Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who revived his Bobover chasidic group in Borough Park and helped turn the Brooklyn neighborhood into one of the largest American bastions of Orthodoxy, died there Wednesday in Maimonides Medical Center. He was 92, and had been in poor health in recent years.
Descended from the Baal Shem Tov and related to several prominent chasidic dynasties, Rabbi Halberstam succeeded his father, Rabbi Bentzion, as Bobover rebbe in World War II. The elder rabbi, who had established a network of Jewish schools in Poland, died in the Holocaust, as did most of Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam’s immediate family.
After immigrating to the United States, Rabbi Halberstam originally settled on the Upper West Side before relocating to Crown Heights, then Borough Park. He helped refugees here attend trade schools and find jobs.
Led by Bobov’s examples, several other haredi groups starting making their homes in Borough Park by the late 1960s and early ’70s. The area’s Orthodox population today is estimated at more than 100,000.
With a series of synagogues and schools and other Jewish institutions, Borough Park is the most concentrated Orthodox neighborhood in the country, where Yiddish is as common on the streets as English.
Under his influence, Bobov became the third-largest chasidic group in New York City, with many of its 6,000 members living in Borough Park.
Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, and an expert on chasidism, noted that Rabbi Halberstam was one of the last major chasidic rebbes who survived the war.
"He rebuilt his family and he rebuilt his movement," Heilman said. "He managed to attract numbers of first-generation members for Bobov, which was critical for continuity."
Rabbi Halberstam was known as a politically astute leader who met with government officials to discuss Jewish concerns. He was a familiar figure at Bobover simchas, where he danced in his colorful caftan and presided at the annual Broadway-style Purimshpiel.
The rabbi in 1958 established Kiryat Bobov, a community south of Tel Aviv.
Though one of the more influential chasidic groups, Bobov under Rabbi Halberstam remained low-key and nonpartisan, largely escaping the religious and political controversies that characterized other chasidic groups.
"It’s a group remarkably free of internal acrimony," Heilman said.
However, Bobov was implicated in a 1998 money-laundering scandal involving a Colombian drug ring and bank accounts of the Bobover Yeshiva and charitable institutions. Rabbi Mahir Reiss, a prominent businessman and follower of the rebbe, was sentenced to a 27-month prison term in the case. Rabbi Halberstam was not accused of any personal involvement.
Tens of thousands of Bobovers, members of other chasidic groups and non-chasidic followers clogged the streets of his adopted neighborhood for Rabbi Halberstam’s funeral on Wednesday.
"He was known to have gone through his own personal crisis of faith, years after the war," Heilman said. "His faith was in many ways a testament to the ability to the ability of a chasidic movement to replant itself in America."