“I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to wake you up in the morning,” said my host at about 2am on shabbos. “You see, here in Skver, we go to shul early to recite all of tehilim before davening. But don’t worry. One of the kids will knock on the door.” Such is the devotion of the Skverer Chassidim; to wake up early after a tish that has gone as late as 3am the night before, and arrive in shul with enough time to recite the entire book of tehilim before shacharis in the morning. I would learn during the length of my first visit to New Square that the Skverer Chassidim are as diligent about their learning as they are about their davening as they are about safeguarding their minhagim.
New Square can seem a bit strict even by chareidi standards upon arrival. Men and women walk on separate sides of the street and, in the town, there is no making a mistake which side you are on. There are frequent signs indicating “manner seit” and “frauen seit,” men’s side and women’s side. On some streets virtually every mailbox has a sticker. In addition, women are not allowed to drive cars, perhaps for fear that they will drive out of the community, or perhaps because it’s not considered to be in the spirit of tzniusdig activity. But beyond these strictures, or some would say, because of the contribution of these strictures, exists a gem of a community. Skver, as opposed to many other Chassidic communities, has a certain warmkeit, a friendliness to those wishing to visit their special village. Skver encourages visitors from other communities and Jews of other stripes to visit for shabbos, and the Rebbe designates two nights a week for meeting with visitors. On motzei shabbos the Rebbe meets with all visitors from shabbos wishing to have an audience with him, and on Sunday nights he designates most of the evening for visitors, as well. On shabbos, it is not uncommon for someone to come up to you on the street and say “shalom Aleichem, where are you from? Are you enjoying your visit?”
New Square was inaugurated in 1957. At the time, 19 families had made the commitment to move to what was then farmland to establish the first American shtetl. The previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky had arrived in America around 1947. Incredulous at the decadence and materialism he saw around him he said, “if I weren’t so embarrassed I would turn back.” It was then that he decided to establish an insular community that would shield his Chassidim from the ills of society. The first official Rebbe of Skver was the beloved Reb Itzikel. He was the seventh son of the Chernobyler Maggid. Other sons began their own dynasties such as Tolna, Hornsteipl and Rachmastrivka. Reb Itzikel was known, among other things, for his outstanding scholarship. He had 28 bookcases of seforim, and he said that he had mastered all 28 bookcases as a young adult. He was elected Rebbe in 1788. The story goes that he was chosen to lead atoh horeisa on the night of shemini atzeres. When the townspeople heard his davening he was unanimously elected the successor of Reb Hershele, the actual founder, right there on the spot. All elections were cancelled.
My hosts in New Square were a distinguished, noble family to say the least. I was treated like a king from the moment I entered their home, almost to the point of my being embarrassed. There are eleven children in the family, one friendlier than the next, although many do not speak any English. But we communicated through song. I taught them niggunim, and they, in turn, taught me Skverer niggunim. In fact, I had brought my tape recorder, and after shabbos all of the kids were delighted to gather around, and record popular Skverer niggunim so that I could sing along on the next visit. This has become our custom every motzei shabbos now when I visit. I was so pleased to hear when I visited a year later that they still remembered the “ma yedidus” I had taught them, and that they made it their minhag to sing that version every Friday night. This family, as with other Skver families stick assiduously to their minhagim. They make Kiddush only from homemade wine, for example. They claim that many in their extended family are so heimish that they will only make Kiddush from wine made in their own home. The Skverer Chassidim wear stiefl, or black leather boots on shabbos, yom tov, and for simchas. This was the previous Rebbe’s custom. The previous Rebbe also adopted certain Belzer customs while living in Belz. To me there is a genuineness of character in Skverer Chassidim, more so than in any other group I have encountered. They are proud of their heritage, dynasty, and way of life. Skver is known for their non-involvement in machlokes. Something interesting that caught my notice in this regard is that while the Satmar village of Kiryas Yoel, less than an hour away, has 66 shuls, New Square only has one giant shul. Everybody davens together.
The tisch in New Square is kedusha. On a trip a few months ago – and I won’t say to which Chassidic community – I encountered people not only talking loud at the tisch, but actually screaming at the tops of their voices to be heard over the singing. When the Rebbe began to talk at this particular tisch ¾ of the people walked out, and noisily at that. In New Square there are three tischen every shabbos: Friday night, shabbos afternoon before mincha and, of course, the lofty shaleus sheudos tisch. The tisch at Skver is organized yet spontaneous, in that there’s no telling how long a certain niggun could go on reaching ever higher levels of intensity. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, how long? The intensity reached through the loud singing – with an attendance of 1,500-2,000 – the profundity of the niggunim, the intense dancing and jumping on the forenches (bleachers), and the achdus felt in the room can almost lead one to experience living outside of one’s physical body for a time. This feeling is felt even more acutely during the shaleus sheudos tisch which is done in the dark. What really amazed me on my last visit was that a “forspiel” was to be held on motzei shabbos. A wedding in the Rebbe’s family would be taking place that week, and a customary “forspiel,” or prelude, to the wedding would include a live band with lots more singing and dancing after shabbos. But there’s more. After ma’ariv on motzei shabbos the band began to play in the shul, and new Skever niggunim were introduced. This was not the yet the forspiel. This was the for-forspiel, the pre-prelude. I was so exhausted – but so satisfied – after this event that I was unable to muster up the energy to go to the actual forspiel later in the night.
On this last visit I was able to get a private audience with the Rebbe. The Rebbe began seeing people at 12:30am motzei shabbos. I got in to see him at around 1:15, and couldn’t believe my eyes. After a long summer shabbos, after three tischen, after davening for the amud, frequently breaking down and weeping in the middle of the tefilla, the Rebbe looked as if he had just come back from his vacation in Pressburg. His face was radiant, he was animated, and there was a constant smile on his face. I was all of sudden at ease. He was open to talk about any subject, and I was quite surprised when he showed such an interest in my past, or more specifically, what goes on in conservative and reform shuls. This conversation lasted a while, longer than anyone else’s on line. He didn’t answer my big question directly, but gave an allusion to an answer, which I only came to figure out the next night while lying in bed.
What stands out in my mind most is the Rebbe’s davening. The crying, the weeping, the beseeching on behalf of Klal Yisroel. It’s a very different kind of cry in the davening than of any other living Rebbe today. I’ve heard them all either in person or in videos. I am aware that New Square has its problems like any other community. Nevertheless, for me it is a gan eden.
I am going to be adding stories again to my new website, http://rebbestories.blogspot.com/