RABBI Simha Bunem Alter was for 15 years head of the Gur dynasty, the most numerous dynasty in the Hasidic world.
Gora Kalwaria or, in Yiddish, Ger, or Hebrew, Gur, was a small town 19 miles (30km) south-east of Warsaw, and it was known as the New Jerusalem. Although the town's population before the Second World War consisted of barely 3,000 Jews, it was the home of the greatest Hasidic dynasty of eastern Europe.
Hasidism was the greatest revival movement in the history of the Jewish people, born in eastern Europe in the 18th century and founded by Rabbi Israel Bal Shemtov (1700-1760). It emerged during a dark age of spiritual sterility, of physical persecution. The movement brushed away the elements of stagnation of Rabbinic Judaism and revitalised it by leading people back to the traditional tenets of Judaism in a spirit of joy and joyfulness. It swept across eastern Europe, and by 1900 there were more than two million Hasidim. It produced some 1,500 teachers, and it safeguarded Judaism against secularism, assimilation and socialism.
The founder of the Gur dynasty was Rabbi Isaac Meir (1789-1866), who adopted the name 'Alter' as a surname, and when Sir Moses Montefiore was in Warsaw in 1846 he asked him to intercede with the Tsar on behalf of Jewry. He was succeeded by his son, Judah Aryeh Leib (1847-1905). The third leader of the movement was Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Alter (1866-1948). Despite Nazi searches for him, he was one of the very few Hasidic rabbis who escaped Nazi Europe and he arrived in Israel in 1943. He was succeeded as the head of the dynasty by his son, Israel Alter, who died in 1977 and was succeeded in turn by his brother Simha Bunem Alter.
Simha Bunem Alter was born in Gur in 1897, His mother was Haye Ruda, the daughter of Noah Shahor, of Biala, in Poland. He married his first cousin Ita, the daugher of Rabbi Nehemiah Alter, a rabbi in Lodz. With his father-in-law he visited the Holy Land in 1923, staying there for many years. Before the Second World War he returned to Poland and lived in Lodz and in Warsaw. As a Palestinian citizen he was able to leave Poland in 1940 for the Holy Land, where he made a living in real estate. Alter was a devout man and a renowned scholar, who delved in mysticism, the cabbala. He used to give discourses of a mystical nature, but in the last five years ill-health forced him to give them up.
In 1977, he succeeded, at the request of senior followers, as the Gur Rebbe, head of the dynasty. At elections he urged his followers to vote for the Agudah, a religious party that recognises the state of Israel and supports its working, while calling for the establishment of a religious state, non-conscription for those studying for the rabbinate, and the non-conscription of women.
Gur today is still the greatest dynasty of Hasidism. It controls the Agudah, the Bethjacob movement and the Hinuchatzmi, the ultra-orthodox Hebrew education system. In all, 4,000 families in Israel owe their allegiance to the Gur Rebbe.
Outside Israel there are large Hasidic sections of Gur in the United States, in Antwerp and in London, where in Stamford Hill they are now erecting a very large Talmudical college in Lampard Grove. There is also a Hasidic synagogue in the Golders Green area. The Hasidim of Gur place Torah study at the centre of the spiritual life and are continuously striving after self-perfection.
Simha Bunem Alter is survived by a brother, Pinchas Menachem, who is principal of the Talmudical College in Jerusalem; and two children, a daughter, Rebecca, and a son, Jacob Aryah, who is the head of a rabbinical institution in Bene Beraq, Israel.