The day of the wunderrebbe

'He looked into my eyes and told me things only I knew'

By Jonathan Kalmus, February 17, 2011
Audience: Rabbi Taub speaks to a young visitor

Audience: Rabbi Taub speaks to a young visitor

At a private house in Whitefield, north Manchester, on Sunday, people were spilling out of the front door, crowding onto the path, and queuing, in their hundreds, for more than four hours.

The attraction? A sweet-faced, bearded rabbi, Moshe Taub, who has electrified communities up and down the country.

Visits from dynastic rabbinical leaders are commonplace in the strictly Orthodox community. But Rabbi Taub, the Kalover Rebbe, is different. His Hungarian family of Chasidic Jews, representing generation upon generation of Torah-true rabbis, was all but wiped out in the Holocaust. The rabbi, now in his early 70s, was born on the Hungarian border with Romania while his parents were on the run from the Nazis.

Post-war, the survivors of the Kalover sect vowed to share their Chasidic teachings with non-observant or secular Jews.

There is a Grand Kalover Rebbe in Jerusalem, but Rabbi Moshe Taub, who heads the US branch of the sect, and is based in Brooklyn, New York, makes dozens of trips a year, reaching out to those who would not normally come into contact with him.

On his first British tour last week Rabbi Taub visited London, Leeds, Manchester, and Glasgow, and in every centre the response was the same: enthusiastic embrace from the religious communities who knew who he was and what he represented. And, at first a slightly wary reaction from the secular Jews, followed by a wave of fascination and admiration as the rabbi spoke to hundreds and hundreds of people.

He visited JFS and Hasmonean schools in London, but his back-to- back diary in the North saw a more hectic time for the rabbi, who reportedly sleeps only three hours a night.

At Manchester's King David High School last Thursday pupils were offered a two-minute meeting to receive a blessing or Chasidic proverb. One sixth-former said the students thought the rabbi was "some kind of magic man. The blessing was a nice thing, but I wasn't interested."

But one 17-year-old Yavneh student at King David, Gideon Kershner, reported being "in shock" that within a minute of meeting him, Rabbi Taub mentioned a deep secret about his personal life.

The teenager said: "He said some general things, like I should learn more about Judaism. But then he held my hand and looked me in the eye. I was shocked. I came away completely taken aback. It was a bit scary - someone you've never seen before and he just reads you. He spoke about something only I know. It was something specific. The fact he said that thing to me was extraordinary."

By Thursday night, as news of a bearded wise man spread, 150 people filled Prestwich Hebrew Congregation's banqueting suite. Prestwich's minister, Rabbi Dovid Eisenberg, said he had accepted the rabbi's visit "because he is an example of warmth and acceptance of less observant Jews," but the turnout far exceeded expectations.

On Monday, a spokesman for Prestwich's Holy Law Synagogue said 700 people had bought tickets to meet the rabbi. President Anthony Haber said the rabbi did not ask for any money "but sat for hours to help people".

Mr Haber added: "Rabbi Taub seemed to know a lot of things about people. He told one kid, in his early teens, that he should do his best to cry less. There was no way he could have known that, but the kid does cry quite a lot. He told another boy, don't follow in your father's footsteps. That boy's father had been the sort of person you wouldn't want to follow. The rabbi simply seemed able to read people."

Stephen Goldman, 59, said Rabbi Taub seemed "on a different level to other rabbis. He travels all over the world to give blessings. I've got some illnesses, so I came to get one."

Tony Levene, from Prestwich, went to the private house in Whitefield to seek a blessing for his son, five-year-old Joey, who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a terminal condition.

He said: "I just went along because a friend suggested it. I must say, he was a very spiritual person. He spoke very quietly and calmly. He asked me a few questions about whether I kept Shabbat, or did I wear tefillin. I simply said, my son's got a terminal illness and can you just kindly say a prayer, and he did. I didn't believe in asking the rabbi for a miracle, just could he ask to make it easier for my son. In a mad sort of way, I do have faith in that."

In Leeds 200 people queued for more than two hours to see Rabbi Taub at Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue in Alwoodley.

Jonathan Rose, 52, from Alwoodley, said: " I was 199 in the queue so I didn't get a blessing. There were so many people. It certainly wasn't just the most religious elements of the community. People recognised the importance of this rebbe and a rare opportunity to see and hear someone like that. It was quite momentous for us."

Last updated: 1:50pm, February 17 2011