while matters were still up in the air: “Then he won’t be able to oppose them as forcefully as now, since by accepting the position he is conceding that they are the ones to also decide spiritual matters, and even if he will guarantee it in the contract – they are already changing the current contract.”

    During that same period I merited to receive another answer from the Rebbe, which served as a guiding light for me in the subsequent struggles that were yet to come: “If without compromises in matters of fear of Heaven – it is worthwhile making the effort to remain there.”

    In the end, after I spoke with some members of the congregation and explained to them what the Rebbe had said, that this was a war about the Orthodox character of the shul, and after the president of the shul threatened to resign if my conditions weren’t met, they agreed to all the conditions and so I was accepted as rav of the kehilla.

    (to be continued)


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