Dressed in fancy clothes with silver buttons and a hat of golden fur, Rabbi Israel Friedman (1797-1850) of Rhuzin was a unique figure among the chassidic leaders. He surrounded himself with opulence in order to project the majesty of God on earth. According to accounts, however, Rabbi Friedman’s personal habits were extremely austere. He ate simple foods and slept little. One story even relays that his fancy boots were actually soleless.
Born in the region of Kiev, Rabbi Friedman was the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezritch, the successor of the founder of Chassidim, the Baal Shem Tov. His father, Sholom Shachne, the Rebbe of Prohobisht, died when Rabbi Friedman was 6 years old. Ten years later, after the death of his older brother, Rabbi Friedman became the leader of his father’s chassidim.
After several moves, Rabbi Friedman settled in Rhuzin, where the numbers of his chasidim multiplied and he became known as the Rebbe of Rhuzin.
The Rebbe’s large following and his opulent lifestyle led to the unfortunate attention of the Czar, who believed that Rabbi Friedman was trying to set himself up as a king for the Jews. Falsely accused of complicity in murder, he was imprisoned for 22 months. Shortly after his release, the Rebbe’s court moved to Kishinev and then escaped the Czar’s influence by moving to Austria, where his grand court was re-established in Sadigura.
Although he lived in Austria, the Rhuziner Rebbe was very much involved with Jewish life in the Holy Land. In addition to sending his chassidim to emigrate, he instigated the building of the Tiferes Yisrael Synagogue in Jerusalem (also known as the Nissan Beck Synagogue, for its builder, who was a Rhuziner chassid). The synagogue was built on land near the Western Wall that the Czar intended to purchase for a church (which was built on the Russian Compound instead). The Tiferes Yisrael Synagogue was later destroyed by the Jordanians while the old city of Jerusalem was under their control.
Rabbi Yisrael Friedman died on 3 Cheshvan, 1850. He and his wife Sarah had 10 children, many of whom went on to form their own chassidic courts.
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