Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

The Guardian of Meron

There was a time when people were afraid to die in Yerushalayim. It wasn’t that they feared death itself. Rather, they were afraid of the pathologists who worked in the city’s hospitals. At the time, everyone knew that the bodies of the deceased would be violated. It may have been done with good intentions – if one can call it that – perhaps for the purpose of some lifesaving research, but from a halachic standpoint, and certainly from the perspective of the families, it was a practice of unspeakable cruelty and a heinous crime.

The bodies of the deceased were plundered, their internal organs stolen before burial. For the most part, the pathologists who were questioned denied the veracity of these claims. The reason they were able to deny it was because most of their victims were people who had lived alone, or who were mentally ill, or whose families were certain not to raise a fuss or even, perhaps, to object at all. But many of the members of our communities were afraid to enter a hospital. If they were admitted, they would ask their family members not to leave them alone even for a moment.

It sounds terrible, but this was the situation at the time. Every day, the members of chevrah kadisha societies throughout the country made shocking discoveries of bodies that had been stuffed with rags to replace the organs that had been removed. The pathologists didn’t even bother hiding their work. They used coarse threads to stitch the bodies that they had cut open.

During that period, the chareidi community waged a massive war against the violation of human bodies. There were protests and mass tefillah gatherings. The issue was raised in the Knesset and in the courts. There were efforts to promote dialogue. At the same time, many doctors were harassed. There were times when we were more successful in our fight, and there were other times when we were less so. I believe that it was Menachem Begin’s rise to power that put an end to these shocking practices. That was when the Anatomy and Pathology Law was passed, putting an end to the situation. To this day, though, there are still human organs stored in the cellars of the country’s hospitals that are halachically required to be buried. It is an issue about which the parties involved have agreed to remain silent.

One day, in the middle of this protracted conflict, MK Menachem Porush appeared in the Knesset and displayed a pair of glass eyes to the plenum. “These eyes,” he announced, “were placed in the body of a niftar by a doctor after his real eyes were removed. And they are doing the same with other organs as well,” he added accusingly.

Those glass eyes had been procured by Porush’s cousin, the legendary askan Rabbi Menashe Eichler.

A few days earlier, Rabbi Eichler had called a wedding photographer and asked him to take pictures at an event. Rabbi Eichler had instructed the photographer to meet him on a street corner. The photographer found it a peculiar request, but business was business, and he appeared on the corner at the designated time. Instead of taking him to a wedding hall, Rabbi Eichler brought the photographer to a morgue in a hospital in Yerushalayim. As astonishing as that was, no one ever asked Rabbi Eichler how he managed to gain access to any place. He brought out several bodies and he told the frightened photographer to take pictures of them. Those photographs ignited a major commotion and passions ran high throughout the country. That was yet another step in the battle against the crimes of the pathologists.

Rabbi Menashe Eichler was known in Yerushalayim as the champion of kavod hameis within the chareidi community. He worked regularly with the police, the army, and the hospitals, and he succeeded in preventing numerous violations of the bodies of the deceased. In one instance, he arrived at the hospital room of a person from Meah Shearim who had passed away in order to take the body away for burial. His arrival had been coordinated in advance with the hospital administration, and the body had been left untouched. While he was there, he noticed another body on the side of the room that seemed to have been prepared for an autopsy. Rabbi Eichler placed the second body on a stretcher and brought it to the chevrah kadisha car, pretending that it was the one he had come to collect. He then dressed the second niftar – the resident of Meah Shearim – in clothing, placed a hat on top of his hat, and seated the body in the front of the van, with two other men holding the niftar up on either side. Nothing stopped Rabbi Eichler in his battle to protect the dignity of the deceased.

But Rabbi Eicher’s efforts were not limited to the deceased. He strove to help the living, as well. Rabbi Eichler was a veritable one-man chesed organization. Throughout his life, from his childhood until his passing, he was constantly involved in chesed – for the poor, for the ill, for the disabled, and for anyone else in need. He passed away just two weeks ago. I went to the shivah house to visit his family and I heard many incredible stories about him while I was there.

Born in Botei Ungarin

Rabbi Menashe Eichler was born in Yerushalayim, as were both of his parents. His grandparents were immigrants from Hungary and Poland. Both of his mother’s parents were grandchildren of the Avodas Yissochor. Reb Menashe’s parents were born in the Old City of Yerushalayim and later moved to the neighborhood of Botei Ungarin. His grandfather was Rabbi Meir Eichler of the city of Humenne, Slovakia, who became known as one of the most distinguished chassidim in Yerushalayim.

