In a small synagogue on a narrow street in the heart of Jerusalem, time has stopped.
The Ba’al Hatanya Shul, named for Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder and first rebbe of Chabad, sits in the middle of a street with the same name. The heavy door opens to wooden benches, the same benches on which Chabad adherents have sat since the synagogue’s founding almost 117 years ago.
A plaque of gray stone, blackened and cracking under the weight of more than a century, remains affixed near the entrance, directly across from the Holy Ark.
This is not a regular hassidic minyan, as one might expect in the heart of ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim. Rather, the men who gather at the Ba’al Hatanya Shul are part of the Hevra Mishnayot of Colel Chabad, and they are on a mission to study in the memory of thousands of souls who have departed this world since 1900. They say they have not missed a yahrzeit (memorial anniversary) since the group’s founding.
Colel Chabad was established in 1788 by Chabad emissaries from Liadi (in modern-day Belarus) who were sent to Israel to operate a charitable giving network. The emissaries built up the organization to provide food and other basic necessities to the Holy Land’s poorest people. Today, it is the largest charitable organization of its kind in Israel, working with local authorities throughout the state to identify and provide assistance through its network of food pantries and other basic services.
When the Ba’al Hatanya Shul was founded in 1900, the Hevra Mishnayot was created in its current form as a way to thank donors, explained Rabbi Moshe Deutsch, chief financial officer of Colel Chabad. When donors would make a gift, their names (or the names of loved ones in whose honor they were making their donations) would be recorded. Then, members of the daily Mishna class would study a chapter and recite these names as part of concluding prayers.
“Mishnayot are like a breath of life for the soul,” explained Rabbi Shmuel Stemberger, who today teaches the Mishna class. “Mishnayot light up the souls of the departed and move them closer to God. We learn for the souls.”
While similar programs have begun emulating Hevra Mishnayot in recent years, this is the oldest program of its kind in Israel and likely in the world, according to Deutsch. The group has completed the six orders of the Mishna between 45 and 50 times. The class meets daily, Sunday through Thursday, as it has through wars, famine and any other number of challenges.
“We come in the snow and on fast days,” said Stemberger. “People come when they are 98, 99 or even 100 years old, and they give it all their strength.”
Deutsch recounted how during World War I, the residents of Jerusalem were starving. His elderly mother still tells how she would go out into the fields and pick a grass-like herb, which she cooked into a “soup.”
“One-third of the people died in Jerusalem during World War I. Despite the famine leaving residents without much strength, the members of the Hevra Mishnayot came to learn. That is just what we did,” Deutsch said of his late colleagues.
ON A recent, warm Jerusalem evening, Deutsch arrived a few minutes early for afternoon minyan.
His office, a modest space just next door to the synagogue, is undecorated but for the artifacts documenting the history of the Hevra Mishnayot. A sample hand-written yahrzeit certificate from the early years hangs on one wall.
A pencil drawing of Shneur Zalman, dating back almost to the synagogue’s founding, is on the other.
Deutsch removed two large black books from a wooden locker and began flipping through them. He pointed to Shlomo Ben-Shmuel from Detroit, recorded 107 years ago in bold, black calligraphy inside the hardcover journal. He then revealed names of donors from Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Massachusetts.
Each name was 100, 105, or 108 years old.
The first volume was arranged by city, with a lengthy 22-page index in the book’s first pages.
Roughly 27 cities were recorded on each of these pages, totaling donors from an average of 600 places around the world. Later years included listings from Auschwitz.
Deutsch said most programs commit to pray for donors for up to 60 years; this Hevra Mishnayot never stops reciting prayers on behalf of any of its people.
“We are so careful,” said Deutsch, as he reads off the day’s names from the yellowed pages of the black book. “We watch it like a hawk. I am afraid of the souls.”
Over the years, the Hevra Mishnayot has embraced technology. While originally all names were hand-recorded and then recopied by hand for each of the learners by Deutsch’s predecessors, eventually names were typed on a typewriter and photocopied.
In 2016, Deutsch generates computer printouts.
He receives 10 to 20 emails a day containing new names. He adds them to the computer system, yet continues to record the names by hand in the most recent black book.
“It is so cool to see a class going on this consistently for so long,” said Rabbi Menachem Traxler, director of volunteering at Colel Chabad.
“Things these days are very disposable. But not this. This is the real deal.”
AT AFTERNOON prayers, the synagogue fills with the daily learners. Colel Chabad pays 12 learners a small stipend to ensure they come every day. Stemberger has been teaching the Mishna class for seven years. His predecessor, Leibish Deutsch – Moshe Deutsch’s cousin – taught the class for 25 years before Stemberger.
Stemberger tries not to miss a day, even for a family occasion. He learned this from Deutsch, who was in his 80s and suffered from diabetes.
“He came even when he felt sick, or if he had a grandkid, or a grandkid was getting married,” Stemberger said.
“Of course, if someone cannot make it, we always have a replacement – 117 years and there has not been one day that we have not had a minyan.”
Deutsch was so dedicated to the class that when he was hospitalized at Shaare Zedek Medical Center for diabetes-related complications, he fought to be released. Stemberger recalled visiting him in the hospital and learning that his teacher was so ill they would have to amputate part of his leg.
Three days later, Deutsch was back at the Ba’al Hatanya Shul giving the class – both legs intact.
“I looked at him in shock. He told me, ‘I am sure that in the merit of learning Mishnayot I will not need my leg taken off.’ And sure enough, each day he would show me that his leg was getting better. It was a miracle,” Stemberger said.
Ultimately, Leibish Deutsch died of a heart attack on the front steps of the Baal Hatanya Shul.
“We have been doing it for so long because we have faith that is what we are supposed to be doing,” said Stemberger. “You have to have faith.”