Followers of the third Gerer rebbe, Avraham Mordekhai Alter, bidding farewell to him at a railroad station as he departs for vacation in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), Góra Kalwaria, Poland, ca. 1935. (Jerzy Tomaszewski, courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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Ger Hasidic Dynasty

The Ger dynasty (also Gur), named for the town of Góra Kalwaria in the Warsaw district, had the largest following of any Hasidic group in central Poland until the Holocaust and to a large degree dominated Jewish religious life in the area around Warsaw for some 80 years. Ger was distinguished among Hasidic groups by its particular emphasis on traditional yeshiva-type study. Ger leaders were also known for their deep and visible involvement in political and public affairs.

The dynasty was founded by Yitsḥak Me’ir (Itshe Meyer) Rothenberg (1799–1866), generally known by the title of his multivolume book as Ḥidushe ha-Rim (after the Polish uprising of 1831, the family name was changed to Alter). Itshe Meyer was a leading figure in the circle of his brother-in-law Menaḥem Mendel of Kotsk (1787–1859), who sought to bring about a renewal of Hasidism in central Poland. When the Kotsker, as he was called, entered into a long period of seclusion beginning in 1840, Itshe Meyer became the chief spokesman for the Pshiskhe–Kotsk school within Polish Hasidism. Even before the Kotsker’s death, large numbers of Hasidim had in effect transferred their loyalty from master to disciple.

Itshe Meyer was a leader in the struggle against legislation that would have compelled Jews to abandon their traditional clothing (1846–1851), in the course of which he was jailed for a short time. Well recognized as a Talmudic scholar, he developed a close relationship with Dov Berush Meisels, the rabbi of Warsaw, and with other leading figures in the rabbinic community. Polish Hasidism was thus highly regarded by the religious leadership, and the Hasidic–Misnagdic conflict of earlier generations was set aside. After trying first to establish his headquarters in Warsaw, Itshe Meyer moved to Góra Kalwaria around 1860, and that town remained the movement’s center until 1939. A special railroad line from Warsaw brought Hasidim to their rebbe—and Catholics to their pilgrimage site in the same town.

Itshe Meyer was succeeded in the dynasty’s leadership by his grandson, Yehudah Leib Alter (1847–1905), known universally as Sefat Emet (after the title of his book). Following a five-year apprenticeship and interregnum, Yehudah Leib formally assumed the mantle of rebbe in 1871, serving until his own death as the dominant voice within Polish Hasidism. The book Sefat emet, a five-volume collection of homilies stretching over 34 years, is one of the most important works of Hasidic theology and homiletics. It has been widely studied, both within and outside Hasidic circles, since its first publication immediately after his death in 1905.

Sefat emet is a wide-ranging and often profound work of religious thought presented in the form of weekly (originally oral) discourses on the Torah portion or holiday celebration. It offers a radically simplified and immanentist version of Jewish mystical theology. God is represented by the nekudah penimit, the innermost point, of all being. The Jew’s task is to discover that point everywhere and in each moment, to “expand” it by making it the single object of his attention, and to reenvision even mundane and material aspects of life as dwelling places of this mysterious divine spark.

Yehudah Leib was the first Hasidic master to preside over a large community in which secularization (embracing socialism of various stripes, Zionism, the Yiddish literary awakening, and Polonizing assimilation) was making vast strides, and a large part of the Jewish population had ceased being religiously observant. While his disciples often fought fiercely for domination of the community, Yehudah Leib tried to remain above the fray, portraying himself as rebbe of all Jews. Even the nonobservant, he taught, had the unerasable mark of God in their deepest selves, and the rebbe’s foremost task was to bring them to awareness of it.

Yehudah Leib was succeeded by his son Avraham Mordekhai (1866–1948), known as Imre Emet. The third Gerer rebbe is known primarily as a disciplined organizer of his large following into a body of considerable clout within an increasingly politicized Polish Jewry. He was a leading figure in the founding of Agudas Yisroel in 1912, and Ger Hasidim became a major constituency within the party, which was formed to assert the dominance of uncompromising Orthodoxy within Jewry, both in Poland and in the Land of Israel. Members of Agudas Yisroel who were close to the rebbe served in the Polish parliament and later in the Israeli Knesset, conveying the views of the Gerer rebbe to political leadership in both countries.

Avraham Mordekhai escaped Warsaw and arrived in Jerusalem in 1940. As word of the total devastation of Polish Jewry reached the Holy Land, the deeply pained rebbe worked to establish a new center for Ger Hasidism in Jerusalem. This was accomplished mostly by his successors, beginning with his three sons: Yisra’el Alter (1895–1977; rebbe from 1948), Simḥah Bunem Alter (1898–1992; rebbe from 1977), and Pinḥas Menaḥem Alter (1926–1996; rebbe from 1992). Leadership then passed to Ya‘akov Aryeh Alter (1936– ), the son of Simḥah Bunem. Ger today is again considered one of the largest and most successfully established Hasidic communities: it is the largest Hasidic group in Israel, with groups living in numerous locations, and there are smaller centers of activity in New York, London, and elsewhere.

Suggested Reading

Yitsḥak Alfasi, Gur: Toldot ḥasidut Gur, 2nd ed. (Tel Aviv, 1978); Eleanora Bergman, “Góra Kalwaria: The Impact of a Hasidic Cult on the Urban Landscape of a Small Polish Town,” Polin 5 (1990): 3–23; Avraham Yitsḥak Bromberg, The Rebbes of Ger: Sfas Emes and Imrei Emes (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1987); Arthur Green, “Three Warsaw Mystics” in Kolot Rabim: Sefer ha-zikaron le-Rivkah Shats-Ufenhaimer, ed. Rachel Elior and Joseph Dan, pp. 1–58 (Jerusalem, 1996); Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Philadelphia, 1998).