As any ethnographer of hassidim knows only too well, analysis of a hassidic community necessarily involves an examination of the rebbe’s role, as hassidim situate this individual not only at the centre of the community but also of their lives. The rebbe, the term used by the hassidim to designate their charismatic religious leader, occupies front-and-backstage in any portrait of hassidic life, and the ethnographer does well to understand the dynamics of the rebbe’s commanding role.

At the helm of the Tasher hassidic sect is its octogenarian rebbe, Meshulim Feish (Ferencz) Lowy, who established the community in Boisbriand, Quebec. He was born in Hungary in 1921, the son of a rabbi in the Hungarian town of Demetch who was known as the Demetcher rov (rabbi). His grandfather, Elimelech, served as a rabbi near the Czech border, in the town of Nirtash, from which the sect derives its name. So impressed was the grandfather with the grandson, according to one hassid, that he said: “This little boy will be something, a very great tzaddik [righteous person] in his time.” A hassid remarks: “And this little grandson was always with his grandfather. And he saw always how his grandfather was the rebbe, how he’s taking care of people, and helping people...’ Another follower: “Even as a child, they said he’s going to be a rebbe. The way he grew, the way he made a brookheh [blessing], the way he handled with people.”

Meshulim Feish (Ferencz) Lowy
Click for Larger View

Having survived World War II, the rebbe believed that he was destined to immigrate to Canada to establish a separate religious community. He arrived in Montreal in 1951. The enclave in Boisbriand was established in 1963.

Today, in the hassidish world, you ask: ‘Where can you go if you have a problem?’ And, in general, the answer they’ll say is: ‘Tash.’ There’s another one [rebbe] in Israel, and maybe there’s another one somewhere else, but that’s it. Basically you know that when you get there, you’re going to the right place.

God forbid you have an accident. Your wife, she’s unconscious and they have to make an emergency operation. And you have a question, “Should I do it, or should I not do it?” And you have one phone call. Who would you call? Who do you really trust? You have a choice of doctors, but you need the very best. You’re not going to worry about whether the doctor is a Republican or a Democrat.... So even if you’re a Democrat, you’ll go to a Republican because it doesn’t matter. And that’s the same here.... People look around the world today and realize what kind of tzaddik the rebbe is. This is where you come.

When people know that something is real, it’s hot. They come running. They know this is a place of holiness.

Our kesher [relationship] with the rebbe is because he is giving the ruchneeyess [spirituality] for the yishuv [community]. As the rebbe becomes older, he also becomes holier and the more he is holy, the more he is close to Ha-Shem [God] and then this gives more people an opportunity to be closer to Ha-Shem. And this is how the rebbe’s power grows and that’s how so many people hear about him.

This [Tash] has become a tourist place of holiness. Hundreds of people from the United States, from all over come here every Shabbess [Sabbath] to be with the rebbe.

The rebbe, his head is faster than a computer. Hundreds and hundreds of people visit here. People who were students here years ago come with a kvitl [a petition presented to the rebbe]. People come and give their hand and the rebbe asks about their children, their business. The minute he leaves the hand, he’s with somebody else, and the computer doesn’t even search so fast.

Like a doctor will ask, ‘What are you talking about? Why do you say you want to ask the rebbe about a decision to make an operation? I am the doctor.’ So the person will say: ‘You’re the doctor, but I wouldn’t do anything without permission of my rebbe.’ A little example. There’s a man here, he’s a friend of mine, so he told me. They found on one side of the kishkess [intestines] something not good. And they went to a doctor and the doctor said immediately to make an operation. It’s an emergency.... Anyways, after three months, everything was ready for the operation. Before he went to the operation room, the doctor said: ‘You know, it’s a very hard operation. I have to tell you. And tell your family they should pray very hard for you because it’s not an easy case.’ So he said: ‘I’m sorry, doctor. I have all respect for you. My rebbe said it will go very easy and everything will be fine....’ So the doctor said: ‘I don’t understand you. Your rebbe is in Boisbriand and I’m here by you and I see everything, so why do you tell me that?’ So my friend said: ‘You know what? After the operation, we’ll talk.’ After he finished the operation, the doctor same in with a big smile: ‘You know rabbi, your rebbe was right. I never had such an operation and I want to come to the rebbe. I want to have a blessing from the rebbe.

I’ll tell you a story that I know. A woman from Toronto came to the rebbe. Her X-ray showed that she had a very bad disease. It was not good. So she came to the rebbe and the rebbe told her to go to a second doctor. So she came to the second doctor with her file, and this doctor didn’t see anything. And here the first doctor told her it was terrible news. So what happened was that the first doctor made a mistake because he took out the file with a woman’s similar name. It’s only the koiyach [strength] of the rebbe who could see through this.

A person went to the doctor and the doctor said he had cancer. So he didn’t know what to do so he decided to call the Tasher rebbe. So he told the rebbe what the doctor said, and asked: ‘What should I do?’ So the rebbe had a boy over here, who had to get married, from a poor home. So the rebbe said he’d take care of it. The rebbe needed $10,000 for the chasseneh [wedding], but there was no money. So the rebbe said to the person who called: ‘Give me $10,000 and everything will be OK.’ $10,000 at that time was a lot of money. So he agreed. He came to the rebbe. He gave the $10,000 and the rebbe said: ‘Go back to the doctor and see what he says.’ So he came back to the doctor and the doctor said: ‘Listen, I don’t understand this, but I don’t see anything.’

Tasher marvel at the rebbe’s daily schedule which, they maintain, is exclusively devoted to prayer and study, and meeting with persons seeking his advice and blessings. Indeed, his very presence defines and shapes the community. A Tasher remarks: ‘And the biggest thing from the rebbe is that he always has a smile on his face. You could never say, ‘The rebbe’s nervous, don’t go in [to see him].’ There’s no such thing. And when somebody comes in to talk, he talks with his whole heart and tries to help everybody. And he gives chizuk [strength].