Chassidic rebbe revisits Bay Area to promote unity

At a time when the gulf between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews seems wider than ever, Chassidic Rebbe Hershel Yolles wants only to spread a message of unity and love.

"We are Jews. These three words are the secret and the core of the matter and the heart of the matter," said Yolles, the head of the Samborer Chassidim and a descendant of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who founded Chassidism in the 1700s.

The Brooklyn-based rabbi will return to the Bay Area this month for the ninth or 10th time — he's lost count — since he first began to visit in 1989.

He acknowledges that Chassidic leaders do not often visit the Bay Area, as it is hardly a bastion of traditional Judaism. But Yolles said he always has found "open hearts" here.

"I was searching for people who are not the kind I find in my own backyard," the 64-year-old native of Romania said in his slow, calm, accented voice.

"Simply that they aren't in my own backyard doesn't disqualify them from being my brothers. I have a closeness with them as I have with every other Yid, every other Jew."

Though he has always felt this way, Yolles considers this welcoming attitude especially important now because he believes that the "era of redemption" is approaching.

Yolles will be the guest speaker after a Shabbat lunch on Aug. 23 at Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel.

His appearance is part of the modern Orthodox shul's fifth annual Beit Midrash, a seven-day Torah study program for adults. This year's Beit Midrash theme, "One Torah: The Depth, Breadth and Beauty of Our Tradition," fits Yolles' philosophy of Jewish unity to a T.

During his two to three weeks in the Bay Area, Yolles will speak to other groups and offer private consultations.

The Samborer dynasty stretches back to the mid-1800s, when Yolles' ancestor became the first rebbe of the small town of Sambor, near Lvov in what is today the Ukraine.

His immediate family immigrated to Montreal in 1948 after surviving World War II in Bucharest. Most of his relatives died in the Holocaust.

Yolles, who moved to Brooklyn's Boro Park three decades ago, became the fifth Samborer rebbe in 1976 when he replaced his father. Chassidic Jews prefer to address their leaders as rebbe, which is Yiddish for "rabbi."

Unlike the Satmar or Bobov Chassidim with their tens of thousands of followers, the Samborer dynasty is small today. Most of the Samborer Chassidim perished in the Holocaust, Yolles said. The Samborer shul in Montreal is now used by another group, and Yolles isn't sure how many Samborer Chassidim are left.

At the same time, Yolles has tried to spend much of his time reaching beyond the Chassidic community. In fact, the hallmark of Yolles' family has been outreach to nonobservant Jews since around World War I — "before it was popular," he noted.

For example, the Samborer rebbe at that time offered part of the dynasty's estate to a group of nonobservant, leftist Zionists so they could learn to work the land. The group later immigrated to Israel and founded Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan in northern Israel.

Yolles has visited the kibbutz and learned what outreach can lead to. "By not being rejected, these people have maintained a very warm spot for their tradition," he said.

All of this love doesn't mean that Yolles will set aside halachah, Jewish law. He rejects non-Orthodox conversions and the Reform movement's use of patrilineal descent, for example. He will speak in non-Orthodox synagogues, but avoids speaking in their sanctuaries.

His outreach, not surprisingly, focuses on trying to convince Jews that they want to follow tradition.

"I believe that Jews of all affiliations harbor in their hearts their connection to Torah and halachah," he said. "You want to have halachah in full, but you are confused about it."

Yolles draws a distinction between forcing beliefs on others and simply sharing beliefs with others. He said his message comes without a "holier-than-thou" attitude.

"I consider myself a zealot. Not a zealot to break the spirit of others, but a zealot who feels the pain that other Jewish men or women, by no fault of their own, do not appreciate their rightful heritage."

Yolles believes the need for Jewish unity is urgent because the world is moving from the era of the Holocaust toward an era of redemption — and the coming of the Moshiach, or Messiah.

He refers repeatedly to the anticipated arrival of the Moshiach and to the legacy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "who has awakened the consciousness to the anticipation of Moshiach and also to the good within each of us."

Yolles, however, wouldn't say whether he shares the view of many Lubavitcher Chassidim that Schneerson is the Messiah.

"Since this is a matter of personal belief to many Jews, I don't think anything that would emphasize the differences between Jews should be focused upon," he said.

"I would rather focus on the things that unify Jews."