Throughout the years, in Yerushalayim and Meron alike, the members of the Eichler family were known for their constant involvement in chesed. This was particularly true at times of war and privation, and was especially apparent in 1948, when the people of Yerushalayim sought refuge in bomb shelters as the city came under attack. Thousands of civilians were killed at the time in the course of the enemy shelling. People were essentially prisoners in their own homes. All the stores were closed and there was no food to be found, yet Reb Menashe and his brother, Reb Yosef, worked day and night, undeterred by the constant barrages of bullets and shrapnel, to bring flour, sugar and bread to all the bomb shelters in the city.

The two brothers’ love of chesed knew no bounds. Wherever they saw an opportunity to act, they worked tirelessly to benefit others, and all this was done without support from the establishment, and without the benefit of an official organization. Several years later, Reb Menashe Eichler helped his brother found the organization known as Masmidim, which was essentially the first chareidi youth movement in Eretz Yisroel. The goal of Masmidim was to solidify the place of young men and boys in chareidi society. At that time, the youths of Yerushalayim were leaving the city in droves. First the Zionist movement and then the army drew many young people away from our camp. They went to kibbutzim, to secular youth movements, to sports teams, to the army, and to workers’ organizations, and they were lost. In those days, many of the youths who had learned in the few talmudei Torah that existed in Yerushalayim went on to assimilate into chiloni society.

In response to that situation, Rabbi Yosef Eichler and his brother founded Masmidim. The key to the organization’s success was the joy that it taught its members to derive from a life of Torah. The festive Simchos Bais Hashoeivah on Sukkos and the Purim celebrations in Yerushalayim were established at that time. In the evenings, the young boys and bochurim gathered together to learn. There were tests and prizes, and the youth group arranged special trips and parties for the participants. The field trips were mainly to the Galil and to the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. The two brothers, working at the behest of the gedolim of Yerushalayim, succeeded in breathing new life into the city’s religious youth.

During the shivah for Rabbi Menashe Eichler, the family was visited by Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman, the menahel of the Seminar Hachodosh in Yerushalayim. Rabbi Lieberman told them that Reb Menashe had always been a highly admired individual who had taught the youths of Yerushalayim that there is no need to leave the Torah camp in order to be happy, great and strong. He led the youths of his day to recognize that a person can be entirely part of Meah Shearim and still lead a fulfilling life. “Masmidim put the brakes on the spiral of attrition that stole so many youths during those early years of the state,” he said.

“We Were Not Zionists”

In his youth, Reb Menashe lived in the neighborhood of Botei Ungarin, which is adjacent to Meah Shearim. At that time, the Jewish underground’s war against the British was at its height. At the conclusion of the Second World War, the British decided to seal the gates of immigration to the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Europe. When the United Nations divided Eretz Yisroel into two states, the Arabs launched a wave of terror attacks against Jewish communities throughout the country. Reb Menashe then decided that he could not remain idle in the face of British tyranny, and he joined the underground group known as Lochamei Cheirut Yisroel (Lechi), which was highly active in Yerushalayim. Lechi was combating the infamous White Paper, the British policy paper that advised limiting Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisroel, even among the survivors of Nazi concentration camps.

The British did not attempt to remain neutral in the conflict. Some of them even aided the Arab rioters in their acts of violence against Jewish communities. Lechi was one of several Jewish underground organizations that were active at the time. There was also Etzel, headed by Menachem Begin, and Haganah, which was led by Ben-Gurion. I will not go into great detail about these groups, but I will note that many chareidi Jews, including many bnei yeshivos, volunteered to assist them, especially Lechi. Some of those bochurim left yeshiva for this purpose, while others joined the underground while remaining in yeshiva at the same time.

Reb Menashe did not serve as a soldier after the state was founded, even though he worked for the army for many years, identifying the bodies of the deceased. Similarly, he was not an official member of Lechi before the state was founded, although he fought on all the battlefronts in Yerushalayim. He even took part in a joint effort between Lechi and Etzel to capture the Old City, an attempt that ultimately failed. When Lechi launched its attack on Ein Kerem, the Mandelbaum Gate, and the Notre Dame center opposite the New Gate, Reb Menashe joined the other volunteers in the religious battalion. Everyone knew that he would volunteer for all of Lechi’s activities at the time.

Two years ago, someone said to Reb Menashe, “Look at the State of Israel today. Is this why you fought so hard? For the sake of establishing a country like this?”

