Medzhybizh - Jewish History and Culture

Jewish History and Culture

Medzhybizh was the center of Jewish culture in its region in Ukraine. The first records of Jews in Medzhybizh date back to the early 16th century. These records state that various Jews were granted special privileges by the Polish kings, including a proclamation in 1566 by King Sigismund II Augustus that the Jews of Medzhybizh were exempt from paying taxes in perpetuity. The earliest known burial in the Jewish cemetery dates from 1555.

Many key rabbinic leaders lived in Medzhybizh during the 17th through 20th centuries. The earliest important rabbi to make Medzhybizh home was Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561–1640), a key figure in Judaism at that time. He lived in Medzhybizh from 1604-12.

The most important rabbi from Medzyhbizh was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov "Besht" (1698–1760), the founder of Hasidism. He lived in Medzhybizh from about 1742 until his death in 1760. His grave can be viewed today in the Medzhybizh old Jewish cemetery.

The Baal Shem Tov is considered one of the key Jewish personalities of the 18th century who has shaped Judaism into what it is today. His work led to the founding the Hasidic movement, established by his disciples, some of whom also lived in Medzhybizh, but most of whom traveled from all over Eastern Europe, sometimes from great distances, to visit and learn from him. In Medzhybizh, the Baal Shem Tov was also known as a "doktor" and healer to both Jews and non-Jews. He was known to have been given a special tax-free dispensation by the Czartoryski family and his house shows up on several town censuses.

There were two fundamentally different rabbinic leaders in the town, those who were Hasidic and those who were not. In general, both groups got along, but the followers of the Hasidic leaders believed they had a special connection with God and were cult-like in their devotion to their "rebbe". The non-Hasidic leaders tended to follow a scholarly path and were more responsible for the Jewish institutions, such as observance of kashrut, the social structure of the town, liaison with the town's nobles, and control of the Jewish court.

Hasidic leaders included Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh (1757–1811), the Baal Shem Tov's grandson. Rabbi Boruch was notable for his principle of malkhus ("royalty") and conducted his court accordingly. He was also known for his "melancholy" and he had a fiery temper. Many of his grandfather's disciples and the great Hasidic leaders of the time, regularly visited Rabbi Boruch, including the Magid of Chernobyl, the Magid of Mezritch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of the Chabad Hasidic movement), and others.

In an attempt to remedy Rabbi Boruch's melancholy, his followers brought in Hershel of Ostropol as a "court jester" of sorts. Hershel was one of the first documented Jewish comedians and his exploits are legendary within both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Hershel is also buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, though his grave is unmarked. One legend has it that in a fit of rage Rabbi Boruch himself was responsible for Hershel's death.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (1772–1810), the Baal Shem Tov's great-grandson, was born in Medzhybizh but left at an early age. He became the founder of the Breslover Hasidim.

Another Hasidic leader, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt (1748–1825) "The Apter Rov", made Medzhybizh his home from 1813 until his death in 1825. The Apter Rov is also buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, very close to the Baal Shem Tov's grave. The Heshel family became one the foremost Hasidic rabbinic dynasties and various descendants remained in Medzhybizh well into the 20th century.

The non-Hasidic rabbinic leadership of Medzhybizh was controlled by the Rapoport-Bick dynasty, the most important of all the non-Hasidic rabbinic dynasties of Medzhybizh. Rabbi Dov Berish Rapoport (d. 1823) was the first to make Medzhybizh his home. He was the grandson of Rabbi Chaim haCohen Rapoport of Lviv (d. 1771), a notable sage during the mid-18th century. Dov Berish Rapoport's grave can be seen today at the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh. Other rabbis of this dynasty include Rabbi Isaac Bick (1864–1934) who immigrated to America in 1925 and founded a synagogue in Rhode Island. Rabbi Chaim Yekhiel Mikhel Bick (1887–1964) was the last known rabbi to reside in Medzhybizh. He left Medzhybizh for New York in 1925. It is not known whether Medzhybizh had another rabbi when it served as a Jewish ghetto in World War II.

The Rapoport Dynasty traces its roots back to Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) who was involved in the Frankist debates and his father Rabbi Tsvi Hirsh Ashkenazi, known as the Chacham Tsvi (1660–1718). The Rapoports themselves are a long distinguished rabbinic family who traces their roots back to Central Europe and Northern Italy in the 15th century. The first Rapoport rabbi to make his home in Medzhybizh was Rabbi Dov Berish Rapoport (d. 1823). He was the grandson of Rabbi Chaim haCohen Rapoport of Lviv (d. 1771), who was also involved in the Frankist debates. Rabbi Dov Berish became the head of the Jewish court (Av Beth Din) and leader of the entire Jewish community of Medzhybizh. However, in a dispute with Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim, the Baal Shem Tov's grandson around the year 1800, the non-Hasidic and the Hasidic communities separated into two leadership groups. The Rapoport/Bick family continued to control the town's Jewish religious court. The Hasidic community at the time chose Rabbi Issachar Dov-Ber Landa to represent them in official matters. Interestingly, both Rabbis Rapoport and Landa are buried side-by-side in the Medzhybizh Jewish cemetery, just a few steps away from the Baal Shem Tov's grave.

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