The Skulener Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusiah Portugal zt”l, On His 30th Yahrtzeit, Today, 29 Av


Skulener-RebbeAlthough three decades have passed since the petirah of the Skulener Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusiah Portugal zt”l, the incredible impact that he had on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews through his role in the Jackson-Vanick Amendment, his work in Romania, as well as in Eretz Yisroel, reverberates until today. He made a difference to the Jewish world.

The Rebbe’s mesiras nefesh for Jews – religious and non-religious alike – was legendary. He was known throughout the Jewish world as an ohev Yisroel and an avi hayesomim (a father of orphans).

Born in 1897, the Rebbe was just 18 when his father passed away and he became rov of Skulen where he served for twenty years. The young rov established Talmud Torahs that became an effective vehicle to combat Tarbut schools of the Jewish socialists. His heartfelt and warm droshos, his holy manner and beautiful voice inspired all who heard him, and he composed many nigunim.  His unqualified love for his fellow Jews attracted thousands during the course of his life. It was the Sadigerer Rebbe who persuaded the Rebbe to relocate to the large Jewish center of Chernovich, home to a Jewish population numbering many thousands, to oversee Jewish education there. His unique methods and positive and warm approach inspired many and, in time, he became the head of Agudath Israel in that region, working together with great rabbonim.


At the outbreak of World War II, Chernovitch came under Soviet-Communist control, a terrible blow to the entire Jewish community. All Jewish schools, religious facilities and chesed organizations were all closed. Overnight, the Jews were reduced to poverty as their businesses were confiscated, and the specter of jail or exile to Siberia hung over their heads for engaging in ‘capitalism’. It was during these years that the great work hatzolah of the Skulener Rebbe began.

At a meeting in the dark of night, he asked askonim to help him develop a practical strategy to support desperate families. He also established a clandestine chinuch network for children to learn Torah and mitzvos, a network that operated throughout 1940. When the Soviet Union declared war against Germany in1941, the ruthless German army swiftly overran Chernovitch, and the murder of Jews began. Terrified to leave their homes or hiding places, they could not even give their brethren a decent burial.

The Rebbe prevailed upon a number of askonim to join him, gathered the bodies and gave them kevurah. Again and again, the Rebbe performed these last rites for his people. On one occasion, the Rebbe would later recount, he was ‘caught in the act’ by the Nazis. They tried all they could to humiliate him, and were poised to murder him, too.  Suddenly, a man and woman appeared and remonstrated with the Nazis to leave the Rebbe alone. Somehow they succeeded and the Rebbe was spared. The identity of this couple remains a mystery to this day.

On another occasion, the Rebbe and his son were lined up against a wall to be shot. At the last minute, a German officer appeared from nowhere, started speaking to the soldiers and waved the Rebbe and his son away. They ran into the Beer Mayim Chaim shul for cover and escaped. In 1940, a Polish Jew who had served in both the Polish and Russian armies was desperately trying to hide from the Nazis. Anyone hiding a Russian soldier would be shot on the spot. The Rebbe hid him and another three Jews in his attic until the Russians returned.


The war and change of the regimes turned the Rebbe’s house into a center for refugees and homeless Jews, especially for ‘war orphans’. By war’s end, forty orphans lived in the Rebbe’s house! Often, they slept four or five to a bed, placed across the width. The Rebbe and the Rebbetzin slept on the floor.

When the Russians returned, the Jews were overjoyed, but this would be short-lived. The trickle of orphans became a flood and the Russians wanted to admit them to their own orphanages. The Rebbe took them with him to another town. When the Russians finally confronted him, he officially adopted them all. Time and again, he used the adoption tactic to keep Yiddishe kinderlach out of the Russian grasp. He also influenced many other Jews to adopt Jewish children. It was in Chernovich that the Rebbe became known as avi hayesomim.

In time, the Russians realized the Rebbe’s adoption ruse, so he promptly began smuggling children into Bucharest, Romania, where things were a little easier, as it was not directly under Russian control. During the following fifteen years in Rumania, he became tatte and mama to thousands of Jews in Rumania and traveled from city to city to give chizuk to Romanian Jews.


Initially, the Russians tolerated the Skulener Rebbe, and for a while he was even acknowledged as the official spokesman for the Yiddish community, largely because he spoke Russian.

One time, on a Friday, the Rebbetzin gave a bitter cry – the Rebbe seemed to have disappeared. He had gone to shul and then went to buy fish and meat for the orphans and had not returned. Hours later, however, the Rebbe returned with a stranger. What had happened?  That morning, a woman came into shul crying that the Russian security police had taken her husband away. The Rebbe went to the police and when his words to them did not help, he took out the money that he had for the Shabbos food, bribed one of the officers and had the man released from prison. Now he needed to collect money to purchase food for the orphans.

As time went on and Communism took deeper root, it was clear to the Rebbe that Romania offered no future for Jews and Yiddishkeit and he made plans to get the children out of the country.  The Romanian authorities informed that they were prepared to allow him to leave with his family, but he did not want to be parted from ‘his’ children – a decision that delayed his exit from the country by fifteen years. The authorities harassed him and on many occasions the Rebbe was arrested. At the end of 1959, he and his son, the present Rebbe, were imprisoned and tortured. Intense international pressure through askonim achieved their release and, in turn, their exit to America.

In America, many people came to witness his piety and to experience his tefillah, his tishen and his heartfelt niggunim that overflowed with a spirit of yiras Shomayim, ahavas Hashem and kedusha. His house and bais medrash was the rallying place for many Jews who felt the need to participate in communal service.

Ten years after his arrival in the US, the Rebbe went to Washington DC to meet with Sen. Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson to plead for help to release Jews from the USSR, resulting in the Jackson-Vanick Amendment.


On his first visit to Eretz Yisroel, the Rebbe was mobbed by the hundreds of the ‘children’, already young adults, for whom he had obtained exit visas to the Holy Land.  However, when he noted that many had succumbed to secular pressure to abandon the faith of their fathers, he decided there and then, in 1962, to launch the crowning glory of his life’s work – the Torah network of Chesed L’Avraham in Eretz Yisroel.

From a small Chesed Children’s Home and Talmud Torah in Miron, the vision expanded to four Chesed homes (including one for girls) and schools that cater for hundreds of children from various tragic backgrounds, as well as a countrywide network of afternoon programs for children in public schools. More than 50,000 children have gone through ranks of Chesed L’Avraham. In Chesed L’Avraham, the children find the nurturing and warmth that they crave, and which is so often absent at home and in school.  The Chesed homes, bar mitzvahs, weddings and network have made their mark among our people, a living memorial to the Rebbe’s pivotal role in the spiritual renaissance of Yidden in Eretz Yisroel.

Many will visit the Rebbe’s kever in Monsey, N.Y., today to daven and beseech Hashem for rachamei Shomayim.

May the Rebbe zt”l be a meilitz yosher for all of Klal Yisroel.

{Andy Newscenter}



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