He replied, “I never officially joined the army, because of the draft of girls. I always worked as a civilian volunteer to collect the bodies of fallen soldiers. In the underground, we were working for the sake of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who were at the gates of our country and were being denied entry. That was our goal. We were not motivated by any Zionist ideology. All we wanted was to open the gates of immigration that had been closed. We didn’t want anyone to tell a Jewish person that he could not live in Eretz Yisroel, especially Jews who had lived through the slaughter in Europe.”

In accordance with that approach, Reb Menashe participated in most of Israel’s wars as a volunteer, assisting in the burial of fallen soldiers, even though he never officially enlisted in the IDF. During the Six Day War, when everyone fled to the bomb shelters once again, he joined the division of the military rabbinate dedicated to identifying the dead. Over the years, he was decorated with every possible military award. During the Yom Kippur War, he returned home for Hoshanah Rabbah and Simchas Torah, and then returned to the front lines immediately after Yom Tov. At that time, there was an entire group of chareidi volunteers, none of whom had officially enlisted in the army, who worked to preserve the dignity of the deceased. They traveled to the Golan Heights and then to the south, all the way to the Suez Canal. But although Rabbi Eichler was involved in every war in this capacity, he never joined the army, nor did he allow any of his children to be part of the military. He was extremely zealous in that regard.

The Birth of Zaka

Today, Eretz Yisroel has an organization known as Zaka (“Zihui Korbanot Ason – Identifying Victims of Tragedy”). Zaka is recognized even by the United Nations. Not long ago, Zaka received official recognition from the State of Israel as an organization specializing in the handling of the deceased. Whenever a person passes away at home, the police are called and Zaka is asked to join them. In any traffic accident that results in a fatality, r”l, Zaka is the official group charged with making all the necessary official arrangements, beginning with the removal of the deceased from the scene of the accident. When there are terror attacks, chalilah, the people of Zaka are called to the scene and work alongside the rescue personnel, seeing to it that the dignity of the deceased is maintained.

The founder of Zaka was none other than Rabbi Menashe Eichler. All of the organization’s activities were originally carried out by Reb Menashe alone, as an individual volunteer who worked together with the police and the army. Over time, his efforts led to the formation of Zaka. At first, Reb Menashe himself would personally appear at the scene of every accident or terror attack. He then asked a number of friends to assist him. He always coordinated his efforts with the security forces, who appreciated and respected him. He also earned the trust and faith of the gedolei Yisroel. Eventually, Zaka was created to be an organized entity that would carry out the same functions.

After a number of devastating terror attacks during a particularly tense period, the government wanted to establish a division of the police force that would tend to the bodies of terror victims. Since it was to be an official entity, it was necessary for its personnel to be police officers. Reb Menashe and his associates were asked to become official members of the police force, but he refused vehemently. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, whereby the police would accept any volunteers who were official members of the Mishmar Ezrachi (Civil Guard).

The Mishmar Ezrachi was created at some point in response to an increase in threats to the country’s security. The members of the Mishmar Ezrachi were essentially unofficial police officers, whose function was to protect the public both from potential Arab terrorists and from other criminals. There are many common jokes in Israel about the Mishmar Ezrachi, whose ranks included a number of elderly men who were barely capable of seeing and hearing, as well as many inexperienced youths. The purpose of the group was to create a certain sense of security on the streets. Reb Menashe was a volunteer member of Mishmar Ezrachi, which gave him a status akin to that of a police officer.

Protecting the Graves of Tannaim

This brings us to yet another aspect of Reb Menashe’s prolific public activities: Even before the State of Israel understood the significance of the burial places of tzaddikim, Reb Menashe was there to protect the kevorim, to mark them for preservation, and to prevent them from being damaged. Once again, this was his own personal initiative. It is not even clear what led him to take responsibility for the matter. Protecting the sacred sites of Eretz Yisroel was one of the most important causes to Reb Menashe throughout his life. Included in that – although it is not clear what came first – is the fact that Reb Menashe was considered the “father” of Meron. For more than fifty years, he stood guard over the site of Rav Shimon bar Yochai’s burial place in Meron. He spent fifty years as the official guardian of the site, with the approval of the Israeli government, but he was there even before he was officially appointed.

Anyone who has visited Meron has certainly seen “Rabbi Eichler’s room.” Even when there were fierce battles over the site, with various organizations vying for control of the kever, and even when other forces took control of the site, everyone knew that Reb Menashe’s room was untouchable. Meron and Reb Menashe were inextricably intertwined with each other. Incidentally, the struggles over control of Meron continue to this day. Reb Menashe, though, was unanimously respected as an authority at the site by everyone from the Eidah Hachareidis and the Neturei Karta to the most stalwart Mizrachi or secularist.

