Three years ago Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter visited London for the dedication of the new Gur Talmudical college, in Lampard Grove, Stamford Hill. This marks an extraordinary revival of the Hasidic Gur sect, which was all but wiped out in the Second World War, when over 90 per cent of its 150,000 followers perished in the Holocaust. For this revival, much of the credit must go to Rabbi Abraham Mordecai (one of the few Hasidic rabbis to escape Nazi Europe) and his sons, Rabbis Israel, Simha Bunem and Pinchas Menachem.
The most powerful Hasidic "dynasty" of the inter-war years in Poland was that of the Rabbi of Gur or Ger (its Hebrew and Yiddish names; in Polish the town is called Gora Kalwaria). From the mid-19th century the Rabbi was really the "Emperor" of Hasidism, and Gur, near Warsaw, was the capital of his empire. Among his followers were outstanding Rabbinical scholars and leaders of Polish Jewry.
Pinchas Menachem Alter was born in Gur in 1923, the son of Rabbi Abraham Mordecai by his second wife Feige Minze (herself the daughter of Rabbi Jacob Meir Biderman). He miraculously escaped the Nazi inferno with his father and brothers, and arrived in the Holy Land in 1940. He studied at the Talmudical college Hayye Olam Yeshivah in Jerusalem. In 1948 he married Ziporh, the granddaughter of Rabbi Moses Bezalel Alter, and in the 1960s he became the principal of Jerusalem's Gur college, Yeshivah Sefat Emet. On the death of his brother Rabbi Simha Bunem Alter in 1992 he became the Gur Rebbe, the head of the dynasty.
Since the war, the glory of Gur has been revived in Israel. The United Torah Institutions have grown into a network of 34 seminaries that spread from Hatzor and Haifa in the north to Ashdod and Arad in the south. Over 7,000 students are currently being educated, from young children to senior boys in the Yeshivot and Kolleim (post-graduate colleges).
A very private person who shunned publicity, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem was a father to his followers. He was also a tremendous Rabbinical scholar and president of the Council of Torah Sages, a body of rabbis that guides the religious Agudah party, which has four or five MPs. He was against the peace process of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the present Prime Minister Shimon Peres, but he violently condemned Rabin's assassination. Before his death he was working hard to create a united religious front in the forthcoming elections in May.
The Rabbi's second son Saul is the head of the Sefat Emet Yeshivah. He or the Rabbi's nephew Jacob Alter (the son of the late Rabbi Simha Bunem), will be his successor.
Pinchas Menachem Alter, rabbi: born Gora Kalwaria, Poland 1923; leader, Gur Hasidic dynasty 1992-96; married 1948 (four sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Jerusalem 6 March 1996.
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