In Klal Yisroel’s not too distant past, there existed beautiful Kehilos that were built completely on Torah and breathed its every breath on the words of the Rov. The not too distant past was only five years ago and the town is Gateshead in England. It is said that the Brisker Rov once said after coming arriving to Eretz Yisroel, that if he couldn’t live in Eretz Yisroel the one place he’d be happy to live is Gateshead. Rav Shach once told someone that Rav Rakow is the last of the real Lithuanian Rabbonim.
Rav Betzalel Rakow zt”l was the renowned Gateshead Rov and the town’s success is heavily attributed to his personal greatness. A Rov from a world gone by is how he is often described. In a Haskama to B’Tzel HaKodesh written by Rav Rakow’s nephew, Rav Moshe Shternbuch writes that already from the days when we learned together in Yeshiva it was clear that he was destined for greatness. He showed great diligence in his learning, wisdom, Yiras Hashem, and sterling middos. He was humble “B’Tachlis HaAnava”. It is difficult says Rav Shternbuch to portray his true character in a book, especially since he hid his greatness and acted in a simple manner.
Rav Rakow was born in Frankfurt in 5687/1927 to his father Yom Tov Lipman who was a talmid of Volozhin and Slutzk and was very close to Rav Issur Zalman Meltzer the Rosh Yeshiva of Slutzk. Rav Yom Tov came from an illustrious family of Talmidei Chachomim going back to the Tosfos Yom Tov. At the time of is son’s birth he was acting as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Rav Hoffman in Frankfurt.
After Kristalnacht his father successfully took the family to England where they started anew. Unfortunately two of Rav Rakow’s older brothers were killed Al Kiddush Hashem during the great Churban in Europe having been learning in Yeshivas Kelm and Yeshivas Telz respectively.
As a young boy in England Rav Rakow entered the Yeshiva of the legendary Rav Moshe Schneider where he excelled despite the war raging outside in the skies over England. His Bar Mitzva drasha, which he prepared himself with some help from his father, lasted an hour and a half before Rav Schneider told it was enough already. Afterwards Rav Schneider commented that Betzalel will become something one day.
At 18 years old he went to Gateshead to learn in the Kollel, which was under the leadership of Rav Eliyahu Dessler with whom he formed a close bound that lasted even after Rav Dessler moved to Eretz Yisroel. After three years in the Kollel the Rov of Gateshead Rav Naftali Shokovitzky took him as a son-in-law. In 1957 at the age of 30 he was invited to become Rosh Yeshiva in the Yeshiva in Montreaux, Switzerland. There he became very close with elderly Gaon Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg and he helped Rav Weinberg review and prepare his Shailos U’Tshuvos Sridei Eish for publication. During his tenure in Montreaux he had the opportunity to spend time with the Brisker Rov who would come to Switzerland for health reasons.
After the Petira of his father-in-law the Rov of Gateshead he was called back to become Rov of the bereaved community of Gateshead. For the next 40 years he led the community and oversaw every religious aspect from chinuch, to Tznius, to Hashkafa and everything in between making Gateshead and Ir V’Eim BiYisroel. He was tied by his heartstrings to the health and welfare of his Kehilla and they hung on his every word. Gateshead was a town of great talmidei chachomim who humbled themselves before their esteemed Rov whose wisdom and knowledge in all facets of torah towered even over there own great scholarship.
The last five years of his life he was ill but like a true captain of his ship it did not stop him from leading the Kehilla even from his hospital bed all the way until his final days. He was niftar 20 Tammuz 5763/2003.Yehi Zichro Boruch.