How did Reb Menashe come to be in that position? It was very simple: He was in Meron, and there was no one else to take responsibility for the site. No one else was willing to accept the task, so the Ministry of Religious Affairs decided to appoint Reb Menashe to oversee it. But as I mentioned, he was there even before he was officially appointed. Long before that time, he would travel to Meron with a group of visitors from Yerushalayim, sometimes for a month and sometimes for two months, mainly during the summers. The group would travel around northern Israel, marking the locations of ancient burial sites. Almost all the graves of Tannaim and Amoraim in the Galil were marked by Reb Menashe.

At the kever of Rav Yosef of Pekiin, the government wanted to pave a new road to expand the narrow road that existed at the time. Naturally, the presence of the kever was of no consequence to the workers, and there was a significant risk that it would be damaged in the course of the construction. Reb Menashe leapt into action. He would not allow the kever to be damaged or desecrated. As the expansion of the road progressed, he hired three workers of his own, paying them out of his own pocket, and ordered them to renovate and reinforce the kever. He stood watch until the road had been completed, seeing to it that the kever was not affected in any way. To this day, the kever remains in its place at the side of the road, a fact for which Reb Menashe can be credited.

During the shivah, members of the Asra Kadisha organization for the preservation of graves asserted that people are completely unaware of the number of roads that were diverted and the number of kevorim that were saved due to Reb Menashe’s dedicated efforts and vigilance. The scope of his activities was not limited to the north, either. In Yerushalayim, as well, he personally saw to it that the road that had been built over graves on Har Hazeisim was removed. Once, it was a four-lane street. Today, there are only two lanes, and that is a result of his efforts. The road was originally built over the kevorim by the Jordanians, and when Israel recaptured the Old City of Yerushalayim fifty years ago, the Jewish government planned to leave the road intact. Reb Menashe, along with a group of friends, visited the area at night and dug large holes in the road, exposing the graves underneath. Their photographs of the graves were disseminated throughout the country the following day, causing an uproar that forced the government to dismantle the road.

One person related that Reb Menashe always worked through peaceful, pleasant means. He did not organize large protests or demonstrations in order to achieve his goals, although he did arrange large burial processions for the human organs that had been taken from the bodies of the deceased. Reb Menashe had collaborators in the hospitals who would rescue the organs, smuggling them out of the institutions in containers. And the funding for all of this came from his own pocket. Reb Menashe also personally financed his struggle to preserve the graves of the Tannaim and Amoraim in the north.

Steering Clear of Politics

I have been told that Reb Menashe was an extremely reticent person. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he never spoke about himself. He also avoided honor of any sort. Last year, he was awarded the Yakir Yerushalayim prize, but he refused to attend the ceremony. Instead, he sent his son, MK Yisroel Eichler, to represent him.

Reb Menashe was also endowed with tremendous fortitude. He encountered death dozens of times, yet he maintained his equanimity until the end. Shortly before his passing, when his medical condition had deteriorated severely, Reb Menashe was asked by a doctor how he was feeling. “I used to serve the Belzer Rebbe,” he replied, as if to say that a person who has been so close to kedushah has no reason to fear.

In addition to his relationship with Rav Aharon of Belz, whom he served as a shamash, Reb Menashe also maintained a close connection with the current Belzer Rebbe. As a result of his activities on behalf of the public, he also became close with the Chazon Ish and with Rav Refoel Soloveichik, who led a long battle against autopsies in Israel and passed away in 1995. Of course, Reb Menashe was also close with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who was the ultimate Torah authority in Yerushalayim throughout the final decades of his life.

Equal to his prodigious love for chesed was his distaste for politics. He had no interest in the pursuit of prestige. He would often quip, “It is fortunate that people live only until the age of 80 or 90. Even as it is, they squabble over things as if they are going to be here forever. They are children for twenty years, and for the final twenty years of their lives they are in geriatrics, so what is left for them to fight over? Yet you can see how bitterly they quarrel with each other over such minutiae. Yes, it is a very good thing that people don’t live forever.”

After 88 years of ceaseless activity, Reb Menashe has now left us for his final rest. As someone at the shivah commented, there are some people who spend their entire lives in the process of “dying”; it is only when they finally leave the world that it stops. Then there are people who actually “live” every moment of their lives. Reb Menashe was a man of great accomplishments. He never wasted a moment. He was always occupied with chesed, both for the living and for the dead. And whenever he had a spare moment that was not filled with chesed, he could be found learning in one of the shuls of Meah Shearim, until his very final day on earth.



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